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Monsters and the Monstrous

Monsters and the Monstrous

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Monsters and the Monstrous

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  1. Monsters and the Monstrous With this set of slides we begin our study of metaphor and its underpinnings. You will be introduced to three theories of metaphor in this module, but you will also need to gain some insight into what psychological processes underpin our pervasive use of this representational device within imagery. W. J. T. Mitchell sees imagery as a potential articulation of social life, with each image/metaphor acting in multiple ways – not least as an emblem signifying membership for those people who have, for one reason or another, decided (or allowed themselves) to be ‘enlisted’ into the metaphor’s associated ideology. Mary Midgley provides a more textual form of analysis, arguing that metaphors are equivalent to contemporary myths, and she warns that while some myths can be useful and inspiring, while others can be pernicious and destructive.

  2. To continue this brief survey of initial reference points, Lakoff and Johnson’s book, Philosophy in the Flesh, provides a contemporary, pragmatic, account of metaphor couched in terms of cognitive psychology – again, this version of how to analyse metaphors is very ‘text’ driven. However, in order to gain more philosophical and psychological perspectives on metaphor’s more imagistic underpinnings – we need theories that are fully immersed in these contexts. To answer this need we will use some of Friedrich Nietzsche’s insights into the place of metaphor within our being, and some of the psychoanalytic insights of Jacques Lacan to explore our relationship to fantasy and desire.

  3. Consider the following:- • And isn’t it the case that not the human horrifies me, but the inhuman, the monstrous? Very well. But only what is human can be inhuman. – Can only the human be monstrous? If something is monstrous, and we do not believe that there are monsters, then only the human is a candidate for the monstrous. …. Horror is the title I am giving to the perception of the precariousness of human identity, to the perception that it may be lost or invaded, that we may be, or may become, something other than we are, or take ourselves for; that our origins as human beings need accounting for, and are unaccountable (Cavell, S. (1979) The Claim of Reason. Oxford: Oxford University Press; pp. 418 - 9).

  4. Monsters have always stalked the imaginary boundaries of communities in the West, and our focus on education suggests an obvious starting point: focussing on child monsters and monstrous childhoods. To quote Donna Haraway, these are often ‘contradictory, partial, and strategic’ (Haraway, D. (1991) Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: the re-invention of Nature London: Free Association; p. 155). From the same perspective, Paul Virilio’s offers a speculative guide to our future. What we should study are not the kinds of experimentation on humans associated with Josef Mengele at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Instead we should focus on reconceptualised forms of being – what Virilio calls human-experiments – together with their likely contexts of manufacture. • Here we see the religious dimension, the deification of the scientist, the demiurgic impulse: re-fabricating the living. … Thus humankind would no longer be singular. It would become the product of a creator. But this time, it would no longer be the Creator who is the cause. It would no longer be monotheism, it would be polytheism, except that the creators would be companies. Monsanto, or Novartis would do the programming (Virilio, P. & Lotringer, S. (2002) Crepuscular Dawn. New York: Semiotext(e; p. 117).

  5. According to Virilio, then, it is the multinational corporations that will claim paternity for these future experiments in human re-styling, rather than single individuals, such as Mary Shelley featured in her Gothic novel, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. The first edition of her book was published in 1818 – a time when global corporations such as Monsanto barely existed. Virilio therefore directs us to view Ridley Scott’s replicants, as featured in his 1980 film Blade Runner, and Spielberg’s ‘David’ as featured in his 2002 film AI: Artificial Intelligence, as ‘symptoms’ of contemporary cultural anxieties and investments in the image/metaphor of childhood. But in order to sketch out an analytical method, we start with a simpler representation of paternity: Shelley’s Frankenstein. (All of my comments relate to her first edition, which is far more imaginative and inventive than the second.)

  6. Hollywood versions of her book have grossly over-simplified her complex narrative in order to stress the idea that Frankenstein is appropriately punished for tampering with the natural order of things, but both the monster - and Shelley’s original text - are much more interesting. As you may know, once the assemblage of body parts is brought to life, Frankenstein rejects this product of his own science, and the monster is forced to wander the land alone, gaining an an untutored, Rousseauesque education. The monster has everything to learn from experience; but the humans he meets, without exception, recoil in horror.

  7. But then, after many such confusing, and usually painful rejections, the monster comes to know human kindness – but this is gained through observing an impoverished family from the vantage point provided by a ‘small and almost imperceptible chink’ in the wall of the cottage in which they live (Shelley, 1993 [1818]: 85).

  8. The monster begins to secretly supply the family with fuel and food, and its warm regard for the family eventually prompts it to overcome its fear of entering into discourse with ‘another’ human being, even though by now it is appalled by its own reflection as seen in water. It starts cautiously at first, and when the rest of the family are away the monster approaches the blind father, presenting itself as a friendless wanderer; and as such, is immediately welcomed. But when the rest of the family returns, they immediately see the monstrous strategy of its embodiment and they too turn against it in horror – driving it away again from any prospect of friendship or mutual regard.

  9. Stepping back, now, from Shelley’s narrative:- Both the monster and the sighted members of the family are depicted as trapped within a ‘scopic’ order which she plays against Christian belief and sentiment. Rather than their mutual situatedness on either side of the same cottage wall being used as the pretext for Christian community, with the monster being marked initially as one in limbo, i.e., un-baptised – not yet having entered to community of souls, etc., Shelley uses the cottage wall to mark a scientific separation between observed and observer. The monster, as observer, is charmed by the family member’s mutual regard for one another. The family, as observed, enjoys an assumed domestic privacy and, since fate has already been so cruel to them, they never question the miraculous supply of firewood and other forms of support which the monster is provides under cover of night.

  10. In passing, we might note how Frankenstein’s monster suggests a suitably antiquated and ‘craft’ version of one of Virilio’s human-experiments, and in similar vein might look for symptoms of its hybridity. Clearly its assembled body is one, but of more significance is its readiness to break open the familiar ‘scientific’ arrangement between observer and observed – undercutting this through its relationship to language. Both observed and observer remain secure so long as their respective positions are unchanged. But Shelley’s purpose is to question the triumphalism of early nineteenth century science and its rhetoric of abstract, totalising objectivity upon which it rests. Having first placed the monster in the role of a scientific observer (and as a ironic joke against Condillac’s statue), she then gives her creation the audacity to confound the rules of scientific observation and attempt to enter into discourse with those who previously were its ‘objects’. The Christian blasphemy of the monster’s multiple origin from amongst the bodies of the dead is contradicted by a unified sensibility. Frankenstein’s sin is to unwittingly trap a vital, human spirit within a structure fabricated by Man, not by God.

  11. For an initially ‘innocent’ identity trapped within a horrifying body, language seems to offer the only possibility of reconciliation and community. But then the monster learns – painfully – that discourse involves embodiment within situated experience, and that it will always be excluded because of its inhuman embodiment. It responds by re-structuring its damaged identity around the one remaining instance of embodied discourse to which it has direct and continual access: its own victimhood. And it now directs its discourse to the one remaining interlocutor which it believes will always be duty bound to listen and respond in ways other than those which inflict pain and suffering: Frankenstein.

  12. But as you probably all know, Frankenstein again rejects ‘his’ monster; seing it as duplicitous and self-serving. He understands its ‘victimhood’ as no more than a ploy – a strategic move intended to place moral responsibility upon him for making it in the first place and then having rejected it. And in so doing, of course, Frankenstein also rejects his paternity of this human-experiment. Only momentarily does Frankenstein admit to himself that the monster’s discourse may also be a last desperate attempt to wrest mindful recognition from at least one other human being. But almost immediately, he finds the implied burden of such ‘mothering’ too great, and he treats it instead as attempted coercion. Shelley’s monster provides an almost perfect negation of the normal promiscuity of discourse. It can never become a metaphorical ‘chameleon’ as other human beings can, able to respond to others by presenting certain aspects of themselves and concealing others so as to meet the shifting demands of social life. Instead, it remains fixed as a constant rebuke to its maker and a pretext for its enforced exile or destruction by others.

  13. Shelley’s monstrous text (containing multiple letters within letters – multiple forms of authorship) marks the monster’s masculine-derived identity in order to demonstrate the sterility of an upstart paternal principle: science. As an emblem for Frankenstein’s new race, the monster’s fingers are embarrassingly sticky with blood. • In this respect, Spielberg’s Professor Hobby, in his film AI Artificial Intelligence, is granted both more honesty, and more control:- • Company Executive: If a robot could genuinely love a person, what responsibility does that person hold towards that mecha in return?’ • Hobby: The oldest one of all. But in the beginning, didn’t God create Adam to love him?