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The Criminal Humanities

An Introduction


Edited By Mike Arntfield and Marcel Danesi

This groundbreaking anthology examines the phenomenon of crime and our historical understanding – and misunderstanding – of the criminal mind through the lens of the humanities, unpacking foundational concepts in criminology and criminal investigative analysis through disciplines such as the visual arts, cultural studies, religious studies, and comparative literature. Edited by two key figures in this burgeoning field who are also pre-eminent experts in both forensic semiotics and literary criminology, this book breathes new life into the humanities disciplines by using them as a collective locus for the study of everything from serial homicide, sexual disorders, and police recruiting and corruption to the epistemology of criminal insanity. Using a multidisciplinary framework that traverses myriad pedagogies and invokes a number of methodologies, this anthology boasts chapters written by some of the world’s key scholars working at the crossroads of crime, media, and culture as broadly defined.
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Introduction: Rise of the Criminal Humanist

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Introduction: Rise of the Criminal Humanist


In the fall of 2009, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art became an unlikely crime scene. More accurately, it became several crime scenes, with some of the most seasoned and decorated detectives with the New York Police Department (NYPD) descending on the gallery to ply their trade and vigorously scan for clues. It was not, however, some elaborate art theft as one might have suspected upon seeing cops pile into the unlikely location. The crimes under investigation were, in fact, slightly more obscure—the quintessence of cold cases. For starters, there was the robbery depicted in the 1599 oil on canvas painting, The Calling of St. Matthew to be solved—new leads to be gleaned from the brush strokes as seen through the jaundiced eye of the grizzled police veteran, rather than the art historian. Other NYPD investigators tried their hand at conducting a psychological profile of John Singer Sargeant’s eponymous Madame X based on his 1884 portrait of the infamous Paris socialite. Murders, burglaries, and sexual assaults depicted in paintings dating to the sixteenth-century rounded out the other crime scenes for examination, all of which were scoured for new investigative leads—insights previously overlooked into the origins and motives of the malevolent entities and actions captured on canvass over the centuries.

After being placed into “surveillance teams” and assigned a particular work of art to analyze, the officers at the Met were participants in a groundbreaking program spearheaded by Manhattan art historian Amy Herman. The project required that criminal investigators use paintings produced during the Renaissance and onward as narratives that could instruct the police in new ways of approaching evidence and making probative investigative connections—the visual arts as loci for historicizing and contextualizing the ← 1 | 2 → antecedents of contemporary criminal investigation techniques. The exhibits were additionally used as training materials to help abate what is frequently derided as police “tunnel vision,” or a subjective and unilateral approach to processing visual information, and to instead teach cops to see what is not necessarily in front of them—how their instincts, and even their experience, can sometimes betray them. The exercise was more than just academic navel gazing; to get the NYPD to participate in such an initiative and see such an enthusiastic turnout meant that there had to be some demonstrable value to such a radical initiative. Indeed there was.

Feedback later provided by officers hailing from a wide array of precincts and an equally wide array of operational units—from vice and narcotics to homicide and uniformed patrol—suggested that the art analysis program improved both their ability to scan for and process complex and sometimes contradictory information, as well as how to cogently articulate and communicate these same findings to their peers (Hirschfeld, 2009). The NYPD officers who participated in Herman’s trial initiative likely were not aware of it, but they were possibly the first law enforcement iteration of a much larger interdisciplinary movement towards narrative—literature, poetry, prose, painting—as a teaching tool in what has historically been a “closed” profession not generally amenable to academic collaboration. Several blocks from Herman’s exhibit at the Met, however, on the campus of Columbia University, that same idea had taken hold years earlier with the founding of America’s flagship program in narrative-based medicine—an area of study and specialization that has since become synonymous with what is known as the medical humanities.

Now a well-established and respected pedagogical philosophy and paradigm for ongoing professional development, the medical humanities appropriately describe the intersection of medicine—both the practice of medicine and medical education—and the humanities as broadly defined. This includes how texts across myriad media—written works of fiction, literary non-fiction, theatre, art, film, folklore and so forth—can be used as didactic narratives to teach current and aspiring physicians and clinicians about life, death, disease, and the human experience of illness not told in any conventional textbook. There are a proliferating number of monographs, conferences, and journals committed to this very subject, the public face of the movement being Dr. Rita Charon (2008) and her graduate program in narrative medicine at Columbia University, and with her work building on an earlier anthology edited by Greenlagh and Hurwitz (1999) titled Narrative Based Medicine. Yet, few if any professions outside of medicine have sought to engage with the humanities and embrace historical texts with the same prescience as those in healthcare ← 2 | 3 → have. With the NYPD as the early adopters—and subsequent advocates—of using artwork for the purposes of criminal investigative analysis, it is law enforcement and the discipline of criminology that are—as much if not more so than medicine—actually best suited for such a marriage with the humanities. Remarkably, however, until now, no such covenant has been proposed. With this anthology, the criminal humanities is officially conceived. With this anthology, the criminal humanist now emerges as a scholar-practitioner who epitomizes the burgeoning global relevance of interdisciplinarity.

Just as the medical humanities conjoin medicine with literature as a progressive interdisciplinary pairing, it is the criminal humanities—the overlaying of literature and narrative on to the study of criminals and their victims, the evolution of the criminal justice system, and the epistemology of punishment and deterrence—that concerns this book as the first serious treatise on the matter. The criminal humanities, like the medical humanities, also naturally require the participation of practitioners and the contributions of those with field experience as a matter of credibility—they cannot be deployed from the sterilized confines of the ivory tower alone. This is also, somewhat regrettably, in part what has led the criminal humanities—an umbrella term that this anthology will collectively propose is an adjunct of what Arntfield (2016) calls literary criminology—to having thus far failed to launch. There are a few reasons why; there are a few reasons why the value of recognizing texts and salient works of narrative literature, regardless of medium, in moderating broader socio-legal, cultural, and even legislative debates about crime, deviance, punishment, and deterrence have heretofore gone unnoticed.

For instance, a generalization might defensibly be made about a number of professions that fall within the spectrum of the criminal justice system, criminalistics, and law enforcement. The nature of these generalizations is such that, due to the management styles and subcultures inherent to many of these professions, they are naturally incongruous and incompatible with not only literary criminology but also anything earnestly literary. Unlike their peers in medicine and healthcare, for example, there is comparatively little creative license or non-linear thinking that is permissible within vocations like policing, forensic investigative work, and corrections—all of them defined, for the most part, by occupational subcultures whose zeitgeists are still awkwardly rooted in a nineteenth-century working class paramilitarism and anti-intellectualism. Thus, while the physician or the clinician has historically proven able and willing—and is in fact expected in many cases—to double as an educator, whether public intellectual and author or by holding a professorial appointment at a medical school, and is thus empowered to independently spearhead initiatives that amount to disruptive innovation ← 3 | 4 → within their field, criminological occupations have cultures and management regimes that deter or in some cases outright prohibit such secondary activities. In many cases, the organizational regimentation and punitive structure of police and correctional organizations actually deters innovation, imagination, and critical thinking altogether. This often includes the imposition of elaborate disincentives in the way of disguised discipline to help ensure that engagement with the humanities and looking to the intelligentsia for outside perspectives is officially verboten.

With few exceptions, municipal policing in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom represents the oldest unchanged institutional model in the Western world, dating to Sir Robert Peel’s Metropolitan Police Act of 1829. This includes a centralized command and control structure that enables police managers to monitor the activities of subordinates outside of the workplace, as well as restrict their leisure and social activities (Emsley & Shpayer-Makov, 2006). Given that officers with the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) and countless other law enforcement agencies were actually forbidden, whether by official policy or vernacular custom, to live in unmarried, common-law relationships until the late 1950s (Buntin, 2010), it should come as no surprise that there has historically been little appetite to take more radical steps to reinvent the wheel and challenge institutional traditions, both written and unwritten. Thus, it goes without saying that such environments are not generally conducive to independent scholarship or innovation—that the conditions have been less than optimal for the value of the criminal humanities to be appropriately recognized and taught.

But this is in part what made Amy Herman’s collaboration with the NYPD so groundbreaking, and why a sea change is currently underway in terms of how scholarship on crime and violence is defined and executed. Suffice it to say, it has been a long and circuitous road to get to where we are now. It is a time and place where the criminal humanist conjoins theory and practice and, in simultaneously straddling both the criminal justice system and the humanities, restores overdue confidence in and relevance to both. As seen with the reluctant but later responsive participation of the NYPD—the largest police department in North America—in the initiative at the Met, the creative engine for interdisciplinarity in criminal investigative work therefore needs to come from the outside-in, and along a horizontal as opposed to a vertical axis. It is in part the objective of this book to do just that: to simultaneously educate and to disrupt.

The criminal humanities quite simply establish the humanities as a kaleidoscope of scholarly traditions, disciplines, theories, and methods that, in whole or in part, are the most cogent inroad to the critical study of criminal ← 4 | 5 → offending, criminal investigation, deviance, and penology, as well as how humans have defined justice over our history. The criminal humanities question how using artistic, literary, and multimedia texts, situations, and other products of the strictly non-investigative world as vehicles for exploring long-standing social and procedural issues of interest to both academia and the general public can allow for increased collaboration not only between the discrete humanities disciplines, but also between academics and practitioners. Positioned at the crossroads of the forensic and the artistic, the literal and the literary, the criminal humanities principally encompass the role of narrative, critical thought, and other comparative methods as the decoder rings with which to contextualize the study of crime. This includes a critical exploration of the connection between writing, painting, film and television production, music, folklore, religious symbols and rites, architecture and comparative literature, traditional electronic media, the Internet, and other domains of popular culture, and how they have influenced both perceptions and definitions of criminality. The synergy that exists between real crime and imagined criminality as manifesting itself through these mediated representations and interconnections ensures that, as one part cultural hermeneutics and one part literary criticism, the criminal humanities now rest at the center of academe’s increasingly focused and collective movement towards interdisciplinary collaboration, public engagement, and, most importantly, knowledge mobilization.

This anthology is the first compendium of essays committed exclusively to the study of the criminal humanities, as well as the first book in an ongoing series of titles committed exclusively to the study of the criminal humanities and what Danesi (2013) calls forensic semiotics—the deciphering of archetypal symbols with respect to criminal activity and criminal organizations. Offered here are a total of ten original works reflecting a breadth of methods and styles and of varying length, all of which will to varying degrees appeal to an equally wide breadth of readers. These include readers at the undergraduate, graduate, and post-graduate levels, as well as faculty members, practitioners working in the field, and general interest readers. These essays are authored by a wide array of scholar-practitioners who represent the vanguard of new applied pedagogies and publicly relevant research methodologies alike. Some of these scholars are new and emerging experts, others are prolific contributors to academic life and globally recognized leaders in their fields. Some of these essays are replete with secondary source materials and build on what is already innovative and polemical scholarship, while others represent the equally polemical breaking of new ground and reflect primary source original research and critical thought. While special consideration has ← 5 | 6 → been given to preserving the interdisciplinary spirit of the criminal humanities and not limiting the chapters herein to any specific or exclusive area of study, for the purposes of illustrating the manner with which “traditional” humanities disciplines can be seamlessly overlaid on to the scholarship and investigation of crime this anthology has been organized into four discrete modules. Each of these modules, or parts, is labeled, largely for ease of navigation and quick reference, according to those existing humanities disciplines or topics are most explicitly engaged by the chapters contained therein.

Part I of this anthology, containing chapters one through three, is comprised of original essays that examine crime and deviance through the lens of language and literary studies. James Johnston’s essay conducts a discourse analysis of the last words of the criminally condemned in Thomas Nashe’s The Unfortunate Traveller—an iconic text for which the preferred reading has, until now, seldom if ever been criminological in nature. It also offers contemporary scholars of crime and language alike a window into representations and popular understandings of criminality during the Early Modern Period. Lee Mellor’s essay examines how criminal authenticity is reified through the use of specific lyrical structures in hip hop music, specifically “gangsta rap” from its origins in the mid-1980s. This includes an overview of how lyrical content can be disaggregated into overtures that reflect symbolic and non-symbolic victimization, as well as depictions of crime victims as both “canvasses” and “soapboxes” that form part of a larger discourse system and urban patois. Yair Neuman, Yochai Cohen, and James Knoll’s essay, combining corpus linguistics and more empirical methods with the type of discourse analysis and comparative methods used in the first two essays, posits clear forensic applications of the criminal humanities by examining a psychological phenomenon known as “splitting” in mass murders and how diagnostic criteria can be gleaned through the written communiqués of killers.

Part II of this anthology will appeal predominantly to scholars of film, television, and communication studies, as well as practitioners working in these areas. This module features two lengthy and incisive essays that engage media texts as vehicles for not only disseminating information—and misinformation—with respect to criminal offending, but also as mechanisms for calibrating public responses to specific crimes and popular representations of criminals. Joan Swart’s essay examines the accuracy of depictions of psychopaths in film and television by overlaying detailed analyses of well-known villains and antagonists in popular culture on to the accredited clinic and forensic literature. Trevor Grant’s essay examines crime as a phenomenon experienced by documentary filmmakers through the camera’s ken, including the role of the true crime documentarian as both a culture maker and raconteur who ← 6 | 7 → must, when negotiating between the expository and performative categories of documentary, balance both creative and moral obligations.

Part III, containing chapters six through eight, broadly engages a disparity of humanities disciplines, and can be best summarized as a module that is geared towards scholarship in cultural and religious studies. While the former is frequently drawn on during interdisciplinary discussions on the nature of crime, the latter is seldom taught in the context of criminal offending, deviance, and criminogenesis despite sharing some rather salient points of historical convergence. The essay by Sonia Halpern, for instance, examines through both religious and ethnographic lenses the seldom discussed intersection of Judaism and criminal offending from two discrete sociohistorical viewpoints. The chapter also includes a candid look at the experience of Jewish police officers on one hand, and the experience of Jewish offenders and prison inmates on the other—an essay that should be of particular interest not only to scholars of religion, but also to law enforcement recruiters and penitentiary officials alike. The second essay in this module, authored by both DJ Williams and John Edgar Browning, examines how forensic professionals can benefit from scholarship in vampire studies, including how cultural responses to the vampire mythos dating back to Stoker’s original 1897 Dracula through to more recent iterations have engendered a movement in real vampirism. The emergence of the real vampire and its implications with respect to criminal investigative analysis and behavioral profiling represents one of the more practical applications of literary criminology and traditional ethnographic work, with both authors having spent considerable in the field learning the customs of this microculture. The last essay in this module is authored by Lee Mellor, Vivek Venkatesh, Jason Wallin and Tieja Thomas and examines the hysteria surrounding the Internet meme known only as Slender Man—a digitally created ghoul that has been interpreted by some as a real entity borne of the Web and who has apparently inspired at least one act of sacrificial violence. The essay, which broadly connects corpus linguistics, hermeneutics, and forensic psychology with both metaphysics and ontology raises timely and probative questions about how the criminal justice system will respond to codifying sanity as new angels and demons emerge from the only reality many people know—social media.

Lastly, Part IV of this anthology will appeal to a wide range of scholars, practitioners, and general interest lay readers who will find two essays that stake new territory for the study of criminal offending, the criminal mind, and the aesthetic treatments of criminality in both the visual arts and museum studies. The penultimate chapter in this anthology by Victoria Bigliardi postulates the existence of an innate “curator mind” among criminal investigators—the ← 7 | 8 → ability to apply narrative, metaphor, and forensic semiotics the intepretation of crime scenes in much the same way the museum curator assembles collections to (re)create tableaus of historic events. Lastly, this module—and the anthology proper—is punctuated with an essay by Bethany Walters and Eric Hickey which meticulously details the evolution of artistic representations of crime, punishment, violence, and victims in the visual arts, from sculpture to painting and all points in between.

There are a number of advantages to using a multi-authored text to establish a beachhead for such a new and notable branch of both criminology and the humanities—the first and defintive text to wed the study of crime with the expansive array of conceptual and comparative-based disciplines covered here. These advantages are both strategic and pedagogical. For one, it would be nearly impossible for a single author to speak credibly to the extensive spectrum of subject matters discussed with great expertise here. Second, in order to provide a realistic and equitable preview of what future scholarship in the criminal humanities might hold, a disparity of voices reflecting varying years of experience have been consolidated in one place—the pages of this text—to provide a varied and balanced overview of what the criminal humanities mean to them. After reviewing the contents of this anthology, whether in whole or in part based on areas of interest, the reader will no doubt have developed his or her own definition—and accompanying expectations—of what the criminal humanities are or are not. And so here it begins, for better or worse.


Arntfield, Michael. Gothic Forensics: Criminal Investigative Procedure in Victorian Horror & Mystery. New York: Palgrave-Macmillan. 2016.

Buntin, John. L. A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City. New York: Broadway Books. 2010.

Charon, Rita. Narrative Medicine: Honoring the Stories of Illness. New York: Oxford University Press. 2008.

Danesi, Marcel. Signs of Crime: Introducing Forensic Semiotics. Berlin: De-Gruyter. 2013.

Emsley, Clive & Haia Shpayer-Makov (Eds.) Police Detectives in History, 1750–1950. Burlington, VT: Ashgate. 2006.

Greenlagh, Trisha & Hurwitz, Brian (Eds.) Narrative Based Medicine: Dialogue & Discourse in Clinical Practice. London: BMJ Books. 1998.

Hirschfeld, Neil. “Teaching Cops to See.” Smithsonian Magazine. Online edition. October 2009.