Sunday, 27 February 2011

A Serbian Film and the Culture of Cruelty

(A Serbian Film)

On 16th February I co-presented a paper on the recent Serbian horror movie A Serbian Film with Beth Johnson, who lectures in English and Film at Keele. We presented the paper at the first monthly Keele cultural research seminar of 2011. The argument of our paper, ‘Ovo Je Srbija’, or This is Serbia, is that what A Serbian Film captures is the horror of the Milosevic years when Serbia was transformed into a kind of criminal state. In this respect we sought to root the cultural significance of A Serbian Film in a discussion of Serbian society. However, we also wanted to argue that A Serbian Film has significance beyond its immediate cultural context, and that in some ways it can be seen to illuminate fundamental human truths, such as those explained by Thomas Hobbes and Sigmund Freud, who both argued that human society is a kind of protective screen necessary to save us from ourselves.

In both Hobbes and Freud society is essential to save humans from themselves because we are essentially violent, sadistic, creatures who cannot be allowed to ever follow our natural inclinations. Hobbes sums up this natural inclination to violence in terms of a kind of ‘thirst for power’. He thought that humans are hard-wired to want to dominate each other and that the natural struggles between them can only ever be controlled by artificial social norms and values. Freud made a similar point in his classic essay, Civilization and its Discontents, but in his view what causes humans to tend towards violence is their fundamental death drive. Freud thought that we were all possessed by this death drive, or what he called thanatos, and that the aim of this destructive drive was the pursuit of peace and nothingness that we originally possess in utero.

The radical nature of Freud’s idea was, therefore, that we are all suicidal creatures who seek out violence and destruction because what we really desire is self-annihilation. Of course, we would not live very long if thanatos was everything and Freud was clear that the function of society, and eros, the life drive, was to defer the desire for death and project it into alternatives methods for expending life energy, such as consumer culture, addiction, and risk taking. I have already illustrated in an early post on the American war movie, The Hurt Locker, how this strategy works and I think that the idea that the recent American taste for war was in some ways an expression of the American death drive is a persuasive thesis. This is exactly what I argued in my paper on the American Death-Drive, which was published in the journal Fast Capitalism. In another paper, I also explored what the cultural studies writer Henry Giroux calls the American culture of cruelty.

However, what I think A Serbian Film illustrates is that the American death drive is just that, an American death drive, and that other nations, and other cultures also have similar thanatologies. The terrible abusive machine expressed in A Serbian Film is, therefore, a representation of the Serbian version of the death drive. But if this is the case, then, and there are multiple death drives, what we need is a kind of comparative cultural study of the death drive, which would say something about the differences between American torture porn movies such as Saw and an expression of the Serbian death drive such as A Serbian Film. The results of such a comparative study would be culturally significant because they could tell us about the ways different societies think about violence and destruction. In the above instance we may conclude that whereas A Serbian Film is essentially critical of the death drive and demonises the agents of violence, Saw moralises violence and seems to make it appear somehow necessary. The next move would then be to think about the cultural implications of such a conclusion for the societies in question. This is the kind of work we are looking to carry out in our future project on carnographic cultures, which will explore comparisons and contrasts between diverse cultures of cruelty.

Mark Featherstone

Thursday, 24 February 2011

A student blog: Keele World Sociology Society - Sexuality discussion

The Keele World Sociology Society has a number of events planned for this semester, which are open to all Keele students.

The first event of this semester focusses on 'sexualities' and here Alex, a committee member, reviews the evening:

"On the 15th of February Keele World Sociology Society met in conjunction with Keele Afro-Caribbean Society -a special event! - For an evening focused upon sexuality. We started the group with a talk from Glenn Hussey from Keele Life Sciences department, who talked on topic Sexuality. I think all the attendee's are in agreement that Glenn was a fantastic and hilarious speaker to whom we're eternally appreciative! :)

After an interesting question and feedback session with Glenn we moved onto an open debate which was very active and respectful, it went excellently well!

Thank you to all involved, including a cohort of people from Keele LGBT society who came to voice their opinions as LGBT people, and really added depth to the debate!

Several pertinent issues were raised in the debate which occurred on the 15th of February, at the Keele World Sociology Society Meeting, on the topic of sexuality. Initially, general comments were made that from a philosophical perspective, consent and the idea of sovereignty of the body is an unsustainable justification for sexual activity. The person who made this point cited illegal sexual activities which may be consenting, but are still prohibited. The idea of 'harm' was also raised, when can a sex act be socially/individually harmful? Leading on from this point attendee's raised the question of if or how individuals should defer to society on matters including sexuality. Should people submit themselves to social scrutiny and manage their behaviour based upon it? Or does the doctrine of individual liberty support sexual activity which is engaged in entirely without reference to social register, notwithstanding the harm principle.

Another interesting point was also how individualistic some people perceptions of what homosexuality meant/'what homosexuals are'. Many people would raise a point in the debate and another person would interject to state that their understanding of the issue is entirely wrong, despite the individuals who initially raised the point believing that what they said was a non-controversial fact. i.e. What activity qualifies as 'sexual'? Is sexuality conditioned by environment, genetic-if indeed there is such a clear divide! - or both combined? And are religious statements about homosexuality accurate/truthful, and, if so, should they carry as much weight as an empirical 'scientific' fact in the public arena?

Ultimately the debate was very fruitful due to wide participation, a civil debating style, and the fact the it was clear during the debate that many people had scrutinized their beliefs and re-formulated them owing to other peoples points of view!:)

As always, our events will occur on every Tuesday in room CBA1.103 at 6.30pm and of course we understand that not all people will want to be loud and forceful in their opinions; many people have a good time coming along and quietly observing too!

Thanks again to all involved, and thanks in advance to all those attending next week!"

The society can be contacted via email -

Monday, 7 February 2011

Accountable policing: two steps forward, one step back?

By Bill Dixon

Reconnecting the police and the public is at the centre of the Coalition government’s approach to criminal justice. One way of achieving this is through the election of police and crime commissioners to oversee local policing. Detailed proposals were set out in a government White Paper on Policing in the 21st Century published last year and elections are due to take place in 2012 under the terms of the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill currently going through Parliament.
Another, less obvious, attempt to make local policing more accountable was made last week with the launch of the Home Office’s crime-mapping website at Armed with detailed information about crime and anti-social behaviour in their neighbourhood people will be able to demand that the police take action. Or so the theory goes. Unable to cope with up to 18 million hits an hour, the site crashed and stayed down for most of its first day. Home Office and police officials rushed to its defence. The launch-day disaster was evidence of the public’s thirst for information about crime and disorder. It simply wasn’t possible to deal with this level of traffic whether people were in search of information about crime or tickets for Take That. Teething troubles were unfortunate but inevitable.
What few people asked was whether the maps millions of people were so eager to see were worth the pixels they were made of. Nor was it clear what police forces facing significant cuts in their budgets were supposed to do in response to a sudden surge in demand for their services. After all, as Egon Bittner put it many years ago, the core function of the police is to deal with things that ‘ought not to be happening and about which someone had better do something now!’
As people from Portsmouth to Preston discovered when their quiet residential streets were flagged up as hotspots of crime and disorder, the data on which the maps are based says much more about the way police record incidents than events on the ground. Living near a police station or a busy town centre entertainment district could turn your sedate residential street into a maelstrom of criminality at the click of a button. Angry householders and local councillors took to the airwaves complaining that they were innocent losers in a bizarre game of postcode lottery. Why were they, their streets, their neighbours, their children being misrepresented in this way? And what about the impact of this bad publicity on property prices?
Less well publicised was the fact that crime maps based exclusively on incidents reported to the police, and then recorded by them, don’t tell us very much about what is actually happening on the streets, and even less about how people behave behind closed doors. Findings from the British Crime Survey published by the Home Office tell us that rates of reporting for different types of crime vary widely. While nine out of ten car thefts come to the attention of the police, only around one in every three assaults are reported. What are often, if controversially, called victimless crimes, including drug use and prostitution, are even more problematic. Since neither drug dealers nor users, prostitutes nor punters make a habit of turning themselves in, these offences rarely come to light unless and until the police decide to do something about them. So a sudden upsurge in reported drug offences or soliciting is much more likely to be the fruits of a special police operation than an accurate reflection of any underlying increase in drug use or street prostitution.
Asked what local residents could do about local crime problems identified by the Home Office’s shiny new maps, one spokesperson - fearful perhaps of their impact on already overstretched police services – recommended neighbourhood watch. But here again, the Home Office’s own research suggests that this is likely to be a futile, even counter-productive, response. Apart from the fact that neighbourhood watches have always been easier to establish in relatively low crime areas where they are least needed, the available evidence indicates that setting up a watch has little impact on crime and may actually increase people’s feelings of insecurity and lead to more calls on police time.
In the same week as the Home Office launched its crime maps plans were also being discussed in Parliament to cut ‘police red-tape’ by removing the requirement that people stopped (and either searched or asked to account for themselves) on the street should be issued with a written record. Introduced as an important way of holding forces to account for the use of police powers – particularly against black, Asian and other minority ethnic groups in the wake of the Brixton ‘riots’ of 1981 and the murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993 - records are now seen as adding unnecessary bureaucratic complications to the fight against crime and disorder.
What does all this mean for police accountability? At its most basic it means that the Coalition government, following faithfully in the footsteps of its Labour predecessor, is playing to a gallery ministers seem to believe is desperate for more information about the dangers they face but indifferent to the means used to reduce them. In the process the government is missing the opportunity to make those same people less anxious by publicising the quite remarkable reduction in criminal victimisation that has taken place over the last 15 years (between 40 and 50 per cent according to the British Crime Survey). It also risks the gradual erosion of public confidence in the police if large numbers of entirely innocent people continue to be stopped in the street for reasons that seem (at least to them, their families and friends) to have more to do with who they are and how look than what they have done. To paraphrase the old American definition of a conservative as a liberal who’s been mugged; the danger is that a radical may increasingly come to be a citizen who’s been stopped and can’t find out why.
An accountable police force is part of the bedrock of a democratic society. Making the police more accountable is a laudable goal for any government. So it’s a great pity that this one seems more interested in technological wizardry and media headlines than either its own research or holding the police to account for the powers they exercise on our behalf.