CSI: Lacan

Walking through a Barnes and Noble the other day with $20 still to burn on a gift card, I spotted a new book on the shelf absolutely determined that I take it home: Lacan at the Scene by Henry Bond.  It’s the most recent installment in the MIT Press “Short Circuits” series edited by Slavoj Zizek, and I doubt there are many other books so perfectly conceived to part me and a few thousand other people from our money.  Here is the project, put in the form of a question, on the book’s front flap: “What if Jacques Lacan—the brilliant and eccentric Parisian psychoanalyst—had worked as a police detective, applying his theories to solve crimes?” 

Well, what if?  I'll admit it, I'd much rather watch that than Monk. 

To explore this possibility, Bond subjects old crime scene photos from the National Archive in London to intense Lacanian scrutiny.  The taxonomic imperative here is to categorize the various crime scenes as either “neurotic,” “perverse,” or “psychotic.”  Take the following as a warning or a promise: Lacan at the Scene is copiously illustrated, reproducing many of the horrific photos of the bludgeoned, strangled, stabbed, and otherwise mutilated bodies produced with such abandon by English murderers in the post-war era.   Bond supplements these with his own enlargements of various details drawn from the original photos--seemingly insignificant marginalia that, in true psychoanalytic tradition, migrates from the margins to take center stage in diagnosing…….

Well, who is actually being “diagnosed” here is sometimes unclear. For the most part Bond appears to read these images for their pro-filmic significance—sifting through the murderous mise-en-scene for signifying material that might provide insight into the subjectivity of the killer.  On other occasions, however, the analysis seems more interested in the image/photographer as analysand.  For example, the photographic record of a woman lying on a brick wall, her throat meticulously slit by an almost experimental array of crude instruments, proceeds as a series of ever-closer shots taken on axis from a single angle (as opposed to the more typical 360 degree coverage in crime scene documentation).  “It is as if the scene can be read in only one way, or seen only one way, as if it were dependent upon an entirely one-dimensional idea or thought,” writes Bond.  “And it is just such a lack of controversy—a single-mindedness, if you will—that is characteristic of delusion” (117).  This would appear to suggest that the poor sap who had to roll out of bed in the middle of the night to photograph this horrorshow somehow succumbed to a delusional state (perhaps cleverly forced upon him by the killer?).  True, the police photog probably could have moved over 45 degrees for another angle, but my analysis of the image suggests anything more ambitious would have necessitated jumping over the brick wall and fighting through some bushes—so perhaps this civil servant was not so much seized with delusional ideation as with arthritic laziness.     

Complicating these diagnostic procedures even further, Bond necessarily places great emphasis in his analysis on the “punctum” of these photographs--Barthes’ celebrated notion of a haunting detail in a photo that “pierces” the surface of the image to assume great affective import for the spectator.  Of course, Barthes argued the “punctum” was a profoundly personal and subjective matter, so when Bond’s eye wanders to an open purse, or a pot on the stove, or a cup of tea by a bedside, a third diagnostic subject comes into view: the author himself.

So where exactly does the “neurotic,” “perverse,” and “psychotic” reside here—in the killer, in the image, in the author, or in some slippage between all three?  That’s difficult to say, perhaps by design, inasmuch as Lacanian analysis so often revels in a series of seemingly infinite relays and reversals between gazes, subjects, and signifiers.  Really, just trying to keep track of who is looking where at what while constituted in the gaze of various Others big and little is a major challenge in all Lacanian work, and in the end, following this chain almost inevitably leads to Lacan himself as a master presence who, like Santa Claus or Jesus, somehow seems to be passing silent judgment over you for being too big an idiot to keep track of it all.  I’m not saying Lacan is a God--but he is often treated as such.  And whereas Derrideans, Deluezians, and a few straggling Baudrillardians can talk themselves out of an argument almost as quickly as they can make it—Lacan has instilled in his disciples a sense that he really is the one supposed to know and what he knows above all else is that he is indisputably right. 

But the weird transferences that occur in Lacanian prose actually work quite well in a book about crime scene photography.  Lacan is most definitely “at the scene” here inasmuch as his mythos helps reanimate the now vacant subject positions of these camera views, and conjures--around the corpse itself--the ghost of some long lost psychopathological eye.    

Bond's analysis of the murder scenes themselves is extremely interesting, and also provides a number of illuminating flashes within the frequently dense thickets of Lacanian thought.  But the strongest sections of the book, for me at least, are the opening two chapters that set up the rationale of Bond's project by placing Lacan in dialogue with the logics of photography, detection, and criminology.  Particularly fascinating is a section contrasting the almost nauseating entropy of the crime scene photo with the banal and ordered “repressions” bound up in staged photography—an analysis guaranteed to make the reader reconsider the frequently unexamined relationship between photography and “reality” and/or the Real.  Here Bond draws on Barthes again, but also Rosalind Krauss’ work in The Optical Unconscious.
There remains a structuring absence in the book, however, that merits some consideration.  At one point in the discussion, Pierre Bourdieu makes an unexpected and ultimately telling appearance.  I say “unexpected” since Bourdieu is typically one of the more reviled figures on the French theory scene, routinely dismissed as an empiricist, positivist, and rank sociologist inasmuch as his work often displays the bad taste of engaging material institutions and historical practices.  Bond cites Bourdieu’s statistical research in Distinction describing what people find to be “interesting or beautiful” subject matter in art.  Thus 78% of respondents believe a sunset to be “interesting or beautiful,” while only 1% would say the same of a car wreck.  By way of transition to his discussion of photographic repression, Bond notes in passing the “modern” photographers who sought to disrupt this hierarchy of “beauty and interest” by pointing to a type of “unconscious” that might be excavated in photographing the more unpleasant detritus of the social world.  Obviously, a necessary maneuver for looking at and through images of crime scenes.  

What Bond avoids in this brief encounter with Bourdieu, however, is the actual sociology involved in this research.  When Bourdieu writes that 78% of people find sunsets to be “beautiful or interesting,” this is not a random result drawn from a random sample.  And by holding up “ugly” photography as an “unconscious” to this world of normalizing imagery, Bond replicates precisely what Bourdieu sought to critique: the assumption that taste is somehow universal, natural, and without material/political origin.  The 78% who find sunsets to be “beautiful” practice what Bourdieu dubbed “popular” taste, an appreciation of art associated with a “habitus” grounded in quite specific distributions of economic and cultural capital.  This audience, Bourdieu argues, tends to value “function over form” in art, and that “function” is to be pleasing to the eye, "beautiful," harmonious, etc. 

But Bourdieu also notes that among educational/cultural elites, those who have advanced college degrees, art school pedigrees, or contracts with MIT Press, this scale is completely inverted.  Just try getting your dopey little painting of a sunset into the next Whitney biennial, friend, at least without suffusing it with the proper amount of irony to connote your disdain for those who might actually hang such a painting in the kitchen as a pleasant enough distraction or decoration.  In this inverted world (where commercial success and popular appeal = aesthetic failure), participants tend to value “form over function.”  Every joke you have ever heard about modern art stems from this divide—perhaps most classically conveyed in the now stock satire of the egg-headed bohemian staring contemplatively at a blank canvas. 

Which brings us to Lacan at the Scene’s semi-repressed secret:  It is a book precisely for those cultural elites who do indeed find a car wreck to be “beautiful or interesting,” or who, in this case, find the collision of abject murder scenes and continental theory to be an exhilarating experiment at the level of form.  Sensitive perhaps to potential accusations of exploitation or sensationalism, Bond goes to great lengths to defend the functional utility of his project (even going so far as to point out similarities between Lacan’s architecture of psychopathology and the FBI manual for crime scene investigation).  Toward the end of the introduction, for example, he makes an interesting appeal to integrate the book as a forensic resource alongside the CCM (Crime Classification Manual) and the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder):

Although it is unlikely to become a reality, I shall also stress here that the most relevant readership for my annotations below would actually be the various employees of the state (“the apparatus of the prosecution”) who are involved—day to day—with the crime of murder, and are currently using CCM and DSM.  For, despite the seemingly flippant title of the book, the following assessments are in no way proposed as merely a fascinating ruse or what have you (35). 

A "fascinating ruse" or "what have you"?  The unconscious speaks!  For the book does indeed
evoke the fascination of those aesthetes capable of transforming this index of material horror--the more gritty, tawdry, and "psychotic" the better--into stylized emblems of theoretical proof.  And what I do have, apparently, is a shared interest in rewriting the brutal socio-political materiality of murder--a crime linked to poverty, stress, drugs, and the sex-trade as much as anything else--into a tableau of timeless psychical structures (3 and only 3!) that might be gleaned from the seemingly purposeful positioning of a muddy shoe. 

This is not to pass moral judgment on Bond’s project.  Quite the contrary.  Like I said, the moment I took this book from the shelf and comprehended its premise, I knew it was my destiny to purchase it, read it, and maybe most perversely, look at it.  I can’t help it. It called to me as a fellow traveler, speaking to that same impulse that occasionally throws a Throbbing Gristle disc in the CD player to revel in the titillating sublime of absolute negation--an aestheticized death trip.
Not that Bond should have necessarily foregrounded such self-reflexivity in his analysis.  But there is something symptomatic, psychoanalytically AND sociologically, in conceptualizing such a project in the first place, and in knowing full well that a sympathetic audience exists to take part in such theoretical play.  And that audience, as Bond seems to recognize in his interesting sidestepping of "fascination" and the “what have you,” is not the grizzled F.B.I. veterans at the Quantico unit, but is instead the not quite yet so grizzled post-graduates in art history, philosophy, and comp. lit. that share in the Lacanian habitus. 

Truly, if you actually wanted to solve crimes (in London, no less), Raymond Williams would probably be the more successful theory-hero to press into service here ("That wrapper is from a gum sold only at a little shop in the East End, favored in particular by Pakistani immigrants on their way to clerical positions in the banking district. Let's begin our search there!").  But if the goal is to read crime, not by sifting through the densly messy confusions of material culture and practice, but through a hermenuetics that traces these diverse atrocities back to three fundamental dysfunctions in the signifying chain, Lacan--as always--is your chief suspect.  

Popular Posts