I recently had the chance to give the plenary keynote for the Monsters and Myths in the Making conference at the University of Florida.Sponsored by the Graduate Historical Society, the interdisciplinary conference included the work of some wonderful young scholars working on everything from constructions of race and criminality in relation to the electrification of southern towns to reimagining the chronology of the witch panic.
My keynote expanded a couple of ideas from Monsters in America and placed them in broader historical context. How do we use monsters to examine some of the more intimate and foundational concepts of human experience and history? What role have monsters played in defining the body and defining the human? Here is a redacted version of the first half of my keynote…the rest to come later in the week, as well as a bit more on the conference itself (I’m also working on a follow-up to my recent post of Cabin in the Woods).
Its not uncommon to see the history of the monster as primarily a history of the Unknown and the Other, the exotic and the repulsive. As Richard Kearny writes in his Strangers, Gods and Monsters, the monstrous lives at the boundary of our acceptable categories “those phantasmal boundaries where maps run out, ships slip moorings and navigators click their compasses shut.”
Maybe. This is certainly an important part of the story. Except that I have found in my own work that monsters are mental maps rather than the places where the maps run out. Though sometimes the parts of our inner geographies where longitude and latitude disappear—it’s also true that monsters function as a Baedekers guide to both the secret and secretive parts of history.
The history of the body is one of these areas. In fact, the idea of the human body as a medical, sexual and political subject and object is closely intertwined with the history of the monster. We could say that the western project of pulling the human body out of the context of myth took place over against the monster; the monster is what the body has been running from for four hundred years in its quest to be autonomous from the enchanted world. Defining the monster offered a way to define the human.
What I’d like to do is talk a bit about the creation of the human body as a subject to be discussed, as an entity surrounded by discourses that become increasingly self-referential in western culture. Then, I’d like to move pretty quickly to talking about how the monster and the body have share conceptual space in American history and how this fact can illuminate our understanding of those histories.
Its not at all surprising that the monster would be linked to the body given that the very etymology of the word “monster” is linked to being put on display. Monstrum is the root of the word “demonstrate” and in Roman usage could often refer to omens and portents. Indeed, from the murdered body as portent to the sideshow to the horror movie, the monster has always been a thing to be seen and, like the human body, something that points to meanings beyond itself.
But didn’t the body become disenchanted after a certain point? Well, not exactly. In fact, the coming of the scientific revolution in 16th century did not leave behind the monster, quite the contrary. This is not to say that medical knowledge allowed the body to remain a mystery and a marvel. Vesalius, the 16th century Flemish anatomist and author of On the Structure of the Human Body, combined dissection and illustration in an effort to literally open the body up like a book. As Thomas Laqueur writes about one of the famous frontpieces to “Structure” “the new, extravagantly public theatrical dissection and visual representations advertised the conviction that the opened body was the font and touchstone of anatomical knowledge.”
During a period in which the anatomists of Padua and eventually of Edinburough began to disassemble the body into its component parts while applying all sort of mechanical metaphors to its operations, the monster as a question raised about the nature of the human became central to medical discourses. Indeed, its possible to talk about the development of branch of scientific inquiry that became known as “teratology” or the study of monsters. Often the object of this study became the maldeveloped body—and yet monster became, and remained, a terribly slippery term fraught with all kinds of meanings.
16th century teratologist Ambroise Pare’ focused his study of monsters on an explication of reproduction, an explication that managed to combine the new scientific curiosity with a heady dose of folk belief, run through with the poison of misogyny (not to mention a criminal lack of empathy). The monster was the malformed body, in his words “things that appear outside the course of nature. (and are usually the signs of some coming misfortune) such as the child born with one arm, another with two heads.”
In an almost eerie precognition of some of the ideas prominent in Freud, Pare’ imagines the monstrous birth as the result of a kind of repressed guilt about improper sexual practices. Conjoined twins are a “sinister sign.” At a time when the penitential manuals of the Catholic Church sought to regulate sexual intercourse of even the married faithful, sex before the Eucharist, on Sunday, right before a major religious festival could easily result in a monstrous birth, the body becomes an index of sinfulness while the monstrous represents the dangers of human sexuality.
Indeed Pare’ gives a set of explanations for the maldevelopement of human fetuses the rather shockingly mash-up the natural and the supernatural. Monsters may be the result of heredity, accidental illness or the mother suffering a fall. On the other hands, the mothers corrupt imagination, the Devil or “the artifice of wicked and spiteful beggars might be the cause.” The malformed was not simply a marvel, but it also remained open to the monster, could indeed slip back into the realm of the monster very easily.
A side note here. Foucault once argued that Sado-masochism “is not a name given to a practice as old as eros; it is a massive cultural fact that appears precisely at the end of the 18th century and which constitutes one of the great conversions of the western imagination.” I wonder if historians of sexuality could explore this further and would they perhaps find that the birth of the fetish is a phenomenon of the scientific revolution and the post –Enlightenment since of the nature of the body as mechanism. There are frequently discussions of the monster as fetish object. Did this occur because the idea of the body as an assemblage of parts that could be reorganized and thus our desires for them good be reorganized in new ways, to desire differently based on the varied morphology of monstrosity?
So, Europe has a head full of monsters as its monarchies begin their expansion into the new world. Concepts of monstrosity intermingle with perceptions of the new world in early American history. Some of the first horror narratives of the new world have to do with European conceptualizations of native peoples that imagined bodies at risk and bodies that consumed other bodies.
So the monstrous had been grounded in the body. This conceptualization became a central part of the imagined new world, an empire that would have to be won in a struggle with monsters.
These discourses about the new world belong to a very long European tradition of monsterizing foreign races…Homer and Herodotus filled up their mental maps with Cyclops and troglodytes while Pliny’s Natural History can be said to have canonized European folklore about dog-headed people and “headless people” who lived in faraway lands.
This imagery fed into the notion of the new world as a place where the body was consumed by truly monstrous beings. The idea of cannibal America was, of course, common enough for Montaigne to satire it and indeed became a part of the folk humor about every place and race imagined as savage. This idea has never really disappeared. Indeed our pop cultural fears of devolution in post-apocalyptic futures almost always includes, not only the radiated and mutated creatures, but also human survivors who have decided to turn their fellow survivors into a food source. In this way, the Fallout series reflects the old fantasies of imperialism.
It’s worth pondering how the fascination with cannibalism that this was also an age that transformed, by legal transubstantiation, the bodies of Africans and natives into chattel and consumed them in the slave trade. Its no wonder, that in this world of monster making, stories of white cannibals, vampires and witches ran up and down the length of the Gambia.
I’ll post the next half of the lecture in a few days that takes the monster discussion to American shores, locates the history of witchcraft in relation to the history of the female body,describes how the dismembered body became an American obsession and says a little bit bout the bodies of zombies and vampires.