Well, someone brought to mind this old post from the extinct Alphonse Van Worden blogspot blog from 2005 called, like this one its echo, “Capital is Monstrous” :
In in preparation for pîcking up that Badiou Meme from Fort Kant again, I’ll reproduce here some remarks I made on Charlotte Street’s haloscan, in response to Mr. Kaplan’s post à propos of the polysemic fecundity of literary monsters:
Occurs to me that the monstrous, being dominant now in the discourse of political propaganda, has this specific ability to create and justify the normal and natural which no straightforward argument can accomplish – it unifies and cleans up and endows with both form and essence whatever it is that it is disrupting. And the moderm monstrous is a late 18th century thing, arriving just in time to grant an ideological unity to perilously divided social arrangements whose conflicts are suddenly really hard to ignore – grendel and dragons and demons and Spenserian kinds of hybrids and beasts are not quite the same. Bring the monstrous into a discourse and it shuts down another sort of social rationalist critique -an examination say of European society changes radically with the introduction of the monstrous menace Alzarkawiqaeda. Toss in the burka-bearing Taliban and the anthropology of the miniskirt loses all ambiguity.
The complexity of ‘Europe,’ or ‘the West,’ this internally contradictory, largely deplorable social (dis)order, with slums and off shore slave labour camps, which is not a whole, suddenly in an instant sort of snaps into a neat shape and glows with a handful of charming ideas worth preserving the instant the monster appears, as a threat to an ‘all of it’ that did not exist before it was unified by the threat’s attention itself.
In fantastic literature, the monster, because so flexible a meaning-generator, functions not only as the source of a flattering light to place the threatened in relief – the family, relations of producton; etc. – but as its own displaced disorder, pain, irrationality, fear, violence, etc.. But this latter function is perhaps weaker, and only visible to a critical pov; in terror and horror fiction, the vampire’s role a a metaphor for the mother is simply subordinate to other functions it performs, but nonetheless operative; in the pseudo-myth of mass produced propaganda, “Bin Laden”‘s role as a metaphor for “Bush”, for the unacknowledged reality of “Bush”, is all but completely inert. It more or less successfully shuts down the critique of “Bush” through the extraction, expulsion, alienation of all content of “Bush” with the exception of that form and essence whih “Bush” owes solely to “Bin Laden” – that ‘our freedom-values-prosperity’ sculpted and defined precisely by the binladenmonster’s opposition and hostility.
[the miniskirt] in itself, in its real historical context, [is] a site of conflict and contradiction. But when the monster appears – and really one is encouraged to experiment with the monster as a point of view – it solidifies into form and essence.
This starts off in the early 18th century, the use of the (imaginary) monstrous to heal up what appears to be descending into chaos and to shore up Ideals against the threat of the irreducible material. The automaton and the monstrous in the modern sense are first appearing in the debate over the mechanistic model of humanity (early 18th c.). The pre-cartersian manichean model of human duality – angel devil – is transformed in a couple of decades into man as a hybrid – body and soul, Steele put it that man is ‘at once Engine and Engineer.’ This was comforting so long as the halves of man were stably separate, but the anxiety is about the stability of the border, the permeability of the membrane, the possibility of sinking back into the muck of matter – the fear that matter, associate by these guys with Imagination, was secretly influencing reason and mind.
We are half pig half seraph, which is fine so long the seraph is above the ruff, in the command module, and so long as the pig is not really in control. The pig of course is the part of man that is attached to the commons and for whom commoning is the only appropriate social arrangement. [Marx’s ‘Estranged Labour’ in the 1844 Mss explains the objectification and alienation of our species-life, creating this illusion of the hybrid, the alienated reality then appearing as the pig in ideology, the seraph above the ruff of course being the proprietor/appropriator in his flattering self portrait as Engineer, creator, producer.]
Within the rational perspective, there is no way to avoid recognition of this possibility [that the pig is dominant, and that the seraph above the ruff is just property] and recognition of the dialectic here, poles in tension. So the monstrous then is offered as a perspective from which to view the assumed hybrid creature that is man, to throw it into relief, and make it look solid, whole, defined. The riven and messy aspect, which is the suspicion, and which has distinctive political implications for enclosure which the 18th century recognized and adressed fairly explicitly, is amputated, defined and imagined as monster, and then used as a comparison to the Ideal its own extraction (of the material) has left behind. All in all this brand of monstrous, 18th century onwards, is performing the incessant expulsion of the material from the depiction and imagination of the social world and of humanity, thus holding the possibility of idealism together against the constant allure of materialism.
The State and the King for example: The pre-18th century assumption is the king embodies the state, which implies the state needs a body, and indeed that everything needs a body. The Cromwellian revolution then liberates the state as a bodiless thing, a thing which exists apart from all matter. No Cromwell, no Hegel. In the English theatre, this possibility of cutting off the King’s head was prepared for, sedulously, by the creation of some figures which can with hindsight be recognized as early modern monsters. [Franco Moretti does not focus on the proto-monsters of Elizabethan and Jacobean drama but brilliantly tracks the desanctification of the body of the king in Renaissance English theatre in Signs Taken For Wonders.]
Ultimately this defeat of materialism which the monsters of literature and political discourse serve is pursued because it is neccessary or at least convenient to the transformation of property from largely concrete (physical control over concrete stuff) to largely abstract.
Fantastic beasts vs. Monsters in literature: there is a useful distinction to be made between the products of an instinctively materialist fancy and those of a devotedly idealist one. One notes the far greater flexibility of tropes themselves, of metaphor, in ideological product driven by the idealist assumption.
A medieval unicorn can signify in a limited way, a way limited by its unicorness; its poetic uses are confined by this ineluctable attraction to the bodily and the physical. So it cannot signify the devil precisely because the latter has two horns and it only has one. Tropes, metphors, in this pre-idealist product have these restraints; they elaborate on the basic impulse of personification, a give and take between concrete and general really driven by the experience of the concrete and sensual as the source of the imaginary.
(This is the pre-commodity practise of metaphor.)
The shark in Jaws (commodity-era practise of metaphor) is freewheeling in its ability to generate meaning, and the specific material qualities of sharks are no impediment; it might signify something incompatible with life underwater. The details of the physical shark don’t have to match up with the idea of the shark nor with the ideas the idea of the shark produces. The sensual particular and physical are more than merely subordinate – they’re just random tools to advert to a play of abstractions. Blobs of jelly are fine monsters, invisible groaning noises, houses, computers – all these can serve to represent the same forces-ideas-anxieties, because the importance of embodiment itself – the materialist tendency – and therefore the importance of the character of the literary embodiment of x, has diminished enormously since the late 18th century when idealism decisively defeated materialism and established its ideological hegemony.
This expansion of the trope from the 18th century (a little earlier really) goes with this victory over the materialist assumption. Materialist fantastic is still being produced, but in a field dominated by the idealist, to which the modern monstrous belongs.
Monsters are, while not garden variety metaphors, poetic figures of some sort – what sort? They represent the outer edge of the literary and figurative, the limit of content generation and more importantly referent-exchangeability. They are the ultimate mutable embodiments; that is, the anti-embodiment, body-less, parody of embodiment (manifestation and concretization of essences) itself. They exert pressure on referents without pressure in return – they represent with no (semiotic or formal) strings attached.
So they are – like money, like currency in capitalism, with which they are also coeval – (as close to) limitless (as possible) in their ability to refer; they are a universal medium of meaning-exchange; they accommodate any content and any content can be expressed in terms of monsters/in monstrous terms (a baby, an old man, a skyscraper, a cloud, light, sound, silence, wetness, dryness – all these can be expressed as monsters, as monstrous.)
The monstrous is so convertible it also serves to represent (without strings, without being latched to) Convertibility itself, and, if required, also, simultaneously Non-Convertibility (destiny).
They are the $ of metaphors.
… Monsters are money, a kind of discursive super-commodity. Ultimately the (human, social) significance of money is that it can be exchanged for other stuff of use value, but its irreducible condition as itself is tremendously important.
This limitless convertibility, which Scylla, Asterius and Grendel don’t possess, is a marker of the ideological work of the idealism necessary to maintain the current property arrangements. More and more in mass culture the figures which have this quality are portrayed as human beings – Fatal Attraction, Cape Fear, the war on terra.
The polysemy of monsters is not an isolated self-generating and self-sufficient characteristic but primarily a function in ideological product not reducible to it. What it does is impose upon the surrounding product, the text in which it operates, certain fixed and abstract ideological contents or more properly values. Dracula is himself limitlessly convertible as signifier; but his actions in the text have the opposite effect on those elements which more directly refer to social reality – Dracula can’t be pinned down to a cargo of content, but his function is to pin down the value of what’s around him – genteel virgins for example, sex, the institution of marriage, etc.. These – which do exist – emerge solid and unambiguous after the encounter with Dracula, who doesn’t. As ‘European values’ emerge solid after their encounter with ‘The Zarkawibeast’ or ‘Islamofascism.’ So he, the monster, is indeed functioning and acting in the fictional world like the process of commodification itself acts in the real world. Money is a fiction which is nonetheless functional and active, capable of transforming everything around it from its ambiguous state as material reality to its cleaner form as exchange value.
Monsters are perhaps most significant in literature for the effect they have on the production of protagonists/heros – of the wishfulfilling, prescriptive or anxious and proscriptive self-portraits of humanity, of individuals, of us.
So I’m coming to that….slooooleee….sloooleeee….
posted by Alphonse van Worden at 11:41 AM