Posted: March 18th, 2023
Jeffrey Jerome Cohen is the writer of “Monster Culture (Seven Theses).” He is a Professor of English as well as the Director of MEMSI or the Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute, located in the George Washington University. He was born in Cambridge, MA and studied classics and creative writing at the University of Rochester. He acquired his PhD in English and taught since 1994, at GW.
The essay/article comes from Monster Theory: Reading Culture. This is a book containing a collection of essays, in which Cohen acted as editor and contributor. The essays within analyze and study certain aspects of culture. The article itself proclaims a “new modus legendi” or an approach of reading cultures through the monsters they create. He defies popular and earlier modes of cultural studies by suggesting knowledge is not local and proposes seven theses to assist the reader in understand cultures through the monsters created by them.
The mentioned monsters are the Alien, Vampires, Werewolves, Frankenstein, the Boogeyman, and Grendel. The theses analyzed within this essay are Thesis I: The Monster’s Body is a Cultural Body, Thesis II: The Monster Always Escapes, and Thesis V: The Monster Polices the Borders of the Possible. These theses represent interesting concepts such as monsters and their significance in society beyond the literal and imagined (how monsters never truly die like vampires), and the cultural use of monsters in literature and the media. All of these points are valid and do in fact represent the way cultures view and treat the idea of monster.
Thesis 1: The Monster’s Body is a Cultural Body begins with the first sentence, prior to the thesis. It goes well with the thesis itself and seems to support the idea that the body of the monster represents the body of the culture. “The Monster is born only at this metaphoric crossroads, as an embodiment of a certain cultural moment- of a time, a feeling, and a place. The monster’s body quite literally incorporates fear, desire, anxiety, and fantasy (ataractic or incendiary), giving them life and an uncanny independence.” (Picart and Browning 15) The body of the culture is domination, aggressive competition, gender inequality, and hierarchies of power. Much like the image of the monster who is aggressive imbalanced in strength and powerful, so is the image of a culture. It essentially represents the same thing.
In order to instruct others concerning the topic of monstrosity, one should essentially start by detaching from the structure or the misconception that popularizes and reproduces that structure. To coax and thusly remove these ingrained images, it helps to analyze things through a different lens. Cohen manages to do this early on in the thesis. As explained in a book concerning pedagogy and horror, “â€¦the fear response is an initial fear of awareness or knowledge of counter hegemony, which is followed by a temporary refusal of that knowledge. This process, taking up of a potentially terrifying idea as long as necessaryâ€¦” (Ahmad and Moreland 53)
The Monster helps burn out that common fear response. By using the terrifying image of the monster, Cohen delivers a way to deal with the fear of actual different aspects of culture like race, and uses the monster to help readers comprehend where that fear comes from. Eventually, towards the end of the thesis, the monster that was used as the foundational image dissipates from the mind. This is an effective way to introduce the fear of cultural traditions as well as analyze why society creates portraits of monsters in the first place.
Furthermore, introducing another image, like that of the “crossroads” helps bring the idea of monster through the lens of a cultural construct. It acts as a transition into what seems to be a blurred line from fiction to nonfiction to reality. A good example of this is the vampire. The vampire represents the night and the aversion to sunlight, an animalistic hunger for blood. Many cultures do many perverse activities, traditions, at night. Some even sacrifice animals and people in order to quench their need for tradition or for violence. This aspect of the monster which “exits only to be read,” serves as a way to highlight the atrocities of people all while remaining in its imagined world.
In Thesis II: The Monster Always Escape, Cohen explains the monster does damage. However there no negative consequences for the monster. He simply vanishes, just to appear elsewhere. Cohen uses the lens of relations to examine monsters. These relations are social, litery-historical, and cultural. He uses Bram Stoker’s Vampire or Nosferatu as an example. “â€¦we might explore the foreign count’s transgressive but compelling sexuality, as subtly alluring to Jonathan Harkerâ€¦we might analyze Murnau’s self-loathing appropriation of the same demon in Nosferatu, where in the face of nascent fascism the undercurrent of desire surfaces in plague and bodily corruption.” (Picart and Browning 16)
Things like homosexual subtext within Bram Stoker’s Dracula rise to the surface and bring awareness to diseases like AIDS that enables vampirism to become a means of redemption through torture of the body as it relates to pain. He also mentions to help tie in the AIDS point that Coppola was filming in AIDS documentary around the same time of the film. He uses the idea of vampires to rise and come back to life in order to represent social movements that not only bring awareness to a social issue, but also highlight additional subtext.
Although the thesis is short, it does a good job of explaining the point he wanted to emphasize. He essentially states monsters do not die, much like social activism and relations within a social and cultural setting do not die. They may both do damage, but they resurface, representing something else. It was a brilliant and concise way to illustrate the perspective of the outsider looking through a different lens. “The monstrous, then is directly related to queer; but while all that is queer may be monstrous, we cannot yet say that all that is monstrous is queer (although the circumstantial evidence is abundant).” (Jarman-Ivens 133)
Homosexuality, as mentioned in this thesis, is considered by some as monstrous. Much like blacks and the struggle for equality, people in history have identified certain actions, certain people as monsters or less than human. However, through the ability for these social problems (like fight for equality and equal rights), to exist continually regardless of the so-called “damage,” it produces; it remains a means of generating the immortal monster. The monster that in some way or form represents what is considered taboo in society and culture.
Thesis V: The Monster Polices the Borders of the Possible, Cohen uses various words and images that at first seem confusing. “The giants of Patagonia, the dragons of the Orient, and the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park together declare that curiosity is more often punished than rewarded, that one is better off safely contained within one’s own domestic sphere than abroad.” (Picart and Browning 17) These images do not seem to have any connection with one another and do not necessarily represent monsters. They seem to take on another meaning in the sense that they act as symbols of rebellion against the limits of cultures and society in general.
Monster thus represents a means of enforcing these perceived and obligatory limits instead of getting past them, overcoming them. “As a vehicle of prohibition, the monster most often arises to enforce the laws of exogamy and the decrees against interracial sexual mingling.” (Cohen 15) The Werewolf for instance, is what happens when a wolf bites the flesh of man and thus becomes a monster. In a way that represent interracial sexual mingling because, these races or ethnicities are often sadly portrayed as being another species. To “catch a bite” from these “monsters” is to become diseased and face a life of misery and suffering.
Monsters in the end show how bad life can be if one does not adhere to cultural standards. If one attempts to stray from these spheres, they then become something far more heinous. Although this is far from the truth of things, it is how some societies believe things will happen. They are in essence, using monsters to show what happens when an individual deviates.
Cohen presents many valid points in his theses. He provides important insight into the reason why society and cultures create monsters. Monsters serve the purpose of highlighting social movements. They teach people what not to do so they can remain accepted in society. However, from reading Cohen’s work, it shows me where the true monsters lie. They exist within society itself and like in his second thesis; they always come back as racism, as sexism, as some other oppressive and destructive force. If the future of humanity lies in the hands of these monsters than who knows how grim the future will be. Monsters eventually should die and society must learn to break free from what they deem monstrous in order to exist in balance and harmony.
Ahmad, Aalya, and Sean Moreland. Fear and Learning. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2013. Print.
Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. Monster Theory. Minneapolis, Minn.: University of Minnesota Press, 1996. Print.
Jarman-Ivens, Freya. Queer Voices. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. Print.
Picart, Caroline Joan, and John Edgar Browning. Speaking Of Monsters. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. Print.
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