Crime, Media and Postmodern Modalities

911Harari’s “The theatre of terror” article is worth reading because it explicitly sees terrorism as a form of “spectacle” in contemporary Western societies – an idea referenced by Kidd-Hewitt and Osborne (1995) when they argue crime in general can be seen in terms of postmodern spectacle, a general “crime discourse” driven by two main narratives:

  1. Fear, whereby crime and deviance are represented in terms of threat – ‘the criminal’ as a cultural icon of fear (both in personal and more general social terms) – a narrative that involves both warnings about behaviour, the extent of crime and its consequences and 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), visit news sites and so forth.

These two narratives (fear and fascination) come together when postmodernists discuss deviance in terms of spectacle – crime is interesting (and sells media products) because of the powerful combination of fear and fascination.

An 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).

Although an extreme example, 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 of the ‘reality crime’ version (reconstructions and real-life crime videos, for example) or the ‘fantasy crime’ version (TV 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 what they are seeing is real or reconstruction. Kooistra and Mahoney (1999) argue tabloid journalism (then in newsprint, increasingly on the web) is now the dominant force in the representation of crime and deviance. Presentation techniques once the preserve of tabloid newspapers, for example, have been co-opted into the general mainstream of news production and presentation (where ‘entertainment and sensationalism’ are essential components for any news organisation trying to break into particular economic markets or preserve and enhance market share in those markets).

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