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Discourse 25.1&2 (2003) 81-97

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"These are our stories":
Trauma, Form, and the Screen Phenomenon of Law and Order

Susanna Lee

This paper examines the role of the modern television crime drama as a forum for working through the trauma of living in a violent culture. It concentrates on the most popular of American television crime dramas, Law and Order, to discover how the American public relates—and wishes it related—to violence. It explores the fantasy of menace and protection that this drama represents and, finally, considers how that fantasy operates in political discourse about terrorism and the threat to public security.

The detective series genre has always represented both the desire for reassurance and the simultaneous sense of the impossibility of that reassurance. In the classic hardboiled novel as created by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, the suspense and the sense of menace were minimal. Even though the hardboiled formula, as Chandler himself put it in his famous article, "The Simple Art of Murder," "took murder out of the Venetian vase and dropped it into the alley" (58), the lush and sordid atmosphere of Chandler's own Philip Marlowe series never represented a public menace. On the contrary, its Californian unreality provided an experiential adventure. Furthermore, and most important, the detective maintained a moral and narratorial steadiness, so that the series provided an ethical as well as a structural reassurance. In [End Page 81] the post-hardboiled fiction that followed the Second World War, however, this reassurance gives way to a different sort of repetition. In crime fiction by Jim Thompson and Mickey Spillane, the detective becomes a vehicle for brutal violence. Spillane's Mike Hammer either sustains or inflicts numerous wounds, as the shiver of suspense is accompanied with a visceral recoil in the face of continued savagery. In these and other post-war series, repetition ceases to represent a combination of adventure and reassurance. Instead, it becomes reminiscent of post-traumatic repetition as described by Freud: compulsive reproductions of scenes of trauma and pain. And yet, this violence that threatens to overwhelm is always mediated by the form-giving figure of the narrator-detective and by an invariable narrative form.

In the case of modern television crime drama, detectives and prosecutors are as much witnesses as they are heroes. Satisfactory moral resolution is often impossible. In Law and Order, even when a murderer is punished, the prosecutors often ruminate on the ephemeral nature of judicial victories, on the certainty that such catastrophes must continue to arise. On the other hand, even when the murderer goes unpunished and justice unserved (which is common), these characters remain reassuring and caring presences. Television crime drama combines these contradictory elements—the repeated articulation of violence and the reassuring presence of the detective/witness. It relies on this psychic tension between the inclination to (re)present violence and the inclination to moderate it with form and empathetic presence.

Every episode of Law and Order starts with a low, male voice-over pronouncing these words: "In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate but equally important groups: the police who investigate crime and the district attorneys who prosecute the offenders. These are their stories." I want to underscore the idea that this is a drama of human stories, and, what is more, stories about those who "represent the people." With this focus—for Law and Order is as much about how humans respond to crime as it is about the schematic resolution of social disorder—the show enacts a particular sort of postmodern psychic tension. It combines an uncontainable rush of violence with the assurance that someone (detective, author, narrator, public) is watching and producing narrative form. This combination remains dramatic rather than formulaic (or dramatic though formulaic) because the tension of Law and Order, for the viewer and for the detective character, comes not just from the suspense of plot construction, but from a vaster psychic precariousness: the incertitude of whether the detectives and prosecutors—and by extension [End Page 82] the judicial system...


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pp. 81-97
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