Thursday, March 18, 2010

Edward Said and Serial Killers

On page 24 – 25 of Humanism and Democratic Criticism, Edward Said writes “In South Africa alone, there are now eleven official languages, which educational institutions must somehow take into account.  The actual composition of America is not much different in diversity and multiplicity of cultures, although one unfortunate consequence has been the felt need to try to homogenize all this into an assertive, not to say bellicose and positive American identitarian unanimity.  The invention of tradition has become far too thriving a business.”
Edward Said was born in Jerusalem in 1935.  His father was an American citizen and interestingly, fought under General Pershing in World War I.  His parent’s ancestry was Palestinian Protestant.  His father’s business took him between Palestine, Cairo, and the U.S., and depending upon the politics of the region, Edward was educated in Palestine or Cairo – until in 1951 he was banished from Victoria College for being a ‘troublemaker’ and shipped off to a college preparatory school in Massachusetts.  Edward settled down, did well and got his BA in 1957 from Princeton and his MA (1960) and Phd (1964) from Harvard.  Edward Said was raised a multiculturalist.
Said was born a U.S. citizen but didn’t like what he found in the U.S.  He didn’t like the sort of American that he found here.  We have a history of intellectuals feeling much the same way and escaping the American backwardness for European enlightenment.  One thinks of T. S. Eliot whom Said deplored, by the way.  But there was also Henry James and many others who made that journey and while most of them never gave up on America, they did clearly find something superior in Europe, especially Britain.  But Said came of age after that, after a time when Europe had lost its luster.  There was no place for him to go where he could find a culture superior to the American; which didn’t keep him from disapproving of it.
There is something chaotic about Said’s multiculturalism.  He would have approved of the elimination of English as the primary language in America.  We here think of ourselves as a nation and expect those who come here to live to accommodate themselves to our customs to some extent.  Said found these expectations constraining.  As few as our standards are, he wanted to be free of them.  While nations such as China and the Russian Federation deplore the chaotic freedom they see in the U.S., deplore it as “license,” Edward Said found the few rules that perhaps only an American citizen would be aware of as constraining.  He wanted America to be free of them. 
Multiculturalism, by definition, involves a certain element of chaos.  Said would have us go beyond the freedoms of Liberal Democracy.  He would have us disentangle ourselves from what little tradition we find in our history so that we can be more genuinely multicultural.    The West is moving in the direction of Multiculturalism – not just in the accepting of all cultures, but in the accepting of all of them within each nation; so when we look for our monsters (all cultures throughout all recorded history have had monsters) today we find describe them as serial killers, and the more chaotic our societies, the less rule-bound our serial killers
Just the other day I finished watching “Harper Island” on Netflix.  It took me three days to get through the thirteen episodes.  The Netflix description made it sound a bit like Agatha Christies And then there were none, so I watched it, but after a while I feared that they were going to make the least likely character the serial killer: the one everyone on the island would have voted to be the least likely choice as the serial killer.  I hoped they weren’t going to do that, but they did.  And the motives they give him for his killings were psychologically preposterous. 
A hundred years before Freud, Esquirol implied that “mentally ill people were not ones who had lost their reason but were rather dominated by a kind of hidden inner reason independent of their will, a sort of unconscious mind.”  Esquirol wrote down his theories in 1805 and modern ideas have not diverged much from this point, that the mad have their own rules and their own logic. 
If we read about actual serial killers, and how can we not when they are such a fascination to news reporters everywhere, we discover that they do have rules of sorts.  The police call these rules their modus operandi, and once these killers are captured, psychologists seek to extract from their “unconscious minds” the “hidden inner reason” behind their desires to kill.  “Harper Island” approaches chaos more closely by providing the killers with “inner reasons” that are scarcely plausible.  Perhaps in the “horror” genre, plausible rules are dispensed with, I don’t know, but I found the thirteen episodes a waste of time.
If Edward Said were still alive and happened to read what I have written, he would say that I have taken him much too far.  He would admit to having “standards” but he would strive to show that they are superior to American standards and traditions, the stuffy old constraining standards embraced by such reactionaries as Alan Bloom.   
Are you worried about a serial killer on the Oregon coast? .
Perhaps you’d like to read about the ghastly-ghoulish & sickening serial killer victim mementoes of Rodney Alcala .
Are you concerned about the serial killer of homosexuals in Chicago?  You should be.  He hasn’t been caught yet. .
But if you live in Pretoria, you’ll be relieved to learn that one of your serial killers has been arrested: .
Serial killing has become a cottage industry, and why not since we have abandoned (or are abandoning) our standards.  One of Freud’s students, Theodore Reik, argued that the Nazis would pay a price for using dead bodies to make soap.  Making soap is not something humans do with dead bodies.  Humankind treats their dead with respect.  The Nazis thought they could dispense with previous standards and create their own.  Reik was being Freudian in arguing that we have “superegos” and they are functioning whether we like it or not.  We might think we can turn dead bodies into soap, but our superegos founded in our traditions and standards tell us that we cannot.
We have always had monsters, but when we read about them, about dragons, witches, goblins and skinwalkers, don’t they all sound rather tame when compared to Pedro Alonso Lopez, Henry Lee Lucas, Ottis Toole, H. H. Holmes, Gilles de Rais, Luis Alfredo Gavarito,  Hu Vanlin, Pee Wee Gaskins, Javed Iqbal, (just to list those credited with killing more than 100 victims per ).
  Would we have fewer or less fearsome monsters if we followed Heidegger’s advice and turned back from chaos in order to seek authentication in our traditions?  I’d like to think so.


Anonymous said...

Lawrence, you wrote

'Would we have fewer or less fearsome monsters if we followed Heidegger’s advice and turned back from chaos in order to seek authentication in our traditions? I’d like to think so.'

Is there any way that this could be expressed other than as a tautology?

Do you have any evidence, any evidence at all, that we could have sought 'authentication in tradition' and yet the number of serial killers remain the same

If you can't imagine that, can't conceive that it is logically possible that that should occur, you owe your readers an account of the connection you see between our not having done that, and the recurrence of serial killers?

So far, this is just hand waving.

Thanks, and best regards.


Anonymous said...

I wrote

Do you have any evidence, any evidence at all, that we could have sought 'authentication in tradition' and yet the number of serial killers remain the same (roughly as it is now); that is, is it some sort of logical truth that this could not happen?

Lawrence Helm said...

Allard: See my response at