Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Thinking about Monster Theory? (Seven Theses)

Hundreds of books have been written about 'real' and 'imagined' monsters. Monsters are in between reality and fantasy because they are part nature and part culture. We could list thousands of named types of monsters (and the creation of new ones is infinite); but it is also helpful in understanding the phenomenon of monsters to think about common patterns of perception and recurring issues in theoretical approaches.

One of the essays that I used for discussion with my University students for several years was the "Seven Theses" in Monster Culture by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, a collection which he also edited:

Thesis I
The Monster's Body is a Cultural Body

Thesis II
The monster Always Escapes

Thesis III
The Monster is the Harbinger of Category Crisis

Thesis IV
The Monster Dwells at the Gates of Difference

Thesis V
The Monster Polices the Borders of the Possible

Thesis VI
Fear of the Monster is Really a Kind of Desire

Thesis VII
The Monster Stands at the Threshold ... of becoming

Synopsis of Monster Theory: Reading Culture

Monsters provide a key to understanding the culture that spawned them. So argues the essays in this wide-ranging collection that asks the question, what happens when critical theorists take the study of monsters seriously as a means of examining our culture? In viewing the monstrous body as metaphor for the cultural body, the contributors consider beasts, demons, freaks, and fiends as symbolic expressions of very real fears and desires, signs of cultural unease that pervade society and shape its collective behaviour. Through a sampling of monsters as a conceptual category, these essays argue that our fascination for the monstrous testifies to our continued desire to explore the difference, prohibition and the everchanging "borders of possibility".

Topics treated include: the connection between Beowulf, Frankenstein's monster, Dracula, and Dr Jekyll's Hyde; the fascination with Chang and Eng, the "Siamese twins" in 1830s America, and what it has to say about anxieties regarding the recently "united" states; the idea of monstrosity in Anne Rice's "Vampire Chronicles"; the use of monstrosity in medieval anti-muslim polemics; and an exploration of the creation myth embedded in "Jurassic Park".

Further information.

Dr Ian McCormick is the author of The Art of Connection: the Social Life of Sentences
(Quibble Academic, 2013)

Want to know more? See

Friday, 4 November 2011

Infinite Jest: Caricature and Satire from Leonardo to Levine

Infinite Jest: Caricature and Satire from Leonardo to Levine

September 13, 2011–March 4, 2012

"The exhibition explores caricature and satire in its many forms from the Italian Renaissance to the present, drawn primarily from the rich collection of this material in the Museum's Department of Drawings and Prints.

The show includes drawings and prints by Leonardo da Vinci, Eugène Delacroix, Francisco de Goya, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Enrique Chagoya alongside works by artists more often associated with humor, such as James Gillray, Thomas Rowlandson, Honoré Daumier, Al Hirschfeld, and David Levine.

Many of these engaging caricatures and satires have never been exhibited and are little known except to specialists.

In its purest form, caricature—from the Italian carico and caricare, "to load" and "to exaggerate"—distorts human physical characteristics and can be combined with various kinds of satire to convey personal, social, or political meaning.

Although caricature has probably existed since artists began to draw (ancient examples are known), the form took shape in Europe when Leonardo da Vinci's drawings of grotesque heads were copied by followers and distributed as prints.

The exhibition's title derives from Hamlet, which is quoted in a Civil War print that uses the famous line: "I knew him, Horatio; a fellow of infinite jest" to mock Lincoln."

The Trumpet and the Bassoon

The Trumpet and the Bassoon (1796) by Thomas Rowlandson.

In cases where some people hear pleasing sounds, others hear grotesque noise. Noses and mouths are common in grotesque literature, paintings, and music. While we often think of the grotesque and the monstrous as visual, there is in fact a sonic element that plays on moaning, shrieking, roaring, snarling (satire), and dull snoring. Noses are a common feature as talking phallic doubles...

"We are interested in the theme of the nose itself, which occurs throughout world literature in nearly every language, as well as in abusive and degrading gesticulations." (Bakhtin: 316)

" [...] the meaning of the grotesque image of the nose: that it always symbolizes the phallus." (Bakhtin: 316)

Russian satirical novel "The Nose" by N.V.Gogol

"Of all the features of the human face, the nose and the mouth play the most important part in the grotesque image of the body;" (Bakhtin: 316)

"The grotesque face is actually reduced to the gaping mouth; the other features are only a frame encasing this wide-open bodily abyss." (Bakhtin: 317)

Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World (Indiana University Press 1984)

On the grotesque in Stravinsky

“ […] he named the piece not simply Petrushka […] but Krik Petrushki, ‘Petrushka’s Shout.’ This krik was a very special genre; it had nothing at all to do with the pathos we now associate with the hero of the ballet. It was just a grotesque noise used at various strategic points during the traditional puppet play. It was the usual means of attracting the crowd’s attention: ‘From behind the puppet screen one heard piercing, nasal shrieks, groans and random snatches of tunes sung in Petrushka’s voice, and just as expectation is about to flag and the public is about to let itself get distracted by its surroundings, petrushka suddenly appears from behind the screen and shouts, ‘Greetings, kind sirs!’” It was also the howl of physical pain with which many scenes reached their culmination […]”

Richard Taruskin, Stravinsky and the Russian Traditions: A Biography of the Works Through Mavra (University of California Press (1999)

See also: Grotesque Opera

Finally a solution to the population problem


In his Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland From Being a Burden on Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick (1729) Jonathan Swift satirically proposed a solution to poverty and the population problem. Infant cannibalism.

There is a grotesque logic to his monstrous calculations:

I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricasie, or a ragoust.

I do therefore humbly offer it to publick consideration, that of the hundred and twenty thousand children, already computed, twenty thousand may be reserved for breed, whereof only one fourth part to be males; which is more than we allow to sheep, black cattle, or swine, and my reason is, that these children are seldom the fruits of marriage, a circumstance not much regarded by our savages, therefore, one male will be sufficient to serve four females. That the remaining hundred thousand may, at a year old, be offered in sale to the persons of quality and fortune, through the kingdom, always advising the mother to let them suck plentifully in the last month, so as to render them plump, and fat for a good table. A child will make two dishes at an entertainment for friends, and when the family dines alone, the fore or hind quarter will make a reasonable dish, and seasoned with a little pepper or salt, will be very good boiled on the fourth day, especially in winter.

I have reckoned upon a medium, that a child just born will weigh 12 pounds, and in a solar year, if tolerably nursed, encreaseth to 28 pounds.

I grant this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children.

Infant's flesh will be in season throughout the year, but more plentiful in March, and a little before and after; for we are told by a grave author, an eminent French physician, that fish being a prolifick dyet, there are more children born in Roman Catholick countries about nine months after Lent, the markets will be more glutted than usual, because the number of Popish infants, is at least three to one in this kingdom, and therefore it will have one other collateral advantage, by lessening the number of Papists among us.

I have already computed the charge of nursing a beggar's child (in which list I reckon all cottagers, labourers, and four-fifths of the farmers) to be about two shillings per annum, rags included; and I believe no gentleman would repine to give ten shillings for the carcass of a good fat child, which, as I have said, will make four dishes of excellent nutritive meat, when he hath only some particular friend, or his own family to dine with him. Thus the squire will learn to be a good landlord, and grow popular among his tenants, the mother will have eight shillings neat profit, and be fit for work till she produces another child.

Those who are more thrifty (as I must confess the times require) may flea the carcass; the skin of which, artificially dressed, will make admirable gloves for ladies, and summer boots for fine gentlemen.

As to our City of Dublin, shambles may be appointed for this purpose, in the most convenient parts of it, and butchers we may be assured will not be wanting; although I rather recommend buying the children alive, and dressing them hot from the knife, as we do roasting pigs.

Also recommended:

Cannibalistic Capitalism and other American Delicacies: A Bataillean Taste of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

By Naomi Merritt

Read the full article here.


The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974) presents a nightmarish vision of an America, metaphorically and literally devouring itself.  ‘Home, sweet, home’ becomes the slaughterhouse and consumers become the consumed as ‘cannibalistic capitalism’ (embodied by a family of unemployed but murderous abattoir workers), wreaks havoc on the lives of a hedonistic group of youths, as the ‘Age of Aquarius’ comes to a bloody end.  Chain Saw offers a model of horror that is both deeply rooted in American ideology, taboos, and the key (and interdependent) institutions of the family, the worker and capitalism, yet produces aberrant and transgressive versions of these same social units.  In this paper, the film’s representation of ‘cannibalistic capitalism’ will be explored in relation to Georges Bataille’s theory of taboo and transgression.  While Bataille asserts that the ‘main function of all taboos is to combat violence’ (thus maintaining the power, integrity and conformity of social institutions), he also suggests that the taboo paradoxically begets its own violent transgression.  In The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, capitalism’s transgressive excesses both ignite the taboo’s prohibitive power while revelling in and glorifying its violation.  This paper offers a ‘taste’ of a Bataillean approach to the theorising of horror and the spectatorial ‘pleasures’ of submitting to the anguish it provokes.

The Grotesque Englishman - Daniel Defoe

Thus from a mixture of all kinds began,
That het'rogeneous thing, an Englishman:
In eager rapes, and furious lust begot
Betwixt a painted Britain and a Scot.
Whose gend'ring off-spring quickly learn'd to bow,
And yoke their heifers to the Roman plough:
From whence a mongrel half-bred race there came,
With neither name, nor nation, speech nor fame.
In whose hot veins new mixtures quickly ran,
Infus'd betwixt a Saxon and a Dane
While their rank daughters, to their parents just,
Receiv'd all nations with promiscuous lust.
This nauseous brood directly did contain
The well-extracted blood of Englishmen.

from The True-Born Englishman by Daniel Defoe (1701). He was also the author of one of the earliest British novels Robinson Crusoe.

Origins of Man
"I only infer that an Englishman, of all men, ought not to despise foreigners as such, and I think the inference is just, since what they are to-day, we were yesterday, and to-morrow they will be like us. If foreigners misbehave in their several stations and employments, I have nothing to do with that; the laws are open to punish them equally with natives, and let them have no favour. But when I see the town full of lampoons and invectives against Dutchmen only because they are foreigners, and the King reproached and insulted by insolent pedants, and ballad-making poets for employing foreigners, and for being a foreigner himself, I confess myself moved by it to remind our nation of their own original, thereby to let them see what a banter is put upon ourselves in it, since, speaking of Englishmen ab origine, we are really all foreigners ourselves." 

See, Daniel Defoe's Explanatory Preface in A true collection of the writings of the author of the True Born English-man (1703)

Another version of the Englishman represents him as a Lord of the Country; as a Colonial Master; as a Trader; as a Slave Owner.

Andrew Selkirk - Robinson Crusoe & Man Friday

Two Englishmen dressed for hunting

Thursday, 3 November 2011

A Mangled Torso Described

"How are we to understand the fact that the paradigm of supreme beauty is provided by the statue of a crippled divinity which has no face to express any feeling, nor arms or legs to command or carry out any action?"

Jacques Ranciere, The Emancipated Spectator (p. 65)

Winkelmann’s Description of the Torso Belvedere in Rome (1759)

Reader, I now lead thee to that celebrated trunk of Hercules, of whose exalted beauties every praise falls short; I introduce thee to a performance the sublimest in its kind, and the most perfect offspring of art among those that have escaped the havoc of time. But how shall I describe a statue destitute of all those parts which nature makes the chief standard of beauty, and the interpreters of the soul? As of a mighty oak, that, felled by the axe, has lost all its lofty branches, nothing remains but the trunk: thus mangled is the figure of our hero, without head, arms, breast, or legs.

The first look perhaps will shew thee nothing but a huge deformed block; but if thou art able to penetrate the mysteries of art, attention will open all her glories to thine eye; thou shalt see Alcides the hero transfused into the marble.

Where the poet ceased, the artist began; they leave him as soon as, matched with the goddess of eternal youth, he mixes with the gods, but the artist shows us his deified form, and, as it were, an immortal frame, in which humanity is only left to make visible that strength and ease, by which the hero had become conqueror of the world.

In the mighty outlines of this body I see the unsubdued force of him who crushed the giants in the Plegraean plains, whilst the undulating contour reminds me, at the same time, of that elastic flexibility, that winged haste, from which all the various transformations of Achelous could not escape.

There appears in every part of this body, as in so many pictures every particular feat of the hero. As from the usefulness of the different parts of a building, we judge of the judicious plan of the architect; so here, from the harmonious variety of powers which the artist stamped on every different part, we may form an idea of his extensive views.

I cannot behold the few remains of the shoulders, without remembering, that their expanded strength, like two mountains, was supposed to have supported the zodiac. With what grandeur does the chest rise! how magnificent is its vaulted orb! Such was the chest on which Antaeus and Geryon, though three-bodied, were crushed; no chest of an Olympian Pancratiast; no chest of a Spartan victor, though sprung from heroes, could rise with such magnificence.


By a mysterious art, our mind, through all these feats of the hero’s force, is led to the perfections of his soul; a monument which you in vain look for among the poets; they sing the power of his arms alone. But here, not even a hint is left of violence or lascivious love; from the calm repose of the parts, the grand and settled soul appears; the man who became the emblem of virtue; who, from his love of justice alone, faced every obvious danger; who restored security to the earth, and peace to its inhabitants.

Translated by Henry Fuseli (1765)

See also
A Monster Observatory: Disability and the Fourth Plinth

Disability and the Fourth Plinth

For some critics and spectators it was monstrous and offensive. For others it was disability represented as nobility and an echo of the mutilated classical 'statues' that tradition has admired. (See next blog on the Belvedere Torso described by Winkelmann in the eighteenth century.)

How the BBC reported the story on 19 September 2005

A statue of a naked, pregnant woman with no arms has been unveiled on Trafalgar Square's fourth plinth.  The 12ft (3.6m) marble sculpture, "Alison Lapper Pregnant", is already dividing opinion among art critics and disability campaigners. Artist Marc Quinn said he had sculpted his friend Ms Lapper because disabled people were under-represented in art. The Disability Rights Commission called it "powerful and arresting", but one critic dismissed it as "rather ugly". Ms Lapper, from Shoreham, West Sussex, sat for the artist when she was eight months pregnant.She has called it a "modern tribute to femininity, disability and motherhood". But she added: "It still daunts me now. I'm going to be up in Trafalgar Square. Little me."
Mr Quinn spent 10 months working on the statue in Italy from a single piece of white marble.

How The Sun reported the story

THE art world was in uproar last night after this statue of an armless pregnant woman was chosen for Trafalgar Square. The politically-correct image of disabled mum-to-be Alison Lapper will stand for a year on the Square’s empty fourth plinth, close to Nelson’s Column.
The statue’s creator, British artist Marc Quinn, 40, was “thrilled” when it was selected by a panel of experts.
But respected art critic Brian Sewell called it an “appalling”, adding: “I would rather there was no statue at all.”


Further Reading

A Mangled Torso Described

Parody of Leonardo da Vinci's Leda and the Swan?

Credit: Wellcome Library, London
 "Four grotesque dwarfish figures: a hunchbacked man and an old midwife help a woman give birth, producing eggs, while on the left a woman boils a donkey in a cauldron to produce gruel for the mother. In the foreground, babies break out of the eggs: possibly a parody of Leonardo da Vinci's painting of Leda and the swan." Credit: Wellcome Library, London

"Pictures of crowds of tiny dwarfs are often attributed to Faustino Bocchi. The present picture, however, is in a very different style, showing the dwarfs much larger by comparison with the size of the painting than is usual in paintings firmly attributed to Bocchi. An alternative attribution to Pietro della Vecchia (Pietro Muttoni) has been suggested." Credit: Wellcome Library, London
Leda and the Swan, copy by Cesare Cesto, Wilton House UK.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Grotesque Apothecaries and Satirical Doctors

Caption: Apothecary. Historical satirical artwork showing the remedies, plants and equipment used by an apothecary (pharmacist). Many of the items shown here are labelled in French, including the alembic on his head, and the decoction flask in his left hand. An enema syringe is in his right hand. The plants include rosemary, aloe and Solanum. This is one of a set of artworks by the French artist Nicolas de l'Armessin II, titled 'Costumes Grotesques', dating from around 1695. This copy is from 'Die Karikatur und Satire in der Medizin' (Caricature and Satire in Medicine, 1921) by the German art historian and physician Eugen Hollander (1867-1932).

Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
Caricature: Valentine print, showing a grotesque apothecary with a pestle, verse below. Anon . Circa 1850

Credit: Wellcome Library, London.
 'The poor doctor and the rich patient. 'You are very ill!'

“No other professional group (lawyers, the clergy) was so vigorously and prolifically satirised in this age as medical men. The endeavour was indeed a national sport. Satirists especially chose self-professed rationalists as their targets, although virtually every attribute of doctors was lambasted: their pedantry, mercilessness, immodesty, public antics, bigotry, pretensions, panaceas.”

G.S. Rousseau,  Enlightenment borders: pre- and post-modern discourses : medical, scientific (Manchester University Press 1991), p. 136
Credit: Wellcome Library, London

A lecherous doctor taking the pulse of an old woman whilst fondling a young one. 
(Coloured etching by T. Rowlandson, 1810.)
Why not take a look at the story of  the rabbit-woman Mary Tofts and her examination by the medical men? See Imagining monsters: miscreations of the self in eighteenth-century England.  By Dennis Todd (University of Chicago Press, 1995)