- True Crime: Observations on Violence and Modernity
In his new book, Seltzer continues unpacking the bloody "wound culture" that he investigated in his earlier work, Serial Killers. This time around, he focuses on true crime and its manifestation in many genres, from film and [End Page 212] television to fiction and even architecture. Seltzer argues that the popularity of true crime genres stems from the wound culture—his term for popular and academic fixation on sites of trauma and corresponding turns to never-ending memorialization and what he calls "proxy witnessing and referred mourning" (170). The wound culture itself finds a home amid media reflexivity, in that the observation of observation integral to media forms removes people so entirely from experience of the "real" that violence is the preferred remedy to return to the real. This return creates more trauma and wounding that is then mourned and recycled through media forms, perpetuating the system of violence and meta-observation.
Seltzer's methodology is distinguished by its rigorous testing of the premises of what he calls the "double contingency of violence and the media" (23), followed by his own restructuring of those premises in a new light. This strategy, which he deploys to great effect throughout the book, is based on an initial description of what he sees at work within the system of the relays between private violence and its public reportage. Then, as he says in a characteristic moment, "It will then be possible to thicken this description of true crime and to indicate some of its larger cultural implications" (38). Appropriately for a book grappling with multiple layers of observation, Seltzer positions himself as yet another observer of the observation of observation intrinsic to true crime genres. Consistently throughout the chapters, Seltzer exposes the mechanisms and processes of the system of double-observation he is critiquing, although paradoxically the system he examines depends on exposing its own processes to observation. Therefore, Seltzer is re-exposing that which is already always exposed. The effect on the reader/observer of Seltzer's work is not unlike that which Seltzer credits to the complicit creators/observers of mediated wound culture—an almost violent longing for a return to the real. This is the modus operandi of Seltzer's critique, in that it replicates its vertiginous self-consciousness of observation within those who reflect upon its methodical laying-bare of reflexivity.
The book opens with a wide-angle overview of the system of murder and media within the cultural history of modernity. From there, he narrows his lens to focus selectively on various components of the system and to "thicken" his reading of each subsystem. The first subsystem he identifies is the collective set of the conventions or protocols of true crime, in which there is always a return "to the scene of the crime by way of its recreation and representation" (37). Another subsystem of true crime he identifies is its creation of a "bond of togetherness" (57) based on shared suffering, or commiseration. A third subsystem is that media operates to self-replicate itself endlessly, or "to keep the operations going" (91). A fourth subsystem is that the mass media selects and frames what it observes, since it cannot observe [End Page 213] all, and observes the methodology by which it selects and frames. A fifth subsystem is a forensic return to the scene of the crime through reconstructions and re-enactments. The final subsystem is that these operations work by their very visibility. Or, in other words: "one cannot play by the rules unless one sees through them: seeing through the game is part of it" (162). Within each of these subsystems, he uses varied cultural artifacts as illustrations: the fiction of Patricia Highsmith, the films of Alfred Hitchcock, the coverage of the infamous true-crime case "The West Memphis Three," and the deliberate emptiness of post-war Berlin architecture.
Throughout this organizational structure, Seltzer shares several compelling insights that comprise the primary strength of his analysis. A foundational insight is that true crime's...