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Doc Savage & Criminology

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One of the more interesting things about the pulp star Doc Savage, the man of bronze, is that he carried out operations on the brains of criminals in order to correct them. These exercises in popular culture — the 181 pulp novels written by Lester Dent — are thus one of the most basic advocates for eugenics throughout the 1930s and ’40s.

It is also interesting to note, en passant, that Doc Savage is referenced by an old Kansan in Truman Capote’s famous non-fiction novel In Cold Blood, where it is suggested that the two desperadoes who murder the Clutter family could have their brains operated on to make them more docile and less violent, hence saving them from the scaffold. None of this came to pass (obviously). Yet the very fact that one could suggest — without shock and horror — that criminals could be experimented on in this way shows you the sharply divergent mores of the hour.

This is more than enough to set a keen observer thinking about the two distinct approaches to criminology which still reverberate today.

The first, which we could call the New Left approach, envisages crime as totally mediated by the social. Criminals are made and not born. The greater the amount of fiscal inequality in a society, the higher the preponderance of crime. This eventually locks itself into a reductio ad absurdum where, in a text like Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, the more severe the penology the more vicious the crime you get as a result.

In this leftist schema, crime is essentially deserved — it is a form of societal vengeance on the bourgeois class. Of course, in societies where the fissures are more racial than social, then the corresponding class biases in discussion of crime become racial ones instead. This brew makes the issue even more toxic to the liberal mind than hitherto.

The other great polarity in this debate is provided by what we might call a New Right discourse — some of whose ideas are very ancient indeed — and streak back to the origins of criminology as a subject in 1878 when Cesare Lombroso published Criminal Man. This viewpoint sees crime as sociobiological in aspect. According to its register, criminals are born and not made, and although there may not be a criminal gene, as such, an absence of oxygen to the brain at birth in certain cases, together with the fact that widespread criminal families exist, tends to posit a physical basis to the criminaloid.

This ramifies with the recurrent idea of abnormality and lowness being a part of the criminal urge; whereby it can be seen that around a third of all mugshots in Black Museums or Encyclopedias of murder are grossly abnormal. Many criminals are habitual recidivists.

They repeat their offenses because they want to; they enjoy doing so; and criminality can be perceived as a lifestyle choice. Recurrent bouts of imprisonment then become a source of pride rather than the reverse.

In this outlook, a whole cluster of criminal attitudes go together, such as the belief that morality is about getting away with it, rape is normal sex, working is an idiot’s game, lying is as natural as talking, and that the social order is only there to be exploited or taken advantage of.

If at the heart of the criminal sub-class, criminals are born and not made, this revolutionizes criminology as a subject. It also opens up the way for experimentation on criminals who show the most pronounced symptoms of abnormality. By this viewpoint, criminality goes much deeper than amorality, heedlessness, the retention of an adolescent attitude into adult life, and so forth. It is no longer about alienation or rage. Nor is it a personal rebellion against society. Likewise, the criminal can never again be depicted as a victim of a harsh or unjust social order.

A large part of criminality is linked to anti-creativity and destructiveness as an end in itself. Erich Fromm’s The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness is a key text here. The front cover of the 1980s paperback edition in Europe showed an Old Master painting which had been damaged by knife or razor slashes. This related to a real series of mutilations and attacks on great paintings throughout Europe during that decade. Many of these attacks were copy-cat efforts, given the chronic uncreativity of the criminal mind. They also led to the institution of security models which you see in all galleries to this day.

The anatomy of human destructiveness views destruction and anti-creativity as a creativity. It wishes to destroy because it’s there. This rubric is difficult for most people to grasp, since the wish to destroy as a tainted death-instinct, as an end in itself, is alien to most normally constituted people.

A moral heightening, however, can lead to a greater awareness of this negative trope, and certain criminals can undergo traumatic instants of moral remorse. This is the prospect of renewal about which all moralists preach. Could such a redemptive urge be prescripted to order — through the use of chemicals or brain operations, if and when the science has caught up with the speculation, and enables us to do so?

“Who knows?,” is the honest answer to this. But, as always, fiction has already stolen a march on us. Let us imagine a scenario where not only Doc Savage in the 1930s but many heroes of a contemporary vintage advocate eugenics as a progressive end-point for crime. It would literally provide a bone-shaking jolt to contemporary mores.

After all, eugenics began as essentially a leftist orientation prior to the era in which Lester Dent (Kenneth Robeson) had Clark Savage Junior and the Amazing Five — Monk, Ham, Johnny, Renny and Long Tom — strut their stuff. If ever these attitudes return to popular culture then you will know that you are living through a seismic alteration in judgement.


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  1. Posted September 13, 2011 at 1:34 am | Permalink

    @ “One of the more interesting things about the pulp star Doc Savage… is that he carried out operations on the brains of criminals in order to correct them. These exercises in popular culture… are thus one of the most basic advocates for eugenics throughout the 1930s and ’40s.”

    In real life, the lobotomy introduced in the 1930s by Egas Moniz had nothing to do with eugenics (German eugenicists actually got shocked of the lobotomies performed at the other side of the Atlantic) and everything to do with social control through psychiatry.

  2. Posted September 13, 2011 at 6:37 am | Permalink

    It’s a mistake to concentrate on obvious abnormalities like hunchbacks and harelips; the actual science paints a more interesting picture of “the criminal”. Here’s from a financial blog over the weekend:

    “Psychopathy may prove to be as important a construct in this century as IQ was in the last (and just as susceptible to abuse), because, thanks to Hare, we now understand that the great majority of psychopaths are not violent criminals and never will be. Hundreds of thousands of psychopaths live and work and prey among us. Your boss, your boyfriend, your mother could be what Hare calls a “subclinical” psychopath, someone who leaves a path of destruction and pain without a single pang of conscience. Even more worrisome is the fact that, at this stage, no one — not even Bob Hare — is quite sure what to do about it…”

    “Good people think most people are rational and basically honest, just like them.

    “But they wrong, there are very sick people out there, but they do not seem sick, and do not ask for help. They do not want help, or rules, or anything else that gets in their way. Their sickness does not always manifest itself sexually, but can be expressed in other means of domination and acquisition. There is a high correlation with substance abuse, especially stimulants, and other obsessively risky behaviours, including chronic lying and flouting social conventions. There is a negative correlation with depression.

    “Some can be particularly good at bending the rules to shape the system to help fulfill their need to feed on whatever their diet demands. They are naturally drawn to positions of power, frequently faking their credentials and results, and are often verbally acute, willing to say and do almost anything to get their way. If they come from wealth they may be able to buy their way into positions of power and protection and manage their environments very effectively, except their family relationships and children would rarely be described as normal. Psychopathy breeds a multitude of other disorders.

    “And they seem to be gaining traction, getting better, and finding kindred spirits in the growing partnership between corporations and the government.”

    “The most startling finding to emerge from Hare’s work is that the popular image of the psychopath as a remorseless, smiling killer — Paul Bernardo, Clifford Olson, John Wayne Gacy — while not wrong, is incomplete. Yes, almost all serial killers, and most of Canada’s dangerous offenders, are psychopaths, but violent criminals are just a tiny fraction of the psychopaths around us. Hare estimates that 1 percent of the population — 300,000 people in Canada — are psychopaths.

    He calls them “subclinical” psychopaths. They’re the charming predators who, unable to form real emotional bonds, find and use vulnerable women for sex and money (and inevitably abandon them). They’re the con men like Christophe Rocancourt, and they’re the stockbrokers and promoters who caused Forbes magazine to call the Vancouver Stock Exchange (now part of the Canadian Venture Exchange) the scam capital of the world. ”

  3. Fourmyle of Ceres
    Posted September 13, 2011 at 7:00 pm | Permalink

    Two comments, from a (hopefully) Northwest Republic perspective.

    One, what we see in Doc Savage was the manifestation of the positive forces of personal eugenics. From what I recall, having read him as a much younger man, Savage was an extraordinarily disciplined polymath, a Renaissance man who worked diligently to make of himself a much better man – stronger, wiser, and spiritually more advanced – than he was. He was also a technocrat, using the most advanced technology available, as much as possible.

    In short, he was a Hero who adapted to the times he was in. As well, he was relentlessly positive, and confident. This was what America looked for in the Street and Smith pulps. As my professor put it, he was “Tom Swift with balls.”

    This meritocratic focus was extended to his Five Associates, including one who was the very model of the haberdasher’s skills. This, during the First Great Depression, and, again, as a quiet example of what the natural aristocracy did, and was worthy of emulation.

    These are examples we would do well to call forward, and translate them in the appropriate frameworks for out time. Grant Morrison would do wonders with these models.

    Two, in what seem to be the actions of a dualistic universe, note that widespread, low-grade sociopath would call forth those who are the exact opposite of the sociopath, men of a higher morality, who can neutralize the efforts of the sociopaths, and transform their activities into learning experiences for their betters.

    And, for examples of such men, look at Clark Savage, Jr., and his associates.

    What’s In YOUR Future? Focus Northwest!

  4. Will
    Posted September 14, 2011 at 9:09 am | Permalink

    “The anatomy of human destructiveness views destruction and anti-creativity as a creativity. It wishes to destroy because it’s there. This rubric is difficult for most people to grasp, since the wish to destroy as a tainted death-instinct, as an end in itself, is alien to most normally constituted people.”

    It’s interesting to consider this in light of the Hindu trinity of gods, Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, who represent creation, preservation, and destruction, respectively. One could see criminal behavior as a manifestation of this cosmic destructive principle.

    The traditional Christian understanding was that criminals do the work of satan. “Ye are of the devil your father, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning.”

    The modern world seems to have lost this understanding that, as John Steinbeck so aptly put it in East of Eden, “There are monsters born in the world to human parents. Some you can see, misshapen and horrible, with huge heads or tiny bodies … And just as there are physical monsters, can there not be mental or psychic monsters born? The face and body may be perfect, but if a twisted gene or a malformed egg can produce physical monsters, may not the same process produce a malformed soul? … Monsters are variations from the accepted normal to a greater or a less degree. As a child may be born without an arm, so one may be born without kindness or the potential of conscience. … To a man born without conscience, a soul-stricken man must seem ridiculous. To a criminal, honesty is foolish. You must not forget that a monster is only a variation, and that to a monster the norm is monstrous.” ( Chapter 8 )

  5. Posted September 19, 2011 at 10:31 pm | Permalink

    Some acts of deviance may be criminal acts but also according to the society or culture deviance can be strictly breaking social norms that are intact..Viewing deviance as a violation of social norms sociologists have characterized it as any thought feeling or action that members of a social group judge to be a violation of their values or rules violation of the norms of a society or group conduct that violates definitions of appropriate and inappropriate conduct shared by the members of a social system the departure of certain types of behavior from the norms of a particular society at a particular time and violation of certain types of group norms . Criminal behaviour such as theft can be deviant but other crimes attract little or no social reaction and cannot be considered deviant e.g. violating copyright laws by downloading music on the internet .

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