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Datebook: ISU Professors Take Noir Down A New, Dark Alley

christopher breu
Laura Kennedy
Illinois State University English professor Christopher Breu offers readers a chance to explore the genre of noir in a new way.

A world-weary detective ... a cynical femme fatale ... a bleak night world of sex and violence. Think Humphrey Bogart, Gloria Graham, Dana Andrews, Audrey Totter. Now think again — about noir.

A new book from a pair of Illinois State University English professors proposes a fresh understanding of the classic genre. 

“Noir Affect”(Fordham University Press) reveals that noir is more than simply a specific cycle of mid-century American movies or novels. In a deep dive beneath the surface, co-editors Christopher Breu and the late Elizabeth Hatmaker, along with their contributors, explore the genre through a collection of essays, viewing the classic genre through the lens of affect theory. 

“Affect is about the ways in which the body is affected by social dynamics and psychological dynamics before we’re even physically fully conscious of it,” Breu explained. “If you’ve ever entered into a room and felt the mood of that room, that’s affect.” 

“It’s the quality of feeling between people that actually shapes how we respond to each other.” 

A previous publication by Breu (“Hard-Boiled Masculinities”) as well as a fondness for noir in film and books, led him down the shadowy path toward “Noir Affect.” Breu and his wife, Hatmaker, both big noir fans, watched a lot of film noir together. (Hatmaker died in 2017.)

“She had a reading that we developed together. I need to give credit to her because she said that there’s a quality in noir that isn’t about any of the things that people generally talk about when they talk about noir, whether it’s femme fatales or tough guys or chiaroscuro lighting or any of that stuff,” said Breu.

“She said it’s a quality of discomfort. It’s a quality of being too close to things that are actually disturbing or upsetting or painful, things you don’t want to look at. And that became the basis for talking about noir affect, that noir as a form or as a mode is about foregrounding things that we don’t want to look at and that disturb us, the uncomfortable dimensions of everyday life. 

“Everybody keeps trying to find a way of talking about it as a genre, or talking about it as a fixed set of approaches, or even as a set of films or a set of books that had a specific historical trajectory.” 

“Noir Affect” explores elements of culture that don’t fit any of the pre-conceived models of noir. You won’t find noir just in detective or crime fiction, Breu revealed. Noir manifests in science fiction (We see you “Blade Runner”) as well as video games (“L.A. Noir”), and music. 

“Think about Frank Sinatra’s dark albums, the melancholy albums. Those almost explicitly play with noir tropes.” (Give a listen to “One for My Baby”--you’ll hear it.) 

 Many people also consider noir to be an American art form, but Breu and the other contributors to “Noir Affect” found the genre manifesting in a wide range of cultures, from Mexico to Italy to Japan to France, and more.  

“The idea that this could be pinned down to a specific historical period, we felt like it didn’t do justice to all the work being done in noir, both in the present and in the past. It was much more diverse,” said Breu.

It’s also harder to pin down, he added. The genre exhibits an elusive quality that lends itself well to exploration through the lens of affect. When selecting the contributors to the collection, Breu said it was important the authors embraced this fresh approach. 

“We wanted to contact people who weren’t going to give us the same old story that we always get of noir, that you can find anytime you turn on TCM and they’re introducing a noir movie--which I love," he said. "I’m not trying to trash that at all. I’m glad that stuff is out there.” 

“But we wanted to tell a different story. We wanted to represent the international dimensions of noir. We have Peter Hitchcock writing on manga; we have Ignacio Sanchez Prado writing on Mexican noir; there’s also an essay on queer noir by Sean Grattan.” 

“Myself and Kirin Wachter-Grene both talk about African American noir. We wanted to give it a very different story than the same old players--Hammett, Chandler, Cain.” 

Women in noir also are featured in the collection. 

“We wanted to represent the panoply of noir, and the kinds of different ways that negative affect, that we saw as essential to noir, could be taken and used in different texts. We wanted to give people the sense that this is an international field that’s burgeoning. It’s not just a nostalgia market.” 

Certain cultural and economic factors have contributed to the ongoing popularity of noir, said Breu. 

“The rhetoric of self-help, self-improvement and maximizing your potential is what we’re supposed to be doing. And anytime we fail at achieving our goals, it’s our fault, it’s nobody else's fault. That’s a lot of the rhetoric of contemporary economics and contemporary culture, and you just need to have a positive attitude.” 

“I think that that ideology really becomes limiting and people feel really, really frustrated. And when people fall through the cracks, noir is what speaks to them.” 

“Noir Affect” is available from Fordham University Press.

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Reporter, content producer and former All Things Considered host, Laura Kennedy is a native of the Midwest who occasionally affects an English accent just for the heck of it. Related to two U.S. presidents, Kennedy appalled her family by going into show business.