Thursday, November 30, 2006

It's Snowing Posthumans

It's snowing and icing like hell here in Saint Louis, and I may soon have to tear myself away from my favorite wireless outpost and head home for a brief blogging hibernation. Luckily, I've already fortified the cottage with Cocoa Rice Krispies, ice cream, coffee, frozen pizzas, popcorn, wine, bourbon, and Entourage and L Word DVDs [my new guilty pleasures until the new season of Nip/Tuck comes out]--you know, all the important stuff.

In the meantime, I'm also putting together a reading list for an M.A. seminar I'm teaching next summer on The Posthuman Middle Ages, and I would love some assistance from readers of this blog. The course is essentially a survey of medieval literature on the monstrous and/or demonic Other as well as a look at demonic and monstrous figures in the contemporary horror film, partly in order to explore the ways in which these medieval and more modern demons/monters convey certain cultural anxieties and fears related to race, gender, sexuality, and identity in general. The primary reading list comprises Beowulf, the Latin and Old English Wonders of the East, the Latin and Old English Guthlac narratuves, Gerald of Wales's History and Topography of Ireland, the Travels of Sir John Mandeville, Chretien's Yvain, and selections from Voraigne's Golden Legend. Secondary material thus far includes selections from JJC's Of Giants, Medieval Identity Machines, and his new book Hybridity, Identity, and Monstrosity, as well as from JJC et al.'s Monster Theory and The Postcolonial Middle Ages. Bettina Bildhauer's and Robert Mill's edited collection, The Monstrous Middle Ages, is on my list, as is Deborah Higgs Strickland's book, earlier plugged by JJC, on demons, Jews, and Saracens in medieval literature and art. We'll be reading some of John Block Friedman's classic monograph on the monster in the Middle Ages as well as the more recent book on the topic, Deformed Discourse, by David Williams. We'll also read some of Carol J. Clover's book on gender and the modern horror film [Men, Women, and Chainsaws]. Finally, we'll look at portions of Dyan Elliott's excellent Fallen Bodies: Pollution, Sexuality, and Demonology in the Middle Ages. We'll do a little bit of Susan Stewart's On Longing and Mary Campbell's The Witness and the Other World. And finally, we'll confer with some of the psychoanalytic literature viz. Freud, Bettelheim, Lacan, Zizek, and others [Zizek's Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Lacan But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock is one of my personal favorites].

Okay, what have I missed? What medieval text have I perhaps overlooked that I should also include? What critical work dealing with medieval demons and monsters have I not yet seen? Fill me in. Cajole me. Bring me up to speed. And cheers to everyone hopefully snug in their warm homes [unless you're south of the equator, and then, well, damn you and your luck].


  1. Anonymous6:32 PM

    Hi Eileen - I'd also recommend the _Sowdone of Babylone_ - it's got three great giants with animal heads, and their appearance is totally tied to anxieties about self- and communal identities, and to racial and cultural differences.

    Also, Andrew Fleck has a good article on Mandeville that might be of use to you - it's called "Here, There, and In Between: Representing Difference in the Travels of Sir John Mandeville" (Studies in Philology 97:4 (Fall 2000): 379-400).

    More if I think of any.

  2. You might want to look at:
    The Legend of Duke Ernst. J. W. Thomas and Carolyn Dussère, trans. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1979.

    Not only do Herzog Ernst and his companions fight off an attack by crane-headed archers (who possess advances technology: running water and baths), Ernst is also rescued by griffins at one point and eventually ends up serving in a court of Cyclops. And, well, here are my notes:
    The Cyclops recognize Ernst and his remaining men as noblemen by their manner, and eventually Ernst et al learn the language of this land. The Cyclops find out who is the leader of this group by giving them a horse and watching who takes it and how he gets on it (110). In their service, Ernst wages war against the Flat Hoofs, sciopods, another missile-throwing race (111). In gratitude, the Cyclops invest Ernst with land. Ernst then takes a fight to a big-eared people, who fight with javelins (none with swords, note). Then, Ernst helps a race of pygmies in a war against cranes—-we have no sense that these are crane-people: they are cranes, the birds. In return he is given a few of the pygmies—-is this as a gift or is it a vassal relationship: not clear (well: “Besides the giant, there were now at the court the two men of Prechami and many Ears and Flat Hoofs, all of whom got whatever they wanted and more from their lord. He kept them with him as wonders, and in after years these strange beings often made long hours short and pleasant” (118)). Ernst then takes a battle against giants, who behave themselves as if they were humans: for most of these races, very little sets them apart from people (the cranes can’t talk, the pygmies survive on crane eggs). Ernst promotes the war against the giants by referring to the warlike customs of his own country: now we have cultural difference (115). Meeting with some lost Ethiopian merchants (whose difference is not remarked upon), Ernst sneaks away from this kingdom with his gang of freaks. He defends, with the help of his giant (think of William of Orange and his giant companion) the Christian Ethiopians (we haven’t heard much about religion for a while) against the Egyptian king. Finally, Ernst gets to Jerusalem: “He gave half of his strange creatures and much wealth besides—gold, precious stones, and fine silks—from the rich treasure he brought with him” (122). Ernst, invited back to Germany, returns, although the Flat Hoof dies on the way; Rome is amazed by his strange creatures, as is the court of Otto. Otto wants a few, Ernst resides, and finally gives Otto a Cyclopes, a sweet-singing long ear, and a pygmy. But Ernst keeps the giant.
    You might also want the bit from the Cursor Mundi where the various monstrous races come to Solomon, convert, and transform into 'normal' people (ll. 8072-8132 in the Sarah Horrall et al. edition). An excerpt (oh, why the hell not, here's the whole thing, from my notes, to save you the trouble of transcription, if you want to use this in some way other than a photocopy):

    Sarazines foure þe kyng can mete
    Blak & blo as leed þei were
    Miche richesse wiþ hem þei bere
    Men say neuer bifore þat houre
    So frowarde shapen creatoure
    Of her blac hewe was selcouþe
    In her brestis þei bare her mouþe
    Longe & syde her browes weren
    And rauჳt al aboute her eren
    In her forhede was her siჳt
    Loke myჳt þei not vpriჳt
    Her armes hery wiþ blak hyde
    Her elbowes were set in her syde
    Crompled knees & bouche on bak
    Þe kyng wondride on hem & spak
    Whenne hem bihelde þe kyngis oost
    Þei lowჳen alle leste and moost
    On her knees þei hem sett
    And hendely þe kyng þei gret
    To þe kyng seide þay
    Saaf be þou sir now & ay
    What þou berest lat vs se
    To fonde if goddis wille hit be
    Shewe vs þe sauyng tre sir kyng
    For wel woot we wiþouten lesyng
    Peyne on þat tre suffere he shal
    Þe kyng of blis for his folk al
    Shewe vs þe tre out of were
    Þerfore are we comen here
    Byholden vs ynouჳe hastou
    Oure froward shap þou seest now
    Ful loþely are we but also looþe
    Is euel mannes soule & body boþe
    Þes ჳerdes þre wiþynne her roote
    Aჳeyne alle eueles are bote
    Þei shul vs ჳelde bifore þi siჳt
    Feirenes bi grace of god almyჳt
    Of hem shal ryde oure raunsoun
    And of alle oure synnes pardoun
    To hem þat mercy for her synne
    Cryeþ to ihesu of dauid kynne
    Þe myჳte of hem sir lete vs proue
    Wiþ þat þe kyng took of his gloue
    Þo braunchis of so mychel blis
    He helde hem to hem for to kis
    Þei kneled & kist hem also tite
    Als soone her hyde bicoom white
    And of þe fre blood had þei þe hew
    Al her shap was turned new
    Of mankynde hadde þei þe met
    In riჳt kynde were þei set
    Bifore þe kyng þenne fel þei doun
    And maden vchone her orisoun
    Þei wepte & þanked god of myჳt
    Al þat folk þat say þat siჳt
    Þe richesse þat þei wiþ hem ladde
    Þei offered þat þat þei hadde
    Hemself aჳeyn þei toke þe sty
    And wenten hoom to ethyopy


    But enough about the Middle Ages. What movies are you using? I think the bit in the unfairly derided Alien: Resurrection where Ripley confronts her multiplied selves in the form of failed clone/hybrids would be a fantastic insertion, especially because it offers itself as a convenient excerpt. You don't have to set aside a whole class period for it. I'm also partial to bits of Videodrome, although the students would probably be more into LOTR (say, the Mouth of Sauron bit that's in the extended version of ROTK).

    There really don't seem to be very many monster movies anymore, King Kong excepted (and that was self-consciously, albeit critically, nostalgic). Certainly nothing like the 50s (and my childhood would have been ruined without the B-monster movie feature that ran every Sunday afternoon. Ou sont des monthras d'antan?)

    The weather in NYC in eerily balmy. Knock on wood.

  3. Er, mothras.

    And I might add that the Mouth of Sauron bit, if you chose to accept it, would be enlivened by looking at the commentary disks (and if you don't own the LOTR box set, you're missing out!) on the struggle to come up with something sufficiently monstrous. The discussion of what counts as scary and what propels the distortion past scary into silly is highly instructive and likely very productive for monster theory.

  4. Oh, oh, oh! Sorry to clog up the post here, but Chapter IV of my diss has a long reading of Yvain's Wild Herdsman that you might be interested in seeing. Let me know. It's way too long to post here, but I can promise you, it's a new reading.

    And what about some disability theory? I have my trusty Norton Anthology of Criticism and Theory here, and I think the Lennard Davis excerpt would be perfect.

    What about Jews as monsters? What about cross-cultural stuff, bringing in Golems (and, if you're really feeling nutty, perhaps teach a bit of the so-great-I-can't-believe-it The Puttermesser Papers by Cynthia Ozick).

  5. Up here in the middle of nowhere -- a place that should be buried under mounds of snow right now -- we're having a second Autumn. I think UPS sent you our weather by mistake. It's alright. You can keep it.

    Now, down to business. Hrotswitha von Gandersheim's Passion of Pelagius is rife with the othering of Saracens, and Saracen othering of Christians. It's also really short, and has all manner of deviant sexuality.

    Actually, a lot of Hrothswitha's stuff is very sexual, and usually involves virgins duping and escaping evil, powerful menfolk.

    And Karl, how did you get a yoghs in there? I want yogh power, too.

  6. I feel as if my brain has been sucked through the internet's pneumatic tube system and splattered across a syllabus. Those are my favorite books! Topics! Obsessions! Give them back!

    As you know I am a big fan of the Middle English romance "Sir Gowther," which has much to say about about the movement between human and inhuman (where inhuman is both animal/monster and saint -- no wonder Gowther was confused with Guthlac in one manuscript).

    I could go on and on about B movies; like Karl I was educated by the weekend "Creature Double Feature." Very helpful in the monster classroom has ben the 50s anti-communist, anti-Hollywood (but made by Hollywood...) allegory "Them!" It features giant ants colonizing the earth with their hive mentality. In fact the film features only two ants (it was made on a small budget) intercut with lots of stock footage from the Defense Dept., but it gives much to think about when reading the monster in a historical context. I could also rave about another 1950s shlockfest, "The Amazing Colossal Man." But I won't.

  7. Does posthuman mean inhuman or superhuman or both?

    See here

  8. And Karl, how did you get a yoghs in there? I want yogh power, too.

    I haven't looked into yogh power for writing in blogger at all. I just cut and pasted from my notes, stored, in this case, in MS One Note (any tips on transferring the whole shebang from OneNote, a real bloat of a program unless you're using a tablet PC, to a personal Wiki? Anyone who knows: what personal wikis are best?), and written in MS Word. It's easy enough to do a yogh in that through finding the yogh under insert + symbol, finding the symbol you want, and then remapping your keyboard slightly with the shortcut key function. I can't remember if the basic set of fonts has a yogh, but if not, you can download this. It has the advantage of being a really nice-looking font.


    Is that the Hroswit set in Spain with the beheadings and the like?


    I love Them, although I haven't seen it since I was an undergrad. And I probably haven't seen the Colossal Man since the late 70s...

    If you want to do the uncanny, EJ, perhaps by bringing in ghosts (w/ Schmitt's Ghosts in the Middle Ages as a secondary text), you might want to show one of my all time favorites,* Village of the Damned.

    * Ranking only slightly behind Cobra Woman in my to-be-rewritten "super all time favorites of all time" list.

  9. Oh, N50, will answer your question later. Immediately the answer strikes me as: maybe. Strikes me that the pdf you've linked to is more transhuman.

  10. Anonymous10:17 AM

    Jeffrey, have you seen the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 version of _The Amazing Colossal Man_? Not one of their absolute best, but still very funny.

  11. Kofi: the film is sacred! I can't ruin it via the sacrilege of snarky commentary a la MST 3000. I shudder to think what they would say about his amazing superstretch toga-diaper.

  12. Anonymous2:22 PM

    Are Old Norse-Icelandic texts fair game? There is, of course, Sayers essay in Monster Theory which examines the draugr in the family sagas. If I remember correctly, Eyrbyggja saga gets much attention in that essay, and it's one I would recommend. I'm particularly fond of Vatnsdœla saga, although that may not be the most useful for your purposes even though the troll blood in the Vatnsdœlir family history plays a strong role in the saga. A number of the Fornaldarsōgur might be useful as well. Hrólfs saga kraka, Vǫlsunga saga, and Egils saga einhenda ok Ásmundar berserkjabana are all easy to find.

  13. any tips on transferring the whole shebang from OneNote, a real bloat of a program unless you're using a tablet PC, to a personal Wiki? Anyone who knows: what personal wikis are best?

    In answer to my own question, I think I've just discovered what, in the last 30 minutes, has already seduced me into thinking it's the best piece of software I've seen in 4 years. It's here, and if you, like me, do all your note-taking on a computer, and especially if you've been trapped with MS Onenote, I think this is the application for you. It's not a wiki, but I think this might do everything I need it to, short of importing all my Onenote files automatically.

  14. Wow--such great responses! Thanks so much for the references to scholarly articles as well as to other medieval texts. [I'm actually teaching this course this coming spring, not in the summer, as I originally wrote, mistakenly--the snow rattled my brain]. And I *had* meant to ask about films, too. In fact, I was just having a conversation with a horror film buff friend of mine the other night and we were discussing, as Karl has also indicated, that "monster films," strictly speaking, *have* dropped off in recent years. In keeping with the medieval texts I want to teach, I want to include fours films, two having to do with demons and/or demon possession, and two having to do with humans battling monsters. I hadn't thought of the "Alien" series, but of course, they are absolutely perfect for my intentions [I will check out "Alien: Resurrection," Karl, which I have not yet seen]. So, let's say I include one, or portions of several, of the "Alien" movies? What other monster movie might I use that would be in keeping, especially, with JJC's ideas in his [now famous] "Monster Culture: Seven Theses" about how the terms, ripped from the titles of actual horror movies, "She!" and "Them!", denote a wide range of cultural anxieties and fears, especially of racialized and sexualized varieties? And how, too, might certain demon/devil films speak well to the anxieties that often circulate through Christian belief/doctrine related to various demonized Others [or, to the ways in which the figure of the Devil comprises certain racialized and sexualized cultural stereotypes]? I'm wondering if "Angel Heart" might work here, and maybe also "Stigmata." I must admit that I usually avoid horror movies--not my favorite genre at all, so throw some suggestions this way--lots of them, please. A film that, perhaps, plays around with the thin line separating "human" from "beast/monster" would also be good [a la Hannibal Lecter, Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, werewolves, etc.].

    Karl--I think we talked about this before, but by all means, send me that section of your diss. on Yvain, as I would be most interested in that. In fact, pairing Yvain with a good werewolf movie might work well for my purposes. What *is* the best werewolf movie, do you think? My favorite has always been "An American Werewolf in London," but perhaps that is a bit dated, now? And of course I'm bringing in Jews/Saracens, etc. as monsters [speaking of which, perhaps I should show bits of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ," specifically the scenes with the Devil?]. And finally, Karl, now that I know that you love Ozick's "The Puttermesser Papers," we may just have to be best friends forever--that book has a very special place on my bookshelf. I didn't know about "Village of the Damned" and will definitely check that out.

    JJC--well, of course this is one of your all-time favorite subjects. The course was originally inspired by your Introduction to "Medieval Identity Machines" [hence the title of the course]. The idea/fear of being colonized by a monstrous Other, as in "Them!", is definitely something I'd like to explore in this course. I'm wondering, too, about films like "28 Days Later" that imagine a post-apocalyptic landscape [actually, a post-viral pandemic landscape] where certain humans, through disease, become rampaging rat-like anthrophages, but I'm not sure this necessarily ties in to the medieval themes of the course--it's almost *too* modern, although it does participate in a kind of plague literature. I'm not stealing your obsessions, by the way, only borrowing them. After all, I had to design seminar syllabus that would draw students away from the modernists, and it actually worked. My seminar is the most full for next semester--pretty cool for a medievalist, and all thanks to YOU, JJC.

    John W.--I had wanted to include an Old Norse-type text, like Grettirsaga, mainly to bring in the spectral figure of the living-dead zombie, and I may still squeeze that in, somehow.

    N5O--how did you know that when I sleep, my nightmares mainly revlve around Nick Bostrum and his Future of Humanity Institute? I actually *do* plan to bring in his ideas at some point during the course, but for the most part, by "posthuman," i mainly mean to denote almost any variety of sub-human, supra-human, beyond-but-still-in-the-human, human-animal-or-other-species-or-human-machine hybrids. If that makes any damn sense. By terming the class "The Posthuman Middle Ages," having stolen that phrase from JJC, I mean to jolt my students out of the mindset that "posthuman" is always already a term of the future. [See JJC's Introduction to "Medieval Identity Machines" for more clarification on that.]

  15. I'll have something more substantial to say tomorrow, I hope, but good werewolf movies.... Well, we could always go to the imdb and do a keyword search on werewolf, but that'd be cheating, maybe.

    I happened to love The Brotherhood of the Wolf because: martial arts; French; hero's a scientist; villains (SPOILER) are religious fanatics. There's a lot of sex, which is horrifying in its own way.

    ALK suggests the full-length version of the 'Thriller' video for a good werewolf movie. It's certainly, uh, weird. [I should also add that I can't claim any credit myself for the Ozick: it's all the baleful influence of the aforementioned person, without whom I'd still be alternately, unceasingly, sadly reading either Thurber and Ian McEwan].

    I seem to remember liking The Howling.

  16. Eileen you mentioned Nick Bostrom to me before - and I have other reasons for being interested in his work also. When you really engage with it - and its very different methodology (a mix of philosophy and maths) - I think it really begins to suggest ways in which the humanities (and the skills they instill in detecting and working with perspective) are utterly essential to the modern world and his vision of the future. There are real weaknesses in his work because of his lack of this training - the assumptions he makes, his choice of illustrative material - all show some naivety and lack of judgement from the perspective of a humanist. All in all - for us - that is really encouraging!

  17. A quick note before the kids wake up: a werewolf film I always teach when doing a monsters course is "An American Werewolf in London." 20th C werewolves always seem to be about managing adolescence and its attendant bodily changes; they are also about masculinity, group identity, belonging ... and fantasies of the human/animal line of difference (don't become unsocialized or you will become a hairy, flesh eating beast!). Oh, and sexuality.

    Don't believe me? Then how do you explain "I Was a Teenage Werewold" and "Teen Wolf"?

  18. Anonymous11:23 AM

    Re: werewolves, there's also Neil Jordan's "The Company of Wolves," based on the Angela Carter story of the same name. I remember only that it was tawdry and bloody and had all kinds of monstrous sexuality/gender stuff going on. It was not a good film, but it may be useful.

  19. Demons and demonic possession. Okay, the obvious ones are the classics from the 70s (The Omen, Exorcist, Rosemary's Baby, The Possession of Joel Delaney), but the 80s was also a high time in American film for demon movies (Evil Dead I and II, Prince of Darkness, Angel Heart--which you've already mentioned). Humans battling monsters, well, apart from what's already been mentioned, I think Cronenberg's The Brood might be just the film for you -- although perhaps it's too topical (dealing as it does with therapy, anger, and repression in the late 70s) -- if only because it's one of my all time favorites. The obvious answer for sexual fears and monsters is Cat People. I'm ashamed to say I've seen neither one, but if I were to look, I'd start with the 1942 version. Vampire movies, of course, but also Cronenberg's Rabid. And The Brood, again, for the monstrosity of childbirth. The obvious one for fears of the boundaries of the body giving way, a film that just screams Powers of Horror, is John Carpenter's version of The Thing. The human beast/monster, well, Cat People, above, The Fly (any version), Willard (!)...and if you want to do memory, perhaps The Fog?

    You can see that I've remained blissfully ignorant of the surge in horror movies from Japan/Korea in the past 10 years. But you might want to see The Happiness of the Katakuris, again, only because I love it (and the Korean original). That said, films like Sympathy for Mr Vengeance just repulse me, but they might be useful, in bits, to pair with hagiography.

    always seem to be about managing adolescence and its attendant bodily changes

    Not the Brotherhood of the Wolf! It's about karate!


    Laudine: excellent moniker.

  20. Oh, I believe you, JJC, I believe you [about werewolf movies and adolescent anxieties]. Now I'm just frustrated as hell because I realize that "An American Werewolf in London" and "The Brotherhood of the Wolf" are actually two of my favorite movies, but for the purposes of the course, the former will likely work best. I'm leaning now, film-wise, toward: "Angel Heart" [best devil ever, by Robert DeNiro, of course, and because it incorporates New Orleans-inflected voodoo we get our racialized stereotypes--my only real problem here is that it's also a "selling a soul"-type plot, and that doesn't serve my purposes as well as, say, a demons vs. humans-type movie--someone proposed "Hellraiser" to me, but it's too gory for me], "An American Werewolf in London," "Alien" [first movie in series], and "Stigmata." Does anyone remember Ken Russell's "Lair of the White Worm"? It was really baroquely ridiculous, on one level, but does combine the whole serpent/demon/female sexuality thing. Or, am I just crazy for overlooking Ken Russell's masterpiece based on the 18th-century "possession" of the nuns at the convent in Loudon, France, with Vanessa Redgrave: "The Devils"??? That would be kind of perfect, wouldn't it, and my students could read some of Michel de Certeau's commentary on that. It would work well, I think, with Voraigne's "Golden Legend." You tell me.

    N50--I agree with everything you say about Nick Bostrum. We could engage with him, or we could just wait outside of his college at Oxford and beat him up. What do you think?

  21. Hey, EJ - you've been reading my blog! But I don't want to frighten JJC and Karl - so any beating up will have to remain virtual ...

  22. best devil ever

    I dunno. I'm rather too fond of the devil (okay, Lucifer, Jr.) in Cabin in the Sky.

    Funny, I was just about to say that you've listed 2 of the few Ken Russell movies I haven't seen when I checked the imdb, and, my goodness, is he ever prolific. What a hack! Maybe his very badness--which I can compare only to El Topo--might make him perfect for class discussion. But, again, I think Cat People might work a bit better, and at least it has the status of the classic.

  23. N50--well, "virtual beating-up" is almost the best kind. No one really gets hurt, and we get to brag about it afterwards.


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