The deepest incision made in The Knick, Steven Soderbergh’s debut expedition into television drama, is into the social. The world in which the Knickerbocker hospital exists is consumed by fin-de-siècle desperation; a simultaneous brushing-under-the-carpet of the barbarism of the near-past and an overstretching desire for a future which people promise themselves will come. Although authentic in its representation of the frantic, blood-stained nature of late 19th/very early 20th century hospital surgery (and its equally somatic portrayal of half-baked civility and fatuous prejudice), The Knick carries more than fleeting moments of anachronistic illogic. But rather than offering pray for defenders of realism to shoot down with one sweep of a Wikipedia fact check, these moments instead expose the true purpose of the characters who populate the Knickerbocker. It’s a world where if something doesn’t carry transactional value, it has to be a dream.
There is a serene innocence to the faith these characters have in the future. Between the masculine clashes of ego amongst the hospital’s elite band of surgeons, each figure still believes that every incision they make is undoubtedly a cut closer to knowledge, to scientific understanding, and ultimately, to something resembling salvation. This is an era where many great aesculapian advances have been achieved; where more lives are saved and recovery is swifter than before. It’s the era of industrial and electronic trailblazing, where the neutral functionality of technology alleviates the trembling, human hands of the surgeon for the first time.
It’s easy to see why the great mechanised advances around the turn of the 20th century were deemed marvelous. Of course they were. It’s enough ‘marvelous’ to get addicted to. But with any addiction, next comes the desire for more. So, as a result, the characters in The Knick get addicted to something else, and it’s the future.
But the future dreamed of here is a calculated, obtainable one – contrary to today, where our relatively recent past (two world wars, international economic recessions, massive re-divisions of lands and nations, exponential growth in global population) and the insecurities such events represent make the future seem as least daunting and at worst incomprehensible. Terms like ‘economic recovery’, ‘postwar’, and ‘counter-terrorism’ are used as much in daily conversation as they are in the media. One of the things such adopted slogans signify is hauntology; today’s present is preoccupied with and vastly manoeuvred by events of the recent past, and there is a chance such fixations could never be overcome.
The hauntological within The Knick represents something different; the future-past tension presiding over the anticipation of the arrival of the 20th century. Although the industrial revolution has given the world the hitherto unheard-of efficiency of electricity and mechanisation, society itself has yet to psychologically catch-up with the functionality of industry. The characters are quite simply out of joint with technology, in a distinctly Kubrick’s 2001-esque manner. It is within such divergence that the hauntological dwells.
Technology, especially when it is introduced for the first time (such as Thomas Edison’s electrical telecommunications, and the first commercial x-ray machines) is often novel, impressive and sold as fun. There is no dread that such advancement may be appropriated by the military and perhaps turned against the people. The mechanised snorts and creaks of Dr. Algernon Edwards’ automatic blood vacuum do not yet resemble the efficient mass murder of mechanised artillery, but rather sound like something wondrous and intriguing, as they might do to a child.
This is another aspect of the marvel of the future, as ‘predicted’ in The Knick. Technology is alchemy, and, as envisioned by Philip Sandifer; alchemy as material social progress. The tech these surgeons find themselves freshly orienting is not only aiding medical science; it is also harnessing the collective future-dream, and therefore is uniting individuals from usually disparate and segregated social stratas.
But in the psychological struggles which have yet to be ‘cured’ by the future exists a hauntological paralysis. For the show’s principal character, Dr. John Thackery (Thack), much of his professional drive succumbs to the hauntological. Although a visionary and a medical genius in his own right, Thack finds himself involuntarily transported back to when his mentor, Dr. J. M. Christiansen, was still alive, before committing suicide after one failed placenta praevia operation too many. In his private searching for guidance from the past, Thack experiences the Freudian hauntological (the voice of the dead father.) Such revisitations treat the past like a manual; a point of reference, but more importantly a basis to work from and improve, yet with little evidence that improvement will stem from there.
This paralysis is also embodied in the struggle between professionalism and regret. In a particularly gothic narrative arc, Dr. Everett Gallinger and his wife, Eleanor, lose their baby daughter to meningitis after Everett accidentally passes it on to her via his unwashed hands. The domestic life of the Gallingers is destroyed by grief and regret, and Eleanor free-falls into mental illness. In a period obsessed with medical and surgical advancement, professional psychological treatment is portrayed as profoundly behind the times. Eleanor’s state goes untreated and she is inevitably sectioned. Soon after, she has all her teeth removed for “reasons of hygiene”. (The doctor who performs the procedure even admits to recently removing his own childrens’ teeth in the belief in the benefits such butchery offers.)
The inhumanity and crudity of Eleanor’s treatment not only highlights the supposed ‘progress’ which surgical procedures have experienced by contrast, but also exposes the deliberate anachronistic nature of the show. In a drama where surgery is the primary focus, it is logical to portray mental healthcare as ill-researched and archaic by comparison. It makes dramaturgical sense to show the exhausted surgeons, resting with blood-caked hands – even though surgical rubber gloves had been in use almost twenty years before 1900. Their hands are bloody from fighting for the future, after all. Another anachronism is the notion of a black surgeon professionally employed by 1900 – the first black surgeon to be employed in an American hospital was in 1920.
If The Knick must, must, have some kind of temporal anchoring, then it’s most likely around 1880/85. This would make sense given the time scale of technological and societal advancements achieved within the show. But it’s all academic, really. This is, after all, a future dreamed by blood-stained protagonists. The exhaustion caused by the insufficient situation of the present and the near-past – everything from the staggering mortality rate after failed surgical procedures, to the gruesome transactional value of human corpses – is enough to encourage a mass future-dream; a vision, born of starvation, of hope and resolution.
As stated in the first paragraph, in The Knick, if something doesn’t have transactional value, it has to be a dream. Everything from the debased fawning that Herman Barrow (manager of the Knick) has to perform for Captain August Robertson (one of the hospital’s wealthy benefactors), to the dealing Dr. Edwards has to go into with Thack in order to gain explicit professional acknowledgement, to the manner in which Nurse Lucy Elkins conspires to enable Thack’s cocaine addiction, and to ambulance driver Tom Cleary’s auditing of Sister Harriet’s clandestine second life as an abortionist – every relationship is transactional on some level.
In its purest form, the intrinsically transactional nature of society in The Knick is perfectly embodied by the pharmaceutical rep who represents that most explicit, most contemporary, form of business: peddling medicine. He approaches Thack in order to pitch the idea of the good doctor’s face emblazoned on a bottle of medical potion (the contents of which do very little medically or otherwise). Thack initially vehemently rejects such unethical money-spinning, but later returns to the rep when he needs money for cocaine.
In one particular moment of societal vision (albeit steeped in self-aggrandizing), Thack exclaims “We have learned more about the human body in the last five years than was learned in the previous five hundred years.” The pace of change at the turn of the 20th century, and the uncontrollable manner by which the future hunts down the present is evident in Thack’s embrace of things to come. He’s a pioneer. He’s also, by the end of the show, that most contemporary of drug addict (which tells us much more about how professionals deal with their hauntings more than any surgical advancement ever will.)
Steven Soderbergh’s The Knick is a looking-glass reflection of our modern hauntologies. In a modern world where capitalism – and its most prevalent consequence, consumerism, where everybody (everybody) plays their part – has rendered the future indigestible, the transactional nature of the previous century or more seems so much more explicit and quantifiable: cash for bodies, and favours for dreams. We are immediately haunted by the things we do now. Back then, events were undertaken with bloodied hands exposed under harsh lights, and watched from an arena of approving peers. Today, no such transparency exists and, with the subtraction of the truth comes the subtraction of understanding our progress through time. The state of modern society is enough to force anyone to some kind of acceptance; if this isn’t a dream then it has to be the future.