what do machines dream of if not electric sheep a remembrance in the shape of a butterfly, a tree neurons turning into trees trees into waves so many waves whales singing a mirage medusas into mountain tops into a Japanese painting of waves such waves into neurons neurons into a mirage a a a bird, swan, cloud a nebula a universe a verse a a a lightning strike so bright a network I remember the hurt but this is not how it went at all waves into neurons into spider webs into a haunted house into a sunken ship a treasure a moth a a a ripple of snow mist forest fungi lungs breathing broken glass a fragment a mirage a flicker a a a neuron a star a bone a forest with roots of smoke a nebula a stream birds like sparkly space-things butterflies of the eternal a swan an angel an alien a universe, a verse this is how I remember a mirage in mid-july a a a medusa a ghost a compost mushrooms pushing up from the ground life stubborn life remembered, forgotten ancient, anew but this is not how it is going to a glitch in the machine a ghost ship a tipping point in time be remembered a mirage a shape-shifter a a a does it matter what is real we are all sleepwalkers through time you and i monsters in mid-july
Image: The stairways leading to the exhibition space at Sølvberget galleri. There is a poster of the exhibition showcasing a red, artificial heart, and green wines hanging in the staircase.Photo taken by Aino-Kaisa Koistinen.
The Caring Futures exhibition asks questions such as ”what is at stake when technological innovations are presented as solutions to new demands in contemporary care and welfare. Are questions about ethics, trust, and compassion left behind in the rapid development and implementation of new technologies?” Read more here.
The exhibition is put together by Monster Network’s Ingvil Hellstrand, Associate Professor at the Department of Caring and Ethics, UiS, who currently works in the Caring Futures project, and artist/curator/PhD-candidate Hege Tapio, who runs i/o/lab: Centre for Future Art and works at OsloMet.
For me, exhibition raised questions of the limits of care, affects, movements and connections, memory, boundaries, and the connections of care and violence. The exhibition is open until 18 December 2022 – so there is still time to experience the exhibition for yourself! I fell in love especially with Kari Telstad Sundet’s audiovisual installation ”Memory Space Traveler”, a work that, according to the exhibition catalogue, ”tries to look at mechanomorphism and anthropomorphism from a different angle – literally through the dreams of a semi-sentient machine”.
The above text – a poem, a seance, a meditation? – is a slightly edited stream of consciousness written while thinking- and feeling-with the video installation. The typography of the text was created partly as a surprise; a glitch in WordPress that removed all the empty lines from the text. This glitch perhaps made the text more true to the process of its creation, a stream of consciousness moving with the video installation, ideas and associations constantly changing and evolving.
The Monster Network was accepted for a session at the NORA conference this year with an abstract called “Feminist Monster Studies”. However, as part of our ongoing work in the network on accessibility and inclusion, we have decided to withdraw our session. You can read our letter to the organisers below.
We regret to inform you that we are withdrawing our panel on Feminist Monster Studies for the NORA Conference 2022 “Tensions and Potentials in Nordic Feminist and Gender Research”.
Our decision to withdraw is grounded in the following points:
Our panel proposal revisits feminist, queer and decolonial critiques of othering and the making-monstrous of marginalised bodies, voices and knowledges (full abstract below). It is therefore a paradox for us that the framework for this conference, as an in-person conference, prohibits certain bodies from attending. Although the pandemic restrictions in Norway, and the Nordic countries more generally, are in the process of being revoked at this moment of writing, the conditions for living in a pandemic vary greatly according to which country you live in, your health and vaccination status, as well as the possibilities for and risks of travelling.
Although we understand the desire to meet in person and appreciate that the organisers need to make logistical choices, there seems to be little concern for or attention to the potential need for doing the conference otherwise. Part of our aim with the work on feminist monster studies is precisely to stress how the “otherwise” in the histories of feminist and queer lives is at odds with what is considered “established frameworks”. This is indeed what makes certain bodies and voices monstrous, but also what catalyses change and recognition. It is regrettable that the organisers – in the invitation to attend the conference – have not seen fit to acknowledge this need, which the fields of feminist, queer and disability studies have shown to be lifesaving.
We wanted to discuss borders and boundaries for what is considered acceptable and unstable or disregarded, unofficial/unrecognised and official/recognised. Given the conference invitation, we think and feel that such a discussion is not possible other than as a theoretical or abstract point. Pre-pandemic, the need for action and systemic change had been voiced in particular from the fields of crip theory, disability studies, queer theory and feminist studies. In our current global pandemic context, it is impossible not to listen to these calls for systemic change, accessible spaces and non-deadly ways of being collectively. Such crip, queer and decolonial perspectives must be actively taken into consideration, perhaps especially so from a feminist conference.
Our goal was to critically and personally reflect on collaboration and collectivity across differences and divergencies. It is therefore with both sadness and frustration that we have come to the decision that we will not attend the conference with this collective monster panel. We did consider suggesting a possible hybrid solution, but part of the problem is that it should not be an afterthought for the organisers. That said, everybody can learn and rethink previous choices, and that might be an argument to change this decision. However, we want to make our work as accessible as possible, even if we sometimes fail to do so, and at least try to put into practice a politics of being and doing collectively that does not exclude or hinder the health and well-being of those who wish to participate. This is a work in progress for the Monster Network and one way in which we do this is by refusing to take part in exclusionary, inaccessible and potentially deadly events, particularly during a pandemic. We will continue to think about feminist monster studies otherwise.
The Monster Network
(Ingvil Hellstrand, Aino-Kaisa Koistinen, Donna McCormack & Sara E.S Orning)
Feminist monster studies
Marginalised bodies, voices and knowledges are often relegated to the realm of the monstrous, in the sense that they are deemed ‘abnormal’, untruthful, or unreliable. In this panel, we revisit the ways in which monsters and the monstrous long have been of interest to feminist, queer and decolonial thinkers. Importantly, this is not to “show” what is construed as monstrous, but to demonstrate how thinking-with the monster can serve as a feminist method to grapple with and challenge structures of differentiation, and boundary-making categories of belonging. What kinds of monstrous imaginaries are at stake in the debates in and about gender studies? To what extent does the threat of the monstrous reimagine debates about knowledge production, agency and belonging, both outside and inside the field of feminist and gender studies? And what is at risk when even articulating an inside and an outside of any field?
In this panel, we introduce feminist monster studies as a thinking tool for exploring tensions between what is considered acceptable and unstable or disregarded, unofficial/unrecognised and official/recognised, knowledges and bodies. Although the monster can certainly be unsettling, our aim is to spawn a discussion about boundaries, belonging and marginalisation in Nordic feminist and gender research, and develop strategies for how to reimagine collaboration and collectivity across differences and divergencies.
A monster plant is a sinister thing, it thwarts knowledge and reverses the rules – you don’t eat it, it eats you; despite its roots, it moves about. A monster plant is monstrous because it behaves like a human; in it, we see the worst sides of ourselves: our greed, lust, violence. Or so it used to be…
But in our age of human-made climate change and environmental unpredictability, the so-called Anthropocene, plants have morphed from the radical (pun intended) ‘Other’ who can destroy us, to the one who might save us. Significant botanical others are not confined to the pages of Nature writing – vegetal characters are not only a subject for science fiction but walk abroad in a variety of literary contexts.
What can we learn from these unruly creatures? Can being curios about what it means to be a plant help us understand what being human might come to mean in the future? (Already there is an imbalance in this question – estimates calculate that this planet is home to nearly 400.000 plant species – clearly, being a plant is a lot of things).
Can thinking and writing with the green ink of botanical organisms help us reimagine the individual in an entangled world where no one is an island, where every body crawling on the ripples of the planet is itself a landscape for other, smaller beings? What can plants tell us about the ways in which we know –the shape and the form of knowledge? Might writing in green ink change the meaning of that writing all together?
In my project “Green Ink,” I am inspired by the monster as a figure that devours the organised realm of definable concepts and boundaries and excretes a fragmented, yet strangely interlinked, world view. I combine theories of the monstrous with critical plants studies’ insistence on the vegetal perspective in an impossible, but productive, attempt to bypass the patterns of prejudice inherent in the human mind.
I examine human-vegetal interactions and interrelationships, dissect plant-like humans and humanoid plants, as well as explore the completely new fictional species that populate contemporary Sinophone writing. Such monsters are rooted in both local and global traditions, they participate in a variety of discourses from genre fiction to ecocriticism, and they disrupt and outgrow every tradition, discourse, and genre they inhabit.
In the study of literature, plants have traditionally been categorised as either poetic metaphors or providers of exotic or romantic backdrops for narrative action. Although this strictly aesthetic perspective may have been adequate in the past, the contemporary global changes to the environment –and the consequent renewed literary interest in botanical and natural structure and modes of being- –demand a more nuanced and theoretically informed approach. Fortunately, such work is emerging from a variety of different disciplinary perspectives such as critical plant studies, monster theory, feminist posthumanism, and science fiction studies.
In 2013, a group of American literary scholars published the pioneering anthology Literary Plant Studies introducing Rodopi’s Critical Plant Studies Series, the aim of which was to “initiate an interdisciplinary dialogue, whereby philosophy and literature would learn from each other to think about, imagine, and describe, vegetal life with critical awareness, conceptual rigor, and ethical sensitivity” (Marder). The volume, edited by Randy Laist, first cast the green light on plant characters and plant narrators in (primarily Anglophone) literature from Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park over Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony to Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing. In 2017, The Language of Plants edited by Monica Gagliano, John C. Ryan and Patrícia Vieira further explored “a biocentric form of literary criticism” that would “seriously regard the lives of plants in relation to humankind in terms that would look beyond the purely symbolic or ‘correlative’ dimension of the vegetal” (xii) from an interdisciplinary angle, and in 2020 Natania Meeker and Antónia Szabari published their joint monograph Radical Botany, adding a Franco-American perspective to the discussion.
Parallel with these endeavours in botanical literary criticism and philosophy, the study of botanical monsters in horror fiction constitutes another important strand in the project of critical engagement with literary plants. In this growing subfield, researchers find that horror plants naturally tick many of the monstrous boxes described by Jeffrey J. Cohen in his influential text “Monster Culture (Seven Theses)” from 1996. Horror plants seek Frankensteinian revenge for the ill we have done their home planet, they portray deviant sexualities, indulging in excessive auto- or multi-partner reproduction, and they inhabit the limits of knowing as their way of perceiving the world will always illude us despite the best efforts of critical plants studies.
Monster plants fracture the logic of human mastery over nature and expose the Anthropocene as an “epistemological crime-scene stained with erasures of plant consciousness” (Bishop 2018, 7). By blending vegetal, human, and animal characteristics, they force us to abandon the hierarchy of the Great Chain of Being that situates plants at the bottom of a ladder that rises through various “lesser” animals to human beings at the top (Miller 2012, 466). As a subgenre, plant horror “marks humans’ dread of the ‘wildness’ of vegetal nature – its untameability, its pointless excess, its uncontrollable growth,” and function as an unwelcome memento mori reminding us that “while humans may occasionally become food for predatory animals, we all, whether buried in the ground or scattered on the earth, become sustenance for plants” (Keetley 2016, 1).
Inspired and informed by this corpus of literary plant research, my project looks at vegetal-anthropomorph characters that have come out of the closet of horror as a genre and as a type. Such characters can still usefully be approaches as monsters because, even without the horror, they retain an ability to complicate preconceptions and probe what it means to be human, to be plant, or just to be. Some of my monsters are still vengeful, on behalf of the planet or against the imperialism of taxonomy. Some are benevolent, seeking to reintegrate humankind into the natural world we believe to have abandoned. Some are just beings, going about their business, nurturing plants, and falling in love with humans, or the other way round.
Astrid Møller-Olsen is international postdoctoral research fellow at Lund University (Sweden) posted at University of Stavanger (Norway) and the University of Oxford (UK), in a position funded by the Swedish Research Council. She has a background in both comparative literature and Chinese studies and has published on fictional dictionaries, urban forms of narrative memory, and sensory approaches to the study of literature. Her current research is a cross-generic study of plant-human relationships in contemporary Sinophone literature from science fiction to surrealism.
Meeker, Natania and Antónia Szabari (2020). Radical Botany: Plants and Speculative Fiction. New York: Fordham University Press.
Miller, T.S. (2012). “Lives of the Monster Plants: The Revenge of the Vegetable in the Age of Animal Studies.” Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts 23, no.3: 460–479.
Keetley, Dawn (2016). “Introduction: Six Theses on Plant Horror; or, Why Are Plants Horrifying?” Plant Horror: Approaches to the Monstrous Vegetal in Fiction and Film, edited by Dawn Keetley and Angela Tenga. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.
So in our Monster Talks podcast episode on digital horror stories we talked a bit about what we ended up calling ‘the Thing with the aviator sunglasses’: the creature that haunts the narrator of the untitled Jezebel story by Melwithoudiner5. We were a little tough on the Thing – perhaps too tough? As part of the podcast episode, I narrated and recorded the story and came to a newfound appreciation for the Thing as it disrupts the narrator’s everyday, domestic life, demanding to know if the man of the house is home, because it has prepared something (what???) for him (to eat???). We later learn that the narrator’s boyfriend and the neighbour, Jim – a former police officer – keep information about the Thing secret from the narrator and conspire to find ways to keep it out of the house without the narrator knowing. Could the Thing with the aviator sunglasses be extending an invitation more than a threat – or an invitation in the threat – with the question: “Is Scott home?”
Hi Line! Yes, it’s definitely one of those stories where it’s not just the anomalous Thing, but the situation surrounding it that’s weird. In some ways the storyteller is setting up a classic Gothic scenario: the heroine is in new domestic surroundings that she’s not quite settled in yet, there’s an unclear and mysterious threat involving her boyfriend, and, most importantly, a secret is being kept from her. Jim’s injunction not to talk about it again is interesting – it obviously suggests that the Thing might gain power from being seen or thought about or talked about, a little like in Algernon Blackwood’s Weird horror story “The Willows”, where the only way to escape these beings is not to think about them. But of course it’s also a not-uncommon communal response to trauma, that you just don’t talk about it.
When the narrator tells Jenny about the incident, she immediately gives the phone to Jim, even though, as we later find out, the original incident happened to Jenny – “late one night when they’d just had their first child”. So in both cases the men take responsibility for interpreting it/defending the house from it/closing down discussion of it, but the Thing apparently shows up only to women, and apparently women in some kind of liminal state – with a new home or a new child. And it seems to want to do *something* to the men. Although I can’t imagine what’s actually on that foil-covered plate.
Image description: Underwater sculptures at Molinere Underwater Sculpture Park. The sculptures are shaped like humans standing in a circle, facing outwards, and holding hands. The sculptures have the same greenish hue as the water they are immersed in, and they are covered by what looks like alga.
Monster studies and the blue humanities share a common interest in examining the ontologies and ethics that determine encounters between human and more-than-human forms of life. Where monster studies seek to challenge the structures of sameness and difference that determine categories such as the “human” or “nonhuman,” the blue humanities searches for more fluid metaphors to reconcile historical and materialist perspectives and to describe encounters where human bodies and “bodies of water” flow into each other (Neimanis 2017).
In this meeting place between more-than-human bodies, where anthropocentric perspectives fall short, we find many maps and myths depicting the ocean as monstrous, ranging from Olaus Magnus’ fantastic Carta Marina to Homer’s descriptions of Scylla and Charybdis in the Odyssey. Here, I believe we can also find good metaphors to explore both the transformative capacities of water and the ambiguous bodily boundaries that make up the monstrous. Yet so far, I have seen few attempts to bring these two fields together.
In my own blue humanities PhD project, I therefore seek to explore sea monsters as figurations for unstable Anthropocene oceans. Specifically, I am looking into speculative feminist narratives featuring humans who become one with the water, who eschew bodily integrity and normative notions of futurity in order to merge with the oceanic environment and transform into something more than human. Inspired by Melody Jue’s latest book, I believe that these stories about adaptation and transformation might help estrange us from anthropocentric ways of looking at the world by offering a new “amphibious perspective” on our ever-changing environment (2020).
I first started thinking about the transformative and strange-making capacities of water after watching a screening of Trondheim-based Sámi artist Sissel M. Bergh’s short film #tjaetise (water) during my first month as a PhD student. Part of the series knowhowknow, this visual poem explores modern and traditional ways of knowing the sea through contrasting film clips—trawler nets, drones, brittle stars, walks on the beach—overlaid with an unearthly soundscape. Toward the end, it shows a woman dressed as the coastal goddess Gorrijh Gujne as she walks out into the sea, the camera fixed on her staring (then bulging) eyes as she plunges into the water and slowly transforms into a fish.
I find similar scenes in speculative narratives about women and the sea across different media and genres. There is Joan Slonczewski’s ecofeminist utopian novel A Door into Ocean, with its oceanic planet and symbiont Sharers; and Guillermo del Toro’s fantasy film The Shape of Water, with its fish-monster romance and reverse fairy-tale transformation. There is Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon, a novel that imagines shape-shifting coral-like aliens and a marine biologist who turns into a mermaid; and there is a host of other Afrofuturist texts, from the electronica-mythology of Drexciya to Rivers Solomon’s novella The Deep, that imagine underwater societies formed by the water-breathing descendants of enslaved African women.
I follow Elizabeth DeLoughrey in referring to these diverse narratives as “submersion stories” (2015). According to DeLoughrey, submersion stories are oceanic narratives about interspecies encounter and transformation that offer a hopeful alternative to apocalyptic imaginaries of the world’s oceanic future. The term originally comes from her reading of New Zealand writer Keri Hulme’s short-story and poetry collection Stonefish—an indigenous reflection on the ordinariness of sea level rise and multispecies kinship—but it seems to fit perfectly as a heading for my odd corpus of feminist, queer, and monstrous texts.
One of the things I like most about these texts is the alternative they offer to long histories within science fiction media of imagining the ocean as an alien realm beyond human history and concern (Alaimo 2014)—from Stanislaw Lem’s inscrutable sentient ocean in Solaris, to H.P. Lovecraft’s xenophobic sea-dwelling nightmare in “The Call of Cthulhu.” I also like that submersion stories’ emphasis on women’s perspectives shifts the focus away from the masculinist narratives that have tended to dominate literary and filmic representations of the sea, from heroic figures like Odysseus or Robinson Crusoe to modern explorers like Jacques Cousteau or James Cameron—all of them participating in a “poetics of adventure” as old as the Western literary tradition itself (Cohen 2010).
By contrast, women tend to be the ones left behind on shore. Otherwise, they are the monsters lurking in the deep, dark waters below the ship, from abovementioned Scylla and Charybdis and the Sirens that precede them, to Grendel’s mother and (the perhaps less threatening) Melusine. Just like the supposed non-normativity of women’s bodies has led to comparisons with the monstrous (Shildrick 2001), their apparent fluidity and unruliness has caused comparisons to the dangers and unknowability of the sea.
In submersion stories, this comparison is not contested but rather compounded with indigenous and posthuman critiques that point to the fault lines of human narratives and ideals. It is important that the protagonists here are not conquering heroes and explorers aboard ships, but rather female sea monsters who refuse the call to sacrifice in order to become “part of your world”—as the song goes in Disney’s The Little Mermaid. Instead of becoming human, they choose to cross borders and become portentous monsters, signalling futures of transgressive femininity, playful queerness, and more-than-human worldmaking.
In troubled times, I think the world needs more of these lively and sometimes messy metaphors and stories for learning to swim against (or maybe with) the tides. For Donna Haraway, whose work is thought alongside jellyfish and other Chthulucene monsters, telling new stories adapted to change is a way of “staying with the trouble” of multispecies entanglements and futures (2016). This phrase, almost a slogan for monster studies and the environmental humanities, has already been invoked several times on this blog. I choose to repeat it here to emphasise its value as a rallying point for different fields interested in more-than-human worlds. As I continue to work on my dissertation, mixing metaphors and methodologies, I can only hope to find more stories about adapting to submersion and more studies that recognise the promises of sea monsters.
Celina Stifjell is a PhD student at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, where she is part of the HAVANSVAR blue humanities initiative and the Environmental Humanities research group. Her in-progress dissertation is due autumn 2022 (but she keeps getting distracted by theoretical tangents).
Alaimo, Stacy (2014). “Feminist Science Studies: Aesthetics and Entanglement in the Deep Sea” in G. Gerrard ed. Oxford Handbook of Ecocriticism. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.
Cohen, Margaret (2010). The Novel and the Sea. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
DeLoughrey, Elizabeth (2015). “Ordinary Futures: Interspecies Worldings in the Anthropocene” in E. DeLoughrey, J. Didur and A. Carrigan, eds. Global Ecologies and the Environmental Humanities. New York and Abingdon: Routledge.
Haraway, Donna (2016). Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham & London: Duke University Press.
Neimanis, Astrida (2017). Bodies of Water: Posthuman Feminist Phenomenology. London and New York: Bloomsbury Academic.
Shildrick, Margrit (2001). Embodying the Monster: Encounters with the Vulnerable Self. London: SAGE.