Review of Lisa Downing, 'The Subject of Murder: Gender, Exceptionality, and the Modern Killer'

Around 50 serial killers are active in the United States at any given time, according to the retired Federal Bureau of Investigation agent John Douglas, who wrote some of the standard monographs on violent crime, as well as any number of true-crime paperbacks. The figure sounds remarkably low, given serial killers’ ubiquitous and nearly mythological status in the American imagination over the past couple of decades. As a movie reviewer once pointed out, they must be the most overrepresented demographic in contemporary popular culture.

You could probably find 50 of them right this minute, just by turning on the TV. The fictionalized serial killer is now a stereotype, albeit one constructed mainly of idiosyncrasies. He practices bizarre private rituals full of psychosexual significance (murder itself being one of the rituals) and is known to the public by a pseudonym, as was his symbolic ancestor Jack the Ripper. His motives are oblique at best. On the one hand, he is in the grip of obsessions and compulsions; on the other, the killings often embody a degree of creativity, however mis-channeled or diseased. He is a kind of deranged artist or malignant demigod, turning inner chaos into violent order.

In real life, of course, there have been plenty of sloppy, impulsive, and totally unimaginative serial killers, but they, evidently, are not nearly so entertaining. When one shows up on screen at all, it is likely to be in a rural setting, where generations of inbreeding has erased all impulse control, with the victims ending up barbecued, or their skin and bones turned into clothing and household decoration.

In either version, we have an almost archetypal symbol of evil, more or less plausibly rendered in human form, with no supernatural explanation necessary or implied. At the same time, we should be wary of interpreting as too deeply meaningful the prevalence of a stock character who, most of the time, exists simply as a convenient device for setting the detective in motion -- or giving the horror-movie viewers someone to dread, perhaps while rooting for him at the same time.

Every so often, the archetype short-circuits and the plot device goes haywire, and you get something like “The Following,” a recent series on the Fox network. In it, Kevin Bacon plays a retired FBI agent whose mission is to fight a cult of aspiring serial killers led by a literature professor who is obsessed with gothic romanticism, or possibly it’s romantic Gothicism. The professor is “brilliant and charismatic, but psychotic,” as the Internet Movie Data Base helpfully explains, which in this context means he has a British accent. He sends his minions out to perform sundry Edgar Allan Poe-inspired atrocities. He also does some serial killing himself, as his schedule permits.

I see that the IMDB page for “The Following” states that there are now 300 serial killers active according to the FBI. Either the bureau was overlooking five-sixths of them until recently or the professor is a very good teacher.

An interpreter of compulsive homicide rather than instructor in it, Lisa Downing treats the contemporary fascination with serial killing as one element of a complex process of marking and policing social norms of sexuality and identity. The biographical note on the cover of The Subject of Murder: Gender, Exceptionality, and the Modern Killer (University of Chicago Press) indicates that Downing is a professor of French discourses of sexuality at the University of Birmingham, in the United Kingdom.

From that description, the profiler will surmise that Downing keeps theoretical company with Michel Foucault, and indeed, his conceptual fingerprints are all over the book. In her title, the word subject does not mean topic (per ordinary usage) or even the general philosophical sense of subjectivity as consciousness and agency. Rather, it has Foucault’s particular nuance of being “subject[ed] to someone else by control and dependence, and tied to his own identity by a conscience or self-knowledge.” In this sense, the “subject of murder” refers not (just) to the individual committing the act, but to all the institutions and interpretive frameworks that come together in identifying and defining the murder: law, psychiatry, penology, and ideas about male and female behavior with regard to sex and violence.

Downing’s first section consists of three chapters on cases from the 19th century, beginning with that of Pierre-François Lacenaire, a poet, criminal, and boulevardier executed for murder in 1836, and continuing with Marie Lafarge, a Frenchwoman convicted of ending an unhappy marriage in 1840 by feeding her husband rat poison. The third chapter, leaping across both decades and the Channel, takes up the case of Jack the Ripper – hardly the first instance of what the sexologist Richard von Krafft-Ebing would label Lustmörd (“lust murder”), but the one that would prove iconic. Each became a national and even international sensation, thanks in part to the writings of the killers, but also because other authors were inspired to comment on their cases.

The three main chapters in the second section, covering the 20th century, involve figures now routinely classified as serial killers (a category also retroactively applicable to the Ripper). The most notorious of them is Myra Hindley – at the time of her death a few years ago still one of the most hated women in England – who helped Ian Brady rape and murder a number of children and buried their bodies on the moors outside Manchester. The story of Dennis Nilsen, the British necrophile and serial killer, resembles that of Jeffrey Dahmer, although Nilsen was more prolific.

Downing’s treatment of Aileen Wuornos, a homeless prostitute who shot several clients, challenges the idea that she was a serial killer, given that the murders can be understood as revenge for the violence she endured from men, rather than as the work of a psychopath. A final chapter considers children who kill, and includes perhaps the most sinister photograph in the book: a surveillance camera image from a shopping mall showing two boys, about 10 years old, leading away a toddler who they then beat to death with rocks.

What we have here, to put it one way, is a variety of homicidal acts with very little in common, with few parallels even among the murders themselves, apart from a degree of celebrity (Lacenaire and Lafarge had their defenders) or public outrage. At another level, however, each murderous career is defined not just by the means and motives for killing, but by a surrounding matrix of attitudes about self-control and gender difference.

The whole “serial killer as artist” mythology that I mentioned at the start of this column is a case in point – a late flowering of the idea emerging in the 1830s: “Lacenaire wished his poetry, his crimes, and his own highly stylized self to be received by the world as the avid Romantic critic receives the artwork: appreciated or subject to disapproval only as beautiful objects, according to purely aesthetic criteria.”

Brady, the Moors murderer, rationalized his behavior in similar terms, fortified with passages from the Marquis de Sade and Nietzsche. Medical and criminological speculation over the decades made room for this sort of “subject of murder” by treating the behavior as the product of some kind of excess – an overcharged libido, perhaps, or a grandiose ego. But no such interpretation was ever offered for Hindley’s participation in the murders. I’m not sure how you would quantify visceral loathing, but as much of it as Brady inspired, Hindley provoked more of it.

“Female murderers are special,” according to Downing, “because they are seen to lack something that is perceived as essential to femininity….” A default or normative definition of the human equates it with the male (don’t blame the feminists for this interpretation, angry readers, but direct your ire to Aristotle). Hence “femaleness equates to something other to, and less than, maleness, but with culturally ascribed saving virtues such as a capacity for nurturing and an affinity with an ethics of care.”

Hindley not only used children's trust in her to lure them to her death, but showed no remorse during the trial; while Brady's crimes and demeanor were cold, hers were taken to be even more inhuman. Doubly so, in fact. But identifying and purging the monstrous, however strong the drive to do so may be, never brings the story to an end. There’s always another monster being born, or sitting in the audience.

Are Journal Submissions Getting Sloppier?

Véronique Kiermer, executive editor of the Nature Publishing Group, says that there is more "sloppiness" than in the past in journal submissions, Times Higher Education reported. Kiermer made the remark in a speech at the World Conference on Research Integrity. Among the problems she said she is seeing more of are: missing control tests, poor use of images,  flaws in experimental design and reporting, and problems with the use of statistics.

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Cengage, a Major Publisher, Could File For Bankruptcy

Cengage Learning, one of the world's largest education companies, may file for bankruptcy, its CEO says. Bloomberg reports on continued restructuring talks at the company, which was sold several years ago to a private equity firm.

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Major Publishers Go MOOC

Several major publishers will experiment with offering free course materials to Coursera users enrolled in the Silicon Valley-based company's massive open online courses. The partnership, which involves Cengage Learning, Macmillan Higher Education, Oxford University Press, SAGE, and Wiley will deliver material using Chegg, a company that offers an e-book platform. According to Coursera, while professors teaching MOOCs on its platform have been able to assign free high-quality content, they will now be able to work with publishers to "provide an even wider variety of carefully curated teaching and learning materials at no cost to the student." Coursera has, however, generated some revenue from the affiliates program wherein users buy books suggested by professors.

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Rice's Open Textbook Arm to Double Its Offerings

OpenStax College, the year-old Rice University startup that produces free online textbooks, will more than double the number of fields in which it has titles by 2015, the university announced today. A grant from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation will allow OpenStax College to add to its current offerings in physics and sociology, and its two new biology books and an introductory anatomy text coming out this fall. The new titles will be in precalculus, chemistry, economics, U.S. history, psychology and statistics, Rice said, toward its goal of producing high-quality open-source books in the 25 most-enrolled college courses. OpenStax says its existing two texts have been downloaded more than 70,000 times so far.




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Washington State Students Save $5.5M With Open Courseware

Students at the state of Washington's 34 community and technical colleges will save hundreds of thousands of dollars a year because of low-cost textbooks produced by the state's Open Course Library, the college system said this week. The library, which received funding from the state legislature and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, spent $1.8 million to develop low-cost course material, including textbooks of no more than $30, for 81 common courses. The effort has already saved students $5.5 million since fall 2011, according to an analysis by The Student Public Interest Research Groups, an advocacy organization.

“Students are clearly the winners in the open courseware library model,” said Marty Brown, the executive director of the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges, in a conference call with reporters.

Nicole Allen, a textbook advocate for the student group, said Washington's materials are used outside the state, including by a math department in Arizona. Policymakers in California and British Columbia have created similar projects, she said.

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Review of Matthew L. Jockers, 'Macroanalysis: Digital Methods & Literary History'

“A poem,” wrote William Carlos Williams toward the end of World War II, “is a small (or large) machine of words.” I’ve long wondered if the good doctor -- Williams was a general practitioner in New Jersey who did much of his writing between appointments – might have come up with this definition out of weariness with the flesh and all its frailties. Traditional metaphors about “organic” literary form usually imply a healthy and developing organism, not one infirm and prone to messes. The poetic mechanism is, in Williams’s vision, “pruned to a perfect economy,” and there is “nothing sentimental about a machine.”

Built for efficiency, built to last. The image this evoked 70 years ago was probably that of an engine, clock, or typewriter. Today it’s more likely to be something with printed circuits. And a lot of poems in literary magazines now seem true to form in that respect: The reader has little idea how they work or what they do, but the circuitry looks intricate, and one assumes it is to some purpose.

I had much the same response to the literary scholarship Matthew L. Jockers describes and practices in Macroanalysis: Digital Methods & Literary History (University of Illinois Press). Jockers is an assistant professor of English at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. The literary material he handles is prose fiction -- mostly British, Irish, and American novels of the 18th and 19th centuries -- rather than poetry, although some critics apply the word “poem” to any literary artifact. In the approach Jockers calls “macroanalysis,” the anti-sentimental and technophile attitude toward literature defines how scholars understand the literary field, rather than how authors imagine it. The effect, in either case, is both tough-minded and enigmatic.

Following Franco Moretti’s program for extending literary history beyond the terrain defined by the relatively small number of works that remain in print over the decades and centuries, Macroanalysis describes “how a new method of studying large collections of digital material can help us to understand and contextualize the individual works within those collections.”

Instead of using computer-based tools to annotate or otherwise explore a single work or author, Jockers looks for verbal patterns across very large reservoirs of text, including novels that have long since been forgotten. The author notes that only “2.3 percent of the books published in the U.S. between 1927 and 1946 are still in print” (even that figure sounds high, and may be inflated by the recent efforts of shady print-on-demand “publishers” playing fast and loose with copyright) while the most expansive list of canonical 19th-century British novels would represent well under 1 percent of those published.

Collections such as the Internet Archive and HathiTrust Digital Library available for analysis. Add to this the capacity to analyze the metadata about when and where the books were published, as well as available information on the authors, and you have a new, turbocharged sort of philology – one covering wider swaths of literature than even the most diligent and asocial researcher could ever read.

Or would ever want to, for that matter. Whole careers have been built on rescuing “unjustly neglected” authors, of course, but oblivion is sometimes the rightful outcome of history and a mercy for everyone involved. At the same time, the accumulation of long-unread books is something like a literary equivalent of the kitchen middens that archeologists occasionally dig up – the communal dumps, full of leftovers and garbage and broken or outdated household items. The composition of what’s been discarded and the various strata of it reveal aspects of everyday life of long ago.

Jockers uses his digital tools to analyze novels by, essentially, crunching them -- determining what words appear in each book, tabulating the frequency with which they are used, likewise quantifying the punctuation marks, and working out patterns among the results according to the novel’s subgenre or publication date, or biographical data about the author such as gender, nationality, and regional origin.

The findings that the author reports tend to be of a very precise and delimited sort. The words like, young, and little “are overrepresented in Bildungsroman novels compared to the other genres in the test data.” There is a “high incidence of locative prepositions” (over, under, within, etc.) in Gothic fiction, which may be “a direct result of the genre’s being ‘place oriented.’” That sounds credible, since Gothic characters tend to find themselves moving around in dark rooms within ruined castles with secret passageways and whatnot.

After about 1900, Irish-American authors west of the Mississippi began writing more fiction than their relations on the other side of the river, despite their numbers being fewer and thinner on the ground. Irish-American literature is Jockers’s specialty, and so this statistically demonstrable trend proves of interest given that “the history of Irish-American literature has had a decidedly eastern bias…. Such neglect is surprising given the critical attention that the Irish in the West have received from American and Irish historians.”

As the familiar refrain goes: More research is needed.

Macroanalysis is really a showcase for the range and the potential of what the author calls “big data” literary study, more than it is a report on its discoveries. And his larger claim for this broad-sweep combination of lexometric and demographic correlation-hunting – what Moretti calls “distant reading” -- is that it can help frame new questions about style, thematics, and influence that can be pursued through more traditional varieties of close reading.

And he’s probably right about that, particularly if the toolkit includes methods for identifying and comparing semantic and narrative elements across huge quantities of text. (Or rather, when it includes them, since that’s undoubtedly a matter of time.)

Text-crunching methodologies offer the possibility of establishing verifiable, quantifiable, exact results in a field where, otherwise, everything is interpretive, hence interminably disputable. This sounds either promising or menacing. What will be more interesting, if we ever get it, is technology that can recognize and understand a metaphor and follow its implications beyond the simplest level of analogy. A device capable of, say, reading Williams’s line about the poem as machine and then suggesting something interesting about it – or formulating a question about what it means.

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Interview with author of book on civil rights activism in Mississippi

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Author discusses his new book, Student Activism and Civil Rights in Mississippi.

Author discusses new book on 'strategic diversity leadership'

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Author discusses new book on the steps colleges can take to diversify and be inclusive.

Commentary on the Digital Public Library of America

The carnage and manhunt in Boston last week obliged the Digital Public Library of America to postpone its grand opening festivities at the Boston Public Library until sometime this fall. So sudden a change of plans could only create a logistical nightmare. The roster of museums, archives, and libraries participating in DPLA runs into the hundreds, and the two-day event (Thursday and Friday) was booked to capacity, with scores of people on the standby list. But the finish line for the marathon was just outside the library, and rescheduling unavoidable.

The delay applied only to the gala, not to DPLA itself: the site launched on Thursday at noon, E.S.T., right on schedule. The response online has been, for the most part, enthusiasm just short of euphoria. The collection contains not quite 2.4 million digital “objects,” including books, manuscripts, photographs, recorded sound, and film/video. More impressive than the quantity of material, though, is how much thought has gone into how it’s made available. 

That’s true even of the site’s address: DP.LA. I’ve seen at least one grumble about how anomalous this looks. Which it does, but in a good way. Even if you forget the address, it takes no effort to reconstruct. The brevity of the URL makes it convenient to type on a cellphone; when you do, the site’s homepage is readily navigable on the small screen. That demonstrates an awareness of how a good many visitors will actually use the site – more so than is often the case with library catalogs online.

DPLA is the work of people who understand that design is not just icing on the digital cake, but a significant (even decisive) factor in how we engage with content in the first place. They have made available an application program interface (API) for the site, which is a very useful thing indeed, according to my source in the geek community. With the API, users can create new tools for sorting and presenting the library’s materials. Combine it with a geolocation API, for example, and you could put together an application displaying the available photographs of the street you are on, organized decade by decade. 

The library’s potential for assembling and integrating an incredible range of documents and knowledge is almost unimaginable. Excitement seems appropriate. But in describing my own impressions of DPLA, I want to be a little more qualified about the enthusiasm it inspires. Things are not nearly as far along as some comments have implied. This isn’t just naysaying. The site is currently in its beta version, and many of my points will probably be nullified in due course. But it’s better to be aware of some of the limitations beforehand than to visit the site expecting a digital Library of Alexandria.  

One thing to keep in mind is that DPLA is not so much a library as an enormous card catalog, with the “shelves” of books, photographs, and so forth being the digital collections of libraries and historical societies, large and small, all over the country. The range of material offered through the Digital Public Library of America reflects what people running the local collections have decided to digitize and make available. What DPLA gathers and makes searchable is the metadata: descriptions of what a document contains (its subject, origins, copyright status, and so on) and of its characteristics as a digital object (size and file type).

The DPLA “card” gives the available information about an item, often accompanied by a thumbnail image of the book cover, manuscript, etc. – along with a link taking you to the digital repository in which it appears. DPLA puts the metadata into a standard format. But much of the content-description will inevitably be done by local librarians and archivists, making for a considerable range in detail. Often the DPLA entry will provide a bare minimum of description, though some entries run to a paragraph or two.

But the entry is only as strong as its link. It seemed appropriate to make one of my earliest searches at the Digital Public Library for the quintessential American poet Walt Whitman. There were 52 hits, with 9 of the top 10 being manuscripts of his letters in the Department of Justice collection at the National Archives. Not one of the links for the letters worked. By contrast, I had no trouble getting access to photographs of the poet held by the Smithsonian Institution.

This proved par for the course. Most links worked -- but out of two dozen entries for items in National Archives, only one did. It’s hardly surprising (gremlins have a strong work ethic), but it shows the need for troubleshooting. Users of the library can be expected to point out such glitches, if encouraged to do so. It might be worth adding a widget that would appear in each record allowing users to flag an inoperative link, a typographical error, or some problem with the content description. It's true that the site has a contact page, but people are more likely to report errors if they are encouraged to do so.

Continued thumbing through the catalog demonstrated how early a stage DPLA is in accumulating its collection – and how much fine-tuning its search engine may need.

Entering “Benjamin Franklin,” you get more than 1,400 results. Out of the first 30, all but 3 are documents (usually death certificates) for people named after the inventor and statesman. A toolbar on the left allows the user to refine the search in various ways – but the most useful filter, by subject, is at the very bottom and easy to overlook.

It was encouraging to get 17 results when searching for Phyllis Wheatley, the first published African-American poet, but 15 of them led to records from the 1940 census, by which point she had been dead the better part of 150 years. Only one of the other two was at all germane to her as historical figure. The other concerned an Atlanta branch of the Young Women’s Christian Association named in her honor.

I expected to locate just a few things about the Southern Tenant Farmers Union of the 1930s, but in fact got no hits at all. At the other extreme, DPLA has records for more than 90 items pertaining to the Ku Klux Klan – photographs, handbills, and cartoons, both pro- and anti-. Quite likely these were among the most striking and attention-grabbing items in various collections, and were digitized for use in print publications and online. It's concrete evidence that the Digital Public Library of America's offerings will be only as representative as the decisions made by the contributing institutions.

A number of foundations and government agencies have lent their support to DPLA, and its progress towards incorporation as a 501(c)3 organization should make it an even more appealing destination for the big philanthropic bucks. But important as funding certainly is for the library’s future, what it will ultimately be decisive for its success is a massive infusion of intellectual capital. Some of it will come from code writers hacking out new applications using the library's metadata and API. More than that, though, DPLA will need to encourage the participation and the expertise of people using the site. It's an impressive foundation  and scaffold, but it's up to scholars, librarians, and other knowledgeable citizens to build the library, from the ground up.



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