John Comaroff presenting at JWTC
On Monday morning, July 18th, John Comaroff gave a talk entitled “The Truth About Crime,” a big topic to be sure, and one that has a different connotation when heard in Johannesburg than, say, in my home of New York City. While both the United States and South Africa, as well as many other countries to be sure, seem to have an unhealthy fixation on crime, this obsession manifests itself differently in different spaces.
When I arrived in Johannesburg, my first visit both to the city and to South Africa, I was most struck by the walls that seem ever-present on both sides of you as you walk down the street. Correction: they are on both sides of you as you drive down the street, because, I quickly learned, Johannesburg is not a walking city. It felt jarring and cold, and as if there is a latent anxiety walling the city in. Anxiety about crime is certainly not a South African monopoly, but it does have a different face in the new South Africa than other places I have been. As John Comaroff pointed out in his talk, South Africa seems to claim some kind of exceptionality in terms of crime, and yet, as the Comaroffs argue in their article “Figuring Crime: Quantifacts and the Production of Un/Real,” this feeling of exceptionality (which I have to admit, it is hard not to buy into, especially as one walks between walls) is more perception that reality. Not only are South Africa’s crime figures no higher than many other allegedly “safer” nations, but in fact, John Comaroff argued that historically, there is often a link between democratization and a heightened obsession with criminalization, making the new South Africa’s obsession with crime seem less exceptional.
In the wake of great change, the stability of law, order and sovereignty can feel uncertain, bringing the social contract itself into question. In times of societal transition, there can emerge a disconnect between sign and signifier wherein our old conceptions of sociality become untrustworthy and unstable. If one feels that the forces of order are enigmatic and unreliable, then the once panoptical state is suddenly disengaged and not seeing enough. In situations like this, we want to do something to cope with our feelings of anxiety and helplessness. So, maybe we build walls. Or read news stories about crime, antithetically fixating on that which frightens us. Or we seek out those that we feel can restore law and order to an increasingly chaotic world: the figure of the “divine detective,” as Comaroff called it. The divine detective is more than just a surveyer of clues; he or she is a kind of superhero, charged with the task of making legible the social ambiguities that cause us such anxiety – putting together the puzzles that we cannot. The divine detective becomes an almost mystical figure, exemplifying a seemingly contradictory blend of hyperrationality and preternality.
Comaroff cited a few of these “divine detective” in literature and the news, but these figures are also becoming more and more omnipresent in another form of cultural production: television shows. TV shows centered around criminality are of course not a new phenomenon, but perhaps the rate of proliferation of these shows is as well as the presence of divine detectives, some literally supernatural and some using science or logic in a seemingly magical way. For those of you who watch Law and Order: SVU, you will understand that if I am ever unfortunate enough to be the victim of a crime, I want Det. Olivia Benson and Det. Elliot Stabler to handle my case. Or, if I find myself in Baltimore, I will settle for no less than Kima and McNulty from The Wire (which is, in my opinion, the clear stand-out of the crime TV genre). If there is an uncomfortable tone of fetishizing the violence of crime in those past few sentences, then perhaps I, like many others, are guilty as charged. Part of the impact of the ubiquity of crime TV (as opposed to crime itself), is both a fixation on violence and an emptying out of the actual power of violence. Comaroff was careful to point out that in arguing that crime statistics often result in a fetishization of crime, he did not want to negate or deny the reality of violence. And yet, in watching, over and over again, the watered-down versions of the “reality” of crime in its fictive representations, it is tough not to, first of all, admire the uncanny ability of the often divine TV detective to solve crimes but also to fall prey to a kind of fetishization of the traumatic, equating the dramatic with reality.
There is a sense that cultural capital is being created by one’s connection to a crime and even via victimhood. Perhaps imagined or vicarious victimhood (the feeling that you are always a potential victim or that everyone knows someone who has been affected by crime) fits more with this model than literal victimhood, because then one has the space to see trauma as something culturally valuable as opposed to personally destructive. Is vicarious victimhood a way in which we can fit ourselves into social modalities of society, especially as we feel those modes shifting and becoming illegible in times of social transition? Perhaps we feel that criminality is so ubiquitous in society and popular culture that in order to fit into said society and feel like a participating member, one has to feel connected to crime in some tangible way – being able to say that you are mugged gets you some kind of “street cred,” for example. This is not to negate the reality of the trauma of being the victim of a violent crime, which I can only imagine is horrible. It is, however, to point out the kind of cultural cache that victimhood can take in society, as if it connects one to capital H history, making one an actor in culture, as opposed to a passive viewer of it. In another context, Eva Hoffman coined the term “significance envy,” which I think is appropriate here. Are some of us guilty of significance envy in our fetishization of crime? Perhaps, in light of these ideas, watching shows like The Wire is a sort of research, then – a mastering of the trauma that one hasn’t experienced but nevertheless feels exposed to.
As I was listening to John Comaroff’s lecture, I began composing a hopelessly incomplete list of TV shows that deal with solving crime in one way or another. The fact that I could so quickly put this together speaks to the points above. Feel free to add the many, many shows that I have no doubt forgotten in the comments:
Law and Order: Criminal Intent, Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, Law and Order, Law and Order: Los Angeles, Law and Order: Trial by Jury, CSI, CSI: Miami, CSI: New York, NCIS, NCIS: Los Angeles, The Wire, Alias, Blue Bloods, Criminal Minds, Detroit 187, The Shield, Southland, The First 48, Dateline, 48 Hours Mystery, America’s Most Wanted, Cops, Medium, Monk, Psych, 24, Bones, Dexter, The Mentalist, Numb3rs, The X-Files, Homicide: Life on the Streets, etc, etc.