Event, Frankenstein Thoughts

Zuckerberg’s Monster: A Dean’s Words to Open the Frankenstein Bicentennial

dean shannon miller

By Dr. Shannon Miller, Dean, College of Arts & Humanities, San Jose State Universities – delivered at Professor Ellen Peel’s lecture, “Frankenstein at the Ballet” on February 28, 2018

I am so delighted to welcome everyone today to the first of many events that mark our Frankenstein Bicentennial Celebration, 200 years of Frankenstein, a project at San Jose State University that has been spearheaded by Dr. Katherine Harris.  Our celebration is marked by collaboration with Santa Clara University and the University of San Francisco, while we are also drawing upon experts in the field of Romanticism and the arts:  today Professor Ellen Peel from San Francisco State will discuss the San Francisco Ballet’s Frankenstein.  Her talk this afternoon begins our interdisciplinary interrogations of issues in this important text.  If the genesis of Mary Shelley’s captivating and timely narrative about Victor Frankenstein’s creation of the “monster” was an eerie discussion of a ghost story competition, our highly interdisciplinary celebration of the Frankenstein story and its modern implications began, in all places, during a job interview.  From there, largely through Dr. Harris’ efforts, we have engaged almost all of the departments in the College of the Humanities and the Arts.   Our programming includes panels on the “Deep Humanities” and AI (Artificial Intelligence) with philosophers, literary critics, and scientists.  We are engaging dance in today’s talk, presenting a musical performance of “Frankenstein” in the Fall, broadcasting a Frankenstein radio play on Halloween, and screening both versions of the National Live Theatre Frankenstein performance in October (with Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller – lovingly referred to as “Victorbatch” and “Creaturebatch” by fans).  In addition, we will be sponsoring Frankenstein film nights and poster sessions, most of these events organized by our English 10 “Great Works of Literature” students.  The collaboration across departments, colleges, and universities is one of the most exciting aspects of the events we are kicking off today.

Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus is a powerful story about creation, science, power, and responsibility that underscores how important the arts and humanities are in and for the highly innovative Silicon Valley.  As artists, readers, and thinkers, we explore the boundaries of humanity and ask profound questions about the implications of our actions:  these are the very questions that Victor Frankenstein did not ask when he discovered how to create life, and then pursued a path that would lead to destruction.  At this moment in time, as new discoveries in artificial intelligence, biotechnology, big data, even driverless cars, surround us, Mary Shelley’s novel serves as an important reminder of what can happen when one’s “creation” moves outside of one’s control.

image of zuckerberg and frankenstein creature

This image of Mark Zuckerberg standing over the “monster” he has created – a “Frankenstein” Facebook that he no longer knows how to control – highlights the juncture at which we still find ourselves, 200 years after Mary Shelley painted a complex portrait of how responsibility must be embedded within the act of innovation.  This cover art from The Week follows in the popularized vision of the Frankenstein monster, one with frequently diverges from the philosophical depth of Shelley’s novel.  But some of the most important elements are still embedded here.  Victor Frankenstein, hoping to create a race of creatures over which he would have significant control, is terrified when he sees his creation.  He immediately flees, abandoning his creature to make its way in the world with no support, no education, and no moral training.  It is this level of responsibility in the face of technological innovation that a writer like Mary Shelley understood, and that we as humanists and artists continue to explore and explain.

I’m delighted to welcome everyone today, and I hope you will find multiple ways into  our diverse programming to engage the fundamental relationship between responsibility and creation, of importance to us now as perhaps at no other time in history.

sjsu logo

See also Expressions introductory article by Simon Tran (March 2018): “SJSU Celebrates Frankenstein‘s 200

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