Thursday, 31 May 2012

Crime Behind the Glass by Laura Huey

The lure of the macabre has significant purchase in contemporary culture; in her recent article on the subject of the appeal of tales of gruesome crimes, Laura Huey draws from wider research to present an analysis of our fascination with the gritty underbelly of humanity.

As a group with a definite and previously expressed interest cultural criminology The Differential Association this week eagerly fell on Huey’s article as an attempt to get to grips with the enduring attraction with the darker elements of humanity.

Taking the specific case study of the Kriminalmuseum in Vienna, Huey attempts to ask why consumers make a choice to patronise sites and activities which revolve around violent crimes, citing examples such as the Jack the Ripper walking tour in London and Madame Tussauds’ Chamber of Horrors. An interesting question asked is how museum curators select exhibits, and gauge whether sufficient interest exists to launch new works and shows. However, the question of the exchange relationship between museums and museum visitors is not explored in any real depth, and the DA felt that it would have been illuminating to know the professed reasons for visiting such attractions, and survey use for the purpose of the article could have enhanced and added to a discussion which felt like it was missing a key component.  Huey herself expresses a willingness to know more about the ‘intended audience’ of the Kriminalmuseum, and it was disappointing not to hear directly from this intended audience. In a following sentence Huey herself answers this question from assumption rather than empirical investigation; the visitors are there to see the exhibits in precisely that context framed by the curator – as an educational experience of the dark side of humanity. Assuming the intentions for creating an exhibit to be the rationale for attending an exhibit ignores the conscious choice of actual patrons.

The article covers ground quoting many writers who firmly claim the interest in the macabre as a contemporary phenomenon, many seeing it emerge from the post-modern age. This struck us as remarkably myopic, considering that the history of societal engagement with the horrific as entertainment extends for centuries into our past. The considerable crowds which attended public executions, the Penny Dreadful, and the tripping of the well-heeled through the corridors of historic lunatic asylums stand as startling markers of a trait that cannot be said to have emerged in our more recent past. Indeed, the dark elements of folk tales and pre-sanitised fairy stories speak to a desire to identify and express our fears of the unknown in a safe environment.

Huey later states that, ‘we cannot confidently say that fascination with crime, or the exploitation of this fascination, are the result of modern anxieties’. This admission appears to only partly reject the assertions that the phenomenon is recent, despite many of Huey’s own examples coming from much earlier times. This reticence to express her views is noticeable in the article. Huey seems reluctant to make firm statements and accept ownership of any point of view. As this article would appear to be the offshoot of a much larger project, this is somewhat disappointing, and the group felt that conclusions drawn from this work would have been welcomed.

The concentration on philosophical concepts, while appropriate when discussing the macabre as the sublime, rendered this article somewhat more philosophy than criminology. However we were intrigued by the philosophical definition of ‘sublime’ and felt her use of the concept added much to our understanding of the appeal of crime stories and representations – the pleasure of viewing something horrific while knowing we are safe from it.

Huey presents an interesting literature review but seems unsure, at the close, of what she has accomplished, and whether she feels she has answered her questions. The central question is ‘why crime holds an enduring appeal for so many spectators?’

Huey posits the concept of ‘riskless risk’, of crime behind the glass. However, in the ensuing paragraph Huey’s question again shifts to return the focus back to the museum curators and their selection of pieces, and why museums present such exhibitions. Huey seems unsure of her question, which perhaps explains the unfocused nature of her answers.

The article also lingers more than it need on a descriptive walk-through account of the Kriminalmuseum which, while interesting, is not directly relevant to the substance of the article. The introduction of visual elements as well is perhaps an irrelevance, and one of the images in particularly ironic fashion seems to ‘do’ that which it explores, namely the exploitation of interest in violence.

Of course, it was inevitable that the article prompted the DA to ask ourselves why we gathered every month to discuss thoughts on crimes and punishment! When confronted with the deeper question of what exactly consumers of the macabre achieve in the exchange the answer lay very much in the concept of the ‘riskless risk’ that Huey elucidates. The prospect of experiencing horrors, in a safe environment, that we reserve for our private nightmares. The sedentary nature and relative safety of our lifestyles in Western society may demand that we take other steps to introduce adrenaline, take the prevalence of extreme sports for example! The ‘civilisation’ of Western society, towards an avowed disgust of physical violence, either privately or State-sanctioned, renders much of our past history as seemingly barbaric. Yet do we feel we have lost the thrill of true danger?

This month's blog was written by Lynsey Black.

The views expressed are the author's alone.

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