- The Monster as War Machine by Mabel Moraña
After Jeffrey Jerome Cohen edited the seminal publication, Monster Theory: Reading Culture (1996), this particular critical approach has been gaining traction in academic circles. Andrew Ascherl’s translation of Mabel Moraña’s 2017 book El monstruo como máquina de guerra is the latest entry in the conversation. In the introduction, Moraña describes the Monster as “constructed as a collage in which disparate origins and qualities come together” (13). In folklore, literature, art, and popular culture, the figure of the Monster is a complex concept, known for its hybridity and heterogeneousness. Likewise, Monster Theory can be described as a patchwork of many different critical and philosophical approaches, and Moraña’s book does a thorough job of incorporating them. As may be obvious from the work’s title, she draws from Deleuzian ideas; however, she also views monstrosity through sundry lenses such as psychoanalysis, post-Marxism, poststructuralism, deconstruction, semiotics, and postcolonialism.
Monsters appear in numerous ancient texts—Gilgamesh, Greek and Roman mythology, the Bible, Beowulf, etc.—and continue to be central characters all the way up to contemporary fiction, film, and television. Moraña begins her survey by glossing over older iterations and focusing in-depth on the Monster as it appears in the post-Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Romantic Era, the 19th century, the Modernist Era, and up to the Post-War [End Page 77] Period. After tracing the evolution of the Monster through time, she spends the next few chapters applying the aforementioned critical disciplines to Monster Theory. For those unfamiliar with Monster Theory, the first half of the book will serve as an excellent starting point. The chapters present an exhaustive summary of earlier criticisms. For the same reason, those who have had previous forays into the discipline will likely find little that has not already been said. It may instead read like a greatest-hits compilation of leading critics.
The final two chapters are where Moraña does break new ground. In “Monstrosity, Representation, and the Market,” she examines the concept of performativity and the capitalist consumption of the Monster as it “exists in the tense and contradictory interstice of the unfolding/refolding of its presence in public space” (285). Drawing examples as disparate as Michael Jackson and David Bowie, the Elephant Man, and other so-called “freaks,” zombies, and the “yuppie vampires” of 80s and 90s films such as those seen in Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire, she argues that the “visually striking, fluid, border, undecidable, countercultural image[s]” disrupt hegemonic perception of gender, sexuality, and numerous forms of Othering (288). This is complicated, however, by the capitalist space in which they exist, so that these figures are “progressively trivialized insofar as they are connected to mass markets that commodify teratological representation and submit it to the dynamics of supply and demand” (286).
The lengthiest and perhaps most innovative chapter, “Monsters on the Market,” follows, in which Moraña turns her focus towards Latin America, which is “particularly fertile ground for the absorption of the transnational discourse of monstrosity, inspiring the creation of new wondrous and terrifying prototypes of regional horror” (321). Using Alberto Moreiras’s concept of “savage hybridity,” she discusses the unique portrayal of the cyborg in Latin American literature, the vampire in Spanish-language films, and the “tropical zombie” of the Caribbean, which is much closer to its historical roots in voodoo than the monsters of George Romero’s movies and their successors in the United States and Great Britain. In each instance, the Monsters “express the discontent and rebellion of a world monstered by capitalism” (327).
Pivoting from European monsters given a cultural reworking, Moraña then turns to folklore of indigenous peoples. Specifically, she discusses the chupacabra (a ravenous hybrid possessing reptilian and canine [End Page 78] features), the jarjacha (a many-headed, nocturnal beast), the pishtaco (a creature who subsists on blood and fat of humans), and the condenado (the undead spirit of a person who has committed atrocities in life). All are...