Recently the British media offered yet another example of how things work for them and for us when telling a story. The news item was about Chris Denning and how he has been put in prison, again, for sexual abuse of the young. In this blog piece I am not writing about how they got it right or got it wrong; what interests me is the experience of the processes that typically shapes a historic sex assault case in countries like England, America, and yes New Zealand 2014/15. People may find these historic sex cases difficult and ‘annoying’ but in a way they are very much how we are as a society.
What are often referred to as historic sex charges involve allegations an adult has broken laws when the actions taken are very much in the past; in Chris Denning’s case the period was some thirty years ago – during the 1970s and 1980s. When events are located in the past they are rendered via our gaze, our looking back. How that rendering is done is what this post will seek to discuss.
Many fail to understand this process which generates feelings of betrayal and anger. This experience is not only possible for those who believe a child or youth has been sexually abused, it can also be how those who identify with the accused can experience the process.
Working with accounts of past events is hardly a new riddle to unpack. In my past professional life working with religious texts was central to what I did and through this work I have become familiar with how language and interpretation of items which sit in our past has been at the centre of fierce social debates. Religious texts are a central part of society, and have been so for our culture for as long as we have records. In my lifetime I can see how working with texts has been shaped by discussions inside literary studies, philosophy, psychology, put briefly all the knowledge fields have had a say about how such texts can be rendered – the process is on-going. What I argue here first came into view for me because these ways of thinking were deployed when discussing accounts of early Christianity, and now I can see the very same ideas impact on how one does history and how one constructs a text for a law court – text is everywhere; in a radical sense, all texts are shaped by the same processes – they are made, read, and rendered.
For a time there was a belief we could, with discipline, retrieve an account of the past that was freed of our prejudices and such accounts could be seen as stable. I recall reading Michel Foucault argue such a discipline sits at the heart of what an intellectual and the academic world is tasked to do. In Religion this discipline was discussed under the headings of hermeneutics and exegesis. In our current time one of the interesting differences between the Muslim and Christian traditions is how Christianity has found a new sense of itself by allowing these literary tools to help the reader discuss and access the texts Christians see as important to them. Muslims see their texts – often shared texts with the Christians – as important to them as well; however they have so far resisted bringing together the discussions that live inside secular discussions of literature, history, and philosophy and their readings of the Koran. From where I am now I see both what Foucault was arguing for – a disciplined accessing of the past and a rendering of that as an object of study – and a different set of readings shaped by postmodernism. Simply put we understand that we are continuing to tell ourselves stories and that this is just what we do.
For those readers who are unfamiliar with religious texts or just prefer a secular example for a discussion of how to write and how to read let’s look at modern literature. Nineteen Eighty Four by George Orwell is a tale many of us are familiar with and it provides an interesting way of pointing to some of the debates focused on what is history and how to approach accounts offered to us about the past. The novel by Orwell is clearly a caricature and through the story we are offered pointers about ‘truth-telling’. I argue here that to point to an object is to imply its opposite. Orwell’s novel offers, along with it’s fictional tale, a belief we can do history. He shows us as a reader there are ways we use to decide how and if an account offered to us is legitimate. Orwell’s novel refers to institutions, social practices, and a view of knowledge where the reader can see these accounts of the past are reworked and rejigged – the principles of newspeak. At the very same time as this is offered to the reader its opposite sits silently in the background; accounts of the past can be rendered that are trustworthy.
Orwell and Foucault are not the only names to throw into the ring when discussing how accounts can be assessed. Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Jean Baudrillard spring to mind, and whole groups as well, Marxists, the French Nouveau Philosophies of the 1970s, Feminists, religious factions, pop and media culture, the list is extensive. The point is not so much who is right in some absolute sense, the issue is how accounts are made, read, the rules that govern discourse. We have in such a short space of time shifted how we decide what can be trusted when making judgements about any account we view inside Western culture.
In the mid-1970s television became a new way authors could access their readers. The old pathways of legitimation were pushed to one side as a TV interview with an author was capable of moving a book from obscurity to being a best seller. Now, 2015, it can be argued this is what is happening with the Internet, and why the media cultures which have become so central to how we live have become so powerful. Engage a person or a group in a debate inside these spaces and one has the sense one has lost control of what might happen. The rule has become ‘enter these spaces at your own risk’. It is my view those in the academic world, and in the legal spaces as well, share a common failing. The features of pop-culture and the world of media are often under-estimated in how these spaces gives expression and direction to both who we are and who we are becoming.
Our legal courtrooms are no exception to what is being argued here. A court of law may well task itself with the business of finding out what happened in the past, involving the competing claims made by prosecution and defence. In fact two things are happening, we can see how we both want to believe we can get to the truth – that the past can be a rendered as an object we can view and make judgements about – and we are aware of how constructed our accounts of life are. The picture is, for all this complexity, still incomplete.
Michel Foucault has argued discourses have rules. You cannot say just anything, not just anyone can speak. Where one is looking at a case like that of Chris Denning the rules in play block the very possibility of speaking inside the legal spaces as if he is ‘just like us’ – at the heart of the profile of the sex offender is how his humanity is not to be ‘believed’, any more than one would be free to construct an account of Osama Ben Laden as ‘just like us’.
Where an adult has had sexual relations with the young, and those relationships violate our laws about sex with the young, efforts to reconstruct the past as it may be understood by the adult involved are unlikely to succeed. Notions of friendship, consent, love, they are all blocked. Because of the rules that govern current discourse – to use Foucault’s way of viewing this process – one is not able to speak and in a sense that past the accused has in their head never happened. The rules Foucault speaks of are fluid, ever changing, and some spaces operate differently than others. The law court, the media spaces, blog sites, a discussion at a pub, a talk in our homes with friends, all offer different rules, but there are patterns, blockages – ‘you can’t say that …’, templates.
In a way analogous to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four what we have that guides our lives is both a textual process governed by rules, and its opposite. It is not as if, in an objectively real sense, what Chris Denning as an convicted sex offender has had as a set of experiences has been made to disappear. With discipline one might well reconstruct an account Denning could look at and say, yes, that is what happened. However the tale we tell ourselves about those who have sexual contact with the young has a template that is dark, condemnatory and punitive. Yes, sexual assault does happen in the sense that unwanted sexual encounters take place, exploitation is a component of our social relations as people. My point is many do find the historic sex case difficult to experience because of all of what I am unpacking here, especially the person standing in the dock. (What contributes to this experience is far more than the simplistic question ‘Did you do it?’; to pose the question ‘What happened? is more open.)
As a closing remark let me say the blog discussion offered by Tom O’Carroll about the Chris Denning case is an interesting rendering of the past. It includes many bits that are unlikely to ever find themselves living inside the courtroom. Hopefully someone will find a way to allow Denning to view that discussion, he might enjoy the read.
- Bathes, R. (1972). Mythologies. New York: Hill and Wang.
- Baudrillard, J. (2000). The Murder of The Real. In J. Witwer (Ed.), The Vital Illusion (pp. 59-83). New York: Columbia University Press
- Chris Denning interview: ‘What should I do? Live my whole life on my own? I wasn’t prepared to do that’ [Newspaper article]. (2014, 16/12). The Independent (England), Online Newspaper ed., sec. News/UK/Crime.
- Ex-DJ Chris Denning jailed for sex abuse [News website]. In BBC News UK (News/UK). Retrieved 29 December 2014, from BBC: http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-30504632?ns_mchannel=social&ns_campaign=bbc_breaking&ns_source=twitter&ns_linkname=news_central
- Foucault, M. (2001). Fearless Speech. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), Distributed by MIT Press.
- Orwell, G. (1974). Nineteen eighty-four. Geneva: Edito-Service S.A.
- Peeters, B. (2013). Derrida: A Biography (A. Brown, Trans.). United Kingdom and USA: Polity Press (Original work published 2010)
- Pitkin, J. (2001, 19/12). Denning: Going against social norms [Newspaper article]. The Prague Post (Prague), English Language Newspaper/online ed., sec. Home/ Archives content
- Staff Photographer. (2014). Image of Chris Denning. In MailOnline. (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2336991/Former-Radio-1-DJ-Chris-Denning-72-revealed-13th-man-arrested-suspicion-sexual-offences-Operation-Yewtree.html).