Michael P. Krienitz

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The Reproductive Aura of Frankenstein
“ The modern sensibility finds its eternal youth in mass carnage.”
-Walter Benjamin

Karl Marx’s theory on Alienated labor will be the backdrop for this discussion on Walter Benjamin and his views regarding Mechanical Reproduction. Marx’s idea of Alienated Labor is tightly woven with his views on social status and class struggle. During an age of industrialization and imperialism, Marx tried to show how machines and industry were taking over the modes of production, replacing that of the common man, and in turn, the common man – the proletariat – became more and more distanced from his production. That through the machines, which man built, the labor that was accessible by the worker dwindled due to the rise in industry and machinery.

Karl Marx stated in his “Alienated Labor” that “the worker becomes poorer the more wealth he produces and the more his production increases in power in wealth and extent.” That the “worker becomes an even cheaper commodity.” (Marx, 1) Although relating mostly to a social science than a natural or physical science, like that of the discussion I will ultimately refer to in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the seed that Marx planted is where Walter Benjamin takes off in his discourse on “The Work of Art in the Mechanical Age of Reproduction.”

Benjamin treats the creation of art the same way that Marx takes up his point on Alienated Labor. Benjamin, however, relates to some of the same ideas in that he saw industrialization as a threat to the “aura” that art creates. Benjamin’s “aura” seems to be a fuzzy description of a number of different intangibles that are created by a piece of art: “If you follow with your eyes a mountain range on the horizon or a branch which casts its shadow over you, you experience the aura of those mountains, that branch.” (Benjamin, 1109). Reminiscent of Kant’s “sublime,” an art’s “aura” seems to be an acceptable definition of the originality or uniqueness of an original work of art. In “Mechanical Reproduction” Benjamin appears to fear that through industrialization and its ability to provide mass reproduction that the aura of art itself is in danger of disappearing. When anybody with a computer can buy a print of Picasso’s “Don Quixote” on art.com, the result can lead to a distancing from the feeling one gets when they stand in front of a painting at a museum or when they watch an artist ardently at work in front of whatever their canvas is.

A step further would allow Benjamin’s audience to notice his distaste for mass media and its ability to reproduce, without recourse, the machine world and feed it to its viewers through newspapers, magazines and television. This media interpretation offers a number of different, biased views of the world that the audience is forced to sit and watch. Literally, the “natural” has become as distant to the masses because of these media influences as the “mechanical” has become more and more present in its acceptance as a cultural and artistic norm. A camera takes pictures of an arbitrary scene, but this scene is subject to the bias of the camera whereas, conversely, the intimate perception of the scene by the naked eye of a human presents the “exhibition” value of a piece of art. With the onslaught of mechanically driven art, the intricacies of “aura” are lost and the reproduction and growing popularity of such “distractions,” as Benjamin would put it, grow more and more. Benjamin goes on to compare art and its mechanical demise, saying that, “This is at bottom the same ancient lament that the masses seek distraction whereas art demands concentration from the spectator.” (Benjamin, 1120).

In a comparative analysis to the text of Mary W. Shelley’s Frankenstein, one can view the production of the monster in the early chapters of the novel as a reproduction of the “art” of man. The “filthy workshop” that Shelley describes is Victor’s attempt to recreate a natural piece of art - which is represented by human beings - into something that imitates that piece of art – the monster.

Using Benjamin and Marx’s discussions on mechanical reproduction and alienated labor, the monster that is created by Victor Frankenstein becomes more and more of a machine in the eyes of his creator – an imitation, if you will – and less like that of which it is being created after. Numerous times in the novel Victor refers to the monster’s creation as an act of “labor” and talks about the human body parts as “materials.” He even refers to his laboratory as a “filthy workshop” which suggests Victor’s distance from his creation. Although he is trying to create another race of humans, his vernacular in describing the creation of the monster is that of great opinion and bias that the creature is less like a human and more like a machine that is being created through a process that resembles industrialization and mechanical reproduction. Ultimately, when Victor abandons the monster he is showing how easily he can rid himself of the labor that had consumed him for the past 2 years of his life. Victor’s decision to abandon his creation shows the literal distancing that is a representation of the alienated labor principle that Marx suggests; and the way in which Victor talks about his subject relates more to the way in which Benjamin refers to the loss of the “aura” in the age of Mechanical Reproduction.

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