Sep 5, 2007

Looking for the dead cat

And the Boss said, "There is always something."
And I said, "Maybe not the Judge."
And he said, "Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud. There is always something."

I lighted a fresh cigarette from the butt of the last and asked myself the following question: "For what reason, barring Original Sin, is a man most likely to step over the line?"
And I answered: "Ambition, love, fear, money."

            - Robert Penn Warren, in All the Kings Men.

When you start investigating, turning over rocks and logs and looking at the things that scurry away and at the empty spaces left by rot, you wonder what you're looking for. You're researching, of course, the specifics: dates, events, chronologies, connections, places, names & names. You go about investigating by going hunting for one particular running bug and one particular piece of rot-ridden wood. You're looking for the substance of a rumor, something someone told you about and you think might be under there.

But what are you looking for?

Jack Burden calls it, colorfully, "the dead cat." The dead cat is specific, but maybe there's a general, metaphysical or anthropoligical thing too. A la, what is the nature of the dead cat?

Beyond the specific research project, the particular enterprise reporting, the case at hand, what are we looking for? The state of humanity? The nature of power? The reality of the fall from grace?

It takes a cynic, to look. It takes a naif to be surprised at what's there. There's a crack line in the composition of naivety and cynicism, in investigative journalism, that's troubling me. There's a question - something like "So what have we learned?" - that I don't know how to answer.