True crime and the production of sympathy

Someone told me the other day that Ted Bundy was a really smart guy. This was an impression they had derived from a film about Ted Bundy they had seen in the cinema, which is either the same Ted Bundy film as the one on Netflix which now has been given a general release, or a new Ted Bundy film. Another point both of these films seem to be advancing was that Ted Bundy was really hot and this got me thinking about how much mobilising of sympathy there is within particular sections of our mass culture for white male murderers given how little of it there is to go around in others.

Put more simply, it seems to me that producing the notion of a just cause for acts of terror committed by white men is much of what our culture is for now and while it makes perfect sense given the present conjuncture, one which is typified by mass shootings committed by white supremacists, the resurgence of fascism and an unending torrent of apologia for both generated by journalists, it annoys me how few people are asking questions regarding mass culture and astroturf for its most regressive messaging. I will here provide some brief notes regarding true crime podcasts, films and Netflix series which I have not watched or listened to because i) there are better uses of my time, if you want to read a blog about how you’re a legend for watching hours and hours of dreadful junk instead of reading a book there’s no shortage of them elsewhere and ii) because a synoptic perspective does more to move beyond the quibbling over the rights and wrongs of particular representations in particular works that more often serve as advertising for aforementioned dreadful junk, i.e. the approximately 10 million impending thinkpieces about what it says to identify with the Joker without considering the material interests this identification serves. A lot of what I say here will be indebted to Sean McTiernan talking about a film called Black Panther on his old podcast, especially his comments about serial killers not being poètes maudits.

Much of the works circled above serve to mystify the function of historical context. We think of Serial, where context and understanding and sympathy are cited over and over again by the show’s host as its motivating factor and to what effect? Is context here understood history of racialised violence in the US? Is context a history of the economic function of the criminal justice system? Is context how the law is the continuation of state violence by other means? No, context is what your man said on the phone the other day, context is a behavioural psychologist spouting some sub-Ronson piffle about what motivates CEOs, context is how annoying the defense attorney’s voice was. There’s a very high-profile film out at the moment where the antagonist is a genocidal Malthusian and a depressing number of critics seem to think renders him sympathetic. Context in capitalist cultural production is a means of excusing and/or validating the motives of the most powerful.

We might consider the Netflix series Mindhunterfrom a similar perspective. The series takes place at a time which is broadly understood as a cultural turn and stages the point at which law enforcement begins to learn and adopt the methods of the counter culture. It is, in this sense, a dramatisation of Angela Nagle’s undergraduate blog post Kill all Normies , where the reactionaries are better leftists and cops are better sociologists. What this holistic advance, the FBI reading some effing Foucault passes over, is that this changing mode of pathologising and criminalising subjects takes place within an existing order; post-war criminology was not a more honest attempt at mapping modernity it was an integral part in shaping and excusing it deflecting attention from those who ‘kill facelessly, with pen and ink and telephone…Men of blood they are nonetheless’.

 I can think of no closer analogue to the contemporary notion of the serial killer than the entrepreneur; both function prominently within our culture, both work dialectically with one another, strategically neutralising or emphasising the function and traits of the other given the particular conditions. The decadence of modern urban existence, the congenital weakness of particular subjects, the capacity of the strong and/or those who work hard to succeed, the lot of the weak to fail, the central importance attributed to self-aggrandisement, self-interest, brand recognition and promotion on social media.

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