CSI’s State of Denial

Curator's Note

In this scene from CSI's "A Bullet Runs Through It," Grissom makes his oft-repeated denial by saying that he is not a police officer but is instead a scientist. I have found this stance interesting since the claim was first made seven years ago during the program’s two-part pilot episode. Louis Althusser (1969) tells us that the Repressive State Apparatus (RSA) is comprised of the government, military, police, courts, prisons etc. More importantly, Althusser says that the RSA is a unified public institution that functions via violence or threat of violence. Science, on the other hand, would seem to be part of what Althusser refers to as Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs). ISAs are not unified and may be either public or private institutions that function ideologically rather than violently. Grissom’s denial tells viewers that the CSIs are non-violent and independent of the RSA. For me, like the citizen in the scene, this consistent denial is a bit of smoke and mirrors; after all, CSIs are issued guns and badges. In effect, this scene illustrates how the RSA can use the dominant discourses associated with certain ISAs, like education, to mask the genesis of its power. In the CSI world, the RSA no longer functions primarily via violence or threat of violence but instead wields its power via knowledge or threat of knowledge. How might CSI's depiction reflect or reconstruct viewers’ understandings of the modern American State? Do viewers tend to agree with Grissom's distinction or are they more like the citizen in the scene?


Wow -- this is a really compelling scene, Chad. It seems to me a useful enactment of the transition in the understanding of power from the Althusserian model of the state apparatus, whether repressive or ideological, to Foucault's notion of power/knowledge, in which the specialist discourses of scientists and bureaucrats wield as much if not more control over subjects as do any state apparatus. This becomes particularly visible around the exchange with the woman in the audience, who asks "why should we believe your evidence?" Grissom's only response -- which compels us, as good post-Enlightenment subjects -- is effectively "because it's true!" "Physical evidence," he says, "cannot be wrong. It doesn't lie." And perhaps not. But he's already sped past his initial self-awareness, that as a CSI, it's his job to "identify, collect, and examine the evidence" -- and so he as a scientist is in control of what gets counted as evidence, and thus what gets counted as truth. The affiliation of that power/knowledge with the state apparatus might well be cause for alarm, but honestly, I worry less about viewers' identifications with the state apparatus (what Pynchon refers to in Vineland as "cops-are-only-human-got-to-do-their-job") than I am with the ways that scientific knowledge as a singular source of Truth goes unquestioned...

What's most interesting to me is that the scene takes place in a church, with Grissom saying "I'm here... in God's house... to explain to you the truth." I haven't seen the rest of the episode so I don't know how it might play out, but it seems indicative of CSI's typical slippages to have the place of faith serve as the underlying reinforcement in reason & rationality, another ISA buttress to the core RSA. The show regularly slips between a CSI's role as supporting police to becoming investigators themselves. Everything I know about police functionality comes from crime fiction/TV, but I have never seen any other instance of forensic investigators conducting interviews with suspects & witnesses - on this show, it often seems like the detectives are the functionaries that carry out the insights of the CSIs, not the other way around. Since the crime procedural has always asserted authenticity as one of its primary badges of quality, it has seemed odd to me that the role of the CSI is so inflated via the very mechanisms of "truth" and "accuracy" that would seem to be contradicted by actual investigative staffing - or at least how other "authentic" crime dramas present them!

Great scene and thoughts, Chad. I agree with Kathleen that there's a definite Foucaultian sense of power/knowledge at work throughout CSI. The microscopic and often intrusive methods of forensic science (e.g., all those DNA samples swabbed from suspects' bodily fluids, etc.) work to construct the physical world as (Grissom's) "Truth," i.e., the Truth in the eyes of the State/RSA, literalized here by Grissom's mention of the mayor and sheriff, and the presence of his colleague Ecklie. It's also significant that he makes these claims in a church, "God's house," as he says, suggesting that physical evidence is also a kind of religious (in this case, Christian/Catholic) Truth, and eliding the difference between himself, the State authorities, and God. These days, I worry a lot more about citations of God (in whatever form) as a kind of seal of Truth, than I do about the truth discourse of scientific knowledge!

These days, I worry a lot more about citations of God (in whatever form) as a kind of seal of Truth, than I do about the truth discourse of scientific knowledge! Good point, Derek. As soon as I hit "post," I thought, you know, creationists, or even the "global warming doesn't exist" folks might agree with you here. So clearly I don't want to throw all empiricism out with the power/knowledge bathwater. But I am always curious about the ways that the empirical comes to dominate our ways of ordering knowledge at the expense of other, more subjective modes of understanding. (Which you might guess, given the ways my comments this week keep coming back to that point!)

Jason, I agree that CSI is probably one of the least authentic procedurals ever to grace the small screen. The lack of authenticity has fueled a personal interest in the notion that a CSI Effect exists where "real" jurors expect "real" prosecutors to provide scientific certainty rather than simply eliminating reasonable doubt. In order to buy into the notion that this Effect is valid, then we must assume that viewers see the program as authentic and deny the inauthentic aspects like autopsies performed in dark rooms or the interrogations performed by forensic scientists. More importantly, the idea that CSI is the cause rather than a cause points to the issues that Kathleen raises regarding the way that science dominates the way we order knowledge. Empirical thinking too often oversimplifies complex questions like the ones that underlie the CSI Effect itself. By saying this I don't mean to imply that empiricism is without merit, but I would say that the move toward science certainly pre-dates this program and the discussion should not revolve solely around the way that one TV program or genre has changed the way that American society views science.

Regarding the CSI Effect, and the show's empirical claims, it's interesting to note the uneasy relationship between its ostensible authenticity and its dramatic license. Loads of publicity around the series (including on the DVD sets) highlight its use of "real" methods and technologies...and then back off these claims by pointing out how things are "enhanced" (I'm paraphrasing; this is the general gist) for TV narrative. Sometimes generally supportive critics (including more than a few "real" CSIs, some of whom who've served as technical advisors) blast or mock its methods and narrative devices (e.g., CSIs interrogating suspects, AFIS searches coming up in seconds, etc.), while still admiring its forensic ideology.

The issues of reality and power are indeed linked here. What bothers me most is that we seem to accept truth in the name of science without questioning its "reality." For the most part, we are content to accept the mediation of the scientists to help us understand our increasingly complex world of specialists and technology. These are seen as the ultimate authority, and rule unchallenged as a result. I can't help thinking that we are back in the Middle Ages when the priest delivered from his pulpit the Church's pre-digested version of the world. The difference is that now scientists are the ones occupying the pulpit and have traded Latin and God for technology and Science. In any case, we are back to having a small group who wields the power to create our everyday reality.

I just wanted to thank everyone for their thoughtful and insightful comments today. I think Eva has brought us back around to Althusser by noting that in different epochs different ISAs tend to dominate the discourse. In the middle ages, the religious ISA demonstrated the most power within many societies whereas today education arguably occupies this position (although communication may wield even more power and we cannot divorce CSI from this ISA either). More importantly though, when a particular ISA is revered by the populace then the RSA may, and often will, attempt to co-opt that ISA to help reinforce or alter its own image. It seems to me that if we can identify where the ISAs and the RSA intersect, then we've found a good starting point for a number of discussions--like those we've had here today.

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