By Liam Monsell
Something fascinates us in infamy's ability to defy our social morals. We fetishize the murderer and want to get into their minds.
Nearly a year since his death, media and public fascination with Charles Manson remains as energetic as ever. Crucial answers about his motivations, his background, and state of mind died with him, but the speculation lives on. Many still ask why people continue to follow him with such fervour, and how he was able to convince his “family” to commit such heinous acts.
Whilst these questions persist, another, much more abrupt one, must also be asked. Why is it that we care so much?
Aside from Manson’s fanatical following, a supposedly 'normal' base of individuals latch on to him with similar fascination. Instead of expressing it through bizarre acts of devotion or head shaving, it’s much more mundanely expressed through the continuous viewing and production of films or documentaries about him. This is not specific to Manson: it can be seen through other notorious names like Jeffery Dahmer, the Wests, and Ted Bundy.
"In order to reify the suitability of pro-social celebrities, we fetishize the murderer and want to get into their minds. "
Our Crime Obsession
Documentaries like these are immensely popular. TV channels and streaming sites are full of CSI-style series which sate our thirst for murder, taboo and controversy. But why the obsession? Why are we so passionate about getting inside the head of the likes of Dahmer, The Wests, or the Mansons?
The purpose is clearly not to understand and prevent future horrors (a duty reserved for the criminal justice system and criminologists). Something fascinates us in infamy's ability to defy our social morals. This article seeks to deconstruct some of the ideals and discourses that may underpin our obsession with crime and the identity of the ill-famed.
The Latent Politics of Identity
An identity, such as the infamous criminal, is inconceivable without difference, say the poststructuralists. There is no authentic identity to something apart from the various meanings it incurs through its interactions with other states, meanings, and collectives. An identity has no inherent significance in and of itself, but only gains significance socially during its construction in comparison to its antithesis. This is because, says Jacques Derrida, language is made up of dichotomies and opposites: between the developed and underdeveloped, the modern and pre-modern, the civilised and the barbaric.
We construct the world in accordance to such contrasts, and rely on them to make sense of the social world, and who we are within them.
The meaning of an identity appears in the public consciousness not out of revelation, as if they were eternally meaningful and waiting to be discovered, but are instead artificially placed into the prominence of truth by the active, though sometimes subconscious articulation of contrasts and paradoxes. The madman and the citizen, the bum and the worker bee, the virtuous and the savage, or the famous and the infamous.
For anyone who’s encountered the works of French philosopher Michel Foucault, these dichotomies are said to play into the hands of the media or political orators who introduce them into the dominant discursive realms of knowledge and power. They are seldom equal: in each case one term posits superiority, and situates certain identities as possessing a naturally grander position, as one is usually a negation of the other.
The citizen is civilised because they do not live like the barbarian, the infamous are so because they do not do the same as the famous. These dichotomies set the boundaries of what apparently “is”, or what can be said about an issue – it denotes the limits of our consciousness and sets all else within their parameters. It defines right from wrong, good from bad, us from them. Identities carry great political currency, whether we are aware of it or not.
Keeping Enemies Closer
The antithesis of an identity is always proximate to an identity. It appears suitable and apparently solid in the face of moral chaos. The righteous church preaches hellfire and sin, the peaceful government bombards its citizens with imagery of terrorism, death, and destruction, and the media produces documentary after documentary of true crime stories and investigations into the minds of the criminally barbarous and insane. Only through exposure to its opposite does an identity gain its meaning and authority, as does fame.
Similarly, the infamous individual occupies a place close to that of the famous. We shower them with similar curiosity and attention, for they both constitute a “frame of conduct”. They situate the view within two contrasting states of being: the pro-social celebrity, excelling in some field deemed admirable such as music, sport, etc, and the anti-social criminal, whose sheer deviance from what we are taught is good fascinates us. In order to reify the suitability of pro-social celebrities, we fetishize the murderer and want to get into their minds.
We want to flirt with the amorality of their actions because it gives contempations of “good” a veneer of fixed meaning on some chaotic moral map. "This is what you are without order" it tells us.
The purpose of deconstructing identity often highlights when its construction is problematic, as with gender, race, and class. This doesn't mean we are wrong to similarly vilify criminals and murderers, however.
By placing infamy in contrast with fame, anything that is used to explain the conduct of the infamous is by association deemed a negation of what is good or normal. This is where some problems might lie. By explaining murderous rampages in terms of mental illness for example, the media nullifies non-conformity as some pathological disease. This construes all “mentally unfit” as social outcasts, mere steps from intractable rampage. Additionally, other salient features of a criminal’s identity may become associated with the infamous act, and can play into other discourses such as race and class: another 'black' crime, or more 'chavvy' behaviour. Reinforced are the structural inequalities distinct from fame and infamy, but which these concepts perpetually - if inadvertently - play in to.
It’s always important to be mindful of our obsessions. Ask what purpose they serve, and what meanings and power structures they embellish. It may be that the infamy of horrible crime has great influence over the construction of our identity as pro-social law-abiding individuals, as paradoxical as that may seem...