- Forensic Media: Reconstructing Accidents in Accelerated Modernity by Greg Siegel
In Forensic Media, professor of film and media studies Greg Siegel explores the roles various media play in helping to “transmute the disruptive event of the accident … into a coherent and dispassionate story of casual concatenation” (p. 21). While accidents have been a constant of the human condition, the advent of modernity made accidents particularly more disruptive and violent, necessitating some sort of rationalizing discourse. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, efforts focused on controlling the organic component of accidents, whether it was horses or human operators. However, as modes of transportation became ever faster and accidents more violent, a shift in the discourse took place, moving from controlling the driver to making the technology safer for passengers when the inevitable accident occurs.
While this transition is familiar to those who study the history of accidents, risk, and safety, especially the history of automobile accidents, Siegel adds a new dimension by focusing on the media that accident investigators use. Throughout Forensic Media, Siegel explores the “cultural fantasy that underwrites accident forensics” (p. 20), namely that we can somehow lessen the horror of modern accidents by reconstructing them, learning lessons, and applying those lessons to the future.
In chapter 1, Siegel explores the development and role of the forensics investigator in helping to medicalize the accident, redeeming it by making it useful for future generations. The second chapter focuses on the cumbersome method of tracings, using machines to produce lines on paper or metal strips that represented various factors for nineteenth-century railroads and steamships. These tracings led to the black box, the ultimate recording device for accelerated modernity, which is the focus of the third chapter. The cacophony of sounds emerging from these devices demanded hours of analysis and interpretation to turn the often unintelligible into a kind of speech. The final chapter turns to the role of the high-speed camera in capturing those split seconds between initial impact and the second collision, when the car’s occupant strikes the interior. In those moments, too quick for human perception, the driver and passengers essentially become [End Page 295] inanimate objects, responding to nature, unable to shape it. The high-speed camera offered a promise of sight into these unknowable moments.
Siegel is at his best while discussing the strengths and limitations of these technologies. For example, the black box “truths” must be mediated through discursive frameworks that are treated as if they are common sense. These discourses have a history. Siegel weaves together a fascinating story, deftly using available theory, though his use of historiography could be stronger. The book’s theoretical emphasis can leave those unfamiliar with the author’s litany of names and concepts in the dark, so the book is probably not appropriate for an undergraduate course. Overall, this is a complex and enjoyable book that pushes the reader to think on multiple levels about accidents, our need to rationalize them, and the strengths and limitations of the technologies we rely on to make us safe.
Amy Gangloff is an associate professor of history at Lindenwood University-Belleville. She researches risk and automobile safety.