Monsters of the Anthropocene: an OSEH Collaboratory (2021/22)

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Image: Ghost Trees in Snow, Wikimedia Commons. Sheila Sund from Salem, United States. Image description: Snowy landscape. Two spruces covered in snow are almost swallowed by a white fog. The fog erases the line between ground and horizon.

We’re happy and excited to announce that the Monster Network has received funding for a two-year Collaboratory at the Oslo School of Environmental Humanities, the University of Oslo, together with Rebecca Scherr (internal PI) and Hugo Reinert! The Collaboratory will take the shape of a reading group, and we will organize two workshops on the subjects of the monstrous and the Anthropocene. Keep an eye on our website for more information on the latest developments and possible ways of getting involved with the Collaboratory.  

Until then (and after): beware the monsters of the Anthropocene.

Capturing Chronic Illness Digital Photography Exhibition: Call for Submissions

Photo
Image description: Person, almost visible but largely transparent, holding a mug in
a kitchen. Through the person we see various kitchen appliances.
Photo copyright: Donna McCormack

We invite photographic submissions to a digital exhibition on the subject of chronic illness. Donna McCormack & Ingrid Young, exhibition organisers, welcome works in progress as well as finished pieces. Submissions are not limited by style or subject. We invite submissions from people who are living with or have been affected by chronic illness and who want to share their work. We are particularly interested in photographs that challenge traditional imagery of chronic illness, and that engage with queer, feminist or decolonial modes of capturing these experiences.


As part of the submission process, we ask you to provide a short description (max 200 words) of the image (or images) and say a little about how your image speaks to chronic illness.

Photographs will be hosted on the project website, and the exhibition will form part of the Visualising Bodies programme at the Being Human Festival in November 2020.

Deadline for submission: Friday, 6 November 2020

To find out more and to submit a photograph, please go here.

Any questions? Contact: capturingchronicillness@gmail.com

Spider Conversations I (or: TERRIFYING SCARY CREATURES WILL ATTACK YOU!!!!)

By Ingvil Hellstrand, Donna McCormack and Line Henriksen

In 2013, a conversation about spiders and monstering helped spawn the start of The Monster Network. As part of our unruly origin story, we revisit our thinking and conversation after the Somatechnics Conference – Missing Links (2013) in this blog post. This was an event where Line, along with other organisers, brought together a panel that consisted of herself, Ingvil and Donna. We didn’t quite realise that this was the start of the Monster Network; we couldn’t predict the future, and the future was unpredictable, but this thread was the start of a dialogue that would grow beyond anything we initially thought about spiders.

Office spider 2013. Photo by Line Henriksen. Made part of the conversation 26 August 2013

Ingvil, 25 June 2013 

A little story first: in the evening of the day we had our panel, I went to the bathroom in Wärdshuset Gamla Linköping (where the conference dinner was being held), and as I sat there a little spider came creeping up very close to my left foot. I was startled, and, not being particularly afraid of spiders, felt that it came a bit too close. And I remember thinking “please don’t let it crawl into my bag!”. However, the spider, having become aware of me at the same time as I became aware of it, stopped dead in its tracks. And I thought, “well, now, who’s monstering whom?”  

I liked the way our monsters came together at the same time as our presentations brought to the fore something about the monster not being just “monster”, as if there is something in the figuration of the monster that needs re-addressing. As in monster theory in general, the monster-figuration is useful for talking about difference and recognition. The ethical aspects of understanding the monster as something in proximity to ourselves is a very interesting discussion, partly because it requires a kind of self-reflexivity, but also because (and this is what I found so intriguing in our conversation), the monster itself is not a fixed or static thing. All of us ascribed agency and potential to “our” monsters; they were not just the symbolic Other that signifies what is not normal or normative, but they were agents in their own existence. Both Donna and I talked about how the non-human monsters take pride in being precisely that; not human. There is a double-bind here somewhere: that the monster, having gotten rid of its monstrosity and become more able to “pass” as human makes it simultaneously more eerie/uncanny and domesticated. The hopeful monsters in pop-culture contribute to make the monster into a subject, more than object (Heroes, Twilight, X-men, Battlestar Galactica) because we can recognise them as contemporary political (and perhaps ethical?) agents. At the same time, the unknowable monster, the impossible monster (smile dog) perpetuates the idea of the monstrous as something that cannot be grasped (neither bodily or as idea). The monster is somehow caught in between a kind of domestication in popular culture and a (conventional?) unknowability of the monster. How do you recognise the monster? And how does it recognise you?  

Continue reading “Spider Conversations I (or: TERRIFYING SCARY CREATURES WILL ATTACK YOU!!!!)”

In thinking counter-hegemonic disgust

Heidi Kosonen

In the first episode of HBO’s science fiction television series Westworld (2016), dealing with the uprising of non-human-machines waking to consciousness, a disgust-reaction towards a house fly marks the awakening consciousness of the android “host”, a monstrous creature in its human-non-human hybridity. In the beginning of the episode, the android character Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood), the oldest and sweetest of them all, does not mind the fly walking on her face; yet at the end of the episode, she instinctively slaps the insect dead against her neck. She has been programmed to please, and her sudden aggression towards the harmless creature proposes a developed sense of borders pertinent to disgust, and a need to protect the skin and its orifices as a border between one’s own self and the ”contaminating filth” of the world. Her reaction against the insect also anticipates the androids’ violent revolt against the system that oppresses them.

The emotion disgust has been connected to animal defence mechanisms towards such dangers that threaten a being with death, intoxication, infectious diseases and decay (e.g. Kolnai 1929). Yet the visceral emotion has been recognized for its moral, political and symbolic qualities that blur this association to danger and reveal the base emotion’s culturally constructed nature and its instrumentalization. The borders disgust protects can also be abstract ones, such as those of nation states or those constituting the imagined ideal humanity, separating selves from others and “us” from “them”.

Starting from Aurel Kolnai’s pioneering work on disgust (1929), scholars have also recognized disgust’s relationship to collectively agreed values that the expressions of the base emotion seek to protect and studied disgust as a moral emotion necessary to the social collective. In his argument against cloning, bioethicist Leon Kass (1997) coins the term “the wisdom of repugnance” and argues that disgust conveys instinctual knowledge against that which lacks goodness or wisdom. In this sense he sees disgust to indicate towards boundaries that we should not cross: boundaries that, morally, ought to be held onto and protected.

Dangerous in arguments like the aforementioned is that the borders and the entities that disgust protects as essentially good, wise or pure are culturally constructed and hegemonic. Moreover, as Robert Rawdon Wilson (2002) and Ian Miller recognize (1997), repugnance and its expressions often punch downwards towards those who have been rendered lower in the social ladder or denied existence and livable lives. The encounter between a white woman and a black child in Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider (1984), that Sara Ahmed reads in her Cultural Politics of Emotion (2014, p. 53, 84) is an evocative illustration of the power of the power-holding to define something as disgusting and to express their repugnance toward it. In the android’s reaction against the house fly in Westworld the dangers of essentializing disgust as a moral reaction come visible: the insect, rendered powerless in comparative size, irritates and represents filth but does no harm, and it is merely its tickling feet, causing a quick feeling of revolt in the android, that justify it’s treatment with deadly violence.

In the real world, responses like these are even cultivated. in human history disgust has over and over been encountered in xenophobic, misogynistic and trans- and homophobic functions. In two high-profile occasions, the Rwandan genocide saw tutsis dehumanized and named cockroaches to justify their killing, as artists Laura Gustaffson and Terike Haapoja point out in their activist art installation Museum of Nonhumanity (2016), and in Hillary Clinton’s campaign for presidency the opposers sought to defamate her by connecting the female politician to taboo bodily functions and reducing her to her menstruating body, as Martha Nussbaum discusses in Monarchy of Fear (2017).

In instances like these, the disgustingness of a group of people or a political enemy is enhanced through their association to “disgusts-objects” of varied sorts — disgust-evoking insects, disease, the decaying body, cultural taboos —  in Ahmed’s “sticky” chains of representation. Also in 2020 such “revolting tactics” have been witnessed on several high-profile occasions. A recent example of the use of disgust in conservative political rhetoric comes from a Finnish Party Perussuomalaiset (The Finns Party; previously called True Finns) 420-page manifesto, marketed as an academic survey published in June. In the manifesto, heinous language expressing and seeking to arouse disgust is used in accusing feminism and feminists for the increase of several sexual behaviors, seen as cultural taboos and condemned by the public.

More globally, tracing the origins of the global covid19-pandemic to a Beijing wholesale market sparked a demonizing discussion of Chinese food customs, perceived as disgusting and unethical, and visualized in the news illustrations as evocative images of putrescent meat and dangerous animals in unsavourable heaps. The blaming of Chinese food customs for the pandemic can be seen to have responded to the original suspicions tracing the virus to Norwegian salmon, a Western delicacy, and to have bypassed a more common discussion of the ethics of meat-eating customs also in the Occident. Subsequently, as Black and Asian individuals have been witnessing a higher mortality rate for the virus, ”racial genetics” instead of the effects of structural racism has offered explanations for these deaths in the public discussions, which has also led to further racist measures in the virus’s containment.

The maintenance of the status quo and the defamation of the political rival through instrumentalized disgust has been common to populist, conservative and majoritarian instances, and in several studies sensitivity to disgust has been related to conservative values and majoritarianism, due to their higher concern with “purity” and “order. Thus, in her afterword to Ugly Feelings Sianne Ngai (2004) enquiries for the possibility of liberal or minoritarian instances instrumentalizing moral disgust as a way of resistance. The central paradox in counter-cultural disgust is surely this: Could such individuals, who celebrate or represent such forms of life that have been expelled from the majoritarians’ taboo-ruled categories, reiterate the disgust-driven rhetorics of those, who wish to deny equal rights from anything that does not fit their tight conceptions and order of things? Their ”upward contempt” (Miller 1997) is devoid of the historical and sticky genealogies that make the majoritarian’s emotion so powerful, and their “disgust-ability” is easily paired with the awareness of the constructed nature of disgust and knowledge of what being rendered disgusting feels like.

Yet no doubt, in encountering The Finns Party’s hateful text I feel repulsed, both as a woman-identified individual concerned about human rights and as an academic wishing to protect the image of science against these hateful and harmful opinions (although in some of its aspects academia also represents patriarchal and colonial oppression to me). I also feel disgust in watching the images of the poached animals going to waste in the Chinese food market, although I detest the scapegoating of the “oriental other” and recognize my emotion’s relationship to my worldview, against the essentialization of disgust in to the “wisdom of repugnance” arguments. Moral disgust and a will to protect the purity of things I hold dear thus live in me too, a liberal academic and a monstrous being in the several nodes where I do not fit the prevailing categories and demands for purity. The endorsement of the repulsive nature of these topics, misogyny, racism and the use of non-human animals, is also strong enough in the current moment for me to express my disgust, if I so wished.

Another question is whether I should instrumentalize this emotion: if making disgust my countercultural weapon against the hegemonic politics of hate and disgust would help? In thinking of, in particular, disgust’s psycho-moral qualities it has been my recurring thought, that in feeling disgust I reject from myself that which I do not want to be or want to become. In this, it is an emotion that seeks to expel such qualities from myself that I know to cause harm to others, an emotion building borders between myself and such phenomena I do not wish to embrace, but also — out of necessity, even if temporarily — between myself and the others who embrace them, or represent that which I do not want to be. In Nussbaum’s book (2017) the ability to coexist with people holding contrary views and leading different lives is gained through transforming negative emotions like rage, envy and fear into hope without denying these emotions. In thinking of instrumentalizing my disgust, unaccustomed to doing so, I am thinking of in what ways my disgust would stick to the ones whose behavior repulses me; if in voicing my disgust I was able to distinguish “the insect” from what it represents and substitutes for, unlike the newly-awakened android in Westworld.

 

** Remember to also listen to our Monster Talks podcast on disgust  featuring Heidi Kosonen!

 

Bio

Heidi S. Kosonen is a visual cultural researcher and a co-founder of the Jyväskylä-based Disgust Network. In her doctoral dissertation (to-be-defended fall 2020) Kosonen studies biopower and taboo in the context of Anglophone suicide cinema. Kosonen is perpetually  interested in all things affective and obscene. She sometimes writes a research blog.

 

Works cited

Ahmed, Sara. (2004). The Cultural Politics of Emotion (reprint 2014). New York: Routledge.

Kass, Leon R. (1997) “The wisdom of repugnance: why we should ban the cloning of humans.” New Republic June 2 1997; 216(22):17-26: https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/23d1/37cd00dbb33f0531e1a71541e45da1a27d12.pdf

Kolnai, Aurel (2004). “Disgust” in On Disgust: Edited and with an introduction by Barry Smith and Carolyn Korsmeyer. Chicago: Open Court.

Miller, William Ian (1997). The Anatomy of Disgust. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Ngai, Sianne (2004). Ugly Feelings. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Nussbaum, Martha C. (2017). The Monarchy of Fear: A Philosopher Looks at Our Political Crisis. London: Simon & Schuster.

Wilson, Robert Rawdon (2002). The Hydra’s Tale: Imagining Disgust. Edmonton: Alberta University Press.

 

Monster Talks 7: Disgust

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How is disgust defined? How is it related to, for example, the sublime (and awe), cuteness, or taboos? And can disgust be a source of hope? 

Dr. Aino-Kaisa Koistinen from the Monster Network discusses all things disgusting with Doctoral researcher Heidi Kosonen and PhD, Postdoctoral researcher Susanne Ylönen (both from the Department of Music, Art and Culture Studies, University of Jyväskylä, Finland), organizers of the Disgust Network. The topics range from period blood to eating insects. But what is that disgusting drinking noise? We wonder why it is there… 

 This podcast has been made in collaboration with The Disgust Network, a multi-disciplinary network for the study of disgust from the perspectives of humanities. The network was established in November 2018, and has its base at the University Jyväskylä department of Music, Art and Culture. The network welcomes members from all research backgrounds and institutions.  If you want to learn more, contact
Heidi S. Kosonen (heidi.s.kosonen(a)jyu.fi) or Susanne Ylönen (susanne.c.ylonen(a)jyu.fi)

 

 

Monster Talks is a podcast series that explores the figure of the monster and the concept of the monstrous as important thinking tools for addressing dynamics of power, inclusion and exclusion, discrimination and violence. The podcast is made possible by the support of Nordic Culture Point and produced by The Monster Network in collaboration with Network for Gender Studies at UiS. All episodes are available from the podcast’s website at UiS.

Artwork by Joanne Teresa Taylor, NettOp, University of Stavanger.