Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Blog 1: Shelley and Joy Prompt 2

I'm not sure that Shelley is saying that all science would bring about the downfall of humanity, but rather that complete unethical concern and failure to use caution can result in mistakes. Medical technology during the Industrial Revolution, being able to cure and prevent diseases to prolong life, was not so far off from Victor's arrogant assumption that he, a man, could bring life into this world, without telling anyone. To many, doctors were playing God, using vaccines to prolong life. However the way I see it, now, through the lens of our technological advancements and success with medicine, his hammartia isn't that he actually violated the laws of nature, but that he acted with utter disregard for the people around him. Although Victor blames his miserable fate on dangerous knowledge, I would argue that his ultimate mistake was not accepting the monster into his life, disregarding him because he was not accepted in society. His secrets mean he violated the scientific method and the Hippocratic Oath by abandoning his only patient, in fact a life that he made and is responsible for the way that any governing body is responsible for its citizens, or in a commerce-sense, what a business owes its customers.

Victor’s search for an answer to humanity's biggest problem was selfishly motivated, to bring back his mother, and by an unhealthy obsession with progress. In other words, the corporate food industry strives to feed Americans cheaply, but sacrifices quality and ethical responsibility to survive in a capitalist society driven by profit. Bill Joy calls it the “White Plague,” explaining that the luddites of the Industrial Revolution politically opposed new technology based on the fear of further class segregation, the fear that progressive technologies in the hands of the powerful and potentially success-obsessed and selfish elite would leave those overcome with greed or what Joy calls “technical arrogance that overcomes people when they see what they can do with their minds” with all the control over the fate of humanity: “[T]reading in the steps already marked, I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation” (Shelley 28). Shelley’s novel illustrates how easily intellectual power paired financial power can frazzle the human mind and create structural instability within a society. We see now that the dropping of the atomic bomb and the development of genetically-engineered seeds that literally sue farmers out of business both resulted in very undemocratic consequences. In our day and age, this is seen as a return to slavery, economically-speaking, and Joy emphasizes that the continuation of this disregard for human rights (no matter how free a capitalistic society might claim to be), will “threaten the notion of equality that is the very cornerstone of our democracy” (Joy). Victor represents the wealthy elite. He could afford to leave home and study medicine, meaning he is a part of the technocratic bureaucracy, as in, why do scientists and engineers—the only citizens able to afford the equipment and knowledge to conduct research—have the power to make decisions involving technology that affect all of humanity, including the voiceless poor struggling to survive in a society where members already claim superiority based on social class and race. A lack of access to technology inherently means inequality in any free-market economy.

Victor builds a creation who turns out to be a foil of himself, and his creation desires revenge for his misery. Essentially, Victor becomes a danger to himself, and most importantly to the people around him. For Joy, humanity (and the global competition for profit), built and created a system that is destroying parts of itself due to sheer thirst for more knowledge, profit, indulgent values, and immortality. Both Victor and corporations exploring technologic advancement do their research in secret, as Joy explains, “there’s no profit in publicizing the dangers.”

The ignorance of the cautionary principle and the obsession with progress, or in our case further economic growth, goes hand in hand with Shelley's cautious attitude towards the Industrial Revolution. In the same way the innocent members of Victor's family remained powerless against his secret experiments and suffered greatly, Joy explains that access to technology would have devastating effects on either one group of people (probably the poor), or one geographic location (once again, chances are not a rich country). Having no voice to stop others from failing to draw a line, failing to prioritize the well-being of others over the quest for knowledge leads to a lack of democracy (as seen by Frankenstein's historical time period during the French Revolution and our democratically deficient bipartisan government), causes terrible, unforeseen consequences. In retelling his story, Victor foreshadows his mistakes, warning readers and Walden whose eyes are filled with “eagerness and the wonder and hope” at the thought of new technology: “I will not lead you on, unguarded and ardent as I then was, to your destruction and infallible misery. Learn from me… how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge… [and] he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow” (Shelley 31). The frame story with Capt. Walden illustrates that for humanity, some sacrifices aren't worth rapid progress, that at some point, you must turn around and head home, backtracking for the sake of simplification, a return to the natural lifestyle of the peasant family who the monster loved, or for Victor, his refreshing walks through the Swiss mountainside, which freed him from his obsession with advancement, and Elizabeth, who alone could have preoccupied and satisfied Victor’s life. The blind man who plays music, satisfied with his own musical enjoyment, who remains happily thankful, in the face of the dangers of life, to simply be alive with his loved ones.


RJ said...

Hi Dana!

I think the idea of the monster as Victor's "patient" is pretty interesting and something I hadn't considered before. In a revision I think it might be worthwhile to go into this idea further.

I'm not sure that anyone would really claim that Shelley thinks that ANY science would be an inherently destructive thing though, and I don't think that you really argue against that in the best parts of the essay (which I think are where you describe modern applications of the novel's moral), so I think your opening could be better worded and more specific possibly.

I definitely agree with a lot of your conclusions, and they are well argued, so all in all I think a good revision would entail a clearer statement of the reading with which you disagree, and an expansion of some of the original ideas proposed by your own reading.

Adam said...

This one is interesting, and I'm a little torn when trying to formulate a response to it.

On the plus side, I think Joy's notion of a kind of "hippocratic oath" for scientists and engineers is possibly the most worthy idea that he is (in that it moves far beyond the particulars of his paranoia, into more general problems), and that applying that notion to Frankenstein is fantastic. Why does Victor create the monster? For whose benefit? What are his obligations to the monster? To himself? To the world. These questions circulate through the novel, but nobody (Victor/Monster/Walton) do very well answering them - partially because there seems to be no clear basis for anyone's rights and obligations. Joy, you seem to be suggesting, could provide us with that, and therefore with an interesting tool for analyzing the novel.

So, conceptually (or with my understanding of your concept, anyway), I'm 100% on board.

As a reading of Frankenstein, though, this is kind of mushy and abstract. Rather than a generalized discussion of abstract, undefined ideas like the industrial revolution and the medicine of that era (which could do almost nothing whatsoever about anything at all, with the smallpox vaccine as a exception to the rule. Not that this material is terrible - just overly general, when you could be hashing out, within the context of the novel, what Victor's obligations are, what his rights are, etc.

In other words, I think the most interesting thing to do here would be to try to articulate, based on or in the context of Frankenstein, what his "hippocratic oath" should look like, and what concsequences it would have. That could lead to a specific and nuanced reading of Frankenstein, rather than the rambling and overly abstract one here.