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Frankenstein 200: The interdisciplinary panel

On Tuesday, Oct. 30, four Beloit faculty members came together for an interdisciplinary look at Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which celebrates its 200th anniversary this year. Professors Tamara Ketabgian (English), Jennifer Esperanza (Anthropology), Britt Scharringhausen (Physics and Astronomy) and Robin Zebrowski (Cognitive Science), each offered unique insights into Frankenstein’s enduring influence on the ways we perceive and shape our world.

Ketabgian began the panel by providing some background into Frankenstein’s creation, pointing to the influence of the French and Haitian Revolutions on Shelley’s creative and political thought. She also drew an explicit comparison to Mary Shelley’s age (19 at the time of Frankenstein’s publication) and that of the student’s attending the panel, as well as her learning background, saying Shelley’s unique learning opportunities amounted to a “liberal arts education.”

“I use this term ‘liberal,’” she went on to say, “not in the sense of a political affiliation–although it certainly can be that–but rather because it is about liberty, about what it is to be free, to be a free thinker.” Ketabgian then talked about Shelley’s politically radical parentage (she was the daughter of two revolutionary thinkers, feminist philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft and anarchist philosopher William Godwin) and marriage to radical Romantic poet, Percy Shelley. Ketbagian noted that Percy Shelley has tended to overshadow Mary in academia but that she thinks it’s “time to think about how she has influenced him, in turn.” Ketabgian then went on to illuminate how Shelley was a creation of her own age and parentage but also a creator in her own right who “deliberately wrote her book about this messy process of creation.”

Ketabgian concluded her presentation by drawing “parallels between this idea of messy creation and cultural reproduction, as linked to biological reproduction; motherhood,” going on to describe the death of Shelley’s mother in childbirth and Shelley’s own experiences with miscarriages and infant mortality. “The creature,” Tamara noted, is “linked to this idea of a dead mother, deathly reproduction, messy creation [which is] at the heart of this story.”

Professor Jennifer Esperanza followed Ketbagian by focusing on both Jordan Peele’s horror film Get Out (2016) and Victor LaValle’s Destroyer, a 2017 graphic novel which reimagines the Frankenstein mythos via the lens of Black Lives Matter and police violence.

Esperanza began by explaining that anthropologists are engaged in studying how societies use stories to articulate their particular fears, be that through folklore and mythology or more modern forms such as “literature, TV shows, comic books, and movies.” Esperanza pointed to the fears symbolized by Frankenstein as including “fears of capitalism’s rise over Western European society at the turn of the 19th century.” She then argued that Frankenstein’s creature can be read as an embodiment of this ambivalence towards the lasting effects of capitalism, noting that “while it may benefit you in the immediate future, you’re not quite sure what its impact is gonna be for subsequent generations. You aren’t quite sure what kind of a monster you have created.”

Esperanza then pointed out that the rise of capitalism is inextricably linked to the rise of slavery, noting that “over the last two, to the three hundred years, with the rise of capitalism racial categories [also emerged], creating stark categories of difference […] and reducing the diversity of the world’s cultures and ethnicities to a set of ‘biological’ racial categories.”  

The racial anxieties and stereotypes created by this categorization, particularly in regard to white fear of black slaves, are still with us today, and Esperanza pointed to Get Out as a film that explores these lingering and malignant anxieties. It does so by flipping the common narrative and narrativizing “black fears about Whiteness.” The particular black fears expressed in Get Out, Esperanza argued, include “the continued fetishization of the black body as athletic, as built for labour, as sexualized, [as well as] black fear of not knowing who to trust.”

Esperanza then went on to talk about the graphic novel Destroyer, which charts a black scientists efforts to bring back her murdered son (who was killed by police in Chicago). The anxieties that are expressed here, Esperanza said, are that “those who’ve been murdered, and particularly because of anti-blackness, they aren’t quite dead. The ghosts still linger and haunt the living. Even as Dr. Jo Baker tries to resolve her grief and avenge her son’s death, she knows she’s not completely reviving him, that she can never get him back. Just like we can’t get back the thousands of African American males and females who have been lynched, enslaved, killed and murdered, we can never get them back.” A final fear was the limits and risks of where technology might take us.

This final fear presented a natural segue for Britt Scharringhausen’s talk on the “context of scientific discovery in the time that Frankenstein was written.” Scharringhausen ran through a list of the experiments surrounding electricity and bodily reanimation in the 18th century that influenced Shelley’s imagination and work.

Of particular note was the way “that the human body itself was treated as an experimental apparatus.” Scharringhausen recounted one experiment, conducted by Jean Nollet, which was composed of a mile long chain of about 200 hundred monks, each holding an iron rod. When the loop closed, the electric current being run through a leyden jar traveled through the monks, causing them to all jump simultaneously.   

Another important experiment was conducted by Luigi Galvani, who took dead frog legs “and probed them with wire and metals and demonstrated that the dead frog leg could be made to jump and twitch.” More alarming was an experiment performed by Giovanni Aldini, which used the same principles of the frog leg experiment on the corpse of an executed murderer. The societal and religious taboos surrounding how we treat the dread were overridden, Scharringhausen explained, by treating the experiment as “a continuation of the convict’s  punishment after death, which was why society permitted this to happen publically.”

Further blurring the lines between life and death, “between the moving body that is alive and the dead body that can still be induced to move,” was the newly spreading ability to resuscitate people who had drowned. Schaurrinhaused noted that Mary Wollestonecraft herself, Shelley’s mother, was once revived from “death” after attempting to drown herself in the River Thames. Continuing this theme, “Percy Shelley also reported that one of their young children who was sick was dead for several minutes but was then revived.”

Scharringhausen concluded by looking towards science fiction, in particular the “superhero” story, to examine how authors have expressed our fears of the day–be it Bruce Banner’s exposure to gamma rays as a symbol of the anxieties surrounding nuclear war– or the radioactive spider bite that granted Peter Parker his powers. Scharringhausen noted that by 2002 these fears had changed, as Sam Raimi’s Spiderman film showed Parker being bit by a “genetically engineered spider.”

The final panelist was Robin Zebrowski, who discussed Frankenstein’s connection with artificial intelligence. Zebrowski began by pointing out the two different ways that AI is understood.

“A lot of people mean algorithms, automated processes. So people call this AI but traditionally what we started with AI was to basically create a thinking thing, an actual mind.”

Noting that AI is a young field, whose origins can be traced backed to Alan Turing’s computer work, Zebrowski explained that “fiction has always been embedded in the ways we think about Artificial Intelligence,” be that through such films as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, which features a destructive humanoid robot, or works like Frankenstein which Thea Von Harbough (Fritz Lang’s wife) listed as an influence on her Metropolis screenplay.

Zebrowski also mentioned the 1920 Czech play, R.U.R., which is where we get the word “robot.” “The very first book” she said, “about an actual robot is about a robot uprising,” explaining that a lot of the anxieties that come with AI are about control, or a lack of it.

Such concerns have been voiced most prominently by Elon Musk, who has warned that “AI is a fundamental existential risk for human civilization and I don’t think people fully appreciate that.” Zebrowski tied this technological paranoia to the plot and themes of Frankenstein, and met Musk’s concerns with skepticism. Noting that ethics were deeply tied up with the AI process, Zebrowski asked “should we even be engaged in this project? […] Lots of smart people are saying no, this is fundamentally a problematic pursuit from the beginning, but those of us that think that this is a really interesting and worthwhile pursuit think that it’s perfectly ethical to engage in the process as long as we think about ethics throughout the entire creation process.”

Zebrowski also pointed out that “the AI community is aware [of AI’s ties to the Frankenstein story], last year when they did the annotated Frankenstein for scientists and engineers, they reached out to the AI community” and one of Zebrowski’s friends was selected to help advise in the updated annotations for the novel.  

Zebrowski ended her talk by summarizing the panel, saying she really “appreciated the way [her] colleagues have talked about the way the book itself is now is still dictating the way we think about these questions 200 years later.”

The event ended with a Q and A session which touched on Frankenstein’s status as a hero or villain (or anti-hero), as well as the misunderstandings surrounding AI (“I can tell you all right now,” said Zebrowski, “there’s no “superintelligent AI uprising coming. Not gonna happen”).

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