The history of all hitherto-existing societies is the history of monsters. Homo sapiens is a bringer-forth of monsters as reason’s dream. They are not pathologies but symptoms, diagnoses, glories, games, and terrors.
CHINA MIÉVILLE, Theses on Monsters
Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.
FRIEDRICH NIETZSCHE, Good and Evil
The monster is beyond understanding; whether imaginary or real, monsters haunt our reality. From Shelley’s Frankenstein to Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, from Circe to Medusa, from golems to zombies – monsters are symbolic expressions of our cultural anxieties. Monster is a metonym for difference, otherness, marginality, and the culturally constructed boundaries between the normal and the abnormal.
The etymology of monstrosity suggests the complex roles that monsters play within society. ‘Monster’ probably derives from the Latin, monstrare, meaning ‘to demonstrate’, and monere, ‘to warn’. The word conjures figures from gothic horror. Exotic beasts brought to Europe for the first time in the 16th century, such as armadillos or walruses, were often interpreted as ‘monstrous’. For Aristotle, the definition of a ‘bird’ was something that had two legs, two wings, could fly and walk, while in medieval culture, demons were fallen angels, whose dark, hairy, winged bodies were a perversion of the angelic form.
In psychoanalysis, monsters inspire horror – according to Julia Kristeva, the abject refers to the human reaction (horror, vomit) to a threatened breakdown in meaning caused by the loss of the distinction between subject and object, particularly as a moment that recalls that in which we are separated from the mother. The abject is closely tied both to religion and to art, which are two ways of “purifying” or “sublimating” it. Freud, and Lacan via Freud, locates such strangeness in the ordinary and the return to the all-too-ordinary: “the ‘uncanny’ is that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long, known to us, once very familiar.”
The monster is an ally of what Foucault calls “the society of the panopticon,” in which “polymorphous conducts [are] actually extracted from people’s bodies and from their pleasures… [to be] drawn out, revealed, isolated, intensified, incorporated, by multifarious power devices.” In the history of the Western world, the monster is quite literally a figure for race, as civilizing discourses of myth and national construction posited Ethiopians and Africans as dark and ‘barbaric’ peoples; in queer theory, the monster is a hypermasculine man, a hyperfeminized woman, a ‘lesbian,’ a ‘transvestite,’ a ‘true hermaphrodite,’ or a transsexual.
While the monstrous primarily serves as a negative category, created to confirm boundaries and regulate the normal and abnormal, it can also be conceived as a force of liberation. By roaming the in-between, occupying the liminal spaces of nation states, bodies, and categories of race, gender, sexuality, ability, class, self, and other, the monster also embodies what Donna Haraway calls “a promise of disturbances and change.” Do monsters exist? Or, as Jeffrey Cohen asks in his seminal text, Monster Theory, “if they did not, how could we?”
This year, CJLC invites undergraduates to interpret the possibilities and extensions of the monster.
Email your drafts and pitches to firstname.lastname@example.org by December 20th 2019. Please include your name, university, and year of graduation. If we like the draft (1000-5000 words) or pitch, we will contact you to develop a timeline and work with you throughout the writing process.