CSI, Camp, and the Dehumanization of the Crime Drama
by Adam Miller
Susan Sontag claims that “the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.” The essence of CSI strikes me as similar. Every week it invests itself in the explaining of unnatural deaths, celebrating the minutiae of its forensic equipment and vocabulary while simultaneously wowing viewers with its over-the-top photography (most notably the famous “CSI-shot”). But the Camp aesthetics of CSI—which I will go on to enumerate—seem to dissonate with the show’s content—literally life and death. Central to this dissonance is the human body (usually dead) itself. On the one hand, the image of the corpse should signify, quite literally, the Barthesian notion of “that-has-been”—human life which is no more. But that significance is undermined by the body’s role as object of study.
CSI concerns itself with the anatomical, not historical, body. This reification of the body, combined with the stylistic flourishes of the show’s production, constitute what I argue to be one of the most popular—the show culls over twenty million viewers—pieces of Camp in mainstream American cinema. In question is what effect such a popular piece of Camp has on mainstream American television viewers. Is the purely aesthetic/scientific treatment of bodies completely accepted or is there a desire among viewers for a more rounded, humanistic approach to the crime drama?
CSI renders the body a Camp object in three ways, each to be considered here in turn. First, the body is viewed pornographically, especially by way of the all-intrusive “CSI-shot.” Second, the history, psychology, and motive of (once) living characters is dehumanized or at least made subject to the finding-of-guilt of the crime at hand. Third, the scientific “way of seeing” insists upon an understanding of humans through scrutiny of the tangible detail rather than the polysemous potentials of human thought and behavior. I will analyze each in turn.
In their essay “The Pornographic Aesthetic and the Search for Truth in CSI,” authors Elke Weissman and Karen Boyle argue that CSI is strongly reminiscent of pornography in that one of its central directives is “making the evidence of the body visible.” CSI does this, famously, via the “CSI-shot” in which, through the aid of computer graphics, the camera penetrates the body to depict a re-enactment of the victim’s mortal wounding. Weissman and Boyle find the CSI-shot analogous to pornography’s “money shot,” the moment of male (and, implicitly female) ejaculation. There is an obvious twist, however, to the CSI-shot as pornographic aesthetic, in that in CSI “the context is the investigation of crime rather than pleasure.” The absence of (sexual) pleasure from an otherwise pornographic experience recalls a passage from Sontag. Early in her treatise, she lists Tiffany lamps, Flash Gordon comics, and Swan Lake as examples of Camp, but she concludes her list with the qualitatively phrased “stag films seen without lust.” Not only is pleasure not the focus of the CSI investigations, lust in general (male, heterosexual lust, anyway) is not, according to Weissman and Boyle, integral to the show. The authors point out that 60 percent of the famed CSI-shots focus on the male body, and just as often the crimes are investigated by an all-male CSI team (95).
Further enforcing this lack of traditional, male-gaze lust, CSI noticeably obscures the sex of its bodies in the morgue either with lighting or cloth sheets. The sex is identified verbally, but not visually—the decay of the corpse, or its outright dissection by the scientists, erodes the effeminate or masculine marks of the body. The body thus also conforms to another of Sontag’s tenets of Camp, which is that the androgyne is “one of the greatest images of Camp sensibility.” The androgyny of the corpse leaves even the heterosexual male necrophiliac wanting. Instead, as much as possible, CSI renders the corpse as a body of evidence only. Despite its noted pornographic aesthetics, sexuality—that component of humanity which seems to occupy just about every other show on television—is clearly not one of CSI’s hallmarks.
Aside from the androgyny of the corpse, CSI also dehumanizes its bodies (living and not) by downplaying their pursuits outside the realm of the crime scene investigation. The “life” of the corpse, for example, is discussed only so far as that life pertains to the circumstances of the crime—or, more frankly, only so far as that life pertains to its moment of death. For example, in the season seven episode “Post-Mortem,” an elderly woman is murdered. The episode informs us that she is a severe alcoholic and is addicted to pain killers—both tragic component’s of a life story (see: James Frey). But this information is only related because it suggests possible means of murder (poisoning of her alcohol) and motive (drug dealers after her prescription painkillers). These glimpses as to the “life” of the murder victim are subject to the investigation of her death—they are rendered not as lived experience, but rather as pieces of evidence. The victim’s history is reified; turned into a “thing” the significance of which does not extend beyond its relevance to the investigation.
The lives of the CSIs are likewise made subject to the investigation. Each CSI is defined primarily by his or her function and specialty—everything from ballistics to hair & fiber analysis to forensic entomology—in short, the way in which they contribute to the investigation. They are investigators, agents, but they are also depicted as tools of the greater project of the investigation. That said each CSI has a distinct personality and “back story.” One is a former showgirl, another was molested as a child, and still two more are recently engaged. But these human dramas are only sprinkled in occasionally and often only in relation to a particular murder. So the investigation and analysis of the death of a child might spur mention of one character’s own history with child abuse, but always the CSI must “conquer” their personal demons lest they interfere with the scientific work; the investigation comes first.
I have made repeated mention of the “investigation” as the driving force of every episode which subsequently devalues “human” elements like sexuality and life history in exchange for science. The nature of this investigation is, returning again to Sontag, an aesthetic one. It emphasizes the collection of evidence—things—over the navigation of human intangibles like thought and emotion. The killer’s motive, as a common example, is usually irrelevant to the “investigation.” Such human psychology cannot be “seen” in the same way that physical evidence can. To this point, an exception helps to prove the rule.
The season seven “Miniature Killer” plot arc seems to suggest an alternative to the usual CSI formula. It is a multi-episode case involving a serial killer who repeatedly outsmarts the CSIs best scientific and investigative techniques. In addition, the arc’s conclusion spends a great deal of on-screen time with the killer informing the viewer about her sordid childhood as a possible psychological motive for her killings. As I have stated, rarely does the show invest so much attention in the biography of its culprit. But this attention, like the occasional taste of backstory from the CSIs’ lives, is overshadowed by the show’s fascination with elaborate miniatures of crime scenes created by the killer. Sontag writes that the way of Camp is “in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylization.” If so, the Miniature Killer has Camp in spades. The detail of her creations become increasingly precise—even to the point of featuring a miniature body complete with miniature lungs! Pointedly, lead CSI Gil Grissom, in order “to get inside the killer’s head,” begins creating miniatures of his own. The aesthetics of the object—and specifically of the artifice, the construction of the object—are the gateway to the understanding of the person.
The Miniature Killer takes this object-as-gateway-to-person to an extreme, but its premise is echoed in the more mundane murder episodes as well. The dead body serves as the gateway to understanding—it need only be read with the proper scientific method. The body tells a story, not of the victim’s life, but of his death. The job of the CSI is not to deconstruct this story—an act which would bring a deep ambivalence to “meaning,” the kind of ambivalence created by human emotion, history, and motive—but rather to reconstruct; to rebuild the crime’s reality. This reality, though exact, is not comprehensive. The CSIs must reconstruct only the minimum of the reality—only the tangible surface of the reality, the things of the reality, the details of the reality—to establish guilt or innocence.
In summary, the attention to detail, to surface (however microscopic), and to the body as object rather than (ex)living vessel amount to a philosophy not too far different from Sontag’s Camp aesthetic—also concerned with surface and style rather than content. Sontag writes that “in naïve or pure Camp, the essential element is seriousness, a seriousness which fails.” Certainly the content of CSI—life and death—is of utmost “seriousness,” but this seriousness is undermined by its unwavering dedication to cold, hard science; almost no death is too gruesome for the hardened members of the investigative team, and certainly no death is too gruesome for the enterprise of the investigation, science, on the whole. Thus we might conclude in short that, in the CSI aesthetic, history is rendered science; human is rendered body. In both cases the intangible aspects of narrative and motive are dismissed in favor of the thing.
In light of these observations, it stands to question whether the television viewer is one, aware of the Camp aspects of CSI, and two, accepts them or—in Stuart Hall’s terms—“negotiates” them. One particular sub-group of the CSI fan base is comprised of “fan fiction” writers. These individuals write their own CSI scripts, often satisfying what “they think” would be a watchable episode. According to my logic, a faithful reproduction of the CSI aesthetic would be as formulaic as the show itself, yet in a review of the fan fiction literature, I find that much of the content focuses not on the science, but on the characters and their relationships to one another. There may be several reasons for this. The first is the historical moment of the show. A beloved character, Sara Sidle (played by Jorja Fox) has left the show indefinitely despite her character’s recent engagement to CSI protagonist Gil Grissom. Much of the recent fan fiction focuses on this relationship or the effect of Sara’s absence on the team. One fan episode, “she will be back,” spends dozens of pages describing the relationship between Sara and Grissom—including the minutiae of their boudoir—meanwhile the actual science and investigation of actual CSI episodes is conspicuously absent.
There are some fictions dedicated to “actual” murders, to be sure, but a survey of the abstracts from several points in away from the show’s normal routine to the kind of “very special” episode which deals directly with the characters’ personal lives:
Sara thought she could escape her stalker by going to work, but now, he's in her dreams. Can she trust her team to help save her, or will they be too late?
Days & nights spent with NickOC, CatherineWarrick, SaraGreg as they struggle through the death of someone special to all of them. Nick learns a lesson in love when he falls in love with a C.S.I. from New York, who has a terrible secret of her own.
Catherine goes undercover as a stripper and asks Nick to be her bodyguard.
Of all the stories on the first page of FanFiction’s CSI archive, only one is defined by the actual murder CSI investigates: “A soap mummy surrounded by thousands in gold bullion is found at the bottom of a well. Warrick finds the evidence leads to a simple but strange twist of fate. This is the first time I've focused on Warrick, so this could be interesting.” The rest express the sentiments described above. Note the explicit desire for love and sexuality from the fans and the emphasis on the team acting as an interrelationship of its various members. There is even a message board jargon to indicate which CSI relationship will be focused on (such as “GSR” for Gil-Sara-Romance).
The conclusion I reach from this albeit brief survey is that, for the fan fiction at least, the absence of full, erotic human relationships in CSI proper creates a demand for such content in the viewers. Admittedly, the fan fiction community—arguably Campy itself—probably does not represent the “mainstream” CSI viewer. One can only assume that these fans derive pleasure from watching their detectives solve crimes, but that there is such a community and that its almost sole focus is on sexuality and relationships of living characters (rather than corpses), speaks to the television audience’s desire to see more than CSI’s “dead” investigations. CSI’s defining aesthetic does not satisfy all the viewer’s desires, and the fan fiction community represents the manifestation of some viewers’ “negotiation” of this aesthetic.
Harriss, Chandler. “Policing Propp: Toward a Textualist Definition of the Procedural Drama.” Journal of Film and Video 60, No. 1, (Spring 2008): 43 – 59.
Malcolm, Jody. “Horatio: The First CSI.” Almost Shakespeare: Reinventing His Works for Cinema and Television. Editor James Keller. Jefferson, McFarland and Company: 2004.
CSI FanFiction Archive. < http://www.fanfiction.net/tv/CSI/> Accessed April 14, 2008.
Mizejewski, Linda. “Dressed to Kill: Postfeminist Noir.” Cinema Journal 44, No. 2, (Winter 2005): 121-127.
Sontag, Susan. “Notes on Camp.” From A Susan Sontag Reader. New York, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux: 1982.
Weissmann, Elke and Karen Boyle. “Evidence of Things Unseen: The Pornographic Aesthetic and the Search for Truth in CSI.” Reading CSI: Crime TV Under the Microscope. Editor Michael Allen. London, I.B. Tauris: 2007.