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Reading/writing autopsy: a dirty theory of the science of death

Lookup NU author(s): Professor Elaine Campbell



The recent emergence of a sub-genre of television crime drama which centres on the work of forensic pathologists, positions the unruly iconography of the televisual autopsy in the foreground of the cultural imagination. There has been some academic interest in the commercial and televisual success of CSI (Crime Scene Investigation), its sibling shows and their British and Australian counterparts. Conventional readings suggest that these shows bring the science of forensic pathology into popular discourse and through that process reinforce the veracity of science and its ability to narrate, with a degree of moral authority, the ‘truth’ of death. This paper challenges the kind of ideological critique implicit to these analyses, and it does so through the lens of Brian Ott’s (2007) recent exposition of dirty theory. Dirty theory proposes an approach to cultural analysis rooted in erotics, a perspective which enriches and supplements, rather than replaces or supersedes the hermeneutic and interpretative approaches of art, literary and ideological criticism. From the perspective of dirty theory, the televisual autopsy and related techniques of anatomical inspection provide an occasion for transgressive pleasure which undermines, albeit momentarily, (hegemonic) ideologies of science. The rather banal and nonchalant ways in which television pathologists respond to everything from severed heads to charred bones, raise a number of complex issues concerning the cultural logic of late modernity – a logic which, on the one hand, represents (dead) bodies as indifferent objects available for dispassionate, scientific analysis; and on the other, celebrates the grotesque body and its functionality as Other to perfection, rationality, order and discipline. This tension is routinely played out in the drama of televisual autopsy and the forensic investigations associated with it; a critical reading of the UK television drama series, Waking the Dead, provides, then, an important starting point for thinking about a dirty theory of the science of death.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Campbell E

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: Science as Culture

Year: 2009

Volume: 18

Issue: 3

Pages: 313-331

Date deposited: 05/12/2011

ISSN (print): 0950-5431

ISSN (electronic): 1470-1189

Publisher: Routledge


DOI: 10.1080/09505430903122810

Notes: Special Issue of Journal: Techno-Death: Technology, Death and the Cultural Imagination


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