Happiness in the Franken-City

It is tempting to claim that the Franken-city is the horrific manifestation of instrumental reason. Concocted in back alleys, where rats flourish and human children play, the Franken-city pumps fresh blood to its urban core and spits out desiccated bodies along its public transportation lines and logistics corridors. At the broken edges of the city, the prosthetic veins seem more dodgy and our compatriots live by picking through plastic bottles and accumulated debris, hoping to place their offspring in a downtown office building, where sararīman mine data in air-conditioned cubicles and die of overwork. After all, Frankestein’s experiments—much like our own forays into development—aimed to revive dead flesh, without questioning what might rise from the grave. He confesses, “I had worked hard for nearly two years, for the sole purpose of infusing life into an inanimate body. For this I had deprived myself of rest and health. I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation…” And thus at the moment of his triumph, Frankenstein realizes his ultimate failure. “[N]ow that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart. Unable to endure the aspect of the being I had created, I rushed out of the room, and continued a long time traversing my bedchamber, unable to compose my mind to sleep.”

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But here’s the rub: the monster has his story, too. And thus we are confronted with the task of ‘taking care of’ our creatures because they do haunt us, killing our futures and not just the dreams of passionate youth, even as we continuously seek our happiness.

As Frankenstein recovers from the shock of having created a monster, he resumes correspondence with his beloved cousin, Elizabeth. At first, the letters bring happy gossip about family and friends, however, one letter reveals that his young brother, William had been murdered. Once home, Frankenstein learns that a family servant, Justine has been accused of the crime. She protests her innocence and the family believes her, with the exception of Frankenstein; he knows she is innocent because he realizes that the monster is in fact guilty, begging the question of just what he thought the monster had been up to while he convalesced. In fact, Frankenstein’s refusal to take responsibility for his creation is the source of the monster’s murderous actions.

“Have I not suffered enough that you seek to increase my misery?” the  monster pleads with his maker, “Life, although it may only be an accumulation of anguish, is dear to me, and I will defend it. Remember, thou hast made me more powerful than thyself; my height is superior to thine; my joints more supple. But I will not be tempted to set myself in opposition to thee. I am thy creature, and I will be even mild and docile to my natural lord and king, if thou wilt also perform thy part, the which thou owest me. Oh, Frankenstein, be not equitable to every other, and trample upon me alone, to whom thy justice, and even thy clemency and affection, is most due. Remember, that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam; but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed. Everywhere I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded. I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous.”

It is difficult not to have conflicted feelings toward the monster’s petition. On the one hand, Frankenstein did create him and then abandoned him for no other reason than personal disgust. What would have happened had Frankenstein placed aside his revulsion and educated the monster? Would his superhuman powers have been deployed for human betterment? On the other hand, the monster threatens Frankenstein, using his exclusion from happiness as an excuse for destroying the lives of others. In the end, it is easier for Frankenstein to blame the monster as being intrinsically flawed, rather than take responsibility for his actions. Frankenstein even allows the innocent Justine to be executed for the murder of William, even as he knows that when his part in the murder is revealed his family will suffer more.

It is also difficult not to see in the Franken-City a similar damnation—or criminalization, to use the language of our day—of the urban poor or ‘low-end population’ as they are known throughout China. A bit of background suggests the contours of this analogy. Two important reforms that Shenzhen introduced into Chinese society were the commodification of labor and housing. Under the socialist planned economy, danwei workers and their families were entitled to (admittedly poor quality) housing. However, in Shenzhen, workers could be hired by a factory without concomitant rights to housing or other civic welfare, effectively subsidizing Shenzhen’s early modernization; the cost of labor was not only cheap because of the relative weakness of the Chinese yuan, but also because the Chinese state did not afford rural migrants with housing, medical care, and schooling for their children. At the same time, villagers who had become rich through smuggling and vice in the 1980s, built tenements in the 1990s, renting them out to migrant workers who were not technically in the city and thus vulnerable to typical landlord highhandedness. Today, roughly half of Shenzhen’s population inhabits about 5% of its total area.

Since 2010, Shenzhen has been aggressively upgrading its urban environment. The pretext of the renovations is—as was the reason for Frankenstein’s rejection of his creation—that these densely populated enclaves are ‘dirty, chaotic, and substandard.’ The goal is to transform public streets and markets into malls and office space, while providing middle class families with comfortably air-conditioned homes—the ‘small happiness (xiaokang) from which the poor have been excluded. What’s more, the speed at which glass and steel estates have replaced downtown villages has meant that once a village is demolished, residents are usually forced to find smaller accommodations in the city’s growing suburbs.

All this has me thinking about one of the most important features of a Franken-City—the regulation of access to (what we believe are) the conditions of happiness.

After a dusty day traipsing along the Dehli-Mumbai Industrial Corridor, we rode Rapid Metro from old Gurgaon to Cyber City via the most expensive real estate in the capital region. India’s first privately financed metro system has global aspirations and upscale pretensions. The appeal of the line is its ability to provide punctual transportation in comfort, but it also offers a ‘Birthday on Wheels’ program for young children, educational programs for those curious about modern transportation, and the ‘Hassle Free Ride’ program, which is implemented in cooperation with schools and corporations. The key to the program is that the company will dedicate a subway car for birthday parties, classroom activities, students and employees.

On the private metro, women dressed in western styles, scrolling on cellphones or chatting with companions. The signage was all in English, rather than offering Hindi translations. The seats and floor were clean and shiny, the shoes imported and made of polished leather. We arrived at a parking lot with shade trees and took a short walk through the parked cars to a security gate. We stepped into the brightly lit space, where there was a microbrewery and bookstore with popular novels, electronic rides for the kids, clothes and food brands that I recognized. In fact, this was one of the first spaces that our hosts felt comfortable letting us explore on our own—a safe space for international consumers with coin of the realm and credit cards.

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