Monstrous Animals

On August 15, 1648, John Allen, pastor of the First Church and Parish in Dedham, Massachusetts, delivered a sermon in Cambridge, Massachusetts. While he was "preach[ing] out of Acts 15," as John Winthrop noted, a snake suddenly appeared. Although the reptile's appearance first caused some disorder, one of the Puritans quickly stepped on its head while another man killed the creature using a pitchfork. For the congregation, "it [was] out of doubt" that "the serpent [was] the devil," who "had formerly and lately attempted [the Puritan community’s] disturbance and dissolution" according to Winthrop. The Puritans believed that the creature was the Devil in disguise, invading their house of God and trying to prevent their communion with their god. The snake was a monster they had to extinguish to prove not only their faith in God, but also their divine "dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth." Over the course of the next 150 years, this Christian notion of human dominion over the planet would evolve into the American belief that it was white settlers' "manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the [North American] continent which Providence had given [them] for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government," which made possible the Westward Expansion of the nineteenth century.

While the Puritans' encounter with a snake in the mid-1600s could be said to epitomize America's desire to dominate the more-than-human world, a very different beast played a key role in the formation of the American national identity after the American Revolution. As early as 1705, American colonists excavated a five-pound fossilized mastodon tooth near the frontier outpost of Albany, New York. The American incognitum (as the mastodon was frequently referred to at the time) became a source of fascination in post-revolutionary America, and its "bones began to take their place in the nation’s public culture, celebrated in American literature and displayed in the nation's first national history museums," as Paul Semonin has observed. In particular, Thomas Jefferson considered the mastodon the ideal vehicle to counter noted French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon's argument concerning the New World's natural degeneracy; "that nature is less active, less energetic on one side of the globe than . . . on the other." As the American incognitum increasingly metamorphosed into "a prehistoric monster," its "mighty jaws symbolized simultaneously the savagery of prehistoric nature and the American nation's dominion over the natural world," Semonin has remarked. In other words, the extinct creature became a symbol of the fledgling American nation's imagined abundance, force, and vitality.

The connection between nonhuman animals, monstrosity, and the American character exemplified by the Puritans' killing of the snake and the celebration of the size and power of the mastodon has persisted to this day. From media reports about bears mauling campers and wolves slaughtering livestock, to cinematic monsters such as the oversized prehistoric shark in The Meg (2018) and the human-devouring dinosaurs in the Jurassic Park franchise, representations of monstrous animals are a constant in American culture.

Reflecting on the role of animals in human cultures more generally, Kari Weil has noted that "the idea of 'the animal' . . . has functioned as an unexamined foundation on which the idea of the human and hence the humanities have been built." My project will advance a similar argument—by drawing on cultural animal studies, monster theory, and recent developments in American studies, my monograph will suggest that monstrous animals have functioned as a yet-unexamined foundation of the American national identity. To be sure, the formation of any group identity requires practices of exclusion and inclusion, which results in the production of the Other—and animals are "radically other," as Kelly Oliver has noted. Indeed, in his reflections on his cat looking at his naked body, Jacques Derrida diagnosed the cat's gaze as "[t]he point of view of the absolute other" and marker of the cat's "absolute alterity." This (purportedly) unconditional otherness enables the recognition of human limitations and "the human" as such. In addition, the cat's gaze, Derrida opined, draws attention to the fact that the construction of "the human" is contingent upon "the animal," which, in turn, implies an interdependence between, and a concomitant mutual co-production of, the Self and the Other. In the Other, one recognizes oneself and parts of oneself which one seeks to suppress and/or expel.

Monsters' cultural function is strikingly similar. As Alexa Wright maintains in her monograph on human monsters, the "monster . . . disturbs the social 'norm,' or troubles an existing understanding of what is acceptably human." Here, we return to the same logical dilemma as above—"the human" requires an Other to define itself. As such, the monster symbolizes that which is (and/or those who are) marginalized in a particular social or cultural context. "Monstrosity," Fred Botting and Catherine Spooner have hence stressed, "is an effect of systems of power, and at the same time, an unreal, constructed figure." Notably, all animals, whether real or imagined, whether monstrous or cute, are at the bottom of any human-made hierarchy of power: We humans look at them, but they do not have the power to truly return the look, they are subjected to our laws without any chance of raising their voice, and they are exposed to controlled measures under the euphemism of "population management" in times of uncontrolled human overpopulation of the planet. At the same time, however, their very animal being, their animality, renders human-made power relations unstable, as animals do not fit easily into these systems of power, thereby exposing the fragility of these structures. Likewise, the shifting borderlines between categories such as "the animal" and "the pet," as well as "the human" and "the pet," and "the human" and "the animal," respectively, render malleable the purportedly strict boundaries between these conceptual categories.

By challenging ideas long considered to be truths, animals "can . . . express the deepest fears . . . of a society," as Deborah Denenholz Morse and Martin A. Danahay stress in their introduction to Victorian Animal DreamsSimilarly, monsters represent "fear[s], desire[s], anxiet[ies], and fantas[ies]," to quote from Jeffrey Jerome Cohen's theses on monstrosity. By focusing on the symbolic force of the combination of these quintessential Others (i.e., animals and monsters), my proposed book will explore the roles of monstrous animals in such processes as uncovering the national hauntings caused by the Westward Expansion, revealing the repressive and suppressive undercurrents in the establishment of the American national body, and questioning the idea of the American city as a "contained and disciplined environment" (to quote Neil Campbell and Alasdair Kean's Introduction to American Culture). In addition, my discussion of topics such as tourism as a neocolonial practice, the proliferation of invasive species as a byproduct of transnational capitalism, the material realities of climate change, and unsuccessful attempts at assuaging fears pertaining to the ongoing sixth mass extinction will examine global phenomena through the lens of American culture. As my proposed monograph will show, this transnational character of "American" cultural artifacts is key because it spotlights that American exceptionalism depends on American universalism, as America becomes a stand-in for humankind and Homo sapiens's fraught relationship with the more-than-human world.

Publications Related to this Project

"Imagining the Becoming-Unextinct of Megalodon: Spectral Animals, Digital Resurrection, and the Vanishing of the Human." Gothic Animals: Uncanny Otherness and the Animal With-Out. Ed. Ruth Heholt & Melissa Edmundson. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming.

"'I can't believe this is happening!' Bear Horror, the Species Divide, and the Canadian Fight for Survival in a Time of Climate Change." Canadian Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror: Bridging the Solitudes. Ed. Amy J. Ransom & Dominick Grace. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019. 257-273.

"All Teeth and Claws: Constructing Bears as Man-Eating Monsters in Television Documentaries." European Journal of American Studies 13, no. 1 (2018). https://doi.org/10.4000/ejas.12446.

"Becoming-Shark? Jaws Unleashed, the Animal Avatar and Popular Culture's Eco-Politics." Beasts of the Deep: Sea Creatures and Popular Culture. Ed. John Hackett & Seán Harrington. East Barnet: John Libbey, 2018. 173-184.

"Looking through the Beast's Eyes? The Dialectics of Seeing the Monster and Being Seen by the Monster in Shark Horror Movies." Mise-en-scène: The Journal of Film & Visual Narration 3, no. 2 (2018): 1-15.

"Of Roaches, Rats, and Man: Pest Species and Naturecultures in New York Horror Movies." Space Oddities: Difference and Identity in the American City. Ed. Stefan L. Brandt & Michael Fuchs. Vienna: LIT Verlag, 2018. 179-200.

"'What if nature were trying to get back at us?' Animals as Agents of Nature's Revenge in Horror Cinema." American Revenge Narratives: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Kyle Wiggins. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018. 177-206.

"Entirely Outside the Cultural? Das Monster als Brücke zwischen Natur und Kultur im US-amerikanischen Tierhorror." Kult-Horrorfilme. Ed. Jörg Helbig, Angela Fabris, and Arno Rußegger. Marburg: Schüren, 2017. 141-157.

"When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth? Digital Animals, Simulation, and the Return of 'Real Nature' in the Jurassic Park Movies." On_Culture: The Open Journal for the Study of Culture 2 (2016).

"'They are a fact of life out here': The Ecocritical Subtexts of Three Early-Twenty-First-Century Aussie Animal Horror Movies." Animal Horror Cinema: Genre, History and Criticism. Ed. Katarina Gregersdotter, Nicklas Hållén, and Johan Höglund. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. 37-57.