Serial Killers
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Serial Killers

Death and Life in America's Wound Culture

Mark Seltzer

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eBook - ePub

Serial Killers

Death and Life in America's Wound Culture

Mark Seltzer

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In this provocative cultural study, the serial killer emerges as a central figure in what Mark Seltzer calls 'America's wound culture'. From the traumas displayed by talk show guests and political candidates, to the violent entertainment of Crash or The Alienist, to the latest terrible report of mass murder, we are surrounded by the accident from which we cannot avert our eyes. Bringing depth and shadow to our collective portrait of what a serial killer must be, Mark Seltzer draws upon popular sources, scholarly analyses, and the language of psychoanalysis to explore the genesis of this uniquely modern phenomenon. Revealed is a fascination with machines and technological reproduction, with the singular and the mass, with definitions of self, other, and intimacy. What emerges is a disturbing picture of how contemporary culture is haunted by technology and the instability of identity.

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The Pathological Public Sphere


The Scene of the Crime

In 1932, the Hungarian Sylvestre Matushka went on trial for engineering a series of train crashes that had killed more than thirty railway passengers. He stated his profession in these terms: “Train wrecker, before that, businessman.” At the time of his arrest, police discovered in Matushka's possession train schedules and a map with sites marked out that were planned for future wrecks, at the regular rate of one a month. Matushka, it turned out, was something of a “train fiend,” albeit of a markedly singular style. He explained at his trial that he could only achieve sexual release when witnessing a train crashing and, consequently, made a career of staging these spectacular accidents. Sentenced to life imprisonment, Matushka escaped confinement. He reappeared in 1953 during the Korean War—as the head of a military unit for blowing up trains.1
It is not merely that repetitive murder appears in this case in the form of a distinctly modern choice of occupation. Nor is it merely the conjunction of compulsive sexualized violence, on the one side, and technological system, schedule, and routine, on the other, that defines these crimes. These components in instances of serial violence will be tracked in the pages that follow. Clearly, the murderous railway accident (as Wolfgang Schivelbusch has argued) dramatically concretizes the “migration” between the orders of physiology and technology that make up what I have been calling the body-machine complex, and it concretizes as well the forms of violence the body-machine complex solicits. The railway accident provides, moreover, the take-off point for the psychoanalytic theorization of shock and trauma—the intricate connections between accident, crisis, and psychopathology—as the characteristically modern form of life.2 For the moment, however, I am interested in such cases on somewhat different grounds.
What are we to make of such planned accidents and the dangerous individuals who execute them? The very concept of the “dangerous individual” seems inseparable from a general reconceptualization of the category of “the accident.” For one thing, the concept of the dangerous individual, as Foucault traces it, involves a shift in focus from the criminal act to the character of the actor: that is, it involves the elaboration of a technical knowledge-system “capable of characterizing a criminal individual in himself and in a sense beneath his acts.”3 But this characterization depends in turn on a new understanding of the individuality of the individual: a new understanding that involves something more than the “psychologization” of crime on which Foucault, among others, focuses.
The singling out of the dangerous individual, in himself and beneath his acts, brought forward a radically different account of both individual and act. It brought forward, that is, the notion of the potential risks posed by types of individuals and the causal probabilities of certain types of acts being committed. And if that technical knowledge-system referred such risks back to the intrinsically dangerous personality of the criminal, it also referred that danger to a social calculus of probability: the social calculation of risk and the calculable accident. As the pioneer statistician Adolphe Quételet noted, “Nothing would seem more to escape foreknowledge than murder.” Yet he went on to observe “the terrifying exactness with which crimes reproduce themselves”: “We know in advance how many men will bloody their hands with violent murders, how many will be counterfeiters, how many poisoners, just as one can enumerate in advance the births and deaths that will occur in a single year.” One can construct in advance, therefore, a kind of “budget of the scaffold.”4
One effect of this shift in the social understanding of risk is to draw the “accident” away from an association with sheer contingency and into relation to the law of large numbers. This has generally been seen in terms of the elaboration of a social prophylaxis by which accident or crisis may be “tamed” by statistical regularities or crisis management.5 The large question that predictably arises, at this point, is whether this way of counting persons and acts, from the outside, is not also a way of “accounting for” them, from within. That is, another and more radical effect of this shift in understanding is to make visible an experience of typicality at the level of the subject. The serial killer, I will be arguing, is in part defined by such a radicalized experience of typicality within. Simply put, “murder by numbers” (as serial murder has been called) is the form of violence proper to statistical persons. That such a generalized experience of a generality within is insupportable may go some way to explaining the explosive violence through which it becomes visible and its localization, and pathologization, in the figure of the serial killer. That such an experience of a generality within is at the same time alluring or compelling may go some way in explaining why that figure has come to exercise such an extraordinary fascination, a fascination at once social, erotic, and aesthetic. “There is,” as Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari observe, “always something statistical in our loves, and something belonging to the law of large numbers.”6
But this, of course, is still not quite to locate the forms of that violence and its typical scenes. Matushka's planned accidents, for example, eroticize the shock of contact between bodies and technologies. More precisely, they disclose an erotics at the crossing point of private fantasy and public space. These “atrocity exhibitions” disclose, in the form of a spectacular corporeal/machinal violence, a drive to make mass technology and public space a vehicle of private desire and, collaterally, to identify—or better, to realize—private desire in public spectacle: the spectacles of public sex and public violence. These intrications of the collective and the individual provide one version of what might be described as the pathological public sphere.
The coupling of bodies and machines is thus also, at least in these cases, a coupling of private and public spaces. It is not surprising, then, that these linkages are most powerfully literalized in the machinal systems of public transport that speed the movement, or commuting, of bodies between these spaces: the railway system and the highway system. The Matushka case might be framed on one side by Zola's mapping of the psychotopography of machine culture in his 1890 novel La Bête humaine: a novel in which the railway accident and eroticized violence indicate each other at every point. This is a novel in which public and private spaces “tear away” at each other (“nowadays nobody could stay at home … so many men and women were rushing past in the thunder of trains shaking the house, and then tearing away at full speed”); in which intimacy is inseparable from the shock of contact with the public in ceaseless motion, with faceless crowds of strangers (“Yet this idea of the tide of people that up and down trains bore along past her every day in the deep silence of her solitude left her pensive … she thought she recognized faces … she tried to count them roughly … [but] all the faces got blurred and merged one into another, indistinguishable. …Behind this non-stop movement… the breathless crowd had no idea she was there, in danger of death).”7 And the Matushka case might be framed, on the other side, by a more recent representation of the landscapes, or cityscapes, of corporeality in machine culture. I am referring to the thriller film Speed, which provides a virtual inventory of the public vehicles of what might be called stranger-intimacy (the elevator, the bus, the plane, the subway system); in which the only private space represented is the scene of an eerily immaculate and empty home converted into a lethal weapon, exploding when entered; and in which the only erotic coupling takes place in public at the close, in the wrecked subway car that has burst through the LA streets—as if it were the logical outcome of the demolition, one by one by one, of the transport networks crisscrossing the city scene: in effect, demolition as foreplay.
These small examples bring us a bit closer to defining, in a very preliminary fashion, the links between repetitive or machinal violence and the pathological public sphere. Another instance, this time drawn from the burgeoning writing explicitly focused on the scenes of serial murder, can take things a step further. Here is the opening of one recent and relatively unsensationalizing representation of the landscape of serial murder: the California case of the “freeway killer” Randy Kraft (believed to have committed sixty-seven murders from 1972 until his arrest in 1983). This account of the scene of the crime makes conspicuous what might be called a lurid sociobiology. The account centers on the distribution of bodies across constructed landscapes:
Looking down on southern California from above, the strands of freeway seem to pump from the heart of Los Angeles like contorted veins that twist and knot and stretch out to Santa Barbara in the north, San Bernardino in the east, and as far south as the Mexican border. Only to the west are the freeways missing, sutured off at the coastline so that automobiles don't spill into the brooding Pacific Ocean like so much lost blood.
At daybreak, the freeways brim with slow-moving vehicles, clotting into traffic jams from one end of the megalopolis to the other. At night, the strands glow red and white with the head- and taillights of a million cars oozing homeward.
The rest of the time the freeway system is an open road—an invitation to move unfettered through this dense, smoggy wonderland of subdivision after subdivision. … Strange things happen on southern California freeways. Things that happen elsewhere while people are usually stationary.8
On this view, the conceptual psychotopography of serial violence, its living spaces, intertwines corporeal and technological systems of circulation, such that blood flows around every axle. Bodies, technologies, and landscapes are thus immediately assimilated to each other.
There is, of course, a century-long history to such descriptions.9 The incorporations of the technological process and the life process have become by now a thoroughly naturalized component of machine culture. One rediscovers here the familiar intersections of natural bodies and technologies, somatic and machinal systems of circulation: the miscegenations of the body and the machine that make up the prosthetic environment of “American nervousness,” from the later nineteenth century on. One rediscovers, beyond that, a precise coordination of bodies and spaces. This involves not merely the spectacle of stilled bodies in moving machines, in the relentless and endless commuting “homeward.” The strange permeability of bodies and landscapes is mapped onto the strange permeability of homelike and “open” or public spaces. For if things happen on the open road that are normally confined to “stationary places,” this means that the home site has here become the anonymously mass-produced “homelike” (a dense “wonderland of subdivision after subdivision”). The nominal “division” between public and private has in effect given way to the unfettered movements that ceaselessly mingle bodies and places: the stationary and the homelike become strange and the freeway system as intimately personated as the violated and opened natural body.
The wild analogism that structures accounts such as this one is not merely a transparency to be “read through.” For it is precisely such an exorbitant analogism, it will be seen, that structures the inner experience of serial violence. Serial killing, that is, devolves in part on a violent literalization of the analogies between bodies and technologies, persons and landscapes, one identity and another, one body and another, one death and another.
The two large questions that arise at this point concern, then, the subject of repetitive violence and the typical scene of his crimes. Serial killing, I will be arguing, is inseparable from the problem of the body in machine culture: an intimacy with technology that will be set out in terms of the intersecting logics of seriality, prosthesis, and primary mediation.10 Yet such a “situating” or “contextualizing” of the serial killer, I suggest, makes for some basic difficulties, not least because a sort of hyperidentification with place, or context, or situation seems typical in cases of serial violence. What seems typical in such cases, that is, is the subject's feeling of a radical determination from the outside in. In the most general terms, this amounts to an utter failure of distance or distinction between subject and scene. Which is to say that typical in these cases is the experience of a deep absorption in typicality itself: the serial killer, it will be seen, typifies typicality, the becoming abstract and general of the individuality of the individual.11 It is in part the empty circularity this form of personation contains that concerns me here. Such an absorption in typicality is inseparable from an absorption in place, situation, or context. Hence it is not merely that the serial killer is seen as utterly typical: “abnormally normal” or “too normal” or “alarmingly normal,” as three recent accounts of the serial killer formulate it.12 Beyond that, such hypertypicality appears as a function of an utter transparency to context—as a function of the killer's compulsive way of “fading into the background” (SK 83.)13
In the pages that follow I want to take up, more centrally, these relays between serial violence and such a pathologized experience of public spaces. What becomes visible in these cases is an extraordinary absorption in place and place making: an absorption in place and place construction that becomes indistinguishable from programs of self-making and self-construction. That is, what becomes visible in these cases (as we will see) are the reciprocal topographies of subject and context. The effects of violence and horror precipitated by the radical failure of distinction between subject and place are absolutely crucial in understanding cases of repetitive violence. “Situating” or “contextualizing” the subject of violence is thus one of the components in these cases, and not merely a way of explicating them. It is therefore necessary to test out, and to press...

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