“‘Black Rock:’ The Making and Unmaking of the Social World” (by Steven Gore)

Yesterday EQMM’s August 2015 issue went on sale. It contains the first EQMM story by Steven Gore, private investigator, short-story writer, and author of six crime novels (the most recent of which is February 2015’s Night Is the Hunter). Steven posted on this site on March 11, 2015. He returns today with some ideas related to “Black Rock,” his new EQMM story.—Janet Hutchings

“Black Rock,” which appears in the August 2015 issue of EQMM, arose out of my longtime interest in what is called social ontology, the study of the manner in which the human world is constructed.[1] Social construction simply means the bringing into existence of practices and entities like political offices, corporations, wills, money, conspiracies, and churches. This creation can be a matter of conscious construction: Congress passes and the president signs a law creating the Department of the Interior. Or a matter of evolution: ancient storytellers evolving into modern historians. By whatever route, these practices and entities exist in the world not as natural facts, like plants, planets, or lions, but as what are called social or institutional facts, and rather than performing natural functions, like a heart beating to pump blood, they perform social functions, such as passing laws, binding people through marriage, and sentencing criminals to prison.

It certainly is the case that social facts and functions are dependent upon natural facts and functions: Trivially, if people didn’t exist, we couldn’t have presidents. Less trivially, if there wasn’t already in existence the natural, biological fact of mothers, we couldn’t have the social or institutional fact of motherhood, and if there weren’t the natural, human fact of lying, we couldn’t have crime of perjury.

Each of these practices and social entities, these formal and informal institutions, has duties and powers, what is called its deontology, and exists in a web of other social practices, laws, and regulations. A president has a duty to support and defend the Constitution and the power to veto legislation. A U.S. corporation has the duty to file a tax return and has the power to enter into contracts. And these powers and duties exist in a web of custom, law, and regulation.

In “Black Rock,” the protagonist recalls his graduation from the police academy and the police chief swearing him in:

By those acts and by that oath, I was no longer just a civilian. I had assumed a place in the world as a police officer, a man with a badge, with a duty to uphold the law and the authority to detain other civilians against their will. And with that transformation, and with my awareness of that transformation, I began to see other humans as having places, too, as living out identities: some earned, like lawyers; some chosen, like wives; some imposed upon them, like victims and sons.

Where there are duties, there are opportunities for betrayals and where there are powers there are opportunities for abuses. For example, a group of individuals file with their state the appropriate documents to create a corporation. They use the corporation—its rights and powers—to hire employees, to offer products and services, and to issue stock—and then abuse those rights and powers by committing securities fraud.

Investigations, in which I spent my prewriting career, focus on those betrayals and abuses embodied in the law in the form of frauds, counterfeits, impersonations, embezzlements, and other offenses. They take the form of determining from within a context—criminal, civil, regulatory, or corporate policy—whether some particular act counts as an instance of a violation of some statute or provision.

Moreover, what can be constructed can also be destroyed. Sometimes this occurs by means of a single deliberate, willful act in which a social fact or function is eliminated: Congress passes and the president signs a bill to disband a federal agency. Or, more broadly, a whole society can engage in a revolution that replaces a number of institutions at once.

An institutional fact can also be destroyed gradually. Its abuse over time will create a gap between the purpose and the practice: A political institution becomes corrupt with the members answering to their own greed rather than to those who elect them. The decision for the society then becomes whether to repair, revise, or eliminate the institution.

This is part of what is occurring in Ukraine, in the overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovych, a phenomenally corrupt politician, even more corrupt than my former client, ex-prime minister Pavlo Lazarenko. Yanukovych, Lazarenko, and those who preceded and followed them institutionalized corruption in Ukraine, which means the deontology of powers and duties that hold the society together politically was damaged and gaps had been created between purpose and practice of not merely the office of the president, but the parliament and every other government agency. So far the citizens, by overthrowing Yanukovych but leaving the institutions and almost all the other corrupt office holders in place, have chosen to attempt to repair them, rather than overthrow and replace them.

One of the problems is that reform-minded Ukrainians are relying on the corrupt to make those repairs. Yulia Tymoshenko, for example, one of the leaders in the overthrow of Yanukovych and the Orange Revolution before that, was central to the corrupting of government and business in Ukraine. Among other crimes, she paid Lazarenko almost a hundred million dollars in bribes in exchange for forty-percent of the natural gas market, from which she later made somewhere between five hundred million and a billion dollars. (It was her assistant who was appointed Acting President of Ukraine after Yanukovych fled to Russia.)

“Black Rock” does not take place on that kind of stage. It focuses rather more narrowly, on a police detective and his father. Its complexity arises not from the scale of the story, but out of moral struggle, the kind that emerges when conflicts between institutional facts and the social functions people perform come into play. In the story, the conflict is between the detective as son and as public servant.

The moral conflict arises because the deontologies of those social functions, the powers and duties, pull the detective in different directions. Indeed, throughout the story the reader, just like the characters, must confront a number of conflicting social functions: not just father, son, and police officer, but sister, aunt, guardian, wife, murderer, victim, and widow.

Contemporary literary crime writing usually responds to the disorders created by these conflicts either by the adoption of what is called the protagonist’s “own moral code” or by the protagonist’s flight into irony.

Conceptually, having one’s own moral code is a troublesome notion since morality is social. It concerns the relations between humans and the justifications we are prepared to offer each other, not one’s relation with oneself and how one justifies oneself to oneself. One can have one’s own moral code only by denying other humans their humanity. This is one of the reasons there is the association in crime fiction between those who claim their own moral code and violence—it cannot be otherwise.

At the same time, irony—in whatever form: resigned, bemused, grim, existential nihilistic—is an attempt to remove oneself from the social world and therefore also denies others their humanity. In the end, this removal is merely intellectual, a pretense and a fantasy, for the ironist relies on institutions and their deontologies just like any other member of society: When his car is stolen he doesn’t call a philosopher or writer of existential fiction, he calls the police.

That isn’t to say we can’t attempt to pry apart ideals from practices and practices from institutions in order to critique and judge them. That is what we call politics, sometimes revolution. This is, indeed, the move by which change is instigated in all sorts of social facts and functions. Think of Simone de Beauvoir’s claim: “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman,” a play on the biological fact of being female and the social fact—the socially constructed fact—of being a woman in the social world, along with the further step of her attempt to change, to reconstruct, the deontology of that social fact.

“Black Rock” allows for neither an escape into one’s own moral code or into irony. It argues, if a short story can be said to argue, that no escape is possible, that we live in a common world, and we must be held responsible for our actions and there must be consequences, even if they are only the ones we impose on ourselves in recognition of the duties we owe to each other.

And, more fundamentally, it argues that by the actions we take both in doing wrongs and in addressing the damage we have done, we engage in a kind of self-revelation. We disclose, in Hannah Arendt’s phrase, “the agent with the act.”

From “Black Rock:”

In her eyes and in her silence Clare seemed to be asking what I was. I was certain she was thinking the answer would determine what I would do. But the truth was the other way around. What I did would determine what I was.

I’m not sure all readers will accept how the detective chooses to answer that question in the story, but at least he doesn’t attempt to escape from it.


[1] Social ontology is generally associated with the work of John Searle, Margaret Gilbert, Raimo Tuomela and others and with the social ontology groups and centers at UC Berkeley and Cambridge.
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This entry was posted in Characters, Guest, History, Police Procedurals, Politics, Private Eye, Real Crime, Story, Writers and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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