“Our sympathy for the monster is notorious. We weep for King Kong and the Creature from the Black Lagoon, no matter what they’ve done. We root for Lucifer and ache for Grendel” — China Miéville
Karl Marx, in addition to demonstrating the relative awesomeness of crazy beards, pointed out, “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e., the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.” We obviously have no demographic data for 99% of human history, much to the dismay of the Census Bureau, but of the estimated 107,602,707,791 Homo sapiens ever to grace our fine planet, most were illiterate, and a good portion had no idea what a written language was in the first place. Even among the 7 billion humans alive today (with our fancy technology and addiction to phonics), roughly 793 million adults are functionally illiterate. If you’ve ever had the misfortune to read a stack of undergraduate essays, you are probably assuming that statistic is horrendously inflated or at least liberally interpreting the notion of literacy as not involving actually being able to put together a written sentence that makes sense. Through an exhaustive five minute wracking of my brains in consideration of what two subjects historically comprise the bulk of human literature, I’ve come to the inevitable and obvious conclusion that until very recently, much of what got written down concerned two things – money and monsters (well technically religion, but most of that is about monsters). My keen sense of Aristotelian logic (although my darling wife would argue that my only keen sense of the logic of the monstrous involves my notion of fashion sense) tells me that if most of what has ever been written was largely penned by the ruling elite and a sizable portion of what was written about was monsters, the monsters of most of human mythology should reflect aristocratic concerns. Of course, oral traditions no doubt transmitted many mythological creatures, but chances are if it was talked about in the 1st Century B.C., the only way we know about it is that the ostensible intellectual luminaries (“rich and powerful folks”), thought it was worth mentioning, manipulating, or mocking. For example, the only near contemporary mention of Jesus is by Josephus (in his capacity as a pro-Roman propagandist for Titus Vespasian), and even then only an offhand reference to him as the nutty brother of James. The New Testament has him doing all manner of cool supernatural and mystical shit, but nobody except the Apostles seemed to notice at the time.
I had the misfortune to be in graduate school at a time where Adorno and Althusser were all the rage in the social sciences, which more or less resulted in a resounding and eternal echo of “the reproduction of the means of production” in my brain and the curious belief that the phrase “always-already” is actually meaningful, that and the strange factoid that Althusser ultimately strangled his wife (note to my spouse: I’m not suggesting a certain inevitability or anything of that sort…), therefore I’m now hardwired to ask, how do our mythological monsters represent the class struggle?
Before you accuse me of being a low down, dirty, post-modernist commie pinko, let me just say that I’m not inclined towards diatribes about the evils of corporatism, the rise of the workers, the inevitable social revolution, dialectical materialism or the oppression of the man. Okay, well sometimes about the oppression of the man, but this does not prevent recognizing that the concerns of the phenomenally rich and powerful are often distinctly unrelated to the concerns of the everyday working Joe, or rather are frequently especially concerned that Joe is coming for their stuff. Joe is indeed coming for their stuff, but more likely than not it is due to the fact that Joe does not have adequate stuff to get by. Thankfully, for the sake of the reader and my sanity, that pretty much encompasses my entire understanding of political economy. So, to recap. The man is oppressing us. The man determines what gets written for most of history. The man writes a lot about monsters. Those monsters probably reflect an aristocratic sensibility. If I was an academic, I could have expanded those four sentences into a dissertation, but gosh darn it, I work for a living, and I’m not paid by the word, or paid at all, really. For that I rely on my day job, and although I’m starting to have my suspicions, it does not overtly involve monsters…yet.
The observation that vampires are a metaphor for aristocracy (life-sucking predators that drain the vital force of the common man) and zombies for the proletariat (mindless masses shambling about consuming precious resources) has at this point become trite. God forbid we commit the sin of cliché. Makes me want to take a shower, for as the 19th Century writer George Brennan said, “The cliché is dead poetry”, and you try scrubbing and you try soaking, but those dead words tend to stick, and eventually they start to smell. The monster in all its incarnations, literal and figurative, is first and foremost a boundary marker. “From its position at the limits of knowing, the monster stands as a warning against exploration of its uncertain demesnes. 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, away from the watchful eyes of the state. The monster prevents mobility (intellectual, geographic, or sexual), delimiting the social spaces through which private bodies may move. To step outside this official geography is to risk attack by some monstrous border patrol or (worse) to become monstrous oneself” (Cohen, 1996, p12). Buried in this Continentally-encoded philosophical musing, is an actual good point. Wonders never cease. And since I am not beholden to academia, I have no problem committing the ivory tower sin of popularization and breaking this down into comprehensible English. As you might have guessed, I don’t work and play well with academic social scientists. They don’t like me very much. No, I didn’t sleep with their sister, you degenerate. It’s probably because I can’t stop myself from laughing when they use words like “geisteswissenschaften”, and my firmly held belief that unless you can make a joke about your subject, you can’t really think about it, because what is a joke if not manipulation of meaning and an understanding of the limitations of explanatory language? Too serious? Geisteswissenschaften (He, he, he). Anyhow, were we to distill the above quote into 80 proof, plain-spoken, mildly deep thoughts, a few of the conclusions actually make sense. Basically, if you’re considering exploring ideas that threaten the existing social order, we’ve got a monster for that. Considering a little edgy sexual experimentation (Don’t look at me that way, you know you are, and by the way, here’s my phone number…)? Oh, we’ve got a monster for that, too. Want to go independent and declare yourself a sovereign nation. You betcha we got a monster for that. Basically, any weird behavior you may be considering that deviates too far from the imagined cultural average, has some monster associated with it. I’m perfectly willing to suspend disbelief for a time and go with the proposition that somewhere, at sometime, maybe some of these ghastly creatures corporeally crept around the edges of civilization, but frankly I just don’t care, because even if there be historical dragons, they’ve certainly been subjected to our human interpretation, the kind of bold interpretation that turns carpenters into messiahs, medieval female medical practitioners into witches, and other people’s gods into demons. Heavy, dude. Or maybe it’s just the mental lubricant (whiskey) talking. But back to the oppression of the man.
When you want to talk about monsters, syphilitic nutjob Nietzsche is a good place to start, what with all his talk about god being dead, will to power and fascination with the Übermensch , famously observing, “When you look into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you.” While this is properly and classically profound, I think the essence is better captured by a Tumblr blogger (and if anyone recognizes the author, please give them props and an apology for my failing memory), “I caught the abyss looking at me today. I think he likes me”. Where are we going with this Nietzsche thing? Well, although he was vehemently opposed to the rampant nationalism and anti-Semitism common in his time, he was way popular with Nazis, and that’s where I intend to continue our discussion of monstrosity. Monsters of modernity are more about shock value than anything else, and we are not easy to shock anymore, hence our mythological horror has been scaled up. Global devastation, gallons of blood, science run amok, high body counts, invasion by aliens with magical technology—these are the things that scare us these days. The personal monster with a genealogy, personality, and motivation are sensibly a thing of the past. After all, why should I be afraid of vampires when Ebola is real, we have enough nuclear weapons in the hands of questionably stable governments to seriously screw ourselves over, and we’re busy manufacturing little, tiny black holes in supercolliders? Heck, it began with Stoker, continued with Anne Rice, and from Twilight to the Vampire Diaries, Vampires are now depicted as quaintly romantic figures with tortured souls who just want to be loved, rather than the bloated, rotting corpses of pre-Dracula Balkan mythology. So where was I? Oh yeah. Nazis.
While some of their nastier sentiments pre-dated them by centuries in Europe, as a disturbingly powerful entity, Nazi Germany only existed from 1933-1945. In a testament to German efficiency, they really managed to wreak havoc on the world, kill millions of people, and commit some truly staggering atrocities in a mere twelve years, and it was consequently one of the few times when most of the world got together and decided to collectively mess up someone’s shit. In the immortal words of actor Adam Goldberg, as superhero Mordechai Jefferson Carver, aka “the Hebrew Hammer”, “Shabbat Shalom, motherfuckers”. But I digress. If you want to identify the archetypal modern monster, it is the Nazi. And what a bourgeois monster it is. The Western World is about the symbolic predominance of the middle class. This is largely held to be a factual lie (see “oppression of the Man”). Nonetheless, 45% of Americans consider themselves to be middle class. If historically, the poor are afraid of aristocratic predation and the rich are afraid of the poor realizing they just need to organize in their own interests to effectively protect themselves from the rich, what are the middle class afraid of? Nazis. Well, not literally, rather what Nazis represent—that is, in the words of political theorist Hannah Arendt, “the banality of evil”. This is to say that monsters are not sociopaths, fanatics, or demons. They are your neighbors, given the appropriate cultural circumstances. The rich are afraid of the poor, the poor are afraid of the rich, and the middle class are afraid of everybody. All our modern monsters are national socialists i.e. the everyman gone insane. But when we peer back into the mists of time this was not always the case. Let’s get into the Wayback Machine and go to Sumeria and the dawn of Western Civilization.
Let’s first posit a theory, mostly because I feel smarter when I use the word “posit.” I also appreciate brevity and simplicity (not due to reasoned adherence to Ockham’s Razor, rather because my best friends are simple. And short). The historical trajectory of monsterdom and the class war can loosely be divided into three phases: (1) the anthropathological i.e. what the hell is wrong with us and why is the world insane? – or alternatively, the pantheistic phase. (Incidentally, I’m borrowing the term “anthropathology” from Colin Feltham); (2) the pathological i.e. what the hell is wrong with you? – the rise to predominance of institutionalized monotheism ; and (3) the anthropological i.e. I guess we were the monsters after all – religious modernity. I’m going to cherry-pick some illustrative monster and time periods, since one could easily fill a library with all the monsters we’re created over the years and I just do this for fun. If you don’t like my choices, get your own theory. No, seriously, theories are warm, fuzzy, and never abandon you. Sometimes you can train them to fetch. Everybody should get one.
Ancient Mesopotamia in about the 4th Millennium B.C. is as good a place to start as any, since they were the first folks to write about their monsters, or write anything really, albeit in cuneiform, but nobody’s perfect. The Romance languages hadn’t been invented yet. The Sumerians had a god for more or less everything. Every god had one area of responsibility, since the concept of multi-tasking had to await the creation of the Masters of Business Administration to truly achieve pseudo-religious status. A god for every city, and one god apiece for trees, pottery, bread, dental plaque, and anything else you could conceive of. Consequently, they had a few hundred deities and a relatively smaller number of monsters, mostly what we would consider demons (they did the dirty work for the gods, and could be good or evil depending on who they were working for). Theirs was a relatively new form of human social organization as a surplus of storable food allowed them to settle in one place, instead of wandering around chasing sheep. Population density increased and with it the need for large and cooperative labor force, division of labor, and the concept of technical specialization. All of course ruled by an absolute monarch and small elite class. Either you were one of the few that decided the canal would be dug, or you were the guy who did the digging.
Hence in Sumer the social surplus was first effectively concentrated in the hands of a god and stored in his granary. That was probably true in Central America while in Egypt the pharaoh (king) was himself a god. But of course the imaginary deities were served by quite real priests who, besides celebrating elaborate and often sanguinary rites in their honour, administered their divine masters’ earthly estates. In Sumer indeed the god very soon, if not even before the revolution, shared his wealth and power with a mortal viceregent, the City-King,’ who acted as civil ruler and leader in war. The divine pharaoh was naturally assisted by a whole hierarchy of officials. All those not engaged in food-production were of course supported in the first instance by the surplus accumulated in temple or royal granaries and were thus dependent on temple or court. But naturally priests, civil and military leaders and officials absorbed a major share of the concentrated surplus and thus formed a ruling class.’ Unlike a palaeolithic magician or a neolithic chief, they were, as an Egyptian scribe actually put it, ‘exempt from all manual tasks.’ On the other hand, the lower classes were not only guaranteed peace and security, but were relieved from intellectual tasks which many find more irksome than any physical labour (Childe, 1950, p12-13).
Sure, sometimes the gods don’t want to mix with the unwashed masses and send some animal-headed demon to stir things up in their name, but by and large, the plethora of divine creatures directing human and natural affairs mitigates against too much elaboration of a monstrous taxonomy. What do I have to be scared of? I live in Uruk, and our local matron deity Innana will protect me if she is so inclined. I just have to worry about my grain tax, appropriate sacrifices, and not getting clubbed on the head by those bastards over in Nippur. When your gods have such hyper-specialized niches, not uncommon in pantheistic religions, monsters are an afterthought. The ruling elite doesn’t particularly need to define a range of socially acceptable and unacceptable behaviors when the political philosophy of the day consists of “Shut up, and obey”. It’s good to be a god-king. Who needs a monster when I can just say, hey, I’m king of Eridu, and I’ve got the ear of that mean old God Enki, so do what I say. And by the way, I control all the food, just in case you need further incentive. Not to belabor the point, but this is the world of the anthropathological monster. The world is a set of uncontrollable and incomprehensible forces since science was awaiting the invention of the pocket protector to truly blossom, people are literally only a few generations removed from wandering about, scared of everything that moves, and while I have my god to protect me, so does that angry guy over there, and I’m really not sure my god can take his god. The ruling elite of my local town take their cut of my work and guarantee me a little temporary oasis of not getting murdered, robbed, or eaten. And a little social safety net if the crops don’t grow or the creek rises this year. Decisions are a little easier when the two options are live or die. Interestingly, the non-god Sumerian monsters, while few and far between, do still mark the social boundaries of nascent civilization. Consider the Sumerian Ekimmu (literally, “The Snatcher”, as he’s looking to snatch your soul away), the ghosts of folks who had been murdered, drowned, fallen victim to some sort of unsavory death, or were improperly buried, were denied entrance to the Underworld, and spent the rest of eternity suffocating sleeping children, causing disease, inspiring criminal behavior, and generally taking vengeance on humanity.
Specially dreaded, as we have seen, were the sepulchral Utukku and Ekimmu, the ghosts of the dead. They penetrate into the houses, seize upon man and cast him down in the night. There were many means of exorcism of which the most effective was to draw a picture of the demon and solemnly burn it. Of death alone no image could be made for this purpose. In a religious text occurs the passage : “High hold I the torch, put in the fire the images/of Uttuku, of Shedu, of Rabiszu, of Ekimmu/of Labartu, of Labassu, of Akhkhazu/of Lilu, of Lilitu, of the maidservant of Lilu/of every foe that seizes on mankind/your smoke rise up to heaven, may sparks conceal the sun/your spells be broken by the priest, the son of the god Ea” (Jeremais, 1935, p27)
Two basic social lessons here. Bury your dead and don’t murder people unless approved by the King. And an implied corollary in that if you get into trouble, consult a priest. These are kind of the fundamentals for people living together. Corpses rotting in the street tend to get fetid, and if day to day life is a homicidal free-for-all, it’s darned hard to get a Ziggurat built. This is the anthropathological universe of monsters. The world is a big scary, dangerous place, run by and for an ever-expanding pantheon of gods who have all-powerful representatives on Earth; the people who surround you are largely a bunch of paranoids practicing subsistence agriculture. Life itself is monstrous in these circumstances. So you band together and try not to kill anybody in your tribe, give some grain to the King for protection and to please the local divine critter, and hole up in the walled city when the neighboring brutes come ‘a knocking. This “you’re either with us or against us” mode of social control doesn’t really fly anymore, nor will it persist into institutionalized monotheism (our pathological monster stage), but every once in a while it raises its vestigial head to let us know it’s only been 6000 years since the founding of Ur (which by 2000 B.C. was about the size of modern day Broken Arrow, Oklahoma). Consider the reaction to 9/11, where one was either a patriot or supporter of terrorism. You see, the social contract had wavered. I pay my taxes, and can then be reasonably assured that nobody is going to blow me up. When this turns out not to necessarily be the case, that remnant of anthropathological absolutism briefly emerges.
Enter the church. Which church? Doesn’t matter. Here we see the rise of the pathological monster. Suffice it to say that the world got a whole lot more complex, the population got a whole lot bigger, and cross-cultural fertilization (exposure to other ways of thinking) got a whole lot more frequent. There you go, a couple thousand years of human history in one sentence. That’s efficient, if I do say so myself. We begin to understand stuff. Lightning is not Zeus throwing a tantrum. Frostbite is not the result of Jack Frost nipping at your nose. Institutionalized (as in organized, not committed) gods may move in mysterious ways, but they tend not to bother themselves with mundane details. I mean, Jeez, you’ve got the Ten Commandments. Do I have to think of everything? And along comes the scholarly priest class to flesh out the interstitial theological spaces, and offer practical instruction on living the good life. Previously, a priest may have been the creepy dude that predicted the eclipse. Now they may still be the creepy dude that predicted the eclipse, but they are also the one’s that can write, have all the cash, and have the force of a bureaucratic structure behind them. The world isn’t insane. People are insane. Left to our own devices we end up doing all sorts of uncivilized things, and in the absence of a medicalized version of evil, monsters are the monsters of human pathology, the deviation from the culture average. Are you acting nuts? You must be possessed. Did somebody devout’s cattle get slaughtered? Well, a just and merciful monotheistic god wouldn’t be so arbitrary. Must be pesky werewolves. Is that poultice you mixed up in your cauldron a little more effective than leeches? You have got to be a witch. Is your kid a little screwy? Fairies replaced him with a changeling. With the ascendancy of monotheistic and institutionalized religion, the purely immoral (or even the culturally uncool) becomes identified not only as outside the bounds of society, but truly monstrous. And society has a lot more rules, more boundaries to be guarded, once the ball gets rolling, there is an explosion of fearsome creatures wandering the earth. Exhaustive taxonomies of demons, and entire civilization of faeries, kobolds, goblins, spirits, and assorted things that go bump in the night, lurk in the depths of the ocean, dwell in the unexplored regions of the globe, hide in the alleyways of our cities, or stare at us hungrily from the edges of the forest. No doubt, as we began to learn important things like printing, this also afforded the opportunity to spread ideas farther and faster.
Finally we reach modernity. Science says there are no monsters, just unclassified beasties or hallucinations. We have truly reached the age of Foucault’s Panopticon, that means of social control that doesn’t require the state or the church to watch you in order to make you conform, rather you watch yourself. You guard your own boundaries. Dummy. Our only personalized horror has become impotent wish fulfillment that warns us against such vaguely and unimpressively monstrous things as teenagers having sex (every horror movie), school bullying (Carrie), or too much television (Videodrome). Ooooh, spooky. We have entered the anthropological phase of monstrosity, when the only monster we have is middle class man himself, standing on the backs of the poor, eternally unsatisfied and grasping for the wealth of the rich, willing to sell his soul to any old devil that can help him be upwardly mobile. Vampires are now just sexy and misunderstood. Zombies are just walking targets. It barely even raises an eyebrow if you tell people you are a witch. They’ll probably ask you for a love spell. We are disenchanted with the enchanted worlds of our forefathers, and the existential ennui with which we regard our modern monsters is reflective of this. So go ahead and stare down into the abyss, and when the abyss stares back, poke him in the eye. He’s not the boss of you.
Childe, V. Gordon. “The Urban Revolution”. The Town Planning Review, Vol. 21, No. 1 (Apr), pp. 3-17, 1950.
Cohen, Jeffrey J. (ed). Monster Theory: Reading Culture. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.
Jeremias, Alfred, 1864-1935. The Babylonian Conception of Heaven And Hell. London: D. Nutt, 1902.