John Greenaway: Reframing the Monster: Ethics, Politics and Discourse

Monster (der) Latin: monstrum – to warn. To show.

What does it mean to be a monster? In the era of postmodernity, where the notion of normativity has been systematically subjected to that Lyotardian scepticism that has permeated many of the old certainties, how do we approach the figure of the monstrous Other? Throughout culture and across diverse media forms, the monster has proliferated, becoming seemingly ubiquitous across film, television, comics, books and even music. As the figure of the monster has spread, the body of criticism that accompanies monstrous figures has multiplied alongside it. In his influential ‘Seven Theses’ Jeffrey Cohen sets the tone for much of the discussion of monster theory, by initially categorising the monster as ‘pure culture’ – a phenomenon to be placed solely within certain materialist discourses, and analysed as such. [1] Yet within the same section, Cohen also recognises the monsters’ complete ontological liminality – analysis must consider the very nature and properties of being as part of the complex ‘matrix of relations’ that produce them. [2] From the Latin etymology of the word, ‘monster’ both warns against and points towards the limits of human nature. Within modern discourse, two separate movements have marked the debate around the disturbing figure of the monster. On the one hand, the last few decades have seen an explosion in popularity in the study and analysis of the monster or the radical Other. Fields like Gothic studies have skyrocketed in popularity and university academics have been churning out books on all kinds of transgression, deviancy and gore. Televisual and film media is full of monsters, horror and violence and the concept of the ‘normal’ has been systematically dismantled and deconstructed as identity has become a central site for the liberation of the repressed from the strictures of normativity. The counter movement, on the other hand, is best seen through the perspective of the news media – whilst culturally the monster has become integrated and within the academic setting a vital point of analysis, the news media has adopted an increasingly hysterical approach towards an ever-increasing range of monstrous Others. From the spectre of Islamic terrorism to the monstrous figures who perpetrate sickening sexual offences against children it would seem from our news that we are at risk of the most horrific violations. In short, whilst the monster fascinates us, and we have become increasingly adept at naming, defining and categorising it, we have also become more and more afraid. The monster draws us in, whilst at the same time we have never been more vigilant, more paranoid or more fearful.

The benefits of this change and transformation should, on the one hand, be celebrated, for the real and tangible differences it can lead to in the lives of the marginalised and the much-needed critical and theoretical energy the monster has added to academic discourse. However, the monster’s function as a harbinger of ‘category crisis’ brings with it some unforeseen consequences that must be confronted. [3]

Whilst critics and academics have joined culture in its collective fascination with the figure of the monstrous Other, there has been a resistance to any kind of broader ontological understanding of the monster figure. Given the liminality, the dangerous ambiguity that the figure of the monster expresses, the monstrous is often read as the strangely paradoxical embodiment of otherness within sameness explored through Freud’s notion of the uncanny. The Freudian uncanny refers to that which threatens one’s own sense of at home-ness, not as some external aggressor but from within. In Freud’s essay on the uncanny, ‘home’ refers to human consciousness, thus explaining the fear of the monster in entirely human centred terms. With this understanding of the uncanny, the monster seems to be explicable in strictly materialist, human terms – as that which threatens the psychological coherence of the self. This strict materialism is a highly attractive position for the postmodern intellectual to take up – as Terry Eagleton persuasively argues, postmodernist intellectuals and academics, despite

Fascination with ghouls and vampires have little to say of evil. Perhaps this is because the post-modern man or women – cool, provisional, laid-back and decentred – lacks the depth that true destructiveness requires. For post-modernism, there is nothing really to be redeemed. [4]

Inextricably connected to this notion of the Other is the notion of evil – another term that modern scholarship within the critical theoretical tradition seems to be somewhat reluctant to talk of, except in favourable discussions on the merits of transgression. This is particularly true of the Marxist tradition – emerging amid the proliferation of particularity that exemplifies post-modernity, much theoretical work today still seems to carry the Lyotardian scepticism towards meta-narratives that an ontological understanding of the monster might lend itself to. The postmodern, post-structuralist critic is perhaps more comfortable with tracing the historical and cultural discourses which construct the notion of monstrosity rather than attempting the somewhat more potentially problematic philosophical work of describing the actual condition of monstrosity itself. Couple this with a Marxism that resists the dangers of absolutism in ethics to the extent of provoking even Frederic Jameson into writing of the archaic categories of good and evil, [5] and one begins to see grounds for a literary and theoretical model with, at best, a reticence about venturing too anything that could be seen as making absolutist moral judgements.

When moral pronouncements are made, they tend towards the deeply ideological. Terry Eagleton in his 2008 book On Evil recounts the comment made by the police officer who arrested the two boys guilty of murdering James Bulger. ‘As soon as I saw them,’ said the police officer, ‘I knew they were evil’. Such a labelling is, at least on one level, a clear ideological position. By classifying these children as evil there can be no way that anyone can accuse this representative of the law of being too lenient. Furthermore, the term functions as an argumentative stopping

point – once branded as evil all serious discussion over their acts (and countless acts since) is halted. In essence ‘either human actions are explicable in which case they are not evil, or they are evil in which case there is nothing more to be said about them’. [6] The contention taken up here is that neither of these positions is correct and the continued existence of such a false binary is seriously damaging the way we talk and theorise around issues of Otherness and evil. When confronted with acts of terrorism, the rhetoric of the monster and the term evil is often deployed in order to close off the possibility of examining the political discourses of the moment. Not only does this kind of rhetorical strategy placate and reinforce a right wing political discourse more comfortable with the notion of absolutist moral judgements but it also plays into a broader failure of the post-1968 left to think seriously about matters of ethics. [7]

What the monster, and the accompanying rhetoric of evil that surrounds it, brings to the surface is the all too often unacknowledged inability of critical theory to take an ethical or moral position on the status of the Other. The monster represents an unspoken tension within modern theory on the status of otherness and our individual responses to it. The modern phenomenological philosopher all too often externalizes alterity to such an extent that any encounter, or contact with the self ‘smacks of betrayal or contamination’. [8] The idea of ultimate alterity so common to much of post-structuralist theory, that unutterable and unreachable Other, presupposes not only a lack of interaction between the self and ‘not-self ’ but allows for no differentiation between the monster and the angel. We are left with no way to distinguish between the benign and beneficial stranger we encounter and the dangerous monster who haunts and threatens us. This is not simply a problem in an exegetical or hermeneutic sense, but philosophically this renders the act of differentiation between the benign Other and the monster close to impossible. For Derrida the ethical is the realm of absolute decision, where choices are simultaneously vital and necessary but also utterly impossible. [9] The ethical is thus, like friendship or true justice, something that is always yet to come. [10] As Terry Eagleton remarks, ‘one can only hope that he is not on the jury when one’s case comes up in court’. [11] Allowing for the ultimate transcendence of alterity permits only a hermeneutical collapse, and the possibility of imagining, narrating or interpreting the other, monstrous or no, becomes simply impossible. However, as Simon Critchley points out, it is in this encounter that the ethical implications of such a view come to the fore:

Does not the trauma occasioned in the subject possessed by evil more adequately describe the ethical subject than possession by the good? Is it not in the excessive experience of evil and horror…that the ethical subject first assumes its shape…? Why is radical otherness goodness? Why is it not rather evil? [12]

The other as radically Other cannot necessarily be ascribed, as Levinas ascribes it, to the good. The assumption of beneficence simply does not solve the issue but rather leaves the subject confronted by the other, (monstrous or no) with no means of ethical discrimination. This deconstructionist position risks lapsing into a vague moral relativism, which while commendably tolerant, leaves us in the same position – unable to truly ascertain the ontological status of the other. If not moral relativism, then the alternative danger is one already touched upon by Eagleton – that the categories of good and evil simply become essentially meaningless signifiers that serve no real purpose in ethical or political theorising. An increasingly common (mis)conception of postmodern theory is that it holds the categories of good and evil to be irrelevant or untrue and that postmodern theory holds no ethical or moral value, and is a threat to the notion of a “normal” way of life. In the wake of the rise of an increasingly neo-reactionary internet culture (most visible in things like #Gamergate) as well as a political discourse that, in the mainstream at least, seems to be increasingly shifting to the right, a degree of ethical or moral analysis becomes an increasingly glaring absence. To continue with any kind of ethical position it seems that the deconstructionist approach must then be supplemented by other approaches if a theoretical understanding of the Other is to escape this trap of naïve toleration without discernment. As the philosopher Richard Kearney suggests a ‘little hermeneutic stitching and weaving needs to be sustained if we are to keep alive the practise of responsible judgement’. [13]

The common answer from many on the Left might well be to suggest that concern for responsible judgement is what draws us to the radical theoretical position of the unknowable Other. Whilst again commendable, this makes a rather simple category mistake and confuses morals for moralism. The label of evil effectively lets certain groups or individuals off the moral and political hook as the left all too often settles for a bland, relativist and individualist morality in contrast to its generally more vibrant political theory. Often trapped by the political right into an argument of morality of acts, the Left simply refuses to fight and tacitly abandons the political ground on which such debates must take place. Terrified of being seen to condone the actions of terrorists or violent criminals, the language of the Left retreats from political explanation and tacitly accepts the idea of ‘monsters’ and their acts as fundamentally unreasonable. As a result, left political discourse, for the most part, has moved more and more towards questions of identity and culture, a move which, whilst deeply laudable, renders the traditional strategy of building left solidarity movements somewhat more problematic.

The notion of the monster and their acts as inherently unreasonable is one that, from a certain point of view makes a good deal of sense, particularly for those who adopt a more right wing political outlook. In essence, the problem of evil acts and those who perpetrate them is an issue as long as we hold to the Enlightenment notion of the world as a rational and harmonious whole. The bracketing of the monster to the realm of ‘unreason’ (or, to use a more philosophical turn of phrase, the noumenal world) is essentially a philosophical defence mechanism that keeps the post-Kantian view of the universe intact whilst at the same time allowing for the rallying cry of ‘defending Enlightenment virtues’ against unreasonable non-humans. The consequences of such a philosophical bracketing reveal themselves most clearly in the ideological reactions to acts that seem to violate the notion of the ordered post-Kantian universe. Where Enlightenment values are seen as being under attack from an unreasonable and monstrous enemy, the response is permitted to be decidedly non-rationalist. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the philosopher Sam Harris was prepared to consider a pre-emptive nuclear strike against Muslim states developing nuclear weapons, resulting in the murder of ‘tens of millions of innocent civilians’. [14] This comes from a rationalist philosopher apparently dedicated to the preservation of Western, liberal Enlightenment values; as Terry Eagleton rather dryly wonders, ‘what unpleasant surprises might his more right of centre colleagues have in store for the Muslim world?’ [15] The scale of the challenge for a left political and moral discourse would seem to be immense and more than a little unnerving. To remove the monster from the realm of unreason raises the distinct and highly troubling possibility that we ourselves are not nearly as distinct as we would like to think from those we label as being monstrous.

The conclusion to this is perhaps unacceptable to many: the true horror of the ‘monster’ does not reside in what they do, the acts they perpetrate, but in the uncomfortable reality of their closeness to ourselves. We attempt, in our expulsion of the monster to create a safe and sterile distance between ourselves and the radical ‘Other’ whilst at the same time isolating ourselves from the necessary political and theoretical work involved in understanding a world that is not so harmonious, whole or rational as we might wish. Here then, the challenge becomes much clearer; at stake is the potential for a new kind of solidarity politics – one that resists the urge to create and police the border of human and monster. Rather, the challenge in a practical sense is to take seriously the Aristotelian idea that one cannot isolate individual morality from the political life of the collective. How radical do we dare become? What capacity can the left find to build solidarity with those our political, economic and social discourses label as not just less than human, but as something altogether other than human?

Jon Greenaway is a PhD candidate at Manchester Metropolitan University. His research interests include monster theory, the Gothic, philosophical theology, and post-structuralism. He writes for a range of online publications and tweets as @TheLitCritGuy.

[1] Jeffrey Cohen, Monster Theory: Reading Culture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996), p. 4.

[2] Ibid., p. 6.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Terry Eagleton, On Evil (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), p. 15.

[5] Frederic Jameson, Fables of Aggression: Wyndam Lewis, the Modernist as Fascist (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979), p. 56.

[6] Eagleton, On Evil, p. 2.

[7] See for example the resurgence in right libertarian discourse of defending the values of the Enlightenment in the wake of incidents of Islamic terrorism; a paradigmatic example is Spiked, see <>.

[8] Richard Kearney, Strangers, Gods and Monsters: Interpreting Otherness (London: Routledge, 2003).

[9] Jacques Derrida, ‘Donner la mort’, in L’Éthique du don: Jacques Derrida et la pensée du don, ed. Jean-Michael Rabate & Michael Wetzel (Paris: Métailié, 1992).

[10] For more on this see Jacques Derrida, The Politics of Friendship (London: Verso, 2005).

[11] Terry Eagleton, After Theory (London: Penguin, 2004), p. 154.

[12] Simon Critchley, Very Little … Almost Nothing: Death, Philosophy and Literature (London: Routledge, 1997), p. 80.

[13] Kearney, Strangers, Gods and Monsters, p. 10.

[14] Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason (London: W. W. Norton, 2004), p. 129.

[15] Terry Eagleton, Culture and the Death of God (London: Yale University Press, 2014), p. 202.

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