Occidental Exile (baculus) wrote,
Occidental Exile

Elijah Siegler: "God in the Box: Religion in Contemporary Television Cop Shows"

Siegler's study was anthologized in God in the Details: American Religion in Popular Culture (eds. Mazur & McCarthy). I read and critiqued it for a seminar I'm just finishing.

Siegler states his goal at the outset: “This study is an effort to make sense of this kind of intrusion of religious language, symbols, and themes into the secular venue of the TV cop show.” (p. 199) He begins with a rueful review of the extent to which previous studies of television have ignored its content or assumed its uniformity. Siegler doesn’t seem interested in arguing for television as an overall cultural force for good, but he does propose to vindicate it as “a locus for real thought about serious religious issues,” using three critically-lauded 1990s police dramas as his case in point. (p. 200)

Siegler alludes to Tillich’s conception of religion when he characterizes religious issues as “questions of ultimate concern.” (p. 202) But rather than emphasizing his own theoretical definition of religion at the outset, Siegler attempts to tease out the implicit definitions of religion from the three cop shows he has chosen: an admirable approach.

He claims that Law & Order presents religion as a “social fact” which provides cultural location for the characters, and the potential to provide motivations for justice or mayhem, depending on the adherent and/or the religion. (The second of the three aspects that Siegler suggests are in play, i.e. presentation of casuistic processes, is negligibly religious, I think. At least he hasn’t supported it as such.) He emphasizes that Law & Order is distinctive in admitting “no essence, no substance to religion.” (p. 205)

In NYPD Blue, religion is used primarily as a device for punctuating the dynamics of character, with institutional rites serving to cap off television seasons and to illuminate the depths of personality and conscience beyond their professional police roles. Religion is identified with personal “faith,” and presented as a fragile psychological property, subject to destruction through trauma and disillusion.

The third show, Homicide, seems to use a pair of cops in order to engage religious themes. Pembleton is a “fallen Catholic” whose Jesuit training has formed his intellectual and moral perspectives, while his partner Bayliss is a “spiritual” eclectic who eventually identifies as a Zen Buddhist. They thus emblemize opposing (or complementary) religious positions, characterized by Siegler as pre-modern and modern, respectively. (I would suggest that Jesuitism is as distinctively modern as liberal Protestantism, and that the church-hopping Zen convert might be more accurately termed post-modern.)

In his search for the moral conundrum at the heart of police dramas, Siegler asks, “How can the cops--our heroes--do the right thing?” (p. 210) What he doesn’t question, although he traces the historical arc of the development of crime drama back to Philip Marlowe, is why are "the cops--our heroes"? He comes close to this dilemma when he points out the critical notice of 70s vigilante-cop movies as “ideologically conservative backlash to a perceived liberal criminal justice system.” (p. 211) But he still maintains that more recent television cop dramas provide a more respectful view of the constraints on police and court power. I have to stop trusting Siegler on this point, after I read his summary of the shows, where “the investigation of a murder and its prosecution are hampered by rules, laws handed down from above that favor the criminal’s civil rights.” (p. 210, my emphasis) Of course, what the democratically-enacted laws protect from the inevitable overreaching of police are the rights of suspects. According to Siegler's synopsis, “the cops find the man or woman who is guilty” on the basis of illegally-obtained evidence or unreliable testimony. The propriety or morality of warrantless searches isn’t questioned by the shows. Nor is the apparently infallible character judgment of the police, according to the outlined scenario. (One hopes Siegler actually knows better.) Unlike the 70s vigilante movies, these shows provide justification--however complex and sophisticated--for coercive actions of cops qua cops, abusing their institutional authority without being marked as renegades.

All of this is worrisome enough before moving into the crowning, titular section of the study. Siegler’s examination comes to rest on the interrogation chamber, “the box” as Homicide calls it, as the dramatic arena of moral epistemology, “where communion between the police and the criminal is possible, where the former can find the truth and the latter can seek absolution, and where the audience can find meaning.” (p. 211) I greatly fear that we can now see the fruit of the meaning that these shows have communicated to American audiences. These dramas were constructed in such a way as to justify the use of coercion by authorities to elicit criminal confessions. We don’t need no stinkin’ fourth amendment to the Constitution! Especially not for Muslims and “illegal combatants.” We have now reached the point where an American Supreme Court Justice, with his naked face hanging out, can tell the BBC that he doesn’t think that “so-called torture” by interrogators isn’t precluded by the Constitution because it isn’t “punishment” per se, and political pundits openly favor torture--often using television drama (notoriously the “ticking bomb” fantasy of 24) as evidence for their arguments.

Siegler’s reflections on Foucault’s genealogy of discipline are certainly relevant. The 1215 Lateran Council not only mandated sacramental confession, it also forbade priests to sanction trial by combat and related judicial procedures (as coercing God into judgment). As a result, Continental European jurisprudence came increasingly to rely on confessions, and on torture to produce them. The technique of controlled drowning, called “water-boarding” by its modern American proponents, was in widespread use by the end of the Middle Ages.

At the end, Siegler does not simply argue that 90s cop dramas were a notable vehicle for moral reflection in mass media. He actually insists that “television best expressed religious and moral concerns through police dramas” which had “the box” at their core. (p. 211, my emphasis). If “the box” was our best, no wonder we are so bad.

Since I wrote this piece a few weeks ago, current events have fueled my animus on the topic.
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