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A Perfect Crime: Criminality, Discourse, and Simulation

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A Perfect Crime: Criminality, Discourse, and Simulation
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  Justin Beck American Literature: Crime and PunishmentProfessor H. Bruce Franklin12/8/06A Perfect Crime: Criminality, Discourse, and SimulationIn the first sentence of his foreword to H. Bruce Franklin’s  Prison Writing in 20 th -Century America , Tom Wicker reminds us, “American prisons, with their stone walls and barbed wire fences, metal gates and gun towers, have a dual function: to keep us out aswell as them in” (xi). The following paragraph describes “life within” as “so far fromconventional existence that the accounts of those who experience it exert the fascinationof the unknown.” The introduction to Jason Haslam and Julia M. Wright’s Captivating Subjects: Writing Confinement, Citizenship, and Nationhood in the Nineteenth Century terms itself an attempt “to recognize the social and cultural centrality…of captives” (4).The notion of criminality is, perhaps inextricably, linked to the conception of socialdeviance, which shares a common root (déviāre) with the word deviate, itself implying amatter of proximity and srcin, a series of degrees, the potential for motion, if not thenotion of this motion as articulation of difference. The question is what is deviated fromand by how much. The implications include the possibility of mapping, relationalcomprehension, and privilege based upon positioning. In any reasonable discussion of criminality―academic, linguistic, or sociological―, then, the use of spatial metaphorsseems unavoidable or, at the very least, highly productive.  During its relatively brief history, the prison has created, stimulated, or manufactured a multitude of discourses which have corresponded to the situation of crime and criminality to various degrees and engaged the subject in various ways. Fromthe American Slave narrative, “the first literary genre of the United States” (Franklin,“Victim as Criminal” 3), past the detective novel, film noir, Capote’s  In Cold Blood  , The Autobiography of Malcolm X  , and Stephen King’s  Rita Hayworth and Shawshank  Redemption , through serialized “true crime” novels,  Night Court  , Court Television, and  Reno 911! , the corpus of texts, the “tissue of quotations” (to borrow a phrase fromDerrida) on crime, criminals, and criminality is vast and diverse, spanning the gamutfrom biography to social critique to satire and pastiche. However, implicitly referenced ineach text is the distinction elucidated by Wicker between the “us,” located outside of thesphere of criminality, outside the rubric of violations and punishments, and the “them”located within this sphere, directly acted upon by this rubric.Historically, however, primacy seems to have been afforded texts produced fromoutside of the context of criminality; from the academy, as evidenced by Franklin’saforementioned anthology, as well as its precursor,  Prison Literature in America: TheVictim as Criminal and Artist  , Foucault’s  Discipline and Punishment  , Durkheim’s work on anomie, and Robert King Merton’s strain theory, as well as from the imaginativedepths of the collective social unconscious, as evidenced in the naturalist fiction of Frank  Norris and Stephen Crane, detective novels, the board game Clue, The Godfather  trilogy,as well as slasher and snuff films. While Professor Franklin notes that “the politicalmovement of the 1960s and 1970s generated an unprecedented surge of prison literatureand also created an audience for it,” he adds that “by 1984, every literary journal devoted2  to publishing poetry and stories by prisoners was wiped out” (Franklin, “Prison Writing”12,14). The question, then, implicit in this analysis is “why?” What is the impetus for such a large-scale repression of prison literature while the discourse of which thisliterature is a part, the subjects it addresses, are being constructed irrespective of the parties they purport to represent? How is criminality constructed totally irrespective of criminals? What are the consequences of this construction? How is this constructionarticulated in literature? How does it function in the larger social structure? Who benefitsfrom this construction and how? My aim, throughout the course of this paper, is toattempt to utilize the basic principles of surveillance and supervision brought to prominence in Foucault’s  Discipline and Punishment  in relation to the prison system inorder to posit that to speak of crime from the outside, through outside discourses, creates,or at least manifests, crime and criminals as objects of knowledge which are necessarilyinterior, Other, and constructed in relation to subjects (supposedly “objective” producersof discourse) whose discourse obscures, dominates, and replaces these “insidenarratives.” However, when this occurs, when these objects of knowledge are producedirrespective of the actual circumstances they purport to reflect, the created discoursetends to obscure and obfuscate what it intends to elucidate. The discourse, then, replaceswhat it ostensibly catalogs. In order to resolve this initial fictionization, an entirely newobject must be created and must operate in the place of the misplaced srcinal object.These discourses are, then, not actually discourses on criminality but, rather, discourseson imagined criminality, what it might be like. This is not to say that these discourses areentirely non-mimetic; it is merely to say that they are, as Robert Ellis Gordon terms the prison itself, “funhouse mirrors” of actual circumstances.3  Situating the discourse of criminals and criminality, social deviance (and, incases, the implicit critique of all of the above apparatuses) outside, exterior, to thediscourse produced by criminals functions dually: it seeks to provide the appearance of objectivity, to justify or fortify the subject of its discourse as a field of knowledge (this,of course, disguises the singular act of creation implicit in the discourse; it denies that itssubject, the criminal and the crime is, in fact, produced, configured, and defined by andthrough the discourse which purports only to reflect it.), and to maintain the power relation which the producers of a discourse wield over the object of the discourse (that isto say that if the discourse on crime and criminality were defined by criminals, the verydefinition of the subjects might radically be changed and could, conceivably, result in avastly different interpretation and rendering of criminality and deviance which would,almost certainly, pose a threat to the social system which has produced the discourseinitially). Furthermore, the spatial metaphor of the inside/outside binary grants, if not primacy, certainly the distinction of anteriority to the outside which creates of itself theinside, the confined, cordoned off, separate space where it may regulate as it sees fit andmay, if necessary and always at its discretion, release and assimilate into itself.This dichotomy does not, however, simply exist. The discourses are not de facto clearly delineated, mutually exclusive, separate spheres. There may be no moreappropriate example of the blurring of the literary citizen, the discourse producing subjectand the juridical object of knowledge as Julian Hawthorne, “a popular and prolific author,who at the height of his career…served a year…in the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary”whose experience led him to conclude that if “every judge, attorney general, districtattorney, and juryman at a trial [were to] spend a bona fide term in jail … there would be 4  no more convictons ―prisons would end” (emphasis added; Franklin “Prison Literature”9). Here Hawthorne elucidates a necessary distinction in the discourse on criminalitywhich is particularly interesting in the context of the writing of criminals: the criminal isspecifically configured in relation to the processes of conviction and/or confession.Foucault states: Next to the testimony of witnesses, and the learned methods of observation anddemonstration, the confession became one of the West’s most highly valued techniquesfor producing truth. We have since become a singularly confessing society…Oneconfesses―or is forced to confess. (Foucault, “History of Sexuality” 59)Professor Franklin qualifies this assertion, contextualizes it:The earliest literature by convicted American criminals of which I am aware is purelyconfessional. The author offers himself as an example for all other members of society toshun, and he seeks forgiveness not in this world but the next…This purely confessionalmode continued throughout the nineteenth century and on into the twentieth…[however,]whatever wider significance this confessional mode may have nonce have had, it had become of little consequence even by the middle of the nineteenth century. (Franklin,“Victim as Criminal” 127-8)It becomes clear, then, that the confession, the conviction, the criminal, and the literatureof criminality are hopelessly enmeshed. The very term “crime” is parasitic upon“conviction”; the criminal is only understood in terms of conviction; it is the process of conviction which initiates the criminal into criminality, which moves him or her from the“outside” discourse, the social construction of the criminal (and, as we will see, thesimulacrum which replaces the criminal), to the “inside” discourse, the self-articulated5
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