Homely Genres and the Michael Brown Autopsy Report

first page of the Michael Brown autopsy report, via St. Louis Post-Dispatch

first page of the Michael Brown autopsy report, via St. Louis Post-Dispatch

On Tuesday night, as I was checking my Twitter feed just before sleep, the autopsy report on Darren Wilson’s shooting of Michael Brown was released. How strange, to see this boy’s death described in the vague and also explicit detail of a bureaucratic, quasi-medical discourse. Someone had sat down and written this. I wondered who.

Now that I look at it again I see it was written by Wendell Payne, Medicological Investigator. Oddly, it does not seem to be dated, even though the first words of the prose narrative are “At 1330 hours.”

My immediate response was to screenshot each page, because, as Kanye once said, “They gonna take this off the internet real quick.”

The document contains a lot of information that we already knew, that Michael Brown lay in the street for hours while the crowds gathered, the panic rising—but here they are conveyed in the clear, firm language of the government:

There I was met by numerous officers of the St. Louis County Police Department and they directed my attention to the deceased who was located in the middle of the roadway with his head pointed west and his feet east….The deceased was lying in the prone position.

The deceased was cool to the touch. Rigor mortis was slightly felt in his extremities.

In the freshman composition class I teach we are researching “homely” genres, those genres people write in every day without even thinking about it as writing: e-mails, text messages, facebook posts, but also professional genres like case files, medical reports, and broadcast scripts, not to mention application forms and essays, tax forms, letters to contest parking tickets, and so forth.

What homely genres have you written in lately?

The term “homely” comes from Carolyn Miller’s seminal 1984 article “Genre as Social Action,” in which Miller consolidates previous rhetorical and discursive study of genre and lays the foundation for a given genre to be analyzed, beyond its language, format, or situation, “on the action it is used to accomplish.”

To consider as potential genres such homely discourse as the letter of recommendation, the user manual, the progress report, the ransom note, the lecture, and the white paper, as well as the euology the apologia, the inaugural, the public proceeding, and the sermon, is not to trivialize the study of genres; it is to take seriously the rhetoric in which we are immersed and the situations in which we find ourselves. (Miller)

After the release of the autopsy report that night, the tweets came out fast and furious. Was the report fabricated? Lying? Was the medical examiner biased?

These questions matter, but they won’t be answered by this report. But this report is important: very, very important. Miller writes that “as a recurrent, significant action, a genre embodies an aspect of cultural rationality.”

That is: this autopsy report tells us about the logics and movements of our culture. It gives a text, an example of a genre–that is, the medical autopsy report produced by a police force–what is natively labeled “Narrative Report of Investigation”–an artifact about which we can ask, “Who wrote you, and for what audience? How were you circulated? Who typed you, printed you, held you, e-mailed you, handed you off? Who leaked you? And, in your original function, what were you supposed to accomplish?”

When I read the report last night, I gasped. I covered my mouth. I was horrified. But that is not the report’s intention, because I am not its audience. This genre wants everything to seem normal–or at least, accounted for. And it is, accounted for, for the most part. The report describes how Michael Brown was arrayed in the street according to the compass rose, it describes what he was wearing and what he objects were near him, like his flip-flops, and it describes his nine (9) gunshot wounds, and his “abrasions.”

detail from Michael Brown autopsy report, via the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

detail from Michael Brown autopsy report, via the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Stamped below this description, in the bottom margin of the page, in red ink: NOT FOR SECONDARY RELEASE.

What is not known is how exactly Officer Wilson’s weapon discharged nine times into the dead man’s body, only that “during the struggle the Officers weapon was un-holstered. The weapon discharged during the struggle.” The report continues:

The deceased the ran down the roadway. Officer WILSON then began to chase the deceased. As he was giving chase to the deceased, the deceased turned around and ran towards Officer WILSON. Officer WILSON had his service weapon drawn, as the deceased began to run towards him, he discharged his service weapon several times.

As this is preliminary information it was not known in which order or how many time the officer fired his weapon during the confrontation.

Let’s pause with the language. Officer WILSON has a name, but Michael Brown does not. In this report, Michael Brown is a zombie, a “deceased” who can run away from a skirmish and then run back towards the officer who has already discharged his weapon at least once. He must be a zombie, this deceased, because what kind of person charges a police officer whose weapon is drawn and which weapon has already fired at least once, when they were tussling while the officer was still inside his squad car?

This is genre functioning, that tiny, crucial decision to call the dead person not by their name but by “the deceased.” A question for further research might be whether medical examiner reports of people who were not shot by police officers are also called “the deceased.”

last page of the Michael Brown autopsy report, via St. Louis Post-Dispatch

last page of the Michael Brown autopsy report, via St. Louis Post-Dispatch

The last line of the report notes, “Any additional information will follow in the usual supplemental manner.”

The usual manner. This is the power of this genre: to usher its subject matter, that is the state-sanctioned murder of an unarmed teenage boy, into a file in a filing cabinet to which other documents can be added and consulted and called forth and held secret from the press and marked “Not for Secondary Release,” this stream of documentation and memo and language and mostly correct spelling and grammar and headers and signatures and case numbers that say everything is accounted for and is being handled and nothing is wrong in the universe where the correct papers have been filed.

Of course, everything is wrong. Everything is wrong! I can use all caps and expletives and images and links and embedded tweets all day long, but nothing in this blog post can make that report seem as abnormal as it makes itself, its own existence and the “preliminary information” it contains normal, filed, stamped, sealed, delivered, accounted for.

Last class I asked my students to read a blog post and then copied them my own homework by mistake, and none of them e-mailed me to say the link seemed weird. Only when I went into our discussion board and saw student after student comment how confusing it was, did I check the link and see I’d had them read about ancient greek rhetorician Aspasia of Miletus by accident, that the title was not the title on the syllabus or even on the link, let alone that the content was nonsensical in the context of our class. But words pass by our eyes and we are so used to them being there we don’t even ask what they are or why they’re there or who wrote them or what they are supposed to do, we just accept that this is the language that fills the homework and these are the papers in the Brown, Michael file.

These papers, this stream of memos, this is the stuff of colonial land treaties and apartheid laws and illegal wars and vast coverups of abuse: a series of memos pushed by paper pushers, filed by paper filers, read but not really read, injustice furthered again in that “genteel bureaucratic way” that injustice has of reinstantiating itself.

There is more to say, there always is, but this is a blog post, and blog posts are supposed to be short. Til soon.

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