Tomorrow I have to face my deepest fears and undergo the most frightening experience known to humankind. (More)

I will have to defend my tenure application before the Tenure Review Board at Blogistan Polytechnic Institute. I have no idea how bad it will be. The rumor is that few survive, and those that do are scarred for life. Ergo, all the time spent in the wine cellar library drinking thinking. I don’t even know who’s on the Board. What exactly do they do that’s so horrible? What kind of monsters are they? I imagine it’s somewhat worse than the Spanish Inquisition, with the perverse and inscrutable humor of Monty Python, and the capricious cruelty of squirrels.

What will they ask? If I can’t distract them with nuts, I’ll have to be prepared to answer actual questions.

Define Your Terms

That’s always a big one. OK: Monster. I have my own schema for organizing monsters, by function and mode.

  1. Socially speaking, the monster is that which is ugly, deviant and repulsive. It’s a socially-constructed attribution to characterize and stigmatize undesirable appearance and behavior. Quasimodo and grave-robbers are monsters of this order.
  2. At the emotional level, monster subjectively labels a person, animal, thing or entity which frightens or threatens harm to the individual. The magnitude of the fear/threat experienced by the individual determines whether it’s just a wolf or a rabid monster, an Iranian or a terrorist.
  3. Within social structure, the monster is malevolent power wielded to oppress and inflict suffering on subjugated groups. The monstrosity can be vested in the autocrat (Hitler) or the ruling group (Nazis).

And…. So?

Aagh, I hate it when I get that question. It’s like, what’s your point, why does this matter to you?

A couple things are important to me. For one, language matters, because it can be misused and manipulated for devious and socially disruptive purposes. The social construct of monster as ugly and deviant can be too easily conflated with emotional fear responses. To me, this is the kind of perversion that energizes hate politics. It exacerbates existing prejudicial and pejorative social constructs (racism, homophobia, antisemitism) by attaching fear narratives to the intolerance. Thus, Jews are not just an ugly race with a deviant religion, they also want to rule the world and eat Christian babies. Gay people are not just people with disgusting sexual practices, they also want to seduce us and destroy the institute of marriage. Foreign-looking people aren’t just weird and impossible to understand, they also want to rape our daughters and steal from us. The effect is that loud malevolent voices have the power to create these false monsters.

(And to be clear, I’m paraphrasing strawmen here. I don’t personally think Jews are ugly, or that to be gay is deviant, and I swear many of my friends are weird and impossible to understand, and I’m not afraid of them.)

As a progressive citizen, these monsters of propaganda, including projection monsters, trouble me. Projection monsters are attributing one’s own fears and behavior onto the strawman other. I can be as guilty of that as the strawman extremist conservative I complain about.

My other interest is human expression – how we respond to the world, artistically and through social discourse. The internet, including through blog spaces like this one, replicates the basic social function of a village square and multiplies the possibilities and complexities by about three gazillion. The square, real or virtual, is where we call for help when threatened, where we name, declaim, denounce, and describe monsters within and without.

And as we know, the internet is a double-edged sword – it’s not only a forum to mobilize and speak truth to power, it can also spread hate and exacerbate our worst characteristics, bring out our most monstrous nature.

Which brings us to the most interesting kind of monster for me: the ones we create.

You mean Frankenstein?

I knew someone was going to ask that. And by the way, Frankenstein was the creator, within the text, of his own monster. The author Mary Shelley created the fictional character Dr. Frankenstein, who fictionally crossed the taboo line between man and god and created his now eponymous man-made monster.

We could write, and read, an entire library on Mary Shelley’s creation, but I’d probably get cut off at my tenure review before I get anywhere in my 72-hour Frankenstein lecture. Frankenstein is too big. So let’s switch to something small, the smallest thing I can think of.

Squirrel Brain

Let’s say, hypothetically, that a squirrel could, or would want to, write a story about monsters. Where would it start? What does a monster look like, to a squirrel? Predators aren’t it. That’s a known problem, not an unknown fear. What is a squirrel most afraid of? Losing his nuts, obviously. So a squirrel’s monster narrative is going to express what it feels like to fear for his nuts.

And who would want to steal a squirrel’s nuts? More so, what would be the most frightening, surprising, unpredictable and most dangerous threat to the squirrel nut stash? Asked this way, we see it clearly: the Monster Squirrel. The squirrel that looks just like any other squirrel, makes the same noises, acts squirrel-normal. Until your squirrel guard is down, and your squirrel back is turned. Fwoosh! It’s stolen your nuts and shaved your tail, you can’t run after it without falling over on your squirrel face.

How monstrous! How frightening! How cruel! It can be any squirrel. How can you know what squirrel to trust anymore?

This inner threat is the essence of the monster experience, to me. Civilization, just like nut collections, depends on trusting those within. Betrayal of trust, including recognition of our own evil impulses, are at the core of our personal and social fears. Writers, storytellers, movie makers, and even squirrels express this fearsome truth about our social experience by creating various externalized shapes and forms of monsters.

Within the texts, the monsters are seen, recognized, faced, and conquered (or not). As an audience reading or watching, our understanding of the text depends on what we bring. If it plucks our primal fears, it resonates fear within us. If it activates any of our existing social narratives, we’ll see it as confirming what we believe. Is that a good thing?

The point is, once a monster is let out of the bottle, the creator loses control of its meaning. It takes hold within the mind of each member of the audience, and our only defense is…..