Saturday, July 13, 2013

What is Category Jamming?

Note: the purpose of this blog entry is not to engage the text I'm explaining dialectically (as I will in subsequent entries), but to give a definition of a concept I feel to be basic to the goals of this blog.

Basic to the theory of horror Noel Carroll puts forth in his landmark 1990 book The Philosophy of Horror: Paradoxes of the Heart is the concept of "Category Jamming". I like this theory, but have several things I'd like to add to it. But, before I do that, I'd like to outline the basic notions of the theory and make a few comments on it.

Carroll says,

“…horror novels, stories, films, plays and so on are marked by the presence of  monsters. For our purposes, the monster can be of either sci fi or supernatural origin. This method of proceeding distinguishes horror from what are sometimes called tales of terror…” (pg. 15) Carroll goes on to sight several examples by Poe, Hitchcock, etc. But, it is not until a few paragraphs that he gets to what, for our purposes, represents the core of the poodle. Carroll says,

“In works of horror…humans regard…monsters…as abnormal, as disturbances of the natural order…monsters of horror…breach the norms of ontological propriety assumed by the positive human characters in the story.” (pg.16) 

So Carroll has necessarily linked “horror” to “supernature” and “science fiction technology”  and designated the moral existences of both as evil.  The aspect of supernature or morally malignant sci fi technology that creates the monster is an inherently transformational process he calls Category Jamming. This occurs when (what will finally become) a morally evil entity is composed of or transformed into a body schema and/or conceptual fabric woven from non sequitur, contradictory, arbitrarily juxtaposed, discontinuous, mutually exclusive or mutually corrosive pieces, the intention being to produce the affect of revolution in the audience. Below is a list of the divisions Carroll assigns to Category Jamming:

Metonyny occurs when the monster is associated with some formless and categorically incompatible entity that is innately horrifying. This is usually due to the non-horrific (initial) appearance of said creature. I should like now to take a moment to give some extremely specific examples of this type, because I feel it is the most incompletely defined category in all of Carroll's distinctions regarding his concept of Category Jamming.  

  • For instance, in M.John Harrison's Light, Michael Kearney is (outwardly) a mild mannered particle physicist and (secretly) a serial killer. He is also the only one who comes into contact with the horrible, horse-skull-like visage of The Shrander, who he believes to be held at bay by his killing.
  • For another example, a witch who is otherwise just a normal looking, old woman may have a kitchen guarded by hideous familiars and stocked with weird, dangerous or arcane instruments, disgusting, toxic or esoteric ingredients, a library's worth of grimoire all bound in human skin, the rotting bodies of corpses she intends to raise through necromancy,  etc. Speaking of witches, 
  • it's often the case that the Witch/Magician/Oracle/Alchemist archetype will work as an adviser to a character who inhabits the Ruler/Tragic King archetype. A perfect example of this from one the most influential works what be called, 'proto-horror' in the anglophile literary tradition comes from Macbeth. For, while Macbeth is a normal looking man who is inwardly evil, The Weird Sisters, Hecate and the gruesome visages with which they surround him can be read as a metonym of his evil. 

Carroll also notes that,"Horrorific metonymy need not be restricted to cases where the monsters do not look gruesome; a misshapen creature can be associated with entities already antecedently thought of in terms of impurity or filth." He goes on to site the above mentioned examples of Murnau's Count Orloc with rats as an example. Some more of this sort might include:
  • in An American Werewolf in London David Kessler's character is ever more surrounded by the ghoulish phantoms of the victims of his lycanthropic rampages
  • the familiar of witch who is repulsive looking. 
  • the flies supposed to congregate around Belzebub. For a beautiful, subtle rendering of this legend in a modern horror story, I highly recommend Isaac Asimov's short story "Flies". 

Or, it may be some tool the monster uses: 
  • Freddy Kruger had his infamous glove
  • the Dullahan was said to carry his rotting head in one hand and use his severed spinal chord in place of a whip.
Massification happens when there are an improbably large number of objects that form at a most complete hive mind or symbiotic organism that is thus enabled to perform the categorically impossible.
  • Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds
  •  the spiders in Jeremias Gotthelf's Die schwarze Spinne  
  • Another example might br the swarms of deadly insects in Kazui Nihonmatsu's Genocide, which is, as film critic Chuck Stephens pointed out, "...[a] forerunner of Frogs, Phase IV, The Swarm, and other seventies ecothrillers..." that also applied the massification trope to insects, vermin, et al. 
  • Even massive hordes of zombies, the pod people in Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the tomatoes in Attack of the Killer Tomatoes exemplify this trope. 
  • To get even more ridiculous than Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, one might point to Syfy's recent Twitter hit Sharknado.
  • Much more controversial examples might include cults such as the ones in the original, 1970's versions of films like The Stepford Wives and The Wicker Man.
Fission happens when things that are connected become disconnected. In fission the contradictory elements are divided in terms of spatio-temporal relations. Some examples of this might include the notion that vampires can transform themselves into bats, Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde, Doppelgangers, werewolves, Ash's possessed/severed hand in The Evil Dead franchise, Seth Brundle in The Fly, Gregor Samsa and the "monstrous vermin" into which Franz Kafka has him transform in The Metamorphosis, the central plot point in pretty much any of the more tragic episodes in Ovid's Metamorphoses, and Irena in The Cat People

Magnification happens when very small is made impossibly large. This one is fairly intuitive:
  • King Kong is a giant ape
  • Mothra is a giant moth
  • Many schlocky 1950' sci-fi films are about insects growing to enormous sizes.

Fusion happens when categorically distinct things wind up melding together, or a thing occupies a liminal space between categorically distinct things.
  • Ghosts and zombies, for example, are simultaneously living and dead. 
  • Cthulhu is simultaneously composed of : a body that is anthropoid and dinosaur/dragon like, the wings of a bat, and an octopus with an undefined number of tentacles for a head. 
  • Satyrs are fusions of parts from man and goat. 
  • Or, Yetis might be said to be the Himalayan version of an evolutionary backslide between man and ape.

Or, they might be pieces of actual bodies, literally rearranged by some monstrous mad scientist in real time.

  • Frankenstein's monster was sewn together from the part of many different corpses. 
  • In Jen and Sylvia Soska's American Mary, Mary Mason suffers a mental breakdown that coincides with her rise to fame as what one might call the ultimate Category Jamming mad scientist.
  •  Juan Piquer Simon's Pieces also plays with this idea (albeit somewhat less artfully than do the two works prior to it). 
  • One last example might be Nacho Cerda's Aftermath, which is, by far, the most revolting film I've ever seen.

These are the basic issues involved with this concept.

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