Monster Culture and Psychology

Jeffrey Cohen highlights the monster as a complex aspect of both societal, cultural, and individual identity. He expresses the idea that, “Monsters are our children…they ask us why we have created them” (20). As we can therefore view the monster as a product of our own fears, influenced and possibly created by the environment we live in, the monster very much resembles our inner-thoughts and is a metaphorical representation of mental processes.

Cohen demonstrates that we can “[read] cultures from the monsters they engender” (3). The idea that our deepest fears are usually socially shared arises as Cohen states, “the monstrous body is pure culture. A construct and projection, the monster exists only to be read…” (4). As gender and race exist as social constructions, so does the monster and the body of the monster. It reflects the boundaries of a culture and therefore reflects the our own thoughts of what is socially acceptable or not. For example, “the monster prevents mobility…to step outside of this official geography is to risk attack by some monstrous border patrol or (worse) to become monstrous oneself” (12). Cohen illustrates the monster as our own psychological fear about being rejected from society and how stepping outside of social/ cultural norms is looked down upon.  The monster is often portrayed as wild, out of control, dangerous; “[monsters] declare that curiosity is more often punished than rewarded, that one is better off safely maintained within one’s own domestic sphere than abroad…”(12). Therefore by illustrating monsters as the extremist products of social constructs and by portraying them often in an evil manner, we are reminded of the boundaries that our society or culture values.

In addition, Cohen points out that the monster somewhat gains power from its non-conformative form; “the monster’s body is both corporal and incorporeal; its threat is its propensity to shift” (5). It is not concrete in its form, parallel to our own fears, and may arise at any time. Like psychological fears, disorders, memories, “The monster notoriously appears at times of crisis…” (6). Like the deer women in the comic that we read in class, she symbolizes the trauma of sexual assault and appears in times when women experience it. The monster has the ability to disappear and reappear which is out of a human’s control, much like mental processes. Cohen shows the parallel of this concept in the monster,”And so the monster is dangerous, a form suspended between forms that threatens to smash distinctions” (6).

Lastly, the monster shows our inter-most desires that we cannot publicly express. Cohen states, “The monster is continually linked to forbidden practices, in order to normalize and enforce. The monster also attracts. The same creatures who terrify and interdict can evoke potent escapist fantasies…” (17). The monster embodies these desires;”Through the body of the monster fantasies of aggression and domination and inversion are allowed …” (17). When evaluating the monster one must wonder, does the monster represent our own libido (referring to Freud)?

 

 

Mixed-race identity and questioning monster culture

One thing I found interesting in this ex is sort of how it seems to hold people accountable for the monsters they and their cultures create. This is specifically addressed in the last thesis, where Cohen states that the monster’s bear self-knowledge, that they ask ourselves to “reevaluate our cultural assumptions.” Thought this, and the section on mixed-race relationships being represented as the monster, this text made me think about was how I situate myself within this sort of “monster culture,” I guess. Like, as a mixed race person, sort of seeing the monsters our culture has produced as both representing the background that I come from, representing myself as the Other, while at the same time, representing the things that have been culturally ingrained in me to fear or to think of as Other than myself. I hope that made sense. Or, in that I think it was interesting that, even as a mixed race person, I am still a apart of a culture, part of the group that created these monsters based on cultural assumptions about “…race gender, sexuality, our perception of difference..” etc, even if those things the monster is created from is about me. In this way, the last passage of Cohen’s text becomes increasingly important, especially the last line: [the monsters] ask us why we have created them. I thought that it was important to read this as a mixed race person and remember that it isn’t just the people traditionally in power who need to question why these monsters were made, question what their assumptions are, but mine as well, in sort of a way to deconstruct the harmful ideas intrinsically held about myself within myself.  Or, to acknowledge that that these harmful assumptions aren’t just restricted to those people who actively believe and act on them, but are rather sort of permeating undercurrents held by everyone, underlying ideas that require constant checking in and active questioning in order to overcome.

Monster Culture and American Progress

I think that, throughout Cohen’s Monster Culture presented an interesting lens on how we view history, and the creation of monsters through that lens provides a new way of understanding the history around us. His fourth thesis, titled The Monster Dwells at the Gates of Difference, focuses on the ways in which cultural difference has become constructed in such a way as to serve as justification for colonial empires.

Key to this understanding is the topic of the Native Americans, a topical subject given the location on which we sit in particular. The west was seen as a land of free land, ripe for the taking. However, there were people living there and so to make it seem ok these individuals were painted as barbarians who lacked the culture of the European settlers.

Another way to look at this is through an 1872 painting titled American Progress by John Gast. In this depiction of manifest destiny, colors are and placement are used to convey a sense of the monster that exists within the traditionally held ideals of Native Americans.

Monsters are often seen as the dark, while good is seen in the white, a trope that spans generations (and referenced by Cohen on page 20). The right of the subject is bathed in daylight, showing the wide range of the east and the good things that can come from it. Railroads, stagecoaches, cities and infrastructure, and the plow are all shown as civilizing narratives, pushing forwards thanks to the lady in white, who carries with her education in the form of a book.

Meanwhile the darkness, represented on the right of the page, shows a vision of what is to pushed out. The bear and the great herds of buffalo race away from the image. In addition, a group of Native Americans, wearing what appears to be the “expected” garb are forced to run away as progress kicks them out. Veiled in darkness, they are represented as moments of the past, and not of the future of the landscape.

There is an additional layer to this as well, that of the taboo monster. As Cohen mentions, the monster also represents a layer of the forbidden, and the way land itself becomes seen as an exotic, taboo feature. Look closely at the clothing choices the artist has made throughout the image. Progress is presented as wearing clothing, even the goddess of progress (and of note, one of the only women) is covered up in such a way that it removes any sense of impurity. Meanwhile most of the Native Americans are shown without clothing, and male and female figures have their chests exposed. In the wake of progress, these ideals are to be removed from the space.

Lastly, the land itself is tamed on the right, while the high mountain ranges on the right invite a sense of desire for knowledge and exploration. The west as a whole then is made to seem untamed, a landscape ripe for settlement.

As seen through all of this, Gast’s representations of the American West invite the viewer to imagine the people who lived there before as savage monsters in the ways that Cohen writes about, and the land requiring the saving grace of the White Europeans in order to achieve something greater.

Analyzing Cohens Thesises

In Cohens, “Monster Culture (Seven Theses)”, his vision of the meaning behind monsters and the place that they hold in our society today reflects well with the texts that we have been reading in class such as “Saga”, “Monstress”, and “Deer Woman”. The first comparison that I found in Cohen’s article is regarding his “Thesis I: The Monster’s Body Is a Cultural Body”. While reading, I was comparing this section to “Deer Woman” in the fact that the monster in the story, which is the Deer Woman is born and comes to life because of certain moments, which in this case is when women are being sexually assaulted or threatened. The Deer Woman’s purpose in the story is to rid of the fear that Native American women live with and constantly face of being sexually assaulted. Because, whenever they are in that situation, the Deer Woman appears and tramples the person that is threatening them to death in order to rid of the fear and anxiety that they live with. I feel as if when Cohen states that “the monstrous body is pure culture”, this also resonates with Deer Woman because Native American women have passed on this tale of this protector from generation to generation in order to protect and support Native American women.

In Cohens “Thesis II: The Monster Always Escapes”, I was reminded first of Frankenstein because at the end of the book, after the monster has caused so much damage and tragedy, it vanishes into the distance, never to be seen again. This relates to when Cohen states, “And so the monster’s body is both corporeal and incorporeal; its threat is its propensity to shift.” This section also reminds me of Izabel, the teenage ghost girl in Saga because even though she was killed in the war, she is able to come back as a helpful and friendly ghost that guides people to safety. This example can also contradict what Cohen is portraying because the way that I look at it, he is somewhat portraying all monsters in this aspect as bad, even though Izabel who is a monster that disappears and reappears, just as Cohen illustrates, I do not see her as a bad monster in any sort of way. I actually see her in a contrasting light of being like a guardian angel that leads them to safety and also watches over the child at night.

In “Thesis III: The Monster Is the Harbinger of Category Crisis”, Cohen states that monsters are “disturbing hybrids whose externally incoherent bodies resist attempts to include them in a systematic structuration. And so the monster is dangerous, a form suspended between forms that threaten to smash distinctions.” I agree that the stereotypical monsters seen in many movies and books may have incoherent bodies but regarding the books that we have read such as “Saga” and “Monstress”, I do not think that this statement rings true. In “Saga” and “Monstress”, most of the monsters seen in this book have very humanlike features that do not remind me of a dangerous life forms and although they may be suspended between two different life forms, I do not think that the end result is something horrifying or grotesque like Cohen describes but is instead just a different being with special body features such as wings or horns.

Monster Culture and Monstress

As I was reading Jeffery Jerome Cohen’s piece I was struck by how depictions of monsters in both Saga and Monstress aligned with his seven monster theses. While the Monstress is set in a fantasy world that is different from our own in many ways the monster demon that is within Maika does act as a cultural body. The tentacle monster acts to not only reflect the fears, desires and anxieties of the fantasy realm it also embodies those same feelings in our society. One way this is evident is in the general suspicion and othering of women’s bodies with the tentacle monster as an extension of Maika’s body. I also want to point out, as Cohen does at the beginning of his piece that monsters map onto general societal feelings and perceptions but none of this is a steadfast rule, for example, obviously many women have different feelings towards their bodies and even various groups and parts of society differ. However, for the sake of this analysis is is more practical to make broader assumptions.

In the first volume of Monstress there is what appears to be the beginning of a larger conflict that coincides with the the tentacle monster emerging. This is likely just a narrative device for the story to have a central conflict but it also symbolizes the larger issues between the different groups of people in Monstress. The tentacle monster also follows Cohen’s theses because it is able to always escape and come alive again because it can lay dormant in Maika’s body. Maika will never, at least in the time span of this volume, escape the monster because it is now a part of her. This mirrors other monsters in popular movies and books. The monster inhabiting Maika specifically is also an interesting choice because she is already a woman and an outsider. The tentacle monster makes her even more different from characters. One moment that demonstrates this is when the fox girl says that she is still scared of Maika. The Arcanics are feared and hated by the humans because they have special powers and the tentacle monster, though not one of those special powers heightens the fear and exclusion.

Maika’s interaction with her tentacle monster could be viewed as a sort of cautionary tale. I could imagine one of the professor cats explaining this story and using it as a way to get children to obey rules somewhat like a fairy tale. Monsters help define the boundaries of what is acceptable and what is not for the culture they inhabit. One issue here is that from this part of Monstress we get a rather incomplete picture of the culture.

While Maika is not overly sexualized there are panels that show her shirtless which plays into the idea that fear of a monster can actually be a form of desire. As we discussed in class the tentacle monster is somewhat reminiscent of tentacle porn. Finally, Cohen’s last thesis, that a monster stands at the threshold of becoming. Maika and her monster have the dream conversation during the end of the comic and the monster gains more “human” knowledge which allows them to bargain with each other. In this way the tentacle monster is both representative and becoming a cultural body made up of fears, borders, difference, desire and crisis.

On the Origins of Monsters

I thought Cohen had some good points, sources of monstrosity are often defined by culture, and monstrosity has often been used to “other” groups and justify violent acts against them. That said I feel he falls into a common academic trap; making an argument that sounds good and largely based on metaphor. By doing so he by extension oversimplifies and overcomplicates things at the same time. To begin we should first ask ourselves what we view as monstrous and why (otherwise it is easy to make monsters out of those who created the idea of monstrousness, and if we do that we can’t follow them down that rabbit hole.) Personally, I feel like monstrosity comes from a combination of physical fear and disgust or dislike of ambiguity. Physical fear is a relatively straightforward things are scary because they can hurt you. As I’m sure many of you agree this is very powerful for how simple of an idea it is and how glib I just put it, and is worth discussing further; at the same time I feel it is the easiest to understand, so on to the rest. Disgust is interesting, no matter how much we might hate it society is built on boundaries, not just limiting us in the things we know, but shaping what we would even consider. (Almost no one if anyone at all reads their books upside-down, even though all the letters are in the same order. You just have to read from the bottom right hand corner rather than the top left.) Culture then provides an at times necessary role, constraining what we think is “correct” or even consider possible, holding society in a set format so everyone can understand each other, and everyone is protected from each other. I think monstrosity is partly a tool, partly a source, and partly a byproduct of this effort. The fist part of this abstract monstrosity, is the abstract physical portion, or using monsters to scare people so they don’t get sick. For large swaths of human history it has been challenging to figure out what is dangerous, imagine if you didn’t know about germs and how they were transmitted, how would you tell people to avoid disease? Dead bodies are scary partly because the force you to face your own mortality, but also because the same stuff that decompose them will eat away at you. The Alien from Alien isn’t just scary because of its size claws and teeth, it looks like some possessed slime mold that will make you sick from being in the same room as it. You look at rates of STDs in parts of the world without sex-ed and access to birth control, while these are things that we expect to be around today (in theory) they haven’t always been, is it surprising then that sex and monstrosity are so closely linked? I think it could be argued that some of of the monstrosity that has been ascribed to women is related to an overextension of this “sickness” based use of monstrosity, after all in most cases blood coming out of your body or something growing inside of you is something to be avoided at all costs, and in other cases is a natural part of life. Evolution, gut instinct, and culture, aren’t always fast or smart enough to make that kind of division. I think it’s interesting that not only is the prominent “monster” in Monstress almost birthed from the protagonist’s arm, but also is the kind of dark tentacle-y mass that you would never want to find in your own body. The thing that makes it scary isn’t just the process or gore so much as the vulnerability and possible infection from being attacked by a bloody tentacle. You wouldn’t get that same feeling of fear mixed with revulsion that makes it monstrous if it was a bear arm (a bit less) or weapon (a lot less), so its not jut because of immediate physicality, but physical danger hidden in the unknown or perceived sickly. There is much more to be said about the other portion of the abstract part of monstocity, something that looks “wrong” or is unexpected, than I have space for here. That said I think is largely constructed rather than rooted in some kind of use, the concept of rules are largely meant to protect the group. While some of those rules are based off real things like informing people how to be healthy or physical protection of the group (and the individual) from others, the fact that culture and rules can be used bind people together and guide them makes rules ripe for exploitation. Once the system for guiding peoples opinion is in place, and because there are no clear boundaries on the limits culture it can be used, on accident or on purpose, to other groups of people for most any reason. To wrap up I thought that Cohen traded a focus on people and their motivations, for a focus on abstract ideas, and its that kind of abstraction that ironically allows for the corruption of monstrosity in the first place. When we fail to think of people as complex and merely reactionary we are unable to even get the chance to dissect their motivations, and by extension combat the systems they create.

* I should say for all my culture bashing I think culture and groups can give people a feeling of belonging and support that is really important and helpful. Every culture is different, and has evolved differently through time, with its own strengths and weaknesses. I don’t like groups, or like prescribing to others ideas of right and wrong without thinking through it myself. On the other hand, culture really is a glue that helps hold us all together, and where the line should be drawn is a decision for every individual and every group.

Monster Culture as a Monster

When I was reading through this article I couldn’t help but think about this in terms of a book called Grendel. This is a book, written by John Gardner, that focuses on the antagonist from the book Beowulf (actually I think it might be an epic, but I’m not so sure). In Beowulf, Grendel is this monster that is constantly attacking this Mead Hall, since he is a monster and that’s what monsters do. In Grendel however, we see how Grendel came to be and his reasons for attacking the humans over and over again.

It makes some very apparent points within it’s pages, talking about how Grendel never thought of himself as a monster until he met humans and they tried to kill him on sight. Grendel became ostracized from society, and didn’t have any other monster friends to hang out with. So, when he finally meets this nihilistic dragon, and the dragon tells him to attack the humans (spoilers by the way), Grendel does just that. (Grendel also thinks he is doing it to help the humans and to give them a common enemy so they stop killing each other, but…)

Anyway, now that you’ve read my book report on Grendel, I want to focus on how this initial argument touches on, or doesn’t touch on, monsters that are not really “monstrous” in their actions, but are in their looks. (Another example of this could be Kippa from Monstress, as she is a human-fox hybrid which is not natural or human, but acts like a normal child would)

Cohen says that these are ways of looking at the monsters that society makes in order to make sense of what society is trying to say. So, I look towards Cohen’s fourth point, on how monsters dwell at the gates of difference. Cohen focuses on how they are made of flesh and they have come to dwell among us, which is similar to the way the Grendel functions as an opposing viewpoint to Beowulf’s.

But what is that saying not about monsters, but about humans in the ways that we are treating these things that appear monstrous to us?

The power of society

In the piece “Monster Culture”, Jeffery Cohen asserts that those who embody differences from societal and cultural norms, inspire fear and certainty in others, and are labeled as such, “monsters”. This rebellious nature leads to the impossible task of categorizing these people, which further alienates these “monsters” in a categorically based society. My question is, what is the cause of this amount of control we give to those who abide by larger accepted societal standards? Obviously there are many factors at play throughout history, like evolution, technological advancements, and especially media, but literally, every facet of our entire lives are based out of societal standards. Every action or thought an individual has usually required thoughts about what others will think, and what others will think are usually based on societal standards. So everything we do as people is being juxtaposed to the gut reaction of the mass mobs of all of society, and therefore, creating the standard for it. Those who make those standards rarely make good decisions and also realize their power and seemingly never want to lose it. I feel like my question and concern comes from a cynicism in current societal standards, created partially by current people, fueled by an unstoppable force of media. These standards feel like they are only pushing people further apart (politically, socially, culturally, economically, etc.), as this system gloriously thrives on controversy. And it really seems like nothing will change that in the near future. Those in societal power seem to have the power to keep their power indefinitely, regardless of how much of a positive effect they have on members of our society, and with news, trends, corruption, and hate in a constant fickle cycle within our society, we really seem screwed. That’s the second part of my question if you agree there is a problem, what do we do? It seems pertinent to put people who hold a general societal appreciation into power, but as we can see from the U.S. political mess, we are sucking at that. Unless it all has to get worse before it gets better (WW3, Global warming, MutallyAssuredDestruction not working), it seems that through the general society’s poor judgment, we have failed to think of our fellow people as comrades and more like competition, and with every societal facet reinforcing this, the number of “monsters” seems like it will continue to grow, until the word “monster” has completely lost its meaning

Saga versus “Monster Culture”

“Monster Culture” by Jeffrey Cohen sheds new light on the subversive power of Sagagiven the history of monsters in storytelling as a form of “othering” and demonization. Cohen argues that there is much to be learned from the “monsters that cultures engender” (3). In particular, the way that monsters are used as a representative tool to express and fear and anxiety towards that which is not dominant in a given culture.

With this in mind, the power of Sagais profound given the number of ways in which tropes of comics and conventions of dominant American culture are subverted and called out. One of the ways Cohen explains that culture depicts monstrosity is in their threat to binaries, distinctions and categories (7). One of the many ways “Saga” subverts this is in the unconventional gender dynamic between the Alana and Marko. While Marko desires pacifism, Alana opts for aggression when confronted with danger. Alana also breaks gender norms in her explicit expression of her sexuality. Another notable moment is when Marko is unconscious and Alana saves the entire family from its demise. No longer is it man-saves-woman and children, but a single woman saving the whole family unit.

Another clear inversion of categorization is the ambiguity of the race of the characters. Not only are Alana and Marko unrecognizable races to its readership—not allowing for immediate associations and stereotypes to be jumped to for its readership—but the races of the different planets are fictional and often fantasy-based. Thus, as Cohen points out, the fear of monstrosity has traditionally been tied to the of the refusal to be easily categorized, however, in this instance the heroes and heroines of the story are themselves “monsters” and difficult to categorize.

Lastly, Cohen outlines the history of miscegenation as a form of monstrosity (17). This trope is addressed head on from the very first scene in which Alana is giving birth to a child born of two races, from parents who originated from two separate planets. Hazel comes to represent hope, a beacon of light in the world—she is a positive force in the novel, whereas she would have traditionally have been viewed as a monster.

Thus, Sagais meaningful in its inversion of the use of monstrosity as a divisive tool. In this story, using the terms of monster—as different from dominant representation, as not easily categorized, as the mixing of different races or social groups—is taken and subverted. The protagonists would qualify as “monsters.” They represent a threat to social norms in their defying of gender norms, their skin color, their relationship dynamics, the creation of a mixed race child etc. and yet we as readers are encouraged to identify or at least root for these characters as they navigate a world which seek to destroy them.

Monsters as Vulnerability

I want to take a look at the final thesis, that “Monsters are our children … they bear self-knowledge, human knowledge … [and] they ask us why we have created them” (20). I feel like it’s best to think it through in terms of a concrete example (Cohen’s statement by itself is interesting, but not very convincing to me – when does this actually happen? How? What is the effect?) I’d like to dig into the example of “miscegenation,” thinking about this final thesis.

I think it’s safe to say that what we fear reveals our weakness and vulnerability. Reading Cohen, I see that monsters are a kind of vehicle for fear, a vehicle in which what we fear can be rolled to the outskirts of society and beyond, made Other. But, because that fear ultimately comes from the self, there’s no escaping what a deeply personal thing it is. When the white patriarchy in, say, colonial Europe, creates monstrous tales about white women having sex with other races represented as monsters, this ultimately reveals more about the patriarchy than it would probably like to show. Although certainly the monstrous tales have normative, policing functions, they also inevitably point back at the creators, and say, “Why did you create this story? Is there something you’re afraid of?

I would argue that the presence of these monsters of miscegenation betrays the tenuous grasp the patriarchy holds. (Cohen’s article is very fluid in history, so I’m not sure which time period this speaks to, but perhaps it could be argued to be generally true?) The presence of miscegenation monsters suggests that members and perpetuators of the patriarchy recognize, in some deep corner of their subconscious, that their power is arbitrary. There is no inherent hierarchy of race and gender placing the patriarchy at the top, as much as they’d like to believe there to be, and as many stories as they have made claiming it to be so. Their fear, embodied in monsters, taps on the door saying there is nothing actually stopping ‘their own’ women and other races, the two groups they have subjugated, from banding together. There is the fear of being displaced, of becoming irrelevant. And as a result, a desperate grasp to hang on tighter to power.

The presence of such monsters reveals another thing about the psychology of the patriarchy, I think: even proponents of the patriarchal system sense that the women may well be unwilling participants in the dramatic gender production that is society. They see women going by the societal/cultural script they themselves produced (for instance, marrying a man of the same race and having children.) From the patriarchal perspective, though, who knows, who can know, what it is that women really want, or are really thinking? What would women do if they were free? The patriarchy can’t know. Women might well leave if given the chance – maybe they would go off to some other culture, and leave the patriarchy of their home society behind in a kind of defacto-castrated lurch.

As a result, the axiom of, ‘If you love something, let it go; if it loves you, it will come back,’ is too terrifying for the patriarchy to contemplate. The patriarchy recognizes, in the subconsciousness represented by these miscegenation monsters, that the force it has utilized up until now to press women into becoming their wives and mothering their children has created an excellent performance, but does not actually guarantee women’s desire to participate. I suppose it goes without saying, but if they have never created a space for women to say what they want, men in power have no way of knowing what women want. The woman’s true desire thus becomes a terrifying mystery – because the patriarchy needs women. That the horror stories they create show women leaving them for someone/somewhere/something else (the ‘monstrous’) ultimately speaks volumes about the patriarchy itself, its fears and vulnerabilities.