On Monsters by Stephen Asma | Book Review

Stephen Asma’s On Monsters offers an enjoyable, if somewhat fractured, survey of monsterology through the ages. Monsters pre-date horror films and ghost stories. The concept of the “monstrous” has always been part of human experience. Each age understands monsters differently. The first half of On Monsters explores evolving understandings of monsters. In general, monsters stand outside normal experience. Monsters personify those things we do not or cannot understand. Monsters are a manifest acknowledgement of the limits of human understanding. As these limits change, our monsters change. Monsters dwell in the places we believe to be unknowable.

For the ancients, the unknowable places were empty spots on the map. This gave us the great sea monsters and terrible, cannibalistic races that inhabited the oceans and unfamiliar continents.

In Biblical times, monsters were agents of God, mysterious and unfathomable. Think Leviathan.

The earliest monsters were thought to be part of the natural order. They walked among us and lived in places we could not or should not go.

Medieval monsters were supernatural – witches and demons. They didn’t live in a special place of their own. They lived everywhere and regularly intervened in the lives of the non-righteous.

With the Enlightenment, came the medical fascination with mutation and physical aberration in the human family. “Monsters” were no longer mythical. They were miscreants, captured and preserved in jars, and offering a measure of enjoyable frisson for collectors of oddities and the paying customers of these collections. The Mutter Museum is one of the most famous collections.

Over the past 200 years or so, our ideas about monsters have become internalized and have represented what we believe we cannot understand about ourselves. Modern times have been preoccupied with psychological monsters, like serial killers, tyrants and sociopaths.

Asma is at his best theorizing on the horror genre as the “art of human vulnerability”. He is particularly clever in his discussion of slasher films and “torture porn” and how they either explore or exploit the understood limits of human vulnerability to either empower or debase.

The second half of the book is less successful. Asma struggles with contemporary notions of the monstrous in the fields of cosmetic surgery, terrorism, robots and cyborgs. This is fertile ground for exploration but he does not bring these threads to any satisfying conclusion.

For most of human history, monsters were aberrations from the intended order of things. With the advent of biotechnologies and cybernetics we are faced with the possibility that there may be no final intended order of things. If there is no intended order to things, then some would suggest there can be no monsters. Everything becomes monstrous. Asma does not reject the promise of the new technologies to improve the quality of human life. But neither is he willing to abandon the concept of the monstrous as a useful indication of something still somewhat poorly defined.

What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (a mid-book review)

I am halfway through Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. Carr is the guy who wrote the excellent Atlantic essay “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” several years ago in which he documented his personal sense that reading online was somehow ruining his familiar mental habits — namely, concentration and focus. “Ruining”, I thought at the time, was an unfairly harsh term. He takes a more nuanced, thoughtful approach to his own experience of reading in the book-length study.

Page 125 of a 224 page book is not the ideal place from which to write a review. That said, I am ready to recommend this book to anyone who wants to understand what is probably happening to us in the age of ubiquitous internet access. Carr’s argument expands on the theme established in his Atlantic essay: the internet is destroying our ability to read deeply and engage with text-based narrative in a linear, hierarchical, rational fashion. Hypertext and multimedia “enhanced” text is changing the experience of reading and rewiring the way our minds are able to read.

The Atlantic essay struck me as alarmist, reactionary even. The Shallows places the new ways of thinking engendered by the internet into the context of other mind-altering technologies that actually changed the way our brains worked: the alphabet, numbers, the map, the clock, the codex. Carr examines how these new technologies of intellect have made entirely new thought processes possible and, thus, altered physical structures in the human mind. These changes play out over the course of millennia but they also play out in the course of a human lifetime. In the case of the internet, these changes may play out in a matter of days or weeks.

There’s a lot of strong scholarship in this book. I will come back for a better review 100 pages from now. For now, I just want to share how impressed I am with Carr’s ability to summarize the history of technological innovation, describe how it works and create a meaningful context that is value-neutral and does not necessarily crown contemporary humans as the apotheosis of what we will become. We are not necessarily destined to remain as we are. We are most likely destined to continue our process of becoming something else. This has happened before. It is going to happen again.

Carr says it better. Here’s a great passage from his chapter on the history of reading aloud vs. reading alone:

Like our forebears during the later years of the Middle Ages, we find ourselves today between two technological worlds. After 550 years, the printing press and its products are being pushed from the center of our intellectual life to its edges. The shift began during the middle years of the twentieth century, when we started devoting more and more of our time and attention to the cheap, copious, and endlessly entertaining products of the first wave of electric and electronic media: radio, cinema, phonograph, television. But those technologies were always limited by their inability to transmit the written word. They could displace but not replace the book. Culture’s mainstream still ran through the printing press.

Now the mainstream is being diverted, quickly and decisively, into a new channel. The electronic revolution is approaching its culmination as the computer — desktop, laptop, handheld — becomes our constant companion and the Internet becomes our medium of choice for storing, processing, and sharing information in all forms, including text. The new world will remain, of course, a literate world, packed with the familiar symbols of the alphabet. We cannot go back to the lost oral world, any more than we can turn the clock back to a time before the clock existed. “Writing and printing and the computer,” writes Walter Ong, “are all ways of technologizing the word”; and once technologized, the word cannot be de-technologized. But the world of the screen, as we’re already coming to understand, is a much different place from the world of the page. A new intellectual ethic is taking hold. The pathways in our brains are once again being rerouted. (77)

This is a very enjoyable, well-researched, well-built study. I just hope there are still people out there able to sit still long enough to enjoy it.

Jonah Lehrer is still okay with me

Jonah Lehrer may or may not be a dirty, low down self-plagiarist. I don’t care. I’m not feeling the kind of outrage that is circling the blogosphere. It is probably unwise to cut and paste choice quotes, even your own, from one online publication to another. It certainly seems a lazy thing to do and hurts the credibility of a brand that depends entirely on credibility  (Lehrer as “idea man”).

I still like Jonah Lehrer. I was reading Imagine: How Creativity Works when all of this blew up. The book is insightful and offers inspiring thoughts on how creativity works and can be made to work better. Here are a few things I carried away:

  • Creators don’t always have to understand the meaning of what they create. Sometimes the work is better when they don’t. See Bob Dylan.
  • The mind only creates new things when it is able to idle and assimilate ideas, thoughts and experiences.
  • We learn best through play.
  • Social networks, particularly weak ties, are essential for generating and executing new ideas.
  • Humans are social. We create more effectively when we interact with other people.
  • Criticism is good. Brainstorming is bad.
  • Our history is punctuated with periods of excess genius. These periods can be studied, understood and, possibly replicated.
  • Shakespeare wasn’t a fluke but he might not happen again.

I plan to read How We Decide soon. I will reserve judgment until I find out if that is the same book with a different cover. If so, no mercy. Until then, Jonah Lehrer is okay with me.