Friday, August 21, 2015

Stephen Asma on "The Horrors of Category Jamming"

Stephen Asma
Professor of Philosophy
Columbia College Chicago

Stephen Asma, in an article "Monsters on the Brain: An Evolutionary Epistemology of Horror" (Social Research: An International Quarterly, Volume 81, Number 4, Winter 2014, pp. 941-968), attempts to get to the essence of horror, and here's a sample of his analysis, in which he speaks of fear arising from "category mismatch," "category jamming," or "category transgression," though he also finds weaknesses in an overly cognitive approach to horror:
Research in the development of cognition and emotions demonstrates that the effects of stimuli on the organisms are delicate matters of degree. Moderate perceptual variations (for example, meeting subtly different creatures) from previously known schema only produce arousal and attention in the perceiver, not fear. When Ichabod Crane, or anybody in this genre, encounters a menacing headless person, their fear might be broken down and analyzed in terms of cognitive mismatch. Perhaps the sight of a combined normal (human) and abnormal (headless) creature bearing down on one is a mental confusion between what should be the case (having a head) and what is the case (no head). And perhaps this confusion produces fear as an automatic secretion from the cognitive tangle.

Of course, in this kind of rational reconstruction, one feels a little like a dullard trying to give a scientific explanation of a successful joke. In the order of felt experience, the fear is primary and doesn't seem to need an intellectual/cognitive glitch to kick-start it. In some important sense, Ichabod is not afraid because he's undergoing a categorial mismatch - he's afraid because a headless monster is bearing down on him. Isn't that good enough to cause fear in the protagonist and fear in the audience - do we really need a cognitive theory to explain it? But then we are forced back, given the experimental research of Hebb and Schleidt, to asking why fears are associated with certain experiences and not others. There seems to be some undeniable cognitive component to monster fear. Is the headless man particularly scary (when compared with the moustache-less man or the hatless man) because we've never experienced such an anomaly, or because we have some deep conceptual understanding that heads are essential for human life? And therefore, is the headless monster a multiple piece of "category jamming" - both morphologically incoherent and also transgressing the categories of animate and inanimate?

The philosopher of horror Noel Carroll invented this term "category jamming" and makes an argument that fits quite nicely with Hebb's and Schleidt's mismatch theory. Carroll (1990) arrives at his own mismatch theory by noticing that most horror monsters are disgusting as well as threatening. Carroll follows the argument of British anthropologist Dame Mary Douglas (1921–2007), who posited that human beings appear especially disgusted by "impurity." Things that we find impure, and consider as abominations, are usually interstitial entities - in between normal categories of being. For example, blood, feces, spit, snot, and vomit all blur the usual categories of me and not me, or human and not human. Pushing this idea of transgressing categories further, Carroll extends the unsettling aspect of interstitial awareness to the experience of all monsters in horror genres. The argument is made more compelling by the fact that so many monsters are depicted as truly disgusting. One thinks of the mucus-like slime oozing off most aliens, or the gelatinous blob monsters, or the undulating goopy transformations of shape-shifters, or the viscous twisting of monster reproduction.

Carroll thinks that it is this cognitive slippage, invoked by monsters, that explains why we are both repelled and drawn to horror films and novels. The fascination or arousal produced by categorial mismatch is the solution to the paradox of why we seek out an experience that is at least partly unpleasant. This argument has compelling features, but also seems slightly too cognitive and intellectual (that is, pertaining to the conscious mind) and not sensitive enough to the unconscious noncognitive aspects of monster fascination. (948-949)
The article is long, at 27 pages, but useful for readers interested in horror. Asma even considers H. P. Lovecraft's theory of horror on pages 955-966, for readers interested in Lovecraft's writings. I'm also interested in the ideas of Mary Douglas - I even wrote a review article on a new edition of her major publication - way back in the 1990s! And Asma's analysis might offer clues on improving my own 'horror' stories!

Moreover, Asma's thoughts on horror come to me at an opportune time, for I'm currently editing an interesting paper that offers a feminist analysis of the monsters and cyborgs in the work of the Korean artist Lee Bul, and the feminist literary critic that I'm reading offers views consistent with Asma's points, which thereby gives me more to think about as I prepare my advice.

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At 2:39 PM, Blogger ilTassista Marino said...

If horror is category jamming, the supreme horror is -- reality.

At 2:44 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

That's why we impose order on the world!

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:45 AM, Blogger ilTassista Marino said...

do we???? ;-)

At 4:58 AM, Blogger Antony Trepniak said...

I heard a movie marketing expert on the radio yesterday explain that the killers in horror films all have to be irrational 'psychos', because if they have a motive, the audiences will identify with the victim and try to look for a way out, which detracts from the emotion of fear.*

I'm not sure exactly how this relates to "category jamming"; it's arguable that the horror movies have become so formulaic that the knife-wielding psycho has become a 'category' in itself. To my mind, there is a qualitative difference between the 'cattle-prod' shocks of the slasher genre to the sophisticated frissons offered by more intelligent films.

*Having just finished Thomas Tryon's Harvest Home, in which the killers have extremely clear motives, I can quite confidently state that this piece of Hollywood received-wisdom is bunk.

At 8:24 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Dario Rivarossa said . . . do we???? ;-)

Aargh! The horror! A chaos of question marks! Followed by a motiveless demonic smile . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:42 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Hannibal Lector was supposed to be an inexplicably evil character with a malicious intelligence that had no natural cause, and that was a great part of his appeal - but that horror was spoiled by the back-story of his childhood and the terrible trauma he experienced, which made him just another victim.

When I think of horror stories, I think of something 'unnatural' stalking the protagonist. If the stalker is natural, say a lion, then I feel fear for the protagonist. But if unnatural, then I experience dread, an uncanny fear.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:45 PM, Blogger Bienvenido Bones said...

Well, we'll have the unnatural systems, the creator of the world political horror and religious beliefs of psychotic, and this things are looking for a contamination, but everybody else is going to be zombie & fleshly monster for a survival for the fittest. Everything pretending to be able normal life, but the fact that the whole world is natural wickedness, and the inspiration from darkness philosophy of the Dominion of Dracula the best way for Satanic survival. Truly supreme horror of the Sublime!

At 3:02 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Vampires had always frightened me . . . until they became the good guys in Hollywood movies.

Jeffery Hodges

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