Communication Currents

Communicating the Safety of a Transparent Social World

December 1, 2013
General Communication Studies

Forensic dramas maintain their popularity thirteen years after the first season of CSI aired on CBS. These dramas are important in understanding cultural beliefs about crime and policing, but they reveal much more than this. Forensic dramas reveal cultural anxieties and fantasies about social risk and social trust, both of which have implications for how we view the social world and our place in it, how we behave and interact with others in social spaces, the information we are willing to share, and the procedures and techniques to which we are willing to subject ourselves.

The Fox drama Bones exemplifies many of the most commented upon characteristics of forensic drama (a focus on the body and the evidence of the crime scene along with a focus on technology and the science of crime investigation). The show features the forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan and FBI Agent Seely Booth as they work together to solve crimes where the remains of the victim are so damaged the bones must be examined to unravel the mystery. Bones, like other forensic dramas, presents a justice system that is perfectly rational, unbiased, and certain. It is a criminal justice system in which only those deserving of punishment are punished and no criminal activity goes unpunished.

Faith in the objectivity of visual mediation (i.e., representations of the material world that are visual in nature, such as photographs, digital images, and visualizations created by scientific imaging technologies like electron microscopes) is essential to the presentation of such a system. There are numerous visualization devices on Bones, but those highlighted are the lab’s digital imaging technologies that open the material world to view. The representation of evidence on Bones, and forensic drama generally, is underlain by a faith in the objectivity of mediation and the unity of appearance and reality.

Accordingly, images on Bones function as objects of truth. This effect is achieved in two ways. First, digital images that resemble the object they depict, despite their manipulability, operate on Bonesas if they were photographic; that is, unless proven otherwise, it is assumed that the images are true representations of the world. Second, some images of crime-scene material (cloth fibers, dirt, liquid, etc.) do not resemble their objects but represent a heightened, though mediated, empiricism; the form of representation—complex graphs that show the chemical composition of the object—is indicative of the natural world and its codification through scientific investigation.

Along with these appeals to empiricism and objectivity, many episodes feature the fantastic manipulation of images to help solve cases. As such, Bones presents an ambivalent visual logic that skips over the manipulation (technological and discursive) required to produce ostensibly objective images while also offering this manipulability as an aspect of forensic certitude.

 Bones and other forensic dramas fulfill a desire for a justice system that is unbiased and certain, and it has been noted, imply a handing over of judicial responsibility to technology. Yet what Bones and other forensic dramas never show are the vulnerabilities of digital media and the critical role of humans in building and calibrating these technologies.           

Social Transparency and Surveillance 

More broadly, forensic dramas reflect a cultural desire for a transparent, hence less risky, social world and a turn to technology as arbiter of social risk. On Bones this is pursued via technologies and techniques applied to bodies. The techniques of mediating bodies are prioritized because bodies are seen as the source of risk (i.e., crime) and making bodies transparent, the logic goes, reveals the truth of their riskiness.

One fantasy to which the series appeals (i.e., the character of others is revealed by their bodies) was popular in late-eighteenth and early nineteenth-century culture and was underlain by a belief in physiognomy and phrenology (sciences that sought to determine a person’s character by examining the features of her face or the bumps on her head). This logic has been reinvigorated and operates in real-world spaces with renewed influence due to newly enabled techniques--functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI)--that purport to map aspects of character and personality to images of the working brain.

Techniques that display and apply physiognomic rationality to the body’s interior are now being advocated as technologies of policing in airports, schools, and as an element of adjudication in the courtroom. This is evident in calls for social and political applications of neuroscience, the Defense Department’s investment in ‘brainotyping’ to identify potential terrorists, the use of fMRI technologies by scientists to identify markers of personality, and the deployment of body scanners and biometric devices in U.S. airports, schools, and other spaces. 

Bones highlights onscreen the logic, technologies, and visualizing techniques that are being incorporated offscreen in social and institutional spaces. These technologies and techniques open the body to new fields of rationality creating new forms of body-based surveillance and social ordering. Bones, and forensic drama generally, reflects a reinvigorated ideal of a transparent social world and an attendant justice system where guilt and innocence are certain. The ideals of transparency and certainty are linked through physiognomic discourses and nineteenth-century sentimental logic, rehabilitated as high-tech scientific policing. The convergence of new technology and physiognomic rationality implies a social order where surveillance is privileged, the justice system is mechanized, and body-based modes of policing and social sorting operate under the guise of scientific governance.

The presumed objectivity of techno-science underlies the faith in the techniques highlighted on Bones and those being advocated offscreen, but as many scholars have shown, scientific criminology and the technology on which it relies have not been, nor are they currently, value free. The slick graphics and cool gadgets of the show reflect a view of technology as inherently distinct from human bias even though the hardware and software essential to the technologies themselves and the techniques they enable are designed by human intelligence and informed by human interests.

Our participation in the techniques highlighted on Bones is likely to continue as they promise a justice system of certainty free of human bias and a transparent, less risky, social world. These techniques go beyond criminal justice and are being incorporated into new regimes of self-knowledge and self-monitoring, and are increasingly linked to the availability of resources, the right of movement across borders, and a host of other liberties.

About the author (s)

Shannon Kahle

Montgomery College

Research Analyst