Toward a Gothic Criminology Of Monstrous Progeny

Caroline J. Picart

Caroline J. Picart

Edward J. Ingebretsen writes: “Monstrous bodies are the remarkable presences that appear as signs of civic omen, or trauma, and which demand interpretation: they offer a bit of each, apocalypse as well as utopia.” Indeed, the etymological roots of the term “monstrous” may be arguably traced to their Latin roots, monere (to warn) and monstrare (to point to), though monsters, as former portents of the divine, have a more complex genealogy than such an etymology can capture.

Timothy K. Beal writes: “We humans respond to the monster as a personification of the unheimlich, of otherness within sameness, and our responses range from demonisation to deification.” This complex range of reactions — from horror to awe — cries out for examination. Thus, it is important to track the most gripping and recurrent visualisations of the “monstrous” in film and the media in order to lay bare the tensions that underlie the contemporary construction of the monstrous, which ranges in the twilight realm where divisions separating fact, fiction, and myth are porous.

It is important to note the tensions of this narrative: the “monster” or contemporary “fallen angel” is simultaneously a figure of horror and repulsion, as it is of fascination and charisma; both subhuman and superhuman; and remarkably similar to the “normal” and strikingly deviant at the same time.

The contemporary monsters we examine include the pedophilic homosexual priest, the hypermasculinized rogue cop, the masculinized mother, the stalker, rapist and abusive husband, the drug addict, the satanic worshipper, the white collar criminal, the serial killer and the terrorist as well as corporate entities such as the specters of a demonic system of criminal justice running amuck, fueled by fevered media hype; police departments nurtured by monstrously corrupt practices; unbridled capitalism as vampiric; and even the proliferation of Gothic images and metaphors in popular culture spawning paranoid and useless public policy.

Drawing upon literary and cultural studies perspectives, the social construction of the monstrous as evil is clearly seen in Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s (1996) introduction to ‘Monster Theory: Reading Culture.’ It may be summarised in the following way: the monster’s body is a “cultural body” that serves as a harbinger of “category crisis,” which renders porous categories of knowledge and form and makes fluid the realms of fear and desire.

Using language steeped in Christian theological allusions, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen tells us that the monstrous, like one of Dante Alighieri’s hellish creatures, guards the “borders of the Possible,” and is “difference made flesh, come to dwell among us.”

Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s framework is important because it shows how the languages of theology and the Gothic imagination lurk, inhabiting the most secular of entertainment and “factual” realms.

What prompts this anthology is an explosion of books and films that link violence, images of “monstrosity,” and Gothic modes of narration and visualisation in American popular culture, academia and even public policy.

As Mark Edmundson notes: “Gothic conventions have slipped over into ostensibly nonfictional realms. Gothic is alive not just in Stephen Edwin King’s novels and Quentin Jerome Tarantino’s films, but in the media renderings of the Orenthal James Simpson case, in our political discourse, in modes of therapy, on television news, on talk shows like Oprah, in our discussions of AIDS and of the environment. American culture at large has become suffused with Gothic assumptions, with Gothic characters and plots.” Nevertheless, there have been few critical anthologies that have aimed at an interdisciplinary approach focusing specifically on the complex continuum of fact and fiction, involving a dialogue that moves across the humanities (Film Criticism, Cultural Studies, Rhetoric) and the social sciences (Communication, Criminology, Sociology) in exploring this phenomenon.

This collection of essays critically interrogates contemporary visualisations of the Gothic and the monstrous in film and media. The ongoing fascination with evil, as simultaneously repellant and irresistibly attractive, both in the Hollywood film, criminological case studies, popular culture and even public policy, points to the emergence of “Gothic Criminology,” with its focus on themes such as bloodlust, compulsion, divine vengeance, and power and domination.

Rather than assuming that film and the media tell us little about the reality of criminological phenomena, “Gothic Criminology” as instantiated in this collection of essays, recognises the complementarity of critical academic and aesthetic accounts of deviant behaviour as intersecting with the public policy in complex, nonreductive ways.

The development of a Gothic Criminology can be seen as a potential strand of contemporary postmodern criminological theory. It would be wise, to begin with, a characterisation of this key term, which has two parts.

The first thing to note about “criminology” is its interdisciplinarity. As Carol Smart argues: “The thing that criminology cannot do is deconstruct crime. It cannot locate rape or child sexual abuse in the domain of sexuality, nor theft in the domain of economic activity, nor drug use in the domain of health. To do so would be to abandon criminology to sociology, but more importantly, it would involve abandoning the idea of a unified problem which requires a unified solution at least at the theoretical level. The best “snapshot” of criminology focuses therefore on a multidisciplinary corpus of epistemologies, practices and theories that revolve around three questions: how and why certain types of social activity come to be constructed as “crime;” why crime recurs in different situations, and how various societal forces attempt to police crime through both formal institutional mechanisms of criminal justice and informal mechanisms of social control.

Like criminology, postmodernism is less a strict “discipline” than a loose collection of themes, resisting the gesture of the Grand narrative characteristic of the Enlightenment tradition.

Briefly sketched, postmodernism has the following features: a reliance on deconstructive methods (the excavation of repressed terms in any definition, and the tracing of their textual ramifications in terms of power relations); the rejection of totalizing Grand narratives; and a Nietzschean emphasis on liberation from societal strictures and the tactical appropriation of various elements that enable the endless experimental creation of lifestyles that do not have a coherence of themselves.

Criminology and penology were central features of the twentieth-century’s grand experiments in social engineering and welfare reformism. Recently both have come under attack from postmodern writers, who stress a generalised disenchantment with what they see as passé ideas of scientific and human progress, coherence and truth.

Positivist strands of criminology since Cesare Lombroso promised explanation, prediction and control of criminal populations. The seeming impotence of social scientists and governments in the face of continuing crime, now played out on a massive scale with international organized crime, with cyber-crime and terrorism as examples, “serves as a powerful metaphor for the fragmentation, uncertainty and self-satisfied indifference which, for some critics, is the prominent characteristic of postmodernity.”

Like Gothic literature before it, Gothic criminology is an expression of disease with the grand narratives of the Enlightenment itself. Postmodern criminology is not only gloom and doom. “On a more optimistic note, for others the resulting new era of individual freedom, diversity and difference has provided an arena in which new voices can be heard, previously ignored identities demand space and respect, and hitherto ignored problems — many of them of relevance to crime control — be given the priority they deserve.”

Allowing the voices of juvenile delinquents, drug addicts, those abused by the police and inmates to be heard serves to make criminology more well balanced and less subject to criticism that is dominated by establishment social control perspectives.

Even if the postmodern underpinnings of Gothic criminology are rejected by more traditional criminologists as themselves scientifically supportable, this approach still has heuristic value. Most criminology instructors teach by attacking popular culture images of crime and criminal justice, but few do so with a fully informed understanding of the content of these images or the critical role they play both in shared cultural belief systems and within academic criminology itself.

Similarly, literature and film courses frequently cover topics such as crime, social control, and law, but often without an understanding of the criminological models being employed within these fictional sources. Both criminology, literature and film studies can draw upon the insights that a Gothic criminological perspective can offer.

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