Monsters   /   Spring 2020   /    Thematic—Monsters


There is no verdict of innocence. The case against has simply not been proven; there is never a case for.

Vanessa Place

The Cyclops (detail), 1914, by Odilon Redon (1840–1916); Peter Horee/Alamy Stock Photo.

As I am, by fluke of fate and education, inter alia, a criminal defense lawyer, I know about monstrosity, if not monsters. As I am, by way of fluke and fortune, among other things, an artist, I know how to make other things. Much has been made of monsters and monstrosity, and I’ve not too much to add to this. This is a soft opening. Monsters like soft openings. That’s where fear comes in, in the soft parts, where we feel weakest and have the shortest hairs: the throat, the belly, the back of the neck. It’s a commonplace observation that monsters stand in for our elemental fears, a simple sublimation of our dread of the dark and the dead, a psychological process not unlike racism, but with a smaller head count. But as is true for many commonplace observations, the monster-as-proxy merits careful consideration. Take, for instance, the criminal, readily called a monster, easily cast as a bête too often noire, who facilitates our social failures and our appetite for apprehension.

Continental analysis likes to start with the word itself, gesturing sweetly toward a divine origin of things concrete, suggesting that there is something material in etymology. So many considerations of the monster refer to its Latin antecedent, monstrum, a noun meaning, variously, “oddity,” “malformation,” and “divine omen.” More interesting to me is an entry in Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1755) in which Johnson makes note of the verb to monster, meaning “to put out of the common order of things.”11xThere is a contemporary usage that refers to severe critique, hounding, and abuse; I prefer Johnson’s definition as incorporating this sense and pointing more precisely to its underlying sense of expulsion. Monster as verb places the focus not on form but fabrication, and refers to an act of communal casting, not as done by others less savvy than ourselves, but as we like, the casting in our own likeness.

* * *

The nature of a Female Space is this: it shrinks the Organs
Of Life till they become finite & Itself seems Infinite.

And Satan vibrated in the immensity of the Space: limited
To those without but Infinite to those within:
—William Blake, Milton, Book I, 6–9


We monster: According to Johnson, we cast out. But by casting out the monster, we cast in ourselves as that which is not-monster. That’s the simple formula, a process of inclusion by way of exclusion. But if the formula is, as formulas are, an equation, then both sides are equivalent, meaning that we must monster within as without, the monster thus monstered not gotten rid of, precisely, but held as an image, a template or test to be used to identify and expel more monsters—to go on monstering. I may only monster to the extent that I myself know the monstrous. Here echoes the fascist censor’s dilemma: If I recognize a critique of the state, then have I also not understood that the state is subject to critique, thereby betraying my own latent critique of the state? Too, the more I know of the monstrous, the better still my monstering—just as the monster knows us, how foolishly soft our throats, how stupidly open our windows. There is an intimacy in this: If, when we are children, we keep our monsters tucked under the bed, when we are adults they bed us, lodging in our chests and necks, penetrating our hearts, for it is another well-worn observation that the monster, as made, represents our desires as horrors, our horrors as desires. The vampire was emblematic of the love and fear of lust, that too-much of desire; Frankenstein’s creature, the love and fear of technology, that too-much of savoir faire; our Jekyll hiding our outraging Hyde. Lust, pride, wrath—our capital sins made deadly and undead. Easily seen in the gluttonous monster de jour, the zombie, the monster of the swarm, the monster en masse and sans consciousness, what it might be like to be liked too much by too many. While there is talk of “social media zombies” and “zombie profiles” online as something spawned by the public-private platform, it is endemic to the beast as such: We monster on Twitter, gleefully playing the devouring horde, killing by way of canceling and trolling, feeding our frenzy for all our favorite sins, save the too-human.

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Our constitution protects everyone—even politicians… (Beilenson v. Superior Court (1996) 44 Cal.App.4th 944, 946), prosecutors (Bradbury v. Superior Court (1996) 49 Cal.App.4th 1108), attorneys in general (Cunningham v. Superior Court (1986) 177 Cal.App.3d 336) [and] prison inmates (Hoversten v. Superior Court (1999) 74 Cal.App.4th 636).
—People v. Stanistreet 93 Cal.App.4th 469 (2001)


As a lawyer specializing in representing sex offenders on appeal, I defend those whom many monster. And, to be fair, who monster others, beyond a reasonable doubt. I’m never certain where the divide lies: If, as is a commonplace observation, so many among us have been the object of sexual violence, then many among us are as well its subjects, being its servants. That is to say, there are no monsters among us, just us, a swarm of subjected and subjectified subject-objects. I have said before, and will again, that there is no rape culture, just culture, just as there is no racist culture, just culture, and culture itself is racist and rapacious, just and unjust, just like us for we create culture. I work with the guilty, and I’ve no need of innocence; indeed, it is my rare honor, if not my gift, to accept a verdict of guilt far more easily than that of not guilty. There is no verdict of innocence. The case against has simply not been proven; there is never a case for. This is not a plea to pity the monster, but to pity ourselves, for we are pitiable.

The sex offender fails to see the subject in his victim, mistaking that other for something not quite human, something that must be subdued, something that must submit. And, on the other side of the ad hoc divide, the non–sex offender fails to see the subject in the criminal, mistaking that other for something not quite human, something that must be subdued, something that must submit. Like gods, all monsters rape. This is not a plea to free either the condemned or the deity, but to free ourselves from monstering too easily, too unconsciously, from seeing and being too many zombies and their happy headhunters, from serving as too many goddish executioners.22xI am reminded here of Roman Polanski, currently cast out, at least from American society, because of his sexual abuse of children and his flight from sentencing after he pled guilty to statutory rape. Polanski’s life story also includes a childhood spent in part as a Jew in the Kraków ghetto, expulsion from school because he was a Jew, the internment of both his parents in concentration camps, efforts to pass at times as Catholic, being used for target practice by German soldiers, suffering a fractured skull after the war in a fight over a bicycle with a man later executed for three murders, the murder of his wife and unborn baby by the Manson Family, and the making of very many films, including several monster/ing masterworks: The Fearless Vampire Killers (originally titled Dance of the Vampires), Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown, and Venus in Fur.

In his book on German cinema, Siegfried Kracauer interprets Nosferatu as the image of a blood-sucking tyrant for the German imagination, the vampyr and the viewer sharing the same hate-love compulsion.33xSiegfried Kracauer, From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004), 79. This combination of hate-love is easily seen in all our faddish monsters, from the hate-love of nature unleashed in Jaws and The Birds to the hate-love of Medusa’s petrifying gaze, although in The Birds, as in Godzilla, nature’s revenge is enacted against the human as unnatural rather than as nature’s natural female rage. The monster is either impervious to our fear or feeds from it. I wonder whether this means the monster is insensate or hypersensate, or both, which is, I suppose, a question the animal also poses for the human. We do refer to monsters as esprits animaux, although most animals, left to their own designs, seem not too terribly concerned with the habits of human minds, unlike our monsters and monstering in kind.

A monster is a “freak,” as in “of nature,” and it is noteworthy that this particular use of the word first came into fashion with the advent of photography, with the “Kodak freak” of 1908. It is also worth noting that the first film monster made its appearance in The Golem, in 1915, the best in Nosferatu, in 1922, and that the monster manifestly became more monstrous thanks to the libidinal nature of the screen: There is an erotics to the partial image favored by film, and movie monsters are still revealed piecemeal or in glimpses, the salient bits kept hidden, much as lingerie gives a foretaste of the full frontal, so to speak, until bedtime. I have said “easily seen” repeatedly because even our contemporary trolls and zombies are visual tales, scanned by way of reading, retold as retweet or report, subject to another imaging, another screen shot. I wonder if the zombie stream, like our monstering, is facilitated by the intimacy of our current screens, as fragmented and falling apart as the zombie itself, hobbling along in a whiff of its own rot. For as The Birds told us, even small creatures can become communally monstrous.

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Unleash the Beast!
—Monster Beverage Corporation’s slogan for Monster Energy drinks

What saves us from the monster? The vampire could be staved off with a cross, reduced to dust by the dawn, done in by a stake through the breast; a werewolf dispatched with a silver bullet or some infusion of quicksilver; Frankenstein’s creature incinerated (in the movies) or frozen to death (on the page). Zombies must have their brains batted out—death, it seems, can yet come to death. To put death to death, that’s real human ambition. Come, of course, the resurrection.44x“Jesus, when he had cried again with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost. And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent; And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, And came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.” Matthew 27: 50–53.

Susan Sontag wrote about an “erotics of art,” and maybe this is what our monstering is, a pornography that either omits the little death or recreates it by way of the second death: the death of the monster, already dead, dead again, undead again, for, like desire, it rises, skipping from its ashes, often taking a form not too far from the form it had before, as seen in possession. So what we see when we monster is that, like our other forms of intimacy, it confesses more than it means to tell. What we fear is perhaps not so much the monster but the intimacy of our fear, and what that allows us. After all, the beauty of murdering a zombie is that it permits extreme violence. And what is love if not extreme violence?

To oneself, to another, to the world at large, something must be sacrificed; there is always a blow, a bite, a bit of bleeding. Look at Christian mythology, the rite of the Eucharist, which bled when defiled the fragmentation of bone, blood, or body within the reliquary, the divisible forever undivided.55xFor example, in “Canterbury water,” the saint’s blood may be mixed with holy water but is never divided or diluted because the miracle of the spiritus sanctus is intact and exponential. Too, as Jérôme Baschet wrote in Corps et âmes: une histoire de la personne au Moyen Âge (Paris, France: Flammarion, 2016), “Le plus matériel s’avère apte à exprimer le plus spirituel” (It turns out that that which is most material expresses that which is most spiritual), 84. For a broader consideration of this concomitance—the part being the whole, as enacted in the miracle of corporeal materiality, given as mutable, divisible, fated to decay, being physically and metaphysically rendered incorruptible, whole, eternal, see Caroline Walker Bynum, Christian Materiality: An Essay on Religion in Late Medieval Europe (Brooklyn, NY: Zone Books, 2011), and Wonderful Blood: Theology and Practice in Late Medieval Northern Germany and Beyond (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007). Look at childbirth, which requires a severance, which is deemed “given” rather than made, look at the coup de foudre (what we call love at first sight), with its beheading, look at a breakup, with its internal bleeding. Look at the dread and desire we have for our mortality, our solitude, the fear of our own intimacy, our own discreet unbearability—which, like the zombie, goes on and on, for there is always another zombie to happily decapitate, another lover to take. So our sin as such is not pride or passion or stuffing too much into too many gapes or guts, but the grasp that never stops reaching. The monster is an omen, our monstering, a way to publicly fulfill our private predictions.

* * *

I almost began to think that I was the monster that [my confessor] said I was.
—Justine, a servant accused of murder, Mary Shelley, Frankenstein

I have been monstered, both publicly and privately, projected onto and through. To be monstered does not, I will confess, cure one of monstering. One may monster more, another, monster less, the rest, whether by way of retaliation or retelling. One may explore the monster within and without, realizing, with time and luck, that we are never without, that whether our monster is beneath the bed or between its sheets, we never absent our particular freak. I suppose a brighter spirit would befriend the beast, turn it into a companion, a pet. And perhaps we do this a bit as well, stroking our fears, giving them table scraps, a colorful leash, some toys that squeak. But real monstering means not domestication, denying or depriving the feral, avoiding the bite, but keeping the monster’s functional cruelties intact. Which is why it would be stupid of me to protest being monstered—after all, if I care for you, even in the abstract, though more prettily in the moment, I should gladly give up the particulars of my psyche, my history, my dream states, and embrace the monster-part in which I’ve been cast, as a gift of love. This is easily seen in the gift of good mothers to better their children, and in meaningful affairs.

I wonder if part of the hate-love we have for the monster and the less complex happiness we have to monster lies in this ethical play between our monstering and what we see as our selves. There is a German word, Tugend, that is commonly translated as “virtue,” although as was explained to me, the concept is more properly an infernal injunction to tell the truth: Virtue lies in never lying. Kant retroactively adopted a thesis attributed to him by another that the lie is never permitted, never excused, even when done to avoid some greater harm or in the name of a greater good, for there is no greater harm than the lie, nothing more golden than truth.66xThe scenario adopted by Kant was that if a friend who is pursued by a murderer takes refuge in our home, we must, if asked, tell the murderer that the friend is there. The lie in this sense has to do with the moral fidelity of the self to itself and the social compact as predicated on that fidelity; the cultural consequence, as I understand it, is agonized silence, mitigated by more-or-less pleasurable brutalities. I use “moral” here a little carelessly, because what I mean is ethics.77xAlenka Zupančič argues pace Kant that the moral law depends on its constituting subject, and if the host-subject fully accepts that his ultimate duty is what he make it out to be, that the real duty of duty is duty itself, then constituting and executing that responsibility is the true ethical gesture, the gesture of truth itself. Thus, the question is not whether to lie or not, or even why, for neither is better a priori than its alternative (maybe your friend merits murdering), but determining what moral law you will now legislate, both alternatives being contingent moments of the universal. Alenka Zupančič, Ethics of the Real: Kant, Lacan (New York, NY: Verso, 2000), 43–63. Moral is what the collective considers so; ethical is what we deem to be the case.88xI am reminded of Huckleberry Finn’s agonizing after he realizes that if he does not turn in Jim, the runaway slave, he will be condemned as a thief: By right of law then, Jim is self-stolen property, and not returning stolen property is tantamount to stealing, and by right of moral law, then, Huck knows he is damned. But Huck, our American Antigone, acts ethically, freely, saving his friend and consigning himself to hell. We may be wrong, or right, but not right now.

Monsters are undoubtedly more ethical than we are, because they do not give themselves away as we do: They are what they are, without compromise, without relativity, without the niggling negotiations of the day-to-day or the convenient call to some higher authority. They have drive that does not need the guise of desire or its serial decorations, and for this they may be admired. Unlike the rest of us, the monster is of a piece, even if, like the rest of us, its flesh is falling to pieces. So when I am monstered, I am also purified, stripped of my ambivalence, my contradictions, even my personality. The made-monster must be maintained: If I do something that betrays my monstrous character, this is seen as aberration or deceit, not as a manifestation of my truer or also-true nature. A monster is a cliché, and cannot be any other way. Another ruthless gift of the lover, another loving gesture.

* * *

It is wonderful the number of mistakes a verb can make…
—Gertrude Stein, Poetry and Grammar

Conjugation is the work of the verb; mistakes in conjugation cast the noun from its proper place: What happened before appears ongoing, what is ongoing is rendered past, the future erroneously assured. The conjugations of monstering trace these marvelous mistakes. History is contemporary, now precedes before, what will be has already been, again. Memory also works this kind of errant conjugation, our traumatic pasts—for all pasts are traumatic; even happy memories carve themselves into the psyche in aching comparison—cutting into a present that rescores the past and acts too crudely in sculpting our anterior futures. This is a rather pessimistic position, but only lightly so, because the miracle of this mistake is that it is just as we wish.

I noted earlier that I am a criminal defense attorney, which means you should be more suspicious toward my use of citation than of my defense of monstrosity: The trick of every lawyer is to cite precedent that permits another possibility. In other words, the authority of a higher authority is deployed strategically to prove an excuse, a justification, structurally exported, to allow you to do as you wish to, or to do as I wish to persuade you to wish to. At a party I recently attended, I had an argument about Antigone, and her monstrous misreading, because the standard understanding is that she defies the law in service of a greater law, a higher moral authority that demands the burial of her brother: Her monstrosity is her dedication to this duty, characterized as love. She is a bit stupid in this reading, a bit too much of a too-good woman. I’ve always thought that was Sophocles’s mistake, making Antigone love Polynices even though they were not terribly close. He was a prop used to prove a point. The point was not duty or desire, but drive: She is a monster not because she is willing to sacrifice herself for filial love or moral obligation, community be damned, but because she is willing to cite filial love and moral obligation to make a sacrifice, to condemn community.99xThe sacrifice as drive, not desire, is not about the effect of the gesture—whether Antigone succeeds in appeasing a moral imperative or destroying the community or bedding down with the treasonous sibling. Rather, the gesture is the end itself, although it could be noted that the gesture as end itself affirms the metaphysics of the gesture as absolutely free. To want nothing, not even to live, is absolute freedom, and, is of course, the state of the monster and the act of monstering. I also noted earlier that I am an artist, which means you should also see that every prop has a point, as the thing made says something of what it is made of, something about the conditions of materiality. A sacrifice, a body, makes meaning mean; as Ovid says of Orpheus in Metamorphoses, “What was there to complain of? One thing only…love.”

So we kill the monster because we do not want to be saved from the monster, because we know that killing the monster assures its resurrection and our integrity. If we really wanted to kill the monster, we would give it what it wants. Not by way of taming, but by turning our teraphobia to knowing teraphilia, by making the monster submit. Submit to what? To love. I come back to love, like a monster, for it is love the monster always complains of, and love that monstering always denies. This is true of Frankenstein’s creature, who raged because of love’s lack, true of the vampyr’s serial sucking, true of Antigone, easily seen in our singular monsters, in every Beast that seeks Beauty, and even in the zombie swarm, which at the very least proves the horde’s true love of the horde, and in our own monstering. Dead or alive, a loved monster is no longer a monster.

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La vie fourmille de monstres innocents (Life swarms with innocent monsters).
—Baudelaire, “Mademoiselle Bistouri”

I said before that this is not a plea to pity the monster; this is also not a bid for monster-loving. I said before that this was an argument for freeing ourselves from monstering too easily, but I am obviously defending its premeditation, monstering in the first degree—to cast in and out knowingly, with deliberation, to advocate the mutation of conjugation, the coup de grâce that love demands, particularly of ourselves. There is no verdict but in a kind of veridiction, which truly lies in this: We are all monstering innocents.