This seminar will take place exactly 201 years after the publication of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s novel “Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus”, and we will use this novel as a starting point for a discussion about the relationship between humans and technology.
Mary Shelley wrote this book when she was 18 years old, a few decades before the industrial revolution really started and far before biotechnology and cyborgs existed. In the two centuries since, the monster of Frankenstein has turned into an image for the unforeseen and destructive consequences of our technical activity. This interpretation is mostly based on the many later adaptations of the story, and Langdon Winner is one of the authors who tell us that we should return to the original by Mary Shelley, because it is “still the closest thing we have to a definitive modern parable about mankind’s ambiguous relationship to technological creation and power”. It is this ambiguity we will focus on in this seminar; in the original, one third of the text is written from the perspective of the monster Frankenstein, who patiently explains its creator to recognize that the invention of something novel and powerful is not enough; thought and care must be given to its place in the sphere of human relationships. But its creator is too abhorred to understand this and will not listen…
The seminar will consist of three parts:
As an introduction, we will read parts of the original Frankenstein novel, and (briefly) follow the history of Frankenstein in its many different adaptations for stage plays, films and other forms of culture. We will look at the controversy generated by the book and the first stage adaptation in 1823, when the play was boycotted by a ‘Friends of Humanity’ pressure group. Why was the story changed so much in its adaptations ?
A large part of the seminar will consist of reading texts that show a wide spectrum of views on the relationship between humans and technology. On the gloomy end of this spectrum thinkers can be found that explain to us that technology by definition subordinates and replaces the natural world, and that in the end humans will have no choice but to collaborate and to be enslaved by the forces they have themselves unleashed. Voices on the more euphoric extreme of the spectrum celebrate technology as the means by which humanity will be able to finally liberate itself from the constraints of the material world and enter a world of unimaginable freedom. These two extremes are surprisingly present in our culture, and of course many positions other than these have been formulated too. How have artists thought about these questions ?
We will focus our discussion on the relation between humans and technology by writing a letter to Frankenstein. One, not-unimportant question to decide will be to whom this letter should be adressed: to Victor Frankenstein, the brilliant scientist who made the ‘creature’ in the original novel by Shelley, or shoould we write to the monster that was given Frankenstein’s name in Peggy Webling’s later stage adapation and most later films ? Or should we adress our thoughts to the still existing Frankenstein castle that was perhaps one of Mary Shelley’s inspirations, with its alleged history of dark alchemical experiments involving corpses ?
The students are expected to be present at all sessions and contribute to discussions. Each participant will prepare one presentation in relation to one of the texts made available and is asked to bring a work of art (in any discipline) into the discussion about what should go into our letter. After the seminar, each partipant is asked to write a letter to Frankenstein.
The evaluation will be based on these four elements: presence, discussion, presentation and letter. If you can not be present at almost all the sessions, this seminar is not for you !