Saturday, February 11, 2012

Revised Essay #1: Heidegger and Frankenstein

In Frankenstein, there is a passage in which the monster questions the reason for his existence. He asks “My person was hideous and my stature gigantic. What did this mean? Who was I? What was I? Whence did I come? What was my destination?”(Shelley, 143). According to arguments present in Martin Heidegger’s The Question Concerning Technology, these questions can be answered through the “four causes: the causa materialis, the material…the causa formulis, the shape, the form of which the material enters…the causa finalis, the end…the causa efficiens, which brings about the effect that is the finished”(Heidegger, 3). All of the monster’s questions can be answered using three of Heidegger’s four causes, and this, in turn, can provide not only a variety of viewpoints on the monster’s existence and essence, but even one of mankind in its current, modern state.

The first cause, the causa materialis, has been left a mystery by Mary Shelley and thus would be misleading to discuss, but the final cause is deceivingly simple. It could easily be claimed that the monster’s causa efficiens is simply Victor Frankenstein, but this claim ignores an important part of the essence of the monster. The monster is not simply a physical object created by a scientist; rather, he is an amalgamation of a myriad of life experiences that have established who he is as an individual. His first experience is that of his creator running down the stairs in fear from him, but at this point, he has the mentality of an infant and cannot yet fully comprehend his master’s mental state. He simply picks up a jacket with the plans for his creation and walks for a long period of time, cluelessly, until he finds the De Lacey house. At some point, he realizes that his appearance will be of significant hindrance to any sort of acceptance, but still desires to be a part of the De Laceys’ lives. And he has no negative feelings for humanity as a whole, regardless of how he feels about Victor Frankenstein due to a lack of interaction with humans. During his initial observation of Felix De Lacey and the old man, he notes that “Nothing could exceed the beauty of the two creatures. One was old, with silver hairs and a countenance beaming with benevolence and love: the younger was slight and graceful in his figure…”(Shelley, 118). This view changes drastically after his first experience with humans, which is overwhelmingly negative compared to the view he held previously, now “[declaring] everlasting war against the species…”(152). However, he still holds onto the idea that there is some change he can integrate into society, “…[resolving] to return to visit the cottage, seek the old man, and by [his] representations win him to [his] party”(153). He simply blames human fear, and knows that as long as his appearance is not a factor, there is a chance he can befriend the old man and gain a companion. But further negative experiences with mankind make him more enraged until his views change and he gives up entirely on any hope of being accepted. Victor Frankenstein may be one causa efficiens, but all he created was the physical aspect of the monster’s being. The true shapers of this being are the emotionally traumatizing experiences from his time spent around humans.

However with regard to humans and identity, the causa formulis raises another interesting question. What is Frankenstein’s monster? He cannot be a simple piece of technology, as modern technology “puts to nature the unreasonable demand that it supply energy which can be extracted and stored as such”(Heidegger, 8), and the monster is not a physical reserve for energy like an oil well or a coal mine. However by Heidegger’s summation of mankind’s relationship with technology, he is human. According to Heidegger, humankind’s relationship with nature is to reveal its hidden purposes in order to exploit it for whatever it may provide, which is exactly how the monster spends the beginning of his life. He mentions how he “…found a fire which had been left by some wandering beggars, and was overcome with delight at the warmth [he] experienced from it” and shortly afterwards, how “…the fire gave light as well as heat; and that the discovery of this element was useful to me in my food…”(Shelley, 112-113). The monster initially recognizes the fire as a means of providing warmth to protect him from cold, and later, on his own, discovers that the same thing can be used to provide a second purpose, much in the manner that Heidegger describes man’s poiesis of technology. Both man and monster gradually explore the natural world and find ways to use it for each’s respective needs. The monster, as an individual with primitive and unmaterialistic needs, does not use nature to provide the quantities of energy required for the production of firearms or textiles, but rather to provide a tiny enough amount for the survival of a single individual. The monster, in a way, is like early man who discovered the use of fire, the most primitive of technologies, discovering more and ways to exploit nature for the benefits of humankind.

But even if it helps to view him as “human”, the monster’s identity can be viewed from many other perspectives, including one that explains the nature of his hideousness. In his book Between Reason and Experience: Essays in Technology and Modernity, author Andrew Feenberg argues that “[technology] is not essentially destructive; rather its significance is a matter of design and social insertion”(Feenberg, 24). For Frankenstein, this significance implies that the monster’s inherent hideousness and social isolation is not because of his humanity (or lack thereof), but because he was poorly designed by Victor Frankenstein. Frankenstein complains numerous times about the imperfection of his design, noting how “…the materials at present within [his] command hardly appeared adequate to so arduous an undertaking; but [he] doubted not that [he] should ultimately succeed…[his] operations might be incessantly baffled, and at least [his] work be imperfect…Nor could [he] consider the magnitude and complexity of [his] plan as any argument of its impracticability”(Shelley, 48-49). By putting the desire for faster results above the desire to create a perfect being, Frankenstein allowed his impulsiveness to cause him to build a hideous creation whose appearance prevents his from attaining true happiness. This is a massive design flaw. The monster is capable of virtually anything, moving at the speed of an eagle and learning how to read Milton, speak, and survive on his own by the age of two, but his appearance prevents any possibility of normal integration with human society. It leads to his initial abandonment by his creator, alienation by the de Laceys, and his willingly-destructive behavior after the killing of William and eventually, to the deaths of most of the major characters in the novel. Under a Feenberg-supplemented Heidegger-based interpretation, the monster does not cause destruction simply because he is an artificial being created out of tampering with nature, but rather because his master impulsively overlooked his hideousness as a finished product due to his rabid desire to create his own human being. The resulting design flaw leads to a total inability for the monster to socially insert himself and emotional distress. The monster is not just a human being: he is an imperfect attempt at a perfect human being and his appearance is both the proof and the reason for this.

While Heidegger’s second cause deals with the monster’s biological and physical identity, his third cause, that of the causa finalis, relates the monster’s final goals and destiny to Victor Frankenstein’s. At the beginning of the novel, Frankenstein imagines that “A new species would bless [him] as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me”(49). The monster’s initial reason for existence is to be the first being in an army his creator desires for the purpose of ruling a race of beings as God. In contrast, throughout the second half of the novel, his self-guided existence revolves around two things: hunting down those associated with Victor Frankenstein and killing them, and gaining a female companion. These goals are what Heidegger would refer to as the “correctness” of his purpose, as the monster’s physical goals are not the same as their essence, of which he is well aware. He shows this awareness at the end of the novel when he tells Robert Walton about his true motives, crying about how upset he is that “the author at once of [his] existence and of its unspeakable torments…accumulated wretchedness and despair upon [him] he sought his own enjoyment in feelings and passions from the indulgence of which [he] was for ever barred, then impotent envy and bitter indignation filled [him] with an insatiable thirst for vengeance“(255). The truth of his nature is that of a justifiably-jealous individual who pains at not being able to partake in normal human emotions, which encompasses the essence of his desire for a female creature, as said creature would provide philosophical proof to him that he deserves the same happiness as any human being. This truth complements the goals and desires he mentions to Frankenstein in the mountains, which represent the “correct.” Both in combination eventually lead to the destruction of the half-finished female creature and complete emotional collapse by both creator and creation at the end of the novel. The correctness of the monster’s physical actions and desires is encompassed by the truth of his emotional trauma and jealousy, providing the creature with a dual-layered relationship with Victor Frankenstein.

Heidegger’s four causes provide an explanation as to the nature of the monster’s existence. And it is through the monster’s questioning of this existence that allows it to be investigated further and for the true nature of he and his fellow man to be revealed. But what exactly is revealed? To investigate, let us consider one final Heidegerrian view of the world using a notable contemporary example.

In a recent New York Times article, two journalists, Charles Duhigg and David Barboza expose recent practices of technology giant Apple Inc. Apple has recently angered many labor rights organizations due to hiring Foxconn to manufacture its expensive goods. Foxconn is infamous for labor practices deemed exploitative in Chinese factories, where employee suicides are so common that the company was recently forced to install safety nets outside its windows as a prevention tactic. Workers toil for more than twelve hours a week for miniscule wages in working conditions reminiscent of the early Industrial Revolution.

In a Heideggerian sense, Apple’s goods have multiple purposes. They reveal themselves to be not simply tools for individuals, to access the internet or to place phone calls, but as devices to supply Apple with as much money as possible, even if it results in the destruction of the humanity in humanity. Swollen limbs, exposure to dangerous chemicals, and endless, relentless shifts that overwork employees to the point where suicide is a reasonable alternative are cost-cutting measures, all of which contribute to this almost-mechanization of mankind.

In a sense, it is highly ironic that in this Heidegerrian viewpoint of man, Frankenstein’s monster becomes more human than this segment of humanity, as he has the freedom to explore nature and to reveal the purposes of objects, whereas Foxconn’s employees are treated as standing-reserve, being “ordered to stand by, to be immediately on hand, indeed to stand there just so that it may be on call for a further ordering”(Heidegger), in contrast to the traditional, naturalistic form of revelation that the monster practices. Like the creation of the monster, this virtual mechanization of humanity is caused significantly by human impulse, as Apple consumers, Foxconn, and Victor Frankenstein desire results as quickly as possible to the point of potential consequences becoming entirely secondary, and like the monster’s own experiences, the indifference of society to ailing conditions leads to negative changes in the essences of the oppressed.

Heidegger’s causes and the monster’s questions allow for exploration of many simultaneous states of being. And these states of being, as evidenced above, can all lead to important revelations about the current state of man. Frankenstein’s monster’s final question is “What is my destination?”. At the end of the novel this question is answered when the monster determines that his actions have been too destructive and leaves Walton’s ship to end his own life. With the impulsive, overexploitative, dehumanizing nature of mankind in its current state, are we on our own identical path?

Works Cited:

Feenberg, Andrew. Between Reason and Experience: Essays in Technology and Modernity. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2010. Print.

Heidegger, Martin. "The Question Concerning Technology." The Question Concerning Technology. Trans. William Lovitt. Wright State University. Web.

Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Lynd Ward. Frankenstein: The Lynd Ward Illustrated Edition. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2009. Print.

Duhigg, Charles, and David Barboza. "In China, Human Costs Are Built Into an iPad." The New York Times. 25 Jan. 2012. Web. 10 Feb. 2012.

"'Mass Suicide' Protest at Apple Manufacturer Foxconn Factory - Telegraph." - Telegraph Online, Daily Telegraph, Sunday Telegraph - Telegraph. Web. 10 Feb. 2012.

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