This is part two of a two-part reflection on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Transhumanism. I presented this paper at a conference in Atlanta two weeks ago. Find the first half here…it’ll make more sense that way. Enjoy!
Perhaps the central enduring legacy of the Enlightenment is its utter commitment to progress. The individual can and should cast off all the outside influences that get in the way of his/her dogged pursuit of the truth because, ultimately, the truth could be ascertained by the individual. Things were going to get better.
Optimism is rife within Frankenstein, present in both the Doctor and the Beast. Victor Frankenstein is described largely as a passionate, perhaps obsessive, optimist. He is keenly aware of the great possibilities that lie with scientific discovery, even the great fortune and honor that await him as a result of fulfilling one’s potential in an epic opus magnum as he exclaims: ‘I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation.’ But, in an instant, his actual creation presses on him a condition of revulsion. Frankenstein is absolutely committed to expelling the Monster from society, driving it to oblivion, then ultimately hunting down the outsider because it is the lasting testament to his own naiveté. The creator not only expels his creation from human communities; but the creator himself is so bound in his misery that he withdraws from society as well.
The strangely and fragilely optimistic Monster dares to hope that his appearance, though obscene, could be overlooked in favor of his self-taught erudition. He observes a family from a hiding spot in the woods, looking for an opportune time to approach the patriarch and win the favor of the family. In this sense, the Monster is actually embodying a Gnostic concept of transcendence through knowledge (gnosis); these gnostic societies played themselves out in one of two ways: 1) The physical body meant nothing, therefore, a life of hedonism was acceptable; or 2) The physical body was evil and therefore should be brought into submission through strict asceticism. The Monster proceeds from the possibility that true community is less about embodiment and the physical kinship of creaturehood, and more ethereally bound to that which unifies two or more individuals in intellect. His optimism mirrors that of Frankenstein, though perhaps in a concave fashion, upside down and distorted.
The Monster hopes that the communal membership is bestowed by virtue of a common set of ideals or beliefs. Ultimately, he comes face-to-face with the hard reality that he is not welcomed into the family despite his best efforts. His response is not a virtuous ‘pressing on’ in hopes of a society-wide increase in tolerance; he knows that he is doomed. Tragically, he is driven to the wasteland in fear of his life, affirming his worst fears in his rhetorical musing, ‘Was man, indeed, at once so powerful, so virtuous, and magnificent, yet so vicious and base?’
So, where does this leave us? The short story is truly a horror story, for the tale never fulfills the optimism present in either Dr. Frankenstein or the Monster. The reader is left with a harrowing tale that time and time again challenges the status quo that everything is going to be okay. In addition, the reader is forced to confront the very essence of community. How, precisely, does an outsider become an insider? Does community require a certain measure of commonality—in particular, physical commonality? Perhaps the present social experience is exactly that: one’s community is a group of friends that generally look and think alike. Of course, there are religious communities, for example, that will resist this simple description. The narrative of the New Testament may suggest a different bonding agent, when many of the earliest Christian communities were drawn together by a common confession of faith—and included the physically deformed or sick, such as lepers. The confession of the contemporary age, however, may be profession of post-human hope; a creed that attempts to cast off the physical nature of community for a more gnostic touch.
“The confession of the contemporary age, however, may be profession of post-human hope; a creed that attempts to cast off the physical nature of community for a more gnostic touch.“
Is community that which defines itself by exclusion? Or, inclusion? The clearest distinction between the Frankenstein tale and modern myths of transhumanism might be a difference of direction. Whereas the Monster seeks to move into the human community, the transhumanist project is one that seeks to move past human community into a grand utopian vision. Many of the leaders in the transhumanist movement have implicitly suggested that, with a new race of superhumans, those who are left un-augmented may be left in the dust as monsters themselves. Kurzweil himself admitted that communication would largely be impossible between the post-humans (i.e., those who have been modified or augmented with technology) and ‘regular’ people. Perhaps Homo Sapiens will be living on the outside of the future community, seeking to learn the new languages and customs of the post-human existence, deeply aware of its own genetic limitations. Whether this is scare-mongering or prophetic, the Frankenstein tale continues to be a relevant voice in a world that has blurred the lines of the creator-creature relationship as well as the very nature of community itself.
Coming full circle, when I had finally reached my eighth grade year, I had shifted from the witness stand to the jury box, eyeing each new boy who walked into the first day of classes at St. John’s elementary. As fortune would have it, one of my new classmates was a gifted point guard. My best friend, Craig, asked me at lunch if I had seen this fellow on the basketball courts earlier in the day, to which I replied, ‘Oh yeah, he’s a monster.’
© Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Joel Oesch and Fishing for Leviathan with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.