Sherlock Holmes: Sublimation…

What is the significance of Sherlock Holmes?

(BBC TV Series, July-August 2010)

Something that recently caught my attention whilst having a slow evening: the three-part Sherlock Holmes series. Got me asking a few questions.

First of all, how it starts: confused (traumatic) images of Dr. Watson in Afganistan, where he is injured.

Second, secretive manipulations behind the scenes: immediate suspicion focusses on Mycroft Holmes, brother of Sherlock, who works in Govt: “He is the Government”. This is displaced onto criminal activities of, we eventually find out, Moriarty.

Third, these latter can only be solved by a lone mastermind, one Sherlock Holmes.


So, the opening frames the rest: the traumatic “real”. Almost a decade on, we’re still in Afganistan. The plot thickens: the apparent lone mastermind, Osama Bin Laden, evaporates, leaving us in a tangle of shifting conspiracies. Why are we there? For whom? Who has masterminded this, and for what purpose?

This is inverted as we enter the slick frame of the alt.reality dreamworld: neo-Victorian London. As opposed to the apparent powerlessness and alienation of the individual, unable to comprehend even the basic facts of this shifting mass-murder mystery, we have Sherlock – a heroic figure who is not only able to observe, and to know, but who is also acutely able to act and to cut across all impediments to his pursuit of knowledge. His interaction with the Police is exemplary: whilst all those in central London on 1st April 2009 still wonder at the mysterious case of a man’s death, in broad daylight, in a public place, Holmes is able to cut straight through the opacity of Police investigations to the source, to see and to know (though he does piss off a few Polizei on the way).

Unease and a sense of powerless do, however, constantly return to haunt us – even in this dream world. But they are sublimated through the figure of Holmes: we may be scared, but he walks bravely in; we may be confused, but he is able always to explain. Likewise, the sinister qualities of older brother Mycroft Holmes remain (and remain unexplained), but by the third episode he has become a semi-benign intermediary figure, standing in the background of the dream. He appeals to us (as Watson): “Yes, you don’t understand, poor boy. Don’t worry, just do what big brother says and let us worry for you. And please try to reason with Sherlock, won’t you?” In this connection, note how police officers warn Watson off Sherlock Holmes early on, branding his ability to know and also his drive to know “pathological”.

This latter is repeated throughout – becomes a theme of the series, in fact. The demystifying drive of Holmes to solve and to know is constantly presented as problematic: not only as pathological, but as anti-social, and uncaring – bordering on criminal. Likewise, his boredom is presented as unhinged; we are made to ask, “Why won’t he just accept a normal life?”


There are tensions at work here, then. Situated (back in the real world) in a society that appears to be beyond our control, beyond our investigation, and possibly beyond our comprehension, we shift between the desire for the knowledge-bringing messiah-hero, and the desire for the amnesiac life of “normalcy”. That Holmes is presented as both a genius and as potentially pathological, anti-social and asexual (ah yes, we haven’t talked about the sex yet!) makes his heroic knowing abilities both unattainable and somewhat undesirable to us. Moreover, it configures them as the properties of an individual (a rather “upper” class individual at that) – further evading the displaced and transfigured mass movement of the proletariat that is the truly repressed content of this.

In conclusion, it functions to explore and sublimate liberal middle-class political desires and anxieties during a moment of genuine crisis that threatens the hegemonic stability of neo-liberal capitalism.

An incomplete sketch, with a few holes… but it’ll have to do for now.



Just found this article by Laurie Penny, which made a nice change from consensus developing on Sherlock series:

She writes:

Most of the commentariat has decided that Sherlock is a good thing, but I beg to differ.
The racism, sexism and imperialism that are fundamental to Conan Doyle’s stories do not mean that we should dismiss Holmes out of hand, but they do raise the question of why, precisely, Sherlock Holmes still means so much to us, and why we’re so anxious to rehabilitate him to the modern world, since it’s highly unlikely that this will be the last BBC dramatisation of the books.

Holmes has enduring appeal because he’s the original brilliant outsider, the lone maverick who wins every time simply by being cleverer or braver than everyone else. The formulation appeals particularly to teenagers — all of whom are brilliant outsiders — and remains an enormously important part of pop culture, particularly in crime fiction and especially in Britain, where we just love an oddball. Harry Potter, Gene Hunt, Jonathan Creek, Inspector Morse, John Constantine, even Doctor Whom — all are brilliant outsiders with rich interior lives. They are all also always male, always white and always western.

I’m getting bored of stories about posh white men and how much cleverer and more special they are than everyone else. I’ve been hearing that story, in one form or another, since I was old enough to listen. I want to hear about other lives, new adventures. Adaptations are all very well, but it’s long past time we updated our myths for good rather than struggling to rehabilitate the past. If we want to avoid cultural implosion, it’s high time for the British to stop rehashing tired formulations of hierarchy and privilege and start telling some new stories.

Posted a comment on there:

I wondered the same question: why do Holmes now? I sketched a few answers out at:…

In brief: the contradictions of neo-liberal capitalism are becoming unavoidably apparant (war; opacity of politics; financial crisis) and neo-liberal hegemony is struggling to hold together. Liberal anxieties about this are reconfigured, explored and sublimated in the course of the series, in various ways.

I didn’t look at race and gender though – or sexuality. Which are key, as you point out. A lot of work to do there to make it water tight. This is especially interesting in light of prime focuses of commentary on the series: on “Tradition” (and digression from) and on “Britishness” – both of which resonate in obvious ways with a growing emphasis on nationality and national identity since at least the election campaigns (in fact, since well before then).

Anyway, take a look at the post on my blog by all means :D




~ by Wit on August 9, 2010.

4 Responses to “Sherlock Holmes: Sublimation…”

  1. Nice. Might it be dangerous to read too much into the Afghanistan thing though? I understand they only did that because in the original Watson had just returned from serving in the Second Anglo-Afghan War.

    • Cheers! :D

      I think you’re right that a lot of the “detail” of the series can be seen as referencing the books; they can be seen as part of the internal development of the Sherlock Holmes “legacy”. But the specific deployment of these details at this specific juncture is curious. In the original Watson might have fought in the Second Anglo-Afgan War, but why choose to retain that detail, and why stage it in this specific way? Likewise, Mycroft Holmes works for the Government in the original, as a sort of “memory man”. But, that doesn’t stop the Mycroft of the 21st century resonating with (for example) the opacity, unaccountability, and semi-illegality of politics of the moment. And in one book Sherlock is said to be ignorant of much that is common knowledge, but that doesn’t diminish the strange incongruity of it being said in the third BBC episode that Sherlock doesn’t know who the Prime Minister is (might we read this, for example, as an attempt to depoliticise his quest for knowledge?). You’re right though – there’s a lot of factors at work. This is partly just an excercise in over-reading ;p

      Thanks for your comment J :D

  2. Wasn’t it just Dr Who dressed up differently?

    • Lol, probably. I dunno, I got bored of Dr. Who way back when Billie Piper was still in it. It was all the self-congratulatory “isn’t humanity really, deep down, just the most wonderful thing” bollocks that got to me. And the jingoism. You may be right, though. Chief advantage of Sherlock Holmes: it was only 3 episodes long – though (depending on whether the Con-Libs induce a BBC policy of “no new big action and stunts series”) we will probably have to endure more, and more banal, episodes in the future.


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