X Marks the Spot

0 Posted by - May 6, 2014 - Tracks

The exact position of the X that in common lore marked the most significant spot at the scene of the crime has more than often been in doubt. Precise in terminology, and of course in geometrical accuracy, the spot has been, so to speak, on the move throughout the last century and a half of modern criminological practice. The place of the body might be marked by tape and chalk on the ground to which it had fallen; the alleged site of the crime might be gridded with painstaking care in order to provide a coordinate system by which to situate the evidence, carefully collected in labeled bags for presentation in court; the tracks of the criminal, the traces of blood, the dispersed weapons, and their hastily jettisoned ammunition might all be gathered together and plotted on the special kind of map that criminologists have defined as appropriate to fix the “scene” of the crime in legally tenable terms. But all this precision, as fictional and real defenders have demonstrated since Edgar Allan Poe, falls apart at the slightest questioning of a spatial kind. The question of what has generally been easily answered, at least until the most sophisticated technologies (such as those of DNA analysis) have proved too much “beyond a doubt” to be believable. The question of where, however, has always been readily thrown into obscurity, by the simple trick of denouncing the various projections, suppositions, and assumptions that are gathered around any exercise in mapping. Objects can be presented in the courtroom, but spaces have always to be imagined, and represented; and representation has, from the early nineteenth century at least, been an art, controlled by psychological projection and careful artifice, more than a science.

This was no doubt the message of Georges Bataille when, in his brief review of the photographic album X Marks the Spot (issued appropriately enough by the Spot Publishing Company of Chicago in 1930), he remarked on the custom of publishing photos of criminal cadavers, a practice “that seemed equally popular in Europe, certainly representing a considerable moral transformation in the attitude of the public to violent death.” To illustrate the point, Bataille selected an image from this “first photographic history of Chicago gangland slayings” depicting the corpse of assassinated gangster found in the ice of Lake Michigan, the figure face up, as if frozen while floating, a literal monument to its own death. In one sense, of course, this image has no relation to the “X marks the spot” announced in the title of the album, to the custom of marking the position of the victim after the removal of the body; there was in this case no mark to be left on the ice following the excavation of the frozen corpse with the subsequent thaw. For an instant, then, the corpse acted as its own mark, one to be rendered permanent only in the police photo…

Vidler, Anthony. 2000. Warped space: art, architecture and anxiety in modern culture. Cambridge, Mass: MIT. pp. 123-4

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