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The Monster's Role in Defining the Human

What role has the monster played in the way humans define themselves? How has the image of the deformed human body changed over time? These are a few of the questions that Jonnie Eriksson highlights in his thesis "Monstrosity & Man".

In his 720-page dissertation Jonnie Eriksson, who works at the School of Humanities at Halmstad University, delves deep in history describing the science of malformations, teratology, from the late 1500s up to the late 1900s.
“People have had different ways of reacting to misshapen and deformed bodies and the interesting thing is, when studying the view of the monster, we problematize the view of man", says Jonnie Eriksson. “The image of the monstrous body that exceeds the boundaries of nature and of the species, brings the relationship between man and the animal kingdom, as well as that between man and woman, to a head."
“Today the image of a monster is mainly portrayed by the media in films, computer games or as a rhetoric figure involved in crime and evil, as titillating entertainment. However, thoughts concerning the natural and inhuman have been many throughout history. It has been a real adventure to find all these ways to look at something that we today hardly reflect upon," says Jonnie Eriksson.

Signs from God

There are many philosophical traditions when looking at the monstrous human body. These include the naturalistic way, where deformity is considered a necessary part of nature; the humanistic way, where the monster is considered a threat within man's own diversity; and the hermeneutic way, where one tries to find a sense of purpose and reason for such abnormalities, for example as proof of God's power.
“In ancient civilisations, as in Babylonia, deformities were considered a sign from the Gods. Various deformities were interpreted in different ways, e.g. calves born with two heads had a certain political significance. A great deal of detail and careful interpretations were made on just how they were deformed and what it meant."

Forming the “inhuman"

In his thesis, Jonnie Eriksson focuses on the humanistic tradition, in particularly two French figures that represent two contrasting sides of humanism: Ambroise Paré and Gilles Deleuze. Paré lived in the 16th century and is regarded as the father of modern surgery, while Deleuze is counted among the most influential postwar French philosophers.
Jonnie Eriksson shows how the monster in humanistic philosophy has been given the role of the inhuman. He also shows how humanism's thoughts have developed in relation to the monstrous and abnormal.
“People have tried to define the human by alienating the inhuman. However, there is a risk with this, when you find the “inhuman" in humans, it must be erased," says Jonnie. “History has taught us the atrocities of witchcraft trials, eugenics and the Jewish Holocaust. However, the questions are also relevant regarding today's pre-natal diagnosis and genetic engineering."

New opportunity

According to Jonnie Eriksson, humanism's estimation of man has meant that the monster has been pushed aside in the establishment of a “normality", in order to determine what a human and natural life is.
Perhaps now in a post-modern era, we can consider the monster in a positive way. By not sticking to a fixed image of humanity and being open to the “non-human", we can be open for different ways of being. So maybe we do not need to put the human and the humane at the top of the pile. The post-human condition, which the monster is showing us, is perhaps a new ecological opportunity", says Jonnie Eriksson
Text and Image: IDA LÖVSTÅL

The thesis “Monstrosity & Man. Paré, Deleuze and Teratological Traditions in French Philosophy, from Renaissance Humanism to Posthumanism" was presented at Lund's University in November 2010.

(Caption)  Jonnie Eriksson thesis is a history of ideas, delving into the science of abnormalities, teratology.


Jonnie Eriksson

Updated 2018-02-21