1 February, 2010Issue 11.2Politics & Society

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The Politics of Crime

Emma Kaufman

foerJeff Ferrell, Keith Hayward, Jock Young
Cultural Criminology: An Invitation
Sage, 2008
248 Pages
ISBN 978-1412931274

When ODB (Ol’ Dirty Bastard, né Russell Tyrone Jones) was tried for illegally wearing body armour, the prosecutor stood before the court and claimed that the late rapper ran “a street gang called the Wu Tang Clan”. Along with many Wu Tang fans, criminologists Jock Young, Keith Hayward, and Jeff Ferrell were incensed at the prosecutor’s blunt—and, for what it’s worth, inaccurate—conflation of race, criminality, and rap culture. So, motivated by a hundred iterations of that story, they penned Cultural Criminology.

From the Global War on Terror to Kate Moss’s penchant for cocaine, nothing is off limits in this sociological tour de force. And that is precisely the point: for Young, Hayward, and Ferrell, the defining problem of our morally panicked social order is its rigid boundaries, its desire to divide the world into crimes and norms, criminals and citizens, and perhaps, above all, legitimate and outlandish objects of academic enquiry. Cultural Criminology aims to erode each of these boundaries by asking why we talk and think about crime the way we do. The result is an impassioned, nostalgic, slightly sloppy, and ultimately compelling treatise on the (mis)representations of crime in contemporary culture.

Cultural Criminology takes shape around a series of unorthodox readings, each meant to underscore the contingent, socially constructed nature of crime. In their discussion of terrorism, for instance, the authors direct readers to videogames like Medal of Honor and America’s Army: Operations (the latter was launched, incidentally, as a “digital recruiting sergeant” by the US Army). A postmodernist jackpot, these virtual war zones blur the distinction between simulated and on-the-ground soldiering, foreshadowing—and if these authors are right, facilitating—the emergence of drone warfare. According to Young, Hayward, and Farrell, such virtual violence both feeds and flows from a culture of fear that creates, and then alienates, an enemy other.

This culture of fear provides the link between videogames and America’s staggering prison rates, which receive a similarly sharp review. True to their refrain, the authors contend that the penal trends which have earned the United States the highest incarceration rate in the world are as much a question of culture as one of economics or education, more traditional criminological terrain. For Young, Hayward, and Farrell, the American “penal archipelago” results from the way we discuss—and in doing so, define—criminality. In other words, prison is produced by the inhumanizing political rhetoric that frames criminals as monsters. It’s also the product of “codes of language, personal style, and self-presentation” that reinforce “a symbiotic relationship between prison and the ghetto”. Within this frame, The Wire and the Wu Tang Clan become key sites for the study of crime and its control.

For these criminologists, then, many of the most troubling misconceptions about crime begin with method. This is the underlying, if not the most gripping, message of the book. Departing from a British academic tradition characterized by its focus on policy and close ties to government, these authors aim to put film, music, graffiti, tabloids, and—perhaps above all—the Internet onto the criminological agenda. They are, in their own words, the “janitors” of criminology, “sweeping up and sorting through social discards—skinheads, terrorists, abusers, corrupters—other criminologists don’t care much to encounter.”

The result of this “janitorial service”, they hope, is a distinct mode of sociological enquiry known as “cultural criminology”. Intended to capture both the complexity of criminal acts and their multiple, contextual social meanings, this “cultural” method is, in practice, a largely critical exercise. Though it’s never entirely clear what “cultural criminology” is, the authors make plain that it’s neither labelling theory, according to which social institutions create deviance (too over-determined), deconstruction, which aims to reveal the fundamentally unstable meaning of crime (too insular), nor, of course, positivism, the tried-and-true bad guy of cultural critique.

While this rhetorical structure can at times feel less productive than embittered, it makes for a stunning review of the past 30 years of criminology, and produces some of the strongest moments of the book. Readers will grin as Young, Hayward, and Ferrell tear into positivist scholarship, that “sanitized dross” produced by “colleagues [who] only recognize structural analysis when encased in multi-syllabic syntax or statistical analysis.” Given the positivist climate of much contemporary work on crime, this writing is downright brave.

And of course, this ambiguity is principled. Good cultural critics that they are, the authors resist defining their method throughout. The closest they come is a stirring passage on the purpose of their work:

From the view of cultural criminology, there is a politics to every bloody knuckle – to knuckles bloodied amidst domestic violence or ethnic hatred, to knuckles bloodied for war or profit or entertainment, to knuckles bloodied in newspaper photos and internet clips.

Here, the real motivation for Cultural Criminology comes into focus. If these criminologists are out to rupture disciplinary boundaries, they are doing it to reroute discussions of crime toward the implicitly political questions that lie beneath: what crimes get counted? who counts as criminal? and what does it mean to be someone, or somewhere, against whom violence counts?

The breadth of these questions produces a book that is at once impressive and overwhelming in scope—it’s difficult to paraphrase just how freely and widely these authors scan contemporary culture. This cherry-picking enterprise, which might otherwise feel haphazard, coheres around the book’s grand style, which brings everything from Abu Ghraib to Russian reality television together under an “invitation” to join in its “outsider intellectual critique”.

This invitation is marked by metaphor and gaudy rhetorical flourish, right down to a six-point “manifesto” at the conclusion of the book. Jock Young has long been an expert in this arena, and his most famous phrases—”bulemic world”, “late modernity”—are put to evocative, if repetitive, use throughout. At times this self-referential, bloated writing can be frustrating (“In late modernity the tectonic plates of gross inequality and widespread social stigmatization continue to grind below the social surface”), leaving the reader wishing for more answers and less alliteration. At others, particularly when the inclusive politics of this “cultural” critique shine through, it’s inspiring.

Above all, though, the style of Cultural Criminology is nostalgic. This is at first slightly sad and then sort of profound. As the pages pass, one begins to wonder why it should feel so passé to care—about race and gender, picket lines and subcultures, Marxism and modes of resistance. In their current “evidence-based” form, the social sciences appear to have left all that anger—and with it, most of the critique—to certain pockets of the humanities. In a field like criminology, which is so explicitly and simultaneously concerned with violence, vulnerability, fear, and systematic oppression, the flat affect of contemporary scholarship is a real, political problem.

In all its overblown glory, then, this book succeeds, for it begs a series of regularly suppressed questions about why writing outside disciplinary and stylistic comfort zones should feel so, well, criminal.

Emma Kaufman is reading for an MPhil in Criminology at New College, Oxford. She is the executive editor of the Oxonian Review.