Nonetheless, Jolie's seductive characterization poses a question: Is the line dividing the sublime from the monstrous really all that clear? According to the filmmakers, not so much. Jeffrey J. Cohen, director of the Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute at George Washington University, agrees. In the interview below, Cohen argues that monsters inhabit a liminal space in medieval literature, whereby the social orders from which they've been exiled become sites of continual contestation. Think the same could be said of the "monsters" hiding beneath our uniquely American mattresses?
Q: Taking seriously the idea that alterities, in terms of identity constructs, are not monolithic, what do the monsters in Beowulf—Grendel, Grendel's mother, and the dragon—reveal about the mediation of estrangement in the medieval English imaginary, and how does that fit within more general trajectories of 'the inhuman'?
A: Thanks for the invitation to make a grand, transhistorical (and ultimately insufficient) claim about the state of being human. Humanity has never been all it's promised to be. We are always already estranged. But that's not a bad thing: Our distance from ourselves, our essential inhumanity, is a source of joy and art, as well as anxiety.
Cultures tend to think of themselves as set apart from others, as unique and likely superior. Heroic individuals carry an extra burden of differentiation within that group. The monster threatens to swallow those fragile differences—sometimes quite literally, as Grendel is fond of ingesting his cannibalistic meals all the way to hands and feet. This forced becoming-monster of the warriors he ingests suggests that the line between the two was always tentative, always inadequate. And look at his mother: What has she done wrong? She is angry that her only son has been killed. She attacks the hall to take proper vengeance for her loss, one life for one life. She retrieves her son's arm to keep with his cadaver, rebuking its use as a mere trophy (its use as a part of someone else's story, not hers). For this comprehensible act she is murdered in her underwater hall. Grendel and his mother are the closest thing we get to an aboriginal presence in the text. They inhabit the murky and discomforting space where one people explores its foundational violence toward others.
The dragon is just as complicated. He guards his treasure as a dragon should and takes vengeance when his precious objects are plundered—that is, when he is drawn into a human story from which he'd prefer to remain aloof. It's unclear that the elderly Beowulf (who admittedly has had his home burned) should attack the creature in return. At least, that's what the survivors assert, since they are facing genocide as a result of his death at the dragon's fangs. The poem Beowulf is entrancingly ambivalent, loving the things it consigns to oblivion. It's as bleak as King Lear, but a song of mixed elements, unlike Shakespeare's drenched play.
So, when you ask about the general trajectories of 'the inhuman', all I can say is that if monsters are always knocking down the doors we've barred against them and ravaging our homes, then their repeated arrival might also being telling us that we've never been able to possess solitary and circumscribed lives for long.
Q: Sticking with Beowulf for a minute, you've previously written that Grendel "is a cultural Other for whom conformity to societal dictates is an impossibility because those dictates are not comprehensible to him." Can you expound upon the threat posed by monsters, like Grendel, to social authority, particularly with regard to the role of abjection in narratizing selfhood?
A: I'd want to qualify that statement by underscoring that I meant that Grendel is imagined as the one for whom law and the social order are incomprehensible. He's a projection of a dominating culture's values onto an outsider, an indigenous figure, perhaps, whose supposed ignorance of how the world works is what allows the taking of his land and life. But from another point of view, Grendel understands exactly what he is doing. He intrudes into the hall of Heorot just as the creation narrative of Genesis is being sung. That story, if it had been continued, would turn to Cain's murder of Abel and the curse that God places upon him as a result. Let's not forget that Cain doesn't accept his curse quietly—"My punishment is greater than I can bear!" he declares, and God listens to him, marks him, and preserves him. Does Grendel, son of Cain, get to complain? A little: As he dies, he delivers an unrecorded song (the Old English word is sweg). Though typically translated as "howl" or "scream," the word has to do with melody, and I don't think those dying words lack content, even if no one wants to hear what he sings. So, the threat of the monster might be to expose the violence through which social orders are established and the abjections by which community solidifies. Grendel's song is rather similar, I think, to Cain's complaint, except no God is attentive to him.
Q: Can medieval monsters be said to inhabit a similar space as Agamben's homo sacer, whereby they are included within the homopolitical, social, or even juridical order by their exclusion from these realms, such that monsters not only disfigure, but mirror the normative politics from which they've been expelled?
A: The short answer is yes. In my own work I haven't used Agamben's writing all that much, perhaps because I am less interested in biopolitics (which can end up being anthropocentric in ways that render arguments foregone conclusions) than what is being called "speculative realism" and "object-oriented ontology." I'm finding writers like Graham Harman and Levi Bryant (and before them, Bruno Latour) more useful for itinerant modes of thought.
So, the monster is a regulatory device: It warns us to adopt proper modes of relating to the social or risk outlawry, loss of humanity. But the monster is also an invitation. He or she compels us to tread the paths that are supposed to be forbidden ("Stay off the moors!") and to wander sublime spaces where maybe our lives are in peril, but maybe also a more capaciously framed mode of experiencing reality is evident. One way to look at the werewolf is as a normalizing mechanism—control your body or risk animality. But there is another way to see that creature (and I love that word "creature" because it means a thing that will have been created; creature has the future perfect tense of the the Latin verb "to create" embedded within it). The werewolf is the one who knows the pull of the moon, the pleasures of the sublunary, the vastness of the world at night, the fact that the wilderness is not external to the city or the civilized body. We don't have to choose rejecting or romanticizing the monster, since both of those possibilities are inevitably in play.
Q: Okay, switching gears. How can an understanding of medieval cultural heterogeneity and identity formation create space for re-ontologizing postcolonial temporalities and pluralizing postcolonial futures?
A: Like all of your questions, that's a difficult one, more worthy of a book than a brief response. I have tried in my work to develop the idea of the 'midcolonial': We are never post-anything, strictly speaking; temporality is thick; the present carries within it a multiplicity of nonsuperseded pasts and is pregnant with numerous futures that can connect to those pasts in various ways. My colleague, Jonathan Gil Harris, is good at mapping the potential explosivity of such temporal touching in his book Untimely Matter, one of my favorite investigations of time's substantiality. The Middle Ages as middle to nothing in particular is useful for making these points as well. Even if medieval theologians tended to think of time as a bounded eternity outside of which God sees all (thus eroding the distinction among past, present, and future), there were also more speculative modes of thinking about time's complicated machines, typically in genres like romance, secular history, and ethnography. The Middle Ages were just as complicated and just as midcolonial as this future of theirs that we inhabit right now.
Q: How has medieval theory rehistoricized signifiers of political contestation—race, gender, nationalism, etc.—in a manner that amplifies competing, even agonistic, discourses, without abrogating material objects or corporeal difference?
A: Any medievalist who pays sufficient attention to colleagues in fields like postcolonial theory, critical race studies, disability studies, gender theory, you name it, knows that race, gender, nationalism, identity are (1) always Big Designators that hide a diversity of competing interests; (2) knowable only in their local interactions through analyses that foreground the uneven workings of power; (3) nonetheless heavy with history in ways that demand that local specificities be in constant conversation with longer durations. Look at any identity category long enough and it breaks down into conflict, competition, heterogeneity. Bodily difference and materiality don't get abrogated through such analysis, but attended to.They speak.
Q: Finally, media- and state-sanctioned security metanarratives often describe international conflicts, like the "War on Terror" in terms of religious tension, particularly with regard to a perceived "clash of civilizations" between the West and Islam. What does medievalist scholarship teach us about the Eurocentric bias and false homogenization the heart of these views, as well as the origins of modern Orientalism?
A: That question has preoccupied some very smart medievalists, most notably Bruce Holsinger and (in an excellent essay just out in PMLA) Geraldine Heng. Suzanne Conklin Akbari also has a very good book on how medieval orientalisms differed from, yet still connect to contemporary ones. Stephanie Trigg and Tom Prendergast have done a convincing job of arguing that medieval studies itself is a form of medievalism, so why not embrace the fact that our profession is part of current, as well as ancient, history, and bring our expertise to bear upon urgent issues like how the clash of civilizations model arose, why it circulates, what damage it accomplishes. The question of who will listen to us at a time when anti-intellectualism is rampant is salient, but that doesn't mean we should stop talking.
And no matter what our topic, no matter what its relevance to international conflicts and noxious prejudices, I do think that medievalists (like all who make their living as intellectuals) are called to a conversation without end about what constitutes an ethical and humane world, and how we bring about a more just future, and how the study of the distant past can assist that project.