Reproducing Enlightenment: Paradoxes in the Life of the Body Politic, Literature and Philosophy around 1800

Article excerpt

Diana K. Reese, Reproducing Enlightenment: Paradoxes in the Life of the Body Politic, Literature and Philosophy around 1800. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2009. vü + 183 pp.

1800 broadly marks a significant transition with regard to the concept of the human, emerging from the problematic relationship between the Enlightenment's identity of the body as the "self-evident" object of the self and the contingencies of cultural and historical change, the relationship between being and being-intime. Who or what is the subject of rights and emancipation? The result is an uneasy tension between two bodies: the idealized human one and the particular, contingent, present one. For Diana K. Reese, this problematic at the heart of the Enlightenment project is particularly evident in the category of reproduction, both in the sense of biology and in the sense of cultural transmission: how do subjects seeking rights in an initial state of inequality "inherit" them? How does Enlightenment liberation grow? Drawing on a hint in Adorno and Horkheimer's Dialectic of the Enlightenment, she is concerned with the "reproduction of enlightenment "which she characterizes as "a kind of alien birth" (6) in which the demythologizing project of the Enlightenment reproduces itself as myth. Reese explores this problematic of reproduction in relation to three texts, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein: A Modern Prometheus, Kant's Critique ofJudgment,ana Heinrich von Kleist's Penthesilea, Ein Trauerspie I, the latter of which she juxtaposes with Goethe's Iphigenie aufTauris and with Schiller.

Eschewing the conventional reading of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein in terms of a Faustian quest of knowledge or man becoming god, Reese focuses on the paradoxes of man becoming man. In this she sees Shelley responding to the Enlightenment projects in the form of Rousseau's declaration of the rights of man and to Kant's conception of the moral agent as rational being. Frankenstein's creation, frequently referred to by Shelley as his "daemon," a being that falls between the categories of man and god, challenges what is implied by the term "human" and the ethical claims associated with human rights.The complexities of Shelley's position are most evident when framed in terms of reproduction. The creature is a rational being that is both outside of nature and yet the product of nature. In the problem of reproduction he challenges the usual self-evident notions of humanness. In this literary production, he is unique, yet by virtue of this uniqueness, universal, since he represents the only instance of his species. At the same time, in requesting a mate, he demands the right to reproduce, to form a community of his kind. On one hand, the creature represents the idealized human, an autonomous being claiming liberation, yet on the other a (would-be) citizen, demanding rights. …