Friday, January 28, 2011

raoul eshelman

If someone asks us whom we identify with most in ethical terms, victims or perpetrators, the answer is usually easy. Victims – the weak and the oppressed – draw our natural sympathy and perpetrators our scorn and skepticism. The most universally despised perpetrator is the murderer, and worst of all is one that kills intentionally and in serial form. It is all the more peculiar, then, when a popular American TV series entirely ignores our normal ethical expectations and makes the worst imaginable kind of perpetrator – a serial killer – its hero. The series, of course, is Dexter, which has been running for five seasons on the cable channel Showtime. In spite of its gruesome subject matter – during the course of the first five seasons its hero murders at least a dozen people on screen in cold blood – the show has attracted a large following of mainstream viewers. These viewers, for their part, avidly follow the adventures of this sociopathic hero with his insatiable taste for ritual murder. Just how and why is this kind of identification possible?

For someone unfamiliar with the particulars of the show, the whole thing may first sound like a gross exercise in bad taste. Dexter, however, is an excellent example of a new type of ethical attitude in the narrative arts that prefers whole, active human perpetrators to passive, weak, or psychologically split-apart victims. I call this new kind of ethics in art performatist, for reasons that I’ll explain further below. To understand how this kind of ethics works, though, we first have to look at the details of the show more closely.

The show’s main conceit is that a sociopathic serial killer – someone categorically bad – can nonetheless do good by following a code stipulating that he kill other murderers. The show’s hero, Dexter Morgan, is an adopted child whose policeman father, Harry, discovers early on that his son is a sadistic sociopath with no empathy or inner feelings. To keep Dexter from killing indis­criminately, the father provides him with a moral codex stipulating that he kill only murderers who have escaped justice (“The Code of Harry”). Because Dexter, who works as forensic expert for blood splatter patterns in the Miami police force, has access to information and techniques allowing the doubt-free identification of murderers, his own standards of proof turn are more exacting than those of the law. Indeed, the main conflicts in the show have less to do with Dexter’s way of meting out justice (which, being related from his point of view, is not subject to much doubt or ethical scrutiny) but with his attempts to adjust his empty, asocial personality to the non-sociopaths with whom he must coexist in order to survive. Considerable dark humor is derived from this, especially since the story is told from Dexter’s perspective (he narrates from off camera).

In spite of his bloodthirsty need to kill, there are numerous things about Dexter that make him appealing. First, he doesn’t have any real inner life – as he constantly emphasizes, he feels complete emotional emptiness inside. The actual reason for his empty state, however, is that he is simply imitating someone else. As a child he was forced to witness the brutal murder-by-chain-saw of his mother. As a result, he became a sociopath condemned to repeat the deed in regard to others. Dexter is really part of a greater human mechanism that works by imitation (of both good and bad things). Dexter is trapped in a category that makes him evil, but it is not something that he chose of his own free will. By extension, we must assume that we are also all subject to the influence of such categories, though of course not in such an extreme and traumatizing way.

Secondly, Dexter follows a Code that makes it possible to do good even under these circumstances (by only killing other murderers). The parallels to religion are hard to overlook. Dexter at first adheres to the Code of Harry as if it were an absolute source of truth. Eventually, however, he discovers that Harry was indirectly responsible for the murder of his mother and had lied to him on numerous occasions. Even though it is not backed up by absolute fatherly Truth, Dexter nonetheless continues to use the Code – presumably because it still continues to work. In spite of being an avowed atheist, Dexter behaves like a religious believer who is skeptical but has not yet lost all faith in a higher Good that might eventually save him. Also, viewed logically (or categorically, as a philosopher might say), if Dexter applied the Code in absolute terms it would lead to the elimination of all other murderers. Dexter’s extreme categorical evilness thus also gives him the possibility of eliminating that evil category altogether. This sort of categorically justified metaphysical optimism – of being able to do good in spite of being caught up in the worst possible conditions – provides a major point of ethical identification.
A third reason that we can identify with Dexter is because of his complete separation from others. Dexter is unable to talk to anyone intimately without effectively confessing to murder. In fact, the only people who know his secret are his father and his victims (who of course never live to tell about it). Because the show is narrated by Dexter himself, we have the feeling of having access to the complete truth about his (admittedly empty) inner life. Much of the show plays on this emptiness in a comic way. For like ourselves (though in a much more extreme fashion) Dexter has to fake interest in social and emotional rituals to get by in life. He is, in effect, like every guy who has to be polite to his domineering future mother-in-law or get artificially excited about his girlfriend’s emotional whims. Even though Dexter’s separation from

society remains absolute, he remains just like us – in an extreme, comic way. And, whatever else he may be, Dexter remains his own man: he has his own unique mode of existence that remains inaccessible to the rest of society.

A fourth thing that makes Dexter appealing is the close connection between art and his asocial state. This doesn’t mean that the show tries to make murder and bloodshed beautiful or attractive (the actual murders are not portrayed in an especially appealing way). The only segment consistently linking Dexter with beauty can be found in the credits, which show him swatting a blood-filled mosquito, squeezing a blood-red orange, putting on a shroud-like undershirt, slicing meat etc. These sensually loaded, visually pleasing cues, which are in themselves harmless, remind us of Dexter’s habit of killing only evildoers, of draining them of blood, of shrouding them in plastic foil, of stabbing and slicing them up, etc. Once more, Dexter is revealed as someone participating in beautiful, pleasing, sensual things (something that is universally human and that we enjoy watching or doing too). This shared experience of beauty isn’t enough to “save” him or justify his acts, but it still provides us with a common, immediately perceptible source of identification. Thus although Dexter is doing something that we do not condone in formal ethical terms, his conduct appears as an extreme variant of normal human behavior rather than as a monstrous, completely alien activity.

Let me quickly summarize the four points outlined above. The first is that human behavior is governed by categories or frames in which we are trapped. Our task is to transcend those categories in order to achieve some kind of good or self-betterment. The second is that some form of religious guidance provides a positive way to go about doing this (even though the absolute truth of this guidance is open to doubt). Belief may be an illusion, but it is a socially productive one. Thirdly, we are deep down inside all whole, separated beings. Each of us has a separate, unique mode of being that exists on its own. And, because we do exist on our own as separated beings we have to adjust to others by way of imitation (by engaging in what philosophers call mimesis). In such a case, imitating actions is more important and effective than imitating words. Fourthly, we find the idea that human sensuality and the enjoyment of beauty are closely connected (even if their ethical consequences may be problematical). Beauty provides a kind of pleasurable free zone that exists prior to ethical problems. Our experiencing of that beauty represents a unifying human quality.
These features are not accidental attributes of this particular show. Taken together, they form the basic ingredients of what I would call a performatist ethics—an ethics that makes us identify with willfully acting, whole human perpetrators over passively reacting, psychologically split-apart victims (something that is typical of postmodernism). These are people that perform – that actively do things rather than wait for them to happen, and necessarily cross social and legal boundary lines. Furthermore, it is an ethics that emphasizes metaphysical optimism over metaphysical pessimism and beauty and sensuality over ugliness and suffering. It’s not possible here to go into the larger historical reasons why this is happening or even give more examples. What is certain, however, is that Dexter is part of a broader development that we are going to see much more of in the near future.

raoul eshelman

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