Of Men and Monsters: Jeffrey Dahmer and the Construction of the Serial Killer.
Serial Killers: Death and Life in America's Wound Culture. By Mark Seltzer. (New York and London: Routledge, 1998. Pp. ix + 302, 16 figures/illustrations, notes, index)
The trope of the rapacious, murderous, cannibalistic ogre holds a long-standing place in both folklore and popular imagination. Its contemporary incarnation, the serial killer--the white, middle-class, sexual predator who roams at large and whose victims are young, white and female--can claim a lineage that includes Bluebeard, the vigilante gunslinger of the Western, and, more recently, the murderer of the "slasher" film and urban legends such as "The Hook" and "The Roommate's Death." With each instance of actual serial murder, heavily and disproportionately covered by the press, fiction and reality meet and blur, and the narratives build and constitute each other.
Today's stereotypical serial killer--the white everyman--has become fully integrated into popular culture. Daytime talk shows are devoted to such killers, as are comic books, trading cards, fan clubs, crime novels, news specials (often employing "dramatic re-enactments" in an obvious, yet confused, display of fact and fiction), and main-stream movies such as the Oscar-winning Silence of the Lambs (1991, dir. Jonathan Demme). With the phenomenon of serial killers so heavily evoked in various forms of popular culture, it follows that research and analysis on the subject would most obviously be located in Cultural Studies, as indeed are the two books that are the subject of the present review.
The questions raised by the critical analyses of the nominal subjects of the books under review--serial killers and the serial killer/cannibal/necrophiliac par excellence--are reminiscent of those posed by William Arens in his controversial work The Man Eating Myth (1979, N.Y.: Oxford). That is, what are the interwoven discourses that connect anthropology and anthropophagy; cannibalism and colonialism? For folklorists, by extension, why is the subject of folklore so often the monstrous, and why is the object of folkloristics and folklorists so often the "Other," whose markedness as other is determined by our own notions of monstrosity? These books provide some possible answers, illustrating the fascinating relays between both folklore and popular culture, and folklore and forces in contemporary political and social life in the United States.
Tithecott's Of Men and Monsters, a social constructionist approach to the case of Jeffrey Dahmer, perhaps the most sensational and widely-covered serial killer of the 1990s, locates our social construction of the serial killer at the intersection of contemporary ideologies of gender, race, and class. The "celebrity" of contemporary serial killers, seen as motivated by both fear and fascination, is mapped by Tithecott along the dual axes of denial and desire in the two parts of his book--"Policing the Serial Killer," and "Dreaming the Serial Killer"--offering first a social constructionist, and then a psychoanalytical perspective on the Dahmer story.
Social constructionist analyses of moral panics illustrate not only how a symbolic reality that is increasingly mediated and standardized through news, infotainment, and popular culture tends to unite a very wide sector of the general population, but also how the fears generated by such a reality are almost completely based on events not witnessed or experienced but believed to be true based on input from media. These mediated perceptions are shaped by claims makers (both liberal and conservative) in order to advance particular agendas and effect policy decisions. The social construction of the category of "deviant" hinges on a pervasive fear of the threat of random and "meaningless" harm. The generalized fear of random violence now made incarnate in the persona of the serial killer is a powerful rhetorical image, and the commonly held fears and perceptions that are the result of such a construction have led to specific policies that focus on serial killing as a growing "epidemic." Tithecott's study reveals how the mythologizing of the individual, intelligent, and "sane" serial killer was accompanied by a parallel mystification of the serial killer's nemesis--the FBI profiler (from the FBI National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crimes [NCAVC], est. 1984)--the lone hero who fights such evils using nearly super-human intuition. These FBI agents have been elevated to a special, extra-legal, elite status in popular perception, and, as "mind hunters," employ both psychology and intuition to understand and thus apprehend the killer. Engaging in intense one-onone psychological battles, both hero and anti-hero have been "mystified" (29) and incorporated into popular consciousness as types. Both figures are also shown to have emerged as social phenomena in an intensely conservative political period during which the serial killer became the most extreme example of a class of "deviants" who were held responsible for the breakdown of social order. According to this logic, restoration of social order was to be achieved not only by a series of punitive laws ("Three-Strikes"), but through the efforts of superhuman, heroic individuals. Official discourse on the serial killer expanded to include such varied "types" as drug abusers, pornographers, abusive parents, and even single, working mothers as social ills to be contained by policy, reform, and incarceration. Lesser ills were made more urgent by their association with spectacular violence, and all were linked in their socially corrosive potential. In a closed circle of select information heavily laden with ideological overtones and clearly positioned on the side of "family values," FBI profilers became "experts" for breaking news stories of contemporary murder sprees as well as expert witnesses for Congressional Hearings on serial killers, and helped to make the connection between serial killing and "abnormal" families explicit. Take, for example, the following quote from an FBI officer in answer to questioning from the House Commission, "In our research with serial murderers, we found that, for example, the backgrounds, without exception, everyone had a chaotic early childhood, a lot of mobility, a lot of transientness in their family, abusive parents, absent parents..." (42).
The FBI Behavioral Unit at Quantico, however, contrary to the Hollywood depiction and popularization, has never solved a case of serial murder, but has, rather, composed a typology of profiles from data amassed after the fact, often through interviews with incarcerated serial killers. In addition, serial killings represent only a tiny percentage of the number of homicides yearly in the United States. Tithecott repeatedly draws out such inconsistencies between perception/ construction and reality and in so doing illustrates the important relays between popular media, the portrayal of symbolic reality, individual perceptions, and policy. Clearly, the public engagement with the serial killer is disproportionate to his social menace, and Dahmer's spectacular and spectacularized case--with allegations of cannibalism, body parts in the refrigerator, necrophilia, and the fact that his victims were mostly both gay and non-white--leads Tithecott to suggest a "correspondence between the meanings we give to serial killing and the meaning of masculinity and of whiteness in modern America" (4), which serves to illuminate the serial killer's social presence. The analysis of the Jeffrey Dahmer case attempts to expose that which the rhetoric effaces--not only that the focus on such rare (but sensational) phenomena directs concern away from other forms of more widespread violence which are anything but "random" and which have social origins that perhaps more problematically suggest social responsibility and action, but also that the insistent claims of random, motiveless violence "indicate a refusal to make sense of such violence in a way which would associate serial killing with some of society's dominant values" (5). Tithecott thus suggests that the constructed serial killer ironically both destroys and derives from middle America, simultaneously threatening and upholding the space that middle America has defined as its own and has rigidly defined in terms of family, race, gender, sexuality, class, and domesticity.
In part II, "Dreaming the Serial Killer," Tithecott tries to come to grips with what he sees as an increasing "surfacing" of the "underground" value of violence into the public sphere (91), represented by our fascination with our construction of the serial killer. Here Tithecott relies less on the constructionist framework used so effectively in the first part, and ventures into the realm of pop-psychology, suggesting that the fascination we find in the serial killer is a fascination with ourselves, or at least with our darker, unexplored fantasies. Echoing Freud's interpretation of the "uncanny," Tithecott claims that "the idea of the serial killer seems to be increasingly important to the way we perceive our world" (3), and suggests that if we look too long at the serial killer's image, "[i]t is ourselves we see" (6) looking back. This cliche of vernacularized Freudian psychology has entered into mainstream acceptance, and has now become a rather unquestioned premise, effacing the radical split between fantasy and enactment. It also misses the point that we are fascinated by the representation of Dahmer and others, and that representation is a mediated presentation of events that may be aligned with fantasy.
In Serial Killers: Death and Life in America's Wound Culture, Mark Seltzer explores the themes of representation, reproduction, and their technologies as key elements in a social addiction to seriality itself, providing subtle and complex insights into the importance of the serial killer in the public imagination. Serial killing, for Seltzer, "has its place in a public culture in which addictive violence has become not merely a collective spectacle but one of the crucial sites where private desire and public fantasy cross" (1). Seltzer situates the serial killer at the intersection of what he refers to as America's "wound culture" ("the public fascination with torn and open bodies and torn and open persons, a collective gathering around shock, trauma, and the wound" ), and machine culture (the technologizing of the body, and the "naturalizing" of the machine). Seltzer traces the relays between "murder and machine culture; the intersecting logics of seriality, prosthesis, and primary mediation (dense materializations and corporealizations of writing, reproduction, representation, and symbolization [fn. 17, 176]) that structure cases of addictive violence" (105), seeking to understand the processes by which the serial killer has emerged as a "species of person," and why this particular individual has become a "flashpoint in contemporary society" (2).
Seltzer only partially relies on a constructionist view to investigate the cultural and social relationship between the serial killer and his audience. For Seltzer, the serial killer's construction is multi-directional; the media information technologies, the FBI who utilize them and who structure profiles of serial killers "more along the lines of crime fiction rather than crime fact" (159), and the serial killer who fashions himself according to FBI profiles ("how-to-manuals") and whose own authority is based on the fact that it "reflects the commonplaces of the culture" (126), all ramify each other. But Seltzer sees this as empty and endless circularity (115), which, in detouring around analysis, explains nothing at all (127). "The point is not then that the serial killer problem is a 'social construction,' nor that the malady called the serial killer is 'socially constructed,' nor quite that the serial killer is a terminal instance of the self-made or self-constructed man. All--these are elements in serial killing. But these intricated notions of construction--social construction and self-construction and the relations between them--indicate something more" (115).
One of Seltzer's main focuses is the meaning of "seriality" itself, playing with the notion that the "serial" of serial murder refers both to the redundancy and reduplication of victims as well as to the typological, reduplicatable murderers themselves, all of which, in their representations and media duplications have become statistical, substitutable persons and types generated in the mass-mediated public consumer sphere. Thus, for Seltzer, serial killing "cannot be separated from the general forms of seriality, collection, and counting conspicuous in consumer society (Stewart), and the forms of fetishism the collecting of things and representations, persons and person-things like bodies that traverse it (Baudrillard)" (64).
Seltzer clearly makes the claim that seriality is an underlying motivation, in fact an addiction, in the machine age, and links serial consumption with serial violence (cf. Marx's metaphor of the capitalist as vampire). The compulsion for seriality is compelling and enlightening. Social addiction to seriality enjoins the serial killer and the serial viewer in the cycle of reproduction, substitution, collection, categorizing, representation and repetition. The redundancy itself fractures the reality of the terror, spectacularizing as it distances and anesthetizes it, co-joining us through mechanical and technological reproduction in the spectacle of wounded bodies and wounded psyches. Here, obviously, is my intentional linking of the sociocultural underpinnings of such phenomena with the enterprise of folkloristics. One of Seltzer's contentions is that there is, now, a rupture of the private into the public in the spectacle of the publicized pornography of serial killing and in the literalness of mutilation which exteriorizes that which had been interior. Is this not the folklore collection, which not only makes the private public, but which makes it generic and de-personalized?
One of the effects of reading both Of Men and Monsters and Serial Killers together is that the widely invoked and seldom questioned fear/fantasy complex is productively uncoupled. This expands their individual meanings and allows us to investigate the particular functions and consequences of both fear and fascination as separate phenomena. In our fear of the threat of violence, we ourselves are the hypothetical victims, the objects of violence. Fascination with the serial killer, on the other hand, can be seen as related not to the potential for danger, but to the effect of violence, and it is in this context that Seltzer's articulation of "America's wound culture" is the most persuasive. Our voyeuristic involvement with the effects of the crimes themselves depersonalizes the victims, highlighting instead the particular, and in many cases increasingly macabre, details of the crime, repeating and recounting the tally, distancing and anesthetizing the gore in its mechanical reproduction. In this way the crimes of serial killers are linked not only to the spectacle of mass murder (cf. coverage of the Columbine High School shootings), but to the spectacle of death, dishonor, and disgrace of public figures (linking the coverage and reaction to the deaths of Princess Diana and of John F. Kennedy, Jr., and the "exposition" of the details of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal). The perverse distancing that such replicated exteriorizing of interiors effects allows us to engage in a cathartic "public grieving" for public figures whom we have never met, to vicariously participate in intimate contact with interior states of strangers in an alienated, post-industrial consumer society.
Both of these books are provocative and somewhat fresh in their approaches and at the very least are valuable in their demonstration of the entangled web of consumer, industrial, institutional, social, and personal information that is continuously playing before us in an endlessly mediated loop. Tithecott's most compelling statement is that the serial killer construction is a fantasy of American dominant culture and that his construction is dependent on the relays, linkages, and slippage between various forms of popular culture and the killers' imaging and presentation of themselves, institutional agencies, and public perception. Seltzer reads repetitive male violence as evidence of a tendency to translate the difference between self and other into the basic difference between male and female (67), and suggests that these crimes are not unrelated to the tension between "possessive individualism and market culture, on the one side, and disciplinary individualism and machine culture, on the other" (72). Here, perhaps, we can begin to see cultural and ideological linkages between the anti-female mechanical reproduction of the "self-made man" (who is both general and individual) and the anti-female violence of the serial killer linkages that may provide some insight in to this figure's resonance in contemporary society. Both books, in focusing on the serial killer, interrogate the clearly bounded categories of "self" and "other," "normality" and "perversion," which find expression in the figure of the serial killer himself: outwardly ordinary, inwardly monstrous. As with many studies in folklore today, these analyses of the serial killer probe the instability of identity in late-capitalist society and provide fresh insights for all in the field.
University of Missouri, Columbia, U.S.A.
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2000|
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