Civilization, at some level, is always a lie. Or, perhaps, civilization is always a promise unfulfilled. When we talk about being civilized, we evoke ideas of manners, propriety, and community. Civilized people know how to get along with one another, and they know the implications of certain actions, references, comments, and mannerisms.
The civilized share a commonality that the barbarous deny.
As a form of restriction, civilization inhibits human possibility. As a building block for community, civilization allows for the possibility that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Noir, in both literature and film, questioned the promise of civilization and struggled to expose the lie.
Beginning in the wake of the first world war and crossing through and out the other side of the second, civilization hadn’t lived up to its promises. Governments marched to their destruction. Kings and emperors destroyed their realms. Technology paved the way for mass destruction and eroded expectations. A storm of steel shattered humanity, and artists questioned the basis for such unimaginable horror.
The metaphor of noir as blackness refers to civilization’s shadow. The light of the enlightening forces within society cast a shadow beyond the humanity at society’s center. In that shadow, we find barbarity, the forces of destruction made possible, perhaps necessary, by any act of creation.
Ultimately, I pose a single question:
How do we nurture our humanity if we depend on civilization, something external, to define our possibility?