American Studies
Film Studies
Television Studies
Media Studies
Game Studies

Animal Monsters: The Animal Other and What It Means to be Human

"Monster theory" (as Jeffrey J. Cohen has it) may be categorized into two (not necessarily mutually exclusive) camps: the monster as the Other (arguably championed by Robin Wood's early writings on American horror cinema) and the monster as a liminal figure (exemplified by Cohen's theses on monstrosity). Animal monsters such as the great white shark in Jaws (1975) would, at first glance, fall into the former category, while the bio-engineered, human-sized and human-shaped cockroaches in Mimic (1997) would belong in the latter category. Regardless of categorization, however, both Jaws's great white and Mimic's roaches are considered monstrous and, as such, they symbolize various fears. Scholars have variously argued that the shark "reflects a disguised hatred of women and the preoccupation of our society with sadistic sexuality" (Rubey 1976: 20), becomes "a full-blown male nightmare" (Caputi [1978] 2004: 35), or serves as a symbolic tale of America's failures in Vietnam, which narrates an "obvious wish fulfillment narrative of the annihilation of a murderous, devious and implacable enemy" (Torry 1993: 27). Mimic's cockroaches, on the other hand, have been interpreted as mere tools in the struggle between masculinity and femininity (Belmont 2007: 364–365) and as vehicles which communicate fears surrounding "current advances in scientific technology centering on issues of fertility and infertility" (George 2001: 171), while simultaneously (re-)telling the (typically American) 'civilized humanity masters the unknown'-narrative re-framed as New Yorkers conquering the city's subway tunnels. Such interpretations demonstrate how animal Others are embedded in anthropocentric discourses, whereby the non-human is first and foremost a function of the human. The monsters are afforded no autonomous role, but merely seen to function as vehicles for conceptualizing, understanding, and knowing the human.

Drawing on recent scholarship in critical animal studies, ecocriticism, the posthuman, digital cinema, and eco-cinema, while also showing an awareness of classics such as Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari's reflections on "becoming-animal," Donna Haraway, Val Plumwood, and Sigmund Freud's incessant use of animal metaphors, this project will explore the meanings of animal monsters. Far beyond simple villainous Others, the project will argue, these 'monsters' often come to embody not only ecological questions but also the fundamental question what makes us human. Indeed, the most progressive uses of animal monsters, as this project will show, try to strip away their semantic layers in an attempt to represent (or, rather, present) the animal as-is and thereby challenge human dominance.

Publications

"When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth? Digital Animals, Simulation, and the Return of 'Real Nature' in the Jurassic Park Movies," On_Culture: The Open Journal for the Study of Culture no. 2 (2016), online.
"'They are a fact of life out here': The Ecocritical Subtexts of Three Early-Twenty-First-Century Aussie Animal Horror Movies," in Animal Horror Cinema: Genre, History and Criticism, ed. Katarina Gregersdotter, Nicklas Hållén, and Johan Höglund (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan), pp. 37-57.

Presentations

"Animal Horror" in the Lecture Series "Horror in Visual Media" at the University of Klagenfurt, Klagenfurt (Austria), December 7, 2016
"Dawn of the Zoocene? When Humans Lose Control (in Zoo)" at the 21st World Congress of the International Comparative Literature Association, University of Vienna, Vienna (Austria), July 23, 2016
"Becoming the Shark and/vs. Controlling the Shark: Jaws Unleashed and the Animal Avatar" at the symposium "Beasts of the Deep: Sea Creatures and Popular Culture," St. Mary's University, Twickenham, London (UK), June 4, 2016
"'You must never listen to this!' vs. 'Don't you let her look!': The Sounds (and the Lack thereof) of Eating Humans in Grizzly Man and Frozen" at "Soundscapes and Sonic Cultures in America," the 42nd Annual Conference of the Austrian Association for American Studies, University of Graz (Austria), November 8, 2015

Video Games & Intermediality

Publications

"'It's like Groundhog Day': Remediation, Trauma, and Quantum Physics in Time Loop Narratives on Recent American Television," GRAAT On-Line: A Journal of Anglophone Studies vol. 15, pp. 93-113.
"'My name is Alan Wake. I'm a writer.': Crafting Narrative Complexity in the Age of Transmedia Storytelling," in Game On, Hollywood! Essays on the Intersection of Video Games and Cinema, ed. Gretchen Papazian & Joseph Michael Sommers. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, pp. 144-155.
"Hauntings: Uncanny Doubling in Alan Wake and Supernatural," Textus: English Studies in Italy vol. 25, no. 3 (2012), pp. 63-74.
"A Different Kind of Monster: Uncanny Media and Alan Wake's Textual Monstrosity," in Contemporary Research on Intertextuality in Video Games, ed. Christophe Duret & Christian-Marie Pons (Hershey, PA: IGI Global, 2016), pp. 39-53.

Conference Presentations

"Comics Aesthetics in Video Games: Intermediality—Remediation—Transmediality" at the 2013 International Society of Intermediality Studies conference, "Rethinking Intermediality in the Digital Age," Cluj-Napoca, Romania, October 25, 2013

"'It's not a lake. It's an ocean.': Alan Wake, (Meta-)Transmedia Storytelling, and (Meta-)Media Convergence" at the conference "Storyworlds across Media: Mediality, Multimodality, Transmediality," Mainz, Germany, July 2, 2011

Monstrous Media: Horror Cinema & the Media

Bram Stoker's Dracula was the first truly modern horror tale. Alongside Frankenstein, the novel—and its titular monster—has influenced the horror genre to this day, as is clear from the innumerable adaptations, remakes, and "re-imaginings" of the story. However, in the context of this study, it is important to highlight Dracula's near-obsession with media (technologies): Stoker's book is composed of the journal entries, letters, newspaper clippings, and professional records the vampire hunters have collected; the hunters employ telegraphs in order to communicate; and Dr. Seward's oral notes are recorded by a stenograph.

Several scholars have commented on this phenomenon. For example, in an essay in English Literary History, Jennifer Wicke notes, "Nineteenth-century diaristic and epistolary effusion is invaded by cutting edge technology, in a transformation of the generic materials of the text into a motley fusion of speech and writing, recording and transcribing, image and typography" (1992: 570). Similarly, in his book chapter in Post/Modern Dracula, David Punter concludes that this obsession with technology represents the rationality of modernity, which provides a stark contrast to the unknowable future (2007: 35), while Richard Menke has more recently suggested that technology helps defeat the Count and the irrational times he embodies (2008: 10). While this may be true of the specific case of Dracula, in his book Haunted Media (2000), Jeffrey Sconce convincingly demonstrates that media have regularly been depicted as possessing some type of magic, an irrational element, or an uncanny presence.

This project will show that this uncanny presence frequently transforms media and media technologies into monsters by tracing the use of media in horror cinema across a wide range of examples, including the use of book pages in Carl Theodor Dreyer's Vampyr (1932), Night of the Living Dead's (1968) employment of television to spread the news of a zombie threat, the extremely meta-cinematic horror movies of the 1980s and beyond, and Cloverfield's (2007) working through the virtual trauma of 9/11 by effectively resurrecting a post-WWII monster seen through the viewfinder of a handheld camera. Using these examples, the book will suggest answers to the question of why media (technologies) so often become monstrous.

Playing (with) America: Video Games, Performance, and the American Imaginary

America is, to draw on Jean Baudrillard's travelogue (of sorts) Amérique, a fiction. Yet, as the French intellectual is quick to point out, "[F]iction is not imagination. It is what anticipates imagination by giving it the form of reality" (1988: 95). In this way, "The American way of life is spontaneously fictional, since it is a transcending of the imaginary in reality" (1988: 25). Invented during the journey across the Atlantic (if not earlier), founded during the signing of the Declaration of Independence, tested during the Cold War, emblem of free trade, symbol of First World dominance, bringer of freedom, threat to sovereignty, 'America' may not necessarily be what we want it to be, but it is defined by contradictions, as none other than Walt Whitman noted more than 150 years ago.

Yet despite these contradictions, America is simultaneously founded on a number of unifying "principles" and "ideas," as J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur understood even before the nation called 'United States of America' came into existence. These principles and ideas have since been parlayed across the world through tales (consider movies sporting such telling titles as Independence Day and The Pursuit of Happiness) and (mediated) performances (think of the Super Bowl and its pre-game and half-time performances, or the numerous Thanksgiving episodes in various TV shows).

Admittedly, none of this is new. Indeed, some of these ideas were foundational to the discipline of American Studies. However, my project seeks to add a distinctly 21st-century perspective to these discourses by focusing on the representation and performance of America in video games. While scholars have primarily discussed the representation of America in first-person shooters, my project seeks to cast a wider web by not only investigating games from different genres and produced in different countries (Canada, Germany, and Japan, in addition to the U.S.), but also by adding the dimension of performance to the question of representation. Video games, I will show, allow players to perform and, thus, (virtually) experience America. Whereas this sometimes means following predetermined paths that unquestionably celebrate America, other games force players to perform clearly anti- (or, rather, counter-)American actions, and still other examples are more open and allow players to make their choices in defining America. In either case, though, any repetition of what Susanne Hamscha has referred to as "foundational scenarios of Americanness" (2013), no matter how critical they may seem to be, help cement specific images of America and thus perpetuate American ideas across the world. And it is important to bear in mind that it is "on this fictive basis," as Baudrillard notes in Amérique, that America "dominates the world" (1988: 29).