Against Culture: Monsters and the Monstrous

The "Jungfrauaff", Conrad Gessner: HISTORIA ANIMALIUM, 16th century. [CC-PD].


by Jan Niklas Meier


From May to September 2015, the German National Museum in Nürnberg showcased an exhibition on displays of the monstrous. Imagine, one of the most prestigious art museums in Germany addresses monsters! How unusual? It is not, if you consider that we are surrounded by monstrous creatures, at all times and in all places.  We meet monsters everyday – when we watch movies, read a book, or have to concern ourselves with the monstrous financial market. The monstrous is omnipresent in culture of the postmodern, as cultural critic Rosi Braidotti put it in the beginning of this century. But what constitutes a monster, after all? On first sight, the seemingly infinite various manifestations of the monster are withdrawing from categorization, forming a monstrous construct themselves. The monster is a man-slaughtering beast, a cannibal, or a product of an incestuous relation. It is a message from the gods, it chastises or liberates us, it may destroy with the blink of an eye, or help us to find the highest joy. It ruins entire cities, or even mankind as a whole, while decoration our children’s bedrooms in countless forms of sweet soft toys all over the world at the same time. The monster is a metaphor – but for what? It tries to point us to something, it has a referencing character. This may also be seen in the etymological Latin origin: monstrare means to indicate or to hint. While this notion may be traced back to Church Father Augustine of Hippo in late antiquity, German common parlance frequently uses the term Ungeheuer. In this case, Germanic hiurja is the basis, and actually refers to something familiar and intimate. In this context, it is also interesting to look at the similarity to the word Unheimlich. Following Freud’s famous “Sandmann”-analysis, the unheimlich, unfamiliar, can never constitute anything new. An unheimlich feeling arises, when being confronted with a thing that is known for long, but gets alienated by a process of repression. 



Myths of Origin

What is a monster, after all? With such multifarious figurations being described, a question may be raised: what is the one thing, the tertium comparationis, all these have in common. When Braidotti postulates an omnipresence of the monstrous in a postmodern society, she distracts from the historico-cultural dimensions of the motive – it isn’t only ourselves, who live in a world of monsters. People from all bygone eras may have experienced the same. For that reason, philosopher and historian Thomas Macho has tried to detect the sources of the phenomenon. For the first time, the monster becomes tangible in the context of the development of the early advanced civilizations, such as the Mesopotamian or the Egypt. It appears that the opposition of civilization and wilderness, human culture and animalistic nature, is a basic prerequisite for the emergence of the monster. The first monsters reflect this very contrast. They are hybrid creatures of humans and animals and they are either worshipped as gods or cause mischief as demons. Stories of so-called founding monsters are passed down from Greek mythology. They are manifestations of the instability of new beginnings. They mark the transition from non-human to the human. In the seventh pre-Christian century, Hesiod tells about primordial goddess Gaia. With Uranus she begets the Hecatonchires, monsters with fifty heads and a hundred arms. Other hideous beasts follow, and they are all banned by Uranus to the underworld, the Tartarus. According to Greek mythology, our world was at first inhabited by separate limbs and organs only, dying in unification; the given monsters are born. The transition to the human is thus incarnated in the monstrous body. The founding monsters depict human primeval fear, the fear of bodily abnormalities, innate or inflicted, or the fear of being devoured by predators. Philosophy still follows this dialectic path of culture and nature hundreds of years later. In “Leviathan”, Thomas Hobbes lets lycanthrope creatures conclude a pact, the social contract, that dispenses with the animalistic in order to establish a cultural order.


What also starts in the antiquity, is the believe in wondrous peoples that may be found in faraway places and that are far from human norms in terms of their looks or behavior. Homer tells us about the Hippomolgi, living off horse milk only, or the African pygmies. It has to be taken into account that there are no negative connotations to these miraculous folks. But their deviant characteristics – drinking horse milk in one case, and being of small bodily constitution in the other – are pointed out. Miraculous peoples of Greek-Roman antiquity are chaperoned by hybrid creatures; the modern reader of Gustav Schwab’s famous collection of myths and legends “Sagen des klassischen Altertums” may encounter centaurs or the Minotaur in Minos’ labyrinth on Crete. Monsters of antiquity contradict the classical esthetical norms of their times, they are anomalies. And the miraculous peoples at the end of the world reflect a wishing for the exotic. Alexander the Great, for instance, meets such folks on his great campaign to the east, if we look at the poetic reports of the time. Such artistical writing address the audiences wish to hear of most exotic places and their inhabitants.



At the Edge of the World

It is such miraculous folks, who challenged the Christian scholars of medieval times. They had to fit them into their divine concept of creation. The most central question arising, was how human those beings could be. If they were human, they would fall within the Christian missionary task – but how should that task be executed, if they lived in faraway places? In Middle Ages, the monstrous could either be regarded as an expression of god’s manifold creative power, or as a diabolic degeneration of the same. The latter interpretation in particular, was not only subject to theological works of the time. For instance, the epic of “Beowulf” associates the monster Grendel with fratricide Cain:


Grendel this monster grim was called, / […] since the Creator his exile doomed. / On kin of Cain was the killing avenged / by sovran God for slaughtered Abel. / Ill fared his feud, and far was he driven, / for the slaughter's sake, from sight of men. / Of Cain awoke all that woful breed, / Etins and elves and evil-spirits, / as well as the giants that warred with God.


Miraculous folks from the edge of the world constitute an essential thought in the Middle Ages. And with the edge of the world, of course we refer to the end of the known world – no one ever questioned the spherical shape of the earth! The works of Church Father Augustine gave the central theoretical framework for the discussion of monstrous folks throughout the entire epoch. He regarded their monstrosity as an expression of a god’s creative power, but their existence was rather a necessity, inevitable through his will, than an expression of beautiful creation. In the early Middle Ages, bishop Isidore of Seville expressed some thoughts of likewise importance, based on Augustine’s thesis of monsters as part of a divine creation:


“But they are not against nature because they are created by divine will, because the Creator's will and the things he creates are nature. [...] Therefore, a monstrosity does not happen against nature, but only against the nature, we know.”


Both the peripheral localization and the theological component to monsters are reflected in global maps of the Middle Ages, the mappae mundi. These maps showed a world, dominated by three continents: Europe, Asia and Africa. Their organization can hardly be compared to modern-day geography. Indeed, they intend to accurately image the world, but they don’t map true to scale, but in regards of the ranked importance of the given regions. Accordingly, Asia does not occupy the largest part of the shown land mass, because it is the biggest continent. It is drawn large, because it is the point of beginning and end to a Christian history of salvation. The oceans may serve as a counter example; although they occupy the larger proportion of the earth’s surface, if compared to the land mass, oceans appeared irrelevant to the people of the Middle Ages for the simple reason of their inaccessibility. Hence, the three continents constitute the center of the mappae mundi. It was presented in a circular shape with Asia, occupying the whole eastern part of the land mass, and northern Europe and southern Africa, sharing the western hemisphere. It remains to remark that the east was on the top of the map. This represented the localization of paradise. The mapped world was pictured as a body, the corpus mundi. As the most important Christian site, paradise was assigned to the head.


The medieval "Ebstorfer Weltkarte" [CC-PD]


The Political Monster

The monsters at the edge of the world did not seem very dangerous to the people – they were too far from people’s own horizon. Throughout most of the medieval times, they constituted a rather theoretical problem. This notion changed in the context of long-distance trades and journeys of discovery. Monsters moved closer to the European living environment.  In about the same time, the monster becomes a political instrument. The monstrous is being used for defamation of enemies to the Christian Occident, denying their humanity. The monster, inhabitant of the in-between, qualified to picture of a world, divided into center and periphery. The Christian Occident becomes the center, surrounded by wilderness and the barbarian. Geographically speaking, such deviation separates West and East, Occident and Orient. Christian propaganda now portrays groups that are considered a thread to Christianity, namely Muslims, Jews and Tatars, as monstrous creatures, posing a risk to the Occident from the outside. In the 12th and 13th century, the crusades facilitated a one-dimensional anti-ethic in terms of the relation of Occident and Orient. Two hundred years later, the Ottoman expansion into Europe, constituted another climax. As letterpress printing was invented in about the same days, is was followed by a mass of scripts on this topic. The so-called Turcica spread around western Europe in great numbers. We may mention Sebastian Brant or Marin Luther as exemplary authors. The monstrous becomes an instrument to an anti-Turkish propaganda in order to strengthen the own, Christian confidence.


The early modern-day fascination for the bizarre allows for monsters to take part in the developing science of zoology as well. German scholar Paul Michel from Zurich, Switzerland, points out that the 16th and 17th century are the period of origin for the great collections; on the one hand, quotes and wisdom of the writers of antiquity are recomposed, on the other, artefacts are exhibited in curiosity cabinets. Questions about the authenticity of monstrous creatures, encountered by scientist in various forms, are the primal focus of early modern zoological research. Academics, such as Conrad Gessner or Ulisse Aldrovandi, scientifically discuss the possibilities of the existence of sundry types of monsters. The desire for the bizarre and strange is enhanced by the constantly growing world, as it gets discovered by the numerous seafaring nations. Another phenomenon of the epoch are freakshows featuring midgets and giants, bearded woman or Siamese twins, who are presented to the amazed public eye as curious, monstrous beings.



A Demystification of the Monstrous?

With the emergence of the enlightenment, research believes to find another conversion of the motive. The classical monster that chaperoned human culture for so many centuries, seemingly disappears around the year 1800. Science demystifies the monster, mythical creatures and miraculous folks are dismissed as superstition. Monstrosity in the human body becomes explicable, with the research field of teratology arising, and is mostly regarded in medical terms. At the same time, a new form of monster is taking the stage: the moral monster, according to Michel Foucault.


This French post structuralist differentiates between a bodily and a moral monster. The first is a hybrid creature and marks the phenotype of the monster, the body that differs from the human body. The latter does not necessarily show this distinction. It is not only the look that constitutes a monster, but the behavior as well. Foucault now demonstrates the criminal potential of the monstrous. He presents the moral monster as a creature against cultural values and norms, a taboo breaker. The monster is now a murderer and a rapist, sexually assaulting his own family and celebrating orgies of cannibalism. The moral monster is within us and its deformation will be seen in acting only – anyone could be a monster. One of the most prominent representatives of this monstrous motive, displays an external stigma, indicating his inner depravity. We’re talking about Hannibal Lecter, the genius anthropophage in Thomas Harris’ books. Just like his forename that rhymes with “cannibal”, his polydactyly, six fingers on his left hand, mark him as a monster. 

The monstrous Hannibal. Movie Poster, (c) MGM


Adaptations and Original Screenplays – the Monster in Cinema.

The monster is introduced into speculative fiction in the beginning of the 19th century – the gothic novel in particular helps itself to the motive. Pioneering achievements are delivered by authors, whose works are nowadays considered classics of world literature, like Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus “, or Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”. Starting from mysterious literature, the monster joins the triumphal film boom early. The “Frankenstein”-Movies of 1931 and 1935, as well as the many adaptions of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” may be mentioned as groundbreaking early successes. Hollywood invented its own monsters soon enough; creatures with no models in literature. “King Kong” can be considered the first of these movie monsters, first filmed in 1933. Merian C. Cooper developed a monster that could handle the latest technical innovations, the movie appears like a homage to Hollywood itself. Consequently “King Kong” focuses on cinema itself as a central motive – first of all, it is no coincidence that the main character is a typical American self-made man, secondly, he’s on the mission of taking “the greatest picture in the world”. The Kong appears to be invincible. He successively wrestles down all other monsters, daring to cross his path back to his hiding place. In the end, only a human is able to take him down. But he can only do so, by using technical tools. These are prototypical for the road to another modern figuration of the monstrous: the products of (bio-)technological optimization.


Towards the end of the movie, airplanes attack the Kong on top of the Empire State building and the fight of human products against an unchained nature is spectacularly demonstrated – of course the humans win. But after this victory against the natural power of a giant ape, civilization faces an enemy that might just be even more dangerous: its own acquisitions. In this spirit, modern Science-Fiction movies often feature machines, rebelling against the traditional orders, trying not to be mere items for human utilization. At this moment, the monstrous suddenly becomes very real. Numerous ethical debates in biological or technical science, about the possibilities and impossibilities of artificial life, prove the point.


Just like that, Foucault’s moral monster has made its way to the big screen. Not only can the mentioned Hannibal Lector be considered a modern classic already. In Thrillers and Splatter movies, we meet psychopathic serial killers or dumb Hillbillies, bloodily slaughtering their victims and hence expressing their very own esthetic of disgust. They are often supported by their degenerated families, products of intergenerational incestuous relations. The Horror movie allows for the spectator to dig into a world of explicit violence. From his safe and comfy cinema chair, he enjoys the pleasures of fear, when axe-swinging mutants chase students through US-forests with no mobile reception, as they do in “Wrong Turn”, or when they drastically realize the reason for why another movie title features a chainsaw.



What is a Monster?

After these historic highlights, the question of what constitutes a monster, still can hardly be answered. Its various forms seem far too heterogenous. What appears clearly evident throughout history is the bodily aspect. The monstrous body is different, an anomaly and does not meet human standards. This first aspect can be seen all over the history of monsters, but it cannot be a universal characteristic, when at least the moral monster is often not anatomically deformed. The monstrous body is not the one or the other, a binary logic of the for and against collapses in it.


Another starting point, in various respects, is the dimensional aspect. The Middle Ages and the Antiquity locate monsters to the edge of the known world. But at the time, the motive of the monster enters speculative literature, at the latest, the creatures also move to the center of European society.  And the dimensional aspect can be regarded on different levels: First, there is the concrete geographical situation of miraculous folks in the periphery, but besides that, the monster also lives in an abstract transition room. As an inhabitant of the in-between, it lives in the transition from phantasy to reality. Creatures with the capability of tearing down the borders of reality lurk in our basements, backyards and dark alleys. If a passant in Victorian England is waylaid by a vampire, the speculative enters a world that we understand as being real. If such rooms are used to describe the monstrous, we can identify the twofold components of either differentiation of center and periphery, and also of a system and an in-between. Such transitions are also found in the impossibility of a binary categorization of the one and the other. As an inhabitant of the in-between, as absolute exemption, the monster crosses the law of species, formulated by Jacques Derrida, and creates another room, this very same room of in-between.


Apparently, the monster wants to withdrawal from explicit categorization. Just by its nature, it bothers all systems of order. Thus, is could be said, that the essence of the monstrous is predestined not to be explicitly defined. Starting with this devastating approach, anthropologist Michael Toggweiler gives the picture of the monster as a no-thing, a purely negative creature. This way, the monster is the ultimate stranger, it neglects all forms of order, all nature laws or human social structures. Indeterminability is its key characteristic.  Accordingly, the monster might by a negative creature, but not nothing. It still holds a mirror to its environment, representing the other. Speaking like Bulgarian literature theorist Julia Kristeva, the monster symbolizes a discursively constructed alien; always entailing, what it’s not – the respective culture, it’s values and norms. This interpretation of the monstrous in cultural contexts leads back to its symbolic character that was already identified etymologically – monstrare means to indicate.



The Monster as a Product of Culture

Before recognizing that the monster is a counterpart to culture, it is a great step to recognize it as a product of the same. In the 1990th, American historian Jeffrey Jerome Cohen has done just that, in form of seven theses. Essentially, Cohen argues that in order to understand a culture, it is sufficient enough to look at its monsters. And in fact: If one follows the historic line of development of the motive, it may be recognized that the monster always represents the other. It always opposes values and norms of a society and breaks taboos. Moreover, the monstrous body incarnates things, that move and shape such society. The monster thus operates as a figure of reflection of cultural otherness, may they be of political, ethnical, religious, or sexual kind. Cohan’s theses are supported by the sudden multiplication of monstrous creatures in times of trouble. For the renaissance, for example, an epoch of profound social revolution, humanist Sebastian Brandt finds so many monsters, he even identifies them as a characteristic of the time. 


Cohan’s thoughts can be understood better, considering the late medieval monster. Since the fall of Constantinople, Christian Occident regarded itself threatened by the Ottoman Empire. Though this danger had existed before, the fall of this metropole, last bastion of Christianity, promoted a true fear of the enemy in the east. The loss was particularly alarming to European authorities. Pamphlets and poems now reinterpreted the Ottoman as monsters, non-humans that commit incredible cruelty. Those presentations were combined with traditional reports of the miracles of the East, where the enemy comes from. The inhabitants of the Ottoman Occident become the monstrous antitypes to Christion Occident. Such tactics of exclusion, strategies of othering, have historically been passed on throughout the years. Sadly, nowadays they prove to be currant and up-to date again, in a modern face.


The monstrous always returns this way. The interpretations may change, but the nature remains the same – the monster is a no-thing, only our attributions give it a content. In this context, the zombie offers to be interpreted in numerous ways. Whether it symbolizes the 1960th critic on Vietnam war, it is born from nuclear accidents, created by a life-style drug or pillories corrupt church institutions – we decide on the interpretation ourselves. The changes of interpreting popular monsters like werewolves or vampires may illustrate this even better, varying from sinister nightmare creatures to objects of sexual fantasies or sweet soft toys and back.



The Monster Always Returns …

We can try to ban the monster to the edge of the world or the universe, we can try to lock it into dark cellars and into the furthest corners of our minds – the monster always comes back. And it always brings along new insight into our fears and worries. Again, and again, it demonstrates, what’s wrong in society. It asks us, how we conceive the world, and gets us to question just these conceptions. The monster holds up a mirror to us in the most merciless way, since often, we dislike, what we see. And whenever we manage to finally ban the form of the other again, the monster leaves willingly. It knows, it will come back, in another form.