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The Dark ‘Flâneur’: Re-theorising Serial Murder through the Ultra-Realist Lens

(Lynes et al., 2018)

Recently Samuel Little pleaded guilty to the murder of a woman in Texas dating back to 1994 (NBC News, 2018). The offender, already serving a lengthy sentence for previous murders which bestowed upon him the title of ‘serial killer’ has now become arguably the United States most prolific serial murderer in its short history.

The Dark Flaneur 1200x450 - Man in silhouette

At the time of writing he has a confirmed victim tally totalling thirty four, however he claims to have a total of ninety victims accountable to him over a period of four decades. It has long been understood that those who commit serial murder have a tendency to inflate the amount of victims they have accumulated during their repugnant ‘careers’ alongside the necessity for criminologists studying the offenders to at the very least be sceptical and dubious of their claims.

However, if the accumulated victims professed are to be believed Little has murdered more of society’s most vulnerable than Gary Ridgway (49 victims confirmed though he claims a total of 71), Ted Bundy (30 victims) or John Wayne Gacy (33 victims).This leads us to question, how a transient physical labourer whom was once noted as an aspiring and promising boxer came to hold the grizzly and repugnant title of the United States most prolific killer?

The answer, we argue, is to be found not through the conventional ways we study instances of serial murder. The medical-psychological tradition has long been perceived as outdated and dubious (Lynes et al, 2018). Alternatively the structural tradition offers valuable insights into the phenomenon but its concentration upon victims, whilst valuable, intentionally guides us away from the narrative of the offender (Wilson, 2009).

However, such a process lends itself to a more nuanced study, for it offers a tool from which we can analyse the structural implications of society and how they contributed to those victims to unfortunately being designated a victim status. Utilising the perspective around society’s structures implicate on such heinous crimes yet refocusing on the offender however may yield a more beneficial methodology.

Recently we utilised this method for a case study of Levi Bellfield. Such an approach allowed us to heed the warning of Shanafelt and Pino (2013) whom suggested in the criminological study of serial killers is to advance it must utilize the conceptual tools provided by cognate fields. Utilising the literary concept of the Flâneur as a vehicle to proposition such an advance we propose the following.

Wilson (2012:18) puts forth a dataset which starkly displays the relationship between social class and employment within the context of serial murder. The majority of which (with the rare exception of individuals such as Nilsen, Norris and Shipman whom were firmly lower middle to middle class) held menial and insecure employment if any. We propose that the correlation between serial murderers whom are situated in the lower levels of the socioeconomic strata and the increase in offences of this type coincide significantly with the rise of neoliberal capitalism and the systematic decimation of traditional industries. Such decimation was replaced with an economies underpinned through a service economy.

The transition to a market economy has not only drastically reoriented social life in a purely economic fashion perhaps more importantly in the case of this discussion, it has also reoriented the way in which society is structured on a physical level (Lynes et al., 2018). The flâneur in the traditional sense wandered the streets during the dawn of consumer capitalism as we now know it (Benjamin, quoted in Gilloch, 2005). However, the arcades in which they traversed morphed in line with the economic upheaval. No longer was the urban world an area in which the flâneur could move freely, he could no longer fall back into the shadows and be the grey man. This alienation however was not solely to the primarily male archetype. Such a transitory period in which the onset of non-spaces proliferated coincided with the liberation of women thus the flâneuse was born (Lynes et al., 2018).

The flâneuse was also detrimentally implicated via the onset of the non-place. Whilst they did not transverse the Parisian cobbles they now pounded the shimmering floors of department stores and entered the grey space to leave the 21st century arcades, or as we refer to them, the neo-arcades. This transitionary area effectively became the hunting ground of the now anomic flâneur whom, unable to attain economic supremacy or ‘feed’ his traditional flâneur due to the constraints of the non-place, sought to reaffirm his cultural capital in more deviant ways.

As the flâneuse grew so did the sexualisation of the female form, with consumer culture often presenting women as an object, a consumer product. During this re-orientation of both the physical world and the consumer objectives the Flâneur, whom in traditional writings had the ‘casual eye of the stroller with the purposeful gaze of the detective’ (Rignall, 1992) and as Benjamin, (quoted in Gilloch, 2005: 46) states ‘the flâneur is perhaps that of the hunter’, became the dark flâneur. Whilst he could not transition though the streets seamlessly as before, the arterial road networks had flourished and vehicles became a new way in which to be the ‘grey man’.

The flâneuse, now objectified by the dark flâneur as a way to re-orientate their capital became the hunted in the liminal margins (Nes and Nguyen, 2009). The flâneur had become the hunter, the flâneuse became the hunted. For example, it was noted in a recent news piece on Little that many of the women whom he killed were poor and addicted to drugs, alcohol, or both – a group of people that often are not reported missing for weeks and sometimes receive fewer investigative resources than others (Wilson, 2009). They are the flâneuse which existed solely within the liminal space. Little also recounted how he searched for, and picked up, victims from bars, nightclubs and along the streets (it is important to note that Levi Bellfield - the subject our new research paper - would drug and sexually assault women whilst working as a bouncer and would later target and attack women who walked alone on the streets of London (Lynes et al, 2018).

For the flâneuse, crowded locations, especially the modern retail orientated landscape (Hayward, 2004: 29), provide a valid excuse to wander around the streets, as well as a sense of security, ‘but it’s also a component of flânerie: to see and to be seen’ (Nes and Nguyen, 2009: 6). In their observations of four towns, Nes and Nguyen (2009) found no gender differences until the shops were closed. ‘Suddenly the flâneuses are abandoning streets. Women are using the street as corridors and not as a destination itself’ (Nes and Nguyen, 2009: 6). Crucially, Hayward (2004: 29) highlights the ‘poisoned chalice’ of the flâneuse in relation to consumer culture, utilizing Laermans’ (1993: 95) observation that the emergence of retail outlets facilitated social spaces for women to meet without the ‘traditional fear’ of violent men. As Benjamin (1973: 224) highlights in his poem ‘Delphine et Hippolyte’, Baudelaire condemns women as ‘lamentable victims’, bound for hell (Wolff, 1985). Such disdainful perspectives of women are also highlighted via Wolff (1985) in Baudelaire’s (1964) ‘The Painter of Modern Life’ in which prostitutes are compared to an anthill.

For the Dark Flâneur, who relishes the anonymity of the crowd, the dark flâneur instead uses such obscurity as a practical means to hunt for suitable prey. It is in this moment that we refer back to the work of Seltzer (1998), who argues that, for serial murderers, the act of killing is ultimately an effort to stand apart from the metaphorical crowd and display their autonomy from society. This connection between committing violence with the desire to gain some form of perceived recognition can be seen in Glasser (1998, quoted in Ray, 2011: 14), who argued that ‘perpetrators may view violence as a source of self-affirmation’. So too, as Ray (2011: 14) suggests, those who commit acts of violence, such as serial murder, do so as a ‘means of achieving status and respect for those who lack other forms of social power’.

With this in mind, the dark flâneur is someone who is in fact using the crowd and the anonymity it provides in an effort to actually escape obscurity and, for a brief moment, achieve some form of recognition and status that separates them from the crowd. This relates directly back to the earlier statements encompassing the deficit neo-liberalisation has afforded members of the working class, and how Bellfield chose to reaffirm this deficit not through monetary means but through utilizing his perceived special liberty (for a detailed account of special liberty, see Hall, 2015: 142) to restore his self-identity. As Wansell (2011: 183) details, Bellfield was cited as ‘bragging’ and stating that ‘the law doesn’t apply to people like me’.

In examining the recent case of Little, one cannot help but see such a similar exercise in special liberty (Hall and Wilson, 2014) in his remarks that “I can go into my own world and do what I want to do” (Williams, 2018) alongside his self-confessed relishing in the notoriety he gained through utilising the admittance of a litany of murder as a currency. Again this signifies such acts as being perceived by offenders as a currency, a reorientation of capital objectives. Wilson (2007) argues that free market economies, a result of neo-liberal values that emerged during late modernity, have created widening ‘social inequalities, individualism and a decline in collective social life which have exacerbated marginality, vulnerability and increases in violence’ including serial murder.

As stated in the introduction, the notions we propose are in their infancy but a deeper discussion is available for consideration in Lynes et al., (2018) for your consideration. Within this work we propose that the synthesis between the application of literary devices (the flâneur) combined with socio-cultural concepts and contemporary criminological theory raises important and previously neglected questions pertaining to serial murder. Through this we propose the flâneur’s glocalised incarnation, ‘the dark flâneur’.

For an expansion of this argument please read:

Lynes, A. Kelly, C., & Uppal, P. (2018) ‘Benjamin’s ‘flâneur’ and serial murder: An ultra-realist literary case study of Levi Bellfield’, Crime Media Culture [Online early view] available at: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1741659018815934

References

Gilloch G (2005) Benjamin’s London, Baudrillard’s Venice. In: Leach N (ed.) The Hieroglyphics of Space: Reading and Experiencing the Modern Metropolis. London: Routledge

Hayward K (2004) City Limits: Crime, Consumer Culture and the Urban Experience. London: The GlassHouse Press.

Lynes, A. Kelly, C., & Uppal, P. (2018) ‘Benjamin’s ‘flâneur’ and serial murder: An ultra-realist literary case study of Levi Bellfield’, Crime Media Culture [Online early view] available at: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1741659018815934

Rignall J (1992) Realist Fiction and the Strolling Spectator. London: Routledge

‘Serial killer Samuel Little pleads guilty in Texas woman's 1994 death', NBC News, 13th December [online] available at: https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/serial-killer-samuel-little-pleads-guilty-texas-woman-s-1994-n947551

Shanafelt R and Pino NW (2013) Evil and the common life: Towards a wider perspective on serial killing and Atrocities. In: Atkinson R and Winlow S (eds) New Directions in Crime and Deviancy. London: Routledge

Wilson D (2009) A History of British Serial Killing. London: Sphere

Wilson D (2012) Late capitalism, vulnerable populations and violent predatory crime. In: Hall S and Winlow S (eds) New Directions in Criminological Theory. London: Routledge

Wilson D (2007) Serial Killers: Hunting Britons and Their Victims 1960–2006. Winchester: Waterside Press.

Hall S (2015) What is criminology about? The study of harm, special liberty and pseudo-pacification in latecapitalism’s libidinal economy. In: What is Criminology About? Routledge, pp. 130–148

Hall S and Wilson D (2014) New foundations: Pseudo-pacification and special liberty as potential cornerstones for a multi-level theory of homicide and serial murder. European Journal of Criminology 11(5): 635–655.

Nes AV and Nguyen TM (2009) Gender differences in the urban environment: The flâneur and flâneuse of the 21st century. In: Proceedings of the 7th International Space Syntax Symposium, pp. 1-7

Laermans R (1993) Learning to consume: Early department stores and the shaping of the modern consumer culture. Theory, Culture and Society 10: 79–102.

Ray L (2011) Violence and Society. London: Sage

Wansell G (2011) The Bus Stop Killer: Milly Dowler, Her Murder and the Full Story of the Sadistic Serial Killer Levi Bellfield. London: Penguin.

Williams, T. (2018) 'He Says He Got Away With 90 Murders. Now He’s Confessing to Them All', The New York Times [online] available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/26/us/samuel-little-serial-killer-murderer.html

Wolff J (1985) The invisible flâneuse: Women and the literature of modernity. Theory, Culture & Society 2(3) 37–46.