"Dead Men Do Tell Tales":
CSI: Miami and the Case Against Narrative

Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Spring 2009, Volume 8, Issue 1
http://www.americanpopularculture.com/journal/articles/spring_2009/campbell.htm

 

Scott Campbell
University of Connecticut


Each episode of the most popular television series in the world - according to articles in The New Yorker (Toobin 30) and BBC online - begins where many stories end, at the death of the central character. Before the opening credits roll, the primary piece of evidence, this character’s body, appears lifeless and silent. Soon enough, however, the crime scene investigator, the CSI, begins his chief task; he must get this body to speak. He will, within an hour’s time, divine a true tale. And, in the retrospective portrait that emerges, the CSI confirms his mastery of the tools of truth telling and his ability to impose these tools on the world around him, whatever the circumstances.

Though often cited as a logical extension of the detective genre, the CSI television programs actually demonstrate something closer to contempt for the gregarious chatter and human agency so prevalent in crime fiction. Indeed, the CSI formula exhibits a radical faith in science and technology and a corresponding suspicion, even fear, of conventional narration. In a sense, if we are to speak of a narrative, the primary “narrator” in each episode is really the corpse itself, a source that reveals its “tale” as its physical components are processed by a team of scientists with futuristic tools and a distinctly laconic conversational style. The true story of the murder - told as a broken series of often-silent flashbacks - unspools at the speed in which the team can gather the evidence. While we wait, we are treated to stylized portraits of the technology at work. The explanations that suspects and characters themselves offer are usually unreliable, but the flashback is verified as true, needing no explanation. The episode presents a past that is, at last, fully legible to the trained eye. And, at its conclusion, the CSI typically nods his head in approval as the culprit is led away. It is hard to escape the conclusion that the show imagines a future when crimes can be solved as they happen with no need for the complicating variable of human discourse.

Tzvetan Todorov’s characterization of detective fiction as containing “not one but two stories: the story of the crime and the story of the investigation” finds expression in the way the CSI programs dramatize crime solving as distinct from and actually more compelling than the crime itself (44). But in the CSI world, what is revealed is less a “story” than a process. As each piece of the puzzle comes together, as the physical evidence “speaks,” these small narrative pieces that precede and comprise the crime are “locked in,” as it were, marking a certain trajectory of evidence. If, for example, a bloodstain is tied to the DNA of a possible suspect, we at this point see a flashback of the suspect making the stain. These scenes, often with minimal or no dialogue, are usually presented through filtered, gauzy effects (often in slow motion and sometimes with super-saturated colors). We might infer that the stylization is meant to remind us of the speculative nature of the CSI reconstruction, but, with only increasingly rare exceptions, the acted out parts are revealed to be accurate. Less a depiction of fuzzy knowledge than the shadowy birth of an unassailable case, these glimpses of “what really happened” provide an epistemologically pure encounter. The original CSI series has often depicted “false” theories of what happened, but the Miami offshoot, the primary focus of this discussion, has moved ever closer to a model of full transparency between past and present. That is, there are periods of uncertainty throughout the episode, but when pieces fit together, they are presented omnisciently and never revised. The series presents a demonstration that the category of evidence has in this fictional world collapsed into that of proof. The imagined CSI state, which merges the perceived authority of science with the power of the law, transforms the denotative enunciation of evidence (the statement of a case) into self-legitimating truth itself.

From at least the time of Thomas Sprat’s often-cited History of the Royal Society (1667), modern science has expressed ambivalence about language and specifically “eloquence,” favoring what Sprat called the “close, naked” style (113). Sprat asserts that, in seeking truth, Royal Society members commit to “a constant Resolution, to reject all the amplifications, digressions, and swellings of style: to return back to the primitive purity, and shortness, when men deliver’d so many things, almost in equal number of words” (113). Baconian science aimed to “read the book of nature,” not interpret it, and, consequently, practitioners of the new science sought a discourse which eliminated the layered flourishes of euphuistic argument. We might see the CSI phenomenon as an extension of this Enlightenment manner, a fictional illustration of a longed-for world where deceit is no longer possible and where language finds a close, unbreachable connection to the events it seeks to describe. If we know how to look for it, the truth is self-evident. It will, in effect, narrate itself. To be sure, the shows do resonate with a persistent late Enlightenment irony that where knowledge achieves authority, mayhem is sure to follow. And yet the television programs, though they feature scientific elements and processes, are of course entertainments, exploiting but not actually producing “real” scientific rhetoric. Despite CSI: Miami's obvious disapproval of narrative deception, the episodes are themselves fabricated narratives. What, then, are we to make of this zeal for a discourse of pure evidence residing in our popular culture?

Others have taken note of the series’s penchant for gruesome physical details and the uncanny horror of the spectacular deaths that fill the screen. Anthropologist Sue Tait, for example, emphasizes the Foucaultian insight that the show represents a “medical gaze” that gains knowledge by penetrating the body’s surface. Joy Palmer and Rose Lucas find a similar emphasis on bodies and knowledge in the forensic fiction of Patricia Cornwell. My focus is on a related but distinct element, this propensity toward wordlessness. What follows is an argument that poses the CSI phenomenon as just one rather conspicuous example of a contemporary preference for the rhetoric of clean, hard science in places that have traditionally been sites of humanist, interpretive dialogue and debate. What I mean by narrative, as may already be clear, might be more broadly described as the rendering or framing of events with (or through) language. The CSI universe is one without lawyers, juries, or even crafty detectives with hunches. Its appeal is, apparently, its finality, its certainty, and its remove from the inconsistent variables of human discourse. As a consequence, the program emphasizes repeatable and portable methodology that need only be followed, albeit in sometimes ingenious ways. CSI: Miami expresses radical doubt about the value of narrative, with its winding, inefficient, and multi-voiced discourse, exhibiting instead a kind of scientific fundamentalism that replaces a “forensic” debate about the value and weight of evidence with “forensics,” a complete epistemological system. The consequences of this transition, I would suggest, go far beyond the popularity of this particular program.

SCIENCE AND CSI

It is not hard to offer criticisms of the CSI franchise, and my topic here, the Miami spin-off, is perhaps the easiest target of them all. The Miami show offers a modification of the original in that it posits a more complete (and I would say ruthless) dependence on its scientific components, and the program has actually surpassed the original in terms of worldwide popularity. Furthermore, I am not the first to notice the comedy lurking just beneath the most serious surfaces of CSI: Miami. Indeed, the rigid formula of the show’s opening moments invites (even provokes) parody. A popular YouTube video called “Endless Caruso One Liners” simply strings together seven minutes of these moments in which the show’s starring actor, David Caruso, delivers a quip about the evidence before him in his well-known portentous manner (bordering on camp). At my last visit, the video had received over two million hits. The humor comes from what we might ironically call the actor’s deadpan delivery in a seemingly “endless” loop. But I would argue that these openers, which often draw on paradox, puns, or surprise, are the most literary aspect of the show, the only moments where the play of language consistently appears. Here is an example:

Coroner [examining body]: “He died hours before this accident ever happened.”
Caruso: “So our accident…[places glasses on face]…is not an accident at all.”

These lines are descendents of Dirty Harry’s macho zingers or the action movie Schwarzenegger-isms, lines that present the strategic use of language as an appropriate comedic foil for the violence that is all around but not as a tool for redressing that violence. They are comic, I would argue, because they are so secondary and seemingly out of place in the world of physical action.

Whether the humor is intended or not, though, the show quickly settles into a pattern of skepticism toward speech and, more particularly, narrative as a form of knowledge in itself. That is, in CSI: Miami, the stories the characters tell are just a tactical ground against which the real authoritative discourse, materialist science, reveals itself. Even the typical police work of questioning witnesses and interrogating suspects is here disparaged (sometimes explicitly) because of its dependence on reflection and critical re-telling of events from diverse and sometimes conflicting points of view. Many or most cop shows or legal dramas depend on the tension that develops between competing accounts, but the CSI franchise generally dismisses the drama of argument, favoring instead what appears as a more direct access to the truth - not argument, but exposé. In CSI: Miami’s first fifteen minutes, for example, a first suspect almost always appears before the detectives offering a false account of his or her behaviors and motivations. It is in this context of dead end questioning that science appears to literally re-animate the crime scene.

We might describe the CSI methodology as an attempt to extract science from narrative, which is always contextual, bound to specific times and places that can never be wholly represented. As Hayden White: suggests, “narrative is not merely a neutral discursive form…but rather entails ontological and epistemic choices with distinct ideological and even specifically political implications” (ix). Narrative is, from this perspective, a poor or faulty mechanism for delivering information about an event. And, because narrative knowledge requires interpretation, it can only be “read” in terms of analogies and correspondences with other narratives from other times and places. It is, we might say, akin to the difference between history and science. As Fredric Jameson writes, “there is no common denominator between the unique events of [history] and laboratory experiments which one is able to repeat” (359). A unique human event like an individual’s death can only be categorized as “murder,” say, when it is compared to similar events and the written, agonistic legal representations of these events. That is, the meaning of the incident is subject to a hermeneutical operation that necessarily raises the question of how we might read the evidence. But the supremely focused methodology of what Paul Feyerabend calls “law-and-order science” can pretend to provide a pure reading of repeatable material instances, to turn chaotic human events into clear and definitive evidence (19).

There is a rich tradition of taking scientists to task for eliding rhetorical or narrative effects from the picture. One influential take, Jean-Francois Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition, focuses on science as an epistemological mode that promotes its own authority by rejecting its attachment to larger narratives and by questioning even the value of narrative itself as a mode for rendering knowledge: "[The scientist] classifies [narrative statements] as belonging to a different mentality: savage, primitive, underdeveloped, backward, alienated, composed of opinions, customs, authority, prejudice, ignorance, ideology. Narratives are fables, myths, legends, fit only for women and children" (27). We see a similar disdain for unnecessary chatter again and again in the CSI: Miami series where crime solving is transformed into a great masculine science project. When, for example, in a 2007 episode a newer female CSI asks if she can look at the evidence, one of the series regulars, Eric, simply says, “The more you ask, the more we think you can’t do it” (“Going Under”).

And yet, Lyotard points out, despite its best efforts to free itself from the perceived impurities of narrative, science (like anything else) still requires some sort of legitimating narrative, some connection to a larger tale - perhaps a quest for justice or the dream of a technologically-enabled Xanadu. All too often, he suggests, the lever that seemingly frees science from its need to acknowledge this legitimating narrative is, in fact, a subtle transition from denotative, descriptive claims to prescriptive, ordering statements. In a sense, one route to the legitimacy of scientific knowledge is through the grandest narrative of them all, the epic. In Lyotard’s words, “The state spends large amounts of money to enable science to pass itself off as epic: the State’s own credibility is based on that epic, which it uses to obtain the public consent its decision makers need” (28). The CSI programs are neither state-sponsored nor, of course, science, but they certainly play a role in depicting science as the epic discourse of our time. In merging the collection and sorting of evidence with the prosecution of a case, the CSI programs contract the traditionally discrete roles of police, prosecutor, and judge into one heroic, synthesizing role, the CSI, which has no real-world equivalent. It is, of course, a model of efficiency, but it draws its real power from its dismissal of novelistic discourse, if we may borrow from M.M. Bakhtin's The Dialogic Imagination, in favor of a kind of imperial prescription of proof, tautologically justified by its own statements that it is so. In the “Internal Affairs” episode, for example, the CSI confronts a suspect with a statement of fact: “We found a powdery substance on the rubber grip of the gun.” When the suspect looks back blankly, confused, the CSI deftly combines scientific explanation with an assertion of guilt: “It’s a mixture of Micah, iron oxide, and titanium dioxide…it’s blush powder, spilled in your purse.” The names of the obscure chemical components in blush powder prove nothing about whose blush powder is on the gun, but the CSI exploits the authority derived from her mystified discourse to frighten the suspect into a confession of guilt. The suspect can only see herself as subject to the all-seeing gaze of the epic institution of science. Such rhetorical uses of scientific language are commonplace in the CSI franchise; scenes like these happen in every episode of CSI: Miami.

TEXTS AND PROCESS

CSI strives to maintain a patina of scientific method and rigor, and they use scientific discourse to provide credibility. Anthropologist Christopher Toumey refers to this as "conjuring science." The producers of the CSI programs actually pitch the shows as educational, and, at the CBS website, we can find the CSI “handbook,” a descriptive collection of the “Evidence,” “Tools,” and “Procedures” used by real crime scene investigators. The glossary contains scores of graphic definitions of terms (and equally graphic images) from Abrasions, Bromophone, and Cyanosis to Telemetrics, Xylene, and Zygomatic arch. It is a remarkable site, providing an impressive lexicon for would-be crime solvers. But for all this attention to documentation and language, the CSI programs are far more comfortable with matter than texts. Search in vain for a book anywhere near the set of CSI: Miami; the show is almost completely about materials that can be seen and touched. Incidentally, this is another way in which the original CSI differs from its Miami counterpart; that program’s chief CSI, Gil Grissom, is indeed a bookish, academic type. On CSI: Miami even the computer screens have virtually no text, replacing the flashing green cursor of low budget police computers with state-of-the-art, full color imagery from maps to simulations to photographs of potential suspects. The CSI database, like the handbook, is enormous and seemingly without gaps.

What replaces narrative, then, is rigid procedure, a set of repeatable behaviors that follow a prescribed pattern. Dialogue in the CSI series often echoes the rehearsal of this handbook terminology set in a method (and not a narrative). In a sense, it is not dialogue at all, however, because the content of the exchanges is independent of any distinct speaker position (except in terms of the relative expertise of the speaker). Context does not alter text. The various investigators show their training by coming up with the handbook descriptions of correct procedure and correct analysis. Agents regularly test each other about procedures. If one investigator says “the gun residue is on his left hand,” the second investigator says “so he must have used a shotgun, not a handgun.” The characters finish each other’s sentences, providing a single interpretive avenue available to anyone who has done the training. This controlled discursive response is no Bakhtinian polyphony but, rather, a scripting of a single, cohesive way of seeing.

Consider the following exchange between two investigators as an example of CSI: Miami’s unique approach to reading a piece of paper.

Natalia Boa Vista: Is this the waterlogged paper?
Calleigh Duquesne: Yeah. Take a look at this….When you write on a piece of paper, the pigment remains on the surface, but the solvent, it gets absorbed into the fibers.
Natalia Boa Vista: So the water washes away the pigment but not the solvent.
Calleigh Duquesne [nods]: Exactly, but by adding and subtracting different light and filters, we can actually make the solvent reveal itself to us. [Process begins.] Okay, I’m going to go below 400 nanometers. [A completely legible script appears.] (“Going Under”)

The actual meaning of the text itself provides little drama compared to the magic act of making the words appear where they had been invisible. In a similar fashion, each episode foregrounds the discovery of evidence rather than the interpretive act of reading that evidence because, from the CSI perspective, reading is just a form of processing. The series of cases in episode after episode represent challenges to the handbook of procedures which must grow to meet this increasing demand. And, only here, we can glimpse an almost hidden discourse community quietly filling in the missing procedural tools, a parodic facsimile of an academic culture. Natalia says, “Can you get prints from a piece of fruit? It’s not in my research books.” And Eric replies, “Well you’ve got to keep up with your journals, too” (“Going Under”). The technology improves, and the techniques achieve perfection. The CSIs grow more familiar with proper method until all forms of criminal activity are mapped and catalogued.

Later episodes in the series make CSIs themselves suspects (to increase the counterplotting, perhaps) or, as in the example of the waterlogged paper, increase the degree of difficulty by compromising the evidence, plunging it into a canal. But the single-minded efficiency of CSI science makes even the most innovative criminals look like bunglers because the trail of evidence they leave behind is not only perceptible but also completely legible. In these terms, good evidence is even better than a confessing suspect. In the show’s premiere episode, the coroner and the chief CSI joke about asking the corpse questions about an airplane crash that presumably killed the victim, but when the autopsy suddenly reveals a gunshot wound, the coroner says, “he just may have answered your question” (“Golden Parachute”). Indeed, the show’s ethos might be aptly summed up with Lieutenant Caine’s simple formulation that “dead men do tell tales” (“Pirated”), only these “tales” provide just factual evidence through a medium - the physical body - that, being dead, is conveniently shorn of subjectivity.

GLASS AND VISION

In describing the effect of placing evidence within readable schema as “mapping,” we risk obscuring the case, as maps are, in effec,t too textual a metaphor for CSI: Miami. Like GoogleMaps, which has transitioned from maps as signifying markers (representative images) to maps as photographs, the CSI: Miami episodes manifest a similar interest in transparency and emphasis on visual realism. Perhaps the signature image for the show is the glass that fills nearly every frame. Windows, shimmering water, glass surfaces, colored bottles, and even the chief CSI’s famous sunglasses suggest an emphasis on lenses, reflection, and looking. The lens flare is a staple of CSI: Miami’s visual palette. These images of transparency are representations of claritas, the bright truth that shines forth. And, to their credit, the show’s producers provide a visual landscape that is extraordinarily consistent with the show’s ideology. Like the binoculars and microscopes that serve the investigators so well, the show’s cameras present sweeping, panoramic views of Miami as well as stunning, fast-moving CGI simulations of the body’s most hidden regions. Increasingly, the action unfolds in split-screen and multiple screen images, suggesting a spectacle of spontaneity and complete visual access.

This will to transparency might characterize all of the CSI programs, but it has not always been presented with such complete confidence. At its inception, the CSI model was presented with a kind of black humor, a peek into the goings-on of the police department’s graveyard shift. In the very first scene of the original CSI: Crime Scene Investigations program, for example, a new recruit steps into the chief CSI’s work area and visually inspects an incredible assortment of frightening specimens encased in glass jars and bottles (“Pilot”). The scene is played for its resonance with familiar gothic horror. The recruit steps nervously into a laboratory, noting the ghoulish materials and peering suspiciously into unknown chambers. The chief CSI, Gil Grissom, asks for her blood (a sample), and she later screams when she finds herself trapped in a cooler filled with corpses. The contrast with what CSI: Miami has become is distinct. Where the original program (in its earliest incarnation) presents the forensic work as something akin to occult knowledge, the Miami series represents a triumph of this new style of scientific police work. CSI: Miami presents its laboratories and its chambers in bright daylight, gleaming with a luster once reserved for advertisements for soap and dental products.

CONCLUSION

Who can say what the global audience of two billion viewers (in over 200 countries) actually does with the shows? We cannot infer that viewers of CSI: Miami simply absorb the show’s ideology without recognizing or responding to its fictional portrayals, nor is this an argument designed to dispel the pretense of realism in CSI: Miami, for even the most devoted fan must see the programs as stylized fantasy, as an exaggerated wish fulfillment. Surely, for some, the show’s popularity derives from the acute ironic pleasure of witnessing a supremely efficient institutional effort and the team’s clean mastery of complex human situations. And one reason that the program de-emphasizes language and interpretation is, of course, the banal explanation that much of the audience for the show is not English speaking. There is less to dub when there is less said.

Not all police procedurals from this period aspire to a vision of crime as a purely physical act, with purely physical contexts. HBO’s acclaimed urban drama, The Wire, is similarly drawn to technology, and the wiretaps that give the series its name provide verifiable evidence of criminal misdeeds. But the evidence of The Wire is evidence of conversation, of language codes, personal information, and, often, emotion. And, even when the objective knowledge is enough to build a case, texts - piles of affidavits, reports, and supporting papers - are needed to establish the wire as within the legal guidelines. From there, intimidated witnesses and mediocre police, legal, and judicial support can leave the fate of a case in question. Certainly, some unassailable physical evidence (of murders, crime, and drug use) is established, but the human “truths” that cause and result from this violence are embedded in complex, individual narratives that are not as easily processed. Even the contemporary Fox program 24, with its emphasis on torture and coercive techniques, still retains this residue of belief that the mind holds something of value, that the subject can yield insights beyond the object. But CSI does not explore the subjectivity of its victims or suspects. The Wire is routinely described as “novelistic” and having “the feel of great literature” (Barney), but we would sooner describe CSI: Miami as a recipe than a novel.

CSI’s creator, Anthony Zuiker, who has noted that the series’ popularity mushroomed after 9/11, offers a glimpse of the worldview the show engenders when he calls the site of the 9/11 attacks “the world’s largest crime scene” (Adams). The CSI phenomenon provides what Zuiker describes as “comfort food” for a world in crisis, a stylish arena for the processing of suspicious and mixed elements into strictly separated categories of good and evil. We might think of CSI: Miami as a kind of anti-noir, an unambiguous and bright portrayal of truths that emerge from darkness, revealing a single source of malice and vindicating the work of not one or two assiduous detectives, but an entire police unit.

The United States government’s Total Information Awareness Program (launched in May of 2003, but later renamed “Terrorist Information Awareness”) revealed a similarly styled informational epic, in which technology’s boundless registers would outpace the tangled narrations of citizens and terrorists. That the program was shut down in the wake of its exposure by the press is encouraging, perhaps, but the mere existence of a Defense Department agency represented by Bacon’s Latin phrase, Scientia est Potentia (“knowledge is power”) should give us pause. The program’s logo featured a disembodied eye atop a pyramid, glaring down at the world (with its brightest rays shining on the Middle East).

And though the program’s goals may now be pursued in unseen corridors and government offices, its ethos is recognizable in some of our favorite things. Indeed, a similar dialectical interplay between imagining chaos and representing order finds its place in the CSI: Miami template, as a corresponding fascination with the lives of others gives way to the suspicion that all these “stories” might be better understood as threats to an ordered and just society. When told by another CSI that, “In our world, you can’t trust anyone,” CSI: Miami’s Horatio Caine simply states, “I would agree” (“Going Under”).


Works Cited

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CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. CBS Official Website. CSI Handbook. CBS. 23 June 2007 <http://www.cbs.com/primetime/csi/handbook/>.

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Feyerabend, Paul. Against Method. 3rd ed. London: Verso Press, 1993.

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Sprat, Thomas. The History of the Royal Society. 1767 ed. Jackson I. Cope and Harold Whitmore Jones, eds. Saint Louis: Washington University Studies, 1958.

Tait, Sue. “Autoptic Vision and the Necrophilic Imaginary in CSI.” International Journal of Cultural Studies 9:1 (2006): 45-62.

Todorov, Tzvetan. The Poetics of Prose. Trans. Richard Howard. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1977.

Toobin, Jeffrey. “The CSI Effect.” The New Yorker. 7 May 2007.

Toumey, Christopher. Conjuring Science: Scientific Symbols and Cultural Meanings in American Life. Rutgers UP, 1996.

White, Hayden. The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1987.

 
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