The Subject of Murder Gender, Exceptionality, and the Modern Killer
by Lisa Downing
University of Chicago Press, 2013
Cloth: 978-0-226-00340-5 | Paper: 978-0-226-00354-2 | Electronic: 978-0-226-00368-9
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226003689.001.0001
ABOUT THIS BOOKAUTHOR BIOGRAPHYREVIEWSTABLE OF CONTENTS

ABOUT THIS BOOK

The subject of murder has always held a particular fascination for us. But, since at least the nineteenth century, we have seen the murderer as different from the ordinary citizen—a special individual, like an artist or a genius, who exists apart from the moral majority, a sovereign self who obeys only the destructive urge, sometimes even commanding cult followings. In contemporary culture, we continue to believe that there is something different and exceptional about killers, but is the murderer such a distinctive type? Are they degenerate beasts or supermen as they have been depicted on the page and the screen? Or are murderers something else entirely?
In The Subject of Murder, Lisa Downing explores the ways in which the figure of the murderer has been made to signify a specific kind of social subject in Western modernity. Drawing on the work of Foucault in her studies of the lives and crimes of killers in Europe and the United States, Downing interrogates the meanings of media and texts produced about and by murderers. Upending the usual treatment of murderers as isolated figures or exceptional individuals, Downing argues that they are ordinary people, reflections of our society at the intersections of gender, agency, desire, and violence.

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY

Lisa Downing is professor of French discourses of sexuality at the University of Birmingham, United Kingdom. She is the author of numerous books including Desiring the Dead: Necrophilia and Nineteenth-Century French Literature, The Cambridge Introduction to Michel Foucault, and coauthor of Film and Ethics: Foreclosed Encounters.

REVIEWS

"Lisa Downing's latest book is an original and daring attempt to prod us to rethink our conventional, inherited, and normative conceptions of the figure of the murderer. Downing convincingly and disturbingly argues that murderers are not really 'others,' but that the subjectivities of murderers should be located on a continuum with us. The Subject of Murder is a profoundly relevant feminist/queer contribution to our understanding of our present historical moment."
— Calvin Thomas, author of Masculinity, Psychoanalysis, Straight Queer Theory

The Subject of Murder is an original, superbly researched, and important work that deserves a broad readership. It will be of interest to audiences from a wide range of disciplines, from French literature to cultural studies, sexuality studies, and queer studies; from popular culture to criminology and sociology. There has never been a book quite like it.”
— David Schmid, University of Buffalo, author of Natural Born Celebrities: Serial Killers in American Culture

"The Subject of Murder is the kind of book that you didn't know you needed until you read it, and then you cannot understand how you ever thought about its subject without it! Murderers, as Downing points out, are cast as singular, exceptional, and remarkable in Euro-American cultural life. However, using a Foucauldian framework to fold murder and violence intot the set of discursive frames that produce modern human identity, Downing shows us how to see the murderer as a product of modernity rather than as the subject it wishes to suppres. A remarkable book."
— J. Jack Halberstam, author of The Queer Art of Failure

"Lisa Downing's case studies demonstrate a remarkable intellectual dexterity in moving between the abstract ideas that shape the subjects she discusses and the materiality of the lives of those thus shaped. The Subject of Murder is at once an intellecutal tour de force, and, like its subjects, is absolutely fascinating."
— Nikki Sullivan, author of A Critical Introduction to Queer Theory

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Acknowledgments

- Lisa Downing
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226003689.003.0001
[persona, exceptional individuals, killer, victim, female murderers, transcendental agency, culture]
This book examines the persona of a killer, and how those subjects who kill have been treated by modern culture as unique and exceptional individuals. Such discourses, by highlighting the exceptionality of the “individual,” effectively silence gender-aware, class-based analyses about murder. Analyses of this kind might notice which category of person, usually the male, may “legitimately” occupy the role of killer, and which category of person, usually the female, is more generally relegated to the role of victim in our culture. By extension, female murderers become doubly aberrant exceptions in this culture, unable to access the role of transcendental agency since only men are allowed to be transcendent, while women are immanent. The ways in which—and purposes for which—murderers are seen as an exceptional type of subject by our culture is the central problem this book seeks to address. (pages 1 - 32)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

Part I . Murder and Gender in the European Nineteenth Century

- Lisa Downing
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226003689.003.0002
[murderer, pierre-francois lacenaire, revolutionary spirit, romantic philosophy, individuality, cultural fantasy]
This chapter discusses the case of Pierre-Francois Lacenaire, a murderer, forger, thief, dandy, poet, and the figure at the center of an aesthetic, media, and medical circus during the first years of the July Monarchy in France. The case had provoked polarized commentaries that were either reverential and admiring, lauding Lacenaire as an artist, or else damning, identifying the killer as a symbol of the perceived revolutionary spirit of the age and as proof of the dangers of Romantic philosophy. What both sets of discourses insisted upon, however, to a striking degree, was Lacenaire's uniqueness, his individuality. The considerable proliferation of texts inspired by the case, and more specifically by the “figure” of Lacenaire bears witness to a very specific and long-lasting cultural fantasy of the links between destruction and creation, individuality and society, for which Lacenaire provided the locus in the French nineteenth century. (pages 35 - 53)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Lisa Downing
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226003689.003.0003
[cultural discourses, marie lafarge, lacenaire, reading, writing, french society, lafargistes, anti-lafargistes]
This chapter examines the case of Marie Lafarge, and how the treatment she received in a series of cultural discourses, including medical, literary, journalistic, and criminological, differed considerably from that of Lacenaire, despite her own, more prolific output as a writer. Although a feature shared by conservative accounts of both murderers is the focus on the criminal dangers of reading and writing, the gendered specificity of the treatments afforded the reading and writing criminal subject will be given consideration here. There was a general disagreement on whether Lafarge was guilty or not, and this divided French society into two opposing factions: the Lafargistes and the anti-Lafargistes. The extensiveness of the medico-legal investigations concerning the physical evidence of the crime has led to the case being cited as the first instance of forensic toxicology. (pages 54 - 71)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Lisa Downing
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226003689.003.0004
[modern assumptions, sexuality, lust murderer, sex killer, Jack the Ripper, sexual pervert, Krafft-Ebing, Zola, criminological discourse]
This chapter analyzes some modern assumptions about sexuality, gender, class, race, and civilization that led to the production of the subject of the “lust murderer” or “sex killer,” of which Jack the Ripper is the exemplum, in a series of discursive fields. The ways in which nineteenth-century European medicine and sexual science figured male and female sexuality, and “specified as an individual” the murdering sexual pervert, is examined in the first section. The second considers a near contemporary French response to the Ripper case and to Krafft-Ebing's Psychopathia Sexualis, and examines Zola's novel La Bete humaine, a work that functions as a fictional version of sexological and criminological discourse. The third section considers how Jack the Ripper provided the template for representing other sex-motivated multiple killers of both men and women that came after him. (pages 72 - 96)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

Part II. The Twentieth-Century Anglo-American Killer

- Lisa Downing
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226003689.003.0005
[maternity, children, gendered rhetoric, Myra Hindley, social class, literary materials, hate figure]
This chapter recognizes the fact that all women, whether technically mothers or not, are symbolically charged in this culture with maternity, with the burden of caring for children, and that dereliction of this duty carries a heavy penalty. The first section is devoted to a discussion of the specifically gendered rhetoric about Myra Hindley at the time of her arrest and trial. Of particular import in the case of Hindley is the role played by social class in defining subjectivity, social agency, and criminal transgression. The case also served as a warning against the dangers of allowing members of the uneducated but upwardly mobile classes access to literary material. The second half of this chapter examines in detail these debates about social class and access to morally corrupting materials. The chapter concludes by exploring the afterlife of the case and Hindley's enduring role throughout her long prison sentence as a peerless public hate figure. (pages 99 - 125)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Lisa Downing
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226003689.003.0006
[civil servant, Dennis Nilsen, north london, british culture, serial killing, high art, self-representation, creative production]
This chapter focuses on Dennis Nilsen, a civil servant who strangled to death at least 15 young men between 1978 and 1983 in North London, and kept their bodies around his flat for long periods of time. Contemporary British culture has always been fascinated with the figure of the murderer, and Nilsen is one of the most prominent faces of serial killing in this culture. As well as spawning the usual tabloid-esque true-crime volumes, Nilsen's case and persona have been the basis for an avant-garde physical theatre piece, an award-winning feature-length “docudrama,” an oil painting, and a postmodern Gothic novel. He is therefore notable among twentieth-century murderers for being associated with alternative and high art. Added to this, Nilsen is unusual, though by no means unique, among convicted murderers in terms of the amount of self-representation and creative production, in the form of both confessional and fiction writing, classical music, and images, which he himself has produced. (pages 126 - 147)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Lisa Downing
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226003689.003.0007
[recognition, Aileen Wuornos, serial killer, agency, self-defense, sexual abuse]
This chapter explores ways in which the available discourses of the exceptional murdering subject that have been sketched out so far in this book are a particularly problematic fit in the case of Aileen “Lee” Wuornos, a lesbian prostitute and victim of sexual abuse who killed seven men in Florida between 1989 and 1990. It is examined here how the label of “serial killer” was debated with regard to Wuornos, and how it was at times rejected, and at times adopted as a badge of agency and of selfhood by Wuornos herself who continually sought, like those around her, to make sense of herself through her crimes. Her discourse alternated between assertions that her killings were acts of self-defense and statements that interpret them as a proud bid for recognition via the evocation of the “cold-blooded” serial killer. (pages 148 - 167)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Lisa Downing
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226003689.003.0008
[underage killers, bulger, columbine, Mary Bell, modern construction, killer, adult masculinity, demographic diversity, children]
This chapter explores a range of discourses treating the underage killers in the Bulger and Columbine cases and, to a lesser extent, in the case of Mary Bell, including media reports, true-crime and fiction books, and films. The cases and texts discussed in this chapter stand as testimonies to the extent to which our modern construction of the killer as an ambivalently monstrous and heroic figure of adult masculinity fails to be fit for purpose when applied to the actual demographic diversity of subjects who kill. Discourses about children who kill reflect this lack of adequate representational language, often borrowing unsatisfactorily from the lexicon of the exceptional murdering subject, which is, by default, an adult male one. (pages 168 - 192)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

- Lisa Downing
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226003689.003.0009
[myth, textual hybridity, creative license, narrative dissidence, reconstructions, French literature]
In conclusion, this book makes an observation about the project of writing about murderers. Such subject matter seems, almost inevitably, to spawn textual hybridity, creative license, and narrative dissidence in the texts it inspires. It encourages a blending of myth, “reality,” and imagination. Obvious examples of this are the fictionalized literary reconstructions of murders. The appearance of thinly disguised real-life killers as the protagonists of novels is another facet of this phenomenon. Also striking is the fact that scholars of literature—particularly of French literature—are some of the most prolific commentators on murder cases. This book, quite obviously, is part of this tradition, as the author is currently employed as a professor of French and also publishes on Decadent French literature, among other subjects. (pages 193 - 198)
This chapter is available at:
    University Press Scholarship Online

Notes

Index