[9 May 2011]
Created by Anthony Zuiker, the CSI series was first aired in the fall of 2000. Its continual appeal lies in its voyeuristic quality whereby we viewers, guided by scientific sleuths, enter a world that is normally closed off to us: the inside of the human body. The CSI team takes us on a “Fantastic Voyage” of sorts into the recesses of the body. Confronted with both the fragility and resilience of our human body, we watch, mesmerized. The trip into the internal world of a stranger is a valid ersatz truth that allows us to unveil the mysteries of our own bodies. This, coupled with a close look at the taboo of death, is simply irresistible.
Through the CSI scientists’ tools and eyes, we are able to watch from the comfort of our own home just how, why, and when people die. We have VIP passes to the behind-the-scenes world of forensic medicine and to the private lives—internal lives even—of people we will never have to face. This leaves us free to witness their private tragedies shamelessly and without fear of confrontation, because these people are not only dead, but also fictitious.
This legal voyeurism is not new of course. As Marshall McLuhan, the television studies pioneer has written in Understanding Media, ever since the advent of television, we have been given electronic eyes as extensions of our world and our reality. CSI takes this voyeurism one step further, however, as now we are not just watching people’s lives through a television show. Rather, we are part of a double voyeurism: we, the television viewers, get to watch a group of people, the CSI team, observe how other people live and die. Perhaps more importantly, for the duration of the show, we feel in control of that which frightens us most: death.
In CSI: Las Vegas, we see forensic experts as the ultimate voyeurs: the omniscient oracles, who, through their art, are able to dis-cover truth. These scientists hold in their hands the secret, not of life, but of death. They transcend the taboo of death and gain access to the deepest recesses of the human body and mind through their scientific tools. Forensic science has superhuman eyes that can penetrate all textures, all alibis with its technological gaze: the cold, metallic gaze of machines that can photograph, record, reconstruct, and dissect every moment, every action, every bodily function of and around the corpse it uses as its point of departure; its probing and digging into the flesh, as deep as the DNA, allows it to peek into the world behind the façade.
This is no small feat in Las Vegas. In a world where all is glitter and illusion, where bright lights blind us from everyday life and harsh reality, the CSI lab is our beacon of truth. We are brought down to earth, to the cold slab of metal which will hold the “body of evidence” reeking with decomposition, bleeding, broken, and exposed: an obscene pin-up for the graphic world of reality-based television. We are shown the body from all possible angles: allowed to peep at the insides and the reality of gore and guts, the animal humanity that we all try to ignore. Here voyeurism masquerades as truth.
That these scientists can find the truth in the city of artifice is a testimony to the power of science. In a world of desire and dreams, only cold, pragmatic science is capable to un-cover the truth. Under our hungry eyes, the CSI experts wrestle truth and reality from the artifice and dissembling of murder. They give us close ups of their thinking processes: frowning under the weight of their superhuman knowledge, they sometimes deign to show to us a glimpse into the working of their brains. Most often however, they deliver their truth, much like priests or magicians would, as a revelation.
Science As Religion
There are no limits to this voyeurism because it is sanctioned by modern society, which worships at the altar of science and technology. From the comfort of our living-rooms, we are allowed to transcend the taboo of death as we follow our guides inside the flesh and bones of our human condition. Nothing is sacred because, in this case, the god of science supersedes all else. The all-knowing, all-seeing forensic experts are the high priests of this technological religion. Through their scientific eyes, the television viewer is doubly a voyeur because the CSI team extends the viewer’s technological gaze from the contents of the television box to the insides of the body dissected within that box. We thus have the viewer’s voyeurism mediated by that of the priests of science who initiate us to the mysteries of the human body and give us access to the most private and personal parts of the victim’s body and life. We watch in awe as the team performs for us the reenactment of the crime.
This performance is a celebration of the power of omniscient science. The use of unusual camera angles, editing techniques, high-tech gadgets, graphic portrayals of bullet trajectories, blood spatter, and organ damage pulls us in. All this suffused in compelling music that makes the most tedious laboratory test fascinating. Much like performing an esoteric religious ritual, the CSI scientists command awe and reverence as they lead us through their methods of evidence recovery. At times, the scientists even use their tests as technological equivalents of a clairvoyant’s crystal ball in order to give us a glimpse into the minds of the victims and their murderers.
The autopsy table is the holy altar whence the oracles speak. On this altar of death, the CSI experts, by lifting the mortuary sheet, dis-cover not only the corpse in front of them but its whole history. No secret is safe with them: from the contents of your pockets to those of your stomach, there are no limits to the power of these scientists. They can raffle through your house, tear down your walls, peel back your skin and look inside your brain. They have free access to the most intimate parts of your body. They collect and analyze everything: including body fluids such as semen, blood, and vomit. They use technology to un-cover the deepest secrets not only of the victims but also of their killers. The dis-covering of the body is thus the dis-covering of evidence, which leads to the dis-covery of truth. To the average viewer, the powers of the CSI scientists seem to be not only superhuman, but at times almost magical.
But that is not all we are allowed to watch. There is a double vision, a double voyeurism, that is present from the very beginning in CSI: Las Vegas. The question posed by its theme song, “Who Are You?” is double in meaning in that it can be read both as referring to the criminals that the CSIs are after, and to the scientists themselves. The viewers can’t help extending the question to the scientists on whom they depend for enlightenment and information. The fact that these scientists have their own secrets that the viewer wants to dis-cover only emphasizes their omnipotence and makes them objects of desire: both for what they are able to reveal to us and that which they conceal. This is another aspect of the double voyeurism of CSI.
In CSI: Las Vegas, we begin with the scientist and work our way to the crime and killer. Thus our experience is also indirect because here too we have a guide that tells us where, when and how to look. Hence our vision, our voyeurism, is still very much controlled and constructed. We can only go where the forensic experts take us. We follow them through their doubts, hunches, mistakes, frustrations, and victories. In the process, however, we also get a look at more than they want to show us. Because once they take us along, we are in: their eyes become our eyes, their minds become our minds and their whole persona is therefore exposed, laid out in front of us. In the process we learn quite a bit about the scientists’ private lives.
Furthermore, CSI’s double voyeurism also allows its viewers to visit otherwise inaccessible worlds through the eyes of its forensic team. By virtue of the fact that crime occurs in all settings, we are taken into walks of life we might never come across in our real, waking life. The CSI scientists also have us travel in time, sometimes as far back as fifteen years. This ability to revisit and reanalyze an old crime is due to the advent of newer and better technology such as DNA identification, which permits us to revisit a murder case and hopefully feel good that the man or woman on death row is actually guilty and deserves to die.
Reality TV is also a good example of how to read CSI and its double voyeurism. Much like reality TV shows, CSI: Las Vegas offers us a constructed vision of truth and reality. It does so not through the portrayal of real people as Reality TV does, but through the demonstration of how “real” science works. The methods of these Reality TV shows are similar in that they offer a vision of truth constructed by technology. In Reality TV, we are shown real people with real lives set in a constructed setting, reported upon indirectly through the eyes and thus minds of the producers, the camera men etc. As a result the “truth” that it offers is pre-digested. We see this first hand in the episode “I Like to Watch,” where a reality TV crew follows the CSI team around. As viewers of CSI: Las Vegas, we are fed, much like birds in their nests, our share of reality “bites” in the form of scientific facts. These are also predigested in that they are distorted through simplification, time compression, and editing. In this episode, we experience yet another level of voyeurism as we see the CSI experts struggle to get away from the camera’s prying eyes. They are now the objects of scrutiny and wriggle uncomfortably under the lens of someone else’s microscope. The title, “I Like to Watch,” announces its theme: voyeurism. It is apparent from the very beginning that this is a self-referential episode, as it follows many of the techniques the CSI show uses and questions the advisability of a forensic show on television.
CSI: Las Vegas has been dis-covering for us, not just the secrets of the killers and the scientists investigating the murders, but the mystery of death itself. This series has been showing us the logical sequence of events from the time the victim encounters a deadly substance or weapon, marking all the steps in the deterioration of the organs and body until the actual moment of death and beyond. The CSI experts give us a glimpse of what happens after violent death in the form of autopsy of the bodies of course, but also through the investigation itself and the lives of those who conduct it.
How much is the look at death that CSI: Las Vegas offers us going to affect our view of the world? McLuhan would probably say quite a lot because it allows us to reposition ourselves from passive receivers of images, to all-seeing, all-knowing beings. Watching CSI: Las Vegas allows the viewers to feel, for the space of an hour, that they are omniscient and powerful. With their extended technological gaze, they preside as supreme double voyeurs over the human comedy as revisited by this television series. Not only that: this series also permits its viewers to become more comfortable with death, or at least to face it in comfort through the reassuring belief that even if they die violently, the CSIs will find their killer.