The Meanings of Monsters and Its Consequences

Christian Beyer
Christian Beyer

Monsters, it seems, are currently “en vogue” again. The Frankenstein year of 2018 marking the 100th anniversary of the first publication of Mary Shelley’s story about a man-made monster demanding both fear and empathy (2003 [1818]) brought the role of monsters in literature and other fiction high on the agenda again and directed renewed attention to figures of the monstrous, the strange, the abject, the uncanny, and more.

Questions of how monsters relate to — and possibly recalibrate — issues of otherness, alterity, identity, marginalization, and violence have been treated in manifold ways by many scholars before.

Waldenfels (1990), Haraway (1992), Cohen (1996b), Shildrick (2001), Ahmed (2006), Butler (2009), or Asma (2012 [2009]), just to mention a few, have all addressed ways through which dynamics of self and other, order and chaos, inclusion and exclusion have played out across cultures and histories at collective and individual levels—with monsters and practices of monsterization playing key roles in these processes.

Being an extreme form of the other, the monster is far more than a threating apparition implicitly justifying its own confinement or eradication.

The monster might appear a harbinger of destruction, but always also emerges as productive. It becomes implicitly constitutive of identities and the boundaries shaping these, and always also reflects something about those who created it. Hence the key assertion made by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (1996a: 20) in his seven theses on monster culture, “they [the monsters] ask us why we have created them”.

The monster, it seems, is not only limiting and a source of individual or collective ruin, but also constructive and renewing. It enables reflection and critical introspection.

Through its workings, the monster carves out a space from which alternatives can emerge and assert their presence — it is inherently transgressive and enables a recalibration of received orders and frames.

Our endeavour to approach the roles and functions of monsters in their various forms and shapes by means of an interdisciplinary collection of contributions is, of course, neither the first nor the last attempt to gain a better understanding of the theme at hand in this manner (see, for instance, de Valk 2011–2014 [2015]; Mittman/Dendle 2012; Paradiso-Michau 2017; Koenig-Woodyard/Nanayakkara/Khatri 2018; Mittman/Hensel 2018; Presterudstuen/Musharbash 2019; Erle/Beckley/Hendry 2020, just to mention a few recent examples).

Three such collections stand out for us as they have served as both inspiration and benchmark for our own project.

First of all, we owe our understanding of the manifold ways through which monsters are formed, can be analyzed, and assert their contingent effects to Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s seminal work ‘Monster Theory: Reading Culture’ (1996b).

Secondly, a publication we share the title of our project with, Julian Petley’s special issue ‘Manufacturing Monsters’ that was put out in ‘Index on Censorship’ (2000) emphasized the significance of monsters for politics and in particular for the role economic frames play in processes of propagandistic monsterization.

Finally, the activities of our colleagues from ‘The Monster Network’ and their recent special issue on the ‘Promises of Monsters’ in the journal Somatechnics (2018) — co-edited by Ingvil Hellstrand, Line Henriksen, Aino-Kaisa Koistinen, Donna McCormack, and Sara Orning — made palpable to us the importance of connecting monsters to issues of gender, embodiment, technology, and lived practice (see also Hellstrand/Henriksen/Berg/Beyer 2019).

These and other works show that the construction of monsters is more than aesthetic figuration. The cultural creation and dissemination of monsters have profound political implications as these practices are key to processes of othering that shape and frame certain groups or individuals as de-humanized, demonic, incomprehensible, and posing an immediate threat.

As among others Michael Parenti (1992 [1986]), Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky (2002 [1988]), Judith Butler (2009) or Cherian George (2016) have shown, when it comes to monsters, fiction and fact, entertainment and news, aesthetics and politics are closely intertwined, as are the interests and positions of power of hegemonic forces that activate such frames.

As Johan Galtung (1969) among others has established, the use of direct or structural violence against other living beings requires a profound cultural apparatus of legitimization — cultural violence in Galtung’s terms — that draws upon existing systems of knowledge and representation to form tacit horizons of plausibility for discursive acts of demonization, marginalization, victimization, invisibilization, or exclusion that, in utmost consequence, justify murder.

Seeing monsters from the vantage point of contemporary politics also forces us to engage with the economic and militarist practices of contemporary imperialism spreading across much of the planet.

By means of established and “new” media, these policies shape or reinvigorate imaginations of various mundane monsters that pose apparently immediate threats to “stability”, “human rights”, “democracy”, “freedom” and general well-being at a global scale.

From Gaddafi in Libya, Assad in Syria, Kim in North Korea, and Maduro in Venezuela to always suitable ‘Iranian fanatics’ or the ominous ‘Russian threat’, complacent mainstream media, incompetent pundits, and anonymous sources have created an impressive meshwork of imagined threats that further fuel an already palpable hysteria of ‘Western’ policy circles regularly targeting such alleged demons with both verbal accusations and concrete missiles causing havoc for the many in the process.

On the other side, similar demagogues present “racialized’ immigrants, queer people, women, or certain “non-believers”, just to mention a few categories, as suitable scapegoats for whatever ill in need of explanations that can promise quick fixes of complex structural issues.

What all these often-violent endeavours of naming and framing have in common is the fact that they are mostly based on fictions.

Almost all of the nightmarish creatures we apparently need to be defended against turn out as chimaeras, in the end, mere constructs with little to no connection to the “real” world.

By then, however, “our” allegedly necessary interventions, sanctions, bombardments, proxy wars, deportations, hate crimes, and shock-and-awe dissolutions of state structures and institutions have already destroyed the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people, in the process creating the very hopelessness and hate crystallizing into the very threats these measures originally were framed as saving us from.

What we see is a deliberately initiated and perpetuated vicious circle of monsterization where the other becomes both a victimized object in need of protection and a grotesque, inhumane creature threatening “our” lives and well-being without apparent reason.

Most of the mundane monsters, who we are allegedly threatened by, are — at least in a positivist sense — fictions.

Their construction, however, entails real consequences for millions of people who for instance happen to live at the receiving end of “the West’s” self-righteously deployed virtuous violence, or who happen to be chauvinistically framed as located outside whatever norm system cynical political actors believe need to be reified by violent exclusions of the chosen identity-marker of the day.

From Elizabeth Catte (2018) who viciously and eloquently opposes the simplifying demonization of Appalachia and its residents in US-American mainstream liberal discourse, via Cherian George’s (2016) analyses of how religious offence is instrumentalized to both vilify others and frame oneself as victim of oppression and harassment to Alan MacLeod’s (2019) attempt to address the biases of “Western” media reporting on Venezuela, many scholars have engaged with such politically inflected instances of othering and demonization from critical vantage points.

In addition, Butler’s (2009) distinction between “grievable lives” and “ungrievable lives” (see also Mehr 2009), as well as Herman and Chomsky’s (2002 [1988]: 37–86) differentiation between “worthy victims” and “unworthy victims” (see also Edwards/Cromwell 2018), point to the importance of mediated images for the framing of the other in the name of wars and violent interventionism.

As Barry Buzan, Jaap de Wilde and Ole Wæver (1998 [1997]), Michael Merlingen (2008) and Sybille Reinke de Buitrago (2012) among others have shown, this has relevance for international relations and processes of securitization.

Monsters, the various threatening constructions we live by, and the containment of which promises order and security, may serve yet another purpose, though.

When taken as a social optic relevant, not due to whatever frame it instantiates, but due to the very practices, interests, and power relations these processes of construction make palpable, the monster becomes a veritable black mirror throwing back at us the creatures of our making and remorselessly exposing the inherent monstrosity of our own beliefs, attitudes, and actions.

Monsters may, therefore, tell us more about the cultures and individuals that shaped them, than about themselves or the world. From this vantage point, the monster becomes our feared and excluded twin — a refracted mirror-image showing us something out there but also always exposing us to an often-uncanny and frightening picture of our real selves.

As our “dialectical other” (Cohen 1996a: 7) the monster projects our suppressed fears and anxieties. In all its menacing nature, it also elicits desire not only threatening with death and destruction but, implicitly, also promising freedom and something new. As such, the monster marks a border that, for the sake of both ontological and political stability and the sustaining of a hegemonic order, must not be crossed— or, in terms of a progressive politics of change indeed needs to be crossed.

Most importantly, however, as Cohen concludes, “monsters are our children” (Cohen 1996a: 20). They are made by us and, therefore, serve as constant reminders of who and what we are, revealing to us aspects of ourselves we might not want to see or acknowledge.

In essence, his argument goes, monsters harbour not only destruction but also correction, change, escape, and potentially necessary renewal.

In our view, monsters and their “humane” counterparts belong together. The one cannot exist, or be adequately understood, without the other. Islands of order need a sea of chaos from which they can emerge and without which they would lose their meaning.

In political terms, what becomes decisive, then, is not an attempt to avoid or end such contingent processes of ordering an inherently chaotic world by means of drawing largely arbitrary and temporary dividing lines across whatever categories currently at hand.

Without such alterity, neither collective order nor individual identity would be possible. It is crucial, though, to maintain constant awareness of the contingency of such divisions (they can and will change over time creating new configurations of in/exclusion) and of the implications such divisions have for the involved individuals and groups (both exclusions and changes need to be non-violent and adaptable).

Problems arise once contingent and dynamic processes of objectification (of particular identities or relations) sediment into static regimes of objectivity that suppress nonviolent change and reify a specific constellation as an allegedly natural and therefore timeless and unquestionable order.

This order, then, implies a need for violent defence against the onslaughts of various possible others excluded or marginalized by hegemonic frames.

Under this condition, the other as a necessary partner in constant and inevitable mutual adaptation and change is reconstituted as a monster — a unanimous and immediate threat to an order that is reified, perceived as without an alternative, and as beneficial for everyone deemed relevant by dominating forces.

Under such conditions, necessary peaceful change is replaced by destructive campaigns for stabilization that translate into violent struggles for hegemony, supremacy, and an allegedly timeless order. Also, we need to remember the monsters we have created and the true consequences of our violent struggles against them.

In mainstream discourses, the catastrophic ramifications — societal, cultural, economic — of our past wars are quickly forgotten; brushed over by new challenges and discursive moves constantly luring us into the same trap: to perceive yet another group, leader, state, or denomination as a rightfully eradicable, mere threat.

In these cases, our “Western” collective and cultural memories suffer from a very short span. We monsterize, intervene, kill, and forget, in that order, and let others pick up the pieces of what we self-righteously wiped away allegedly in the name of peace, security, and prosperity.

Once the “mistake” — the ultimate unreality of the assumed threat — is realized, we say sorry and move on. Then, however, our actions have already created the devastating facts on the ground that keep the spiral going.

The memories that could force us to stop, to think and to regret, that could help us to learn and to break out of this vicious circle of monsterization, find little resonance in the echo chambers of contemporary mainstream media.

We have seen this logic materialize again and again — the Gulf of Tonkin incident, the babies thrown out of their incubators and left to die on cold Kuwaiti hospital floors, the weapons of mass destruction deployable within 45 minutes, Viagra given to “regime troops” to make them rape more, the monster gassing his own people; the new Stalins, the new Hitlers, and so on.

These are just a few examples of a sheer endless row of irresponsible rhetorical moves that lead us from war to war — wars in which we never die. We have to guard against not the monsters allegedly responsible for these fictitious cruelties, but against those telling these lies, conveying them to us, inserting them into political discourse for their own cynical motives.

They are the ugly face hiding behind the smooth and well-meaning mainstream façade of “Western” foreign and economic policies — conveniently covered by consumer-friendly, colourful, cuddlesome multimedia mass entertainment.

Our work grew out of the interdisciplinary master’s course ‘Manufacturing Monsters’ (MaMo) that runs at UiT The Arctic University of Norway each spring term (for more details on the development of the course, see Beyer 2019).

Many ideas that come to the fore in our collection had their origin in teaching and discussions connected to this course.

Several of the contributors have been involved as either teachers or students. After a yearlong process of working on the journal, it is wonderful to see its monstrous outcome and to be able to close the circle: Soon, the collection will come back to class again and will be utilized as compendium literature for the MaMo seminars to come.

The present special issue is dedicated to inquiries along all the dimensions mentioned above; and many more. Firstly, it interrogates the figure of the monster in a variety of media and genre ranging from literature and the fine arts via film and comic books to video games, directing attention to both factual and fictitious discourses in historical and comparative perspectives.

Secondly, some of the articles collected here interrogate the processes through which monsters are created and which implications such creations can have for individuals and groups that are subjected to these discourses and practices.

Thirdly, then, some contributions also look at the monster as an analytical lens that makes visible important aspects of the political systems, the cultures and societies, or the economies that create and circulate them. Consequently, this special issue intends not only to see monsters, but also to see with, through, and as monsters.

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