Poe’s ‘The Man of the Crowd’ as Scientific Fiction

Poe’s famous tale ‘The Man of the Crowd’ is something like the X-ray picture of a detective story. In it, the drapery represented by crime has disappeared. The mere armature has remained: the pursuer, the crowd, and an unknown man who arranges his walk through London in such a way that he always remains in the middle of the crowd.” – Walter Benjamin

The other day my friend Tristan pointed me in the direction of Walter Benjamin’s remarks on Poe’s ‘The Man of the Crowd’ (pertinent passage above). Benjamin is concerned to discuss the tale in relation to Baudelaire, who I don’t really know anything about beyond the word ‘flaneur’, so we’ll ignore that here, and focus rather on the idea that ‘The Man of the Crowd’ is a sort of detective story. And then I want to show how that can, via the idea that Poe’s detective stories are scientific fiction (previously discussed), be used to leap to an interesting point in philosophy of science.

It is not exactly obvious that ‘The Man of the Crowd’ should in fact be characterised as a detective story. It certainly does not involve the solution of a mystery. It is a story, really, about people-watching: the narrator sits in a coffee-house in London and takes in the crowds over the course of the day: clerks, gamblers, prostitutes, criminals, etc. Eventually he becomes intrigued by one particular old man, with an odd, fiendish look to him.

He was short in stature, very thin, and apparently very feeble. His clothes, generally, were filthy and ragged; but as he came, now and then, within the strong glare of a lamp, I perceived that his linen, although dirty, was of beautiful texture; and my vision decieved me, or, through a rent in a close-buttoned and evidently second-handed roquelaire which enveloped him, I caught a glimpse both of a diamond and a dagger.”

The narrator then follows this mysterious man through the streets. The narrator stalks him for some significant period of time, through the night and into the next day, but the man never gives anything more away about himself, and he never leaves the crowds. Eventually, the narrator simply decides to stop following the man, concluding the he is: “the type and genius and deep crime. He refuses to be alone. He is the man of the crowd. It will be in vain to follow; for I shall learn no more of him, nor of his deeds.”

But despite not involving a mystery that gets solved, the story does involve a mystery – indeed, a criminal mystery. The old man is the very essence of ‘crime’. But there is no detective, and no criminal event. There is a sort of watching, but nothing is really seen: there are hints at something being seen, but it cannot be processed. The narrator in the story often seems to have the attitude of a detective: certainly, he has something like the attitude of Dupin, who also enjoys long aimless walks through the streets (though of Paris rather than London). But he has none of Dupin’s special analytic genius, and is not concerned, as Dupin is, to theorise about his impressions (compare: Dupin’s working-out of the causal sequence that leads him to guess what the narrator is thinking fifteen minutes after they last conversed at the start of ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’).

But, as with the Dupin stories (which this tale predates by about two years), ‘The Man of the Crowd’ can be understood as, in part, making a point about the philosophy of science. Specifically, I would claim that it allegorises a particular problem in modern science, that is: its positing of the existence of what gets called in John McDowell’s ‘Aesthetic Value, Objectivity and the Fabric of the World’ (via Bernard Williams) the ‘Archimedean point’, an ‘absolute’ point of completely objective reality that science is (supposedly) moving towards convergence on, an undoing of all our individual subjective experiences that diverge from this point of absolute objectivity (what is subjective is here understood as ‘things insofar as they affect thinking subjects’, what is objective is understood as what is not subjective, that is, things as they would be anyway unperceived).

If Poe’s later tales of ratiocination are all about how the coincidence of ‘poetry’ and ‘analysis’ are necessary for science to be done well, then this earlier tale is about the impossibility of the sort of disenchantment that would be necessary for the poetry in the equation to be discarded. McDowell makes a similar point in ‘Aesthetic Value…’: his concern in the paper is to demonstrate that value-experience ought to be seen (as it is encountered phenomenologically) as part of ‘the fabric of the world’, and to do this he calls into question the rigid distinction between subject and object present in much modern philosophy (certainly, I think, almost all modern philosophy never to come out of Germany). A major part of McDowell’s argument hinges on a point about colour-experience/the scientific investigation of colour. The general idea is that, even we get to a perfect objective description of what produces colour experience (light, eyes, etc), that is, we reach the ‘Archimedean point’ for colour, then we still cannot account for the multitude of subjective (or inter-subjective) colour-experiences because, as complete objectivity, the Archimedean point necessarily excludes what is subjective… but the ‘feel’ of colours is us (subjects) is precisely ‘what they are’, we cannot get from objective description of colour to colour-experience: thus the science of objective investigation (disenchanted science) has failed to produce a proper account of colour.

The detective – that is, the scientist – is precisely what the Archimedean point is aimed at doing away with. Once we’ve reached it, we can describe the alleged objective world with no reference to subjects. But with no detective, there is no pinning down of anything to anything, everything is meaningless. It is impossible to know what is going on in ‘The Man of the Crowd’ because there is no detective: the old man may well be “the type and the genius of deep crime” but does he even commit a crime? The tale is formless, pre-conceptual… the old man appears, he is followed, he disappears back into the crowd: nothing is learned (nothing can be learned). There is no theory, hence there is no understanding. The tale is an objective description of what is going on, to be sure (the tale is replete with detailed objective descriptions): but this is shown to be less than useless to us. It is (of course) exactly like a ‘scientific’ description of colours that fails to capture the phenomenological feel of colour.

Perhaps it would therefore be more appropriate to characterise ‘The Man of the Crowd’ as an anti-detective story rather than a detective story proper. It is about the need for, but subsequent failure of, detection to take place.

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