The Future of Monster Studies

A residue of Halloween lingers as the Monster Network circulates its most recent news that 2016 will include its first international conference. Halloween brings to the fore the repetitive return to our daily lives of the monstrous, the deadly, the horrific and the downright comic. Such festivities cross national boundaries, build on distinct and yet overlapping traditions, and tap into the ever-expanding arms of economic profiteering from plastic accessories and non-recyclable costumes. Yet for the Monster Network this monstrous event was momentous in launching our new website, which already contains the amazing artwork of Tove Kjellmark, and the call for papers for our first international conference.

As with any subject that requires intense, focused enquiry, we may ask: why monsters, why now, and where is monster studies going? The Monster Network began as a small panel at the Somatechnics conference in Linköping, Sweden, in June 2013. Line Henriksen, Ingvil Hellstrand and myself came together to speak about a subject we were passionate about: the ethical potential of decolonising monsters. Much to our surprise the room was full, and people couldn’t stop talking about monsters in an amazing variety of forms. We later met Sara Orning, who was presenting on a different panel on the historical monster. Realising how the monster was creeping back into academia, largely through key publications, we decided to establish the Monster Network. The Network was launched at a workshop at the Centre for Women’s and Gender Research (SKOK), University of Bergen, Norway, in the spring of 2014. Since then, the fifth member of our team has joined us: Aino-Kaisa Koistinen, who strengthens our focus on science fiction in all its fantastical, horrific and monstrous forms.

All of the steering committee members work on the monstrous, from diverging and intersecting angles, including the historical and the ethical, the fantastic and the medical, evolutionary theory and cultural representations, and embodiment, immateriality and digital media. We have not only talked endlessly about why there is a contemporary resurgence of the monster in both academic contexts and popular arenas, but also we have written a collective piece that suggests a monstrous form of writing as a foundation for the future of monster studies. Here, we take our cue of a collective multivocal form from feminist traditions, largely because the monster is so intimately tied to feminist, queer, disability and critical race studies. The monster has often been identified as that which is different, inferior, a lack, a threat and so much more, and we are exploring how such histories and practices may inform our writing, encounters and dialogues, as well as addressing the important subject of which ideas come to matter. It is clear to us that while the monster may be seen as a frivolous topic, lacking in serious intellectual engagement (notably a typical critique of the Humanities and Arts), we see the monster as looming at the fore of contemporary politics, where those deemed different, bad, threatening, inferior and non-human become the monsters that haunt our national and bodily borders, threatening to take what apparently belongs to ‘us’, and even putting ‘our’ lives at risk. Producing the monster allows for an easy distancing of self from other and a dehumanisation that has real economic, political and social consequences. We are thinking the monster in the context of contemporary politics of exclusion where whole populations are deemed as unworthy of European help, where ‘outsiders’ are figured as a threat to the economy, and where the ‘terrorist other’ is repeatedly racialised through a rhetoric of divisive religiosity. At the same time, we want to insist that the monster is playful. It’s terrifying and popular, it’s funny and overburdened with meaning, and it’s invisible and yet everywhere. We want to address how and why some subjects are deemed trivial, lacking in intellectual gravity, and to examine the very ways in which the monster matters. Therefore, while the monster may serve to dehumanise, we’re interested in how it’s also often the site of potentiality, of something different, and of opening up to an unknown possibility.

The conference aims to address the above issues, and to exceed what I’m imagining is possible for monstrous gatherings. Significantly, we’re bringing together leading thinkers in monster studies, including the two keynote speakers Margrit Shildrick and Surekha Davies, and artists in this field. Indeed, Kjellmark’s disturbing and exciting artistic creations are already adorning our website and call for papers. We’re hoping the event will include a significant dialogue between the academic and the artistic, and will incorporate panels on artistic practice and production.

That the monster has resurged on our screens and in our books should perhaps not be surprising at a time of so-called crisis in economic, political, social and cultural terms. Indeed, many scholars argue that the monster is precisely a figure of crisis, instilling fear, anxiety and panic. Yet, while the monster may seem to mirror contemporary socio-political discourses and practices, it’s always in excess of these constraining parameters. It leaks, oozes and refuses to be contained by the normative, often damaging, demands of state-induced terror. These monsters demand we look beyond what we thought were the limits of the normal, of contemporary thought and of relationality, opening up to other possibilities and perhaps other worlds.

So, if you’d like to come along and imagine other monstrous worlds, then take a look at our website and the call for papers. We look forward to seeing you at what promises to be a rather scary and exciting monstrous event. Also, if you’re interested in our work on the monstrous, then check out some of our publications.

On monsters and ethics, see:
Come, so that I may Chase you Away!’ On Ghost Hunts and Posthuman Ethics

Queer Postcolonial Narratives and the Ethics of Witnessing

On monsters and digital media, see:

Here be Monsters: A Choreomaniac’s Companion to the Danse Macabre

On monsters and science fiction, see:

Passing as Human

And on monsters and evolutionary theory, see:
Hopeful Monsters: A Queer Hope of Evolutionary Difference