Philosophy + Literature Workshop with Ana Ilievska: Shelley’s Frankenstein is about ChatGPT

Tue April 18th 2023, 6:15 - 7:45pm PDT
Event Sponsor
Division of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages
Philosophy and Literature at Stanford
Building 260, Pigott Hall
450 Jane Stanford Way, Building 260, Stanford, CA 94305
German Library, room 252

The Research Workshop in Literature, Philosophy, and the Arts is proud to host a talk by Dr. Ana Ilievska:


Shelley’s Frankenstein is about ChatGPT:

Thinking and the Future of Literary Study in the Age of Generative AI


In this paper, I explore the impact of generative AI on our ability to think. Starting from Hannah Arendt’s idea of thinking as “a soundless dialogue between me and myself, the two-in-one,” in a first moment I read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) as an example of what happens when a knowledgeable person does not engage in thinking. I argue that Victor Frankenstein does not engage in thinking and the catastrophic repercussions of his scientific endeavor are a direct result of two seemingly contradictory reasons: on one hand, Victor’s reluctance to discuss his ideas with peers, and, on the other, his complete lack of solitude—both necessary conditions for thinking and moral considerations to take place.

Second, I question the location of thought in our contemporary society where overstimulation, distraction, and the lack of solitude are rampant. Where does thinking happen today? “Compose yourself!” Clerval admonishes his friend Victor Frankenstein, distraught after facing his monstrous “motherless creation” for the first time. If we live in a world of dis-traction where we are drawn further away from ourselves by technology and the lack of solitude that it engenders, how can we heed Clerval’s admonition and compose ourselves so that thinking can flourish?

The paper concludes with some suggestions concerning the role of the humanities, and, in particular, the study of literature in this endeavor of a Frankensteinian re-composition by asking the following questions: what happens when the structuring of cognitive language abilities is relinquished to an external, artificial agent such as ChatGPT? What can the humanities teach that generative AI cannot already do faster and better? To address this, I suggest shifting the focus of literary studies to thinking and the cultivation of that “internal dialogue” necessary for decision-making, planning, and moral considerations.

Dr. Ana Ilievska is a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center and Lecturer in the department of French and Italian at Stanford University. A comparatist specializing in Italian, Lusophone, and Balkan Studies, her current book project, “Deep Tech: Literature, Southern Thought, and the Question Concerning Technology,” focuses on the relationship between literature, the industrial revolution, and technology from the perspective of southern Europe and the Mediterranean. She has published articles on Luigi Pirandello, Eça de Queirós, Fernando Pessoa, and Luso-African writers, in addition to numerous translations and public scholarship on poetry, noise, the public humanities, and the ethos of Silicon Valley.