Technologies of Belief, Commiseration, and Publicness
The style of public belief and popular memory called «Reality TV» is one of the most conspicuous signs of the interactive compulsion in contemporary culture. And one of the most visible markers of Reality TV – both in its true confession format and in its true crime format – is the popularity of both stranger intimacy and stranger violence. That is, the public spectacle of torn and private bodies and torn and private persons is also the spectacle of a style of sociality. That style of sociality has become inseparable from the mass exhibition and mass witnessing, the endlessly reproducible display, of wounded bodies and wounded minds in public. Hence the trauma thing that has burgeoned in recent popular and academic culture. Hence the lurid, albeit transient and quasi-anonymous, celebrity of the spokesvictims of what I have called our contemporary wound culture. Hence too the manner in which crime, mass-mediated interiority, and publicness have been drawn together in today’s endless reality show.
The interactive compulsion in wound culture is nowhere more visible than in the strange kind of crime narrative - the small histories of violence as public spectacle - called «true crime.» True crime tells real life crime stories. Its counterpart then is crime fiction – what might, on this view, be called «false crime». But the boundary lines between fact and fiction, true and false crime, are by no means clear here. And that, it will be seen, is a crucial part of the story.
The protocols of true crime are not hard to detect. The conventions of the genre are in fact instantly recognizable: in fact, there is nothing more recognizable about true crime than its utter conventionality. True crime is not just formulaic: it is a sort of writing, or screening, by numbers. And this hyper-conventionality too is a crucial part of the story true crime tells.
In these pages I want to focus on the ways in which true crime maps national space: that is, makes the national scene and the scene of the crime refer back to each at every point. Two large questions emerge at this point: how does true crime map the nation? And what sort of nation space – what style of national psychotopography – does it set out?
Consider a recent case in point, a 1990s murder case that has become something of a media sensation in the USA. This case that will make it possible concisely to locate some of the elementary particles of true crime. Here is the lead «synopsis» of the case, provided by a web site – one of Yahoo’s top hundred sites, we are told – that has formed round the murder, its investigation, and (in signature true crime fashion), the investigation of the investigation.
The Robin Hood Hills Murders
May 5th, 1993 was a Wednesday, and when the Weaver Elementary School bell rang, three 8 year old boys headed home to their nearby West Memphis, Arkansas neighborhood. Only a few hours later they would be reported missing and an informal search by their parents would be under way.
The next afternoon at 1:45 PM, a child’s body was pulled from a creek in an area known as Robin Hood Hills. Eventually the bodies of the other two missing children were found nearby, and all three of them were naked and they had been tied ankle to wrist with their own shoe laces. The children had been severely beaten and one child, Christopher Byers, appears to have been the focus of the attack; he had been stabbed repeatedly in the groin area and castrated.
A triple homicide is extremely unusual, and particularly when the victims are children. The facts surrounding the case and the events which they triggered, the aftermath, the trials, the verdicts and the hearings have been the focus of an ongoing research project for the past several years.
Three teenagers were arrested and convicted of the crime, one sentenced to death. But the arrest and conviction have themselves seemed, at best, extremely unusual. And it is this «aftermath» that has generated the ongoing «research project»: a project that amounts to a sort of net-centered criminal justice cottage industry. That industry centers on the missing truth of the crime. For one thing, the evidence against the alleged killers appears slight, dubious, and unconvincing. For another, rumors of satanic rituals–the perfunctory paraphernalia of a satanic panic- surrounded the case and made their way into the prosecution. For yet another, so did a range of what might be called life-style evidence – blackdressing, goth style; enthusiasm for heavy-metal music; and, in the case of the prosecution’s central target, the teenager who (unfortunately) had adopted the horror-genre-associated name of Damien, sporadic interest in earth religions, versions of white witchcraft, etc.
This is what a quick synopsis of the case – media-named the Case of the West Memphis 3 - looks like. But it may already be clear that the popularity of the case centers on something else. The media circuit justice, the so-called «research projects» and proliferating support groups that have grown up around the case, center not on the murders themselves nor quite on the murder investigation or trial. It centers on the prosecution of the prosecution. That is, it centers on the ongoingness of the «ongoing research project» itself.
True crime is a way of returning to the scene of the crime by way of its recreation and representation. True crime always involves an aesthetics of the aftermath: a forensic realism. The forensic way of seeing is held steadily visible here, for instance, in the deadpan and dispassionate description of graphic horrors in the case summary. But graphic horror quickly yields to research: bodies to information. The forensic procedures of true crime are inseparable from the self-reflexiveness of information culture: information culture endlessly reports on itself, as the media always interviews itself.
True crime, along these lines, everywhere loops back on itself: the radical entanglement of crime, information, and spectacle is everywhere in evidence here. More exactly, the spectacle of the torn and open body is also the conversion of bodies into information. And the conversion of bodies into information is also the opening of the torn and private body, the torn and private person, to public spectacle. The term forensics, it will be recalled, derives from «forum» or publicness. In a wound culture, it is precisely the spectacle of the torn and private body that becomes the gathering point of the public as such. On the autopsy table, it has been observed, pornography and forensics meet and fuse. In wound culture, the mass spectacle of the torn and opened body is the relay point of private fantasy and public space.
What one discovers in true crime, in forensic realism more generally, is not merely the conversion of bodies into information and information into spectacle. Something new and something strange is at work here. What one discovers in true crime is the entering of the mass spectacle into the interior of modern violence: crime, bodies, and spectacle refer back to each other at every point. What this looks like will take some unpacking. Hence I want to take up, in preliminary fashion and, initially, by way of the case of the West Memphis 3, three constituent elements of true crime: first, the relation of fact and fiction in true crime; second, true crime’s way of mapping public space; and, third, the relays between the scene of the crime and the scene of publicness itself. It will then be possible to thicken this description of true crime and to indicate some of its larger cultural implications.
First, the fact/fiction thing. No doubt true crime puts in doubt from the start the line between fact and fiction. After all, the very notion of true crime proceeds as if «crime» itself were assumed to be a fictional thing, such that the word «true» must be added to bend fiction toward fact. From the start the line between crime fact and crime fiction is a vague and shifting one. I am referring not merely to the fact that, for example, the FBI profilers read the early crime fictions of Poe along with the recent ones of pulp novelist Thomas Harris. Poe, it will be recalled, plagiarized the true crime press in inventing crime detection fiction: for example, in the story called «The Mystery of Marie Roget», a story largely made up of clippings from New York newspapers about a real life case. Harris plagiarizes true crime writing too – not least the self-fictionalizations of the FBI crime profilers themselves. The looping effect, the self-reflexivity, always at work here could not be more evident. Hence there are the profilers own contributions to a sort of gothic sub-genre: true crime works with titles such as «whoever fights monsters» and «journey into darkness». As one of the profilers himself straightforwardly puts it, «our antecedents do come more from crime fiction than from crime fact».
What exactly does this coming down of the boundaries between fact and fiction in these cases mean? Something more is in play than a disorder in the relation of crime fiction and crime fact, and this begins to bring into view the second matter at issue, true crime’s way of mapping public space. If in true crime the boundary line between fact and fiction comes down, this is at least in part a proxy for something else and something more. This is because what that line between fiction (fantasy) and fact (public reality) polices is also something like the boundary line between private desire and public space. True crime has become something like a cultural flashpoint, a strange attractor, on the contemporary American scene, and part of its attraction is this: the testing out of the public/private divide, in all its normalcy and in all its incoherence, a retesting of the gap between private fantasy and public reality, between private reality and public fantasy, in contemporary culture.
A brief return to the West Memphis 3 case can make this nexus of truth and publicness a bit clearer. I have briefly set out a synopsis of the case, relying in part on the «new to the site: read this first» synopsis provided on the wm3.org web site. But the synopsis is a bit misleading. What triggered the project and what has generated the astonishing burgeoning of support groups around this case is, in fact, a film: an HBO documentary called, somewhat uncertainly, ParadiseLost: The Robin Hood Hills Murders. This uncertainly factual film, we told on the Internet, has «with a little help from the internet, created an avalanche of support for the 3 convicted killers».
The film, which is intent on exposing the prosecution as a witch hunt, is the primary data base for these support groups. One discovers again and again in scanning the statements of the virtual support groups, testimony on the part of supporters, or fans, of the case, an initial uncertainty about whether the film were fact or fiction. After all, a fictional-documentary effect has, for some time, been adapted to the genre of the murder film (the extraordinary pseudo-documentary, the Belgian film, Man Bites Dog, for example, or, more recently, the Poe-like documentary hoax, The Blair Witch Project). Films such as these not merely simulate documentary and the documentary representation of violence. These films foreground the ways in which modern violence has become inseparable from the mass-mediated representation of violence. Modern violence makes visible the strange and unprecedented intimacy of modern technologies of representation and reproduction. Hence it is scarcely surprising that the same team that has coordinated this para-legal project, Paradise Lost, recently entered into another film venture - the making of another documentary of sorts – it turns out, the sequel to The Blair Witch Project. Nor should it be surprising that Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 – which calls itself «a fictional reenactment of real events» - draws directly on the facts of the West Memphis 3 case.
The popular criminology of reality TV, and the documentaries that look like it, makes visible the structure of what counts as public today: as Stuart Hall has expressed it, «events and issues only become public in the full sense when the means exist whereby the separate worlds of professional and lay person, of controller and controlled, are brought into relation with one another and appear, for a time at least, to occupy the same space». The interactive compulsion that drives, for instance, reality TV shows such as America’s Most Wanted–where the audience participates in tracking down criminals--is just such a mingling of the worlds of the professional and the lay person: the relay-point of a sort of phantasmatic expertness and viewers like you and me. (Or, as Hannibal Lecter, the consummate professional as psycho killer, puts it, in the recent Ridley Scott film Hannibal: «lay person, interesting term»). What that compulsion constructs is then not merely public space but public space as the interactive scene of the crime. And this generalization of the scene of the crime such that the national scene and the crime scene become two ways of saying the same thing is one version of what I have elsewhere described as the emergence of a pathological public sphere.
What then does public space – the pathological public sphere – in true crime look like? And how does it relate to what I have called the hyper-conventionality of the genre? For the moment, I want to touch on what might be called normal scene of true crime: that is, what true crime takes as conventional or normal - or, more exactly, as abnormally normal. The temporary disruption of the normal public order and its recovery is perhaps the by-now default way of understanding the procedure, and appeal, of the «classic» detective story and the classic crime drama. But contemporary true crime works a bit differently.
The normal in the world of true crime is always a bit too normal, abnormally normal. In part, the West Memphis, Arkansas native informants of the documentary Paradise Lost resemble the wound culture underclass of reality TV crime shows such as Cops: a population on exhibition that has slipped through the cracks of American normalcy. These are not the mediagenic spokesmodels of American normality. They are something like the opposite, living outside the precincts of the national reality show. The population of reality TV crime shows or Paradise Lost image a world of physical over-embodiment and fundamentalist over-belief; they recite the cliches and wear the styles of a national normality but do not inhabit them. Put simply, they exhibit the opposite of the sort of exhibition of an ideal-typical normality that Douglas Coupland neatly captures in his recent novel Miss Wyoming: for instance, a model American home «whose normalcy was so extreme she felt she had magically leapt five hundred years into the future and was inside a diorama recreating middle-class North American life in the late twentieth century.» Normality takes the form of a theme-park replica of itself, referring to an elsewhere that inhabits and scripts the everyday. Here is Coupland again: «’How do you want us to act, Mr. Johnson?’ ‘Oh Jesus. How about normal.’ This remark drew a blank. ‘Normal?’ Cindy asked. ‘Like housewives? Like people who live in Ohio or something?’»
Consider, again, the synopsis of the Robin Hood Hills murder case, «May 5th, 1993, was a Wednesday», and so on. The conventions of a true crime’s forensic realism are immediately visible. That realism involves the sudden eruption of violence from beneath a therefore deceptively normal surface of things: that is, it involves the convention of penetrating beneath convention, beneath the cliches, of an everyday and statistical normality (here, a Wednesday, a schoolday, a neighborhood, a family). This is, more precisely, the stripping away of a fiction of normality – the normal fiction: a normality that looks like nothing but a childhood fantasy of innocence, a Robin Hood story, a paradise lost. The convention of innocence yields quickly and conventionally to a gothicized horror, and true crime is a modern variant of that cliche-machine called the gothic.
In this first documentary on the case, there is the story of the happy family, idyllic boyhood, violated. There is also a second HBO documentary, Revelations: Paradise Lost Revisited, which shifts the focus, making its case for the guilt of the father of the most brutally attacked and tortured of the three little boys. Hence the story of the happy family satanically invaded from without (Save the Family!) turns round to the story of a demonic intrafamilial violence (Save Us from the Family!). The story of boyhood innocence murdered (Save the Children!) turns round to a story of murderous boys (Save Us from the Children!). And, of course, these opposed but coupled stories have structured the popular psychology of an unrepentant and hothouse familialism on the American scene, its minglings of murder and intimacy, from later eighteenth-century true crime to the present.
What one discovers is what might be called the violence-normality complex. Take, for instance, the recent Arnold Schwarzenegger film, The Sixth Day. The «sixth day» refers to the sixth day of creation, the making of man and woman; and the film centers on «sixth day» laws –laws against the threat to natural persons and the natural family posed by the unnatural making of cloning. But in this context the opening sequence of the film poses some problems. The opening sequence exploits, as it were, the automaton-like acting of the central actor. It constructs an utterly artificial situation-comedy family – ideal-typical Wife-Mother, Husband-Father, Daughter, Family Pet – and these ideal-typical persons recite to each other the cliches of the mass-mediated, mass-produced American Family. That is to say, the exotic threat of cloning persons and families registers exactly in reverse what makes up the real threat, the recognition that persons and families are already clones. The unnaturalness of the natural family, its abnormal normality, is precisely then the paramnesic symptom of the film: what it images and what it disavows.
«Normal Americans», as the cultural historian Mary Poovey, following Foucault, reminds us, «are driven by the desire to be normal». Normal Americans, that is, are driven by the desire to be as normal as everyone else. This is, as it were, the backside of the democratic idea: the extreme ramification of equality such that one yields to an identification with an indeterminate number of others. This is the numerical or statistical normality of statistical persons: number replaces substance. And this is, of course, simply the refrain of a pathological conformity tracked from Toqueville to the invasion-of-the-body-snatchers «clone» panic (the organization man, the man in the grey flannel suit, the adjusted American, the other-directed American) which became popular sociology in the fifties and sixties.
Consider, for example, Snell and Gail J. Putney’s 1964 study, The Adjusted American: Normal Neuroses in the Individual and Society. The study begins by reciting an account of the underside of the democratic idea: «‘When I survey this countless multitude of beings, shaped to each other’s likeness...the sight of such universal uniformity saddens and chills me, and I am tempted to regret that state of society which has ceased to be...every citizen, being assimilated to all the rest, is lost in the crowd.’ Familiar words! But they were not written by David Riesman, not even in the twentieth century. They were written by Comte Alexis de Tocqueville...in 1831».
That is, by 1964 the analysis of conformity already has the status of a national cliche. After all, we read that «Moreover, for a decade or more, social critics from David Riesman to Vance Packard to the Sunday supplement writers have presented to an ever-widening audience a portrait of the American as an ‘other-directed’, status seeking conformist». The very nondistinction between academic and paperback sociology – that is, the very popularity of popular sociology – thus becomes in effect the index of conformity. «Riesman coined the phrase ‘other-direction’ and struck a responsive chord with Americans. They seized on the phrase, for it seemed to name and to delineate something in their fellows – and in themselves». For this reason, the central claim is that «the startling change in conformity in thus not in the degree of conformity, but in the general consciousness of conformity». At the same time, however, the antidote to conformity – the breakthrough to autonomy – is seen in this way: «The prerequisite to such a breakthrough is to become fully conscious of those beliefs [e.g., conformity] which are so familiar that they are seldom remarked». But since the general consciousness of conformity, and its endless remarking, from expert-professional sociology to the Sunday supplements, is the very premise of the study, this prerequisite stalls in incoherence. Or, rather, it makes visible precisely what must be pressured here: a resistless conformity with social norms without belief in them, the popularity of a popular psychology and a popular sociology not at all vitiated by one’s critical or cynical distance from them.
The desire to be normal thus marks the entry into a closed loop of normalization: one desires to become the norm that one is, to cite the public opinions and beliefs that one, as one of an indeterminate number of others, has. Hence public culture, as Michel de Certeau articulates it, «needs only, by means of opinion polls and statistics, to proliferate its citation of those phantom witnesses» – and these phantom witnesses, who believe in our place – «articulate our existences by teaching us what they should be». In effect, one believes through the other without exactly believing oneself: «belief thus functions on the basis of the value of the real that is assumed ‘anyway’ in the other, even when one knows perfectly well – all too well – the extent to which ‘it’s all bullshit’ on one’s own side» (de Certeau). This is the condition of referred belief that true crime, in its mingling of violence and normality, posits as publicness .
Put simply, true crime, like pulp fiction, is made up of cliches. More exactly, it is about cliches and cliches are about publicness: the mistake is to reduce the cliche to mere cliche, in that the cliche is precisely the voice of the community, its popular psychology and its popular sociology, at its purest. Here we might instance the practice of one of the best-selling American true crime writers, Ann Rule. In a press release accompanying a recent book, Bitter Harvest(about family violence in the American «heartland»), Rule sets out the formula that governs the cases she covers. «It has to have an (anti-hero) who has at least some of the following characteristics: charisma, intelligence, education, wealth, beauty, fame – all the things most people think would make them happy... They seem to be perfect». Her case studies have names such as «You Belong to Me», «Black Christmas», «One Trick Pony», «Everything She Ever Wanted», etc. Her accounts open like this: «Charles and Annie Goldmark and their sons... seemed the least likely family to encounter a killer... He was brilliant, thought, and kind. Annie... was a lovely woman at forty-three. She was sparkling and vivacious... The Goldmarks epitomized what was good about the American family». Or, again: «When lovely, blond Vonnie Stuth and her husband were married on May 4, 1974, the future looked as bright as a Northwest sunrise. And well it should have. They were very much in love, he had a good job, and Vonnie planned to work as a volunteer case aide...» Or, yet again: «On July 9, 1979, Stacy Sparks’s life was not only completely normal, it was filled with happy plans».
True crime reads like bad fiction (false crime), and not simply in that if it read like good fiction it would interfere with its claims to truth. True crime cannot cease referring to the fictionality that would seem to intercept its truth. More exactly, true crime cannot cease referring to the cliches of national normality even as it, in effect, intercepts their credibility. Even more exactly, true crime cannot cease referring to the mass-mediated and technical conditions of intimacy and relation – the protocols of interiority and sociality - that then are seen to get in the way of intimacy and relation. In short, true crime is about what truth looks like and what belief looks like and what relation, intimate and collective, look like in a mass-public wound culture. This is at once its banality and its popularity. True crime does so most economically in its unremitting delegation of truth, normality, and relation to the idiom of mass credibility, to the popular psychology and popular sociology, of the cliche.
Consider the prototypical typical or statistical person: one of the superstars of America’s wound culture, a «type of nonperson» in whom sheer violence and sheer typicality indicate each other at every point. That is, the murderer by numbers called the serial killer. There are a range of popular misconceptions about this type of person, but for the moment I am interested precisely in what makes these misconceptions, and hence, this type of person, popular.
The composite serial killer always looks like a composite, the statistical picture of a person. Serial killing is also called stranger-killing. The serial killer is always «the stranger beside me» or «everyone’s nextdoor neighbor»: «average-looking» and «just like yourself». As Jim Thompson puts it in his generically titled novel, The Criminal, he is above all generic: «How many of these sex murderers are ever run down? You can’t type them on modus operandi; they’re not peculiar to any particular group or class. They look like you and me and everyone else, and they are you and me and everyone else». The stranger, in the lonely crowd, is one who is near but also far; he is abnormally normal, the violence-normality complex in person.
The Stranger Beside Me is the title of Ann Rule’s true crime story of the serial killer Ted Bundy. Bundy, while a student at the University of Washington – majoring in abnormal psychology, of course – had a work-study job at a suicide prevention and crisis hotline. One of his volunteer co-workers and friends at the hotline was the young true crime writer, Rule, a contributor to True Detective magazine who had contracted to write a book on the recent «Ted» killings in the Seattle area (that is, on her friend Bundy himself). Her book wavers between shock («he couldn’t have done it, I know him») and journalistic glee (after all, what luck!). Rule’s book insistently tells two stories at once, about murder and about writing. That is, it insistently loops violence and its representation, marking the entry of representation into the interior of contemporary violence, a violence inseparable from the becoming-visible – the becoming-popular and the becoming-insupportable - of the mass-condition of mass-mediation. True crime writing and its twin pulp fiction are the genre-fictions of the body proper to a wound culture. Pulp fiction, like true crime, is premised, precisely, on the direct communication between two senses of pulp: as mass-produced representations and as massy bodily and psychic interiors. True crime, like pulp fiction, is about, that is, the experience of torn bodies and torn persons inseparable from an intimation of the mass-mediation of bodies and persons. The coupling of mass-mediated cliches and graphic violence that governs such writing is also a coupling of violence and an experience, or an intimation, of being formed from the outside in. That is, put most simply, the experience of relation – sexual or collective – as mass-mediation and of mass-mediation as violation and as wounding.
This is nowhere clearer than in the type of person who is also something like the mass in person called the serial killer. Bundy, for example, struck everyone as perfectly chameleon-like: just similar. It was observed again and again that «he never looked the same from photograph to photograph.» Bundy’s death row interviews are endless strings of mass media and pop-academic cliches. The interviews read as if the pages of Psychology Today were time-sharing his words, his eyes, his face, his mind. They are spoken in the third person, where he lived; along the same lines, the pages of true crime and of pulp fiction perfect the voice-over of an indirect discourse, a yielding of first person to third person, in the mass idiom of the personalized cliche. Or as Bundy, a type of nonperson who also described himself as «a very verbal person», expressed it, «Personalized stationery is one of the small but truly necessary luxuries of life».
Here is a sampler of Bundy’s way of speaking about what he called «socializing type» – that is, personal – relations. He described his mother in his quasi-personalized confessions entirely in terms of her relation to words and writing: «My mother taught me the English language... How many times did she type my papers as I dictated them to her? [She] gave me great verbal skills... I could have written them out in shorthand but would dictate things I had left out.» His mother, he continued, has «beautiful handwriting, very good vocabulary, but she never says anything! She says, ‘I love you,’ or ‘I’m sorry we haven’t written. Everything’s fine», or `We miss you... Everything will turn out...’Blah, blah, blah.’»
In short, persons for Bundy were faceless numbers and types: «I mean, there are so many people...Terrible with names... and faces. Can’t remember faces». That is, persons, faces, and names, for this very verbal person, are a defaced and dead language, the dead repetitions and cliches that register intimacy («I love you») only as a worn quotation, a dictated, typed, stereotyped interiority. Writing, dictation, typing, shorthand, communication technologies, the data stream, pulp fiction and the true crime genre, the mass media and mediatronic intimacy: all traverse these cases, enter into the interior of this style of «unmotivated» violence. Hence this is a violence seen as unmotivated, impersonal, compulsive - and as collectively intimate - as the cliche. The cliche, the quotation of no one in particular, is the idiom of the mass-in-person par excellence.
This kind of crime and this kind of person, I have been suggesting, have their places in a public culture in which addictive violence has become not merely a collective spectacle but also one of the crucial sites where private desire and public space cross. The point to be emphasized is this: the convening of the public around scenes of mass-mediated violence has come to make up a wound culture; the public fascination with torn and open bodies and torn and opened psyches, a public gathering around shock, trauma, and the wound. One of the preconditions of our contemporary wound culture is the emergence of popular genres of collective intimacy: for example, the popularity of true crime, and of the forensic apriori and the trauma apriori that make up the two dominant forms of reality TV. And one of the general preconditions of the contemporary pathological public sphere is the emergence of psychology as public culture: the opening to view of each and every body.
Stranger-intimacy is bound up not merely with the conditions of urban proximity in anonymity (one of the preconditions of modern crime) but also with its counterpart: the emergence of intimacy in public. The romance of American psychology corresponds roughly to the post-World War two era: the period in which «subjectivity and its management» was renovated as growth industry: the industry of growing persons in both expert-professional and popular culture. As C. Wright Mills observed in 1951: «We need to characterize American society of the mid-twentieth century in more psychological terms, for now the problems that concern us most border on the psychiatric.
The bordering of the social on the psychiatric becomes visible on several fronts in the post war decades: in the spreading of the mental health profession and in the abnormal normality of psychic pain («psychological help was defined so broadly that everyone needed it»); in the transformation of patient into «client» and «mental health» into something that could be mass produced and purchased; in the rise of sociologistic psychologies of self-actualization (the work of Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow, among others) – taking a step toward a twelve-step outlook on just about everything; in the proliferation of psychologistic sociologies of collective and national psychopathology (from the inaugural diagnosis of «American nervousness» to «future shock» and «the culture of narcissism,» to «Prozac nation» and the «trauma culture» of the 1990s). There emerges (as the historian of the «romance of American psychology», Ellen Herman traces) an insatiable public demand – in the print media, drama, films, television – for accessible, entertaining, interactive information on psychological disturbances and psy-experts: private ordeals become a matter of ceaseless public curiosity and ceaseless expert and popular investigation.
Stranger-intimacy and its maladies become public culture: part of a pathological public sphere. Take, for example, the talking cure as mass-media event: talk radio. It has been observed that there is a certain «paradox of radio: a universally public transmission is heard in the most private of circumstances». One might easily reverse the terms of this paradox: the paradox of talk radio is that a private communication is heard in the most public of circumstances. The boundaries between public and private come down, in the collective gathering round private ordeals. The serial killer Ted Bundy described himself as a «radio freak» who «in my younger years... depended a lot on the radio». From about the sixth grade on, one of his favorite programs was a San Francisco radio talk show: «I’d really get into it. It was a call-in show... I’d listen to talk shows all day... I genuinely derived pleasure from listening to people talk at that age. It gave me comfort... a lot of the affection I had for programs of that type came not because of their content, but because it was people talking! And I was eavesdropping on their conversations». And this version of the interactive compulsion was taken a step further in the psychology student’s work-study job at a crisis hot-line. As Bundy’s true crime biographer, Ann Rule recounts: «The two of us were all alone in the building, connected to the outside world only by the phone lines... We were locked in a boiler room of other people’s crises...constantly talking to people about their most intimate problems».
The true crime writer, that is, never strays far from cliches, never strays far from the popularity of popular psychology: the abnormal normality of these stranger intimacies. And precisely for that reason – for the reason that the social borders on the psychiatric in wound culture – the true crime writers maps social and national space by way of psychopathology. Rule, for example, alternates the openings of her formula case histories, shifting between stereotypical persons and stereotypical scenes, that is, between popular psychology and popular sociology. Here is one opening scene: «The I-95 Interstate snakes all along the eastern seaboard of the United States, beginning on the border between Maine and New Brunswick, Canada, and ending in Miami. Some who have reason to know say that parts of 95 are the most dangerous stretches of road in America. It is certainly one of the busiest freeways and one of the first ever laid down across the land. Down and down 95 plunges... Families travel I-95 as they head for Disney World...» And so on. Here is another: «The state of Washington is cut in half by the Cascade Mountains... Ellensburg and Yakima are in the middle of orchard country...You put an apple or cherry twig in irrigated land there and it will take root overnight. Or so it seems».
These landscapes are psychotopographies, incipient crime scenes. It is not merely that social space is pathologized as the generalized scene of the crime. Nor is it merely («Or so it seems») that this gothicization of Disney-America, in the very obtrusiveness of its gothic cliches (snakes in a theme park Eden), can scarcely be experienced as convincing. The violence-normality complex is literally mapped onto public space. But the over-explicitness of such themes – their overt appearance as theme park replicas of normality – is precisely the point. It is not just that such cliches are experienced as unconvincing, half-voided of belief and conviction. The point not to be missed is that this lack of conviction in no way mitigates the force of such cliches. For the shared experience of a measure of fictitiousness is exactly the measure of popular belief today: the delegated or interactive condition of belief today. The point not to be missed is that commonplaces are also common places. The shared, or referred, experience of such cliches as unconvincing is the condition of their popularity and force: making believe as making belief.
For the moment it is possible less to explain than to exemplify these conditions of referred experience and belief, across the fact/fiction divide. Let me set out, very briefly, one final and typical instance of true crime and its scenes. Here is the opening of Wasteland by the veteran true crime writer Michael Newton. The book tells the story of Charles Starkweather, the 1950s spree-killer on whom the Terence Malick film Badlands was based:
Looking back through the distorting lens of memory, it seems to be a golden time. Prosperity. The baby boom. Tract homes and stylish cars. Walt Disney... A little help from Hollywood transforms the postwar decade into Happy Days...
Like most myths, the illusion of the Fabulous Fifties has a kernel of truth. You didn’t have to live in California to enjoy the sights of Disneyland, once television took the place of radio in American homes... McCall’s magazine introduced «togetherness», a concept so popular that it took on the aspect of a social crusade and became the next best thing to a national purpose in the 1950s.
The history of the Fifties is itself presented as a fantasy world. But it is not exactly that public fantasy is stripped away in this account. Instead, public fantasy – a phantasmatic normality – is its «kernel of truth». This is in effect the logic of true crime: true crime as the terrain of true lies. The crime scene here is nothing but the nation scene. And if the popular media made popular the notion of «togetherness», this means that what binds the nation together is nothing deeper than the popular sociology of the social bond.
This is the self-reflexivity of mass public culture at its purest. And this self-reflexivity enters directly into Starkweather’s motives and style of violence. For one thing, Starkweather identified without reserve with the celebrity icons of the Fifties: icons that conformed to popular myth of nonconformity. Hence Starkweather imitated the icon who has been called America’s first teenager, James Dean; and Dean, in turn, imitated celebrity rebels without a case (sometimes signing his letters «James-Brando-Clift-Dean»). Starkweather, who saw himself as «everybody’s nobody», was a sort of imitation machine. Attempting to achieve celebrity through his writings after his arrest, he wrote what Newton describes as «wild flights of melodrama strung together with cliches, sprawling over two hundred pages».
But this – flights of melodrama strung together as clichés - is nothing but the idiom of true crime itself. Hence Newton typically describes scenes in this way: «Bob showed up in his letterman’s jacket, looking for all the world like an extra from Happy Days. They were the all-American couple, blissfully unaware of their impending rendezvous with Death». Thus, this description of Starkweather’s partner in crime, Caril Ann Fugate, a description that at once falls back on and voids its cliches: «Authors searching for descriptions of Caril Ann after the fact, inevitably fall back on cliches about how absolutely normal she appeared. One found her ‘a typical, colorless, teenaged girl in a normal, nondramatic, midwestern setting’, while another pegged her as ‘a perfect assimilation of the attitudes, fads, and fashions of the times’. And both are correct... The trouble, typically, began at home». «Quotation», it has been argued, «is then the ultimate weapon for making one believe» – that is, it is a technology for generating belief through the other. But quotation, and the cliché – the quotation of no one in particular - here work a bit differently. The self-reflexivity of true crime is the opposite of a critical distance. It is perfectly compatible with a cynical disbelief in what it at the same time affirms. «It’s really unbelievable, isn’t it?» is of course the contemporary idiom of making believe. The crucial point is this: this style of self-reflexivity realizes to the letter the double-think of a conformity with social norms without direct belief in them, it takes part in the circulation of convictions experienced as unconvincing, except by reference to others like oneself. Referred belief is thus more than cynical or critical distance: its holds the place, holds open the possibility, of a style of sociality shared belief that has itself become pathologized, a publicness channeled through spectacles of public violence.
This is the style of belief that inhabits the pathological public sphere. If the Fifties popular media advanced the notion of «togetherness» – a social crusade of sociality - in the 1990s togetherness mutated into something else: what might be called the sociality of the wound. Contemporary togetherness takes on the form of commiseration: being miserable together. The support groups that proliferate around cases such as that of the West Memphis instance just this: a public gathering into a public around the scene of the crime, the emergence of the public as support group, grouping in commiseration.
What has emerged on the contemporary scene is a style of sociality in the spectacle of crime, violation, and shared victimhood. But what has emerged too then is a renovated, and torn, sense of the fictionality of this social bond. Hence it may be appropriate to end with three rapid examples of how recent fiction itself makes sense of commiseration and its public.
In his recent novel Cocaine Nights J. G. Ballard posits crime as the gathering point of the contemporary public: «‘But how do you energize people, give them some sense of community? ... Only one thing is left which can rouse people, threaten them directly and force them to act together’. ... ‘Crime, and transgressive behavior... Here transgressive behaviour is for the public good». But at the same time, this very theory of crime and publicness is disbelieved, reduced to nothing but what Ballard calls «paperback sociology».
Chuck Palahniuk recent novel Fight Club migrates from the commiseration of support clubs to the formation of national community in spectacles of pain and bodily violence, the «fight clubs,» which are themselves «Support groups. Sort of». Large questions of social and individual identity are posed. As one of his characters puts it: «Maybe self-improvement isn’t the answer... Maybe self-destruction is the answer». But at the same time these large questions appear as empty ones. The binding of self-realization and self-destruction appears as nothing but the cliches of a voided self-reflexivity: «Why did I cause so much pain? Didn’t I realize that each of us is a sacred, unique snowflake of special unique specialness?»
The main character of Michel Houellebecq’s recent novel Whatever experiences his abnormal normality to the letter: he calls himself «a fitting symbol of this vital exhaustion. No sex drive, no ambition; no real interests either, either... I consider myself a normal kind of guy. Well, perhaps not completely, but who is completely, huh? Eighty per cent normal, let’s say». At one point in the novel he hurls an object at a mirror and dutifully reports this textbook moment of self-reflexivity to his psychiatrist: «I raised my eyes, looked her way. She had a somewhat astonished air. Finally she came out with: ‘That’s interesting, the mirror...’ She must have read something in Freud, or in the Mickey Mouse Annual». Paperback sociology and mickey mouse psychology: «whatever» is perhaps by now something like the technical term for the technologies of belief, commiseration, and publicness I have been sketching out in these pages.