Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Monsters: Disability and Narratives of Embodiment

“Here’s what I think: the only reason I’m not ordinary 
is that no one else sees me that way.”

RJ. Palacio

Course Description and Outcomes

Why are monsters so ubiquitous in literature and art? How do they, and other literary villains and anti-heroes, reinforce cultural values and anxieties? Who or what are the monsters of our own cultural moment? In this seminar, we will explore the history and representation of monsters in western culture. Using J.J. Cohen's Monster Theory, as well as other texts from disability and post-colonial studies, we will examine monsters not merely as otherworldly creatures, but as figures that stand in for a wide range of "undesirables" and "others." Readings and films for this class will be drawn from the distant medieval past up to modern horror and fantasy films, and will feature the monsters said to live on the edge of the known world, mystical visionaries, sideshow freaks, hallucinatory apparitions, witches, and even a few vampires and werewolves.

In particular, this seminar will focus on the constructions of disability from the medieval period until the current day through narratives of embodiment. Within the genre of monster stories, disability is conceptualized as a material state and social state. Over time, these states are supposed to derive from God, nature, individual or community acts of will. Utilizing crip and monster theory which understands each as "cultural bodies," these premises and their subjects will be examined to determine (1) how the narratives use tropes, frames, and signs to establish certain assumptions about embodied difference, (2) what ethical problems exist within this use of cultural power, and (3) how these narratives might be resisted or changed to more ethically empower those marked as the monsters and the disabled.

Course Objectives (Reflecting SAGES Learning Outcomes)

By the end of the course you will be able to T.E.A.C.H. on a range of ethical, historical, and aesthetic subjects:

  • THINK critically on the rhetorical and ethical value of cultural narratives 
  • ENGAGE respectfully across perspectives alongside and opposing your own 
  • ARGUE dialectically with thesis driven claims that actively engage existing debates 
  • COMPOSE collaboratively using evidenced-based research and peer-review 
  • HONOR differences with nuance, complexity, and sympathy



    Selections from the Reading List

    Monsters and Disability is structured around J.J. Cohen's "Monster Theses" and divided into two main parts: medieval and modern narratives. The first half of the seminar will focus on disability and monstrosity as cultural bodies, beginning with "medieval monster narratives" (Mandeville's Travels, The Knight of the Cart, and Bisclavret) augmented by critical disability and transgender studies, then ending with "medieval embodiment narratives" (de Cartagena, Kempe, and Hoccleve) as informed by Arthur Frank's Wounded Storyteller. The second half of the seminar will address the ways in which culture desires disability and monstrosity even as it uses them to marginalize difference. This sections begins with "modern monster narratives" (Animal's People) and films (Beloved, New Moon, Split) that associate disability with dangerous mental illness and animality. This section and the seminar ends with "modern embodiment narratives" (Exile and Pride, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night, Wonder, and Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children) focused the movement from isolation towards liberation by youths with disabilities.


    Part 1: How to Make a Monster
    “The Monster’s Body is a Cultural Body”

    Medieval Monster Narratives
    (The Monster Dwells at the Gates of Difference)

    J.J. Cohen, “Monster Culture (Seven Theses)”
    J. Mandeville, The Travels
    R. Garland-Thompson, How We Look

    C. de Troyes, The Knight of the Cart
    A. Solomon, Far From the Tree, “Dwarf”

    M. de France, Lais, “Bisclavret”
    S. Stryker, GLQ, “My Words to Victor Frankenstein”

    Medieval Embodiment Narratives
    (The Monster is a Harbinger of Category Crisis)

    A. Frank, The Wounded Storyteller, 
    •  “Illness as a Call for Stories” 
    • “The Restitution Narrative” 
    • “Chaos Narrative”
    • “Quest Narrative”
    T. de Cartagena, Grove of the Infirm
    T. de Cartagena, Wonder at the Works of God
    M. Kempe, The Book of Margery Kempe
    T. Hoccleve, Complaint


    Part 2: How to Love a Monster
    “Fear of the Monster is Really a Kind of Desire”

    Modern Monster Narratives
    (The Monster Polices the Borders of the Possible)

    Indra Sinha, Animal’s People
    J. Demme (dir.), Beloved (1998)
    S. Myer, Twilight: New Moon (2009)
    M. Night Shyamalan, Split (2017)

    Modern Embodiment Narratives
    (The Monster Always Escapes)

    E. Clare, Exile and Pride
    M. Haddon, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night
    R.J. Palacio, Wonder
    Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016)


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