I. What If?
As a man of science, as well as letters, Benjamin Franklin epitomized the fusion of art and science that marked the contemporary discourse of the eighteenth century. His writing was informed by the mechanical universe that was being constructed by Newton, and, when writing essays on science, Franklin brought the skill and aesthetic flair of a wordsmith. Most scholarship on Franklin, though, tends to limit itself either to the study of his art or to his science. A notable exception is Aldridge's work on the literate style of Franklin's scientific writings—some of which, in their dreams of apocalyptic balloon warfare and interstellar travel, read today a lot like science fiction.
Taking inspiration from the interdisciplinary spirit of Aldridge, as well as from the speculative nature of Franklin himself, this paper investigates the fusion of art and science in Franklin's Autobiography by asking: what if we read this text as science fiction? By applying the theoretical framework developed over the last thirty years for the critical study of science fiction, a new understanding of Franklin and his text emerges. In the light of such science fiction concepts as the "novum" and "cognitive estrangement," the previously disembodied and self-effaced Franklin, posited by writers such as Michael Warner, is replaced by an idiosyncratic individual obsessed with the creation and advertisement of his own model world.
II. A Unitary Endeavor
For better or worse, somewhere around the middle of the nineteenth century, "science" and "art" began to go their separate ways. The 1830s saw the term "scientist" first proposed during a series of meetings at the British Association for the Advancement of Science. There, "the lack of a single term to describe 'students of the knowledge of the material world' began to bother the association's members. At some point, an 'ingenious gentleman proposed that, by analogy with artist, they might form scientist'" (Snow, xii). This sense of a scientist, and by implication science as a whole, as somehow related to but ultimately separate from art, expanded over time into a kind of binary. People began seeing art and science as mutually exclusive methodologies for understanding the universe: art being seen as creative and spontaneous, science as rational, logical, and wholly "inimical to aesthetics" (Roberts, 5).
Writing in the eighteenth century, Franklin, as ingenious as he was, could not have foreseen how wide the gap between the cultures of art and science would become over the next two centuries. Indeed, during his time, very little distinction was made between science and the imagination. Scientists wrote poetry, and poets wrote about science. Edmund Halley, mathematician and part-time comet discoverer, wrote a poetic preface to Newton's Principia. Newton himself was said to "demand the muse." One of the most important publications of the eighteenth century was a book by Harry Pemberton, View of Sir Isaac Newton's Philosophy, which laid out Newton's science in prose understandable to the non-philosopher.
Like his contemporaries, Franklin saw the methods of exploring nature, whether literary, scientific, or imaginative, as parts of a unitary endeavor (Scholtkin, 1). Slade notes that Franklin's "1743 charter for the American Philosophical Society . . . gave equal weight to science and literature, as if a fluent pen were the rational extension of a curious mind . . . [and] the terms literary and scientific were interchangeable" (59-60). Though never writing an extended treatment on any particular scientific subject, Franklin wrote and published an abundance of letters and essays concerning his scientific discoveries and speculations. In 1757, he published an essay in the Pennsylvanian Gazette concerning lightning as a potential cause of earthquakes. Writing later to a New England clergyman scientist, Jared Eliot, Franklin speculated on storms as the possible origin of springs. In still greater leaps of imagination, Franklin pondered what possibilities science and technology would open up for mankind in the future. After witnessing the Montgolfier brothers' balloon flight in 1783, Franklin imagined the horrible possibilities of balloon warfare. In letters written in 1782, at the age of seventy-five, he carried his speculations on man's aerial capabilities into a dream of space flight. Wondering if the universe might have a north and south pole as the Earth does, Franklin conjectured that it might be "possible for a man to fly from star to star . . . 'governing his course with a compass'" (Aldridge, 52).
With these letters, Aldridge sees Franklin fusing "the realms of science and imaginative literature" (44). As Pemberton did for Newton, Aldrige notes how Franklin does for himself, employing his literary skills of wit, humor, rhetoric, and style, to render his own philosophical speculations more appealing and engaging to the casual reader. Aldridge, though, does not see as much blending of science and letters in Franklin's Autobiography. He mentions that Franklin "devotes only eight paragraphs to his electrical experiments" and that "otherwise science did not intrude into his Memoirs, not even indirectly through metaphor or figures of speech" (Aldridge, 42). It's a supposition that ultimately, despite Aldridge's interdisciplinary spirit, partakes of that nineteenth century prejudicial separation of art and science. Just because Franklin doesn't explicitly reference his scientific experiments, or make, for example, grand metaphors equating electrical current with physical attraction, doesn't mean that science did not "intrude" upon Franklin's memoir. By applying the theoretical framework of science fiction to Franklin's Autobiography, though, it will become clear how, as with his letters, Franklin seamlessly weaves together the literary, scientific, and imaginative aspects of his personality into a single unitary style.
III. Of Machines and Men
The last half-century has been called, at times, the "cybernetic age" and the era of the "posthuman." Surveying the contemporary scientific and imaginative literature as far back as 1986, Porush found that "one of the most pervasive themes in postmodern culture is an urgent concern with an old philosophical question, the mechanism-vitalism problem: Are humans merely machines whose every experience and expression can be described by formal mechanics?" (209). In the then burgeoning fields of artificial intelligence, computer science, and cognitive science, among others, he saw the proliferation of sciences and technologies as giving birth to the "posthuman." And in many science fiction novels and stories, ranging from Asimov's robot stories in the '50s to William Gibson's Neuromancer in 1984, the cybernetic metaphor seemed, for Porush, to be "taken for granted as the shape of our collective future" (212).
Roberts echoes these sentiments twenty years later, writing in The History of Science Fiction of technologies such as genetic manipulation and the advancements in prosthetics as "redefining the human" (13-14). But, whereas Porush saw the cybernetic metaphor taken for granted by science fiction, Roberts sees a more ambivalent discourse within science fiction, one displaying an infatuation with and bias against technologies' effect on mankind. Citing such stories as Asimov's "Bicentennial Man," Roberts claims that the dominant recurring story of twentieth century SF has been "how machines return to humanity" (14). And looking at films like The Matrix, as well as the narrative arc of the first hundred Perry Rhodan novels, he sees the demonization of the machine as a "continuing aesthetic SF strategy," only occasionally disrupted by novelists like Greg Egan or the cyberpunks. In either case, both Porush and Roberts would have agreed that science fiction of all genres is particularly well suited, in its scientific and technological underpinnings, to engage in the debate of what it means to be a human being in an increasingly mechanical world.
As strange and terrifying as the specter of humanity's overthrow by the machines may seem to us today, the debate over mecha and orga didn't originate with us. While twentieth and twenty-first century literature may have been dominated by stories returning "machines to humanity," the discourse of the Enlightenment concerned itself with transforming men into machines. In his 1628 analysis of the circulatory system, William Harvey compared the heart's pumping of blood through a human's veins to a fluid being pumped through a system of hydraulic pumps. Descartes, following Harvey, wrote of the body as a "machine . . . made by the hand of God," and in creating the mind/body duality, Descartes "is generally understood to have provided the philosophical grounds for viewing human physiology purely as a functioning mechanism" (Terrell, 104). In 1786, Benjamin Rush asserted his belief that "'converting men into republican machines,' [was] a necessary adaptation 'if we expect them to perform their parts properly, in the great machine of the government of the state'" (Terrell, 103). Terrell claims that for Rush and his contemporaries, "men were already understood to be machines" (103).
The mechanical philosophy of the times touched on human neurology as well. Influenced by the technology of his time, Locke compared the operations of human understanding to devices such as the printing press and the camera obscura. In his formulation of the mind's a priori tabula rasa state, he theorized that external sensations imprinted themselves over time and that this process created what we call a man's consciousness. Such views added fuel to the pervasive debate between free will and determinism that shadowed Enlightenment thinkers, a debate in which, as Terrell notes, "the image of the machine plays a central figure" (102). Such language and concerns echo science fiction's exploration of the foggy distinction between man and machine, and are the precursors to which Porush referred when he talked of the old philosophical quandary of mechanism versus vitalism.
In the language and events of his Autobiography, Franklin echoes this prevailing culture of rational and mechanical thinking. As with Locke, the technology of the printing press had a profound influence on Franklin. At the beginning of The Autobiography, he describes his recollection as a sort of second printing of his life, and in so doing, as Warner suggests, he transforms his life into a text. It's a conceptualization reinforced when Franklin notes at several points the errors of his life, or as he calls them, "Errata"—a term used for errors in a manuscript. Being a lifelong chronicler and practitioner of science, Franklin, perhaps more than most, found inspiration in the Enlightenment's faith in the ever progressing capacity of man's power over himself and nature. Evidence of this can be found in the many parts of the narrative where Franklin discusses some of his inventions such as the stove, or in the speculation and realization of some social project, such as libraries, firehouses, or hospitals. As well, Franklin's brand of optimism can be seen in his handling of the science and art of virtue (Franklin referred to it both ways at different points in his life). For Franklin, the acquisition of virtue should follow the same methods as the acquisition of any new science or art such as navigation, meaning that "he . . . must be taught the Principles of the Art, be shewn all the Methods of Working, and how to acquire the Habits of using properly all the Instruments; and thus regularly and gradually he arrives by Practice at some Perfection in the Art" (Terrell, 113). A hundred years later, long after the cultures of science and art had begun to diverge, D. H. Lawrence, in his survey of American literature, felt compelled to express his contempt for Franklin's utopian and mechanical ideal of "Moral Perfection." Lawrence believed that it transformed man into a "moral machine . . . work[ed] with a little set of handles and levers" (Terrell 112).
IV. What Is This Thing Called Science Fiction?
For many scholars, science fiction begins and, to a certain extent, ends with the publication of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein in 1818. In its chronicles of a man and the monstrous product of his scientific hubris and curiosity, it has become something of a monster itself, terrorizing and inspiring readers and writers of "a genre largely devoted to variations on its theme" (Alkon, 1). As an unintended side-effect, though, by rejecting the supernatural motifs of Gothic fiction in favor of the scientific achievement of sublime horror, Frankenstein may have inadvertently given an extra jolt of life to the binary of art and science as it continued into the twentieth century. Carl Freedman makes the case that in being "the first important work of fiction to engage modern science and to feature a scientist as its protagonist," it marked something of an intellectual revolution akin to "a moment of 'Promethean' critical thought" (5). No longer, as in Swift's satires, could science be dismissed as something frivolous. It now had to be taken seriously, and any objection to it had to be based not on its triviality but on its danger. For Freedman, Frankenstein is seen as dangerous for the fundamental questions it raises about the nature of life and man, and the role science has to play in delineating the two. Despite these questions demanding critical reaction, Freedman finds in his surveys of the literature that a "rather post-Mary-Shelleyan unease with science" dominates critical theory (5).
In the last quarter century or so, beginning with the landmark work of Darko Suvin, a healthy community of discourse has evolved and built a theoretical framework with which to discuss science fiction. Contained within that discourse, though, are a plethora of definitions of what we mean when we call something "science fiction." For critic and novelist Damien Broderick, "SF is that species of storytelling native to a culture undergoing the epistemic changes implicated in the rise and supersession of technical-industrial modes of production, distribution, consumption and disposal" (155). Others, moving away from the material aspects of SF, promote greater attention to the interaction between readers and texts. Samuel Delany suggests that SF is "a vast play of codic [sic, i.e. cryptic] conventions" encountered at the realm of the sentence as much as the text. Our encounter with an SF novel containing the sentence "her world exploded" becomes "organized around the question: what in the portrayed world of the story, by statement or implication, must be different from ours in order for this sentence to be normally uttered?" (Delany quoted in Roberts, 2). Suvin, engaging reader response as well, suggests the broadest and still most influential understanding of science fiction when he defines it as the literature of cognitive estrangement.
For Suvin, SF's main device is "an imaginative framework alternative to the author's empirical environment" (Suvin, 37). The artifact(s) or premise(s) whose presence initiates the difference between the reader's world and the fictional world, Suvin calls the "novum." Suvin describes the effect of cognitive estrangement as a process by which a text not only defamiliarizes readers with aspects of the "real" world, but also invites an awareness "of the principles governing those features of life we are invited to regard as unfamiliar[.]" As an example, Suvin offers Galileo's ability to view a swinging chandelier with "sufficient detachment to see its movement as strange enough to require an explanation" (Alkon, 10).
Delany's and Suvin's understanding of science fiction allows us to move the origin of SF beyond Frankenstein. This is helpful because the trouble with pinpointing Frankenstein as the origin of science fiction is that it favors our own contemporary bias of what science is—largely colored, of course, by the split between art and science. Roberts implies as much when he argues that "a much fuller sense of the genre is unlocked by taking science fiction back past the nineteenth century and exploring the ways in which other notions of science informed fiction" (Roberts, 5). He cites the extraordinary voyages of ancient Greece and Rome, with their cosmic journeys and astronomical speculation, as perhaps the earliest known form of science fiction. In Cicero's Somnium Scipionis (51 BC, "Dream of Scipio"), for example, Scipio and the reader are presented at the end of the story with a cosmic vision of earth as a tiny dot among a field of stars "larger than we have ever imagined" (quoted in Roberts, 24). Franklin's own beloved Plutarch is also noted by Roberts for his imaginative fictions concerning the geography of the moon. A contemporary of Franklin's, Jonathan Swift, also gets a mention for Gulliver's Travels (1726), a novel that, for Roberts, owes much to these earlier extraordinary voyages.
An understanding of how a novel such as Swift's, which some profess contains little to no science, can still be read as science fiction will help illuminate how we can read Franklin's Autobiography in a similar manner. Suvin named Gulliver's Travels, and not Frankenstein, as the definitive archetype for science fiction, even though, as Alkon notes, those "who define science fiction mainly in terms of how far scientific concepts explicitly enter its subject matter" would be sorely disappointed by Swift's novel. What makes Travels such successful SF, for Suvin and Alkon is how effectively it maintains the cognitive estrangement effect by "propel[ling] readers through varying degrees of strangeness" (Alkon, 14). The otherness of the worlds to which Gulliver journeys is what defines the novel. Swift's triumph comes from the manner in which visiting those strange worlds and their inhabitants asks readers to look at humanity in an entirely new manner, inviting them to imagine and "assess the springs of human behavior" (Alkon, 14).
Franklin's Autobiography isn't characterized by such obvious strangeness as Gulliver's Travels, yet it also presents readers with an imaginative and alternative way of viewing both Franklin's and their own world. By recasting himself in several different roles—poor Atheist runaway, for example—Franklin defamiliarizes himself in a way that invites awareness of the principles governing his own identity and how it was constructed. As well, he creates a new world (a textual world) for his readers through his love affair with the printing press and his frequent use of language derived from that technology. Franklin's presentation of himself, as well as the prevalence and influence of print technology on the narrative, can be viewed as the nova (plural of "novum") by which he affects these cognitive estrangements. The ultimate result is to open up his readers' imaginations to the new potentials of humanity that exist within an increasingly mechanized world.
V. New Worlds
Science fiction, as Roberts argues, can trace its origins back to the extraordinary voyages of ancient Greece. The dream of traveling to strange, new worlds has continued to propel science fiction these past two thousand years to imagine new realities out in the cosmos as well as on earth. In Neuromancer (1984), for example, Gibson takes as his starting point the emerging technology of the Internet and extrapolates a computer-generated cyberspace which he calls the Net, or Matrix. Within this conceit, he builds up a self-consistent and alternate world of tactile digital data, artificial intelligence, and hackers jacking their consciousness into the information superhighway. Such worldbuilding has become one of the more popular aspects of SF for its readers. Most of these worlds take some of their manner of construction from utopian fiction, such as Gulliver's Travels, but they also, like Neuromancer, tend to organize themselves around a specific technology which differentiates their reality from our own, a technological novum in other words (Roberts, ix).
Broderick attributes the proliferation of SF in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to upheavals occurring in the realms of culture in response to emerging technologies. For him, these "epistemic changes" are essential to understanding and defining the SF genre. A cursory look at history, though, reveals that the last two centuries, though perhaps possessing the most rapid changes, were not the only periods of great cultural upheavals. The eighteenth century saw its own share of revolutions, both political and scientific, as well as the emergence of deeply influential technologies. America and France each overthrew ancient monarchies and established new governments whose idealistic hopes displayed a nigh utopian optimism in the future of mankind. It was the Age of Reason and the final years of the Enlightenment, a time "when human omniscience was thought to be an attainable goal" (Roberts, 64). New technologies, such as the microscope, telescope, and printing press began to be widespread. Franklin wrote of how that "admirable Instrument the Microscope has opened to us . . . a World utterly unknown to the Ancients" (Cohen, 44). H. G. Wells could just as easily have been speaking of the revolutionary era of Franklin when, writing of his own time, he said, "It is as if a hand had been put upon the head of the thoughtful man and had turned his eyes about from the past to the future" (quoted in Alkon, 20).
Technology's power to allow, or enforce, new ways of perceiving and engaging the world has long been the dominant concern of science fiction. Tools and machines, such as lasers, time machines, and spaceships, form the core of the majority of stories. Very few science fiction novels actually use abstract or scientific nova. Notable exceptions exist, of course. Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions (1884), for example, takes as its novum a world consisting of only two dimensions. But, as Roberts points out, the nova of science fiction stories are almost always technological. Drawing on Heidegger, he argues that this tendency of SF novelists to favor devices or concepts arises because science does not enframe the world as powerfully as technology does. Technologies like television, telescopes, or microscopes are not merely instruments; they are a "mode of knowing" the world (Roberts, 11). In many instances, therefore, SF might be better understood as technology fiction in the sense that it textually embodies and explores this enframing aspect of technology.
Discussing at length the ways in which Franklin's Autobiography presents his identity as a textual one, Warner describes the entire project as a "fantasy about print" (74). When the text is read as a technological fiction, it becomes possible to see how the examples Warner cites as evidence of Franklin's modeling his life on print are techniques which produce the sort of cognitive estrangement so essential to the best science fiction. Franklin's use of the print term, "Errata," for example, invites us to ask the sort of questions Delany posed about the sentence, "her world exploded." Approaching Franklin's "Errata" as SF and asking ourselves, "what in the portrayed world of the story, by statement or implication, must be different from ours in order for this [phrase] to be normally uttered?", we are forced into comprehending Franklin's life as though it were a printed work because it's the only context, the only world, in which such a phrase makes sense. A reading of Franklin's Autobiography as "ordinary" might pass over this phrase as simply a metaphor on the level of the sentence and so miss Warner's larger point that Franklin's repeated use of "Errata" can be understood, in science fiction terms, as part of Franklin's larger project of worldbuilding.
VI. The Stranger
Nova don't always have to be technological in nature. Aliens, for example, show up a lot in science fiction, and though the way they appear usually involves technology (they fly here or we fly there), the estrangement associated with them is caused as much by their strange behavior, appearance, and philosophies as by their shiny ships and disintegrator rays. Sometimes, as in War of the Worlds, they come as monstrous versions of ourselves, and sometimes, as in *batteries not included (the film and its novelization), they come as adorable Frisbee-like robots. However they appear, though, aliens in science fiction serve as biological nova that provide a cognitive estrangement on life itself, reflecting back on us, the readers, a new perspective on what it means to be human.
In his Autobiography, Franklin presents himself as a kind of alien lifeform, if not in species, then at least in comparison to the popular conceptions of Franklin at the time. When his Autobiography was published, Franklin had already been called the "most famous man in the western world" and the "foremost philosopher of America." Jefferson named Franklin "the greatest man and ornament of the age and country in which he lived" (Campbell, 2-3, 5, 7). He was a member of the Royal Society of London and the Royal Academy of Sciences. His theft of lightning from the sky was already the stuff of Promethean legend. But Franklin doesn't give us that "Benjamin Franklin" in his Autobiography, certainly not at the beginning. He presents himself as a young boy "pointed at with Horror by good People, as an infidel or Atheist" (44). In his escape from indentured servitude to his brother, he arrives in Philadelphia wet and shabby and wearing dirty work clothes. Walking along the streets, Franklin makes a point of describing himself as lost, ridiculous, and awkward. He asks a passing young Quaker man if he knew "where a Stranger could get Lodging," and once inside several "sly Questions" were asked of him, most likely because, as Franklin conjectures, "it seemed . . . from my youth & Appearance, that I might be some Runaway" (48).
Franklin, we might say, is utilizing himself as a novum. Franklin does this in service to his utopian vision of the possibility of Moral Perfection. By presenting his identity as so radically alien to his reader's preconceived notions, Franklin becomes the defamiliarized subject whose movements, like Galileo's chandelier, are seen "with sufficient detachment" to be recognized as "strange enough to warrant explanation." As any true SF writer would, he's "encourag[ing] the reader to read his Autobiography with a speculative spirit" (Baker, 275)—essentially asking the reader to ask themselves, what if I lived my life as Franklin lived his?
Such an understanding of Franklin's method allows us to reorient our view on the text as a whole. As opposed to Warner's argument that "Franklin effaces the particularities of his own personality in order to achieve a 'republic of impartiality,'" in fact, Franklin highlights the unique mechanistic and rational aspects of his personality in the hope that readers will follow in the footsteps of his particular model of life (Baker, 274). After all, how many people, while listening to an orator, would do as Franklin does—taking the time to calculate the approximate number of people who could hear the speech at its current volume? Such idiosyncratic behavior seems out of place if, as Warner posits, Franklin is more interested in crafting a universalized character versus an individual one. Yet, it makes sense if Franklin is asking the reader to recognize in his rationality a method of living which can be useful to his readers. Franklin's infamously rigorous process of developing virtue is nothing if not particular to him. It represents, as Terrell points out, Franklin's solution to the eighteenth century's prevailing debate between free will and determinism. The specific and mechanical acquisition of virtue peculiar to Franklin is his way of crafting the machinery of his own subjugation and freeing himself to "construct, in turn . . . the various civic institutions that mark [his] lasting contribution to the 'machinery' of government" (Terrell, 131). Reading Franklin this way allows us to see how he presents his life as a "speculative archetype of the success other Americans might achieve" (Baker, 275). That such a speculative archetype may be as fictional as the emotionless utopian horses Gulliver met on his third voyage doesn't matter. Franklin's after a level of cognitive estrangement in the presentation of his life—his alien youth on through his near robotic methods of virtue acquisition—which invites readers to open their imaginations to a utopian potential of humanity, the perfectibility of man within a constructed world of machines.
VII. And So It Goes . . .
Science fiction is the "place where art and science connect" (Roberts, 5). As such, it's uniquely suited to the investigation of the work of a writer such as Franklin who, even writing during the interdisciplinary time of the Enlightenment, was known for his fusion of science and letters. Writing at a time when men were being transformed into machines, Franklin confronted the technological concerns of his day by constructing a world in his Autobiography that is enframed by print technology. In terms of science fiction, the text can be read as an imaginative extrapolation of that enframing over an entire life, or as Warner puts it so precisely, a "fantasy about print."
More than just presenting his readers with this alternate world, though, Franklin employs the methods of cognitive estrangement to defamiliarize both himself and the real world. He invites awareness of the principles governing his and his world's construction, with the hope that readers will learn from the methods employed so that they can exert such control over their own lives. Both by presenting an alternative textual world, and by demonstrating a possible path to freedom through the mechanization, and perhaps defamiliarization, of virtue, Franklin invites his readers to imagine themselves and their world in entirely new ways.
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