Serial killing and the postmodern self

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Since the late twentieth century the serial killer has become a potent public symbol in western culture.1 As Mark Seltzer has emphasised in his influential work, the serial killer is a ‘flashpoint in contemporary society’ (Seltzer 1998: 2).

Serial murder and its representations, for example, have by now largely replaced the Western as the most popular genre-fiction of the body and of bodily violence in our culture. (Seltzer 1998:1)
Affirming Seltzer’s argument, the serial killer has now become a major motif in novels, biographies, the media, television, film and art.2 Indeed, many commentators have suggested serial killing may not have simply become more cultural prominent but that as a practice serial killing may have become more common. Eric Hickey, for instance, has argued that there has been a dramatic increase in the number of serial killers since the 1960s and in his now canonical work on the subject, Leyton has similarly proposed that there was an explosion in the ‘rate of production of these most modern killers’ in the late 1960s (Leyton 1989: 363). In fact, It is possible that the crime statistics on serial killing are false and that, in fact, there has been no actual increase in the number of active serial killers. As, Jenkins has demonstrated some glaring exaggerations in the figures on serial killing where the same murder is counted more than once in the statistical record (Jenkins 1994: 22-31). Nevertheless, even if there has been no rise in the number of serial killers, the increased recorded incidence of serial killing points to an incontrovertible fact. The serial killer has become a more prominent figure in criminal investigation and public imagination; ‘the idea of the serial killer’ has become more prevalent (Stratton 1994: 14-5, emphasis added). Since the 1960s, as Seltzer suggests, the serial killer has attained a new cultural status and has become established as the focus of public attention and understanding in a way which was not the case in the early and middle decades of the twentieth century.

In the light of the rise of this public symbol – the serial killer - the question which confronts the social sciences is not primarily to explain why serial killers murder. That is the domain of psychology and it is questionable whether that discipline has proffered an accurate account of motivations of certain killers. The social sciences must answer the question of why the figure of the serial killer has become a dominant cultural symbol in western society from the 1960s. Seltzer has plausibly claimed that the serial killer has become a dominant symbol in contemporary culture because it communicates new understandings of the self in a transformed social context; ‘the emergence of the kind of individual called the serial killer is bound up, it will be seen, with a basic shift in our understanding of the individuality of the individual’ (Seltzer 1998: 2). The serial killer has emerged as a powerful social symbol because it signifies a new account of the self. The serial killer viscerally embodies new understandings about what it is to be a subject in late twentieth century society. Consequently, although serial killers remain very few in number, the extreme activities of these individuals has become a common public reference point denoting a transformation of self-identity.

Seltzer’s claim that the serial killer represents a new kind of self in contemporary society is taken as a starting point here. Seltzer’s analysis of the serial killer as a new kind of self is sustained. However, Seltzer’s does not consider the sociology of this new self sufficiently. He does not recognise the institutional and social context in which this self has emerged to become meaningful. This article attempts to expand upon Seltzer’s work by highlighting precisely this institutional context which Seltzer neglects. The serial killer has become a potent contemporary symbol because it represents a form of selfhood consonant with wider social and institutional developments and in particular, with the rise of multinational capitalism. In this way, the serial killer represents a postmodern self. In postmodern culture, the self represented by the serial killer, although apparently corrosive, constitutes a coherent basis of identity and, indeed, social agency.

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