When the Marginalised Threatens the Mainstream: A Representation through Art and AI
‘In our robotic future,’ begins The New York Times’ article on Jeanette Winterson’s Frankissstein, ‘Victor says, “Humans will be like decayed gentry. We’ll have the glorious mansion called the past that is falling into disrepair. We’ll have a piece of land that we didn’t look after very well called the planet. And we’ll have some nice clothes and a lot of stories. We’ll be fading aristocracy. We’ll be Blanche Dubois in a moth-eaten silk dress. We’ll be Marie Antoinette with no cake.”’
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Since Darwin wrote The Evolution of Species, the human mind has always been considered to have evolved from apes, a class of animals which could not evolve with time. The idea of the survival of the fittest comes from this very notion that all life is not equally necessary, and that which is more, will sustain itself. This notion doesn’t take into account that that which will sustain itself will do so only when the rest perish. This is the same way Marx explains the very simple idea of the bourgeoisie sustaining itself at the hands of the proletariat. Humans have always considered every human below them in the caste, class, race, and gendered radar to be the marginalised; the ones whose lives aren’t important and the ones who would be forgotten very easily. It is this superiority which makes Victor Frankenstein, the doctor in Mary Shelley’s novel, detest the Monster he created. He is agonised because the Monster doesn’t look like him, does’t speak, or behave like him. Shelley describes Frankenstein’s monster as an 8-foot-tall, hideously ugly creation, with translucent yellowish skin pulled so taut over the body that it “barely disguised the workings of the arteries and muscles underneath,” watery, glowing eyes, flowing black hair, black lips, and prominent white teeth. This Creature stands for everything that Dr. Frankenstein’s discipline detests — ugliness, disproportion, and mystery. It is through Dr. Frankenstein’s abandonment of his creation that this Creature becomes the marginalised, without a home, a language, or a tradition that was or will be. In the later part of the book, Shelley describes the loneliness of the Monster and also his attempts towards assimilation. She devotes page after page to make the Reader appreciate the efforts of the Monster to learn the language of his creator. This language acts a medium to interact but just like in the case of the marginalised within humans, be it the Dalits or women or transpersons, this language leads to further oppressions because of its minimalistic and male-centric vocabulary. This language would never be adequate for the Monster to express himself because this language would make his needs and aspirations look feeble and futile in front of his creator’s.
Jeanette Winterson introduces us to a new language altogether, one that wishes to store all information and all stories and makes the characters and the readers question as to who gets the authority to narrate these stories. This language is the language of Science, specifically modern-day Science, which has given birth to Artificial Intelligence. While Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is about human creating life, Jeanette Winterson’s Frankissstein is about human preserving consciousness. We are shown a contrast between the hideous Monster of Mary Shelley and the beautiful sexbots of Ron Lord. These sexbots, which come in all types of hair colour, breasts, hips, words that are fed into their system which help them to have minimal communication, are the first instance where the reality of the existence of a female body is threatened. When the male talks, the female becomes the observer, the marginalised. And thus, this process of marginalisation would begin from the margins. This highly sexist discussion of how sexbots are created and what they do falls parallel to the discussion about Luddites in England back in the summer when the Shelleys, Lord Byron, his physician Polidorus, and Mary Shelley’s step sister Claire Clairmont were living together in a house isolated by civilisation. This discussion centred around machines taking away the jobs of workers and rendering them homeless, just the way in the parallel universe in the story, the sexbots would take up the place of a woman in a family because she doesn’t have to be fed, taken to the hospital, or given food. And the best part, she would never say no to a man’s desire for intercourse. We should keep in mind that when we are designating women as a collective also as the marginalised, we are able to do so because both these novels have been written by people who identify as women.
Image Credits: The Times
Ron Lord is a character settled in the present day Wales who is based on the 19th century Lord Byron. Through the discussions between the Shelleys and Byron, Winterson also introduces us to the idea of Body and Soul being distinct from each other. According to Byron, the man is the Soul, and the woman, the Body. This is literally manifested in the image of sexbots created by Ron Lord where sexbots can be rented according to moods of men and circumstances they might be trapped in. When Lord meets Claire, the modern-day woman who believes in God, they decide to create something for the clergy as well, God-bots. These God-bots would serve the clergy like the sex-bots would serve ordinary men. The idea is that all emotions of fear, love, jealousy, anger, pain, etc., the things which make us human would be swiped off through Artificial Intelligence. Winterson forces us to think of a future where our own creations would bring about our extinction. And, we would be helpless. Just like the Palestinians are, just like the Kashmiris are, just like the Jews were. This post human world would make humans marginalised. Nothing of humanity will remain.
In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, there comes a moment where the helpless Monster pleads to Victor Frankenstein to create a female form just like himself. He reassures him that once he gets a companion, someone who would be as lost and foreign in this world as himself, he wouldn’t be the only lonely one. And, thus, they would survive through each others’ companionship. He even says that once he gets his companion, he would never come before Frankenstein and would let him live in peace in his human world. But Frankenstein destroys his second creation before completing it. He does so because he couldn’t risk the extinction of Homo Sapiens. The fear of being the minority lies in the hearts of all of us, be it the Hindus in a Hindu Rashtra or the Aryans in Nazi Germany. This fear, if not controlled and given rest, gives rise to fascist tendencies where the only way to survive becomes reproduction of oneself and extermination of the Other. Will it be wrong to say that it is human nature to dominate? This paper, unfortunately, cannot answer that. But what this paper aims to establish is the constant urge of humans to mark themselves superior, the constant urge to mark themselves safe against human or manmade disasters (which has become a new update on Facebook these days), and this constant urge leads to our blinded support of leaders like Bolsonaro, Trump, and Modi. Fascists leaders project the marginalised as the Dangerous Other from whom the majority has to be protected. Winterson takes it a bit further and asks us about our leaders, about what would Bolsonaro or Trump or Modi do if Aritificial Intelligence becomes incomprehensible and uncontrollable? What if Mary Shelley’s Monster (who does not die at the end, by the way) and Jeanette Winterson’s Human Brain’s Consciousness become inevitable? What if the biggest threat to Humanism is Post Humanism?
Image Credits: The Daily Telegraph
Winterson also highlights the marginalisation of transgenders in this scientific world through the character of Ry Shelley. Ry Shelley, born as Mary Shelley in the 21st century, transcends the border of oneness. Ry says, ‘I am what I am, but what I am is not one thing, not one gender. I live with doubleness.’ The bodies of transgenders or gender non-conforming people have since time immemorial been viewed as a conflict in themselves. Winterson always projects Ry Shelley in opposition to Professor Victor Stein, who wishes to preserve the consciousness of a human brain by storing its contents as data. He believes that the future of humanity is this — human life in phases, broken but not susceptible to an end. It is a conscious effort on the part of Winterson to show Professor Stein being romantically inclined towards Ry Shelley since the beginning. In orthodox scientific discourses, Ry Shelley’s body would be something of an abrogation, half male-half female. Professor Stein always saw him as possessing a body that was meant to be placed in a laboratory and studied under a microscope. Such bodies become treasures for the human mind which have to be opened up and dissected. Such bodies are viewed in the same way as that of the Monster by Victor Frankenstein — a conflict in itself which needs to be resolved by the superior mind, the human mind. But none of these conflicts find their resolutions in either Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or Jeanette Winterson’s Frankissstein. Now, the question remains the same — is Winterson proposing a world where something created by us would take over us? Would we have no control over our world? Would we become the marginalised, while the marginalised, the mainstream?
By making Victor Frankenstein appear before Mary Shelley in her novel, Winterson crosses another wall. She, unlike Mary Shelley or Professor Victor Stein does not only bring the dead to life, but imagination to life. She forces us to think of our extermination, about what would happen when the people we read of in books become real, when Siri or Alexa who probably wake us up every morning, one day just choose not to because they suddenly can think by themselves, when they are no more our slaves? Would Homo Sapiens gradually become marginalised in their own world which they got after committing the Unforgivable Sin? Is history going to repeat itself? The question we need to ask ourselves is that if God created us, today we have a reached a stage where we question the very existence of God. Similarly, we created Artificial Intelligence. Are we heading to a future where robots would deny our existence?
Winterson doesn’t give any answer. She just gives us a couplet by Shakespeare very frequently in the book which makes us question our very being.
‘What is your substance. whereof are you made?
That millions of strange shadows on you tend.’
By Ananya Bhardwaj
Ananya Bhardwaj is currently working as the Assistant Curator, Oral Histories, with The Arts and Cultural Heritage Trust to curate the first Partition Museum in Delhi at the Dara Shikoh Library. She is a postgraduate of Literatures in English from St. Stephen’s College, University of Delhi. She is also the founder of Museum of Shadows of Partition which is a digital repository of inherited Partition memoirs which have been passed on to successive generations of Partition survivors in the forms of anecdotes, heirlooms, and documents.