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  • “You make yourself into a monster so you no longer bear responsibility for what you do”Dexter, Naturalism, and Neoliberal Crime Discourse
  • Alan Gibbs (bio)

Showtime’s popular crime series Dexter (2006–13) draws on a range of themes, aesthetics, and ideas typically associated with naturalism, and the relationship between the program’s naturalist attributes, gender-based violence, and neoliberal crime discourse is particularly striking. Reflecting a broader twenty-first-century resurgence in contemporary American culture, naturalism is clearly a key component of Dexter, which is based on a series of novels by Jeff Lindsay. This is the case even as central components of naturalism— notably determinism— are inconsistently integrated into the program’s narrative structure and thematic concerns. The show’s protagonist, Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall), works by day as a forensic scientist for Miami Metro PD but is in his spare time a serial killer. If this marks a sensationalist scenario consistent with a tradition of naturalism, then it is even more significant that, at least initially, Dexter is depicted as being compelled to kill by biological and environmental forces beyond his control. That Dexter drifts, especially during its latter seasons, from this commitment to determinism is understood in the following as an indication that the program-makers appropriate naturalistic components rather than demonstrate any firm commitment to naturalism. Dexter is only compelled to kill by determining forces, that is, when it suits the show’s political ideology. After briefly assessing how naturalism manifests in the show, this article examines the extent to which the program-makers represent Dexter’s actions as involuntarily determined as a means to absolve him from moral responsibility. This depiction has the combined effect of maintaining audience sympathy for the serial-murdering protagonist and reinforcing the show’s neoliberal political stance. Finally, the essay examines in more detail how Dexter links naturalism to a model of masculinity [End Page 211] within the context of its neoliberal discourse on crime and the American justice system.

Dexter, Neo-Naturalism, and Moral Responsibility

As a number of critics and theorists have observed, American literary naturalism is especially notable for two interdependent attributes: its longevity and its lesser commitment to determinism, compared to its European counterpart. Citing an identifiable body of classical American literary naturalist texts, Eric Carl Link notes that while “human agency is called into question in each of those works . . . these novels can hardly be said to embody a clear philosophical position of one sort or another” (86). Earlier in the essay, Link has already contrasted a more rigid European naturalism with “the presence of competing philosophical visions and narrative forms” in the work of American literary naturalists (81). Link argues moreover that to insist on philosophically rigorous determinism in naturalism is to commit a category error, confusing “literary and philosophical discourses, which certainly overlap at times but are not co-equal” (85–86). As a result, to expect that American naturalist texts “serve as surrogate philosophical treatises intended to express a coherent philosophical dogma is to confuse modes of discourse and to set up a situation where these works will be subject to potentially unjust criticism as fundamentally flawed narratives” (86). All of this is to suggest that many of the thematic and formal attributes of American literary naturalism which are typical are nevertheless not necessarily defining characteristics. Other critics remain more inclined to retain a commitment to determinism as a crucial component of naturalism. Ian F. Roberts, for example, in the same volume as Link conducts a scathing critique of Donald Pizer’s tendency to downplay the importance of determinism, suggesting that such a move represents an attempt to “domesticate naturalism and muzzle its philosophical bite” (123). The present article takes the position that while determinism is a less central tenet of the American form of naturalism, it nevertheless remains a key component. One of the measures by which to assess Dexter as a text that engages with naturalism, in other words, is through the various ways in which it employs a deterministic frame of causation. As we shall see, Dexter’s inconsistent use of determinism in some ways places it alongside the less dogmatic form of American naturalism appraised by...


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pp. 211-235
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