The Promises of Monsters

Rory Kinnear as Frankenstein's creature in Penny Dreadful.
Rory Kinnear as Frankenstein’s creature in Penny Dreadful.
If you’re not too keen on theory, never fear! What I say below is basically a more academic rewriting of this blog post

Next week I’ll be presenting at a conference called ‘Promises of Monsters’. In my paper, I’ll be looking at the way the Showtime series Penny Dreadful (and other monster mashups) use and abuse certain ‘promises’ or possibilities of the monstrous that have been popularised by literary critics. Though monster studies as an academic discipline is still quite young, the monster mashup can be seen to respond to many of its claims directly, using the language of monstrosity for commercial ends. Though they’re often marketed as a reinvention or subversion of cultural hierarchies, binaries, and stereotypes, the monsters of mashup (and the mashups themselves) fall short of these promises time and time again.

So what are the promises of monsters, generally speaking? One answer lies in Donna Haraway’s 1992 essay ‘The Promises of Monsters: A Regenerative Politics for Inappropriate/d Others’, which is also where the conference gets its name. This is not the critical approach I’ll be looking at in this post, however. Haraway never really explicitly defines the monsters she is talking about. Those she describes are not quite the same as the fantastical, fictional monsters I am writing about, though the links are there.

Barney the Dinosaur is a different kind of monster than Adolf Hitler, though I'm sure many people on the internet would disagree.
Barney the Dinosaur is a different kind of monster than Adolf Hitler, though I’m sure many people on the internet would disagree.
Instead, we’re going to go with Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s introductory chapter to Monster Theory: Reading Culture (1996). In discussing what defines the typical or traditional monster, Cohen outlines seven theses. The first and most important is that the monster’s body is a cultural body. Cohen explains the creation of meaning through the monster as follows:

The monster is born only at this metaphoric crossroads, as an embodiment of a certain cultural moment—of a time, a feeling, and a place. The monster’s body quite literally incorporates fear, desire, anxiety, and fantasy (ataractic or incendiary), giving them life and an uncanny in-dependence. The monstrous body is pure culture. A construct and a projection, the monster exists only to be read. (‘Monster Culture’, p. 4)

Monsters may have a real-world presence, and they may be legitimately terrifying, but they are always first defined in the realm of narrative and imagination. These narrative bodies shape (and are shaped by) what we consider to be abnormal and deviant. Take the parallels between narratives about zombies and narratives about refugees as an example. I’ve also blogged about this in the context of what Judith Halberstam calls ‘zombie humanism’:

It's not rare to see refugees described and depicted as an invading horde.
It’s not rare to see refugees described and depicted as an invading horde.
In this approach to monstrosity, then, one must thus ‘consider beasts, demons, freaks, and fiends as symbolic expressions of cultural unease that pervade a society and shape its collective behavior’ (Monster Theory, back cover). A culture’s fascination with monsters would then suggest a desire to explore categories of ‘difference and prohibition’ (again, back cover).

Following this reasoning, the Uruk-hai from The Lord of the Rings are coded as 'monsters' because of Western culture's negative associations with muscularity, black skin, and animalistic features.
Monstrous, but why?
Cohen’s second and third theses – that the monster always escapes and is the harbinger of category crisis – relate to the expression of the monster’s cultural body. The monster is constantly changing, and thus resists easy categorisation (‘Monster Culture’, p. 4-7). Cohen’s fourth thesis explores another fundamental mark of the traditional monster that reflects the first: it ‘dwells at the gates of difference’ (p. 7). Just as the monster’s body is constructed by the fears and obsessions of culture, it is also physically marked by what that culture considers as different. This alterity can take any form, but Cohen argues that ‘for the most part monstrous difference tends to be cultural, political, racial, economic, sexual’ (p. 7). Following this reasoning, the Uruk-hai from The Lord of the Rings are coded as ‘monsters’ because of the West’s negative associations with muscularity, rural culture, black skin, and animalistic features. Because of this inherently (bio)political aspect of the monstrous, through the monster ‘the boundaries between personal and national bodies blur’ (p.10). This is a quality that remains in the monsters of mashup, though the way the monster’s body is used to represent a social body or the nation-state is different in every case.

Because of its liminal position, the monster ‘polices the borders of the possible’ as well as signalling difference (thesis five; p. 12). By embodying what is forbidden, the monster also seductively hints at what might be possible should the reader choose to cross the boundaries it marks (thesis six; p. 16). The type of seduction enacted and boundaries drawn depends on the type of monster embodied. Critical work on medieval monsters simply shows ‘a morally and physically deformed creature arriving to demarcate the boundary beyond which lies the unintelligible, the inhuman’ (Of Giants, 1999, p. xiv), but with the development of modern systems of deviance and punishment, the monster has came to occupy a special place in the social hierarchy.

In The Silence of the Lambs (1991) .
In The Silence of the Lambs (1991), figurative monsters (morally) are also literal monsters (physically).
Using the 1991 film Silence of the Lambs as an illustration, Halberstam demonstrates ‘the distance traveled between current [late twentieth-century] representations of monstrosity and their genesis in nineteenth-century Gothic fiction’ (Skin Shows, 1995, p. 1.). For Halberstam, while the monster always foregrounds physical difference and visibility, ‘the monsters of the nineteenth century metaphorized modern subjectivity as a balancing act between inside / outside, female / male, body / mind, native / foreign, proletarian/aristocrat’, and so on and so forth (p. 1). Postmodern horror, on the other hand, tends to favour ‘the obscenity of “immediate visibility”’, and its monsters are ‘all body and no soul’ (p. 1). This again signals the increasing loss of  direct significance evident in the twenty-first century monster. The concept of the human is at once too basic and too abstract to mythologise in any straightforward way.

Cohen’s final thesis explores how monstrous difference can be (and often is) deployed in critical theory to ‘reevaluate our cultural assumptions about race, gender, sexuality, our perception of difference, our tolerance toward its expression’ (p. 20). Critical theory tends to view the monster as an inherently progressive figure, or even a rebellious one, standing for the marginalised and fighting against an unfair society. It is by playing this final characteristic that the mashup is able to turn the monster’s traditional function on its head, highlighting the paradoxical (in)visibility, the loss of metaphysical significance, and the liberal populist tendencies that mark fantastical monstrosity’s twenty-first-century iterations. These narratives appropriate historical traditions of the monstrous as well as historical monsters.

What does it mean to be a monster in the twenty-first century, and how do both the form of the mashup and the ‘burden of history’ (as Hayden White would put it) complicate this identity? You’ll have to come to the conference to find out – or wait a couple of years for my thesis to be finished. In any case, fulfilling the promises of monsters is arguably more complicated than it used to be. It takes the right bodies, interacting in the right way, to reclaim the monster as a symbol of progressive identity politics.

Reclaim the monster before it reclaims us.
Reclaim the monster before it reclaims us?
I love monsters and all their promises, and I sincerely hope the third season of Penny Dreadful puts the arguments I make in this conference paper to shame. Until then, it provides plenty of fuel for blogging.


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