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?  

Line, 6 July 2013 

It’s also strange how spiders (at Wärdshuset, no less) seem to have been a theme of the day for both of us: I didn’t meet any (fortunately!) but I had a talk with a friend on the evening of the dinner. We discussed monsters, and she argued that since I’m so comfortable with Smile.dog, it has ceased to be a monster to me. It’s become domesticated, to the point where I keep its picture in my office. What I’m really terrified of is spiders. And I told her of the spiders that live in my basement; they sit on the walls, all huge and hairy, with tons of eyes. Mostly, however, they live in the cracks in the steps of the basement stairs and scuttle away into the shadows every time my foot hovers over them. 

I hate these spiders. I really truly do. And like your silent prayer that the spider would keep out of you bag, Ingvil, I always feel my skin crawl at the thought of them sneaking into my laundry and entering my flat. Or, worse, nestle between the fabric of my newly laundered clothes and my skin. 

My friend mentioned how insects, especially ants, are used within some feminist theory as a way to discuss absolute otherness. How do they see the world? How do we appear to them? Like animals or trees or is there no distinction? And so I really like your story about the encounter with the spider and the question “Who’s monstering who?” ‘Monster’ is brilliant as a verb. Thinking of what the spider in the bathroom might have seen with all its many eyes and how it might have processed it running the scenario through its lived experiences (which would include eating flies using an external digestive system … so … yeah …) is really interesting – and completely impossible to know. 

Another reason I found reading about your encounter with the spider so interesting was how it, to me, brought a bit of the strange and unknown to that particular day as well as reminded me that that’s the deal with all days. When I think about that day, I tend to think about the panel and experience those three hours as intensely shared. At the same time this was merely a point in time and space that brought a group of people together, some of whom I’ll never see again and might not even be able to recognize should I pass them on the street. Knowing that there was this encounter between you and the spider and no other stresses this to me. There were tons of these encounters prior to, after and during the panel, in spite of my feelings of the shared and the near. It’s the ‘not-me’/’haven’t witnessed it, like so much else’ of Margrit Shildrick’s writings on the need for both nearness and distance, I think. So, in other words, we’re each other’s monsters as well as the monsters of spiders.  

On a different note: I’ve been uncomfortable with the term “non/human” or “(non)human other” for a long time, since it still sets the human as the norm from which others can deviate or conform. While preparing the paper for the conference I made a typo which I’ve been thinking of since, perhaps as an alternative, but thought I’d take this chance to run it by you both. What I ended up writing was the ‘non(human) other’. Since I’m writing on spectrality and the presence of absence, I was thinking of this as a possible concept, since it stresses the ‘non’ (absence) as well as the specific (non other), while both acknowledging and disagreeing with the human as the centre of things (perhaps ‘human’ should be crossed out rather than bracketed … ).  

What words do you use when discussing otherness and having to get around how this is always an otherness from something/a norm? 

Donna, 8 July 2013 

I agree with this sense in which labelling some thing as monstrous actually misses the process through which the categorising occurs. So the spider is monstrous, but in actual fact we’re asking who is out of place in this space and how is this sense of not being comfortable occurring? In the basement (as Line so vividly and scarily described) the spider is at home, whereas we/she is out of place, but perhaps in another space the spider will flee (in fear, playfulness, desperation, reaction), and then it becomes our/her space again (ownership, here, implying a sense of ease in space). 
 
I think there is lots to talk about in how one comes to be a monster or how authority is gained to class some thing as monstrous. I’m not so sure about ants as absolute others — maybe this is something to discuss. Can we ever really know what any thing or one thinks or how the world appears to any one? We may assume humans (again the problem of what this refers to) share views/experiences/sensations, but we know that often this is not the case. How may (and I take my own work here) someone who receives an organ from a dead person feel the world, the embodiment of that world, in a way that may be similar and yet absolutely different from someone who has had a life largely devoid of contact with medical professionals and medical spaces? I suppose I would also add that it might be less clear whether you’ve domesticated Smile.dog (I have so many thoughts on colonialism here, but I’ll save those for another time). You may feel comfortable with and even gain pleasure from Smile.dog, displaying her picture as if there is some easy connection, but you cannot control that image or its potential. You may feel because of its proximity that it poses no danger, but isn’t that the point, its proximity pulls you in and you don’t know what might happen. Just when you feel so secure, you might feel yourself undone by what you didn’t know.  
 
This brings me to the human and the nonhuman. The distinction is too neat, when we know that the blurriness of that border is felt by many. I still tend to fall on the human side in the sense that I am interested in how humans come to be dehumanised. I’m always thinking about this otherness within, especially with my work on transplants. I like the bracketing of the (human). It might be good to de-emphasise its priority, even though for many there is still a fight to gain any recognition as human (although maybe the search for recognition is part of the problem!). 

Postscript 2020 

This conversation is, in a sense, ongoing. Back then, we agreed to write something about this. Well, here it is! We are 7 years late, although we never really decided we would publish this or that we would be on time. Our thoughts are slow, ongoing, developing and often distracted by many other things. But now this spidery thread is moving again, and so more spider conversations will follow here on this blog.