Near the end of the last century, the arrest and trial of OJ Simpson, a former professional football player and movie star accused of double homicide, attracted an enormous spectatorship and sparked public debate on an array of topics: racial identity in popular culture, the mass media and the justice system; domestic violence and the cult of celebrity; legal ethics and cameras in the courtroom—to name a few. That Simpson’s was by no means the first case to be dubbed the “trial of the century” suggests that the dramatization of crime narratives is something of a tradition in the US and other societies nominally built on the “rule of law.” In this course, we will make arguments about the deeper meanings and uses of crime and its representations in historical context. For a historical perspective on the relation between crime and mass culture, we begin with the Paris Morgue—once a hugely popular pastime for Parisian families and tourists—during golden age of French newspapers, allowing us to assess the ways in which historians, critics and philosophers have linked representations of crime to modern forms of political power. Next we turn to the Simpson case, with an analysis of a firsthand account of the trial by the Los Angeles court’s information officer and media liaison. Finally, for the research paper, students select a criminal case study and develop an argument about how it relates to its historical context.
This is foremost a historical writing course, which means that our sustained focus will be on the refinement of inquiry, analysis, and argumentation in your written work. But as we get deeper into the sources, you’ll find that the process of academic writing parallels that of crime investigation in important ways: both begin with a compelling problem, or “motive;” both rely on rigorous and imaginative analysis of evidence; and both, in order to sway a targeted group of people, necessitate forceful, well-structured arguments. It is an investigative spirit, then, that this course will lead you to be more thoughtful and self-reflective about the writing process, and to question and evaluate your own work in each assignment and in the course as a whole.