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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

For Asterion, or Why We Need Monsters

"'Hermaphrodite --1. One having the sex organs and many of the secondary sex characteristics of both male and female. 2. Anything comprised of a combination of diverse or contradictory elements. See synonyms at MONSTER.'

...she stared down at that word. Monster. Still there. It had not moved. And she wasn't reading this word on the wall of her old bathroom stall. There was graffiti in Webster's but the synonym wasn't part of it. The synonym was official, authoritative; it was the verdict that the culture gave on a person like her. Monster. That was what she was
."  --Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex, from the chapter "Looking Myself Up In Websters"

"What will my redeemer be like? I ask myself. Will he be a bull or a man? Can he possibly be a bull with a man's face? Or will he be like me?"  --Jorge Luis Borges, "The House of Asterion"

Hybrids. Chimeras. Monsters. Humanity has always been fascinated with beings that straddled the line from one thing to another. We seem obsessed with metamorphosis and transformation, with things that are suspended between states.

So why is it, I wonder, that there aren't more of us monsters running around?

Well, partly because monsters tend to be opposed by some sort of Theseus. Now, if you're not familiar, Theseus is the hero that slew the ravenous Minotaur in his labyrinth, the fearful half-man, half-bull, half-god son of the king of Crete. (The Minotaur was bonus sized, presumably. Don't think about it too hard. It'll just make your head hurt.) And, since then, the Minotaur has recurred as a symbol of the outsider, the strange hybrid, the monster. He's one of those figures that those who feel cast out of society adopt as a symbol of their own experience.
Remember when I mentioned Picasso's minotaur porn
This is what happens, albeit obliquely, in Jeffrey Eugenides's staggeringly brilliant novel Middlesex. The story is narrated by an intersexual individual named Cal. Intersexuality, or, if you really are setting out to offend people, "Hermaphroditism," is a blanket term for a number of medical conditions that result in a mixed set of male and female sexual organs or, less obviously, a weirdly mixed set of chromosomes. The point is that intersexual individuals are, one way or another, biologically in between--hybrids.

For Webster's Dictionary, and for Cal, this means being a monster.

Eugenides makes a point of underlining this idea with several important references to the Minotaur. The rather unfortunate creature's trials and tribulations are connected to Cal's, and the reader comes to understand some of the burden of being in-between.

It's a burden that has often been felt historically. Consider, for example, the resistance in America to interracial marriage. What a striking example of the fear of those who are in between states. Or compare the fear of transexuals and the fear that if one does not "pass" there may be deadly consequences. (Can you believe I wrote this article a week and a half before Tuesday's?) There is plenty of historical reason to be concerned about the potential violence of someone's reaction if they take issue with someone's swapped gender. Or consider how bisexuals have been cast out of both the straight and the gay communities. The narrative from both groups often is "Pick a side." Don't, in short, be in between.

Or consider what happens when you try to merge two academic fields.

That probably raised a few eyebrows.

In a way, it should. Dual majors are not beaten to death in the streets for daring to dress in a lab coat while reading Proust, after all. There's a whole other order of magnitude there that makes internal academic politics seem a little, well, petty.

And yet, when it's your livelyhood on the line, I'm sure it doesn't seem trivial. And from what I've seen, Academia isn't exactly friendly to monsters. Some of this will inevitably depend upon where you are, but I think it's significant that we're in a moment when people are beginning to branch out and explore mixed disciplines like art and engineering, music and neuroscience, literature and evo psych, and so on. This sort of branching, if the professors I know are right, is still rather dangerous. Some of the people I've talked to have been advised to avoid interdisciplinary research entirely until they achieve tenure--a system put in place to prevent professors from being persecuted for their political positions or teaching methods. Yes, daring to branch out of one's field can be as dangerous at an institution as, say, speaking out against the Vietnam War or rampant consumerism. Yikes.

This makes a lot of sense when you simply consider the divide between Science and Liberal Arts Theory. The Liberal Arts have leveled a whole bevy of charges against Science--against its misogyny, its ties to imperialist ideologies of cultural superiority, its blindness to its own bias, and so on--and in return Science has returned fire with the charge that the Liberal Arts consist solely of meaningless relativistic mumbo-jumbo. Frankly, both charges have merit to them, and it would serve the fields well to talk over some of these issues. But the trench warfare between the two camps is worsened by a language barrier, as both sides have in the last century (or possibly even the last half century) not just embraced but actually leaped onto their own jargon and humped it furiously. Both fields are now in a common-law marriage with incomprehensible gibberish. There's no way to communicate across disciplines.

If that wasn't bad enough, the university system is structured to economically support a limited range of departments and, within those departments, to support only a few tenured individuals who must, as the saying goes, "publish or perish." In that kind of environment, there will naturally be a tendency for the departments even within the Liberal Arts or the Sciences to battle for space and funding.

Now, in this kind of environment, how do you think a bright, up and coming Minotaur look to the humans and the bulls?

Like a damn traitor, that's how.

And none of this addresses the hideous gawping moat between the Ivory Tower and the junkyard of popular culture. The term "graphic novel" allows us to study Maus like it's real literature, and 1984 is a dystopian satire, not a science fiction novel, god forbid.

So, although my comparison of academic monsters to us social monsters might seem strange, I think it really makes perfect sense.

And exploring the gap in academia helps us understand why monsters are so absolutely essential in all areas of society.

There's a character in T.S. Eliot's massive disjointed masterpiece The Waste Land called Tiresias. He shares a mythological past with the Minotaur, although his story is one of metamorphosis rather than existence in a chimerical state. He began as a man, was transformed into a woman, transformed into a man again, blinded by Hera and given prescient visions by Zeus. Because... well, because the gods are dicks, frankly.

In Eliot's poem he occupies the center space between the other characters and, appearing in the middle section of the poem, ties the work together:

At the violet hour, when the eyes and back
Turn upward from the desk, when the human engine waits   
Like a taxi throbbing waiting,   
I Tiresias, though blind, throbbing between two lives,   
Old man with wrinkled female breasts, can see   
At the violet hour, the evening hour that strives
Homeward, and brings the sailor home from sea...

In Tiresias I think we can glimpse the importance of monsters and Minotaurs. There is a certain magic to being between states, a certain throbbing tension that suggests whole possibilities. It doesn't have to result in stasis, as it does for Eliot, or with suffering, as it does for so many of the individuals cast out from our society by their hybrid natures. No, monsters are the emissaries from foreign lands, the translation dictionaries between two disciplines or ways of life.

There's something to be said for walking a mile in another person's shoes, but there's also something to be said for walking that mile with two different people's shoes.

Not literally, of course.

You will injure yourself.

Society needs monsters; desperately, in fact. So many of the problems we face can only be approached from the perspective of a Minotaur, because both bull and human concerns need to be addressed. And will the monsters be ridiculed? Will they have trouble finding work? Will they be pepper sprayed and beaten in New York and Oakland, in their high school locker rooms, in their dorms where they think they are safe?

Oh yes.

Oh, very certainly.

But I charge you, each and every one of you, to find the monster inside. Guys? Try on a skirt. Girls? Try on some baggy cargo pants. Scientists? Try talking to some sociologist and gender studies folks. Artists? Try talking to some scientists. Non academics? Try reading some theory (not Foucault or Saussure or one of those lunatics--start with something relatively fun like Barthes).

Try doing something a little bit monstrous.

You never know, you just might like it.

And besides, I would hate to see the Theseuses of the world win. Wouldn't you?
"Would you believe it, Ariadne?" said Theseus. "The minotaur barely put up a fight."
If you like what you've read here, share it on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Reddit, Equestria Daily, Xanga, MySpace, or whathaveyou, and leave me some kind words in the comments below.

Notes:


1. Seriously, ASK before labeling an intersex individual. People are rightfully touchy about a set of terms that has been traditionally used by the medical establishment to treat them as freaks and medical curiosities.

2. Why are girl's clothes so much less functional than guy's clothes? Seriously. Whenever I wear anything feminine my pocket count is slashed in half, at minimum. It's very frustrating.

3 comments:

  1. 1.) I freaking love Middlesex, and now want to read it while wearing my white nursing lab coat.

    2.) I'm suddenly very angry at how utterly strict my curriculum was.

    3.) I'm going to wear baggy cargo pants tomorrow BECAUSE I HAVE THOSE.

    Fantastic read, old chap.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I love being a monster. It's the best way to be. And I would wear a skirt in a heartbeat if I had somewhere to store all my shit. I need pockets, though, and skirts just don't have them. I can only wear cargo pants, maybe cargo shorts (but I hate shorts, so I never wear them).

    ReplyDelete
  3. You would've made a great criminologist. You're sociological insights are generally spot-on. In criminology there's a theory (I can't remember what's it's called) that states that crime (and deviancy) is a necessary evil for a variety of reasons. One of them is that crimes challenges dominant beliefs and makes it necessary to adapt laws, often for the better (think decriminalizing gay sex).

    On a different note, in my university everyone has some kind of philosophy of science. It's mostly a guy saying what your field sucks at, which is pretty interesting.

    ReplyDelete

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