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.

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