Classically Inclined

October 12, 2016

On classical monsters, theoretical frameworks and the limits of psychoanalysis

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 4:59 pm
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This post follows on from my previous thoughts on whether you can have a monster outside a horror movie, and takes a step back from the assumption that ‘monster theory’ automatically works for classical monsters in the modern world. In my earlier post, I mentioned Asa Mittman’s statement that you know a monster not through how it is categorised, but through its effect. There may be some unifying characteristics – monstrous size, deformity, malevolence – but none of those is in and of itself sufficient for the monster to be monstrous.

Mittman’s position draws heavily on ideas of the monstrous created by psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic approaches to culture, as does Jeffrey Cohen in his highly influential seven theses of monster culture. I’ve just skimmed over the monster theses again; while I spot more references in the body of the text to Foucault than Freud, the language of the psychoanalytic is woven through the argument. Certainly, later writers on monster theory engage with this theoretical angle with gusto, quoting Freud and Kristeva and working the notions of the uncanny and the abject into their approach.

The founding text for all of this is Freud’s short essay on the uncanny, which I’ve written about before. Freud unpicks the semantic meanings behind the German word unheimlich, and argues that the linguistic usages of the word suggest that, what is unfamiliar is in fact familiar. He goes on to suggest that what generates the fear must go back to some forgotten infantile trauma, such as the fear of castration at the hands of the father (which naturally explains why male children are frightened of their eyes being stolen by the Sandman), or to some primitive belief that we have hardwired into us that an object or an event triggers. For example, if I think that I haven’t heard from Julia for a while and receive an e-mail from her shortly afterwards, I may be tempted to say this is uncanny (particularly if such coincidences recur several times in quick succession), because of my hardwired primitive belief that thoughts are all-powerful and can bring harm or help simply by being thought; my current position as a civilized human means I am not taken in by such primitive superstition, but the emergence of the primitive belief generates my sensation of uncanniness. Note the problematic ideas about primitive cultures and ‘superannuated modes of thought’ that Freud deploys here. However, monster theory picks up mainly on the idea of repression as generating the unheimlich, and thus implicitly accepts that everything we find monstrous must go back to something the psyche has hidden away – the fear of castration, the return to the womb fantasy, always and forever somehow engaging with the fear of the father and the desire for the mother.

The next core text is Kristeva’s Powers of Horror, best known for its development of the concept of abjection. She argues that the very development of consciousness means that there is a primal repression as soon as the human brain comes into existence, a repression of all the animal instincts and boundaries and break-downs of the self that have to be got out of the way in order to become a human. The ultimate example of the abject, Kristeva argues, is the corpse, where the boundary between the human and the self is literally decomposing before our eyes, breaking down our confidence in our own sense of identity as a self-contained being. The child-mother-other triangle of traditional psychoanalysis exists on top of this fundamental repression. The abject is handled through rituals of exclusion and taboo (such as dietary restrictions) – it is impure and must thus be thrust away. Yet it can’t be done away with entirely, but must instead be acknowledged without being seen, repeated in a way that gives it harmony, and fitted into the new order of the mind and into the realm of language and the law, although the contents of the abject is precisely that which stands outside the language and the law. Excrement and menstrual blood are abject, representing on the one hand the danger that comes to the self from outside, and on the other the dangers posed by internal relationships, inside kin groups, the fear of incest, the roles of sexual difference, and the need for these to be managed by taboo and insistence on purity.

So both of these texts subscribe to the system of repression, whether at the primal or the secondary level, and suggest that these repressions are fundamentally to do with sexual activity, sexual identity, and sexual fear. Later monster theorists do accept that it is possible that you might be scared of something not related to sex. Judith Halberstam, for instance, uses the work of Gothic literature from the nineteenth century to argue that the mechanism is right, but the field is too narrow – there is a libido at work in our psyche, as psychoanalysis argues, but it is driven by cultural, social and political drives, not just ones related to gender and sex (1995: 116). This seems one productive way out of the problem that monsters are generated by psychic repression; by acknowledging a wider range of drives at work in the psyche, we can get past the Freudian obsession with infantile trauma and acknowledge culturally-specific pressures at work on individuals situated at specific chronological points in time, who then generate monsters that speak to that particular point in time. Halberstam helps us kick back against the flattening out effect of psychoanalysis and see the wider picture of fright.

So far, so good… until we come to the classical monster, generated two thousand years ago, and still romping around our screens and literature with no signs of slowing down. Now, people inside classics are starting to take a monster theory approach to the classical monster – Dunstan Lowe has a book on monsters in Augustan poetry that I still need to read, for instance. Debbie Felton contributed a chapter to the Ashgate Research Companion on Greek and Roman monsters; she identifies the fears behind these monsters as “the potential of chaos to overcome order, or irrationality to prevail over reason; the potential victory of nature against the encroaching civilizations of mankind; the little-understood nature of the female in contrast to the male” (2012: 103). For those used to looking at Greek discourses on the Greek versus the barbarian, this will seem like a sensible enough proposition, and one that doesn’t need to go back to some infantile sexual trauma to function (following Halberstam’s model of a widened libido, a cultural drive towards ‘normal’ civilization will do), and I don’t propose to argue with Felton’s argument.

But let’s circle back to Cohen’s first monster thesis, which states that “the monster’s body is a cultural body” (1997: 4). Monster theory types generally agree that monsters are created by specific cultural conditions, and that they come into shape because of the specific fears of a culture that generates them (in this case, the fears of the ancient Greeks). This thesis means Felton’s argument works fine for interpreting monsters in ancient texts, but we run up against a problem when we move to modern examples. This is because, unsurprisingly, there’s been a well-catalogued shift in what constitutes the monstrous over the last two thousand years. One key pivot point for my purposes is the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, along with Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. These texts signal a shift from an obviously visible monster, identifiable instantly by its appearance, to a monster who is only seen as such when it is too late, or who becomes monstrous rather than beginning monstrously. Frankenstein’s Monster, as you may recall, begins as a gentle and naïve creature, but becomes monstrous because of the treatment he experiences at the hands of others; Frankenstein himself is an ambivalent figure, whose behaviour borders on the inhuman, leading readers to question who the actual monster is. The latest monstrous turn builds on this shift – we see serial killers, terrorists, faceless and corrupt government agencies, the invisible virus and angered nature turn on humanity, all monsters impossible to see coming, all monsters that could be lurking behind us at any point (Weinstock 2012: 276). Contemporary Western culture has thoroughly disconnected the monstrous from appearance, and instead has a paranoia of being crept up on from behind.

But that’s not what the Greeks feared, and they did not fear what we do. Indeed, the current cultural trend towards ‘sympathy for the devil’, of wanting to become the monster (cf. the Twilight franchise and the romance of becoming a vampire, however twee), goes profoundly against the Greek division of rationality and irrationality, order and disorder, that Felton identified.

So, this is how the puzzle stands – if a monster is generated by repression, by fears, by the drives that go behind a particular culture, why do the monsters of classical culture still work?

And this is where I want to turn, perhaps somewhat unexpectedly to Foucault. His impact on the development of monster theory has, as far as I can tell, been quite limited – not least because the work that I’ve found helpful in this regard wasn’t published until 2003. It’s the text of a series of lectures given at the Collège de France in 1975-75, under the general title Abnormal; there are resonances with other published work, but these lectures were not (so far as I am aware) available before their collection and publication, which comes well after the consolidation of monster theory as a Thing. Indeed, I suspect Foucault might be surprised that I have found him quite so helpful in constructing an alternative model, for he is mainly interested in why the claims of incest and repression became so acceptable to bourgeois families when psychoanalysis came to prominence. As such, he focuses on the interactions between the legal, medical and psychoanalytic domains to see how power is constructed, and how the ideas of normal and abnormal become used to manage the interface between these domains.

Not immediately monstrous, you might think… except what Foucault also does in the first part of these lectures is lay out two theories of power, of control – one of which is repression, and one of which is quarantine. It is from the second option that I think classical reception can helpfully develop its own monster theory – and that, I think, is where this blog post will end.


Jeffrey Cohen. 1997. “Monster culture (seven theses)”, in Monster Theory: Reading Culture, ed. Jeffrey Cohen. Minneapolis: 3-25.

Debbie Felton. 2012. “Rejecting and embracing the monstrous in ancient Greece and Rome”, in The Ashgate Research Companion to Monsters and the Monstrous, ed. Asa Mittman with Peter Dendle. Burlington: 103-131.

Michel Foucault. 2003. Trans. Graham Burchell. Abnormal: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1974-75. New York, Picador.

Judith Halberstam. 1995. Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters. Durham, Duke University Press.

Julia Kristeva. 1982. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. New York.

Asa Mittman. 2012. “Introduction: The impact of monsters and monster studies”, in The Ashgate Research Companion to Monsters and the Monstrous, ed. Asa Mittman with Peter Dendle. Burlington: 1-14.

Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock. 2012. “Invisible monsters: Vision, horror, and contemporary culture,” The Ashgate Research Companion to Monsters and the Monstrous, ed. Asa Mittman with Peter Dendle. Burlington: 275-289.


1 Comment »

  1. Very helpful exposition and summary. Monster as other, monster as abject, monster as tool of power.

    It is often assumed that the “monster” is the embodiment of fear – our fears made real – and this is often how they are portrayed in cinema as the birth of cinema corresponded with the birth of psychoanalysis. But what is the origin of the fear? Is it mere survival or (more interestingly) is it something that puts our sense of who and what we are into question? Thus monsters can be seen to be the embodiment of vice.

    Monsters in Greek myth seem very different from cinema (as one should expect as the modern understanding of the self starts with Descartes). Most are born of Typhon and Echidna (giants half human and half snake) and as retribution against Zeus for destroying the Titans and also as a bane against his favoured mortals – Cerberus, Chimera, Hydra etc… In the stories these monsters are often guards (Hades, the golden apples, the golden fleece) but sometimes they are unleashed against mortals for some crime (Hippolytus, Laocoon). As such they are tools of the gods (yes this contradicts the earlier claim of retribution against Zeus and all I can say if that Greek myth is full of contradictions). This should fit well with your exploration of “quarantine.”

    Comment by maxbini — October 13, 2016 @ 12:09 am | Reply

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