Rise of the Planet of the Frankensteins
by Elliot Sperber
It seems these days that the name Frankenstein is used to designate both the scientist, as well as the monster that Dr. Victor Frankenstein creates in Mary Shelley’s early 19th century novel. But perhaps this reflects less of a mistake than a recognition of a deeper truth inhering in the character. For while both the creator and the creation are monstrous, it is the creator who is the more horrible in many respects. The man who would create the monster was not only a scientist, but a rich scientist working in the early days of the Industrial Revolution. Obsessed with electricity, power, and using this electrical power to create a ‘life form,’ Frankenstein directed his wealth and scientific knowledge into succeeding in this endeavor. That he does so at the very same time that new and horrible ‘forms of life,’ or ways of life, were being shocked into creation throughout the world by the Industrial Revolution and imperialism – and that these newly created ways of life of the colonized, enslaved, and industrial working class people were indeed monstrous – seems hardly coincidental, irrespective of Shelley’s intent.
To be sure, the novel Frankenstein’s subtitle is The Modern Prometheus. And Prometheus, readers may recall, was the Greek titan who, transgressing the rules of the gods, gave fire in particular, and technology in general, to humanity – mythopoetically representing a moment in human history rivaled in importance only by, among few others, the Industrial Revolution itself. As a result of this theft and gift, Prometheus was chained to a mountain and tortured by Zeus (in a manner not unlike the crucifixion of Jesus Christ). And as a further reaction to this transgression, Zeus created Pandora; it was by way of her jar that not only disease, but work was introduced to the world. That is, prior to Prometheus’s theft, there was no disease or work in the world. And throughout the world that industrial imperialism was increasingly subjugating during the period of Frankenstein’s creation and publication, work and disease were being introduced with great rapidity. Indeed, in his seminal The Great Transformation, Karl Polanyi describes just how European colonizers often introduced work to the natives they conquered. Unwilling to toil for the invaders, the natives would remark that there was no need to work and earn money since there was plenty of food growing more or less wildly for them to eat freely. The response of the colonizers to this was to destroy the freely growing food, creating a state of dependency and thereby compelling the conquered people to work – creating work and disease, just like what resulted from the theft of Prometheus. But it was not imperialism so much as a new industrial imperialism that was transforming the world. And it is primarily this industrialism, yielding its monstrous electrical, economic, and political power that is represented by Dr. Frankenstein. This electrical power, like fire (and capitalism itself) requires the perpetual consumption of fuel or it will expire – and, so, it must consume the world.
In this light, we can see Dr. Frankenstein as a monster who creates monstrosities. But not only were conquered natives being monstrously subjugated by the British Crown, and their lands turned into monstrosities; the industrial working class was also being created during this time, and being subjected to monstrous conditions. As such, just as we can see Dr. Frankenstein as symbolic of the forces of science and industry, we can see Frankenstein’s monster as symbolizing to some degree the industrial working class and the slaves and other subjugated peoples of the empires – the poor in general who threaten and frighten the dominating classes. These monstrous forms of life, however, are not limited to people. The monster that Dr. Frankenstein created, which becomes hostile and harmful to people, can also be regarded as the natural environment itself. To be sure, with its increasingly destructive hurricanes, floods and other ‘extreme weather events’, and with its polluted toxicity, all caused by Prometheus/Frankenstein/Industry, much of the natural world today is being monstrosified.
But the monster-making of the combined forces of science, industry, and empire did not by any means end in the 19th century. Indeed, the 20th century’s biopolitical monstrosities are far too numerous to list. Aside from the monumental horrors of concentrated violence seen in genocides and nuclear bombings, and the more quotidian forms of diffused violence endemic to modern life, a new technology would find itself attached to the term Frankenstein toward the end of the 20th century: frankenfoods. Combined, like Frankenstein’s monster, from sundry parts, frankenfoods are distinct from the monster insofar as they are the result of not so much anatomical, but genetic engineering. And closely related to Frankenstein and genetics, or epigenetics, rather, is the 2011 film Rise of the Planet of the Apes.
It is a coincident that the Dr. Frankenstein character Will Rodman is played by the actor James Franco. In addition to sharing characteristics with Dr. Frankenstein, Will Rodman is also much like Prometheus as the technology he conveys to humanity directly creates great disease.
In developing what he hopes will be a cure for Alzheimer’s, Will Rodman conducts in vivo experimentation on a number of apes. But while the experimental drug increases the research subjects’ intelligence by extraordinary bounds, the drug also creates a deadly infectious disease in humans that, by the end of the film, gives rise to a pandemic which wipes out much of humankind, allowing the apes to rise to global hegemony in this Planet of the Apes origin story.
Early in the film, an accident leads to Rodman’s medical research program’s cessation. While the lab animals are thereafter euthanized, one infant chimpanzee is spared. Although he could have just as well been named Moses, the infant chimp is named Caesar. Brought to Rodman’s Bay Area home, Caesar is raised in Rodman’s house like his own child. Possessing an intelligence more powerful, we are told, than that of most humans, Caesar learns sign language, communicates linguistically, and develops into a sophisticated ‘person.’ In one pivotal scene involving a leashed dog barking at Caesar – who is also on a leash – a distressed Caesar asks Rodman if he is also a pet. And if he is not a pet, what is he? With his unique capacities, assembled by a scientist, this creation of Frankenstein/Rodman – Caesar – is a type of Frankenstein’s monster. But unlike Frankenstein’s monster, who was entirely alone and alienated in the world, Caesar is not completely unique. There are others, other apes, who are like him. Indeed, Caesar is not only a type of Frankenstein’s monster; he will become a type of Dr. Frankenstein as well.
When a violent incident results in his banishment from Rodman’s home to a primate refuge, Caesar learns to live among other apes. As befits his namesake, he attempts to organize these apes into an army so that they may resist the abuses to which they are submitted. But as these other apes are a mostly thoughtless and bestial lot, he decides to speed up the raising of their ‘class consciousness’ by exposing them to the Alzheimer drug under renewed development in Rodman’s lab. Shortly after the apes’ exposure to this drug, their intelligence greatly enhanced, they begin to understand Caesar’s plan for liberation. And it is not long before they have exacted revenge on their jailer and climbed out of the compound.
Having freed themselves from the primate refuge, the apes proceed to Rodman’s lab where the drug is being studied. Liberating the test apes there, they then head en masse to release the apes trapped at the zoo. And from the zoo, Caesar decides to lead his army to Muir Woods on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge. It is not long, however, before the police are on their trail. What results is an exciting battle in the middle of the Golden Gate Bridge, one that calls to mind Occupy Wall Street protesters’ attempted occupations of bridges. But rather than march right into the arms of the police, as Occupy protesters often did, Caesar directs his troops to climb over and under the bridge, avoiding and then surrounding the police and prevailing over their adversaries. Of course, it is not fair to expect the Occupy protesters to be able to climb as well as a CGI orangutan or chimpanzee. They might, however, still learn a thing or two from Caesar’s tactics and strategies, tactics that could have just as well been gleaned from Sun Tzu.
At any event, Caesar – the monster of Frankenstein who becomes a Dr. Frankenstein himself – winds up leading his wounded army to Muir Woods and safety. And while their freedom might have been only short-lived otherwise, the pandemic – a result of Rodman/Frankenstein’s experiments – that was only flaring up while they were making their escape from the primate refuge, engulfs the globe by the movie’s end, ensuring that their freedom (from humans) will be a lasting one.
At the end of Shelley’s novel Frankenstein’s monster escapes as well, banishing himself to the arctic. The story in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, though, leads one to wonder whether Frankenstein’s monster would have risen in revolt had he had the company and support of an army of monsters. To be sure, Frankenstein’s monster – unlike his cinematic depictions – was in possession of an intelligence comparable to what Rodman/Frankenstein’s intelligence drug provoked in the apes. Had he had the company of other monsters, who knows, they might have revolted actively. Or they might have revolted more or less passively, committing daily mini-sabotages as people tend to do these days in workplaces and other locations across the world. For just like in Shelley’s time, most people today are Frankenstein’s monsters of sorts. However, even though we are told, by enemies and allies alike, that we are all ‘singularities,’ we are not alone like Dr. Frankenstein’s sui generis freak of a monster. We may all be Frankensteins, but we are more like Caesar and the apes, together in our alienation. What we lack is their consciousness of their Frankenstein condition(s).
Perhaps the most important question raised by the problematic film Rise of the Planet of the Apes, however, is whether one can free oneself from Dr. Frankenstein (i.e. capitalism and its ideology) without becoming a Dr. Frankenstein oneself. Relatedly, the film prompts the question of whether we are all, to varying degrees, hybrids of Dr. Frankenstein and his monstrous creation. Finally, if Dr. Frankenstein, like Prometheus, brings disease with his technologies, one may wonder whether a radical conceptualization of health, which conceptualizes conditions of social justice as homologous with conditions of actual – as opposed to merely apparent – health, points at all to a way outside of this Planet of the Frankensteins.
Elliot Sperber is a writer, attorney, and contributor to hygiecracy.blogspot.com.