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Yesterday’s thrills, today…

Yesterday’s thrills, today…

Professor Richard Marggraf Turley talks about our obsession with self-tracking and how it inspired him to develop ‘The Vortex’ – a machine that analyses our reactions to sublime and Gothic works.

‘I’ve got chills, they’re multiplying,’ sang John Travolta, dancing off with Olivia Newton John at the end of 1978’s musical spectacular, Grease. Travolta – or rather his screen persona, Danny Zuko – could almost be an early advocate of the ‘Quantified Self’ movement, the name adopted by those who use biometrics to capture as much information as possible about physical aspects of their daily life. As well as temperature (chills, flushes), pulse rate skin conductivity, blood-sugar levels, and most recently mood, can all be tracked, and analysed for trends. For some self-quantifiers – or ‘body-hackers’ – the aim is to live happier, healthier, more productive lives. Others are simply fascinated by the data-streams generated by their own bodies. At any rate, these days if you want to know how many chills you’ve got, and precisely how quickly they’re multiplying, you only need glance at your smart watch or health-and-fitness phone app.

Quantified Romantics Dr_Jekyll_and_Mr_Hyde_poster_edit2The greaser, Danny, was by no means the first person to notice physical changes taking place in his body in response to a strong stimulus (in his case, a black-clad ONJ). We can trace a fascination with the body’s reaction to visual and imaginative stimuli at least as far back as the Romantic period in Britain, to the 1780s–1820s. In this period, a popular new modality had emerged in art and literature: the Gothic. It aimed to produce emotionally vertiginous shocks and thrills; sensations of any kind, in fact, so long as they put the viewing subject – the ‘Self’ – at the centre of the experience. ‘O for a Life of Sensations!’, declared the poet John Keats, articulating an important aspect of the spirit of the age.

Romantic writers and painters were convinced that ‘sublime’ art and nature – anything that conveyed massiveness, volume, the all-encompassing – provoked a distinctive physical and emotional signature (terror), which others could ‘read’ in the form of a fevered brow, breathlessness, or flushed cheeks. A craze developed among members of the public eager to experience these changes for themselves, moreover in a self-aware manner. Enthusiasts would slog for miles to stand in exactly the right spot to get the full effect of a dizzying precipice, or gaze up at a thunderous waterfall, or contemplate the dark ruins of a medieval abbey. At home, candlelit connoisseurs would turn the pages of the latest gothic shocker to gasp at the nefarious schemes of a priapic monk or uncanny doppelgänger, or fall headlong and senseless into an engraving of towering waves, and black, depthless, watery vortexes. The goal was to overwhelm the senses, to annihilate ‘Self’. In Dany Zuko’s terms, it was all about ‘losing control’ – while loving every minute of it!

Quantified romantics Frankenstein_poster_1931Perhaps Romanticism can lay claim to the first (fictional) Quantified Selfer. In 1816, Mary Shelley drafted her famous gothic novel, Frankenstein, while holed up on the shores of Lake Geneva with the self-exiled Lord Byron, Percy Shelley and Byron’s physician, Dr Polidori – author of the The Vampyre (1819), the book that spawned a thousand TV series from Buffy to The Strain. Mary’s classic not only generated chills in its readers, but foregrounded the very issue of how nerves and sinews – the body’s sensorium, or sensing apparatus – came together in the first place. Frankenstein’s creature, obsessed with how he was put together, with the relation between body, mind and emotions, is both proto-embodiment and practitioner of bio-hacking.

The consumer face of self-tracking today – think biometric wristbands like Apple Watch, Android Gear, Nike+ FuelBand, Jawbone and Fitbit – was first developed in the decade in which Grease topped the billboard charts. Hardly portable, the technology was used mainly by researchers who recognised the potential of analysing personal data to correlate useful information about lifestyle. Only in recent years, with the miniaturisation of components, has the Quantified Self movement entered the mainstream. Most people who use smart watches to ‘drill down’ into their jogging stats, sleep patterns and heart rate probably don’t think of themselves as bio-hackers anymore, which suggests that self-analysis, or self-surveillance, is fast becoming routinised. Indeed, few of us even stop to think about the possible dangers of allowing so much information about our fitness or daily routines to be mined by third parties. Quite aside from issues of personal privacy, there may be companies out there looking for trends in our health data we’d rather they didn’t know about.

For Living Frankenstein, members of the public will be invited to enter – if they dare – The Vortex, a dark enclosure in which they’ll be shown Gothic images. While they experience (we hope) an annihilation of Self, I will be using a package of specially built biometric instruments to measure any changes in pulse rate, and counting chills (multiplying, or otherwise). We’ll also be discussing the wider social and political implications of biometric wearables and other self-tracking technologies.

By Professor Richard Marggraf Turley (Professor of Engagement with the Public Imagination, Aberystwyth University). Richard will be participating in our upcoming Living Frankenstein event on 23 May accompanied by his ‘Vortex’, which take bio-metric measurements of audience members as read sections of Frankenstein.
Science and the spark of life

Science and the spark of life

In this post, Dr Emily Alder from Edinburgh Napier University talks about the differing forms of science, technology and knowledge in Frankenstein. 

Victor Frankenstein brings his creature to life with ‘a spark of being’. At the time Mary Shelley was writing, scientists were debating the nature of human life. Scientists who favoured ‘vitalism’ held that life (which we might also call consciousness, or the soul) was a kind of substance, added to the physical body. Electricity (for example, through the new process known as Galvanism) was considered a possible explanation for this added substance. Materialist scientists disagreed. They thought life was a product of all the materials that make up the human body.

Either way, these explanations challenged the traditional religious idea that the origin of life is divine. By artificially creating a living being, Victor transgresses the role of God. He also takes over the mother’s reproductive role – the creature only has one parent: Victor. The suggestion that neither women nor God are necessary any more for creating new life made Shelley’s story controversial. This is why we often hear Frankenstein referred to in discussions of genetic engineering or so-called test-tube babies. But Victor’s true mistake is that he does not take responsibility for the consequences of his scientific experiment.

Victor is highly trained in medical and physical science, but the creature’s education is different. At first, he knows nothing at all, and learns by experience. Putting his hand in a fire, he learns that although warmth is nice, flame burns. When people he meets either flee or pelt him with stones, he learns unhappy social facts: he looks monstrous and he is feared and unwanted. He also learns by reading, after he finds Milton’s Paradise Lost and Plutarch’s Lives in a discarded satchel. Through poetry and prose he learns about religion, morality, and what it means to be a person. From watching Safie and Felix’s family, he also learns about love and family relationships. This makes him believe that his ‘parent’, Victor, was wrong to abandon him, and he turns against the Frankenstein family.

Because the creature and Victor have had such different educations, they see the world differently, make different mistakes, and tell us different versions of the story. We, the readers, are like Robert Walton, who listens to them both. Only then can Walton make the correct decision to abandon his dangerous Arctic expedition and save the lives of his crew. Shelley’s book suggests that if we want to understand the world properly and act in the best way, we need many different kinds of knowledge: not just about science, not just about people, and not just about stories – we need them all.

By Dr Emily Alder (Lecturer in literature, Edinburgh Napier University). Emily Alder will be participating in our upcoming event Living Frankenstein on 23 May.
Frankenstein and the Gothic novel

Frankenstein and the Gothic novel

Dr Daniel Cook from the University of Dundee talks about the birth of the Gothic novel and its influences on Shelley’s conception and creation of the Creature in ‘Frankenstein’. 

Fittingly, for a dark and foreboding genre, the origin of the Gothic in English was highly dubious. The first novel to wear the label ‘A Gothic Story’ – here with pantomime-like glee – was the second edition of Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764). Walpole pretended that the story was no more than a trashy antique relic first published in medieval Italian. Indeed, the book is a farce: a giant helmet squashes the sickly son of a domineering tyrant, and the characters are stupefied by superstition.

By the 1790s, Gothic fiction had not only become one of the most popular genres around, it had developed many of the tropes we now associate with it: emotional extremes, desolate or dilapidated environments, the supernatural, and murderous loners, among other things. The leading practitioner was without doubt Ann Radcliffe, whose most famous novel remains The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794). Favouring psychological terror, she fell into a rivalry with Matthew Lewis, whose novel The Monk (1796) more obviously revels in bodily horror. By 1818 the Gothic genre had become too popular for its own good. Jane Austen openly mocked young readers of the form in her deviously funny parody Northanger Abbey (written in 1803; first published in 1817).

Part of a new wave of serious Gothic novels in the early 19th-century, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) sought a return to the heyday of the 1790s: she combined Radcliffe’s terror (seen in Victor’s disturbed dreams, for instance) and Lewis’s horror (seen in the murderous rampaging of the Creature). She also radically revised the supernatural formula of the Gothic tradition – in a formal sense Frankenstein augurs a turn to what we now recognise as Science Fiction. Victor gathers inert body parts and infuses life into a stitched-up cadaver, using the teachings of Cornelius Agrippa and the mysterious branches of ancient science as well as more recent experiments in physics and biochemistry.

If knowledge is enlightening (en-light-ening), then Gothic fiction glories in darkness: dimly lit laboratories, graveyards in the dead of night, and gloomy landscapes. It is also associated with violent weather: cloying fog, icy blizzards, or relentless rain. Frankenstein is full of such things, though Shelley brings the lightning into the laboratory. The scientist conquers nature; or, so he thinks, for the undead Creature enacts his revenge on the man who rejects him by taking the lives of his loved ones. Like a new mother struck with postnatal depression, he cannot face the jaundiced body he has brought into the world. But Victor and the Creature are not so different: they vow to destroy each other. Both seek deeper knowledge about humanity: Victor in arcane science books, the Creature in Paradise Lost and the Bible. Equally isolated from society, they nevertheless seek inclusion. That is the tragic legacy of Frankenstein. Victor thinks that by creating life he will “pour a torrent of light into our dark world”: all he brings is a new darkness.

By Dr Daniel Cook (Senior Lecturer in English, University of Dundee)
Daniel Cook will be participating in our upcoming event Living Frankenstein on 23 May.
Gender and masculinity in Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’

Gender and masculinity in Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’

In Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’, why are the men so self-centred and the women so meek? In this blog, Professor Richard Marggraf Turley from Aberystwyth University explores gender and toxic masculinity in the novel.  

Just as Victor’s creature is constructed using parts from several male bodies, the novel itself is stitched together from tales told by men. Each male narrator is ‘extreme’ in some way – each strives, in Victor’s words, to ‘be more than men’. The framing narrative is related from the perspective of intrepid arctic explorer Robert Walton in letters to his sister, Mrs Margaret Walton Saville. Mediated (re-voiced) through Walton’s account, the megalomaniacal Victor Frankenstein gives the history of his own anguished relationship with his vengeful creation, who is also given substantial space to describe his titanic sense of betrayal and mistreatment at Victor’s hands. By contrast, the novel contains few female characters. Margaret, the recipient of Walton’s letters and journal (and in a sense, Frankenstein’s first reader), isn’t heard from at all. Justine and Elizabeth seem to exist primarily as victims of male violence. Similarly, the female mate whom Victor begins to build is violently dismembered, literally torn limb from limb in one of the novel’s most shocking scenes.

Why are Mary Shelley’s women given so little voice in the novel, so little ‘agency’? After all, Mary Shelley was the daughter of proto-feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, whose A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) was one of the earliest works of feminist philosophy. One way of answering that is to say that, surrounded by ‘heroic’, self-centred men such as her husband Percy Shelley, Lord Byron and her father, the philosopher William Godwin, Mary Shelley sets out to write a critique of Romantic masculinities. In particular, she focuses on aggressive, overreaching men with a fear of physical intimacy. Consider the key scene in which the creature appears at Victor’s and Elizabeth’s wedding bed. The novel’s frequent use of doubling allows us to see the creature’s manifestation here as an expression of Victor’s sense of masculine inadequacy. In a psychological sense, Victor has ‘summoned’ his monstrous projection, his eight-foot-tall doppelgänger, to stand in for him on his wedding night to do what he cannot do, namely ‘consecrate’ his marriage – with violent consequences. All three male protagonists, even far-flung, secluded Walton, are undercut by the novel, revealed to be both self-destructive and toxic for all those around them – particularly women.

In terms of gender and masculinity, then, Frankenstein is a complexly situated, complexly self-aware, novel. It is as much ‘about’ female experience of male violence as it is about the eponymous creature’s own struggle with prejudice, neglect and rejection. The novel is as embedded in the larger anxieties and struggles of the ‘heroic’ Romantic age of intellect and discovery as it is focused on Victor’s own self-doubts and agonies. It is as concerned with the importance of loving family structures as it is keyed into the danger of tyranical male ambition. Finally, it is a novel as rooted in Mary Shelley’s personal experiences of overbearing, destructive masculinities as it is in the ‘autobiographies’ of its three tortured, self-tormented protagonists.

By Professor Richard Marggraf Turley (Professor of Engagement with the Public Imagination, Aberystwyth University)
Richard Marggraf Turley will be participating in our upcoming Living Frankenstein event on 23 May.
‘Frankenstein’ on film

‘Frankenstein’ on film

Dr Sarah Artt from Edinburgh Napier University looks at the impact Frankenstein has had on film and television since its first adaptation in the early 1900s to present day.

First adapted for the cinema in 1910, Frankenstein’s cinematic journey stretches all the way to the present. Yet, when people think of an image to associate with Frankenstein, they usually imagine the performance created by Boris Karloff as the Creature in James Whale’s 1931 film. This is a film whose creation sequence is so visually influential that we have encountered it over and over, rarely seeing it in its original context. It has been widely and frequently parodied, in films like Young Frankenstein (Mel Brooks, 1974), Weird Science (John Hughes, 1985) and Frankenweenie. Even more recent television series like Penny Dreadful draw on the imagery of this creation scene with its snapping electrical currents.

The 1931 Frankenstein was made on the back of the success of Universal Pictures’ Dracula (Tod Browning, 1931) starring Bela Lugosi in the lead role. Similarly, in 1993 Francis Ford Coppola released his lavish Bram Stoker’s Dracula—an adaptation filled with gothic trimmings and packed with star performances. Kenneth Branagh’s high profile adaptation Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994) follows the release pattern of its most lingering cinematic forbears. Branagh’s adaptation is a film that abounds with references: the film refers to a variety of cultural and literary texts, it refers to Mary Shelley’s novel, and the film’s own cinematic antecedents. An example of this is the film’s depiction of the birth of Victor’s brother William, during which their mother dies. This scene of William’s birth does not occur in Shelley’s novel—this is only in the 1994 adaptation. This particular sequence is part of how the film tries to position itself as part of the horror genre, but it also parallels Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s own birth, after which her mother Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin died. Scenes like this, which allude to a famous author’s personal life, are one of the ways in which screen adaptations make use of more than just the source text.

Most Frankenstein film and television adaptations are not wholly faithful to Shelley’s novel. They are usually also adapting some of Frankenstein’s earlier cinematic imagery, whether it comes from James Whale, or Tim Burton. In this way, Frankenstein screen adaptations comment on the relevance the Frankenstein has for us now.

Suggested viewing: Frankenstein (J. Searle Dawley, 1910); Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931); Bride of Frankenstein (James Whale, 1935); Frankenweenie (Tim Burton, 2012)

By Dr Sarah Artt (Lecturer in film and television, Edinburgh Napier University). Sarah Artt will be participating in our upcoming event Living Frankenstein on 23 May.