The Democratization of Monsters as Characters

The Democratization of Monsters as Characters

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The Democratization of Monsters as Characters

Proportion and distortion are not just irrelevant to monstrosity. Monsters are not weird or wrong versions of ideal forms, and the monstrous is not that which violates the rules of the game or calls boundaries and order into question. There are no necessary narratives that are inevitably reacted to (making it just a question of how). At the same time, this is not an anarchist thesis. At one level, monstrosity is obviously that which is called monstrous. However, there must be something too it. Right? Ways of writing, reading, or thinking monstrosity enact monstrosity, just as an era’s critics often embody their culture better than the society they critique. What is interesting instead is how to react to monstrosity in its face today.

Proportion is certainly not the issue. Pro portions look for portion and then compare them, without offering criteria for comparison. Elementary definitions of simile and metaphor are not instructive in this regard. A simile is a metaphor with ‘like’ or ‘as’, and both are comparisons, but comparisons are acts or statements of comparing. To compare is to describe as similar, equal, or analogous. First, similar means alike but not identical, and alike means having close resemblance – which is the state or quality of exhibiting similarity or likeness too. Second, equal means having the same measure or value. Same means being the very one, identical – which means being the same, exactly equal, or just indistinguishable and so interchangeable. Third, analogous means “similar or alike in such a way as to permit the drawing of an analogy”, and analogy means “similar in some respects” or a “comparison based on such similarity”[1]. The whole batch of words that try to explain comparison end up relying on the exhibiting of similarity to come from the object, measurement to be intrinsic to the object, interchangeability to be possible by inability to distinguish, and objects with respects that can be the previous things.

Exhibition is not a one way street by which objects strike passive actors. Equal means having the same measurement.

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Measurement is not intrinsic but decidedly arbitrary. For instance, a statistic is nothing but an interesting number. But interesting to who and in what ways? Also, an inability to distinguish need not imply interchangeability, as colonialism discovered with all those foreigners who looked the same. The indistinguishable cannot be (or more importantly is not) told or pulled apart, but not-separating does not always mean not-discriminating, as critiques of colorblindness make clear. While change and exchange occur, it is not in the innocent sense interchange suggests. In Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delight, walking white and black birds are entering the loops and folds of the yellow orange organicized (or maybe melted) tower, and something flies out the upper loops and swirls, but order and detail change. The breadth of the wisp of birds is lower near the painting’s top, the detail declines, and everything gets smaller as the white birds are harder to separate from the sky. There is no parting of the possible unified flow of birds through the spires, but the output and input are not interchangeable. While they may be exchanged or reversed, plug the top into the bottom or run the whole thing backwards, this changes the dynamic immensely into one of feedback.

This is not to say that “it’s all in your head” or “it all depends how you think about it.” On the contrary, these celebrations of cognitive intellectualism recapitulate humanism, and committed monotheism before it, in investing and cherishing a single looming object that is between categories yet makes them as the site of all hope and possibility. Everything can be (and usually is) marked by multiple allegiances and memberships, between and mixed in with categories. Also orders have no single origin and their sources cannot be found, and indeed the very status of orders themselves is constantly in contestation. The mind can’t help you much more concretely than God’s invisible hand.

While I don’t want to say, “it’s all in your head”, grammars like proportion are not fixed or even classically systematic. Indeed, systems are not systematic. In George Grosz’s Remember Uncle August the Unhappy Inventor, forms of machinery and invention strike as junk of roughly the right color and shape to re-assemble a coherent face and head – a fantasy of togetherness shattered as quickly as that of Pax Americana. As soon as it seems together, it’s obvious that everything has fallen apart. Bread and skull aren’t so different if stapled together by a sideways question mark. Rather than take systems as bounded and flowing, with interruptions that function in interrelated teleology, systems are amalgams of trash ready in states of chaos and crash. Instead of, say, “the lamp cord carries electricity, the filament is heated by the electricity, and light comes out”, it could be “copper mixes with kinds of energy (heat, electricity, and light), which moves in different directions – the glow of the light bulb is a parallel to this but the conditions of the filament and copper differ in material and enclosure.”

In whatever detailed schematic, the representation of a system necessarily excludes as it includes, and makes vague as it makes specific. Proportion relies on measurement and exhibition shooting out a kind of message (the object says, “I am 3 inches wide, made of copper, and weigh 5 grams!”) that then relates in describable and knowable ways. The knowledge and description of these ways is comparison. Schematics of machines (as representations and only in the senses considered here) are all proportions and measurements. Only meaningful because they are describable and related to what came before. The asystematicity of ‘systems’ is a kind of sidestreet to system and structure. But the proof of proportion’s collapse may be in distortion’s miscegenation.

When the ‘pick up’ on the guitar which registers the vibration of the strings is aimed directly into the speakers of the amplifier, the amplified transmission is fed back through the pick up and retransmitted through the system in such a way as to set off a cyclic oscillation producing an oscillating wail. Jimi Hendrix’s well-known Woodstock rendition of “the Star Spangled Banner” is a case in point. What is remarkable about this kind of effect is that it becomes self-sustaining, or independent of the initial, causal ‘pluck’ of the guitar string. (Levin 24)

Monstrosity as against normality, and against an order and system is, at least very clearly here, no longer pertinent. Today feedback plays the National Anthem and a Tascam digital 8-track sings it.

[T]he sound system featured cutting-edge audio distribution technology - including an all-fiberoptic backbone-and more than 500,000 watts of power. Nobody knows just how many miles of cables were used to get signals from one place to another. A tour of "cross-patch central," the master patch room, made me appreciate the complexity of the system, as I struggled to comprehend just where the more than 1000 signals were coming from and going to.

During the entertainment portions of the Super Bowl, the audio signal path began not at the stage, but in a Tascam D-88 digital 8-track tape deck located in a trailer on the periphery of the Superdome.

And you expected live entertainment? Everything from the pregame entertainment to … the National Anthem to the half-time spectacle … was set to tape. The timing … is so critical - thanks mainly to pressure from television coverage - that live performances were out of the question. (Fenton)

The spectacle of togetherness, unity, and order don’t come close to the variously cramped and sprawling mess of cable, power, sound, equalizers, microphones, speakers and cross-faders that compose the digestive tracts that spew forth alteration and modification itself.

Hieronymous Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delight shows what could be a hellish bird tyrant. In the lower right of the right panel, a beak and bird head sit atop a blue body, with a pot around its neck, and vases on its feet. It shits droplets of dark water with suspended naked bodies descending into a pit, into which another body vomits, and a third shits gold coins. The hole is not so deep, and there is the possibility of a face looking up. At the same time, the chair’s legs stand perilously close to the edge. Isn’t this the shitting the image of Kristeva’s abjection? Abjecting functions, in her account, by an immediate and simultaneous effect.

Not me. Not that. But not nothing, either. A "something" that I do not recognize as a thing. A weight of meaninglessness, about which there is nothing insignificant, and which crushes me. On the edge of non-existence and hallucination, of a reality that, if I acknowledge it annihilates me. There, abject and abjection are my safeguards. The primers of my culture (Kristeva 2)

But the bird image is that droplet of shit, there is no separation or distance by the cover of his seat. The shit of gold coins is no abject horrifying object, it is both an outside made to be out by its exit from the anus, yet it is the very currency of gold that perhaps would be useful in a medieval world, but could be spent nowhere in the three panels of the painting.

“If indeed, the undermining of categorization is contradicted by Kristeva’s definition of the abject and seems to be more in tune with Bataille’s ‘undoing’ on form, a closer examination of the abject permits one to see how it can (precisely when its act of categorization is experienced by the viewer as an ambivalence) undermine some of the categories we perform to construct identity” (Ross 149-150).

That the abject doesn’t simply ‘solidify boundaries’ does not imply an effect “more in tune with” ‘undoing’. The abjected doesn’t just make “ambivalence”, which here, I say, is the attempt by the cosmopolitan -“the one who speaks too many languages and cannot remember the native tongue”(Harway 214) - to account for difference by not being particular. It is multiple valences, but that doesn’t mean all of them democratically and equally, nor does it suggest turning to the valence of rejection and distance that characterize Kristeva’s version of abjection/weirdness.

Reminiscent of charges of ‘reification’, but not the same, there is a substantial movement to create the subject, object, and so on in the very space of debating abjection versus ambivalence. Just as the amplifier’s effect on the ‘pick up’ and the strings lets the hand fall away, a little psychoanalytic drama can act and accomplish much better than it can describe. Monstrosity and abjection as scary spatial otherness deserves the criticisms Deleuze summarizes, in another context, of Oedipal theory.

Opposing the psychoanalytical concept of the unconscious as a theater, with its constant representation of Hamlet and Oedipus, they see the unconscious as a factory, as production. The unconscious produces, like a factory, exactly the opposite of the psychoanalytical vision. …

Desire is established and constructs in an assemblage always putting several factors into play, whereas psychoanalysis reduces desire to a single factor (father, mother, phallus), completely ignorant of the multiple, of constructivism, of assemblages. … So desire constructs in the collective, the multiple, the pack, and one asks what is one's position in relation to the pack, outside, alongside, inside, at the center? All phenomena of desire. (Stivale)

Abjection is not a performance that moves inward towards a spectator, rather it is productive of the abject, and the lesson of the abjecting is not to look at how you felt about the shit, but to look at what this shit is you keep talking about. After all, every subject and object is abjected from elsewhere, and so the same light bulbs matter, just in a very different sense.

Monsters, as discursive demarcations of unthought, are to be treated not exclusively as the others of the defining group or self, but also as boundary phenomena, anomalous hybrids that constantly make and unmake the boundaries separating interiority from exteriority, historical world from fictional otherworld, meaning from nonsense” (Uebel 266). Monsters as signposts of unthought, should be treated as signs and posts. If monsters can be treated as signposts. `The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, `which is to be master - - that's all.'[2] Maybe Uebel is right, unthought is indeed about as foreign as the underside of a Möebius strip. But only from outside of its own topo(graphie)s is its shape complicated or problematic. For Escher’s ants it’s all the same. Analyzing monsters as signposts inserts a direction and material of distance that fails the analytic endeavor of radically defamiliarizing and denaturalizing, not only the past and the distant, but the present. One way, however, in which such an analysis is still incomplete – in which, indeed, it seems to me that it has tended inadvertently to refamiliarize, renaturalize, damagingly reinfy an entity that it could be doing much more to subject to analysis – is in counterposing against the alterity of the past a relatively unified [assemblage] that “we” do know today. (Sedgwick 44-45)

Only ‘The Truth’ is ‘out there’. Other interesting effects are very often not, and an attempt at deep focus does nothing to help.

So far it’s been more what monstrosity is not, what monstrosity need not be, and what happens in the becoming of the discursive formations of monstrosity. Isn’t there really narrative in the object and image or, maybe, in the relation by which it is taken in? And anyway, what about monstrosity as more than just a bad accusation no one should ever make? In a colorblindness versus race consciousness consideration it’s bad to discriminate based on race, but given that such has occurred in the past, what can be done now that doesn’t ignore new material realities? What else happens with monsters?

The number one rule of the monster movie is, of course, to show the monster as little as possible. Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993) isn’t a movie about monsters because dinosaurs are so thoroughly presentable. Known in image and intricate physiological detail from television and grade school, with their extinction fantasized as a really important scientific debate, dinosaurs wander around constantly. Even in the alien of Alien (Ridley Scott 1979), the spectator needn’t be simply thrown into orbits of ambivalence by the tenderness of a drooling Geiger thing. “Oh god, it’s so ugly, but it can act so human. This totally undermines the whole system of categories that composed my worldview.” Right. The case is most clear if you make that objection. Then someone does react that way.

Monsters do not take set forms of disproportion, and so each monster is itself a hybrid, an improvisation by another artistic effort. At the foot of the bird beast’s seat in The Garden of Earthly Delight, a dark thing which might be called monstrous branches out over a sedated doll of a white woman body. The form has no distinct head, its arms seem just as much like legs, but that they terminate in tree branches, which might seem more like hands than feet. Attendant to this microscene, a black body lurks in the shadows, defined mostly by a groping hand across white skin, and less clearly by some kind of rabbit head against a red desert (back)ground. From what form are these supposedly derived, and why should experience be reduced into replays and representations of psychoanalytic theater? The organs subsist in unresolved relation, a hollow skin like the torso growing further up the panel, with a face to the spectator.

Hans Belting imagines an alternative narrative coherence to the images and symbols of The Garden. Refuting other theories, he works out the possibility that the story is of a world that had no originary fall of man. Again it is the effort to find a system to it, to uncover a dynamic with a point to what is just paint. The garden itself, it’s worth remembering, tells no story, it does not speak and has no text on the interior of the triptych. This does not mean that it is inaccessibly paint, or that words ‘make sense’, but telling a story about what the painting ‘really says’ is just that, a kind of story of its own. Belting turns the image into a question of relation and proportion, of similarity and comparable tropes. No painting is an island, but that does not make it an oracle more than a Rorschach. An event processed in terms of measure and portion has been, in the sense of the lost kind of monstrosity of scale and aberrance, made a monster.

Rather than try to tame what is considered wild (nature, classically, but monstrosity here), why not relate in other ways? It doesn’t take a Frankenstein legend to realize these terrors from the deep are “from” nowhere deeper than the motion by which they are rendered. Children’s novels take monsters so thoroughly into the domestic as to tear the Lock Ness monster out of the possibility of a past and lost real into the new (and far better, after all) reality of The Lake Mess Monster. Only in moments of superb artistic accomplishment can convincing vampires come out and play. “We now claim to penetrate Otherness, to get inside it (conquest) in order to discover exactly how it works (science), so that we can colonize it (engineering), or build an example of it (as in the Turing test, successful simulation is our proof of understanding)” (Levin 30). Thus, the implosion of the monstrous as it becomes more clearly the feedback loop itself, the very measure of proportionality. Monsters are no longer happened upon or received but exhaustively manufactured. This has always been taken as true, in some sense, but here the destiny of the argument makes its anatomy not one of blood and muscle, but of theorization and rhetoric as the silently dominant accomplice.

Was it always this way? The historical reading of monstrosity presupposes both access to past systems of thought and discourse, and their existence. Of course, such re-assembling is the active creation of an assemblage (Deleuze), in one sense, and risks trading the denaturalization ‘of the past’ for the renaturalization ‘of the present’ (Sedgwick). Sometimes ‘monsters are scary’, more often they’re emblems on halloween candy and costume, or sculpted in meticulous detail as apotropaic décor for architecture. A perfect example. How can “we” clearly read “the past” and what things “meant then”? The idea that gargoyles were supposed to be scary monsters influenced the restoration of Notre Dame cathedral, making for gargoyles that (the logic bounces) would have appeared scary, in a style that took cues from the apotropaic use of evil imagery used to ward off evil. Once it’s been done and imagined in totalizing forms as the way monstrosity and fear functioned, who can deny it?

Monstrosity is that which is monstrous, but what particular images or animals this applies to can only be determined by that very act occurring. Theorization of monstrosity as lack or aberration ignore the productivity of their own work, and thus raise themselves up by the boot straps into apparently reasonable accounts of how the world works. Once the feedback loop begins, it can be changed, but not by the mechanism that began it. However, any participation in the feedback loop feeds back to itself and thus is more than a singular action, say of stopping the strings, because this does not stop the ‘pick up’, and allows the strings to start moving once the hand is removed. Rather, the wail of the oscillating national anthem can be taken further at its own game. Monstrosity can be anything, and trying to discriminate between worthy objects unnecessarily limits its possibility as a social force, fatally caught up already in its own fate. Calling people monsters does not always make them repelling and abject outsides partly because systems don’t ‘work’. Yet, this assemblage of speaking contorts and changes the monstrous at the flat level of its subsistence: a swarm of terms bandied about with some effect. Finally, a work of cultural criticism ends itself just exactly as the heart of its object, coming to the dead center of its space: an informed reading of’s mission statement as the mission statement of the well done kitsch website that it is: is solely dedicated to the recognition of monsters in our culture and society and the necessary awareness that mythology and history are driving forces in the global shaping of the “third millenary man”.

We are against the democratization of monsters as characters of trendy novels and fright movies that forget the true value of monsters and focus on their less significative features. On the contrary, we believe that monsters an essential but invisible part of our world. They were among us, they have disappeared but they are still present, hidden somewhere between dream and reality. When and what will be the next surge ? : genetics, radioactivity, aliens from outter space, demons from the Apocalypse ? .


Belting, Hans. Hieronymus Bosch: The Garden of Earthly Delights. New York, NY: Prestal, 2002.

Bosch, Hieronymus. The Garden of Earthly Delight. Museo Del Prado, Madrid

Fenton, Brian. “Super Sound: Sound At The Super Bowl.” Popular Mechanics Online.
(1997): Mar. 19, 2003

Grosz, George. Remember Uncle August, the Unhappy Inventor. Centre Pompidou, Paris.

Haraway, Donna. Modest_Witness@Second_Millenium.FemaleMan©_Meets_OncoMouseTM. New
York, NY: Routledge, 1996.

Komoda, Beverly. The Lake Mess Monster. New York, NY: EP Dutton, 1980.

Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York, NY: Columbia Press, 1982.

Levin, Charles. Jean Baudrillard: A Study in Cultural Metaphysics. New York, NY: Prentice Hall, 1996.

“Our Mission.” 10 Mar., 2003. <>

Sedgwick, Eve. Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1992.

Stivale, Charles J. “Summary of "Gilles Deleuze's ABC Primer"” Dec. 12, 2000. Mar. 7, 2003.


[1] All definitions paraphrased and quotes from American Heritage Dictionary of the
English Language, Fourth Edition 2000.

[2] Carroll, Lewis. Alice Through the Looking Glass. Chapter 6
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