Critical Approaches to Culture + Communications

A Weblog by Ron Burnett (Founded in 1994 and now celebrating 23 Years!!)

This site began as one of the first academic sites in Canada when the World Wide Web was in its early phase of development. I have maintained it through many iterations since 1994.

Televisual Autopsies

CSI (Crime Scene Investigation) changed the way in which murders are investigated — on television, that is.

Its most notable achievement has been to make it seem as if crimes are solvable through scientific means. A great deal has been written about this show and its various siblings, from CSI Miami to CSI New York and NCIS. For me, this category of crime show has one key characteristic. All of the shows (as well as their British and Australian counterparts) focus heavily on autopsy rooms and on the strange doctors who perform the autopsies.

Autopsy rooms have always been a part of crime shows, but the level of detail is what I want to meditate on in this web entry. (When Six Feet Under first appeared, its initial focal point was not only a funeral home, but also the work that is done to prepare bodies for burial. The detail was woven into narratives that explored the character and background of the dead.)

All of these shows symptomatically express something quite important about our culture and how it deals with death, oblivion and crime. The question is where do stories come from and how can the dead reveal the truth about what happened to them? None of the shows investigate the causes of crime (with the exception of The Wire) and so evidence as such becomes an important ingredient in the development of the plot.

Of course, for the most part the bodies we see on autopsy tables are mannequins or actors who have been injected with massive doses of sleeping pills. Viewers know that the situations they witness, the bodies that are cut up, are not only artificial but also carefully staged. Even in death there are no genitalia visible and we are never shown the real world of cutting and opening up bodies. (Contrast this with a film like The Act of Seeing with One's Own Eyes by Stan Brakhage in which the realism is so overwhelming that my eyes were closed for some of the film and I felt like I was suffering from vertigo, to know how little mainstream cinema is able to tolerate or picture.)

Television autopsies are simulations as is everything else on crime shows. CSI has taken that simulation to brilliant levels. The irony is that as the simulated forensics have gotten more sophisticated, the crimes have become even more complex. And, with complexity comes a challenge. How can the shows maintain their core realism in the mist of crimes that become more and more bizarre? The reality of crime is that it is very mundane and generally predictable. That does not make for great television.

This is where autopsies come in because they are the best way to hint at the realism and also to maintain its integrity, Bodies as objects for science — I think one could argue that these shows are very much about the body as a metaphor for storytelling and how death is also a story.

Autopsies do of course reveal the cause of death and are an integral part of our justice and medical systems. They are a hidden space of analysis, a source of wisdom and pain at one and the same time.

It is a telling sign of how weak and repetitive the narrative underpinnings of television have become that the autopsy doctor has to be a bit wacky or eccentric in order for his or her role to have any presence or credibility. However, it is the nonchalant manner in which all the characters on CSI and NCIS treat their dead victims — the rather banal way in which they respond to everything from charred remains to tortured and disfigured bodies that reveal some very serious issues,

The context for these shows is America, post 9/11 — after George W. Bush's declaration of an endless war on terror. (CSI has been around for a long time, but the autopsies have gotten even more grotesque with each passing season.) Six years in, the war on terror is mirrored by the war in Iraq and both wars are pictured in the news media without visual details on maiming, injury and death.

To some degree, television has stepped into the breech and using crime as their cover present their bodies, not as visual metaphors for pain and oblivion, but as indifferent objects available for scientific analysis. Pseudo-science meets pseudo objectivity — the science of the autopsy stands in for truth and reveals the pain of war without war scenes — call it the Rumsfield doctrine in action.

Keep in mind that autopsies on these shows take place in pseudo laboratories with actors using instruments and technologies that are dressed up to look like they function. To some degree, viewing pleasure comes from sharing the knowledge of the deception with the show's creators. Nonetheless, as the autopsy process with all of its various terms, techniques and language reveals, bodies do not yield their secrets that easily. So, in order to ratchet the process up a bit, television autopsies use a variety of high-tech strategies that seem to make solutions to problems a function of application and software. The most hilarious is the way computers become all purpose instruments which are able to probe into nearly any problem.

Another feature of these shows is the ubiquitous presence of expensive digital cameras. The sounds of the camera taking pictures of the crime scene — with the referential shot to what has been shot, is then followed by close readings of the content. It is fascinating to watch all these shows and their siblings apply science to photographic interpretation. Consider this, there are no pictures of the war on terror. There are pictures of what terrorists do, but usually after the terrible events they produce. There are no pictures of special forces fighting terror nor any pictures of the CIA in action — there can't be. And aside from some marginal shows like Sleeper Cell, there are no dramas that depict the ongoing struggle with terrorism. So, the CSI type shows become one of the few places where images can be used to portray events. (It is clear that embedded journalists cannot operate in Iraq and so we are now shown stock footage and not much else although reporting still goes on with all of the limitations one has come to accept as normal.) The strength of photography in these shows largely derives from the myth that images record reality.

The apparent cannot be made real — imagination is not enough — science suffices, but barely — there is a war that we cannot see and there are potential crimes everywhere, because that is the nature of terror. Government authorities warn us of impending doom and shows like "24" create preposterous plots in an effort to make the nebulous look concrete. Yet, at the same time, the real terrorists kill with impunity in Iraq and Afghanistan while politicians fiddle with creationism and the remains of generally young working class men and women are brought back to the USA under the cover of night to avoid a possible forensic response from publics everywhere.

Perhaps the heroes of CSI and NCIS, generally young, but always managed by a father figure, are performing autopsies on the criminal mind which is driven by the same irrationality that motivates terrorists. Since they solve most of the crimes that they encounter and since it is for the most part autopsies or DNA analyses which aid them, science must hold the key to solving violence and violent behaviour — the key to understanding the minds of those we cannot understand.

So, these shows are about bridging an almost impossible gap between the terror of reality and myths that science and technology can solve nearly everything. The paradox is that fundamentalists of all persuasions see science as a threat because for better or for worse, science can still lay claim to a rationalist foundation built on logic, history and truth. Crime shows have strayed so far into this territory because they are desperate to tell stories that convert the world and all the harm that people do to each other into a readable science. (From another perspective, this is also the premise of the television show, "House.") And audiences continue to eat it up because they are desperate for some experience of closure in a period of endless war and narratives of violence that seem destined to continue forever.

Where does this narrative of endless war and crime come from? I would argue that the underlying strategy is actually to dissolve any sense of history — since there are so few markers to distinguish one event from another. Instead, we are being given a continuum of violence and reaction to violence. This is even more heavily reinforced in dealing with terrorism, since for the most part the metaphoric implications arising from its endless character means that the stories will basically be the same — forever.

The evaporation of history, stories that repeat, the true banality of evil, all of these place pressure on popular media. So it is perhaps not unusual that death is such an important part of the cultural response. The metaphor of the autopsy, of the body as a repository of forensic information, and the attempts to visualize death have become standard fare in this the early part of the 21st century.