David Roden: Aliens Under The Skin
by Steven Craig Hickman
We leave this behind in your capable hands, for in the black-foaming gutters and back alleys of paradise, in the dank windowless gloom of some galactic cellar, in the hollow pearly whorls found in sewerlike seas, in starless cities of insanity, and in their slums…my awe-struck little deer and I have gone frolicking.
See you anon. Jonathan Doe.
Thomas Ligotti, The Frolic
In “Aliens Under The Skin: Serial Killing and the Seduction of Our Common Humanity” By David Roden, part of the Serial Killing: A Philosophical Anthology edited by Edia Connole and Gary J. Shipley, David surmises that the “inhumanity of man” we’ve known since at least Wordsworth first coined this term is central to how we as humans define ourselves. Being human implies the artificial and necessary distancing from our inhuman origins, the externalization of our inhuman monstrousness. Ever since hominids first began rejecting their animal heritage in favor of the gods – or, some other mythic, symbolic, or religious sense of transcendence, we’ve tried to exit and escape the truth of our inhuman core, of who and what we are, our inhumanity. In our time the serial killer has become the touchstone of that unholy terror of the sacred and sacrificial excess, the exuberance of the banal and the monstrous sacred we in our secular age have both rejected and repressed. It is the dark kernel of our inhuman core that seems to haunt the hinterlands of our ancient animalistic and natural ties to the earth.
In fact David will go so far as to say that our fascination and allure with Serial Killers, with psychopathic monsters of screen or flesh is simply that, we define ourselves through denial and invention, flight and imaginative need. We study in cinematic delight figures such as Dexter Morgan, Paul Spector or Hannibal Lecter— not because they are human, but because they are inhuman. Their alterity fascinates us even as it terrorizes us. Fascination is at root Latin: fascinatus, past participle of fascinare “bewitch, enchant, fascinate,” from fascinus “a charm, enchantment, spell, witchcraft;” to fascinate is to bring under a spell, as by the power of the eye; to enchant and to charm are to bring under a spell by some more subtle and mysterious power.
The Psychopath fascinates us because he can manipulate and mimic our humanity, lead us into delusion and delirium, allure us to our death through a dramatic enactment of our deepest need to know the secret of who and what we are. Against notions of representation, the psychopath represents nothing, because there is nothing behind the mask, nothing to re-present, no presence: only the emptiness of the animal eye, the actor acting, the playing of a role in which the human quality of empathy is missing: in which the human itself is robbed of its life. This is the key, the psychopath being without empathy, is a soulless husk lacking emotion, intention, or fellow feeling – a mere hollow bell sounding from the depths of hell and despair. All he can do is mime our emotions, mimic them as in a carefully crafted impersonation, a role that must be enacted as if he were on a stage. All the while his calculating mind, his fierce intellect watches, studies, manipulates; yet, can never desire in the way we do, for he lacks that element that would make him human: a capacity for love. Rather his lack of remorse or shame, impulsivity, grandiose sense of self-worth, pathological lying, manipulative behavior, and poor self-control will drive him toward promiscuous sexual and deviant acts of cold, heartless, and inhuman insidiousness. Like the Joker in Batman, the psychopath seeks only to manipulate desires since he has none. Like a postmodern Loki, the Joker enacts the very jouissance of human desire as fakery, as stagecraft, as the merciless mirth of the dammed. Hovering over an abyss he collapses human emotion into a dark smile – a smile that bespeaks of an impersonal and absolute power of indifference that can swat you like a housefly or slice you strip by strip into slivers of vibrant flesh just to discover why you feel what he cannot.
One need only be reminded of Shakespeare’s great nihilists Hamlet, Iago, Macbeth; or as in King Lear the cruelty of Edmund, bastard son of Gloucester who manipulates his wives, sister, half-brothers, father. Yet, in our time who will forget Patrick Bateman, the character in American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis. A successful investment banker and stylish dresser with an extensive knowledge of eighties music and an eye for interior design—a real mover and shaker. A man who in between comparing business cards and drinking cocktails with other investment bankers, Patrick busies himself with senseless murders and stomach-turning torture sessions. After killing a colleague, he loses control of his violent urges and moves on to necrophilia, cannibalism (making meatloaf of a girl is frustrating!), mutilation, and horrific murders involving chainsaws, nail guns, and rats. Bateman’s charm, complete detachment, and lack of emotion or remorse make him the most disturbing psychopathic mime around: a true sociopath killer, charming, persuasive, and fascinating. As the character, Bateman will say of himself:
“…there is an idea of a Patrick Bateman, some kind of abstraction, but there is no real me, only an entity, something illusory, and though I can hide my cold gaze and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable: I simply am not there … Is evil something you are? Or is it something you do? My pain is constant and sharp and I do not hope for a better world for anyone. In fact, I want my pain to be inflicted on others. I want no one to escape.”
As you can see from the above, psychopaths can suffer emotional pain for a variety of reasons. As with anyone else, psychopaths have a deep wish to be loved and cared for. This desire remains frequently unfulfilled, however, because it is obviously not easy for another person to get close to someone with such repellent personality characteristics. Psychopaths are at least periodically aware of the effects of their behavior on others and can be genuinely saddened by their inability to control it. The lives of most psychopaths are devoid of a stable social network or warm, close bonds.2 The psychopath is left with a difficult choice: adapt and participate in an empty, unreal life, or do not adapt and live a lonely life isolated from the social community. They see the love and friendship others share and feel dejected knowing they will never be part of it. Because of this some psychopaths are driven to games, to frolicking, to the sport of death and derision, spurning their brethren for what they in themselves lack they seek to make merry, frolicking on the abyss between annihilation and murder. The seduction of the killer is his incapacity for life, one of the living dead he lives and preys on the darkness of others; like a forlorn god he roams the night seeking warmth he cannot give, and giving in return the only gift he has: death.
Specific to Serial Killers David Roden will qualify psychopathy with a notion from a species concept that has been proposed by the bioethicist Darian Meacham: the Phenomenological Species Concept (PSC). As he states it: “Meacham’s account of species recognition is based on Husserl’s claim that our experience of others involves an empathic awareness of them as having mental states analogous to our own.” Yet, it is just this lack of empathy that separates the serial killer, the psychopath from the rest of us. His lack of empathy drives his malignity. In fact such a creature can only mimic our affective relations as if they were some dark share that were secretly missing in his constitution. He cannot feel our emotions. Yet, he sees them in us, he knows their there; and this sparks his curiosity, his intellect. It is intellect rather than emotions, passions that forces this knowledge on him, that drives him to know and seek out ways to manipulate in us the very thing missing in his own makeup. Like a shadow player, a trickster out of hell, the psychopath’s very lack of empathy drives him, penetrating to the core of his being, empowering him forward toward acts of horror and virulent desecration.
Roden will speak of a common world of values that humans share, the realm of custom, habit, and morals – the human world of value and meaning. Yet, in our secular age of nihilism the value and meaning have been stripped bare, shriven of custom, habit, and moral concern, and in their place is this sense of absolute nothingness – the horror of the abyss of things without reason, the inhuman world of indifference and impersonal forces of science and atheism. “The PSC is a precondition for a life governed by a shared set of moral values and an ethics…,” because “if we cannot see others as having affective responses like our own, we cannot share moral practices sensitive to those feelings”. So the notion here is that if a being does not share in this common world of habits, customs, values, meaning and reciprocal “affections necessary for possession of human PSC” they will fall outside the community of men and into that inhuman region of psychopathy.
And, this is the crux of the serial killer as psychopathic inhumanity, because they have the ability to mimic us, our humanity; and yet, they do not possess the ability to empathize with others: this is the subtle strangeness and alterity of the psychopath; and, an eerie fascination on our part to know and understand just what that entails. David gives several reasons for this: masochistic fantasies of domination; sexual perversity and excitement; sado-masochistic voyeurism, etc. Yet, as David suggests, the main reason is due to the serial killer’s phenomenologically alien or inhuman “incapacity for empathy,” which arouses in us both fascination and terror, that allows us to see in the darkness of the other the abyss of our own inner inhumanity. The serial killer “is thus metaphysically alien while occupying a body that is biologically akin to our phenomenological conspecifics”.
Ultimately they “may be phenomenologically alien, but, in so being, they indirectly manifest the inhuman reality on which the fragile phenomenology of the human community depends”. Here David explores “dark phenomenology” or the notion that we live in a very minimal and neglectful field of knowledge, that for the most part we are blind to the very information we need to know more about ourselves and our environment but that we do not even know that we neglect this very information. As he states it:
“The blindness of the mind to its true nature is also exhibited among unimpaired agents. We regularly assume that we are authoritative about the reasons for our choices. Yet studies into the phenomenon of ‘choice blindness’ by Petter Johansson and Lars Hall suggest that humans can be gulled into attributing reasons to themselves that they did not make.”
In fact he’ll discuss Thomas Metzinger’s constraint of “autoepistemic closure”: “Phenomena such as choice blindness and anosognosia suggest that our insight into subjectivity depends on a fallible process of self-interpretation that is subjectively ‘transparent’ and immediate only because we are not aware that it is a process at all.” The point being that we are cut off, blind to the very processes of the brain that control the very access to information available. We are under the delusion that the information we have is all there is, and that it suffices to describe both ourselves and our environment when in fact it is minuscule in relation to the vast information processing that actually goes on in the brain of which we are in complete ignorance.
If serial killers are “aliens in virtue of their incapacity for empathy, we are all alien to ourselves epistemically”. Following Freud we become aware of our inhuman side only when it “perturbs our experience in ways that we cannot own”. This is Freud’s sense of drives that overpower us (i.e., moods or obsessions). For David the serial killer’s psychopathology reminds us of what Dylan Trigg in his recent ‘The Thing: A Phenomenology of Horror,’ describes as the “spectral materiality (Levinas) of the world with horror—an inhuman void yawning beneath our lived and shared world”.
So that as David suggests in the end it “seems that we are drawn to the serial killer not because we admire their actions or identify with their prey, but because they intimate a reality deeper or more capacious than our parochial human world. The hyperbolically powerful serial killer may, then, entice us with the prospect of a weird transcendence, hidden in the defiles of an inhuman nature.”
Maybe in the end like Thomas Ligotti’s comic fatalist, the Frolic Man, the psychopath is an alien and alienated being of another order, or an order of play in the kosmos of which we are only dimly aware, but are reminded of from time to time as that region of being before Being, a pre-ontological gap, a hole in the universe of the human where the darkness seeps outside-in. It is in the darkness that we find our ancient home beyond the safe and secure regions of human empathy; and, yet, it is this very universe of untamed natural forces, where the unknown lives: those creatures of the night that sport upon the chaotic void that fascinates us, calls to us, beckons us, seduces us, and allures us toward impossible revelations even as it terrorizes us with its impersonal and absolute laughter and indifference. Here just here is where the Festival of Slaughter begins…
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