10 Nov 2008 5:00pm - 6:30pm CRASSH Seminar Room, 17 Mill Lane


Siv Frøydis Berg (Center for Technology, Innovation and Culture (TIK), University of Oslo)

What makes human life? And what is a human being?

Throughout history, various forms of creations of artificial life have been imagined in literature as well as in science. Such imaginings have been constructed on the background of the metaphysics of early modernity and the alchemist tradition, eighteenth century science and Romantic literature, or the mass productions of the early twentieth century or recent reproductive technologies, such as IVF and cloning. These expressions and imaginations build on and reflect contemporary societies, culture and science, and are prolonged into the thinkable potential of what already exists. These creations challenge the natural/cultural dichotomy, and the artificial creatures both express and investigate the very limits of monstrosity and question what is a human being. The literary descriptions of artificial human beings did not get a “purely” scientific explanation until the first decades of the 19th century, in the works of Mary Shelleys Frankenstein (1818) and in Goethe’s Faust Part II (1832). A hundred years later, Aldous Huxley presented another important variety of artificially created human beings in Brave New World (1932).

In this presentation, I will compare the creations described by Shelley, Goethe and Huxley. They offer three different tales of artificial creations: their human beings are made of three different kinds of materials, and the creations are explained in terms of three different scientific horizons. And all the stories problematize the integrity of the creator, as well as the creatures’ search for an identity.

In Faust Part II, Faust’s former famulus Wagner creates his Homunculus out of “viel hundert Stoffen” with the methods of alchemy (and with possible links to the new science of chemistry). Shelley’s Monster is made of “raw materials” – dead bodyparts from unknown people, and animated by means of the powers described in the new sciences, galvanism and electricity. In Brave New World there is no visible scientist like in the other two stories, and the standardized 

human beings are massproduced from biological material in factories – fertilized eggs in vitro, some of them bokanowskified (an early version of “cloning”).

Wagner wanted to make the general ein Mensch, Frankenstein dreamt of a new species – but in both  these stories, the creatures leave the laboratory to create their own identity.  In Huxley’s world, however, the humans are produced as complete types, both physically and mentally. A broad range of sciences and forms of technologies are involved to control not only the bodies, but also the minds of the inhabitants: biology and psychology. Both Homunculus and the Monster are social and visible “outsiders”, whereas the artificially created people in Brave New World are the normal ones.

Homunculus, the little man in the bottle, is not well known, but he can be read as the doppeltgänger of Faust and Faustian longing, and thus as pure entelechien. The unearthly ugly Monster can be read as the personified Other, longing for participation, or as the first spare part Human. Both forms for longing can be recognized in the uneasiness of the mentally imprisoned caste members in the totalitarian society of Brave New World. 

I will argue that these three forms of artificially created human beings can be read as cultural prototypes. All the three of them have a powerful afterlife in popular culture, in more or less clean and recognizable forms, alone or in combination with other conceptions and ideas about human beings and reproduction.


I graduated from the University of Oslo spring 2000 with a Master’s degree (Cand. Philol) in the History of Ideas. I also have a background in social anthropology and history, with a particular interest in medical history, concepts of health and disease, popular culture and science fiction.

I am currently finishing my Ph.D, which deals with cultural prototypes of artificial human beings, an this work will form the basis for this presentation. The project was partly inspired by my participation in the Life Sciences in European Society-project (LSES), which studied public attitudes towards and knowledge about biotechnology in European countries. One major conclusion of the project was a documented ambivalence towards biotechnology, in terms of fascination and fear. My Ph.D is an attempt to investigate some of the cultural and historical background of this ambivalence.

All welcome. No registration required.

Part of the Cambridge Interdisciplinary Reproduction Forum (CIRF



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