untermenschen baby

The horrors within Joe Cinque’s Consolation and Killing for Pleasure are not the crimes of individuals with jobs, or decent schooling, or much to hope for, or even much to do. The perpetrators, accomplices, victims and witnesses of the crimes outlined in Killing for Pleasure have no share of the prosperity of John Howard’s Australia. They are poor, but not just poor. They are not even on the dole, but rather they rely on what was the only remaining portion of the safety net: the disability pension. Their poverty is not just financial, in terms of education; physical and mental health; family structures; social engagement; employment prospects; and general hope for the future their lives are almost completely barren.

These people are not the working poor, not John Howard’s battlers, they are that elusive category of social misfits: untermenschen. Literally under-men this is a term of the 1920s, although it has a longer history than that (Nietzsche, Fontane), it was popularised by Lothrop Stoddard in his 1922 pamphlet The Revolt against Civilisation: “The Under-Man — the man who measures under the standards of capacity and adaptability imposed by the social order in which he lives…”  In the pamphlet Stoddard was arguing that the USSR was ruled by the lowest class of men, especially because so many of Russia’s revolutionaries were Slavic or Jewish, and that civilisation would be doomed if the Communist ideas of the Slavs and Jews were allowed to proliferate.

From that point on the term was utilised (and transliterated into untermenschen) by the Nazis to describe those whom they abhorred on grounds other than Judaism: gypsies, gay men and women, liberals, dissidents, tramps, Jehovah’s Witnesses, criminals, the disabled and so on. The Nazis use of the phrase is usually retranslated as ‘sub-human’ and was especially used in justifying the extermination of thousands (if not millions) of so-called enemies during the Second World War, especially on the Eastern Front.

The figures portrayed in Killing for Pleasure are templates for Australian untermenschen (the Nazis were an inclusive bunch when it came to social and political enemies and it is good to know that Howard’s Australia is not quite so inclusive in this regard) and what social commentators have taken to calling Australia’s underclass.

The problem with all of this is that many, many individuals are tarred with the same unflattering brush: whole families, indeed entire suburbs are relegated to a valueless status: people so useless they are not even worth (for the most part) exploiting for their labour, people who are best excluded from the usual social geographies and corralled on the fringes of contemporary life only to be seen in their occasional appearances on the sporting field or before the courts.

Usually conversations regarding Australia’s underclass are constructed around the idea of a problem to be solved; the most recent example is the attempt by NSW government services to “deal” with Macquarie Fields and the remaining public housing estates in Sydney’s southwest. The idea of the underclass is to deny the specific circumstances and processes by which impoverishment is produced, suffered, and sustained: poverty is very flat terrain; it renders individuals and their histories indistinguishable.

The book is difficult to read, so full of horror and cruelty are the descriptions of the murders. What makes the horror so hard to digest is the facelessness of the victims. Their loss is no loss to us. None of them are people of whom obituaries celebrating their kindness or generosity or loving nature will be written. Furthermore they cannot be written: whatever differences and specificities the victims may have had are made obsolete by their deaths amidst the underclass. There is only spectacle to the untermenschen, only their participation, as killers and killed, in the scenes of torture and dismemberment bring them forward into our consciousness. The killers and killed are simply part of the great mass of unexotic otherness that lies beyond the suburban front door. There must be a suspicion that all those books authored by True Crime figures (Neddy Smith, Chopper Read, et al) are part of this grand spectacle, eavesdropping on those with nothing to lose: like watching people gamble with everything they have, watching people lose everything they have.

There is an element of cruelty in this theatre, a terrible hollowness: the audience is made safe by the distance of voyeurism. That safety is at the core of class systems. Those systems make some safe and make others submit to risk. As such the murders are written as to be almost a natural phenomenon, horror and fear growing organically from the risk that arises from cultures of violence, substance abuse and economic indifference.

This is not to say that Debi Marshall’s book is without reflection, or that it is an example of untermenschen chic. It is not. It is a book written with great sensitivity and certainly cannot be said to add any glamour to the seedy underside. For that reason horror is the central component of Killing for Pleasure, horror without a context of justice or redemption. Only unmitigated horror enables the spectacle to come undone and reassure us that we can find no pleasure in the killing.

The differences between the Joe Cinque murder and those of Bunting et al are differences of class and safety. The foremost evidence of this is that Anu Singh, the young woman who killed Joe Cinque served slightly more than four years for her crime. John Bunting will serve twelve consecutive life terms and will never be released, the others face a similar fate. The brutality of the Snowtown murders was a product of risk: the lives that Bunting, his associates, and their victims lived were lives without safety. The crime, and the life, of Anu Singh were not exposed in this way. The choices made by each party were to large part determined by the geographies of possibility that they were forced to navigate.

About rustichello

A rather too quiet fellow of little reknown.
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