Know Thyself

When we discuss the cinematic realm of noir, what exactly are we talking about? Literally, the word "noir" means dark. But what is so dark about these cinematic features to constitute them as films noirs? Typically, such features are dark in their imagery and content. Visually, most noir is characterized by dark scenery, tilted angles, black-and-white film to sharpen the contrast, and gloomy atmospheres. Meanwhile, their content is characterized by moral ambiguity, usually emphasized by the leading character—the dark hero who exemplifies the existential qualities of disturbance, complexity, anguish, and despair.1

Quite often, we find that this angst-ridden character is a private eye (though for our purpose, it is better to see him as a private I). The audience enters the noir scene by adopting the eye of the I, so to speak. As we follow the private eye through his perspective, we come to discover the darkness—the misapprehension, ambiguity, and confusion—of the world as seen (or known) through the eyes of the main subject. As viewers, we are led to take the point of view of the noir hero, to see reality from his perspective and identify with him. We share his engagement with the world and share the epistemological and ethical questions he encounters. We immediately grow to learn (due to the noir elements) that it is not easy being the noir hero: the world seems a grim and confusing place, and the moral and epistemologi-cal questions we ask are met with ambiguous answers (and sometimes with no answers at all). The ambiguity and darkness of reality projects itself on the protagonist. It is not just reality that is unknown and ambiguous—the protagonist himself is, as well. His moral standing is in doubt; he skeptically questions what he knows and does not know. In other words, his entire self—and not just the mystery case at hand—is under examination.2

Questions of selfhood can be fruitfully explored through film noir. Such questions include: How do we construct our self-identity? Am I free to create my own conception of selfhood? Is selfhood merely a fiction? Selfhood is one of the most elusive concepts in the western tradition: it is necessarily presupposed and yet it eludes analysis. On the one hand, the self can be interpreted as an active ontological entity that engages the world and directs individuals in their actions. For instance, René Descartes claimed that the self is an active thinking entity—it is the only thing of which one can be certain and so provides the starting point for all of our investigations. On the other hand, the self can be interpreted as a passive linguistic apprehension insofar as it is simply a name ascribed to the collection of experiences that one can have. David Hume, for example, held that the self is a fictitious concept; when one looks inside oneself, there is no self to be found, only a bundle of impressions. At best, the self is a passive container that receives these impressions through experience. But there is no active enduring agent, as Descartes maintained. Whether we take the self to be something that is active or passive, however, we use the notion of selfhood to refer to the particular person one is—that which persists though time, that which makes us unique and distinguishable from one another, et cetera.3

The self thus takes center stage in noir. In this essay, we discuss the issue of selfhood with reference to an out-of-the-ordinary private eye. He is not a detective but a secret agent. But his selfhood suffers the most acute withdrawal when he is deprived of his freedom through imprisonment. This imprisonment is not simply a case where our private eye is behind bars. Rather, not only is he stripped of his physical and actual freedom of action, but also, and more importantly, he is losing his conceptual freedom as a self—one who has the freedom to reflect and to define himself. As we shall see, such imprisonment leads our hero to confront the ambiguity of his selfhood and therefore the ambiguity and uncertain nature of the concept of the self. This existential engagement with selfhood, accompanied by a psychedelic cinematic atmosphere, allows us to call him a dark noir hero.

In the 1960s television series The Prisoner, a man we presume to be a newly retired agent of some branch of British intelligence is gassed and awakens in an isolated island community called "the Village." As a prisoner of the Village, he discovers that his imprisonment on the island requires his conformity: all members are assigned numbers and follow the rules of the Village, which is guarded by the various Number 2s, who enforce conformity and answer ultimately to the elusive and mysterious Number 1. With his thought and action constrained, our imprisoned agent is outwardly stripped of his identity, as he is now only known and referred to as "Number 6." With his conceptual freedom for self-definition in jeopardy, Number 6 turns to his only solution: rebellion. Introspectively, he rebels by fighting for his conceptual freedom: "I am not a number, I am a person." Physically, he rebels through various attempts to thwart authority and escape from the Village.

Let us follow our noir hero, Number 6, through his reorientation of self-understanding as a prisoner, his physical and introspective rebellions, and his apparent escape from the Village to help us understand the philosophical questions concerning selfhood: What does it mean to be a person, exactly? What is the noir take on selfhood? What does Number 6's discovery tell us about the notion of individuals as authentic beings? What does it say about the modern world? What can we, as modern human beings, learn from The Prisoner about our relation to the modern world?

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