This essay is written in the same 'academic stream of consciousness' style that will be familiar to anyone who's read my previous books (particularly Utopia/Dystopia), and should be read with that in mind. It forms the first section of a small book that has suddenly come to me (and been half-completed) over the last few days. This book is entitled 'Speak of the Devil', and will be on the subject of the relationship between celebrity, mass media, the society of the spectacle and serious crime. The second section, that completes the book, consists of portraits of 23 of the most infamous and iconic criminals in British history.
"The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.”
Guy Debord, ‘The Society of the Spectacle’, Thesis 4
Images proliferate: bound together on a scaffolding of words, music and computer code, they are an essential part of every sphere of activity in Western civilisation. Commerce, politics, science, education, celebrity, sport; all rely on the image, moving or still. Images reflect and reinforce the values and prejudices, that is to say the ideology, of society and of individuals, whether conscious or unconscious. This makes the study of images a subject of particular importance, because we live in an age where ideology is often unstated, and where many seem to enjoy living under the illusion that they possess no ideology, possibly because that means they never have to question it. Neoliberalism, scientism, capitalism and so on are presented as rational and non-ideological positions; anything but the mildest criticism, from any quarter, is not only irrational (and thus incorrect) but potentially insane, and obviously based on unchecked emotions which are created, falsely, by the opponent’s ideology. Politicians portray their policies as pragmatic. Artists believe their work is apolitical. Scientists assume their research is unbiased. In this worldview, the photojournalist’s camera records only visible facts, the Hollywood film is simply entertainment, the documentarian is a truth-seeker, and all graphs are accurate and undistorted. Any attempt to criticise and critically analyse the images with which we are bombared is often seen as ‘spoiling the fun’. Anything that is revealed by such an investigation is simply a fiction created by the critic’s own ideology; the ideology of the work under consideration does not exist.
The attempt to obscure the ideology of images is deliberate, and often rationalised by the image-maker as simply trying to reflect their personal lack of ideology in their own creations. Historically, dating back to the modernist period, the main method of obscuring ideology was to drain images of definite signifiers; to try and distance them from their creator and from the cultural and historical context of which their creator was a part. In the visual arts the model of this approach was the work of the abstract expressionists; Pollock, Rothko, De Kooning, Reinhardt and so on. Their images contained no readable information or representations of the real world; very often they had titles like ‘No. 5’ or ‘Black and Red’ or ‘Painting Number Two’. Their subject was presumed to be some universal human emotional experience. Indeed, they were so non-ideological that the CIA funded their international exhibition as part of its cultural war against communism. In the graphic arts, beginning at about the same time, the so-called ‘International Typographic Style’, was on the rise, seen by its proponents as a way in which any information could be cleanly, and most importantly objectively presented. In the US, the sociologist Daniel Bell declared ‘the End of Ideology’. Some mediums always held out, of course, and it was during the 1980’s, inspired by such cultural developments as the music video that a new approach to hiding ideology became ascendant. This was obfuscation through visual excess; rather than draining an image of signifiers, it would instead be filled with them to the point that they cancelled each other out. Integral to this approach is the insincere and ‘ironic’ deployment of highly-charged symbols, such as those associated with nationalism, political revolution and religious faith. This is closely related to the process (which may be common to all dominant ideologies) whereby capitalism has subsumed opposition to itself into itself via the process of appropriation, thereby further hiding itself. Margaret Thatcher had already declared there was no such thing as society; with the collapse of Soviet communism, Francis Fukuyama, needing to outdo Bell, declared ‘the end of history’. The 1990’s were seen by many at the time as an era that was beyond the historical process; post-feminist, post-industrial, post-modernist. Subsequently, it is seen by many as more of a pause between two of the greatest, and most profoundly ideological, spectacles of our time; the fall of the Berlin Wall and the events of September 11th 2001. In the new millennium, against the background of a purported ‘clash of civilisations’, the use of ‘irony’ has developed to the point whereby images can endorse an ideological position explicitly whilst still not being considered ideological. This is partly due to a mainstream appropriation of certain features of the ‘new sincerity’, which claims to repudiate post-modernism, often by looking backwards to the modernist era (a tactic made explicit in labels such as ‘metamodernism’ and ‘remodernism’). The process that began in the 1950’s is now developed to the point at which it is no longer necessary to take any particular steps to distance an image from its cultural and historical context, or from the personality of its creator. After all, ideology, society and history have all been declared to be at an end; reality has been over-taken by hyper-reality. At the pinnacle of this process sits the contemporary celebrity; whether they are a sports star, a musician, an actor or simply ‘famous for being famous’. Their images stand only for themselves; their thoughts and opinions are divorced from context, the internal musings of a perfectly discrete individual. Even when they engage in activism, they avoid, for the most part, becoming embroiled in ideology by focusing on symptoms as opposed to underlying basal causes. They aid refugees from conflicts, but never talk about imperialism. They decry poverty and starvation without condemning capitalism. They bemoan bullying and teenage suicide, but avoid talking about institutional sexism and homophobia. And wherever they go, and whatever they do, their main function is to provide a ‘face’. For that is what they are portrayed as; a face, a surface, an appearance, as flat as their own images upon a screen or sheet of paper. To provide them with depth, as with the images, would be to reveal the ideologies that underpin their actions, words and thoughts, and thus the ideologies of society in general.
The images of celebrities change and develop throughout their lives. Indeed, the production of new images is an essential and defining part of celebrity as a cultural institution. In a process that is arguably being reproduced far more widely by the ongoing development of social media, celebrities transform the visible portion of their lives into a performance, the purpose of which is to generate new images. This process normally only ends some time after a celebrity has died, or, more rarely, retires from the public gaze. This process of retirement is complicated by the fact that the process of image generation is very often not under the celebrities complete control; by consenting to perform for the public gaze in the first place, they have become stripped of their power to end the performance. Not only do new images of them prompt discussion in the media, but each discussion of them in the media normally requires new images of them to be sought out and created. These images of celebrities, and of all other sorts of public figures (a distinction which is increasingly blurred) are a huge part of the substance of news media. The distinction between tabloid and broadsheet journalism can be stated as whether the images are illustrations for the text (broadsheet) or whether the text forms captions for the images (tabloid). Whereas images of particular events will be repeated, becoming iconic, images of people are endlessly renewed.
One sort of image of people in particular stands out. These images are different because their potency as cultural objects rests not in novelty, but in repetition. They are not records of an event, yet they become iconic nevertheless. These are the images of the most serious and despised criminals; serial killers, serial rapists, spree killers, child murderers and so on, and their victims. These pictures are icons of evil; yet they are placed, in newspapers, magazines, on television, within the same structural framework that presents to us images of celebrity. Indeed, these people, as images, are a type of celebrity; an anti-celebrity, an inversion of the principle. Infamous rather than famous. Whereas celebrities are aspirational figures, these sorts of criminals are people that no one wishes to become. As with celebrities, they are often positioned outside of ideology, and of society as a whole. Despite the fascination that surrounds the motives and reasons for their crimes, a moral argument is presented which holds that any attempt to alight on a cause for their deviant behaviour outside of themselves is repugnant, because it shifts the blame from themselves. Except in some cases where the crimes line up with a wider moral panic (such as ‘video nasties’ or internet pornography), there is a repeated denial that these people could possibly be, in any way, a logical outcome of the society from which they come; and even in these cases, once the moral panic recedes, its explanatory power also recedes in the public imagination. For example; whilst at the time tabloid newspapers often linked the murder of James Bulger to the viewing of violent films (particularly Child’s Play 3) by his killers, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, this is almost never mentioned in subsequent news reports, documentaries or other discussions of the case. It should also be noted that moral panics themselves focus on targets that are seen as being aberrant external threats to the social order. When any broader aspect of culture or society is mentioned with regards to these sorts of criminals, it is almost always to dismiss. The form of this dismissal is practically a cliché in discussions of serious crime. “Yes, he did grow up in poverty, and he was beaten as a child, put plenty of other people have bad childhoods and grow up to be perfectly normal…”. If external factors are invoked, they are seen as either coming together in an accident of random chance, or as providing the sources for an entirely medicalised explanation of the criminal behaviour. What this focus on internal, individual psychology particularly serves particularly to avoid is any discussion of how the personal ideology of these sorts of criminals, their views and attitudes towards women, perhaps, or power, or children, relates to the broader ideology of society. Critical criminology, which acknowledges ideology, remains almost universally sidelined, and excluded from the public discourse; in the United States, university departments dealing in critical criminology have been shut down for political reasons.
Also avoided, indeed, almost impossible to discuss, are the links between extreme criminality and the image of those crimes as a form of entertainment, as created by the media. Let us consider serial killers as a particular subset. When people, talking heads engaged by a true crime documentary, say, try and deal with some of the most perplexing questions about serial killers, to wit; why are they are such a recent and culturally specific phenomenon, there is one possibility that is very rarely mentioned. Possibly the most famous serial killer, certainly in British history, is one of which no images exist, yet at the same time, a million images exist: Jack the Ripper. Some have suggested that Jack the Ripper might be entirely fictional; that the murders attributed to him are not actually a series, but unrelated crimes. We do know that it is almost certain that all the letters supposedly written by Jack the Ripper to the police, newspapers and so on, which provided him with his name and personality, are fabrications, and one of the most famous letters (the ‘Dear Boss’ letter) was almost certainly created by a journalist, in order to generate more excitement around the case. In some ways, this is a model of all subsequent cases. For serial killers are all avatars of Herostratus, who immortalised himself by burning the temple of Artemis, despite the attempts of the authorities to erase his name from history. They become elevated from being mundane persons into the realms of infamy not by the act of committing their crimes, but by the representation of their crimes, and their likeness, in mass media. Generally, unless the identity of the criminal remains unknown, the images of the victim become subordinate. In the case of serial killers, the faces of victims are often presented as a mosaic, next to a much larger picture of the killer or killers. This is completely understandable when we consider these criminals as a form of celebrity; their role in creating their own fame was active, their victims became famous passively. The selection of those victims whose images do prevail over their killers is a story in and of itself; whereas the criminals are icons of evil, they are icons of innocence. They are almost always children, very often female, and in almost all cases they are white. It is almost certainly not accidental that children and the female sex are particularly identified with passive roles in a patriarchal society.
The images of victims are frozen in time, generally, by their death; images of living victims appear rarely, normally only when they are being interviewed in some context about their experience with the criminal. They are again subordinate, a supporting act for the anti-celebrity. What is interesting with the criminals themselves is that, even in cases where they remain alive, in almost all cases the media alights on one or perhaps two images which are continually used to represent them. Once they have been convicted, they stop being real people. They stop being part of the society from which they emerged, and in which they still exist, institutionalised. They become immortalised. Often, in a very real sense, this is exactly what they want. If we live in the society of the spectacle, and treat these crimes as spectacular, we must ask serious questions about the possibility of our shared culpability in the acts we claim most to despise.