Literary crime is an ambiguous mirror of social values


Hard to quote a quoter sometimes, but I’m still working with Charles Brownson:

“Cawelti writes, “Literary crime is an ambiguous mirror of social values, reflecting both our overt commitments to morality and order and our hidden resentments and animosity against these principles.” It is the same “mixture [-p.20] of horror and fascination, of attraction and repulsion” that drives the horror genre and that persists regardless of whatever sort of crime is the flavor of the moment, from nineteenth century poisonings to twentieth century gangsters and urban violence to twenty-first century paranoid political conspiracies of global reach.” (pp.19-20)

Ref: Charles Brownson (2014) The Figure of the Detective: A Literary History and Analysis. McFarland & Company, Inc. Publishers: Jefferson, North Carolina

quoting: Cawelti, John G. Adventure, Mystery, Romance. Chicago: University f Chicago Press, 1976. p77

More urban change questions


More interesting questions about humans and cities and nature…

“What is the relationship between humans and nature? How does this question play out in the specific micro-environments of cities?” (p.71)

Ref: Nicholas Low, Brendan Gleeson, Ray Green and Darko Radovic (2005) The Green city: Sustainable homes, sustainable suburbs. Routledge, Abingdon and New York; and UNSW Press, Sydney

urban change questions


These questions are posed in the context of sustainable urban development, but I think them both interesting and relevant to fictional concerns (perhaps especially those of urban fantasy and fiction more generally?):

“Ultimately,” write, “the green city will reflect a rather different future for work. On this topic there are some very large questions: can a future of cities competing against one another in world markets be reconciled with a benign future for the environment? What are the limits of competition and how can they be enforced? Does economic growth itself have limits? How can growth be steered into environmentally benign forms of production? What forms of governance are required to regulate world markets in order to guarantee social security and environmental conservation? How do culture, place and climate influence work patterns, and consequently the physical accommodation of work?” (p.132)

Ref: Nicholas Low, Brendan Gleeson, Ray Green and Darko Radovic (2005) The Green city: Sustainable homes, sustainable suburbs. Routledge, Abingdon and New York; and UNSW Press, Sydney

Gated communities separate the home environment from the city


Jill L. Grant explains: Gated communities seek to create safe and quiet private realms that separate the home environment from the city…. In Canada, gated communities have private streets that limit connections to public streets, restrict parking, and often set very low speed limits. Canadian enclaves also usually lack such urban infrastructure as sidewalks. Some larger gated projects in the United States have commercial centers and schools within them: They may share the features of small towns and even seek municipal incorporation (McKenzie 1994; Tessler and Reyes 1999). Design standards are high and often allow a limited palate of colors and forms. The developments presume that residents will own and operate cars. Qualification requirements and narrow pricing ranges ensure a homogeneous population in terms of class, interests (such as golf), and age.” (p.487)

“Private governance proves endemic in new residential developments in the United States (McKenzie 1994, 2005) and appears to be increasingly common in Canada as well. The contemporary city, as Christopherson (1994) suggests, is based on control and separation, with the neighborhood defined as a protected private haven in a potentially dangerous environment. Privatization offers a measure of control that may appeal to nervous residents. In part, this accounts for the lure of both New Urbanist communities
and gated enclaves.” (p.492)

In a sense we can see gated and New Urbanist developments as alternative responses to the perceived crises of contemporary living. Consumers seeking new homes engage in a search not only for somewhere to live, but also for a neighborhood where they might find civility, community, identity, and character. Developers of enclaves and traditional communities try to sell these commodities.
Concerns about civility characterize a society in which murder, violence, rape, and other crimes flood the headlines in the daily news media and television shows about the police, the court system, and forensic pathology top the ratings. Fears about crime and “bad behavior” motivate the desire to find urban forms that might control behavior. The promise that good urban form can recreate the safe and comfortable town or village of days gone by, where people knew each other and felt secure, proves extremely alluring (Grant 2005a). New Urbanism seeks to tame behavior by making visitors feel that they might be observed at any time and by employing devices such as front porches and community retail to create interaction points for residents. Reconstituting the form of the traditional town or village aims to resocialize urban residents to appropriate behavior.” (p.492)

The search for community has deep roots in North America (Talen 2000). A perceived loss of connection with others and the hope of confronting difference in ways that avoid conflict contribute to the search for integrated social environments.” (p.493)

“In a context of increasing social polarization and global urbanization, enclaves create space for inclusive communities of like-minded souls. Beneath the veneer of a tolerant society that celebrates diversity may lurk a disdain for difference that drives gated development.” (p.496)

Ref: Jill L. Grant (2007): Two sides of a coin? New urbanism and gated communities, Housing Policy Debate, 18:3, 481-501

Gated communities – Atkinson and Blandy


Introducing a volume of papers on gated communities, Rowland Atkinson & Sarah Blandy explain that:

Gated communities (hereafter GCs) have been defined in a number of ways. These definitions tend to cluster around housing development that restricts public access, usually through the use of gates, booms, walls and fences. These residential areas may also employ security staff or CCTV systems to monitor access. In addition, GCs may include a variety of services such as shops or leisure facilities. The growth of such private spaces has provoked passionate discussion about why, where and how these developments have arisen. This volume presents an opportunity to gather together contemporary and diverse views on what is at least commonly agreed to be a radical urban form.
The apparently ‘unique’ characteristics of GCs present immediate problems for an accurate definition. Should we include flats with door entry systems, tower blocks with concierge schemes or partially walled housing estates, even detached houses with their own gates? Among this confusion we suggest that the central feature of GCs is the social and legal frameworks which form the constitutional conditions under which residents subscribe to access and occupation of these developments, in combination with the physical features which make them so conspicuous.

Living in a gated community means signing up to a legal framework which allows the extraction of monies to help pay for maintenance of common-buildings, common services, such as rubbish collection, and other revenue costs such as paying staff to clean or secure the neighbourhood. However, such legal frameworks can also be found in many thousands of non-gated homeowner associations in the US, and indeed in blocks of leasehold flats in England. This leads us back to the important physical aspects of these developments. Where a combination is found of these socio-legal agreements and a physical structure which includes gates and walls enclosing space otherwise expected to be publicly accessible, we can finally achieve some clarity of definition. Gated communities may [-p.178] therefore be defined as walled or fenced housing developments, to which public access is restricted, characterised by legal agreements which tie the residents to a common code of conduct and (usually) collective responsibility for management.” (pp.177-178) [although Atkinson and Blandy do note further down that many residents are not well-read on the nature of these agreeements (p.183)]

Atkinson & Blandy continue: “While this definition may be useful it is often argued that gated communities express more than a simple constellation of particular physical and socio-legal characteristics. In the built environment around us we increasingly see examples of an attempt to boost defensible space and the means to exclude the unwanted. This has meant that we can now observe a continuum of ‘gating’ which can be seen moving between symbolic and more concrete examples. Suburban areas with booms across private roads, housing estates with ‘buffer zones’ of grass and derelict land, and cul-de-sacs all express a mark of exclusion to non-residents with varying degrees of efficacy. All of these built forms suggest a lack of ‘permeability’ in the built environment directed at achieving increasingly privatised lifestyles, predominantly through the pursuit of security. It is this attempt at self-imposed exclusion from the wider neighbourhood, as well as the exclusion of others from the gated community, which has driven a much wider debate about the relative merits of gating and other strategies to achieve security, when set alongside other key concerns such as freedom of access to the wider city, social inclusion and territorial justice.” (p.178)

Under the title “The Fortified Neighbourhood” (which I rather like), Atkinson and Blandy acknowledge that “It is now well documented that gated communities can be seen as a response to the fear of crime (Atkinson et al., 2004) but other drivers also appear significant. In particular the desire for status, privacy and the investment potential of gated dwellings all form important aspects of the motivation to live behind gates.” (p.178)

Many have argued that GCs represent a search for community with residents seeking contact with like-minded people who socially mirror their own aspirations. While advertising by developers (primarily in America) draws on this communitarian ideology it has been clear to some that the idea of a gated ‘community’ is something of an oxymoron. Increasing numbers of recorded neighbour disputes and conflict between residents and their management companies suggest at least as many problems as are found in ‘normal’ developments (see for example, Linford, 2001). …. In this volume Evan McKenzie picks up on this theme and argues that gated communities increasingly contain residents openly hostile to the strictures to which they have signed up…. The possibility that GCs contain some kind of built-in obsolescence may become increasingly apparent.” (p.179)

“Even before getting into a debate about the relative merits of gating we find systematic research which suggests that the shelter from fear that gated communities appear to
represent soon fades once residents move in. Research by Low (2003) suggests that living ‘behind the gates’ actually promotes fear of the unknown quantities of social contact
outside them. The lack of predictability and experience of people in social situations outside these compounds appears to play out most strongly for the young, particularly those brought up in gated communities. / In fact, perceived safety and actual crime rates have been found to be no different between gated communities and similar, but non-gated, high-income American neighbourhoods.” (p.181)

We have argued that the contractual legal framework is an essential characteristic of GCs. These detailed rules indicate a different and much more formal structure than the framework of informal rights and rules developed in a neighbourhood through “neighbours understanding the importance of maintaining a shared and reciprocated set of values and neighbourhood attributes” (Webster, 2003, p. 2606). It has been suggested [-p.183] that GCs are an example of a much wider rise in contractual governance, resulting from the new relationship between state, market and civil society, designed to address concerns about social order: the contract of membership takes centre stage in the age of ‘responsibilisation’, in which “exclusion from club goods may be tantamount to exclusion from key aspects of citizenship.” (Crawford, 2003, p. 500).” (pp.182-183)

Ref: (emphases in blue bold, mine) Rowland Atkinson & Sarah Blandy (2005): Introduction: International Perspectives on The New Enclavism and the Rise of Gated Communities, Housing Studies, 20:2, 177-186

Suburbia is a collective effort to lead a private life


“Blakely and Snyder raise the question, “Can there be a social contract without social contact?” We respond by noting that gated communities operate by an implicit social contract—they serve to minimize unsolicited social contact. Gated communities represent the continued evolution of an Anglo-American movement toward private environments that originated in mid-19th century Britain (Fishman 1987; Lang 1995). The paradox of how [-p.875] suburbanites form a social consensus around so anticommunitarian a belief as privacy is captured in Lewis Mumford’s observation that “suburbia is a collective effort to lead a private life” (Mumford 1938, 412).” (pp.874-875)

Ref: (emphases in blue bold) Robert E. Lang & Karen A. Danielsen (1997): Gated communities in America: Walling out the world?, Housing Policy Debate, 8:4, 867-899

Reference is to: Fishman, Robert. 1990. Megalopolis Unbound. Wilson Quarterly 14(1):25–45.

Lang, Robert. 1995. Hallowed Homes: The Religious Origin of Suburban
Domesticity in 19th-Century Britain. Paper presented at the annual meeting
of the American Sociological Association, Washington, DC, August 17–20.

Mumford, Lewis. 1938. The Culture of Cities. New York: Harcourt, Brace.

The narrative uses of violence


Here’s another one of those articles I really liked: Steffen Hantke‘s (2001) ‘Violence incorporated: John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and the Uses of Gratuitous Violence in Popular Narrative’.

In it, Hantke uses the film, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, to consider the uses of gratuitous violence in popular narrative. He considers the function(s) of violence in narrative and the way in which such functions engage and reassure the audience… really interesting!

Hantke begins: “The current public discussion of media violence is shaped by two fundamental assumptions. One supposes that representations of violence reflect the steadily rising level of violence in society, while the other assumes that representations either cause or at least significantly contribute to the increase of violence.” (p.29)

“What I aim to do,” he explains, “…is to intervene on the microscopic level, tracing the rules of discourse regarding the representation of physical violence in a specific text and then drawing conclusions from this example regarding the larger cultural discourses surrounding it.” He does this by analysing a text that ‘breaks the rules’, as it were, around representations of violence: John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer

Hantke argues “that all consumers, regardless of their demographic niche, want, or are willing to tolerate, a certain degree of violence, if portrayed in a certain manner, justified by certain moral imperatives, and legitimized by certain narrative structures – violence, in other words, that has been socially and culturally sanctioned by the proper forms of aesthetic coding.” (p.32) “The absence of these ‘proper’ forms of aestheticization,” he declares, “is exactly what makes McNaughton’s film Henry such an unsettling experience for the audience.” (p.32) It is a film that deploys violence “without the expected legitimation [of that violence]. Violence, in other words, exploited rather than employed. Gratuitous violence.” (p.34)

“The absence of a pragmatic legitimation registers as something intolerable, to some extent via categories established by social consensus, such as taste or tact – categories which themselves are tied into notions of proportionality and functionality. The absence of a proper narrative rationale has alarming consequences for the viewers and their sense of participation in the narrative process; if violence is an end in itself, then I, the viewer, must be watching, and enjoying, it for exactly what it is, and not for something else it stands for. Violence as a signifier points to nothing but itself as a signified is a thought that is all the more unsettling because my enjoyment somehow appears to erase the aesthetic distance between myself and the spectacle. My collaboration is suddently exposed as complicity, just as the violence depicted suddenly ceases to take place at a safe aesthetic distance.
Hence, violence needs to be functionally useful as an aesthetic, dramatic, narrative, affective, thematic, or contextual device. Violence must be made to mean something, to point to something beyond itself. Once the narrative engages it in a functional context, it becomes invisible as such to the extent that it is made to work for an end beyond itself.” (p.37) … “The distinction between, for example, a violent act and a loving act of compassion is elided in exactly the sense in which both equally accelerate, obstruct, or complicate the narrative.” (p.37)

What is curiously absent from the story, which is after all the story of a murderer, is a detective figure, a character who embodies, in Jenkins’ words, ‘the discourse of rationality on which the fiction depends, and through which order is imposed upon an otherwise inexplicable world’ (109). If there was such a force or figure, its effects would not only be felt in the moral nature of the narrative universe, as Jenkins suggests, but perhaps even more so in its narrative cohesion. The world of Henry is an ‘inexplicable world,’ not only because it does not meet the requirements of rationality, but also because it cannot be properly narrated.
Since there is no concrete detective figure opposing the killer, there is no dramatic tension about who is going to prevail in the end. Since there is no dramatic tension, there is no chance for proper narrative closure. The killer will, by his nature, continue to kill, as long as there is no counterforce stopping him. …The impression of many viewers that the film’s ‘tone’ is laconic, deadpan, or emotionally detached, is less due to its visual style than to its narrative organization, which refuses to prioritize, weigh, or compare in order to create a sense of proper plot.” (p.40)

Noting that there is no ‘end’ to Henry’s violence in this film (it is happening before the ‘beginning’ and will continue after the ‘end’), Hantke writes: “Violence, once it is incorporated in this ‘serial narrative,’ becomes conspicuous, because, if the narrative does not go or is not headed anywhere, what function can violence possibly have in it? It cannot cause, hinder, or accelerate events. Hence, its demonstrable lack of purpose makes it appear excessive. Its lack of a proportionate functional frame makes it appear gratuitous.” (p.41)

“In uncoupling representations of violence from their instrumental purpose, that is, by making them appear gratuitous, the moral narrative which we conventionally and tacitly superimpose upon the events suddenly appears no longer as an inevitable way of seeing the world. Instead of being written into the very fabric of narrative, it appears freestanding, a cultural construct whose integrity and credibility rests on nothing more than social convention. The ‘social system that is the source of any morality that we can imagine’ (14), as White puts it, becomes caught up in the sense of arbitrariness that permeates Henry.” (p.42)

“…narratives can raise the question of what violence ultimately means; what effects it has on those who perpetrate, suffer, or witness it; how we are to assess its effects from an empirical, social, or moral point of view; or how it helps to constitute the environment we life in.” (p.35)

Ref: (italics in original, emphases in blue bold mine) Steffen Hantke (2001) Violence incorporated: John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and the Uses of Gratuitous Violence in Popular Narrative College Literature; Spring 28(2); pp.29-47

Reference is to: White, Hayden (1990) The Context of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
Jenkins, Philip (1994) Using Murder: The Social construction of Serial Homicide. New York: DeGruyter

Other interesting references include:Fraser, John (1974) Violence in the Arts. New York: Cambridge University Press

Grixti, Joseph (1989) Terrors of Uncertainty: The Cultural contexts of Horror Fiction. New York: Routledge

Seltzer, Mark (1998) Serial Killers: Death and life in America’s wound Culture. New York: Routledge