Lunchtime seminar: Russell Smith on vitalism & Frankenstein films

The ghosts of vitalism in contemporary Frankenstein films

Thursday 10 November, 1pm Milgate Room, AD Hope Bldg, SLLL

Vitalism – the notion of a distinct life force – is usually regarded as an obsolete and discredited theory. In 1818, however, vitalism was the official doctrine of the Royal College of Surgeons, and Mary and Percy Shelley’s physician William Lawrence its most controversial materialist opponent. There is evidence to suggest that Victor Frankenstein’s ‘bad science’ is implicitly a product of his vitalist thinking. Drawing on Georges Canguilhem’s account of the persistence of vitalist ideas, and Shane Denson’s account of the Frankenstein film as an ‘anthropotechnical interface’, this paper examines how the ghosts of vitalism haunt contemporary thinking about artificial life, with reference to a range of recent film versions of the Frankenstein story.

Russell Smith lectures in Modernism Literature and Literary Theory in SLLL. He has published widely on Samuel Beckett, including a recently-completed monograph titled Beckett’s Sensibility. His new project, provisionally titled Frankenstein: A Life in Theory, uses Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and its various ‘hideous progeny’ in film and other media as a way of exploring the relations between literary theory, biology, vitalism and materialism.


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