By: Erica Quinones ’22
English and German Studies majors, Political Science and European Studies minors
This essay will explore Frankenstein as the stillbirth of a posthuman society, revealing insights into the social norms that Mary Shelley uses to define “human” and the structures therein. These insights arise by reading the Creature in Tandem with Donna Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto.” The Creature’s embodying of multivocal identities (dead/alive, human/monster, human/animal) makes him an ideal “Cyborg” character, someone who can speak with an intersectional voice to prompt social change by moving beyond the strict definition of “human.” The Creature’s title of “creature” is key to the text’s pregnancy with the posthuman, holding within itself fluid connotations of humanity, animals, and objects. This fluidity suggests a deconstruction of assumed human superiority by equating them with nonhuman beings. Thus, with this willingness primed, the posthuman’s unsuspected downfall demands further interrogation. This paper argues that the downfall originates in the Creature’s inability to disconnect himself from the ideals of “human,” being socialized into humanism through his studying of the DeLacey family. Where Haraway’s Cyborg exists beyond patriarchal and Eurocentric structures, Shelley’s Creature internalizes them, as seen in his performance of humanity when conversing with the blind father. Thus, instead of trying to revise or abolish the term “human,” he attempts to conform with it, breaking the possibilities of a posthuman revelation.
Key Terms: posthuman, cyborg, creature, performance
The following was written for The Nineteenth Century Novel: Horror, at Home and Abroad (ENG 323-10).
What defines humanity is central to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. While a satisfying answer is out of reach, how a text navigates it provides insight into its cultural contexts. These insights often examine the hegemonic presences within the text, depicting the subversive as monstrous. Frankenstein is no different, depicting a monstrous antagonist who—while sympathetic—is divorced from the label ‘human,’ not only by those around him but by himself. However, that separation does not always exist, nor does it need to exist. Donna Haraway examines how polarized identities can exist simultaneously within singular figures like the Creature in her seminal “Cyborg Manifesto.” Haraway’s essay explores how dichotomous, unnatural beings like the Creature become agents of the posthuman by deconstructing the essentialized hierarchies that define ‘human.’ However, Haraway differentiates the Creature from her Cyborg due to his embracing of heteronormativity, and thus reinscribing of hegemonic definitions. While the separation of the Creature from Haraway’s Cyborg is logical regarding Haraway’s political intentions, it draws attention to the Creature’s original potential as a Cyborg and thus raises questions as to why he embraces old hierarchies rather than inclusive revelations. Where Haraway’s Cyborg exists to spite the systems that marginalize it, the Creature instead internalizes and justifies the systems that marginalize him, seeking assimilation into and recreation of essentialized hierarchies to empower himself through the subjugation of others.
As the genesis of contemporary science fiction, Frankenstein embodies the genre’s primary philosophical foundation: posthumanism. Posthumanism is fluid with “little consensus as to what actually constitutes the posthuman” (Leach 70). However, in its basest form, posthumanism is “a state following humanism,” challenging basic questions of human nature, such as “what does it mean to be human? What constitutes the parameter of humanity?” (70-1). A posthuman state arises through the deconstruction of ideas of the ‘human,’ primarily by challenging Cartesian or biological-determinant definitions. Cartesian ideals emphasize a philosophy in which the mind is the “essential way of defining the person” (77), and a biological-determinant approach to humanity asserts that there is no “[h]uman mind without human body” (N. Katherine Hayle qtd. in Stevenson 88). However, those binaries are often intrinsically related because subjectivity is shaped by physical appearance.
These central ideas of categorical deconstruction are at the heart of Donna Haraway’s posthuman figure, the Cyborg. Haraway’s Cyborg is a feminist political tool which reads its subject as “a fictional mapping [of] our social and bodily reality” (Haraway 150), seeing its coupling of dichotomies like human/machine and human/animal as central to reworking understandings of individual identity in a radical political movement (177). The Cyborg becomes a tool for social de/reconstruction because it is an artificial creation. The Cyborg is divorced from the natural myths of humanity, and thus its cultural structures, such as heteronormativity, patriarchy, and white supremacy. Its status as a singular being with intersectional identities means that it is an individual which can easily act: “to be One is to be autonomous, to be powerful, to be God” (177). However, because “the other is the one who holds the future, who knows that by the experience of domination” (177), its intersectional identities imbue it with the desire to reform the political system and create an era of posthumanism that benefits the whole group over the individual. Thus, the existence of Haraway’s Cyborg in a text like Frankenstein may signify the possibility for radical political change, the success or failure of which reveals the central structures of oppression within the culture in which the novel was written.
The Creature becomes a potential Cyborg figure through his embodiment of dichotomous identities and divorce from a natural genesis. The Creature is a being of physical, mental, and moral multiplicity, making him susceptible to fluid interpretations of humanity as he reflects the race at their best and worst, questioning what it means to be human. The Creature’s multiplicity of in/human interpretations arise in the description of his birth, in which the Creature’s concept and composition internalize the living/dead dichotomy, opening further interpretations along human/object/animal relationships. When conceptualizing his Creature, Frankenstein seeks to create “a new species” by bestowing “animation on lifeless matter” in hopes of one day “[renewing] life where death had apparently devoted the body to corruption” (Shelley 44). Labeling the Creature’s components as “lifeless matter” objectifies them, characterizing them as both inhuman and inanimate, like the clay that molds the golem (44). However, Shelley intertwines both “the unhallowed damps of the grave” and “tortured…living animals” with the “lifeless clay” when describing the Creature’s conception (44), mingling the reader’s understanding of the Creature’s origin and features with connotations of life, death, humanity, and ferality. While these attributes seem contradictory, their harmony in the Creature’s binary-defying identity inscribes the Cyborg potential into his body.
If the Creature’s birth emphasized only animal or clay materials, a posthuman possibility would not be as accessible, but the inclusion of human remains deconstructs the core of humanism: assumed inherent human superiority. Frankenstein does not treat the Creature’s body with the reverence expected of human remains. The equivalency of human remains and “lifeless matter,” their interchangeability with “lifeless clay,” and the bestowing of animation rather than life, deconstructs ideas of biologically determined humanity because it does not differentiate between the once-living and the never born. Because the text treats human biological matter as not inherently human, a reader could assume that the novel subscribes to a more Cartesian understanding of humanity, prioritizing rationality over corporality. However, Frankenstein’s grammar when describing his “secret toil” deconstructs that barrier. Frankenstein says that he “dabbled among the unhallowed damps of the grave, or tortured the living animal to animate the lifeless clay” when creating the Creature (44). The coordinating conjunction “or” denotes both clauses as carrying equal weight; thus, the death of an animal becomes equivalent to the desecration of a human, treating them with the same respect. This omitted distinction de-emphasizes the separation of human and animal, a category that is traditionally drawn through differences of rationality. Both humanist distinctions are thus deconstructed in the Creature’s body, earning him the title “Creature” — a word which carries connotations of humanity (21, 54, 69, 77, 84, 90, 96, 102, 114, 144) animals (63, 127, 169), and created things (47, 50, 83, 84, 85, 110, 111, 126, 132, 144). He is the perfect vessel to explore what constitutes a human, and possibly radicalize the definition in his universe. The ability to radicalize is itself inscribed in his composition.
Besides deconstructing humanist ideas, the Creature’s body also poses him as a subject of temporal multiplicity. The lifeless clay and bestowing of animation (not life) depict the Creature as an automaton, something which is unthinking, unfeeling, and irrational, but entirely original. However, the reference to grave robbing reminds the reader that the Creature is no golem, he consists of human remains. Thus, following biological-determinant humanism, he is/was a thinking, feeling, rational human—which feeds into the Cartesian model as well. More so, he is an amalgamation of corpses with histories. While Frankenstein asserts that he now believes it is impossible to “renew life,” that is exactly what he does in crafting the Creature (44). Frankenstein might have intended to restore life to dead people but renew only means to make new again; by bringing the Creature into his infancy, he has done just that. However, one cannot ignore the third aspect in this trio of spiritual parents, the “living animal” (44). It is the only part of the Creature’s birth which includes life, but Frankenstein snuffs it out to animate the Creature. Thus, the Creature simultaneously becomes a genesis, continuation, and end point, something which is without predecessor, but also carries a human history within itself while constituting the end of the natural order. Connecting this idea back to his blurring of humanity, the Creature rises as an agent which can either begin humanism anew, continue its structures unmolested, or end it and move society into the posthuman. However, the Creature’s ability to radicalize must be preceded by his ability to create an original definition of ‘human.’
The Creature’s initial freedom to find his way to an original interpretation of ‘human’ appears in his orphan status. Frankenstein’s original role of “creator” and “father” carries connotations of godhood and educator (44), making him the Creature’s intended moral and hierarchical teacher. The existence of a god would inform the Creature that there is something above him, designating him as a lesser being. Because Frankenstein is a self-identified human, and the Creature is an intended “new species,” Frankenstein would teach the Creature that he is not only inhuman but less than human (44). However, Frankenstein’s abandonment leaves the Creature with no natural nor familial ties to the world around him. At first, he cannot even “distinguish between the operations of my various senses” (87), let alone the higher concepts of self, class, gender, or government. Thus, like Haraway’s Cyborg, the Creature can view identity and society with fresh eyes, untouched by the previously established hierarchies (Haraway 151). In doing so, he might uncover a definition of ‘human’ that pushes beyond the Eurocentric, patriarchal values that define the hierarchy into which Frankenstein would have integrated him. However, the difficulty of implementing a Cyborg character as envisioned by Haraway becomes evident when the Creature gains rationality.
The central threat to Haraway’s Cyborg is social experience, which becomes obvious in the Creature’s early life. As Haraway notes, the Cyborg is “the illegitimate offspring” of oppressive systems. However, Haraway writes that “illegitimate offspring are often exceedingly unfaithful to their origins”; thus, they may desire to radicalize the political systems of their parents (Haraway 151). Haraway’s model relies on her subject’s complete disregard for pre-existing social structures. But Melissa Colleen Stevenson emphasizes that posthuman subjects “depend upon their embodied experiences and upon their interactions with their complex and shifting environments to define subjectivity” (Stevenson 88). Posthuman subjects and their subversions are “inextricably bound to [their worlds of flesh and of experience] and defined by them” (88). Similarly, the Creature’s subjectivity is shaped rapidly by his world’s imperialist values.
The DeLacey family’s values colonize the Creature’s subjectivity. Despite his unnatural genesis and orphaned state, the Creature is shaped by views which are intrinsically linked to the social order of his father through Felix DeLacey’s teachings. The Creature remarks that he “heard of slothful Asiatics; of the stupendous genius and mental activity of the Grecians; of the wars and wonderful virtue of the early Romans…; of chivalry, Christianity, and kings. I heard of the discovery of the American hemisphere, and wept with Safie over the hapless fate of its original inhabitants” (101). The multitude of essentialized structures therein can be summarized as colonized, which this paper defines as an ideology which emphasizes naturalized hierarchies that prioritize white, male, Christian domination of racialized and female-identified subjects. The racialization of Asians as “slothful” depicts Europe’s trading rivals as lesser than, directly contrasting them to the Greeks’ “activity”—utilizing a classic historical example that white supremacists often use to justify European domination. The connection of the Romans’ imperialist wars to the discovery of the Americas unites past European imperialism with contemporary colonization, justifying the continued conquering and subjugation of othered peoples. This subjugation is embodied again in the vagueness of why Safie and the Creature grieve for the Native Americans. While their “hapless” nature could be connected to their genocide, the mention of Christianity makes a possible connection between the woes of Native Americans and their ignorance of Christian religion—a common justification for their subjugation during the period which reinscribed essentialized, divinely made hierarchies. Additionally, the Creature not only learns about race but of “the differences of sexes” (102). The consequences of the Creature’s socialization into contemporary gender roles, and thus beliefs in naturalized male domination, will be discussed later. These lessons shape how the Creature establishes his value, relying on the recreation of Eurocentric ideals.
The colonization of the Creature’s subjectivity manifests in self-hatred. The Creature demonstrates self-depreciative thinking when summarizing his respect for the DeLacey family: “I had admired the perfect forms of my cottagers—their grace, beauty, and delicate complexions: but how was I terrified when I viewed myself in a transparent pool!…when I became fully convinced that I was in reality the monster that I am” (96). The Creature’s focus on their “delicate complexions” draws attention to their race, especially because Safie is not yet present. He not only idealizes their European values, but he makes those European values equivalent to the term ‘human.’ Thus, the Creature’s monstrosity does not only come from a biological determinant perspective of humanity, but an amalgamation of social categorizations that are labeled as lesser: “I possessed no money, no friends, no kind of property. I was, besides, endued with a figure hideously deformed and loathsome” (102, emphasis added). The Creature’s marginalization coupled with his desire to be recognized as human creates a strategic choice.
The Creature’s colonized mind devalues his marginalized figure, placing him at an intersection of posthuman activism: whether to de-colonize his thinking and work towards a more inclusive ‘humanity’ that values his marginalized group, or to separate himself from the group and prioritize his social wellbeing. Haraway’s Cyborg-politics fade away as the Creature embraces the latter path, internalizing and assimilating into the colonial mindsets which exiled him. While the Creature recognizes that ‘human’ is something he is connected to—seeing that his “form [is] a filthy type of yours”—he seeks to be accepted as human through his “virtues,” allowing the DeLacey family to “overlook my personal deformity” (111). He embraces respectability politics, believing that by aligning with colonized values, he can promote colorblindness on the family. Instead of being accepted as human including his appearance, he hopes to be accepted as human despite his appearance, disregarding a portion of his identity to conform with ideals instead of revolutionizing them. However, while this tactic is widely criticized in contemporary theoretical schools of activism (ex. critical race, feminist, and queer theory), one can argue that by de-essentializing the biological denotations of ‘humanity’ through a Cartesian focus, the Creature can end the relationship between “[n]ature and culture…[so that] the one can no longer be the resource for appropriation or incorporation by the other” (Haraway 151). However, that de-essentialization can only occur through the Creature’s explicit, asserted claim to humanity.
The Creature’s performance of humanity emphasizes his ability to create a posthuman society, but it fails due to his unformed individual identity. As Haraway writes, the Cyborg’s liberation “rests on the construction of the consciousness, the imaginative apprehension, of oppression, and so of possibility” (149). This liberation is partially achieved through the Creature’s performance of humanity, which occurs through his dialogue with the blind father, because it allows him to de-essentialize his corporeal status and claim Cartesian humanity. The success of his Cartesian approach is shown when the father asserts that “it will afford me true pleasure to be in any way serviceable to a human creature” (Shelley 114, emphasis added). However, what breaks the connection is the Creature’s inability to confidently identify himself throughout the performance. The interaction begins with the dialogue: “’Who is there?’ said the old man—” (113), the dash representing the Creature’s omitted identification. This pattern of anonymity continues as the Creature asserts that he is “unknown” to his friends (114), his anonymity arising not only from his continued physical hiding but his undefined relationship with the family. The crippling effect of this reliance is revealed when the Creature gives the father the duty of naming their relationship, causing him to exclaim the final words of their interaction: “’who are you?’” (114). Because the Creature only sees himself in relation to recognized humans—relying on categorical assimilation over categorical expansion to define himself as human—he can never assert who or what he is with confidence. Even if he feels human enough to seek community with them, he relies on their conceptualizations of humanity to assert his own (post)human potential.
The Creature fully abandons his possibility as a Cyborg figure when he abandons the goal of ‘human’ expansion and group uplifting, instead favoring the recreation of the colonized ‘human’ to better his personal status. Where Haraway’s Cyborg reworks “[n]ature and culture…[so that] the one can no longer be the resource for appropriation or incorporation by the other” (Haraway151), the Creature seeks to recreate those oppressive, essentialized structures. He expects liberation “through a restoration of the garden; that is, through the fabrication of a heterosexual mate” (151). The insinuations of this continuation of oppressive humanism through the Creature’s heterosexuality is that the Creature seeks to find liberation through the subjugation of another. As aforementioned, at the time of his birth, there was no way for the Creature to conceptualize himself as masculine despite Frankenstein’s ascribing him with male sexual features (Shelley 47). Thus, the only way for the Creature to develop a gender expression is through his socialization which emphasizes colonized values. By demanding a female mate who “would not deny herself to me” (123), the Creature seeks to take the ideas of male sexual domination and force them onto another possible posthuman agent, condemning their ‘Cyborg’ identity to humanism’s subjugation to improve his own social status.
Posthuman ideologies are central to science fiction’s exploration of alternative ways of being. Haraway recognized this attribute in her “Cyborg Manifesto,” utilizing science fiction allegory to envision an intersectional feminist movement that uplifts the entire female identity. However, not every posthuman possibility is actualized. Mary Shelley’s Creature chases the posthuman awakening which would alleviate his oppression, but only stumbles further into failed revelations. These revelations fail due to his inability to conceptualize himself as a ‘human’ outside the colonized idea of ‘humanity,’ eventually prioritizing individual empowerment over group uplifting. Rather than ending the colonized ‘human’ and its history of oppressive, naturalized categorizations—becoming the genesis of a new, inclusive identity—he abandons his human claim. The Creature internalizes self-depreciative, monstrous feelings despite his biological and Cartesian human possibilities. He abandons group empowerment through categorical de/reconstruction, divorcing himself from his marginalized identities and recreating oppressive, colonized structures to empower himself. These revelations emphasize the importance of collective action and awareness in crafting an influential, activist movement. If we, like the Creature, cannot break ourselves away from monstrous feelings or seek to hedge our identity to better fit hegemonic ideals, we only manage to artificially improve our status instead of uprooting the problem’s core.
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Stevenson, Melissa Colleen. “Trying to Plug In: Posthuman Cyborgs and the Search for Connection,” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 34, no. 1, March 2007, pp. 87-105.