Excerpt: Morta Las Vegas

The following has been excerpted from Morta Las Vegas: CSI and the Problem of the West by Nathaniel Lewis and Stephen Tatum (November 2017). Morta Las Vegas is the latest book in the Postwestern Horizons series. 


From Chapter 1: The Problem of the Past


Grissom’s entrance onto the crime scene and into the episode itself is carefully choreographed so as to highlight visually and spatially the very moment when the emergent narrative order supplied by the course of forensic investigation attempts to contain and redirect the mayhem created by the vehicular accident. His body initially framed by both police cars and uniformed cops, Grissom enters the crime scene by lifting up and then ducking under the cordon of yellow tape, striding toward the camera with his face modeling professional concern and curiosity. As Grissom walks toward the crime scene, an officer just inside the police tape, standing idly and eating a snack, announces to no one in particular, “This is the best taco I ever had”; Grissom, not breaking stride, dismissively responds, “I’m happy for you both.” But the horrific nature of the accident—intensified in the episode’s opening seconds by both accelerated editing cuts and the grainy, high-contrast colors of a digital camera—gets qualified by Grissom’s first genuinely engaged comment to Brass about the accident, uttered with surprise and a trace of amusement: “Is this a Fiero?”

Grissom’s remark produces the episode’s first recognizable moment of disjuncture, and its very triviality contributes to the narrative slippage or drift between crime scene, crime scene investigator, and television viewer. First, in watching television police procedurals, we are usually positioned as viewers in alignment with the criminalists, discovering facts about the case as they discover them. In this way, they serve as our surrogates, seeking justice on our behalf. But here we are “ahead” of the investigators, at least with regard to the discovery of the crime. This slight divergence between viewer and criminalist in terms of temporal knowledge of the situation is not particularly unusual but is suggestive, not only because we anticipate watching the tortoise (Grissom) catch up with the hare (viewers), but also because we become aware of a minor tension or divergence between what we have witnessed in the first minute of the episode, what Grissom is figuring out, and what we don’t yet know: what will take further investigation. This slight temporal slip is echoed by the grimly humorous tone of Grissom’s comments here (on the tacos, the Fiero, and the face lift), which may constitute a kind of protective insulation, a distancing of emotional involvement in the specifics of the individuals involved, their histories, their tragedies. Such a “cool” method, which emphasizes rationality over emotion, is typical of the CSI team’s approach—and yet, as the episode proceeds, “4 × 4” slowly abandons this act of emotional distancing, this turning away from the effects of trauma. As we will see, by the end, “4 × 4” implicitly ponders both the recoil from and the return to the face of death.


For now: “Is this a Fiero?” Although it will have no bearing on the official resolution of the case, Grissom’s interest in the Fiero, a car last manufactured in 1988, establishes a larger context for the criminal investigation. That is, as Grissom’s comment suggests, from the beginning of “4 × 4” the investigation focuses not only on a traumatic event involving two different vehicles with two different drivers, one in the hospital and the other on the run. Rather, as if engaging the nostalgia mode that Fredric Jameson characterized as a chief feature of the postmodern aesthetic, the episode seems to allegorize the violent interface between two recognizable machines from two distinct moments in history: the present (Hummer) colliding with some material residue of the past (Fiero). Looking at the car and implicitly acknowledging his own age, Brass drily responds to Grissom, “Yeah, the old Fiero. It kind of makes you nostalgic for a Members Only jacket.”

Generally speaking, then, in the opening moments of “4 × 4,” we get the first hint that time will be mapped or imposed on space in the episode, not entirely unlike Turner’s insistence that American culture’s repetitive, serial progress through temporal stages of development could be mapped on the so-called moving frontier, producing a variety of temporal topographies and chronotopes. The evocation of nostalgia at the very start of “4 × 4” provides us with a clue: like a metaphor, such a dialogue fragment deploys a “vehicle” (the Fiero) that gestures toward a tenor or “mode” (nostalgia) in which both an individual and a mass- ediated, collective past returns through the entwined processes of memory and repetition. And yet we might question whether the remark is helpful to the investigation’s pursuit of what happened. As Sean Scanlan has explained, nostalgia can have “the property of meandering away from the truthful, historical, or the precise.” Rather, such a nostalgic gesture as found in Brass’s comment “may be a style or design or narrative that serves to comment on how memory works.” Given the temporal and in some cases spatial distance between the irretrievable past and present, as well as the here of recollection and the there of origin, nostalgia’s “objects or catalysts can be ineffable, forever lost, maddeningly not there, or uncannily never-was.”1 Simultaneously ironic, melancholy, resigned, and humorous, Brass’s remark reminds us that the past, here in the material form of a Fiero, is both present as evidence composing a crime scene and also absent or spectral, in that its somewhat surprising, sudden return as a material presence does not simply generate one stable signified or meaning. Pointing to a commodity whose material presence is inscribed with a plurality of symbolic meanings, Brass remarks not so much on the Fiero as on his cluster of memories about it, a series of recollections connecting it with another commodity (the Members Only jacket: “when you put it on, something happens”), all this sliding away from the actual Fiero before his eyes. This small moment not only tells us something about his particular characterization in this television series but also offers a clue, through this nostalgic recollection, to a characterization of a predominant structure of feeling: in the present moment the past is both present, as a kind of traumatic return of the repressed, and uncannily absent—a “never-was.”

As we will suggest throughout this book, “4 × 4” offers a number of different temporal registers, all of which renounce the notion of time as sequential and linear, a notion that Aristotle established apparently once and for all in his Physics. For Aristotle, time appears through or is dependent on motion and change, a progressive movement into a future that will become a past; time has a rational order; it is linear and irreversible. (Indeed, to call time “linear” is to spatialize time as unidirectional, from past to present to future.) But in “4 × 4” and, as we will suggest, in our experience of western U.S. history itself, time will appear to move in many directions, even at once: (1) in some moments, such as the opening Hummer accident, time will appear to be ruptured in a catastrophe of the rational, as if the past were suddenly “charged with the here-and-now” and “exploded out of the continuum of history,” as Walter Benjamin might have it; (2) in yet other moments, time will overlap with itself or will appear to both speed up and slow down in what Jacques Derrida calls “an aporia of speed,” perhaps even reversing itself; (3) elsewhere still, as in a Sebaldian fiction, time will be ghostly, palimpsestic—the present will be shot through with a spectral past while the future remains only in memory, long ago and far away; (4) and yet again time will attempt “the repetition of the unrepeatable,” as Svetlana Boym describes nostalgia’s desire for the return of, or a return to, a more desirable past (the time of childhood or youth; the space of the true hearth and home)—a past that by definition cannot be replicated, at best only approximated.2

Of course we should remember at this early stage in the CSI episode and our case study of it that, despite Brass’s wry comment, nostalgia is hardly Grissom’s preferred mode; his procedure is to examine the established crime scene and “follow the evidence,” in this case the material human remains and automobile ruins that, when interpreted correctly, will tell the story of the past and point to closure in the investigative present through the solution of the case’s enigmas or mysteries. … Grissom’s primary task is to reconstruct the accident and proceed to solve the crime. Our task for the moment is to follow Grissom, who acts as our surrogate reader of signs, interpreter of evidence. Our procedure will be to study Grissom’s environment with the hope of learning something from his reconstruction of this Las Vegas crime scene. At heart, we will ask: What can we learn from CSI that will help us learn from Las Vegas?



  1. Baudrillard, Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared?, 25.
  2. Frederick Jackson Turner, “The Problem of the West,” The Atlantic, September 1896.