Category Archives: Crime

Home invasions – A discussion of Haneke’s Funny Games

This is a brief consideration of the film Funny Games. It contains the essential plot lines and is intended for those who have already watched the film.

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It is true to say that I did not want to watch Funny Games. Like the film, my recent work* concerns anxieties around the invasion of the home, a project which has generated unsettling images, ideas and prospects in my own life. I knew the film was about a family who seem to be randomly selected by two young men who appear without notice, initially polite, the dialogue moves to a position in which social conventions are stretched before it is realised that something is deeply amiss. The householder’s prerogative to expel intruders is dismissed by the intruders and the viewer’s stomach knots at the realisation of the frailty of the family’s situation. Haneke sets-up the affluence of the gated home, the perfect family trio and their comfortable lives against a random moment. All are ready for a great fall into terror that will puncture the assumptions that they (and we) might have about the relative safety and sanctity of domestic life. As the ‘plot’ of the pair is revealed the mask of shared manners and expectations is pulled aside to reveal a calmly executed experiment both by the director and the protagonists themselves; the ‘game’ of mentally torturing and physically destroying the household step by step.

Funny Games probes a number of contemporary issues, the story of an invasion into the home life of an affluent family might itself be taken as a story of our times, probing deep anxieties and primal fears of social intrusion (the home as a place of escape from life outside the front door) and violence (home as the key but potentially vulnerable place of refuge from danger). In fact this is only one of the levels on which the film operates, the lengthy build-up of fear and abject terror appear as an enormously cruel and surgically presented exercise (the feeling that we are being ‘wound-up’ by the director is palpable). This feature of the film pushes the viewer into a deeply uneasy position, are we not complicit with a project that offers nothing more than spite against vulnerability? What makes the film more than another project in torment of the kind increasingly on offer (Saw, Hostel, Audition) is that the direct violence of the film is clearly not an intrinsic aim. The most brutal moments occur off-screen and the sound designers are used to convey the horror of these moments. Is it possible then that the kind of visual extremity on offer in our popular culture might itself be the target of the film?

The most startling points in the film reveal the deeper project of the film through the deployment of straight ‘to-camera’ asides by one of the protagonists who asks whose side we are on, what might happen next and so on. Haneke is asking us to interrogate our motives for watching such films, to consider the banalisation of violence in our filmic culture and to initiate a searching query into the emergence of torture as an on-screen phenomenon (the archetypal terrorised female, the threat or use of extreme violence, the humiliation and power exerted over the fearful). Even a moment of potential catharsis (the use of a shotgun to kill her husband, lying off-screen in agony after being stabbed to put him out of his misery, is used to kill one of the assailants) is literally rewound by the other attacker by using a remote control. This moment of fantasy highlights the insubstantiality of images and events more generally – we are unclear as to what is real, what has or is happening, what apparent truth might be unwound in favour of another’s reading of the situation. Yet these moments come as a kind of relief, revealing the apparent objectives of the film and rendering an unbearable and persistent assault as an instance that raises wider questions about the nature of entertainment in our culture.

Images of suburban life run through the film, undermining images of idyllic lifestyles by alluding to a threat that has been placed in its midst. The presence of the two attackers is ominously foretold as we remember a socially stilted encounter with neighbours where two additional figures stand in a group on a lawn. Their faces unseen from a distance and lacklustre responses to shouted greetings are later realised to signify that they were unable to reveal their entanglement with the same impostors. So danger comes to the impregnable comes of the rich with smiling faces and plausible social connections. Violence quickly appears from behind a veneer of respectability and assumed safety. Other points are made about our urban and residential life by Haneke. The (briefly) escaped wife is unable to get help from neighbours (we may speculate that they have also been killed) or whose gates and insulated homes make it impossible for her to get assistance. These events point an accusing finger at expanding suburban and gated residential lifestyles and its apparent links to diminished social contact and neighbourliness.

Who are the pair themselves? They play at revealing broken and ‘red neck’ personal histories. Yet both appear in preppy dress, foppish haircuts and college-boy grins; all intended perhaps to make all but untraceable the social roots of their violent dispositions. Haneke himself has spoken of being unsettled at the reported violence of middle-class children who commit violent acts out of a desire for thrills, rather than for revenge or material gain. In this respect the film’s soundtrack (to the extent that there is any music at all) is provided through three punctuations of a deeply atavistic, shattering metal track in which roaring guitar riffs, screams and wails allude perhaps to the unformed emotions and anxieties that might lie behind the passive faces of the two invaders. At the film’s end the closing glance into the camera by one of them is frozen as the same music kicks-in for the last time. The suggestion in this accusing stare appears to be our complicity in seeing entertainment through suffering; an anti-Hollywood vision in which the objects of our natural sympathies are destroyed is completed. All that is left is the indication of an ongoing (unending?) cycle of yet more ‘games’ and entertainment as a new house is invaded, initiated by unthreatening smiles and requests for help. Such an ending points again to Haneke’s critique of the moral emptiness of cultural industries which provide us only with new victims and shocks as the primary means of its sustenance, with little empathy for the real daily terrors and insecurities of the world outside.

Funny Games, directed by Michael Haneke, 2007, original Austrian version 1997

* Domestic Fortress: Fear and the New Home Front, with Sarah Blandy, in preparation.

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Shades of Deviance – interview

On the day the film is released that partly inspired the title, here are some thoughts on the collection and what it was intended for.

Can you tell us a bit about your academic background?

Well, my doctoral research looked at the ‘invisible’ problem of household displacement in London, I was always interested in social problems and particularly those that hadn’t really seen much attention – displacement from gentrification was often discussed but had never really been measured before. When I finished this work I moved to Glasgow as a research assistant and began to do a lot of contract related research around social exclusion and marginality in the peripheral housing estates there, and in Edinburgh. With John Flint I did work on processes of informal social control; we were both fascinated by the way that residents in poorer communities were stigmatised as being disorderly and antagonistic to the police. Though the story was more complex what we often found was that residents often saw the police as the first line of action against problems. I like to think that my work is always relevant but also trying to work with middle-range theories and ideas. Much of the work I have done on gated communities and the privatisation of public space, for example, has tried to problematize the self-segregation of the wealthy when many policy-makers and the public tend to start from the position that we should look inside poorer areas. We know from such work that many of the problems of ‘poor’ areas is not only about the lack of opportunities but also the discrimination and exit of the middle-classes from such areas as well as the way that higher income groups argue for the kind of defunding and policing measures that characterise many public approaches today.

The cover art

The cover art

What got you interested in deviance as a speciality?

I think that like many people working in and around criminology I like to see my work as being broader than the problem of crime. When Simon Winlow and I organised the first York Deviancy Meeting for forty years I remember phoning Stan Cohen (who died only this year, 2013) and when he asked what kind of things I was working on I said sheepishly that my main interest was in gated communities and that perhaps that wasn’t a key area in criminology, his response was ‘well, surely those kind of issues are absolutely central to criminology!’ I think this gave me more confidence to address the field of criminology with the voice of someone who was interested in crime and harm, but through the background of someone who had emerged out of the field of urban and housing studies, rather than perhaps the more conventional route of a criminology degree (my first degree was at Kingston University, in sociology). Yet the more I have thought on these ‘boundary’ issues I have felt that criminology is in many ways an ‘urban’ field when we look at its primary concerns, and that urban studies has perhaps tended to neglect or underplay a concern with disorder and human harm when, in so many ways, it is concerned with the harm to human potential that emerges from poverty and hardship, the geography of opportunity, inequality, low-skills and housing systems.

What sets this book apart from others in the field?

Shades of Deviance emerged over dinner conversations at the European Group for the Study of Crime and Deviance at Nicosia in 2012. Some of us were talking about the need to translate complex ideas without sacrificing too much subtlety, as well as the need to connect early students to more of the politics and critique that we find in criminology today. In my earlier work I had tried to work on applied areas in social research (such as public housing and gated communities for the wealthy) for a lay audience and so Shades of Deviance became ultimately an attempt to bring together a wide range of experts who were told – look, stop trying to write in a neutral way, write something short (this was a struggle for some of the academics of course!), energetic and authoritative that tells the newcomer something of the lie of the land as well as its political constitution; rather than pretending that complex and contested crimes and harms could somehow be explained without that kind of background. I wrote a very clear brief so that all of the authors wrote to a similar ‘recipe’ and asked each to provide the title of a film that somehow distilled many of the issues for their particular contribution. So I think these elements are distinctive but I also intended the collection to be for students leaving their first phase of full-time education and moving to a degree environment. In my institution many students will ask for some suggested reading before arriving and we often scratch our heads about what to recommend; I would like to think that thumbing through Shades of Deviance would be just a great way of preparing for a degree but I also wanted to achieve something that I hoped Routledge would price in such a way that the audience could be extended to those outside criminology completely.

How have you organised the layout of this book?

The book has 56 entries with a general introduction to the concepts of crime and deviance which says something about the complexity of the debates within the field. At first I wanted to perhaps order all of the entries from forms of social rule-breaking with no real harm, through to the most obvious problems and crimes, but I then realise how fraught with problems this would be (of course this is a great exercise to get some really heated debates going in the classroom!). So I created a series of thematic headings that reflected some attempt to bundle-up groups of crimes, forms of deviance and patterns of harm that made sense but also still retained some sense of severity. I couldn’t help adding a final word about how to be (in the widest possible sense) a student of crime and deviance that stems from the way I teach my students and my beliefs about the need to be well-informed and politically engaged as well as just getting on with studies.

Finally, what do you see as the main emerging trend in the study of deviance?

Speaking really from my interests I would have to say that I think there will be more and more to say about growing urbanization globally is producing a wide range of strains and harms for humanity generally. Not only do inequalities between regions drive many forms of crime like the drugs trade and trafficking but also see a lack of government co-ordination and investment generating problems of ill-health, poor education, unemployment and poverty that criminologists increasingly see as forms of harm that they should respond to. Those complexities come on top of the more obvious issues like urban violence and violence towards women which, I think, is beginning to finally see greater awareness and action globally. I think we will also see a major return to questions about the relationship between media technologies and the kinds of crimes and harms circulating around exposure and immersion in forms of extreme content that include pornography and violent gaming which have become ubiquitous and yet remain denied as the roots of harm by many liberal commentators and researchers. I think that our theories in this area need bringing up to speed given the leaps in processing power and complexity of networking and entertainment today. All of this is to say nothing of the links between climate change and various kind of crime and social pressures that it is generating and which seem likely to get much worse, and rapidly so. Criminologists are certainly likely to be busy in the coming years.

The Plan? Wealth, Housing Need and Austerity

I have never been quite sure where it is from but I have a copy of a cartoon in my office called ‘The Plan’. In six frames it shows the ebb and flow, back and forth, of affluent and poor-black households in US cities, first changing places in the inner city and then in the suburbs. Yet research on gentrification suggests otherwise – with tens and sometimes hundreds of thousands of urban households displaced via the attention of higher-income households and investors to areas in which poorer households congregated (these are major currents of the urban politics of cities like San Francisco with debate moving from a concern with yuppies to Silicon Valley employees and rocketing house prices, or London with its influx of super-rich and international investment capital in the new-buiold apartment market). The lack of investment in such neighbourhoods, by landlords and owners, meant that properties in these locations offered a bonus dividend – invest here and prices might align themselves with higher prices elsewhere. The search for ‘gentrifiable’ properties and ‘up-and-coming’ neighbourhoods has been a key strand in the story of property wealth in the US and UK over the past twenty years. To understand gentrification is to provide a window on the otherwise closed workings of the economy and the politics of homeownership that permeates our culture today, in short – who are the winning and losing groups in society today?

the plan cartoon

The image of the affluent upping sticks and landing wherever suits them best in my cartoon may seem an unproblematic story, indeed one that is emblematic of what we have become as a flexible, location-maximising constituency of worker-homeowners. But who is this ‘we’? Some years ago I attended a policymaker forum in Melbourne convened at the onset of the global financial crisis. Here Australian Federal bank officials rationalised the story of low interest rates, arguing that they had benefited the macro-economy and the needs of ‘us’ homeowners. Well, even in Australia homeownership (like the US and UK) remains at just over two-thirds of households so it is not the embracing form of ‘we’ that we might want to refer to (data analysis on our project on London’s supe-rich shows that owner occupation has declined from 56% of households to 50%, the big gains going to owner-investor landlords benefitting from a rise in private renting from 17 to 26%). In all of this the self-identified role of many politicians and public bankers has been legitimated through reference to keeping things rolling nicely for ‘us’. Indeed those who would like to join ‘us’, aspirational owners seeking to get on that ladder of wealth creation and relative personal security, are also critical to understanding a large part of the banking/housing crisis – asset values rose because the architectures of the state and private finance were fundamentally aligned to fulfil the desire of existing and prospective homeowners, even as this project generated the basis for the current catastrophe as low income owners and their debt poisoned the new products built upon them.

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‘Cherish Public Housing’ – Poster on HK train.

As David Harvey (1) has eloquently argued, the crisis was underpinned by the ‘fix’ needed by capitalism to expand after ‘local’ supplies of labour and opportunity diminished. As labour and commodities came to be supplied more cheaply by countries like China and India a further stage of expansion could only be effectively generated by allowing consumers, many of them not at all well-off, to become indebted over increasing timeframes and using new products in ‘sub-prime’ deals, offered to millions of low-income households in the US. With the house of cards that this situation created now very much collapsed the costs, we were told, should not be borne by these financial institutions and, under an increasingly transparent ideological project, continue to be tackled through cutting the cost of public services. Critically, one of the many manifest outcomes of these cuts will be the way that the state provision and particular geography of public and private rental housing in major cities like London. Three key issues can be identified that need to be understood to make sense of what now appears to be happening to public housing and, by extension, to poorer households in our cities:

  1. The sense that public housing is a tarnished state project that is so stigmatised in the public eye and its households so economically marginal that reducing its costs is deemed politically desirable (by making conditions so bad that others are not inclined to want to use such services) and fiscally commonsense;
  2. Public housing, in its ‘estate’ form, represents an opportunity to contain the mad, bad and sad in spaces that can be policed and monitored by a punitive welfare regime that sees benefit uptake as a kind of deviance (literally not that which ‘normal’ or included society does) – demolition and the thinning-out of such pockets is seen as desirable and will make way for new rounds of capital investment and opportunities for international capital and high income households, and;
  3. The concentration of economic losers and social stress in public housing generates risks to included society (such as through criminality and anti-social behaviour) that higher-income groups seek to avoid by using housing and schooling systems as a means of insulating themselves from the risk of contact with poorer households (the ‘dinner party test’ is useful in establishing such practises – good schools are identified not through academic merit so much as by the ‘kind’ of children that go there, academic performance can then be used as a proxy measure for the social composition of schools).

This social, political and economic context has helped soften-up public housing for the onslaught of the current political regime. Housing benefit in the private rental sector has been capped and rents in public housing have moved closer to (up to 80%) of market rents where possible. These plans bring us back to the low status of public housing assistance in the UK. However, these new interventions should not only be attacked because they will not work and will displace poorer households, rather they should also be understood as the products of ideas and values shaped by affluent interests and lifestyles. These values are generated by the sheltered personal biographies and daily spatial pathways of policymakers who have little experience of such conditions or the impact of their proposals. Indeed our political elite are active in a process of insulating themselves; both from the risks generated by the social exclusion derived from the cuts themselves, and from paying for the current predicament. The callousness of political priorities is generated by the social pathways and deeper class interests of the wider spectrum of political elites who, for them and the constituencies they represent, refuse to allow the prospect that recent decades of massive wealth generation should be clawed-back, taxed or otherwise captured to tackle the crisis and re-build municipal and civic facilities.

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A front page from The Observer (2) brings fifty years of research on gentrification and its impact on the urban poor to the forefront of debates about the changes that will result from government commitments to erode the security of public and private tenants. Many will be displaced from high-cost neighbourhoods and, as Saskia Sassen (3) has recently argued, provide golden opportunities for accumulation by a locked-out aspirational class of prospective homeowners who so want homes at affordable prices in places that will be seen as the investment and gentrification hotspots of the future. While some commentators were aggrieved at earlier government ‘plans’ to engender local social mix as a form of gentrification in fact this plan appears to be something much more emphatically ambitious – deploying a crisis of capitalism as an opportunity to displace the poorer and middle classes and benefit investors (in much the same way that Naomi Klein (4) has described as endemic feature of our economic system). What is even more remarkable about the socially constructed parameters of current debate is that many of us have ingested the logic of cuts and requirements of corporate capital and attacking each other as the illegitimate beneficiaries of bloated state expenditure. This discursive race to the bottom of social insecurities and labour-market flexibilities will simultaneously provision a spatial switch as low-paid workers and benefit recipients make way for higher income tenants (in public and private rental accommodation) and owners (taking advantage of sales of repossessed housing). Cities like London will be for the rich, its hinterlands for a subsistence poor desperate to take work on almost any conditions in lieu of the assurances of the state (the argument that the private sector will not be capable of substituting for public employment is logical, yet we can see how highly indebted and insecure households may yet make abundant, cheap and flexible labourers for it).

There is something almost awe-inspiring in the scale of subterfuge on offer. Unashamed by their inability to predict or counter the excesses and collapse of the system many economists continue to debate and determine the direction of cuts, rather than their need. Instead of building common assurances and securities through a state that is seen as the product of a leviathan built of ‘us’ there remains massive cultural investment in a discourse of self-interest and wealth accumulation as the vehicle to personal welfare and insecurity from economic risks. This bind between property wealth and politics perhaps helps to explain the more muted response to cuts so far in the UK when compared with other countries, yet it is unlikely that so extensive a roadmap will not radicalise a much broader range of social groups and interests.

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Those spaces likely to be more resilient to a possible second economic downturn are inhabited by the lifeblood of political authority and planning today. For these groups their daily spatial circuits and friendships rarely cross with those who will see the social catastrophe and toxicity that will be sewn into many such localities for years to come (often on already lengthy histories of economic marginality and community decline). Political life has, whether it is of the left or right, largely failed to prevent the excesses of corporate-political agendas seeking the bottoming-out of wages and social benefits – for many people it is not at all clear how to respond or articulate an effective response that might challenge such alienating projects. It has also palpably failed to reduce inequalities in ways that might bring fairness and safety from the harms generated by economic secondaryness. The horrorshow of child neglect, para-criminal ambition as substitutes for legitimate careers, anti-social behaviour, incivility and the death of personal fulfilment via secure modes of work and community life will be the inter-generational gift of the ongoing plans of our political establishment.

This is an extended and updated version of a piece that first appeared as ‘Cities for the Rich’ in Le Monde Diplomatique.

Sources

  1. Harvey, D. (2010) The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism, Profile Books.
  2. http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2010/oct/24/exodus-poor-families-from-london
  3. Sassen, S. (2010) A Savage Sorting of Winners and Losers: Contemporary Versions of Primitive Accumulation, Globalizations, 7, ½, pp. 23-50.
  4. Klein, N. (2008) The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, London: Penguin.

Who loses in the war on the frail, the poor and the criminal?

After several years of on-off thinking on the topic of revanchism the resulting paper has finally been published. After the dog whistle politics of the UK on questions of immigration, demolitions of public housing, the fall-out from the 2011 riots, the war in urban Gaza, and the more general polarisation of thought and opinion the article is intended as a timely poke in the ribs to make us think about the wider reasons for attacks on the poor, the marginal and the dispossessed. For thinkers and folk keen to mark out the space of rights, access, justice and less unequal societies the ways in which policies and policing are being used to displace, dislocate, expel and destroy, by the emissaries of the wealthy and the respectable, is indeed a perplexing thing. How is it that in societies that enjoy unprecedented wealth we have also seen the erosion of welfare, the criminalisation of homelessness, the encouragement of voyeurism toward the needy (Benefits Street and the like) and the on-going use of policing and court measures to pursue those who are anti-social? While we need to be careful of liberal responses to real social problems and damaging behaviour that does destroy community life and common feelings of safety and well-being we must also be alert to the ways in which politics and policing increasingly secure our cities in ways that erode rights and safety by attacking or abandoning those who are seen as being beyond the pale.

The basic argument of my article is that those with political power have tended to create programmes and instruments by which not only are the poor and marginal further dislocated, but that such measures are drawn-up because they serve the (largely illusory) function of exorcising the fears and anxieties we have about the criminal, dangerous places and deviant social groups who are described in the media and by those with political voices as being dangerous and a challenge to the kind of society we would like to be. In this sense policy can act as a kind of social catharsis, a form of release from our fear and worry by focusing on those who we may feel are the root of our problems but may have very little to do with this. Among the many examples we can identify are the control of anti-social behaviour, demolition and removal of public housing areas, the policing of migrants and their harassment by non-state institutions (Golden Dawn in Greece, for example), anti-homeless laws (predominantly found in the US), extreme and discretionary policing and so on.

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Many policies and actions can be seen as a form of focused hate that is directed at the apparent sources of our fear and our anger at groups who are in reality intensely marginal and vulnerable groups. In the name of crime control, order and economic security we run headlong to pursue programmes that defund, delimit, coerce and even destroy individuals and communities who are the very casualties of the unequal and damaging societies we inhabit. All of this gives the lie to the promise of cathartic and many aggressive policies since it is clearly a false hope that we can really eliminate the frailty, anger, dispossession and precariousness that are features of social life. Yet these groups also create the convenient bogeymen and scapegoats of conventional politics and crude media punterism and which often act as distractions from the more necessary political actions required to make societies better and safer. The danger of such policies is that they will likely represent more of an assault on the lifestyles and conditions of the affluent and which are therefore seen as untenable.

If we might hope for one thing in the year ahead it will be that a more informed, kinder, more empathic and compassionate politics emerges; one that denies comment-boards and focus group sanction and which adopts a reasoned, defensible and reasonable position on the kind of social problems our societies face. The kind of anxiety and precariousness of our lives today, marked by gross inequality and flexibility of work, only adds fuel to this kind of politics, with the vulnerable and society at large the real losers.

Nothing space and nothing people

I was struck while reading Steve Hall and David Wilson’s piece about serial killing in a recent issue of the European Journal of Criminology. They make the argument that we need to develop deeper theories of motivation and the influence of social structural conditions that may shape such motivations. In a nutshell, is the inclination to do harm linked to predispositions that are hard-wired (some people are always born with violent propensities) or do the peculiarities and geographies of social and economic stress also play their role. I know where my money is, but this is a long-running argument and one which continues to need elucidation, not least because of the persistent denial of the role of social forces and increasing belief in genetic and personal factors. It is also important because, as they point out, the crime-drop has been much less marked in highly deprived areas – spaces that, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, have fared less than very well over the past six and many more years. Violence is concentrated, under-reported and internalised in the traumatised personal biographies of those living in these districts, and these stresses (pressured services, lack of employment, education and skills deficits, stigma and abuse) are pushed even harder because of the kinds of decisions about (non) investment and funding that government presides over in relation to the macro-economy.

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Packaged recycling, courtesy Daryl Martin (CURB, University of York).

Taking as their example serial killing and the kinds of subjectivity associated with such offenders they make the observation that most of these have, counter-intuitively, barely registered in the media circus because they have taken place in abandoned spaces, involving people who are valued little by society more broadly. They use a framework developed by Simon Parker and myself about the idea of autotomic space* that appears to capture the kind of spaces sought out by killers – perhaps strategically because they tend to away from any casual gaze of unwanted encounter, but also because the people we find in such spaces are capable of being treated differently. This combination of spatial and social neglect renders the inhabitants and users of these spaces available to differential treatment. It isn’t just governments and policing agencies that act to produce sch spaces by their avoidance of responsibility and the ceding of control over such areas. We can also see how people make judgment calls about avoiding certain places because they are seen as too risky or dangerous, sometimes because inhabitants also act to deter or intimidate those who don’t belong there (points made long ago by writers like Gerry Suttles in his work on slums and their reputations and social organisation as ‘defensive’). All of this perhaps renders an intensely complex phenomenon rather simple, but it does help us to say something that moves us beyond notions of citizenship/incorporation or the kind of privatisation of public space thesis that have been the polar points of discussion around urban space in recent years. If we can treat people differently, suspend ordinary rights of citizenship, because they live in a place that has seen public funding removed, policing reduced (not something that can ever be acknowledged) and services withdrawn we can then see a vicious circularity to these processes. Sites and people are stigmatised because they don’t belong, they don’t belong because they have been financially exiled and have seen services withdrawn and this reinforces a position of partial social exile (I’m reading Saskia Sassen’s book Expulsions right now which scales these concerns to a planetary level, thoughmore on this in another post).

The production of autotomic, abandoned space is connected by Hall and Wilson to the ways in which space influences the production of damaged people with ill intent, and the way in which spaces that are relegated to the status of hopeless, sink status appears to legitimate the creation of targets for predatory criminality. Meanwhile we have long-seen the kinds of discursive treatment and further relegation of estates and post-industrial areas in media treatments that try to understand why people live like this in ‘these’ areas. Something here is rather broken and such fractures are soon revealed when we look to the geography of predatory male criminality in the north of England, the Rotherham abuse revelations among many others can be linked to these ideas of autotomic spaces and exceptional conduct (click here for an earlier article on the social and economic conditions of the town that further helps to cement these points) . Clearly there is much to be said here about gender and culture (as well as deep problems in the operations of the criminal justice system) but there is also something to be said about how these spaces create patterns of trauma that stem from wider economic and policy cycles that have rendered many such towns and cities fatalistic, inwardly facing and dangerous for weaker and discriminated groups within those spaces.

The media’s persistent role in defaming and casting-out particular social groups remains important in all of this, in just last night’s evening news on the BBC prostitutes were shown in the red light area of Amsterdam using long lenses with barely post-pubescent girls looking bemusedly to the camera as though their rights to privacy can be suspended because of their occupation and, critically, the place they work where ordinary rights are suspended. Hall and Wilson seem to be onto something here and it seems worth pursuing the idea that there is a real kind of disintegration (a falling out of society and space) of the other that occurs in places of social degradation produced by the national and urban economic and political order. This helps us to understand more about the persistence of violence, its concentration in particular areas and, in part, the lack of concerted responses to victimisation. As Hall and Wilson sum it up:

In a nutshell, the autotomic process is a process of exfoliation, shedding and abandoning a former part of the urban social body that can no longer be commercially exploited or socially controlled…Perpetrators of serious violence, homicide and serial murder take advantage of the vulnerable individuals who can be found in the unprotected spaces created by capitalism’s periodic bouts of creative destruction p.649.

 * The fancy term, autotomic space, is used as a means of capturing something about particular spaces that suggests a kind of orchestrated ejection, a rejection of spaces and social groups that takes place where the cost of trying to continue to include them in mainstream society and the wider life of the city is seen to be too high. It stems from the term used to describe animals capable of shedding a part of their body in response to attack by a predator – thus a metaphor for the ejection of parts of the city in relation to the risks associated with the continued maintenance of those segments.

Autotomically speaking

The Chambers English dictionary defines autotomy as: noun. a reflex reaction in certain animals in which part of the body drops off, especially in order to allow them to escape when being attacked, eg some lizards shed their tails in this way. Reading a dictionary is not often considered very fruitful and yet sometimes it pays dividends! Not only is the capacity of some animals to respond in this way a curiosity but it gives us a metaphor for the way in which the city (its systems of governance at least) may act towards particularly ungovernable, deprived, or disorderly spaces. I’ve called this blog autotomically because the term captures much of what I have been thinking and researching in the past few years, identifying spaces of the wealthy and the excluded that are more or less detached from the political, social and sometimes spatial, fabric of the city. Zones of exception like refugee camps, gated communities of the wealthy, no-go areas for policing authorities, reputationally damaged areas that are avoided by citizens. Simon Parker (University of York) and I have been working around these themes of ‘sensitive’ urban space for sometime now, they form the backdrop to the post-crash conference series we organised at CURB (York) and the backdrop to a series of papers (imminently to be published!) exploring these ideas. So this first note is a nod to acknowledge the ways in which lizards, worms and spiders can help us think about how cities operate and to the benefit of sitting with a cup of tea reading a dictionary looking for inspiration.