Frankenstein: An Unmodern Man for the “Modern” Age
On a poster warning about the dangers of genetically modified crops, a stitched-up ear of corn, “Frankenfood,” leers over an unsuspecting child. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) is so emblematically linked to a fear of modern-advancement gone awry, that its iconography has become part of our daily cultural consumption, even as we proclaim ourselves, “post-modern.” The tension in Frankenstein between scientific advancement and ethical consequences has generally been interpreted as a warning about the potential perils of advancing modernity. I propose, however, that the novel is less of a myth about modernity, and more concerned with how modernity is a myth. Victor Frankenstein does not create his monster from the unadulterated powers of modern advancement, but instead out of an unholy union between modern and premodern ideologies. The monster produces anxiety upon all who encounter him because his hybridity challenges the integrity of modernism.
This reading of Frankenstein draws largely upon Bruno Latour’s anthropology of science, We Have Never Been Modern (1993). As implied by its title, Latour makes the claim that modernity never really happened. Instead Latour defines modernity as that which “designates a new regime, an acceleration, a rupture, a revolution in time” used to define “an archaic past” (10). To maintain a “rupture” with the past, the moderns utilize an ideological framework that Latour dubs “the modern Constitution.” The modern Constitution primarily works to maintain a “double separation” between the two modernist practices of translation and purification. According to Latour, the work of purification “creates two entirely distinct ontological zones: that of human beings on one hand; that of nonhumans on the other” (10). This inner-division then manifests externally in the ideology of Western superiority necessary for imperialist projects. An unintended biproduct of this ideology is the hybrid or the quasi-object—monsters that disrupt temporal and ontological boundaries and the very mythos of modernity itself.
The tension between the monster of Frankenstein’s thingness and humanness causes it to act like a quasi-object and continually wreak havoc on the mythos of modernity, especially the sanctity of anthropocentrism. Shelley associates the monster with nature by endowing him with the superhuman ability to survive in its harsh climes without shelter. The monster, however, does not find satisfaction in a purely bestial reality and makes his desire for human society quite explicit. His pursuit of socialization leads him gain the powers of speech and literacy, with the hope that his eloquence will overcome the prejudice invoked by his hideous form. Ironically, it is the monster’s eloquence, his ability to reason and dialogue, that makes him unacceptable to the modern Constitution (only proper humans have the right to seek out “human” interactions.)
Popular culture has reassigned the name “Frankenstein” to the monster out of its very modern discomfort with it remaining nameless. Naming provides the semblance of control over the monster’s unbounded and undefinable qualities. Because the monster defies definition (he is human, superhuman, and sub-human), he cannot really be mapped onto the modern Constitution. Quasi-objects, according to Latour, are “much more social, much more fabricated, much more collective [and] are in no way the arbitrary receptacles of a full-fledged society” (55). Shelley’s reference to Prometheus in the novel’s original title indicates Victor Frankenstein’s initial intention to use the monster as a receptacle for the gift of modern advancement to the rest of humanity. The monster, however, refuses to be merely the emblem of modern progressivism. Instead he grounds himself within history—educating himself with Volney’s Ruins of Empires, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Plutarch’s Lives, and The Sorrows of Young Werther. Frankenstein created his monster after reading the work of pre-modern philosophers—the trace of past philosophies manifests in the deformity of the monster, because Frankenstein’s experiment does not follow the rule of purification in pure modern science.
Because of the threat that the monster presents to his supposedly modern world, Frankenstein responds to his creation with terror and attempts corrects his earlier meddling with “past philosophies” by embarking on a modernist quest for purification. By destroying the monster, Frankenstein believes that he can restore a total separation between nature and culture, not recognizing the essential role quasi-objects play in constructing modernity. Even as he bemoans creating the monster, Frankenstein continues to maintain his modern exceptionalism through self-demonization. Describing his travels, Frankenstein tells Captain Walton, “I wandered like an evil spirit, for I had committed deeds of mischief beyond description” (Shelley 51). Latour warns that “Demonizing may be more satisfying for us [the moderns] because we still remain exceptional even in evil; we remain cut off from all others and from our own past, modern at least for the worst after thinking we were modern for the best. But totalization participates in devious ways, in what it claims to abolish” (125).
Post-modernism bemoans the creation of “monsters” via modernity but has done nothing to dismantle its framework. The modernist mindset of exceptionalism continues to allow exploitation under the guise of global capitalism, even after imperialist projects are supposedly passé. Banishing these monsters will simply banish all the world. Shelley’s text reacts to the disruption of modernity with a despair that borders on nihilism. in the final sentence of Frankenstein, which describes the monster being “borne away by the waves, and lost in darkness and distance” of the Arctic (Shelley 127). Ironically it is the monster that provides a way forward—the hybridity feared by modernity simultaneously provides its antidote to anthropocentrism and Western exceptionalism. It could very well be worth our time to paddle after the monster, before his ice floe floats beyond reach.
Latour, Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern. Translated by Catherine Porter, Harvard UP, 1993.
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. 1818. Mockingbird Classics Publishing, 2016.