English 738T, Spring 2015
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“It’s Alive!”

Posted by Sara Lyons on Saturday, February 14th, 2015 at 7:30 pm - (2 Comments)

Frankenstein embodies the act of creation, thus reflecting and complicating the creation of Man by God, the creation of Child by Mother, and the creation of Art by Artist. Mary Shelley herself can attest to the roles of Man, Child, Mother, and Artist; this fails to account for the other aspects – God and Art – neither of which can have an active voice as they don’t actually speak in the real world. However, her inclusion of all of these aspects within the act of creation – around which she centers the novel – serves to comment on the power and responsibility of creator over the created, thereby commenting on and comparing the three different creation models simultaneously.

In class we discussed the likely possibility that Shelley intended Frankenstein as a feminist novel due to the consequences of men attempting to eliminate women in the act of creation (in the novel, at least). Although we discussed the lack of (surviving) women, I would like to take this aspect of “failed” creation even further. The fact that Victor fails to unconsciously differentiate between Elizabeth and his mother, as shown in the dream, reveals that Victor’s perception of procreation is skewed. He cannot get over his own mother’s death – the lack of his own mother – so he attempts the act of creation as such. The Being attempts to remedy this in his asking of Victor for a female version of himself. Couldn’t one say that our parents are like ourselves, and, to an extent,  from where we get our sense of identity? This, alongside the Being’s search for identity, supports a reading of this as a failed act of creation due to the Being’s lack of a mother.

At the same time, Victor himself labels the relationship between him and the Being as more than that of Parent/Child. He says, “A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me. No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs” (36). This indicates that Victor attempts to take on the role of God in the act of creation. He creates something like but not altogether human in the hope that this Being will look to him the way humans look to God. While many have written or spoken of Victor as acting upon pride, in this case, I would argue instead that Victor is attempting to create a being for the sake of companionship and affection. It is clear that Victor does not act in order to better science or to understand something new, but that he is acting in response to the loss of his mother and, arguably, to the loss of the friends and family he leaves behind in order to attend school. Altogether, I believe Victor makes his creation not to have a being to worship him, but to simply create one that cannot leave him. Despite Victor’s motives (whatever they may truly be), Shelley directly connects Victor’s act of creation with God’s. The fact that Victor does this and incurs misery from it indicates that Man can and should only go so far; that certain acts of creation are not meant for man, but left to a higher power.

Indeed, Shelley attributes Victor’s failure in the act of creation to his lack of ability to take on the role that act was designed for: Victor has never been nor could ever be a Mother or God. Thus, Shelley reserves certain acts of creation for certain individuals least he/she that attempts to do so suffer for it through negative consequences. Yet, Shelley also implies the act of creation by an Artist on a work of Art. It seems clear, then, that Shelley implies that the creator may only do so much in characterizing the final creation – then the creation continues to act (either actively or passively) on its own. When one applies this take on the act of creation to the Parent/Child and God/Man models, it alleviates a bit of Victor’s guilt: the negative behaviors of a child or by humans are not automatically attributed to the parent or to God. Not all the time anyway.

So what does this mean for Victor’s act of creation? Ultimately, Victor put his soul into his work in creating the Being, only to be horrified by it. This is the key aspect of Victor’s act – God isn’t horrified by man, neither is the Mother usually horrified by her child. The artist, though, is frequently horrified by his/her work, especially as he/she finishes it. Therefore, Victor fails as God to or Mother of his creation, and survives as the artist. Shelley, then, seems to comment on the Artist’s act of creation in that the piece of art leaves the hands of the artist to be interpreted, or even changed, by the society in which it resides.  I’m not entirely sure the other implications of this, other than the responsibility of the Artist to maintain the integrity of his/her work – if Victor had kept tabs on the Being, everything could have been different. This could be said of Mary’s own work with Frankenstein, as she released it into the world in 1818 to have it changed by others – through literal edits and figurative interpretations – only to have her take responsibility for the work and the changes within it in 1831.

Tyranny as enlightenment: a response to “Among the Disrupted”

Posted by Kayla Harr on Wednesday, February 4th, 2015 at 4:26 am - (1 Comments)

For me, reading Leon Wieseltier’s “Among the Disrupted” was a series of alternating encounters with the familiar, comforting arguments I’ve used myself to defend the humanities and the study of literature and less comforting glimpses into a mirror that reflects more of the unspoken reasoning lurking behind those arguments than a literature student might like to see (1). Wieseltier’s exaggerated claims about the negative consequences of technology, his refusal to grant artistic possibility or philosophical value to anything that processes data or thinks without flesh, and his tendency to collapse the boundaries between some terms while placing others, such as culture and commerce, in opposition are all mistakes, regardless of whether one agrees with his argument.

Rather than responding argumentatively to or analyzing Wieseltier’s article as a whole, however, I’d like to reflect on what appeared to me as the least generous and most grievous of his omissions. Though Wieseltier considers the progress of technology and emphasizes its power, he does not consider the potential positive effects of technology, even to refute them or claim that they are outweighed by other faults. Most of all, he is unwilling to entertain the possibility that technology could augment, rather than exclude, the human substance that he is so eager to preserve. His argument that technology will change us may be sound, but the basis for his claim that the change will be negative seems grounded in an assumption that one way of knowing, experiencing, and being human is inherently superior, not only to other known methods, but also to any possible methods that might emerge in the future. The crux of this argument rests most unfortunately on a weak association of duration with value, in which Wieseltier writes, “The persistence of humanism through the centuries, in the face of formidable intellectual and social obstacles, has been owed to the truth of its representations of our complexly beating hearts, and to the guidance that it has offered, in its variegated and conflicting versions, for a soulful and sensitive existence.”

I want to agree with Wieseltier’s ideas about the value of the humanities and the lessons that can be learned through study of the arts, but not at the expense of rejecting the imaginative possibilities of technology. When Wieseltier laments that “the nonmaterial dimensions of life must be explained in terms of the material dimensions,” I agree with him that there is a complexity of interior experience that material explanations seem unequal to — as those explanations are presently figured and accessed. I do not agree that we cannot revitalize our understanding of physical meaning through the advances of technology, nor that such advances cannot produce experience of the same beauty and spiritual sophistication that Wieseltier associates with a humanistic interpretation of life. More probably, in fact, such experiences are already existent, and I (and perhaps Wieseltier as well) lack sufficient understanding of the processes disparaged in this article to recognize the revelations and relations contemporary technology might offer toward a “soulful and sensitive existence.”

Most notably, I was struck by Wieseltier’s use of the word “tyranny” to describe technology’s role in human experience. Thinking about Wieseltier’s tyranny of technology immediately led me to recall the phrase thing theorist Bill Brown used to describe modern America’s fascination with objects as shapers, markers, and vessels of human identity: the tyranny of things. I found the comparison apt as Brown’s account of things becoming more human and human thought becoming “more thing-like” in A Sense of Things illustrates well the constructive possibilities of “being possessed by possessions” (2). We are fixated on and to an extent ruled by our things, Brown acknowledges, but it seems to me that his work also demonstrates quite clearly that we are extended through them, our identities conforming to objective limits but also reaching frontiers of meaning that, while outside the human, are certainly not insignificant to our understanding of ourselves. As with the earlier technology of things that Brown describes, so might today’s technology offer expansive possibilities beyond Wieseltier’s notion of “theories and practices that flatten and shrink and chill the human subject.” While Wieseltier advocates for limiting our understanding of humanity to the organic resources of humans, it seems foolish to impose such restrictions, particularly given that the technology he rejects is as natural a product of human actions as language, things, or books.

Though Wieseltier makes claims about the significance of the humanities that I do agree with, I find his exclusions too sharp and poorly meditated to feel allied with the author in support of traditional methods of human contemplation, however fond I may be of such methods. Wieseltier’s distaste for technology and his moral prioritization of the humanities over technology, embedded in his assertion, “The character of our society cannot be determined by engineers,” is hardly constructive. As a humanities-based scholar and thinker, I believe wholeheartedly in the power of our work to illuminate inward truths and make meaning most compellingly, but I am also excited by the potential for technology to teach us its own, assuredly different (and thus all the more valuable), lessons about ourselves. If technology offers access to meaning distinct from or in conversation with that of the humanities, I see little reason to fear that meaning as Wieseltier seems to. In his insistence that technology lacks substance and his attempt to differentiate technological knowledge as unnatural or unwholesome in comparison to that of humanism, Wieseltier repeats the singularly human error of fearing that which we do not (yet) understand.

  1. Wieseltier, Leon. “Among the Disrupted.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 17 Jan. 2015. Web. 04 Feb. 2015.
  2. Brown, Bill. A Sense of Things: The Object Matter of American Literature. (Chicago: U of Chicago, 2003), 5.

Welcome Technoromanticists!

Posted by Neil on Friday, January 16th, 2015 at 11:16 am - (0 Comments)

Greetings all!