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Friday, April 18, 2008

CSI as anthropology

In response to Mark's comment about how CSI: is different from Law & Order in its treatment of evidence, I have a big admission to make. I think CSI: is the great science fiction show of our time. The evidence for my case is as follows.

1. The show takes place in Las Vegas, but it's shot as though it's an alternative universe where everything is neon or otherwise spookily or sleazily lit in blues and harsh pinks, like a Joel Schumacher movie from the mid-1990s (Flatliners, I'm looking at you because you are my guilty pleasure; Batman & Robin has the same lighting design and it's embarrassing).

2. I'm going to get to the silliness of the evidence-processing techniques in a second, but first I want to point out that in this lurid alternative universe, computer screens also display the most user-friendly and cross-linked databases ever imagined.

3. Mark's point about television audiences extrapolating too much from CSI: to real courtrooms was explored by Jeffrey Toobin in this New Yorker article last year. Television viewers' (and potential jurors') misguided beliefs about evidence and scientific testing are frustrating, but I'm going to argue that CSI:'s mind-boggling leaps in hard science are done in the service of the show's real interest in anthropology and ethnography. The sureness with which they coordinate information from COTUS, DNA tests, fingerprint tests, and the DMV databases are laughable, but I think they're laughable in a sci-fi-space-show-loosely-interprets-issues-of-gravity-and-sound-traveling-in-space kind of way. The show's writers stabilize evidence collection and comparison so they can do some cool stuff with figuring out how the CSIs know what they know when they're investigating groups with their own weird sets of knowledge bases and conventions for behavior. The whiz-bang DNA testing is a sideshow--a pinning down of knowns--for them to investigate unknowns in the neon-lit realms of unknowable human behavior.

4. The Vegas locale gives them leeway to do a lot of ethnographic observation on how subcultures establish alternative codes of behavior, interaction, and rituals--which often end in death. Because it's Vegas, there are always conventions for these subcultures: for little people, word game enthusiasts, gamblers who rely on probabilistic thinking which may seem alien to non-gamblers, and so on. The show often structures its stories on getting inside the ways of knowing that different subcultures generate--whether they're visiting Vegas or have taken advantage of the sprawl and fast growth of the city to create enclaves. There have been interesting episodes about magicians, vampire wannabes, Gilbert and Sullivan enthusiasts, horror-porn movie-makers, Cirque du Soleil performers, adventure sports practioners, narcocorridos fans, swingers, and lusty developers. In each of these episodes, the CSIs had to figure out how to interpret the artifacts of the procedures these subcultures perform in their rituals: secret trap doors in the magic chambers, evidence of frequent blood tests for the vampirists, genre conventions of horror-porn films, doctored maps for extreme hikers, connections between real-life events and song lyrics in narcocorridos, codes of conduct for swingers' parties, and falsified site maps that developers try to pass off as real.

The show has a fixation on strippers and fetishists. The fetishists, oddly enough, are often the limit case for the CSIs to investigate how they know what they know about bodies. I'm thinking of the episode when they find a murdered dominatrix and at first think she's been routinely tortured; they later realize that the scars from whip lashings are, well, artifacts of one subculture's codes of practice.

5. The investigators have their own methods of evidence retrieval and analysis to match up with the subcultures under study, so the shows are often about competing forms of procedure. These procedures are fetishized on the show as zoom-ins on fingerprint powder brushes, blood-spatters, and recreations of crime scenes. The artifacts of these investigative procedures have to their own aura of sureness because they are what's measuring the other artifacts. The genres of science fiction and crime procedural match up well for this reason.

Furthermore, as Ben has pointed out in this post about Doris Lessing and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, ethnography and science fiction match up well, too, as we see in Gulliver's Travels. My stepfather, a huge fan of the science fiction author Jack Vance, has always insisted that Vance's short story "The Moon-Moth" should be assigned in anthropology classes. The story is about a bureaucrat on another planet who's sent to foreign city to observe and enforce some order; he wants to mimic the other culture's social practices so he can fit in, but he comes to realize that decoding behavior is more difficult than he thinks. Early in the story, the protagonist, Thissell, reads from the Journal of Universal Anthropology to understand the Sirenese cultural practice for wearing masks. The Journal entry reads:
Masks are worn at all times, in accordance with the philosophy that a man should not be compelled to use a similitude foisted upon him by factors beyond his control; that he should be at liberty to choose that semblance most consonant with his strakh. In the civilized areas of Sirene--which is to say the Titanic littoral--a man literally never shows his face; it is his basic secret.

Vance must be making a joke here in that title of "universal anthropology," for compare it to a few paragraphs on the problems of universalizing comparisons in Franz Boas's Methods of Cultural Anthropology:
The use of masks is found among a great number of peoples. The origin of the custom of wearing masks is by no means clear in all cases, but a few typical forms of their use may easily be distinguished. They are used for deceiving spirits as to the identity of the wearer. The spirit of a disease who intends to attack the person does not recognize him when he wears a mask, and the mask serves in this manner as a protection. In other cases the mask represents a spirit which is personified by the wearer, who in this shape frightens away other hostile spirits. Still other masks are commemorative. The wearer personifies a deceased person whose memory is to be recalled. Masks are also used in theatrical performances illustrating mythological incidents.

These few data suffice to show that the same ethnical phenomenon may develop from different sources. The simpler the observed fact, the more likely it is that it may have developed from one source here, from another there.

Thus we recognize that the fundamental assumption which is so often made by modern anthropologists cannot be accepted as true in all cases. We cannot say that he occurrence of the same phenomenon is always due to the same causes, and that thus it is proved that the human mind obeys the same laws everywhere. We must demand that he causes from which it developed be investigated and that comparisons be restricted to those phenomena which have been proved to be effects of the same causes. We must insist that this investigation be made a preliminary to all extended comparative studies. In researches on tribal societies those which have developed by association must be treated separately from those that have developed through disintegration. Geometrical designs which have arisen from conventionalized representations of natural objects must be treated separately from those that have arisen from technical motives. In short, before extend comparisons are made, the comparability of the material must be proved.

In much the same way that Ursula LeGuin's work is informed by her reading of anthropology--her father was Alfred Kroeber--Vance's story seems to be in direct conversation with Boas. Indeed, he learns his lesson about the problems of comparing his own ideas about masks-as-markers with the Sirenese manipulations of that cultural practice later in the story. Even at the beginning of the story, the comparison problem is foreshadowed to be a problem for him:
Rolver threw up his hands, stepped back. "Your mask," he cried huskily. "Where is your mask?"
Thissell held it up rather self-consciously. "I wasn't sure--"
"Put it on," said Rolver, turning away. He himself wore a fabrication of dull green scales, blue-lacquered wood. Black quills protruded at the cheeks, and under his chin hung a black-and-white-checked pompom, the total effect creating a sense of sardonic supple personality.
Thissell adjusted the mask to his face, undecided whether to make a joke about the situation or to maintain a reserve suitable to the dignity of his post.
"Are you masked?" Rolver inquired over his shoulder.
Thissell replied in the affirmative and Rolver turned. The mask hid the expression of his face, but his hand unconsciously flicked a set of keys strapped to his thigh. The instrument sounded a trill of shock and polite consternation. "You can't wear that mask!" sang Rolver. "In fact--how, where, did you get it?"
"It's copied from a mask owned by the Polypolis museum," Thissell declared stiffly. "I'm sure it's authentic."
Rolver nodded, his own mask seeming more sardonic than ever. "It's authentic enough. It's a variant of the type known as the Sea Dragon Conqueror, and is won on ceremonial occasion by persons of enormous prestige: princes, heroes, master craftsmen, great musicians."
"I wasn't aware--"
Rolver made a gesture of languid understanding. "It's something you'll learn in due course. Notice my mask. Today I'm wearing a Tarn Bird. Persons of minimal prestige--such as you and I, any other out-worlder--wear this sort of thing."
"Odd," said Thissell, as they started across the field toward a low concrete blockhouse. "I assumed that a person wore whatever he liked."
"Certainly," said Rolver. "Wear any mask you like--if you can make it stick. This Tarn Bird, for instance. I wear it to indicate that I presume nothing. I make no claims to wisdom, ferocity, versatility, musicianship, truculence, or any of a dozen other Sirenese virtues."

Presuming nothing is the problem on which the story turns.

So here's to you, CSI:, for somehow managing to not only call into question how your investigators know what they know, but also to convince juries that one shouldn't call into question those same procedures in real life.

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