Study: The Architecture of Forensics
In a memorable scene from Season 1, Episode 4 of the HBO drama The Wire, police detectives Bunk Moreland and Jimmy McNulty appear to wordlessly see and hear the silent “testimony” of a crime scene. Though the apartment had been cleaned and repaired since the crime occurred, they interpret the scene by applying crime scene photos to the space around them: specifically, photos of a naked and murdered woman who had been found in the kitchen. The detectives communicate their analysis of the apparently unremarkable surroundings by simply, but meaningfully, repeating to one another iterations of the word “fuck” (e.g., “mother fucker,” “fuck me,” etc.).1
As the detectives survey the room, Bunk places photographs on the floor corresponding to where they were taken, while McNulty reviews—with quick ease—documents from the autopsy file. The camera focuses on the report’s documentation of the woman’s basic physical description: her height, her weight. In an effort to better understand the entry angle of a bullet wound, McNulty places one finger on the autopsy photo of the woman’s body, and another finger on the corresponding place on his own chest. Bunk then places the photographs of the bullet holes in the window in line with the actual repaired window, so that he can mark the place on the glass where the shot must have entered. Compensating for her height, McNulty then kneels in the kitchen where the victim must have been positioned. Pointing his own gun at the spot on his chest that he identified from her autopsy photo, and matching it with the window mark that Bunk created, McNulty then uses a measuring tape to figure the angle of the fatal shot. By this method, including the ongoing f-bomb collaboration, the detectives find the unrecovered slug buried in the door of the open refrigerator. McNulty and Bunk then take the position of the shooter outside the window, as concluded from the evidence analyzed in the kitchen. Then, again using the tape measure, they find the unrecovered bullet casing lying in the grass approximately six feet from where the shot must have been fired. For all practical purposes, the crime has been solved, and not a word has been spoken other than variations of “fuck.” The four-minute scene dramatizes a forensic apotheosis of what the series repeatedly calls “good police.”2
The scene is both riveting and hilarious. But it also captures—and disrupts—something important about forensics, a realm of narrative imagining in which the work of crime investigation suggests a certain relation between humans and the material world, one amplified by a quasi-spiritual aura all its own, in which humans tend to disappear altogether. In this response to Kinstler’s piece, I’ll offer a brief analysis of the forensics imagination, as exemplified by Forensic Architecture’s rhetoric around its own work, and suggest some of the entanglements that come along with it.
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In a world in which so much should be obvious but isn’t, in cases where rational argument and careful deliberation can feel not only futile but obscene, the allure of “hard evidence” is powerful. One does not need to “know the law” in order to watch a phone camera video and see that George Floyd was murdered. Similarly, one does not need to know American history to see the statistics of inequality, including the demographics, and know that something is terribly wrong. In that respect, forensics, broadly construed, can feel like a medium of obviousness: able to argue without argument, those truths which should be self-evident.
In stories, real and fictional, that organize around forensic practices, evidence itself acquires a kind of personification, its own apparent ability to “speak,” such that experts can appear on the scene to tell us what these objects are saying of their own accord. This personification of material into evidence aligns with the objectification of people into evidence as well, when interrogation techniques avoid outright torture by making suspects’ bodies essentially speak for them, whether through a lie detector, a fingerprint, or a relentlessly manipulative strategy of questioning. In the procedures of crime investigation, the creative circuit of evidence makes things into people and people into things. The transformations always require experts—technicians who appear to take ordinary objects and awaken them into evidence, with an anthropomorphism that draws upon the kind of rhetorical force that Weizman means in moments like this one:
Forensics was part of rhetoric. Rhetoric, of course, is about speech, but forensics does not refer to the speech of humans but to that of objects or things. In forensic rhetoric, objects address the forum. Things need, however, a “translator” to interpret and mediate their speech. Because the thing speaks through, or is “ventriloquized” by, its translator, the object and its translator make a necessary and interdependent duo. To refute a legal/rhetorical statement, it is enough to refute one of the two: to either show that the object is inauthentic or that its interpreter is biased.3
In this moment, as in many others, Weizman articulates what often remains tacit in the widespread appeal of all things forensic: the claim of unbiased truth emerging from the “mouths” of objects, asserted as a corrective to the biased and imperfect testimony of human beings alone.
The move marks a strange displacement of authority, from people to things: a “translator” of objects’ independent voices, rather than a “writer” of narrative. While persons are the ones telling the story of what happened—whether the police, the lawyers, or the private investigators—in the discourse of forensics, we want to believe instead that the story is being told by things: the stuff, the bodies, the buildings, the camera. The kind of cases that organizations like Forensic Architecture take up are the kind in which the official narrative feels, for good reason, untrustworthy. The rhetoric of what Weizman calls the “forensic shift” appears to solve the problem of incompetence and duplicity in human testimony in general, whether emerging from an individual or from a state. Against what seems like this inevitable corruption, “speaking things” appear like a transcendent antidote.
Though Weizman claims a relatively recent vintage for the “forensic shift” in jurisprudence and culture, forensics as he means it has been around for at least a hundred years, and it has always staked itself on a battle to seize the ground of obviousness: to make material speak, with the authority of the self-evident. Though accompanied today by dizzying technologies, the rhetoric around forensic science has remained more or less the same, as demonstrated by this example from a seminal 1953 crime investigation manual:
Wherever he steps, whatever he touches, whatever he leaves, even unconsciously, will serve as a silent witness against him. Not only his fingerprints or his footprints, but his hair, the fibers from his clothes, the glass he breaks, the tool mark he leaves, the paint he scratches, the blood or semen he deposits or collects. All of these and more, bear mute witness against him. This is evidence that does not forget. It is not confused by the excitement of the moment. It is not absent because human witnesses are. It is factual evidence. Physical evidence cannot be wrong, it cannot perjure itself, it cannot be wholly absent. Only human failure to find it, study and understand it, can diminish its value.4
From the 1940s through the 1960s, the rule of “illustrative evidence” was doctrine in American jurisprudence, making the admissibility of material evidence, such as a photograph, dependent first upon a human witness verifying that it was what he or she had in fact observed. But by the 1960s, with the development of surveillance cameras, illustrative evidence doctrine appeared inadequate, and the Warren Court’s decision in U.S. v. Hobbs (1968) established its evidentiary replacement: the “silent witness” doctrine, which allowed certain kinds of evidence, such as a photograph, to be disentangled from its human “patron,” and instead be allowed to “speak for itself.”5 That is to say, the “forensic shift” in jurisprudence that one might observe as a twenty-first century phenomenon has in fact been underway for quite some time.
In its weird world beyond the rules of evidence, “translator”-scientists appear to transcend both the malicious deceptions and rational deliberations of human beings, by communicating instead through all manner of material, from bullets to bodies. Not only have these “translators” long been the detective heroes of literature, television, and film, but some scholars have argued persuasively that the fictional ones invented the real ones, along with their entire field of practice.6 In this magical object-realm, rather than human voices, we “listen” to what the dust has to say, the smaller and more seemingly “insignificant” the trace, the better.7 Forensic stories give us a promise of latent meaning held quietly in detritus, and reflect a material world that has come to feel both increasingly significant and increasingly meaningless at the same time.
But evidence is made, not born. Since its professionalization, experts and promoters of forensic techniques have repeatedly claimed the vanguard, in terms strikingly similar to those invoked by FA.8 Each newly minted forensic procedure, from fingerprints to lie detector tests to ballistics to DNA, has been promoted as a rational alternative to otherwise untrustworthy or brutal police practices of evidence gathering—though the success rate of such practices at preventing police violence is dubious at best. Chicago, now globally famous for its decades of police misconduct, was the birthplace of American forensics; this argument of forensics as “rational” crime solving was also the argument that supported the ascendency of the then-new FBI.9
In the procedures of crime investigation, making stuff “speak” also has the paradoxical effect of making humans and objects appear ontologically equivalent, and makes the testifying body subject to different Constitutional protections than the testifying personality.10 In this respect, forensic stories stage a strange inversion of liberalism, in which to make something speak is simultaneous to asserting its status as an object. After all, if it was already a subject—a conscious human being, for example—it could speak on its own. Something resonant happens to the human body when it appears as material evidence, in the “speaking” of its autonomic responses to sustained police questioning, as well as the way the threat of hard evidence—whether it exists or not—can be used to provoke, or coerce, confessions and plea deals.11 And though the scientists of crime are only entitled to analyze that material stuff which the Constitution allows, forensic allure casts the crime scene and its analysts in the same terms as that of scientific investigation of the natural world. As such, in forensic stories, exclusionary rules appear not as protections from state power but as enemies of truth.
In other words, rather than merely indicate a set of investigative practices that respond to crime, forensics has also come to connote a kind of secular faith in an animate material world. In this phantasmagoria, material appears to both “hold secrets” and “speak back to us.” The forensic objectification of our bodies makes our blood appear to tell us “what we are,” in the made-up ontologies of identity: black, white, criminal. As such, our bodies have become sleeping repositories of material that can speak directly to the police, inextricable parts of us that may or may not testify on our behalf. As a set of imaginary principles, forensics makes crime investigation appear not only the moral and administrative responsibility of a state, but also a magical power in and of itself: a means of secular transubstantiation, in which sacred figures conjure human truth out of the stuff of the world around us.
In one sense, forensics comes by this quasi-sacred tone honestly. The decline of judicial ordeal and the rise of the jury trial meant a transition “from God as witness to Man as witness.”12 For the legal theorists most responsible for the body of evidence law that still dominates American courtrooms, evidence appeared to be that rational pathway.13 “Making things speak” has a long history entwined with the problem of making people speak, a necessity fundamental to the trial by jury.14
Inextricable from a juridical history of expertise itself, the story of forensic crime solving in the U.S. has also long been attached to stories about the relative strengths and weaknesses of the state, particularly its role in the lives of ordinary people. In these narratives, the cool rationality of the laboratory goes hand-in-hand with a folk-hero vision of police power. J. Edgar Hoover narrativized forensic techniques in ways oddly similar to Weizman, as a means of selling the American public, and lawmakers, on the idea of a national law enforcement agency, by claiming itself as a protector of civil liberties by virtue of the new “dispassionate” techniques of scientific crime solving. In the context of the New Deal, the FBI’s purportedly rational practices of investigation promoted the idea of trust in a big state, trust in allowing the federal government to play a role in people’s actual lives.15 Despite the nefarious aims of Hoover’s surveillance dreams, in this respect the rationality of “police science” resonated with the hope of an administratively successful welfare state.
But an organization like Forensic Architecture brands itself quite differently. The rhetoric around its raison d’être implies that juridical procedures alone are not enough to render justice, nor truth, while the innate corruption of human testimony—a threat that has defined the value of forensics since its inception—resonates with the innate corruption of the state. The profoundly short history of police prosecutions certainly appears to shore this up.
But what is disconcerting about Forensic Architecture’s rhetorical self-image is that it depends upon a picture of federal and local government as inherently, and permanently, beyond repair. Instead, Weizman’s message implies, the people are better off seeking protection from private firms and non-governmental organizations in the business of collecting and producing criminal evidence: the privatization of crime investigation. Like other actors on the neoliberal stage, the message, however critically, reinforces a notion of the state as a primarily law enforcement body, not as a protector and promoter of the public good.
Such forensic solutions also tacitly promise the identification and punishment of culprits as the solution to violence in general, rather than the amelioration of the conditions that give rise to it. When attached to aspirations for their work to contribute to the cause of social justice, writ large, this paints a narrow—and naturalized into obviousness—view of what constitutes crime itself, and of means available for addressing injustice generally. Despite its claim as operating heroically outside of litigation’s procedural limits, FA’s rhetoric tends to reinforce an ideological framework shared by juridical practice itself, in which politics cannot be imagined as a viable solution to violence that originates from inequality, and where crime against the people is instead conceptualized as a rather discrete, individualized affair.
In forensic stories, crime occupies the cordoned-off, intensely localized crime scene. It often begins with a depiction of private space, or public space suddenly made private by a wrapping of yellow tape—a home, a car, a place of work, a section of sidewalk, even a body—dramatically isolated from its wider context. From an anthropological perspective, the obsession with “true crime” stories—organized as they tend to be, around the gathering of hard evidence—can appear as an elaborate preoccupation with the concept of private space itself. In resonant fashion, the crime is most often characterized as a private enterprise: motivated actions occurring between discrete individuals, to be investigated and resolved in the same fashion. The appeal of forensics as a rhetorical and narrative device lies in its promise of stripping a scene, or an event, to the elements that demand the least amount of argument, or interpretation, or sociality, in order for it to be known and understood: the autopsy report; the surveillance video; the architectural analysis regarding the fire’s path and energy. The complexity of conditions that contextualize the crime event remain purposefully outside the yellow tape, as does the practice of interpretation itself: not interpretation, but “translation” of objects’ voices; not why something happened, but how. Despite the prominent role of its experts, as a set of imaginary principles, forensics promises a way to overcome the tacit problem of people in general.
But we know that stuff becomes evidence due to humans interpreting it as such, and that the stories that stuff appears to tell are quite intentionally created by human beings. This is not to say that forensic stories are mere fabrications, but rather to make a better claim for human storytelling itself. After all, people are the analytical creators that can both understand and imagine a story of what and how and why, gathered from the endless stuff of the material world; the stuff cannot. In this way, it’s not the work of forensics that’s troubling, but the rhetoric around it, and the pervasive imaginary world it demands, one that presumes the only way to claim access to a true story—the right story—is to eliminate the human person who is actually, and intentionally, telling it. To make this move is to relinquish a tremendous human power, and, worse, to imagine that things can do it better. The ability to use our critical imagination to see otherwise hidden possibilities—no matter how, as Auguste Dupin might say, outré—and to write a revised story that pushes toward truth, and hopefully toward a more just world, is a specifically and uniquely human power, and one that should be claimed as such, rather than pretend that it should—or even could—be deferred to objects. It is the virtue of “good police,” and it should not be abandoned, even in the face of tremendous odds.