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Posts Tagged ‘monsters’

On (More) Monsters: Figurative and Real

"Only people with brains will die," and no one needs to spell correctly in the zombie apocalypse.

To get into my newest project, a cultural history of zombies in America, I’ve been reading about monsters, monster theory, horror, zombies in all shapes, sizes, and phenotypes, and fear. This is an entirely new endeavor for me, and I had forgotten the exhilaration and exhaustion that define learning (and then writing) on a new topic of inquiry. All the while I have been crafting promotional materials for Gospel According to the Klan,  and my mind has been invaded by monsters and monstrosity. I finished reading Asma’s On Monsters (mentioned in yesterday’s post), which is really a cultural history of monsters and what becomes monstrous from Alexander the Great to the medieval period to the twenty and twenty-first centuries.

Asma is a professor of philosophy, and his book works best when he is parsing out the relationship between Kant’s sublime, Freud’s uncanny, and the dictates of modern horror films, including the much-panned turn to “torture porn” (think Saw and its many, many sequels). He also seeks to place monsters in the realm of biological reaction, cognitive psychology, and Darwinian evolution, which I find less compelling because of his attachments to science-as-reduction at the cost of the contextual. Monsters, he notes, again and again bear a familial resemblance, so that we can put our individual and collective fingers on what a monster is or is not (by virtue of this, what a human is or is not, too). The meanings and uses of monsters change as the times change. Alexander’s monsters are not quite the same as (in)famous serial killers, zombies, androids, or the things that lurk in murky waters but they are similar. Monsters become a reflection of anxiety of the period. To which, I say, sure, but what else can we say? For Asma, one of the significant features of his book was to showcase how societies, social groupings of people, and individuals need monsters. Monsters appear when boundaries are blurred. They also run rampant in our Freudian Ids as well as in our nations, communities, and homes. Monsters, if you will, are still with us.

Even in the post-modern (or is it post-post-modern) era, monsters remain in spite of the turn to relativity and the embrace of the monstrous in each of us. Asma’s meditation of monsters is about monsters, but he also wrestles with humanity, the humane, and the inhuman (read monster). Every discussion of historical and contemporary monsters enlivened a discussion of how the human is defined. Does the monster just work as a foil to humanity? (The better question is does the monster work as a foil to ideal visions of humanity?) Can inhumanity elide into monstrosity? If so, how and when? Where are the boundaries, the borders of the human? Can monsters be redeemed? In Asma’s insistence that we still have monsters no matter how the post-moderns relativize them, I see the strong desire to adjudicate who is human(e) and who is not. On Monsters begins with the author’s fear of murky waters juxtaposed with the reality of torture, so it was not entirely surprising that Asma wants to still be able to label the monstrous/the monster. Can’t we agree, he seems to say, that monsters still exist (and they torture, kill, and harm)? More important, that we know them when we see them. Monsters are always identifiable.

It was at this juncture that I wanted to nudge Asma in his attachment to the language of the monster, the morality of it, and the consequences of using this language to mark who is human and who is not. Dehumanization, he admits, is a part of the process of war and torture, but he still wants to claim the ability to dehumanize those who commit inhuman action. Edward Ingebretsen warns in his At Stake: Monsters and the Rhetoric of Fear in Public Culture (2001) that “no narrative is value-free, even, and especially, this one” (15). The narrative of the monster has agenda, complicity, and judgment. To Asma’s “can’t we agree?” is Ingebretsen’s “why do we have to?” Where Asma continually compares monstrosity and humanity without really positing how we define a term like human, Ingebretsen makes the relationship clear: monsters emerge as “failed humans” (2).  He continues: “By locating monsters off the social map, we locate the human–and, thus, we hope ourselves–on it. Shall we ourselves, pass the “Monster Test”? From day to day, the answer to that question is never clear, never certain. This, ultimately, is what is at stake” (5). Hope begets humanity, and fear surrounds the abjected. Monsters, then, become a method to present our own humanity back to ourselves. We *are* not monsters, but those (people) are. This, for Ingebretsen, is the slippery slope of the  monster, the identification, the label, the category.

Spooky.

For my own work on an unloved group, the language of the monster popped up in the most interesting of places, academic works describing the modern day hate (white supremacist) movement. In my early stages of research for the book that is now Gospel, I found that some of the scholarship followed a predictable pattern: meet supremacists, describe initial disgust/fear, socialize and uncover their humanity (shock!), write about nice conversations over coffee or sweet tea, then realize that actually these folks our inhumane/despicable/monstrous even, and finally emphasize that they aren’t ALL bad people, except for the ones who are. What struck me was not the attempts to humanize but rather the moment in which the narrative turned, for lack of a better term, creature-esque. Conversants’ bodies change, and they shifted from human to hateful creature (or monster). The supremacist rhetoric mapped onto their bodies, and they emerged as less human(e) in the telling. They became as monstrous as their words. Narratives are always already value-laden. Only monsters preach hate, the texts told me. Only monsters burn crosses and wear robes. Only monsters, only monsters, only monsters, echoed. My work, then, responds to that echo with: what if they aren’t monsters? What if the labeling of white supremacists as monsters allows one to ignore one’s own racism or the collective history of intolerance and racism in America. How do those boundaries, monster or human, impact not only public culture but our own individual strivings of self? How do monsters work for us?

We aren’t, you are becomes a dangerous supposition. Narratives are never innocent. Ingebretsen reminds, “Monster-talk might be cheap, but it is easy to use and takes toll on human lives” (9), in that he and Asma are in agreement. Yet Ingebretsen wants to push further to ponder: why we even make monsters in the first place? The answer to that question, like all good questions, is more questions, but the pursuit of monster-making has drug me asunder (which means prepare for more on monsters).

 

Methods and Monsters, Oh My!:This Week’s Reading (June 13-17)

Why does Sesame Street seem to be dominated by monsters?

Alright, folks, this is my attempt at a semi-regular weekly post to let you know what I reading this week, and perhaps, to encourage some of you to read along with me.

I’ll provide a short lists of the articles and books that I am reading/analyzing from week to week to showcase what projects I’m working on as well as to point some good scholarship too.

This week’s list includes:

1. Finding Presence in Mormon History:An Interview with Susanna Morrill, Richard Lyman Bushman, and Robert Orsi, Dialogue, 44:2, Summer 2011. (Thanks to Christopher Jones of both Juvenile Instructor and Religion in American History for this link.)

Here’s a snippet:

Robert: Again here’s an example where the language fails us. What is happening at these meetings in 1836 where there is an abundance of visions that are shared by lots of people, and people are speaking in tongues and seeing the heavens open? Modern historiography just stops at this point; it cannot deal with such experiences historically or phenomenologically. And as you say early on in the book, it appears that the only two options in modern historiography are either debunking such moments, claiming that the person at the center of it all is a charlatan and everyone else are dupes, or else translating the events into the language of the social: that it’s a matter of poverty, of people being on the margins of society, etcetera. But that leaves the central experiences unexamined and thus absent from history.

Richard: I agree with you entirely. You don’t have to dismiss all those other things; but if you were to talk about them to the people themselves, they might nod but would think we missed the point. One trouble is we get caught up in our readers’ struggles. If we had absolutely neutral readers, we might be able to do it. You suggest at the end that, to write understanding history, the historians must have a certain sensibility, but so do readers. They have to be willing to go with the flow, and that’s sometimes hard for them to do.

2. Robert Orsi, “2+2=Five, or the Quest for Abundant Empiricism,” Spiritus, 6:1 (Spring 2006), 113-121. (This is available via Project Muse with subscription).  Here’s my favorite line:

The phrase “I am spiritual but not religious” unwittingly encodes this memory”: it means “my religion is interior, self-determined and determining, free of authority,” the opposite of that other thing, which in the history of the modern West means first “I am not like Catholics,” later “I do not belong to any church” (117).

3. Russell McCutcheon, “It’s a Lie. There’s No Truth in It! It’s a Sin”: On the Limits of the Humanistic Study of Religion and the Costs of Saving Others from Themselves,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion, 74:3 (September 2006), 720-750.  (This is also available via subscription to Project Muse.) This article  provides much to ponder, but I find appeal in McCutcheon’s terms “no cost Other” and the “too Other” (733) in describing the how and the why of religious studies. He uses the work of Orsi and Paul Courtright to discuss the costs of humanistic presumptions in methodology and urges readers to understand what it might mean that we employ different methods for the “no cost” and the “too Other.”

4. Stephen T. Asma, On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears (OUP: 2009). Here’s the description from Oxford:

Monsters. Real or imagined, literal or metaphorical, they have exerted a dread fascination on the human mind for many centuries. They attract and repel us, intrigue and terrify us, and in the process reveal something deeply important about the darker recesses of our collective psyche.
Stephen Asma’s On Monsters is a wide-ranging cultural and conceptual history of monsters–how they have evolved over time, what functions they have served for us, and what shapes they are likely to take in the future. Asma begins with a letter from Alexander the Great in 326 B.C. detailing an encounter in India with an “enormous beast–larger than an elephantthree ominous horns on its forehead.” From there the monsters come fast and furious–Behemoth and Leviathan, Gog and Magog, the leopard-bear-lion beast of Revelation, Satan and his demons, Grendel and Frankenstein, circus freaks and headless children, right up to the serial killers and terrorists of today and the post-human cyborgs of tomorrow. Monsters embody our deepest anxieties and vulnerabilities, Asma argues, but they also symbolize the mysterious and incoherent territory just beyond the safe enclosures of rational thought.

5. Material Religion’s July 2011 issue on key terms in Material Religion keeps sucking me back in, especially the articles on belief (Robert Orsi), Medium (Birgit Meyer), Thing (David Morgan), and Words (Brent Plate).

6. What I want to be reading is Adam Mansbach’s recently released Go the F**k to Sleep, a mash-up of adult humor and a child’s bedtime story. Perhaps, I’ll just listen to Samuel L. Jackson read it to me instead.

Of course, this is only a taste of my weekly reading, but I highly recommend all of these resources. From methods to monsters appears to be my weekly goal, and of course, the Klan is always lurking in my mind, too, especially as I get promotional materials ready for the forthcoming book.

Happy reading!

P.S. For those of you always made nervous by the Cookie Monster, this very monster contemplate his monsterhood (years ago) at McSweeney’s. He asks the essential question, “Is Me Really a Monster?”:

How can they be so callous? Me know there something wrong with me, but who in Sesame Street doesn’t suffer from mental disease or psychological disorder? They don’t call the vampire with math fetish monster, and me pretty sure he undead and drinks blood. No one calls Grover monster, despite frequent delusional episodes and obsessive-compulsive tendencies. And the obnoxious red Grover—oh, what his name?—Elmo! Yes, Elmo live all day in imaginary world and no one call him monster. No, they think he cute. And Big Bird! Don’t get me started on Big Bird! He unnaturally gigantic talking canary! How is that not monster? Snuffleupagus not supposed to exist—woolly mammoths extinct. His very existence monstrous. Me least like monster. Me maybe have unhealthy obsession, but me no monster.