Sam Stoeltje

The Sociopath Represented

ISSUE 41 | INFAMY | JUN 2014

I’d like to begin with the word. In reverse chronology, we should begin with “sociopath”: “1930, coined by psychologist G.E. Partridge from socio- on model of psychopath.” “Psychopath”: “1885, in the criminal psychology sense, a back-formation from psychopathic.” “Psychopathic”: “1847, from psychopathy on model of German psychopatisch, from Greek psykhe- ‘mind’ [or ‘soul’] + pathos ‘suffering.’”

The imagining of the psycho-/sociopath occurs at an uneasy boundary between criminology and psychology. Those competing prefixes indicate part of the problem: clearly there is something wrong with the “psychopath,” whose mind or self is afflicted, who is driven to do the things he does by some unfortunate confluence of environment and genetics. Yet at the same time, the “sociopath” afflicts society, like a toxin that must be drawn out, and so we see the term brought to bear within the criminal justice system, an arena where that becomes a theoretical and actual possibility.

The “sociopath” is the last (mostly) uncontested “monster-ing” label that can be utilized within liberal democracy; even the pedophile increasingly suffers from a “disease,” entrusted to self-quarantine by registering and identifying as a “sex offender.” The usage of “sociopath” signifies “incurable insanity” even as it excludes orthodox psychological knowledge from the discourse (psychology has no interest in describing any “insanity” as “incurable”). The DSM now prefers “antisocial personality disorder,” with “socio-/psychopathy” listed as synonyms. Prosecutors, not psychologists, are the ones who make the inscription in its noun form. The sociopath cannot be disciplined, but when discovered must only be isolated (the pathos removed from the socio-) forever. To be marked as a “sociopath,” then, is to be marked as a descendant of Cain, eternally and indelibly Othered, as long as society encounters these in-human (or un-human) actors and finds that their inhumanity cannot be redeemed.

Henceforth, I’m going to prefer the word “sociopath” for the connotations elaborated above: the “psychopath” has a problem, whereas the “sociopath” is a problem, and my foremost aim here is to see how culture addresses (but also produces) that problem. And while we have not exhausted this word, or these words, “psycho-/sociopath,” perhaps it would benefit us to consider the event of the “sociopath,” or at least, the event of the inscription of sociopathy. Near at hand, we have the recent “spree killing” in Santa Barbara committed by Elliot Rodger, recent enough that a great deal of cultural energy is still being expended to represent the event (and to represent those representations). What does it mean to call Rodger a sociopath?

So I Google search “Elliot Rodger sociopath.” It yields “about 27,000 results.” What do I find as I skim through the first page? “Either: It was just a very sick individual, a sociopath, driven by…” (Huffington Post) - “He’s a sociopath.” ( - “He’s a sociopath.” ( - “...gone over the top with the sociopathic act...” (Business Insider) - “...he clearly exhibited narcissistic and sociopathic traits that no doubt...” ( - “Was he a sociopath and a psycho with some mental issues?” (Yahoo Answers) - “He’s a sociopath.” ( - “But this kid just seems to have been a little sociopath or psychopath.” (

Clearly Elliot Rodger is in the process of being marked. This inscription is indelible, but also conflicted. The problem with the “spree killer-as-sociopath” derives from the problem of distinguishing the “spree killer” from the “serial killer” and “mass murderer.” In criminology, this distinction is drawn principally through an emphasis on the “element of time.” The “spree killer” and the “mass murderer” are brought together by their desire to become; they imagine and plan, stockpile or build, storing up energy for a moment of transformation in which they will perform their true(r) identities for us. But while their preparations over long intervals of time imply fixity and consistency, they also imply a resistance, an aspect of the self that forestalls the transformation, perhaps even a voice that implores: “Stop this, ask for help.”

Whatever mediates between desire and action, as both psychoanalysis and recent cognitive science have demonstrated, is better understood as a plurality than as a singular, “sovereign” consciousness. In the spree killer’s preparatory gestures, we find dramatized the reality of that plural-ness - an embattled psyche seeking to convince and encourage itself toward action. The most revealing of these gestures is the manifesto, wherein the space of writing becomes a field for the illusion of singularity to play out. Here the “killer” gives form to himself, pruning away self-doubt and anxiety, external and conflicting voices and ideas; the true(r) self writes it(s)-self into existence, transcending psyche and affect, and (crucially) entering the physical world, if only as a representation.

In this instance, the “perpetrator” has done more than provide us a written manifesto; he has made his own TV show. Rodger’s Youtube channel afforded him the opportunity to virtually become and a manner much more complete than that offered by writing alone. The video-recorded “manifesto” offers a much more fulfilling and closer substitute for action. Structured as a dialogue, albeit one with a silent interlocutor, the video-manifesto combines the self-manufacturing and -editing benefits of writing with the immediacy and (imagined) presence of speech. It simultaneously gratifies a narcissistic fantasy (he can watch himself approach becoming) and replicates the theater of the imagined spectacle (others can watch as well). And both fantasies are displaced in time, serving as artifacts to be “completed” by the event retroactively.

All of which deviates from the “sociopath” as he is popularly imagined in Western culture. The “sociopath” is preconceived as a “serial killer” who maintains a vastly different relationship with his fantasies. Most importantly, there exists no temporal gap. The presentable self and the true(r) self coexist stably, sometimes for decades, equitably sharing energy for their respective courses of action. Or can these killers be said to be plural at all? Does the “serial killer” present a uniquely singular subjectivity, one in which there exists no rupture between thinking and desiring? Is their bifurcation of the self (the “double-life”) just an act of self-conscious performance?

Evident in these questions is our tendency to be seduced by serial killers (easily confirmed by their treatment in popular film). The DSM substantiates the “charisma” of the sociopath, and it is important to bear in mind that as monsters (as, perhaps, the originary monsters against which all others are defined) they are objects of desire as much as objects of fear. Indeed, the sociopath seems to occupy a point of affective convergence, simultaneously feared and desired, and might even be said to manifest an erasure of that opposition. The complete(d) sociopath, the serial killer, is the “true evil” from which we must be delivered, the monster whom we most fear, and yet whom we obsessively represent to ourselves.


It is common knowledge that popular cinema changed forever when Norman Bates stabbed Marion Crane to death in the shower in Hitchcock’s Psycho. The scene still possesses considerable dramatic potency, despite the many decades worth of increasingly frank cinematic violence introduced to the market since it was filmed, and for which it is partially responsible. It is here, I will argue, that Hitchcock confronted the sociopathic fantasy with unique and unprecedented directness, dramatizing its completion so effectively that the rest of the film fails to contain it.

This term, “sociopathic fantasy,” requires some elaboration. To begin with, it should be reiterated that my usage of “sociopath” is with respect to what I perceive as its character within the popular imagination, or after Jung, the collective unconscious. I am proposing the sociopath-as-archetype (“Sociopath”): male, narcissistic, lustful, murderous, deceitful. The Sociopath is a monster of a curious sort, doubled by nature of his discrete identities: he manifests as “one of us,” ethnically and culturally “normal” (in America, he is white, middle class), while in his “other” existence, he realizes his true desires, which, I would argue, are parallel to those sublimated within and by patriarchal society.

Which desires am I referring to? They are represented continuously throughout the (largely male-dominated and -defined) history of Western art, and are enacted through the motif of the female body in peril, constantly threatened by sexual violence, murder and dismemberment. This is a motif as much observable in The Dark Knight as in Birth of a Nation, and it is conspicuous and recurrent enough that we are obliged to consider what desires it may be working to both gratify and conceal.

These desires, I would argue, are extensions of the principle and central desire of the patriarchy, that is, power over the female body. In precisely this construction, “the desire for power over,” we can see the interrelated concerns of patriarchy and capitalism.

If capitalism is concerned with power and how it is distributed, patriarchy is concerned with desire and how it is gratified. As the will to power is the more fundamental of the two (Nietzsche notes, common to all organic life), patriarchal desires must be subordinated to the logic of capitalism. This occurs when the patriarchy offers the female body up to be commoditized. But to commoditize something is to make it an abstraction of itself, and so patriarchal desire is consequently and necessarily sublimated into new, abstract forms. The sublimation of this desire for power over the female body results in new expressions of desire, most immediately in the form of regulation and legislation, but also, of course, through cultural production.

Artistic representations both gratify patriarchal desires by depicting the female body in peril, while also rendering them invisible. They accomplish this by articulating the “meaning” of the peril through a diverse set of means, explaining that the victimized body is necessary to illustrate some validating principle. In Psycho, for instance, Marion’s murder becomes the instigating incident by which male ingenuity ultimately reestablishes order and justice.

Why, then, do I claim that the film “fails to contain” the sociopathic fantasy, if Norman Bates ends up safely confined within the twin disciplinary apparatuses of psychology and criminal justice? Precisely because of the film’s experimental violation of the rules of representation: it introduces one narrative, that of Marion’s transgressions and change of heart, only to sacrifice her during the “shower scene” and then introduce a new narrative. The new narrative does the job of “meaning-making,” illustrating why the female body had to be sacrificed, because all along the story was really about something else entirely. But our experience of the film in linear time forces us to reckon, at the moment of her murder, with the possibility of a narrative in which no meaning could have been made. In this hypothetical narrative, a sympathetic protagonist, capable of seeing the “error of her ways,” is brutally stabbed to death without apparent reason. This is the (ultimately negated, but nevertheless rupturing) sociopathic narrative.

Paradoxically, then, we see the potential value of such a narrative: violating the conventions of representation, it exposes sociopathic desires and forces our re-cognition of them. The paradox is that the sociopathic narrative represents nothing less than the sociopath’s “ideal world,” in which the female body suffers and is destroyed for the sole purpose of gratification of male desire, and yet it offers, to the critical viewer, an understanding of the ways in which that same “ideal world” has structured our own. In this light, the sociopathic narrative can be viewed as provocatively feminist or unapologetically misogynistic (vis-à-vis the “bad fan”) depending on the viewer.

The Sociopath in representation offers a unique point of departure for social and psychoanalytic self-criticism. He is the monster that realizes the desires at the center and origin of modern society, which we cannot bear to confront directly, but must receive as deferred and sublimated. The sociopathic narrative undoes that sublimation—the orienting gestures of law and order, moralization, and context - and therefore enables us to see how those gestures that we have come to expect are in fact animated by the same desires as the Sociopath himself.


In 2012, an article appeared in The New York Times Magazine, “Can You Call a 9-Year-Old a Psychopath?” It was widely read, and offers a comprehensive inventory of the ideas and questions surrounding “psychopathy” in contemporary American culture. The author, Jennifer Kahn, reports on a new “summer camp” for “callous-unemotional” (CU) children, CU serving as an emergent euphemism for “pre-psychopathic.” She focuses on a boy, Michael, whose parents have enrolled him in the “camp” (in fact a psychological study) because of his tendency toward extreme hostility alternated with “chilly detachment.”

This, we learn in the article, is what distinguishes normal misbehavior from the kind that can indicate a predisposition toward psychopathy in adulthood: “a distinctive lack of affect, remorse or empathy.” This “lack of affect,” it is suggested, enables the children (as young as five) to conceal a preternatural gift for deceit. Psychologists such as Dan Waschbusch, who runs the study, are exploring the question of whether that “lack” can be compensated for, but the affect of the article itself is one of resignation: at the end of their “summer camp,” the potential psychopaths have shown no progress and Michael’s parents are at their wits’ end, his mother admitting, “I’ve always said that Michael will grow up to be either a Nobel Prize winner or a serial killer.”

The affect-less psychopath, unlike the sociopath, is afflicted with a “suffering of the mind” and can be treated as a psychological object of study. The temptation for the psychologist is that the callous-unemotional child might be “rescued” from the criminal justice system, restored to affective normalcy before developing into a capital-absorbing psychopath: “A recent estimate by the neuroscientist Kent Kiehl placed the national cost of psychopathy at $460 billion a year—roughly 10 times the cost of depression—in part because psychopaths tend to be arrested repeatedly.” Affect, we are reminded, is a currency, parallel to capital, with the psychopath doing economic damage; proper affect is supposed to correspond to desire, but the psychopath uncouples that relationship to his continuing advantage.

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