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'Monster Theory Reader': aiming for scholarship of the fantastic

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‘Monster Theory Reader’: aiming for scholarship of the fantastic

How can we talk about this subject academically?

How should we approach the subject of monsters? Very carefully, would be the obvious answer. Another set of responses exists in medievalist Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s landmark 1996 essay “Monster Culture (Seven Theses),” which first introduced the concept of Monster Theory as a discrete body of academic thought, dealing with all manner of monstrous, frightening things.

Now, English professor Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock has assembled a collection of 24 essays by leading Monster Theory scholars in one gargantuan tome: The Monster Theory Reader (University of Minnesota Press, 2020).

"Papal Ass," from "The Monster Theory Reader"

Part I, “The Monster Theory Toolbox,” aims to provide researchers with a set of operative frameworks with which they can approach the monstrous. The two most helpful essays in this section are undoubtedly film critic Robin Wood’s “An Introduction to the American Horror Film” and philosophy professor Noël Carroll’s “Fantastic Biologies and the Structures of Horrific Imagery.” Wood’s long and extremely detailed essay argues that monsters are born out of cultural repression, while Carroll’s equally exhaustive article explores how one might taxonomically sort monsters, and ponders if the quixotic nature of such an endeavor itself denotes an essential aspect of monstrosity.

One of the virtues of The Monster Theory Reader is how Weinstock has worked to establish an intellectual continuity throughout. This is demonstrated in how Part I leads into Part II via pioneering psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud’s essay “The Uncanny,” which explores the boundary separating the familiar from the unfamiliar, and how the blurring of that boundary elicits unease. Roboticist Masahiro Mori’s well-known essay “The Uncanny Valley” illustrates Freud’s observation by considering how humans seem hardwired to fear that which simultaneously resembles us and yet is clearly not us.

Part II, “Monsterizing Difference,” picks up on Freud and Mori’s arguments by examining how differences of race (Alexa Wright’s “Monstrous Strangers at the Edge of the World”), religion (Bettina Bildhauer’s “Blood, Jews, and Monsters in Medieval Culture”), sexuality (Harry Benshoff’s “The Monster and the Homosexual”), and physical appearance (Elizabeth Grosz’s “Intolerable Ambiguity: Freak as/at the Limit”) are used in the construction of monstrosity.

One of the most provocative essays in this section is sci-fi author Annalee Newitz’s “The Undead: A Haunted Whiteness,” which problematizes the otherwise simplistic dichotomy of “Us vs. Them,” in which monsters represent the hostile Other. Newitz boldly juxtaposes the racially charged horror fiction of H.P. Lovecraft with Blaxploitation horror movies of the 1970s, and shows how both construct racial identity — white and black alike — as monstrous.

Part III, “Monsters and Culture,” considers the wide variety of roles which monsters play in society, beginning with philosophy professor Stephen T. Asma’s short essay “Monsters and the Moral Imagination,” which contemplates how monsters function as a means of discouraging socially unacceptable behavior.

Folklorist Michael Dylan Foster’s wonderful essay, “Haunting Modernity: Tanuki, Trains, and Transformation in Japan,” looks at how folktales collected in the late 19th century concerning the shapeshifting tanuki reflect rural Japanese denizens’ anxieties about modernization via the advent of the railroad. Jon Stratton’s “Zombie Trouble” asks what the current popularity of zombie narratives says about Western fears of marauding hordes of migrants fleeing a war-torn Middle East.

The final section, “Part IV: The Promises of Monsters,” offers what Weinstock considers to be the cutting edge of Monster Theory scholarship. Highlights includes Erin Suzuki’s “Beasts from the Deep,” which examines recent Hollywood kaijū movies like Guillermo del Toro’s epic Pacific Rim and Gareth Edward’s artsy Godzilla, while Anthony Lioi provides an ecocritical approach to the familiar figure of the dragon in his essay, “Of Swamp Dragons.”

As with any curated collection, it’s difficult to assess the merits and deficiencies of the essays gathered by Weinstock. What I as a scholar might find useful for my research is not necessarily going to prove useful for someone else whose methodological outlook and subject matter differ. Personally, I have little patience for postmodernists like Julia Kristeva – represented here by her essay “Approaching Abjection” – but I nonetheless know colleagues who claim to find her work immeasurably insightful. I also recognize that without Kristeva, we wouldn’t have film studies scholar Barbara Creed’s “Horror and the Monstrous-Feminine,” which is indispensable for anyone approaching the topic of female-gendered monsters.

Overall, The Monster Theory Reader must be regarded as a highly valuable resource, but I do have two criticisms of the collection. The first is relatively minor and concerns the fact that several of the essays are actually introductions to other books. As a result, the reader might find they’ve reached the end of a piece without the author having managed to explain their point, because they were writing under the assumption you were about to read their book. This is especially evident in both English professor Halberstam’s “Parasites and Perverts” – excised from 1995’s Skin Shows – as well as religious studies scholar Timothy Beal’s “Introduction to Religion and Its Monsters,” from his excellent 2002 book of the same name.

The second criticism is more substantial, that being the lack of a phenomenological approach to the study of monsters. Religious studies scholar Jeffrey Kripal has argued that this represents Monster Theory’s biggest failing as an intellectual movement — it “treats monsters seriously,” but only if the monsters in question represent “an unconscious Foucauldian discourse, Derridean deconstruction, or postmodern materialism.” What Monster Theory seems unwilling to engage with is the fact that “many modern people have experienced monsters not as ‘discourses’ or as cultural ‘deconstructions,’ but as actual incarnate, discarnate, or quasi-incarnate beings.”

'Monster Theory Reader': aiming for scholarship of the fantastic

I find the simplest way to get Kripal’s point across is to remind people that the citizens of Salem, Massachusetts, didn’t hang 19 of their neighbors in 1692 because they thought they were symbolic witches. They did it because they believed those people were real witches in league with Satan.

Until Monster Theory develops a hermeneutic for dealing with these sorts of “real monsters,” it will forever remain monstrously lacking.

Every February, to help celebrate Darwin Day, the Science section of AIPT cranks up the critical thinking for SKEPTICISM MONTH! Skepticism is an approach to evaluating claims that emphasizes evidence and applies the tools of science. All month we’ll be highlighting skepticism in pop culture, and skepticism *OF* pop culture. 

AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.


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