By Caitlin Garvey
Afternoons of Alterity: A Codex of the Medieval and the Monstrous (2011)
Introduction: Human beings have a natural need to identify who and what they are; typically, this is done by distinguishing between the self and the other, leading to the exclusion of the other because of a lack of conformity to the group norms established in any given society. Monsters, a manifestation of this otherness, are then a cultural creation residing at the borders of humanity, functioning as a reminder of what should not be. Governments recognize the importance of this shared identification, believing that as a unified nation, they increase their ability to preserve, protect, and assert their dominance in the world. They see the presence of monsters as a means of preservation of the status quo, essentially utilizing them as the protection against the monstrous, otherwise defined as acts against common law and cultural norms. Essentially, the state hopes to comprise itself of an entire safe race of people, eliminating the threats from the inside out; while this may seem a very modern initiative, medieval literature suggests that this has been a focus of societies from their early construction. Specifically, this idea is evident in the hierarchy of salvation in The Wonders of the East, the acceptance of Sir Gawain at the end of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and lastly, in the idolization in death of Grettir the Outlaw in Grettir’s Saga.
To understand precisely how states have utilized monsters as a form of social control, one should first explore the underlying relationship between humans and monsters. In Strangers, Gods, and Monsters: Interpreting Otherness, Richard Kearney discusses how “early Western thought equated the Good with notions of self-identity and sameness” and evil with “notions of exteriority”. In order to clearly differentiate good from evil, human beings then needed to create an other, and thus, the monster was born. As a cultural creation, this monster functions as an identification system for human beings; it is “difference made flesh,” an explanation for the malicious, immoral, and unusual. Additionally, the monster is a “coping mechanism” that allows for the “transfer[ence] of responsibility” onto itself, removing any negative implications from humanity. Thus, the monster adopts the negativity that surrounds its’ body for its own self; it comes to police the “borders of the possible,” “a warning against exploration” of these boundaries. As Cohen states, “to step outside this official geography”—or the borders defined by the monster’s presence—“is to risk attack by some monstrous border patrol or (worse) to become monstrous oneself”. Therefore, the monster is not only created by humanity’s need to identify by exclusion, but given life, a physical body, and strict purpose through society’s fears.