18 November 2008

Pitiful Start for Orals Project

[Author's Note: I'm going to try to put this blogging thing to work for me through the gauntlent that is the orals exam. So this is a crap-tastic first run of my orals project prospectus. It will be valid for approximately 12 hours...that is, until I meet with my orals advisor tomorrow and gut it immediately afterwards. But that is the point of "shitty first drafts" (pdf), as I long ago learned from Anne Lamott.]

For years—at least since John Block Friedman’s 1981 book The Monstrous Races in Medieval Art and Thought and Jeffrey J. Cohen’s debut on the scene in the early 1990s—monster theory has been overwhelmingly concerned with reading monsters as marginal figures that serve as boundary markers for the cultures that create them. Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, Freddy Kreuger, the Giant of Mt. San Michel, or the Grendelkin mark the boundaries of what is and is not possible. Perhaps more importantly, they serve as outer boundaries of what an individual can or cannot think, speak, or do.[1] In short, they have been, as Cohen once noted, read as “the primary vehicle for the representation of Otherness in the Middle Ages”;[2] in fact, on this there is a rare and surprisingly widespread consensus.[3]

This widespread consensus, however, has made for an awkward moment in monster theory. Such agreement has left many unsure as to how we should proceed: one might say we are stopped, looking to find our way. Some have focused their attentions on attendant issues (hybridity, sexuality, medieval concepts of the human, etc.). As many who were once heavily involved in monster theory have foreseen, academic agreement quickly becomes academic stagnation. Thus, what was once the study of characters that could petrify with fear is itself in danger of sinking into the swamp and becoming petrified by consensus.

What have not been agreed upon—or even hotly debated—are the functions of monsters as boundary figures. We may agree that as symbols of the Other they demarcate, and we may even agree (though to a lesser extent) on how they go about doing so. But to my knowledge no serious, sustained interrogation has been performed on their function as means of community-formation. Boundary figures by their very nature create an inside and outside. As the Lacanian imago immediately introduces the structural possibility of self/not self, the monster introduces the structural possibility of us/them.[4] This interpretation denies any positivist model for definition, and it is the basis on which Hayden White forms his idea of “ostensive self-definition by negation."[5] He argues that cultures are largely unable to create an overall definition of what they are[6] and so point to a thing that they are not. Following White’s theory of how the concept of “wildness” served to define “human” or “civilized,” we may read monsters as boundary figures that aid in the creation of
a culture’s (negative) definition—of defining what it is by demarcating what it is not.

But how do communities define themselves in this way? What is the process by which they adopt, adapt, or create monsters, and exactly how does this work to strengthen their sense of themselves? It will be the goal of this orals project to provide an answer to those questions. As I stated before, the purpose of monsters is understood quite well: they reinforce commonly-held cultural practices—foodways, speech, or ethical precepts—by threatening and questioning them in a fictionalized (and thus circumscribed) manner. I plan on quickly sketching how this process plays out in medieval heroic episodes, both early and late: weapon-use in the case of Beowulf’s Grendel, and sexual mores in Chretien de Troyes’ Harpin. Having established the process by which cultural aspects are reinforced, I will next turn to Benedict Anderson’s theory of imagined communities in order to explore how the reaffirmation of a particular value works to reaffirm the culture as a whole.

Certainly, such a study is movement out of the morass that threatens the future of monster theory, but it is a small step. What I am seeking to do with this project is to begin a large-scale interrogation of monster theory. By investigating one of the foundational but unquestioned tenets of monster theory, I hope to put a finer point on how it is supposed to work in order to study when it does not. To my mind, it is usually the exceptions to the rule that are most instructive as to its limits and application. That is, if monsters always threaten the community and are always Other to it, then their counterpart is the king who is always protective of the community and always a part
of it.[7] This is in conflict with the usual reading of epic, heroic, or romance literature, which places the hero in this position—even though a case such as Marie de France’s noble werewolf, Bisclavret, shows that sometimes the monster can be a hero, and Beowulf shows that the hero can be a monster.

[1] For example, Jeffrey J. Cohen’s “The Limits of Knowing: Monsters and the Regulation of Medieval Poplar Culture.” Medieval Folklore 3 (1994): 1-37; David Williams’ Deformed Discourse: The Function of the Monster in Mediaeval Thought and Literature. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s UP, 1996; John Block Friedman’s The Monstrous Races in Medieval Art and Thought. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 2000.

[2] “The Use of Monsters and the Middle Ages.” SELIM: Journal of the Spanish Society for Medieval English Language and Literature 2 (1992): 47-69. p. 49 (Emphasis mine).

[3] See also: Noël Carroll, The Philosophy of Horror (New York: Routledge, 1990); Albrecht Classen, “Medieval Answers to the Strange World Outside: Foreigners and the Foreign as Cultural Challenges and Catalysts,” in Demons: Mediators Between This World and the Other, eds. Ruth Petzoldt and Paul Neubauer (Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1998); Edward J. Ingebretsen, “Monster-Making: A Politics of Persuasion.” Journal of American Culture 21.2 (1998): 25-34; and Franco Moretti, “Dialectic of Fear,” in Signs Taken for Wonders: Essays in the Sociology of Literary Forms, trans. Susan Fischer, David Forgacs, and David Miller. (London: Verso, 1988).

[4] Lacan associates the self/not self split that occurs with Freud’s Innenwelt and Umwelt. See Lacan’s “The Mirror Stage” in Ecrits: A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Norton, 1977.

[5] Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1978. pp. 151-52.

[6] US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart produced a lasting example of ostensive negative definition in 1964. Admitting that he could not define pornography, he then stated “I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that” (Jacobellis v. Ohio. 378 U.S. 184. Supreme Ct. of the US. 22 June 1964).

[7] This notion is supported by the idea of the body politic (John of Salisbury’s Policraticus)—and has been taken to the extreme in the apocryphal attribution of “L’État, c’est moi” to Louis XIV.

16 November 2008

Ted Nugent Calls People Stupid, Fans of Irony Rejoice

So, Uncle Ted is at it again. He writes a weekly article in the Waco-Tribune Herald, the newspaper of my hometown in Texas. The man is usually off--I mean waaaaaay off--but that's okay because it says right there in the title that he's a Texas Wildman (that bastard ain't from Texas, by the way: he's from Michigan). I've written a letter to the editor responding to him once before, but I know few are actually paying attention. I have an old professor at the junior college there who lamented that she's going to stop writing opinion pieces for the paper because no one want to converse and because people like Nugent are bringing down the level of discourse. Maybe Uncle--I mean Professor--Ted heard her:
Ted Nugent: Obama's victory is sad vote for state of dependency
Sunday, November 16, 2008

Before the election, Howard Stern's Sirius radio show conducted interviews in Harlem, N.Y., in which the interviewer, not identified with the show, recited John McCain's economic proposals but portrayed them as Barack Obama's.

Not knowing whose ideas they actually were, these people raved and gave them their full support.

The election of Obama is an example of Americans voting against their own self interest. It's also further evidence of the dumbing down of America.

Trying to explain how our economy works and why lowering taxes is always better for them and America than imposing higher taxes is an economic bridge too far for many of the Obama sheep.

Unfortunately there is no See Spot and the Economy Run book. Many Americans can't balance a check book or spell e-c-o-n-o-m-i-c-s, but they sure know who will give them stuff. The lie is impossible.

Expecting them to have analyzed the tax positions of Obama and McCain and arrived at a decision that truly benefits them and America is wishful thinking.

The reason is that they know zilch about how the economy operates and—worse—they don't care. Obama will take care of us.

They are dunces, products of a failed public education system. That is, if they even bothered to complete high school. They don't read newspapers. Even if they did, I've got $20 that says they couldn't comprehend what they read.

We'll all pay

When President Obama imposes his wrong-headed, punitive tax structure, such stupidity is going to come back to thump these supporters upside their vacuous heads.

Capitalism works in strange and wondrous ways, and has a unique way of severely punishing fools.

As for this economy: These dunderheads have no clue how the economic mess was largely caused by Democrats, including Obama.

But Obama, trusting in the gullibility of the masses, drummed into Americans minds that the economic mess was caused by President Bush and the Republicans.

He promised to 95 percent of Americans a tax cut when 40 percent of Americans don't pay any federal income taxes.

McCain had no marketable answer to Obama's charge because McCain knew that attempting to explain the economy to dumb people is impossible in 30-second commercials.

Clowns like the idea of believing they are getting something for nothing. What they receive, however, is always scraps from the economic table. Stupidity sentences these people to lives of poverty and despair.

The Obama tax plan punishes the producers—the people who employ the majority of Americans. In Joe the Plumber terms, economic excrement will quickly flow downhill and punish the employees—I mean former employees.

Here's a slogan: The result of spreading the wealth around is spreading unemployment around.

The McCain economic plan was based on the type of tax cuts which spur the economy forward, create jobs and raise the standard of living for everyone.

It is pretty simple stuff except for the comfortably ignorant, the easily manipulated and the person who believes someone owes him or her something.

Ted Nugent is a Waco-based musician and television show host. Contact him directly at tednugent.com.

Prof. Ted's upping the level of discourse! Hooray! What's that? You say he obviously doesn't know what logical fallacies are? And he probably doesn't know what "discourse" means--not even the Foucault one, but just regular discourse? Oh, damn.

So I fired off another letter to the editor, and since it will likely remain unpublished, I wanted to include it here:

I'd like to respond to Professor Ted's comments on the presidential election. Before he derides Obama supporters for being ignorant high-school drop-outs voting against their self interest, he should take a closer look at his own "research."

1) Prof. Ted says he's analyzed both candidate's tax platforms, but he repeats the Republican's distortion that 40% of Americans don't pay income tax. (Even the Tax Foundation, which hates corporate taxation shows whay he makes no sense: Supposedly liberal states like Oregon (23rd), New York (21st), Washington (43rd), Massachusettes (49th), Connecticut (48th), and California (20th) tend to have much fewer workers who do not pay income tax than staunchly conservative states like Mississippi (1st), Louisiana (2nd), Texas (6th), Arkansas (3rd), Alabama (5th), Oklahoma (8th), and South Carolina (9th).) It must be said that is technically correct that a good portion don't pay income tax, but Prof. Ted didn't actually research it. His use of the number 40% instead of the correct 38% shows that he got it from the McCain campaign and CNN's Lou Dobbs--both of whom forget to explain that over half of those people are under the $21,000-per-year poverty line. Further, all (legal) American workers pay Federal taxes: Social Security, Medicare, and payroll. Maybe we're too dumb to have understood that in a sound-byte. But Prof. Ted doesn't reflect well on his own "analysis" when he repeats a party line he hasn't researched.

2) Most striking, however, is actually citing Howard Stern's radio show. Using Stern's profanity-laced show as a way to mock Harlem residents who he thinks vote against their own interests is troubling. It's about as valid as using Robin Williams' stand-up routines as a domestic policy platform. But, again, Prof. Ted's "research" is skewed because he ignores other facts that don't fit his worldview. Republican strategist Tucker Eskew hailed the late Lee Atwater was a master at getting conservatives to vote against their own interests out of irrational fear (evidenced in Bush's Willie Horton ad in 1988). Until late in life, Atwater thought this was a great Republican achievement; Eskew sounds as if he still does.

My point is that it's unfortunate he can't be as gracious in defeat as was McCain. But he attacked those who wanted to believe in our government again--maybe for the first time since Watergate. This goes far past ungracious behavior and shows a real lack of character. To do this while relying on his own flawed "analysis" shows either real ignorance or a real disregard for the truth.

But there's more I didn't want in the Waco paper:

1) Prof. Ted seems to being calling Harlem residents stupid, likely high-school-drop-outs, who may not be able to read the paper or can't understand what it is they read. That smacks of latent racism that may go unnoticed in a place like Waco--where latent racism isn't always the biggest problem.

2) Prof. Ted also thinks he should chair the Dept. of Economics at Baylor, apparently. But he's arguing for trickle-down economics, which is an idea that would make Karl Marx, Freiderich Engels, Walter Benjamin, and Louis Althusser roll in their graves--which seems to be the only real argument for it anymore. Again, Prof. Ted's just repeating party lines that he's heard but hasn't really analyzed or researched. For example, a strong counter-argument is found here, where the Talking Points Memo did actual, honest-to-God research on US Census Bureau numbers. A sample (though the whole thing is worth taking a look at):
Poverty rates were 1.2% higher in 2007 than in 2000, up from 11.3% to 12.5%, an addition of 5.7 million to the poverty rolls. This is the worst cycle for poverty on record. The second worse was 1979-89, a decade also dominated by trickle-down economics.

What is trickle-down? It's the set of economic policies based on the notion that if you provide economic incentives to the wealthy by cutting their taxes (or, as the supply-siders put it, "letting us keep our money") while deregulating industry, you'll unleash a tsunami of economic activities that will enrich even the least advantaged among us.


It's largely a rationale for upward redistribution that's been kept alive by the vested interests who benefit from it. Reagan put this stuff on the map, but GW Bush brought it back with a vengeance, and McCain goes even further. He extends the supply-side Bush tax cuts, and lards on about $75 billion more in corporate tax cuts on top of that. (emphasis added)
I don't see a lot of added benefit for Waco if we give tax cuts to Nugent. Maybe the pawn and gun shops will do a bit better. But that's about it. So it seems to me that many, many of those voting for Obama did actually vote in their own interests. It's just that their interests aren't the same as Prof. Ted's--something that he can't seem to comprehend.

It's just a damn shame that this guy gets a weekly column when there are other, wiser voices that could get that space. It's the height of irony that a person who is as divisive, outspoken, and uninformed as Prof. Ted gets a weekly column and uses it to call other people divisive, stupid, and uninformed. The Trib needs to decide what sort of paper it wants to be. If it would like to be a money-maker, then get cracking on the latest Michael Jackson story. If it would like to be a space for measured news and informed discussion, get someone else in that space fast. There are other voices--conservative, liberal, and moderate--who are more worthy of attention. Keeping him is like keeping Michael Moore or Chuck Norris on CNN's political team; the point is supposed to be substance, not bluster.

UPDATE (11.19.08): Well, I guess I was wrong. The Trib did actually print a version of this letter.

05 November 2008

Saul Williams--A Letter to History

Now that is poetry. I've loved this guy since I saw Slam (that's the "in 1998" part), and his poetic sensibilities are great (though for me they really, really pop only when he reads them or I can channel his sort of cadence as I read it).

What I also found interesting, though, was the interaction with history:

Parts of me have feared becoming great
Because it seemed that the price would be death,
And a post mortem glory
That my memory could never learn to resurrect.

I've stared at paintings,
Dieing to catch glimpses of the painter,
Closed my eyes to listen to songs
That drunken ghosts dance to.
And all the while I've struggled
To free the present,
To become.

And later:

Dear history, I beat you.
Generator of generations
Bearing witness to a world
That we are holding accountable
For past actions.

And lastly:

Dear history, we no longer believe in you.
We have invested our beliefs
In the present time, the present moment
Into our present opportunity
To shift our reality into one
That does not resemble the past.
I couldn't help but think of Walter Benjamin's and John Berger's view of history as a thing to be resisted, reformed, and...maybe...if we agree with Williams...released from the present.

O Monsters, is there Anything you Can't Symbolize?

From Paul Krugman's blog at the New York Times:

Last night wasn’t just a victory for tolerance; it wasn’t just a mandate for progressive change; it was also, I hope, the end of the monster years.

What I mean by that is that for the past 14 years America’s political life has been largely dominated by, well, monsters. Monsters like Tom DeLay, who suggested that the shootings at Columbine happened because schools teach students the theory of evolution. Monsters like Karl Rove, who declared that liberals wanted to offer “therapy and understanding” to terrorists. Monsters like Dick Cheney, who saw 9/11 as an opportunity to start torturing people.

And in our national discourse, we pretended that these monsters were reasonable, respectable people. To point out that the monsters were, in fact, monsters, was “shrill.”

Four years ago it seemed as if the monsters would dominate American politics for a long time to come. But for now, at least, they’ve been banished to the wilderness.

04 November 2008

The Cathedral and the Bazaar

Alex Castellanos, a Republican strategist who's on CNN's political talking heads team, came up with what I think will be an enduring metaphor for the Obama administration. He came out of nowhere with the idea--from Linux folks no less--of the "cathedral" and the "bazaar." They're great metaphors for top-down and bottom-up forms of software creation, governance, and even literary knowledge creation.


Much of what has been happening in literary studies is the cathedral approach. The theory is imported--perhaps from linguistics, psychology, or philosophy--and applied to different texts. Often, texts are forced into the forms dictated by these theories, and the parts that don't fit are lopped off and ignored (some texts, like Beowulf and Heart of Darkness, can resist this and, starfish-like, (re)generate even more nodes of analysis from the peices the mold lops off. Jim Earl and I have agreed, with no sense of despair or loss, that Beowulf won't ever completely fit into a mold or allow itself to be completely understood or analyzed.)

Much of what some of the younger generations of academics--especially the PoMo and cyber-punk folks--seek is the bazaar approach. An almost deafening heteroglossia (for which Bakhtin interestingly used the image of the marketplace) out of which eventually emerges a working, always-in-flux, system. What Castellanos meant was that Obama is asking for help from the citizens, for making a government that is more populist, perhaps. What I'm thinking of in literary studies is ways of reading texts that also is responsive to those studying it. The bazaar necessarily has its share of nut-jobs and speculative analyses, but it also allows ideas that stem from the texts rather than ideas being imposed on the texts. Maybe more compellingly, it functions to promote intertextuality. If there is less of an effort to approach Hamlet or Beowulf from one's pet theoretical approach, it's perhaps easier to hear the echoes of the trailing laments at the end of the Old English poem embodied in Fortinbras. Maybe you put W.E.B. DuBois and Mark Twain next to each other because they're fresh on your mind. Maybe there's nothing to be made by setting them side-by-side, but maybe there is, and you'd never see it if you came to Twain intent on applying Gates' race-based theories to whatever you find there. Lots of connections are made in the bazaar mode of knowledge creation. Lots atrophy because they can't sustain an argument or coherent analysis. Others grow in strength as more and more strands are added to the web.

Of course, Group Think is a danger for the bazaar. When you have that many people, a mob mentality can kick in. But as long as the strands of thought and analysis are based on needs and interests of the readers--all of them--it will flex and change in response. As long as there are no controlled, encrusted, static, cathedral-style impositions then thinkers like Foucault and Derrida who have had to work so hard to break out of philosophical ruts (so to speak) would not have had to expend so much energy just to get outside.

UPDATE (11.05.08, 7.21am): Yes, I am aware of the irony of this post right after the ramblings about "three is better than two." Deal with it.
Also, here's the video of Castellanos. (h/t: pete)


I'm sitting here reading Harry Berger and Marshall Leicester's excellent "Social Structure as Doom: The Limits of Heroism in Beowulf" and they quote Marcel Mauss's The Gift. He writes that in very public, communal times (like feasting) there is "exaggerated fear and an equally exaggerated generosity" because "there is no middle path. There is either complete trust or complete mistrust" (79-80).

So, of course, this got me to thinking about binary oppositions and how ridiculous most academics (including yours truly) think they are. At the very least, they're oversimplifications of an issue and the possible approaches to it. At their worst, they are ways of narrowing thought and controlling what can be said and thought about something (think of the amount of work Foucault had to do to recover things--the genealogies of thought on homosexuality and madness, for example--from the years (sometimes centuries) of un-thought. That's a lot of work caused by the institution of the reductive binaries gay/straight and sane/insane.

Perhaps I was primed for this by the presidential campaign that will (thankfully) end today. It was a long campaign for both men, and they have the distinction and honor of representing their two political/ideological parties in this race. But people like Bob Barr, Ron Paul, and Ralph Nader are still around and talking about issues; it's just that no one is listening anymore. We have the two representatives of the two different ways to run the country, and that's enough for us.

But should it be? Should the Log Cabin Republicans always fall in line? Should Lieberman always come to the Democratic National Convention? Should third-party candidates always suffer because of Ross Perot's flaky behavior in 1992?

I taught Mary Louise Pratt's "Arts of the Contact Zone" yesterday, and I was surprised by how zealously my students clung to the two-approaches model. Sure, they were advocating pragmatism and independently deciding between different approaches, but they couldn't fathom there being more than two. It seemed to me that they were missing Pratt's whole point in writing the essay and fighting to do away with the Western Civ. requirement at Stanford. She was attempting to question and undermine their binary mode of thought by questioning what is meant by "culture." If there isn't a coherent, stable "culture" then there is no binarism, either. So when one of my students observed that it would be really hard to see the Holocaust from both sides (ie, that it could be viewed as both good and bad), I wondered out loud what we should then make of Jews who were active in the Nazi party. No one knew what to make of that, so it was mostly ignored after a period of silence (it doesn't, after all, fit into the binary opposition that's been created for this narrative). I walked back to my office feeling like I'd failed to get them to understand her theory of a contact zone.

And yet. Maybe they were smarter than I am. As I looked over the essay again, I found myself drawn to the "safe houses" that are a part of her class. These are when the heat gets to be too much, so students can retreat into a "safe house" to collect their thoughts, calm their jangling nerves, and perhaps digest what's been said. The thing about this is that is sort of creates another binarism: "us" and "not us." Students can return to "us" after they've encountered the "not us." We'll soon be discussing Edward Said's Orientalism, and the binary (Occident and Orient) might be even more important there.

So biblically, three is a sacred number, but in practice, it's just difficult to work with, apparently. People as diverse as Richard Dawkins and Bill Maher have wondered how, exactly, the Trinity makes any sense at all. I dare say that most Christians couldn't explain it with any sort of clarity since most believe that God is omnipotent and omniscient (so why does He need the Holy Spirit?). I know there are probably well-thought-out explanations to be found, but I haven't heard them, nor can I come up with a palatable one from my own Christian learning and (strange) theology. My response to that has been the same as my students' to Jewish Nazis: DOES NOT COMPUTE!! And then it's promptly dropped from the equations so they'll continue to work.

Binaries are everywhere when you think about them. From Pulp Fiction (every person is a Beatles fan or an Elvis fan, but you can't be both) to politics (Democrats and Republicans--Independents are only independent until November 4th after which they become--maybe for only a little while--Democrats or Republicans because there are only two real options); from sex (straight or gay... the B and T part of the GLBT acronym are often viewed as wishy-washy, and we have no time for people who can't make up their minds) to socialism (either you're an American or a Commie bastard); from abortion (pro-Choice or pro-Life) to Al Qeada (for them or against them).

The reason I've been thinking about the number three and the problems it causes for binary thinking that we try to avoid but are obviously comforted by is because I've been thinking about Beowulf again. (I took a few weeks off from thinking about the poem, but I'm back at it.) Berger and Leicester seem to me to concatenate the potentialities of the characters and their relations to one another and their culture by reducing things to "heroic" and "not heroic" (which doesn't necessarily mean cowardly). It should be noted that I'm talking within the context of Berger and Leicester's essay because that's what I'm reading right now, but I've seen it in many, many analyses and discussions of the poem--either explicitly stated or implied. I find this way of thinking about the poem incredibly reductive. "Not heroic" is a fine category for advancing their thesis, but it is far too general and unwieldy to help in thinking (ab)out the poem.

Instead, I've been looking at things from a tripartite angle. I've gotten here by thinking about monsters for the last six years or so, and I've finally hit the wall. I couldn't answer Jim Earl's question: what is the point of all this talk about monsters? That was, until I went back and started re-reading some of the sources that I hadn't looked at since I completed my thesis. What I realized that people like Ingebretsen and especially Jeffrey Cohen had been doing was looking at monsters as boundary markers and vehicles for re-asserting the mores of the speaking culture. (I know, I am not so quick on the uptake.) The initial tendency, of course, is to place "monster" on one side and "hero" on the other--and for some projects perhaps that's all that needs to be done. Not for mine.

I couldn't put two big boxes in the poem and lump everyone into one or the other because some wouldn't fit. If the Grendelkin are unheroic and Hrothgar is unheroic that's saying two very different things. It's like trying to smoosh Wilco into either the Country genre (do they sound anything like Hank Williams or Johnny Cash?) or the Rock genre (do they sound anything like Aerosmith or The Killers?). You can do it, but not without stretching the boundaries of either genre until they essentially break and are meaningless. No, that won't do. You need new genres--like Alt-Country (Neko Case or Hank III) or Indie Rock (Band of Horses or Fleet Foxes)--in order to accommodate a band like Wilco.

The example there is silly but it is the thought process I followed in thinking about the poem. I let the characters and their actions tell me what the categories should be (as I let Wilco tell me what genre they should be) rather than try to impose some sort of category system on them. And what I got was this:

King (and community) <----------------------------------------------> Monster (and other)

Hero (defends community
but shares traits with
monster adversary)

The tripartite paradigm I created is indeed still reductive. No doubt about it. "Normal" people are non-existent here--and that is because they are not major players in the narrative (I guess I'm reading characters like Brecca and Unferth as narrative devices whose purpose is to test and illustrate the prowess of the hero). So-called "normal" people represent the community, the society whose values are crystallized in the idea of a good king--something about which the poem itself has much to say.

Each group has it's own ethics. Monsters have a sort of rulebook for how they must act. Kings and their people have another--and it's usually diametrically opposed to the monster's ethical precepts. Heroes have still another. It's sometimes difficult to identify and isolate because it is often in-line with what the king's ethics. Both, for instance, have a responsibility to care for the people with which they are identified. That identification works differently for kings (Hrothgar is bound to Denmark by blood and his first responsibility will be to Denmark) than for heroes (Beowulf is bound to Geatland by his upbringing and kinship bonds; he's bound to Denmark by his heroic desire to fight the monster and defend the Danes--and more loosely by the bonds of the warrior code). Heroes are among the people but not necessarily of the people. They defend the people and their mores against the monsters that threaten (and reinforce) them, but heroes also have a touch of the monstrous in them, too. Many, many critics have noted this in Beowulf (Dragland, Huffines, and Kroll, to name just three...of course), but I don't know that anyone's thought about what it means for the poem as a whole and for the ethics (which I am reading as a foundational part of community-building, a la Anderson and Friedman among others) of the characters (or more specifically groups of characters) in the poem.

So it may be that three's a crowd, but we won't find out unless we go down that road. If nothing else, this orals project should be interesting.