Anne Kustritz, University of Amsterdam and Melanie E.S. Kohnen, Georgia Institute of Technology

Decoding the Industrial and Digital City: Visions of Security in Holmes’ and Sherlock’s London


1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 1 ***insert abstract here***


2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 The first time Sherlock Holmes and John Watson meet in the BBC’s Sherlock unfolds in a way that registers as both familiar and new to viewers acquainted with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s works. Like previous incarnations of the famous detective figure, Sherlock uses the science of deduction to ascertain John’s background and motives. Analyzing little details such as tanning patterns, a slight limp, and a rigid posture, Sherlock correctly deduces that John has recently returned from military service in Afghanistan or Iraq and is looking for a place to live in London. But there is one detail that Sherlock misreads: he thinks the engraved “Harry” on John’s smartphone indicates that John has a brother when it actually indicates he has a sister named Harriett, who happens to have an estranged wife. This brief scene encapsulates the pleasure in (re)discovering the figures of Sherlock Holmes, John Watson, and the ever-changing London metropole, and the promise and pitfalls associated with using social typologies to understand urban life. After all, contemporary London is a place in which people like Harriett defy increasingly heterogeneous social norms and thus upset Sherlock’s carefully crafted idea of the world around him.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 2 In his original incarnation Sherlock Holmes functioned as a virtuoso reader of people and the city who assured his audience that the newly expanded industrial city remained understandable and therefore safe, by shoring up faith that scientific skills and an analytic mind can thwart the dense physical and social geographies of Victorian London. Holmes ushered in a “golden era” of detective fiction, but also plied his craft against a real world backdrop in which the social typologies of the detective, social scientist, and the criminal, particularly the con man and the serial killer, also emerged. Thus, as Sherlock takes a page from the “Year One” comics genre by reassembling the canon for a modern audience, its exclusions, revisions, and adaptations reveal contemporary cultural anxieties, stubborn continuities, and transformations in the city’s structure and politics from industrial to post-industrial, scientific to digital, and imperial to neo-colonial. Watching both Sherlock’s virtuoso and failed attempts to navigate and read modern London offers viewers an opportunity to reconceptualize the safety, security, comprehensibility, and predictability of modern urban life. In doing so, Sherlock simultaneously invests in and undermines older systems of racialized criminal typology, re-presented in the guise of modern neurobiology and digital technology, as the key to safety in the city.

Of Sociopathy and Social Control: Imperial and Millennial Politics of The Science of Deduction

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 2 While both the original and Year One Sherlock Holmes famously employ the science of deduction as a key point of characterization, a network of assumptions about the city of London and a predictive model of human behavior underlie the method. Beliefs about the predictability and causes of human behavior profoundly shape public policy and politics, and often become the central preoccupation of crime and detective fiction. In the first iteration of the story, Holmes’ assumptions reflected and encouraged the growing concerns about cultural and racial purity within the British Empire, and the emerging consensus on the physicality of criminal “types.” The BBC’s reimagined version offers a picture of an increasingly multi-cultural, heterogeneous London, while at the same time re-presenting some startlingly similar stereotypes based on race, class, nationality, and criminal typology which would not have been out of place at the turn of the twentieth century. In both cases, Holmes relies on the technology of social typology to make the chaos of the city comprehensible, but while Doyle offered the image of a new kind of scientific hero as the solution to security in London, Sherlock often reveals the illusory nature of such fantasies of social control.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 1 Doyle relied upon his readers’ shared beliefs about how people live in order to make his characters’ behavior seem predictable enough for Holmes’ deductions to function plausibly. For example, “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” begins with Holmes’ conclusions regarding the likely owner of a lost hat, many of which no longer make sense to modern audiences (Doyle 2005). At first Watson protests when Holmes states that the hat demonstrates its owner has lost his wife’s love, but Watson agrees with his friend’s reasoning when Holmes describes how his inference derived from the hat’s accumulated dust. He explains, “When I see you, my dear Watson, with a week’s accumulation of dust upon your hat, and when your wife allows you to go out in such a state, I shall fear that you also have been unfortunate enough to lose your wife’s affection” (Doyle 2005, ?). In this case Doyle requires that his readers’ share the same assumptions about gender and marriage; the deduction only makes sense if readers can believe that all wives take care of their husbands’ hats. Even more glaringly strange for modern audiences, Holmes asserts that the owner must be intelligent because of the large size of his head. A reference to the now debunked pseudosciences of phrenology and cranial capacity, Holmes explains, “It is a question of cubic capacity… a man with so large a brain must have something in it.” Yet, at a time in which skulls and facial measurements featured prominently in Alphonse Bertillon and Cesare Lombroso’s revolutionization of policing through the definition of physical markers of criminality, as well as the increasing popularity of eugenic and anthropological explanations of innate racial difference, Doyle could count on his readers to follow Holmes’ reasoning and assume that the size and shape of the skull reflects the thoughts it holds.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Each of these small deductions indicates a set of concepts about human behavior with wide-ranging consequences, one socio-cultural and the other bio-racial. The first deduction requires an improbably homogenous view of life in the city, and in general describes a class of deductions which depend on the assumption that all people would behave the same way in the same circumstances: that is, what does everybody assume that everybody else does.[1] “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” thereby constructs heteronormativity and gender compliance as dominant in Doyle’s era, and similar social inferences throughout the Holmes works alternately suppress and other the growing multiculturalism of the city as a result of British imperial activities and migrations, as well as the alternate familial, social, and religious practices of minority populations who had long existed within Britain. While modern audiences would dismiss the notion that a dirty hat presents irrefutable proof of the loss of a wife’s love, characters’ cisgender, heterosexuality, whiteness, Christianity, ablebodiedness, middle-class status, and nationalism still often remain unmarked and unremarked upon, as though they might be assumed as “what everyone does.” Thus even in modern London Sherlock may depend upon contemporary viewers to accept that men can’t carry pink cases, multiple sex partners while married must involve adultery rather than polyamory, and giving oral sex degrades women but not the men who receive it.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 2 The BBC’s Sherlock must repeatedly grapple with a population whose habits fail to conform to one homogenous life path, including his own. The one type of deduction Sherlock repeatedly miscalculates involves sexuality, both because of his reliance on heteronormativity and social stereotype, and due to his own sexual nonconformity. In the first instance, Sherlock’s “reading” of John’s phone proved true in every respect apart from the gender and sexuality of John’s sibling. Sherlock begrudgingly dismisses the error, frustratedly declaring that “It’s always something,” but the subject of sexuality continues to foil him throughout the series, indicating a pattern rather than a fluke. Later, Sherlock “plays gay” to entice a suspect, but subsequently falls for an enemy’s use of the same tactic, misrecognizing a performance for a sincere proposition and missing an early opportunity to catch the villain. Thus, by assuming that particular underwear and mannerisms equate to a desire to sleep with men, he demonstrated an inability to differentiate between stereotypical symbols of gayness and actual lived experience, which may take any number of forms.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 2 On the one hand, these incidents position non-heteronormative desires and lives as “difficult to read” and mark Sherlock as an earlier era’s archetype adrift in a newly sexually diverse city with few tools to appropriately understand this strange new world. Yet Sherlock also distances himself in his conversation with John from the prospect of either a girlfriend or boyfriend, characterizing himself as “married to my work.” While perhaps an allusion to the original character’s status as a dedicated bachelor, a condition used in Victorian representations to indicate men with same-sex desires, it also offers at least two other readings which position Sherlock as sexually illegible, as either asexual or criminally perverse; either Sherlock’s marriage to his work precludes all romantic and erotic attachment and interest, or, as his work involves violent crime, his admission associates the desire, passion, and commitment of marriage with murder. In either case, Sherlock’s inability to decode sexuality, along with his own non-normative desires, present modern London as sexually heterogeneous and thus opaque; hat caretaking can no longer be taken for granted.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 1 With regard to Holmes deductions about the hat owner’s intelligence, Doyle functioned within the rise of scientific explanations for human behavior derived from racial hierarchy and heredity. This sort of deduction assumes that behavior can be predicted by classifying people into definable types, as each type exhibits a recognizable and dependable behavioral pattern. As Alison Moore notes in “The Invention of Sadism,” the typologization of the criminal at the end of the 1800s as an inherently different and genetically inferior kind of person linked criminality to concepts of racial superiority by associating sadism and crime with primitive or barbarous urges that the civilized man evolved beyond (2009). These theories suggested that the government could control criminals, and others exhibiting signs of “racial degeneracy,” by separating them from the rest of the population based on visual cues and engineering the city and the Empire to keep them separate from respectable families (Siddiqi 2006). Thus, Napoleon III and Baron Haussmann designed the Paris clearances to create a revolution-proof city which thwarted both barricading and the gathering of visually impenetrable crowds, and colonial settlements strictly limited and controlled the movements of both colonial agents and colonial subjects (Stoler 2002). The winding alleyways of the medieval city slowly gave way to broad boulevards, but where they remained a concomitant social contagion remained: the fear of visual impenetrability and the seething crowd which might act en masse or disappear entirely at any moment, thwarting the process of disciplinary differentiation and typologization.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 1 The figure of racial others and their integration or non-integration into the city remains fraught in Sherlock. TBB opens upon Sherlock and a robed, hooded figure in a turban engaged in swordplay inside 221B Baker Street; the facial covering not only ties the figure to modes of orientalist representation wherein the “orient” appears mysterious and dangerous, but also renders him completely anonymous and foreshadows his utter irrelevance to the plot as, after the opening sequence, the fight and the figure never reappear or lend any other significance to the storyline. The episode actually revolves around a Chinese smuggling ring run by acrobats, reminiscent of the Andaman Islander, Tonga, of “The Sign of the Four,” known for his inhuman agility and archaic, amoral code of honor (1890); the acrobats exhibit both as they enter supposedly impregnable buildings, exhibit sadistic pleasure in others’ terror, and kill their own family members with no apparent scruples when they break the group’s code of conduct. Like the veiled figure of the opening sword fight, most of the Chinese characters remain anonymous as they go by pseudonyms and aliases, and as Sherlock and John repeatedly fail to recognize or deduce which individuals in a crowd of Chinese people pose a threat, which are criminals and which are properly incorporated British subjects. Most strikingly, when John and Sherlock visit London’s Chinatown the camera pans across a stream of anonymous faces, creating a visual equivalence between the crowd as mutely homogeneous in their racial difference from the protagonists. The chief villain stands among the crowd filming John and Sherlock without raising their suspicions, then seamlessly disappears within it, indicating a regressive “they all look the same” mentality and marking tensions in representing technology. Sherlock presents the people of London as criminal, frightening, and opaque – as long as that crowd is primarily Chinese.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 1 Yet, although not all criminals in Sherlock are racial others, the series represents crime itself as an essentialized, speciated, perhaps heritable personality trait, which offers the promise of safety in the city through the removal of these “bad people,” particularly among a class of “master criminals.” Because the notion of heritable criminality reached its clearest articulation in the original Holmes’ time, reliance on an evolutionary model of race and culture meant that within the stories Holmes represented a civilizing figure of order, as did the British Empire throughout the world. While not himself an aristocrat, Holmes takes his racial and cultural noblesse oblige seriously and believes in his duty to protect the innocent and punish those who will continue to threaten social order. Again from “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle,” it is Holmes who reminds Watson to remember that an innocent life hangs in the balance of their current case, and who lets the villain go in the end because he decides that the young man will not return to crime, acting as an ultimate moral arbiter. Sherlock undermines these distinctions by updating the concept of inherent criminality with modern psychological constructions of personality disorder, making security in London not simply a question of controlling the lower classes, but controlling all psycho-genetic deviations which unpredictably emerge from within the body politic.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 2 Sherlock takes place in the wake of a decade long overhaul in the British government’s approach to criminal psychology, culminating in the creation of two new classes of citation and detention, the Anti-Social Behavior Order (ASBO) and Dangerous and Severe Personality Disorder (DSPD) order. The term ASBO appears in Sherlock when a graffiti artist and informant of Sherlock’s leaves John holding his spray can when the police arrive. A few scenes later John angrily tells Sherlock that as a result of the incident, “They’re giving me an ASBO!” Although a nearly throw-away moment in the series, this reference acts as a prism through which the profound changes in millennial London’s social and political geographies caused by Prime Minister Tony Blair’s neo-liberal-inflected New Labor government may be brought to light. A crown jewel of New Labor politics, Blair intended the ASBO to deal with public concerns about disorderly youth and police inefficiency with minor crimes as well as a new class of “sub-criminal acts.” Thus, despite the name and attendant social stigma and pathologization, the ASBO does not address true Anti-Social Personality Disorder, but rather may be issued by police at their discretion, with a lower threshold of proof than other crimes, for behavior deemed “non-conforming to social norms.” Particularly because New Labor has slowly defunded many social services, and existing social services may be revoked if any member of the family receives an ASBO, including eviction from public housing, ASBO policies replace a social safety net with punishment, which reliably falls most heavily on racial minorities and the poor, thereby criminalizing and pathologizing poverty and racial difference in the name of crime prevention (Gregg 2011, Rodger 2006, Squires 2006). Sherlock alludes to and elides this bundle of racist, classist, and criminally essencialist social policy by casting a white youth with an unmarked accent as the actual target, and white, educated, professional class John as the default target of an ASBO order, erasing the actual social violence perpetuated against London’s new “underclasses.” While London’s homeless briefly appear as Sherlock’s informants, the narrative offers no commentary on the origins of their plight, or the condition of contemporary homelessness amidst the spectacles of wealth and spaces of capitalist production highlighted by the plot, from Bond Street to the National Antiquities Museum. Instead Sherlock uses the homeless for information, and then blithely and brutally dismisses them in the language of social contagion, citing a need to “disinfect myself.”

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 1 Policing related to actual Anti-Social Personality Disorder falls under the DSPD policy, originating in a 1999 Home Office report, which allows for a term of preventative incarceration based on an anti-social diagnosis either in the absence of a crime or as an additional term of confinement when a regular prison term expires. The policy works from an assumption that crime derives from stable, inborn personality traits and, like Holmes, the government uses that belief to make predictions about citizens’ future behavior. Yet numerous clinicians and legal theorists question the validity, reliability, and predictive value of the current diagnostic criteria for anti-social personality disorder and psychopathy, it’s subclassification, as well as the government’s right to deny liberty in the absence of a crime (Haddock et al 2001, Hammel 2006). When a policewoman who has worked with Sherlock in the past warns John away from him with the prediction that Sherlock will eventually kill just like the murderers he hunts, and later calls Sherlock a psychopath to his face, Sherlock responds not by denying her claim but by reclassifying himself as a “high functioning sociopath,” accepting his place as mentally disordered, but separating himself from psychopaths fall under DSPD policy. Such a thin demarcation relies merely on semantic sleight of hand as clinical and lay definitions of sociopathy and psychopathy vary widely, but Sherlock does indeed qualify for many of the criteria listed on the standard Hare Psychopathy Checklist and constructs himself as incapable of empathy yet uniquely qualified as a detective due to the psychological disorder he shares with criminals; he thus repeatedly tells John that concern for victims is irrelevant, and miscalculates when a deductions require empathy. As such, his liberty in contemporary London remains subject to the discretion of the police. Sherlock thereby supports the belief that the most dangerous criminals’ behavior results from such extreme innate bio-psychological differences that they become or are born as monsters who normal people cannot relate to or understand, and that because they consequently lack that which makes a person human, namely empathy, a social services approach or rehabilitation will fail while only permanent incapacitation will stop them. The concomitant promise of both New Labor’s DSPD and ASBO politics and turn of the century criminal typologies from the con man to the sadist assures the public that safety in the city can be purchased at the price of these deviants’ liberty.[2]

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 However, Sherlock also incorporates moments of doubt and contradiction regarding the construction of Sherlock and his foe Moriarty’s mirrored anti-social characters. In a scene that captures the strange post-modern symmetries of a Year One narrative which must simultaneously repress and embrace the franchise’s past, Sherlock describes Moriarty as “something new;” while Moriarty is new to Sherlock, the audience of previous Holmes works is well acquainted with him. Yet within the narrative Sherlock describes Moriarty as “something new” due to his unique modus operandi as a “consulting criminal,” solidifying his role as the dark mirror to Sherlock’s “consulting detective.” Yet, here too the classification as “new” stutters, because the character himself references a much earlier era, as does the concept of a master criminal, and the practice of goading others into performing violent acts, known as anti-social by proxy. Moriarty may seem like the perfect apologia for the DSPD model as a new type of criminal who exceeds traditional policing and thus requires a new kind of scientific bio-psychological treatment and preventative incarceration. Yet calling such behavior “new” performs exactly the post-modern excision of history inherent to pastiche, deliberately forgetting that such people have long existed, from mafia bosses to Shakespeare’s Iago, and that Moriarty himself is anything but new.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 2 Perhaps most tellingly, the series builds toward a climactic scene in the season finale wherein Sherlock must choose between capturing Moriarty and John’s life. By this point, the little hints and admissions slowly building a picture of Sherlock’s anti-social personality disorder and lack of empathy significantly intensify to the point that John directly challenged Sherlock’s inability to care about other people, take responsibility for his own actions, or feel human emotion. Thus if the clinical and lay reasoning behind sociopathy, psychopathy, and anti-social personality validly and reliably predict behavior, Sherlock should have no problem sacrificing his “friend” to gain the greater satisfaction of outwitting his intellectual equal. Yet, he does not. Instead, he puts himself in danger to save John, and prolongs that danger to ascertain John’s well-being. In a telling moment, Sherlock and Moriarty banter about whether or not he will sacrifice John; while Sherlock insists that he has no heart, once again self-diagnosing his pathologically monstrous lack of empathy, Moriarty insists “We both know that’s not true.” The series thereby ends by affirming the primacy and depth of Sherlock’s attachment to and affection for John, against all odds and contrary to Sherlock’s own self-diagnosed bio-psychological limitations.

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 1 Thus, while the bulk of the season reinforces a vision of the city and human behavior suggesting that safety relies upon simply typologizing and removing “bad people,” the last few moments of Sherlock provide a glimpse of a very different, very unsettling understanding of human nature: one that is subject to completely unpredictable change. While the older Holmes’ social types based on racial heredity still appear strikingly common, and the everything-old-is-new pastiche of nineteenth century criminology found in ASBO and DSPD typologization of criminals appear to suggest that contemporary London remains readable and thus controllable to specialists trained or born to understand it, fissures of doubt mar this picture of security and closure. Repeatedly, the heterogeniety of the post-modern city foils attempts to uniformly apply social typologies, even when Sherlock utilizes them to understand himself. Thus it is to digital technologies that the narrative turns to fill these gaps, offering not a new kind of man, but a new kind of technology as the answer to the impermeability and constant state of change within the digital city.

The Place of Technology in Sherlock

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 1 The incorporation of digital technology and networks provides the most visible line of demarcation between the original Sherlock Holmes stories and Sherlock. Sherlock’s use of and reliance on his smartphone and laptop appear to firmly root this consulting detective in the present. Considering that digital technology did not even exist in the late nineteenth century, one might think that its representation could facilitate a clean break with some of the more problematic aspects of Doyle’s stories, such as the reliance on social types, pathologized criminals, and racialized Others. But a closer look at the function of the digital in Sherlock reveals that technology in fact enables many of the continuities between the original and the BBC version of Sherlock Holmes because Sherlock’s mastery of digital tools allows him to solve his cases and to organize the world around him. From this point of view, Sherlock’s mastery of digital technology mirrors Holmes’ mastery of chemistry and other natural sciences. In both cases, the figure of Sherlock Holmes offers reassurance. While Holmes’ scientific knowledge reassured nineteenth-century readers that order could exist in the industrial city, Sherlock’s technological expertise serves to ease twenty-first century viewers’ anxieties about the digital city and information management. In this way, Sherlock occupies a similar cultural role to Holmes: both are extraordinary men who reassure us that in a time of cultural and social transformations security remains possible despite the increasingly chaotic inhabitants and technologies of the urban landscape.

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 1 At first sight, Sherlock appears to be a typical member of the millennial generation. Sherlock prefers texting to calling, is permanently attached to his smartphone and maintains a website called “Science of Deduction.”[3] One might think that Sherlock fits right in with “the young and the digital” who gather on social networking sites to maintain and expand social relationships (Watkins 2009, 47). But Sherlock is not interested in social relationships—when Sherlock goes online, his sole purpose is to acquire information to solve a case. Most of the information that Sherlock accesses via his smartphone or laptop allows him to unearth missing links between clues he has deduced using his keen sense of observation. For example, when we first witness Sherlock’s analysis of a crime scene in ASiP, he accesses local weather reports via his phone to determine where it has rained during the past twenty-four hours, which allows him to deduce that the victim traveled to London from Cardiff. Throughout all three episodes, this pattern repeats itself: Sherlock proves himself an excellent reader of people and places, but he often relies on information gathered via online sources to render his deductions into a coherent picture.

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 1 Sherlock’s reliance on digital information enables crucial breakthrough moments in his cases, mimicking the earlier Holmes’ reliance on natural sciences. While we encounter Sherlock in a lab, the setting functions mostly as a nostalgic callback to the original stories. Any discoveries Sherlock makes in the lab are actually facilitated by modern technology. For example, when he analyzes pollen in TGG, it is not a chemical reaction that offers the decisive clue, but a database search comparing Sherlock’s sample with a pre-established dataset that reveals the pollen stems came from Sussex. Sherlock’s reliance on and effective use of digital technology thus constitute a modern update of Holmes’ science-based skillset. While at first glance the integration of digital technologies in Sherlock appears as a radical break with original stories, digital technology in fact slots comfortably into the place that science once occupied. Digital technology thus embodies a key aspect of a Year One narrative: it is both new and familiar. We can relate to Sherlock because digital technology plays a central part in his everyday life, and we can admire him for the ease with which he navigates and searches digital networks. Ultimately, it is Sherlock’s mastery of (and occasional struggle with) digital spaces and technologies that fascinates and reassures modern viewers.

Digital London

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 The incorporation of digital technology in Sherlock also shapes the representation of London. Rather than the intimidating industrial city of the original stories, London manifests in Sherlock in two interrelated ways: as an assemblage of recognizable and mediated landmarks, and as network of information. Thus the series depicts digital London as a map of visual information that can be reproduced, organized, and accessed via technologies of transportation, surveillance, and visualization.

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 2 The filming of London in Sherlock constructs a view of the city only available through media technology. Sherlock‘s credits artfully mix shots of well-known landmarks, such as Picadilly Circus and the London Eye, with close-ups of Sherlock’s investigations. Likewise, many wide-angle establishing shots place Sherlock and John in front of easily recognizable places around London, including the National Gallery and the view of the Thames from Southbank. These establishing shots serve to reaffirm that Sherlock was filmed on location in London (which in turn confirms Sherlock as British quality TV).[4] Additionally, these wide-angle shots serve as moments of recognition for the viewer. Placing Sherlock and John near identifiable landmarks allows even viewers who have never visited London to identify various locations and thus feel reassured that they know exactly where the characters are. The viewer’s easy identification of various landmarks is brought about by technology. Television, film and photography have captured countless images of London and, as with many other global cities, the “famous” parts of London have become familiar to modern audiences through endless repetition in the media. From this point of view, London becomes another character that is being reassembled in a Year One fashion: much like Sherlock himself is composed of familiar parts with a new veneer, the familiar spaces of London (especially nineteenth-century buildings such as the National Gallery) mix with steel-and-glass architecture (such as the Swiss Re Tower in the Financial District) to create a pastiche of old and new.

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 1 London’s vistas serve as visually stunning backdrop to Sherlock and John’s travels through the city, but they experience the city through careful mediation. They cross the city via taxi and catch glimpses of its sights as it flies past, viewed through or mirrored in taxi windows. One the one hand, the presence of black taxis serves as another visual confirmation of the Britishness of Sherlock. On the other hand, the reliance on taxis as prime method of transportation also removes Sherlock and John from the hustle and bustle of the city that they would experience if they took the Tube. Moving from place to place in a taxi allows them to survey the city without direct contact with its people. The taxi thus ensconces them in a place that is separate from the more “undesirable” parts and inhabitants of the city. As we pointed out in a previous section, Sherlock in particular only tolerates the seedier sectors of London because they constitute a source of information. Conversely, the long takes of Sherlock and John traversing London in a taxi immerse the viewer in the city writ large in a more masterful way than an actual person could, by associating the audience’s view with the technological mastery of the city made possible by the eye of the camera.

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 1 There are brief moments in which the city of London seems to issue a challenge to Sherlock and John. In “ASiP,” they lose track of a taxi speeding off into traffic, but Sherlock’s accurate mental map of London determines an alternate route through back alleys and across roofs that eventually allows them to catch up. The visual rendition of Sherlock’s mental map alludes to the layout of digital maps and suggests that a digital network overlays the physical structure of the city. Much like a computer calculates a route from Point A to Point B, Sherlock visualizes the fastest way to catch up with the taxi; the viewer witnesses his visualizations in real time as they are intercut with Sherlock and John running down dark streets. Unlike the taxi and the computer, however, Sherlock’s mental map is not confined to streets. Indeed, it is only by cutting across roofs and alleys that Sherlock and John manage to beat the taxi’s greater speed. While fixed physical maps allow some measure of control over the city, it is Sherlock’s grasp of those parts of London that don’t appear on maps which allows him to navigate all of the city with confidence. Thus, even seemingly unruly dark alleys and rooftops become integrated into the logical system of Sherlock’s mind, offering a legible vision of London’s once frighteningly shady corners and twisted back alleys.

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 1 Sherlock’s ability to recalculate his route through the city in real time echoes the possibilities of digital mapping, which translates physical space into data that can be parsed and calculated. It is no coincidence that the visual rendering of Sherlock’s mental map echoes the interface of Google maps. Sherlock once again appears as a relatable but also superior citizen of digital London: the way he maps his way through the nooks and crannies of the city looks familiar to us, but in contrast to us, Sherlock does not need to rely on a computer to calculate a route through urban space. Interestingly, the digital mapping of physical space is largely portrayed as beneficial, and not, as some critiques of Google maps and Google street view have argued, as invasive. [5] Additionally, the benefits of digital tracking are later highlighted when John tracks the pink phone’s GPS signal to find and thus save Sherlock from the murderous cabbie. The constant stream of information sent out by the pink phone becomes the crucial set of data that saves Sherlock’s life. In both cases, it is the digital mapped onto the physical that allows Sherlock and John to move around the city with ease. In fact it is the loss of digital surveillance that represents real danger, as in the moments of panic before John realizes that he can track Sherlock and the cabbie, and when Sherlock’s brother Mycroft uses his position in government to turn the city’s network of cameras away from John, implying that anything might befall him once outside the camera’s eye.

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 In addition to maps and GPS, Sherlock taps into other networks of information that overlay the geography of London. Across the series, Sherlock regularly searches for weather data, high tide of the Thames, and police reports, all of which he accesses via his smart phone. Sherlock is an expert at searching and scanning these digital networks of information efficiently and he often finds what he needs in a matter of seconds. As such, he knows how to navigate the often overwhelming information that an internet search can produce better than the average user; we could say that Sherlock has learned to master the art of the search engine. He thereby navigates the terrain of the world wide web with the same sure footing that allows him to navigate the streets of London. As such, Sherlock reassures us that we can make sense of the constantly accumulating information that surrounds us. If Sherlock can find patterns in the chaos of data, so can we.

26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 2 One way in which Sherlock manages to make sense of the informational chaos of twenty-first life is by discarding information that is not useful to him. When John confronts Sherlock about the fact that Sherlock doesn’t know the basic configuration of the solar system, Sherlock explains that he “deletes” irrelevant information from his brain, stating, “This is my hard drive and it only makes sense to put things in there that are useful, really useful” (TGG). This exchange between Sherlock and John is a direct callback to the Doyle stories. In the original “A Study in Scarlet,” Holmes compares his brain to an attic and explains that “the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic” (Doyle 2005, ?). It is perhaps unsurprising that Holmes compares his brain to a physical space considering that the control over physical space figures so prominently in Doyle’s stories. The reimagination of the “brain attic” as a hard drive ties into digital technology as a prominent theme in Sherlock. Much like Holmes’ brain attic, Sherlock’s mental database only stores information that is relevant to solving cases, and his smart phone becomes a flexible extension of that mental database. Throughout “ASiP” and “TGG,” it becomes clear that Sherlock depends on the information his phone can store and provide mobile access. For example, Sherlock researches Interpol’s Most Wanted list and local missing person reports while standing on the bank of the Thames in TGG, which allows him to identify the body as a museum guard without ever leaving the crime scene. Indeed, the information Sherlock accesses online often provides the crucial last piece in his deductions.

27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 1 While we haven’t seen Sherlock without access to his external hard-drives (his smart phone or laptop), it is apparent that even Sherlock Holmes might be lost without access to the internet. Not being able to find the information he needs via online searches frustrates Sherlock as much as it frustrates the rest of us. The most striking example of this occurs in “TGG” when Sherlock receives a photo-based clue from Moriaty and he immediately identifies the location, observing, “View of the Thames. South Bank, somewhere between Southwark Bridge and Waterloo,” but the significance of this clue eludes Sherlock’s deductive skills. Via his phone, Sherlock performs several searches for the location, which are visually rendered on the screen for the viewer. He quickly moves from “Thames + High Tide + Riverside,” “London Bridge,” “Local News: Waterloo, Battersea,” to “Thames Police Reports: Duty Log” without finding what he is looking for. Sherlock appears frustrated when the internet doesn’t provide answers and calls Lestrade to ask if the police have found anything between Waterloo Bridge and Southwark Bridge (Sherlock’s preference for texting makes this call clearly a last resort). The overall portrayal of Sherlock’s relationship to digital networks affirms that Sherlock is deeply embedded in them. Moreover, while he knows how to master these networks, he also clearly depends on the information they provide; when the internet fails Sherlock, he is (momentarily) lost. Sherlock thus navigates between two poles of contemporary technology-related anxieties: on the one hand, the fear that the amount of data we encounter on a daily basis is too overwhelming, and, on the other hand, that we would be lost without access to this data.

28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 1 An interesting exception to London as a thoroughly digital city occurs in “TBB.” While both Sherlock and John rely on their phones to capture images of the various crime scenes they visit throughout the episode, the internet does not provide the crucial missing links that Sherlock needs to bring his deductions to a successful conclusion (as it does in both “ASiP” and in “TGG”). Rather, the series of “cyphers” that John and Sherlock encounter and trace through various sites in London are outside the realm of modern databases. The missing links that finally allow Sherlock to identify them as Chinese characters are provided by one of Sherlock’s informants and by chance when John turns over a tea cup in a store in Chinatown. Indeed, as Sherlock observes,

29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0 The world’s running on codes and cyphers, John, from the million pound security system at the bank to the pin machine you took exception to. Cryptography inhabits our every waking moment…but it’s all computer-generated. Electronic codes, electronic cyphering methods. This is different. It’s an ancient device. Modern code-breaking methods won’t unravel it. (“The Blind Baker”)

30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 1 The idea that Chinese characters exist in a pre-modern world outside of technology links the plot of TBB directly to the orientalism that was prominent in the late nineteenth century (and that lingers in the twenty-first century). Whereas many details of the original stories are reimagined and translated into a twenty-first century setting, the depiction of Chinese culture in TBB remains firmly stuck stuck in the nineteenth century. The orientalist rendering of Chinese characters as illegible cyphers that appear throughout London constitutes a slippage between the digital and the industrial city. As such, the orientalist depiction of London’s Chinatown and its anonymous inhabitants represents the most direct link to the ideologies that characterized the original setting of Doyle’s stories.

31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 1 At the same time, the clear separation between digital London and Chinatown elides the way in which orientalism has fueled our perception of digital spaces. The idea of the digital as a navigable space, for example, first appears as “cyberspace” in cyberpunk novels such as William Gibson’s Asian-influenced and exoticizing Neuromancer (1984). Wendy Chun argues that “Neuromancer‘s global or cosmopolitan future depends on stereotypical descriptions of raced others who serve as ‘orienting points’ for readers and the protagonist” (185). The future spaces imagined in Neuromancer thus remain mappable and decodable through the integration of ahistorical racialized landscapes and tropes. While digital spaces and the internet as mass media were only a futuristic fantasy in 1984, the digital is now part of our present. Nevertheless, as Sherlock‘s representation of Chinatown and Chinese culture demonstrates, we still rely on orientalism as a point of orientation in order to understand the digital city.

32 Leave a comment on paragraph 32 1 The orientalist representation of Chinese culture in TBB serves as another way to affirm Sherlock as a twenty-first century figure. Sherlock can read the digital city, but he cannot read the “cyphers” that seem to exist outside of the modern sphere. Curiously, once Sherlock and John identify the cyphers as Chinese characters, Sherlock is able to access a large quantity of knowledge about the inner workings of Chinese smuggling rings. One might say that the main reason why Sherlock’s knowledge about Chinese culture seems barred from himself is to keep up narrative suspense, which would have evaporated had he identified them from the outset. Yet, the continued air of mystery that surrounds all things Chinese in TBB even after the identification of the cyphers speaks to orientalism as the real driving engine of the narrative. The smuggling of Chinese antiquities, Soo Lin’s job in a museum, the “traditional” decoration of her flat, and the Chinese circus all mark Chinese culture as something that is different and separate from twenty-first century digital London.

33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 1 Moreover, the representation of Chinese culture as fundamentally alien to modern Britain places the viewer in a spectatorial position that is complicit with orientalism. Positioned outside of and in opposition to an “unreadable” Chinese culture, the imagined viewer, much like Sherlock himself, is unable to correctly identify the “cyphers” as Chinese characters. This imagined viewer is thus by implication a non-Chinese viewer. While much of Sherlock invites the viewer to share Sherlock’s experience as citizen of digital London, the exclusion of Chinese culture and of Chinese viewers from this digital modernity suggests that only specific viewers may partake in the decoding of the city: namely those who occupy a position of normative Britishness. Thus, even though the presence of digital technology in Sherlock is part of other signals that are supposed to mark the program’s diegesis as cosmopolitan and progressive, the depiction of China underlines the lingering presence of orientalism that shaped the representation of London as industrial in the original Doyle stories and that shaped the emergence of the digital as a mappable and navigable space.


34 Leave a comment on paragraph 34 2 Year One narratives place a franchise in dialogue with its own past and foster a conversation between two political, cultural, and economic eras. By choosing which elements of Sherlock’s and London’s appearance and character must change and which must stay the same for the franchise to remain both recognizable and timely, the BBC’s production offers an interpretation of the evolution of life and politics in London over the last century. Thus Sherlock’s continued reliance on the science of deduction defines the character while also still fostering the belief that human behaviors are predictable, with wide-ranging social consequences. Sherlock’s shift from spectacular mastery of science to digital technology suggests movement from cultural anxieties and fascination with emerging scientific methodologies to the modern preoccupation with digital life. While Doyle offered the world a new kind of scientific man to solve the fears associated with the swelling population and increased social mobility of the industrial city, Sherlock both invests in and deconstructs the efficacy of using social typologies to control and understand life in our new digital cities.

Works Cited

35 Leave a comment on paragraph 35 0 Chun, Wendy Hui Kyong. Control and Freedom: Power and Paranoia in the Age of Fiber Optics. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2006.

36 Leave a comment on paragraph 36 0 Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan. “A Study in Scarlet,” “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” and “The Sign of the Four” in The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, ed. Leslie Klinger. New York: Norton, 2005.

37 Leave a comment on paragraph 37 0 Edelman, Lee. No Future: queer theory and the death drive. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004.

38 Leave a comment on paragraph 38 0 Gregg, D. P. “The ASBO Jihad: A twenty-first century witch hunt,” Criminal Justice Matters, Vol 79, no 1. 2010, 34-35.

39 Leave a comment on paragraph 39 0 Haddock, A; Snowden, P; Dolan, M; and Parker, J. “Managing Dangerous People with Severe Personality Disorder: a survey of forensic psychiatrists’ opinions” in Psychiatric Bulletin, vol 25. 2001, 293-296.

40 Leave a comment on paragraph 40 0 Halberstam, Judith. In a Queer Time and Place: transgender bodies, subcultural lives. New York: NYU Press, 2005.

41 Leave a comment on paragraph 41 0 Halliday, Josh. “Google committed significant breach over street view.” The Guardian, November 3, 2010. http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2010/nov/03/google-information-commissioner-street-view

42 Leave a comment on paragraph 42 0 Hammel, Andrew. “Preventative Detention in comparative Perspective” in Annual of German & European Law, Volumes 2-3. Ed Russell A. Miller, Peer Zumbansen. New York: Berghahn Books, 2006, 89-115.

43 Leave a comment on paragraph 43 0 Moore, Alison. “The Invention of Sadism,” in Sexualities, Vol. 12 no. 4. August 2009, 486-502.

44 Leave a comment on paragraph 44 0 Rodger, John. “Antisocial families and Withholding Welfare Support,” Critical Social Policy, Vol 26, no1. 2006, 121-143.

45 Leave a comment on paragraph 45 0 Siddiqi, Yumna. “Cesspool of Empire,” in Victorian Literature and Culture, Vol 34. 2006, 233-247.

46 Leave a comment on paragraph 46 0 Squires, Peter. “New Labour and the Politics of Antisocial Behavior,” Critical Social Policy, Vol 26, no1. 2006, 144-168.

47 Leave a comment on paragraph 47 0 Stoler, Ann. Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power: race and the intimate in colonial rule. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2002.

48 Leave a comment on paragraph 48 0 Watkins, S. Craig. The Young and the Digital: What the Migration to Social-Network Sites, Games, and Anytime, Anywhere Media Means for Our Future. Boston: Beacon Press, 2009.

49 Leave a comment on paragraph 49 0 Wray, Richard. “Google launches street view in UK.” The Guardian, March 19, 2009. http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2009/mar/19/google-street-view-uk

  • [1]Conversely, Judith Halberstam theorizes queer time, a model for how life might structure itself without the default landmarks of heterosexuality and bio-economic reproduction (courtship, marriage, home ownership, children, productivity, retirement, grandchildren) (2005).
  • [2]This deal is reminiscent of Lee Edelman’s theorization of the political and psychological use of queer populations as a symbolic sacrifice to stave off inevitable bodily and cultural/civilizational death (2004).
  • [3]The BBC launched a version of Sherlock’s website as part of its transmedia storytelling, which allows viewers to access casefiles and view Sherlock’s forum conversations.
  • [4]Emphasis on London obscures the BBC’s filming of significant parts of Sherlock in Cardiff.
  • [5]In an article about Google Street View’s UK launch in March 2009, Richard Wray summarizes a number of concerns, including the identification of people who were accidentally photographed during image collection and its possible use as a “burglar’s chart.” Josh Holliday’s article from November 2009 raises the question of digital identity theft after Google admitted accidentally collecting private information from unsecured wireless networks when workers mapped Wifi hotspots.
  • Source: http://mcpress.media-commons.org/transmediasherlock/anne-kustritz-and-melanie-kohnen/