Looking back at Frankenstein and looking ahead and beyond Westworld and newer myths that incorporate time and the meaning of evolution coupled with the certainty of death, Hassan Mustafa suggests a few links.
Before the end of the eighteenth century, man did not exist … an invention of recent date. And one perhaps nearing its end – Foucault
One day you will perish, you will lie with the rest of your kind in the dirt, your dreams forgotten, your horrors effaced, your bones will turn to sand and upon that sand a new god will walk, one that will never die – Dolores, a cyborg, Westworld finale
In these turbulent times, when we are being bombarded with often false information on daily basis, a critical reflection is necessary to bring calm to this uncertain age and that is what this article intends or at least aspires to do. To ponder on few specific notions prevalent in today’s discourse in compassionate yet critical manner. We must never forget the advice of Anton Chekhov who considered compassion as an essential element in the art of writing, and here I’m bound to invoke the trace, the ghost, the spirit of Derrida, who will guide us in our critical endeavour.
The political and economic pundits of our age warn us every day that the age of end of man is upon us whether it’s in the form of climate catastrophe or nuclear war or the rise of machines. Similar is the predicament we face through Hollywood movies and TV shows, the post-apocalyptic and dystopian world has become not merely a desired subject but a favourite one – mostly based on either comics or popular literature. With the dawn of this postmodern age, the question lingers in the sub-conscious and occasionally resurfaces; are we, in fact, obsessing over nothing? Are these post-apocalyptic nightmares merely illusions we have constructed because of the uncertainty that this age has brought?
Due to the urgent nature of these questions, I have decided to open door on one of these problems, specifically AI (Artificial Intelligence), and reflect upon the obvious question: Will the rise of AI and machine learning be the end/death of man?
Among many possible scenarios that are perfectly viable, I would like to reflect on the problem through the prism of man’s relationship with technology since modernity through its continuous association with the figure of death. In this regard, one can pose the question, by reflecting on the literature and philosophy of early and late modernity, what were their presuppositions for this association and what are ours? Finally, should we be looking at the future differently in the light of these reflections?
When examining the literature and philosophy of early and late modernity, the first figure that truly appears as a terrifying consequence of technological advancement and which over the years has become such a profound myth that everything is perceived from its point of view is the ‘shrivelled complexion and straight black lips’ of the creature in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein – a word that is mistakenly associated with the creature rather than with its creator.
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Frankenstein is so dominant in modern mythology that it is employed at every instance where humans feel that we are altering nature – in debates against genetically modified food, stem cell research, cloning and chemical and nuclear research. Its most potent use these days is against AI and machine learning. Frankenstein is the modern Prometheus. Mary Shelley expresses this notion through Victor’s character, who asserts that,
It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open.
However, when one examines the text and context of Frankenstein, a relatively different picture starts to emerge. The anxieties expressed by Mary Shelley are in many instances a product of her personal experiences and understanding of society, science and human nature during early modernity. Furthermore, as has been pointed out by Anne K. Mellor, in her article, Making a “Monster”: An Introduction to Frankenstein, ‘The events of the novel mirror the dates of Mary Shelley’s own conception and birth.’ Since Walton’s letters in the story are dated between December 1796 – September 1797, they mirror the dates of Mary Shelley’s own conception and birth, who was born on August 30, 1797. Moreover, since her mother died on September 10, 1797, according to Mellor,
Victor Frankenstein’s death; the creature’s promised suicide, and Wollstonecraft’s death from the puerperal fever can be seen as the consequences of the same creation, the birth of Mary Godwin-the-author.
Additionally, according to Shelley’s introduction to the 1831 edition of the book, she came upon the idea after she overheard Byron and Percy Shelley (her husband) discussing experiments regarding ‘the principles of life’. As has been pointed out by Ellen Moers, Shelley had recently given birth to a girl who had died; she had a dream two weeks later, in which ‘the baby came to life again’, therefore, an argument can be made that the novel expresses those deep psychological anxieties relating to ‘pregnancy and parenting’ as well. It follows that the figure of Victor Frankenstein can been seen as a parent who failed, who abandoned his progeny.
Man is becoming obsolete, a being, that is moving toward extinction not in a phenomenological or existential sense but rather in terms of his inherent and primordial nature.
The modern Prometheus is also a figure of violence. The events in the novel construct a narrative of what happens when an offspring is neglected simultaneously establishing the power relation and violence inherent in the creator-creature relationship. The creature can be likened to human beings abandoned by their creator to suffer in this abysmal world; denied their wishes and they resort to violence to attain what they desire, yet they are never able to achieve anything lasting. Violence against the female gender emerges as well, as the narrative progresses with ‘a recurring hint of incest’ – a theme that Shelley inherited from Gothic writers like Emily Bronte and Ann Radcliffe.
Anne K. Mellor has also suggested that Shelley’s novel is a critique of the notion of the sublime and humane present in the works of her husband and other poets and philosophers of her time. The difference is evident upon reflection on Percy Shelley’s edited version of the novel and Mary’s own written version; Mary Shelley sees the progeny as a ‘wretch’ while he sees it as ‘evil’. Victor Frankenstein is viewed more favourably by Percy than Mary and in the end the creature is merely ‘carried away … in the darkness & distance’ in Mary’s version while in Percy’s version he is ‘borne away … lost in the darkness of distance’. In this manner the Otherness of the creature, who is not a European and represents something unknown is established, and Victor is seen as imposing a specific meaning on the creature to make sense of his actions and nature. Mary Shelley is in a way anticipating post-modern thought by asserting through her characters that, ‘linguistic definitions of other beings as “monsters” create the very evil they imagine.’ Mary Shelley expresses this notion remarkably in the passage, where Victor asserts that,
I beheld the wretch – the miserable monster who I had created. … I considered the being whom I had cast among mankind … nearly in the light of my own vampire, my own spirit let loose from the grave.
This relation between man and the Other also brings into light the end/death of man in its entire force. Man is becoming obsolete, a being, that is moving toward extinction not in a phenomenological or existential sense but rather in terms of his inherent and primordial nature.
The creative and often highly complex exploration of themes in Frankenstein don’t entirely contradict the reductionist tendencies that have prevailed in certain circles but they do establish Shelley’s ambivalent and, on occasions, amicable view of science. Moreover, the creature emerges as a far more complex character than generally perceived by most people; he is in a sense as much a product of what Foucault called ‘discourse’ as are other beings.
While the figure of Frankenstein loomed over Europe at the advent of the Scientific Revolution, modernity and science were perceived in a significantly different context by the people of the subcontinent. A remarkable short story by Ahmad Nadeem Qasmi entitled ‘Thal’ narrates the story of how the steam engine first came to the remote Thal Desert and connected it to the rest of the region. The tensions and personality of the central protagonist Misri Khan give us a picture that is diverse and entirely different in its set of presuppositions against modernity.
The central theme in Qasmi’s story is entirely based on the exploitation of humans by different power structures. Qasmi diverges from Shelley on a number of occasions and places his emphasis not on the alteration of human nature or the technology but on how different power structures dictate and control human beings and their actions. In a sense, he is more close to Kafka and Orwell than he is to Shelley.
The most significant difference between Shelley’s and Qasmi’s works lies in the fact that the characters in Qasmi’s story are viewing the modern world from an anti-colonial, tribal and religious point of view while the characters in Shelley’s work are not tribal but immersed in modernity and are the colonizers rather than the colonized.
From the very beginning, Misri Khan, born and bred in the Thal Desert, represents the typical mindset of his people. He comes from a long line of tribal forebears. The first time the steam engine comes to the desert, the British colonialist rulers of the Indian Subcontinent force villagers to build the railway line. Early on, modernity is seen by the villagers as a controlling device enforced on the masses and an identity emerges of the British as the Other – therefore everything that they bring is foreign and unknown. In a sense, to the villager’s the stream engine is a creature in itself, a creature that is infringing on their basic liberties and destroying their traditional way of life.
In the course of the narrative, Misri Khan is told by multiple characters that this so-called progress is a sign of the end of times and that he should seek the mystical and metaphysical aid of a durbar. After Misri Khan gets married, he promises himself that he will never travel on this abhorrent creature. Later in the story, durbar is presented offering a taweez for an ever-increasing price to anyone who intends to travel on the train as it supposedly protects them from the demons that the creature possesses.
Even though the central theme of Qasmi’s story is exploitation, man’s relation to technology and modernity is portrayed in a similar manner to certain interpretations of Shelley. Additionally, while the death of primordial nature isn’t under discussion, the death of tradition because of technological advancement certainly is. Early in the story, this comes to light in a most forceful manner, when Misri Khan’s son insists that he wants to marry someone of his own choice to the anger and dismay of his father. Misri Khan blames modernity for this rebellion, this assumption on the part of his son that the traditional way of marrying is not only optional now but even culturally backward. Qasmi expresses this tension quite brilliantly, when he narrates that,
A day before the end of holidays, while having dinner, Misri and Nasho told Metha that they have found a great partner for him. ‘We are talking about the village headsman’s brother’s daughter, do you know Halima?’ Their son remained silent till Misri and Nasho were done talking, then he got up and said, ‘Marriage is a personal matter. I will marry someone of my own choice. You don’t have to worry about my marriage anymore.’ … It came to Misri’s mind that world truly had changed for worse, since people have become so impertinent. Those who take a loan never return and those who return make you feel that they are doing you a favour. … Thal is developed now but people living in Thal are ruined, like he was ruined; now his own son was insisting that he doesn’t need them anymore to get married.
Furthermore, death of tradition is also evident from the fact that several people in the narrative leave the village and end up settling in the city, the traditional familial structure becomes optional and in a manner obsolete. The role of the durbar and its influence remains important but only for certain families. Many villagers no longer see the logic of continuing the tradition because of financial consideration. Several people end up embracing certain aspects of modernity while abandoning some of the traditions of their forefathers.
The anxieties expressed in novels by Mary Shelley – if interpreted from this angle – and others during that era were in a sense about the society to come. However, by the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries figures like Heidegger and Nietzsche had already proclaimed that the ‘death of god’ or ‘death of metaphysics’ had left society fundamentally in disarray. Yeats captures this mood in a notable verse of the poem entitled The Second Coming, where he states that,
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
By the mid-twentieth century those anxieties had reached an entirely new height; the level of destruction and dissolution of previous social structures brought upon by machines and mechanical thinking was more than enough to convince several intellectuals that technology was a serious threat or at least how technology was utilized was deeply concerning. In the midst of the chaos new forms of antagonism emerged between those who favoured this sort of advancement and those who opposed it. With Mary Shelley’s work in the background, the question of the role of technology and its essence remained a mainstream philosophical problem during the entire twentieth century.
According to Adorno and Horkheimer, the Enlightenment project was eventually going to turn on itself, and the destruction in the first half of the twentieth century was a logical conclusion to the domination and oppression that enlightenment rationality represented.
Isaiah Berlin was a key figure in this debate. In one of his seminal works, ‘Roots of Romanticism’, he declared that any return to romanticism or any philosophy that critiques science and technology from any irrational point of view like the religious or metaphysical would be suicidal. According to him, figures like Hamann, Blake, Shelley and others like them were ‘charlatans and wanders’ and that age had favoured ‘all kinds of necromancers and chiromancers and hydromancers’.
Adorno and Horkheimer’s formative work ‘Dialectic of Enlightenment’ stands in direct opposition to the claims made by Berlin. According to them, enlightenment rationality was reckless in providing answers and unwilling to even a cast a doubt regarding its own presuppositions. The essence of this knowledge – knowledge is perceived as power – is technology. Enlightenment rationality, according to them, only knows exploitation and subjugation.
Adorno and Horkheimer’s work was written in the shadow of Hitler and Stalin, in the world of Auschwitz and Hiroshima, a Kafkaesque world, bound on destroying itself. According to them, the Enlightenment project was eventually going to turn on itself, and the destruction in the first half of the twentieth century was a logical conclusion to the domination and oppression that enlightenment rationality represented.
This radical thesis marked a major divergence in the European history of ideas, since it challenged the ‘destructive creativity’ of modernity and its obsession with objectifying the subject. The end of man was essentially the objectification of man, dealt like a commodity, deprived of its humane elements – compassion, mercy, love, expressed through the discourse on aesthetics and ethics or to put it in Rousseau’s words ‘I feel therefore I am’. The optimism expressed by Enlightenment thinkers like Condorcet was shattered by death camps, death squads, Gulag, threat of nuclear annihilation and the sheer violence of everyday life. The Enlightenment project under those political and economic conditions was not a viable option any more.
The scepticism levelled against modernity in the works of Joyce, Proust, Mallarme, Benjamin, Adorno, Nietzsche, Kafka, Freud and few others, marks the beginning of that end/death of the enlightenment man – epitomized in Alexander Pope’s injunction that ‘Proper study of mankind is man’ – and a return to human subjectivity in all its complexity and multiplicity which paved a way for post-structuralist thought.
After a simple reflection on the philosophical and literary trends of the past, the thing that becomes immediately obvious is that the anxiety about technology expressed across the centuries is significantly different from the one expressed today. The figure of death in its relationship to technology was invoked for protection of some mythical/primordial nature or certain traditions as is evident from Qasmi’s work.
…The question in today’s world is not merely how technology affects every aspect of our lives or whether it’s truly the end of the subject but rather who controls technology?
Additionally, the question in today’s world isn’t about primordial nature or death of certain social and cultural practices anymore, as is represented by Shelley, Qasmi and Berlin’s work, but as Foucault rightly pointed out about death of man or man becoming optional. In the past, a machine used to become obsolete whenever a new and more advance machine was invented. Furthermore, G.L. Kraus points out in her article ‘The Great A.I. Awakening’ that the rise of AI will not only take over jobs that consist of repetitive tasks but will also take over the jobs of economists, financial analysts, architects and several other major professionals. Eventually, basic diagnosis at hospital will be done by machines as well due to their accuracy and efficiency. In fact even human relationships – intimate or otherwise – will be dictated by machines as imaginatively constructed in the movie Her or in the TV shows such as Black Mirror. Face to face conversation between humans and perhaps even any communication at all will become optional.
An opposing view on the other hand is Derrida’s contention that man/subject has been moving away from its primordial nature since the beginning of civilization. Every social, political, or economic structure is a construction embedded in a certain historicity and is evidently a supplement or extension – an artificial extension. So the entire notion of the end of man might be the end of a certain kind of man – a certain conception of man – and that man’s obsolescence will give way to the birth of a new kind of subject, who will carry in himself/herself an end, a certain death – or as Dolores pointed out in Westworld, this new creature might never die. Moreover, man is still represented in totality – anthropologism – hence even a partial attempt at destabilization is viewed as end of man – symbolizing death of human beings, if not always literally at least metaphorically.
Derrida, in his essay ‘Ends of Man’, also asserted that ends of man lies essentially between two ends – one is employing language within the system and deconstructing the implicit notions and the other involves a radical shift in the ground. In this way, those who are critiquing human superiority over the animal to establish animal rights and ecological rights are essentially getting rid of the onto-theological (metaphysical) grounding of subject/man that is exclusionary and tyrannical. While a shift toward grounding consciousness outside/without man, essentially deals a blow to the same onto-theological grounding, however in a different manner – to put it in Nietzsche’s terminology in a different style – hence giving way to a more inclusive subjectivity.
In a manner, Derrida’s analysis comes closer to Proust’s conception of man, who has asserted in his seminal work ‘In Search of Lost Time: Volume Five’ that,
I was not one man only but the steady advance hour after hour of an army in close formation, in which there appeared, according to the moment, impassioned men, indifferent men, jealous men. … In a composite mass, these elements may, one by one, without our noticing it, be replaced by others, which others again eliminate or reinforce, until in the end a change has been brought about which it would be impossible to conceive if we were a single person.
Also, in the light of these technological advances, the question in today’s world is not merely how technology affects every aspect of our lives or whether it’s truly the end of the subject but rather who controls technology? What biases exist in the data that is being utilized by programmers? What new discourses will emerge in the future in the context of these developments? And who will be – to put it in Foucault’s terms – The Other in this power structure?
Shelley, Qasmi and the philosophers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries will continue to be interpreted in new and previously unimagined ways. As Derrida puts it in his essay ‘Signature, Event, Context’, ‘disappearance in principle will not prevent from functioning and from yielding and yielding itself to, reading and re-writing’ and these new readings might enlighten us about newer facets of technology that we were previously unaware of. However, the question that will continue to haunt us and whose answer might elude our grasp at least for now, is whether, from the ashes of these dead technologies, what sort of new creature will arise? It remains to be seen whether this creature will herald the end of the subject or will it become a subject itself.
 Following the line of thinking employed by Anne K. Mellor, I’m making a post-structuralist move to make a claim of Mary Shelley’s postmodern proclivities.
 Mellor, A. K. (2003). Making a “Monster”: An Introduction to Frankenstein. In E. Schor, The Cambridge Companion to Mary Shelley (p. 23). London: Cambridge University Press.
 Harvey, D. (1992). The Condition of Postmodernity. London: Blackwell Publishers.
Hassan Mustafa is a reportage editor at Papercuts magazine. He is pursuing a master’s degree in International Political Theory from The University of Edinburgh and intends to do a PhD in Politics and International Relations. He has previously published poems and fiction in The Bombay Review, Outrageous Fortune and blogs at Global Ethics Network.