Serial killing and the postmodern self

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For Mark Seltzer, the serial killer represents a ‘basic shift in our understanding of the individuality of the individual’ and he does much to illustrate this postmodern self which the serial killer signifies through the analysis of a rich and diverse archive. The postmodern self is constituted by its intense interpenetrations with others. However, Seltzer neglects the institutional complex in which this self appears. He recognises only inadequately why this kind of self has become meaningful in contemporary society. By drawing on Jameson, it is possible to address the gaps in Seltzer’s work and, by situating the serial killer in a broader social context, to recognise why this distinctive symbol has emerged in the late twentieth century. Just as the modern self cohered with the rise of state bureaucracy, the serial killer is consonant with the emergent institutional reality of multinational capitalism. The serial killer signifies ecstatic, commodified interpenetration through which the self in postmodern society is constituted. The serial killer is analogous with Warhol’s Diamond Dust Shoes. Like the sleek and shiny shoes ranked in that picture, the serial killers’ represents a flattened self constituted in repeated acts of euphoric and commodified consumption. The serial killer has become a compelling symbol for this new kind of society where individuals are not defined by their rationality and discipline, by an institutionalised superego, but through intense interactions by means of the global consumer market.


1 Serial killers are usually defined as murderers who repeatedly kill strangers for no ostensible ulterior motive. Eric Hickey defines a serial killer as an offender ‘who through premeditation killed three or more individuals over a period of days, weeks, months or years’ (Hickey 1999:56). See below for a longer discussion of the definition of serial killers.

2 E.g. Feldman, 1997; Schecter, 1998a, 1998b; Burn, 1998; Dunning 1998; Dahmer, 1995; Davis, 1992; Harris, 1993; Masters, 1993; Marriner, 1992; 1995; Wilson, Colin and Seaman, D, 1998; media reports include Bennett 1993; films include Seven, Kalifornia, Natural Born Killers, Silence of the Lambs, Red Dragon, Hannibal, America Psycho, Monster, Henry Portrait of a Serial Killer, Man bites Dog.
3 There is a gender dimension to the serial killer category. As Cameron and Frazer have emphasised (1987), up until the 1990s, serial killers were male. Female serial killers were understood quite differently; their interpenetrations were regarded as abominations. However, in the last decade, there has been a notable shift in the understanding of female serial killers and, although still sometimes, excluded from the category, they are beginning to be similarly understood as engaged in a form of ecstatic interpenetration.
4Although Hannibal Lecter does not engage in sexual interpenetration, Harris emphasises the extreme rational pleasure which his violence affords him (Harris, 1997: 191, 11, 229).
5 In the film, Lecter drinks Chianti rather than Amarone.
6 Richard Sennett’s work (1977) describes a similar transformation of the self and social interaction in contemporary culture from an admittedly different perspective.

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