Documentary and Forensic Media

full name / name of organization: 
Visible Evidence XVI Conference Panel

Panel co-chairs: Greg Siegel, UC-Santa Barbara & Jules Odendahl-James, Duke University

When faced with the unknown, legal and scientific institutions invoke authoritative means and methods of converting "facts," "data," and "evidence" into culturally accessible ideas, images, and narratives. The shape and substance of this unknown are inspected, represented, and disseminated by what we call "forensic media." Broadly conceived, forensic media are audio, visual, or information technologies pressed into service for the production and reproduction of legal, scientific, or other institutional truths. Impelled by the always ambivalent forces of longing and loss, forensic media anatomize events, objects, and bodies — especially those entangled with discourses of crime or catastrophe — in an effort to make those events/objects/bodies speak their secret truth and, in so doing, surrender their terrifying power. Although forensic media aspire to pure positivism, their reliance on narrative codes and representational conventions exposes their imbrication within an array of popular anxieties, alienations, and imaginings.

This panel aims to explore the idea of "the forensic" in relation to documentary scholarship and practice. Like documentary film, forensic media can be said to articulate a profound epistephilia, whether those media are used (as they have been since the nineteenth century) to convert corpses and crimes scenes into texts to be read, or (as they have been since the twentieth century) to render natural disasters and technological failures as codes to be cracked. Forensic media frequently borrow documentary codes and conventions to reinforce normative logics of causality and to establish the conditions necessary for ideological closure.

We invite submissions that investigate the following (and related) questions and concerns from a range of critical and scholarly perspectives.
How might a focus on forensic media — and related concepts such as forensic desire, forensic impulse, and forensic imagination — be mobilized to rethink notions of truth, objectivity, and the real in documentary studies?
How might such a focus inflect or reinvigorate our understanding of what it means to make evidence visible?
How might it help us to illuminate the intersections between the aesthetic forms, ethical implications, historical trajectories, methodological protocols, and theoretical domains of the forensic, on the one hand, and of the documentary, on the other?

Panel Bibliography:
Michael Allen, ed., Reading CSI: Crime TV Under the Microscope (Palgrave, 2008).
Ernst Bloch, "A Philosophical View of the Detective Novel," Literary Essays (Stanford UP, 1998).
Jane M. Gaines and Michael Renov, eds., Collecting Visible Evidence (U of Minnesota P, 1999)
Carlo Ginzburg, "Clues: Morelli, Freud, and Sherlock Holmes," The Sign of Three: Dupin, Holmes, Peirce, ed. Umberto Eco and Thomas A. Sebeok (Indiana UP, 1988).
Tom Gunning, "Tracing the Individual Body," Cinema and the Invention of Modern Life, ed. Leo Charney and Vanessa R. Schwartz (U of California P, 1996).
Bill Nichols, "Documentary Reenactment and the Fantasmic Subject," Critical Inquiry 31.1 (2008): 72¬–89.
Sue Tait, "Autoptic Vision and the Necrophilic Imaginary in CSI," International Journal of Cultural Studies 9.1 (2006): 45–62.
Ronald R. Thomas, Detective Fiction and the Rise of Forensic Science (Cambridge UP, 2004).
Mark Seltzer, True Crime: Observations on Violence and Modernity (Routledge, 2006).
Peter Wollen, "Vectors of Melancholy," Scene of the Crime, ed. Ralph Rugoff (MIT, 1997).

Greg Siegel is Assistant Professor of Film and Media Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His essays have appeared in the journals Art & Text, Grey Room, and Television & New Media, as well as the edited anthologies Rethinking Disney: Private Control, Public Dimensions (Wesleyan University Press, 2005) and Television: The Critical View, 7th ed. (Oxford University Press, 2007). He is currently writing a book about the use of media technologies for crash analysis and accident investigation. He serves on the editorial board of Critical Studies in Media Communication.

Jules Odendahl-James is a Lecturing Fellow in the Thompson Writing Program and Department of Theater Studies at Duke University. She holds a Ph.D. in Performance Studies from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and an M.F.A. in Theatre and Dance from the University of Texas at Austin. She is currently working on a book titled Evidence Never Dies on the interdisciplinary features of documentary film, photography, and theater in the U.S. since the 1930s.