Frankenstein’s Five Monstrous Freedoms

Last November, my colleague invited me to participate in “Frankenweek” to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. Each panelist was permitted five minutes. Here’s my contribution:


1 November 2018

Frankenstein’s Five Monstrous Freedoms

OK, so my five-minute approach to freedom in Frankenstein will be something like an accelerated TED Talk, more streamlined, anyway, than TEDs tend to be. The original plan was to return to a conference paper that I wrote on the monster as a Marcusian ideal, but instead I give you Frankenstein’s Five Monstrous Freedoms,” one of which includes Herbert Marcuse’s. These five freedoms all begin with the premise that Mary Shelley’s monster is a progressive-regressive subject, that is, regressive in the pre-capitalist sense and progressive in the monster’s capacity to defamiliarize alienation, repression, and one-dimensionality—to reveal capitalism. Let me say upfront that the very idea of freedom demands at least ten minutes, but here we go.

So, to begin, an epigraph:

The notion of exhaustion has always been anathema for the discourse of Modernity: Romanik Sturm und Drang, the Faustian drive toward immortality, an endless thirst for economic growth, and profits.

—Franco Berardi

Number One: The Monster as Noble Savage
As we know, Rousseau paves the way for revolutionary politics in the late 18th-century up to our own in the 21st. Rousseau’s method begins with an imagined past: a noble savage in a state of nature. In Discourse On the Origin of Inequality, Rousseau writes, “[B]ehold your history, such as I have thought to read it, not in books written by your fellow-creatures, who are liars, but in nature, which never lies” (79).   

In Rousseau’s state of nature—contra Hobbes—man is neither brutish and war-like nor—contra Aristotle and Locke—political and property-acquiring. These dispositions are learned through ordered society. Yet, while Rousseau “animalizes” us his noble savage is free in a way that non-human animals are not. For Rousseau, “while nature alone activates everything in the operations of a beast, man participates in his own actions in his capacity as a free agent” (87). Rousseau joins the noble savage’s positive freedom to the idea of perfectibility, an unlimited openness to change, not only to exercise the will, but to alter and transform as circumstances change (Smith). Rousseau gives us Romantic individualism.

Rousseau further clarifies his genealogy with two kinds of self-love, each worth reviewing, amour de soi and amour-propre (Smith): Amour de soi is the noble savage’s primitive self-love, one of wholeness and happiness, a self-love that moves every animal toward self-preservation. Amour-propre is the unnatural self-love that appears with society. Amour-propre defines esteem through private property and the opinions of others; this self-love breeds egocentrism, vanity, and conceit (Smith). Rousseau, here, anticipates Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents and maybe Donald Trump.

Frankenstein’s monster would enjoy amour de soi, the noble savage’s self-preserving self-love, if not taught self-loathing and eventual amour-propre by Victor and his societal, “civilized” others. The monster, at this point, has fully emerged from his state of nature.   

Number Two: The Monster as Pre-Exchange
If the monster suggests a noble savage in a state of nature then he is also pre-capitalist and hence pre-exchange. The monster’s pre-capitalist ontology reveals the implications of the abstractions that come with commodity production, when use-value gives way to exchange-value. Alfred Sohn-Rethel theorizes that exchange is the source of society itself—what makes social synthesis possible in the first place (37)—and that commodity exchange produces our epoch’s distinct “socially necessary forms of thinking” (5). “[Value], says Sohn-Rethel, “is purely social in character, arising in the spatio-temporal sphere of human interrelations” (20). The monster is reanimated in a capitalist world as Victor’s use-value. He is neither a product nor a participant in commodity exchange. Upon his creation, that is, the monster is a being whose pre-capitalism is free from exploitation and alienation.   

Number Three: The Monster as Anti-Oedipus
Here, I’ll be brief and merely echo Donna Haraway: the monster is borne from Victor’s labor and hence develops above and beyond the Oedipal triangle. He says, “No father had watched my infant days, no mother had blessed me with smiles and caresses; or if they had, all my past life was now a blot, a blind vacancy in which I distinguished nothing” (143). Like Haraway’s cyborg, there is no Oedipal resolution and Freudian individuation. The monster’s would-be “bride” could very well be a groom or a partner in between or beyond. If the monster is free from Oedipus, he is free from heteronormative compulsion.  

Number Four: The Monster as Pre-Risk
The monster knows no risk: he is neither a subject at risk nor a subject capable of taking risks; that is, the monster is free from the financialization of daily life. Maurizio Lazzarato reasons that “debt implies subjectivation” as the governed are trained to “promise” (The Making of the Indebted Man). This subjectivation is only fully possible if the very capacity to take and avoid risk becomes rational and moral for capital. Hence, for Lazzarato, “[c]redit does not solicit and exploit labor but rather ethical action and the work of self-constitution at both an individual and collective level.” The monster is free because he is not enslaved in creditor-debtor relations or the extensions of risk society, such as our own domestic wars on drugs and terror (though he eventually initiates the latter) and fetishization of assessment. One should recall Secretary of Education William Bennett’s 1983 absurd polemic, “A Nation At Risk,” that defined low public school test scores as a threat to national security (Martin): No Monster Left Behind, except Shelley’s!

Number Five: The Monster as Swinging, Socialist Humanist
Finally, our Marcusian Monster. Like Freud, Herbert Marcuse would not deny repression’s universality, the repression that comes with a universal Oedipus complex. Yet, like Lacan, Marcuse makes the repressive psychosexual phenomenon a socioeconomic apparatus. Lacan’s superego demands that the righteous and vigilant capitalist subject consume tirelessly within limits—that is, consume according to late capitalism’s ceaseless and oppressive production of subjectivity (in the West: “Be Beautiful!” “Exercise!” “Don’t drink—too much!” and so on).

Similarly, Marcuse’s historicizing of the reality principle (the ego’s restriction on the id’s primitive, instinctual desires) with the performance principle (the ego’s restriction on the id according to capitalism) not only cites capitalism as a driving behavioral force but also allows for positive transformation through post-capitalist subjectivity. If capitalism’s “distribution of scarcity” has resulted in “surplus repression,” then a “non-repressive mode of sublimation” might come about from new productive relations. Thus, Marcuse posits “an extension rather than a constraining” of libidinal energy, and imagines a utopia that abandons the performance principle for a non-repressive reality principle (170, emphasis mine).

So to conclude, in a 1967 lecture, Marcuse defines the dialectic of liberation as “the construction of a free society” that “depends [ . . . ] on [ . . . ] abolishing the established systems of servitude; and [ . . . ] on the vital commitment, the striving [ . . . ] for the qualitatively different values of a free human existence” (178). It is no wonder, then, that Victor says early on that “[t]he world was [ . . . ] a secret which I desired to divine” (Shelley 36). We, like Victor and his monster, are still in that dialectic, still trying to figure out freedom and make things right. I think.



Robert Brandom, A Spirit of Trust

A Spirit of Trust: Magnanimity and Agency in Hegel’s Phenomenology

Brandom’s brilliant reading of Hegel suggests to me not only retrospective recollective rational reconstruction (diachronic) and reciprocal inferentialism (synchronic) that bind and level interlocutors–master and slave–in reasoning through time and in the present, i.e., via “the attitude-dependence of normative statuses and the status-dependence of normative attitudes” (be it adjudication or epistemic labor), but also that the materiality was always there in Hegel’s “spirit,” even before Marx turned Hegel on his head!

The Abstractions and Materiality of “In-Itself”

Looking forward to reading Luciano Floridi’s new book, The Logic of Information. I’ve been thinking about two of Floridi’s open problems for philosophy of information posed in his brilliant The Philosophy of Information: “P15 What is the Ontological Status of Information?” and “P5 The Problem of Alethization” (i.e., How can meaningful data acquire their truth values?). I’m addressing P5 in the context of digital publics at the conference linked below.

Additionally, briefly, I believe that there is a thing or “world in itself” at a particular level of abstraction (x-xi), where it makes sense, per Kant, to say that we’ve no direct access to it, the thing. But at another level there is no “itself.” Hence, one is tempted to argue, contra Norbert Wiener, that information is not information, i.e., not a thing in itself. I also believe that misinformation can be relevant in time, that is, in addition to “indirectly, inferentially or metatheoretically relevant” (260), and to suggest otherwise misses the most important lessons of 20th-century pragmatist philosophy of language, e.g., Wittgenstein’s.

Media in Transition 10 MIT 17-18 May 2019

Image result for floridi logic information
Fifteen Normal Modal Logics (Floridi, PoI)