Dorothy Butchard and Rex Ferguson report on the first Art of Identification workshop:
The first Art of Identification workshop introduced the aims of the network with a truly interdisciplinary event, drawing together researchers, writers, theorists and practitioners from a wide variety of disciplines and backgrounds. The range of interests among participants prompted new conversations and unexpected connections throughout the day, as speakers and attendees compared approaches and insights. This write-up can’t capture everything discussed, but aims to give a flavour of the presentations and debates taking place.
The workshop began with a welcome from organiser Rex Ferguson, who took the opportunity to say a few words about the network’s origins and ethos. Noting the influence of “tremendous work on identificatory practices” carried out by scholars, researchers and practitioners over the past fifteen years, he picked out a number of key texts whose concerns were particularly important in the network’s formation; these included Kamilla Elliott’s Portraiture and British Gothic Fiction (2012) and Jonathan Finn’s Capturing the Criminal Image (2009). “Human identity and identification” emerged as a fascinating subject for literature and the visual realm, as well as a motivation for the network itself.
The first panel focused on identificatory methods, with two speakers sharing their views on research, practice, and the relations between the two. First up was Jess Woodhams, Senior Lecturer in Forensic Psychology at the University of Birmingham, who gave us a comprehensive introduction to the benefits and limitations of “crime linkage”, as well as her thoughts on how research intertwines with practical methodologies in this field. She began by explaining how information gathered in databases can be used to collate evidence and identify patterns of behaviour across different crime scenes, in processes of “linkage analysis” now practiced all over the world. In particular, the talk demonstrated the importance of testing key underlying assumptions, such as the expectation that repeat offenders tend to be “consistent, but in a distinctive way”, and showed how these techniques are dependent on maintaining a carefully curated dataset. Woodham’s talk suggested that the relationship between research and practice is both complex and complementary, and offered an intriguing insight into how contemporary uses of networked databases may affect investigative procedures. Picking up on several key points from Woodham’s talk, Lee Rainbow from the National Crime Agency began by joking that rather than the old trope of finding a needle in a haystack, his job is more akin to helping identify the right haystack. Rainbow emphasised that his role as a Behavioural Investigative Advisor involves advising police on how to move forwards, rather than seeking the specific identity of criminals; “everything we do,” he explained, “has the single underlying goal of supporting investigative decision-making”. His account also exploded several popular myths about “profiling” popularised by fictional portrayals, noting that “knowing someone’s personality does not help you catch them”. Rather than trying to define a specific identity, he seeks an approximation of “thematic identity”, based on patterns of behaviour and evidence from the crime scene. The talk concluded with a note on the new challenges posed by online crime, and both speakers’ approaches to identification showed how research and methodologies for “interpreting and reconstructing the crime scene” are part of an ongoing process of development and evaluation. Both talks reminded the audience that the use of databases for identification is not straightforward, while noting how effective these methods can be when used and maintained by dedicated analysts. On a lighter note, the talks prompted a lively discussion about the vast differences between the “fact” of real-world processes and practitioners, and the “fiction” of their portrayals in popular culture.
After the break, Detective Warren Hines started by quizzing the audience about our understanding of motive, asking how many different kinds of motive there might be. Guesses ranged from five to over a hundred, and there were murmurs of surprise when he suggested about twelve distinct categories, including sexual motives and revenge. No two investigations are the same, Hines explained, though there is often “some commonality” in how people respond, and knowledge of behaviour patterns can help to piece together events before and after a crime takes place. Countering the more frantic depictions of detective work in fiction and onscreen, Detective Hines mused that his own job often requires time in a quiet room, “just thinking things through”. He also drew attention to the limitations of technologies such as CCTV, which “doesn’t always help,” suggesting that technologies can’t replace the need to visit the crime scene, put the crime into context, and consider people’s responses. On the subject of responses, it emerged that “what people don’t do” is often as instructive as what they do: for example, it may be suspicious if someone who frequently communicates with others suddenly stops using their phone. Hines observed that representations in popular fiction might well affect criminal behaviour – “everyone knows what we do now” – and suggested that the three technologies which have most changed police work are the Micro CT Scan, DNA identification, and fingerprints. This fascinating and very personal account of detective work gave the impression of a tremendously complex process in which instinct and experience is backed up by science and technologies.
One of the many debates prompted by the morning talks was the question of how contemporary identification practices are changing, particularly in terms of differences from the late 19th Century. The morning panellists concluded that contemporary databases are bigger – data is more informed, more accurate, and collected and organised based on the advice of behavioural psychologists – but that, in fact, the use that data is put to is perhaps not so dissimilar to the firs “consultant detective”, Sherlock Holmes. We returned to this discussion of historical changes and fictional accounts of identification in a panel with two novelists, Dan Vyleta and Richard House (both also Senior Lecturers at the University of Birmingham). Drawing on his previous work as a Cultural historian Dan Vyleta opened with the example of the proliferation of trial reports in early Twentieth century Vienna, such as a 1904 murder trial which dominated 10 pages of a 16-page newspaper. Noting that detective fiction initiates a game between author and reader, Vyleta suggested that trial reports drew their audience into a comparable game, before moving to consider his own novelistic practice. In The Crooked Maid, for example, Vyleta finds “realism pressing upon melodrama”, moving away from the psychological realism of his earlier work to embrace absences, and “things which are not explicable.” The next talk, by Richard House, brought further insights into literary approaches to detection and identification, as he contemplated how his own literary practice – and problems with this practice – relate to a need to challenge conventional expectations. Recalling that his father’s role as a policeman involved taking something that happened and giving it a beginning, a middle, and an end, House explained that his own method tries to “smash up” narrative structure in order to break an established “chain of expectations”. The talks prompted discussion about the role of “Master Narratives”, questioning who, and what, we value, with the tentative conclusion that humans appear to have a “tremendous investment” in a “fantasy of resolution.”
The morning session’s debunking of the numerous myths surrounding criminal profiling provided a particularly striking context for the final panel – especially the first paper which was delivered by Deborah Jermyn (Reader in Film & TV at the University of Roehampton). Deborah made a close analysis of the recent BBC Drama The Fall, arguing that the identification which takes place between DI Gibson and the serial killer Paul Spector is weighed with ideology and exists in a culture which “is deeply uneasy with post-feminism”. The paper therefore revolved around an implicit concern of the day overall: namely, the interaction between identification as a practical activity that designates identity to a particular body and the more ambiguous and subjective ideas brought out by a consideration of a Freudian “identification”. Watching a clip of Gibson ruminating/fantasising about her suspect while the action cut to Spector exercising topless it was hard not to reflect upon these concerns at the same time as being painfully aware of how distant this depiction was from the reality spelled out earlier in the day by Jess and Lee. The lines between fact, fiction and fantasy were further complicated by Deborah’s showing that Spector is “looking for perfection” – precisely what Lee had indicated only ever occurs in fantasy and so serves as a useful guide to the veracity of apparent confessions of wrongdoing. The final paper of the day, which came from Dorothy Butchard of the University of Edinburgh, made expert use of the preceding presentations to contextualise an analysis of Mark Z. Danielewski’s 2006 novel House of Leaves. Dorothy showed how Danielewski’s narrative has made detectives of its readers but that this positioning has moved on in vital ways from both classic detective fiction and postmodern playfulness. Rather than existing as a reader/text/author relationship, then, the uncovering of House of Leaves’ “facts” is being done via an online platform in which reader’s share theories and piece together clues. This space, which eerily mirrors the “non-place” of the house in the novel’s title, then generates a type of reader “as obsessive as the narrator”. That these readers are explicitly concerned with establishing the “facts” within a blatant “fiction”, and the way in which a context of forensic investigation lends a certain authority to such an enterprise, made for a fitting final paper and led seamlessly into the concluding discussion.
The combination of speakers prompted vigorous debate throughout the day, raising a number of insights and questions regarding the interplay between fact and fiction in identificatory practices and artistic representations of identity. In the concluding discussion, speakers and participants shared comments, questions and topics for further debate. Should we worry that fact and fiction might merge together? Are we all invested in a longing for resolution, whether knowingly or unwittingly? How important is the search for clues across a multitude of academic disciplines – for example, are historians now more invested in clues than conclusions? Do contemporary representations of identification indulge in a fantasy of safety, where the detective solves the crime and an audience is protected by the safety of fictional distance? And what is the role of emotion when distinguishing between fact and fiction? Such rich responses to the first meeting affirmed the scope and vitality of this network, and we’ll look forward to continuing the conversation at the next workshop.