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Getting Over Frankenstein

Chris Mooney, Washington Correspondent for Seed magazine, has an excellent article up at The American Prospect entitled "The Monster That Wouldn’t Die," about Hollywood's continued use (and abuse) of the Frankenstein story. Citing a number of current Hollywood science fiction adventures, Mooney argues that the story they tell over and over -- that there things Man was not Meant To Know and that the worst sin of all is playing god -- in the end leave us culturally ill-suited to think about the implications, both positive and negative, of emerging technologies.

I'm extremely uncomfortable with the way in which the weapon of the Frankenstein myth is repeatedly used as a club against modern-day medical researchers, who are seeking to cure people, not to become God. The "forbidden knowledge" aspect of the myth is also troubling. Last I checked, knowledge is a good thing, even if many kinds of knowledge can also be abused. Finally, the concept of the "unnatural" is a disturbingly arbitrary criterion to use in ruling out certain kinds of behavior or technologies. Let us not forget that interracial marriage and homosexuality have also been labeled "unnatural."

The broader point is that simply saying "no" doesn't qualify as wisdom, unless you're also capable of explaining why.

Although I'm sure that a number of WC readers will disagree with his argument, I encourage you to give this a read and to reflect upon the myths we tell ourselves about science, knowledge and the future.

Comments (9)

hans samuelson:

You know, the best place to start might just be to read the original Frankenstein. Mary Shelley is a good writer with a fine literary pedigree to boot, and the messages that are in the book are quite different from the Hollywood remakes.

Arguably, the original Frankenstein is more about lousy parenting skills than about "playing God." The monster is quite sympathetic, in fact, and the workaholic, emotionally bereft Dr. Frankenstein, unable to love what he has created, is the all-too-human villain.

Perhaps the Frankenstein myth that we would want to carry forward might have more to do with truly loving what we create, and with being prepared to take full responsibility for it, than with questions of forbidden knowledge or emerging technologies.

But real love--or real responsibility--are not what audiences turn to Hollywood for.... or at least this audience of one...

-- Hans in steaming hot Montreal.

Fact for today: Montreal has the most extreme temperature swings of just about any major city in the world.

The only Frankenstein movie I can think of that got it close to Shelly's original was Mel Brookes' "Young Frankenstein." Most of the second half of the movie is devoted to Gene Wilder trying to play the responsible parent to his creation.

Unlike Shelly's story this ends happily, or at least prosaically, with the creature as a bored, married stock analyst. I guess Brookes thought it would be funny to explore Shelly's theme of parental and creator responsibility. But, despite it's being a comedy, the film shows science as beneficial force that heals the creature and even benefits the creator in a rather ribald way.

I agree with Mooney's arguments completely, but I think he's pitted himself against some deeply ingrained human tendencies.

The reason the taboo/hubris/"tree of knowledge" story keeps getting repeated in the folklore of many cultures is because we emerged as creatures in a very risky environment. Strong bio-cultural forces over the last few million years encouraged strong conservatism in early humans. In the early eons, it saved us. Now, perhaps, it's getting in the way.

That's why we still have people who believe in creationism (Or whatever they're calling it now.), faith healing, astrology, religion and political ideologies despite no scientific evidence to support them.

The scientific view is a very, very recent novelty and runs counter to many earlier mental coping mechanisms. It's very hard for me to imagine how we'll ever reconcile this.

At least, despite occasional, sometimes very bloody, setbacks, we seem to be slowly learning how to rein it in.

And by "rein it in" I mean reining in the older, more dysfunctional coping mechanisms, NOT science.

Stefan Jones:

i) Bruce Sterling's essay "Cyberpunk in the Nineties" includes a wonderful little riff about how modern SF would handle the Frankenstein story:

Now imagine a cyberpunk version of FRANKENSTEIN. In this imaginary work, the Monster would likely be the well-funded R&D team-project of some global corporation. The Monster might well wreak bloody havoc, most likely on random passers-by. But having done so, he would never have been allowed to wander to the North Pole, uttering Byronic profundities. The Monsters of cyberpunk never vanish so conveniently. They are already loose on the streets. They are next to us. Quite likely *WE* are them. The Monster would have been copyrighted through the new genetics laws, and manufactured worldwide in many thousands. Soon the Monsters would all have lousy night jobs mopping up at fast-food restaurants.

In the moral universe of cyberpunk, we *already* know Things We Were Not Meant To Know. Our *grandparents* knew these things; Robert Oppenheimer at Los Alamos became the Destroyer of Worlds long before we arrived on the scene. In cyberpunk, the idea that there are sacred limits to human action is simply a delusion. There are no sacred boundaries to protect us from ourselves."


ii) Olaf Stapledon's Sirius has a British scientist mucking about with dog embryos. He stumbles on a hormone which increases the brain size of developing puppies.

In a mid-century pulp story or a Sci-Fi Channel crap movie of the week his creations would roam the countryside wreaking havoc. Stapledon ditches the whole "have we the right?" angle and instead writes a biography of a one-of-kind intelligent dog trying to figure out his place in human society and the universe. A wonderful book, but also a real bummer.

Bladerunner could be considered as a good counter-argument to both the thesis that hollywood always produces preachy retreads of the theme, and that the likely outcome of scientific research in sensitive areas will range from benign to positive.

---clip from article
"Granted, I agree that certain lines shouldn't be crossed. We shouldn't, for instance, clone fully grown human beings. But not because it's taboo; because it's unethical. The point is, we need to use philosophical arguments, not preaching, to determine where the lines ought to be drawn."

Meanwhile, human brain cells are being grafted onto both monkey and mice brains, and protocals are put into place to destroy the "animals" if they exhibit -- human behaviour.

This is happening now.

The frankenstein story can be valuable because told correctly it exposes the myths scientists tell the world about their activities.

When something is made possible by science, typically, the possibility is immediately actualized.

Whether or not their is cause to fear any particular technology, one should respect this basic observable process in our civilization.

Hans Samuelson wrote: "Arguably, the original Frankenstein is more about lousy parenting skills than about 'playing God.' ".

Hans, thank you - you're helping me see something in a new way. The "Frankenstein" lesson may not be "Don't play God"; it may be "Don't create and then abandon", or "What will you create if you're personally responsible for your creation?"

For me, "Frankenstein" is a metaphor for creative acts gone wrong. In my field, architecture, one characteristic of really lousy buildings is that they're an assemblage of pre-formed parts, like Frankenstein's monster. Nature forms organisms differently: by adding greater detail and structure to already-existing wholes. Cells differentiate, a ball becomes head and torso, limbs develop, then fingers and toes, and so on. In my field, the biggest disasters come from imposing arbitrary images on an existing reality. Good work stems from observing the wholes already there, and finding ways to enhance them. When I look at our world of strip malls, chain stores, cookie-cutter subdivisions and high-rise corporate logos, I see the work of Dr. Frankenstein.

The intelligence of this thread seems to say to me that myths such as Frankenstein are made valuable to the extent that we collectively use them to reflect ourselves in, consciously creating different meanings.

Baudrillard said that he always goes back to artists who were working in the very early days of a phenomenon (e.g. capitalism, industrialism), as they saw the images expressive of these things so clearly. There seems to be no point in arguing against the point that Frankenstein is "the governing myth of modern biology" - it might not express a contemporary rationalist's position, but that's not really what myths are for.

Nor are they, until they're debased, just to be repeated in simplistic contexts ad infinitum to reinforce the fears they express - I agree with Mooney on that. But his call for "a little bit of originality" seems to be a call for stuff that isn't based in myth. I just think we should be pushing for more creative expressions of myth, not just shooting myth down by picking on their least sophisticated exponents.

As for the "limits to knowledge" thing - well, we're always going to be working with limits (sorry, economists!). Ask any artist, limitations engender creativity. Seems to hold true whether there's an artist involved or not - life has limits in order to create and complexify. Sure, they'll always be shifting and changing, but we need to work with limitations in the sense that we need to engage with them mythically as well as rationally. Let's evolve Frankenstein, create new ways of looking at new limits.


No frankenstein just shows you that if your a mad scientist you need proper security and you need a nice deserted isle or a desolate wasteland to do your mad experiments NOT downtown hoboken.

Not to mention you need to bribe any locals that do exist peoperly so they will shut up and act like nothing odd is going on.

Thats the true problem with big bussiness these days they have forgotten the value of bribery and wasteland management!

The arguement about human's messing with stuff they were not meant to handle is ALSO USED AGAINST the efforts to solve hunger [and in a few cases diseas] by developing and growing GMO [ plants and animals].
I don't like the Frankenstein arguement one bit but you sure hear it a lot when it comes to GMO technologies.


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