Thursday 12 September 2019

Carnival Row, Season 1 | review by Rafe McGregor

Detection on Different Levels?

In his latest book, Allegory and Ideology (2019), Marxist literary critic Fredric Jameson describes the patristic allegory as a system composed of four levels. The idea is that there is a single story that operates at four levels of meaning simultaneously. The first level is the literal, which in the Scriptures referred to an historical event and in the case with which I am concerned here is the steampunk world represented in Carnival Row. The second, secret, level is the hidden meaning concealed within the literal level, requiring either a mystical revelation or imaginative deciphering (or, in Carnival Rows case, perhaps a little more enciphering). The third, moral, level is concerned with individual salvation or existential experience and the fourth, anagogical, level with the Last Judgement or the future of humanity as a whole. Taking the philosophical rather than religious route we have the literal, secret, moral, and collective meanings of an allegory. At the literal level, Carnival Row is a narrative about the consequences of the battle for Tirnanoc (from the Gaelic Tír na nÓg), the land of the Fae, fought between two human powers, the covetous Burgue and the genocidal Pact. As the war progresses, the Fae begin fleeing to the Burgue for safety and the stream of refugees increases when the Burgue are defeated and withdraw from Tirnanoc. When the series opens, many of citizens of the Burgue, spanning all social strata, are displeased by the influx of “Critch”, a derisive term used to describe all Fae regardless of their species, and pursue some combination of making their lives as miserable as possible, proposing anti-immigration legislation, and using all available means to keep them offshore. In the age of Trump’s wall and Johnson’s Brexit it is very easy – perhaps a little too easy, as the didacticism is sometimes rather heavy-handed – to read the second level of meaning as being about the Coalition Forces invasion of Iraq, the subsequent destabilisation of the Middle East, and the consequent Syrian refugee crisis. The parallels between London or New York and the Burgue on the one hand and Islamic State and the Pact on the other are almost exact. The question I am interested in is not whether the secret meaning of the allegory is too obvious, but whether the simplistic similarities preclude it from reaching the moral and collective levels of meaning.

Carnival Row takes its name from a street in the Burgue that is the centre of what has become a Fae inner city, populated by faeries, fauns, centaurs, trolls, kobolds, and other refugees from Tirnanoc. There are two main plots, each of which follows the two protagonists, and two subplots involving the governance and elite society of the Burgue respectively. The protagonists are Vignette Stonemoss (played by Cara Delevingne), a faerie refugee, and Inspector Rycroft Philostrate (played by Orlando Bloom), a detective who is investigating a serial killer that preys exclusively on Fae. The two were lovers in Tirnanoc during the war and their respective tales intersect, diverge, and intertwine as the narrative progresses. Vignette made her living in Tirnanoc by selling the Fae into indentured labour, a practice that is now recognised as a form of modern slavery, but was employed by many colonial powers up until the early twentieth century. When she fears falling victim to Pact atrocities, she sells herself in order to pay for her passage to the Burgue and is placed in the home of idly wealthy siblings Ezra and Imogen Spurnrose (played by Andrew Gower and Tamzin Merchant) as a lady’s maid. When Vignette is sexually assaulted by Spurnrose, she escapes to Carnival Row. Faced with only two options for survival, sex work or crime, she joins the Black Raven, a Fae organised crime group. Vignette’s decision is to at least some extent a moral one – as the head of the Black Raven confirms by stating, ‘The law of this city does not protect us’ – but it nonetheless pits her against her police officer ex-lover.

Philo is the only police officer in the Burgue that cares about the serial slaying of the Fae. He narrows the field of suspects down to sailors, on the basis that the crimes have coincided with the return of navy vessels to the docks, and quickly finds a suspect. After an exciting chase across the rooftops of the city, the sailor warns Philo of the coming of ‘some dark god’ before jumping to his death. Shortly after, another Fae is murdered, her torso ripped open by a giant creature that emerges from the sewers, and Philo is set on his second and much more complex case. It is quickly revealed that Philo’s idiosyncratic concern for the welfare of the Fae is due to his own ancestry: he is a half-blood faerie who had his wings cut off at birth before being abandoned at an orphanage. This is one of the aspects of the series where the didacticism becomes somewhat strained, with the only police officer who cares about the Fae only caring about them because he is himself half Fae. Seriously flawed though our own world is, there are plenty of people on the right side of inequality in metropolises like London, Los Angeles, Rio de Janiero, and Johannesburg that take a moral interest in those on the wrong side.

The two subplots concern two Burgue families, the Breakspears and the Spurnroses. Absalom Breakspear (played by Jared Harris) is Chancellor of the Republic of the Burgue and the political storyline is initiated when his son is kidnapped while visiting a Fae brothel in Carnival Row. Unbeknownst to Breakspear, the crime has been committed by his wife, Piety (played by Indira Varma), for reasons that are unclear. She subsequently manipulates Breakspear into detaining and torturing the Leader of the Opposition without charge and then both murders and frames the suspect herself. Meanwhile, despite their desirable address and the many trappings of opulence they enjoy, the Spurnroses are in dire financial straits. Imogen, whose existence revolves around climbing the social ladder and finding a husband with the right mix of social, economic, and cultural capital, is initially disgusted when a faun moves into their square, one of the most exclusive enclaves in the city. She soon realises that she can take advantage of the combination of Agreus Astrayon’s (played by David Gyasi) extreme wealth and the speciesism he faces from the Burgue’s elite, however, proposing to sponsor his admittance to that elite in exchange for an investment in her brother’s failing business enterprises. In the world of Carnival Row, just like our own, money can buy respectability and social acceptance, even if one has horns on one’s head and hooves instead of feet.

I have mentioned an example of the way in which Carnival Row both achieves and fails to achieve meaning at the moral level and there are several more examples of the former, which I shall not mention so as to avoid spoilers. In fact, the first three allegorical levels are tied together rather neatly by means of a succession of plot twists in the second half of the season. My main interest is in the fourth, collective, level and whether the series so far has anything to say about the future of humanity. In In the Dust of This Planet (2011), the first volume in his Horror of Philosophy Trilogy, Eugene Thacker proposes three ways of conceiving of meaning and value. His inquiry follows the tradition of Immanuel Kant, who distinguished between the noumenal world (objective reality) and the phenomenal world (subjective experience of objective reality). In Kant’s philosophy, human beings could never gain access to the noumenal and were restricted to negotiating it indirectly, through the phenomenal. For Thacker, whose concern is with meaning rather than existence, the world-for-us is ‘the world that we, as human beings, interpret and give meaning to, the world that we relate to or feeling alienated from, the world that we are at once a part of and that is also separate from the human’.  The world-for-us does not exhaust meaning on the planet, however, and we become aware of the world-in-itself when that planet ‘resists, or ignores our attempts to mold it into the world-for-us’, most dramatically and dangerously in the occurrence of natural disasters. In other words, when faced with events such as natural disasters, human beings realise that there is a very strong sense in which this world is not for-us at all. The third and most significant conception of meaning and value is the world-without-us. The world-without-us is an attempt to conceptualise the coexistence of the world-for-us and the world-in-itself without either accepting that there is an insurmountable Kantian barrier between the two or immediately collapsing the latter into the former when we, for example, grasp natural disasters from the perspective of humanity. In Thacker’s terms, ‘the world-without-us is the subtraction of the human from the world’.  In my understanding of Thacker, the world-without-us is a world in which there is meaning and value in spite of the absence (actually subtraction) of human meaning and human values. Thacker’s aim in his Trilogy is to extrapolate and explain the world-without-us and his central thesis is that supernatural horror and science fiction succeed in this aim where philosophy has failed.

If Thacker is right and such a world exists, the crucial question is if and how the world-for-us and world-without-us can coexist without one system of meaning and value eradicating the other. Early into the twenty-first century it seems unsurprising that we have such difficulty conceiving of the world-without-us, so competent have we become at destroying the world-in-itself. We find the world-for-us at its most conspicuous and most arrogant in the city, where the natural environment has been replaced rather than adapted by the human population and where ecology has been reconfigured to sustain human life alone. In Carnival Row, Philo assumes the role of an occult detective attempting to solve a mystery set in the metropolis of the Burgue and the combination of protagonist and setting provides an opportunity to chart the relation between the world-for-us and the world-without-us. Despite his faerie blood, Philo appears as human and serves as an agent of social control, preserving the metropolitan world-for-us in all its biological, cultural, and economic complexity. The detective, both a symbol and an implement of human values, is pitted against an antagonist that is neither human nor Fae, but some dark god, an apparently unfathomable and inconceivable creature that dwells and kills in the city, where everything – alive or lifeless – is supposed to serve only human ends. Significantly, the creature’s lair is in the sewers, the foundation upon which the city is built, in the same way that the world-without-us underpins – and sometimes undermines – the world-for-us. As the story of an occult detective solving a series of murders in a metropolis, Carnival Row stages the world-without-us, setting up a narrative framework firmly grounded in the world-for-us – the detective as an agent of social control seeking to restore the anthropocentric status quo the murders have disrupted – and then using that framework to investigate a nature that refuses to be tamed and resists conception in human terms. The creature, called a Darkasher, is disclosed as having a closer connection to humanity than initially suspected and the potential for exploring the world-without-us is to some extent sacrificed for less problematic meaning-making at the fourth and final allegorical level. Notwithstanding, the pitting of the two worlds of meaning and value represented by the detective and the Darkasher respectively gestures towards some kind of mutual recognition between the world-for-us and the world-without-us. My hope is that the tension created by this pairing will be developed in more detail season 2, although as the occult detective mystery is solved by Philo season 1 this may well not be the case. Given that season 2 was commissioned prior to the release of season 1, Legendary Television and Amazon Studios must both be congratulated for bringing that season to a conclusive (and compelling) end in the final episode. *****  

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