Volume IX, Number 2, Fall 2013

"Autopsy and/as ‘Différance’ – CSI's Ekphrastic Bodies" by David Levente Palatinus

David Levente Palatinus, PhD, is Lecturer in Contemporary Literature and Culture at the Catholic University of Ruzomberok. He currently holds a Post-Doctoral Research Fellowship at the Institute of Advanced Studies of the University of Bologna. His research focuses on the meta-narratives of medicine, the later work of Derrida, and the phenomenology of crime and violence. He has published on 20th-century American literature, the screen-aesthetics of violence, the representations of autopsy in popular media, and on Derrida and the haptic. He is currently working on a book-length project called “PathologEthics and Culture.” Email:

1. Ekphrastic Bodies

In his Iconology, Image, Text, Ideology, W.J.T. Mitchell describes the history of culture in part as “the story of a protracted struggle for dominance between pictorial and linguistic signs, each claiming for itself certain proprietary rights on a ‘nature’ to which only it has access” (Mitchell 1986, 43). Ekphrasis, broadly defined as the verbal representation of a visual representation (Heffernan 1991, 297), epitomizes this struggle for dominance. As Heffernan claims, “because it verbally represents visual art, ekphrasis stages a contest between rival modes of representation” (Heffernan 1994, 6) and is closely linked to the mimetic tradition by virtue of its ability to create a reality twice removed from the thing itself. Murray Krieger notes that the narrow meaning of the term, given by Leo Spitzer, as “the name of a literary genre […] that attempts to imitate in words the object of the plastic arts” (Krieger 1992, 6) clearly presupposes the dependence of one art on another. But Krieger reminds that the history of the term’s usage allows for a much more expansive meaning as well: “ekphrasis in Hellenistic rhetoric […] referred most broadly to a verbal description of […] almost anything, in life or art” (7).

This paper tries to revisit this broader usage of the term by addressing its theoretical and ideological resonances in CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. Although the franchise has come a long way since its 2000 debut in terms of visual style, narrative focus, as well as changes to the original line-up, the pivotal role of the fragmented, dismembered, mutilated, dissected, and exposed body has reiterated the presence of the ekphrastic mode right from the start of the series.

My reasons for regarding the body as ultimately ekphrastic (not only in CSI but also in post-modern cultural representations in general) are grounded in the recognition that the body is inscribed into a complex system of cultural codes and signs. Nicholas Mirzoeff points out that “in representation the body appears not as itself, but as a sign. It cannot but represent both itself and a range of metaphorical meanings” (Mirzoeff 1995, 3). By the same token, the corporal sign, argues Mirzoeff, “has very real effects on the physical body” (3). As all signs, it signifies by means of différance, its meaning is also subject to slippage and dissemination. The meaning of the ekphrastic body, consequently, is never fixed or absolute, it is, as we will see, produced by the processes of “differing and potentially infinite deferral” (Walker 2003). The concept of ekphrasis consequently has to be addressed both from a semiotic and a psychoanalytical point of view. My examination of the way CSI utilizes this intermedial mode of representation will therefore regard ekphrasis both as language, as verbal representation, as writing, and as image, as a system of optically perceived signs that eventually come into being via the practices of the (Lacanian) gaze. Beyond doubt, the two approaches inexorably intertwine.

What legitimates the case for the positing of an underlying ekphrastic mode in CSI in the first place is the consistently recurring metaphor of the speaking body, more appropriately, the body that is spoken for. Since its inception, the program has mobilized the language of science in a peculiar way as a result of which language becomes descriptive and constitutive at the same time. As Episode 10 Season 1 “Sex, Lies and Larvae” illustrates, the primary concern and premise of the forensic profession is to speak for the dead, to make bodies tell their stories. Gil Grissom, head of the night shift in the Las Vegas Forensic Lab is about to close an investigation as he is unable to provide strong physical evidence against the suspect. Crime scene analyst Sara Sidle confronts her boss saying:

You know how you say ‘We’re the victim’s last voice?’ […] I thought it was our job to speak for Kaye Shelton [the victim – D.L.P.]. (CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. SE 01 Ep 10)1

The “speaking body” signifies both visual and verbal representations of corporeality. It is a quintessential trope for the investigators’ approach to the body when processing it as evidence. What happens in ekphrasis is precisely this “voicing up” of the mute image. As a result, in ekphrasis the disjunction of speech and vision is subverted by virtue of a representational illusion: ekphrasis, as a rhetorical figure reinvests the mute object into speech/language, and thus bears close resemblance to such rhetorical figures as prosopopoeia and apostrophe, both of which rely on the positing of inter-subjectivity, which is paradoxically mobilized by the repositioning of the gaze. To paraphrase J. Hillis Miller, the harder one looks at bodies, the more they seem to look back in an uncanny prosopopoeia (Miller 2008, 60). In Episode 2 of Season 1 “Cool Change” a man is found dead in the street. Circumstances indicate suicide by jumping off the roof of the hotel. Grissom says to a detective standing by:

GRISSOM: I want to talk to him.
DETECTIVE BARNS: How do you talk to a dead body?
(GRISSOM moves in closer to the body and kneels down to look at it.) –
GRISSOM: I’ll let him talk to me, actually.
(He pulls off his dark glasses and reaches out for something next to the body.)
GRISSOM: In fact, he just spoke. Didn’t you hear him? He just told me that he didn’t commit suicide.
(GRISSOM holds up a pair of broken glasses.)
DETECTIVE BARNS: No. You-you lost me.
GRISSOM: This guy fell to his death wearing prescription eyeglasses. Jumpers take their glasses off. Suicide is the ultimate form of selfishness, Detective. It’s unlikely that anyone cowardly enough to take his own life would be brave enough to watch his own death. (SE 01 Ep 02)

The bodies, as objects of scientific speculation, are not only exposed to the scrutinizing gaze of the forensic experts, and, indirectly, to the gaze of the viewers of the show. The visualization of the bodies is contaminated by persistent verbalization as the scientists at all times interpret (that is to say describe, comment upon and narrate) whatever they perceive visually. In other words, the body as a mute image is consistently given voice.

In Season I Episode 6 “Who Are You?” forensic experts Gill Grissom and Nick Stokes stand by the autopsy table and examine a skeleton that was found embedded in the foundation wall of a building.

(NICK and GRISSOM stand over the skeletal remains on the table between them.)
GRISSOM: Based on the auricular surface I’d say she died when she was about twenty.
NICK: She?
GRISSOM: It’s in the hips. Pelvic bone is definitely female. You know, for a ladies’ man you don’t know much about bone structure.
NICK: I know all I need to know. I figure she was killed before her cementbath.
GRISSOM: Yeah, how?
NICK: She was stabbed at least a dozen times — a screwdriver, maybe … like… a spike.
GRISSOM: No. The gouges on her ribs are unusual. The instrument had to be … slightly curved with some kind of serrated edge. Like crocodile teeth. Whatever killed this girl was not a traditional weapon.
NICK: Well, stabbings are personal. She knew her attacker.
GRISSOM: That’s the rule.
(GRISSOM leans in close to the head of the bones. He places a gentle hand on her skull.)
GRISSOM: Who are you? (SE 01 Ep 06)

In his Autobiography as Defacement, Paul de Man identifies this “power of speech” conferred upon an otherwise “absent, deceased or voiceless entity” as the trope of prosopopoeia (de Man 1984, 75-76), and argues that “voice assumes mouth, eye, and finally, face, a chain that is manifest in the etymology of the trope’s name ‘prosopon poiein’, ‘to confer a mask or a face’” (76). In this respect, prosopopoeia appears to be an interpretive act, the result of a cognitive decision articulated in an act of language in order to inscribe the body.

The idea of the post-modern (post-human) fragmented body is played upon by the series’ apparently blatant idealization of the forensic profession as a positivist science capable of attaining objective truth. In fact, the show abounds in hints to a semiotic utopia, suggesting that in the forensic expertise, and in evidence processing in particular, each discrete signifier has but a single, discrete reference eventually leading to one single perpetrator. What prosopopeia shows is that any interpretive discourse is eventually a fiction, that is to say, fabricated, and as such it is prone to a series of semiotic and semantic dispositions. In other words, when CSIs verbalize their practices as they investigate the body, they really perform a reading that, very much like in the case of a text, and this reading, in return, restores the body’s voice. Prosopopeia as reading in CSI becomes the fiction of the body as text contained within the framework of corporeal discourse.

2. Bodies, Traces and Différance

The question remains what distinguishes prosopopoeia from ekphrasis then? What constitutes the thin line between writing and speech? What is it that, to use a Derridean formulation, separates the inside from the outside? How does the body become writing, a repository of signs, traces that point beyond themselves — to a lost narrative? From a strictly semiotic perspective, the previous excerpt epitomizes the problem of signification as such: in its eminent form, ekphrasis is but a sign of a sign, and implies a series of differences between the signifier and the signified, text and image, writing and speech, trace and origin, time and space, absence and presence – in Derrida’s words, “the difference between the sensible and the intelligible” (Derrida 1976, 13). Obviously, Derrida’s formulation appears to be the reverberation of the kind of metaphysics Derrida himself attempts to subvert in Of Grammatology. Yet, the interpretation of the body as trace retains something from the metaphysical (neo-platonic) lure of the phenomenology of perception. For Derrida, grammatology, the study of writing, marks the appearance of the letter, the introduction of the written sign into culture as the disruption of metaphysical (and metaphorical) thinking. His struggle with the voice and the letter, the living body and the dead writing permeates the semiotics of culture, and the disposition of corporeality as cultural discourse. Consequently, the body, too, is in-scribed, made into writing – a transformation that marks the intrusion of the linguistic into the pictorial. The “presence” of the body is hence placed in an “outside;” it resides in the exteriority of writing. To quote Derrida: “the exteriority of the signifier is the exteriority of writing in general, and (…) there is no linguistic sign before writing” (14). But since writing for Derrida is “the dead letter, it is the carrier of death” (17), the body as dead writing signifies the muteness of the graphé as opposed to the phoné which the body is deprived of.

In this sense, ekphrasis recapitulates the différance between the two systems of signification, the seeable and the sayable. Writing, as graphé, ultimately renders the muteness of death in a visible, spatial, material form. Therefore, to postulate the body in terms of graphé means to postulate it as ekphrasis par excellence.

Let me refer back to the definitions of ekphrasis at this point. Leo Spitzer’s usage of the term emphasized the dependence of one art form on another. Though Krieger extends this usage beyond art to any representation, his definition retains the precedence of an object from which the ekphrasis originates. “Precedence” and “origin” impose upon our discourse the implications of space and temporality. In a footnote to his “Ekphrasis and the Other” Mitchell states that “even those forms of ekphrasis that occur in the presence of the described image disclose a tendency to alienate or displace the object, to make it disappear in favor of the textual image being produced by the ekphrasis” (Mitchell 1994, 157, n19). The description of the body in the excerpt above epitomizes this disappearance, signaled by the past tense in Grissom and Nick’s pieces. The alienation or displacement within ekphrasis resonates with Derrida’s concept of différance as temporal deferral and spatial difference.

The spatial and the temporal are linked to one another through the physical dimensions, the materiality, of the trace. The subsequent phase in the investigation of the skeleton mentioned above focuses on the work of Teri Miller, a forensic artist whose job is to make model-reconstructions of faces:

(TERI works on the mold on the slab of foundation in the middle of the garage. GRISSOM watches her work.)
(TERI turns and brings out a pail.)
TERI MILLER: Give me your hand. You’ll enjoy this. It’s as much science as art.
(Using GRISSOM’S hand, she guides him as he takes a scoop of the molding substance and puts it in the indentation in the foundation slab.)
(Dissolve to: The molding substance solidifies and TERI removes it. She takes it over to the lamp and works on it. GRISSOM looks over her shoulder.)
GRISSOM: It doesn’t really look like anything.
TERI MILLER: No light, no shadows — no shadows, no perspective.
(She tilts the small sample and the impressions of a face can be seen.)
TERI MILLER: Now look.
(Dissolve to: TERI is sitting at the table with the head and half mold in front of her. GRISSOM takes the seat next to her.)
GRISSOM: So teach me.
TERI MILLER: Okay. First, I’m finishing off the plaster mold. We can’t give her life with only half a face. Although most faces appear that way and the thin layer of slip makes the plaster and clay appear seamless.
(TERI takes GRISSOM’S hands and guides him as he helps apply the plaster mold.)
(Dissolve to: TERI finishes “painting” the face of the head in front of them.)
TERI MILLER: Her cheekbones and nasal spine indicate nordic descent. I’ve seen a few Norwegian brunettes but your girl’s probably a blonde.
(TERI takes a blonde-colored wig and puts it on the head in front of them.)
(Dissolve to: TERI looks at a couple of brown eyes.)
GRISSOM: Brown eyes? I thought you decided she was Nordic.
(TERI puts the eyes in the “head”.)
TERI MILLER: But, in this country, brown is a dominant eye color. And, more importantly, brown photographs better. You want to get her face out there, don’t you?
GRISSOM: Yeah. I’m sure someone needs closure and somebody else needs to go to jail.
(TERI finishes.)
TERI MILLER: There she is.
(GRISSOM takes the camera and takes a picture of the head.) (SE 01 Ep 06)

Since the body is literally absent, leaving only a physical trace behind, Teri and Grissom rely exclusively on this negative image when reconstructing the face of the victim. As the presence of an absence resulting from the disappearance of the origin, the trace is and is not itself because it always refers to that which it differs/defers from. Therefore it can never be wholly present as it is connected to an absence that is the absolute past. As Derrida argues “the (pure) trace (…) does not depend on any sensible plenitude, audible or visible, phonic or graphic. It is, (…) the condition of such plenitude” (Derrida 62).

What gives its specificity to the sequence is that it connects the conception of ekphrasis to the acts of fabrication and craftsmanship. The model itself becomes a trace that is, by the same token, “ef-faced” in verbal representation. But the verbalization of the model-face does not only amount to an autotelic description: it constitutes a point of coincidence in space and time, since the verbal representation of the visual object coincides with its fabrication. Ekphrasis not only in-scribes the image of the body. It also a-scribes to the image a narrative of its own, a narrative of fabrication which, in return, becomes the trace of the death of the original body. What the model eventually restores by reversing corporal decay is the narrative of death.

As in any representation of the body, the reconstruction of the face, more precisely the attribution of eyes capable of seeing occupies a prominent position in CSI too. There is a specific imaging technique I want to take into consideration with respect to faces and eyes: the facial x-ray. It bears similar phenomenological and material characteristics of the photograph. But unlike the photography, the x-ray literally penetrates the skin and peels the flesh off the bone, exposing and bringing the inside to the outside. Beyond doubt, photographs and x-rays go a long way to re-contextualize the problem of vision and the semiotic implications of ekphrasis with respect to the questions of materiality and technics. Both the x-ray and the photograph disclose vision as an overtly and excessively technologized sense that is also the most easily manipulable and the most dependent on technical prosthetics. My understanding of the x-ray therefore comprises the technologization of the medical gaze and the phenomenologization of the body-image. The utmost phenomenological significance of the x-ray derives from its ability to disrupt the integrity of the body, and more precisely that of the face, without inflicting the least damage on the materiality of either.

The facial x-ray, unlike the photograph, is not merely the restitution of the past, demarcating the presence of an absence. Its temporal structure is at once anachronistic and synchronistic: on the one hand, its very existence, its ontology falls within the conception of the trace: it is the materialized trace of the body, the impression or imprint of the face on a photo-sensitive plate. On the other hand, it is and is not the image of the body at the same time: the most powerful constituents of the face, the eyes, disappear in the emptiness of the orbital sockets.

The episode called “Down the Drain” features a series of scenes that substantiate the phenomenological and semiotic complexity of the x-ray. In these scenes Grissom and Dr Robbins examine the facial x-ray of a young boy who died under mysterious circumstances. When they hold up the x-rays, they turn it towards the light in order for the silhouette of the skull to appear, and also to show it to the camera. Their gestures are deictic rather than explicative.

(Robbins holds up the dental x-rays for Grissom to see.)
ROBBINS: Victim had incomplete formation of the second molar root tips, and his wisdom teeth hadn’t erupted.
GRISSOM: Teenager.
ROBBINS: Yeah, approximately 13 to 15.
(Grissom holds up the skull x-ray.)
ROBBINS: Eye orbits rounded, almost oval. Nasal aperture narrow and tall, jaw line flat. Likely Caucasian. Uh, dental records are out to NCIC. That’s all I’ve got. How’d Greg do?
GRISSOM: Bones are too degraded. No viable DNA, not even in the teeth. (SE 05 Ep 02)

As Mieke Bal notes, “light is a typical parergon. Both outside, in illuminating the object represented, and inside, constituting the very visibility of that object” (Bal 2001, 65). The mise-en-scéne is tuned to accommodate the drama of death. The camera position evokes focalization: shots of Grissom and Robbins taken from the back alternate with shots taken from the front, suggestive of shifts between the point of view of the forensics and the point of view of the victim. At one point the x-ray is placed a between the forensics and the camera, in the junction of gazes. The viewer is looking at the forensics looking back on them – and this interchange of looks penetrates the x-ray. At this point the viewer looks through the eyes of the victim (through the trace of the eyes framed by the eye orbits), not with them. The x-ray as ekphrasis makes visible the invisible and follows the logic of the trace: it embodies the presence of an absence. And as an image that also marks the disappearance of the body, it operates as a kind of reversed ekphrasis.

Another factor that further complicates the semiotic structure of ekphrasis is the spatial dimension of the trace. The spatial presence of the image gives way to the temporal absence signified by the narrative which the ekphrasis attempts to restore. To borrow the words of Tamar Yacobi,

[e]kphrasis bundles together no less than three domains: on first-order, strictly represented [that is the body, D.L.P.], one second-order, which is representational in the visual mode [the model-face, D.L.P] and one third- order, which is re-presentational in the linguistic discourse [that is the narrative of fabrication, D.L.P.]. (Yacobi 1998, 22)

Ekphrasis as différance cuts across space and time, presence and absence and inscribes each on the other. The trace in this respect is the materialization of space. Therefore, the restoration of the physical presence of the body becomes most tangible if understood in its relation to space, the space of the crime scene in particular. In other words, bodies themselves are performed. Borrowing Belting’s wording bodies (like images) “arrive with a predetermined mise-en-scéne which also includes a predetermined site for their perception which they guide by way of performance” (Belting 2005, 49). The mise-en-scéne of the body is the space within which it is contained, the space it constitutes around itself.

Body and scene, so to speak, go together, and neither can be understood nor represented without the other. Ekphrasis eventually brings the body back in(to) space. The ultimate goal in each episode is to reinstall the body on the crime scene. Episode 3 Season 2 “Overload” gives insight into the investigation of the death of a construction worker. Grissom believes he has been murdered (electrocuted) rather than committed suicide, though there is no physical evidence, no mark on the body that would substantiate his claim. Grissom has to rely on evidence found at the crime scene. In order to make his point, he has to “work backwards” and start out from the scene. The dialogue between Dr Robbins and Grissom underscores the elusive nature of the trace.

ROBBINS: I didn’t find any physical evidence of electrocution.
GRISSOM: Faulty drill. There should be burn marks on one of his palms.
(We see the CG image of a hand without burn marks morphing to a hand with burn marks as an electric sizzle moves up the arm. Then the electric sizzle moves back leaving the skin unmarked.)
ROBBINS: Negative on the burn marks. In most electrocution cases, capillaries rupture, haemoglobin leaks into the perivascular tissue.
GRISSOM: Right. Creating a fern-like pattern on the chest.
(Again, the CG image of the chest is shown. An electric sizzle moves across the chest leaving the pattern behind and then back, leaving the chest unmarked.)
ROBBINS: His body contradicts your crime scene.
GRISSOM: I don’t care what the body says, this guy was electrocuted. It was not an accident.
(Cut to next scene)
SARA: […] we always go back to the body. The body tells a story and in this case, the body says there was no crime and you’re not listening. Why?
GRISSOM: Every now and then, we have to break the rules. Start with a conclusion and work our way backwards. […]
Bodies tell a story because we interpret them the way our predecessors taught us to. Just because we don’t see something we’re supposed to see doesn’t mean that it’s not there. (SE 02 Ep 03)

The concluding remarks of Grissom’s piece indicate the dependence of the trace on the medical gaze – and on the scientific discourse. The “scene” has to be “seen” in order for the trace to appear. The etymology of the word “scene” also underscores the intrusion of manipulated vision: among the meanings of the Latin “scaena” we find “stage,” “a place, where something happens,” “a view that you see,” and, most interestingly, “to make somebody believe something.”

What one encounters here is the plethora of traces. The very moment the verbal narrative comes in the foreground, it gives way to visualization: the verbal and the visual become the traces of one another, the one continually effacing the other in order to create it anew. Ekphrasis, in this respect does stage différance because it wields a power to literally re-create a visual reality, and to bring about a different order of seeing. This results in a constant bouncing between the different orders of signification, and also between the different media.

3. Anatomies of Inscription

By implication, the body is a mute image, and as Peter Wagner argues, “ekphrasis stages a paradoxical performance, promising to give voice to the allegedly silent image even while attempting to overcome the power of the image by transforming and inscribing it” (Wagner 1996, 13). Krieger recalls a definition by Hermogenes: “[ekphrasis] must through hearing operate to bring about seeing” (Krieger 1992, 7). If the purpose of ekphrasis is to bring about seeing, the conception of ekphrasis must be rooted in a deeply implemented, anthropologically and culturally conditioned visual imperative.

In other words, ekphrasis, also has to do with blindness because it brings about seeing by literally creating its object, by creating that which is to be looked at. In Memoirs of the Blind Derrida constitutes a relationship between seeing and blindness, between the visible and the invisible, and argues that the invisible is “essential to visual representation not as its opposite but as an integral and constitutive feature of representation as an act of memory” (Mirzoeff 1995, 37). Derrida’s interpretation of the interdependence of blindness and drawing proves to be applicable precisely because he describes drawing as an attempt to restore sight (Derrida 1993, 6). Ekphrasis, too, restores sight insofar as it renders the process of seeing a performative act by means of a withdrawal into memory in order to inscribe seeing into language. What corresponds to this inscription in Derrida is the concept of graphein, which he regards as the arche-form of both drawing (that is, rendering in paint) and writing (that is, rendering in words). His description detaches the graphein from the theories of representation and links it to death:

At the origin of the graphein there is debt or gift rather than representational fidelity. More precisely, the fidelity of faith matters more than the representation, whose movement this fidelity commands and thus precedes. And faith, in the moment proper to it, is blind. It sacrifices sight, even if it does so with an eye to seeing at last. The performative that comes on the scene here is a “restoring sight” rather than the visible object, rather than a constative description of what is or what one notices in front of oneself…. The just measure of “restoring” or “rendering” is impossible – or infinite. Restoring or rendering is the cause of the dead, the cause of deaths, the cause of a death given or requested. (Derrida 1993, 30)

Derrida compares drawing to “surgerie” by playing on the etymology of the word that derives from the Greek “kheirurgia” meaning “handiwork” (3-4). Accordingly, if drawing is the play or working of the hand, so are the ekphrastic strategies of the forensics, and those of Teri Miller in particular, who, like the blind in Derrida’s book, “apprehends space with her groping hands, […] calculates, and counts on the invisible” (5). And by guiding Grissom’s hand, she stages a performance that as handiwork is conceivable in terms of drawing, and also as an act of seeing that literally follows the trace of the invisible. Teri, by means of a withdrawal into the memory of/in the trace inscribes the invisible in a visual form in order to restore seeing – in Grissom, and in the viewers as well.

Touch suddenly becomes the extensions of seeing. In this scene lies what one may want to call the technics of seeing: the working of the hand informs sight – it brings out insight in the one who touches; the touch therefore penetrates the impenetrable, plunging through the fabric of time. The indentation in the slab is not only a hole, a void in space. It becomes the hole of the body where tactile vision penetrates its surface. The interdependence (or interchangeability) of touch and sight therefore restitutes the neo-platonic view of perception. In this paradigm perception creates its object: seeing is not as straightforward as it may look like. Seeing is dynamic, and performative. The eye has to learn how to see, how to decipher space. What the working of the hand reveals is the constitution of the trace, the framing of the sign. Touch in its metaphorical sense is the prosthesis of sight and is connected to the apprehension and inscription of space.

The tactility of vision directs attention to the plasticity of the trace that comprises the dimensions of both time and space. On the same grounds one might regard the autopsy room, the ultimate, emblematic space, where kheirurgia takes place, as a special kind of operating theatre. In the autopsy room the scalpel of the forensic pathologist delineates the plasticity of sight. By incising and inscribing the body, the scalpel performs the touch that opens up the body to sight and directs attention to the technics of the medical gaze. In the operating theatre, “pathological anatomy, the technique of the corpse” (Foucault 1994, 141) is designed – and staged – so as to put the body back into the scopic field, to envelop, structure, educate and, last but not least, entertain, sight. The structuring of space in the anatomical theatre reflects the spatial arrangements of the ancient Greek amphitheatres, with an open space in the centre surrounded by rows of seats that rise in steps. The structuring of space can be described in terms of the architectural patterns of the Derridean parergon, a self-contained frame that simultaneously connects and separates the inside and the outside (Derrida 1987, 72). As parerga, that is to say, frames within frames, the rows of seats recede in mise-en-abyme. This structural arrangement conveys a hierarchical ordering of space, and leads the viewers’ look into the centre where the dissecting table is located – as if on a stage, with the camera placed above, creating the well-known top-down perspective. In other words, the setting delineates a theatrical space where the body is staged: it is as much performing as performed.

The representational patterns of CSI admittedly reflect the architectural conventions of anatomical theatres as well as those of paintings that problematize the dissemination of anatomical knowledge. Architectural spaces within which autopsies are performed display similar characteristics, almost regardless of the historical period. The anatomical theatre was not only seen as the place of death, as a space where the ephemerality of life is underscored by the sight of decaying flesh. Also, from the inception of enlightenment, autopsies and operations were social events, forms of education as well as popular entertainment, and built around the possibility of seeing the inside of the outside. They were platforms where celebrations of scientific grandeur took place, although the critical reception of the achievements of science was as paradoxical at that time as is CSI’s representation of science today. The public has always been fascinated by the anatomy of the body, but not exclusively driven by scientific curiosity: fascination is also determined by abjection, repulsion or disgust.

However, the general public’s attitude towards the sight of the body, the mixed emotion of simultaneous admiration and repulsion, is little echoed in The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632) Rembrandt epitomizes the problem of the gaze. The composition arranges the space around the corpse in a concentric circle that is not entirely closed, but breaks at one point, close to the lower right section of the painting. Obviously, the main purpose of this compositional strategy is to make the corpse entirely visible. But the concentric positioning of the spectators, the characters in the painting and the viewers in front of it, creates a frame-like structure around the corpse, a parergon that, interacting with the actual frame of the painting constitutes the dimensions of a theatrical space. The spatial architecture of the parergon separates the drama of the gaze from the outside of the picture, and, by virtue of the breach in the circular pattern, it also opens up the picture plain to the space wherein the spectator stands.

Whereas the structure of the composition and the position of the light-spot draw the viewer’s gaze to the corpse, the characters’ eyes are not focused on the object of study. Instead, they look into the anatomy book at the feet of the corpse. The structuring of the picture plane, however, allows for an intricate interaction between the characters, the drama of the autopsy scene, and the viewer. The entry point into the image is not marked by the looks/gazes of the characters, as all the looks (except maybe one) fail to engage the gaze of the viewer. Yet, the viewer is not distanced or located in an outside. The ‘void’ in the foreground of the image, framed by the compositional logic of spatial arrangement, constitutes an entry point, inviting the viewer to ‘enter’ the scene. It is through the compositional marking of the viewer’s virtual presence through which the painting thematizes agency.

The gesture with which Dr. Tulp holds the pair of forceps to explain the anatomy of the muscle and demonstrate its functions accentuates the link between seeing and touch, between seeing and kheirurgia, the working of the hand. The hand is subject to double exposure: first, as the anatomized hand of the corpse the functions of which are explicated and staged, and second, the hand holding the pair of forceps, that performs kheirurgia, the hand that informs sight, a transformative interchange underscored by the interplay of light and shadow. This is the moment of inscription. It is the forceps that invite the viewer in. The interaction between the anatomy book and kheirurgia dramatizes the representation of the inside, and reiterates the inscription of anatomical knowledge onto the body, and stages it as spectacle viewed in the anatomical theatre.

4. Ekphrasis as Theatre?

Sequences that feature technologies of vision designed to render things otherwise inaccessible in a (visually) plausible fashion are central to the series. Images of microscopic trace evidence, extensive networks of computer screens, CG reconstructions of crime scenes and bullet trajectories, endoscopic images of body cavities as well as of healthy and damaged organs function not only as spectacular additions but also as inherent narrative focalizers. The heavy reliance on technological devices that envelop and manipulate vision suggests that CSI is prone to “a curious kind of self-referentiality” that “inscribes a particular way of seeing” (Gever 2005, 459). The underlying ekphrastic tendency built into the series establishes a clear link between the images of bodies and their forensic transcription via scientific discourse. The intense visual focus of the show, from computer graphics to the stylized presentation of the lab (lighting, framing, etc.), not to mention physically pleasing actors, is supplemented by the highly formulaic, repetitive nature of the dialogue in the character’s set pieces.2 The linguistic framing of the body, however, is closely linked to the scrutinizing gaze of the forensic scientist. The corpse always has the medical gaze superimposed over it. As Martha Gever reminds us:

[D]espite their dependence on state-of-the-art special effects – hybrid images made up of photographs and films of props, virtual 3D models, digital 3D animation and photographic texture mapping – these scenes faithfully recapitulate the authority of the medical gaze – that is, knowledge about human life gained through visual perception that date back several centuries. In The Birth of the Clinic, Foucault (19751963) describes the dissection of corpses that became commonplace in European hospitals and medical schools during the mid-18th century. He maintains that these autopsies provided epistemological support for the rationalization of knowledge about disease and health. Foucault’s précis of the lessons learned from autopsies is: “That which hides and envelops, the curtain of night over truth, is, paradoxically, life; and death, on the contrary, opens up to the light of day the black coffer of the body.” (Gever 2005, 457)

The deployment of modern imaging technologies therefore not only enhances the visual appeal of the show. They can be described not only in terms of technics, but also as somatechnics, supplanting the logic of “and” in the juxtaposition of soma and techne.3 The screen, the microscope, the x-ray and all the other technological devices featured in the program perform a prosthetic function: they operate as the extensions of sight. On the other hand, perception and experience are mediated through these technologies. The purpose of technology in mediating the body and its traumatic experience is to allow the investigators to decipher and reconstruct what the body has undergone, and how it came to grief (trauma and death). To be sure, the body is presented in the show as a text to be read; but this text is written in the language (and signs) of technology. Autopsy, apart from being a means to visually disseminate corporeal (anatomical) knowledge also entails initiation in the same sense as kheirurgia inscribes the invisible and restores sight. The episode called “Down the Drain” features a typical educational scene. Dr Robbins, Grissom and Greg Sanders perform a full autopsy of a body discovered in a storm drain after a heavy rainfall. The emphasis falls not so much on the restoring but rather on the installing or initiation of sight, of the medical gaze – in a manner not unrelated to what characterizes Rembrandt’s painting. The scene also opens up for a hint of irony. The character in the centre of attention is, of course, young CSI Greg Sanders:

(Grissom watches as Robbins starts on the body. He begins with the Y-incision down the torso. Standing a distance away from the table is Greg who is also in the room for his first autopsy. He looks away as the first cut is made. Grissom notes Greg’s reaction. Robbins finishes the cut and pulls the skin open. Greg’s eyes widen at the sight. Robbins turns to Grissom.)
ROBBINS: I’m gonna need the drain pan.
(Grissom hands the drain pan to Robbins who puts it on the tray next to him. Water starts to drip from the roof into the drain pan.)
ROBBINS: This town isn’t built for rain, hmm?
(Robbins takes the hand saw and turns it on. He glances up at Greg. Greg puts his fingers in his ears as Robbins cuts into the rib cage. […])
(Finished, Robbins turns the hand saw off and sets it aside. Grissom watches Greg. Greg looks at Grissom.)
(Robbins grabs the rib cage piece and pulls it out of the body. He sets it aside. Robbins motions for Greg to move in closer.)
ROBBINS: Come on, don’t be shy. Take a good look.
In the end … it’s all we really are.
(Robbins cuts the aorta leading into the heart. Greg watches, his eyes wide. He looks at the victim’s partially damaged face and back down to the victim’s feet. He appears thoughtful.)
GRISSOM: If you’re gonna be sick, Greg, do it in the sink.
ROBBINS: (chimes in) Not in the drain pan.
GREG: I don’t feel sick.
(Robbins makes a vertical cut in the neck. Grissom knows what’s going to be there.)
GRISSOM: Take a look at the trachea. What do you see?
(Greg leans in for a look. Robbins peels the skin back.)
GREG: Foam. Like the head of a beer.
(Greg looks self-consciously at Grissom.)
GRISSOM: No. It’s a good analogy.
ROBBINS: Pulmonary edema, fluids in the air passages.
GREG: So he drowned?
GRISSOM: Well, doesn’t prove it. Same thing happens with, uh, heart failure or drug overdose.
ROBBINS: But the fact that the heart of the victim was a normal size, …
… and assuming tox doesn’t show drug overdose, C[ause].O[f].D[eath]. is most likely drowning, but I’m not gonna rule out blunt-force trauma. (SE 05 Ep 02)

In CSI the significance of pointing, the technicality of the gaze is induced by the specific energetic of devices that manipulate the eye (the screens, lamps, microscopes, UV lights, x-rays, forceps, scalpels etc.) In the autopsy room the staging of the body takes place within an apparatus, with the use of a set of technological devices the purpose of which is to enhance, manipulate, bring about, frame, and finally stage seeing. The apparatus functions as a “theatre of the gaze:” the scalpel of the forensic pathologist resembles a pen that is not only meant to create graphé in the sense of a text that can be read, but also to create graphé in the sense of an image that is to be looked at. The mise-en-scéne of the autopsy room reiterates the emphasis on the gaze: the whole room is dimly lit, not only in a hint of Gothic fascination but also in its resemblance to the camera obscura, with a single beam of light directed at “the staged body.”

Cinematically speaking, the bird’s eye-view positioning of the camera together with the manipulated lighting constitute a refined visual metaphor for the attribution of the Foucauldian outside gaze. Since the corpse is deprived of its own body-ness – mutilated, dismembered, void of any vegetative and cognitive functions – the power of the outside medical gaze (the ekphrastically informed, superimposed gaze of the forensic scientist) derives from the ability to restore and retain the integrity of the body even when it is fragmented.

Nevertheless, it is not only the technics of the cinematic image that qualifies for our attention. The visualizations of science and crime also greatly rely on the implementation of often yet-to-be invented technologies that assist the scientists in solving cases. Visualization consequently, can be taken into account in two ways. First, as the presentation of lab procedures which, as I have already referred to it, take up a great deal of actual screen time: typical sequences show CSIs working in the lab analyzing specimens, pulling DNA from hair samples, experimenting with tools that might have been used as murder weapons, or searching databases of fingerprints, number plates, shoe-prints.

This is the point where ekphrasis as staging gains decisive relevance: it stages a performance in which the pathologization of the body proper is externalized as différance. The autopsy room functions as a camera obscura, the fourth wall of which is the TV screen itself. One of the main fascinations and fears of post-moderism is the fragmentation of the body proper. In other words, there are two key factors that might explain the success and popularity of the offending, voyeuristic imagery of the series. First of all, the show poses questions about a conventional (normative) positing of the corpse as abject. The corpse in CSI remains subversive. Not because it is grotesque and unclean, but because it “calls into question borders” (Oliver 1997, 225) and as such is itself on the borderline: as Kristeva explains, the sight of a cadaver is horrifying, appalling and fascinating at the same time, and the subject recognizes it as that which was once living, the “presence of signified death” (Kristeva 1997, 231). She argues that “as in true theatre, without makeup or masks […] the corpse shows me what I permanently thrust aside in order to live (231).” Simply put, the show leads its viewers back to the underlying questions about the desire to gain and maintain control over the chaos of corporeality. And secondly, the illusion of control is created through the over-representation of technology that offers (the fiction of) an infallible, objective and omnipotent science.

As a result, gazing at the dismembered bodies of victims enables the viewers to externalize their fears and anticipate the fragmentation of the body proper in the form of an idealized corporeal knowledge. CSI does not want to be more than it actually is: a theatre of spectacle, a theatre where illusion appears as real as possible. If something substantiates the possible post-modern readings of the show, the blurring of the boundaries between fiction and the real definitely does. Ekphrasis provides for the viewers the possibility of immediate participation and controlled distance. The TV screen, consequently, does not only function as a window, but also as a mirror, more particularly, a shield, reviving the ancient tradition of ekphrasis: as a multimedia form of representation, as différance, ekphrasis protects from the disintegration of the body proper by inscribing and staging it, and by allowing for a controlled visual experience thereof.



1 Unless indicated otherwise, all scripts were retrieved from http://www.twiztv.com/scripts/csi/season1/csi-110.txt. Viewed on March 11 2013.

2 I am indebted here to Nick Mansfield for the comments he made on an earlier version of this paper.

3 Here I am alluding to the explanation of the term as it was given by Nikki Sullivan, convenor of the ’’Somatechnics” research project at the Department of Media, Music and Cultural Studies, Macquarie University, Sydney.


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