Dexter and Philosophy: Mind Over Spatter
US: May 2011
A fantastically simple hook creates a baffling philosophical paradox in Dexter, the TV series and books. It was only a matter of time before we had the killer who kills killers. The psychopath that outdoes all others. Harking back to Rashkolnikov in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment through to Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley; we follow the killer and track his motives and emotional and psychological development – or lack thereof.
In Dexter and Philosophy: Mind Over Spatter a range of academics assess the central paradox. This constitutes: Dexter the psychopath has been taught by his father (Harry) to kill other killers, because (their reasoning goes) he would kill anyway thanks to the inescapable compulsion that drives him (due to the childhood trauma of seeing his mother hacked to death and spending two days sitting in a pool of blood in a container at the docks with his older brother Brian). Therefore, he might as well mete out a form of justice towards those who would otherwise slip through the net, i.e., other psychopathic predators.
However, as the moral philosophy then shows, the reason he can kill is that he has a compulsion to do so, something he cannot help; therefore does that not make the other psychopaths whom he disposes of just as innocent on the grounds that they, too, have a compulsion they cannot fight? Or is he not just as guilty as they are if, alternately, all psychopaths know what they do because they try to hide their crimes, as Dexter does when he kills and disposes of the bodies in such a ‘clean’ way so as to leave no evidence? If guilty, in this ethical and philosophic scenario, should he not self-destruct?
These close analyses of the drama series show that they depict the story of Dexter as his gradual self-destruction, but he takes many with him along the way – both guilty (his brother Brian the ‘Ice Truck Killer’) and innocent (his actions lead to the murder of his wife Rita at the hands of the Trinity killer). Dexter is damaged goods and has to wear a mask and that is meat and drink to a philosopher. Similar to many of the essay collections in this series (this one is Volume 58 in Open Court’s Popular Culture and Philosophy ) the trawl through the minute detail does not tire and provokes further ideas.
For me, Patricia Brace’s chapter ‘The Sublime Dexter’ probably convinces most thoroughly and best represents the meshing of Enlightenment philosophy with the appeal of a popular culture anti-hero. She uses Burke’s text On The Sublime And Beautiful to initiate an interpretation of Dexter’s actions on the grounds that extreme acts induce extreme emotional states, such as terror, which are sublime. The ‘Power of the Sublime’ she says ‘explains our ability to feel more alive by experiencing strong emotional reactions to the world we perceive around us’ (100).
This underpins Dexter’s urges and his pursuit to feel something. From there, Burke takes off into the realms of art, as developed from the sublime feelings prompted by that which ‘operates in a manner analogous to terror’. Whatever might ‘excite the ideas of pain and danger’ or anything that might be ‘terrible’, not necessarily beautiful, is a ‘source of the sublime.’ It is within human nature to seek out that which provokes, reinforces and sustains these urges.
This is probably the best description of both the motivations and the character of Dexter and the symbiotic relationships he has with the allies, lovers and enemies he finds himself competing with: Miguel Prado, Lila, and Paul Bennett. There are those who suspect him, wish to collude with him, provoke him to further bloodshed in the name of art or justice, and by contrast those who are the counterbalance and have no ‘Dark Passenger’, such as Rita or Debs.
The audience’s relationship with the range of serial killers in popular culture is a fraught one. Having, as Burke defines it, the urge in us to reveal, encounter, sustain and experience extreme emotions as a way of glimpsing and knowing ‘power’ helps to explain why we view and read such material. Strange entertainment though it is, the mimetic devices used to depict horror, suspense, and violence, are consistently a facet of society’s urges and have always been with us. You only have to remember that the most popular of Shakespeare’s plays during his lifetime was the most bloodthirsty Titus Andronicus, showing a kindred spirit of revenge to Dexter.
This volume pursues, with an accessible tone, how philosophy might help us to understand the darkest urges in the human mind (soul?) and navigates antique and modern philosophies’ relationship with the culture that depicts these darkest acts.
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