The emergence of the social sciences, established in the mid to late nineteenth-century, had a substantial bearing on how researchers, academics, and eventually the general public thought about criminal behavior. Using Modernism as a lens, Stephen Brauer, examines how these disciplines shaped Americans’ understanding of criminality in the twentieth-century and how it provides a new way to think about culture, social norms, and ultimately, laws. In theory, laws act as articulations and codifications of a community’s beliefs, values, and principles. By breaking laws, criminals help us reinforce social norms by providing the opportunity to affirm what is believed to be right. By operating outside the bounds of acceptable behavior, the criminal serves as a useful figure to understand what is at stake in the culture, what the central issues of that culture might be, and what the fears and anxieties are. Criminality serves as a lens through which we can read ourselves and how the criminal operates as a cultural figure signifies the things we are negotiating in our lives and in our communities. Brauer focuses on two main concepts, central to the very concept of Modernism, to explore criminality: contingency, the idea that the individual might not be in control of their own deviance, and agency, the notion that the criminal makes a conscious choice to use crime as a means of economic success. The figure of the criminal is a powerful one and is key to exploring American twentieth-century culture. This book would be of interest to students and scholars in criminology, sociology, cultural studies, literary studies, history, and many others.
Stephen Brauer is associate professor of English at St. John Fisher College.
Introduction: The Cultural Work of American Crime Narratives
Chapter 1: The Face of Crime, a Killer Body: Imagining the Criminal Type
Chapter 2: “I Had to Have Her, If I Hung for It”: Impulse, Repression, and Repetition Compulsion
Chapter 3: Reforming the “Bad” Boy: Juvenile Delinquency, Intervention, and Choice
Chapter 4: The Criminal as Self-Made Man
Conclusion: The Crime Narrative in Late Capitalism
A fascinating book that traces the lasting impacts of the social sciences on contemporary understandings of crime and criminality. Using a case-study style, Bauer shows the interweaving of scholarly work in the social sciences - mainly criminal anthropology, psychology, and sociology - with American cultural production and the criminal justice system. Academic arguments on the biological, psychological or socio-economic bases of criminal activity are analyzed as manifest in a wide range of criminal trials and cultural artifacts from Dick Tracy and The Great Gatsby to New Jack City and The Wire. The result is a compelling read that highlights the modernist roots of what it means to be criminal.
Brauer frames his work using the organizing principle of modernity—the emphasis on rationality and science to understand society. He meticulously describes four general schools of thought that emerged over the last 150 years to explain criminal behavior. Media depictions still use aspects of these explanations, sometimes in combination, to yield common, though perhaps incomplete, accounts of criminal behavior. Recommended. Advanced undergraduates through faculty.