Monsters Embody Human Difference

The synthesis in Monster Culture (Seven Theses) by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen is very tightly packed. For a moment I just want to unwrap some of what he made me think about. Throughout his argument my mind was brought to the idea of “the Other”. The outsider, or complete opposite, from the human self. I started to think about the idea of calling another human a monster, but even more so the idea of monsters embodying human difference. Particularly in the last four theses of his argument.

Cohen uses examples of beasts and creatures: godzilla, nosferatu, alien. While monsters can be literally different in form, they also all personify a difference from one’s self, which is a lot of what Cohen is getting at. Just as someone can be scared of monsters, it seems fair to say that humans are scared of difference; scared of change.

Cohen’s argument of portrayal, monsters linger in difference, demonstrates humans’ more artistic rendering of the fear of the Other. “In medieval France the chansons de geste┬ácelebrated the crusades by transforming Muslims into demonic caricatures whose menacing lack of humanity was readable from their bestial attributes; by culturally glossing ‘Saracens’ as ‘monstra;’ propagandists rendered rhetorically admissible the annexation of the East by the West.” (8) His example of caricaturization makes me think of political cartoons. Especially in his brief discussion of “political or ideological difference” as being “much a catalyst to monstrous representation on a micro level as cultural alterity in the macrocosm.” (8) A dehumanizing representation of humans, especially those whose arguments and decisions are not in line with your own.

In his thesis regarding monsters policing the borders of possible Cohen explains “the monsters are here, as elsewhere, expedient representations of other cultures, generalized and demonized to enforce a strict notion of group sameness. The fears of contamination, impurity, and loss of identity that produce stories like the Genesis episode are strong, and they reappear incessantly.” (16) As a religious text, the Bible is something many philosophers seem to turn to in analyzing social patterns. Some of the earliest examples of embodied fear or difference with consequence. It’s through this example that I started to think about how we use the word monster in the modern world and how human a monster can be.

I had one thought that sums up his section on fearing the monster being an embodiment of desire. In putting another down one is attempting to raise oneself. Humans pick on others out of jealousy and envy.

In defining monsters as mystical, I agree with Cohen’s final argument – that more fantastical monsters exist through knowledge and in the mind. But I find his concluding statements about monsters one last reference to the idea of monsters as an embodiment of the fear of difference. “Monsters are our children… These monsters ask us how we perceive the world, and how we have misrepresented what we have attempted to place.” (20)

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