English 738T, Spring 2015
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Photo of Mac Classic wearing "Mac cozy" and running Deena Larsen's Marble Springs

Photo of Mac Classic wearing "Mac cozy" and running Deena Larsen's Marble Springs.

For our group teaching tomorrow, Kristin Gray, Kathryn Skutlin, and I will begin class by demoing various forms of e-lit, followed by an e-lit exercise where you’ll re-imagine a pivotal scene of Frankenstein through the possibilities of e-lit (we’ll pass out handouts in class, but if you want a digital copy you can download this or see the assignment on my personal blog).

E-lit mentioned in class:

  1. Both Michael Joyce’s afternoon and Deena Larsen’s Marble Springs can be purchased from Eastgate Publishing. Or… make an appointment with MITH to read these and more e-lit on the original hardware, or visit the Deena Larsen Collection site to read more about Larsen’s work or watch a short video demo of Marble Springs.
  2. Larsen’s “Fun da mentals: Rhetorical Devices for Electronic Literature” is a fantastic site teaching basic approaches to writing e-lit.
  3. Caitlin Fisher’s These Waves of Girls is a 2001 Flash-based work.
  4. The Urban 30 is an example of a “fictional blog” based on WordPress (just like this site–well, the WordPress part!); in this case, multiple writers uses the blog community to write in as fictional characters. Urban 30 is particularly interesting because it tells a superhero story, a genre that was born and lived for a long time solely in comic books.
  5. The 21 Steps is a story told through Google Maps. Notice how this platform complements how important location is to the story.
  6. “Haircut” uses YouTube to create a choose-your-own-adventure video. If you’re curious how to do this, check out this tutorial on creating annotated YouTube videos.
  7. Stories created using texts and Twitter have taken off; “mobile phone novels” are especially popular in Japan, where this article claims they’ve “become so successful that they accounted for half of the ten best-selling novels in 2007.” This short article gives a sense of the kinds of stories people write via Twitter.
  8. In addition to individual-authored Twitter stories, large groups of strangers have used this platform for communal writing. The LA Flood Project was an event that encouraged Twitter users to tweet (with an #laflood hashtag) as if they were experiencing an apocalyptic flood in L.A. This page gives the brief timeline participants were supposed to follow; you can search Twitter for #laflood to see the story unfold, though it was most exciting in real-time (the latest tweets are just people rehashing the week-long event).
  9. And finally, the Electronic Literature Organization (ELO) hosts the Electronic Literature Collection 1 and Collection 2, which display a wide variety of approaches to electronic writing.

While I unfortunately had to miss tonight’s post-bootcamp festivities, I thought I’d bring to our table a happy-hour-inspired Ngram:

Despite a few foreseen quality concerns for this run (such as the various meanings of “spirits” and “liquor” in context), and surely unforeseen others, I am  officially convinced that modeling tools are powerful provocateurs of interesting questions…crucially, for example: should we be avidly investigating vintage year ~1673?

Have a good weekend, all!

A frequency chart of the terms "human" and "monster" in Frankenstein.

A two-part blog post: the first post will cover grabbing and analyzing Twitter and other textual data and working with them in Wordle and TextVoyeur, and the second will use these tools to consider the function of body parts in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.


Frankenstein and the Female

The film really uplays the role of women to the plot.  One of the major film additions was that Victor Frankenstein chose to reanimate the recently slain Elizabeth.  While he viewed his original creation as an abomination, he chose to forgo all of his “morals” and resurrect his wife.  It raises the interesting question, what is the difference?  Is it because he loved Elizabeth that it would be alright for her to be brought back to life, and thus she would be a ‘good monster’?  If he could give her a chance, why was he able to give up so quickly on his own monster?  Is it that the monster was a collection of random flesh?  The monster (in the film) did, after all, contain his deceased mentor’s brain.  Would he not retain some of those memories and recognition? This scene offers an interesting addition to the plot.  Frankenstein and his monster are now fighting for the affections of the same woman.  Victor wants her to cling on to humanity, the monster wants her to embrace monstrosity.  It is both a philosophical and physical tug of war.

In the end Elizabeth resolves the issue herself; she realizes what she is and destroys herself.

I felt the movie did a real disservice in downplaying the scene in which Victor reneges on creating a mate for his monster.  There is no reflection on the fate of the world and future generations.  There is no consideration to the possibility of a female monster’s possible rejection of her mate or potential for procreation.  There isn’t the episode where Victor gets halfway through creating the female, sees the morbid delight in his first monster’s eyes, and then chooses to destroy it right in front of him.  The monster’s agony is of key importance in the novel, and it lends more weight to his threat of being with Victor on his wedding night.  The film chooses to have Victor object to making a female monster because he can’t stand the idea of using Justine’s body.  The monster’s threat that follows, while he does stay true to his word, somehow doesn’t seem to have as much of an impact.  I will recognize, however, that the change, the monster choosing Justine’s body, is an interesting one.  Victor’s scientific method used random body parts, largely from people who were strangers to him.  But now he is presented with this pretty young thing that he has known all his life.  Is his refusal because he knows her or is it because he has never had to “dissect” a female before.  The monster even taunts him with the notion that it is just raw material.  I wonder if the monster chose this body in order to torment Victor or because he truly found her beautiful.  Victor doesn’t voice the reason behind his refusal, but the understanding should be that it is because he knew her.  But what is the full extent of the refusal.  Is it that (as I mentioned above) that he couldn’t stand the fact of working on her?  If reanimated, would she curse him for her existence?  Could he not stomach the idea of his monster having his way with this once lovely girl?  Whatever the reason, the audience is not let into the inner workings of Victor Frankenstein’s mind, and the monster doesn’t seem to lament the decision like he did in the novel.

A key depiction of the monster in the film is that he is somewhat lustful.  While the novel monster is a lonely outcast looking for companionship and understanding, the film monster is very touchy-feely with the females he comes across.  When he encounters Justine in the film, he waves his hand over her as if longing to touch, and the sound of dogs and searchers in the background interrupt him from whatever lengths he was preparing himself to do.

Additionally, it is Justine who he later chooses to be his bride.  In the book, while he does stare at her and notice her beauty, he is more angered than anything, knowing that someone like her could never want him.  He frames her and moves on.  When it comes to Elizabeth, in the novel the reader is only given two screams and the monster escapes.  In the film, the monster lies on top of Elizabeth (he even tells her not to scream), a position Victor was in only a few moments before.

The monster stares longingly at her for a considerable time and even compliments her beauty.  Once again, loud noise in the background interrupts him from whatever else he might have done, and he kills her right in front of Victor.  He vies for her affection when Victor revives her, but like Frankenstein pondered in the novel, she rejects him.  Love and lust is never fully reciprocated for any of the characters.  The females of Frankenstein are destroyed, and the males continue the rest of their lives as wretches.

If you want to follow the class en masse, I created a Twitter list of our course members:


Note that it’s currently not possible to add yourself to your own list, so my handle (@Literature_Geek) isn’t included in the list.

When I was watching Bride of Frankenstein tonight, I was intrigued by the monster’s repeated gesture of supplication (pictured below).

In class we briefly touched on how Karloff intentionally mimicked a toddler in his walk, and his uplifted, outstretched arms seem to communicate in much the same way as a nonverbal child, signifying a variety of phrases from “No, wait, let me explain,” to a simple “I want that.” However, I was initially curious about whether Karloff had integrated any actual sign language into his gesturing; when I searched around, I didn’t find any evidence of such fusing, but I did stumble onto an interesting article titled, “Rise of the Apes: of man, monkey and monster.”

Many are familiar with the name Andy Serkis and the intense lobbying for more Academy recognition of his CGI work (most notably Gollum in Lord of the Rings and more recently, Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes). The reason this article popped up in my search for “Boris Karloff monster sign language” is mostly this quote:

[Serkis'] Caesar is as poignant a creation as Karloff’s monster in Frankenstein, a misunderstood and ill-used creature that puts its tragedy on display through body language.

I think it’s incredibly ironic that Shelley’s monster, as portrayed by Karloff, is the basis of comparison for a computer-generated character in a modern day science-fiction movie. Especially in the sense of them both being “ill-used.” Beyond the violence of the villagers, the monster is indeed misused by Dr. Pretorius, who sort of weaponizes him in order to coerce Frankenstein into creating a female counterpart. He uses his physical force as a threat, then charges him with the task of kidnapping Elizabeth. This weaponization of Frankenstein’s creation is definitely a new concept, one only made possible by the addition of a non-sympathetic scientific outsider and a decrease in the monster’s own powers of self-realization and articulation. It seems that such adjustments to the story reflect a twist on the typical Neo-Luddite take, but I’ll stop before I infringe on the Bride of Frankenstein group’s territory! Just wanted to share the article and its interesting connections with Shelley’s monster.

A friend of mine posted the following to Facebook: “It’s Frankenstein day today, where I stitch together the bits of a new draft and see if it’s alive.” The metaphor describes how many people write stories—in bits and pieces, then later stitching them together. Something magical either happens, or doesn’t happen, to make these pieces, once stitched, feel like a story. (Of course, I am simplifying. There’s more work to it than that.) I believe a similar process occurs in the production of those scenes and images, before they are ever ready to be stitched together. However, that stitching often happens in a way that is harder to understand.

It reminds me of Mary Shelley’s waking dream. There’s so much skepticism surrounding it. Yet, she got it just right; she has described exactly how it feels, to me, to begin a story.

My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie. I saw—with shut eyes, but acute mental vision—I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together…. The idea so possessed my mind, that a thrill of fear ran through me…. Swift as light and cheering was the idea that broke in upon me. ‘I have found it!’ (196)

That’s the way it feels to write a story—at least for some writers. You feed your brain. You read lots of books. You have intelligent conversations. You pay attention to the world around you. Then your subconscious pieces it all together and presents you with an image or a scene or a “waking dream.” You take that dream and you write it down. Then you analyze it, try to figure out what it means, go back in, and fill in the holes. Later, you’ll do a little more stitching, when you link it to other scenes, images, and waking dreams that your brain has mysteriously conjured up for you.

Shelley’s description of the dream does not negate or deny any of the other research she did for the novel—either the reading and general exposure to ideas she had before she started it, or any intentional manipulation she did after the draft was on its way. In fact, the dream happened because of the way she fed her mind.  And, of course, early influences and later editing are crucial to the novel. However, that dream can still feel like the defining moment of creating a story. It’s the exciting part. It’s the moment the story comes “alive”! Shelley very likely has an agenda in presenting the story’s genesis the way she does, but that doesn’t prove that her description is inaccurate. Literary scholars’ frequent skepticism regarding Mary Shelley’s dream seems somewhat misguided to me. But the fact that they are concerned about the story’s genesis at all (any story’s genesis, really) is quite revelatory; it parallels Victor Frankenstein’s quest.

That type of quest, in which an individual plays god by molding a creature and setting it, somehow, to life, is not unique to Frankenstein. One ancient example is that of the golem, from Jewish folklore. These monsters are not animated by technology or alchemy, but through prayer or incantation. Other similar examples are haunted dolls—animated by ghosts or evil spirits. And horror tales of re-animated dead, for example, abound. Human beings, it seems, have not required Frankenstein’s “science” (whether it be pseudo- or actual) to speculate about and caution against, playing God. Modern technology, however–computers especially–have given the old tales new “life.” Cylons, cyborgs, evil robots, the matrix—the list is long and varied and I’m not geek enough (yet) to do it justice.

Scholars debate the source of the creature’s “life” in Frankenstein. Is it science or alchemy? Technology or something closer to mysticism? Mary Shelley’s novel doesn’t explain precisely how the animation works; Victor is tight-lipped. Movie versions speculate according to their own agendas. There’s a ray beyond ultraviolet! Amniotic fluid! Lightning!

Mary Shelley’s waking dream draws all of these questions of life’s genesis together for me, and shows me how much they are related. That debate over whether it is technology or alchemy that animates Frankenstein is a telling one, just like the controversy over how Mary Shelley generated her ideas, just like the mystery of bringing any story to life. So the mystery of the spark of life, of what it is that animates, is very similar to the mystery of writing stories and novels. It happens. Stories come alive. But how? What, precisely, has made the novel’s monster live? And what makes the novel itself live in the public’s imagination? What draws us to keep asking? It seems to me this question has a lot to do with the interest in how Mary Shelley wrote her book, about what animated it—was it a waking dream or careful research and planning? But why is it so important? Is it because the scholars are also searching for that animating principle? In life? In fiction? Victor’s quest for the elixir of life is like our quest to understand how he did it in the book and is also like our quest to understand where the very spark of an idea for the story came from. Are we all trying to play god?

I encountered this image in the readings for another seminar; it’s from an 1882 Punch. The caption reads: “The baleful and blood-stained Monster * * * yet was it not my Master to the very extent that it was my Creature? * * * Had I not breathed into it my own spirit?”

Created with Wordle. Hashtags, handles, “Frankenstein”, and variations of monster/monstrous have been removed.

Here’s the full list of tweets if you’d like to run them through other tools. The UCSB Toy Chest and the DiRT Wiki are good places to find more tools.

One of the most curious aspects of our “troubled” view of technology is the multiplicity of ways in which we choose to deal with our concerns. Most obviously in cinema, we see films such as Terminator in which a cyborg that looks exactly like a human tyrannizes Sarah Connor and murders people left and right. The Terminator, of course, represents the future of technology where humans are on the run from their own creations. Our feelings toward technology are ones of regret. We crossed a line somewhere along the way and inadvertently heralded in our own destruction. On the other side of the coin, we see films such as Blade Runner where replicants that look, feel, and bleed just like other humans are enslaved by humans and hunted down when they go rogue. Rick Deckard ultimately comes to the conclusion that some replicants, (ex. Rachael) are worth saving. We are also left wondering whether or not Deckard himself is a replicant. Why this great disparity between points of view? In one instance, we see ourselves making technology the Other. It is something that must be contained and conquered in order for us to stay on top. It threatens to take us over. On the other hand, we see technology become abjected—the replicants are both human and not human—making us wonder: what does it mean to be human? The replicants are a threat to society, but we are meant to see this perspective as unjust. We feel pity for Roy Batty when he communicates the fate of his existence as a living, breathing entity that can think, feel, and experience life, but who was enslaved and asked to do terrible things. Was it merely the fact of his creation that made him inhuman? Ultimately these stories become reflexive, causing us to look back at ourselves and how we define ourselves as humans and how we define technology.

Frankenstein contains aspects of both of these types of films. This book is not simply a horror story warning people about the dangers of technological advancements, it is a reflection on the way we define monstrosity. Although Victor believes his creation to be a daemon from the instance he sees its eye move, he is making a definitive claim based on the process by which he brought the monster into being and his physical appearance. It is not the wretch that is implicitly monstrous, it is the actions of Victor who irresponsibly pieced him together, brought him to life, and abandoned him, failing to take responsibility for his actions, that are monstrous. In this way, the monster represents Frankenstein’s abject fears. The daemon embodies what he sees to be himself and the work of his own hands and what he clearly wants to see as something that is definitively Other, not him that he can conquer. The wretch necessarily becomes a monster because, for Frankenstein; the creature embodies his own ties to monstrosity and must be conquered. Thus, he labels the creature based on his own need to make the wretch his Other.

When Justine describes the murderer of William, she labels him a “monster” and “the devil himself” (66). In this, she is not referring to a man with a horrible deformity; rather she is basing these judgments on the action committed. The wretch himself only becomes truly monstrous once he has committed deeds that go against the grain of humanity. When the wretch realizes that Frankenstein will not make him a companion, he gives himself over to revenge much like any human would when faced with such circumstances. At the end of the tale, he describes his monstrous actions as a choice: “Evil thenceforth became my good. Urged thus far, I had no choice but to adapt my nature to an element which I had willingly chosen” (188). We see from his narrative that the wretch is initially gentle. He does not even kill animals for food until provoked by Frankenstein’s insensitivity and refusal to understand. Victor constantly runs away from the thing he has created because it is a reminder of his own monstrous deeds in creating an ugly being unfit for society. The wretch has high aspirations, longing to abide by the laws of virtue, but he is denied the ability to overcome his label as a monster due to his unconformity. Appearance prevents his becoming like Rachael and condemns him to act like the Terminator.

As a result, Frankenstein exposes two aspects of how we term monstrosity: 1) a perversion, physical nonconformity and 2) a decision to engage in actions that go against the grain of appropriate societal behavior, active nonconformity. Haunted by the first, the wretch is forced to engage in the latter. This, in turn, causes us to reflect back on the man who made the monster and recognize his own participation in monstrous behavior in abandoning his creation and running away from his responsibility until no one is left but Ernest. We feel sympathy for Frankenstein’s monster because he was abandoned and left to his own devices. He tried to be good, but was met with repulsion by society. The deeds he commits are clearly terrible, but they can be seen also as a cry for help from one who has been denied the ability to demonstrate his ability to function appropriately within society, and thereby save himself from being deemed a monster.