Numb3rs, post-9/11 US television, and the elusiveness of the everyday

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I liked this article by Rowan Wilken, some quotes of which…:

Writing on television after the events of 11 September 2001, events which continue to ‘haunt’ our ‘media-saturated cultural imaginings’ (McCabe 2007, 180), Lynn Spigel (2004, 235) suggests that ‘traditional forms of entertainment had to reinvent their place in US life and culture’. One way that television drama production has done this has been by taking up and addressing issues associated with these events. While many television series produced since 2001 have been viewed as implicitly or explicitly addressing these themes – from 24 and Lost, to Bones, Without a Trace, and Criminal Minds – attention to these concerns is particularly evident in the CSI franchise. According to Michael Allen, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (the original series) and its spin-off CSI: Miami address the events of 11 September 2001, ‘obliquely, acknowledging the national agenda of fear and paranoia through more distanced and localised referents’, whereas the later series, CSI: NY, which premiered in 2005, ‘confronts head on’ the legacies of 9/11 by seeking to ‘understand its huge tragedies and human complexities from the smallest of remains’ (Allen 2007, 9; McCabe 2007). In this way, the CSI franchise is seen to function as a kind of fictionalized [-p202] form of televisually-mediated public mourning (Kramer 2009, 202), albeit one that ‘does so precisely by indirection; it proliferates by lines and zones of suggestion, allusion, resemblance, association, connotation’ (204).

In this article, I want to draw from, as well as read against, the critical scholarship on CSI to argue that the US-made television drama series Numb3rs should also be viewed as a key text within a larger televisual corpus which Kramer designates as ‘post-9/11’ television (2009, 204). By ‘9/11’, Kramer is referring not just to the events of September 2001, but to a longer history, one which can be understood as having ‘rippled back through

Oklahoma City and Columbine and forward through Baghdad’ (Kramer 2009, 204). In its televisual form, this longer history of 9/11 is manifest more recently as the exploration and expression of certain anxieties associated with these diverse but related historical events and their larger repercussions.” (201-202)

Post-9/11 television shows such as Numb3rs and the CSI franchise evidence a strong reinvestment in scientific rationalism as a way of managing complex and often unseen security threats – threats which, since Oklahoma and 9/11, have led to a shift in perception where America has moved from being viewed as ‘formidable, impenetrable and secure’ to becoming ‘vulnerable and infiltrated’ (McCabe 2007, 171). A key argument of this paper, however, is that engagement with scientific rationalism in Numb3rs is quite distinct from the way these ideas are explored in other post-9/11 shows, especially CSI, in that in Numb3rs, scientific rationalism (like security) has less to do with certainty than it does contingency. Drawing on (and adapting) the work of television scholar Sue Turnbull (2007), I argue that this particular reinvestment in scientific rationalism is manifest in Numb3rs in two key ways: through the ‘look’ of the show (principally, the use of mathematics in problem-solving, and the visual techniques used to represent these mathematical formulae), and the ‘hook’ of the show (that is, the characterizations that drive the show, as well as the overall message or moral of the show). In making this argument, I want to suggest that there are a number of clear similarities between Numb3rs and CSI. For instance, both ‘tacitly enact a fantasy-structure that ameloriates the . . . emotional and social residues’ associated with 9/11 (Kramer 2009, 218); both programmes also offer ‘weekly demonstrations of the benefits of modern science linked to efforts to ensure public security’ (Gever 2005, 446); and, both provide ‘the illusion of control after great painful upheaval’ (Siegel 2007a, 17).” (202)

As crime dramas, the perpetration of crimes and their subsequent resolution are, of course, a central component of both Numb3rs and CSI. Given their shared engagement with the events of 9/11, both shows can be seen to operate metonymically, in effect, by suggesting that ‘it is not just the individual body but the national one that is transgressed by [-p203] crime’ (Harrington 2007, 372). As Harrington explains, ‘in the post-September 11 United States, interest in these crime shows links the effective policing of individual crimes with larger concerns about national security’ (2007, 366).

What is more, as with crime prevention more broadly, science and a (re)turn to and strong reinvestment in scientific rationalism (and its associated computational and representational technologies) is central to the (re)solution of crime in these shows. As Harrington (2007) puts it, ‘in a contemporary America anxious about hidden identities and so-called sleeper cells of terrorists’ (a scenario that adds a much darker inflection to Simmel’s notion of ‘the stranger that is near’), science and new technology promise ‘clear, classifiable understanding’ (374).

There are crucial differences, though, in the way these two series explore and represent these issues – differences which position Numb3rs as a show less about the trauma and loss associated with the events of 11 September 2001 (which is one dominant reading of CSI: NY), and more about the security cultures that have emerged in the wake of these events (that is, ‘9/11’ in its broader sense).” (202-203)

Numb3rs is unique within the larger corpus of post-9/11 television,” Wilken writes, because it “reflects and explores an understanding of security as the guiding of disorder, aided by a form of scientific rationalism that works to scan for problems within the elusiveness of the everyday” (203)

Ref: Rowan Wilken (2011): Fantasies of control:Numb3rs, scientific rationalism, and the management of everyday security risks, Continuum, 25:02, 201-211

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