ON THE BRINK OF COLLAPSE: WHY ACADEMIC CAREERS HAVE LOST THEIR APPEAL

The teachers and researchers of all Catalan universities have been called to strike on Tuesday 28 in protest against the appalling conditions under which the non-permanent staff work. The article by the branch of the workers’ union CGT which operates in my own university, UAB, explains that Royal Decree 103/2019, on the rights of trainee researchers (Estatuto del Personal Investigador en Formación, EPIF), is insufficient and, anyway, it is not being applied, which puts UAB on the side of illegality (https://cgtuab.wordpress.com/2019/05/17/28-de-maig-vaga-del-pdi-de-les-universitats-publiques-catalanes/ ). The call to strike refers both to part-time associates and to full-time doctoral and post-doctoral researchers who enjoy fellowships and grants, and, most importantly, to the lack of tenured positions they might occupy one day.

A friend told me recently that one of the main weaknesses of the academic sector is that we are not solidary with each other, which is why our protests always fail. This makes me feel quite bad about my decision not to join the strike, but, then, it is my habit to systematically reject all calls of that nature. I am a civil servant offering a public service and I don’t see why my students should be negatively affected by my refusal to work, no matter how justified the cause. Actually, I believe that strikes have lost their edge in the education sector, as there are so many every year that Governments (local, national) just do not pay any attention to the protesters. Other forms of activism are needed, and, so, this is what I am doing today: inform my students, and anyone interested, about what is going on.

I have described the situation many times in this blog, and what follows may sound repetitive, but this is one of the problems: nothing has changed since September 2010, when I started writing here, and certainly for some years before. To recap a very old story, until 2002, when I got tenure, you just needed to be a doctor in order to apply for a permanent position. Obtaining it depended, logically, on the quality of your CV and competition was anyway harsh, but on average you could get a permanent job around the age of 36 (it used to be 30, or slightly below, in the early 1990s). Next came the ‘habilitaciones’, an evil system which meant that candidates to positions had to demonstrate first their qualifications to a tribunal which could be sitting hundreds of miles away from home. This was expensive, tedious, anxiety-inducing for the members of the tribunals (who had to interrupt their lives often for months, regardless of their family situation) and evidently for the harassed candidates (who often had to try several times in different cities). Once you obtained your ‘habilitación’, you had to apply for tenure in a specific university and compete with other qualified candidates. ANECA, technically a private foundation attached to the Government, created in 2001, was given in 2007 the crucial function of organizing a new accreditation system to replace the nomadic ‘habilitaciones’, centralized in Madrid but mostly run online. Under this new system, imitated as we know by local agencies such as Catalan AQU, candidates must fill in a complex, time-consuming online application before being certified apt by the corresponding commission. Then you can apply to a university position. If you find any.

The perfect storm that risks demolishing the public Spanish university has been caused by the confluence of two incompatible circumstances: ANECA’s demands from candidates have been increasing–in principle to secure that better research is done and better teaching offered–whereas the 2008 economic crisis (about to be repeated) has destroyed all the junior full-time positions that trainee researchers used to occupy. Very optimistically, ANECA (and the other agencies) suppose that applicants have produced their PhD dissertations while being the recipients of a grant, and that they have next found post-doctoral grants, etc. In fact, most junior researchers are part-time associate teachers, which is incongruous because associates are, by definition, professionals who contribute their expertise to the universities for a few hours a week, and not academics aspiring to tenure. The Spanish public university suffers because of all this from a most dangerous split between the older, tenured teachers (average age 53, a third or more inactive in research) and the younger, non-permanent staff who should one day replace us, if they survive their frantic daily schedules. In fact, the 2008 crisis and the associate contracts have destroyed the chances of a whole generation (now in their forties and even fifties) to access tenured positions. And I am by no means as optimistic as ANECA, which appears to believe that all those currently beginning their PhDs will be eventually tenured.

We were told, around 2008, as a collective that Spain was not doing well in research and that we needed to raise the bar, hence the increasing demands of the accreditation system and of the assessment system (I refer here to the ‘sexenios’ that examine our academic production). The rationale behind this is that if we applied measuring systems borrowed from first-rank foreign academic environments this would increase our productivity and the quality of our research and teaching. Three problems, however, have emerged.

Here comes number one. Whereas in the past having a PhD was enough (being a ‘doctor’ means that you are ready to offer innovative teaching and research), now this is just the beginning of a long post-doctoral period that has delayed tenure to the age of 40, if you’re lucky, and with the addition of total geographical mobility within Spain. This means that private life is totally subordinated to the needs of academia, a situation which punishes women severely since the decade between 30 and 40 is when we have babies. Since, besides, men tend to leave women the moment they choose to move elsewhere for their careers, this means that few women scholars can succeed in the terms that are most highly praised, namely, by becoming an internationally known scholar. My personal impression is that the persons earning tenure at 40, or later, in the current system could have also earned it at 30 under the older system. And, obviously, we run a major risk: faced with this perspective of a long professional post-MA training, of 17 years…, most budding scholars will simply give up. Specially the young women, right now the majority in the Humanities.

Problem number two: without young full-time staff we, seniors, are collapsing, too. Here’s how I feel this week: seriously depressed. Why? Well, because after almost 28 years as a teacher/researcher I have a very clear perception that I will leave nothing behind. Since we have no full-time colleagues to train, and replace us, but a succession of part-time associates, when we retire our research area will retire with us. Overall, I feel, besides, very much isolated. I work mostly alone, either at home or in my university office, and I never meet my colleagues for a distended chat. Formal meetings are increasingly hard to organize because they conflict with the overworked associates’ hectic schedules. Informal meetings do not happen because we are too busy working for the glory of our CVs and we have no time to spare. And, anyway, when we speak our topic is invariably the pathetic state of the university. I just wonder where intellectual life is happening, if it is happening anywhere. I feel, besides, frustrated that all new projects to do something exciting never get started or are always provisional. Our book club is run by an associate who might be gone any day. When an enthusiastic associate and I visited the head of audio-visual services at UAB last week, to ask for advice about the project of opening a YouTube channel for the Department, the first question he asked was whether it would have permanent staff in charge. Too often, he said, new projects are started by keen associates only to be abandoned as soon as their contracts expire. My colleague replied that hers would last at least for… four years.

The third problem is that we are following foreign models of research and teaching assessment already imploding elsewhere. You may read, for instance, Anna Fazackerley’s article of 21 May, “‘It’s cut-throat’: half of UK academics stressed and 40% thinking of leaving” (https://www.theguardian.com/education/2019/may/21/cut-throat-half-academics-stressed-thinking-leaving?CMP=share_btn_tw). In the British system there is technically no tenure: teachers do not become civil servants but are hired for life (like in the Generalitat-run Catalan system). This is why so many are thinking of quitting. In our case, we, tenured teachers, develop a sort of bad marriage relationship with our jobs: I realized recently that I am constantly protecting myself from my academic career, as if it were an abusive partner. In Britain there is an additional misery to deal with: academics are made responsible for the recruiting of the many students to guarantee the financial stability of their institutions. Aware that they are coveted clients, students have learned to disrespect their teachers even more than we are disrespected here (as supposedly lazy, privileged ‘funcionarios’… which some are indeed).

Fazackerley’s piece is actually based on a report about the wellbeing of British academics (https://www.educationsupportpartnership.org.uk/resources/research-reports/staff-wellbeing-higher-education ), which, as you may imagine, leads to worrying conclusions. Reading it, I even wondered whether we have a right to our wellbeing as tenured teachers, in view of the ill-treatment that associate teachers and post-docs are victims of. Of course, this is one of the most devious tools of the system: making you feel bad about tenure you have earned with great effort. Anyway, the report notes that “Wellbeing is maximised when people feel valued, well-managed, have good workplace collegiality and can act with agency and autonomy”. However, our wellbeing is being eroded by, they say, “management approaches that prioritised accountability measures and executive tasks over teaching, learning and research tasks”, though in the case of Spain I should say this is different. Here there is, simply, an obsession for publishing based on scientific principles that just fails to understand what we do in the Humanities (and I mean ‘should do’, namely, think slowly). The British report concludes that “In general, respondents did not feel empowered to make a difference to the way that Higher Education institutions deal with wellbeing issues and this generated some cynicism”. That’s right: one day you feel depressed, the next one cynical, and so on. Even angry which, unfortunately, may affect classroom mood and lead to burnout.

I have already mentioned the sense of isolation (what the report calls ‘lack of collegiality’). The Guardian article highlights, as well, the stress caused by the frequent rejection of work for publication (which begins now at PhD level), the pressure caused by deadlines, the impossibility of excelling at the three branches of our jobs (teaching, research, admin tasks), and two more factors I’d like to consider a bit more deeply. One is that the rules change all the time and the top bar keeps moving. The other is how you are judged by what you have not done, despite having done a lot.

We are being told by the agencies which judge us that our planning should be improved, that it to say, that we should focus on publishing in A-list journals and not waste time in other academic activities. I acknowledge that I don’t know how to do that: I get many rejections from the top journals, I am invited to contribute to books that I love but that are worth nothing for the agencies, and so on. And the other way around: projects I have committed to, thinking they would bring nothing worth adding to my CV, have led to the best work I have done so far. Anyway, since the rules about what is a merit and what a demerit are changing all the time, you cannot really plan your career. You may choose, for instance, to be Head of Department for four years, and diminish the pace of your research at risk of failing your ‘sexenio’ assessment, only to find later on that admin work does not really count towards qualifying as full professor. I constantly suffer, in addition, from impostor’s syndrome because I have chosen to be very productive in some lines of my work but not invest time in others that the official agencies prefer. I certainly feel that my rather long, full CV is simply not good enough even though I have done my best. And intend to go on doing so until I retire.

Will this situation implode? I think it might, and soon enough. So far, we have been relying on a constant supply of young, eager volunteers to accept whatever poor conditions the university offers, for the sake of the glamour attached to presenting yourself as a higher education employee. If, however, that glamour, which was never real, goes on being eroded, young people will find something else to do. At this point, I do not recommend to anyone that they begin an academic career. If you’re talented enough, train yourself up to PhD level, and then find alternatives to disseminate knowledge through self-employment (I would say online audio-visual work).

In view of the situation in Britain, we might conclude that the situation is about to reach a tipping point all over the Western world, for something needs to give in. Naturally, the solution for Spain is more money, a return to full-time contracts at non-tenured level, simplifying the process of accreditation, and offering more tenured positions around age 35 at the latest. Unless there is, as many suspect, a plan afoot to destroy the public university and, with it, the social mobility it has afforded to some working-class individuals (not that many). What is going on cannot be, however, that clever and it is possibly just the product of political short-sightedness, compounded with–yes, my friend–our inability to present a common front before society as a collective, and defend our lives from this constant stress.

And on this bitter note, here finishes my contribution to the strike.

I publish a post every Tuesday (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

A HISTORIC DAY IN FICTION: CHIVALRIC ROMANCE WINS (OR IS THE GAME OVER?)

It is just impossible not to refer today to the controversial finale of HBO’s series Game of Thrones, which surely has put 19 May 2019 in the history books about fiction for ever. While the internet rages, divided into lovers and haters of the ill-conceived eighth season (more than 1,100,000 people have already signed the Change.org petition to have it thoroughly re-written and re-shot), it is no doubt a good moment to consider whether chivalric romance has won the fight with mimetic fiction that Cervantes immortalised in Don Quijote (1605, 1615).

I must clarify that I am by no means a fan of Game of Thrones. I watched the first two seasons, and read the first two novels, and that was more than enough for me. I have been following, however, the plot summaries (I must recommend those by El Mundo Today), for I felt an inescapable obligation to know what was going on. Pared down to its bare bones, then, the series has narrated the extremely violent struggle for the possession of power in the context of pseudo-medieval, feudal fantasy–hardly a theme that appeals to me, for its overt patriarchal ideology. Women have participated in that struggle, as they did in the real Middle Ages (and later), only from positions left empty by dead men, and not as persons with the same rights. Since in the eight years which the series has lasted the debate about women’s feminist empowerment has grown spectacularly, this has created enormous confusion about the female characters in Game of Thrones. I’ll say it once more: the degree of respect and equality for women should NOT be measured by their representation in fiction written by MEN but by women’s participation in audio-visual media as creators. In Game of Thrones this has been awfully low.

[SPOILERS IN THIS PARAGRAPH] I’ll add that I am very sorry for those who named their daughters Khaleesi or Daenerys–you should always wait for the end of a series before making that type of serious decision! Perhaps it is now time to think why so many women have endorsed a story that has ultimately justified the murder of its most powerful female character by a man who supposedly loves her, and who is then allowed (by other men) to walk free, despite this feminicide. And the other way around: we need to ponder why this brutal woman, a downright villain no matter how victimised she was once, has been celebrated as a positive hero. Just because she us young and pretty? All Daenerys ever wanted was power for herself, to sit on the throne and play crowned dictator, not to change the lives of others for good. This is the reason why she needs to be called a villain. In short: patriarchy has scored a victory with GoT: we are hungry for female heroes, and they have given us a villainess (or two, if we count Cersei, of course). Sansa and Arya (and Brienne) are just what they always have been: consolatory nonsense, as the late Angela Carter would say. Next time around, please all of you, women and men who hate patriarchy, reject its products.

Now, back to my topic: leaving gender issues aside (supposing we can), has chivalric romance won over mimetic fiction with GoT? Was the battle skewed since its inception? Did Cervantes really intend us to follow Alonso Quijano in his madness, induced by reading so much high fantasy? Or is the collective passion for GoT the kind of insanity Cervantes warned us against? I don’t have room here to explore this in much detail but since I have a class to teach tomorrow about Pride and Prejudice, I do want to trace here briefly the frontlines in the battlefield to see how they stand. Austen once wrote her own Cervantine anti-fantasy novel, Northanger Abbey, a frontal attack against gothic, published posthumously in 1818. If she were alive today, she would be possibly groaning and sharpening her computer keyword to pen an onslaught onto fantasy with dragons…

The thesis I am going to defend is that we are at a crossroads: mimetic fiction as practiced by Jane Austen and company cannot fight the primary impulse that favours fantasy; yet, fantasy seems unable to renew itself and satisfy the demands of its consumers (above all, of women seeking post-sexist stories). Both mimetic fiction and fantasy fiction, I maintain, are reaching an impasse. The popularity of television series is contributing to that impasse by eroding the novel in favour of the audio-visual and by maintaining an anachronistic writing system that, as we have seen, can no longer ignore the voice of the (angry) spectator.

Histories of literature usually present realistic/mimetic fiction as the centre of the Literature worth reading, leaving fantasy at the margins. Academia, however, has been partly colonized since the 1980s by scholars with very different values, quite capable, besides, of reading both mimetic and fantastic fiction (here I mean the three modes: fantasy, gothic, and sf). This has been changing the perception of how fiction works, with non-mimetic fiction gaining more ground but with the main line still attributed to realist fiction. My point is that, in fact, GoT certifies that we have been narrating a very biased version of literary history: mimetic fiction has not only been unable to stem the tide of fantasy but has also given fantasy some key elements–the melodrama of the 18th century novel of sensibility, the historical fiction of the Romantic period, and the verisimilitude that the old romances lacked with the mighty Victorian novel. When J.R.R. Tolkien changed fantasy for ever with The Lord of the Rings (1954-55), all those elements solidified.

So let me trace the genealogy, briefly. Chivalric romances, written in a variety of European languages, started as epic tales in verse to become prose narrative by the early 13th century. I don’t know enough Spanish Literature to understand why Cervantes focused in the early 17th century on the dangers of reading a genre that had been around for centuries. Amadís de Gaula by Garci Rodríguez de Montalbo is supposed to have been written in 1304, though it become really popular after the introduction of printing (c. 1440s). Le Morte d’Arthur (1485, Thomas Mallory) and Tirant lo Blanc (1490, Joanot Martorell, Martí Joan de Galba) are closer to Quijote but even so, he is driven mad by very old-fashioned texts, if I understand this correctly.

El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha (1605, 1615) came too early to have an immediate impact, for the novel, so to speak, was not yet ready to be born. Thomas Shelton was the first to translate the two volumes into English (this was the first translation ever) in 1612 and 1620 but it was not until the 18th century that Cervantes could truly impact the realist novel. Tobias Smollett, who translated El Quijote in 1755 is usually included in the list of British authors of the sentimental novel (or novel of sensibility) but he seems to have picked up from Cervantes a major distrust of any fiction aimed at eliciting excitement rather than intellectual pleasure. Henry Fielding, who mercilessly mocked Samuel Richardson’s quintessential sentimental novel Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740) with Shamela (1741), took Cervantes’s mantle to propose a style of narrating full of authorial irony, which Jane Austen eventually inherited. The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling (1749) remains Fielding’s masterpiece.

Jane Austen’s own mimetic fiction can be said to be a belated type of sentimental fiction and at the same time as example of double resistance to this sub-genre and to gothic. Austen cannot have enjoyed the excesses of Richardson’s tale of rape Clarissa: Or the History of a Young Lady (1748) nor the silliness of Henry Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling (1771) but I do see her having a good laugh at Charlotte Lennox’s The Female Quixote; or, The Adventures of Arabella (1752), Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield (1766) and, of course, admiring Fanny Burney’s Evelina (1778) or Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent (1800). Austen, plainly, did not enjoy what most of her contemporary readers preferred: not only sentimental fiction but, mostly, gothic, from Horace Walpole’s pioneering The Castle of Otranto (1764) to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), passing through Ann Radcliffe’s best-selling The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and Matthew Lewis’s frankly scandalous The Monk (1796). I’m 100% sure that George R.R. Martin has read, and heavily underlined, Lewis’s novel.

Gothic brought fiction back the Middle Ages as the backdrop for countless horrific thrillers about innocent heroines chased by appalling villains. At the time when the genre had been around already for about fifty years, Walter Scott (1771-1832) expunged the fantasy elements to turn the past into the stuff of the new historical novels. The Waverley Novels (1814-1832), with hits such as Ivanhoe (1820), prepared the ground for the grafting of the old chivalric romance, purged of the less palatable that so worried Cervantes onto the fictional model of the historical novel. William Morris laid the foundation for what was later known as high fantasy, heroic fantasy or sword and sorcery with his prose narratives A Tale of the House of the Wolfings and All the Kindreds of the Mark (1889), The Wood Beyond the World (1894) and The Well at the World’s End (1896). Morris’s translations, in partnership with Eiríkr Magnússon, of the Story of the Volsungs and Niblungs (1870) and these novels were a direct inspiration for Tolkien.

The Lord of the Rings is called a novel, not a romance, and this is what it is. H.G. Wells must have been among the last novelists to call his fantasy fiction ‘romance’ (a word we now use, confusingly, for romantic fiction similar to Austen’s). I might be completely wrong but, as I understand the matter, whereas in the old type of romance which Alonso Quijano enjoyed reading most elements were highly improbable, the new kind of romance (from Morris and Wells onwards) has learned the lesson of verisimilitude from the novel. Its plot is still impossible but, once we suspend our disbelief, each scene seems plausible, that is to say, the characters interact realistically, as they would do in a mimetic novel. This is how the battle against mimetic fiction is being won: if you can have similar complex characterisation, a naturalistic type of dialogue, and a thrilling setting, why not choose fantasy over fiction set in the too well-known realm of realistic representation?

The post-Tolkien realism of fantasy (call it the neo-romance), however, is also its bane. You may include as many dragons as you please, and give some of your characters magical powers, but it is simply impossible to write first-class fantasy (or gothic, or science fiction) which is not rooted in the real world. I do not mean by this that the best fantasy is necessarily allegorical: what I mean is that since characters in current fantasy must act realistically, they are shaped by expectations very similar to those shaping characters in mimetic fiction. If you had Harry Potter fight corporate villainy instead of a dark wizard, with no magical elements, the tale would be more boring but, basically, the same story (if would be closer to John le Carré’s The Constant Gardener). And the other way around: just because Daenerys has a special bond with her dragons, this does not mean that you may disregard the feminist expectations piled on her by so many female and male readers, based on their experience of real life (and not of handling dragons). Hence the impasse…

Ironically, then, we need to go back to Jane Austen for the fantasy of female empowerment, which allows the relatively poor Elizabeth Bennet to marry upper-class Darcy and climb in this way many rungs up the social ladder. Cinderella wins the game and gets to be, presumably, happy. In contrast, Game of Thrones has taken its ultra-realism so far that we are literally left with a colossal pile of ashes and the mounting anger of the many fans who thought that by endorsing fantasy they were supporting the alternative to the conservatism behind most mimetic fiction. It’s game over, not for fantasy but for fiction which does not listen to its readers and that can only tell tales of violence, with no sense of wonder or of hope – which is what we really need.

I publish a post every Tuesday (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

IN THE MONSTER’S OWN WORDS: GETTING TO KNOW FRANKENSTEIN’S NEW MAN

I was interviewed last week on a Catalan-language radio show on monsters (“AutoCine: Els Monstres”, Cerdanyola Ràdio, https://www.ivoox.com/autocine-els-monstres-audios-mp3_rf_35501071_1.html ). The presenter’s last question was ‘which famous monster is most imperfectly known?’ and I had to reply that this is Frankenstein’s creature.

Unfortunately, the movies have transmitted a very limited image of this monster, based on the theatrical line descended from Presumption; or, the Fate of Frankenstein (1823), the melodrama (with songs!) by Richard Brinsley Peake. This was the first adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel and, as happens with modern film adaptations, many audience members took for granted its fidelity. The famous 1931 film directed by James Whale is, in fact, based on the 1927 play by English author Peggy Webbling, who must have been familiar with Peake’s play. She, like him, characterises the monster as an inarticulate being, incapable of uttering any coherent speech. Webbling, incidentally, is also responsible for the absurdity of calling the creature by his maker’s name. The monster speaks in later films (for instance in Roger Corman’s 1990 Frankenstein Unbound, based on Brian Aldiss’s novel) but only Kenneth Branagh’s 1994 adaptation reflects Mary’s original conception of the creature as an intelligent, perceptive individual. Even so, Branagh’s cannot be said to give an accurate picture of the monster’s acumen and singular process of self-education.

Many critics have disputed Mary’s authorial decisions about this self-education. The monster, if you recall, takes shelter secretly in a hovel attached to the humble home of the De Laceys, a French family down on their luck for political and personal reasons. The arrival of the son’s Turkish fiancée, Saffie, is used by Mary as the excuse to have the monster witness her education, which he mimics. Since the monster, as I explained in the previous post, is an enhanced (or augmented) Homo Sapiens, I’m ready to accept that he can profit by this second-hand method of learning, though I grant that the whole process does test the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief. This is further tested with the monster’s casual discovery of three fundamental books (John Milton’s epic biblical poem Paradise Lost, a volume of Plutarch’s Lives, and Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther). He also happens to be in possession, very conveniently, of Frankenstein’s journal. This volume covers the several months of the research leading to the creature’s creation and the monster has it because Victor kept him in the cloak which the creature takes to cover his naked body.

By the time creature and creator meet in the Alps, the monster can already use sophisticated speech, though he has never had the chance to interact with a fellow human being: all run away scared, or turn against him violently, as soon as they see him. If he tries to speak, this is to no avail–his monstrous physiognomy causes such overreaction that communication is simply impossible. If Victor can overcome his revulsion and sit down to patiently listen to his ‘son’, this is only because he has no option. His parental duty, as we know, is of no consequence, for the moment his baby was born, Frankenstein turned his back on him, expecting the ugly thing to vanish, somehow. The monster, however, insists that Victor must play the role of parent like any other father.

I’d like to comment on two passages, often quoted but, anyway, worth considering in order to learn who this monster is. I find it quite peculiar that in his process of self-learning the creature chooses no name for himself, for this complicates our reading very much. Very obviously, he is a man, for Victor has made him as such, and calling this new man ‘the monster’ and ‘the creature’ is something I very much dislike, since it is demeaning. The obvious name for him is Adam (a name he knows from reading Milton’s version of the Biblical fall in Genesis) but, for whatever reason, Mary kept him nameless, a questionable decision that somehow shows her bias against her own creation. (And that, indeed, confused Peggy Webbling…).

In Chapter 15, the monster tells Victor about his having read the diary narrating his ‘accursed origin’ and the ‘disgusting circumstances’ of his unnatural birth. The diary also contains ‘the minutest description of my odious and loathsome person (…) in language which painted your own horrors and rendered mine indelible’. No wonder he is ‘sickened’. Logically, he questions Victor’s methods: ‘God, in pity, made man beautiful and alluring, after his own image; but my form is a filthy type of yours, more horrid even from the very resemblance. Satan had his companions, fellow devils, to admire and encourage him, but I am solitary and abhorred’. From this passage one must deduce that the monster does not look radically non-human but horridly human, and that his physical appearance is scary for that very reason. His ugliness, in short, is our own ugliness, as if you could take an average human being and deprive him of any feature that makes him moderately attractive. I remain, in any case, perplexed by the reaction of those who come across Victor’s new Adam, for they seem to lack the curiosity that led so many spectators to enjoy the strange frisson provided by freak shows in the 19th and the 20th centuries. The monster, let’s stop to consider for a second, does look human: he has no claws, or big fangs, or any other feature we connect with aggression–so why do people scream and run away at his sight? I do not quite understand why nobody stops, once the shivers are controlled, to ask him ‘what are you?’

Faced with his general rejection, the monster assumes his abjection and starts behaving in a vicious manner which corresponds morally to the ugliness of his physical appearance. As we know, he kills Victor’s youngest brother William and blames poor Justine, a mixture of servant and family member, for that crime. When he demands, in Chapter 17, from his creator that he manufactures a female companion to share his misfortune with, Frankenstein expresses serious doubts that this can be a solution to the problem of how to contain his evident ‘malice’. The monster is offended: ‘My vices are the children of a forced solitude that I abhor, and my virtues will necessarily arise when I live in communion with an equal. I shall feel the affections of a sensitive being and become linked to the chain of existence and events from which I am now excluded’. Famously, in The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), also directed by James Whale, the female monster starts screaming the moment she sees her intended male companion; she shows, instead, a manifest interest in the rather handsome Frankenstein… The novel has no similar scene because Victor decides to abort the bride, but it is very easy to see that the monster’s logic is very faulty, and sexist. He (that is, Mary) never thinks of the needs that the new Eve might have; in fact, she is to provide the same comforts as the later Victorian angel in the house: companionship but, above all, but, above all, unconditional love and even admiration which will supposedly curb down the monster’s alleged inclination to do evil. ‘Give me a nice woman and I’ll be a nice man’ is a recipe that, we know, does not work at all well.

Victor’s new Adam is, in the early stages of his life, a meek, well-behaved individual that gradually learns to respond with aggression to the abhorrence he is treated with. This is an obvious reading. I believe, however, that he is also naturally spiteful and resentful. I don’t mean naturally malevolent but the type of individual that will bear a grudge down to the last consequences. Granted, the grudge he bears against Frankenstein is more than justified but the decision he makes to murder William and, later, Victor’s bride Elizabeth is unfair to the victims and, ultimately, counterproductive. Naturally, we should not forget that Mary intended Frankenstein to be a gothic story and she had to stress the moral monstrosity of the creature. In her argumentation, the monster is corrupted, so to speak, by the animosity people display against him and, so, the community if partly responsible for his crimes. However, you cannot be both innocent and guilty of the murders you choose to commit, and this is the unstable position in which Mary places her new Adam. Super-human as he is in many aspects of his anatomy, he is, nevertheless, very human in the worst aspects of his personality: his capacity for hatred and violence. Nothing will convince me that the creature would have been a good companion for the bride. Or a good father to their children.

The very fact that I am discussing these moral issues shows how complex the characterisation of Mary’s monster is. In the end, the main challenge she poses to her readers is forcing us to wonder how we would react if we ever came across Victor’s man. Would we give him a chance to explain himself? Would we be part of the mob chasing the poor thing in so many films? Would we be disgusted, fascinated, or both? How much difference from our human standard, in short, are we willing to tolerate in our fellow human beings? These are all valid questions, and I marvel that an eighteen-year-old girl could manage to put them together in that strange child of her imagination that Frankenstein is.

I publish a post every Tuesday (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

VICTOR FRANKENSTEIN’S MAN AND THE (VEXED) QUESTION OF THE POST-HUMAN

These days I’m teaching Frankenstein (1818, 1831) and writing about one of its thousands of descendants, Richard K. Morgan’s Thin Air (2018). As science and technology advance and speculative fiction gets closer to everyday life (or perhaps the other way around), writers imagine creatures that would have baffled Mary Shelley. The newer creations are some times categorised as monsters, some times as freaks, depending on whether they appear to be capable of overwhelming Homo Sapiens or just contribute an exciting sense of difference to the narration where they appear.

Having written my doctoral dissertation on monstrosity (http://www.tdx.cat/handle/10803/4915) I know that taxonomies have limitations, and that a full inventory of the monsters and freaks of one period may have to be reconsidered for the next one. I’m also aware that many of us, scholars, are still too wary of reading gothic, fantasy, and science fiction, preferring instead to read theory, which is always safer to quote and sounds more properly intellectual. I believe this is the root of two serious problems: the use, abuse, and misuse of concepts such as cyborg and post-human in an abstract way, without much consideration of the particularities of the fantastic characters in question, and the tenacious but incorrect overlap between human and Homo Sapiens.

When Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was still a curio often attributed to Percy Shelley and nobody dreamt of making this novel an integral part of university courses on Romanticism, British SF writer Brian Aldiss and his co-author David Wingrove declared in Billion Year Spree (1973) that Mary was the ‘origin of the species’. They praised her work as the very foundation of SF, at the same time arguing the thesis that since Frankenstein is gothic fiction, SF’s essence is shaped by horror – not necessarily that inspired by scary monsters but by the sublime fear that we may feel if we stop to consider the universe and our place in it. Aldiss was so in love with Mary that he published in the same year 1973 a novel, Frankenstein Unbound, in which he fantasises about meeting her (Joe Bodenland, his delegate in the text travels from the future to give Mary a copy of her novel…). I wrote already many years ago an article about Roger Corman’s rather crazy film adaptation (http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116804), one of the many films that have toyed with the motif of the monster made to be better than human but condemned to being hated.

Now that Frankenstein is part of our syllabus, my personal choice has been to ask my students to present in class a brief text about a film that connects with Mary’s creation. If all goes well, I might publish their work later this summer and offer a nice guide to this peculiar sub-genre. Now, as part of class activities I’m doing some necessary close reading, during which I had quite a big surprise. It’s funny how reading aloud reveals layers of meaning that go unnoticed in silent reading. I was reading this central passage from Chapter IV, in which Victor narrates how he made his man, when I stumbled upon a word I had not noticed before. See for yourself (this is the 1831 edition, at Project Gutenberg):

I collected bones from charnel-houses and disturbed, with profane fingers, the tremendous secrets of the human frame. In a solitary chamber, or rather cell, at the top of the house, and separated from all the other apartments by a gallery and staircase, I kept my workshop of filthy creation; my eyeballs were starting from their sockets in attending to the details of my employment. The dissecting room and the slaughter-house furnished many of my materials; and often did my human nature turn with loathing from my occupation, whilst, still urged on by an eagerness which perpetually increased, I brought my work near to a conclusion.

The word is ‘slaughter-house’. The man (not creature, not monster) that Victor manufactures is made of the pieces of human dead bodies but, here is the surprise, the passage hints that animal parts are also used for his body. Possibly, many scholars have already commented on this rather shocking issue, but I had simply not noticed. I don’t recall, in any case, a passage in the novel which discusses the non-human components that contribute to making the new man. Possibly, H.G. Wells did notice the presence of the slaughter-house next to the dissecting room, and the charnel house, and his is where his hybrids come from in The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896).

Before the passage I have quoted, Victor declares that he is motivated by a straightforward patriarchal fantasy: ‘A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me. No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs’. There is a hilarious moment in the episode of The X-Files (5.5) The Post-modern Prometheus (1997) in which Mulder enthuses about the possibility of creating life which imitates humans, as a mad geneticist he has just met is doing. Always a cool-headed pragmatist, Scully replies that this already exists: it’s called reproduction. The passage I have quoted is, of course, usually read as a sign of Victor’s arrogant bid to try to replace God or, from a feminist angle, to usurp women’s power to create life. Once you become aware of transhumanism, however, Victor can be read as a transhumanist and the other way around: transhumanism appears characterised as the patriarchal aberration it is when you read Frankenstein.

Now it is time to discuss labels. To begin with Victor correctly refers to a ‘new species’ and not a ‘race’. We are Homo Sapiens, which is a species of the genus Homo. This genus and the genus Pan (chimpanzees, bonobos) are part of the tribe Hominini, which, together with the tribe Gorillini (gorillas, obviously) conforms the family Homininae. There is currently just one species in the genus Homo but there used to be more, beginning with Homo Neanderthalensis. Scientists do not agree on the definition of the word species for the very simple reason that since species are in a constant state of evolution, fixing them taxonomically makes little sense. They warn us, at any rate, that species differentiation (the process by which a new species branches out from a previous species) is extremely slow, and not visible in historical terms. To sum up, then: a) we should NOT use the word ‘human’ as if it only applied to Homo Sapiens, for it applies to all past and future species of the genus Homo; b) evolution cannot be appreciated in small periods. I’ll add c): evolution is a reaction to changes in the environment and it is therefore quite impossible to imagine, much less say with certainty, how Homo Sapiens will evolve and into what.

Transhumanists, as you possibly know, believe that the evolution of Homo Sapiens should be controlled and that technoscience should be applied to produce better humans. This is exactly what Victor believes and does, even though he had no idea in his pre-Charles Darwin times of evolution (or of genetics!). Victor’s new man has qualities that Mary Shelley calls ‘super-human’ such as an enormous resistance to heat and cold, little need of nutrients (he is a vegetarian!), and a powerful physique that allows him to run fast and leap high. Those who criticise the unlikely way in which he learns to command a language (French, incidentally), and even read, forget that he is no ordinary Homo Sapiens but an enhanced, or augmented man. Following transhumanist tenets, the creature is actually a transitional individual. His children, born of the union with the female that Victor aborts at the last minute, would be the real post-human species. My main objection to this is that the couple’s children would not be post-human but post-Homo Sapiens: still human (part of the genus Homo) but belonging to a different species, as Homo Neanderthalis was different from Homo Sapiens.

Speaking, then, of the post-human is, excuse me, quite lazy. Our future will be post-human only if the genus Homo dies out replaced by some mutated, new animal species (as the franchise of Planet of the Apes is narrating) or by artificial intelligences, in what Ray Kurzweil famously called the singularity. The first-case scenario is quite unlikely, in view of how we ill-treat animals, whereas the second is simply silly. If, as happens with Skynet in The Terminator (1984), a computer goes rogue on us and starts making the combat robots that will end Homo Sapiens, the solution is quite easy: shut down the power grid and the computer with it. This might result in an overnight return to the Middle Ages, or further back, but we tend to forget that, for instance, the Roman Civilization did very well with no electricity.

If, as the passage I have quoted earlier on suggests, Victor’s new man is a transspecies human-animal hybrid, then, technically speaking, he is no longer Homo Sapiens and he is certainly post-human. However, most discussions of Frankenstein avoid the animalist angle and focus on the issue of how Victor jump-starts evolution rather than patiently wait for Earth to bring forth the replacement for Homo Sapiens. His man has no organic pieces whatsoever, which means that he is not a cyborg. My personal view is that the creature is a replicant, as he is 100% organic but made in a lab rather than born out of a woman or an artificial incubator. Like the replicants of Karel Čapek’s pioneering play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots, 1920) and those in Blade Runner (1982), Victor’s man awakens to life as an adult – he’s never a baby. Unfortunately, the word robot, introduced by R.U.R., has also caused much confusion, for although in the play it simply means ‘worker’ (its meaning in Czech) in the popular imagination it was coupled with the older notion of the automaton, hence generating the modern idea of the robot, a fully mechanical, non-human, machine. In the famous 1931 film version of Frankenstein, the creature was presented as an inarticulate, lurching, stiff individual, which hinted that there might be a hidden mechanism in his body, as automata have. He looked, in short, cyborgian, rather than totally human.

The problem with the cyborg, or cybernetic organism, a concept invented in the 1960s but mostly popularized in the 1980s, is that it connects poorly with genetic engineering. Take the protagonist of the novel by Richard Morgan which I’m writing about. Hakan Veil is sold into indentured work by his impoverished mother when he is still in her womb. He is heavily modified by means of genetic engineering and digital implants to become a super-soldier of the kind needed in interplanetary travel to quench possible insurrections. The corporation that employs him also transforms him into a hibernoid, that is to say, a person who sleeps four months a year but that can be deployed day and night during the remaining eight on board spaceship. Whereas digital implants cannot be inherited by the offspring of cyborgs, genetic modifications are quite another matter. This is the reason why cyborg is an insufficient label to describe Veil. He has no children and we cannot know whether his mutations would be automatically inherited by his offspring. If this happened, and the children were extremely different from Homo Sapiens, then they would be a new Homo species – but still human, just as Veil is fully human despite being a weird type of Homo Sapiens.

I believe that Mary Shelley was absolutely right to warn readers against the transhumanist project of creating post-Homo Sapiens life, and also that Morgan is likewise absolutely right to warn that transhumanism will make slaves of us, and not free human beings. The difference is that, logically, whereas the vocabulary I am applying to Frankenstein was unknown to its author (the label science-fiction appeared in the 1920s), contemporary authors like Morgan are discussing transhumanism with a remarkable knowledge of what it implies. Like Victor, the transhumanists expect the new species they want to turn Homo Sapiens into to be grateful but, again like Victor, they are making decisions that involve all of us without asking for our opinion. Perhaps, strictly speaking, the first transhumanists were the Homo Sapiens individuals who decided that having, as humans, the whole Earth to us was a pretty good idea. I’ve never ever believed for a second that Homo Neanderthalensis simply died out… Just recall that for them we, Homo Sapiens, were the others… the post-humans that would replace them. And so we did.

I’ll leave philosophical post-humanism for another post… or rant.

I publish a post every Tuesday (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/