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.

 

Why I Stayed with the Human

Kaisa Kortekallio

kuva_Kaisa_Kortekallio_2012_for_blog

Image: Kaisa Kortekallio, Lukija (Reader), 2012. 

Recently, I wrapped up a PhD thesis on “mutant narratives” – science fictional narratives that challenge the supremacy and cohesion of human subjects by persuading their readers into taking awkward positions. On the cover of the printed book, I placed a picture of a human-shaped figure, falling or sinking, glued together from pieces of blue and red paper (see the image above). 

In 2012, when I was working on both my Master’s thesis and such bricolage, I called the work Lukija (“Reader”). Back then, I lived with unarticulated feelings about immersion, enchantment, ecstasy – of being made anew by the strange agencies at work in reading. The various images, shades and textures of paper cuttings, along with their material histories in magazine publications, offered a way to work with those feelings and render them visible. During the PhD work, as I delved deeper into science fiction, cognitive narratology, and posthumanist theory, this initial intuition about reading was both affirmed and complicated. 

The figure, however, was and is coherently bound by its human-shaped outline. In a posthumanist work critical of liberal humanist subjects, is this not a little suspicious? Why stick with this figuration? 

Short answer: because I tried something else too, and failed. 

Long answer: even as I conceptualize myself as a multitude, a holobiont involving a variety of species, a spaceship for bacteria, a bricolage of materialcultural bits and pieces, I move as one. I do not seem to be able to shed this operational and experiential unity. I can take leave of it, in sleep, meditation or reading, and temporarily lose all sense of boundary between this body and other things – but whenever this body moves again, it moves as one, and the boundary reappears. The skin may be permeable, but it is still a very real boundary. 

Crucially, a similar dynamic of collage and cohesion took place in writing a PhD thesis. In reading science fictional narratives – Greg Bear, Paolo Bacigalupi, Jeff VanderMeer – I was often temporarily altered by what I read. The emotionally persuasive mutant families of Bear’s Darwin’s Children (2003) had me sobbing at the dream of familial unity; the oppressive heat wave and political tension in Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl (2009) struck resonance with the oppressiveness of the dark and rainy winter of 2017; and after reading VanderMeer’s Southern Reach (2014), I found myself emulating and repeating phrases and behavioral patterns that I hadn’t consciously noticed during first, second, or even third readings. Simply put – and this is also the gist of the thesis – these narratives became a significant part of my lived environment, and as that lived environment, they grew into me. Or, in more technical terms: as cognitive artefacts, science fictional narratives participated in the construction of (my) readerly subjectivity. In analysis, I traced this back to both narrative techniques and the experiential and material contexts of reading. The biggest challenge – which I think I failed, in the end – was how to best address such a readerly experience in writing. 

Initially, I wrote chapters of the thesis in variating and intermeshing voices and registers, thoroughly haunted by the voices and registers of the stories and theories! – that I was thinking with. The feedback I received in seminars was immediate and severe: this is not how we do things in academia. You have to develop your own voice. You have to establish authority over the work, and guide the reader through your thinking with a stable, coherent presence. 

And so I did. In the final assessment, my primary reviewer states that the “clear and self-confident voice [of the thesis] makes it a pleasure to read.” Every time I read these words, I cringe. Offering such pleasure makes me restless, hesitant, and at times even desperate: is this really what I am expected to produce, again and again? This repetition of the self-confident voice of the expert? The human-centered voice that in no way challenges the readers habitual sense of communication, the sense of being in touch with a person? 

Any student acquainted with poststructuralist theories knows that any textual person, whether in fiction, in nonfiction, or research, is a construction. However, the same student is encouraged and even required to assemble and congeal textual persons that are plausible to the assumed reader, that ring true. They are encouraged to feel such persons as natural, as expressions of themselves. This is anthropocentric subjectivation at work. 

How would one construct posthumanist textual agencies that ring true? Figurations that manage some kind of plausibility and still acknowledge the messiness and heterogeneity that make up writing bodies and subjects? What kinds of posthumanist voices can there be, now, at this moment in time? 

I do not know. I have no practice in developing such voices. So far, I have only practiced coherence and communication. In more-than-human environments, this practice makes me feel insecure, untruthful, and alone. 

In the thesis, the “clear and self-confident voice” states that “the ethical and practical starting point as well as the ongoing process” of the study is marked by Donna J. Haraway’s (2016) notion of staying with the trouble. On the first page of the book of the same title, Haraway writes of learning to be present “as mortal critters entwined in myriad unfinished configurations of places, times, matters, meanings.” My thesis takes on the task of staying with the human figure – as it is repeated and reconfigured in certain works of science fiction, and as it constrains and structures both embodied experience and scholarly subjectivity. As I was being shaped in those seminars, such a task seemed proper. After the work was done, the old bricolage figure also seemed proper. 

My best hope for the future is that after all these years, the papery figure is still falling. Maybe the glue slowly erodes, and the pieces come apart a little. Maybe there are cracks and pores for new growths in and out. Maybe there is also room for a present in which such figurations of metamorphosis can be inhabited, not in escapist or romantic mental enclaves but in more-than-human daily lives. 

*** 

On most days, Kaisa Kortekallio, Ph.D., can be found staring and poking at various living things in a garden in Espoo, Finland. Her Ph.D. thesis, Reading Mutant Narratives: The Bodily Experientiality of Contemporary Ecological Science Fiction, is available here.

 ***

References: 

Haraway, Donna J. 2016: Staying with the Trouble. Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham & London: Duke University Press.  

The Power of Science Fiction

By Donna McCormack

Speculative and science fiction are filled with monsters. The latter range from delightful though intimidating seapersons from Nalo Hopkinson’s The New Moon’s Arms, in Larissa Lai’s Salt Fish Girl and in the amazing collection edited by Nisi Shawl New Suns to more uncertain monstrous manifestations in Hiromi Goto’s Hopeful Monsters, sessing in NK Jemisin’s trilogy and the delightfully sensuous vampiric Gilda from Jewelle Gomez’s The Gilda Stories. Many members of the Monster Network are fascinated by monsters and have a long-standing engagement with and passions for SF. So, we decided to do a podcast on it. 

We were due to meet in my kitchen in London prior to giving a keynote at a monster event at Roehampton University. Some couldn’t make the meeting because bodies and schedules get in the way, while others bumped into each unexpectedly and then as we came together in this kitchen we agreed we’d go ahead with the plan to talk about SF. Despite the cosy setting, the house kept interrupting the conversation as the electricity had short-circuited and we were awaiting an electrician, which resulted in the smoke alarm’s constant, slow beep… beep… beep… Sometimes a house wants to have its own say even if we maybe cannot adequately account for its form of communication. 

Ingvil Hellstrand has been working on and enjoying SF for more years than she wants me to reveal! Line Henriksen has been working with creepy pastas – digital SF – in her PhD which she is currently transforming into what is sure to be an amazingly disturbing and exciting monograph. And, me, I have lived and worked with ghosts, the border between the sensible and insensible, for as long as I can remember. I am fascinated by that which comes back to haunt us, especially through viscera. We wanted to talk about what we enjoy, what brings us pleasure, as well as that which disturbs us, makes us question what we assumed we knew as accepted knowledge, and that which helps us learn over and over again. 

If many imagine that SF is about the future, we never got round to talking about the future, mainly because one of the Monster Network members rang the door bell, interrupting our attempt to step into the future, to articulate what the future might mean to and in SF. We made no attempt to resume our discussion, but instead leave that open to listeners or to anyone who may want to enter into dialogue with us in the future on the future. 

We do talk about the past, about the role of the past in SF and questioned this assumption that because something looks more technologically advanced than today’s society that it must therefore be in the future. Indeed, we talked about how these re-imaginings help us rethink the past, rethink how time itself moves, and therefore what the present might be and become. We delved into time, discussing temporality and the issues around linearity and undoing such understandings, without lapsing into a hierarchy of any time. We also grapple with the apocalypse with mentions of what some of us see as exciting X-Men and also more recent reincarnations of the apocalypse, such as Rebecca Roanhorse’s duology (or will she publish a third one!?), which reinforces questions we might want to ask about whose apocalypse, which histories and who will survive what. 

Most of all, we discussed a broad range of texts, a field of research, that could be defined as SF because we all are in many ways immersed in the genre as it grows, changes and as older texts emerge as central to our thinking forcing us to rethink our canons.  

The Monster Network has been and continues to work on how to reimagine methods of analysing texts, including the textual of our existing worlds, and SF is one way in which we enjoy and critically engage such thinking. We hope you’ll enjoy the podcast! 

 

 

Part 2. Digital magic: A Conversation on The Cyber Spellbook

By Cancan Wang and Line Henriksen

About a year ago at a casual lunch, we started talking about magic. We were both fascinated by the dissemination of ‘magical memes’ that spread curses and luck on the internet, and wondered why these digital spells flourish, and what they might indicate about the role of magic in a digital context. Recently we came across The Cyber Spellbook: MagicK in the Virtual World (2002) by Patricia Telesco and Sirona Knight. Sitting separately in front of our computers during the Danish Corona virus quarantine, we thought this might be a good time to talk about – and write a short text on – magic. After all, one might need a spell for good luck (preferably a digital one to maintain social distancing) in the time of a global disease outbreak. This text is an excerpt from our online conversation  – mediated by Zoom – around the text on the cover of The Cyber Spellbook, as well as its Amazon reviews. This digitally mediated conversation ended up touching on issues such as spellcasting, conjuring, and temporality in a digital sphere. In case you’re looking for more in-depth engagements with the topic of magic and technology, see the works of e.g. Briana Pegado, Nazila Kivi and Simone Natale + Diana Pasulka.

This is part 2 of 1. Find the first post here.

ACT II

Image 3
Figure 3. A screenshot of the reviews of the book

Wang: Should we try the seven exciting customer reviews?

Henriksen: Let’s do it! Continue reading “Part 2. Digital magic: A Conversation on The Cyber Spellbook”