Call for Entries: Genealogy of the Posthuman

My most recent project is with the Critical Posthumanism Network, a group of scholars who ‘share the conviction that the decentring and critiques of the human implied in posthumanism offer paradigms that speak searchingly of the immediate present and of imminent futures’. I’m very pleased to announce that this project, a written Genealogy of the Posthuman, is now seeking 1000-word entries on a broad range of subjects.

A copy of the Call for Entries is below. You can find the original call here, on the Critical Posthumanism website.


‘Undreamt’ © Dan Hillier, 2016

What exactly is ‘the posthuman’? What are the nonhuman and the inhuman? What, for that matter is the human? How have these ideas been conceptualised, historicised, framed and reframed in philosophy, literature, critical thought, the sciences and the arts? How can they be critiqued and rethought? 

These are some of the questions addressed in the Genealogy of the Posthuman, a growing peer-reviewed, online and multi-authored resource that traces the prefigurations, currency and evolving potential of contemporary thought on the posthuman.

We invite contributions by academics, researchers and doctoral students from all disciplines that explore posthumanist questions, issues, tensions in the work of a given author or thinker, or in a particular theme or motif. The Genealogy features entries informed by the re-examination and critique of posthumanism’s acknowledged, unsuspected and evolving dimensions.

Entries should be informative and should seek to make a critical intervention in the field. Submissions may consist of a standalone entry or one that is linked to and engages with existing contributions. Prospective contributors are invited to browse the entries already published on the site to familiarise themselves with the Genealogy’s form and rationale and to identify potential areas of interest.

Submissions should be around 1000 words in length and should include up to 8 keywords. Images and video clips may also be included with submissions. Contributors are requested to follow the MHRA style sheet, and all references should appear as footnotes. Articles are to be submitted as a Word document, in the form of an email attachment. All entries are peer-reviewed and authors can expect attentive and helpful feedback.

This call is ongoing, with no fixed end date. For more information about Critical Posthumanism and the Genealogy project, visit our ‘About’ page. Email info@criticalposthumanism.net for further details or enquires.

Submissions are to be sent to submissions@criticalposthumanism.net. Click here for a PDF version of this Call for Entries, and here to download it as a Word document.

On the Cutting Room Floor (Part One)

06d2fef7e9046462ca9e7b2cea2fcec1The following post is part of an early, discarded draft of the introduction to my PhD thesis on monster mashups. Having just completed a second, and (hopefully) infinitely more readable version, I thought it would be fitting to celebrate by looking back to where I started. Since it will no longer become part of any published work, I’m sharing it here on my blog for posterity. There is of course a reason this was cut—so take it with a grain of salt! It unfolds over two parts; you can find part two here

As the name implies, posthumanism is a cultural and political impulse that essentially attempts to imagine forms and identities ‘beyond’ the human. As with many contemporary critical movements, however, there are multiple streams within posthumanist thought, and it is important to define which one we mean when applying the term to neo-historical monster mashups. There are at least three broad definitions of the term ‘posthumanism’, with three very different emphases. The first definition is tied to technology and the internet age.[1] As a discourse that emerged during the late twentieth century, posthumanist culture was sparked by the increasing tendency of the media to liken the human body and brain to a machine.[2] This metaphorical mechanisation of the body was intensified by the explosion of internet usage, networked culture, and the formation of what Marshall McLuhan has termed the ‘global village’.[3] The extent to which these technological developments actually altered the way human bodies and narratives interact is ultimately less relevant than the degree to which posthuman discourses came to dominate the technology discussion, but there is no doubt that both recent technology and our reaction to it have altered the way we perceive ourselves as individuals.

The term posthumanism has also been used in a utopian (or dystopian) sense by the popular media, critical theorists, and transcendentalist movements, and is better referred to here as ‘transhumanism’.[4] Transhumanism represents the theory that, as a result of technology, the human as we know it will someday cease to exist, either because of the rise of artificial intelligence (AI), or because humanity will modify itself to such an extent through technological or genetic manipulation that it will no longer be recognisable as human. Because this definition of the posthuman is often apocalyptic, and is also aggressively anthropocentric, critics have struggled to deploy it productively. It suffers from the same paradoxically utopian and nihilistic self-absorption that postmodern theory also falls into from time to time. Focusing on the end and the deconstruction of objects, theories, and metanarratives leads us to overlook the way such an approach often re-creates the problems it highlights,[5] and strengthens the hold these things have on our culture.

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The third use of the term posthumanism, which relies on Enlightenment concepts of humanism, is linked to cultural criticism and the humanities.[6] It is the most recent of the three definitions, and its boundaries and methodologies are still underdeveloped, but it is also the broadest and most flexible (and therefore the most theoretically useful) way of describing posthumanism. Steven Best and David Kellner provide a useful definition of this branch of posthumanist theory in their Postmodern Adventure (2001):

Classical humanism articulates a notion of the self as an ahistorical given, whose timeless essence and nature is that of a rational mind, ontologically distant from its body, in possession of free will and timeless truths. By contrast, posthumanism – in the form of poststructuralism and postmodern theory – immerses itself in history, social relations and institutions, and embodied reality. […] Posthumanism dismantles the dualistic opposition between mind and body and makes the ‘truths’ available to reason partial, limited, and context-bound.[7]

In other words, this third branch of ‘critical posthumanism’,[8] as Stefan Herbrechter terms it, represents the recognition that classical ideas about what it means to be human, many of which are still very much with us, may privilege Western identities and cultures, and may also limit our understanding of ourselves and our cultural products. Critical posthumanism tries to imagine and formulate the human from a perspective outside of this classical, ahistorical approach.

The desire to move ‘beyond’ classical humanism in this way potentially creates the same problems as transhumanist theories. How can we imagine something completely outside the human, when our entire experience is framed in human terms? And how do we safeguard against creating either a dangerously narrow or a uselessly broad definition of the human in our attempts to outline its opposite? Using a past that is technically both unalterable and behind us to move forward is a complicated endeavour, particularly in a time so obsessed with declaring that past dead and buried. As Esther Peeren asks, ‘[w]hat particular move does the beyond indicate in an age so preoccupied with the temporality of the post and the after that every day seems to see the announcement of yet another death?’[9] The danger inherent in working within any of these ‘post’ fields or categories is becoming entrenched in the very things they prefix. In opposing all modernist metanarrative, for example, postmodernism risks becoming its own metanarrative. Likewise, attempts to move beyond colonialism can have a secondary colonising effect on those the postcolonial critic aims to speak for. Absolute rejection of the centre only serves to outline it more sharply.

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Aimee Mullins in Matthew Barney’s CREMASTER3.

In postmodernism’s deconstruction of Western culture, where no one metanarrative can dominate the discourse, non-Western metanarratives are inadvertently negated, transforming postmodernism into a colonial force.[10] In deconstructing the Western subject and arguing that no one person can really embody the human, we (those in positions of power) can likewise indirectly prohibit others (those on the periphery) from contributing to the discussion. In calling for the embrace of all things radical, other, or monstrous, we risk simply re-drawing the borders between ‘us’ and ‘them’, rather than making those borders permeable.[11] Posthumanism should not become another metanarrative of technological progress, but rather a framework for critiquing our assumptions about who ‘we’ are. The impossibility for humans to ever truly move beyond the human should not stop us from trying.

While popular culture is becoming more posthuman, especially in terms of how it treats its others, so is the academic culture that increasingly seeks to interpret it. This can be seen in the emerging ‘posthumanities’, or, more specifically, posthumanist cultural studies. The cultural studies (or critical and cultural theory) approach, considered by Herbrechter as a catalyst for the increasing interdisciplinarity seen in academia, ‘takes advantage of the newly “discovered” readability of the entire world [invited by postmodernism], which is seen as proof of its “constructedness” and “arbitrariness”. On the other hand the democratization of culture and cultural change became cultural studies’ main objective’.[12] This process of the democratization of culture, reading it from perspectives based on the constructed and arbitrary nature of language, has paradoxically resulted in both an increased division of cultural studies into multiple disciplines, and the establishment of cultural studies as its own detached discipline. It has also initialised a new search for the source of meaning, particularly in the humanities. Often the result of this process is the establishment of a new canon, or of a ‘trendy’ cultural studies that prioritises the latest popular culture. For Herbrechter, the task for a ‘posthumanist’ cultural studies would instead be ‘in coming to terms with the loss of meaning and loss of reference in culture’.[13] It is here, within a posthumanist framework, that the mashup can best serve as a useful cultural object.

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Monsters, which fill the roles of both inhumans and superhumans in human culture, are central figures in posthumanist theory. Contemporary monsters are often interpreted as the breakdown of a natural order, and as such the monster is ‘the bodily incarnation of difference from the basic human norm’.[14] It thus traditionally forms the limit of what is defined as normal or transgressive.[15] Where the nineteenth-century monster often points to a geographical and physical other, the twenty-first-century monster signifies the posthuman breakdown of the unified self, and of the ‘other’ within.[16] For scholars like Michel Foucault and Donna Haraway, monsters are the site where the very concept of the human collapses.[17] This collapse is not a binary opposition, delineating where contemporary monster narratives diverge or detract from unifying concepts of the self. Instead, as an examination of neo-historical monster mashups can help demonstrate, the ‘othering’ of identity through fiction and humour in present-day monster texts allows for the creation of an ‘excentric’ space:[18] neither wholly at the centre of power and the normal nor entirely on its margins. Now more than ever, the creators and audiences of these cultural objects (many with degrees in literature and history themselves) are aware of the academic discussion surrounding the figure of the monster. Neo-historical monsters carry the accumulated baggage placed on these nineteenth-century monsters by more than a hundred years of critical examination, but they also create space for a re-interpretation of this baggage.

What does posthumanism and the collapse of binary oppositions mean for the monster? On the surface, it means that the pleasure/horror response that the monster generates in the reader becomes unbalanced. With the advent of the twenty-first century, the horror of the vampire and of Gothic itself have been weakening dramatically, largely because, as Fred Botting puts it, ‘the use of horror relies on an increasingly fragile and insubstantial opposition between human and Gothic monster’. As Herbrechter highlights, this also works towards posthumanism’s goal of deconstructing the human:

The entire ghostly ontology (or hauntology, following Derrida, 1994b) suddenly visualises how ‘teratology’ – the creation of monsters, the representation of monstrosity, inhumanity, animality, objectification, fetishization, but also spiritualization and religion – can be used to inscribe and uphold a system of differences and hierarchies, supported by a mystical notion of human ‘nature’ with its insistence on uniqueness and exceptionalism – a ‘device’ which sanctions and perpetuates processes of inclusion and exclusion.[20]

In other words, as the border between human and other becomes ever more blurred, the same monsters that were used to uphold a humanist hierarchy can also be used to rethink such a system. Posthumanism (and contemporary theory) conceives of a new way of looking at the monster that is linked to twenty-first-century conceptions of identity and global culture. If posthumanism ‘emphasizes the complexity and interrelatedness of human and nonhuman forms of agency’, as Adrian Franklin suggests, the imagination of otherness becomes vital. If the nonhuman is central to our understanding of the human, not only as our opposite, but as something that also shapes us in return through various complex processes, we would do well to re-think the place of nonhuman figures (like the monster) in our cultures and our politics.

In exploring how monster mashups create these parallel discourses and contradictory affiliations, I hope to provide one answer for why these monster narratives have become so prevalent in twenty-first-century culture, as well as how they reformulate nineteenth-century humanist ideas to fit present-day posthuman perspectives. For Herbrechter, the ‘entire effort of posthumanist critical and cultural theory […] goes into the construction of a post-realist and post-phenomenological form of hermeneutics and a post-subjective form of agency’.[22] All of these concepts (realism, phenomenology, subjectivity) are centred in classical humanist ideology. By combining texts from the humanist nineteenth century with posthuman figures and forms, the neo-historical monster mashup is able to directly interrogate this ideology. Not all neo-historical monster mashups can strictly be considered posthuman at a narrative level, but posthumanism represents the cultural context in which these texts have gained popularity. As I will demonstrate in part two of this post, the form and distribution of many neo-historical monster mashups further argues for their status as ‘posthuman’ texts. In this way I will be using posthumanism as a lens through which to read monsters.

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Screencap from Cole Drumb’s short film ‘PostHuman’

[1] For an extensive look at this definition of posthumanism, see Judith Halberstam and Ira Livingston, ‘Introduction: Posthuman Bodies’, in Posthuman Bodies, ed. by Judith Halberstam and Ira Livingston (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1995); N. Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999); Chris Hables Gray, Cyborg Citizen: Politics in the Posthuman Age (London: Routledge, 2001); Herbrechter, Posthumanism.

[2] Stefan Herbrechter, Posthumanism: A Critical Analysis (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), p. 18.

[3] Cf. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York: McGraw Hill, 1964).

[4] Theorists I would classify as transhumanist (whether in a utopian or dystopian sense) include Hans Moravec, Mind Children: The Future of Robot and Human Intelligence (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988); Francis Fukuyama, Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002); Andy Clark, Natural-Born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies, and the Future of Human Intelligence (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

[5] See the concept of ‘working through’ humanism in Neil Badmington, ‘Theorizing Posthumanism’, Cultural Critique, 53 (2003), 10–27. Also Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (New York: Verso, 2005).

[6] Key twenty-first century texts that contribute to this ‘critical’ and philosophical school of posthumanism include Posthumanism, ed. by Neil Badmington (New York: Palgrave, 2000); Elaine L. Graham, Representations of the Post/Human: Monsters, Aliens, and Others in Popular Culture (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002); Neil Badmington, Alien Chic: Posthumanism and the Other Within (London: Routledge, 2004); Cary Wolfe, What Is Posthumanism? (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009); Herbrechter, Posthumanism; Rosi Braidotti, The Posthuman (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013).

[7] Steven Best and David Kellner, The Postmodern Adventure: Science, Technology, and Cultural Studies at the Third Millennium (London: Routledge, 2001), p. 195.

[8] Herbrechter, Posthumanism, p. 3.

[9] Esther Peeren, Intersubjectivities and Popular Culture: Bakhtin and Beyond (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008), p. 1.

[10] Cf. Ziauddin Sardar, Postmodernism and the Other: The New Imperialism of Western Culture (London: Pluto Press, 1998).

[11] For a deeper analysis of this phenomenon, see Badmington, Alien Chic: Posthumanism and the Other Within.

[12] Herbrechter, Posthumanism, p. 143.

[13] Herbrechter, Posthumanism, p. 144.

[14] Rosi Braidotti, ‘Mothers, Monsters, and Machines’, in Writing on the Body: Female Embodiment and Feminist Theory, ed. by Katie Conboy, Nadia Medina, and Sarah Stanbury (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), pp. 59–79 (p. 62).

[15] See Fred Botting, Limits of Horror: Technology, Bodies, Gothic (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2008).

[16] This is not to say that nineteenth-century texts cannot also be read in this way, but in the twenty-first century this is the norm rather than the exception. See Donna J. Haraway, ‘A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Social Feminism in the 1980s’, in Feminism/Postmodernism, ed. by Linda J. Nicholson (New York: Routledge, 1990), pp. 190–233; Judith Halberstam, Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995); Badmington, Alien Chic: Posthumanism and the Other Within; Andrew Hock-soon Ng, Dimensions of Monstrosity in Contemporary Narratives: Theory, Psychoanalysis, Postmodernism (New York: Palgrave, 2004); Wolfe, What Is Posthumanism?.

[17] See Michel Foucault, Abnormal: Lectures at the College De France  1974 1975 (London: Verso, 2003); Haraway, ‘A Manifesto for Cyborgs’.

[18] See Linda Hutcheon, The Politics of Postmodernism (London: Routledge, 1995), p. 5.

[19] Fred Botting and Dale Townshend, Twentieth Century Gothic: Our Monsters, Our Pets, Gothic: Critical Concepts in Literary and Cultural Studies, 2004, p. 4.

[20] Herbrechter, Posthumanism, p. 29.

[21] Adrian Franklin, ‘Posthumanism’, ed. by George Ritzer, The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology (Oxford: Blackwell, 2007), 3548–50 (p. 3548).

[22] Herbrechter, Posthumanism, p. 13.

Cleverman

p12810389_b_v8_aa‘Man is a rope, fastened between animal and Übermensch – a rope over an abyss.’ —Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra (Prologue)

Before I embark on this review, I should point out that I am neither Australian nor Aboriginal. I don’t research either of these cultures either, so there will be gaps in the areas of the series that I can actually address. You should definitely seek out reviews and opinions from people with more authority on these topics. Like this one, this one, or this one.

I first heard about the five-episode television series Cleverman (airing on ABC in Australia and SundanceTV in the US) on the website The Conversation, which described it as the story of ‘Australia’s first Aboriginal superhero’. The original article used this statement with the best of intentions, to distinguish the story from the typically American superhero narratives that tend to dominate the contemporary media landscape. To say this, though, is to miss the point of Cleverman, and when I finally watched the show this past week, I was surprised to find something quite different.

Cleverman is set in a near-future version of Australia, where a race of beings called Hairypeople (‘Hairies’ for short) have recently stepped out of the shadows and into the eye of the media. Before that, they had been living with us on Earth for over 60,000 years, in secret. Hairies live longer than an average human, are stronger and faster, and are covered in a Neanderthal-like coat of hair. Because this is Australia, the Hairies are immediately classed as subhuman, and stern measures are taken to protect a frightened public from the dangers they think the Hairies pose. Some Haries are taken to prisons and camps. Some end up in The Zone, an area that has been ‘gifted’ back to the Aboriginal peoples living in the region by the Australian government.

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The show is based on elements of Aboriginal mythology, and features a diverse and complex cast of main characters – men and women, Hairies and humans, European and Aboriginal Australian. As the Hairypeople crisis unfolds, we are introduced to the story of the Cleverman, a figure from Aboriginal tradition who presides over a mythological realm known as the Dreaming. He is responsible for the people’s spiritual well-being, and can commune with the ancestors and the spirits who populate the Dreaming.

Jimmy, The Zone’s resident Cleverman, must pass on the title to a successor. He is given the choice between two half-brothers: the calculating Waruu, who acts as The Zone’s political leader, and the impulsive Koen, who has essentially abandoned The Zone and now runs several shady operations with his friends. In the end it is Koen – who is half White, and resentful of his Aboriginal heritage – who assumes the mantle of the Cleverman. Koen explores his powers (which include classics like quick healing and telekinesis) with enthusiasm at first, only to discover that they come with a great price. Over the course of the season, Koen slowly comes to accept his new title, and the heritage that comes with it.

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So far so good – this sounds a lot like the recipe for your average superhero story.  Cleverman distinguishes itself from this genre in a number of ways, however.

Firstly, unlike most superhero narratives, it has no clear hero. By this I don’t just mean that Koen is an anti-hero – the story may literally not be about him at all. This stops the narrative from espousing the kind of conservative utopianism found in many superhero comics: hero against the world, protecting it even though he is rejected from it. In ‘The World Ozymandias Made: Utopias in the Superhero Comic, Subculture, and the Conservation of Difference’, Matthew Wolf-Meyer explores why comic book utopias are narratively impossible. He explains his theory as follows:

I find that the majority of comic book readers are limited to a specific reading of any given superhero – there is very little room for interpretation given to them by the authors of the text. Rather, to participate in the discourse of superhero comic books is to eschew one’s ability to interpret in favor of a conservative reading ideology, in much the same way that a religious text forces its readers to interpret its message; a comic book reader cannot read Superman as a supervillain any more than the Christian can read Christ as adversary. […] Because superhero comics are predicated on preserving the status quo, they expect of their readership a conservative reading strategy that translates into desire for conservative narratives – utopia achieved would be a radical narrative, whereas utopia attempted and failed retains the conservative status quo while appeasing the proposed conservative ideology of readers.

Superheroes, in other words, hold a necessarily privileged position in the superhero narrative. This story is about them. They are its heroes, whether or not they exhibit heroic behaviour. In a utopia the superhero would become obsolete and insignificant.

In Cleverman, which plays out as a series of vignettes that never really materialise into a single narrative, Koen’s story is just one among many. With a few exceptions, the show only gives us the bits that fit around the traditional, Western superhero narrative. We can choose to imagine a superhero structure inside it if we so desire, but this is left entirely up to the viewer. If anything, Cleverman is the story of how one people with a long history of oppression struggle to spare another people from this fate. Where can you rely on in such a situation? Your own people, who are finally beginning to recover from their oppression? The oppressed themselves? The government that first oppressed you?

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There are no easy answers, and that’s the second thing that disqualifies Cleverman from being a superhero narrative: there’s no clear supervillain. Each character has their strengths, flaws, and agendas, and while the Australian government is the main antagonist, there is no clear way to solve the problems the people in The Zone face. By the end of the first season, in fact, conflict has only escalated. The only real catharsis comes in Koen’s defeat of the Namorrodor – a monster from the Dreaming that has been committing murders the local authorities blamed on the Hairypeople.

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Finally, as creator Ryan Griffen points out, this is an Aboriginal story. It draws some inspiration from contemporary comic book narratives, but while the Cleverman may be ‘Australia’s first Aboriginal superhero’ it is then also one of the first superhero stories, period. To appropriate it so readily into Western superhero culture is to overlook its hybrid origins. Griffen writes:

I wanted to create an Aboriginal superhero that [my son] could connect with, no matter what others said. I wanted a character that would empower him to stand and fight when presented with racism. Just like the old dreaming stories, Cleverman would be able to teach moral lessons; not only for my son, not just for Aboriginal people, but for many more out there as well.

[…]

We could sit in the writers’ room and come up with something amazing that hit all the genre beats to make a great hour of television, but if it crossed the line of what we can say and do around Aboriginal culture and Aboriginal stories, then we had to revise our thinking.

To return to Wolf-Meyer’s analysis of the superhero narrative, Western superheroes are often too busy considering their own big picture to actually change the life of a regular person for the better:

As agents of the law, the vast majority of superheroes are intent on retaining the status quo, subservient to the popular politics and will of the people they endeavor to protect. These heroes fail to uphold the philosophical responsibility that Friedrich Nietzsche thought so vital to the position of the übermensch, whose purpose was to ‘‘go under,’’ to bring to humanity the lessons learned, metaphysical or otherwise, as post-humans, in an attempt to affect utopia.

The Cleverman, a post-human in the supernatural sense, but also in the role of an oppressed other, teaches us that utopia is hard, and perhaps even impossible. The first season concludes at the start of a battle that seems destined to be lost. But rather than declaring utopia wholly defeated (‘until the next issue!’), Cleverman seems to suggest that we should continue to fight. Because it draws its myth from the ancient past rather than the future or an alternate present, it is able to remind us that humans continually find new ways to hurt each other, while also assuring us that someone is still looking out for us – not on a utopian scale, but on a smaller, personal one.

Jimmy, played by Jack Charles. © Lisa Tomasetti/ABC
Jimmy, played by Jack Charles. © Lisa Tomasetti/ABC

Cleverman was recently renewed for a second season, so this won’t be the last we see of this story. With any luck, it will stay true to its Aboriginal origins, and will continue to resist the mould of the superhero narrative just as its characters rally against the many and varied stereotypes that seek to limit them.

You can watch the trailer for the first season here:

 

Of Monsters and Men

‘Unclean Spirits Issuing from the Mouth of the Dragon, Beast and False Prophet’, circa 1255.

What can monsters and the monstrous tell us about earlier societies and civilisations? This week’s guest post comes from Tom de Bruin, who researches concepts of evil in early Christian literature, and is New Testament Lecturer at Newbold College of Higher Education. Read more about him and his work over on his blog.

Monsters are hot. It seems that networks are producing more and more monster shows: Penny Dreadful, The Walking Dead, and The Vampire Diaries, just to name a few. Monsters have escaped the fetters of the horror genre and broken free into blockbusters. Even classical works are being rewritten by mixing monsters with century’s old texts, to create new works and their film adaptations: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

In the ancient near east, monsters were everywhere, including ancient religious texts. The beasts of Daniel and Revelation, the giants of Genesis 6, the evil spirits, and people possessed by them are all examples of monsters and the monstrous immediately present in Biblical writings. Moving to extra-canonical works the examples are even more apparent: the tortures and tortured souls in the early Christian apocalypses, Lilith, and primordial beasts such as Leviathan and Behemoth. The monstrous nature of some of these is immediately evident in their embodiment (e.g. giants). Others are monstrous in geography or location (e.g. tortured souls) and behaviour (e.g. demon-possessed humans). All are monstrous in the impact they have on the audience, they embody otherness, threaten commonality, yet strangely attract.

What are monsters?

Defining monsters or the monstrous is decidedly difficult. The term “monster” has, in contemporary times, come to mean anything imaginary that is unnatural, frightening or excessively large. In different times monsters assumed different guises. Often, monsters are ill-constructed of mismatching parts, grotesque in their overabundance of certain organs or qualities.

Whatever the monster might be, it was a culture that designed it that way.1 So-called Monster Studies examines the roles that monsters and the monstrous play in culture: it is ‘a method of reading cultures from the monsters they engender.’2

Liminality and the Other

Culturally, monsters play an important role. They look different, they think differently, they act differently. As such they define the limits of “normal.” Wholly marginalised, they stand on the abyss of what is culturally acceptable and what is not. Beyond generally excepted ethics and aesthetics, they police ‘the boundaries of culture, usually in the service of some notion of group “purity”.’3

This delimiting role of the monstrous does not solely account for its permanent presence in cultural texts: monsters are found in texts from all ages and cultures. The monster is horrifically attractive. 4 Texts focussing on the monstrous often contain a tripartite structure in which first the monster is admitted. Then the monster is entertained and is entertaining. Finally, the monster is expelled. Entertaining the monstrous in texts is a safe manner to both describe and discourage socially unacceptable behaviour. Behaviour, that is, which remains unconsciously attractive.5 The entertaining nature of the monstrous shows that the monster is both distrusted and desired, both loathed and envied.

Illustration of Lucifer in the first fully illustrated print edition of Dante's Divine Comedy. Woodcut for Inferno, canto 33. Petrus de Plasiis, Venice, 1491.
Illustration of Lucifer in the first fully illustrated print edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Woodcut for Inferno, canto 33. Petrus de Plasiis, Venice, 1491.

Temporality is key to monsters. The monster is given a temporary existence in a clearly defined space. Carnival and Halloween are contemporary cultural instances in which monstrosity is given a defined temporal existence. The monstrous exists in the text, but only during the act of reading is the monster given life. Once the predetermined time has passed, the monster disappears. Order is restored, good is distinguished from evil and the self from the other. For this is the fundament of the monster. As the monster is principally defined as being different to oneself, the monstrous becomes a symbol for everything that is wholly different from how one wishes the self were. The dichotomy between representing otherness and representing desire shows an important characteristic of the monster. it reflects ‘back parts of ourselves that are repressed’.6 The monster, entertaining as it is, grows to show us that we too are monstrous. The monster is most deeply disturbing as it is neither ‘wholly self nor wholly other’.7 As the monster portrays unacceptable behaviour, it models our – often, by necessity, deeply hidden – unacceptable thoughts and actions.

Do Monsters Exist?

Finally, in its refusal to be categorised it is moot to attempt to put monsters in fully detailed categories. Questions such as ‘Are these monsters imaginary or physical?’, ‘Are they allegorical?’, ‘Are monsters nothing more than our subconscious emotions, fears, or prejudices?’ are not useful. The value of monsters is shown in Cohen’s answer to the question ‘Do monsters really exist?’: ‘Surely they must, for if they do not, how could we?’8 Monsters, real or not, allegorical or not, manifestations of our subconscious or not, are cultural productions. As such, through an analysis of the monsters and monstrous present in a text, we can learn about the culture in which this text was produced and transmitted. As such the text becomes a witness to a social milieu, which is in part defined by the monsters it fears.

The Assyrian Lamassu at the Oriental Institute Museum at the University of Chicago. Neo-Assyrian Period, ca. 721-705 B.C.

A Case Study in Monsters

Somewhere in the second century of the Common Era, The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs reached their final form. A Christian author/editor created a book consisting of twelve farewell speeches, partly based on earlier texts and traditions. Each of the sons of Jacob, the patriarchs of the twelve Jewish tribes, was given a speech where he looked back on his life, prophesied about the future, and give his children advice for their lives. The advice revolves around the Christian double commandment: Love God and love your neighbour. These Testaments are full of monsters. Not physical monsters, spiritual ones. The invisible forces of darkness, often called evil spirits, are depicted having a very direct and powerful influence on the life of each person. They can influence the most important part of a human: the mind. The Testaments focus on the mind is some detail: each person consists of a human spirit that is constantly influenced by both good and evil spirits. Each person has to make sure that her mind does not become influenced by the evil spirits so that she can keep living a righteous life.

Monstrous Body

The Testaments describe the bodily nature of humans in the Testament of Ruben, the first testament. At creation, God gave mankind eight spirits that make up human nature: life, sight, hearing, smell, speech, taste, procreation and intercourse, and sleep. Soon after that Satan, God’s opponent, mixed his spirit with these and eight evil spirits were brought into being: fornication, greed, battle, flattery and trickery, arrogance, lying, unrighteousness, and sleep.9 These evil spirits are associated with various part of the body. Fornication comes from the reproduction organs, greed from the stomach, battle from the liver and gall bladder, etc. Thus certain parts of a person’s body can be associated with the forces of evil. In this way the spirit and the body are interconnected.

The association of evil actions with specific parts of the body, is a theme that is maintained throughout the Testaments. When Simeon plans to kill his brother Joseph, his hand withers for five days. The part of the body that is associated with the sin outwardly manifests itself as monstrous. The envisioned deed of the part of the body is horrible, but not only that, even the appearance of the part of the body is terrible.

Gad explains in his testament how we should understand this: ‘for by the very same things by which a man transgresses, by them is he punished’ (Testament of Gad 5.10). This seems to imply that God seeks a fitting and somewhat ironic punishment, but the Testaments require more nuance to this. If Gad’s hatred for Joseph arises in his liver, that is if the evil spirit manifests in that specific organ, it stands to reason that this organ will be influenced by that spirit. Therefore, any consequences of anger will focus on that specific organ.

Monstrous Mind

The forces of evil can influence more than just parts of the body. Staying with Simeon, we read how jealous he was of Joseph. The spirit of jealousy tortured him. His body, mind, and soul were agitated. Jealousy deluded and devoured him. He would awaken to confusion. He could not think clearly, his mind was paralysed. Eventually, he concludes:

And even in sleep desire for evil appears and devours him. It confuses his soul with evil spirits, startles the body, and wakes up the mind in confusion. Thus, he appears to others as if possessed by an evil and poisonous spirit.

(Testament of Simeon 4.9)

The last sentence is key. He appears to others as someone possessed by an evil spirit. A person under the influence of the forces of darkness, that is a person whose mind has been taken over by the monstrous, such a person will appear to others as being monstrous.

Hercules faces the giant Antaios in this illustration on a calix krater, c. 515–510 BC.
Hercules faces the giant Antaios in this illustration on a calix krater, c. 515–510 BC.

Manifesting Monsters

Through these two examples, we can see the power of monsters in the Testaments. The Testaments are, as we discussed earlier, predominantly interested in each person’s mind. The mind has to keep making good decisions. The monsters are not physically present and can have no physical influence on the world. But, mankind can function as a means through which the invisible monstrous manifests itself in the visible world. The great danger that the Testaments wishes to warn their audience about is the other. Monsters are the other made flesh, but each person could also become the other. A person can cross the border towards the monstrous, becoming a monster herself; with monstrous limbs and a monstrous appearance. In the Testaments the other is not a group of people marginalised, but an aspect of human nature, and thus a part of each person. As a person slowly becomes the other, she no longer is herself or even that which defines her. As one lets oneself go over to the dark side, one slowly becomes the other, losing all hope of remaining oneself. In this way she becomes everything she hates.

The basis of the Testaments ethics is closely related to this. It is mankind that makes the opponent visible in the world. The ethereal monster becomes incarnate in the deeds, attitudes and even bodies of people led astray. This struggle of not only doing the opponents will, but becoming a champion of the monstrous itself is the basis of the ethical exhortation in the Testaments. The motivation for the ethics is the call to the audience not to become exactly that, which they do not want to be. The monster must stay out of the community and, preferably, out of the world too.


  1.  Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, “Monster Culture (Seven Theses),” in Monster Theory: Reading Culture, ed. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (Minneapolis, Minn.: University of Minnesota Press, 1993), 4. 
  2. Cohen, “Monster Culture”, 3. 
  3.  Cohen, “Monster Culture”, 8. 
  4. Margrit Shildrick, Embodying the Monster: Encounters with the Vulnerable Self (London: Sage, 2002, 5. 
  5. Richard Kearney, Strangers, Gods, and Monsters: Interpreting Otherness (London: Routledge, 2003), 5. 
  6.  Shildrick, Embodying the Monster, 3. 
  7. Shildrick, Embodying the Monster, 3. 
  8. Cohen, “Monster Culture,” 20. 
  9. Tom de Bruin, The Great Controversy: The Individual’s Struggle between Good and Evil in the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs and in Their Jewish and Christian Contexts, Novum Testamentum et Orbis Antiquus 106 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2015), 109–110, 149–150.