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Thursday, November 15, 2007

Locke's monster

One of the classic pedantic routines is to object when someone refers to Frankenstein’s monster as Frankenstein. But there is a two fold objection to this objection. One objection is it gives us no reason to make an exception for the standard procedure for naming descendants. Either by birth or adoption, Frankenstein’s children would be called Frankenstein. If Frankenstein’s monster would not be so called, we need a reason why. And that reason would surely depend on some break, some tremor of distress, some disturbance in the patriarchy itself. There is good reason for this text to have attracted so many feminist readings.

The second objection is narrower - but it does lead us into the depths. Throughout the text, Victor Frankenstein refers to his creature in many ways, and that multitude of descriptions add up to the fact that the creature doesn’t possess a canonical name.

Names have been of interest to philosophers because of their connection to description, on the one hand, and to possible worlds, on the other. Russell codified a way of regarding names as descriptions that emphasized the way a name has to operate in a system. You can define a system as, among other things, that set of processes in which there is a standard method of substitution among variables. In On Denoting, Russell wrote:

“My theory, briefly, is as follows. I take the notion of the variable as fundamental; I use `C(x)' to mean a proposition in which x is a constituent, where x, the variable, is essentially and wholly undetermined. Then we can consider the two notions `C(x) is always true' and `C(x) is sometimes true'. Then everything and nothing and something (which are the most primitive of denoting phrases) are to be interpreted as follows:
C(everything) means `C(x) is always true';
C(nothing) means ` ``C(x) is false'' is always true';
C(something) means `It is false that ``C(x) is false'' is always true.'

Here the notion `C(x) is always true' is taken as ultimate and indefinable, and the others are defined by means of it. Everything, nothing, and something are not assumed to have any meaning in isolation, but a meaning is assigned to every proposition in which they occur. This is the principle of the theory of denoting I wish to advocate: that denoting phrases never have any meaning in themselves, but that every proposition in whose verbal expression they occur has a meaning.”


Victor Frankenstein, one finds as his story unfolds, never gives his creature a proper name. Instead, the creature is subject to a repertoire of descriptive phrases. He calls him, in the space of one page: “the demoniacal corpse to which I had so miserably given life”, “that wretch”, “a thing such as even Dante could not have conceived”, “the wretch whom I feared every turning of the street would present to my view” – and this is just the start of a vast aria of descriptive phrases (aria is the word that comes to mind – it is rather astonishing Frankenstein was never turned into an opera).

The proliferation of descriptive phrases, the inability of denotation, here, to coalesce around a proper name, is not just an odd structural feature of the narrative. Rather, it is about a basic trauma done to the creature, another description for whom would be Locke’s monster. Like Emile, that foundling of modernity, Frankenstein comes gradually to consciousness among a landscape of mountains and streams as his sense impressions generate equivalent ideas in his head. The wretch’s own account of inventing fire and feeling pain, distinguishing bird from bird and birdsong from birdsong in splendid titanic isolation is classic Locke. Here the wretch explains his first days of the ‘original era of his being’:

"It was dark when I awoke; I felt cold also, and half frightened, as it
were, instinctively, finding myself so desolate. Before I had quitted
your apartment, on a sensation of cold, I had covered myself with some
clothes, but these were insufficient to secure me from the dews of
night. I was a poor, helpless, miserable wretch; I knew, and could
distinguish, nothing; but feeling pain invade me on all sides, I sat
down and wept.

"Soon a gentle light stole over the heavens and gave me a sensation of
pleasure. I started up and beheld a radiant form rise from among the
trees. [The moon] I gazed with a kind of wonder. It moved slowly,
but it enlightened my path, and I again went out in search of berries.
I was still cold when under one of the trees I found a huge cloak, with
which I covered myself, and sat down upon the ground. No distinct
ideas occupied my mind; all was confused. I felt light, and hunger,
and thirst, and darkness; innumerable sounds rang in my ears, and on
all sides various scents saluted me; the only object that I could
distinguish was the bright moon, and I fixed my eyes on that with
pleasure.

"Several changes of day and night passed, and the orb of night had
greatly lessened, when I began to distinguish my sensations from each
other. I gradually saw plainly the clear stream that supplied me with
drink and the trees that shaded me with their foliage. I was delighted
when I first discovered that a pleasant sound, which often saluted my
ears, proceeded from the throats of the little winged animals who had
often intercepted the light from my eyes. I began also to observe,
with greater accuracy, the forms that surrounded me and to perceive the
boundaries of the radiant roof of light which canopied me. Sometimes I
tried to imitate the pleasant songs of the birds but was unable.
Sometimes I wished to express my sensations in my own mode, but the
uncouth and inarticulate sounds which broke from me frightened me into
silence again.”


The lesson of cold, the lesson of heat. The origin of language. That wretch, the isolato. There is a convergence between the power of these isolato narratives and the breaking apart of the traditional positional economy under the stress of capitalism. The isolato, I should point out, substitutes for a previous system of imitatio. But enough! The orb of the day is passing all too quickly over myself, a freelance isolato if there ever was one.

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