Thursday, October 14, 2010


by J J Cohen

For your enjoyment, another excerpt from my MACBA talk.

Autozōēgraphy (“labyrinthine, even aberrant”)

These family monsters are, like Derrida’s cat, more than personal. On deeper reflection every monster is also communal and historical. Take, for example, what to my mind is one of the best monster films yet made, Guillermo del Torro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (El Laberinto del fauno, 2006). Ofelia, its dreamy but doomed child heroine, encounters in subterranean and demonic form the unspeakable human evil that saturates her surroundings, but which few around her will acknowledge. In her fantastic labyrinth dwell monsters, but also fairies, magic, the possibility of escaping the Fascist violence that suffocates her. The labyrinth is the key to imagining a future beyond the present’s horrors. So compelling is her dreaming that as the film ends we are not wholly certain if Ofelia enters the magic realm forever, or if she simply dies. Pan, the ambassador from that enchanted kingdom, declares in his last lines:
And it is said that the Princess returned to her father's kingdom. That she reigned there with justice and a kind heart for many centuries. That she was loved by her people. And that she left behind small traces of her time on Earth, visible only to those who know where to look.
“Visible only to those who know where to look”: has the film enabled us to discern these vestiges of a short life spent among monsters that now endures because of her love, or does this ending yield a future only to the brother Ofelia sacrifices herself to save? We suspect, I think, that Pan’s words are a last gasp of fantasy as Ofelia’s life recedes – and this possibility is heartbreaking, so compelling are her exploits among the creatures of the labyrinth.

Ofelia’s monsters intrude into her waking world from the fairy tales she loves to read. My childhood ghosts were straight from horror movies I watched, and had much to do with wanting access to forbidden realms. My vampire came from a Stephen King novel. The Crooked Man whose approaching footsteps were my heartbeat in my ear derived, I think, from a nursery rhyme. I suspect that when he arrived, if he arrived, he was not going to murder me, but whisper something I knew but did not want to hear: that the house in which I dwelt was not nearly so peaceful as I thought. The Stone Giants with their natural catastrophes were intimately related, I knew, to my grandfather, were connected somehow to his being a Jew in rural Maine. My father’s father, who seemed a gentle giant but a giant all the same, stood between worlds. His life had been limned with peril, and I suppose I embodied within these monsters the shifting of the earth on which he had walked. Mr. Shadow and Kidkid were my son Alex internalizing the docility-creating apparatuses of home and school. The Green Hand had crept out from a library book, and told stories about responsibilities that when neglected return to haunt. The dinosaur robots of my daughter are partly from watching too much TV, but more than anything speak to what it is like to inhabit a world where you are younger and smaller and less routine-driven than the ancient, mechanical adults who tower above you with their mindless rules, mechanical demands, tiresome threats, and alien desires.

Monsters are never as idiosyncratic as they seem. They are drawn from a shared vocabulary, even if this lexicon’s expression takes on the contours of the location in which the monster’s presence is felt. To the monster belongs, in other words, a body both particular as well as a transhistorical. The monster arrives in the present yearning to impart an old story, a narrative from the deep past. Though today often associated with science fiction and futurity, monsters are prehistoric, transhistoric, innate anachronisms. They arrive to recount a lesson in the complexity of temporality. History is a tangle, full of loops and doublings-back. Linear chronologies are a lie.

The Monster Looks at Us (Thinking Begins There)

Many years ago I published a collection of essays entitled Monster Theory, about the cultural work that the monstrous accomplishes. My own piece was entitled “Monster Culture: Seven Theses,” and at several points within that essay I described the monster as a messenger. At the time I did not know Michel Serres, whose messengers “always bring strange news” and connect unexpected times, knowledges, places. I argued more simply that “The Monster is the Harbinger of Category Crisis” (Thesis III), embodying a relentless hybridity that resists assimilation into secure epistemologies. My closing thesis states that “The Monster Stands at the Threshold...of Becoming” (Thesis VII), by which I meant that monsters open up more possibility than they foreclose. They also pose an insistent demand:
Monsters are our children. They can be pushed to the farthest margins of geography and discourse, hidden away at the edges of the world and in the forbidden recesses of our mind, but they always return. And when they come back, they bring not just a fuller knowledge of our place in history and the history of knowing our place, but they bear self-knowledge, human knowledge … These monsters ask us how we perceive the world, and how we have misrepresented what we have attempted to place. They ask us to reevaluate our assumptions about race, gender, sexuality, our perception of difference, our tolerance towards its expressions. They ask us why we have created them. (20)
The promise of the monster, I would argue, inheres within that question, that demand.

Before we journey down that haunted path, however, let us revisit the “château of haunted friendship,” the “haunted castle” in Normandy where Derrida delivered that lecture instigated by a cat story (23). Derrida’s title for the talk was L’animal que donc je suis. That last verb, which Derrida described as ‘the powerful little word suis” (64), can designate the first person singular of être or of suivre, and so yields two meanings for his title: “The animal that therefore I am” as well as “The animal that therefore I follow.” Like everything Derrida composes, his equivocal title is dense in allusion: to Descartes and his “I think therefore I am,” to the conference’s title of “The Autobiographical Animal,” to the impossibility of being or capturing or coinciding with any stable entity. The trail Derrida wanders begins by following a particular cat, and then many philosophers and many more cats. Although the essay published from this talk has become essential reading in critical animal studies, his topic is not the “general singular” of animal as a collective noun, but the hybrid beings that emerge from its analysis (41). Beyond but not in opposition to the human, Derrida insists, exists
a multiplicity of organizations of relations between living and dead, relations of organization or lack of organization among realms that are more and more difficult to dissociate by means of the figures of the organic and inorganic, of life and/or death. These relations are at once intertwined and abyssal, and they can never be totally objectified. (31)
By objectified Derrida means named: “Animal” cannot exist in separation, exteriority, or generality, cannot “corral a large number of living beings within a single concept” (32). Derrida forges the neologism l’animot to jar the ear in French, to bring together in disharmony the plural form of animal (les animaux) with the word for word (le mot), placing both behind a singular definite article: l’animot as the grammatically incoherent “animals-word”:
Ecce animot. Neither a species nor a gender nor an individual, it is an irreducible living multiplicity of mortals, and rather than a double clone or a portmanteau word, a sort of monstrous hybrid, a chimera waiting to be put to death by its Bellerophon. (41)
Derrida glosses the term by invoking the classical Chimaera, whose “monstrousness derived precisely from the multiplicity of the animot in it (head and chest of a lion, entrails of a goat, tail of a dragon)” (41). Although inaugurated by a household cat that regards Derrida and causes him to feel (among other things) shame, an embarrassment at his own embarrassment, and an urge to write, the queer word l’animot is less intimate with felis catus than a “monstrous hybrid” (41).

Between philosopher and cat was born l’animot. Yet I can’t help wondering what Derrida would have written, what neologism he would have minted, what strange progeny would have arisen if in the corner of his eye he had seen not a familiar cat’s cool gaze, but instead locked eyes with a demon, a ghost, some alien body that should not have been dwelling in his house and yet which he had long suspected had been making a home precisely there. If the monster is a messenger who delivers strange news, what would this household monster have announced to Derrida? What presentiment would have arrived in that middle space, that messenger’s space, in the communication between Jacques Derrida and the monster of being, of following, to follow?

Please do not object that a cat is real and that a monster holds no materiality. It is true that some of us have never glimpsed a monster. What impoverished lives sometimes unfold upon this earth. Yet none of us have beheld time, or oxygen, or the wind. We vividly perceive their effects, and from this evidence we postulate agency and cause. The effects of the monster are undeniable: a spur to self-protection; an insistent urging to narrative; a catalyst to fear, but also to desire, and to art. Even if we never behold a monster striding the hinterlands or lurking in the basement of our house, we cannot deny that these creatures live full lives that have been well recorded in our literature, our visual arts, our dreams. The question of whether they exist is beside the point, since the monster perseveres regardless of our doubt, indifferent to our credulity.


Eileen Joy said...

I love that you have brought in "Pan's Labyrinth" here, which I think is one of the best [and most depressing] movies I have ever seen--I teach it regularly as part of a segment on "war and heroism," which typically, is saturated with masculinity and male "heroes," so Ofelia is a nice change at the end. I actually consider the film to be quite depressing precisely because I think the labyrinth and all of its creatures are purely fictional, only exist in Ofelia's mind, etc., which is not to say they are any less "real" or tangible, however, pace your comments here. But I can't believe, nevertheless, that Ofelia is granted some sort of after-life or other-world where she gets to be rewarded, and to continue living in the place she ultimately deserves. I think the film juxtaposes her heroic sacrifice against the selfish violence of everyone around her, but I don't want to be persuaded [i.e., affectively moved] by this heroic act because I think it just re-instantiates an ethics of violent sacrifice that seems to be so much at the heart of Western ethics. Why does the narrative demand the murder of an innocent [and specifically, female] child? Am I supposed to "take heart" in this fact, that heroism always demands one's death [or, at least, the ready willingness to sacrifice oneself for another]?

But more to the point of your talk, and this part of it, the labyrinth and its creatures, even if mainly generated in Ofelia's psyche and also through the fairy tales she loves to read, are still real and palpable in the sense that they give shape to Ofelia's world and her understanding of it and also provide her with access to a cognitive space that allows her to cope with her present surroundings, which involve very real acts of violence, torture, sickness, death, etc.--really, more than a small child should be able to handle, but resilience is all, especially when you have some "monsters" on your side. Which is not to say they are all helpful in only beneficent ways, because they also provide her with "trials" that are menacing and scary, but nevertheless, teach her how to be strong and to survive even in the midst of horror. This is why I like your idea of the monster as both archaic *and* transhistoric--they certainly seem to speak to some very deep cognitive-narrative structures of mind and appear to relate, very palpably, to narratives, or chains of historical events, that are always "set to repeat." And yet they are so versatile, primarily because they *are* mainly psychic structures, and therefore, very plastic. So I think your talk is getting at something really important relative to new work in cognitive science re: the *materiality* of so-called psychic structures and *effects* and their trans-historical nature. A "monster," then, even more than just a "sign"/portent/message, is also, let's say, the very real psycho-figurative *embodiment* of a particular anxiety, or strategy for working through that anxiety, and maybe also a kind of revenant of the unresolved claims of the past. It is no less real than an historical narrative that purports to understand what--anywhere and in any time--actually "happened." I think Certeau's "Possession at Loudon" is awfully instructive on that point--history is both above the street and also what lies underneath it, in the subterranean depths, but which also, every now and then, comes up.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

The demand for self-sacrifice is unjust, and I agree ought to be resisted ... but then again the Labyrinth itself is unjust, making demands of Ofelia that no human being ought to endure. Even if she lives at the end, there is something not right about what she had to to do to gain that second life.

Like you, Eileen, it seems to me highly unlikely that she DOES find her way to the fairy kingdom. I hesitate to be too definitive, though, because from what I've read del Torro wanted there to be some ambiguity there. And in thinking back on the film, much that unfolds is not watched or told from Ofelia's point of view, yet still has content in it that has leaked out from the Labyrinth: think of that first "magic" dragonfly that emerges from the forest to follow the car in which she and her mother are speeding towards a "haven." As I recall Ofelia doesn't see it, doesn't have anything to do with it: the first eruption of the other world is known only to the audience.

But that's a slender hook on which to hang a big hope. Too slender, I am sure.

Karl Steel said...

Good stuff, Jeffrey.

I'm hoping that the next stage considers the monstrosity of the cat, since I'd advise against hanging too much on the cat vs. monster divide. Since you're amid a Derrida discussion, this divide has to give way, especially with a cat, which is the most unhomely of domestic animals (and here I think of Erica Fudge's work on the cat but also Douglas Gray's excellent article on medieval kittehs). If a monster is 'against kind', then what is the proper behavior or the proper place of cat, a nocturnal carnivore at home, eating (and tormenting) vermin, notorious for budging us out of our place?

Since you're going to Spain, here are some more films on childhood and monsters and the uncanniness of childhood for your delectation.

El espíritu de la colmen, which is the ur-text for Pan's Labyrinth, an ur-text that your Spanish audience will surely know.

Cría cuervos, which is one of the most beautiful and frightening films about childhood and its desires that I know. PLUS it features one of the VERY best songs of the 70s, Porque te Vas.

Karl Steel said...

You may also want to use this comic strip as a slide.

Or maybe not.

Nicola Masciandaro said...

Cf. "Because God cannot be seen by man, among his other wonderful ordinances he made many things, such as noise, odor, and wind, whose power is evident but whose substance cannot be seen, so that no one might think that there is no God just because mortal eyes cannot see him. Following their example and proof, we behold God by his power, purpose, and works even though he is invisible" (Lactantius).

Anonymous said...

May I / how might I cite this talk of yours?
- a student

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Anonymous, you may cite anything here at ITM with proper attribution (author and URL). Glad something is of use.

danica said...

Thank you kindly.