"The Tragic Meaning of Blood": Symbol, Myth, and the Construction of Criminology

By Wender, Jonathan M. | Western Criminology Review, December 2008 | Go to article overview

"The Tragic Meaning of Blood": Symbol, Myth, and the Construction of Criminology


Wender, Jonathan M., Western Criminology Review


Keynote address delivered at the 2006 Western Society of Criminology Conference, Seattle, February 25, 2006

Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. It is my sincere honor and privilege to join you today. I am particularly delighted to have this opportunity to address the Western Society of Criminology because it was only five years ago at the WSC conference in Portland that I began my journey as an academic criminologist. At the time, I was a doctoral candidate at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, writing-or, to put it more honestly, struggling to write-the early stages of a philosophically-oriented dissertation about policing. Anxious and curious to see how criminologists would respond to my ideas, and hoping that they might be able to assist me in shaping them more intelligently, I presented some of my work at WSC. The formal feedback that I received proved invaluable, but what I recall even more strongly is the encouragement and congeniality with which I was met. I continue to be grateful for the support that you extended to me five years ago, and can honestly tell you without a hint of flattery that my earlier involvement with WSC had a decisive effect on my work.

Shortly after receiving your gracious invitation to appear here today, I happened to find an address delivered in 1938 by the French poet Paul Valéry to the Congress of Surgeons in Paris. As I read Valéry's address, I was struck by at least three things: first, that a poet would be asked to speak to a congress of surgeons; second, that the poet, in making such an unlikely appearance, would succeed at giving his audience some remarkable insights into the nature of their own work; and third, that the poet's words to the surgeons would actually be pertinent to a much wider audience, far beyond the realm of medicine.

Let me elaborate on this third point by quoting a specific passage from Valéry's address, which became the genesis for my talk to you this morning. Commenting to the surgeons on the human reaction to the sight of blood, Valéry (1970:137) remarked as follows:

By definition, of course, this kind of shock never affects you surgeons. You live in the midst of blood, and moreover must be constantly at grips with anxiety, pain, and death, the most powerful stimulants to our emotional echo chamber. The critical moments, the extreme conditions of other lives fill every day of your life, and in your steadfast spirit the exceptional event, however distressing it may be to the persons concerned, takes its proper place among statistics governing the same category. You shoulder the heaviest of responsibilities at the most urgent and delicate of moments.

I hope to convince you today that Valéry's eloquent words fittingly apply not just to surgeons, but also to us-to criminologists-the academics and practitioners who have chosen, like Valéry's audience, to engage the suffering and misfortunes of human beings in order to understand and ameliorate them.

Before I say anything further about Valéry, it is only fair that I reiterate what you already know about the strange improbability of my presence before you today. I am no poet like Valéry, and my career as a criminologist in still in its nascent stages. In fact, I have spent most of the past fifteen years balancing police work with my academic work, and have only recently begun to make the transition toward becoming a full-time academic.

When Neil Boyd conveyed to me your Board of Director's generous invitation to give this address, he asked if it would be possible for me to talk about something theoretical, which would also be related to my professional experience in policing. It might seem to you that Neil's request was a bit unrealistic. After all, what can I actually say about my work as a social theorist or philosopher that would have any meaningful bearing on my background in police work, and vice versa? Put even more bluntly, what two things could be more distantly removed from each other than street-level police work and theory? …

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