Academic journal article The American Journal of Economics and Sociology

8 Culture, Evil, and Horror

Academic journal article The American Journal of Economics and Sociology

8 Culture, Evil, and Horror

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT. This chapter develops a concept of aesthetic and existential horror and suggests its importance for understanding modern and postmodern culture. It makes three distinct claims. First, the experience of horror signifies a breakdown in the symbolic categories and valuations of a culture. Second, this experience has ontological significance because in horror the human is exposed to the naked fact of being, This latter point is derived from Heidegger's comments on anxiety and Emmanuel Levinas's notion of the "il y a" or "there is." A third claim follows from these two, namely, that horror is distinct from evil. Evil is defined within a cultural matrix; horror is the undefined other of a culture. Evil represents the negation of being; horror shows the sickening presence of being as being. The essay concludes with a reflection on the possibility of a postmodern ethics that takes responsibility for the "horrors of being" generated by globalization.



A CULTURE IS A WAY in which human beings represent their lives to themselves through language and other symbolic systems. (1) With culture, the human separates from the animal and enters an order of discriminations by which the beautiful is distinguished from the ugly, the noble from the shameful, and the pure from the defiled. Inherent in the establishment of cultural coordinates is a logic that excludes those elements of reality that have no defined location according to these coordinates. Since a culture gets its bearings by names for things, then we could say that what is outside the culture has no name as well. This is not to say, however, that the non-acculturated remainders of the symbolizing process cannot be represented or experienced in any way. It is the purpose of this essay to show that the experience of horror evokes elements of the real that have not been assimilated into a culture (and so into "normal" reality). We shall try to understand the philosophical significance of horror for modern and postmodern culture by situating it in three contexts--the aesthetic, the existential-ontological, and the ethical--and by drawing a contrast between horror and evil. Modern culture has tended to identify as evil the horror of what is unassimilated to universal norms and rational principles. The question posed at the end of this essay is whether a better philosophical understanding of horror in the context of a late-modern global economy and culture may point the way to an ethics that accepts, loves, and takes responsibility for the monstrous (but not evil) Other.


Culture and Horror

THE COUNTERPART OF CULTURE, I would like to suggest, is not nature but horror. The natural usually has a well-defined place in a culture. Defined, and domesticated by a system of signifiers, nature is given a name as something original, wild, spontaneous, restorative, dangerous, and so forth. There is nothing so cultivated, for example, as the nature of romantic poets. Of course, culture itself has several meanings. When culture is used to refer to that which is refined and educated, Kultur and Bildung, then the raw, primitive drives of nature can be seen as polar opposites to culture. But this demarcation is itself a cultural act of language and symbolization. Strictly speaking, I would say that the antithesis of culture is not nature but the unnatural--that is, the monstrosity that does not fit into any categories or names. As Andrew Gibson has noted, "monstrosity transgresses the metaphysics underlying symbolic boundaries, the boundaries that determine all those categories and classifications that separate kinds of being off from one another." (2) This is echoed by Richard Kearney, who says that monsters "ghost the margins of what can be legitimately thought and said.... By definition unrecognizable, they defy our accredited norms of identification." (3) Another way of making this point is to think of culture in terms of binary oppositions holding, for example, between the living and the dead, the raw and the cooked, male and female, the human and the nonhuman, and so on, but also between culture and nature. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.