ES2407: The Art of Learning Semester 1, 2011. On Monsters and the Monstrous
Consider the following:- • And isn’t it the case that not the human horrifies me, but the inhuman, the monstrous? Very well. But only what is human can be inhuman. – Can only the human be monstrous? If something is monstrous, and we do not believe that there are monsters, then only the human is a candidate for the monstrous. …. Horror is the title I am giving to the perception of the precariousness of human identity, to the perception that it may be lost or invaded, that we may be, or may become, something other than we are, or take ourselves for; that our origins as human beings need accounting for, and are unaccountable (Cavell, S. (1979) The Claim of Reason. Oxford: Oxford University Press; pp. 418 - 9).
Monsters have always stalked the imaginary boundaries of communities in the West, and our focus on education suggests an obvious starting point: focussing on child monsters and monstrous childhoods. To quote Donna Haraway, these are often ‘contradictory, partial, and strategic’ (Haraway, D. (1991) Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: the re-invention of Nature London: Free Association; p. 155).
Paul Virilio offers a speculative guide to our future. Rather than studying the kinds of experimentation on humans associated with Josef Mengele at Auschwitz-Birkenau, we should focus on re-conceptualised forms of being – what Virilio calls ‘human-experiments’ – together with their likely contexts of manufacture:- Here we see the religious dimension, the deification of the scientist, the demiurgic impulse: re-fabricating the living. … Thus humankind would no longer be singular. It would become the product of a creator. But this time, it would no longer be the Creator who is the cause. It would no longer be monotheism, it would be polytheism, except that the creators would be companies.’ Monsanto, or Novartis would do the programming (Virilio, P. & Lotringer, S. (2002) Crepuscular Dawn. New York: Semiotext(e; p. 117).
According to Virilio, then, it is the multinational corporations that will claim paternity for these future experiments in human re-styling, rather than single individuals, such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. (The first edition of her book was published in 1818 – a time when global corporations barely existed.) Virilio directs us to view Ridley Scott’s replicants, as featured in his 1980 film Blade Runner, and Spielberg’s ‘David’ as featured in his 2002 film AI: Artificial Intelligence, as ‘symptoms’ of contemporary cultural anxieties and investments in the image/metaphor of ‘mass culture’ childhoods.
But in order to sketch out an analytical method, we start with the simpler representation of paternity: Shelley’s Frankenstein. (All of my comments relate to her first edition, which is far more imaginative and inventive than the second.)
Hollywood versions of her book have grossly over-simplified Shelley’s complex narrative in order to stress the idea that Frankenstein is appropriately punished for tampering with the natural order of things, but both the monster - and Shelley’s original text - are much more interesting. As you may know, once the assemblage of body parts is brought to life, Frankenstein rejects this product of his own science, and the monster is forced to wander the land alone, gaining an untutored, Rousseauesque education. The monster has everything to learn from experience; but the humans he meets, without exception, recoil in horror.
But then, after many confusing and painful rejections, the monster comes to know human kindness – but gained through observing an impoverished family from the vantage point provided by a ‘small and almost imperceptible chink’ in the wall of the cottage in which they live (Shelley, 1993 : 85).
The monster begins to secretly supply the family with fuel and food, and its warm regard for the family eventually prompts it to overcome its fear of entering into discourse with ‘another’ human being, even though by now it is appalled by its own reflection as seen in the still water of the pond where it drinks.
It starts cautiously at first, and when the rest of the family are away the monster approaches the blind father, presenting itself as a friendless wanderer; and as such, is immediately welcomed. But when the rest of the family returns, they immediately see the monstrous strategy of its embodiment and they turn against it in horror – driving it away again from any prospect of friendship or mutual regard.
Stepping back, now, from Shelley’s narrative:- Both the monster and the sighted members of the family are depicted as trapped within a ‘scopic’ order which she plays against Christian belief and sentiment.
Rather than their close proximity on either side of the cottage wall being used as the pretext for Christian community, with the monster marked initially as one who is in limbo, i.e., un-baptised – not yet having entered the community of souls, etc., Shelley uses the cottage wall to mark the scientific separation between observed and observer. The monster, as observer, is charmed by the family member’s mutual regard for one another. The family, as observed, enjoys an assumed domestic privacy and, since fate has already been so cruel to them, they never question the miraculous supply of firewood and other forms of support which the monster has been providing under cover of night.
In passing, we might note how Frankenstein’s monster suggests a suitably antiquated - even ‘craft’ version - of one of Virilio’s ‘human-experiments’, and in similar vein we might look for symptoms of its hybridity. Clearly its assembled body constitutes a pre-cyborg unity, an anti-metaphor of the scientist, perhaps. But of more significance is its readiness to break open the familiar ‘scientific’ arrangement between observer and observed – between person and thing - undercutting this through its own relationship to language, which alone offers it a true unity as subject, and in a way that its embodiment can never match.
Shelley’s purpose is, then, to question the triumphalism of early nineteenth century science and its rhetoric of abstract, totalising objectivity. Having first placed the monster in the role of a scientific observer (as an ironic joke against Condillac’s statue), she then gives her creation the capacity to confound the rules of scientific observation and enter into discourse with the humans who were previously ‘objects’. And it is at this point that the novel turns to focus on the blasphemy of the monster’s multiple origins from amongst the bodies of the dead. Frankenstein’s sin is to have unwittingly trapped a vital, human spirit within a structure fabricated by Man alone, not by God.
As we have seen, for an initially ‘innocent’ identity, trapped within a horrifying body, language seems to offer the only possibility of reconciliation and community. But the monster learns – painfully – that discourse involves embodiment within situated experience, and that it will always be excluded from this because of its inhuman embodiment. It responds by re-structuring its maimed identity around the one figuration of embodied discourse that it has direct access to: its own victimhood. It now directs its discourse to the one remaining interlocutor who it believes must always listen and respond: Frankenstein.
As you probably know, Frankenstein again rejects ‘his’ monster; seing it as both duplicitous and self-serving. He sees its ‘victimhood’ as being no more than a ploy – a strategic move intended to place moral responsibility upon him for making it and then rejecting it; but as a non-human ‘thing’ what could be his moral responsibility towards it?
Only momentarily does Frankenstein admit to himself that the monster’s address may be the last desperate attempt to wrest self-recognition from another human being. But almost immediately, he finds the implied burden of such ‘mothering’ too great, and he treats it instead as an attempt at coercion.
Shelley’s monster provides an almost perfect negation of the normal promiscuity of discourse. It can never become a metaphorical ‘chameleon’ as other human beings can, able to respond to others by presenting certain aspects of themselves and concealing others so as to better meet the shifting demands of social life. Instead, it remains fixed as a constant rebuke to its maker and other humans - a pretext for enforced exile or destruction.
Shelley’s monstrous text (containing multiple letters within letters – multiple forms of apparent authorship) marks the monster’s masculine-derived identity in order to demonstrate the sterility of an upstart paternal principle: science. As an emblem for Frankenstein’s new race, the monster’s fingers are embarrassingly sticky with blood. • In this respect, Spielberg’s Professor Hobby, in his film AI Artificial Intelligence, is granted both more honesty - and more control:- • Company Executive: If a robot could genuinely love a person, what responsibility does that person hold towards that mecha in return?’ • Hobby: The oldest one of all. But in the beginning, didn’t God create Adam to love him?