Monstrosity (Book Review, Spring 2016)

Wright, Alexa. Monstrosity: The Human Monster in Visual Culture. London and New York: I. B. Tauris, 2013. Print. 224 pp. ISBN-13: 978-1780763361

            Monstrosity has been interchangeably used for many distinct aspects of the abnormal in human affairs: stories of defective monster-like bodies, inhumane acts carried out by otherwise normal human beings, and the ways in which these two are represented. Alexa Wright’s Monstrosity: The Human Monster in Visual Culture (2013) addresses different facets of ‘monsters’ (not human) and the ‘monstrous’ (not humane) in visual culture. As a visual artist herself, Wright stresses the etymological root of the word (mostrare, meaning ‘to show’) and thereby traces a more graphical argument, as opposed to a theoretically sustained one, in addressing the emergence of particular social harms.

            The book’s seven chapters are divided into two main content sections: the first four chapters deal with the depiction of monsters in ancient times, while the final three elaborate on the “behavioural monstrosity” of the modern era (104). In the first part, apart from several distinct European and Indian historical and fictional accounts of the ‘Monstrous Race’, some documents are given to support the claims of people’s belief in the ‘reality’ of certain monstrosities in pre-modern times up until the early 1900’s. Wright presents Foucault’s notion that “[t]he monstrous is powerful because it resists containment by social and natural laws and, in itself, defies language” (19). This leads readers to expect more examples of (and even counter-arguments to) the history of monsters and monstrosity in literature.

            Chapter 1, ‘The Monstrous Races’, presents a compilation of strange humanoid sketches with swollen noses, stretched ears, images of faces in their chests, etc. dating back to as early as the 5th century BC. The author maintains that although these creatures were most likely products of the population’s collective imagination, they were believed to have existed at some point in history; hence, Wright recognizes them as parts of the human experience rather than as pure fiction. These strange creatures, Wright claims, were drawn as maps delineating the scope and limits of proper human beings, as opposed to those considered “inferior and untrustworthy” (15).

            The second and third chapters follow the idea of mens sana in corpore sano (‘a sound mind in a sound body’) and thus by extension how human monstrosity first and foremost shows itself in the physical body rather than in the human psyche. It gives the example of the Monster of Ravenna, a 16th century imaginary monster with a one-horned head of a baby boy, the wings of a bat, and the lower body of a serpent. “Blurring the boundaries” between humans and animals was a way of laying the groundwork for seeing “outsiders” metaphorically, who in turn functioned “as a projection of social anxieties and fears” (27). These projections, Wright insists, have “always been crucial to the idea of ‘man’ as a civilized being” (31).

            Moving away from alien monsters towards the “feral child”, the author deals with the discourse of human racial hierarchy and its relation to animals in Western thought, “perhaps […] to protect the perceived sovereignty of the white Western man” (34). What follows is a discussion on the privileging of certain racial/physical features in ancient physiognomy that led to the dehumanization of certain populations of people. Physiognomy, therefore, regarded the human body as “codified structures that can be visibly related to the cosmos, to the order of society as a whole or to the character of a particular individual” (47). Da Vinci’s ‘Vitruvian Man’, a prototypical image of a world that placed a premium on order and organization, Myron’s athletic ‘Discus Thrower’ as the Greek ideal, and Reisch’s ‘Astrological Man’, to name a few, are some of the examples given that depict the ideal form of the human body in contrast to the distorted body of the pre-modern man.

            Chapter 4 revolves around images of 19th century freak shows and theatrical representations of monstrous characters. The book claims that freak shows acted both as a means of raising awareness of the abnormalities in defective human bodies with new medical classifications, and of serving as an attractive entertainment tool in the thriving post-revolutionary Europe by amalgamating the real with the surreal. Therefore, the abnormal situation of the freaks was often exaggerated, not only through exotic costumes and stagecraft, but also with the help of 19th century Darwinist mentality that attributed the freaks’ unusual presence to the transgression of classical binary oppositions and norms such as man/woman, white/black, and human/beast.

            The book’s narrative gains momentum in its second section, which is more theoretically supported. From here on, it argues that monstrosity as an abnormality has given way to monstrosity as a social construct. The text follows Foucault’s view that in modern times, the physical “deformities” (natural disorders) in monsters were “transposed” to “physical criminality” (individual character) (104). In Chapter 5 we are presented with the case of Joseph Merrick, ‘the Elephant Man’, whose body was gravely distorted due to an unknown condition. Merrick represented both the mythical and the real, and thus manifested “the transition from corporeal to behavioural monstrosity” (104). That Merrick’s body was not ‘monstrous’ at birth but became so because of a progressively degenerative condition concerned Victorian minds that had been introduced to gothic novels and Social Darwinism. The book reveals that although Merrick’s deformities were medically unclassifiable, he was nonetheless ‘domesticated’ and dehumanized to the point that he felt more human trying to take part in a freak show rather than being a lab-rat at the hands of scientists.

            One of the most engaging parts of the book is the distinction it makes among different types of representation regarding ‘the Elephant Man’. Six pictures of Merrick are presented, four of which—taken in the hospital—‘de-monstrate’ him naked, showing all his ‘monster’ and human parts equally and in a more humanistic way. The last two pictures, one displaying him in a suit and the other showing just one eye popping out of his veiled head, were the only depictions shown to the general public, as if ‘monstrosity’ in appearance and its lack of correspondence with the psychological self was still an issue yet to be solved. Also, the text posits that the “techniques of visualization and classification” of monstrous and trans-mutated bodies—that is, the way they are represented through a medical gaze—have nothing to do with the elimination of ‘The Monster’, but rather the concern has been “shifted from the physical to the psychological” (112).

            Chapters 6 and 7 outline the relationship between the monstrous psyche and criminality. Wright shows how written narratives alone can change the way people view a serial killer, for instance. On the surface, Wright accomplishes this through different textual, verbal, and graphic accounts of eyewitnesses. On a deeper level, Wright establishes that this was done through psychologists’ and anthropologists’ stereotyping and the attribution of certain characteristics to these criminals. Without making new narratives, monstrosity of character would not make sense anymore, because monsters, in their modern sense, appear as normal as any other human being. Here, the endodynamic monstrosity lies in normalcy: “It is ourselves that we see” (127). By tracing the ways serial killers are depicted in the media, Wright contradicts Foucault’s view that “monstrosity is no longer a visual phenomenon” in modern times (127).

            On the contrary, by emphasizing the fact that text and media should work in collaboration, Wright shows how a digital photo-fit of Jack the Ripper from a 2006 documentary seems more appealing than old rumours; how Myra Hindley’s de-gendered and demonized photos left a more lasting impression on the public than Ted Bundy (the apparently normal psychopath) did; and how Anders Breiv’s inner racial conflicts seem more revealing when we find out he had undergone plastic surgery in order to avoid slanders about his ‘Middle Eastern’ nose. Despite the relatively unsubstantial suggestions in the first four chapters, Wright’s eye-catching description in showcasing some of the best instances of modern monstrosity and their underlying narrative in contemporary visual culture makes up for the previous problems. This part provides support for the argument that monsters are always ‘mediated’, and that visualization plays an ever-more crucial role in shaping our image of the monster.

            ‘Monster’ is an umbrella word that generates an entire class of beings, each used to represent deformed states of bodies and minds. A plethora of book titles, academic articles and case studies have been devoted to different types of monstrosities, two examples of which are Stephen T. Asma’s On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears (2009) and Matt Kaplan’s Medusa’s Gaze and Vampire’s Bite: The Science of Monsters (2012). The former relates a historical account of monsters as social constructs that represent our psyche’s uncharted territories, while the latter endeavours to find scientific reasoning behind the making of monstrous creatures in the first place. Alexa Wright, however, adds a fresh look to the already crowded field in three distinct ways. First, it presents an overview of the phenomenon of monstrosity in history, highlighting diverse and prominent cases in both ancient and contemporary societies. Second, by combining science, aesthetics, and technique (in plain cartographic fashion), it shows how visual culture has always played an important role in defining monstrosity. Finally, by reassessing and enhancing some of the philosophical, epistemological and scientific queries such as those of Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, Georges Canguilhem, and Étienne Saint-Hilaire, this book enables readers to push the boundaries further and to look more critically at the fabricated monster narratives in media. Wright’s text is a unique way of describing monsters in western thought, and is highly recommended to students of the arts as well as monster enthusiasts.

Emadeddin Naghipour
Western University