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Culture: The Subject of Murder

Lisa Downing explains to Matthew Reisz how society’s unspoken prejudices are given voice in the discourse surrounding killers

Lisa Downing, University of Birmingham

Source: Eugene Doyen

Drawn to the extremes: Downing argues that murder is ‘highly codified and very historically specific’

On the publication of her new book, Lisa Downing explains to Matthew Reisz how society’s unspoken prejudices are given voice in the inflammatory discourse surrounding its murderers

The idea that murderers are entirely different from the rest of us serves a very conservative function,” says Lisa Downing. “We don’t have to worry that we might be implicated because those people are other than us and we are safely within the mainstream.”

Now professor of French discourses of sexuality at the University of Birmingham, Downing has written, co-written and edited books on critical theorist Michel Foucault, film star Catherine Deneuve and director Patrice Leconte, as well as Birth and Death in Nineteenth-Century French Culture (2007), Film and Ethics: Foreclosed Encounters (2009) and Queer in Europe: Contemporary Case Studies (2011). Coming next year is a volume of “critical essays on [sexologist] John Money’s diagnostic concepts” by her, Iain Morland and Nikki Sullivan, to be titled Fuckology.

Yet, despite this striking range of subject matter, Downing believes her career has been “underpinned by an interest in questions of how subjectivity and sexuality are understood in culture, how they are formed, what value judgements are brought to bear on so-called ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ varieties of them. What unites almost all of my work is a concern with interrogating that idea of ‘normal’, questioning who gets to decide what is ‘normal’ and in whose interests.”

Yet there has also been a certain change of emphasis: “I have moved from taking the ‘abnormal’ as fascinating subject matter to be prodded and poked to yield up answers towards looking at precisely the ways in which the ‘abnormal’ subject gets constituted and what that says about the social forces doing the constituting.”

We can see this shift in the move from Downing’s first book, Desiring the Dead: Necrophilia and Nineteenth-Century French Literature (2003) to the recently published The Subject of Murder: Gender, Exceptionality, and the Modern Killer.

So what drew her to such extreme material in the first place? Part of what makes necrophilia worth studying, she replies, is that it “remains in the sphere of psychiatry and medico-legal discourse and has not become a subject of politics in the way that LGBTQ issues obviously have, and practices like BDSM and sadomasochism, which have a whole group of defenders who say: ‘We are just like the rest of you, except that we like kinky sex’. It hasn’t been tamed by the assimilationist brigade.

“Necrophilia and other perversions that have death as part of their content are interesting because they literalise the fear underpinning the regulation of all non-normative sexuality…that any sexual practice that couldn’t lead to reproduction was dangerous and could lead to the downfall of Western civilisation. However, the very existence of so-called ‘sexual perversions’ reveals the lie that sexuality is utilitarian, that desire is naturally for a purpose - ie, reproduction.”

In describing her new book, Downing suggests that “people think of murder as this deep dark personal thing and I argue that it’s a highly codified and very historically specific phenomenon which comes from the aesthetic philosophies of Romanticism, decadence and later existentialism”.

Although there have always been homosexual and homicidal acts, specific cultural pressures turned acts into essences and created the figures of “the homosexual”, “the pervert” and “the murderer” at roughly the same time.

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