'Making Monsters' symposium discusses 'Frankenstein' in the modern world

If Frankenstein celebrated birthdays, this would be a big one.

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the year Mary Shelley wrote the classic novel, and in 2018 the world will celebrate the bicentennial anniversary of its publication.

ASU is kicking off the festivities early this week with "Making Monsters," a symposium of Institute for Humanities Research fellows who have spent the past year researching the concept of monstrosity as it relates to law, philosophy, science, history, culture and more.

The symposium is a capstone event for the fellows to present their findings and discuss the resulting implications with the community. It will be held this Thursday and Friday in the Social Sciences building.

The event's keynote address will be given on Thursday afternoon by visiting Keele University professor of law Alex Sharpe, titled,"Scary Monsters: The Hopeful Undecidability of David Bowie."

The rest of the symposium begins at 9 a.m. on Friday, and ends with a round table discussion which concludes at 4:15 p.m.

Cora Fox is the associate director of the Institute for Humanities Research and an associate professor of English at ASU. In her work organizing and facilitating the fellowship, she said she's enjoyed seeing all the different ways the classic story continues to influence the modern world.

"'Frankenstein' is about what makes a monster — about the fact that monsters are made and not born," she said. "In science and in our contemporary world, we are very much dealing with the ethical questions about what some people in society label as 'monstrous.'"

Fox said the best part of interdisciplinary connections is that they often lead to new findings, which are usually the highlight of the event.

"The symposium is almost always very exciting, because you can see how it generates new ideas and new visions," she said. "(It creates) new collaborations and connections across different departments."

Humanities associate professor Stephen Toth is one of the fellows in this year's IHR program. He said the ability to have interdisciplinary discussions often not only influences the conversation but the end results of their work.

"Faculty and academics are very often sort of trapped in their silos," Toth said. "Historians write for historians, philosophers write for philosophers, etc. When you share your work with people in other fields, there are things you have to explain that you can't assume they understand. In the process of doing that, you often achieve eureka moments: 'That's actually what I was saying, maybe I should say it that way.' It's been profoundly helpful."

Toth is working on a book about young adolescents who committed murder in late 19th and early 20th Century France. As part of the fellowship he chose to examine why and how society labeled the child killers as "monsters," and what that says about the culture and society of the time.

He said his research was originally intended to be written for historians from an academic perspective, but in his discussion with the other IHR fellows they recommended he write it as more of a popular narrative-history for a wider audience. He said he's starting to come around to the idea.

The Frankenstein Bicentennial Project from Science & the Imagination on Vimeo.

Philosophy professor Joan McGregor said her work in the fellowship was a natural extension of her study alongside fellow professor Rebecca Tsosie. Their work in the fellowship focused on bioethics and "Frankenfood," a term used to describe genetic modification of crops and livestock.

"Is there some wisdom about our relationship with nature that we shouldn't think we can totally refashion nature and create life — is there some boundary there?" she asked. "Technology can get people thinking we can do whatever we want, not recognizing that there are unintended consequences, some of those consequences we can't fix."

McGregor said during the fellowship she's aimed to examine and respect the issue of bioethics. She described her perspective as one of carefulness.

"If anything, I take the path of precaution," she said. "We should go slower and recognize the value in cultural understandings, traditional foods and heritage. (We should) not try to totally reshape the food system through genetic modification. Not that it's harmful, but our moral attitude toward what we're doing isn't appropriate. We're so full of ourselves that we think we know things we may not actually know."

This week's symposium is one of many events ASU is hosting as part of the Frankenstein Bicentennial Project. Celebrations and studies of the text began in 2014 and will continue to build as the publication anniversary nears.

Ruth Wylie is the assistant director of the Center for Science and the Imagination and an assistant research professor in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. She has worked extensively with the bicentennial reflection project, and she will be speaking at the symposium about why the story is still worth discussing today.

"I think ('Frankenstein') is worth talking about frankly because we are still talking about it," she said. "It's a 200-year-old novel, but it's still very popular in pop culture ... There are a lot of different interpretations and lessons that can be learned. We're using the story as a way to engage in serious conversations but in a playful, engaging manner."

For more information on the symposium, check out its event page. For more information on the bicentennial project, check out its website.

Related links:

ASU scholars bring Frankenstein back to life

'I, Frankenstein' writer/director and producer talk comics, film adaptations

Reach the reporter at skylar.mason@asu.edu or follow @skylarmason42 on Twitter.

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