Friday, January 29, 2010

Interrogating images: Lacan at the Scene

If the title alone doesn’t grab you, let me offer the premise of
Lacan at the Scene (MIT Press, $28.95) as a best-chance hook. Author Henry Bond’s opening statement is sufficiently clear and concise as to dissuade me from any fumbling paraphrasing. It asks: “what if Jacques Lacan—the brilliant and eccentric Parisian psychoanalyst—had left his home in the early 1950s in order to travel to England and work as a police detective? How might he have applied his theories in order to solve crime?” It sounds like the prompt for a work of speculative fiction, but what this book actually is—a study of an under-examined use of photography; a method of de-mystifying an ostensibly inscrutable body of work; a series of case studies intended for practical use in homicide investigations—probably makes for a richer and more satisfying read, if a tough slog for the squeamish. Considering how appalling some of the subject matter in Lacan at the Scene is, and how brutal are some of its images, I’m almost embarrassed to admit how utterly compelling I found it to be. But I digress—this post isn’t about my personal neuroses. Okay, at least not more than any other.

In developing his proposition, Bond—a London-based writer and photographer whose author photo suggests a guy suffering from chronic insomnia—became a regular visitor to the National Archive in order to study extant materials pertaining to murders that took place in England between 1955 and 1970. He was surely regarded by the more judgmental clerks with some suspicion. He offers an anecdote in which he requested to re-examine a case file he’d already looked over only to find that it had since been deemed unfit for public inspection. When he made inquiries he was escorted by a senior archivist through hidden doors and down a long corridor into a conference room where three men waited for him, the closed case file box resting on a table between them. These men explained that Bond’s previous access to the file was granted only by accident—the file was in fact still under a sort of quarantine. “Such material is not withheld for a logistical reason,” writes Bond, “…it is simply too
contagious to release.” This assessment seems intended less as a way of poking fun at Archive policy or its cabalistic culture as much as to emphasize just how taboo the perusal of images of violent crimes is. Which goes some distance toward explaining why, despite the wealth of superb writing out there covering photography in myriad forms, the critical writing on crime scene photography remains undernourished. It is, nevertheless, the cornerstone of Bond’s thesis.

Henry Bond, looking a little more rested

Bond takes Lacan’s tripartite model of mental functioning—the categories of perverse, psychotic and neurotic—and meticulously “reads” a series of murder crime scene photos in order to uncover evidence as to under which model the killer could be classified. Bond also makes frequent use of Roland Barthes’ two categories of photographic observation,
studium and punctum—respectively, the details that appear obviously relevant to an image’s context or meaning, and those that strike the viewer on a purely instinctive level—as laid out in Camera Lucida, so as to interrogate his own process of looking. Given that psychoanalysis urges us to regard the seemingly incidental as potentially significant, there’s a whole lot of punctum being heeded here, and fruitfully so. Bond suggests an apparent order in the chaotic disarray left in the wake of a psychotic murder, for example. Whether or not this methodology signals any sort of innovation in the established standards of police investigations I have no idea. But to the layman, especially one with a special interest in photography, psychoanalysis or both, Bond’s theorizing is both fascinating and enlightening. We may enter into each of these studies with only a certain morbid, perhaps guilt-ridden interest in the sick or tawdry aspects of their implied narratives, but in every case Bond goes deeper into the psychological ramifications implicit in these vestiges of murder than you’re likely to find in Faces of Death, a Weegee compilation, or whatever equally lurid work of exploitation—or, to be generous, exploitation art—you might find yourself compulsively surveying.

The perverse killer is found in a case where a woman is killed in her back garden, in full, almost theatrically staged view of a window, or potential witness. The psychotic killer is found in a confession that explains how murder was necessitated by mortal danger emanating from a bar of soap. The neurotic killer is found in a crime scene where beside a neatly piled column of books there lies both a confession to the killing of the corpse left behind and a polite request that these books be returned to the appropriate library before they’re overdue. The neurotic impulse to “undo” violent acts is further exemplified by a case in which the killer murders the victim and subsequently places a pillow under the victim’s head and a glass of water by the victim’s side. Imaginatively citing the writings of J.G. Ballard, William Burroughs, Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Slavoj Zizek—who also happens to be the curator of the series to which Lacan at the Scene belongs—and the films of Alfred Hitchcock, Michael Powell, Michelangelo Antonioni, David Lynch and Christopher Nolan, among many others, Bond offers numerous points of reference through which to contextualize his investigatory process. Straddling fact and fiction, the established and the untested theoretical, using language that is always to the point without being excessively cold or alienating, he takes the reader through a labyrinth of nightmare to gain wider insight into how our minds betray us, and how we can understand the residue of trauma. It might even help you understand non-homicidal behaviour a little better.

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