Saturday, 24 January 2015

Guest Post: Gothic and the Human-Subject

"The House of Frankenstein" (1944)
This post is inspired by the many conferences which I attended last year. I have been playing about with these questions for a while and they have been inspired by discussions regarding post-humanism. In my work on lycanthropic literature, I consider how the character of the werewolf affects our ideas about animal/human relations and how humans Gothicise the natural world. In regards to animals, specifically wolves, much of this stems from a tendency to see animals as object which we can read our fears onto as opposed to subjects in their own right. This has led to me musing on Gothic engagement with the human-subject and trying to understand the never-quite-is of existence.

Trying to pin down the nature of the Gothic is a terrifying undertaking in itself and so for the following discussion I am going to use a relatively broad definition. The Gothic can be considered, as David Punter eloquently suggested during a recent Gothic Study Day at the British Library, 'the bastard child of Enlightenment progress' and therefore I'd argue is a by-product of the Cartesian model of the thinking-human subject. This means that the Gothic is concerned with the construction of the human-subject and concurrently the fear of anything that challenges this version of human identity.

The Gothic is concerned with boundaries. It traverses thresholds, worries dualisisms and challenges divisions. Gothic texts suggest that that which is limimal is also horrific, monstrous or terrifying. Crudely speaking, my brain views Gothic as a series of Venn diagrams whereby opposing categories such as human/ animal, alive/ dead, inside/ outside, nature/ culture, etc, overlap. Where they overlap is the site of pleasure and also pain (which would be another Venn diagram!). Fear feeds on what is at the margins of human identity. Moments of pleasure to be taken in the abjection of self (using Kristeva's model) come from the transgression of such boundaries. The freedom of Gothic is understanding that we are both and neither categories drawing our attention to our freedom of choice and fluidity as a human-subject. This dichotomy of Gothic pleasure/ pain issue, I'd argue is caused by the breaking down of boundaries that allows the human-subject to consider themselves at once object and subject in a manner akin to sado-masochism.
Man or wolf? The protagonist of  "An American Werewolf in London" (1981) undergoes a grim transformation

Now, here's where I want to challenge the idea of the human-subject within the Gothic text. Having briefly considered the notion of being both human-object and human-subject, I want to see what this might mean the absoluteness of considering the human as a subject. Is it possible that the Gothic as a reaction to Descartes 'I think therefore I am' actually displaces the notion of the thinking human-subject itself to an area of liminality? Rather than Gothic horror coming from what is liminal, it might actually come from what the presentation of the liminal is disclosing. Is the horror of Gothic that despite our attempts to define and reify the human-subject we draw attention to the illusory nature of this? To return to the Venn diagram idea, the human subject is then nebulous, floating about outside both the circles and the overlapping area. What is contained in the overlapping area is the human object. A prototype of humanity that is ultimately unlivable, or, to use a Gothic turn of phrase, cannot be brought to life with a spark of electricity. But rather than Frankenstein's physical monster, the human-object is a monstrous mind of ideas that underpin human identity and culture.

The human-subject is so here, so now, now, now, that it is beyond explication. To think of it, to even think, is for the moment to disappear. We are either, in the manner of the Gothic, thinking back to being the human-object of our past, or, thinking forward, in the manner of Science-Fiction, to being the human-object of our future. Memories and dreams are by-products like art, philosophy and the sciences. They cannot be said to prove what the human subject is because they are continually diluted and informed by the concept of the human-object and we view them, like a text, as something to be re-interpreted.

Thus the Gothic misdirects our fears towards a monstrous other on the outskirts of human ideology so that we don't realise that human-subject might be the object that never-quite-is.

If you’d like to contribute, or offer ideas then we’d love to hear from you

Kaja Franck is currently undertaking her PhD on werewolves in literature at the University of Hertfordshire. Her main areas of interest are the Gothic, ecocriticism and animal studies, monsters, and leopard print. She is currently helping to organise the Company of Wolves conference which will take place September 2015. More of her musings and reviews can be found on the Open Graves, Open Minds blog or the Reading the Gothic blog.

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