The spectacle of capital punishment

The public’s captivation with capital punishment has been the focus of much literature over the years. Traditionally, such literature has mostly dealt with the exhibition of public execution and the associated carnivalesque crowd (Laquer, 1989: 323), however, a consideration of the depictions of capital punishment and death in literature, film, and the news suggests the public have remained captivated even following the move of execution behind closed doors. Thus, analysing capital punishment as a spectacle calls for a consideration of how the penalty exists culturally; an examination of the ‘signs and symbols, fantasies and phantasms’ affiliated with that spectacle (Boulanger and Sarat, 2005: 15). This type of inquiry adds a cultural dimension to top-down political and legal accounts surrounding the death penalty that should be deemed short-sighted without. Whilst Foucauldian theories are significant in understanding how the end of public execution was emblematic of wider development in societal architecture and the way power operated within it (1977), a cultural lens aids in exposing how public intrigue remains in the form of a hidden or imagined spectacle. Public opinion and shared meanings are constructed and fed by cultural agencies, and an insight into the representation of the death penalty through these cultural mediums will identify some of the ways that it is understood. After considering the importance of integrating a cultural approach, I will begin by touching on the long-established spectacle of the scaffold, and then go on to evaluate how a cultural perspective exposes the persistence of public intrigue in the death penalty and of a continued appetite in general for the body and pain in the United States and, whilst capital punishment was still legalised, Britain. By incorporating Baudrillard and his work regarding semiotics and hyperreality (1994), we can understand the transition from lived experiences of public execution to culturally represented depictions as characteristic of the societal shift towards a postmodern state, where representations replace lived realities. This will be supported by employing examples from three cultural mediums: media representations of death penalty victims (namely Ruth Snyder and Karla Faye Tucker); the cinematic depiction of execution in Dead Man Walking; and finally concentrating on the relationship between the internet and the death penalty, largely focusing on the depiction of the electric chair as a symbol of execution, in order to suggest how the spectacle of capital punishment lives on in a mediated way. Thus capital punishment requires analysis as a spectacle for two reasons: firstly as it demands an integration of a cultural analysis into the study of punishment and society, and secondly as this cultural investigation accordingly reveals the transition to a postmodern society in which our understandings of reality are largely shaped by representations rather than lived experiences.

Adopting a cultural approach to analyse capital punishment as a spectacle is crucial. Focusing solely on political and socioeconomic frameworks to analyse the death penalty neglects the role of culture and thus fails to fully address public sentiment and the wider discourses associated. We should instead identify punishment as a cultural agent shaped by cultural processes, with culture and punishment as mutually interdependent (Boulanger and Sarat, 2005: 15, 11,12). As Garland claims, it is vital to look at punishment as a set of signifying practices (1990: 252), as it is this symbolic significance that constitutes a large part of the appeal for supporters of the death penalty (Boulanger and Sarat, 2005: 15). The media and other cultural agencies actively partake in the construction of people’s values, opinions and beliefs with the representations they employ (Osgerby, 2012). These mediums have the opportunity to ‘transform the minds’ of their consumers, and an analysis of their content can expose the ‘permeable boundary’ between public opinion and the judicial system, challenging top-down theories of politics and power (Boudreau, 2006: 188, 13). Cultural production is absolutely entangled with power relations and structures of authority (Boulanger and Sarat, 2005: 16). Using culture as a category of analysis is also beneficial as it allows us to forge new interdisciplinary connections to develop a comprehensive explanation of the evolution of punishment (Boulanger and Sarat, 2005: 14; Smith, 2008: 2). Thus this essay will be grounded on how cultural portrayals and understandings of capital punishment present it as a spectacle, and what this can tell us about wider society.

Traditional readings of capital punishment as a spectacle have surrounded ritualised public executions, and we must acknowledge these first. A comprehensive understanding of these events relies on a cultural reading, as this tells a different story to the intended meanings of execution. Although the display of capital punishment officially ‘sought to destroy and cleanse [evil], restore order from chaos, and celebrate the moral and sacred authority of the law,’ these aims to demonstrate power, responsibility and retribution frequently did not transpire (Smith, 2008: 38; Boulanger and Sarat, 2005: 2). The ‘morality play’ framework was largely disregarded, with criminals sometimes appearing victimised, pitied or admired, rather than being held up as sacrifices for justice to prevail, and some even managing to take dramatic control of their own executions (Smith, 2008: 39, 42). Smith deems the affair trivialised and comical, ‘degraded to a farce’ – a far cry from the intended state communication (2008: 43). This reading has been illustrated in depictions of British public execution such as Hogarth’s 1747 ‘The Idle Prentice Executed at Tyburn,’ in which bountiful spectators appear as the central actor struggling for a good view. At the heart of this canonical image is the carnivalesque crowd, consisting of ‘boisterous women, men, and children of all ages and classes engaged in festival’ (Laquer, 1989: 309, 332). The crowd, represented in Hogarth’s work as festive and buoyant, ’wholly unconcerned with serious state theatre and unaffected by its efforts,’ remains consistent throughout visual and literary depictions of public execution whilst the condemned bodies come and go (Laquer, 1989: 332, 338). These themes certainly run through William Thackeray’s description of an execution he himself attended, in which he describes the festive crowd and the light-hearted atmosphere, even noting that the gin shops opened early on execution day (Laquer, 1989: 351). Thus, it is evident that the public execution process appears associated more with public entertainment than terror, with the ‘titillated’ disorderly crowd distracted from the motives of morality and justice (Wilf, 1993: 67, Laquer, 1989: 325). The ‘immodest and carnivalesque’ crowd of this ‘unintended performance’ has correctly been analysed as a spectacle (Smith, 2008: 46). However, what is often overlooked is that analysis of public execution enables an insight into how representations of the event were equally involved in the construction of capital punishment as a spectacle. With this in mind, we can go on to understand how the death penalty should continue to be interpreted as a spectacle even following its removal from the public podium.

The transition away from ‘raucous and highly ritualised executions’ to the abandonment of public suffering – a shift mirrored across Europe and in America (Linders, 2002: 607) – may suggest the end of capital punishment as a spectacle. Indeed, executions went from deliberately tortuous pain-filled procedures to ‘less bloody, less public and more solemn ceremonies’ in which the pain was minimised, and were largely replaced by prisons as the foremost mode of punishment (Lynch, 2000: 3); evolving from a ‘large and rowdy public spectacle to a hidden and tightly controlled ritual’ (Linders, 2002: 607). Foucault has completed extensive work on the shift away from the spectacle of the scaffold, maintaining that a regime of discipline was more effective at distributing power than parading a dismembered body (Vaughan, 2000: 73). Public, brutal punishment was replaced by ‘routinised activities directed towards reforming,’ and the incorporation of science, ration, expertise, surveillance and monitoring: the succession of disciplinary power (Smith, 2008: 9-10). Foucauldian analysis links the end of public execution to paradigmatic shifts in the role of state punishment and regulation, moving from a focus of power over the body to the soul (1977). This presents the state as the primary catalyst of change, and the shift as a top-down evolutionary process. This macro-level approach has been criticised for omitting culture and downplaying the individual role and agency as well as counter narratives and interpretations of the death penalty (Spierenberg, 1984: viii; Smith, 2008: 34). The evolution of punishment discourse is not as clear-cut as Foucault suggests, and while his framework for the disappearance of the public spectacle remains valuable, Spierenberg is correct in claiming that the end of public execution was just as influenced by developments in mentalities as well as changing human organisation (Spierenberg, 1984: 200). An insight into reform literature demonstrates that the move away from public execution can be understood as an active ‘innovative and sophisticated experiment’ to transform the ‘aesthetic of punishment’ from a visual spectacle to an imagined one, hoping to restore moral order and removing cultural disorders at the same time (Wilf, 1993: 77-78; Smith, 2008: 47). Although this perspective does not entirely challenge top-down understandings, it does add more depth by integrating cultural sensibilities and a sense of public attitudes and sentiment into the topic (Spierenberg 1984: viii; Vaughan, 2000: 78).

This inclusion of cultural developments can demonstrate how non-political societal presences can shape or influence state punishment, in ways that may not necessarily be touched on by macro-level, functionalist analyses. (Lynch, 2000: 4-5). Reformers took issue with the excitement generated in the spectators when watching infliction of pain (Halttunen, 1995: 325), described by one as breeding an ‘atrocious passion for witnessing human agonies, and beholding the slaughter of human beings’ (Halttunen, 1995: 10 citing Edward Livingstone, 1831). The spectacle supposedly lead to a public inurement to misery, death and pain, maybe even arousing a taste for cruelty (Halttunen, 1995: 323-324). The hypothesis that a change in people’s sensibilities explains the transformation of capital punishment practices rests upon theories of the emergence of a new culture of sensibility in the early 19th century that redefined pain as unacceptable, labelling cruelty as savage and barbaric (Vaughan, 2000: 76; Lynch, 2000: 4, Garland, 1990; Halttunen, 1998: 63). Civilisation was associated with an occlusion of violence, and an expectation for cultured citizens to feel sympathy and compassion; no longer was it appropriate to enjoy the public infliction of pain or death (Vaughan, 2000: 76; Halttunen, 1998: 63-64; Spierenberg, 1984: 185). Rather, reformers suggested turning attention to hidden punishments, which relied on the imagination to conjure up frightening images of the unseen (Wilf, 1993: 54). Thus, this perspective claims that the end of public execution was due to a ‘growing aversion to sanguinary retributive rites and public displays of cruelty,’ a response to the vice and carnival of public death, and the ambition to transform state execution narrative from comedy to horror, as the imagination was deemed more fearful than reality (Wilf, 1993: 54; Smith, 2008: 50. 143). This analysis does indeed add another dimension to political and legal understandings of crime and punishment, as it allows us to speculate how wider cultural changes might have influenced ending public execution (Spierenberg, 1984: 183-184). However, it fails to evaluate the ways in which the spectacle of the death penalty persisted; further cultural analysis is required in order to understand how the fascination with the body and corporal punishment lived on even after the end of public execution.

Thus, although it is true that actions related to the human body were indeed moved into the private realm, an exploration of the cultural life of capital punishment following the enactment of ‘private’ execution laws can reveal attitudes and understandings – the emotional role – of the death penalty where they may be missing from macro-level considerations of state punishment (Spierenberg, 1984: 191; Lynch, 2002: 213). Although not experienced as a lived reality, ‘indirect knowledge of the death penalty’ remained alive and the spectacle persisted (Spierenberg, 1984: 205). A cultural lens illustrates how the state and its laws were limited in their ability to redefine and contain the violence of state killing, as populist sensibilities that sought ‘expressions of brutality’ remained in existence following the relocation of the death penalty. Indeed, the death penalty in the ‘public imagination and the sterile state administered version are two very different entities’ (Lynch, 2002: 216). This reveals the enduring spectacle of capital punishment through a persisting ‘set of sensibilities about crime and punishment which seem to long for a detour from the civilising path,’ exposing long-running themes in popular culture regarding crime and punishment. Most notably, this would be the continuation of an appetite for the body and brutality despite modern civilising sensibilities, albeit through represented mediums (Lynch, 2000: 2, 213; Lynch, 2002: 227). This has been proficiently demonstrated by Karen Halttunen’s cultural analyses of the reconstruction of pain in the 19th century. Halttunen claims that the materialisation of the sensibilities described previously – surrounding sympathy, compassion and a departure from public cruelty – resulted in pain becoming ‘obscenely titillating precisely because the humanitarian sensibility deemed it unacceptable’ (Halttunen, 1995: 304). The tension between the revulsion and the excitement aroused by pain and death resulted in an increase of suffering depicted in mediated forms; a fostering of ‘an imaginative cultural underground of the illicit and forbidden’ (Halttunen, 1995: 309, 333). Through this analysis, it can be suggested that the privatisation of execution may have even stimulated interest (Halttunen, 1998: 72). Halttunen outlines the perpetuation of the grotesque, suffering body after the privatisation of capital punishment through accounts of bodily putrefaction in popular literature and the representations within of the sights and smells of the dissected murder victims (Halttunen, 1998: 79). Through her examination of the expansion of Gothic body-horror murder fiction and the emergence of sensationalism in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Halttunen effectively outlines a new shock value of pain, precisely due to its societal rejection as forbidden and obscene (Halttunen, 1998: 69). This ‘pornography of violence’ in popular literature demonstrates the transformation of pain and death from a ‘social theatre of public punishment’ to ‘a solitary fantasy theatre’ (Halttunen, 1998: 69; Halttunen, 1994: 333).

Hence, the spectacle of capital punishment endures indirectly through the public’s ‘peculiar dreadful pleasure’ of representations of the body and death in literature, film, the news and online (Halttunen, 1998: 61). Foucauldian analysis of punishment as the rational, instrumental application of social control disregards its capacity for construing social meanings, and the persistence of emotional and symbolic accounts of punishment and the body (Smith, 2008: 177). It fails to address the ‘plural narrations of penal process’ and underestimates the ‘resilience of the sacred,’ which endures regardless of the civilisation process (Smith, 208: 178). Although the societal rationalisation Foucault speaks of is undeniable – bureaucratic rationality does appear to trump in the criminal justice system – this does not entail the elimination of symbolic meanings. Interestingly, the public sphere and production of cultural mediums has expanded immensely over the last century, which would have had an undoubtedly significant influence on how the spectacle of the death penalty has remained in represented forms, inviting cultural consumers to be imaginative spectators of death and pain (Smith, 2008: 181; Halttunen, 1998: 84). Thus I will now go on to further explore how cultural agencies have offered voyeuristic opportunities to the public to ensure that the spectacle of capital punishment lives on even though the ‘real thing’ cannot be experienced, and what this may tell us about wider changes in society.

To do so, I will undertake a cultural analysis of the representation of the death penalty by three forms of medium, drawing on Jean Baudrillard’s 1994 work on postmodernism and symbolic meanings as an analytical framework. According to Baudrillard, ‘the culture industry supplies ideologies and mediates experience,’ channelled through technology (Horrocks and Jevtic, 1999: 53). Objects and images exist only as interpreted meanings, and the modern era is characterised by an increasing circulation of these signs and symbols, which dominate and eventually replace reality (Horrocks and Jevtic, 1999: 40, 103). Hence culture is the production and consumption of these signs, which bare no relation to reality whatsoever (Horrocks and Jevtic, 1999: 49, 109). This results in a ‘hyperreality’ in which the ‘public sphere is more like a hall of mirrors where all that exists is media reflections’ and representations (Thompson, 98: 29). Within the context of capital punishment, the death penalty can be understood as a ‘representation through spectacle,’ where our contemporary understanding of it is based on imagined and reproduced information rather than real experiences. This interpretation of the transformation of the spectacle of the death penalty from a lived experience to a ‘simulated, obscene, seductive, ecstatic’ is emblematic of the transition into a postmodern era (Horrocks and Jevtic, 1999: 173). Using media coverage of Ruth Snyder and Karla Faye Tucker’s executions, the representation of Matthew Poncelot’s execution in Dead Man Walking, and then focusing on how capital punishment has been represented on the Internet, with specific attention paid to the online representation of the electric chair, I aim to continue to illustrate how a cultural investigation widens our understandings of the death penalty as spectacle, and will present the argument that how we form this understanding is typical of experience in the postmodern era. The use of these cultural mediums can illustrate macro societal transitions without being limited as a structuralist, top-down perspective would be. Although these mediums are so utterly expansive and multi-faceted, choosing just a few specific cases to support my argument should not limit my conclusion, as considering the vastness and variation of representations of the death penalty that exist is crucial in itself in illustrating ongoing public fascination and involvement.

As demonstrated earlier, the privatisation of the death penalty failed abhorrently to shift public intrigue away from state executions. Rather than erasing the spectacle, it was transferred to events leading up to the punishment, relying vastly on media accounts of the trial and appeal processes. From the 19th century onwards, modern mass communications developed immensely, including the birth of the modern tabloid press, in which the spectacle of execution and its preceding events found wide expression (Ramey, 2004: 628). One case emblematic of the public hunger for coverage of capital punishment is the publication of an execution photograph of Ruth Snyder, put to death in 1928, and captured by a Daily News journalist who smuggled a camera into the death chamber. The tabloid’s sales increased by half a million copies the day the image was published: undeniable evidence of the endurance of the spectacle of capital punishment, even in its represented form (Ramey, 2004: 670; Laquer, 1989: 354). Nor did this fascination fade: the execution of Karla Faye Tucker 70 years on was just as ‘intensely public,’ if not more so (Boudreau, 2006: 188). Tucker was so present in the news she became a ‘virtual guest in American living rooms’ from the televised media campaign (Boudreau, 2006; 188). Her televised existence heavily blurred the boundary between fiction and reality, as she became a modern-day parable, assimilated with fictional characters such as Hester Prynne and Mary Magdalene (Boudreau, 2006: 194). Although the likening of figures in the public eye to these imagined characters is nothing new, the availability of television sets in everyday American lives meant that the increasing coverage of audiences that could be reached created a whole new way in which realities could be formed. In-depth reports were published of Karla’s imagined execution two months before the actual event, even describing her ‘charcoal-coloured eyes’ as ‘transfixed ethereally’ (Boudreau, 2006: 194 citing Walt, 1998). Over 200 reporters from around the world covered the execution from the prison-gates, as the media created a medium between the procedure and the public, offering information on Karla’s last meal and a minute-by-minute account of her last day, including her last words. The intensity of the media coverage provided a more intimate account of Karla’s execution than actual spectators of public executions had witnessed in the previous century, as readers and television viewers were able to ‘take part vicariously in Tucker’s execution, to share their approbation for the event or to share the sadness of the woman’s loved ones who watched her die’ (Boudreau, 2006: 196). The intrusion of Karla Faye Tucker into the ‘homes of an international audience’ demonstrates how the spectacle of capital punishment is mediated through cultural agencies, to nourish the public appetite for the execution process (Boudreau, 2006: 197).

Another medium the spectacle of capital punishment is negotiated through is film. Dead Man Walking was released in 1995 at an all-time-high of public support for the death penalty in the United States: just two years before its release opinion polls peaked at 80% in favour of state execution (O’Sullivan, 2003: 486). Studying how the death penalty is represented in film can attach political context to public sentiment to form a deeper understanding of capital punishment. An analysis of Dead Man Walking can communicate ideas to us regarding the relationship between death, spectatorship and the American condition, as films regenerate culture and reinforce what is deemed socially appropriate (Sarat, 2001: 211). Films such as this offer an opportunity for the viewers to ‘know’ capital punishment, positioning its audience as jurors in the execution process. Throughout the film, Sister Helen Prejean acts as a stand-in for the film’s viewers, teaching us how to read and understand the criminal, even taking us into the execution chamber and providing us with a ‘you were there’ representation of the death penalty (Sarat, 2001: 213-215). Thus, regardless of whether execution films such as Dead Man Walking are read as pro- or anti-death penalty, that they construct a voyeuristic audience who feel involved in the judgement and overall process – as if they know execution – is the crucial point to note. Once more, the public can experience capital punishment as spectacle through its represented form in popular culture, witnessing the rituals involved and developing compassion or anger for the criminal.

The birth of the Internet and the ‘alternative reality’ it provides has transformed the way we collectively build and regulate meanings and opinions (Bartlett, 2014: 42), including offering the means to construct understandings of capital punishment. The web offers a unique media venue: increasingly accessible, interactive and far-reaching; an ‘apt site for examining the social, cultural, and political life’ of the death penalty (Lynch, 2000: 2; Lynch, 2002: 217). At the time of publishing in 2002, Lynch recorded around 2000 websites and web pages focusing on the death penalty, a figure that has undoubtedly risen since (Lynch, 2002: 219). Although the physical carnivalesque crowd was left behind alongside the spectacle of the scaffold, the social and communicative elements of the Internet clearly allow an online presence for virtual gatherings to take place, and can offer a unique window into contemporary pro-capital punishment sentiment and the continuance of the spectacle of the death penalty (Lynch, 2002: 219). The Internet, along with radio, television, and film, have all enhanced the ability of ordinary citizens to have their say about deviation and punishment. Phillips and Cooney have explored how the ‘growth of mass means of communication has provided news outlets for popular justice’ in their notable work on the internet as a modern day electronic pillory – a device traditionally used to restrain and publicly display offenders (2015: 726). Online versions include sites such as <>, an online moral community composed of supporters of the death penalty where members can post comments about particular offenders and executions, mostly highly critical of the condemned (Phillips and Cooney, 2015: 727). The popular resentment and mocking of criminals that was evident in the spectacle of the scaffold remains in a virtual format. For example, the release of three post-mortem photographs Allan Lee Davis onto the Florida Supreme Court’s website was met with ‘overwhelming approval,’ causing the courts’ servers to crash as they struggled to deal with the millions of hits the images were receiving (Lynch, 2000: 1). The photographs were re-posted on a number of pro-death penalty sites, inviting conversation and comments regarding Davis’ death, many extremely crude and hostile (Lynch, 2002: 226). These pictures joined a host of other photographic depictions related to electrocution, such as several graphic close ups of electrocuted men’s burn sites available on <> (Lynch, 2000: 6). Through these means, the public are easily enabled to experience vivid uncensored depictions of executed bodies from the comfort of their own homes, an undeniable illustration of the transition from the public spectacle to the privatised, mediated spectacle of the postmodern age.

The reaction to the Davis’ electrocution photographs brings us on to the symbolic significance of the electric chair for the death penalty, and how images of this kind have replaced the space where real experiences of execution were used to conjure up a specific meaning and understanding of capital punishment. That the chair is only used in private makes a general inspection of it impossible; a true experience remains ‘unknowable,’ accessible only through representations, making it all the more fascinating and mysterious (Smith, 2008: 142). Considering the (somewhat affectionate) nicknames awarded to the contraption – including ‘Old Smokey’ and ‘Old Sparky’ – the presence of emotional meanings attached to execution machinery and their purpose is clear (Lynch, 2000: 2). The chair is made accessible to the public through ‘pictures, stories, humour, games, products,’ who thus develop their understanding of these through indirect mass-mediated print and film, creating a so-called mythology of the mechanism (Smith, 2008: 143). The chair has become a popular symbol of the death penalty; a ‘charismatic object of the spectacle’ of American capital punishment (Lynch, 2000: 2, 6; Smith, 2008 161). Even though it has almost entirely been phased out of the execution process across the U.S., and replaced with the more medicinal lethal injection, it remains ‘virtually synonymous’ with American judicial execution (Lynch, 2000: 12; Smith, 2008: 157, 151). Arguments have been made that it is precisely because of the corporal nature of the electric chair that it resonates such fascination and intrigue (Lynch, 2000: 13). Regardless of its legal stigmatisation, the chair remains a very strong cultural symbol with a robust cultural life, illustrative of how an object can act as a signifier for a set of concepts and meanings which carry positive or negative values (Lynch, 2000: 12; Horrocks and Jevtic, 1999: 44-45). Thus looking at the ‘imaginative, emotional and symbolic valence’ of the electric chair draws on Baudrillard’s theoretical framework as our understanding of the death penalty is shaped by the meanings attached to objects and the representations of these on cultural mediums (Smith, 2008: 169).

Marrying the electric chair as an object and the Internet as a cultural medium, Lynch has carried out commendable work on the cultural life of the chair in popular and online culture (2000, 2002). Using a number of examples, she outlines how the public can use the Internet to interact with an object that carries such cultural significance for the spectacle of capital punishment. Rather than an ‘exclusive tool of legal authorities,’ the online presence of the electric chair makes it appear as a publicly owned commodity (Lynch, 2000: 12). Some websites Lynch mentioned presented ‘Death Penalty Fun’: online games in which the chair played a key role, such as the opportunity to use an interactive electric chair, where volunteers can become virtual executioners and gain a certificate. Other sites in this category included <>, which uses the electric chair in place of the gallows in the traditional game Hangman (Lynch, 2000: 7). The internet also offers the means for the public to access the electric chair offline, via sites providing information for ‘offbeat’ tourist attractions regarding the chair, and the advertisement of toys and games that celebrate it, such as the McFarlane Toys’ chair that enables the owner to ‘throw the lethal switch that causes evil Marv to vibrate and his eyes to light up, while he jeers the executioner by laughing and taunting’ (Lynch, 2000: 6-7). Lynch even found the option to purchase ‘Ole’SparkyTM,’ broadcasted as a ‘crowd-pleaser at a party,’ where guests sit in a full-size replica chair – complete with a copper skullcap – and flick the switch to make the seat vibrate and play the ‘sounds of execution’ (Lynch, 2000: 7). This replica, amongst others including the ‘Deep Fryer’ halloween decoration, a ‘full sized model of a man in an electric chair who writhes and smokes’ (Smith, 2008: 164), pale in comparison to Lynch’s discovery that Tennessee’s used electric chair was put on eBay, with bids reaching $25,100 before it was withdrawn from sale and bought privately (Smith, 2008: 162). None of the aforementioned objects and games were treated with sombreness or distaste, rather the light-hearted and flippant attitude present demonstrates an enduring public thirst for experiencing execution, suggestive of the contemporary cultural place of capital punishment (Lynch, 2000: 7). The represented nature of the chair gives it an almost ‘cartoonish flavour,’ as the physically destructive qualities are caricatured (Lynch, 2000: 13). This is further outlined by a brief consideration of the existence of offline representations of the electric chair. The Texas Prison Museum features Ol’ Sparky itself, with reports of visitors frequently ignoring the signs instructing them not to sit on the chair, noting the ‘hypnotic, iconic, left-sacred inflected pulling power’ of the object’ (Smith, 2008: 162). In Madonna’s 2004 Tour, the performer rose to the stage bound to an electric chair, illustrative of the matrix the chair inhabits in popular culture, and the fascination surrounding the chair as a mysterious, sacred object that teeters on the border between life and death (Newton, 2004). Thus analysis of the representations of the electric chair in popular culture and online not only begin to outline ways in which the spectacle surrounding capital punishment lives on in a multi-mediated format, but also start to unravel the ‘complex web of symbolism, affect, awe and contagion’ surrounding the death penalty (Smith, 2008: 166).

To conclude, I have aimed to demonstrate how studying capital punishment as a spectacle relies on a cultural analysis, exposing the vitality of this type of research. Observing the cultural portrayals of the body, pain and death following the execution being made private, it appears evident the Foucauldian structuralist understanding – that the 19th century saw a transition from the body to the soul – is limited, as appetites for the horror of execution continued to endure. This insight is emblematic of cultural research as a field, as it allows us to delve beyond political and structural top-down analyses in order to explore symbolic meanings (Smith, 2008: 175). However, a cultural analysis of the persisting spectacle of capital punishment is not averse to dealing with macro issues, and also seems to demonstrate a shift in the way we experience social phenomena such as the death penalty. While the spectacle of the scaffold was a lived affair, opportunities to be voyeurs have since become mediated experiences, represented through many cultural agencies such as film, print, news outlets, and on Internet sites and forums. Analysing the representation of the death penalty through these mediums draws on Baudrillard’s work on the emergence of the postmodern age, in which there are no longer truths and realities, only mere representations. Capital punishment has been analysed as a spectacle broadly because the fine line between life and death that public execution presents begets undeniable fascination, but also as there is a more sadistic appetite amongst some death penalty supporters for the pain and gore involved in the process. A cultural reading also illustrates a societal transition from lived experiences to represented ones. Thus, in spite of the disappearance of public execution, mediated experiences and representations of capital punishment amongst other depictions of corporal suffering continue to fuel public appetite, demonstrative of how the construction of capital punishment as a spectacle remains active well into the postmodern world.

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Wilf, S. (1993) ‘Imagining Justice: Aesthetics and Public Executions in Late Eighteenth-Century England’, Yale Journal of Law and Humanities, 52(5), pp. 51-78.


One thought on “The spectacle of capital punishment

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