A Review of Narrative in CSI: Dixie

The website CSI: Dixie was created in 2014 by a team from University of Georgia led by historian Stephen Berry. A self-described “archigraph”—part archive part monograph—and “deconstructed monograph,” the website includes both a digital archive of coroner’s records from South Carolina in the nineteenth century and large sections of interpretive writing.1

The story is told from Berry’s perspective as a researcher. It begins under the section heading “Genesis” with a description of his first encounter with coroner’s records in an archive titled “Origins of CSI: Dixie.” He explains that these records compelled him to replicate his archival experience with a digital archive while also providing context and interpretation.

Similarly, the story also concludes with Berry. In “Exodus,” Berry describes his continued frustrations with recovering “the underprivileged dead” from the archives—a difficult process that can easily exploit the dead by “serv[ing] them up brutalized and violated.” This section concludes with ruminations on the necessity of this difficult work despite its pitfalls because, without it, the present—as the “ultimate archive”—remains unexplained and unexamined.2

A problem with the design of these sections is the sheer quantity of reading the user must go through to use the site effectively. In this regard, the descriptor “deconstructed monograph” feels appropriate. After reading the rather long “Origins of CSI: Dixie,” there is yet another introduction section titled “Origins of the Coroner’s Office.” While this information does provide helpful context to the reader, the length is discouraging to any casual user. The effect of these long, entirely text-based sections is that the site functions similarly to any academic monograph. Thus, while the format itself is novel, the methods of interpretation are entirely traditional.

In her classic chapter, “From Additive to Expressive Form,” narrative studies scholar Janet Murray argues that new technology goes through two phases of usage, first additive then expressive. Additive works, she argues, “are a sign that the medium is in an early stage of development and is still depending on formats derived from earlier technologies instead of exploiting its own expressive power.”3 In CSI: Dixie “Genesis” and “Exodus” function as additive works, borrowing their form directly from the academic monograph which, through the use of new technology, is put on a webpage instead of a paper page.

While the introduction and conclusion of CSI: Dixie are largely set and inflexible, the middle of the story is where some flexibility in the narrative emerges. Throughout these sections, there are more stories that can be read or left behind depending on the desires of the user. This is especially true of the archival records themselves. This section takes advantage of what Murray would call the “encyclopedic” facet of expressive digital storytelling because it “offers the opportunity to tell stories from multiple vantage points and to offer intersecting stories that form a dense and wide-spreading web.”4

Unfortunately, Murray’s other three facets of expressive digital storytelling—procedural, participatory, and spatial—are not present on CSI: Dixie. While this may seem an arbitrary measure, Murray’s work provides us with language to describe digital projects that have yet to embrace the full capabilities of digital technology to change how we tell stories. Through Murray’s framework, we can see that the narrative of CSI: Dixie falls flat precisely because—by using a novel medium for traditional academic storytelling—it is additive rather than expressive.

  1. Stephen Berry, “Origins of CSI: Dixie,” CSI: Dixie, accessed February 11, 2021, https://csidixie.org/genesis/about-csi-dixie. ↩︎
  2. Stephen Berry, “The Dead Them and the Dying Us,” CSI: Dixie, accessed February 11, 2021, https://csidixie.org/revelation/dead-them-dying-us. ↩︎
  3. Janet Murray, “From Additive to Expressive Form,” in Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace (New York: The Free Press, 1997), 67. ↩︎
  4. Ibid., 84. ↩︎

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