Document Type


Publication Date

Winter 3-2009

Journal / Book Title

Cultural Critique


She loved accidents: any mention of an animal run over, a man cut to pieces by a train, was bound to make her rush to the spot. The spectacle of the wounded body has always had its lurid attractions. Coverage of serial killings and graphic accounts of brutal murders by various media is part of our “spectacular” culture fascinated by violence and brutality. The television is often the site where private desire and public fantasy meet, and where the fascination regarding dangerous offenders is initiated and nurtured (Knox, 17–18; Lesser). The convening of the public around scenes of violence represents what Mark Seltzer terms the “wound culture,” a lethal space in which the public interest in scars and mutilated and opened bodies constitutes a collective fascination with the unbearable aspects of human life. Although television news coverage reports violence and atrocities of all kinds, movies are the main medium through which dangerous individuals are presented to the public. The serial killer and psychopathic representations of unexplained violence can be found in such films as Friday the 13th, Halloween, Cape Fear, The Silence of the Lambs, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Sharrett; Schmid). The emphasis on the hidden danger of the psychopath has replaced the Western, with its more clear-cut images of the dangerous individual, as the most popular genre of film related to the body and to representations of bodily violence in our culture (Corkin). In effect, current horror movies, and their associated prequels and sequels, use an efficient mixture of gore and frightening scenes of psychopaths preying on the innocent that help fosters the socially constructed subjectivity of the dangerous individual (Schneider; Hare 1993, 25, 35–36, 85, 140, 178). In response to (and also in reaction against) the pervasive discourse of the monstrous and of human monsters as caricatures of madness and danger, the objective of this paper is twofold: first, to conduct a critical, Foucauldian analysis of the psychopath, based on a discursive analysis of psychiatric descriptions of psychopathy, and second, to deconstruct the mythic figure of the psychopath and therefore to shed light on the relationship between psychiatric power and the construction of so-called monsters and psychopaths. Our argument is that the construction of the psychopath, a historically ill-defined concept (Gough; Sutherland 1950b; Cleckley; Hare 1993), as the main figure of modern monstrosity, involves the elaboration of a technical-knowledge system that is capable of characterizing anyone who deviates from the norm as dangerous to persons and to society (Movahedi; Sutherland 1950a; Hare 1993, chapter 7). To be sure, scientific research has been carried out on the dangerous individual in captivity (Verschuere, Crombez, De Clercq, and Koster; Glueck, 66–70; Hare 1993), thereby linking psychopathy with biological dangerousness. But few have looked at psychopathy from a critical and discursive standpoint. That is, in this essay we examine the way in which the creation of monsters in an earlier age gave way to the scientific inquiry into the character of the dangerous individual in the modern age, creating what Michel Foucault has called a “system of thought” (Foucault 1994, 5–10). Most studies of psychopathy have viewed it as a medical problem (Harris, Skilling, and Rice; Black; Siever; Reid; Skodol), a philosophical problem of evil and responsibility (Benn; Ciocchetti; Stein), or as an individual problem, in some cases, with societal ramifications (Hare 1993; Black; Stout; Samenow). But the medical, philosophic, individual, and social studies of psychopathy have all refrained from characterizing psychopathy as part of a cultural matrix that heightens the public’s sense of the fear of criminality, the fear of the unknown, the fear of the unfamiliar, and the fear of cultural pollution (Hare 1993; Stout; Magid and McKelvey; Black; Harris, Skilling, and Rice, 200–201). Indeed, the study of psychopathy as a clinical reality remains reliant on two strands of thought that explicitly reject cultural, historical, philosophic, and linguistic analyses: (1) a belief that criminals choose to commit crimes, despite economic, personal, and psychological factors that may or may not influence their choices; and (2) a belief in scientific progress that relies on continuous conceptual changes regarding what constitutes behavioral abnormalities and...


DOI: 10.1353/cul.0.0037

Published Citation

Federman, Cary, Dave Holmes, and Jean Daniel Jacob. "Deconstructing the psychopath: A critical discursive analysis." Cultural Critique 72 (2009): 36-65. Harvard