On Monsters: Or, Nine or More (Monstrous) Not Cannies

Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

On Monsters: Or, Nine or More (Monstrous) Not Cannies


THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR HAVING ME. I AM DEEPLY HONORED TO BE A GUEST at ICFA.

The program describes this talk as being called "On Monsters." I'd like as is traditional to fiddle with and fossick around that title, and to append to it the phrase "Nine or More (Monstrous) Not Cannies."

This talk itself is two monsters. Like ICFA, it is a chimera, a scholarly body with the head of a 12-year-old monster nerd, squeeing over the Monster Manual. Or vice versa.

The second monster it is I must explain by way of apology. Some of what follows may be familiar to some of you: this presentation comes out of a conversation with Theodora Goss, who persuaded me there might be some value in a return (but who is of course blameless for what follows). So I have hacked bits from various things I have said about monsters and the like over the last few years, added some newly scavenged thoughts, and stitched them together into a new ghastly form, through which I shall now run current.

It's alive.

We are here because we love the fantastic. We are obsessed with what makes the strange; with how it does what it does; and in particular, with those figures that shamble out of that strangeness still sodden and dripping with it, called monsters. We sort-of-know what brings them forth: the Sleep of Reason. To get at their quiddity, which is what we are here to do, we cannot not start with soi-disant reason itself, with the opposite of what we love, with the un-be-monstered, the not-strange, the fantasticless mundane. The canny.

These days in English English, "canny" means shrewd, but it comes to us circuitously via the Anglo-Saxon "ken"--roughly, knowledge, understanding. Our ken is the known. And out of the unknown shamble monsters. From Beyond Our Ken.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

(I had a joke here about monstrous bodies and Ken and Barbie and grotesquerie and the deformations of patriarchy, but it was a bit of a gimme. I will leave you to fill in the details.) (See fig. 1.)

So--what about the opposite of the kenned, the canny? The canny is at by far its most interesting when it comes under strain, as it does, sustainedly, under Freud's own geeky eye. His rumination on the uncanny, that peculiar, unsettling, vaguely supernatural sensation, is indispensible for any consideration of what kind of affect and milieu it is that spawns monsters. Freud famously associates the uncanny with repetition, with doubles, with pattern-recognition, with automata, and with, most importantly here, ghosts.

(As an aside, the teratological status of ghosts is a thorny question, and you can make a very reasonable case that they are not really monsters at all. Here, I am talking about monsters as impossible yet inevitable embodiments, enfigurements, of the not-kenned. So here I am counting ghosts as monsters, and I hope you'll allow it. In other writings I have asserted the opposite.)

Freud counterposes the German Heimlich--familiar, more or less--with the uncanny, the Unheimlich--but key to his argument is that the two terms, while opposites, also bleed into each other. That each, even in the nuances of everyday language, partakes of the other. That there is something creepily estranging in the familiar, and something familiar in the strange.

Even if you remain politely skeptical about Derrida's extrapolation of all this into claims that the temporally discombobulated ghostly is a, or the, key essence and marrow of all politics and the world, his neologism "hauntological" to get at the nature of the specter and the haunted present is very useful. Not least because that hauntological, the ghostly, has such cultural traction. The Unheimlich, right there in the Heimlich. Ill-tempered child of the Gothic, itself an ill-tempered rebuke to a drably weaponized, mercantile, industrial canny. Everywhere, the disavowed but recusant familiar. The unforgotten. Sometimes they come back. …

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