In the latter half of the 16th century, Irene Ewinkel writes, a large number of flysheets were published proclaiming the occurrence of so-called miracle births. Interpreted as a sign of divine wrath, these miracle births stand in a long tradition of prophetic doom lore ranging back to Antiquity and used in the 16th century largely by Protestants. Her study investigates the theological foundations underlying the range of interpretations applied to the "monsters", the changing function of these interpretations in the course of 16th century socio-political context and the place they occupy within the discourse of that time on natural history... (Irene Ewinkel, De monstris. Niemeyer Verlag, 1995)
Because those scholars assumed the order of time and world, of society and of nature alike, to be determined by God, they used to understand the monsters as divine means of communication marking the faults, mistakes and sins of man. However, the addressees of such communication were different groups within society, according to different interpretations. Interestingly, the illustrations served medical research, and philosophers consider them a bridge between the Aristotelian theory of natural causes and the theological theories of the significance of prodigies. The theories of imagination in the 16th century bear witness to this debate, as do the prosecutions of witches. Later, Descartes has a less easily defined concept of such appearances:
"Lorsque la premiere rencontre de quelque objet nous surprend, et que nous le jugeons etre nouveau, ou fort different de ce que nous connaissons auparavant ou bien de ce que nous supposions qu'il devait etre, cela fait que nous l'admirons et en sommes etonnes; et parce que cela peut arriver avant que nous connaissions aucunement si cet objet nous est convenable ou s'il ne l'est pas, il me semble que l'admiration est la premiere de toutes les passions; et elle n'a point de contraire, a cause que, si l'objet qui se presente n'a rien en soi qui nous surprenne, nous n'en sommes aucunement emus et nous le considerons sans passion." (René Descartes, art. 53, Les passions de l'ame)But let's weave one recent thread of the Derrida list into this. In turning back to where we are, let us consider the evidence of the new, the recent or even the future. In "The Nature of Language", _On the Way to Language_ (p.85), Heidegger writes: "The abiding turn, back to where we already are, is infinitely harder than are hasty excursions to places where we are not yet and never will be, except perhaps as the monstrous creatures of technology, assimilated to machines."
But are machines embodiments either of punishment for human mistakes, or as possessed by evil spirits? No, in many ways machines are the least monstrous, for they are the predictable, calculable, and programmable tomorrow. "The monster is also that which appears for the first time and, consequently, is not yet recognized." (JD) Whether you attempt to read the odd significance into them or derive from them a genealogy of evil, you will have failed to address the fact that monsters are monsters only as long as they are not domesticated. Here's JD as interviewed by Elisabeth Weber:"What is the relation between what you call the monsters of your writing and the memory of this absence of power?"
JD: If there were monsters there, the fact that this writing is prey to monsters or to its own monsters would indicate by the same token powerlessness. One of the meanings of the monstrous is that it leaves us without power, that it is precisely too powerful or in any case too threatening for the powers-that-be. Notice I say: if there were monsters in this writing. But the notion of the monster is rather difficult to deal with, to get a hold on, to stabilize. A monster may be obviously a composite figure of heterogeneous organisms that are grafted onto each other. This graft, this hybridisation, this composition that puts heterogeneous bodies together may be called a monster. This in fact happens in certain kinds of writing. At that moment, monstrosity may reveal or make one aware of what normality is.
Faced with a monster, one may become aware of what the norm is an when this norm has a history - which is the case with discursive norms, philosophical norms, socio-cultural norms, they have a history - any appearance of monstrosity in this domain allows an analysis of the history of the norms. But to do that, one must conduct not only a theoretical analysis; one must produce what in fact looks like a discursive monster so that the analysis will be a practical effect, so that people will be forced to become aware of the history of normality.
But a monster is not just that, it is not just this himerical figure in some way that grafts one animal onto another, one living being onto another. A monster is always alive, let us not forget. Monsters are living beings. The monster is also that which appears for the first time and, consequently, is not yet recognized. A monster is a species for which we do not yet have a name, which does not mean that the species is abnormal, namely, the composition or hybridisation of already known species. Simply, it shows itself [elle se montre] - that is what the word monster means - it shows itself in something that is not yet shown and that therefore looks like a hallucination, it strikes the eye, it frightens precisely because no anticipation had prepared one to identify this figure. One cannot say that things of this type happen here and there. I do not believe for example that this happens purely and simply in certain of my texts, as you said, or else it happens in many texts.
The coming of the monster submits to the same law as the one we were talking about concerning the date. But as soon as one perceives a monster in a monster, one begins to domesticate it, one begins, because of the "as such" - it is a monster as monster - to compare it to the norms, to analyse it, consequently to master whatever could be terrifying in this figure of the monster. And the movement of accustoming oneself, but also of legitimation and, consequently, of normalization, has already begun. One begins to repeat the traumatism that is the perception of the monster. Rather than writing monstrous texts, I think that I have, more than once, used the word monster to describe the situation I am now talking about. I think that somewhere in Of Grammatology I said, or perhaps it's at the end of Writing and Difference, that the future is necessarily monstrous: the figure of the future, that is, that which can only be surprising, that for which we are not prepared, you see, is heralded by species of monsters. A future that would not be monstrous would not be a future; it would already be a predictable, calculable, and programmable tomorrow. All experience open to the future is prepared or prepares itself to welcome the monstrous arrivant, to welcome it, that is, to accord hospitality to that which is absolutely foreign or strange, but also, one must add, to try to domesticate it, that is, to make it part of the household and have it assume the habits, to make us assume new habits. This is the movement of culture.
Texts and discourses that provoke at the outset reactions of rejection, that are denounced precisely as anomalies or monstrosities are often texts that, before being in turn appropriated, assimilated, acculturated, transform the nature of the field of reception, transform the nature of social and cultural experience, historical experience. All of history has shown that each time an event has been produced, for example in philosophy or in poetry, it took the form of the unacceptable, or even of the intolerable, of the incomprehensible, that is, of a certain monstrosity."
(Passages - from Traumatism to Promise, in E. Weber, ed.: POINTS-INTERVIEWS 1974-1994, Stanford UP 1995, 385-387)
That should be almost exhaustive. Horace's normative poetics ends when he proclaims that other monster, the parasite, which as a figure has played a major role in Derrida's work too. The mad poet, Horace warns, doesn't want to be rescued from the pits he falls into, and we should not follow him:
"He will fasten on to anyone he manages to catch, and read him to death - just like a leech that will not drop off your skin until it is gorged with blood."
"He will fasten on to anyone he manages to catch, and read him to death - just like a leech that will not drop off your skin until it is gorged with blood."© for this homepage: Peter Krapp