Mark A. McCutcheon, The Medium is the Monster: Canadian Adaptations of Frankenstein and the Discourse of Technology (Athabasca University Press, 2018, 280pp, £91.00)
Reviewed by Brian Matzke (University of Michigan)
The Medium is the Monster claims that Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), rather than simply serving as a convenient metaphor for technology, actively shaped Western discourse around technology’s meanings and implications during the period of industrial capitalism. This discourse of technology, as McCutcheon describes it, emerges through the various adaptations of Frankenstein, and comes into sharp relief under the influence of the Canadian media theorist, Marshall McLuhan. This ambitious argument seeks to make simultaneous interventions in multiple fields, including Gothic, cultural, adaptation and media studies, but with a particular focus on Canadian popular culture.
The first two chapters establish much of the theoretical framework. Chapter one acknowledges the ambiguity of the term ‘technology’ and asserts that ‘Canada is a modern nation-state whose social fabric is deeply interwoven with defining preoccupations with technology, media, and globalization.’ Chapter two engages with adaptation studies and asks, ‘why can’t a broadly scoped theory of adaptation address adaptations that are less extensive, more like memes?’ McCutcheon employs the term ‘Frankenpheme’, which he takes from Timothy Morton, in order to develop such an approach, one that encompasses not only retellings of the story but also allusions and works that adopt Frankenstein’s sensibilities in subtler ways.
The concept of the Frankenpheme does a lot of work to unite the readings in subsequent chapters, beginning with McCutcheon’s examination of the novel’s reception and early stage adaptations in chapter three. McCutcheon asserts that the novel and its adaptations ‘texture and direct’ the development of Anglo-American understandings of technology in the early nineteenth century. The breadth of this claim allows the Frankenpheme to encompass a wide range of texts, some technophilic, some technophobic. This breadth is both a strength and a weakness of the argument. On the one hand, the book offers insightful connections between disparate works that employ the Frankenpheme of technology. On the other hand, this understanding of ‘the discourse of technology’ operates at such a level of generality that the stakes of the argument are sometimes unclear. Chapter three also focuses rather heavily on a nominalist understanding of technology, delving in great detail into the history of the word and its definitions, and given that Shelley’s novel never actually employs the term, this focus seems misplaced.
Chapter four delves into McLuhan’s Frankenpheme of technology. This involves analyses of both McLuhan’s theories and McLuhan himself as a pop culture icon. In McLuhan’s writing, ‘media’ and ‘technology’ are overlapping descriptors that are often used interchangeably – all technologies are in a sense media, and all media are technologies. McLuhan’s approach is Frankenstein-like in its critical approach to technological change and its association of new media with invasion, disease and war. On the other hand, McCutcheon notes, ‘McLuhan’s own rogue academic persona and his “mosaic” of interdisciplinary pursuits exposed him to caricature by the press as a “mad scientist” of media.’ The figure of McLuhan serves as an inflection point for the duality of the Frankenpheme of technology as both disastrous and a source of spectacle, and even play.
This duality is expressed in the works of David Cronenberg and William Gibson, which constitute the focus of chapter five, as well as those of Margaret Atwood, Phyllis Gottlieb and the other Canadian science fiction writers surveyed in chapter six. Films like Videodrome (1983) and novels like Neuromancer (1984) adapt Frankenstein in their visions of new technologies gaining subjectivity independent of (and threatening to) their creators, while also making explicit reference to McLuhan’s work, most notably through Videodrome’s character of Professor Brian O’Blivion, an overt fictionalization of the media theorist.
The mostly 21st-century works surveyed in chapter six operate at some remove from the popularity that McLuhan enjoyed in the second half of the twentieth century, but they nonetheless show his influence. McCutcheon’s reading of Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, for example, highlights how the novels’ Frankenstein-like ecological catastrophe is presented through the ‘mediatized perspective’ of the viewpoint characters, especially Oryx and Crake’s Snowman, who describes his mother as a ‘Polaroid’, Crake as having ‘brains like search engines’ and Oryx as pieced ‘together from the slivers of her he’d gathered and hoarded.’ Viewing people as an assemblage of media fragments is the ultimate McLuhanesque Frankenpheme, and in McCutcheon’s reading, the very idea that genes can be ‘edited’ takes on an uncanny double meaning, turning people into a piece of media technology.
McCutcheon’s identification of those uncanny associations sees its greatest payoff in chapter seven, in which he examines electronic dance music, and particularly the Canadian DJs, the Paladin Project and Deadmau5. By expanding his analysis beyond film and literature, McCutcheon makes his strongest case for considering a Frankenpheme of technology as a general presence in cultural discourse. He provides examples of specific allusions to and adaptations of Frankenstein in dance music, but weaves these examples in with a broader exploration of how its aesthetics are inherently Frankenstein-like, as can be seen in the name ‘Deadmau5’:
That which is named ‘dead’ plays ‘live’ (like the Grateful Dead); the name also connotes ‘mouse’ as computer peripheral, the device that translates the digits into the digital, a McLuhanesque ‘extension’ of the hand. The mouse is a synecdoche for the hand; here, the dead mouse is a synecdoche for the dead hand, a complex evocation at once of the problem of ‘liveness’ in electronic music, of the disembodied yet autonomous hand known as ‘Thing’ from The Addams Family, and of ‘Dead Hand,’ the nickname of the Soviet military computer system programmed to launch nuclear missiles across the northern hemisphere in a war scenario where human command had been wiped out.
This passage exemplifies the book at its best, bringing together a network of associations that collectively represent a post-Frankenstein, post-McLuhan understanding of technology’s cultural significance.
The one association that often seems underdeveloped is the experience of indigenous communities. McCutcheon asserts early in the book that ‘Canadian adaptations of Frankenstein, like Canadian popular culture more generally, invite a postcolonial perspective.’ But the subsequent chapters present that perspective only in passing. This is most glaring in chapter eight, a discussion of the Alberta Tar Sands and the Keystone XL Pipeline. McCutcheon examines Richard Rohmer’s novels, Edward Burtynsky’s photography and James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) as commentaries on Canadian energy policies, but he does not analyze any texts produced by the Inuit and First Nations communities who are most directly affected by those policies. The book’s sixth chapter devotes two paragraphs to discussing the Jamaican-Canadian writer, Nalo Hopkinson, but indigenous voices are otherwise absent from the book, which leads one to wonder why those voices are excluded from the discourse of technology.
If the Frankenpheme of technology is in part about the disastrous consequences of technological change, then certainly Native Canadian writers and activists have been engaging and continue to engage with that Frankenpheme. But in The Medium is the Monster, we only get an indirect sense of that engagement. Just as in Shelley’s novel – where we learn about the ‘hapless fate’ of North America’s original inhabitants, but only through the stories of Felix, the creature, Victor and Walton – in McCutcheon’s study, we get a postcolonial analysis of technology, but only through the stories of Cronenberg, Gibson, Deadmau5 and Cameron.