Dexter, Democracy, and Nietzsche: Puzzling Through the Deep End of America's TV Obsession
Dexter Contra America
In America, in which the Constitution supposedly fosters equality of opportunity, safety, liberty, and justice for all, why would people be drawn to a dangerous wrongdoer like Dexter Morgan? One might think that such a sinister vigilante would be unpopular, and that the show would fail before its first season ended.
To be sure, a wide swath of America seems disgusted by Dexter's popularity. In particular the Parents Television Council (PTC) opposed the show's premier on CBS, claiming that “'[t]hey intend to air material that effectively celebrates murder'” (New York Times). The show receives flak whenever a mentally unstable fan decides to exercise some vigilantism in Dexter's name; this has sadly happened several times. Many people however, upon hearing of Dexter, immediately refuse to watch it. Others despise his character's actions as 'disgusting' and leave the room or close their eyes during a kill. Naturally, most of these people stop watching entirely. The most accurate name for the sentiments of those actively opposing Dexter is moral outrage.
Indeed, such outrage is implicit in the many remarks from the PTC, as well as other activist groups against the show. Moral outrage of any sort at Dexter is an interesting phenomenon. Why should one feel insulted if Dexter kills on his own time? Why, in fact, must the show mean anything whatsoever to these persons? Dexter only exists because Showtime allows cuss words, unlike regular, more widely viewed cable networks; this rule extends to nudity as well. On regular cable networks, sexual innuendo is allowed, provided such innuendo does not lead to any actual sexual encounter. The purpose of repulsion, indeed, “seems to be to exculpate a forbidden desire” for the atrocious acts committed, a “yearning that is made licit by an outward appearance of disgust” (Duclos 60). If someone hides his eyes, or vacates the room, he must obviously feel a need to show his objection to the acts committed. To viewing buddies, this guy is too kind, too soft for the graphic content. To Duclos, the disgusted man has more deeply repressed urges than the others in the room.
I propose that some Americans' repulsion at Dexter signifies a larger phenomenon of secret identity with his violence and destruction. This identity is founded on a misinterpretation and perversion of the Nietzschean free spirit's creativity, which I will address later. Americans do not so completely denounce tales like Batman, or vampires like Edward Cullen in Twilight. With such protagonists, audiences are spared the reality, or even the appearance of reality, of tangible bloodlust and animalistic, Dionysian indulgence. Dexter, therefore, represents the disturbing human embodiment of the “bloodsucking vampire” (Duclos 61). America was repulsed when it“caught a glimpse of itself in the mirror” (ibid).
Myths like Twilight and Batman gain a terrifying representative in Dexter, who shamelessly indulges his dark urges without regard for societal misgivings concerning expression of such dark urges. What Duclos calls the American 'werewolf complex,' as represented by these omnipresent dark urges, is America's unwillingness to “acknowledg[e] its urges. It feels obliged to label them as 'bad'” (Duclos 119). One might say that those with any strong aversion to Dexter embody a fundamental fear of their repressed instincts, and a rejection of one's internal “blond beast prowling about avidly in search of spoil and victory,” the “hidden core” of one's being that “needs to erupt from time to time” and never is allowed within the confines of civil society (Nietzsche GM 41). Of course, there are numerous Americans who do not watch the show simply because they do not fancy the genre, or do not want to pay Showtime's network price. For these people, no deep repression is evident whatsoever, they are simply indifferent, a sign of self-comfort people from the PTC are unfamiliar with.
As of now this wildly popular show is nearly five seasons in, and has not showed any signs of cancellation. I will argue that Americans must somewhat identify with Dexter's superior liberty: first, within the thrill of transgression; second, as a creative being, an artist who expresses himself without limitation. Though this artistic element is somewhat connected to the thrill of transgression, it is fundamentally separate. Transgression assumes some form of ressentiment in its completion, a ressentiment directed against societal laws or criminals. Dexter as an artist, however, does not inherently express ressentiment. Because Dexter is a free spirit, he constantly strives to avoid ressentiment (as well as other limitations) and I have argued that such ill-will is indeed absent from his actions on the show; Americans, on the other hand, enjoy Dexter partly due to feelings of both ressentiment in witnessing Dexter's transgression and in admiration of his artistic self-creation. More on this later.
One might argue that America's fascination with Dexter represents a longing for more personalized, efficient justice. Rousseau’s democratic vision sees the “people...subject to the laws” as “their author,” and further that “public enlightenment results in the union of understanding and will in the social body; hence the complete cooperation of the parts, and finally the greatest force of the whole” (Rousseau 67). Though citizens vote, few would say they ‘authored’ the law, and rarely do Americans feel decisive in their political authority, as was articulated above. Even if jurists briefly feel like arbiters of justice when delivering a guilty verdict, the cooperation required to reach such a verdict was itself a frustrating hindrance to many people's sense of justice.
As Nietzsche supposed, to “see others suffer does one good, to make others suffer even more,” for “[without] cruelty there is no festival: thus the longest and most ancient part of human history teaches” (Nietzsche GM 67). In essence, one with this view might argue that people’s impersonal participation in legislation, and inability to punish wrongdoers for their transgression, creates sympathy for Dexter’s criminal acts. Dexter’s execution of justice is personal and quick; he gathers his own evidence, conducts his own searches, and exacts his own punishments without remorse. There is no lengthy manhunt, defense attorney, jury selection process, or chance of parole; there is only safer streets, and compensated victims (ideally).
In this sense, people identify not necessarily with his liberty, but rather with his direct and personal adjudication, nonexistent in a due-process, criminal rights America. Though this view may have some truth to it, it only addresses man within his socio-political context, and fails to acknowledge the animal core within men that Nietzsche speaks of. Therefore, it can only explain people's desire for Dexter on a superficial level. Indeed, audiences most identify with Dexter's liberty, not his efficiency.
An abundance of restrictions through law, and alienation from its execution, both result in pools of subconscious aggression, frustration, and energy within people’s consciousness. I addressed this phenomenon in “America in a Nutshell.” Also addressed above, Dexter, unconstrained by such societal tethers, freely unleashes “the intense energy that the human animal experiences in a state of demonic or holy rage” (Duclos 9).
Americans feel suffocated by restriction, not only on a conscious level, but deep within their socially burdened being. Obviously, a certain amount of repression must occur for one to live in civil society, but due to the inadequacy of the American dream, people feel powerless and lost. Dexter’s actions, his transgression, represents forbidden rebellion that many Americans find attractive. He is rebellious in two ways: first, his illicit activities violate the superficial laws and boundaries within society; second, his nature and means for satisfying it remain undetected by even his closest friends and family members, thus successfully escaping all binding and inescapable societal expectations on a fundamental level. Dexter, through his transgression, frees himself from all constraints that bother Americans.
Dexter’s thoughts and actions, shared only with the audience, give the audience a sense of exclusivity and invokes their sympathy with Dexter. This imagined bond allows audiences to excuse his transgression and brutality, while also allowing them to excuse any hidden insecurities, desires, or darknesses they may harbor in their own minds. In general, the show liberates people to the extent that audiences identify with Dexter, and enjoy living vicariously through him in an environment without concrete repercussions for such sympathy; as Duclos so astutely recognizes, in American culture, “criminal violence and the violence that leads to freedom are inextricably linked” (Duclos 35). With such a reading, people's ressentiment and weakness draw them to Dexter.
However, one might wonder how Americans, with their last man-ish tendencies, could ever harbor ressentiment against society at all. Would not all the ressentiment be directed against the criminals Dexter kills? Are not Dexter’s victims the very threats to society that herd animals fear the most? This view employs a perspective that sees Dexter as an instrument of the herd, and as a sick moralizer. On Dexter’s character, I have already set aside the notion that Dexter is a last man, and argued that he is a free spirit. However, Americans do have last man-ish tendencies, and such tendencies would never harbor ressentiment against society.
Therefore, because Americans have a twofold existence, referred to above as a sort of ‘love-hate’ relationship with society, they express ressentiment both against Dexter’s victims and against society. Dexter, then, satisfies both the last man-ish urges as well as the more free spirited urges simultaneously: the audience gets to live out ressentiment against criminals and society. Because this satisfaction arrives via fictional television, namely Dexter, the more predominant last man-ish qualities within Americans are not disgusted; the viewer never intends to commit any actual transgression. In other words, watching Dexter is a safe activity that does not disrupt one’s actual world or daily routine. This still, however, does not fully address certain visible aspects of Dexter’s character, his creativity in particular.
Americans may see Dexter as an artist, restoring American culture through creative expression, as opposed to being represented by mechanical, distant government entities. This theory is somewhat connected to the transgression theory in that art liberates the individual. In order to fully realize this connection, one must first analyze, with a Nietzschean eye, the nature of creativity. There are two ways in which Americans perceive Dexter's free spirited creativity, superficially, in which they are correct, and subconsciously, in which they misunderstand him.
On a superficial level, Americans recognize Dexter’s transgression as the union between strength and self-defined purpose. They enjoy seeing such artistic expression, the burgeoning creative will willing its desires, expressing itself without shame. Dexter fans know they lack the courage to venture to the depths Dexter explores, and feel somewhat close to him. In other words, fans somewhat understand Dexter.
This understanding becomes misunderstanding, however, through fans' perceived empathy with Dexter, which is undoubtedly a manifestation of their desire to rebel. Dexter, as a free spirit, “pours over...[and] consumes himself...disastrously, involuntarily” as part of his nature (218 Nietzsche TI). There isn't necessarily any ill intention, hatred, or revenge inherent in his drive to do so. Those who 'empathize' with Dexter, however, attribute to him a “higher type of morality” in exchange for their admiration, a perception which “misunderstands” Dexter's being. Such misunderstanding emerges from America’s specific type of repression, which is magnified by the myth of the American dream, and Duclos' 'werewolf complex.' To a certain extent, as described above, the damming up of creativity within the individual, caused by state domination, causes weakness, an unhealthy destructive force, masochistically feeding on one’s will to life. This weakness drives Americans’ 'empathy' with Dexter.
One might wonder, however, if Dexter is killing to satisfy justice and eliminate sinners. How can Dexter have a healthy morality if he targets only criminals, and makes them feel guilt for their actions? Earlier, however, I dispensed of this Dexter as the last man argument in favor of Dexter as the free spirit. He is not an overman in the sense of ideal over-ness. Rather he is übermenschlich in his ambition and his state of mind. Thus, Dexter abides by his own morality; he ascribes to none of the guilt his victims feel, and asks not “Am I evil? Am I good?” but rather how to “explore new rituals” and “evolve” (Dexter “The British Invasion”). Along this line of thought, Nietzsche says:
In this passage, Nietzsche connects one's blood, one's creative essence, to sensory experience. Life is indulgence, particularly Dionysian indulgence. The cold realm of ideas saps the blood from the individual, detaches them from beauty, and leaves them cold and desolate. This is why “what is great culturally has always been unpolitical, even antipolitical” (Warren 222).
All the factors limiting Americans today, both legal and economic, are mainly constituted of foreign, external ideas. To most Americans, as noted above, laws and their execution, as well as justice, and even the modern stock market, are concepts without a “drop of blood in them” (Nietzsche GS 333). Actions taken by various institutions within the American nexus of power are devoid of citizen consent or congress. In other words, Americans are increasingly alienated from the factors that govern their livelihoods, and with this alienation comes a lack in understanding, and a feeling of helplessness.
Naturally, I do not mean to suggest that Americans somehow lack creativity; this cannot be true, for otherwise they would have no appreciation or sympathy for Dexter whatsoever. Americans are not last men, though they have last man-ish tendencies, as articulated above. I simply mean to suggest that people in America have forgotten their 'blood.' He cleaves through all the disguises civil society places on people. All the clothes, signs of one's class, indications of wealth, or any other societal indicators become insignificant; his victims lie bound, supine, and naked on a table. He draws the life essence from people, he drowns his kill room with gore, he freely and shamelessly engages in his deepest desires. Indeed, it is this engagement that liberates him. The government has no veins, ideas do not bleed. Only people bleed.
The sole reason for existence, one's creative being, the will to power, etc., all such things are repressed within American civil society. Individuals have forgotten their blood. Commercialized items, digital expression; in a word, other persons' ideas characterize everyone's expression. As a character, Dexter reminds people of their primordial core. He hearkens back to one's seemingly limitless potential before he or she knew the rules of American society. Dexter reminds us of that muffled will to create, grow, and overcome beneath our civil identity. However, despite this intuitive understanding and appreciation for Dexter's free spirited essence on a superficial level, people truly enjoy the show because of their deeply repressed urges that manifest themselves as ressentiment.
Through the course of this inquiry, I first concluded that Dexter was neither the last man nor the overman, but rather the free spirit, a type of higher man who exudes übermenschlich qualities and creativity while still remaining conceivably human. Shortly after, I attempt a brief Nietzschean-Marxist analysis of American governmental and economic limitations. I concluded that Americans feel frustrated and trapped in their work and their home.
They have renounced the American dream as a myth, which resembles that last man-ish capitulation of the will to ignorance and nihilism, as directly opposed to Dexter, the free spirit who transcends, or at least strives to transcend, these limitations perpetually, comfortable maintaining himself on insubstantial ropes and dancing even near abysses. Next, I identified exactly who Dexter's audience was, and discussed the trouble with separating Dexter fans from the rest of Americans. There is nothing special about Dexter fans, other than they prefer the crime-drama genre to other genres. Other than such a characteristic, no other significant differences delineate Americans from Dexter fans.
In other words, the extreme repression present in American society, for many, simply manifests itself in enjoyment of Dexter. Finally, I came to conclude that Americans enjoy, but misunderstand Dexter. While Dexter creates himself artistically and without significant limitations, Americans primarily experience ressentiment through Dexter's violence and its protagonist's barbarous deeds. Though I concede that Americans somewhat understand Dexter in that they can admire him as a free spirit, and his ability to remain independent and forthright in his actions, I still believe that at a deeper level all Americans, including Dexter fans, are still subject to the ressentiment and nihilism pervasive within American society.
There are many areas in which this essay does not go far enough, or rather cannot go much further, in either diagnosing American society or explaining why American Dexter fans like Dexter. The audience statistics I have for Dexter are not large enough, and do not represent enough people, to make any reliable conclusions about Americans in general. This essay can, however, provide a case study into a modern American antihero.
Though I was not able to address the genre of the antihero, Dexter represents one of the larger, more mainstream names in a broader community of antiheroic figures in modern American television: Walter White of Breaking Bad, Al Swearengen of Deadwood, Nancy Botwin of Weeds, Don Draper of Mad Men, and many others. In a further study, I might take a handful of such popular antiheroic characters and conduct a larger analysis on their popularity using more information from audience demographics as well as political surveys.
In analyzing America, I found Nietzschean philosophy somewhat limited in that it failed to accurately describe Americans extensively enough. No one Nietzschean character fit Americas quite right, and I was forced to mix and match character traits at times so as to accurately articulate a point. In further research, I might draw on a wider array of political philosophical texts to aid in characterizing America. Despite the pitfalls of this essay, it provides a detailed, if somewhat incomplete, look into why Dexter has achieved so much success with American audiences.
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