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Reading Raymond Chandler

posted: 9.8.11 by Jack Solomon

I teach popular cultural semiotics because I believe that we can best understand ourselves as a society through the study of everyday life, which, in a society like ours, is heavily invested in popular culture. We can discover important lessons about ourselves in the most surprising places, even when we are not looking for them. Some recent pleasure reading I’ve been doing provides me with yet another example of how culturally significant the most apparently insignificant entertainment can be.

I always enjoy rereading Raymond Chandler. His plots are atrocious and the dialog impossible, but they’re still a lot of fun to read. Beyond the fun, however, are some interesting glimpses into the American past. Of course, the casual (and not so casual) racism and sexism of the stories are so blatant that they can almost go without saying. Reading such stories is not unlike watching Mad Men: as we encounter the awful past we can take some comfort in the fact that things are not quite that bad anymore.

Much more subtle, however, is what we see of working-class life in Chandler’s stories. This is a world of gas station attendants, doormen, elevator operators, bellhops, telephone operators, parking garage attendants, chauffeurs, and servants, lots of house servants. The stories depict a world full of low-paid and demeaning jobs, in which a great number of people must wear uniforms to work that identify their menial status.

But we cannot look back on this world smugly, because the progress that America’s working classes initially enjoyed in the post-war economic boom has been largely undone. Former gas station attendants and elevator operators who could find high-paying jobs on the assembly lines of places like McDonnell Douglas and General Motors have seen those jobs disappear, while inflation has put decent living conditions beyond the reach of a minimum-wage income. Today’s low-paying and demeaning service industry jobs (part-time at McDonald’s anyone?) simply cannot pay the rent.

While contemplating what has happened to the working classes, one can also consider the more or less middle-class (petit bourgeois, at any rate) situation of Chandler’s detectives. Thanks to the Internet, a great deal of the work for private detective services has dried up—like many other middle-class occupations that have been displaced in a postindustrial economy that is now “outsourcing” the jobs that were supposed to replace the lost ones.

Yes, it’s depressing. Reading popular literature is supposed to be an escape from reality, not an avenue into it. Perhaps that is why out-and-out fantasy is so popular now. But that, too, is a sign. Indeed, once one has learned to see the world semiotically, everything is significant, pointing back to social realities that are always present no matter how hard we try avoid them.

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Categories: Popular Culture, Semiotics
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