Word! The Lannguage Column

Illustration: A robot-like figure, human face, facing the figure and connected to it via a linkage; the figure says "Monster!", the face: "Beast!"
What actually are they – beasts and monsters? | © Goethe-Institut e. V./Illustration: Tobias Schrank

Should monsters really be viewed solely in a negative light? Manon Hopf thinks not – here, she takes a look at the productive aspect of the monster concept.

By Manon Hopf

Other animals have always inspired human imagination, motivated them to write – or brought writing to them. There are countless fables and stories, tales and poems, about other animals – how they are viewed by humans, to which humans can relate, sometimes also to distance themselves from them, to give themselves a superior status, or to negotiate their own ideas of morality on the basis of other animals. In this context, other animals serve as a sort of tabula rasa, a clean slate upon which to project human fears and longings, in the assumption that other animals don’t speak for themselves, don’t [or can’t] tell their own stories – yet other animals have their own specific desires and ideas of a good life, and in this capacity they also behave morally. And the fact that they express their thoughts and communicate is beyond question – humans just need to be willing to listen.

Other animal moralities

Common vampires for example, a species of bat, practise reciprocal altruism by donating blood to support their friends, since it’s possible for them to die after two failed nights without food. Bonobos have been shown to exhibit xenophilia [a liking for outsiders] and the desire to make a good first impression on strangers. An aversion to injustice has also been observed in other primates, as well as in dogs – which presupposes a sense or concept of justice or fairness. A medical research rat in a lab is not only capable of detecting pain in the facial expression of another member of the species solely from a photo, it can also practise bartering, repay favours and feel remorse. It can reflect on its own actions and regret possible mistakes it has made – that’s already far more than some of our own fellow humans can manage.

Humans not only tell stories of other animals that really exist, that are part of this world, even if humans rarely want to share it with them on an equal footing – but also, increasingly, about other animals that no longer exist, that used to exist and were wiped out by humans and disasters. And then there are those im/possible other animals that arise from the [human] imagination, partially of this world and partially not, a mosaic of im/possibilities and im/possible co/operations – chimaeras, beasts and monsters. Together with his [fictional] co-editor Margarita Guerrero, Jorge Luis Borges introduces a bestiary of [not solely] imaginary creatures in Manual de zoología fantática (Book of Imaginary Beings). In this work, mythological and fairytale animals are presented alongside his own creations, but also other animals that move between both worlds – changelings, equally at home in the real world and the imaginary, mythological world. This book erases, blurs, the boundaries between real and fantasy beings. And if I’m honest, there is something almost eerily fantastic and fantastical about nature.

Beasts, monsters

A bestiary [from lat. bestia = beast, particularly a wild animal] can have several meanings – in the study of literature it denotes an animal poem with a moral message, or a collection of allegorical animal stories, and can even encompass a straightforward collection of anecdotes about [other] animals. A bestiary can also depict a fundus of [other] animals, an imaginary space containing a collection of [other] animals – or in a pejorative sense an arena of bestial activity or a synopsis of characters such as dictators and criminals.

But what actually are they – beasts and monsters? And what sort of other animals are beasts and monsters? I can well imagine how the monsters of other animals might look or sound – it’s not without reason that hunters disguise themselves as travellers, by speaking loudly and going from one hide to the next, or attempting to make their human silhouette disappear, hiding their hands in gloves – because hands are perceived by many other animals as belonging to humans and potentially dangerous. There are other animals that might be just as horrified as me at Nosferatu’s growing shadow hands. The only trouble is, elements that I as a human would attribute to the realm of other animals – monstrous claw-like hands, fangs – other animals would probably be more likely to ascribe to humans.
breaking out and beginning in
dependent life
a desire to crack wide
open to living forms and im
possible fantasy: how can you say
like animals

According to Duden, the German word Monster is a frightening and ugly mythical creature, a hideous being in fantastical form, usually of gigantic proportions. A disfigured being. A living creature that is considered terrifying, gruesome and unsightly. Something scarily large, convoluted, a dangerous behemoth. Monstrum in German means a monstrous creature, a behemoth, a deformity, a huge misshapen thing. A fiend. The Latin monstrum actually means portent, a divine omen as a result of an antinatural event – and it comes from monere [to be reminiscent, to remind, admonish, warn]. In everyday speech Monster- can also simply denote something extreme or large, for example a monster truck. From Monster in the “Digitales Wörterbuch der Deutschen Sprache“ (Digital Dictionary of the German Language) I was redirected to Bestie (beast), from Bestie to the entry Barbar (Barbarian) with its racist connotations, next it referred me to the term Gewaltmensch (brutal person), via Unmensch (inhuman person) back to the original words to describe monsters and fiends: Ungeheuer, Ungetüm, Untier, Scheusal. These terms, their connotations and journeys in their own right highlight a racist society and language system, locating the Monster outside a perceived (constructed) norm. Even the frequency of the German syllable Un- indicates what a monster is not, or should not be.

Under de/construction

Monsters do not belong, they are outsiders, they are unusual or strange, unconventional, strange, wrong, they are considered faults or aberrations. Yet monsters are mostly made into monsters – for instance by a racist and/or heteronormative system, under the conditions of which deviations inevitably have to become or remain monstrous. Where a body withdraws from the control of culturally constructed norms or values such as beauty or re/production, it gets treated and dealt with as monstrous. These people, their bodies and their desires are stigmatised as unnatural or antinatural. Yet the natural body itself is a construct, a fabrication – if we question our own nature precisely, we will quickly realise that we are all constructs, pieced together from countless components, a patchwork. Even the tiniest particles of matter are in themselves an unfathomably large number. Humans are monster-like – and their un/naturalness is a part of their nature, just that it isn’t set in stone, doesn’t have a fixed definition, is always understood as being in a state of transition and transformation. Matter is never constant matter, it’s always radically open already, in a state of de/construction and re/configuration, but never identical to itself and thus infinitely multiple/mutable and changeable. The monster illustrates that very clearly – its indefinite and indefinable nature is an attack on constructions of identity.

Monster solidarity

Monsters cause fear, but also fascination, a form of desire – and familiarity: even children are referred to as kleine Monster – little monsters. A monster is something that disrupts existing categories, questions boundaries, opposes a promise of clarity and purity. The concept of monster is used on the one hand to demonise, to dehumanise people and character attributes, but conversely it can also be a means of self-empowerment – by transforming despair and suffering into anger, autonomy and political action. So Monster can also be a place from which a human speaks or feels at home – because they don’t have a space to call home within the systems that define and are defined by normativity. Monster can be a lot of things and means something different to each individual – and it has the potential to reflect a variety of identities, affiliations and even categories of repression. Monster can mean resistance – it can inspire, by breaking down norms and binarities, the concept of identity by fostering insecurity and causing us to come up with new ways of living together in difference and plurality. New monstrous modes of contact, being in a state of touching, exploring the potential of becoming – new forms of solidarity, alliance and change. The Monster resides between two states, in transition, at the crossover point – its body, its behaviour, is under de/construction.
the last beginning
was a monster

no trace of the start and
no prospect
of an ending

It should not be about universalising experiences of repression and their specific features using certain normalising power mechanisms like racism and/or heteronormativity, but about deconstructing universality – and about understanding supposed monsters as natural, as part of a nature that questions itself. And anti/naturality as a warning and reminder to keep on de/constructing one’s own identity and to ask questions: unease can be a productive motivator.

The Monster part of this text is based on concepts and ideas from Karen Barad’s “Transmaterialities: Trans*/Matter/Realities and Queer Political Imaginings” and Ana Cristina Santos’ “LGBTQ+ Intimacies in Southern Europe. Citizenship, Care and Choice”.

Word! The Language Column

Our column “Word!” appears every two weeks. It is dedicated to language – as a cultural and social phenomenon. How does language develop, what attitude do authors have towards “their” language, how does language shape a society? – Changing columnists – people with a professional or other connection to language – follow their personal topics for six consecutive issues.