Friday, September 19, 2008

Monster Theory at TheoFantastique

by J J Cohen

Some readers of ITM may be interested in this recent interview about an old book of mine.

The hardest question was coming up with a monster for our times. I don't know, readers: what's our zeitgeist? why don't we have a dominating monster?

18 comments:

Karl Steel said...

A quick, procrastinating answer for Monster for Our Times.

I just had this conversation a few weeks ago. Zombies, although zombies might be on their way out, a victim of their own (brain-eating) success. We can look to the success of 28 Days Later (and its sequel, and Planet Horror in the Grindhouse films), the hit novel World War Z (and the forthcoming film, both of which came out Max Brooks' earlier Zombie Survival Guide), and the many, many graphic novels about zombies.

If we want to look outside Anglo-American monsters, we will often encounter ghosts and the possessed. What's frightening about all this?

Well, the uncanny, obvious, and also the fact that the zombie, even more so than the ghost, is the perfect illustration of extimité, in this case, the self transformed into/revealed as an automaton. No doubt with scientific research propelling us towards a destruction of the illusion of free will (see Zizek, "Get Me My Phillips Mental Jacket"), and perhaps even with the cultural effects of the transformation of the self into subject via linguistic psychoanalysis and Marxism, the zombie really does work as our monster.

Why the environmental monster is less popular, given the probably destruction of billions of us (and however many animal species) in the next 50 years, I don't know...but for what it's worth The Host (at once pro-environment and anti-American) was much more popular in S. Korea than it was in the USA.

Karl Steel said...

So long as I'm here and not reading Lancelot, I can also recommend, for a quick-and-dirty cultural analysis, the French film Les Revenants, in which the recent dead all return for a time, not as monsters, but as slightly dazed refugees. What happens when they come back? Do we give them back their jobs? Where can they live? Etc. The film would be a perfect accompaniment to any class featuring Derrida's slim volume Of Hospitality, and, for that reason--its concern with the shock of being the host in a time of transnational responsibility and statelessness--the film, and its monsters, struck me as quintessentially French.

Rick Godden said...

Some scientists are also using the Zombie as a metaphor for the non-conscious parts of the brain. Check this out, on our Inner Zombies. I didn't need scientists to tell me that a Zombie is really in control of me.

Erynn said...

Ah, but we do have monsters for our times -- they're called politicians.

John W. Morehead said...

Thanks for doing the interview on my website. I think the book is great and it represents a neglected facet in the consideration of horror and the monstrous.

As to a potential monster for our times, the zombie seems to be increasingly popular. We might be asking what this figure says about our conceptions of self and the body in late modernity.

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

OK, on second third and fourth thought I too am going to go with the zombie too -- and especially the microbe induced zombie, a la "I Am Legend." Not a very creative monster, not one with much art other than the art of utter destruction ... and for that reason perhaps our monster of the moment.

Karl Steel said...

especially the microbe induced zombie, a la "I Am Legend." Not a very creative monster, not one with much art other than the art of utter destruction

Depends on which version of the story you're using. In the MUCH more interesting original, it *SPOILER* turns out the actual monster is the human 'hero,' not the zombie/vampire types.

The more traditional zombie microbe monster matrix can be found, again, in 28 X Later, World War Z. It's easy enough to compare the microbe etiology (28 X Later is an indictment of biological testing AND explorations into 'free will' (again see the Zizek above), World War Z is a version of SARS/the Bird Flu, and the Romero zombies, at least in Night of the Living Dead, latch into fears of radiation and NASA. We can extend this cultural allegory in all manner of directions: you want to read Planet of the Apes in the context of postcoloniality/the civil rights struggle? By all means.

Accounting for inevitable cultural heterogenity in any linguistic/national boundary, I'm still interested in cultural differences in horror: hence my tinpot cf'ing of Zombies to Les Revenants.

Who here knows anything about Bollywood horror?

Adam Roberts said...

Space aliens are the monsters of our time.

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

True enough, Robert: space aliens have been "of our times" since the turn of the last century (that's about when the medieval monstrosities crossed into the Final Frontier, isn't it?). But with Karl I am wondering about specificity within monsters: weren't the Romero zombies a cry against consumer capitalism (not a surprising thing to cry against -- quite an easy target, actually -- but what set his cry apart was the way he embodied it in monstrous form). I suppose "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" was (in its 1978 remake) something similar, and in its 1956 original about communism. So what do we got c. 2008? Disease-induced zombies (and I just read how courses in epidemiology are the hottest thing on campuses). Lots of unsympathetic aliens (aliens of the Alien movie type: fiercely Darwinian, usually humanoid but vaguely reptilian). What do they say?

Michael said...

If current film and television are diagnostic, surely zombies and vampires are the only real competitors lately.

Karl Steel said...

Last night's dinner conversation turned to zombies, where ALK made an important point: what manifests itself as a zombie differs from time to time, place to place. The zombies of the 70s and 80s, she argues, embodied anxieties about the health craze and the increasingly decrepit bodies of boomers. She offered Michael Jackson's Thriller zombies as another example, reading the zombies alongside Jackson's upcoming body modifications and Peter Pan youth desires.

Our zombies now speak more, as I said above, to fear of becoming automata, of mass contagion in a transnational context, and also of refugees and even the manifestation of the first-world abjection of its own productivity and of the labor that sustains it into a phantasmic third-world thronged with too many bodies. Here of course I am thinking of the notorious Resident Evil 5.

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

Or Children of Men.

Great point ALK. "Zombie" is such a historically marked, incredibly rich word: into general usage via Western dreaming about Haitian voodoo, into the Caribbean via West Africa and the slave trade ... it has so much to say about race and monstrosity, so add that to Peter Pan and cult of youth.

Eileen Joy said...

Throw in humanoid robots [robots so human-looking you can't tell the difference between a "real" human and the robot]--a la the Cylons on "Battlestar Galactica" or the boy David in Spielberg's "A.I."--alongside pandemic-bearing zombies [a la "28 Days Later" and other films like it] and you pretty much have the two figures that capture some of our biggest fears at present: 1) that "the human" might not be a sacred category of being, and 2) viral pandemics really are going to wipe us out [and related to this, the fear that the supposedly, again, "sacred" human body is really just a host for disease/whatever greater force can manage to inhabit and animate it and "twist" it]. But that is the movies and television. The real monster for our times is the suicide terrorist.

Anonymous said...

I don't know about suicide terrorists - don't monsters have to be monstrous to all humankind? I was going to suggest us, people, are the new monsters of our times - based on the number of makeover programmes on TV - and the constant nannying about health, diet, appearance across the media. Anybody who is not 20 with a perfect BMI feels a bit monstrous.

Karl Steel said...

On the suicide terrorist: I think of Jodi Dean's various declarations that the symbolic no longer obtains. Whether it ever did is of course one question, but, if we accept her hypothesis (if indeed I'm not misconstruing her), then the suicide terrorist might be understood as a monster because he or she is a 'true believer.' Think of Zizek on The Good Soldier Švejk. In this case, the terrorist (sometimes) believes in faith, the nation, ethnic rights, tradition, clean gender lines, all the things that the 'Liberal Westerner' admires in its other as quaint sites of authenticity, and which the 'Conservative Westerner' professes to believe are under assault. Neither the LW and CW, however, 'really' believes in these values, since true belief is gauche (e.g., the High Yuppie laughter at BAM last night at the Religulous trailer). The disdained or lost core of values, then, manifests itself monstrously in the suicide bomber, who, like Švejk, believes things too deeply, blowing apart values with too great authenticity. Note that I am still emphasizing a culturally specific analysis of the monster. In this case, what is monstrous to the International Cosmopolitan Elite (to which most non-adjunct academics belong) is not necessarily monstrous to others.

Anybody who is not 20 with a perfect BMI feels a bit monstrous.

Although the 'excessive body' as monstrous has a hoary history: see--'natch!--JJC's Giants book.

Eileen Joy said...

I wasn't so much positing the suicide terrorist as a "real" monster, as I was intimating that we have turned this figure into a monster. The only way we can understand those who are willing to do this is to assume that they are crazy, evil, etc. They have, in fact, been called "zombified" in the international press, among other monstrous tags. Oh, and they have been called "monsters." I like Simon Critchley's tag for terrorists: active nihilists who are willing to destroy *this* world in order to bring another one into being.

prehensel said...

Interesting move in this conversation! I have a couple of thoughts:
1) I think Romero zombies BECAME an index of consumerism, perhaps, after Dawn. Night strikes me as much more of a group-identity-formation moral: it seems that Romero was trying to (re)define humanity in opposition to zombies since his heroes were a Black guy and a woman--in 1968, just days before MLK was assassinated. That's pretty brave for a nobody who had no distribution for the film, but it also presents a sort of unified front against monsters. Dawn can probably be read as a index/critique of consumerism--and I think one could argue that the characters themselves do so. But taking Dawn with Day, it seems there's a much more explicit critique of governmental agencies--especially the military.

2) Few people remember The Serpent and the Rainbow, a wonderful voodoo zombie movie. It's largely overshadowed by the Romero, 28 Days Later, and Resident Evil zombies. I think one could argue that the zombie--I guess it would be more correct to call it our zombie--is (apologies in advance for the verbiage) a signifier that's been almost wholly detached from its original context and signified. It's been appropriated for different purposes...talk about a weird playing out of Pratt's contact zones!

Rick Godden said...

Given the focus on Zombies in this post, I wanted to share a few sentences I just came across. I'm reading parts of Deleuze's Essays: Critical and Clinical, and in his essay on the Apocalypse: "If we are steeped in the Apocalypse, it is rather because it inspires ways of living, surviving, and judging in each of us. It is a book for all those who think of themselves as survivors. It is the book of Zombies" (p. 37).