Crime as Postmodern Spectacle: Fear, Fascination and Murder as Video Game

A significant feature of what we might call “crime in postmodernity” is the idea that the media, in all its many forms, plays a central role in the construction of criminogenic discourses, where the role of the media is twofold.

First, media are important because they propagate and, in some senses, control organise, criticise, promote and demote (marginalise) a variety of competing narratives.

Second, none of these is especially important in itself (teachers and students, for example, probably do most of these things); they become important, however, in the context of power and the ability to represent the interests of powerful voices in society.

In a situation where knowledge, as Sarup (1989) argues, is ‘fragmented, partial and contingent’ (‘relative’ or dependent on your particular viewpoint), and Milovanovic (1997) contends ‘there are many truths and no over-encompassing Truth is possible’, the role of the media assumes crucial significance in relation to perceptions of crime and deviance in contemporary societies. In this respect, media organisation takes two forms:

  • Media discourses (generalised characterisations such as crime as ‘a social problem’) and
  • Media narratives – particular ‘supporting stories’ that contribute to the overall construction of a ‘deviance discourse’ – instances, for example, where deviance is portrayed in terms of how it represents a ‘social problem’.
  • The central argument here is not whether media discourses are ‘true or false’, nor whether they ‘accurately or inaccurately’ reflect the ‘reality of crime’; rather, it’s how media discourses affect our perception of these things. The difference is subtle but significant since it changes the way we understand and explain concepts like ‘crime’ and ‘deviance’. In this respect examples of media deviance discourses take a number of forms:

    Domination discourses involve the media mapping out its role as part of the overall ‘locus of social control’ in society. In other words, the ‘media machine’ is closely and tightly integrated into society’s overall mechanisms of formal and informal social control.

    In this respect, the media is both a witting and unwitting mouthpiece for control expression, as in both calling for new, tougher punishments and criticising ‘soft on crime, soft on the causes of crime’ approaches. This particular discourse weaves a variety of narratives that draw on both traditional forms of punishment (such as prisons) and newer forms of technological surveillance (CCTV, biometric identity cards and the like) to create a discourse that locates ‘criminals’ and ‘non-criminals’ in different physical and moral universes.

    Democratic discourses involve the media acting as a watchdog on the activities of the powerful – the ability to expose political and economic corruption, for example, or, as in the case of the Iraq war in 2003, to act as a focal point for oppositional ideas.

    Danger discourses: However we view the role of the media, a range of narratives are woven into the general fabric of media presentation and representation of crime. In particular, two main themes are evident within this type of discourse:

    1. Fear: Crime and deviance are represented in terms of threat – ‘the criminal’, for example, as a cultural icon of fear (both in personal terms and more general social terms). Part of this narrative involves:

  • Warnings about behaviour, the extent of crime, its consequences.
  • Risk assessments, in terms of the likelihood of becoming a victim of crime, for example.
  • 2. Fascination: Crime and deviance represent ‘media staples’ used to sell newspapers, encourage us to watch TV programmes (factual and fictional), and so forth.

    These two narratives (fear and fascination) come together when postmodernists such as Kidd-Hewitt and Osborne (1995) discuss deviance in terms of:

    Spectacle – crime is interesting (and sells media products) because of the powerful combination of fear and fascination. A classic example of ‘postmodern spectacle’ is the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001, not only because of the ‘fear aspect’, but also because of the way the attack seemed to key into – and mimic – a Hollywood disaster film.

    The attack demonstrated an acute understanding of both fear and fascination – by ‘making real’ that which had hitherto been merely ‘make-believe’ – that both repelled (in terms of the terrible loss of life) and fascinated (drawing the viewer into an appalling disaster-movie world of death and destruction).

    A more-recent (2015) example of “crime as postmodern spectacle” involves the double murder of American journalist Alison Parker and cameraman Alan Ward by their former colleague Vester Flanagan.

    The “fear and fascination” feature of this act – one that turned it from “just another local crime scene” into one of worldwide postmodern spectacle – had a double dimension:


    Firstly, Parker’s murder was filmed – and broadcast – by her cameraman who was himself subsequently killed.

    Secondly, Flanagan filmed himself in the act of killing and posted videos of the crime on his social media networks prior to committing suicide.

    In this particular example we see a different dimension to that of something like the World Trade Center attack; in the latter the viewer is a “passive participant” in the sense that events unfold much like a disaster movie. We are “there”, in the sense we have a front-seat view, but also “not there” in much the same way as we view a film – there is a subtle distance between the viewer and the events unfolding on-screen.

    In the former, however, the vista is critically changed – from passive viewer to “active participant”. In much the same way we play a video game, the murder is filmed “first person”; the viewer is invited to enjoy the “vicarious thrill”, one we experience when we willingly or unwillingly view the footage delivered to our TV screens and Internet feeds. In this respect the media encourages the viewer to be (rightly) outraged even as the outrage is used to sell more advertising space…

    Although these are extreme examples, the basic argument here is that ‘spectacles’ are an integral part of the ‘crime and deviance’ narrative in postmodern society, not just in terms of the ‘reality of crime’, but also crime as ‘entertainment’, whether this be the ‘reality crime’ version (reconstructions and real-life crime videos, for example) or the ‘fantasy crime’ version (television cop shows and the like). For postmodernism, this is expressed in terms of intertextuality: Both ‘reality’ and ‘fiction’ are interwoven to construct an almost seamless web of ‘fear and fascination’, where the viewer is no longer sure whether what they are seeing is real or reconstruction.

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