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American Quarterly 53.3 (2001) 535-547
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An Aesthetics of Crime
St. John Fisher College
As a historian of criminology, Nicole Rafter has demonstrated that she has a strong understanding of the different approaches that criminologists have taken in thinking about the origin and prevention of crime. Creating Born Criminals, her social history of biological theories of crime in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, effectively traces the work of some of the early attempts at a scientific approach to why individuals commit crime and how we might identify those most likely to engage in criminal behavior. In her recent study, Shots in the Mirror: Crime Films and Society, Rafter extends her work into the [End Page 535] realm of interpreting film. In it she argues that all crime films implicitly make two arguments at once. While they present a social critique, they also typically offer an audience "some solace or resolution by showing a triumph over corruption and brutality" (3).
Although she is quite comprehensive in her approach to film criticism, she offers a much more subtle interpretation of historical texts, events, and movements. She is literate in the varying causes to which criminologists assign the origin of criminal behavior, including psychological, biological, and environmental reasons, as well as that of rational choice. Not surprisingly, she takes a broadly inclusive approach to the genre of the crime film. She does not just write of gangster films, she also investigates cop films, courtroom films, and prison and execution films. But in all of these categories, Rafter all too easily falls into only one way of thinking about crime and punishment: as a reification of power. She writes, "A key source of crime films' enduring attraction . . . lies in the way they provide a cultural space for the expression of resistance to authority" (10). She suggests, however, that any subversive element within these films is ultimately mediated through the representation of the systems of social control as "normal, unproblematic, or even useful" (10). The status quo, as she writes for instance of Escape from Alcatraz, is left "undisturbed" (11).
Rafter's work in Shots in the Mirror illustrates a crucial dilemma that faces those critics who operate within the arena of the culture of crime--how to move beyond what has become the traditional approach to interpreting the crime narrative. Representations of crime, whether fictional or not, continue to fascinate the American public, as they have since the age of Charles Brockden Brown. Crime narratives operate as a deeply compelling metaphor for the workings of American culture because of the powerful symbolic resonances in the individual criminal's transgressive act. We define our culture not only by our shared beliefs but by our laws--by what is prohibited or defined as outside the bounds of propriety. In representing the transgressive act, crime narratives challenge our assumptions about such often culturally absolute terms as right and wrong, good and evil, and legality and illegality, especially by illustrating how contingent those terms are on socioeconomic conditions. Critics are especially drawn to these narratives because they can readily decode the ways that writers and directors represent cultural values within constructed texts as a means of social commentary and critique. Critics of the recent past, however, [End Page 536] have too readily embraced a perspective on these narratives that merely emphasizes the contest of power that these narratives seem to metaphorically represent.
The influence of Michel Foucault has dominated...