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Frankenstein and Philosophy: Sabeen Chaudhry, Borna Radnik, Corey McCall

Updated: Nov 24, 2020

𝗦𝗮𝗯𝗲𝗲𝗻 𝗖𝗵𝗮𝘂𝗱𝗵𝗿𝘆 𝗶𝗻 𝗮 𝗰𝗼𝗻𝘃𝗲𝗿𝘀𝗮𝘁𝗶𝗼𝗻 𝘄𝗶𝘁𝗵 𝗕𝗼𝗿𝗻𝗮 𝗥𝗮𝗱𝗻𝗶𝗸 𝗮𝗻𝗱 𝗖𝗼𝗿𝗲𝘆 𝗠𝗰𝗖𝗮𝗹𝗹 -This is the full video of the panel discussion ⬇

Abstract written by Corey McCall and Borna Radnik

Frankenstein is often read as a cautionary tale about the dangers of scientific and technological progress and hence as a book with conservative political implications. While this is no doubt an important feature of the novel, scholars have argued that it is also a book that wrestles with the implications of radical politics and the legacy of the French Revolution. Warren Montag, for example, argues for the book’s revolutionary implications despite the fact that the French Revolution is never mentioned directly. Montag and other Marxist theorists claim that the monster represents the dispossessed masses which renders Frankenstein a story with both profound moral and political implications. So, how does our understanding of the novel change if we take the Marxists’ suggestion to read the monster as a figure of the dispossessed masses?

What makes the figure of the creature in Frankenstein so abhorrent and horrific? Victor Frankenstein’s reaction to the reanimation scene in the novel suggests that the creature’s monstrosity touches upon what Kant calls the sublime, namely an experience that cannot be given categorical form, and indeed evokes feelings of boundlessness because it points to an epistemological failure. We argue that the creature induces such dread and horror because he/it resists (or eludes) ontological and epistemological categorization. By drawing on the work on Kant, as well as Alain Badiou, we interpret the reanimation scene in Shelley’s novel as an event, i.e. an occurrence that engenders an ontological rupture and destabilizes epistemology. Ontologically, Frankenstein’s monster functions both as a reminder and a remainder of the abyssal (unground) (or void, in Badiouian terms) at the center of being, this is what is so existentially unsettling and uncanny about the creature.

The first few paragraphs from Chapter 5 from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (The Reanimation scene)


Chapter 5

It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.

How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form? His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.

The different accidents of life are not so changeable as the feelings of human nature. I had worked hard for nearly two years, for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body. For this I had deprived myself of rest and health. I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart. Unable to endure the aspect of the being I had created, I rushed out of the room and continued a long time traversing my bed-chamber, unable to compose my mind to sleep. At length lassitude succeeded to the tumult I had before endured, and I threw myself on the bed in my clothes, endeavouring to seek a few moments of forgetfulness. But it was in vain; I slept, indeed, but I was disturbed by the wildest dreams. I thought I saw Elizabeth, in the bloom of health, walking in the streets of Ingolstadt. Delighted and surprised, I embraced her, but as I imprinted the first kiss on her lips, they became livid with the hue of death; her features appeared to change, and I thought that I held the corpse of my dead mother in my arms; a shroud enveloped her form, and I saw the grave-worms crawling in the folds of the flannel. I started from my sleep with horror; a cold dew covered my forehead, my teeth chattered, and every limb became convulsed; when, by the dim and yellow light of the moon, as it forced its way through the window shutters, I beheld the wretch—the miserable monster whom I had created. He held up the curtain of the bed; and his eyes, if eyes they may be called, were fixed on me. His jaws opened, and he muttered some inarticulate sounds, while a grin wrinkled his cheeks. He might have spoken, but I did not hear; one hand was stretched out, seemingly to detain me, but I escaped and rushed downstairs. I took refuge in the courtyard belonging to the house which I inhabited, where I remained during the rest of the night, walking up and down in the greatest agitation, listening attentively, catching and fearing each sound as if it were to announce the approach of the demoniacal corpse to which I had so miserably given life.

Oh! No mortal could support the horror of that countenance. A mummy again endued with animation could not be so hideous as that wretch. I had gazed on him while unfinished; he was ugly then, but when those muscles and joints were rendered capable of motion, it became a thing such as even Dante could not have conceived.

I passed the night wretchedly. Sometimes my pulse beat so quickly and hardly that I felt the palpitation of every artery; at others, I nearly sank to the ground through languor and extreme weakness. Mingled with this horror, I felt the bitterness of disappointment; dreams that had been my food and pleasant rest for so long a space were now become a hell to me; and the change was so rapid, the overthrow so complete!

Morning, dismal and wet, at length dawned and discovered to my sleepless and aching eyes the church of Ingolstadt, its white steeple and clock, which indicated the sixth hour. The porter opened the gates of the court, which had that night been my asylum, and I issued into the streets, pacing them with quick steps, as if I sought to avoid the wretch whom I feared every turning of the street would present to my view. I did not dare return to the apartment which I inhabited, but felt impelled to hurry on, although drenched by the rain which poured from a black and comfortless sky.

Borna Radnik's Frankenstein Course outline as a reference guide

Frankenstein and Philosophy: Gothic Horror, the Sublime, Modern Subjectivity, and Technology

Borna Radnik PhD Candidate in Philosophy Centre for Research in Modern European Philosophy Kingston University London

1. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: Introduction. General introduction to Frankenstein, Mary Shelley’s life, influences, and the essential themes of the course (Enlightenment philosophy, aesthetic sublime, gothic horror, social progress, modern subjectivity and personal identity, gender, technology, and transhumanism).

2. Frankenstein and Horror: Gothic Romanticism and the Monstrous. What makes the creature in Frankenstein so horrific? What is horror? Exploration of Gothic Romanticism and its relation to the concept of monstrosity in Frankenstein. 3. Frankenstein and the Enlightenment I: Age of Reason and Cartesian Cogito. Examination of the general thrust of Enlightenment philosophy, and Descartes’ infamous Cogito as interpreted through Frankenstein. 4. Frankenstein and the Enlightenment II: Human Rationality and the Mastery of Nature.

The faculty of human reason has led to modern scientific developments, technology, innovation, medicine, and so on. We explore the concept of reason through Descartes’ philosophical method as the power of human reason over nature. We also interpret Victor Frankenstein’s quest for scientific mastery goes beyond natural life to the unnatural, even the supernatural. 5. Frankenstein and the Enlightenment III: the Modern Human Subject. How do we think of ourselves? What does it mean to be an individual human being? The concept of the Cogito as the modern subject. The human being conceived as a self-assured and self-actualised individual. Kant’s What is Enlightenment? essay as it applies to the plot of Frankenstein. 6. Frankenstein and the Sublime: Aesthetic Judgments and Existential.

What is the sublime? What are some examples of the sublime in our contemporary lives? How does the concept of the sublime feature in Frankenstein? What does the sublime experience tell us about what it means to be human? 7. Frankenstein and Politics I: “the Modern Prometheus” and Social Progress. How does society determine and influence our understanding of each other? Are human beings free and equal by nature? Or do our social institutions create misery and inequality? Is there such a thing as social progress? We explore these themes through Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s philosophy and the experience of Frankenstein’s creature. 8. Frankenstein and Politics II: Outcasts and the Other.

Why do we exclude and ostracize some members of our society and not others? Why do we fear that which is different and that which we do not understand? The concept of the ‘other’ will be examined through the experience of Frankenstein’s creature. 9. Frankenstein and God: Protest against Creation. ‘Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay/To mould Me man? Did I solicit thee/From darkness to promote me?’ (Milton, Paradise Lost, X. 743-5). None of us asked to be born into a life of hardship, misery, and suffering. What moral right does Victor Frankenstein have to imbue the creature with life when the creature did not consent to it? 10. Frankenstein Against Modernity: Subversion of the Self, Identity, and Reason.

‘Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you’ (Nietzsche). Are Victor Frankenstein and the monster entirely different? Or are they similar?

11. Frankenstein and Transhumanism: What is human? What does it mean to be human? Who decides the criteria? Transhumanism is the idea the human condition ought to be improved through the use of advanced technology. 12. Frankenstein and Technology: Artificial Intelligence and the Singularity.

As modern technology and robotics advances, we will inevitably have to confront the ethical question of creating an artificial intelligence that exhibits self-consciousness and self-awareness. How does the prospect of artificial intelligence emulate the core themes of Frankenstein? Should we be cautious of the singularity? Or should we embrace it?

About the authors:

Borna Radnik is a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at the Centre for Research

in Modern European Philosophy at Kingston University, London.

His articles have appeared in journals including Continental Thought and

Theory, Radical Philosophy, and Crisis and Critique. He is currently completing his doctoral dissertation, the working title of which is Hegel and the Double Movement of Necessity and Freedom

Corey McCall was, until recently, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Elmira College in upstate New York. His research and teaching interests focus on intersections between various traditions in modern philosophy and literature, focusing on Caribbean, African American, European, and American traditions. His current projects include the forthcoming edited volume Decolonizing American Philosophy (SUNY, 2021) and serving as guest editor for an issue of The Journal of French and Francophone Philosophy entitled "American Reflections in French and Francophone Thought." He has co-edited the collections Melville Among the Philosophers (Lexington, 2017) and Benjamin, Adorno, and the Experience of Literature (Routledge, 2018).   

Sabeen Chaudhry is a writer and theorist based in London. She is currently undertaking a PhD at Kingston University, researching love in relation to contemporary media technologies. Her fictional writing has been published in SALT Magazine and The Institute of Queer Ecology’s multi-format publication, Common Survival amongst others. She has recently published an article on Scott Walker's (sonic) geopoetics in the Journal for Cultural Research, and has another article on 'ghosting' and techno-temporality forthcoming in Chiasma journal.

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