Frankenstein and science: BSLS annual conference, 5-7 April 2018
Frankenstein and science is a combination that often pops up at the annual conference of the British Society for Literature and Science. This bicentenary year of 2018 was no exception and many fresh perspectives on Shelley’s novel were offered.
We’ve become familiar, for example, with the idea Shelley was drawing on the electrical stimulation techniques of Galvanism in the creation scene that bring the creature alive. In one presentation, Dr Mary Fairclough pointed out that nineteenth-century understandings of electricity went much further. She argued for the significance of the electrochemical ideas of Humphrey Davy and for a greater depth to the novel’s engagement with contemporary scientific philosophy.
On the second day, I chaired a panel of three fabulous papers by Dr Jen Baker (‘The Metamorphoses of Frankenstein: Illustrated and Movable Anatomy, Science Education, and the Gothic Imagination’), Dr Anahita Rouyan (‘“Thwarting Nature with Frankensteinian Science”: Early Public Entanglements of Frankenstein’s Monster with Genetic Experimentation in the United States’) and Andreea Catalina Ros (‘“Render man invulnerable to any but a violent death”: Frankenstein’s (1818) immunological experiments and judicial violence’).
Anahita’s presentation showed that the paring of Frankenstein with genetic science goes back at least to the 1930s, when H. J. Muller’s experiments on fruit flies stimulated the American press to start using phrases like ‘Frankenstein science’. Invoking Frankenstein to sensationalise new science as something potentially dangerous and irresponsible is by now a familiar theme and the BSLS conference presentations expressed concern about this tendency to use Frankenstein so negatively. They asked the question – what can we do about this? How might Frankenstein help us to think in richer, more positive ways about scientific innovation?
Jen’s paper was about medical education. In early visual images (such as Holst’s frontispiece for the 1831 edition of Frankenstein) the creature was not figured as monstrous but looks more like a classical sculpture, or an ideal anatomical specimen. Frankenstein’s relationship with the history of anatomy is more complex than its horror genre associations sometimes suggest. Its adaptations into visual and interactive forms like pop-up books could restore some of the creativity of early anatomical education that was later lost in nineteenth-century medical textbooks.
In the last paper of this panel, Andreea suggested that Frankenstein’s creature can be understood in terms of early nineteenth century immunology. His apparent immunity to things like the ill effects of poor nutrition, to heat and cold, and to institutional power (the family, the judicial system) – all of which he escapes by the end – makes him a more positive figure, with capacity to resist the forms of power and control that let down the innocent and more vulnerable Justine.
The final keynote of the conference was delivered by the inspiring Professor Alex Goody. In a talk titled ‘Dr Frankenstein and the Sex Robots’, she offered a reclamation of Victor’s worries about his creation of a female mate for the monster. She argued that since the category of ‘woman’ never has been a natural one, embracing women’s own unnaturalness can be empowering, which she demonstrated by contrasting the victimised female replicants of Blade Runner with the empowered cyborg hosts of HBO’s Westworld.
These talks fascinatingly demonstrated what the Age of Frankenstein project has been exploring – the many different ways of understanding Shelley’s novel, its variety of cultural and scientific connections, and its range of adaptations and retellings.
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