And He was asking him, "What is your name?" And he said to Him, "My name is Multitude; for we are many."

Man & His Monsters – IV Marginality & Representation

None are better situated to tell us about this than the monsters of our stories. For centuries they have lived, and live still, in the edges of our knowledge, in the marginality of our identities – beings inhabiting the blurred spaces of our ontologies, the dark interstices of our cartographies.

This article is divided in four parts published in a row in this blog. The first part is here.



III – The Monstrous


new topologies, new margins


This questioning of Man was not the only way in which monsters restated their critical function in the face of the European explorations. The known world started being experienced as a sphere, rather than as a circular plane, and the previous centre and margins lost their symbolic charge, their geometric power.[1]


The process of European exploration should not be seen, however, as the causal motor of such change, in the same way that the changes in cartography were not simply a matter of an expanding knowledge of the land. Radical changes were taking place in the substratum of Man’s understanding, in the conditions of his possibility to know. These changes, that have been better described by Foucault,[2] consist mainly in the shift from a mode of understanding and experiencing the world based on the resemblance and similitude of things, to one framed by identity, difference and taxonomic ordering, all operating in a plane of representation.


With these changes, and with the dislodging of the cartographic centre, did monsters lost their marginality when they fled the cartographic peripheries on the verge of dissipation? Did they stop being the brinks that supported Man in his solidity? No; it is not simply that margins disappeared, that the Other stopped having a function. Margins disappeared in their cartographical symbolism because this symbolism disappeared altogether. But they reemerged as the limits of and lacunas in representation.


With the translation of margins, we have the migration of monsters: they will now start inhabiting the margins of representation. These margins are not less concrete than the previous cartographical ones; operating conceptually, they do not play a less important role in defining what is the centre.



monsters as the limit to the other


If the fifteenth- and sixteenth-centuries testified to a change in the shapes and forms of monsters, if they saw the basilisk and other symbolically powerful beasts being left behind and replaced by monstrosities at birth, by conjoined twins, by two-headed babies or eight membered children, it was because not all of the old monsters could live in these new places, in the new margins. It is true that these centuries witnessed an explosion of monstrosities within their own domain – Europe, that is; but this is precisely because a new topology asked for new forms of inhabitants.


Both before and after this period of exploration, monsters were not located outside of the realm of the human: they were to be found on its limits. In fact, it is not «by simple opposition that Man defines itself in relation to monsters, but by a complex system of affinities with figures (among which one can find the animal and the divinity) that maintain stable structural distances with the situation he occupies.»[3] Thus the monster emerges by approximation to that which must be kept afar – the bestial, the divine, the demoniacal. God, demons and animals are already radically others, beyond Man. The menace of alterity appears in the interval between them and Man.[4]



representing monsters


How is it that monsters exist in the margins of representation? Nobody has been able to explain it better than José Gil, in his consideration of the figure of the dwarf in Vélasquez’s Las Meninas. While Foucault, who used the same painting as a concentrated expression of the conceptual laws of representation, ignored the figure of Pertusato,[5] Gil focuses on him to show the relation between Monsters and Representation. The dwarf disrupts the order of representation. As a monster he is already a decomposed being, but one outside of the rules of perspective. The monster disregards the harmony of parts, the proportions of shape, the dimensions of the body.[6]


The passage from an episteme based on resemblance to one centered on representation meant that things and symbols had to be pulled apart so that signified and signifier could be established without confusion. For representation to take place it had, then, to fulfil three conditions: a) the meaning of the thing captured in the image (in the signifier) could not depend upon intrinsic qualities of the image, i.e. there must be a rupture between the image as pure sign and its meaning, b) one must be able to have a new instrument of knowledge applicable to all things and c) the being of the object must be completely reinstatable through this instrument and it must be recognizable through a logic relation between symbols (rather than by a net of relations between things).


The monster, here in the figure of Pertusato, appears with a two-folded relation with representation. As something that does not respect perspective, that escapes its vanishing point, he establishes himself as a vanishing point of representation itself. He goes against representation in his deformity, not being captured by the laws of reproduction. But by doing so, by functioning as something that escapes representation, Pertusato comes to reify the first condition mentioned above, and, therefore, allow the two that follow. For by disrupting the image, by decontextualizing the objects, he, as a monster, denies the laws of perspective according to which the ‘real’ must be controlled and made true, and emerges as that which is necessary to deny, so as to establish the realm of representation.





The turn of representation marks the end of the Renaissance. We have seen how monsters have changed both in space and shape, but also how they maintained some of their roles. This inquiry has been incomplete and fragmented, leading to lines of flight for future thought.


The first possibility left open is that the Renaissance inaugurates Nature as a form of validation of Man’s place. Nowadays, in a world filled with fantastic monsters, biology seems to have lost its capability to give us ontological safety. But when did natural explanation start having this function?


The second problem is the way in which the shift to the representational episteme affected monsters in their future path. If it is true that monsters would soon come to lose their monstrosity – and in fact there is nothing monstrous in the study of monstrosity that goes by the name of teratology – then the roots for this change have to be found in the possibilities of change opened by this episteme.


Finally, we have the questions of the contemporary role of monsters. At a time when all meta-narratives seem to crumble, new problems start to emerge regarding our identity. Much as the Natural, the Divine, the Preternatural and Man saw themselves caught in a dance of tensions, blurred spaces and uncertainties, we now see Technology, Nature and Humanity failing to give answers about our place, or even our Us.


None are better situated to tell us about this than the monsters of our stories. For centuries they have lived, and live still, in the edges of our knowledge, in the marginality of our identities – beings inhabiting the blurred spaces of our ontologies, the dark interstices of our cartographies.


[1] Daston & Parks (1999) 175

[2] Foucault (1973)

[3] Gil (2006), 14-15

[4] Ibid.,16-17

[5] Portillo (2002)

[6] Gil (2006), 62-3


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