12-Aug-20 Nordic Noir

Photo by Jonathan Petersson from Pexels

In recent years, many of us will have enjoyed TV series such as The Killing, The Bridge or Borgen or read Larrson’s Millennium series or Mankell’s Kurt Wallander books. They form part of cultural genre known as ‘Nordic noir’, a term believed to have been coined by Guardian critic Sam Wollaston in 2012.

In July 2020, Keith J Hayward and Steve Hall published an article in the British Journal of Criminology entitled Through Scandinavia, Darkly: A Criminological Critique of Nordic Noir. They identify three elements, popularly associated with this genre.

First, the melancholy aesthetic of ‘landscape, atmosphere and Scandinavian imagery’ (p.4), which is often heightened with colour tinting and sombre music through production. Further the Scandi interior style depicted is associated with a natural, stripped-backness, signifiying purity and simplicity.

Second, is the use of both male and female ’emotionally complex or psychologically troubled lead characters’ (p.5). Interestingly, it is suggested that male leads in this genre tend to be more emotive and female leads more tough. This perhaps links to the idea that Scandinavian societies are less stratified by gender.

Third, this genre is deemed ‘realist’ and ‘gritty’ because it is said to offer a trenchant critique of the Scandinavian welfare model. Often viewed by Western democracies as an exemplary society, Nordic noir appears to point to a darker underbelly and indeed the substitution of welfarism with neoliberalism.

So to summarise, Nordic noir is a genre which represents a nostalgic longing for the social democracy and homogeneity that is believed to have characterised Scandinavian countries and, at the same time, a critique of this supposed golden age (p. 9). Drawing on both ultra realism and cultural criminology (which are not obvious bedfellows), Hayward and Hall suggests that this orthodox reading of Nordic noir is missing something.

Ultra realism problematises identitarian ‘social movements’ approach to criminology (preoccupied, for example with gender, ethnicity or penal abolitionism) and return to Criminology’s fundamental question, which it claims is, “why do some individuals and groups risk harm to others as they pursue their instrumental and expressive interests?” Ultra realists call for criminologists to move beyond sociological and constructionist ways of understanding the world and look to cognate disciplines such as “history, economics, politics, philosophy, anthropology, psychology and psychoanalysis”, as well as pursuing more ethnographic approaches to make sense of lived reality.

An interview with Steve Hall (Injustice, 2018)

Cultural criminology “views crime and the agencies and institutions of crime control as cultural products or as creative constructs”, which carry meaning. It is particularly focused on late modern culture and how contemporary forms of capitalism, anomie, state activity, power, resistance, crime and crime control play out in cultural artefacts, practices and ideas. Cultural criminology is inter-disciplinary and action-focused.

Cultural Criminology by Keith Hayward (Oxford Bibliographies, 2018)

Hayward and Hall argue that, rather than gritty realism, Nordic noir has lost its grip on reality. It has done this in two ways. First, there is an increasing retreatist element to the genre, with action set in rural communities, seemingly insulated from the globalised world. Second, the storylines are increasingly sensationalist, with macabre and unlikely plot lines (p.10). The authors attribute this shift to a recognition by Scandinavians that they are unable to recover a romanticised past, yet also unable to adapt in a progressive way to the reality of the neo-liberal globalised order. Drawing on Lacan’s work, Hayward and Hall suggest that the Symbolic Order – that is the shared set of understandings and relations (language, law, culture, religion etc.) that define a society – is malfunctioning. Scandinavia has lost its binding story and purpose. They argue that the escape route from this impasse is expressed culturally through sensationalism, fantasy and retreatism. These sentiments are reflected in “modernity’s vigilant and powerful engines of mythology—TV, film and popular fiction” (p.14).

The article is theoretically complex and I hope I have simplified it, while retaining its essence. The central argument is internally coherent and fascinating. At the same time, I think a malfunctioning Symbolic Order characterises most neo-liberal economies – that is the late modern predicament. From that perspective, Scandinavia and Nordic noir is but one case study.

The key takeaway for those interested in crime and its representation is how it is possible to relate socioeconomic shifts at the global level with specific cultural artefacts and practices at the regional and local level. It is not necessary to ‘prove’ these relationships in a scientific sense: rather the intellectual exercise of tracing the ‘loops and spirals’ (Ferrell, Hayward and Young, 2015, p.155) between art and life opens up new ways of understanding crime and crime control.

© Natasha Mulvihill and Criminology Tales, 2020. 

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