12. Cultural Criminology

12.5 Crime as Pleasure

Dr. Steven Kohm

Cultural criminology acknowledges the paradox of crime in late modern times. Crime provokes a great deal of worry and anxiety, but it is also a source of great pleasure in popular culture. The humiliation of offenders in news media and reality TV seems particularly popular in late modern times (Pratt, 2000; Presdee, 2000; Kohm, 2009). Reality TV programs of this type include the popular daytime courtroom show Judge Judy, as well as documentary-style programs that claim to show the raw reality of prison and policing, such as Beyond Scared Straight, and Cops. For Michelle Brown (2009), cultural engagement with punishment through prison museums, film and television provide opportunities for the general public to be “penal spectators” (p. 8), who vicariously enjoy the state-sanctioned infliction of pain. For example, some years ago while on a self-guided tour of historic Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, PA, I watched a middle-aged father showing the death chamber to his two young children: “Look! That’s where they executed the prisoners!” he exclaimed with excitement. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the penitentiary, an art installation provided a critical take on punishment by recreating the chain link cages of the American military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, used to confine accused terrorists (without due process) following the World Trade Center attacks of 9/11 (Figure 2). This strange juxtaposition suggests that culture is anything but straightforward, and the meaning of something like a prison is always up for negotiation. Cultural criminology tries to untangle the way meaning about crime and punishment circulates through these kinds of cultural performances and venues, feeding back into the way we think about the problem of crime. Touring a prison can be experienced as fun and can also offer moments of critique. For a CSC virtual prison tour, visit Beyond the Fence.

Cultural criminology shifts the lens to the immediate experience of crime, suffering, and punishment and attends to the often conflicting feelings associated with them. Boredom and pleasure are key concepts that cultural criminology uses to make sense of actions that appear senseless. Expanding the analysis to a range of emotions beyond fear of crime, cultural criminology attempts to reinvigorate the study of crime and punishment by engaging with the subject in ways that acknowledge the seductions of crime reflected in popular culture and entertainment such as films, TV and even prison museums.

A prison cell made from a chain-link fence. The floor is cement. There is a small mat on the floor, a blanket, and two buckets.
Figure 12.2: Prison Within a Prison. This art installation at Eastern State Penitentiary museum is a replica of the cages used to house “enemy combatants” from America’s war on terror in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.


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Introduction to Criminology Copyright © 2023 by Dr. Steven Kohm is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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