The current popularity of detective, crime and mystery television shows in the United States is incontrovertible. In the last few years, crime shows like Law and Order, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, CSI: Miami, CSI: New York, Without a Trace, Law and Order: SVU, Law and Order: Criminal Intent and Cold Case from producers Dick Wolf and Jerry Bruckheimer have consistently been ranked among the top television shows in the United States. Along with this, it is important to note that most of the aforementioned shows are already in syndication.
Consider for example the manner in which such shows feature the same themes depicted in various variations as is evident in other television shows such as Criminal Minds, Bones, House, and Medium. While some of the deluge of detective and crime shows may be attributed to the cable channels’ need to fill voluminous airtime, it certainly seems that the production of so many new and spin-off dramas indicates a current preoccupation with the mechanics of crime and punishment. In lieu of this, this paper opts to discuss the manner in which crime shows depict the correlation of nationhood and identity with forensic science in the United States.
I will argue that the aforementioned shows [mystery television shows] portray the connection between policing and the security of the nation. The bases for such an argument are as follows. First, mystery crime television shows counter the anxiety that individuals can defy the normative categories of justice as well as escape justice and thereby harm the fabric of society through the demonstration of ways that traces can implicate and thereby indict an individual allowing the assumed necessary entailment of punishment from the commitment of crime.
Second, the depiction of the assumed causal correlation of crime and punishment in such mystery crime television shows enables the creation of a clear moral world wherein morality can be effectively deployed through police procedural formula. Third, the portrayal of such [effectiveness of police procedural formula in the determination of the identity of the criminal] enables the affirmation of the stability of national identity. Such an affirmation is enabled through the formation of a correlation between police procedural measures [defense methods] as expressions of a policing of society and hence a securing of identities.
It is important to note that the aforementioned assumptions are based upon the implicit assumption that the depiction of policing methods through the aforementioned shows categorized within the mystery crime genre enables the detached acquisition of policing functions upon the spectator [in this sense the American audience]. If such is the case, such shows thereby enable the formation of an assurance of the implementation of normative accounts of justice through the depiction of the successful methods in which policing procedures enable the aforementioned correlation of crime and punishment.
It is important to note, however, that such an assurance is enabled without the direct participation of the spectator thereby enabling the spectator to be placed within a position wherein he is not placed in direct danger. The consequence of such, however, lies in the spectator’s ready acquisition of the depicted national identity within the aforementioned shows. It is important to note that in order for such shows to succeed it must build upon a conception of a community defined by function. Such a definition assumes that a community “is made to come into existence around certain acts, certain types of individuals, certain crimes”.
The depiction of such however, must “claim to account for the public interest of the community”. Within such shows, the interest lies in depicting the manner in which moral and practical responsibility can be attained without the direct involvement of the individual. It is interesting to note that this is in direct contradiction to the trend in the past crime shows [Crimebeat and Crimesquad] wherein the individual is presented with an opportunity to have direct involvement in the surveillance of the implementation of justice within their community.
This, however, can best be understood within the context of the post-September 11 incident within the United States. In the post-September 11 United States, interest in these crime shows links the effective policing of individual crimes with larger concerns about national security. Wolf’s Law and Order franchise and Bruckheimer’s CSI franchise have built their popularity by producing shows that closely resemble the first show in the series, using distinctive characters and different methods or locales to give each of the shows an individual identity.
Like popular detective fiction, these shows replay and revise plots about violence and sexuality in a familiar trajectory that generally offers a reassuring final return to order. In his study of the aesthetics and appeal of formulaic narrative, Adventure, Mystery, and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture, John G. Cawelti defines the genre [mystery genre] as characterized with “the investigation and discovery of hidden secrets…the discovery usually leading to some benefit for the character(s) with whom the reader identifies”.
In addition to this Cawelti further notes that within the aforementioned genre [mystery genre] there is “always a desirable and rational solution…this is the moral fantasy expressed in this formulaic archetype”. CSI and Law and Order are less related to the crime or thriller genres than they are to the classic police procedurals that follow the mystery formula, using clues to expose secrets and solve the crime with a ‘rational solution’.
This process of investigation and exposure generally results in a conservative conclusion that reaffirms the efficacy of the detective procedure and the stability of society. Even in those rare cases where the police fail to apprehend the criminal or the courts fail to convict, the shows affirm that law enforcement knows the true perpetrator and they still reinforce the general efficacy of the larger system. Doubtless, the popularity of Law and Order and its spin-offs, as well as the variety of true crime forensic science shows, has influenced the production of CSI.
More so than Law and Order, the CSI’s foreground forensic science and link it to detection. CSI features a familial network of colleagues occasionally studded with sexual tension and headed by a tough-yet-sensitive older male character who often functions in a paternal role. The vaguely familial structure allows a soap-opera type of social dynamic to unfold alongside the dominant detective narratives, a formula that shows more investment in character than the original Law and Order storylines, but still places detective method above characterization.
In order to make the show compelling and fit into the detective genre, the typically specialized and limited role of the forensic scientist in collecting or testing certain kinds of evidence is expanded to the point that the accompanying police detectives need only to make the arrests [much of the questioning, deduction, confrontation falls to the forensic scientist].
In this, the CSI team resembles Sherlock Holmes, who did his own forensic evidence analysis as a natural extension of his role as detective, famously trying to precipitate a reagent for hemoglobin, taking specimens of ash, or watching for family resemblances in an earlobe in order to crack a case. The CSI shows taken together seem to be mapping the United States by profiling a series of cities seen as distinctive urban centers: Las Vegas, Miami, New York. These cities are tourist destinations, known for wealth and metropolitan attractions including luxurious and fashionable clubs, nightlife, gambling and sex markets.
In addition to the decadence associated with such centers, each is a cultural crossroads, and the shows feature characters that represent the racial and ethnic diversity of these cities. Interestingly, the body count in the CSI shows, however, is mostly white and middle class, establishing a familiar norm for the middle-American victims of crime that might reflect the popular viewing audience that seeks out the show. In her examination of the visual rhetoric of CSI, Gever notes that CSI differs from earlier police shows in that it depicts the mobilization of a historically and culturally specific kind of subject.
Only CSI: New York explicitly invokes the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center [wherein the lead detective’s wife was depicted as one of those who died in the attack], but all three shows work in the context of the immediate political threat represented by individual crimes as assaults on the body politic. In other words, the shows depicted the social consequences of individual crime. In the face of the threat represented by crime, even a diverse society can be united in outrage against criminals.
The CSI shows often depict excessively violent crime as the failure of the individual to moderate his or herself, a lack of self-policing and of effectively internalizing American values; even in a hedonistic city, it is possible to overstep the bounds of civilization. This reassuring emphasis on morality is cast in terms of combat. The investigators represent the effective deployment of the ideology of law and order, as the shows dramatize the war on crime as a noble battle with many casualties.
Forensic science, on the other hand shows the notion that human beings leave traces of themselves wherever they go, inviting us to believe that the criminals will inevitably be caught by the idealized scientists who wield innovative procedures. This ideology, that science will inevitably catch our criminals and return society to a state of precarious security, if not innocence, certainly seems to recall a religious faith that crime will not go unpunished, that good will prevail over evil. In a sense, these shows portray the manner in which lawlessness is effectively managed.
Science, on the other hand is depicted as establishing the truth of identity through the body and its traces, replacing the fearsome image of the violated corpse with the firm reestablishment of the rule of science and law. As was stated in the beginning of the paper, these shows [specifically CSI shows] thereby depict the manner in which nationhood is consolidated through the use of law and science in the establishment of truth. The importance of the use of both disciplines [law and science] in ensuring the restoration of security within a nation is evident if one considers the universal foundations of both disciplines: justice and truth.
Given these aforementioned foundations, it is thereby possible to portray a nation whose stability [and hence national identity] is ensured due to the universality of its main foundations that being justice and truth. Bibliography Cawelti, J, Adventure, Mystery, and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1976. CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (2004) ‘Ch-Ch-Changes’, CBS Network, 18 November.
CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (2005) ‘Who Shot Sherlock? ’ CBS Network, 5 January. Doyle, A, “The Cardboard Box”, The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, Vol. 2, Barnes and Noble, New York, 2003. Gever, M, “The Spectacle of Crime, Digitized: CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and Social Anatomy”, European Journal of Cultural Studies 8. 4, 2005, p. 445-63 Harrington, W, “Nation, Identity, and the Fascination of Forensic Science in Sherlock Holmes and CSI”, International Journal of Cultural Studies 10. 3, 2007, p. 365-82. Palmer, G, Disorder and Liberty, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 2003. Weldes, J, Cultures of Insecurity: States, Communities, and the Production of Danger, University of Minnesota Press, Minnesota, 1999.
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