In his famous essay ‘The Dialectic of Fear’ (published in New Left Review #136, Nov-Dec 1982) Franco Moretti used Marxist and Psychoanalytic criticism to provide a coruscating account of the twin monsters of bourgeois culture: Dracula and Frankenstein.
The entire essay is well worth reading and is findable online if you hunt about. Here are some of the best bits about Frankenstein (the book):
Like the proletariat, the monster is denied a name and an individuality. He is the Frankenstein monster; he belongs wholly to his creator (just as one can speak of ‘a Ford worker’). Like the proletariat, he is a collective and artificial creature. He is not found in nature, but built. Frankenstein is a productive inventor-scientist…). Reunited and brought back to life in the monster are the limbs of those – the ‘poor’ – whom the breakdown of feudal relations has forced into brigandage, poverty and death. Only modern science – this metaphor for the ‘dark satanic mills’ – can offer them a future. It sews them together again, moulds them according to its will and finally gives them life, But at the moment the monster opens its eyes, its creator
draws back in horror: ‘by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; . . . How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe . . . ?’
Between Frankenstein and the monster there is an ambivalent, dialectical relationship, the same as that which, according to Marx, connects capital with wage-labour. On the one hand, the scientist cannot but create the monster: ‘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’. On the other hand, he is immediately afraid of it and wants to kill it, because he realizes he has given life to a creature stronger than himself and of which he cannot henceforth be free. … The fear aroused by the monster, in other words, is the fear of one who is afraid of having ‘produced his own gravediggers’.
‘Race of devils’: this image of the proletariat encapsulates one of the most reactionary elements in Mary Shelley’s ideology. The monster is a historical product, an artificial being: but once transformed into a ‘race’ he re-enters the immutable realm of Nature. He can become the object of an instinctive, elemental hatred; and ‘men’ need this hatred to counterbalance the force unleashed by the monster. So true is this that racial discrimination is not superimposed on the development of the narrative but springs directly from it: it is not only Mary Shelley who wants to make the monster a creature of another race, but Frankenstein himself. Frankenstein does not in fact want to create a man (as he claims) but a monster, a race. He narrates at length the ‘infinite pains and care’ with which he had endeavoured to form the creature; he tells us that ‘his limbs were in proportion’ and that he had ‘selected his features as beautiful’.
Kant’s categorical imperative is an expression of the bourgeois liberal ideas of the 18th century, expressed as morality. It is progressive in the sense that it attempts to derive morality from Reason. It is part of the Enlightenment. It also expresses the new, universal promises of the bourgeois revolutions in that it universalises (i.e. “All men are created equal”). It is based on the principle of universality. What you do must apply to all people or it fails to be truly moral.
However, it is also based on a bourgeois notion of rights. The concept of ‘rights’ is a product of the rise of bourgeois property/trade relations. One brings one’s rights to the market place and, on that basis, one participates in the putatively level playing field. For Kant, one negotiates the conflicts between these rights on the basis of contractual clauses. If the Party of the First Part undertakes to do such and such, the Party of the Second part will be understood to be obliged to do so and so. It is this which finally inverts the universality of the notion into an entire bourgeois conception of individualism. Through this embedded notion of contractual obligations, the decision as to universal moral actions rests with the individual’s willingness to enter into a personal contract regarding his conduct, his willingness to be bound.
The sting in the tail lies in the fact that different people will always have different notions as to what is or isn’t universally desirable. One individual may consider it highly desirable that theft be considered universally immoral because they have a great personal interest in the institution of private property (i.e. because they own lots of it). Another (who perhaps owns little) may be prepared to risk universalising the permissability of theft if he thinks he can steal what he wants and then protect his stolen goods by force. Alternatively, there may be those who feel that there are worse prospects for the future than the fall of private property. And, in practice, the guardians of morality will always be ready to claim the universality of laws that they themselves break, simply because they take a more pragmatic view of Reason.
The R/reasonable promises of bourgeois liberalism and Enlightenment will always have such loopholes in their social contracts and, as a result, will always find themselves in full or partial, official or unofficial abeyance. The Enlightenment declared that all men were created equal, but oversaw (and, indeed, was partially built upon) all black men (and women) being crated equally… for shipping. Why should a white man who profits from the slave trade care if ‘enslave black people’ became a universal moral maxim? He knows the colour of his own skin will exempt him from the chains, and the inequality of property and opportunity will protect him from universal business competition.…