original articles

Article by: Robert W. Anderson, Staff Writer
10/05/99

Body Parts That Matter: Frankenstein, or The Modern Cyborg?

The creature ("demon") created by Victor Frankenstein in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus occupies a space that is neither quite masculine nor quite feminine, although he is clearly both created as a male and desires to be in the masculine role. Judith Halberstam describes this in-between-ness as being one of the primary characteristics of the Gothic monster--being in a space that's not easily classified or categorized, and therefore being rendered unintelligible and monstrous. Donna J. Haraway posits that the post-modern science fiction cyborg occupies a similar in-between space, or, perhaps, a non-space. Similarly, Cathy Griggs argues that the post-modern lesbian is linked to this notion of the cyborg. The lesbian is rendered monstrous in social discourse by her desire to ascend into the phallic privilege, connecting this in-between-ness as both a monstrous trait and a cybernetic one. Further, the transgender man (female-to-male) occupies a similar discursive space and provides us with a post-modern link to Frankenstein's creature, as both are surgically constructed men, a construction that, in the eyes of society, renders them monstrous (particularly for trans-men who can't pass). Frankenstein's creature embodies gender transgression on two levels, both of which are the fuel for Victor's horror: the first being the creature's status as being a surgically constructed male, the second being Victor's own gender transgression in co-opting the feminine trait of reproduction, transforming his laboratory into a virtual womb. Given the scientific origin of the creature, as well as both its and Victor's unstable gender, is it possible that the modern Gothic monster pre-figures the post-modern science-fiction cyborg, the significant difference being that the monster is reviled and the cyborg is celebrated?

While the cyborg may not function in quite the same ways as Frankenstein's monster, it does serve as a precursor to the cyborg. Specifically stating that Frankenstein's creature is not a cyborg, Donna J. Haraway writes

    unlike the hopes of Frankenstein's monster, the cyborg does not expect its father to save it through a restoration of the garden; that is, through the fabrication of a heterosexual mate, through its completion in a finished whole, a city and cosmos. The cyborg does not dream of community on the model of the organic family, this time without the oedipal project. The cyborg would not recognize the Garden of Eden; it is not made of mud and cannot dream of returning to dust. (Simians, Cyborgs, and Women 151)

While the cyborg may not hope for these things, such as a heterosexual union to become "completed," Frankenstein's creature does occupy a position that opens up the possibility of the cyborg. He is still, granted, enmeshed in the dreams of the society that formed him; dreams of beginnings and endings, of reproduction, and even of oedipal conflict between father and son. This oedipal conflict is a problematic one, however, as there is no mother for the creature to be in conflict with the father over, unless one considers Elizabeth to be his mother. Properly speaking, it cannot be said to be an oedipal conflict at all; it is a perverse, monstrous version of it that has eliminated the feminine from the picture entirely, with the father subsuming both parental roles. But there are some significant similarities between Frankenstein's creature and the post-modern cyborg. Haraway defines the cyborg as

    a creature in a post-gender world; it has no truck with bisexuality, pre-oedipal symbiosis, unalienated labour, or other seductions to organic wholeness through a final appropriation of all the powers of the parts into a higher unity. In a sense, the cyborg has no origin in the Western sense -- a 'final' irony since the cyborg is also the awful apocalyptic telos of the 'West's' escalating dominations of abstract individuation, an ultimate self untied at last from all dependency, a man in space. (Simians, Cyborgs, and Women 150-151)

Is not the Victor Frankenstein's creature such a thing? The monster "has no truck with bisexuality, pre-oedipal symbiosis, unalienated labour, or other seductions to organic wholeness;" he has no mother to have a pre-oedipal phase or to go through a polymorphously perverse bisexuality. His labour, the cutting of wood for the De Lacey's, is not alienated in any Marxist sense--he has made no transaction with the De Lacey family. In fact, the De Lacey's are not even aware of the creature's presence, and believe him to be a benevolent spirit. In the end, the creature is "untied at last from all dependency, a man in space," quite literally. Victor and his friends and family, with the exception of Ernest, are dead and the creature is in the blank whiteness of the Arctic, Gothic equivalent to the vacuum of space in science fiction.

The concept of the cyborg, like the concept of the monster, involves a certain engagement with borders and boundaries. About cyborgs, borders, and boundaries, Haraway argues that

    the cyborg is our ontology; it gives us our politics. The cyborg is a condensed image of both imagination and material reality, the two joined centres structuring any possibility of historical transformation. In the traditions of 'Western' science and politics -- the tradition of racist, male-dominant capitalism; the tradition of progress; the tradition of the appropriation of nature as resource for the productions of culture; the tradition of reproduction of the self from the reflections of the other -- the relation between organism and machine has been a border war. This chapter is an argument for pleasure in the confusion of boundaries and for responsibility in their construction. (Simians, Cyborgs, and Women 150)

This passage effectively describes much that goes on in the novel, with its criticism of "the tradition of progress; the tradition of the appropriation of nature as resource for the productions of culture; the tradition of the reproduction of the self from the reflections of the other." Victor embodies all of these things wrapped up in one. The interaction between Victor and his creature maps out this "border war" Haraway describes. In fact, it is a war over the masculine body's borders that is going on, on one hand; and a war conducted on the borders of literal space (islands off of Ireland, the Arctic Circle, etc.) on the other. In fact, Mary Shelley's novel is itself "an argument for pleasure in the confusion of boundaries and for responsibility in their construction;" as I will argue later in the paper, Victor anxiously tries to undo the confusion of boundaries he enacts by his creation of the creature. There is a certain amount of pleasure being taken within his initial creative bursts, but Shelley is critical of Victor's later abdication of responsibility for his creature.

The cyborg is a figure not only of borders, but one involving a certain amount of responsibility, as indicated above. More than this, however, the cyborg is not to be regarded as "Other," but as part of us. As opposed to the modernist concept of science, the cyborg is not nature-to-be-dominated. Commenting about this, Haraway writes that

    A cyborg body is not innocent; it was not born in a garden; it does not seek unitary identity and so generate antagonistic dualisms without end (or until the world ends); it takes irony for granted. One is too few, and two is only one possibility. Intense pleasure in skill, machine skill, ceases to be a sin, but an aspect of embodiment. The machine is not an it to be animated, worshipped, and dominated. The machine is us, our processes, an aspect of our embodiment. We can be responsible for machines; they do not dominate or threaten us. We are responsible for boundaries; we are they. (Simians, Cyborgs, and Women 180)

The creature in Frankenstein was born in a laboratory, not a garden, and while it may be considered to be innocent by the reader, it is never considered to be so by Victor--its existence itself is monstrous, not innocent. The creature also shows moments where "it takes irony for granted," but only after its coming to a certain self-awareness of its own monstrosity--after the incident with William and with the family in the hut. To Victor, however, the creature is very much "an it to be animated…and dominated." And further, the creature does "dominate[s] and threaten[s]" Victor--it is not quite cyborg as Haraway describes; it holds on to certain conceptions of things are, or should be, organized.

Haraway writes "we require regeneration, not rebirth, and the possibilities for our reconstitution include the utopian dream of the hope for a monstrous world without gender" (Simians, Cyborgs, and Women 181). Frankenstein's creature is a step towards a "monstrous world without gender," as I will proceed to argue through the rest of this paper. His gender and sex identities are arbitrarily assigned by Victor, the result of the decision of one man; the monster's is a man-made gender rather than a natural gender. This "chosen" role unlinks the concept of the "natural" and is one step towards this "world without gender" that Haraway is hoping for. Kate Bornstein fine-tunes this concept, writing

    most of us assume that there is gender; that there are only two categories of gender, and that we are (have the identity of) one or the other. We have a lot invested in this belief--it's very difficult to imagine ourselves genderless. It's difficult to the degree that our identities are wrapped up in our gender assignments. We need to differentiate between having an identity and being an identity. (117)

Bornstein isn't calling for a "world without gender" here, in fact, she thinks that would be boring. She is, however, making a distinction between claiming allegiance with a gender and ontologically being that gender--yet another step in undercutting the gender system altogether.

In Frankenstein, the creature represents a blurring of the distinction between man and monster, between nature and science and of gender categories themselves. Judith Halberstam writes that "the monster always represents the disruption of categories, the destruction of boundaries, and the presence of impurities and so we need monsters and we need to recognize and celebrate our own monstrosities" (27). This is a creature that disrupts a variety of categories, as Halberstam notes. It is male, but only by contingency. It is the unnatural that seeks access into what Victor considers to be the natural order of things--the heterosexual union. The boundaries of male/not-male and natural/unnatural are blurred, but Victor does not celebrate this blurring. Halberstam "locate[s] monstrosity primarily within monstrous gender and monstrous sexuality" (26). In fact, it is the blurring of boundaries that is cause for horror; the blurring is what is monstrous about the creature in the eyes of Victor.

This blurring is also coded as monstrous because it is a blurring that cannot pass for normal. Victor creates his creature as male, but also proportionally too large--it is excessive and male, or perhaps excessively male. Bornstein writes that

    there's a reward and punishment mechanism to passing. As much as I go on about this stuff, and as out of the closet as I am on a very broad public level, I still make an effort to walk down the street and pass on a very private level. I do this because I don't want to get beaten up. I do this because all my life it's been something I've wanted--to live as a woman--and by walking through the world looking like one, I have that last handhold on the illusion, the fantasy, the dream of it all. Passing is seductive--people don't look at you like you're some kind of freak. (125-126)

Shelley's creature cannot pass as being normal--people do look at him like he's "some kind of freak," and in fact attempt to beat him up. Describing Safie, Agatha, and Felix De Lacey's horror at entering the cottage to see the creature, the creature says

    at that instant the cottage door was opened, and Felix, Safie, and Agatha entered. Who can describe their horror and consternation on beholding me? Agatha fainted, and Safie, unable to attend to her friend, rushed out of the cottage. Felix darted forward, and with supernatural force tore me from his father, to whose knees I clung; in a transport of fury, he dashed me to the ground and struck me violently with a stick. (Shelley 129)

These reactions are coded as normal within the context of the novel--it is normal to faint, flee, or resort to violence in the face of monstrosity/freakishness. Writing about The Crying Game, Bornstein writes "the telling aspect of the [movie's] scene is not so much the revelation of the person as transgendered, as much as it was the nausea and vomiting by the guy who did the discovering. That's a fairly strong reaction in any language, any culture…one usually followed, as in The Crying Game, by a physical attack on the transgendered person" (72-73). Gender transgression, or in the case of Frankenstein's creature, excessive or monstrous gender, becomes cause of violence. As Bornstein indicates, though, this tells us more about "normality", its construction, and its self-disciplinary nature than it does about the monster or the transgendered.

Victor Frankenstein creates, in the course of the novel, one surgically constructed male creature and one surgically constructed female creature, each, presumably, "out of bits and pieces of life and death, of criminals and animals, animate and inanimate objects" (Halberstam 36-37). Judith Halberstam argues that the creation of the female, or the surgical construction of the womb out of these pieces, is the more horrific creation in Victor Frankenstein's eyes, causing him to destroy (abort?) the creation before it comes to life. While this is a very plausible argument, it overlooks Victor's horror at the one creature that does survive: the surgically constructed male monster. At this juncture, Victor has control over the reproductive capacity of his creature--his laboratory is the necessary womb, and his knowledge is necessary to the creation. His anxieties over creating a "race of devils" are somewhat telling, although displaced. Victor's ability to control reproduction is at stake here: before, he had co-opted both the male and female parts in reproduction of human life. By creating a female creature, he'd give up that authority. What's at stake isn't that he'd be responsible for a "race of devils" in as much as he'd be giving up the authority to be in control of the reproduction of this new species. Like Donna J. Haraway's monster, replication would occur out of human control.

Victor specifically constructs his creature as an anatomic male, and the implication is that "the plumbing works and so does the electricity" (Bornstein 31). In other words, Shelley implies that Victor specifically creates a sexual being, one with a phallus, who will create "a new species [that] would bless [him] as its creator and source" (Shelley 52), one who can function sexually to reproduce. This constructed male brings to relief the constructed nature of gender to begin with. Victor is capable of making his creature either male or female (and, in fact, does both). However, Victor denies his creature access to phallic privilege, most particularly when he destroys the bride-to-be. Victor, through this action, cuts the creature out of the male homosocial structure of the exchange of women, denying the creature both paternity and phallic privilege. With Victor's creation, the phallus loses its primary status and becomes just another piece of meat, able to be grafted onto a body, or not, at whim.

Cathy Griggs writes that "we are at a moment of culture, for example, when phallic body prostheses are being mass-produced in the merger of the sex industry with plastics technologies" (181). Further, she writes, "once the penis is mass-produced, any illusion of a natural link between the cultural power organized under the sign of the phallus and the penis as biological organ is exposed as artificial" (181). Victor's anxiety is that he has mass-produced the penis, and this is what causes him to destroy his female creation. If he allows it to survive, then, through its reproduction with the creature already in existence, "the penis is mass-reproduced," destroying "any illusion of a natural link" of phallus and penis. And, as Judith Butler notes, "the phallus would be nothing without the penis" (Bodies that Matter 84). In fact, she writes "to insist, on the contrary, on the transferability of the phallus, the phallus as transferable or plastic property, is to destabilize the distinction between being and having the phallus, and to suggest that a logic of non-contradiction does not necessarily hold between those two positions" (Bodies that Matter 61-62). Victor, as a male, realizes that he'd be the author of the destruction of this illusion of patriarchy, and acts to uphold "the distinction between being and having the phallus."

This distinction is important for Victor to uphold because if he fails to do so, the border between the masculine and the feminine threatens to erode. And this erosion, which occurs in the novel, is cause for alarm and one of the markers of monstrosity. Judith Butler writes that

    the 'threat' that compels the assumption of masculine and feminine attributes is, for the former, a descent into feminine castration and abjection and, for the latter, the monstrous ascent into phallicism. Are both of these figures of hell, figures which constitute the state of punishment threatened by the law, in part figures of homosexual abjection, a gendered afterlife? (Bodies that Matter 103)

Victor has assumed both masculine and feminine attributes in the construction of his laboratory-as-womb, which threatens his "descent into feminine castration and abjection." The creature, on the other hand, is denied phallic privilege by Victor, and while not "female," his status as a surgically constructed male renders his gender "unstable" (Halberstam 32). The creature asks for a version of phallic privilege in the creation of a female mate, but is denied, and therefore pursues a plan to destroy Victor through killing his family and friends. Victor views the creature's request as a "monstrous ascent into phallicism," and, eventually, acts to enforce "the law."

Victor, in producing/re-producing the creature and the female creature as well, puts himself in the position of male who appropriates all the roles of reproduction for himself. But more than that, science (itself a masculine pursuit in the context of the novel) is depicted as being the vehicle for this appropriation. Donna J. Haraway has written that

    If the stories of hyper-productionism and enlightenment have been about the reproduction of the sacred image of the same, of the one true copy, mediated by the luminous technologies of compulsory heterosexuality and masculinist self-birthing, then the differential artifactualism I am trying to envision might issue in something else. Artifactualism is askew of productionism; the rays from my optical device diffract rather than reflect. These diffracting rays compose interference patterns, not reflecting images. The "issue" from this generative technology, the result of a monstrous pregnancy, might be kin to Vietnamese-American filmmaker and feminist theorist Trihn Mihn-ha's 'inappropriate/d others." ("Promises of Monsters" 299)

Victor's creature most certainly is a "reproduction of the sacred image of the same, of the one true copy, mediated by the luminous technologies of compulsory heterosexuality and masculinist self-birthing," although he is a creature slightly askew of this. He is not a "true copy," and is especially not a "sacred image of the same," but a perverted one. He is constructed to be "about eight feet in height, and proportionably large" (Shelley 52). After his coming to life, Victor regards his creation as "demonic," which, while being related to "sacred" as being its opposite, is nonetheless not quite the same. Victor's creature is, to paraphrase Homi Bhabha, not-quite/not-right.

Haraway also writes, "every technology is a reproductive technology" ("Promises of Monsters" 299). In Mary Shelley's novel, the only technology we encounter happens to be a reproductive one; all the other technologies we're presented with that Victor explores have been debunked, such as alchemy. Further, Haraway argues:

    very rarely does anything get reproduced; what's going on is much more polymorphous than that. Certainly people don't reproduce, unless they get themselves cloned, which will always be very expensive and risky, not to mention boring. Even technoscience must be made into the paradigmatic model not of closure, but of that which is contestable and contested" ("Promises of Monsters" 299)

Victor and his creature exemplify some of the ideas Haraway presents in these statements, Victor's science being, literally, a reproductive technology. However, Victor short-circuits its reproductive capacity in the destruction of the female creature. Of course, like Haraway points out, Victor isn't literally "reproducing" himself, although he's coming close: it'd be more appropriate to say Victor's experiment is one in recycling rather than reproduction. Haraway notes that "ways of life are at stake in the culture of science," and this is one of the realizations Victor comes to in creating the female creature ("Promises of Monsters" 299). As I noted above, Victor will have been responsible for the scientific, artificial replication of the penis, thusly threatening the phallic structure. The patriarchal way of life is at stake here, and Victor chooses to protect this way of life rather than allow his science to endanger it.

If Victor were to allow his creation to have his female companion, then he'd be forced into a realization about gender and its constructions that Judith Butler articulates:

    Just as the psychoanalytic notion of gender identification is constituted by a fantasy of a fantasy, the transfiguration of an Other who is always already a 'figure' in that double sense, so gender parody reveals that the original identity after which gender fashions itself is an imitation without origin. (Gender Trouble 138)

In his anxieties over spawning "a race of devils" if he were to allow the female creature life, Victor would compound the copy of the gender parodies his creatures represent. Further, his creatures and their offspring would point to the parodic, constructed nature of gender itself in humanity--and this cannot be tolerated, at least by Victor. "As imitations which effectively displace the meaning of the original, they imitate the myth of originality itself" (Butler, Gender Trouble 138). Both the male and female creatures "effectively displace the meaning of the original" in Frankenstein, calling into question the "myth of originality." In fact, the creature specifically invokes the Western myth of originality, stating that "Like Adam, I was apparently united by no link to any other being in existence" (Shelley 124). The creature invokes the creation of Adam, the Christian myth of originality, at this point, and this myth lingers when he later requests a creature of another sex to be his companion. By invoking this myth, he also calls it into question. Victor knows that his creature's gender was chosen arbitrarily, and further, that it was a copy of his own, which, according to the Genesis story, is a copy of God's own. Gender is getting further and further from being a natural category and slipping more and more into a constructed one. What is a poor scientist to do?

Slavoj Zizek, in his discussions of the psychoanalytic symptom and the sinthome, provides a framework to analyze Victor Frankenstein's realization of what he has done, followed by his subsequent repression and denials of responsibility. "This is the paradox of the psychoanalytic concept of the symptom: symptom is an element clinging on like a kind of parasite and 'spoiling the game', but if we annihilate it things get even worse: we lose all we had -- even the rest which was threatened but not yet destroyed by the symptom" (Zizek 78). Victor cannot destroy his creature; in fact, destroying his creature wouldn't solve anything for him. He's already called into question the "natural" link between phallus and penis, and annihilating the creature does not undo that. The creature certainly is "clinging on like a kind of parasite and 'spoiling the game'" for Victor, destroying his friends and family, lurking just outside the sphere of Victor's perception. In fact, the creature lives parasitically off of the family in the hovel. The creature, as surgically constructed male, represents a particular symptom of masculinity for Victor, and Zizek notes that "the only alternative to the symptom is nothing: pure autism, a psychic suicide, surrender to the death drive even to the total destruction of the symbolic universe…the only support of his being" (75). To admit that there is nothing to a natural link between the phallus and the penis would undermine "the only support of his [Victor's] being" in this case.

    How do we account for patients who have, beyond any doubt, gone through their fantasy, who have obtained distance from the fantasy-framework of their reality, but whose key symptom still persists? How do we explain this fact? What do we do with a symptom, with this pathological formation that persists not only beyond its interpretation but even beyond fantasy? Lacan tried to answer this challenge with the concept of the sinthome, a neologism containing a set of associations (synthetic-artificial man, synthesis between symptom and fantasy, Saint Thomas, the saint…) (Zizek 74-75).

For Victor, the veil around the phallus-penis link has been lifted, yet he persists in maintaining the linkage, destroying the female creature in the process. As argued earlier, if Victor were to allow her to continue to exist, the creatures may replicate his original revelation unlinking the phallus from the penis. Zizek wrote that the

    symptom is the way we -- the subjects -- 'avoid madness', the way we 'choose something (the symptom-formation) instead of nothing (radical psychotic autism, the destruction of the symbolic universe)' through the binding of our enjoyment to a certain signifying, symbolic formation which assures a minimum of consistency to our being-in-the-world. (75)

There is no symptom greater than the phallus to bind "our enjoyment to a certain signifying, symbolic-formation which assures a minimum of consistency to our being-in-the-world," at least in the psychoanalytic framework. So Victor chooses something rather than the nothingness of the void he's opened up for himself (and the rest of man).

Victor's reaction to his creation shows us more about the nature of the "normal" reaction to transgression and border-crossing/border-blurring than it does about the nature of transgression itself. The monster, unlike the cyborg Donna J. Haraway describes, exists as a category of "Other" on to which the anxieties of the "normal" are displaced. Further, it exists as a category of abjection in order to "properly" discipline the "normal": don't be like this, or you'll be feared, killed, rejected, and/or destroyed. The creature also bring to the fore the unstable, tenuous nature of "gender" itself. The novel constructs gender as something that can be created in the laboratory. On the one hand, this dislodges reproduction from the feminine and into the (at the time) masculine realm of science and reason. On the other hand, this calls into question the naturalness of the link between phallus and penis, a question that is resurfacing now with the post-modern/cyborg lesbian discourses on the plasticity of the phallus-as-commodity. If one can purchase a plastic penis for $29.95 in the local sex shop, or if one can graft the penis onto a body (any body), why is the phallus a privileged signifier in our society? Or does this dislodging matter? Does the phallus need the penis? Will the dildo suffice? Or can it float free of any connection to the male body? These are questions that are being raised in current feminist and lesbian critical theory, but they're also questions that are implicitly raised by Mary Shelley's novel, in a very sophisticated manner.

 

Works Cited

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