Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Shelley and Heidegger

Response to Prompt 2

During the Industrial Revolution, societies shifted from putting emphasis on family values, emotions, and nature to the pursuit of knowledge and science, commercialization of human labor, and the commoditization of nature and its resources. Families flocked to cities so that men could attain jobs at factories. British colonialism was entrenching on India, and social structures began to form based on this new economic system. Women spent their time raising children, staying at home, while men earned wages. Mothers lost many of their responsibilities due to the surge in production. People were not restricted to the chores and work they did around their house; rather, technology in cities provided access to new goods, indeed a whole new way of thinking that Heidegger argues should be questioned and rationally considered before jumping on the band wagon, so to speak.

Victor represents a humanity that fails to question technology, perhaps the same humanity that becomes overtaken by gray goo. He mistakenly takes the role of women and family for granted, attempting to use knowledge to further incapacitate the need for a female to reproduce, and then he loses control of his ultimate creation, who in turn, threatens his family and the rest of humanity: “I too can create desolation; my enemy is not invulnerable; this death will carry despair to him, and a thousand other miseries” (Shelley 102). We see Henry Clerval, before his death, continue down the same path that Victor did. “I saw the image of my former self; he was inquisitive and anxious to gain experience and instruction” (Shelley 115). We see Clerval where Victor was, excited by the opportunity that dangerous knowledge offers: an entire lifestyle change even more magnificent than the natural landscapes that he and Victor see in their travels. Instead of reanimating life, Victor explains what Clerval intends to do with his investment in knowledge: “His design was to visit India, in the belief that he had in his knowledge of its various languages, and in the views he had taken of its society, the means of materially assisting the progress of European colonization and trade” (Shelley 115). Since this would have been after the French Revolution, the abandonment of monarchy for democracy and freedom would have been a critical mindset. In the same way Victor feared his racially-mixed monster, Clerval’s capitalization of merchant opportunities suggests that the Industrial Revolution and the embracement of technology and knowledge (allowing it to be the “causa” of an entire economy and society), was quickly escalating to political inequality.

Then we have the DeLacey family, exiles from society living in a cottage, plucking food from the land to stay alive. There is a juxtaposition between lifestyles: Clerval and Victor who participate in society, using it and the resources they can attain from their class standing, and the DeLacey Family and the monster, who live in a relatively equal relationship with good old Mother Earth. Heidegger explains it as such: “The forester who measures the felled timber in the woods and who to all appearances walks the forest path in the same way his grandfather did is today ordered by the industry that produces commercial woods, whether he knows it or not. He is made subordinate to the orderability of cellulose, which for its part is challenged forth by the need for paper, which is then delivered to newspapers and illustrated magazines. The latter, in their turn, set public opinion to swallowing what is printed, so that a set configuration of opinion becomes available on demand. Yet precisely because man is challenged more originally than are the energies of nature, i.e., into the process of ordering, he never is transformed into mere standing-reserve.” In the same way the media today perpetuates the same news topics (often the unimportant ones that in no way negatively affect the gigantic news corporation that pays for the programming), a forester who is paid by someone is still contributing to a system that has one specific interest: to spread the expansion of the human race using modern technology as a vessel to extract from nature, to rise above all other living things, and most importantly to remain superior. If we’ve learned nothing from Victor, it’s that humans get pretty emotionally attached to being the superior beings.

The idea that humans should possess only one consciousness or one purpose means excluding many other ways in which humans could progress, and goes hand in hand with the idea that there is one superior race that makes colonization permissible. Clerval is perpetuating the idea that white men are more socially powerful, and therefore inherently superior beings who deserve more access and control over society. Humans that choose to embrace a different way of living are savages who don’t belong in a capitalistic and progressive society, but instead could be treated as commodity. These are not the ideas that Shelley encourages, and we see this in the monster who rationalizes his need for personal liberties and freedom, and the right to have a family. The death of Victor’s family, and both the monster and Victor’s demise illustrate the oppressive nature of a flimsy societal structure and overall mentality of failing to question technology.

For Heidegger, Frankenstein provides “poetic revealing” that “expressly foster[s] the growth of the saving power,” meaning that art, or “reflection upon art,” allows humans to contemplate the questions of technology, to rationally consider the need to exploit resources from the Earth and human labor, and how the end result—inequality and self-destruction—lose what it means to be inherently human and free.


Caia Caldwell said...


One of the best aspects of this essay is your attention to detail with the plotline of Frankenstein, with comparison to Heidegger. Your ideas about Clerval’s motives for going to India are very interesting, as well as the concept of humanity being “overtaken by gray goo.” Heidegger is difficult to understand, but you take some of his ideas and apply them to Frankenstein in a way that is understandable to the reader.
If you are going to revise this essay, there are some of your ideas that I would more clearly develop and elaborate on. For example, you say “Clerval is perpetuating the idea that white men are more socially powerful, and therefore inherently superior beings who deserve more access and control over society.” How did you arrive at that conclusion? I understand you were discussing Clerval going to India, but I think that this jump could use a little further explaining. Although, yes, I understand why this could lead to “quickly escalating … political inequality,” I feel you could develop this into a larger part of a longer essay (or perhaps it should be the main or only subject). Where else in the novel do we see imperialism or white superiority?
However, I enjoyed reading your essay, and thought the ideas you put forth were interesting.

Adam said...

I enjoyed this a lot. You rose to at lest two different challenges. First, as Caia points out, you dealt with some of the difficulties of Heidegger's text in an accessible way (which, for one thing, shows that you grasped some of the hard stuff, whether you appreciated that you did or not). Second, you used that reading of Heidegger to perform a *narrow and specific* reading of Frankenstein. The contrast between the De Lacey's and Clerval, while a little strained if we remember that they have only recently fallen from the heights themselves, is nuanced and interesting, and the close attention you pay to the fact that Clerval is on Frankenstein's path make this work stand out.

I thought the introduction on the industrial revolution was weak. It's weak because it overgeneralizes (such that much of it could be challenged), and yet isn't terribly useful for the rest of this essay. This space could have been used, for instance, for a discussion of Clerval's ideas in youth (his fascination with chivalry, arguably another masked for imperialism, for instance).

Your greatest merit, perhaps, is that you attain a narrow focus - but a better introduction would have made that focus both tighter and more consistent.