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Man and Monster: What Do We Call the Thing We Cannot Comprehend?

June 15, 2012

“Fantasy is a depiction of the unreal…It couldn’t happen…” –Ray Bradbury

Our world is apparently one in which zombies roam, at least according to the battle with bath salts, the latest designer drug that caused a Florida man to chew off the face of another. The stream of incidents involving bath salts is more commonly referred to as the Zombie Apocalypse, as seen here and here. The name leads us to immediately conclude that there is something inhuman about tearing the flesh from another with one’s teeth and devouring it. Certainly, the act is appalling, and difficult to rationalize and tough to fathom. But is our struggle to conceive of the depths of man’s violence reason enough to call it and its perpetrator inhuman? Are there costs to our tendencies to cope through fantasy (i.e. “zombie” imagery)?

While the “Zombie Apocalypse” is a current issue, it is not at all new to label what feels unreal or what is incomprehensible as part of a transcendent or pretend world. Criminals are often referred to in the media as animals or as barbarians. This past week, a young mother in Brooklyn trapped and starved her 4 year-old daughter to her slow death and showed little remorse for the crime in court. The mom’s perceived insensibilities recently earned her the title of “Monster Mom” in New York’s headlines. Although her face is quite pretty, her glances captured on camera are cold, her mouth a straight, relaxed line; I examined the portrait for a moment before I thought “stone”—the beautiful beast guilty of something that tests my capacity for compassion and even my patience for “fairness” in trial. “Monster,” I think, is plainly accurate.

And such thinking should and does give us pause. Hannah Arendt cautioned that by calling someone evil, we are pushing what is human and what is dangerous behind a veil of transcendence and it becomes beyond our reach, our control, our talk. The recent stories covering the bath salts Zombie Apocalypse and “Monster Mom” suggest that we have taken the vague concept of evil and transferred it into particular forms (such as vampires and monsters) that are also fantastical and equally out of reach. Our capacity to address the societal threats of narcotics or the circumstances surrounding infanticide might be undermined by such horror-story themes. In other words, the fantastic zombie imagery minimizes our sense of responsibility. We might be capable of handling a drug craze, but we are inexperienced and unpracticed in defeating zombies. Why fight, when we don’t know how? Why worry, when there are no zombies—nor will there ever be zombies—in our households?

This is why the critic must be brave when we name and rename political, social, and ethical struggles. Being a critic is not about burying your face into your boyfriend’s sweater when the scary part comes up. And neither is it about snorting with laughter and jeering while one man shreds apart another. It’s about watching, and thinking—rethinking—and crafting a question. Not just “what is it?” but “why is it?” and “what does it?” and “what means it?” These crucial questions are overwhelmed by a petrified fascination with types of violence that are, although unrecognizable, certainly real. To put it plainly, we should strive for realer names for the real—or what is appropriate—rather than revert to the unreal as a way of deluding, trivializing, or evading.

There is surely some psychological reason for turning to the imaginary when we cannot face a disturbing reality. It’s an escape, a release, a retreat away from violence that is too painful to witness and that is impossible to confront. We wince at it, we call it beastly or evil, and we hurl it as far away from the human condition as possible. This is the sympathetic response, experienced within our intellect and enacted in our words. But in so pursuing comfort, we are fleeing our ethical, political, and rhetorical responsibility: to call the thing what it ought to be and to negotiate meaning where there is uncertainty, not to the point of feeling safe, but toward the purpose of feeling moved (to act, to think, to heal…). If it is possible to see and handle the thing that makes us squeamish, I cannot think why we should want to always be like little children, trembling and paralyzed in the dark.

If you want to know more:

  • Robert Hariman published an article on political and ethical judgment that defends the term “evil” being used in discourse. For this counter-point to Arendt’s caution, see Rhetoric & Public Affairs (2003).
  • For more on why we turn to the “monster” figures—and the moralizing function it serves—see Edward Ingebretsen’s book, At Stake. However, while Ingebretsen offers some interesting insights into how the inhuman images establish ethical norms of a community, I remain reticent toward and troubled by making the violent human inhuman as such.
3 Comments leave one →
  1. Vic Perry permalink
    June 15, 2012 2:47 pm

    These are important concerns. I would like to argue for the value of a limited aspirational meaning to the word “human.” It is the aspirational meaning of human that is meant when we call someone’s actions “inhuman,” or complain that someone is acting like a robot, or (most dubious of all) complain that they act like an “animal” of some sort. “Monster” by contrast is always a value judgment, something humans define. Or perhaps not – as one of my daughters asked me when she was about six, “is a cat like a monster to a mouse?”

    Note that in fiction, we have the luxury of sympathizing with the monster – Frankenstein’s creation, Godzilla, King Kong, pale droves of hipster vampires… But what expressions of sympathy have we seen for our real-life monsters? I would not agree that seeing our world as full of monsters is necessarily a retreat to fantasy. It’s a retreat to a more fearful outlook on the possibilities of our world. Nightmares are not fantasies while we have them.

    I don’t think it is entirely a bad thing to have an aspirational meaning to the word human, so long as we remember that humans are the cruelest creatures we know. In a way, use of “human” as an aspirational term resembles the use of the word “American” as an aspirational term (see “un-American”). We can say that it is un-American to ignore the rule of law and/or blithely kill people for dodgy reasons, even though Americans do this all the time. (inserting big howdy to Democrat drone apologists here!).

    For the sake of accuracy, or of not forgetting all the ways in which we fall short, should we avoid these kinds of aspirational usages? What would be the advantages or disadvantages?

    Vic Perry
    phd pursuing american human aspirant
    Iowa State

  2. Susan Ryan permalink
    June 16, 2012 3:20 pm

    Vic, such a good point. To say that one thing is inhuman or to say, as I have here, that calling someone inhuman is an issue, is to imply the existence of “human.” And of course, this can quickly become problematic because any attempt to define human will result in exclusions that are potentially oppressive. This enigma of human rights, indeed, But does that mean that we can’t recognize the implications of the way we do (not) talk about the human? I think that the costs of language and definition of (in)human can be deliberated on without necessarily evoking the aspirational “human” and without meaning to replace one faulty understanding of what is/is not human with another (likely what will also be faulty) understanding of what is/is not human. The point I’m making here is the risk–often danger–of making those distinctions at all, which is a danger I think you’re also being sensitive toward.


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