Academic journal article Australian Journal of French Studies

Enduring Monsters: (Em)bracing a Diachronic Storm of Monstrosities

Academic journal article Australian Journal of French Studies

Enduring Monsters: (Em)bracing a Diachronic Storm of Monstrosities

Article excerpt

Everywhere she looks, they surround her. The sea of camera phones tilt towards the young woman, like a many-eyed monster's rectangular eyes. A tell-tale blink of a camera phone flash, then the holder vanishes round the comer. "Hello? HelloT': the young woman's words, so typically spoken in answer to a phone, seem solely addressed to the phones, as the glazed eyes of the humans holding them register no recognition. Then suddenly, a masked man emerges from a car, pulls out a rifle, and pursues the young woman, setting off a terrifying monstrous pursuit. The mass of expressionless phone wielders continue to track the young woman, recording her every move in a double meaning of the term "shooting".

These opening moments of "White Bear", the second episode of season two of Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror, encapsulate the link between spectating and monstrosity. Through this strange voyeuristic watching, in which the border between human being and technological device is blurred (it is the latter which actively views, records and remembers, while the former acts as a sort of mobile tripod), Brooker evokes a crucial concept: it is not just what but how we watch that calls into question what it means to be human. From the outset, the imagery of the episode's title gestures towards the fear and fascination we meet when we face the monster, since the bear - like the two sides of a coin - can be seen both as a terrifying ferocious beast and an enchanting cuddly childhood companion. Yet at the episode's conclusion lurks a twist. It is revealed that the young woman, Victoria, seemingly the innocent victim of this monstrous pursuit and observation, is the perpetrator of her own monstrous atrocities: the abduction and filming of the murder of a young child. The "White Bear Justice Park", a popular and lucrative tourist attraction park - that is, an "exhibitionary complex"1 aimed at diverting yet disciplining people through spectacle - was established to force her to relive every day the same torture as her victim. As she is driven back to the house of the starting point of the episode, where the day's events will repeat in the morning, the park organiser gleefully exclaims: "Let's get this show on the road!" Crowds purchase sponges to hurl at her along with vitriolic verbal abuse. Amidst the murderous crowds baying for her blood, we wonder again at the osmosis of monstrosity; how watching the "monster" awakens or reflects similar traits in the observer. Of course, we too are watching.

This compulsion to watch monsters is far from new, and is even embedded in their verbal reality: the "mon(s)tre", as the French language transparently indicates, is a show to be watched. The gaze of the camera phone in this instance is a modern rendering of the surgeon's fascinated detailing of unusual or "monstrous" forms, such as in Ambroise Paré's Des monstres et des prodiges (1573), the crowds which flocked to the nineteenth-century foires, or the poring over moral monsters in Michel Foucault's twentieth-century lectures on Les anormaux2 Although monsters have a reputation for skulking in the shadows or hiding under children's beds, they also seem to compel us to watch in an ageless, enduring spectacle. Not only do monsters often have the power to transcend death (in the manner of the vampire, zombie or the hydra's rebirthing heads), they achieve immortality by (re) surfacing in myth, legend and literature. In this special number, bringing together disparate fields and time periods, we see monsters tenaciously lasting through all. The question of how we watch the monster is central to uncovering a two-headed question both practical and ontological: Why do monsters endure, and how do we endure them?

This paradoxical heart of the monster, both still and changing, extends to every aspect of its being. Between life and death, attraction and repulsion, human and Other, monsters make their nests in liminal realms. To understand the double nature of the monster, we must try to grasp it by its roots. …

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