This paper interrogates
the aesthetic signature of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (2000-2015).
Utilizing a selection of representative episodes airing during George W. Bush's
first term, I analyze how CSI mobilizes a particular
aesthetic of wounding in which wound sites,bodily and geographic,may be
understood to serve as vulnerable apertures through which underlying threads of
critical engagement with the direction of the 9/11 discourse may be aspirated
from within the body of the text. Specifically, I approach the wound sites of CSI as sources of war-on-terror critique that serve political double-duty. On
the one hand, CSI's injury-centric narratives and accompanying wound
aesthetic provide a canvas against which the traumatizing realities of 9/11
could be mediated and moderated for a newly death-anxious audience. On the
other hand, the wound aesthetic ironically provides a recuperative narrative
about the state's ability to respond to political violence and prosecute its
9/11; censorship; crime
narrative; forensic science; neoconservative narratives; recuperative
war on terror; wounding
1. Post 9/11 and disappearing wounds
Between September 2001
and May 2002, while Hollywood's highest-grossing movies were the relatively
tame Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (2001) and Spider-Man (2002), the top-rated drama on American primetime TV
(number two, overall) was CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (2000-2015)
(hereafter, CSI). Taking the viewer
directly into the wound sites of crime, CSI presents its viewers with a hybrid crime-horror
visual palette that, for a Bush-era audience, particularly in the early
post-9/11 years, offered the bold premise of not only inviting one to vividly
imagine every conceivable type of death and injury propagated on 9/11 and subsequently
recreated in response under the auspices of a war on terror, but to enter into
intimate acquaintance with the bodily and geographic wounds that would arise.
Indeed, CSI's rules of emplotment
dictate that plot points always emerge appended to material, trace evidence
recovered from wound sites, bodily and geographic. As such, crime is routinely
solved and resolved quite literally through the wound, with sites of
injury and their visual spectacle accordingly elevated to a position of
absolute primacy within the narratives; an aesthetic of wounding provides the under girding framework for narrative progression and emplotment.
During the early
post-9/11 years, this represented a position fundamentally at odds with what
appeared to be a burgeoning consensus amongst cultural commentators that,
having exposed Americans to a violent spectacle,the aesthetic of which had all
the trappings of a Hollywood action-disaster feature, "the attacks were
going to wean [them] (and quickly at that) from their taste for violence in the
movies." The consequence was
presumed to be a demand for new forms of entertainment that would "account
for the new media realities of the post-9/11 world." Director Robert Altman
even went so far as to intimate that continuing to feature spectacles of
violence in mass-appeal popular culture outlets would be irresponsible as
"[n]obody would have thought to commit an atrocity like that unless they'd
seen it in a movie."
Statements like those
were part of a much broader movement within American politics and culture
concerning the overall direction of the 9/11 discourse, one which sought to
sanitize the visual field appended to the discussion of 9/11 and, subsequently,
the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, so as to manage the terms upon which
images of wounding arising from 9/11 were to be used. On the one hand, the
wounding of the recent past provided the visual and referential backdrop
against which support for the war on terror and its proposed legal powers under
the Patriot Act was being argued. Yet, at the same time,
political and cultural forces were at work to actually remove imagery of
bloodshed and death associated with 9/11 and the war on terror from the
photographer Richard Drew's image of a man presumed to have jumped from the
North Tower was printed on September
12, on page seven of the New
York Times, only to quickly be censored from reproduction on the grounds of
being exploitative. Later references in
popular culture would reimagine such falling people as heroic figures or
superheroes, shorn of the vulnerability to injury and death that the original
images conveyed. On the war on terror
front, Los Angeles Times reporter James Rainey would write, in 2005, of a "relatively bloodless portrayal of the war" having
emerged through U.S. newspaper coverage of the conflicts in Iraq and
Afghanistan, images of American dead and wounded notable by their absence. Even the repatriation of
U.S. war dead was a no-go area for visual media, as the Bush administration
upheld a 1991 ban on such photographs, and attempts to override the ban met
with accusations of breaching the privacy and dignity of families.
It seemed that turning
the population's attention to incidents of American wounding was drifting into
a timetabled affair, with David Altheide noting that, in the wake of
9/11,"[d]omestic life became oriented to celebrating/commemorating past terrorist
acts, waiting for and anticipating the next terrorist act." The image and occasion
of America's wounding had become a Pavlovian trigger, oriented around falling
architecture, deployed to feed a sense of national vulnerability, and
adrenalize emotional and philosophical resolve toward retaliatory violence
whenever the moral, legal, or ethical legitimacy of the war on terror was
called into question.
Moreover, such returns
were to generally delve no further than the meta-level imagery of the falling
towers. Such imagery had dominated media coverage on the day of the attacks and
would be recycled ad nauseum thereafter, the images
functioning as repeated invocations to the imagining of injury over any actual
confrontation with images themselves. Consequently, the experience of 9/11 and
its aftermath became, as Thomas Stubblefield suggests, "one in which
absence, erasure, and invisibility dominated the frame in equal measure." A particular forgetting of wounding had been
pressed into service for the war effort, bolstering resolve for war where remembering
wounding may potentially have meant remembering a little too much. Post-9/11, under the Bush
administration, was consequently a time in which America's citizens were
compelled to fear the incursion of terrorism into their lives and to fear death
and injury to their bodies, yet portrayals of real death and injury associated
with both 9/11 and the war on terror were relegated to the intangible realm of
The removal of imagery of
bloodshed and death from the referential frame was consistent with the physical
withholding of its horrors that the World Trade Center towers exercised in
their collapse. The very manner in which the towers fell had contrived to
censor the bloodshed that was occurring. As Stubblefield notes,
[f]ollowing the logic of
implosion … the World Trade Center withheld its contents from view as it fell;
its stories "pancaked" on top of one another rather than turning
themselves inside out. With the vast majority of the dead dying behind the
curtain wall of the towers' facades, "the most photographed disaster in
history" failed to yield a single noteworthy image of carnage.
What human remains were
recovered from the rubble of the World Trade Center were likewise held from the
visual arena of the public domain. While, in Douglas Kellner's words,
"[t]he strike on the World Trade Center and New York City evoked images of
assault on the very body of the country,"CSI was effectively providing its audience with a
translation of that metaphoric bodily assault into a series of actual bodily assaults that
demonstrated, in hyper-real terms, the vulnerability of the human body. Ironically, this ran
counter to the neoconservative sanitization of the visual parameters of both
9/11 and the war on terror.
For a traumatized nation,
resounding to critical voices either calling for less emphasis on violence in
entertainment or postulating a wave of audience avoidance of such fare, it
might seem counter-intuitive that a TV show like CSI, in which the spectacle of ruined bodies and
gore-strewn geography held such narrative primacy, would dominate the primetime
TV ratings. However, it may be understood that eager audience engagement with,
and consequent proliferation of, the stylized and graphic renderings of
wounding that CSI would trade in operated
in a kind of cultural symbiosis with a combination of real large-scale violence
in the immediate past and conjured, yet sanitized, violence in the
neoconservative rhetoric of the war on terror.
It is a symbiosis not
without precedent. Vicky Goldberg has identified an exponential increase in the
appetite for, and subsequent production of, representations of death and
wounding in popular culture as the probability of being confronted in reality
by sudden end-of-life scenarios decreased through the nineteenth and twentieth
centuries. Goldberg finds that
real-world acquaintance with death and gross bodily injury receded from general
view under a combination of medical, social, and religious changes. Nevertheless, as she
describes, as much as the spectacle of actual death and wounding receded from
everyday experience, anxieties about death (in concert with human curiosity)
remained. As death, the dead, the dying all slipped from view, death's presence
persisted in the spectral realm of the abstract, occupying the anxiety-inducing
position of the lingering unknown. The new terror-age of
post-9/11 under Bush continued this paradoxical relationship between anxiety
about death and the paucity of its actual presence in the visible, real-world
Discussing the appeal of
the crimes of serial killers in popular culture, David Schmid contends that
"exposing ourselves to representations of death, even violent death, helps
alleviate our anxiety about being claimed by such violent death." In this vein, and to
hijack Rebecca Scott Bray's critique of Angela Strassheim's 2009 photographic
collection Evidence, the fictive images of wounding in CSI can be understood to bring the withheld imagery of
9/11 and war on terror injuries "to life by making images that look like
the evidence we never see." The dominant visual
presence of a simulated reality of wounding and death that CSI provides access to was therefore primed to attend to
the "need to know . . . what it is, how it looks, what it does to us, what
we can do about it" that post-9/11 censorship of death imagery left behind
for an audience inured to the neocon narrative of post-9/11 world as a world of
However, as Susan Sontag
suggests in her long essay,Regarding the Pain of Others (2003), images
of wounding and death and images of war are not fixable in their determination.
Inherently, such images as CSI trades in bear the
potential for opposing readings, such as "a cry for peace" or "a cry
for revenge," principally because each viewer will bring different social,
cultural, and political contexts to that viewing. The terms upon which meaning is determined are therefore, as David
Holloway notes, "circumscribed by [the meaning makers'] positions in the
networks of power and contingency that condition the circumstances in which
they read," and therefore "unavoidably enmeshed in, or in tension
with, the lived ideologies and structures of feeling shaping their time."
Utilizing a selection of representative episodes aired during President
George W. Bush's first term in office, this paper approaches CSI as mobilizing a particular
aesthetic of wounding in which wound sites, bodily and geographic, may
accordingly be understood to serve a political double-duty. On the one hand,
the aesthetic of wounding at play in the simulated reality of CSI can be
seen as functioning as a mediator between a post-9/11 audience's worst fears of
bodily destruction and a moderated space in which those fears could be
confronted in comforting and reassuring ways. Providing intimate access to the
range of bodily destruction that was largely excised from coverage of 9/11 and
the ensuing wars, CSI's wound aesthetic
potentially undermines the neoconservative terror-fear project mobilized to
solicit support for the war on terror. On the other hand, with consistent, late-narrative reorientations of the wound
that draw audience attention away from the body and onto the accuracy
and reliability of advanced scientific technology, the wound aesthetic in CSI, ironically, provides a recuperative narrative about the State's
ability to respond to political violence and prosecute its perpetrators.
2. Reintroducing the wound and calming
Over the course of CSI's second season (September 27, 2001–May 16, 2002),
every scenario of bodily injury and death available either on 9/11 or in the
line of duty fighting the war on terror was conferred upon victims of crime in
Las Vegas. Such experiences ranged from gunshot and blunt force injuries
causing organ failure and neurological shutdown to exsanguination from bodily
tearing; incineration, pre- and post-mortem, and exposure to vehicle
bombs to slow lingering deaths of individuals trapped in wreckage or
experiencing death from secondary ailments such as septicemia. Under CSI's aesthetic of up-close and personal wound exposure,
what each death and injury provided for a newly death-anxious, post-9/11 audience was what Elisabeth Bronfen refers to as
art's "death by proxy." The experience of death
by proxy is one that has the reassuring feature of affording an opportunity one
can never realize in life,"namely that we die with another and return to
In the episode
"Alter Boys," as the pathologist describes a victim's death by a
combination of gunshot and asphyxiation, the camera takes the audience directly
into the body through the point of injury. First the camera passes
into the entry wound, whereupon computer graphics recreate the passage of the
bullet rattling around the chest cavity and damaging organs before the picture
resets to place the audience back in the morgue. Secondly, the camera passes
through the victim's mouth, taking the audience down into the lungs to show
capillaries withering and dying as the pulmonary system shuts down. As the
victim dies again in simulation, the camera withdraws once more, placing the
audience back in the morgue with the living. Later, as CSI Gill Grissom
recreates the gunshot, firing into a water tank, the camera-work places the
audience into the tank and into the path of the bullet. Shown in slow motion,
with the bullet ploughing through the water, distorting and growing larger in
the shot as it gets closer, the viewer is momentarily shifted into an imagined
space of the victim's point of view. For a few moments, the viewer is literally facing
death as if it were to be his or her own, seemingly waiting for inevitable
injury, only to emerge once again unscathed in the company of the CSIs in the
Part of CSI's aesthetic signature, such sequences provided access to the dead and
injured body in a way contrary to the general dampening of such visuals under
the editorial parameters the White House was imposing on war on terror
reportage. However, it is
interesting that the technique of immersion into, followed by withdrawal from,
the bodily wound sites also served to moderate the death experience available.
Snap-cut resets back to the morgue and reversed camera shots tracking back out
of the wound again ensure that the audience can always re-establish a
separation from death and injury experienced in and with the bodily other. The
sense of ultimate distance from death and wounding is often bolstered in CSI by set choices and camera angles. For example, in
"Alter Boys," the opening and closing shots of the body in the morgue are
conducted from the doorway so that the wounded body is at a clear physical
remove from the viewer. Meanwhile, in another episode, "Butterflied,"
the glass partition of a murder victim's shower cubicle physically separates
the audience from the dead woman.
Such distancing not only
reinforces one's sense of separation but reminds one of the unreality of the
death experienced. Indeed, CSI consistently issues
reminders, through formal and narrative choices, of the unreality of the
depicted deaths. In the episode, "Burden of Proof," the opening
sequence presents a varied tableau of grizzly deaths, with bodies in various
states of decomposition, only for the narrative to subvert audience
expectations by revealing that the location is the CSI body farm, a very unreal,
simulated collection of crime scenes in which to monitor the real of
post-death decomposition under controlled conditions. CSI also consistently deploys computer animated
recreations of various aspects of deaths, in such a way that bodily wounding
eventually is de-realized.
In this respect,
representations of death and wounding of the sort CSI majors in may function therapeutically, because, as
[e]ven as we are forced
to acknowledge the ubiquitous presence of death in life, our belief in our own
immortality is confirmed. There is death, but it is not my own. The aesthetic
representation of death lets us repress our knowledge of the reality of death
precisely because here death occurs at someone else's body and as an image.
The body of the other, in
concert with the fiction of the medium, erects, then, a distance between the
possibility of and vulnerability to death and the self, as death is projected
onto the body of another.
The wound sites of CSI, particularly in the early post-9/11 years,
simultaneously conferred opportunities to remember and forget the traumas of
recent history and its attendant anxieties about bodily vulnerability. With
each new episode, CSI's audience were
permitted to re-experience the reality of sudden and violent death on 9/11 and
reminded of the vulnerabilities their own bodies bore to violent intrusion,
only for the unreality of the medium to simulate a kind of post-traumatic
repression of such knowledge. CSI then offered a microcosm
of the remembering and forgetting tensions of the prevailing modes of wound
exposure in neocon narrativization of 9/11 and the war on terror; clarion calls
to "not forget this wound to our country" couched in articles of
memory premised on surface level vagaries of "image[s] of a fire, or a
story of rescue" that tacitly suppressed the bodily realities.
CSI's immersions in the
wound bear an inherent vulnerability to reversal that renders its treatment of
wounding politically ambiguous. While providing a safe arena in which the
post-9/11 death anxieties of terror-stricken citizens could be projected onto
surrogate bodies, CSI's deployment of
intensely vivid wound imagery to tell stories about crime and its apprehension
by state agencies after 9/11 may equally be read as actively contributing to
the neocon terror-world narrative, the state's "pervasive communication
[dictating] that danger and risk [we]re a central feature of everyday
life" after 9/11.
3. Reorienting the wound and stoking our
The season two CSI episode,"Chasing the Bus,"
opens with shots of a bus, heavy with passengers, snaking through Nevada
mountain roads. The narrative feeds the
audience a dummy, tracking a suspect-looking individual moving down the bus to
sit near the driver, who responds with unease, suggesting violence will enter
the narrative at this man's hands. Instead the bus unexpectedly accelerates,
the steering shakes, and the bus careens across the highway, colliding with the
central guardrail in a shower of sparks, before veering violently back across
the road and over the hillside, face-on to the camera.
Lit by portable
spotlights, the resulting crashsite evokes ground zero: strewn crash debris,
high-visibility jacketed emergency workers, human remains in body bags, and
bloodied survivors on stretchers hooked up to drips. This is a wound site in both geographical and
bodily terms. In line with CSI's adherence to narrative
centrality for the wound, the crashsite assumes primacy as the narrative locus
for "Chasing the Bus." Over the course of the episode, the CSIs
revisit this site of wounding multiple times, in person and in simulation, to
gather and analyze trace material evidence of and
draw conclusions about the bus's loss of control.
Initially, attention to
long stretches of rubber seared into the road, contrasted against a shorter
stretch of abrasions from a trailing suspension arm, allows the CSIs to both
map the passage of the bus prior to it leaving the road and prove that the skid
began before the suspension collapsed. Later, the CSIs delve deeper into
the skid marks, finding an indentation in the tarmac, previously obscured by
the burnt rubber, indicative of a tire blow-out, thereby identifying the
starting point of the accident. Meanwhile, shredded tire remains placed under
chemical analysis at the CSI lab reveal traces of chloroform, which indicates
sabotage. It is a cycle of exposure and re-exposure to the wound site, whereby
through attention to trace material dispersed in wounding and retrieved at the
wound site, the hidden narrative of events preceding the CSI's arrival at the
wound site is rendered a found narrative, in which past and present come
together to reveal concealed criminality.
The criminal element in
the deaths of the passengers turns out to be relatively innocuous. An
embittered bus company mechanic, fired for having marijuana in his locker,
filled the tires with chloroform in order to weaken the tire structure and
ensure a blow-out, thereby causing delays and costing the company money. The
tire deflation is made devastating by the bus company's use of cheaper
suspension components sourced from a supplier that falsified the stress loads
of its products. Violence then has not emerged at the hands of any obvious
criminal type figure. The collection of geographic and physical injury and
death instead emerges out of the blue, from a combination of overzealous
enforcement of bus company drugs policies and a collision between corporate
frugality on one side and greed on the other.
Bus" extends the avenues of death's intrusion beyond the obvious criminal
bogeymen of the crime procedural: thieves, rapists and murderers personally
connected to their victims. Instead, criminality inflects the inanimate
materials of rubber and steel, turning objects of the everyday into tools of
potential mass destruction, thus reminding one of the 2002 anti-terror campaign
of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA): "If you see something, say something." MTA’s public service ads used the image of empty subway
cars with unattended luggage, often tucked under seats, to transpose the terror
threat from the animate of human perpetrators to the inanimate of everyday
items, projecting a sense of all-encompassing threat. As Stephanie Younane
notes in her comparative analysis of U.S., UK, and Australian anti-terror
advertising, such campaign messages were contradictory, "[b]oth detailed
and vague . . . allow[ing] audience members to create their own image of how 'terrorists' look and talk, or where they might live." One was to feel assured
that the government was aware of the terror threat and was being proactive in
combating it; still, one had to remain anxious because the direct source of
threat was nebulous.
Bus" embodies the same contradiction. Government agents, here CSIs,
reassuringly bear the knowledge and tools to uncover the source of death and
injury, but apprehending such elements prior to injury is not so assured, because the criminals in
"Chasing the Bus," enmeshed within the social and corporate scenery,
bear no obvious outward signifiers of criminality by which "alterity"
may be discerned. Taken in conjunction with CSI's adherence to wound
sites as the locus of each episode's narrative, "Chasing the Bus" is
a representative example of the manner in which CSI tacitly reconfirmed to a post-9/11 audience that, as
John Ashcroft would say, in his push to pass the PATRIOT Act through Congress,
"[t]he danger that has darkened the United States of America and the
civilized world on September 11 did not pass with the atrocities committed that
4. Recuperating the wound and building
Quite apart from contributing
to what Altheide calls a "campaign to integrate fear into everyday life
routines," a campaign emerging at the crossroads of popular culture, mass-media,
and politics after 9/11, such patterns of exposure to graphic renderings of
end-of-life scenarios, as CSI trades in, only become
more politically unstable with repetition. Zillman notes that such
overexposure, such an insistent familiarization with the graphic outcomes of
violence upon the body, can temper any fear, revulsion, and shock that such
images might be deployed to induce. Viewed ideologically,
the loss of the shock factor associated with graphic portrayals of wounding
affirms the strategic value of embedding wounding into the everyday, as war and
its anticipated re-runs of wounding are validated as routine, un-extraordinary.
detachment is proffered in CSI as a prerequisite for
attending to the prosecution of criminality. In "Chasing the Bus," after a
lab technician proves unable to function after witnessing the bus driver die
from internal bleeding, CSI Nick Stokes coolly recalls his first time at a
crime scene: "[I]nitial call was a robbery. I get there: triple homicide, blood
all over the place, mother and two kids." Grissom, meanwhile. nonchalantly
recounts the varied places he's retrieved body parts during his career,
including "a box spring mattress . . . found a head in a bucket of paint
once." The crucial difference
between Nick, Grissom, and the lab tech is that neither Nick nor Grissom
suggest being thrown by these scenes. The injuries, and the ability of other
humans to inflict such damage, are neither surprising nor catalysts to
emotional attachment. They just are.
CSIs are representative
post-9/11 counter-terrorism warriors, "calm and resolute, even in the face
of a continuing threat," sacrificing their emotions to meet the realities
of a post-9/11 world in which the President warned that exposure to extremes of
violence and wounding were now the anticipated backdrop to everyday working
CSI then exercises what Holloway calls the "crude
but redemptive logic" of neocon "war on terror" rhetoric, a
necessary descent into the arena of violence in pursuit of ultimately
protecting the citizenry. The characterization of
CSIs as not only desensitized to violence and emotionally aloof in relation to
the wounded individual, but actually requiring such attributes to be able to
function in a post-9/11 world, evokes9/11 culture's other prominent crime
fighter, the torturer. As Holloway details, in his analysis of the
war-on-terror espionage thriller, be it in the novel form from writers like
Vince Flynn or in TV shows like 24 (2001-2014), the
torturer, like the CSI, is a figure of martyrdom whose descent into wounding is
presented in terms of a necessary evil and in the name of protecting national
While this promotion of
emotional detachment might seem at odds with the highly emotive rhetoric with
which Bush was narrativizing 9/11, where "freedom itself" was
suggested to be "under attack," the sensitivities Bush's narrative lent
upon were of the cynical and manipulative kind. Entreaties to maintain
one's memory of the lives lost on 9/11 were predicated on preserving such
memories, in service to anger and bolstering resolve to war. As Judith Butler
has noted, straying into the more therapeutic engagements of grief, such as
mourning, had the inconvenient disadvantage of accidentally opening lines of
commonality with the victims of Americas own aggression.
There was, in Butler's
estimation, a "discourse of dehumanization" emerging in war on terror
politics, amplified by compliant mainstream media outlets. In this context, Butler
has pointed out that withholding, in American media, of obituaries for
non-American war casualties actually helps rendering the lives of those victims
into non-lives—"If a life is not grievable it is not quite a
life"—thus implicitly justifying their death. Under such narrative
parameters, the wounded bodies resulting from American military aggression are
recuperated to reorient the war on terror narrative away from the victim, as
well as dismiss any consideration of universal human vulnerability that might
destabilize the national resolve to war.
counter-terrorist action is legitimized as a paradoxically humane response by
the removal of its human casualties from the discourse. The only wounds
acknowledgeable as wounds were those of America and its allies, whose graphic
detail was censored from display anyway and therefore made available only as an
abstract emotive presence most commonly deployed in calls not to forget
the wounding. Generally, each CSI episode plots a similarly recuperative reorientation
of the wounded bodies in its narratives, as "we are infrequently shown
more than fleeting scenes of the human cost of death to family and friends." While the aforementioned
death by proxy attributes of CSI's wound aesthetic offers
the viewer that therapeutic possibility of salving one's insecurities about
being claimed by violence, in an ironic turn, the vulnerable human body is
mobilized to serve a narrative of both the state's superior ability to respond
to crime and the legitimacy of their crime fighting techniques. It is an
expression of what Susan Faludi calls the "bur[ial of] our awareness of
our vulnerability under belligerent posturing and comforting fantasy . . . to
prop up our sense of virile indomitability," that, as Faludi suggests, had
become ubiquitous in American political, social and cultural responses to 9/11.
In the episode
"Anatomy of a Lye," the principal victim is replaced in the narrative
by material stand-ins: flecks of silver paint and car headlight plastic tweezed
from the victim's wounds and gathered from the road outside his apartment where
he was run over. These victim proxies
experience a descending sequence of miniaturization as they are exposed to what
Tatum calls CSI's "prosthetic
supplements of . . . digital imaging technology and computer hardware and
software" in the LVPD crime labs. A paint fleck analyzed
under Gas chromatography–mass spectrometry (GCMS) is reduced down to a wavering
graph-line on a computer printout detailing its chemical composition. This
graph is further reduced to a sequence of letters and numbers, corresponding to
a color code in an automotive database. Headlight plastic viewed under a
microscope is narrowed down to a symbol too small for the naked eye and
likewise relatable to a car model designation. Stripped down to chemical
formulas and integers in numerical sequences, the wound has spoken through the
mediating platform of forensic science and its prosthetic voice-boxes of the
GCMS, microscopes, and databases. Through this process, the human victims and
their bodily wounds have ceded prominence in the narrative equation, usurped by
the field of forensic science and the computational and imaging technologies of
the Vegas crime lab.
in Ralph Rugoff's1997 curated exhibition, The Scene of the Crime, the CSI audience are invited "to function like detectives or forensic
technicians," experiencing the communication of forensic knowledge as if they,
too, were CSIs: they see what Grissom sees as he looks down the microscope. This privileged viewing position encourages a sympathetic alignment
with the CSIs' point of view, because, as Corinna Kruse notes, the "viewer
is . . . turned into the kind of person to whom the evidence speaks," anointed
as fellow CSIs or investigative confidants. Moreover, by experiencing the CSIs' forensic theorizing tested in lab
conditions, generally producing results that confirm the CSIs' reasoning,
viewers "can see for themselves that the investigators, by 'following the
evidence,' finally know for certain how and by whom the crime has been
By the time the
perpetrator confesses, the victim, as human individual, has become memorable
only by the often grizzly manner of his or her death and autopsy. Reduced to
computer printouts and chemical formulas, the narrative preoccupation with
wounds and the material traces they contain has mutated into a promotional
exercise on behalf of law enforcement and its specialist branch of
scientist crime-fighters. This is perhaps best illustrated by the closing
seconds of "Anatomy of a Lye," when the CSIs, having proven the
killer's guilt, are handed a suicide note penned by the victim which proves he
intentionally stepped into traffic.
For a brief moment, the
humanity of the victim has been drawn back to the position of primacy, as a
broader contextualizing set of circumstances surrounding his death are allowed
into the narrative. A flashback shows the victim, figuratively remade from the
broken carcass and material trace scrapings to which he had been reduced,
stepping into the road, face-on to the camera, screaming as he deliberately
faces death. In his anguished scream, we are given an insight into the
emotional state of the victim, and in the revelation that the note was for his
wife, we are given a hint of the family he leaves behind and are therefore
afforded a moment to ponder the impact his death will have upon friends and
family. But the moment is fleeting, the camera cutting abruptly back to the
face of the driver, literally returned to the center of the narrative as his
face fills the episode's closing shot.
This displacement of the
victim's primacy in the narrative, shifted from a dominant bodily presence in
the episode's opening autopsy scenes to a brief point-of-death flashback,
conjured to validate the conclusions of these scientist-detectives and their
advanced investigative technology, offers a neat analogy of the rapidity of
George W. Bush's recuperation of the wounds of 9/11 for revanchist war on
terror purposes. Bush's address to the nation on the
evening of 9/11 began with the victims of 9/11, describing "secretaries,
business men and women, military and federal workers, moms and dads, friends
and neighbours." Almost immediately, the wounds of 9/11 were
repurposed from signifiers of a national tragedy, in which the nation had been
exposed as vulnerable and ill-prepared, to a validation of America's righteous
position on the world stage, America having supposedly been "targeted for
attack because we're the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the
world." By the third paragraph
of the address, however, Bush was reminding the nation that "[o]ur
military is powerful, and it's prepared," before declaring that already
the "search is underway for those who were behind these evil acts"
and assuring the nation that with the "full resources of our intelligence
and law enforcement communities" a country that had "stood down
enemies before . . . will do so this time" as it faced what was already a
"war against terrorism."
From attention to the
nation's wound sites that had prompted awareness of its vulnerability to
attack, Bush's narrative of America after 9/11 had quickly shifted to
recuperate the incident of wounding as a call to marshal the strength and
military resources the nation already possessed, in order to meet an assumed
obligation to respond in kind. Bush's speech operated in much the same way that
each episode of CSI
generally does at its closure: it countered the anxiety-inducing notion that
criminals, such as the 9/11 terrorists, might elude prosecution and continue to
disrupt society. For a post-9/11 audience, CSI's weekly cycle through the exposure of bodily vulnerability to the
triumphalist celebration of the state's law enforcement resources was arguably
"provid[ing] the repertoire for imagining as happy an ending as can be
achieved in the presence of crime," when crime has been experienced on
such a grand and seismic scale as on 9/11.
For all the therapeutic
access to death imagery that CSI provides, its late
narrative re-orientations to preference the state's ability to respond to
criminal, or terrorist, violence, bringing to bear the full weight and
resources of the state to eradicate threat, ensure that the wounded bodies in CSI ultimately function in a much more conservative
fashion. Where wounds, in the TV show, initially serve as apertures through
which subversive political content may emerge, such as a subtle critique of the
war on terror, the disappearance of the wounded human serves to show that any
(latent) progressiveness and subversiveness will be eventually locked out of
sight in morgue drawers, alongside the human bodies themselves.
CSI offers a microcosm of the strategic "forgetting"
of the grimmer realities accompanying political violence on 9/11 and beyond.
Rather than reaffirming the scale and detail of the appalling violence that
human bodies endure, the technological fetishizing of wounds in CSI ultimately serves to obscure
the presence of that very violence that the narrative had painstakingly sought
to preserve, thus, in effect, denying that wounding ever took place and
undermining the subversive potential of death by proxy. CSI's bodily testimonies to the consequences of
unrestrained violence reach a point of textual self-censorship in the show, cut
from the narrative like the "jumpers" and the coffins of repatriated
While we cannot assume
that the "real" imagery of bodily destruction resulting from 9/11 and
the war on terror, were it uncensored, would provide an identikit proposition
of political subversion, as CSI's particular wound
aesthetic seems to afford,CSI does ultimately advance
a proposition for remembering violence that references that subversive
potential, detrimental though it might be to neocon mentalities and the war effort. On the other hand, CSI
asks us to ultimately remember violence in broadly neocon terms: forget the
fissures and holes in the body, withdraw to the surface, and avoid engaging
with the subversive political material underneath.
Christopher J. Davies
Christopher J. Davies is a Lecturer and doctoral
researcher at the University of Derby, U.K. in the School of Humanities and
Journalism. His research interests are oriented toward the role of the crime
narrative in popular culture as concomitant agitator and upholder of dominant
social conventions and politics.
Published October 31, 2019.
My thanks go out to the peer reviewers and editors
for the insightful comments provided throughout the submission and review
process, and the time and care taken in reviewing, providing feedback, and
 Jeffery Melnick, 9/11 Culture: America Under Construction
(Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), p. 50.
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Verbal and Visual Framing of September 11," in Media Representations of
September 11, eds. Steven Chernak, Frankie Y. Bailey and Michelle Brown
(Westport and London: Praeger, 2003), pp. 85-102; Fritz Breithaupt,
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 Susan Lurie, "Spectacular Bodies and Political Knowledge: 9/11
Cultures and the Problem of Dissent," American Literary History,
25, 1 (2013), pp.176-189, 178.
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Pictures, Untold Stories," Los
Angeles Times, May 21, 2005, http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-na-iraqphoto21may21,0,6440224,full.story,
accessed October 17, 2013.
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Birkenstein, Anna Froula, and Karen Randell (London and New York: Continuum,
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 Douglas Kellner, From 9/11 to Terror War: The Dangers of the Bush
Legacy (Oxford: Roman and Littlefield, 2003), p.66.
 Thomas Stubblefield, 9/11 and the Visual Culture of Disaster
(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014), p. 4.
 Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Power of Mourning and Violence
(London and New York: Verso Books, 2004), p. 146.
 Stubblefield, 9/11 and the Visual Culture of Disaster, p. 4.
 Kellner, From 911, p. 50.
 Vicki Goldberg, "Death Takes a Holiday, Sort of," in Why
We Watch: The Attractions of Violent Entertainment, ed. Jeffery Goldstein
(New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), pp. 27-52.
Goldberg describes how advances in public health and sanitation
combined with an evolving medical field to decrease exposure to disease and
advance life expectancy as new treatments emerged. Furthermore, opportunities
for interaction with the dead and dying decreased as individuals increasingly
died at great remove from families and friends, in hospitals and nursing homes,
and undertakers assumed control of preparing bodies for funerals. Meanwhile,
the public spectacle of violent execution retreated as Enlightenment voices
condemned public torture and execution as atrocities, driving the eradication
of the more spectacular means of execution such as drawing and quartering,
while the actual forms of execution that remained were moved behind closed
doors. See Goldberg, "Death Takes," p. 33.
 David Schmid, Natural Born Celebrities: Serial Killers in American
Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), p. 18.
 Rebecca Scott Bray, "Rotten Prettiness? The Forensic Aesthetic
and Crime as Art," Australian Feminist Law Journal, 40, 1 (2014),
pp. 69–95, 85.
 Goldberg, "Death Takes," 51.
 Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Picador,
2003), p. 13.
 David Holloway, "Mapping McCarthy in the Age of Neoconservatism,
or the Politics of Affect in The Road," The Cormac McCarthy
Journal, 17, 1 (2019), pp. 4-26, 4.
 Elizabeth Bronfen, Over Her Dead Body: Death, Femininity and the
Aesthetic (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1992), p. x.
 CSI, "Alter Boys," directed by Danny
Cannon, written by Ann Donahue, CBS, November 1, 2001.
 Judith Butler, Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? (London
and New York: Verso Books, 2010), pp. 39-40, pp. 64-66.
 CSI, "Butterflied," Directed by Richard J. Lewis, written
by David Rambo, CBS, January 15, 2004.
 CSI, "Burden of Proof," directed by Kenneth Fink, written
by Ann Donahue, CBS, February 7, 2002.
 Bronfen, Over Her, x.
 Altheide, "Fear," p. 11.
 CSI, "Chasing the Bus," directed by Richard J. Lewis,
written by Eli Talbert, CBS, March 28 2002.
 Stephanie Younane, "Protecting Our Way of Life: Constructions of
National Identity in Government Anti-Terrorism Advertising," paper
presented at the Australasian Political Studies Association Conference,
University of Newcastle, Australia, September 2006. p. 8.
 Altheide, "Fear," p. 15.
 Dolf Zillman, "The Psychology of the Appeal of Portrayals of
Violence," in Why We Watch: The Attractions of Violent Entertainment,
ed. Jeffery Goldstein (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), pp.
 CSI, "Chasing the Bus."
 David Holloway, "The War on Terror Espionage Thriller, and the
Imperialism of Human Rights," Comparative Literature Studies, 46.1
(2009), 20-44, 26.
 Butler, Precarious, pp. 19-49.
 Anthony Burke, "Just War or Ethical Peace? Moral Discourses of
Strategic Violence after 9/11," International Affairs, 80, 2
 Basil Glynn and Jeongmee Kim, "Corpses, Spectacle, Illusion: The
body as Abject and Object in CSI," in The CSI Effect: Television,
Crime, and Governance, eds. Michelle Byers, and V. M. Johnson (Lanham:
Lexington Books, 2009), pp. 105.
 CSI, "Anatomy of a Lye," directed by
Kenneth Fink, written by Josh Berman and Andrew Lipsitz, CBS, May 2, 2002.
 Stephen Tatum, "Spectral Beauty and Forensic Aesthetics in the
West," Western American Literature, 41, 2 (2006), pp. 123-45, 131.
 Ralph Rugoff, Scene of the Crime (Cambridge: MIT
Press/UCLA/Hammer, 1997), pp. 61.
 Corinna Kruse, "Producing Absolute Truth: CSI Science as Wishful
Thinking," American Anthropologist, 112, 1 (2010), pp. 79-91, 84.
 Kruse, "Producing Absolute Truth," pp. 87-88.
 Judith Butler identifies uncensored images of dead bodies as posing a
threat to neocon narrative hegemony, discussing how the "coffins of the
American war dead shrouded in flags . . . were not to be seen in case they
aroused certain kinds of negative sentiment" that might be detrimental to
the war effort. See Butler, Frames, p. 65.