The remix, the mashup, and the reboot have come to dominate Western popular culture. These texts are the ‘monsters’ of our age—hybrid creations that lurk at the limits of responsible consumption and acceptable appropriation. Like monsters, mashups offer audiences the thrill of transgression in a safe and familiar format. And like other popular texts before them, they are often read by critics as a sign of the artistic and moral degeneration of contemporary culture.
With this context in mind, my research explores the boundaries and connections between contemporary remix culture and its Others (adaptation, parody, the Gothic, Romanticism, postmodernism). It often does so by examining remix culture’s most ‘monstrous’ and liminal texts: Frankenfictions, or commercial narratives that insert fantastical monsters into classic literature and popular historical contexts. In this definition, Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein serves as a touchstone, offering an ideal metaphor for appropriative creativity in the twenty-first century.
Frankenfiction includes direct appropriations of classic literature, like the bestselling Quirk Classics novels, but also literary-historical dramas like the Sky/Showtime TV series Penny Dreadful(2014–2016), the depiction of monsters through an historical aesthetic in Travis Louie’s photorealistic paintings, and much, much more. It is monstrous not only because of the fantastical monsters it contains, but because of its position on the boundary between remix and more established modes of appropriation. Too engaged with tradition for some, and not traditional enough for others, Frankenfiction is a bestselling genre that nevertheless remains peripheral to critical discussions of remix.
Three scholars from Leeds Beckett University are inviting chapter submissions for a new edited collection on gender and horror. The call for papers is below.
This edited collection aims to re-examine horror in an era of remakes, reboots and re-imaginings. There have been many developments in the horror genre and whilst much of it has been reliant on previous material, there are also many shifts and changes such as:
cross-over of genres (for example, teen romance paired with vampires and werewolves, or horror in space);
new formats such as Netflix, and cinema no longer being the only place we see horror;
a resurgence of stories of hauntings and ghosts;
and the popularity of ‘found footage’.
We wish to focus specifically on horror from 1995 to the present, as after a brief hiatus in the mainstream, the 1990s saw the return of horror to our screens – including our TV screens with, for example, Buffy The Vampire Slayer – and with horror and its characters more knowing than before.
We are happy for you to compare older material with newer versions, such as the recent Netflix version of The Exorcist (2016) with the original film The Exorcist (1973). The main requirement is that you interrogate whether the portrayal of gender has changed in horror – it may look like something different (more positive?) is happening, but is it?
We hope to encourage diverse perspectives and we welcome early career researchers and new voices to offer a different light on classic material, in sole- or multi-authored chapters.
We’d also like to gently remind potential authors that ‘gender’ doesn’t only apply to women, it applies to men and masculinities, and it encompasses non-binary identities and experiences, as well as issues about ‘race’, ethnicities and class.
The schedule is as follows:
You send your chapter title, 200 word abstract and brief bio by the end of May 2017.
The finalised proposal will be sent to the publisher Emerald in early summer.
Your final first draft chapter (approx 7000 words) should be sent to us by January 31st 2018 (reminder/s will be sent).
We will return any comments/revisions by the end of March 2018, and ask that you send us the final revised chapter by the end of June 2018.
The completed manuscript will be submitted in July 2018 for publication in early 2019.
Please send your chapter titles, 200 word abstracts and a brief bio to the book editors by the end of May.
If you have any queries, or would like to contribute but need to tweak the schedule, please email us.
If you are not familiar with the publisher, Emerald are an independent publisher, established by academics in 1967 and committed to retaining their independence.
And for your future reference: All hardback monograph publishing will be available in paperback after 24 months, and all books are available as ebooks. Emerald commission and cover the cost of indexing if authors don’t want to do it themselves; use professional designers for each individual book jacket; and aim to exceed the royalties of other publishers. They have international offices, but pride themselves on not being a ‘corporate machine’.
My most recent project is with the Critical Posthumanism Network, a group of scholars who ‘share the conviction that the decentring and critiques of the human implied in posthumanism offer paradigms that speak searchingly of the immediate present and of imminent futures’. I’m very pleased to announce that this project, a written Genealogy of the Posthuman, is now seeking 1000-word entries on a broad range of subjects.
A copy of the Call for Entries is below. You can find the original call here, on the Critical Posthumanism website.
What exactly is ‘the posthuman’? What are the nonhuman and the inhuman? What, for that matter is the human? How have these ideas been conceptualised, historicised, framed and reframed in philosophy, literature, critical thought, the sciences and the arts? How can they be critiqued and rethought?
These are some of the questions addressed in the Genealogy of the Posthuman, a growing peer-reviewed, online and multi-authored resource that traces the prefigurations, currency and evolving potential of contemporary thought on the posthuman.
We invite contributions by academics, researchers and doctoral students from all disciplines that explore posthumanist questions, issues, tensions in the work of a given author or thinker, or in a particular theme or motif. The Genealogy features entries informed by the re-examination and critique of posthumanism’s acknowledged, unsuspected and evolving dimensions.
Entries should be informative and should seek to make a critical intervention in the field. Submissions may consist of a standalone entry or one that is linked to and engages with existing contributions. Prospective contributors are invited to browse the entries already published on the site to familiarise themselves with the Genealogy’s form and rationale and to identify potential areas of interest.
Submissions should be around 1000 words in length and should include up to 8 keywords. Images and video clips may also be included with submissions. Contributors are requested to follow the MHRA style sheet, and all references should appear as footnotes. Articles are to be submitted as a Word document, in the form of an email attachment. All entries are peer-reviewed and authors can expect attentive and helpful feedback.
This call is ongoing, with no fixed end date. For more information about Critical Posthumanism and the Genealogy project, visit our ‘About’ page. Email email@example.com for further details or enquires.
The following post is part of an early, discarded draft of the introduction to my PhD thesis on monster mashups. Having just completed a second, and (hopefully) infinitely more readable version, I thought it would be fitting to celebrate by looking back to where I started. Since it will no longer become part of any published work, I’m sharing it here on my blog for posterity. There is of course a reason this was cut—so take it with a grain of salt! It unfolds over two parts; you can find part two here.
As the name implies, posthumanism is a cultural and political impulse that essentially attempts to imagine forms and identities ‘beyond’ the human. As with many contemporary critical movements, however, there are multiple streams within posthumanist thought, and it is important to define which one we mean when applying the term to neo-historical monster mashups. There are at least three broad definitions of the term ‘posthumanism’, with three very different emphases. The first definition is tied to technology and the internet age. As a discourse that emerged during the late twentieth century, posthumanist culture was sparked by the increasing tendency of the media to liken the human body and brain to a machine. This metaphorical mechanisation of the body was intensified by the explosion of internet usage, networked culture, and the formation of what Marshall McLuhan has termed the ‘global village’. The extent to which these technological developments actually altered the way human bodies and narratives interact is ultimately less relevant than the degree to which posthuman discourses came to dominate the technology discussion, but there is no doubt that both recent technology and our reaction to it have altered the way we perceive ourselves as individuals.
The term posthumanism has also been used in a utopian (or dystopian) sense by the popular media, critical theorists, and transcendentalist movements, and is better referred to here as ‘transhumanism’. Transhumanism represents the theory that, as a result of technology, the human as we know it will someday cease to exist, either because of the rise of artificial intelligence (AI), or because humanity will modify itself to such an extent through technological or genetic manipulation that it will no longer be recognisable as human. Because this definition of the posthuman is often apocalyptic, and is also aggressively anthropocentric, critics have struggled to deploy it productively. It suffers from the same paradoxically utopian and nihilistic self-absorption that postmodern theory also falls into from time to time. Focusing on the end and the deconstruction of objects, theories, and metanarratives leads us to overlook the way such an approach often re-creates the problems it highlights, and strengthens the hold these things have on our culture.
The third use of the term posthumanism, which relies on Enlightenment concepts of humanism, is linked to cultural criticism and the humanities. It is the most recent of the three definitions, and its boundaries and methodologies are still underdeveloped, but it is also the broadest and most flexible (and therefore the most theoretically useful) way of describing posthumanism. Steven Best and David Kellner provide a useful definition of this branch of posthumanist theory in their Postmodern Adventure (2001):
Classical humanism articulates a notion of the self as an ahistorical given, whose timeless essence and nature is that of a rational mind, ontologically distant from its body, in possession of free will and timeless truths. By contrast, posthumanism – in the form of poststructuralism and postmodern theory – immerses itself in history, social relations and institutions, and embodied reality. […] Posthumanism dismantles the dualistic opposition between mind and body and makes the ‘truths’ available to reason partial, limited, and context-bound.
In other words, this third branch of ‘critical posthumanism’, as Stefan Herbrechter terms it, represents the recognition that classical ideas about what it means to be human, many of which are still very much with us, may privilege Western identities and cultures, and may also limit our understanding of ourselves and our cultural products. Critical posthumanism tries to imagine and formulate the human from a perspective outside of this classical, ahistorical approach.
The desire to move ‘beyond’ classical humanism in this way potentially creates the same problems as transhumanist theories. How can we imagine something completely outside the human, when our entire experience is framed in human terms? And how do we safeguard against creating either a dangerously narrow or a uselessly broad definition of the human in our attempts to outline its opposite? Using a past that is technically both unalterable and behind us to move forward is a complicated endeavour, particularly in a time so obsessed with declaring that past dead and buried. As Esther Peeren asks, ‘[w]hat particular move does the beyond indicate in an age so preoccupied with the temporality of the post and the after that every day seems to see the announcement of yet another death?’ The danger inherent in working within any of these ‘post’ fields or categories is becoming entrenched in the very things they prefix. In opposing all modernist metanarrative, for example, postmodernism risks becoming its own metanarrative. Likewise, attempts to move beyond colonialism can have a secondary colonising effect on those the postcolonial critic aims to speak for. Absolute rejection of the centre only serves to outline it more sharply.
In postmodernism’s deconstruction of Western culture, where no one metanarrative can dominate the discourse, non-Western metanarratives are inadvertently negated, transforming postmodernism into a colonial force. In deconstructing the Western subject and arguing that no one person can really embody the human, we (those in positions of power) can likewise indirectly prohibit others (those on the periphery) from contributing to the discussion. In calling for the embrace of all things radical, other, or monstrous, we risk simply re-drawing the borders between ‘us’ and ‘them’, rather than making those borders permeable. Posthumanism should not become another metanarrative of technological progress, but rather a framework for critiquing our assumptions about who ‘we’ are. The impossibility for humans to ever truly move beyond the human should not stop us from trying.
While popular culture is becoming more posthuman, especially in terms of how it treats its others, so is the academic culture that increasingly seeks to interpret it. This can be seen in the emerging ‘posthumanities’, or, more specifically, posthumanist cultural studies. The cultural studies (or critical and cultural theory) approach, considered by Herbrechter as a catalyst for the increasing interdisciplinarity seen in academia, ‘takes advantage of the newly “discovered” readability of the entire world [invited by postmodernism], which is seen as proof of its “constructedness” and “arbitrariness”. On the other hand the democratization of culture and cultural change became cultural studies’ main objective’. This process of the democratization of culture, reading it from perspectives based on the constructed and arbitrary nature of language, has paradoxically resulted in both an increased division of cultural studies into multiple disciplines, and the establishment of cultural studies as its own detached discipline. It has also initialised a new search for the source of meaning, particularly in the humanities. Often the result of this process is the establishment of a new canon, or of a ‘trendy’ cultural studies that prioritises the latest popular culture. For Herbrechter, the task for a ‘posthumanist’ cultural studies would instead be ‘in coming to terms with the loss of meaning and loss of reference in culture’. It is here, within a posthumanist framework, that the mashup can best serve as a useful cultural object.
Monsters, which fill the roles of both inhumans and superhumans in human culture, are central figures in posthumanist theory. Contemporary monsters are often interpreted as the breakdown of a natural order, and as such the monster is ‘the bodily incarnation of difference from the basic human norm’. It thus traditionally forms the limit of what is defined as normal or transgressive. Where the nineteenth-century monster often points to a geographical and physical other, the twenty-first-century monster signifies the posthuman breakdown of the unified self, and of the ‘other’ within. For scholars like Michel Foucault and Donna Haraway, monsters are the site where the very concept of the human collapses. This collapse is not a binary opposition, delineating where contemporary monster narratives diverge or detract from unifying concepts of the self. Instead, as an examination of neo-historical monster mashups can help demonstrate, the ‘othering’ of identity through fiction and humour in present-day monster texts allows for the creation of an ‘excentric’ space: neither wholly at the centre of power and the normal nor entirely on its margins. Now more than ever, the creators and audiences of these cultural objects (many with degrees in literature and history themselves) are aware of the academic discussion surrounding the figure of the monster. Neo-historical monsters carry the accumulated baggage placed on these nineteenth-century monsters by more than a hundred years of critical examination, but they also create space for a re-interpretation of this baggage.
What does posthumanism and the collapse of binary oppositions mean for the monster? On the surface, it means that the pleasure/horror response that the monster generates in the reader becomes unbalanced. With the advent of the twenty-first century, the horror of the vampire and of Gothic itself have been weakening dramatically, largely because, as Fred Botting puts it, ‘the use of horror relies on an increasingly fragile and insubstantial opposition between human and Gothic monster’. As Herbrechter highlights, this also works towards posthumanism’s goal of deconstructing the human:
The entire ghostly ontology (or hauntology, following Derrida, 1994b) suddenly visualises how ‘teratology’ – the creation of monsters, the representation of monstrosity, inhumanity, animality, objectification, fetishization, but also spiritualization and religion – can be used to inscribe and uphold a system of differences and hierarchies, supported by a mystical notion of human ‘nature’ with its insistence on uniqueness and exceptionalism – a ‘device’ which sanctions and perpetuates processes of inclusion and exclusion.
In other words, as the border between human and other becomes ever more blurred, the same monsters that were used to uphold a humanist hierarchy can also be used to rethink such a system. Posthumanism (and contemporary theory) conceives of a new way of looking at the monster that is linked to twenty-first-century conceptions of identity and global culture. If posthumanism ‘emphasizes the complexity and interrelatedness of human and nonhuman forms of agency’, as Adrian Franklin suggests, the imagination of otherness becomes vital. If the nonhuman is central to our understanding of the human, not only as our opposite, but as something that also shapes us in return through various complex processes, we would do well to re-think the place of nonhuman figures (like the monster) in our cultures and our politics.
In exploring how monster mashups create these parallel discourses and contradictory affiliations, I hope to provide one answer for why these monster narratives have become so prevalent in twenty-first-century culture, as well as how they reformulate nineteenth-century humanist ideas to fit present-day posthuman perspectives. For Herbrechter, the ‘entire effort of posthumanist critical and cultural theory […] goes into the construction of a post-realist and post-phenomenological form of hermeneutics and a post-subjective form of agency’. All of these concepts (realism, phenomenology, subjectivity) are centred in classical humanist ideology. By combining texts from the humanist nineteenth century with posthuman figures and forms, the neo-historical monster mashup is able to directly interrogate this ideology. Not all neo-historical monster mashups can strictly be considered posthuman at a narrative level, but posthumanism represents the cultural context in which these texts have gained popularity. As I will demonstrate in part two of this post, the form and distribution of many neo-historical monster mashups further argues for their status as ‘posthuman’ texts. In this way I will be using posthumanism as a lens through which to read monsters.
 For an extensive look at this definition of posthumanism, see Judith Halberstam and Ira Livingston, ‘Introduction: Posthuman Bodies’, in Posthuman Bodies, ed. by Judith Halberstam and Ira Livingston (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1995); N. Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999); Chris Hables Gray, Cyborg Citizen: Politics in the Posthuman Age (London: Routledge, 2001); Herbrechter, Posthumanism.
 Stefan Herbrechter, Posthumanism: A Critical Analysis (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), p. 18.
 Cf. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York: McGraw Hill, 1964).
 Theorists I would classify as transhumanist (whether in a utopian or dystopian sense) include Hans Moravec, Mind Children: The Future of Robot and Human Intelligence (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988); Francis Fukuyama, Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002); Andy Clark, Natural-Born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies, and the Future of Human Intelligence (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).
 See the concept of ‘working through’ humanism in Neil Badmington, ‘Theorizing Posthumanism’, Cultural Critique, 53 (2003), 10–27. Also Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (New York: Verso, 2005).
 Key twenty-first century texts that contribute to this ‘critical’ and philosophical school of posthumanism include Posthumanism, ed. by Neil Badmington (New York: Palgrave, 2000); Elaine L. Graham, Representations of the Post/Human: Monsters, Aliens, and Others in Popular Culture (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002); Neil Badmington, Alien Chic: Posthumanism and the Other Within (London: Routledge, 2004); Cary Wolfe, What Is Posthumanism? (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009); Herbrechter, Posthumanism; Rosi Braidotti, The Posthuman (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013).
 Steven Best and David Kellner, The Postmodern Adventure: Science, Technology, and Cultural Studies at the Third Millennium (London: Routledge, 2001), p. 195.
 Rosi Braidotti, ‘Mothers, Monsters, and Machines’, in Writing on the Body: Female Embodiment and Feminist Theory, ed. by Katie Conboy, Nadia Medina, and Sarah Stanbury (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), pp. 59–79 (p. 62).
 See Fred Botting, Limits of Horror: Technology, Bodies, Gothic (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2008).
 This is not to say that nineteenth-century texts cannot also be read in this way, but in the twenty-first century this is the norm rather than the exception. See Donna J. Haraway, ‘A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Social Feminism in the 1980s’, in Feminism/Postmodernism, ed. by Linda J. Nicholson (New York: Routledge, 1990), pp. 190–233; Judith Halberstam, Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995); Badmington, Alien Chic: Posthumanism and the Other Within; Andrew Hock-soon Ng, Dimensions of Monstrosity in Contemporary Narratives: Theory, Psychoanalysis, Postmodernism (New York: Palgrave, 2004); Wolfe, What Is Posthumanism?.
 See Michel Foucault, Abnormal: Lectures at the College De France 1974– 1975 (London: Verso, 2003); Haraway, ‘A Manifesto for Cyborgs’.
 See Linda Hutcheon, The Politics of Postmodernism (London: Routledge, 1995), p. 5.
 Fred Botting and Dale Townshend, Twentieth Century Gothic: Our Monsters, Our Pets, Gothic: Critical Concepts in Literary and Cultural Studies, 2004, p. 4.
Corporate-branded fantasy entertainment is not a model for political thinking […] Standing in for a shared sense of history, cult films and the YA books of our childhoods offer a comfortable sounding board for liberals as they process an election outcome that seems to them unreal. But as we move forward, these entertainments will not be able to give us what’s so lacking in the here and now: a sense of an ending.
Popular culture can inspire us, but it cannot save us: least of all the slew of contemporary dystopias, with their white and blandly lovely protagonists, that routinely dominate the box office. How, then, do we go about teaching it in the wake of Donald Trump? What texts can we use in our teaching and how can we use them?
A number of educators have already stepped up to the bat. Below, you will find a selection of university-level resources that invite discussion of the key issues in this election, from many different disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. Many also get students looking outside the circle of ‘Dead White Men’ that remains so prevalent in higher education.
I know this list is woefully incomplete. It’s only a start. There are many more suggestions out there for how to equip students to deal with the shape of the future, and hopefully many more will spring up in the coming months. There’s currently even a call for papers (deadline 30 November) asking for responses from educators and calling for action.
Are you working on your own reading list, resource, or syllabus? Please, share it in the comments, or send it to one of the other educators in this list—especially if it includes pop culture texts.
This syllabus started off as a reaction to a post on the Chronicle of Higher Education, but has since gone viral. Broadly interdisciplinary (but featuring plenty of readings from literature, politics, and popular culture), it questions not just the driving force behind Trumpism, but also the way mainstream media approaches it:
The readings below introduce observers to the past and present conditions that allowed Trump to seize electoral control of a major American political party. By extension, this syllabus acknowledges the intersectional nature of power and politics. The course emphasizes the ways that cultural capital like Trump’s grows best under certain socio-economic conditions. Trump’s open advocacy for race-based exclusion and politically motivated violence on matters both foreign and domestic cannot be separated from the historical and day-to-day inequalities endured by people of color, women, and religious minorities living in or migrating to the United States. Concerned less with Trump as a man than with “Trumpism” as a product of history, this course interrogates the connections between wealth, violence, and politics.
In this list (which covers some of the other syllabi on my own list), anthropologist Zoë Wool responds to a number of the questions raised by the election, including ‘How could this happen?’, ‘What to teach’, and ‘Why to teach’. The blog (Savage Minds) has also put out a call for further suggestions on Twitter, using the hashtag #TeachingTheDisaster.
As the title suggests, this syllabus is focused on historicising institutionalised racism in the United States. Most of the texts in this list are non-fiction:
This Gallatin seminar links the #blacklivesmatter” movement to four broader phenomena: 1) the rise of the U.S. prison industrial complex and its relationship to the increasing militarization of inner city communities 2) the role of the media industry in influencing national conversations about race and racism and 3) the state of racial justice activism in the context of a neoliberal Obama Presidency and 4) the increasingly populist nature of decentralized protest movements in the contemporary United States. In this course we will be mindful of an important distinction between #blacklivesmatter (as an emergent movement that has come into existence within roughly the past three years) vs. a much older and broader U.S. movement for black lives that has been in existence for several centuries (which can be traced back to at least the first slave uprisings in the antebellum south).
This resource, brought to you by the American Philosophical Association, is an old one, but if you find yourself drawing a blank on who to include in your syllabus it’s chock full of great places to start. Though it starts from a philosophy perspective, and includes a some straight philosophical texts from minority perspectives, most of the texts would be entirely suitable for a literature, film, or cultural studies course.
This website (launched by MAP), again comes from philosophy, and has a some syllabus lists of its own. More importantly, however, it also has resources for creating an inclusive classroom environment:
The website offers methods for increasing inclusiveness in the classroom and for decreasing the effects of biases more generally. It includes the resultsof research about minority groups in philosophy. It also lists resources for teachers of philosophy who are committed to including in their syllabi readings about issues often overlooked in philosophy classrooms and readings written by philosophers belonging to groups that are typically under-represented in professional philosophy.
This website has a whole archive of online articles, lesson plans, and resources that offer alternative views of US history, all in loose relation to Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States (2005). In general these are designed for primary or secondary school students, but many could be easily adapted for university teaching:
Its goal is to introduce students to a more accurate, complex, and engaging understanding of United States history than is found in traditional textbooks and curricula. The empowering potential of studying U.S. history is often lost in a textbook-driven trivial pursuit of names and dates. People’s history materials and pedagogy emphasize the role of working people, women, people of color, and organized social movements in shaping history. Students learn that history is made not by a few heroic individuals, but instead by people’s choices and actions, thereby also learning that their own choices and actions matter.
On this blog I’ve previously written about Travis Louie and Dan Hillier, two fine artists whose work I’ve been researching. I also wrote a post for the Victorianist on Colin Batty, who paints monsters onto old Victorian cabinet cards. A fourth artist whose work I’m writing about is Kevin J. Weir, though he wouldn’t necessarily consider himself under that label.
Despite including very little paratextual material or source information, Weir’s work is still very much story-based, and can be considered as a kind of historical fiction. Though gifs represent a relatively new field in the world of art, in many respects they are essentially short, silent films on a continuous loop. In Weir’s words, they are the ‘shortest of stories’. Weir’s brand of historical fiction is the most ghoulish of the four, and arguably the most affecting, but is also the least transformative. All he does is combine existing images and animate them – and in some cases he simply animates the background of a single image. Nevertheless, early on the animations took around a week to build. Weir would draw 80 to 100 frames in Photoshop, ‘cutting things out into layers, moving them a little bit, making a new layer, moving that a little bit’ until the moving image could be compiled.
What Weir particularly likes about the format is how ‘it allows you both to use suspense and to freeze one moment’. At first blush the idea of suspense runs counter to the looped nature of the gif, which repeats the same series of images over and over again. By adjusting the length of time at the end of each loop, however, Weir creates a moment of calm in the image, in which everything returns to normal. This pause between loops sometimes extends to eight seconds. These images also gesture towards a sense of historical repetition more generally. Before every loop of the gif exists a moment where the viewer wonders whether things might turn out differently. As interviewer Paula Cocozza notes, however, ‘it is just a moment of illogical hope’. The cycle cannot be changed.
Consider ‘Peekskill’, ‘Doberitz’, or ‘Decoy Howitzer’. These images are already ominous, not only because they are old and uncannily familiar, but because in our minds we presume to know know what comes after the events photographed. Those pictured have died, and in many cases were murdered or killed on the battlefield. They already represent something grim to us. What Weir is actually doing, then, is diffusing the horror of war through popular Gothic, which in part exists to make horror manageable. His animations paradoxically make these images less terrible, by making them horrific. By forcing its viewers to experience past horrors through the lens of popular Gothic, it both re-enacts past horrors and layers on contemporary ones, all without using a single ‘original’ image.
I’ve been in touch with Kevin Weir about his work, and he was kind enough to give me a brief interview. You can find an edited version below:
Have you ever considered yourself as mashup artist, or as an author of historical fiction?
Both sound pretty apt in describing the flux machine project. On a personal level, I think that I’m just someone who makes a lot of stuff. This is just one project. I have another project where I make GIFs of birds being sassy, using nature documentary footage (sassybirds.tumblr.com) and I wouldn’t consider myself a bird artist.
Have you ever sold prints of your work?
I’ve never sold physical copies of my work, but I have been commissioned to create GIFs for the occasional brand or film. Tumblr has a program called ‘Creatrs’ where they pair up clients with artists on their platform, and I’ve been lucky enough to get a bunch of those opportunities. Other times, people will reach our directly. I’ve also created GIFs for digitally-savvy authors who want to promote their book online.
Some of the monsters and creatures you add to your art don’t look like they come from archive material. Do you draw them in yourself? If not, where do they come from?
Everything is either built from little bits of other things I find or created from scratch. Some pixels from here, other pixels from there, some videos filmed in my apartment, etc. Every GIF is a mishmash of a hundred different bits.
Are there specific kinds of monsters and horror that particularly inspire your gifs?
Surrealist humor, fantasy and sci fi books, video games etc. Specific inspirations would be Lovecraft, Tolkien, Terry Gilliam, Cyriak (incredible animator) and Miyazaki.
Would you call your work nostalgic?
I’m not sure. I think that the work I create lives in more of a science fiction, fantasy or horror fiction world. In my mind, these are modern musings on past events. Or reimaginings of old worlds and explorations of alternate histories. The flux machine project (which draws from the library of congress archives) started out as rather playful, but has certainly gotten a little dark as I’ve grown more interested in the actual history of the photos I’m using.
You use images in your art that are out of copyright, but that depict real events and people. What would your response be if someone were to ask you about the ethics of using these people’s likenesses in your art?
These photos are very very old, which is part of what draws me to them. They’re representative of a history that feels almost unknowable. So I guess the factor of age and history makes me feel like I don’t have all that much to worry about in terms of likenesses or ethics. I don’t think I’m profaning history. And even if I am, the internet is a culture of remixing. Everything’s up for grabs. It’s what you do with what you dig up that matters. If someone were to come to me with a sincere concern about something I made that is a hurtful affront to their family history or something, then I’d probably respect that. Hasn’t happened yet though.
Do you see yourself as a full-time or part-time artist?
I’ve never thought about that. I never really set out, with flux machine, for it to be an art project, or an outlet for me as an artist. I guess, as someone who is always making stuff on the internet, that I am a full-time artist? I don’t know. I always considered my dad, who has an art studio in his backyard and paints with oils, an “artist.” I’m just a guy on the internet. Maybe that means we’re all artists?
A little over a week ago I attended an conference on the ‘Promises of Monsters’, which explored various manifestations of monsters and the monstrous in contemporary culture. One of the plenary papers, delivered by Professor Margrit Shildrick, raised several key questions about the ethics of representing the monstrous visually. What, she asked, is at stake when we visualise something – or someone – in an academic discourse? Do we have the right to comment on ‘monstrous’ bodies by virtue of our scientific approach, or does this actually render our relationship to the monstrous even more problematic?
As historical medical images go digital, scholars and archivists are being forced to weigh the benefits of disseminating the undoubtedly important and interesting record of the evolution of medical practice with concerns that the images will be misused and misunderstood. Making the images available will almost certainly lead to some tone-deaf uses, lacking empathy and regard at best – exploiting the shock value of a disfigured face or body at worst. On the other hand, digitization of the kinds of images that were once available only to researchers with the means to travel to archives can do a lot of good. Such visibility can raise awareness about past wrongs, facilitate connections between historians and the families of former patients, even provide us with a new way to think about our own mortality.
What is our responsibility to the people in these images? Onion discusses a particular case in which these archived photographs found another, less historically-minded function:
Some photographs from the Project Façade archive ended up used in the design of the genetic mutants (‘splicers’) that players of the videogame BioShock must battle. One of the patients in the photographs, Henry Lumley, a pilot trainee, was injured on the day of his graduation from flying school and lived with his injury for a year before being admitted to Gillies’ care. Lumley died of postoperative complications, at age 26. (Here’s his page on the Project Façade website. And here’s an image of the BioShock character in question.) Lumley and his fellow patients are now forced to wander about in virtual space, made into monsters for the entertainment of gamers.
Is this morally objectionable? Should we only use such images for educational purposes? In the rest of the article, Onion demonstrates how the situation is more complicated than that. In the end, she concludes that what we really need to cultivate in response to these images is reflection – something for which there is increasingly little time in our internet culture:
[A] vanitas requires space for contemplation – a space the Web seems ill prepared to offer. Susan Sontag’s final book, Regarding the Pain of Others (2003), was written as the Web was in the process of scattering photographs to the four winds. Sontag wrote that photographs of suffering could be a ‘memento mori’ and serve as a still point around which to contemplate mortality. But she wondered how this might work – or fail to work – in ‘a modern society,’ where ‘space reserved for being serious is hard to come by.’ If she thought that about art galleries, books, and television, one wonders what she might have made of Pinterest.
These types of responses are comparable to those Shildrick suggests we must cultivate as researchers of the monstrous. To come to terms with the monster, ethically speaking, we must continually question our own parameters of identity. Otherwise we risk mistakenly identifying ourselves in these figures, overwriting their identity in the process. Or worse – identifying them as alien, absolutely different, and impossible to live alongside. We shouldn’t turn away from images of the monstrous, but we must also be wary of becoming desensitised to these images, or sentimentalising them.
Onion’s final thoughts on the matter are similar. In the last paragraph of her article, she writes:
Perhaps the answer might be image or video files that contain within them a trigger that activates a program blocking the rest of the Web. Just for a minute, or two, you’d be forced to look, see, and feel, without distraction. Like a visitor sitting at a patient’s bedside, you’d bide a while with a fellow human, a witness to our collective frailty.
This post is a teaser for my weekly review series on Penny Dreadful season 3, starting this Friday (6 May) and featured over at the Victorianist. [UPDATE: You can now find my first review in all its glory at this link.]
When the first season of Penny Dreadful was announced in 2013, we were unsure what to expect. Initially, it drew comparisons to Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neil’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comics, which also weave characters from classic literature into an original story. The similarity soon proved to end there, however. Trace Thurman of Bloody Disgusting recently called Penny Dreadful‘one of the best horror shows currently airing on television’, and it’s hard to argue with this assessment.
Wonderfully atmospheric and deeply unsettling, Penny Dreadful delivers its horror without straying too far into the camp and gore that have become staples of contemporary horror (though the first few episodes are relatively gruesome). This is not to say that camp and gore don’t have their place – I’ve enjoyed few shows more than Ash vs Evil Dead this year – but it’s been difficult to find a good example of finely balanced terror and suspense.
The first season draws its plot indirectly from Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Mina Murray has gone missing and her father assembles a team to search for her. As this tangential relationship might suggest, Penny Dreadful is often more interested in exploring where characters have been than where they are going. Both superficially and fundamentally, this is a show about the past, and its central characters are all running from it. Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) – Mina’s father – and his manservant Sembene (Danny Sapani) are scarred by their colonial experiences in Africa. Their colleague Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) has committed a terrible transgression, by which she is haunted literally, as well as metaphorically.
American gunman Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) is running from his family, and naturally carries another dark secret as well. Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney) and Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) are … well … Dorian Gray and Victor Frankenstein (I won’t spoil the reveals for you). Some additional characters come and go over the course of the series’ first two seasons, all with similar stories. Will any of them be able to come to terms with who they are, and what they have done?
In the ‘last season on Penny Dreadful’ segment this week, we were reminded of the centrality of this question to the show’s overall message. ‘Do you believe the past can return?’ asks Miss Ives. ‘It never leaves us,’ replies Sembene. ‘It is who we are’. So, with the first episode of season 3 fresh off the airwaves, will the third season demonstrate a similar historical awareness? Will it continue what we loved about the first two, while also correcting some of their flaws? And to what extent can it be labelled ‘neo-Victorian’? I will be exploring these questions with each new episode, and sharing my thoughts with you on the Victorianist, starting this Friday (6 May, 2016).
In the meantime, if you’re eager for more Penny Dreadful, I highly recommend the show’s YouTube channel and production blog. Both are chock-full of engaging and informative material. Depending on your location, you can even watch the season 3 premiere for free right here.
If you’re not too keen on theory, never fear! What I say below is basically a more academic rewriting of this blog post.
Next week I’ll be presenting at a conference called ‘Promises of Monsters’. In my paper, I’ll be looking at the way the Showtime series Penny Dreadful (and other monster mashups) use and abuse certain ‘promises’ or possibilities of the monstrous that have been popularised by literary critics. Though monster studies as an academic discipline is still quite young, the monster mashup can be seen to respond to many of its claims directly, using the language of monstrosity for commercial ends. Though they’re often marketed as a reinvention or subversion of cultural hierarchies, binaries, and stereotypes, the monsters of mashup (and the mashups themselves) fall short of these promises time and time again.
So what are the promises of monsters, generally speaking? One answer lies in Donna Haraway’s 1992 essay ‘The Promises of Monsters: A Regenerative Politics for Inappropriate/d Others’, which is also where the conference gets its name. This is not the critical approach I’ll be looking at in this post, however. Haraway never really explicitly defines the monsters she is talking about. Those she describes are not quite the same as the fantastical, fictional monsters I am writing about, though the links are there.
Instead, we’re going to go with Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s introductory chapter to Monster Theory: Reading Culture(1996). In discussing what defines the typical or traditional monster, Cohen outlines seven theses. The first and most important is that the monster’s body is a cultural body. Cohen explains the creation of meaning through the monster as follows:
The monster is born only at this metaphoric crossroads, as an embodiment of a certain cultural moment—of a time, a feeling, and a place. The monster’s body quite literally incorporates fear, desire, anxiety, and fantasy (ataractic or incendiary), giving them life and an uncanny in-dependence. The monstrous body is pure culture. A construct and a projection, the monster exists only to be read. (‘Monster Culture’, p. 4)
Monsters may have a real-world presence, and they may be legitimately terrifying, but they are always first defined in the realm of narrative and imagination. These narrative bodies shape (and are shaped by) what we consider to be abnormal and deviant. Take the parallels between narratives about zombies and narratives about refugees as an example. I’ve also blogged about this in the context of what Judith Halberstam calls ‘zombie humanism’:
In this approach to monstrosity, then, one must thus ‘consider beasts, demons, freaks, and fiends as symbolic expressions of cultural unease that pervade a society and shape its collective behavior’ (Monster Theory, back cover). A culture’s fascination with monsters would then suggest a desire to explore categories of ‘difference and prohibition’ (again, back cover).
Cohen’s second and third theses – that the monster always escapes and is the harbinger of category crisis – relate to the expression of the monster’s cultural body. The monster is constantly changing, and thus resists easy categorisation (‘Monster Culture’, p. 4-7). Cohen’s fourth thesis explores another fundamental mark of the traditional monster that reflects the first: it ‘dwells at the gates of difference’ (p. 7). Just as the monster’s body is constructed by the fears and obsessions of culture, it is also physically marked by what that culture considers as different. This alterity can take any form, but Cohen argues that ‘for the most part monstrous difference tends to be cultural, political, racial, economic, sexual’ (p. 7). Following this reasoning, the Uruk-hai from The Lord of the Rings are coded as ‘monsters’ because of the West’s negative associations with muscularity, rural culture, black skin, and animalistic features. Because of this inherently (bio)political aspect of the monstrous, through the monster ‘the boundaries between personal and national bodies blur’ (p.10). This is a quality that remains in the monsters of mashup, though the way the monster’s body is used to represent a social body or the nation-state is different in every case.
Because of its liminal position, the monster ‘polices the borders of the possible’ as well as signalling difference (thesis five; p. 12). By embodying what is forbidden, the monster also seductively hints at what might be possible should the reader choose to cross the boundaries it marks (thesis six; p. 16). The type of seduction enacted and boundaries drawn depends on the type of monster embodied. Critical work on medieval monsters simply shows ‘a morally and physically deformed creature arriving to demarcate the boundary beyond which lies the unintelligible, the inhuman’ (Of Giants, 1999, p. xiv), but with the development of modern systems of deviance and punishment, the monster has came to occupy a special place in the social hierarchy.
Using the 1991 film Silence of the Lambs as an illustration, Halberstam demonstrates ‘the distance traveled between current [late twentieth-century] representations of monstrosity and their genesis in nineteenth-century Gothic fiction’ (Skin Shows, 1995, p. 1.). For Halberstam, while the monster always foregrounds physical difference and visibility, ‘the monsters of the nineteenth century metaphorized modern subjectivity as a balancing act between inside / outside, female / male, body / mind, native / foreign, proletarian/aristocrat’, and so on and so forth (p. 1). Postmodern horror, on the other hand, tends to favour ‘the obscenity of “immediate visibility”’, and its monsters are ‘all body and no soul’ (p. 1). This again signals the increasing loss of direct significance evident in the twenty-first century monster. The concept of the human is at once too basic and too abstract to mythologise in any straightforward way.
Cohen’s final thesis explores how monstrous difference can be (and often is) deployed in critical theory to ‘reevaluate our cultural assumptions about race, gender, sexuality, our perception of difference, our tolerance toward its expression’ (p. 20). Critical theory tends to view the monster as an inherently progressive figure, or even a rebellious one, standing for the marginalised and fighting against an unfair society. It is by playing this final characteristic that the mashup is able to turn the monster’s traditional function on its head, highlighting the paradoxical (in)visibility, the loss of metaphysical significance, and the liberal populist tendencies that mark fantastical monstrosity’s twenty-first-century iterations. These narratives appropriate historical traditions of the monstrous as well as historical monsters.
What does it mean to be a monster in the twenty-first century, and how do both the form of the mashup and the ‘burden of history’ (as Hayden White would put it) complicate this identity? You’ll have to come to the conference to find out – or wait a couple of years for my thesis to be finished. In any case, fulfilling the promises of monsters is arguably more complicated than it used to be. It takes the right bodies, interacting in the right way, to reclaim the monster as a symbol of progressive identity politics.
I love monsters and all their promises, and I sincerely hope the third season of Penny Dreadful puts the arguments I make in this conference paper to shame. Until then, it provides plenty of fuel for blogging.
‘These forgotten images and discarded memories re-write a gorgeously dark period of history, one full of elephant men and taxidermy, death and medicine. The resulting pieces are like postcards coming from Beardsley from a Victorian mansion – if the mansion was populated by circus freaks and Werner Herzog.’ (Dazed and Confused Magazine, April 2007)
A few weeks ago I posted about the artwork of Travis Louie, and its resemblance to Augustus F. Sherman’s Ellis Island portraits. This week I’m doing some research on a very different artist indeed, who I nevertheless hope to compare with Louie in the chapter I’m working on. This artist is Dan Hillier, born in Oxford (far from Louie’s hometown in Queens, NY), now living in Hackney, London. Like Louie, Hillier’s work appropriates Victorian aesthetics and narratives, and depicts fantastical beasts or monsters in this style. The ‘mystery, wonder and amazement’ that Hillier is trying to put into his work also resonates with what Louie communicates.
Taking prints and pages from old issues of the Illustrated London News, magazines, anatomical textbooks, and ‘various bits and pieces from all over the place’, Hillier’s work is arguably much more deserving of the term ‘mashup’ than Louie’s is. Though much of his collage is done in Photoshop, however, Hillier also does extensive pen-and-ink work – sometimes on top of these collages, sometimes on its own, always in an impressive level of detail.
If I had to compare Hillier’s work to something in terms of aesthetics, it might as well be the surrealist collages of Max Ernst. Hillier himself cites Une Semaine De Bonté (A Week of Kindness) as a particular source of inspiration. In addition, there are several contemporary artists who have drawn comparisons to Hillier, including Claudia Drake, George K. (alias olex oleole), and, my personal favourite, Mad Meg. Hillier also has a gif series devoted to his work. Naturally though, like all artists, Hillier’s work is ultimately unique.
Some of Hillier’s most popular work is found in his hybrid figures, mixing ornate Victorian styled subjects with the cosmic and bestial imagery that he is so fond of, challenging our perception of identity and ego. Using images in his collage work from 19th century prints and medical dictionaries, Hillier presents us a discontented and uncomfortable realism that sits uneasy on the eye, but demands our attention to all the wonderful detail. With a third eye present in humans and beasts alike, Hillier takes the Victorian’s thirst for knowledge and strips it away, until all we have is the terror of knowing too much.
Rather than being photorealistic, these images approach reality from the perspective of the anatomical textbook – a Victorian staple almost as evocative as the photograph. Although the subject matter of Hillier’s work is often grotesque or macabre, and the finished image almost always a somber black-and-white, the scenes he presents always manage to make an oddly cheerful – even gleeful – impression.