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Popular Culture - Criminal Justice As "spectacle"

punishment crime films public

Any account of contemporary scholarship on crime and popular culture must come to terms with Michel Foucault's account of public executions. Historically, Foucault writes, executions were "More than an act of justice"; they were a "manifestation of force" (p. 50). Public executions functioned as public theater; they were always centrally about display, in particular the display of the majestic, awesome power of sovereignty as it was materialized on the body of the condemned (Gatrell). Execution without a public audience was, as a result, meaningless (Spierenburg).

Following Foucault, scholars such as David Garland suggest that images of criminal punishment help "shape the overarching culture and contribute to the generation and regeneration of its terms" (p. 193). Punishment, Garland notes, is a set of signifying practices that "teaches, clarifies, dramatizes and authoritatively enacts some of the most basic moral-political categories and distinctions which help shape our symbolic universe" (p. 194). Popular culture treatments of punishment teach us how to think about categories like intention, responsibility, and injury, and they model the socially appropriate ways of responding to injury done to us.

One example of a study of the pedagogy of punishment as it is portrayed in popular culture is Sarat's treatment of the films Dead Man Walking and Last Dance. These films, and others like them, focus on the appropriate fit between crime and punishment. As is typical of most representations of crime and criminal justice in popular culture, neither of these films explores the social structural factors that some believe must be addressed in responding to crime; instead they are preoccupied with the question of personal responsibility. To the extent they contain an explanation of crime and a justification for punishment it is to be located in the autonomous choices of particular agents.

While building dramatic tension around the question of whether their hero/heroine deserves the death penalty, these films convey a powerful double message: First, legal subjects can, and will, be held responsible for their acts; second, they can, and should, internalize and accept responsibility. Last Dance and Dead Man Walking suggest that there can be, and is, a tight linkage between crime and punishment such that those personally responsible for the former can be legitimately subject to the latter.

In the way they address questions of responsibility, Dead Man Walking and Last Dance, as well as much film and television drama about crime and criminal justice, enact a conservative cultural politics, a politics in which large political questions about what state killing does to our law, politics, and our culture are largely ignored. They leave "audiences clueless about systematic inequities and arbitrariness" of the criminal justice system (Shapiro, p. 1145) and, in so doing, support existing mechanisms of criminal punishment.

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