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At Stake

Monsters and the Rhetoric of Fear in Public Culture

Anyone who reads the papers or watches the evening news is all too familiar with how variations of the word monster are used to describe unthinkable acts of violence. Jeffrey Dahmer, Timothy McVeigh, and O. J. Simpson were all monsters if we are to believe the mass media. Even Bill Clinton was depicted with the term during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. But why is so much energy devoted in our culture to the making of monsters? Why are Americans so transfixed by transgression? What is at stake when the exclamatory gestures of horror films pass for descriptive arguments in courtrooms, ethical speech in political commentary, or the bedrock of mainstream journalism?

In a study that is at once an analysis of popular culture, a polemic on religious and secular rhetoric, and an ethics of representation, Edward Ingebretsen searches for answers. At Stake explores the social construction of monstrousness in public discourse-tabloids, television, magazines, sermons, and popular fiction. Ingebretsen argues that the monster serves a moralizing function in our culture, demonstrating how not to be in order to enforce prevailing standards of behavior and personal conduct. The boys who shot up Columbine High School, for instance, personify teen rebellion taken perilously too far. Susan Smith, the South Carolinian who murdered her two children, embodies the hazards of maternal neglect. Andrew Cunanan, who killed Gianni Versace, among others, characterizes the menace of predatory sexuality. In a biblical sense, monsters are not unlike omens from the gods. The dreadful consequences of their actions inspire fear in our hearts, and warn us by example.

355 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2001, 2003

Culture Studies

Gender and Sexuality

History: American History

Literature and Literary Criticism: General Criticism and Critical Theory

Political Science: Classic Political Thought

Religion: American Religions


“[Ingebretson argues that] the monster is an emissary of frightening wisdom.  Monsters are tribunes of social collapse, announcing the breakdown of social custom and civic boundary, particularly of race, class and gender. . . . Prophets of unwelcome knowledge, monsters are convenient targets of ‘projectile contempt’ and civic reprisal.  Men and women seize on monsters to exorcize their own cultural demons.”--Corey Robin, --Times Literary Supplement

Times Literary Supplement

“Bad people are not merely monsters. Casual vilification of such people, as Edward J. Ingebretsen argues in his outstanding study At Stake, offers temporary reassurance of one’s own civility. We sacrifice their humanity in order to strengthen the idea that we ourselves are normal, forgetting that all of us are deviations from the norm.” <Michael Joseph Gross, Boston Globe

Michael Joseph Gross | Boston Globe

“Ingebretsen has written a provocative work of cultural criticism, drawing on the insights of psychoanalysis, sociology, and literary studies to say something unique about public discourse. With considerable articulate skill, he demonstrates how ‘living in’ monster metaphors promotes hateful ideologies and violence. . . . <I>At Stake<I> is a model contribution to the many fields of academic augury, rhetoric, media, and cultural studies most especially.”

Joshua Gunn | Argumentation and Advocacy

"A book that will instruct and delight anyone interested in thinking about the nature of Gothic."

Anne Williams | Gothic Studies

Table of Contents

Prologue: What the Angle Said
Introduction: Thinking about Monsters

1Gothic Returns: Haunts and Profits
2Drive-by Shouting
3Redressing Andrew: Cunanan’s Killing Queerness
4Susan Smith: When Angels Fall
5Reading the Starr: Scandal and Auguries
6Death by Narrative
7Sacred Monster: Matthew Shepard

Coda: Common Weal, Common Woe
Selected Bibliography

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