Recently, I read Therí A. Pickens‘ pieces about Kanye West’s “Monster” and it inspired my own thoughts on “Monster” from the view of Frankenstein, which led me to listen to songs from Parliament’s The Clones of Dr. Funkenstein. I wondered how all of these strands of ideas fit together.
These stories reveal the fear that we as humans have not only of the other, but the fear of our own creations and further the fear of our own selves as creations. For creation, and by association knowledge and technology, is ambiguous in that it is both constructive and destructive to our lives. Creators can be seen as both heroes and rebels, both creators and creations. But its how we confront that which makes the difference.
The story of Frankenstein was originally called The Modern Prometheus. Prometheus in Greek mythology is known as a trickster god who is credited with creating humans and bringing them fire, the spark of life. As a trickster god, Prometheus deviated from the norm by rebelling against Zeus and through creation of a hybrid creature who is part god (breath, fire, knowledge or spirit of god) and part human (made from physical matter, clay or dirt of earth). In Biblical stories, both Adam and Jesus can be considered hybrid figures as well (Jesus as well can be considered technology or a technologist). Other trickster-creators include Isis (she put Osiris back together after Set dismembered him and created a hybrid child, Horus) and Anansi (is sometimes credited with creating sun, moon, stars and agricultural techniques).
In the story of Frankenstein, the story is updated as suggested by both the original title and the reference of John Milton’s Paradise Lost (Adam and Eve tale). Dr, Frankenstein is a scientist (a creator as well) who decides to form a creature from the body parts of dead humans and uses lightning/electricity to animate the body to life. The creature is a hybrid made out of fragments of other beings and is part spirit or knowledge (lightning/electricity) and part physical (made of the bodies in the earth). However, Frankenstein did not create his creature with the full knowledge, consequences and all of its creation, and with the benefit of the creation in mind. He did so more for his own personal benefit, individual glory, misplaced intentions to create a perfect being and possessiveness of his experiment. When he looked upon it, Frankenstein is quick to abandon the creature who seems to embody his own distortion, which ends up tearing him apart.
The ideas from these creation stories fuel some of our contemporary works, including music. Several artists have played with the Frankenstein concept including Parliament’s The Clones of Dr. Funkenstein. Dr. Funkenstein animates his clones (cycles, resurrection, reproduction, “changing same”) with the power of funk or rhythm. He declares himself as “the disco fiend with the monster sound/ the cool ghoul with the bump transplant” in “Dr. Funkenstein.” With the invisible ghostly force of music, Funkenstein joins it with physical dance creating a hybrid situation (“take my body, give it the mind”).
As a creator, Funkenstein is actually proud of his creation (“kiss me on my ego”), unlike Frankenstein, and his cloned creatures love him back. But he has also created them with a purpose — to spread the funk– and they are in his image. In “Children of Production,” the clones speak about the purpose of their design. Essentially, they are the new sciences and technologies that will “blow the cobwebs out of your mind;” in other words destroy the old institutions, establishments, and ways of knowing. Funkenstein is a visionary in creating his clones (“in his wisdom, he forenotioned”), hinting at Prometheus’ name, which means “foresight.” Yet, as in the title of the song, it is a recognition that he himself is a creation and limited in his own creation. Additionally, he managed the unpredictability in creation that Frankenstein doesn’t by accepting the risk that his clones will look “freakish” and they do. Frankenstein tries to overcome the natural, biological urges and happenings with science while Funkenstein acknowledges the two together — mind and body — playing the trickster role.
Yet there is still a fear in new technology because in creating new life, something has to die, maybe even the creator. It explains the Jesus crucifixion because anything new is a threat to the old. Now that can be embraced and nurtured or abandoned, but when it is abandoned, the creations often turn into “monsters.”
Keep in mind creation means all creation — children, technology and social creations. We as creations are the amalgamation of the fragments of all the beings who came before us. We are part living and part dead and part physical and part spirit. That is freakish and the realization of that may scare us. Dr. Frankenstein when he looked up his creation, he became afraid and abandoned him, a tragic choice. There is always danger in creation, but abandoning it may have caused a worse fate for him and his creation.
Returning to Kanye West’s “Monster,” the monster is a projection or reflection of the person who describes the other being as such (listen to James Baldwin’s view on “nigger“). A monster is considered repulsive because they deviate from “normal” human development, whether due to a physical defect or anti-social actions. The Frankenstein “monster” is called a monster, yet his character turns from the former meaning of a monster to the latter on account of others actions toward him. He wanted love and was turned away for how he looked, although he did not ask to be there. Pickens connects the song “Monster” to racial and disability politics and I think they reflect on some of the ideas found in Frankenstein.
We socially create monsters because like Frankenstein, we lack understanding of ourselves and fear our creations coming back to harm us, that we will become them or that they will become more like us. It is in our fears of technology, like androids and robots uprising and surpassing us. Actually, the etymology of the word “robot” is slave, thus connecting to slave insurrections. Enslaved people are treated like machinery (robots) and described as monsters, using physical, social and cultural traits, to justify their enslavement and to absolve the master of responsibility. These beings become terrifying monsters due to creators’ resistance to seeing their reflection in the other. In turn, they are afraid of themselves as the creations they are.
When Kanye raps “I’m living the future so the presence is my past/ my presence is a present/kiss my ass,” he is suggesting that he is a new creation, much like the clones of Dr. Frankenstein. Jay-Z mentions that his Achilles’s heel is love, something that Frankenstein’s creature needed in order to find his place in the world. even Nicki Minaj confronts her own creation (the Black Barbie) and the ambiguity of herself in her verse and in the video. When the creator/self/ego cannot see the other/creation/creature in its own image, or “sacrifice [its] life” for its creation so that it can live again, becoming both creator and creation (multiplicity and deviating from the norm of the old are the tricks of the trickster), the result is the scary monster. Maybe it’s time we see ourselves as the monsters we are.