Honni van Rijswijk
Scenes of torture are central to the Western imaginary of law, animating questions of power, authority and legitimacy. This examination of key cultural representations of torture provides some historical background on torture in the Western imaginary and focuses on its contemporary significance. A flexible set of analytical and aesthetic approaches to practices of representation are used to assess the changing significance of torture. In particular, three figures are central to the representation of torture—the torturer, the tortured, and the torture chamber. The significance of these elements differs depending on the form and perspective of representation. These elements of representations of torture changed following the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and have complicated the social and legal work done by previous cultural texts and government policies around the effectiveness of torture and the risks of states of exception. Not only do popular films and television series support and justify the use of torture as a legitimate information-gathering tool, but representations of torture have become sites of pleasure and enjoyment. The emergence of new figures and genres in representations of torture suggests that the use of torture in violent or conflict scenes has been of increasing interest to the public and possibly have become increasingly accepted since the rhetoric of the Global War on Terror (GWOT).
Neal King, Rayanne Streeter, and Talitha Rose
Crime film and television has proliferated such influential variations as the Depression-era gangster film; the post–World War studies in corruption known as film noir; the pro-police procedural of that time; and then the violent rogue-cop stories that eventually became cop action in the 1980s, with such hits as television’s Miami Vice and cinema’s Die Hard. Mobster movies enjoyed a resurgence with the works and knockoffs of Scorcese (Goodfellas) and Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs), resulting in such TV series as The Sopranos, and with a return to “blaxploitation” with the ’hood movies of the early 1990s. Recent developments include the neo-noir erotic thriller; the rise of the corrupt cop anti-hero, paralleled by the forensic procedural, often focused on baroque serial killers; and the near disappearance of black crime movies from cinema screens. Such developments may owe to shifts in relations between real policing, real crime, and citizens, but they may owe more directly to shifts in the movie/television industries that produce them. Such industry shifts include freewheeling depictions of social problems in early cinema; carefully controlled moralism over the 1930s established by such industrial regulators as the Production Code in Hollywood and the British Board of Film Censors; further repression of subversion as anti-Communism swept through Hollywood in the 1950s; then a return of repressed violence and cynicism in the 1970s as Hollywood regulation of depictions of crime broke down; and a huge spike in box office and ratings success in the 1980s, which resulted in the inclusion of more heroes who are not both white and male. The rise of the prime-time serial on television, enhanced by the introduction of time-shifting technologies of consumption, has allowed for more extended storytelling, usually marketed in terms of “realism,” enabling a sense of unresolved social problems and institutional inertia, for which shows like The Wire have been celebrated.
The content of such storytelling, in Western film and television, tends to include white male heroes meeting goals (whether success as criminals or defeat of them as cops) through force of will and resort to violence. Such stories focus on individual attributes more than on social structure, following a longstanding pattern of Hollywood narrative. And they present crime as ubiquitous and both it and the policing of it as violent. The late 1980s increase in the depiction of women of all races and men of color as heroes did little to alter those patterns. And gender patterns persist, including the absence of solidarity among women and the absence of women from stories of political corruption or large-scale combat.
Crime in literature takes advantage of two basic assumptions: (1) that the storyline generally begins with a crime (very often murder) that underlies the subsequent narrative, often serving as the driving force of the story; and (2) that the crime itself and its narrative implications will be rooted in the actual workings of a culture’s justice system at any given moment in time. Consequently, crime literature in particular provides readers with a snapshot of prevailing attitudes about the nature of justice in a society and the basic fears about crime that threaten its collective conscience.
To understand crime fiction from a cultural studies perspective, it is necessary to develop a broader understanding of the larger culture from which an author and his/her fictional creations emerge. Although writers create fiction for various reasons, publishers put their efforts into projects they hope will be somewhat financially profitable. Thus, published works exist in a culturally-specific space that never veers too far from the values, beliefs, and expectations of its mainstream society. To understand the fictional world conjured by an author a cultural studies approach takes into consideration larger socio-historical phenomena: What kinds of mythologies underlie a culture’s traditions? What historical events have helped shape the culture’s identity? What sort of political and legal systems organize the culture? What specific kinds of crime tend to be highlighted in a culture’s crime literature (guns, drugs, race, violence against women, class warfare, government corruption and repression, etc.)? What role do legitimate legal structures tend to play in a culture’s crime literature? What role does climate play in a culture’s identity? In short, a cultural studies approach begins by trying to determine the assumptions authors make about readers’ cultural knowledge, values, beliefs, and myths about crime and justice in order to develop a context for understanding what is taken for granted in the narrative.
Beginning in the mid-1970s, enormous changes governed U.S. punishment of criminal offenses, leading to harsher laws and longer prison terms than convicts in earlier decades served for the same offenses. The stark policy shift resulted in soaring prison populations that are disproportionate compared with most Western nations. The United States, with 5% of the world population, has more than 20% of the world’s prisoners. Its prison population rose 700% from 1970 to 2005. Today, one in 34 adults is under correctional control. The rates are disproportionate for minorities, especially less-educated black men (Lee, 2015; Pew, 2007, 2014; U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, 2012).
Shifts in physical treatment of prisoners accompanied the population boom. Jails and prisons adopted control technologies that would likely have been considered inappropriate and inhumane decades earlier. These included the stun belt and the restraint chair, devices that can cause considerable pain. These also included extensive use of solitary confinement in Supermax prisons, an echo of a method used in 18th- and 19th -century American penitentiaries and discarded because of the dangers it posed to inmate mental health. And, following the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, treatment in U.S. prisons seemed to echo overseas in abuse of foreign prisoners in American hands. The Bush administration attempted to declare physical coercion as legal during interrogations, in apparent violation of the Geneva Conventions (Shane, Johnston, & Risen, 2007).
What caused such a shift? Much of the change appears to be cultural in nature, connected strongly to forces such as politics, religion, pervasive beliefs about evil and children, popular culture, and economic realities. This also means that American punishment is historically more influenced by such cultural forces than by more seemingly related phenomena such as research on effective punishments, prisoner experience, or crime statistics.
That American cultural trends strongly influence American punishment also means that American daily lives respond to shifts in punitiveness. Such evidence of American punishment trends appear in popular television shows and treatment of children.
Dark tourism has passed into the language and study of tourism since it was first designated as such in 1996 (see Lennon & Foley, 1996; Seaton, 1996). It is now established as a term to designate those sites and locations of genocide, holocaust, assassination, crime, or incarceration that have served to attract visitors. The phenomenon exists across a range of global destinations and demonstrates commonality and unifying elements across a range of societies and political regimes. The interpretation of these sites can of course be the product of ideology and dominant belief systems, and they act as the meeting place for history and visitation where questions of authenticity and fact are sometimes juxtaposed with the operation of tourism facilities. What is celebrated, interpreted, and developed is often selective, and dilemmas of commemoration of the unacceptable and acceptable are reflected clearly in the condition, nature, and content of these sites. This selective interpretation is demonstrated in destinations from Cambodia to Lithuania, from Auschwitz to Dallas, and from Moscow to London. In these locations, such tourist attractions become key physical sites of commemoration, history, and record. They provide the visitor with a narrative that may well be positioned, augmented, and structured to engage, entertain, or discourage further inquiry.
Dark tourism attractions demonstrate demand but also constitute commemoration, historical reference, narrative legacies, and populist heritage attractions. These tourism sites in some cases become one of the few remaining commemorative elements of victims and their testimonies. In such cases the content and its narrative interpretation take on critically important values in understanding a shared past.
Justin Piché and Kevin Walby
Dark tourism researchers who examine sites of death, suffering, and despair have generated a significant amount of research over the past two decades. Different ways of conducting dark tourism research are emerging. These include studies oriented toward making sense of the supply and demand for such excursions, and research that explores how cultural meanings are negotiated at these destinations. There are also critiques of the wide-ranging application of the dark tourism concept, which has led some scholars to argue that it is analytically imprecise. New directions for future dark tourism research have also been proposed, including a call to shift away from discipline-centered analyses. Engaging with these developments, we suggest that the future direction of dark tourism research should involve grounding such studies in the concerns and insights offered in specific social science disciplines, including criminology and criminal justice studies among others, to add focus and precision to cross-disciplinary debates. To do so we draw from the emergence and development of penal tourism research, which examines how cultural representations of penality shape and are shaped by the practice of punishment in given societies. Since penal tourism research tends to focus on prison museums, we propose future directions for the study of this phenomenon rooted in criminological concerns for understanding how penal meaning making, including definitions of acts that are criminalized and what constitutes (in)justice, takes place in other sites of punishment memorialization including police and courthouse museums. Other future research directions include studying sites that memorialize corporate and state harms.
Documentary films have significant appeal because of their claim to represent truth and authenticity. Within the criminal justice system, they are important not only because of the public fascination with crime and punishment, but also because the everyday workings of the criminal justice system often remain outside of the direct experience or sight of most people.
There have been major stages in the technical and institutional development of documentary film. In its early years, actualités, short shots of realistic events, illustrated the new technology. As rudimentary narrative forms emerged, real events, including crimes, were recreated on film for paying audiences. Fiction films soon came to dominate and documentary was relegated to a supporting role, particularly in the form of newsreels that offered news and features prior to movie presentations. It was during the late 1920s and 1930s that the potential for film, including documentary, came to be recognized as a potential medium of state power. This was most notoriously seen in Nazi Germany, but also more benevolently in New Deal America. In the United Kingdom, John Grierson’s documentary movement spearheaded the use of documentary in workplaces, professional clubs and institutions as a means of promoting state sponsored social improvement. State control remained important during the Second World War and the subsequent period of reconstruction. The growth of television and the development of portable cameras and sound equipment opened up a new approach in the late 1950s and 1960s. Cinéma-vérité and direct cinema not only brought about stylistic innovations, such as hand held camerawork, but also took the filming into new spaces and offered a voice to previously unheard people, reflecting the social upheavals of the age. This approach became more widespread as a stylistic trope, but its original political purposes waned. Since the 1980s, the documentary field has become more diverse and fragmented, as a result of deregulation and the expansion of media markets, and the greater accessibility of equipment. Popular documentary on large network channels has often focused on entertainment, leading to new forms of infotainment. In contrast, there has been more opportunity for critical voices to be heard that contest dominant ideas. Throughout these eras, documentary has featured and responded to crime and criminal justice within the context of broader social change.
The evolution in documentaries about crime and criminal justice has, in particular, been shaped by three factors. The first is the role of individual agents, such as prominent filmmakers whose work has stood the test of time or has influenced the field. Second, there have been institutional factors, including the technology of film, notably the development of more portable and affordable equipment, but also there have been changes in the production process including sources of funding and distribution. The third factor is ideology. Cultural products, including documentaries about criminal justice, are created and consumed within a contested ideological context, and their meanings or significance can only be understood by reference to that context. As a result, these documentaries are important means of understanding the criminal justice system and the wider social context in which they are situated.
Dimitri A. Bogazianos
While criminological analyses of drugs and popular culture often focus on media constructions of drug scares and epidemics, they also draw from a wide range of interrelated influences, including critical theory, cultural studies, feminism, and critical race theory, among many others. Given that current trajectories of hypermediated cultural production in a post-crack drug landscape is unlikely to change anytime soon, ever more fine-grained analyses will be needed in order to make sense of the inextricable links between drug-related representations, crime policy, and social justice. Future scholarship in this area will continue to draw from its rich heritage as well as innovate new methodological and theoretical emphases that pay closer attention to the nontextual elements of popular cultural forms.
Stories involving false confessions can be emotional and moving, as they appeal to our innate desire for justice. As such, stories of false confessions can be powerful tools in books, films, and televisions shows. The way that a false confession is framed, and the context in which it is introduced to consumers (whether as readers or viewers) makes a big difference in how a false confession will be perceived.
In fictional stories in print or on screen, typically the viewer (or reader) has some sense of a person’s true innocence or guilt. In a television show, the viewer may have already seen a clip of the crime with the true criminal. Other musical or visual cues may also give viewers clues as to the true guilt or innocence of an individual offering a confession to a crime. Because viewers know, or will know, the true identity of the person who committed the crime in question, the use of an interrogation or a false confession (or both) can be used to demonstrate the moral character of the confessor. In exactly the same way, the use of a false confession in a fictional story can be used to demonstrate the morality of a police officer or even a whole police department. For example, a scene depicting the interrogation of a suspect that viewers know is not guilty may be used to demonstrate the use of immoral, coercive interrogation techniques by television detectives.
In nonfiction, the exploration of false confessions is often used to demonstrate the fallibility of the justice system. Because the idea that an innocent person would confess falsely to a crime that they did not commit seems incredibly counterintuitive to the average person, in-depth explorations (whether in documentaries, podcast series, newspaper or magazine expose, etc.) of the process by which false confessions can happen can be instrumental in helping people understand the reality of the phenomenon. The way a case or a confession is framed in the media and understood in popular culture also impacts our social construction of that person’s guilt or innocence.
Kathryn Henne and Rita Shah
In response to the limitations of mainstream criminology, feminist and visual criminology offer alternative approaches to the study of crime, deviance, justice institutions, and the people implicated by them. Although feminist and visual lines of criminological inquiry have distinct foci and analytical strengths, they both illuminate disciplinary blind spots. Feminist criminology responds to criminology’s embedded gender biases, while visual criminology challenges criminology’s reliance on text and numbers. They offer approaches to redress criminology’s general lack of attention to the broader cultural dynamics that inform crime, both as a category and as a practice. Unpacking the visual through a feminist criminological lens is an emergent critical project, one that brings together and extends existing feminist and visual criminological practices. Combining feminist criminology and visual studies offers new possibilities in the areas of theory and methodology. Doing so also lends to new modes through which to query gendered power relationships embedded in the images of crime, deviance, and culture. Moreover, such an approach provides alternative lenses for illuminating the constitutive relationships between visuality, crime, and society, many of which exceed mainstream criminological framings. It brings together interdisciplinary perspectives from feminist studies and visual studies rarely engaged by mainstream criminology. Thus, a feminist visual criminology, as an extension of feminist criminology’s deconstructivist aims, has the potential to pose significant—arguably foundational—critiques of mainstream criminology.