Facilitating conversation about the forensic turn in culture
A research initiative, led by James Frieze, bringing together artists, academics and activists across institutional separation of science from art
Scholars in various disciplines, including education, fine art, journalism, medicine, cultural studies, and law, have alluded to a ‘forensic turn’ in culture. The term has often been used to refer to the emerging reliance on scientific evidence in criminal trials. Legal, critical and political theorists typically concentrate on how standards of proof and definitions of ‘truth’ have contentiously changed in dialogue with scientific and technological advances. The aesthetic dimensions of the forensic turn are manifest in the onslaught of reality and true-crime television, and in an embedding of a criminological aesthetic in the visual grammar of fine art. Across all these and other contexts, there is an investment in evidence-based techniques that promise to transcend human error. This investment is reflected in the cultural primacy of survey data analysing things, such as happiness, previously thought to be resistant to datafication.
Is ‘forensic aesthetics’ an oxymoron?
The forensic has acquired its aura of reliability by denying that it is anything but a set of ‘practical’ skills via which ‘factual information’ can be established. To claim that the forensic is an aesthetics is to argue that it relies on protocols of appearance. As Rancière asserts in his delineation of aesthetics, ‘politics revolves around what is seen and what can be said about it, around who has the ability to see and the talent to speak.’ Thinking of the forensic as an aesthetics is essential if we are to understand how forensic logic installs protocols of appearance that establish (to borrow a phrase from playwright Will Eno) ‘contours and standards’ that shape behaviour and perception across cultural domains.
So what’s the big idea?
In exploring the claim that there has been a ‘forensic turn’ in culture, Frieze invokes the call by David Armitage and others for a re-claiming of ‘big history’. As Martin Jay notes, this re-claiming is needed because: ‘there has often seemed something obnoxious about the very concept of a “big idea,” a trace of pretension and arrogance. Suspicion has been generated not only when the idea is itself overly abstract and general, but also when attempts are made to fashion a coherent narrative of its history.’ Like Jay, Frieze believes that the study of culture, especially contemporary culture, requires ‘a telescopic as well as a microscopic gaze. This is in order to produce “trans-temporal” histories that range beyond the boundaries of period or epoch, and follow ideas through many different local contexts. Frieze argues, along with Jay, that the study of culture, especially contemporary culture, requires ‘a telescopic as well as a microscopic gaze’ to produce trans-temporal histories that range beyond the boundaries of period or epoch, and follow ideas through many different local contexts.
What does ‘forensic’ really mean?
The word ‘forensic’ has implanted itself in our culture as a contemporary keyword. In everything from politics, journalism, car maintenance, accountancy, anthropology, nursing and a host of other domains - it’s used as a catch-all term that renders investigation scientific and failsafe. To call someone’s judgement ‘forensic’ is to certify their expertise. But as we look closer at both the history and the contemporary performance of the term ‘forensic’, we may experience (to invoke Radiohead) some alarms and some surprises…
There is no such thing as forensic science
Anatomist and anthropologist, Sue Black, points out that though the term ‘forensic’ has recently been used as if it designated a particular skillset – when it actually designates the context within which an activity is presented. For example, a legal trial or enquiry in which experts are truth must be established. Black insists: ‘There is no such thing as forensic science. There is science, and the forensic bit simply means that you are taking that science into the courtroom.’ If you examine the history of the term ‘forensic’, as Eyal Weizman has done, we can see that its legal/juridical meaning was established in the time of the Roman ‘forum’, where it refers to a kind of rhetoric that takes place in public. The spread of the term ‘forensic’ is symptomatic of what forensic aesthetics views as: a large-scale breakdown of certainty about the basis of truth.
"There is no such thing as forensic science. There is science, and the forensic bit simply means that you are taking that science into the courtroom."
Forensic aesthetics and risk society
While ‘forensic’ still connotes experts processing the evidence of crime, its meaning has crept stealthily into all aspects of life. In today’s risk society, all scenes of behaviour are today treated as crime scenes, withholding their secrets in ways that need to be overcome by expert investigation.
In the wake of postmodernism, the forensic leads us to what Baudrillard refers to as ‘the technical realization of the real’. It promises to restore certainty to humanity through technical means that transcend the limitations of human beings. The claim made by the forensic, as a post-religious form of divine intervention, reflects this paradox: it promises to help us overcome (what were previously) barriers to knowledge, but assures us that we are less able than ever before to ‘see’ the truth without assistance.
Theatrical Performance and the Forensic Turn (Routledge, 2019)
If we as a society are in the midst of a ‘forensic turn’ in which ‘attention has shifted from the physiological intricacies of the subject position to narratives led by things, traces, objects and algorithms’ (Weizman) - then where does this leave theatrical performance? After all, this is a medium to which ‘the physiological intricacies of the subject position’ are usually seen as integral.
In Theatrical Performance and the Forensic Turn, Frieze argues that adherence to forensic aesthetics is maintained by three illusions and two imperatives. The illusions of interiority, transparency and solvability hold that truth is lying in wait beneath a duplicitous surface of misinformation that needs forensic experts to decode and unravel it. Once penetrated, the problem of misinformation will be solved (or so these illusions promise us), and the truth will appear transparent. These three illusions are supported by two imperatives that tie us to a techno-present mode of living: the imperative to innovate—literally, ‘make new’, cutting oneself off from attachment to the value of history; and the imperative to interact, which really means interact with devices and platforms that too often disconnect us from ourselves and one another.
This monograph reads work by Will Eno, Sound&Fury, Lucy Prebble, Ridiculusmus, Caryl Churchill, Jennifer Haley, Laura Wade, Quarantine, Tim Crouch, Andy Smith, Adam Cork, Alecky Blythe, Peggy Shaw, Nina Raine, Chris Thorpe and Hannah Jane Walker, Phil Porter, Joe Penhall, Fin Kennedy and David Greig to show how, across a wide range of forms and genres, theatrical performance has moved its attention away from assertions of what is true and toward questions about how truth is identified. In dialogue with Manuel Castells (on networked living), Ulrich Beck (on risk society), Lindsay Steenberg (on the tabloid forensic), Eyal Weizman and Thomas Keenan (on detection and forensic aesthetics), Francesco Casetti (on interaction through screens) and Jean Baudrillard (on the voyeurism of the social), the book offers the first comprehensive account of the relationship between the theatrical and the forensic.
Get in touch
If you’re interested in being part of this network, get in touch with James Frieze at firstname.lastname@example.org