Category: Feminism and Science (3/19)


Don’t Force It

Mellor’s argues that Frankenstein is subconsciously engaging in oppressive sexual politics in his pursuit of the creation of life. In other words, Victor’s scientific endeavors are an assault on females and inherently sexist, simply by virtue of his scientific pursuit.

I would argue that Mellor’s paper is subconsciously engaging in oppression to logic and critical thinking. By extrapolating her conclusions, which are tethered together with rickety evidence, she is launching a direct assault on literary study and common knowledge. Sometimes, I think people get too caught up in wanting an argument to be true, and bending whatever support they can to justify their position. In Mellor’s case, I think she had reached her conclusion well before analyzing and doing a thorough reading of the book. Instead, she used her reading simply to back up what she wants to believe about the book.

I mean, come on. Out of all the things Victor does to warrant personal criticism, I think his devotion to the sciences is one of the only admirable things he does in the entire movie. “Manipulating nature”, as Mellor so critically describes Victor’s actions, is also responsible for all of modern medicine, technology, and mechanics. Those things are essential to our society today, and were each borne out of a manipulation of nature.

Frankenstein does some morally reprehensible things throughout the story, and probably was a sexist, and probably was also completely insane. I would not want to hang out with Vic, because he seems like the kind of guy to just stand in the corner awkwardly and make everyone uncomfortable. But regardless of that, he definitely was a brilliant scientist, and I don’t think it’s fair to chastise him for trying to innovate and create the next great step for mankind.

By saying that Victor’s attempts to manipulate nature were inherently sexist, Mellor is arguing that the sciences themselves are also inherently sexist. That message is the last thing we need these days. Women need to be encouraged to study and participate in STEM-related fields, and placing a sexist label on certain fields of study is counter productive and dangerous.

Caspar_David_Friedrich_-_Wanderer_above_the_sea_of_fog

So, we have reason to believe Victor Frankenstein is a rapist.

Yes, yes, I know the victim we’re talking about isn’t a person, but nature (if that makes it any better), but let’s wrestle some more with that idea. Because I can’t help but think, “Victor may be violating nature by playing God and all, but doesn’t he also show affection for nature? Doesn’t he spend a lot of time romanticizing landscapes?” And the answer to all that is, “Yes … but not really.”

Victor does have some tender scenes with nature. Roaming the mountains, he describes how nature “congregated round me; the unstained snowy mountain-top, the glittering pinnacle, the pine woods, and ragged bare ravine; the eagle, soaring amidst the clouds — they all gathered round me, and bade me be at peace” (Shelley 90). In times like these, Victor dotes on nature and calls her (if I may continue the metaphor) a healing friend. But the lovey-doveyness quickly stops. When Victor wakes up the next morning, the rain is so heavy that he can no longer see his “mighty friends” (91), the mountaintops or the trees or the eagle. And he declares, “Still I would penetrate their misty veil, and seek them in their cloudy retreats. What were rain and storm to me?” (91).

Wait. What? Penetrate?

Sounds messed up, but any reader of Anne K. Mellor’s “A Feminist Critique of Science” shouldn’t be surprised. Mellor argues that Frankenstein is a story where “the aggressive, virile male scientist legitimately captures and enslaves a fertile but passive female nature” (Mellor 1). And based on the novel’s gendered language, it’s pretty hard to refute that. (The word “penetrate” comes back a lot more than you’d expect.)

So Victor’s definitely obsessed with raping nature, but the cool thing is nature doesn’t just take it. After he decides to mess with nature again by agreeing to make his creation a female companion, Victor accuses the sky for mocking him and asks it to “crush sensation and memory; let me become as nought” (Shelley 131). He bemoans to Walton, “I cannot describe to you how the eternal twinkling of the stars weighed upon me, and how I listened to every blast of wind, as if it were a dull, ugly siroc on its way to consume me” (131). The horrific results of his rape (the creation) now fully illuminated to him, Victor cannot even bear the mere presence of nature. Where there was once comfort now lies misery. Gone is the restorative, consoling friend. Gone is the passive, silent victim. So, yes, nature in Frankenstein may be feminine, and she may have been violated, but she’s far from submissive.

And I think Victor may want that veil back.

Revised.

Anne Mellor argues for two types of science, a ‘good’ one which only seeks to understand and describe the machinations of nature and the ‘bad’ kind which attempt to harness and control nature’s powers for the scientist’s own benefit. The idea which struck me most while reading her feminist critique was that of the scientist “substitute[ing] work for love”(Mellor 10). I believe this can be extended to say that the study of nature itself becomes almost a lover or sexual object to the scientist, in that all their feelings of love and sexual desire get, to use the Freudian term, sublimated onto their work. In this vein the difference between the two kinds of science become comparable to, respectively, a loving relationship, involving understanding and fascination, and rape, involving power and domination. I think Mellor’s analysis shows that in the post-enlightenment era, science was moving more towards the controlling and gaining power over nature, with the new advances in technology and industry, and this is supported by the sexual images of domination and subjugation created by “embued with a fervent longing to penetrate the secrets of nature”(Frankenstein 47)  and “pursued nature to her hiding-places”(58), and that scientists, such as Davy, sought to “interrogate nature with power, not simply as a scholar, passive and seeking only to understand her operations, but rather as a master, active with his own instruments.” The making of the Creature is an embodiment of this rape and violation of nature. This is evidenced by the repeated use of the word “ardour” for Victor’s passion for his work and quotes such as “to arrive at once at the summit of my desires, was the most gratifying consummation of my toils.”(57). This gives the creation of this monster sexual connotations as it is compared to reaching a peak, and called a “consummation”. The Creature is regarded as monstrous and horrifying because it is the result of this unholy act. Victor himself refers to his “profane fingers” but he cannot stop himself as he desires that power, he wants to “break through”(58) the bounds between life and death. This is also seen in how he becomes “insensible to the charms of nature” (59) signifying that he can no longer see its beauty and only seeks that power over ‘her’. The imagery of the line “The leaves of that year had withered before my work drew near to a close”(60) with the specific use of the word “withered” also lends itself to the idea that nature is violated and hurt by that act of rape which was the creation of the monster.

In the immortal words of Kanye West, “No one man should have all that power.”  Indeed, it seems that Anne K. Mellor is of a similar school of thought, or at least with regard to the manipulation of nature as the Passive Other, a female to be taken advantage of.  This is what yields to the discussion of the sexual politics in science.  But it is not that Mellor is necessarily condemning the sciences, it is that she is pointing out Shelley’s condemnation of the sciences.

Mellor spends a great deal of time illustrating two different schools of thought in the sciences, in Darwin’s ideology and practices that she uses to celebrate the sciences of studying nature through observation, and in Davy and Galvani’s mentality and experiments that appear to run against everything that Mellor stands for.  While Darwin was observing, and adding his commentary about life, and noting responsibilities of each gender in plant life (notably saying that men are responsible for the sex and defects of a child), Davy was heralding the coming of the great scientist, that would essentially dissect nature in order to learn her hidden features, and Galvani was working to reanimate corpses himself through use of electricity.  However, Mellor uses Shelley’s text to find morality (or lack thereof) in the sciences.  Davy’s idea of the great scientist is embodied in Waldman, as Mellor says – he is the one who is getting Victor interested in alchemy and strange manipulations of chemistry to achieve strange goals.  While Mellor and Shelley seem to appreciate Darwin’s theories and ideas (after all, Percy was very influenced by the scientist), Shelley distorts many of his ideas through Victor.  By not creating his creation through sexual reproduction, scaling up the monster to deal with small parts instead of managing it to become more complex (a “compound” as Darwin says), and many other examples, her character is allowed to fundamentally destroy many of the aspects of life celebrated by Darwin.

In essence, Mellor is not necessarily arguing for herself, or at least by herself.  There is an immense amount of textual support for her argument; all she has to do is point and say, “Hey, hey, over here!”  Shelley has already done most of the legwork to paint the image of the scientist in a negative manner.  I only wonder if she was intending for the Mad Scientist trope to be created.

REVISED

I think Mellor’s point that the gendering of nature and science in the novel are a problem has validity. I think she reads current cultural ideologies too far into 19th century culture, however, and wrongly conflates the science of that era with that of today.

“The scientist who analyses, manipulates, and attempts to control nature unconsciously engages in a form of oppressive sexual politics” (12) Mellor says. She seems to be saying this not just of 19th century science, but also modern science. Mellor sees manipulation as damning of all science, past and present.

In the passages of Frankenstein that describe Victor’s early interactions with science, there is lots of gendered language, placing him as the Male, and nature as the female: “Destiny…and her immutable laws” (49), “nature…show how she works in her hiding places” (53). I have a hard time with the way Anne Mellor expects a non-oppressive relationship between things perceived as male and things perceived as female in the early 19th century. Men were scientists. Women were homemakers. Men were active. Women actually were fairly passive. These were the things men perceived both women and Nature to be. Were they wrong? Absolutely. But at that point in time, gender roles were Gender Rules. Today, we break them, we bend them, we ignore them, we change them, and society may criticize, but gender roles do not carry the same weight in our lives now.

Similarly, science then is not what science is now. Morality and science cross each other frequently today, and scientists are generally very concerned with the ethics of research and especially medical decisions. We have agencies regulating such aspects of science. Would Anne Mellor object to donating organs because it goes outside the realm of understanding the body and into altering it? How does she feel about surgeries to remove or add or enhance parts of the body that are detrimental/missing/malfunctioning? Instead of evaluating 19th century science through the lens of 19th century culture, Mellor evaluates 19th century science through the lens of 21st century culture, and then calls it all the same.

 

The pursuit of scientific knowledge is aggressive. That pursuit has to be aggressive for good reason. Anne Mellor says it herself when she quotes Francis Bacon, “The ‘true sons of learning’ are those men who do not remain satisfied with the well-known truths but rather ‘penetrate from Nature’s antechamber to her inner closet” (Mellor 12). While the wording used is feministic, it goes to show that the pursuit of science is aggressive and necessarily so. I do not believe however, that “a scientist who analyses, manipulates, and attempts to control nature unconsciously engages in a form of oppressive sexual politics” (Mellor 12). If that were the case, every male and female in my lab classes who has created new chemicals from other chemicals has engaged in oppressive sexual politics because we have “bent” nature many times in that class.

Victor when he is first learning about electricity states, “It seemed to me as if nothing would or could ever be known. All that had so long engaged my attention suddenly grew despicable” (Shelley 48). Victor, like any other scientist, is intrigued by an intense passion to expand his knowledge about the working world around him. The point of science is not to be able to conquer nature but to understand how it works. In some cases, we can use nature to better our lives however because even when “bending” nature, we are not changing nature. We are simply speeding up or slowing down processes that already occur naturally. Victor “pursues nature to her hiding-places” (Shelley 58)  in creating the creature but in what way has he belittled nature? From what it seems, Victor seems more to be in awe of nature than anything. Science is aggressive. The terms used to describe the pursuit of science even for Victor in the story are feministic but at the time period in which the story was written, that was the norm. You would be hard pressed to find a scientist speak that way today. If we saw a nature as an it and not a she, then all science conducted would not be “a form of oppressive sexual politics”. Although nature has been seen as a female throughout history, the term “mother earth” was coined by enlightenment thinkers to separate nature from God. Had this not happened, there would be no argument here. The pursuit of science is aggressive, nature is seen as feminine, and the quotes and ideals used in Anne Mellor’s piece are outdated in the scientific community.

I might just be tired, but I found Mellor’s argument, all in all, fairly reasonable. However, I don’t agree with Mellor in all aspects. I don’t think that it’s unreasonable to say that thinking of science as a challenge to control a “passive and possessable female” will cause research to be self-furthering and “morally insensitive” (Mellor). However, Mellor didn’t touch on the effects of gendering Nature and the sciences on female scientists and researchers. (Or I could’ve missed that because I’m so tired.) Science as a “passive and possessable female” speaks prominently to a male audience and leaves little room for and blocks the progression of women in science. Of course, not to say that women cannot also want to possessively bend Nature to their wills. I think it’s strange that Mellor doesn’t talk about this that much. Maybe she might’ve implied that this language opposes women in science; perhaps she is relying on their omission to speak for them. However, in the 18th-19th centuries (and before, and after), there were still many women in science. A quick Google search takes us to a Wikipedia list of names. I just feel like women could have constituted a more visible part of her argument. All of her sources were from men of science. By ignoring women, Mellor seems to exemplify the very erasure that the gendering Nature causes. How science is thought of–as a woman to be taken rather than what it actually is (the natural world, which is for the most part gender-neutral)–causes the “oppressive sexual politics,” rather than the actual manipulation of nature. If we get rid of all these women comparisons/personifications, then we should be good.

The feminist reading of Frankenstein by the author Anne Mellor was frankly (pun intended), a desperate grasp. Mellor disparages the sciences in her text, being all too sympathetic with Mary Shelley’s murky understanding of the field. Mellor acknowledges that given the time period, sciences such as chemical physiology were not truly understood by the leading scientists, yet uses Shelley’s ignorance and perceptions as a launching point for her argument over the male dominated field.

it’s slightly ridiculous when you think about it, seeing as Shelley does not exactly have a good grasp on science in general. The fact that she even compares alchemy (an outdated practice even in the context of the book) to the modern sciences in the novel shows her lack of knowledge. This is also the same woman who supposes that the proper work environment for scientific experiments is hunched in a dusty attic over a candle, a fact that Mellor also agrees with. Yet she uses Shelley as her centrepiece in the critique of the men and science. She hones in on Victor Frankenstein as the embodiment of what’s wrong with science. She places great store in how this unstable character pushes the limits of science and attempts to dissect the inner workings of nature. Victor Frankenstein? The man who has fainting fits over passing shadows? Yet it is precisely this quality of being a man that Mellor attacks discreetly instead of any grounded dislike towards the sciences.

She raises one fair point over the rapidly advancing field, where she claims the products of science are a danger to their creators, as seen today through bombs and weaponry. This she says, has been symbolised through the Creature, a hideous creation with the potential to rain destruction down upon Victor. Also the fact that the Creature takes on a male identity doesn’t hurt her point either. In any case, while i agreed that the sciences were male dominated, I found Mellor to provide a weak argument over the fact that they were a result of the perpetuated male ego. This being due to the fact that Shelley’s perceptions were her main focal point, a biased and skewed viewpoint to begin with.

For this Thursday (3/19), students will write a blog post that explores Anne Mellor’s feminist conclusion about Frankenstein: that “the scientist who analyses, manipulates, and attempts to control nature unconsciously engages in a form of oppressive sexual politics” (12).  To what extend does Mellor’s analysis of gendered imagery and metaphors help expose enlightenment-era ideologies about labor, reproduction, and technological development or, more brazenly, attack the study of science itself?  In other words, does her argument about the dangers of impersonal and instrumental modes of reasoning go too far in condemning the sciences and exalting the humanities (like English literature, for example)?  To help answer this question, focus on those passages in the novel where Victor first encountered and practiced science.

Please categorize under “Feminism and Science” and don’t forget to create specific and relevant tags.