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Concealed Circuits: Frankenstein's Monster, the Medusa and the Cyborg

Jay Clayton

Raritan: A Quarterly Review, 15:4 (Spring 1996), 53-69

The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk
-- G. W. F. Hegel
{53} In Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, a techno-thriller set in the permanent twilight of Los Angeles in 2019, an owl perches in the main offices of the Tyrell Corporation, creators of the cyborgs that have set the story in motion. In a nice visual allusion, this owl takes flight through the penthouse suite, passing in front of a wall of plate glass windows, behind which a brilliant orange sun is setting. Since its first release in 1982, Blade Runner has been taken by critics as a vision of a particular historical epoch, the period many people today are calling postmodernism. Its portrait of ecological disaster and urban overcrowding, of a visual and aural landscape saturated with advertising, of a polyglot population immersed in a Babel of competing cultures, of decadence and homelessness, of technological achievement and social decay, has appeared to many people as prescient. By bringing Mary Shelley's story of the creation of an artificial human into the era of genetic engineering and new reproductive technologies, the film succeeded in crystallizing some of the fears, uncertainties, and desire that surround the coming of the postmodern. Curiously, this updated story is a better replication of the original than any of the adaptations that gesture toward the period of the novel, including Kenneth Branagh's recent version, which pledges fidelity in its very title, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

Blade Runner conveys the advent of a new age by the paradoxical means of marking its end. The flight of the owl is one of many apocalyptic touches that define for the viewer the limits of a period, the far end of an epoch just now getting underway. Hegel's words from my {54} epigraph refer to the wisdom that comes only with hindsight, the retrospective understanding available at the end of an epoch. But the film's use of the owl is not exhausted by this insight. There is something more in the image, something that unsettles this venerable sign of closure. One can identify the extra feature in a number of ways -- as irony, parody, self-reflexivity, the simulacrum -- and each of these labels invokes a familiar conception of postmodern art. Like other contemporary texts, the film relies upon a gesture that it simultaneously dismantles.

Before indicating how the film pulls off this trick, I want to say that my purpose is not to catalogue the deconstructive strategies of postmodernism. That task, useful as it once was, has been performed often enough. My purpose, rather, is to look at the relation of postmodern theory to the history that makes it possible. I shall argue that postmodern theory is enabled by the exclusion of one set of historical connections and reliance on another, very different set of historical links. The circuits that make this theoretical creature go, so to speak, are not the only circuits etched in the recent past.

The owl has spread its wings, though. What has the power to deconstruct so evocative an image? A monster, of course. But at first the viewer is unaware that a monster has entered the scene. As the bird settles serenely back onto another perch, a handsomely dressed woman strides into the room, introducing herself with a question: "Do you like our owl?" Dekard, a police officer played by Harrison Ford, has come to Tyrell to examine one of its new generation of cyborgs. "It's artificial?" he replies. Still advancing, the woman answers, "Of course it is." The camera lingers on her face, forging a link between owl and woman. The implication that both are equally artificial flickers to consciousness before being submerged in a more powerfully sexual suggestion -- that both are property, objects to be bought and sold. "Must be expensive," Dekard comments, the innuendo audible in his voice. The camera remains focused on the woman's face. "Very," she replies, then adds, as if to underline the association, "I'm Rachel."

The image of the owl is destabilized in at least three ways -- as artificial creature, as commodity, and as woman -- which in the film's {55} terms turn out to be the same way, as monster. These three complications are significant because they represent places where postmodern discourse reveals its affiliations, establishes its links to a particular version of the past by writing the history of its break with that past. Artificial life, commodification, and gender are some of the principal contact points, where lines of force intersect and where energy is relayed from one system to another. They are places, in other words, where the transfer from modernity to postmodernity is accomplished. Book after book explores one or more of these contact points to demonstrate postmodernism's break with a stable conception of identity, say, or with the universality of reason. Such highly charged nodes, however, can have multiple effects. They can also be places where wires cross, short-circuiting the system, interrupting the standard flow of current.

I became interested in this possibility when I noticed how predictably the same historical pattern was traced in works on the postmodern. In keeping with the logic of "post-," definitions of postmodernism usually construct an account of what preceded it. This history has three crucial stages, and one glaring gap. The first stage is the Enlightenment, which is seen as the source of the philosophical and political projects of modernity, the origin of its faith in reason, individualism, and science. The second stage comes some hundred and fifty years later, in the early decades of the twentieth century, when the Enlightenment project is seen as culminating in the technocratic rationality and bureaucracy of modern life. The third stage is still evolving, but it is variously identified with the coming of advanced capitalism, a postindustrial society, or an information age. What is missing from this neat historical scheme, of course, is the entire nineteenth century, and particularly, Romanticism. Postmodern theorists invariably ignore the many complex relationships between nineteenth-century culture and the contemporary world. It is as if Romanticism could have no conceivable link with the present, as if the circuit that led from the Enlightenment, to the high modern era, to postmodernity would be disrupted by any mention of the Romantic movement.

There are connections, however, junctures that form a concealed {56} circuit within the walls of the vast structure of postmodern discourse. Romanticism and postmodernism share the distinction of being the two most significant counter-Enlightenment discourses the West has produced. Indeed, they represent the West's only sustained internal oppositions to the Enlightenment project of modernity. Romanticism's challenge came at the beginnings of that project, while postmodernism's challenge arises at the other end, when some believe that the project has run its course; but the two discourses are united not only in many aspects of their critiques but also in some of the utopian alternatives they propose. Think, for a moment, of the similarity between Romantic and postmodern perspectives on reason, technology, and the environment. If these parallel allegiances have not prompted theorists to consider the relationship between the two periods -- not even to chart their differences -- then perhaps one should ask: What work is performed by this absence, what difficulties are evaded? One preliminary answer is clear: by ignoring the Romantic critique of the Enlightenment (wiring around the nineteenth century as it were), postmodernism conceals its own possible affinities with Romanticism. But like all repressed knowledge, this problem comes back to haunt contemporary theorists. Romanticism looms as a dark presence within postmodernism, something like its cultural unconscious.

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To move beyond this preliminary answer, let me introduce some observations on history made in 1975 by Hélène Cixous. In "The Laugh of the Medusa," Cixous speculates that the introduction of woman as a category in history always unsettles conventional schemes, depriving scholars of what she calls the "conceptual orthopedics" of periods or epochs: "Because she arrives, vibrant, over and again, we are at the beginning of a new history, or rather of a process of becoming in which several histories intersect with one another. As subject for history, woman always occurs simultaneously in several places. Woman un-thinks the unifying, regulating history that homogenizes and channels forces, herding contradictions into a single battlefield."

{57} Twenty years after its publication, this essay seems very much of its period. Its invocation of a "universal woman subject," for example, seems at odds with today's emphasis on hybrid subjectivities, constructed by the particulars of race, sex, class, and nationality, to name just the most frequently invoked categories. But considering Cixous's essay as a production of the seventies helps one to see not only how it aided in the emergence of postmodernism but, more surprisingly, ways in which it mirrors positions found in the nineteenth century. Interestingly, Cixous's essay manages to make contact with all three nodes mentioned above. Cixous could be describing Rachel, the figure who arrives to open up the possibility of new histories, at the very moment when the owl in flight had symbolized the closure of an epoch. Rachel "occurs simultaneously in several places," incarnating both Minerva's austere intellect and the horror of a monster like Medusa. Cixous could also be describing the effect of the film's great precursor, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Shelley's novel, which has become a much discussed work in recent years, seems to many of its best readers to inaugurate new histories, new ways of thinking -- or un-thinking -- historical schemes, including, I would add, the scheme that lies behind current understandings of postmodernism.

One of the oddest things about this odd and compelling novel is that it simultaneously adopts both anti-Enlightenment and anti-Romantic positions. Take the novel's critique of science, perhaps its most enduring legacy. Frankenstein and his monster have become almost obligatory references in any attempt to challenge the technological pride of the modern era. The nuances of this critique, however, are still not widely appreciated. No unthinking opponent of science, Shelley was the inheritor of many of the attitudes of her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, including her Enlightenment beliefs in progress, the virtue of education, and the rationality of women. These positive views are visible in Frankenstein, particularly in the first edition of 1818, alongside the indictments of scientific overreaching. Her portrait of the ideal man of science -- Victor Frankenstein's admired professor Waldman -- is sympathetically drawn: it combines an aversion to pedantry, dogmatism, and "petty experimentalis[m]" [1.2.7] with frankness, {58} good nature, and a commitment to a well-rounded, liberal approach to learning. In two passages that were cut from the novel in its 1831 version, which is the version most readers, know, Victor's father teaches him the properties of electricity, by imitating Benjamin Franklin's experiment with a kite, and Victor himself works hard to acquire the main scholarly languages of the age and to master practical scientific advances such as distillation, the steam engine, and the air pump. As Anne K. Mellor has shown, Shelley distinguishes between "good" and "bad" science, the former epitomized by what she saw as Erasmus Darwin's respect for nature, the latter by Humphry Davy, Luigi Galvani, and Adam Walker's interventionist approaches.

Still, despite these qualifications, most readers come away from the book with an overwhelming impression of the dangers of scientific hubris. Particularly in the first edition of 1818, the cautionary tale zeros in on the consequences of too zealous an investment in Enlightenment science. Frankenstein's warning to Walton, for example, imitates the balanced cadences of an eighteenth-century moralist: "Learn from me; if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow" [1.3.4].

The novel's measured critique of Enlightenment science is often assimilated to its more flamboyant denunciations of the Romantic ego because both surface in the chapters describing Frankenstein's creation of the monster. These two dimensions of the book, however should be kept distinct. The difference, which was present in the original version, is underscored by the 1831 revisions. To the later text Shelley added numerous passages that emphasize Frankenstein's "fervent longing to penetrate the secrets of nature" [1.1.7], to rend the veil of this world with a willful and distinctively masculine violence. The purpose of these passages is not to amplify the critique of science but to lay bare the dangers of the Romantic will. The balanced cadences of her earlier criticism have vanished in this typical addition: "So much has been done, exclaimed the soul of Frankenstein -- more, far more, will I achieve: treading in the steps already marked, I will pioneer a new way, {59} explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation" [1.2.7]. In these additions, one finds Romantic motifs of madness and guilt, impenetrable mysteries, the tumult of the internal being and the swelling heart, clearly marked as evidence of Frankenstein's sublime (and hence terrible) error.

By distinguishing these two strands of the text, one is able to see Shelley's unusual historical position. Unlike most of her prominent male contemporaries, she did not phrase her objections to Enlightenment science in Romantic terms. At the same time, she did not use her resistance to aspects of Romanticism as an excuse for a conservative return to prior values, the path chosen by some of the most popular female writers of the time. Shelley's position in relation to the principal intellectual currents of her era is so distinctive that existing categories fail to encompass it. Most critics have resorted to definition by negatives, just as I have in the preceding paragraphs: she is neither one thing nor another, conforms to neither this trend nor that movement. Consequently, one frequently hears of her "resistance," her "subversion," or her "ambivalence." Such a marginalized position is highly prized in the contemporary intellectual climate, and it is the ground on which Shelley's novel has entered the university curriculum. But accounts of subversion, like definition by negatives, always locate a work in relation to a dominant tradition. Despite the intent to undermine, the work is still dependent on what it would challenge. More important, this strategy conforms to the critical predilections of postmodernism, the very discourse under question.

One can see this strategy deployed at the end of an essay that has had immense influence on postmodern thought, Jacques Derrida's "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences" (1966). Faced with the impossibility of describing the unnameable in positive terms, Derrida chooses a significant figure to fill the void, that of a monster. Writing of the beginning, as he took it to be, of a new kind of inquiry, he includes himself among those who "turn their eyes away when faced by the as yet unnamable which is proclaiming itself and which can do so, as is necessary whenever a birth is in the offing, only under the species of the nonspecies, in the formless, mute, infant, and {60} terrifying form of monstrosity." According to Derrida, one has no choice but to turn aside, to look at something else when confronted with the unknown. His gesture of turning away his eyes is the customary response to monstrosity -- lifesaving, in most versions of the story, if the monster is Medusa -- but it helps to establish the discourse of the unnameable as the only available language of postmodernism.

Is Shelley's novel doomed to enter history only under the species of the nonspecies, a formless, mute, infant, and terrifying form? Certainly that has been the burden of much contemporary criticism, which presupposes that it can account for the terror of a work that cannot speak within the discursive norms of its period only by deeming it subversive. But perhaps there is a different way of encountering the unnameable, a way of approaching with one's eyes open, as it were. The challenge is to find positive ways of describing the position of a work like Frankenstein. For all its deconstructive intent, postmodernism's method of dealing with the unknown ends up positing it as the other of a single, unified history, a history it then designates as modernity. If several histories intersect in Shelley's novel, then the more radical approach would be to acknowledge the positive character of those histories, to specify where they come together, how they contradict one another, and why they construct one monstrous creature rather than another. This approach does not mean reconciling the various, partial accounts of the past, for that would be only another way of constructing a universal history. Still less does it mean turning a once marginal tradition into a new center, a counterhistory that is valued because of its opposition to the of official heritage. (This latter gesture, to the extent that it locates the critic in Satan's party, inadvertently signals postmodernism's affinity with Romanticism.) What this approach does call for is a recognition that every history has its limits. Although these limits necessarily circumscribe inquiry, preventing certain kinds of insights, they also make other kinds of insights possible. They become a contingent foundation for knowledge. The intersection of these limits -- the contact points of different histories -- may create something unnameable, but that does not mean one must look away.


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The advantages of specifying the positive character of different histories become apparent when one compares works that have been considered marginal to their respective periods. To pursue the example at hand, there are many points of contact between Shelley's novel and Cixous's essay, and juxtaposing the two can serve as a first step in establishing alternative traditions for the present. Obviously, both works focus on a monster. In addition, both treat the topic of looking, which Derrida brought up in a figurative way, with disturbing literalness. Etymologically, monster is derived from the Latin, monstrare," to show," and most monstrous beings represent something horrible to behold. Although the monster in Shelley's novel is hideous to look at, Frankenstein himself feels more keenly the horror of the creature looking at him. In this respect, Shelley reverses the terms of monstrosity. Frankenstein cannot bear to see the eyes of his creation watching him. Indeed, the eyes themselves seem to be the most horrid organs the creature possesses. From the first moment that Frankenstein sees "the dull yellow eye of the creature open," he is repelled by this feature, by the "watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun white sockets in which they were set" [1.4.1]. That night, when the monster visits Frankenstein's bed, what disturbs him most is the fact that the creature's "eyes, if eyes they may be called, were fixed on me" [1.4.1]. Ultimately, Frankenstein has visions of disembodied eyes watching him wherever he goes: "I saw around me nothing but a dense and frightful darkness, penetrated by no light but the glimmer of two eyes that glared upon me" [3.4.10].

Mary Shelley's image of disembodied eyes plays on a similar image in her husband's poem of 1816, "Alastor." When the figure of the Poet in "Alastor" dreams of "two eyes, / Two starry eyes, hung in the gloom of thought" [lines 489-490], they are anything but dull, yellow, and watery; these "serene and azure" [line 491] orbs lure the Poet to his death because of their ideal beauty. The dynamics are clear: the danger of the eyes in Percy Shelley's poem lies not in their power to glare down at the Poet but in their tantalizing status as objects to be seen. Mary Shelley {62} inverts these dynamics, allowing the monster to possess the power of sight, but this inversion clearly does not return the theme of vision to the provenance of Enlightenment lucidity.

One can amplify this contrast by comparing Mary Shelley's view of monstrosity with her husband's seldom discussed poem about Medusa. Unpublished during his lifetime, "On the Medusa of Leonardo da Vinci in the Florentine Gallery" was assembled from manuscripts by Mary Shelley in her edition of her husband's Posthumous Poems (1824). In this powerful fragment, which describes a painting of Medusa's severed head mistakenly attributed to Leonardo, Percy Shelley complicates the dynamics sketched above. Although the poem focuses on "the beauty and the terror" of Medusa's head, its opening and closing lines stress Medusa's own power of sight, stubbornly persistent even in death. "It lieth, gazing on the midnight sky," the poem begins, and five stanzas later, is still insisting: "A woman's countenance, with serpent-locks, / Gazing in death on Heaven from those wet rocks." The poem is more sympathetic to Medusa than most accounts prior to Cixous's. As W. J. T. Mitchell has observed, Percy Shelley transforms Medusa into a symbol of revolution, "a victim of tyranny whose weakness, disfiguration, and monstrous mutilation become in themselves a kind of revolutionary power." Since the image of Medusa was widely employed by conservatives in popular representations of the Terror during the French Revolution, one understands why a political radical such as Percy Shelley would be tempted to depict her in positive terms. The poet also finds warrant for this association in the prehistory of Medusa, for the Gorgon was originally a beautiful maiden, raped by Neptune in the temple of Minerva, then turned into a monster by the goddess of wisdom as punishment for the "crime" of being raped.

In addition to these associations, the poem appears to have had a relationship to Frankenstein which has not previously been noted. Written in 1819, the year after Frankenstein was published, the work's revolutionary subtext resembles what Percy Shelley himself, in an essay entitled "On 'Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus'" (1818), called the "direct moral" of his wife's book: "Let one being be {63} selected, for whatever cause, as the refuse of his kind . . . and you impose upon him the irresistible obligations -- malevolence and selfishness." Percy Shelley's portrait of Medusa appears to comment on his wife's vision of monstrosity, particularly in the final stanza, which Mary Shelley omitted from her edition, where Medusa is called "an uncreated creature." One wonders if Mary Shelley was prompted to leave this stanza out because of her consciousness of its bearing on her novel. Certainly the poet's conception of the "everlasting beauty" of a face where "Death has met life, but there is life in death" romanticizes the spectacle of a dismembered female body as nothing in Mary Shelley's novel did.

Like Mary Shelley, Cixous unsettles the relationship between monstrosity and vision. Cixous challenges men to gaze directly at the monster they fear, thus mocking the familiar Freudian reading, which sees Medusa as representing men's fear of castration: "Too bad for them if they fall apart upon discovering that women aren't men, or that the mother doesn't have one. But isn't this fear convenient for them? Wouldn't the worst be, isn't the worst, in truth, that women aren't castrated . . . ? You only have to look at the Medusa straight on to see her. And she's not deadly. She's beautiful and she's laughing." This requirement -- to look at the Medusa straight on -- is naturally premised on one's having sight. But the possession of sight is the very thing at stake in the myth. One may remember that the Medusa story has an earlier chapter in which Perseus goes to the cave of the Graiae, three sisters who share a single eye, hoping to learn from them the secret of how to defeat Medusa. Perseus forces the sisters to betray the secret by stealing their eyeball when one sister takes it out of the socket to hand it on to another. Cixous switches the ownership of vision, much as Mary Shelley does, by advising all monsters to keep their eyes on the heroes who come to murder them: "Look at the trembling Perseus moving backward toward us. . . . What lovely backs! Not another minute to lose. Let's get out of here."

A scene in Blade Runner vividly captures the interplay of vulnerability and power evoked by the possession of eyes. Two of the escaped cyborgs, who are trying to locate their creator, stop at a genetic engi- {64} neering outlet called "Eye World." While Roy, the leader of the cyborgs (played by Rutger Hauer), questions the genetic technician, the other cyborg picks up two exceedingly watery and yellow eyeballs, and delicately places one on each of the technician's shoulders. The terrified worker, an Asian-American caught in an economy of specialization that prevents him from knowing the answers the cyborgs seek, tells Roy that he made his eyes. "If only you could see what I have seen with your eyes," Roy answers, amplifying a prominent motif in the movie: the monster sees. This episode raises questions about racial stereotypes, postindustrial outsourcing of parts -- here, body parts -- intertextuality, and more. Other scenes associate a female cyborg, who is working as a snake dancer, with Medusa, and the opening credits superimpose the reflection of disembodied eyes on an aerial view of Los Angeles at night. But I bring up Blade Runner again primarily to underscore the concern with sight in this collocation of stories.

Monsters who stare back at their would-be murderers, horrific sights with the power of seeing. What does one make of such disturbing phenomena? Cixous makes laughter, and so, at one point, does Shelley. In the final chapter of the novel, Frankenstein swears an awful oath, promising to pursue the monster who has caused him so much anguish until one or the other of them perishes. This bit of Byronic posturing is greeted by an eerie sound: "I was answered through the stillness of night by a loud and fiendish laugh. It rung on my ears long and heavily; the mountains re-echoed it, and I felt as if all hell surrounded me with mockery and laughter" [3.7.2].

The current flows strong between Frankenstein's monster and Cixous's Medusa. Their laughter crackles along a circuit that has been long concealed. To test the capacity of this circuit, let me bring in a final monster, one still closer to our own day, Donna Haraway's cyborg.

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Published in 1985, Haraway's "A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century" was immediately recognized in feminist circles as a disturbing challenge to some aspects of liberal, materialist, and French feminist {65} thought. Reprinted a number of times, the focus of symposia, translated, and widely quoted, it bore a message that was virtually unique at the time. It argued that women should embrace the monstrous identity of the cyborg as an ironic political strategy for dislodging traditional images of the feminine. Making this gesture would require a willingness to explore one's complicity with technology, one's implication in the "integrated circuit" of the contemporary world. It would also mean acknowledging the fragmented, partial, constructed nature not only of one's identity but also of one's very body.

Haraway's essay makes contact with Frankenstein at a number of places. Both works focus on monsters because, as Haraway puts it, monsters define "the limits of community in Western imaginations." Both are profoundly concerned with "taking responsibility for the social relations of science and technology." Both play on the relationship between female writing and the creation of monstrous beings. And both have developed into "ironic political myth[s]." These points of contact help one see relations between the two monsters themselves. Both Shelley's creature and Haraway's cyborg are deeply embodied beings. In the wake of science fiction's appropriation of the Frankenstein myth, one sometimes forgets that Shelley's creation was not a robot. As Chris Baldick puts it, the original monster "has no mechanical characteristics." With the cyborg, the Frankenstein myth comes full circle. By dissolving the boundary between the human and the artificial, the cyborg eliminates the mechanical dimension once again. With the advent of genetic engineering and cybernetic technologies, notions of artificiality have changed; the monster is no robot but a flesh-and-blood construction like ourselves. Indeed, as Haraway contends, most people in the West today are cyborgs. They have internalized technology so completely that their identities have been transformed.

I can illustrate this point by moving from Haraway's utopian speculations to the mundane level of everyday existence. Think of how one's character has been reshaped by the total integration of technology with the body. Many people would be different beings without the glasses or contact lenses that let them see. How would one's self-con- {66} ception and behavior be changed without the availability of contraception (one form of which can be permanently implanted in women's bodies)? What about mood-altering drugs such as Prozac or body-altering drugs such as steroids and estrogen? For that matter, what about the far older technology of vaccination? In terms of more interventionist procedures, think of people whose lives have been transformed by pacemakers, prosthetic limbs, sex-change operations, cosmetic surgery, and more. Haraway's vision is not as outlandish as it might at first appear. But she would not want her manifesto domesticated entirely; she needs her monster to remain shocking, for political reasons most of all. And it does remain shocking because of the complicity it establishes between the individual, as a cybernetic system, and the commercial, bureaucratic, and military systems against which the liberal subject has often defined itself.

Before I go on, let me mention a few ways in which Haraway's "Manifesto" appears to differ from its predecessor. To begin with, Haraway explicitly distinguishes her cyborg in one respect: "Unlike the hopes of Frankenstein's monster, the cyborg does not expect its father to save it . . . through the fabrication of a heterosexual mate." This point forms part of Haraway's critique of the Oedipal triangle and of her hope for the disappearance of gender, which will be considered below. It comes back in contact with Frankenstein's monster in the next sentence, though, where Haraway says that the cyborg has nothing to do with the "organic family." A second difference: Haraway's cyborg is no giant, ungainly being like Frankenstein's monster; instead, it is made possible by the miracle of miniaturization. But this change is an outgrowth of alterations in the experience of monstrosity. "Miniaturization has turned out to be about power; small is not so much beautiful as pre-eminently dangerous." Hence the cyborg is not startlingly visible either. Unlike Shelley's monster, the cyborg can disorient because of its occasional invisibility: who knows what technology lies buried inside the body? But, again, this point brings Haraway back to Shelley's position. The ownership of vision becomes all the more important when medical "technologies of visualization" make bodies "newly permeable to both 'visualization' and 'intervention.'"

{67} Although Haraway, like Cixous before her, has many points of contact with Shelley, neither twentieth-century writer particularly resembles the other. In truth, Shelley's monster is closer to Cixous's Medusa and Haraway's cyborg than either of these later conceptions are to one another. For example, whereas Cixous assimilates all women into a universal female subject, Haraway opposes the search for an essential unity and asserts that "There is nothing about being 'female' that naturally binds women." Haraway was among the vanguard of feminists in the eighties who proclaimed the value of alliance rather than identity politics and promoted an interest in partial subjects, in the kinds of agency available in border zones, in the pleasures and possibilities enabled by hybrids like her cyborg. In contrast with another theme in Cixous, Haraway does not want to base her politics on a rhetoric of victimization: "Innocence, and the corollary insistence on victimhood as the only ground for insight, has done enough damage." Finally, whereas Cixous celebrated the attractions of bisexuality, Haraway declares that the "cyborg is a creature in a post-gender world; it has no truck with bisexuality . . . or other seductions to organic wholeness." This last point may be one of the things that has made her work appealing to queer theorists as diverse as Judith Butler, Sandy Stone, and Cathy Griggers.

The fact that Haraway's cyborg is not a direct descendent of Cixous's Medusa points toward the value of attending to the multiple histories that intersect in a writer such as Shelley. The critic should beware of forcing different lines of connection into a monolithic counterhistory, an alternative tradition that mirrors, in its linearity and reliance on the logic of resemblance, the very tradition that omitted them in the first place. Only by tracing the separate connections back to their nineteenth-century precursor can one see the relations among these monsters that haunt the boundaries of the human.

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I began this essay by calling postmodernism a theoretical creature, one with great power on the contemporary scene and with a proportionate ability to provoke terror in some circles. In truth, all periods {68} might justly be compared to artificial lifeforms. They lumber forth, on specified occasions, to serve their maker's ends, and their shapes often reflect the nature of those ends as much as the true diversity of the times they try to epitomize. My point is not that historical writing inevitably fails to reflect reality. That argument, which concerns the fictionality of history, has stimulated a vigorous debate of its own but is not really at stake here. Rather my point is that periods are heuristic constructs. They enable critics to ask a question -- or a range of questions -- about the past, such as "What did the Romantics think about nature?" or "How did Enlightenment thinkers conceive of reason?" Change the people included in the terms Romantic or Enlightenment and you may change not only the answers but even the relevance of the questions themselves. Postmodernism, then, is neither a fiction nor a reality but a conceptual tool. Contesting the term does not mean arguing about its validity as a description of the world; it means debating the term's usefulness for asking the kinds of questions one wants answered.

Alternative traditions are subject to exactly the same conditions. The truth or falsity of their perspective is not the only issue that needs assessing. Sometimes counterhistories are said to be "corrective," and, without doubt, the discovery of neglected writers and overlooked positions has remedied one-sided, even discriminatory, views of the past. Ultimately, though, the notion of correcting history, supplementing the record in the hopes of providing a more adequate account, reaches a limit. First of all, the historical record is not infinitely expandable. As with the canon, there is a limit to how much material one can realistically add. History involves making choices; a truly comprehensive model would consume more space than the world it tried to describe. Second, the corrective approach reproduces assumptions about the unity of experience across race, class, and gender lines, which postmodernists, at least, would generally reject. Finally, the limit encountered by the corrective approach is that of difference itself, of genuinely incommensurable attitudes. At this limit, one must acknowledge the inadequacy of one's conceptual tools and look around for other terms. If postmodernism must repress its connections with {69} Romanticism in order to clear a space for its own conception -- if, at the same time, it fails to account for connections between a nineteenth-century writer such as Mary Shelley and contemporary writers with good claims to be considered postmodern -- then it may be necessary to develop new ways to think about the present. But there is no reason to throw out the good with the bad. Postmodernism may remain a perfectly useful way of focusing attention on some contemporary problems, even if it obscures other, equally important, questions. As Dekard says about cyborgs: artificial creations are "either a benefit or a hazard. If they're a benefit, it's not my problem."

The owl takes wing at twilight. Hegel, a great theorist of historical periodization, was probably not thinking of Minerva's ancient enmity to Medusa when he wrote the aphorism with which I began this essay. There is an irony, however, in the fact that all three writers pit their monsters against Minerva. They continue a struggle between wisdom and what wisdom once found it necessary to shut out. If one conceives of this struggle at least in part as a conflict between the closed circuit traced by history and the monstrosity of what remains outside that circuit, then one can see why connecting these writers represents a challenge to postmodernism. For postmodernism has often cast itself as one of the monsters too. Imagine the horror of discovering that postmodernism has been on the side of Minerva all along.