Frankenstein Redux

Posthuman Monsters in Jeanette Winterson’s Frankissstein



How to Cite

McAvan, E. (2021). Frankenstein Redux: Posthuman Monsters in Jeanette Winterson’s <em>Frankissstein</em>. M/C Journal, 24(5).
Vol. 24 No. 5 (2021): monster
Published 2021-10-05

Jeanette Winterson’s 2019 novel Frankissstein is a contemporary re-reading of Mary Shelley’s classic Gothic text Frankenstein that profoundly challenges ideas of what it means to be human in the present day, by drawing on posthuman ideas about the constitution of the self. In this novel, Winterson portrays various forms of ‘monsters’ such as AI, lifelike sex dolls and transgender embodiment. Drawing on both Frankenstein as a text and the infamous creation story of the novel, Winterson creates a deeply intertextual cast of characters that blurs the following: Ry (Mary Shelley), a transgender doctor, Ron Lord (Lord Byron), the creator of a line of sex bots, and Professor Stein (Frankenstein), a scientist interested in AI and cryopreservation. Framed by vignettes of Shelley’s composition of Frankenstein, these characters draw together a set of highly contemporary desires and anxieties about the relationship between the social and science, the ways in which matter is always articulated through both the discursive and the material, and how, to quote Karen Barad, “what often appears as separate entities (and separate sets of concerns) with sharp edges does not actually entail a relation of absolute exteriority at all” (“Posthumanist Performativity” 803). Winterson implicitly and explicitly explores ideas of the posthuman—for instance, in the novel Stein gives a lecture titled “The Future of Humans in a Post-Human World” (74)—and suggests that the future is one in which “binaries belong to our carbon-based past” (72), in ways both liberating and disturbing. While Stein talks about our posthuman future of overcoming even death with the zeal of an evangelist, Winterson undercuts this celebratory rhetoric by situating these emerging forms of self-making in a lineage of the monstrous—”Frankenstein was a vision of how life might be created—the first non-human intelligence” (27)—that suggests the posthuman itself to be a kind of monstrosity. For Winterson, the contemporary monster is one bound up in technologies of self-making, an ambivalent process of both promise and danger that entangles us with monstrosity: “Frankenstein in the monster ... the monster in Frankenstein” (130).  

Drawing on posthuman theory, I propose that we can read Winterson’s novel as suggesting that modern subjectivity in itself has become defined by hybridity, a mixing between human and non-human elements that problematises many of the boundaries of selfhood that Enlightenment humanism valourised for so long. As Donna Haraway famously said in her “Cyborg Manifesto”:

late Twentieth-century machines have made thoroughly ambiguous the difference between natural and artificial, mind and body, self-developing and externally designed, and many other distinctions that used to apply to organisms and machines. Our machines are disturbingly lively, and we ourselves frighteningly inert. (11)

Against this historical backdrop, Winterson suggests that new forms of being human—or becoming posthuman—are emerging, in which sex, gender and sexuality have become profoundly entangled with various forms of biological and informational technology. “We’re still biology but we’re better biology” says Stein (113), suggesting that the future holds new forms of modifications of the body, including smart implants and the uploading of consciousness to computing systems. In situating transgender treatments, AI and sex-bots in a lineage of the monstrous that begins with Frankenstein, Winterson (as much as posthuman theorists), is interested in the way that new forms of technologies mean that all subjectivity has become monstrous itself.

But what might it mean to be posthuman? Feminist philosopher Rosi Braidotti has suggested that our post-Enlightenment, posthuman era is one in which the category of the human has become problematised. She says, “not all of us can say, with any degree of certainty, that we have always been human, or that we are only that” (1). For Braidotti, women, people of colour and LGBT people have never been accorded fully human status, and as such the rapid technological change that has challenged humanity as a category is to be embraced, if not precisely uncritically. She argues that posthuman subjectivity is notable for the way that it collapses the boundary between nature and culture, and for the interweaving between human and non-human elements in contemporary life.

I want to suggest that one name for those subjects that Braidotti describes that ‘have never have been quite’ human is monster. The figure of the monster deployed by Winterson is one that haunts contemporary ideas of sex, gender, and sexuality. Nikita Mazurov has called the monster a “continuous, unstable project of both disassembly or ex-figuration and of unsanctioned coupling” (262), a posthuman praxis of “hybridity of form” that challenges state-sanctioned productions of the self. The monster challenges ideas of fixity, the metaphysics of presence and essence that created the humanist project. It is, in this sense, abject in the sense that Julia Kristeva famously described, as that which “disturbs identity, system, order [and] does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite” (4). The composition of the monster collapses such foundational binaries as male/female, gay/straight, dead/alive, human/machine, human/animal, black/white, and inside/outside. “The monster is one who lives in transition”, as Paul Preciado says (“Can the Monster Speak” 20).

Monsters have therefore historically done profound cultural work, for as Jack Halberstam has said, “monsters have to be everything the human is not and, in producing the negative of human, these novels make way for the invention of human as white, male, middle class, and heterosexual” (22). As Frankissstein suggests, monstrous others continue to haunt contemporary subjectivity. Winterson suggests the human to be an embattled category—and here we must remember that one of the ways in which humanisation emerges is the easy identification of binary gender, as Judith Butler noted long ago in Bodies That Matter (xiii). Haraway anticipated the mainstreaming of the monster in her metaphor of the cyborg, which was, after all, “monstrous and illegitimate” (15), a post-gender, post-Oedipal figure built from the interaction between flesh and machine, nature and culture. The invention of the human, therefore, has become ever more a precarious thing in a posthuman world.  

Given her interest in gender and sexuality, one of the chief lenses through which Winterson has been read through is queer theory (Moore; Haslett; McAvan). With its portrayal of new forms of gendered and sexual subjectivity, Frankissstein can be productively read against more recent queer and trans theory that take a more posthuman approach to embodiment, rather than that of the linguistically-constructed, Butler-inflected queer theory, which has largely formed the critical context for Winterson’s work on sex and gender. While queer and posthuman theory are not completely coterminous with one another, both arguably take as their starting point a deconstruction of an image of the human which has historically been normatively considered white, male, heterosexual, and cissexual. Taking queer and trans theory into a material turn, Preciado has notably talked about what he calls a “pharmacopornographic” (Testo Junkie, 33) regime, in which globalised post-industrial capitalism runs on the “biomolecular” and “semiotic-technical” (33) industries that produce gendered and sexual subjectivity. Preciado polemically argues that contemporary capitalism is notable for its pervasive regime of pharmaceuticals that modify the body, and pornography that stimulates sexual desire (and here we might add the semiotic regime of sexuality on smartphones, through chat, photos, and dating apps like Tinder and Grindr). Capital, in this regime, has become “sexual capital” (40).

As a result, what is a commonsense cis-normative understanding of transgender subjectivity, which relies upon an economy of medicalised body modification, can be said in Preciado’s analysis to constitute the truth of all subjectivity in the present given the ubiquity of pharmaceutical interventions like the contraceptive pill, Viagra, Prozac, and Ritalin. He says, “you think that you’re cis-females, but you take the Pill; or you think that you’re cis-males, but you take Viagra ... . You, you as well, you are the monster that testosterone is waking up in me” (393). The figure of the monster has been a trope of transgender studies since at least Susan Stryker’s “My Words to Victor Frankenstein above the Village of Chamounix”, which explicitly draws upon Shelley’s Frankenstein as an antecedent for trans subjectivity, suggesting that we see trans bodies as profoundly unnatural, and that as a result, “like the monster, [trans people are] too often perceived as less than fully human due to the means of [their] embodiment” (245). Preciado suggests that the monstrosity popularly imagined to be the unique property of transgender bodies, their partiality and hybridity, is in fact more properly a universal condition of the biopolitical regimes that constitute contemporary life. Almost all of us take pills that modify our bodies and minds, almost all of us construct our sexualities through the semiotic—these non-human elements profoundly interweave with the human in new forms of universal monstrosity.

It is perhaps therefore unsurprising that Winterson would also take up the figure of Frankenstein’s monster in her examination of contemporary forms of posthuman subjectivity. The character of Ry, a transgender doctor, is characterised in the novel as an exemplar of a broader cultural interest in self-making, stating that “it really is my body. I had it made for me” (122). This is a self-making that calls into question the construction of other selves, for as Ry says, “I am part of a small group of transgender medical professionals. Some of us are transhuman enthusiasts too. This isn’t surprising; we feel or have felt that we’re in the wrong body. We can understand the feeling that any-body is the wrong body” (114). As strongly as Preciado, the novel suggests that biomolecular and semiotic-technical regimes constitute all contemporary subjectivity, conditioning what is possible, materially and discursively. Far from being uniquely transgender, the desire to transform the body has become universal.

Halberstam notes that “the monster always represents the disruption of categories, the destruction of boundaries, and the presence of impurities” (27). “I live with doubleness” says Ry (88), who is depicted as both a transgender man and non-binary. Winterson’s rendering of trans subjectivity suggests transgender to be a kind of both/and state, in between or troubling the sex/gender binary. This occurs in broad and occasionally problematic ways, as when Ry describes himself as “fully female [and] also partly male” (97), an idea that has not been universally appreciated by trans readers for whom misgendering has been a critical concern since at least Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl. Winterson’s take on trans identity as being fluid but grounded in assigned sex seems in many ways ill at ease with a contemporary trans politics grounded in a post-transition authenticity.

But what is at stake in Winterson’s depiction of monstrosity is the impurity of the very category of human, the way that it has become interwoven with the bio-medical and semiotic forms of capitalism. It is not simply that Ry disrupts boundaries—though he does do that—, it is that by troubling the sex/gender binary he calls into questions the construction of identity of those around him, too (Stein dubiously says that he is “not gay” despite his desire for Ry). Where Stein’s posthuman rhetoric describes a future in which “we will be able to choose our bodies” (119), this customisation of the self is suggested to already be here for transgender people; “think of yourself as future-early” (119). Ry’s transness is described by Stein as “interven[ing] in your own evolution [being both] the here and now, and a harbinger of the future” (154). The monstrosity of trans corporeality is thus figured as indicative of a general societal movement, confirming Preciado’s ideas of a generalised bio-medical-semiotic posthumanity.

We can see this in another way in Winterson’s depiction of sex bots, which render the landscape of contemporary sexuality in characteristically grotesque ways. The character Ron Lord creates a range of female sex bots from 60s hippy to a bra-less 70s feminist. “All of these girls come in different skin tones: black, brown or white. Plus, you can have a muff on the Vintage model if that’s what you want” (47). Lord suggests that sex bots entail a form of sexuality that is endlessly customisable, that allows people to have sex without baggage or complication: ”a lot of people will be happy to not have any more crap relationships with crap humans” (312). The commodification of sex and becoming-semiotic that Preciado has discussed becomes a way of overcoming the limitations—and indeed ethical responsibility—of human relationships. As Lord puts it, “what we offer is fantasy life, not real life” (46).

That there is something monstrous about this sexuality is clear in the novel. We might think of Lord’s sex bots as monstrous in a number of ways—firstly, as problematising the boundaries between the sexes, secondly, the confluence between machinic and organic, and thirdly, the inability to distinguish between public and private. All of the bots are female, only made for a presumed heterosexual male audience. The bot’s proportions are exaggerated, with a “20-inch waist and 40-inch boobs” (91) while her legs are “slightly longer than they would be if she was human. This is fantasy, not nature, so you can have what you want” (37). Here it is normative heterosexual male desire, not queer or trans embodiment, that troubles the very boundaries of the human. The sex bot’s body exposes, in Judith Butler’s terms, the performativity of sex and gender disconnected from the limits of the corporeal, the intensification of normative expectations of heterosexual femininity in the sex industry beyond the boundaries of human possibility. “Will women be the first casualties of obsolescence in your brave new world?” asks one character (74), in a pointed critique of the very idea of “female” sex bots.

As Preciado notes, in pornography, “sex is performance, which is to say that it is composed of public representations and processes of repetition that are socially and politically regulated” (268). And yet, there is something irreducibly virtual in this regime of “tele-techno-masturbation” (Preciado 266)—for how can a machine be any kind of sex, precisely? How can it have sex? The sex/gender of the “girls in action” is one fraught with the logic of the supplement (recall Derrida, after all, used the term to describe masturbation in Of Grammatology), an addition and replacement, in which the gender and sexuality of the bots is produced through their repetition of norms that are always exceeded and complicated by their performance by a non-human machine.

This becomes apparent in a grotesque scene in which one of the sex bots malfunctions and starts saying things while folded up in a cloakroom like “OPEN MY LEGS, DADDY! WIDER!” (90), for which Lord apologises, and states that the bot is “sexually explicit when she is in Bedroom Mode” (91). Preciado has defined pornography as “sexuality transformed into public representation” (266), when the private becomes public. Lord’s sex bots mark the point in which sexuality has become semiotic, technologised, masturbatory. Preciado talks about “the capture of sex and sexuality by economy, the process by which sex becomes work” (274), a work primarily done by women. While Preciado celebrates this becoming-semiotic of sexuality in an accelerationist fashion, it is clear that Winterson has serious ambivalences about this posthuman turn of sexuality (indeed, her earlier book The Stone Gods (2007) is much more positive about the possibilities of cyborg sexuality). Though the posthuman offers possibilities for new forms of sexuality in Frankissstein just as it has for sex and gender, this brings with it the ever-present spectre of monstrosity, the abject disruption of humanist binaries.

For Winterson, the power of new technologies that re-shape bodies, minds and desires is one that is profoundly fraught. While there is the pleasure of self-determination (as for Ry), and the potential to transcend human limits, there is also the possibility of new forms of de-humanisation. While Winterson’s early work like 1989’s Sexing the Cherry embraced the pleasures of monstrosity (McAvan), Frankissstein is ultimately more ambivalent about it, if resigned to its future. “I feel the like agony of mind of Victor Frankenstein; having created his monster, he cannot uncreate him. Time has no pity. Time cannot unhappen. What is done is done” (128). New forms of biological modification of the body, new forms of virtualised minds and sexuality, Winterson seems to suggest, are likely to proliferate whether we like it or not. “Nothing we do to the body is without consequences”, reflects Ry (310), suggesting that his body will always be at war with his mind. Just as Mary Shelley imagined Victor Frankenstein as a modern Prometheus, stealing fire from the gods, the posthuman attempts to overcome the limits of the human in a monstrous confluence of human and the bio-technical-semiotic. Though she stages this movement in interesting ways, Winterson is ultimately mostly pessimistic about the possible social consequences of the posthuman turn, if understanding of the desires that animate human attempts to reshape the self.

But we need not conclude that posthuman monstrosity is entirely so problematic. Drawing on her work on quantum physics, Karen Barad has written that “matter is not the given, the unchangeable, the bare facts of nature. It is not inanimate, lifeless, eternal. Matter is an imaginative material exploration of non/being, creatively regenerative, an ongoing trans*/formation” (“TransMaterialities,” 411). Perhaps we might find new possibilities in the refiguration of matter, of hybrid forms, of unsanctioned coupling. Winterson has Mary Shelley ponder that “in childbirth there is no me/not me” (12)—a productive challenging of binaries that suggests monstrosity to be the very pre-condition of human life in itself. Perhaps what posthuman monsters expose is that the blurring of binaries happens on every level of matter, that the virtual and material are not as distinct from one another as we would like to think, and that the making and remaking of the self is an inherent part of being human. And that the monsters are not just the ones with bolts in their necks or sex bots or hormone injections in their veins—they are, now and always have been, all of us.  


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———. Frankissstein. Jonathan Cape, 2019.

Author Biography

Emily McAvan, Monash University

Emily McAvan is an Australian cultural critic whose work takes in the intersection between religion and culture. She is the author of Jeanette Winterson and Religion (Bloomsbury 2020) and The Postmodern Sacred (McFarland 2012) as well as numerous journal articles. She teaches at Monash University.