A Defence of Serial: The Insistence of Trauma and the Presumption of Innocence

Posted by Liam Dodds on November 22, 2014 in Blog tagged with , , , , , , , , ,

So, initially I had an opening paragraph that offered a brief outline of Serial, the true-crime podcast phenomenon. But, after peak-pizza, then peak-beard, the internet has quickly reached peak-Serial, and since we now have backlashbacklash, an opening paragraph that described a podcast that has registered five-million downloads and a million “#Serial with cereal” tweets, seemed a little, well, redundant. All I know is this. One Sunday morning, I fell into the trust of investigator and confidant, Sarah Koenig, as she led me by the hand through the trials and tribulations of her investigation into the convoluted machinations of the American legal system. Every Thursday since then I have transported myself to Baltimore, to bear witness to Sarah lasciviously divulging her detailed and grisly account, while I stare at my cheap shoes and wait patiently for her next delectable morsel of intrigue. I lean in every time Sarah gives her breathless warning about the distressing nature of the real-life testimony. I hang on every word of the police interview recordings desperate to discover a misstep or mistaken utterance. I am always left wanting more. But, what about that backlash? The part of me that reads the Guardian and wrings my hand at this sort of thing really wants to know…

What is it, exactly, that people are participating in here? Are Serial listeners in it for the important examination of the criminal justice system? Or are we trawling through a grieving family’s pain as a form of entertainment? These are questions much more easily posed than answered.

I think that the podcast recognises the listener’s desire for the conventions of the traditional murder-mystery, the certainty of the established distinctions between right and wrong and the comforting reassurance that neat and tidy solutions will be found for problems that the case presents. However, almost from the outset, the listener’s strident faith in the triumph of law and order is undermined. We are led to believe that Adnan may have been wrongly convicted. We are led to believe that there was insufficient evidence for the conviction. We are led to believe that the defence attorney botched the case, on purpose, in order to get more money for the appeal. If we are to offer Adnan the presumption of innocence, then the act that led to this conviction is also necessarily placed into question. The act of trauma exists, but the act itself is effaced through the establishment of a self-enclosed loop of questioning, of ‘beginning[s] that can only be followed by other beginnings’. What really happened? Can we really know for sure? If it wasn’t Adnan, then who was it? The focus of the investigation is no longer the act of trauma itself. Rather, for the listener, the dynamis becomes a singular point in an insistent future where something will happen. Sarah will present the crucial piece of evidence that her investigation has brought to light and subsequently Adnan will be absolved of the crime and the real murderer will be convicted.

If we begin to question the very nature of the act of trauma, then what becomes of the victim? If we are to offer Adnan the presumption of innocence, then the act that was once tangible in its existence, A committed crime B against victim C, becomes unknowable, ungraspable. In the absence of perpetrator, A, and in the absence of our understanding of the events of crime, B, all that remains is the certainty of our knowledge in the existence of the victim, C. But, through the act of the presumption of innocence, the listener serves to place the victim in a state of instability. Although, as listeners, we know that the death has occurred, the crime is radically interrupted in the moment before the act of trauma as a consequence of our unknowing. We become trapped in an inexorable game of real-life Cluedo where we know the victim, but we do not know whether it was Colonel Mustard in the Dining Room with the Candlestick or Professor Green in the Study with the Lead Piping. The act of offering Adnan the presumption of innocence posits an absence of crime. And yet, due to the certainty of death in the past, the corporeality of the body of a young woman in a shallow grave, we know with certainty that an event must occur in the future that promises to reveal the true nature of the crime – an account of the death will be offered such that the Event will become certain and identifiable once more, such is the convention of the genre of the murder-mystery. Until that moment though, untied by the consequence of the conviction, the victim of the act of trauma exists as an interminable being-towards-death. This is to say that the victim comes to exist in a state of impermanence between death in the past and death in the future. We can identify this in the very shape of the podcast. The investigation seeks not to find the murderer of Hae Min Lee, but rather, to find the evidence that will prove beyond any reasonable doubt the nature of Adnan’s innocence. The victim is no longer the story. The act of violence comes to be effaced. The victim becomes present only through her absence.

Look, I understand that what I have just said makes absolutely no sense when you consider that I am talking about a victim of atrocity, yet another victim of male violence buried in a shallow grave. How could I possibly say that the act of violence has yet to occur, or that Hae exists in a state of immortality as an interminable being-towards-death? Crass and insensitive; admittedly, it may be intellectual hand-wringing of the worst sort. I feel though, that there is something insistent in the distinctive structure and shape of the podcast that makes a unique testament to the memory of Hae Min Lee, I just hope that I can explain it. Here goes…

Trauma is constituted by repression, a systematic suppression on the part of the agent in an attempt to negate the act of trauma. Once repressed, the violent act of trauma may not be knowingly re-invested through an act of mere will, rather, the repressed act of trauma can only be induced by a subsequent act of trauma that brings to mind that which had been forgotten. Absence strives towards existence. The individual re-encounters the act of trauma and this act becomes incorporated or assimilated into the very being of the individual through a process of, well, processing. In the structure of the podcast, this re-investment will occur in the inevitable conclusion, where Adnan’s innocence will either be confirmed, or refused, and the certain logic of the traumatic event will be restored: A commits crime B against victim C. What I would like to argue is that, through this process of re-investment, the listener will come to re-encounter the absent other and that the rhetoric of this encounter with the memory of Hae Min Lee will be experienced as a fracturing, a wounding, an injuring. In the end, the traumatic act of violence perpetrated against Hae Min Lee will demand recognition in an address that places moral demands on the listener to recognise the other’s ontological right to exist. This address towards the absent other necessitates a recognition of the necessary future absence of our loved ones and of our self. For me, in a community of listeners, I become aware of myself as socially vulnerable, a being ‘attached to others, at risk of losing those attachments, exposed to others, at risk of violence by virtue of that exposure’. For me, to be exposed to the vulnerability of the other is to be exposed to the vulnerability of the right to existence and the precariousness of life itself. For me, the podcast pays the greatest respect to the life that was lost, it lets absence tell its own story.

Hae Min Lee disappeared on the 13th January 1999. Her body was found buried in Leakin Park, Baltimore. She had been strangled.

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