Professor Lisa Downing’s talk marked the close of the University of Birmingham’s first six-day long literary festival. The controversial subject of murder was broached by Professor Downing through the medium of her much discussed book The Subject of Murder, released in March of this year. The event took the form of a reading from Professor Downing’s book, with explanations along the way, and questions from the audience closing the event.
The ideas discussed in the book conveyed many ideas about murders and their depiction in the media that I would previously not have considered. Yet, when brought up, such ideas make perfect sense with reference to the way in which we view murderers and their crimes. Downing opened the talk with the idea of murderers as being “immortalized”, in the glamorisation of their crimes through their representation in the media. Downing discussed how there is something intrinsically “exceptional” about murderers, so much so that they almost attain a “quasi-celebrity status”, and become an object of fascination, due to the hideous, yet strangely extraordinary acts they commit.
Downing also made reference to the idea of murderers needing to be understood in gender terms, where, quite blatantly and stereotypically, the killer is a white male, and the victim, a vulnerable female. Downing claimed that, when discussing murders, “only men are allowed to be transcendent, while women are imminent”, portraying the idea of men as “the subject of exception” when it comes to murder. She explained that men attain a somewhat higher status through the act of murder, where women are demoted, in their role as victim.
A key part of Downing’s talk aligned murderers with European ideas of beauty and art in the 18th century, right through to the 20th century. As I have previously stated, it is a way to explore the nature and representation of murderers that I would personally never have considered, yet the explanation perfectly explains our public perception of murderers as these omniscient figures, of whom we are made aware through their horrendous crimes against humanity. The alignment of a murderer, a traditional figure of evil and condemnation, and the idea of decadent beauty and artistry at first left me slightly uneasy and sceptical. However, Downing explained that the murderer parallels the artist in the sense that they are exempt from normal morality. An artist is allowed to create a morally or socially controversial painting in the name of art, where a murderer commits a heinous act outside of accepted social boundaries.
She also discussed the idea, or rather the fantasy, of murderers, that an act of destruction is close to an act of creation, giving the murderer an elevated view of themselves in moral terms. Downing thus went on to provide a point of comparison in the aesthetic alignment of a murderer with an artist, using the example of a thief, a small-time criminal. She stated that a thief heralds a lack of artistic interest; their crime is merely petty and pathetic; it has no deeper connotations. A murderer on the other hand, would be, somewhat wrongly, “elevated in aesthetic value”, for the sheer depth of their crime, as opposed to the relatively miniscule impact a thief leaves in his wake.
Downing also interestingly deliberated the notion of the murderer as beast, an idea I could personally understand a little more than her alignment of a murder to ideals of beauty. This concept was explained in reference to scientific ideas of the 19th century. Downing explained the ideas of physiognomy, and the notion that the essence of a murderer can be read in his or her face, suggesting a “reliance upon the body as a map to an individual’s nature”. Downing of course then addressed the often discussed idea of male sexuality, that murder is simply the male expression of untamed natural urges, that have not yet been constrained by the bounds of marriage.
A thoroughly intriguing and thought-provoking talk on a highly controversial and tentative topic, Professor Lisa Downing and her book provided me with some interesting ideas on the different ways in which murderers are represented, and can be explained.
By Amy Hunt