A Lacanian murder mystery

Something I wrote last year and which, sadly, did not get anywhere.

Lacan at the Scene
Henry Bond
Cambridge, Mass. and London: MIT Press, 2009
256 pp.
ISBN-10: 0-262-01342-8
ISBN-13: 978-0-262-01342-0

Detectives and analysts see more than we do, moving between transference and interpretation with a perplexing ease, and picking up key details about us on their way. There is a particular way of engaging with an analyst, just as there is a specific type of attachment with detectives, as readers follow them in their examination of clues, trying to help. If, to this dyad, we add a third component, the visual, we can begin to understand the current fascination with popular television shows such as CSI, and the predilection for endless film adaptations of paper detectives.

A psychoanalytic theory of vision tells us that all too often we don’t see the obvious ¬(remember Jacques Lacan’s take on Edgar Allan Poe’s tale ‘The Purloined Letter’), that we become desensitized to what is in front of us, that we obliterate precisely those details that are key to the meaning of what we are looking for.

This is Henry Bond’s proposition in Lacan at the Scene. His book starts with the history of the crime scene photograph, its meanings, and its place in social consciousness. He then introduces his method, which is derived from Fine Art photography, by discussing a work by Mike Mandel and Larry Sultan called Evidence, Richard Prince’s photographing technique and Sophie Calle’s approach to interpretation. She infamously asked her mother to hire a detective to take pictures of her, and took a job as a hotel chambermaid to photograph guests’ objects and speculate about their lives. Bond then introduces Lacan’s tripartite classification of psychopathologies, with psychosis, neurosis and perversion, and the three mechanisms related to them: foreclosure, repression and denial, respectively. The book follows this simple and effective structure, in its examination of specific examples of British crime scene photographs from the 1950s. The images, all of them pertaining to murder cases, are very graphic. In the journey of his investigation, Bond encountered some ethical conflicts in relation to the access and content of the images and the questions about gender they raise. These are very elegantly discussed.

Using a detective’s technique in relation to images is not a new undertaking. Carlo Ginzburg applied detection practices to the study of painted ears and Jean Michel Rabaté brought his forensic gaze to Marcel Duchamp’s Étant Donnés and Eugène Atget’s photographs of an empty Paris. The success of Bond’s approach, though, lies in the fact that the problem of seeing is studied categorically from the perspective of the clinical, rather than applied psychoanalysis, like so many other accounts of photography do. Of course, this is partly due to the subject matter, as crime photography begs psychological questions. Still, the concepts introduced make sense within the framework and are applied with all their psychoanalytic consequences rather than shoehorned to fit a photographic aim. Nothing is taken at face value (p. 29) and any classic, and often-misunderstood psychoanalytic terminology (for example voyeurism, or fetishism) is employed within basic Freudian theory, that is, with an understanding of the primacy of the unconscious (p. 36). In his book, photographs help a psychoanalytic profiling, which, in turn, complements crime classification practices currently used by the police, notably the FBI. A pile of books, a recently finished breakfast, an untouched glass of water next to the murdered body or a photo album by a kitchen sink could be clues to a neurotic mind, to the exploration of a motive, he argues. If psychoanalysis looks at the circulation of questions and answers (as Lacan examined in his Four Discourses), this is precisely what Bond does with the help of the visual. Only that, in a crime scene, the questions posed are many, pressing and baffling.

His undertaking can be further explained with the help of the history of detective fiction. Here, we are not in the realm of whodunits, of mystery plots and explanations; we are unmistakably in the company of the analytic detective (see John T. Irwin) for whom, paraphrasing Borges, the mystery itself is always more impressive than the solution. The methodology used by Bond preserves the sense of mystery and is, thus, particularly satisfying. In order to help us see, he puts his photographic skills to practice through a technique borrowed from the artist Richard Prince and which consists of rephotographing parts of images, highlighting certain elements, which are doubly inscribed. He privileges particular signifiers found in the original visual documentation. This, though, is done in a different way from the approach of Blow Up’s Thomas Hemmings –Michelangelo Antonioni’s film in which a fashion photographer discovers a murder through successive darkroom enlargements. Psychoanalysis shows us that the seemingly unimportant is key, that the things at the margins contain decisive clues, that the details matter hugely. Thus, this is what Bond concentrates on explicitly, rather than by chance. After all, time and focus are of essence in murders, even if, this time, we arrived too late (p. 1).

The relationship between what we see and what Bond tells us is fascinating. It is a wild analysis, a curious but quite accurate interpretation. The development of the narrative follows the structure of many popular forensic TV shows, where data, the privileged signifier, is found, then analyzed with the help of the Lacanian frame, to finally return to the context of the case. It all makes sense in the end and we wonder why we did not see it on the original photograph, the one taken by the forensic detective. I think, however, that more could have been done with Bond’s rephotographs. I will not fall into the trap he warns us about, that of talking about the aesthetic qualities of crime scene photographs –although these are evident–, but surely there is something uncanny, almost déjà vu but not quite about having the original image next to the details highlighted by the photographer. The look and clarity ensuing from the brutal flash photography used by forensic experts in which nothing hides calls forth interpretation but, if displayed differently, the reflexive and transferential qualities of the work could be brought out further in the reader. This is what makes us go back to detective stories time and time again, even if we know where the purloined letter is hidden. A visual manual demands a more visual output, and the clues are found precisely in the sources he cites, in Mandel and Sultan’s work and, most certainly in Calle’s photo-books. The images Bond produced are much more than a tool for training the eye to look. They are, in themselves, mysteries.

Ginzburg, C (1980) Morelli, Freud and Sherlock Holmes: Clues and Scientific Method. History Workshop, No. 9, Spring, pp. 5-36.

Irwin, J. T. (1994) The Mystery to a Solution: Poe, Borges and the Analytical Detective Story. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Rabaté, J-M (2007). Given, 1º Art 2º Crime: Modernity, Murder and Mass Culture. Brighton: Sussex Academic Press