Thursday, March 08, 2007

Are bioluminescent bunnies queer?

Yesterday in the comments section of our Inhuman Art post, I asked Eileen the following faux naif question:
Eileen, I wonder. If nature (that is, random environmental variables plus sporadic gene mutation) enable the birth, viability, and maybe even the flourishing of a bioluminescent fish or rabbit, that's one thing -- even if the newfound glow has no adaptative value (i.e. is either pure surplus, or could lead to the creature more easily becoming prey). If an artist (oh, say, Eduardo Kac) creates through "transgenic art" a glow in the dark bunny, or an entire biosphere of self illuminating creatures, that's a work of another order. Right?

Can nature be an artist? Or are both Kac and nature (whatever the heck nature is) not artists considering that their medium is living flesh and their modus potentially inhumane?

I'm frontpaging it now to ask if there isn't away that the production of such living, glowing, embodied art (if that is what it is) doesn't intersect with our recent conversation about the queer.

Look for a moment at the quotation I provided (The Monstrous and the Queer) from Carolyn Dinshaw, about how "queer" works:

Queerness works by contiguity and displacement, knocking signifiers loose, ungrounding bodies, making them strange; it works in this way to provoke perceptual shifts and subsequent corporeal response in those touched ... It makes people stop and look at what they have been taking as natural, and it provokes inquiry into the ways that 'natural' has been produced by particular discursive matrices of heteronormativity. ("Chaucer's Queer Touches / A Queer Touches Chaucer" 76-77)

Doesn't a transgenic, eerily green, glow in the dark bunny do all those things? I want to take Eileen's caution to heart: there is something disturbing about fucking with the genetics, consciousness, embodiment just because you can: dreaming of uploading human subjectivity and memory into a robot, for example, to "perfect" the human. Where's the art in that? Transmuting a dead hog into a motorboat likewise doesn't do anything that's especially creative: it's a little gross, a little funny, but in the end the world remains pretty much the same. But Alba the florescent green bunny seems different from these other examples. Here is Kac's description of the GFP Bunny project:
My transgenic artwork "GFP Bunny" comprises the creation of a green fluorescent rabbit, the public dialogue generated by the project, and the social integration of the rabbit. GFP stands for green fluorescent protein. "GFP Bunny" was realized in 2000 and first presented publicly in Avignon, France. Transgenic art, I proposed elsewhere [1], is a new art form based on the use of genetic engineering to transfer natural or synthetic genes to an organism, to create unique living beings. This must be done with great care, with acknowledgment of the complex issues thus raised and, above all, with a commitment to respect, nurture, and love the life thus created.

Does it matter that Alba was created with love? That the bunny was nurtured? That this was a project mindful of consequence? Does that make this cute little glowing green creature any less (or any more) queer?

By the way, the whole project is worth reading about, especially because it is so mindful of history. Following the links above will direct you to a conversation about how humans have shaped the rabbit over the centuries, and an argument for why the production of Alba isn't a breeding program but art. Here's one more quote:
"GFP Bunny" is a transgenic artwork and not a breeding project ... Traditionally, animal breeding has been a multi-generational selection process that has sought to create pure breeds with standard form and structure, often to serve a specific performative function. As it moved from rural milieus to urban environments, breeding de-emphasized selection for behavioral attributes but continued to be driven by a notion of aesthetics anchored on visual traits and on morphological principles. Transgenic art, by contrast, offers a concept of aesthetics that emphasizes the social rather than the formal aspects of life and biodiversity, that challenges notions of genetic purity, that incorporates precise work at the genomic level, and that reveals the fluidity of the concept of species in an ever increasingly transgenic social context. As a transgenic artist, I am not interested in the creation of genetic objects, but on the invention of transgenic social subjects. In other words, what is important is the completely integrated process of creating the bunny, bringing her to society at large, and providing her with a loving, caring, and nurturing environment in which she can grow safe and healthy. This integrated process is important because it places genetic engineering in a social context in which the relationship between the private and the public spheres are negotiated. In other words, biotechnology, the private realm of family life, and the social domain of public opinion are discussed in relation to one another. Transgenic art is not about the crafting of genetic objets d'art, either inert or imbued with vitality. Such an approach would suggest a conflation of the operational sphere of life sciences with a traditional aesthetics that privileges formal concerns, material stability, and hermeneutical isolation. Integrating the lessons of dialogical philosophy and cognitive ethology, transgenic art must promote awareness of and respect for the spiritual (mental) life of the transgenic animal. The word "aesthetics" in the context of transgenic art must be understood to mean that creation, socialization, and domestic integration are a single process. The question is not to make the bunny meet specific requirements or whims, but to enjoy her company as an individual (all bunnies are different), appreciated for her own intrinsic virtues, in dialogical interaction.

So this is very far from screw-the-consequences science ... Serious stuff, but also inherently funny, perhaps because it is so de-naturalizing (a green bunny that glows in the dark? so cute and so strange at once).


Eileen Joy said...

I'm going to argue that bioluminescent bunnies are the dark side of the queer. More on this later. Best, Eileen

Eileen Joy said...

Because I feel that, when I am in this forum [In The Middle] I am truly among friends, I am going to go out on a bit of a limb here and really reveal how I feel about Alba, the bioluminescent bunny, at the full risk of sounding like an anti-intellectual, conservative, troglodyte [that's "cave-dweller" to you]. Let me, then, risk sentimentality, and even tears, and register my true sadness over this "queer" bunny, this "transgenic" life form, this experimental "subject," this embodied, em-bunnied social "site" through which biology, art, and theory supposedly meet in caring [yet I would argue, un-caring and un-feeling] embrace.

If, somehow, Alba had been "produced" by some form of selective breeding within her species [and yes, I read the entire website devoted to Alba and the history of the inter-relationships between humans and rabbits over time, including the selective breeding of said rabbits, and I understand what is ethically questionable even about selective breeding within a species], as opposed to being the result of green flourescent protein from a Pacific Ocean jellyfish being injected into the egg of an Albino rabbit, I might not have as many problems with it. My hesitation to celebrate Alba as either "cool" art or new living form is two-dimensional: first, I think the forceful injection of a biologically "foreign" substance into a living creature who lacks the language or gestural ability to give consent constitutes cruelty of the highest order, and second, concern over possibly "unnatural" *crossings* between different species is not just some remnant of some outdated or outmoded traditional humanist claptrap: it is a highly serious concern of evolutionary biology, the changes within which often take place over long expanses of time and through intricate chains of causality and effect that can be termed "natural" or "naturally occurring," and which possess their own interior logic [which is not to say that an asteroid all of a sudden slamming into the Gulf of Mexico wouldn't alter dramatically evolution in a nanosecond, only that I would consider tampering with Albino rabbit eggs by injecting them with jellyfish protein genes constitutes something like the asteroid in its possible shorter- and longer-term effects]. Alba may be fine as Kac's domestic "pet"--up to a point--but how might she do among other Albino rabbits? Does anybody care about that, or is an animal bred and born in a lab, ipso facto, no longer an animal that belongs somehow to and with other animals?

Indeed, how are we limiting these animals' sociality, and why, or why not, might this matter to us? On one level, it matters not at all, if you believe one of your supreme rights as a so-called "human being" is to create and "play" with life forms however you see fit, overlooking however much you decide to the rabbit's hereditary "memory" enclosed within the intricately designed and intertwined strands of rabbit DNA enclosed within the rabbit's hybridized and post-rabbit body. For deep, historical memories attach to all living creatures in their genetic material, manifesting themselves in dreams and physical traits and hidden blemishes, and Alba can never really be as "new" as she is also "old," with deep rabbit histories folded within her "being"--however you might define that.

As my sister, a geneticist, has told me often, may genetic mutations are typically infinitesimally small yet have wide-ranging and broad effects that often cannot be predicted with any certainty. This is just to say: when *manually* mutating genetic material: be very careful. This is not a mystic injunction against a greater, spiritual unknown, as if some greater Maker was being challenged; it is, instead, a plea for a kind of *mindfulness* that takes into account the fact that historically, biology has built into it all sorts of safeguards for certain types of inviolability, or, again, for slow change over slow time according to certain principles of [non-human] *necessity*.

But why do I digress into biology when my real problem with Alba is one, I really believe, of ethical *regard* for living forms, no matter how large or small, no matter how like-us or not-like-us? In his earlier post on "The Queer and the Monstrous," JJC shared an excerpt from his book "Of Giants" that included this:

". . . because desire is caught up in and dispersed throughout a mobile network of bodies, objects, temporalities and subjectivities, identity is always larger than any singular body that would circumscribe its trajectory. Proper identities can be culturally constructed and socially promulgated, but they do not always manage to capture desire within their limited contours."

Is not our notion of "the queer," as we have often discussed it here, intimately connected to what JJC describes here as type of *desire* that is so generous [and even exuberant] that it cannot be contained within singular bodies, even singularly "human" bodies, and which, nevertheless, is always seeking *connection* [perhaps, an abundance of connections]? But to connect, through desire, with others, is also to touch, or caress, and I stand with Levinas who says the ultimate caress [which is also the ultimate ethical gesture] is one that is always in the act of touching without actually, literally touching the object of the caress. It is not the rabbit who desires to be "queerly" glowingly green--it is the artist, Kac, who desires it, and in actualizing that desire, he *touches* too roughly, he invades the sacred domain [the body] of the rabbit without asking permission to enter in, and therefore he profanes its body, and perhaps, even, its soul. This is in striking contrast to how JJC describes Galehaut's love for Lancelot through his willful self-abnegation. In order to let Lancelot be Lancelot, as it were, Galehaut steps aside, and it is in that "stepping aside" that his love [and ethical regard] for Lancelot truly manifests itself as the caress which is not a caress, the touch which touches by not touching. The rabbit that the "artist" Kac claims he strokes often in his arms--his gesture, even his very public gesture, of love and affection--is a stroking-unto-death. How horrifying and ugly and unbeautiful, and decidedly not "queer," but rather, as heteronormative as a Himmler.

Yes, I know I just risked sounding hysterical and ridiculous. I can't help myself.

Eileen Joy said...

I just thought of something else that I think queer studies needs to deal with more seriously--the ideas of "natural" and "unnatural." I can see already how some readers here may think my prior post reveals something about, perhaps, my Romantic, humanist notions of what is supposedly "natural," whereas a good queer theorist would understand that categories of "natural" are exactly what the queer seeks to "ungird" or "de-stabilize." All well and good, but not without some limitations, I don't think, that might have something to do with what I would call the sacred inviolability of the singular "person"--which "singular" person is a living entity [human or non-human], therefore "natural" in some sense? I don't know. Help me out here!

Anonymous said...

I'm willing to leave the queer out of it for a moment--this is a stupid piece of art. I know that we pass off many of our aesthetic claims as moral claims ( and I know that's *not* what Eileen's doing), but I'm not sure why an aesthetic claim won't do here, even before we get to the ethical implications of this bioluminescent creation. As far as I can see, this bunny hops nowhere between the beautiful or the good, promoting no notion of the *sensus communis* that I can think of (from Aristotle to Arendt). Maybe queer theory should work on formulating a "sensus communis" that is responsive to notions of beauty, the good, or something in between.

er, I'll get back to my *Critique of Judgement* now,

Holly Crocker

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Eileen, I don't think you need to apologize so much: that was quite an eloquent post. It shows an ethical regard for the bunny that is warming, and so ... you.

As you anticipated, what I disagree with -- at least to a degree -- is how you use the natural. I tend to think of nature as being like god: it doesn't actually exist, but we humans posit it retroactively (out of convenience or out of a desire to place order where it ain't) as a kind of unified entity in order to ascribe agency, unity, and significance in places where those things are not necessarily to be found. So, it's tough for me think of nature as being sacred or unified or full of meaning when in fact it is (in my guess, not in my knowledge) a useful shorthand at best.

I'm obviously not an evolutionary biologist, but it does seem to me that transgenic creatures and freaks, sports, "abortive rooting hogs," you name it are created all the time. Most of them simply die horribly, in pain, and in oblivion. They're not viable. That's what "nature" frequently makes. It's not art. (And I do believe that nature can make art -- Roger Caillois taught me that).

If you read any science fiction or watch any horror movies, you know that the sin to which we humans are inexorably is hubris: we think we're gods, we create as nature does or tamper with nature and nature gets pissed off and kicks our butts in return. But what if we think about creativity outside of such an easy system of punishments and of justice that tells us "remain merely human" (whatever that is)? What if we are actuallr far more loving, far more ethical than whatever nature or god is? Do we need to have our butts kicked by nature or god for supposing that?

This is an incoherent response, I fear, composed on the fly while putting a crazy three year old to bed. I wouldn't want it caricatured to make it seem like I'm arguing there are no limits and that we need not proceed with caution and care when creating anything, and especially when making green rabbits. But I don't know that Alba's birth and life and socialization were cruel or unethical.

Holly: Weirdly, I also think Alba is stunningly beautiful. I find Kac's "Eight Day" project also quite moving. I've just been looking at it with Kid #1, who calls it cool (he made an ecocolumn himself this year at school). Like Eileen, I don't think we should create things because they are cool ... but this project seems much more than that.

But there is no accounting for taste!

Anonymous said...

Well, I guess the only accounting for taste is an accounting: one of the interesting features of aesthetic judgment, particularly when one is trying to find a shared sense, is that it almost immediately moves into the ethical/political (right when I say "you should agree that...”). Now, I think Eileen’s done a mighty job expounding this little green rabbit’s ugliness from an ethical point of view (and I love that she’s actually talking about the rabbit), but I would suggest that the bioluminescent bunny project is stupid simply because it seeks to be visually stunning. Now, I have no interest in staking a claim for the utility of art, and I also realize that getting someone to look at the natural (or the naturalized) in fresh ways can be a beautiful achievement. I’m also completely down with visual fascination (and before anyone objects, I do think there’s a huge difference between being stunning and being fascinating). But I’m not for art that treats the world as a spectacle from which we can stand apart. And, it seems that this project treats the bunny as an artistic “work” that can be perceived from a cultivated distance--a distance created in this case by a genetic intervention that is prioritized as an object of fascination. The artist seeks to head off ethical objections, describing one of the ultimate aims of the project as the “social reintegration” of Alba into his home. That preemptive justification, it seems to me, belies a central problem with the project: what was Alba when she wasn’t a pet? It sounds like she was an ethical thought experiment realized through the creative privilege of art. That thought experiment, it seems, works politically in furtherance of genetic/scientific license, whether or not the particular artist is down with that.

All that said, I’d be open to being moved by the beauty argument...


Jeffrey Cohen said...

Holly, what is the difference between being stunning and being fascinating? The word I would tend to use for an ecstatic, estranging effect such that art or nature can accomplish is "astonishing": I like it because it comes from the word for thunder, and was used by (for example) Margery Kempe to describe the effect of her wailing on its auditors, who seemed transported outside themselves via her sonic waves. Just like what violent thunder achieves, just as sublime. Anyway, I'm not so sure the bunny is to be contemplated at a cultivated distance so much as she makes a distance both open and diminish through her beauty.

Then again, I want to emphasize that I have absolutely HORRIBLE taste that runs towards the kitschy, and should in no way be trusted to render aesthetic judgment!! And youa re so right, Holly, that the aesthetic quickly becomes the ethical.

I don't see Alba as quite so ethically ugly. I think she entered the world with more forethought, love, and desire than most humans do ... or, to put it differently, with more love than is evident in the processes through which life on earth arose and has endured.

I keep thinking of the Cohen family dog, Scooby. She is a hybrid of two breeds that have been created by human intervention: a beagle and a dachshund (really, she came about when a libidinous beagle interposed himself in the cycle that was supposed to create more dachshunds). She didn't violate the species line, so I guess she is OK as far as this discussion goes, but to me for her difference she is a work of art. But then again she is a family member.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

One more thing: I realize that Eileen and Holly make arguments that from an ethical point of view are far more defensible than my own. In fact I can see that my ideas aren't much more than opinions, so inchoate are they.

I also don't think bunnies have a primal, "natural" state. Bunnies socialized into human communities aren't necessarily different from bunnies socialized into warrens, in my opinion. Just as I don't think it's a shame that the Cohen family dog isn't hunting with a pack in the woods: I'm happy she (yes, she; quite a gender confused dog) lives in our home.

Nonetheless I'd like to stress that what I was trying to do in the Bunny post was to defeat the expected narrative that surrounds the production of new biology. We all know the "Dr Frankenstein" syndrome: where would Michael Crichton be without it? (The new movie The Host seems the latest version).

Victor deserved to perish for his crimes against nature; he played god, and his whole family paid the price. If Alba's story ever becomes a film I now predict the ending:

As it turns out, the same genetic mutation introduced into the bunny to provide her with a verdant glow also altered her dentition and gastroenterological configuration. Luminous and otherworldly Alba has developed a taste for human flesh ... and she breeds like a, um, rabbit! Soon the world is being depopulated by glow in the dark, horrific versions of the Easter Bunny (It's like Night of the Living Dead, only with bone chomping Leporidae taking the place of the zombies). Eduardo Kac realizes to his dismay what he has done, but it is too late! Alba corners him in his lab, and as he pleads "I made you!" she nibbles away his feet, his thighs, his torso ...

Look for that soon in the IMDB.

What I was trying to do, though, was to take the side of the monster. As anyone who has read Mary Shelley's book knows, the narrative is not a clear-cut condemnation of Victor. Much of the story is conveyed from Alba's -- er, the Creature's -- point of view. What does the Creature want of Victor? To be loved. To be given a livable life. Not much more than that. Victor, though, turns away in horror from the thing he made, a cold and unloving god.

Through all of this I have Bruno Latour's Aramis, or the Love of Technology in mind. My favorite passage unfolds as the rejected subway system imagines itself as both Victor's Creature and as Jesus on the cross, wondering why it was only partly imagined and then abandoned, disallowed a full life. Latour does provocative stuff with what counts as natural, as human, as a being with agency.

OK, let me acknowledge one more time: I have not staked out a philosophically consistent position. But I do think that Alba is not a victim of cruelty or megalomaniacal whim. Indeed, few rabbits have been as desired as she (look at all the fan art collected at the site). Few have been so shielded from "nature," in its agentless coldness, in its lovelessness. Alba's life seems to me more humanely guarded than the lives of most animals. If I'm not horrified by her glow, it's because I'm not convinced that a boundary (natural/unnatural) has actually been crossed.

Eileen Joy said...

Well, now my brain is reeling again--such rich comments here from Holly and JJC [who seems to think he is being philosophically incoherent, but I disagree]. To tell you the truth, it's really all about the injection of jellyfish protein for me, and also what I would call Kac's faux ethical stance as regards his "loving" domestication of his [and others'] "creation." And yes, I know nature is cruel [I agree with Werner Herzog on this one, vis-a-vis his film "Grizzly Man"], and I also understand how constructed the concept "natural" is, and no, I don't want to be on the side of the readers who think Victor Frankenstein got what he deserved because [the horror!] he tried to play God. Unfortunately, I have to go now and scrape some peeling paint off my kitchen ceiling, and after I'm sufficiently dizzy and have walked my own two hybrid-mutt dogs around the block, I'll return with some more pointed thoughts. I was thinking here, too, that there's also a question of too much creation/production leading to further questions of what might be called "living waste"--I'm against dog breeding for that reason, and also am against the mass production of livestock to provide us with steaks and eggs, etc. Well, somehow this relates, but I have to think about it some more.

Why isn't Karl piping in on this? He really *must* be buried under that dissertation [all to the good, actually].

Anonymous said...

“Fascinating” accommodates and includes visual lures, maybe in mutual ways; “stunning” shuts down sensation, at least temporarily, on the one side. I should add that I don’t really have a deep problem with stunning (what a ridiculous thing to find oneself typing(??)), but with what happens after (when the potential for diminished distance comes in). In the case of K., if I remember your wondrous argument correctly (and I can’t check, sorry!), she has something to say. The emanation of her booming voice is meant to be a wonder that will move her audience beyond the complacencies of orthodox spirituality (by redeploying orthodox spirituality, interestingly). If I am astonished by a luminescent green bunny, I want to know what the project has to say after I’m done wondering, “is this for real?” I don’t see this project it has much to offer. Yet I’m taken with your suggestion that it might be Alba’s story, which might be rather simple, and thus rather beautiful.

I think my hang-up here (besides the color green), is the “phases” part of the description:

“The first phase of the "GFP Bunny" project was completed in February 2000 with the birth of "Alba" in Jouy-en-Josas, France. This was accomplished with the invaluable assistance of zoosystemician Louis Bec [3] and scientists Louis-Marie Houdebine and Patrick Prunet [4]. Alba's name was chosen by consensus between my wife Ruth, my daughter Miriam, and myself. The second phase is the ongoing debate, which started with the first public announcement of Alba's birth, in the context of the Planet Work conference, in San Francisco, on May 14, 2000. The third phase will take place when the bunny comes home to Chicago, becoming part of my family and living with us from this point on.”

Ok, this may be an oh-so-funny parody of art installation lingo, but if so, I’m outside its community. Here’s where all the “we love Alba” stuff sounds like what you have to say to make a fluorescent bunny.

I don’t know this Latour, and unfortunately, I won’t anytime soon. It will go on my intellectual wish list, however depressingly long that makes it.


p.s., scraping paint off a kitchen ceiling sounds really appealing to me this morning. I off to muster some wonder for the work I’m supposed to be doing.

Eileen Joy said...

For any readers of this blog who may be the ones always appointed to do "fix it" chores around the house [that would be me in my household], isn't it amazing how the supposedly 30-minute task morphs into the 5-hour task that involves inviting over the next-door-neighbor to help you plaster and then drink too much beer? Well, maybe that's just me. I thought I would just be scraping a little peeling ceiling paint, and the next thing I knew, I had gouged out half the plaster in the entire ceiling. Oh my god--it's so much more fun [in a way] than worrying about bioluminescent bunnies! Although I *am* incredibly tired. But all kidding aside . . . .

I'm glad, in a way, that Holly has contributed the thought that maybe the Alba "project" is really just stupid, and neither beautiful nor necessarily unethical--just, maybe, unnecessary, not worth the time, kind of lame, etc. [and also does not necessarily live up to the social claims the artist Kac makes for it]? I generally agree with those sentiments. But I was also struck by Holly's [almost throwaway] comment that,

"Maybe queer theory should work on formulating a 'sensus communis' that is responsive to notions of beauty, the good, or something in between."

I think this would actually be a somewhat noble project, albeit one likely to be bedeviled by the notion of "standards." JJC also mentioned that, thanks to Callois, he knows nature sometimes creates art for art's sake: I know this, too, and I realize that much of the beauty in the world is also accidental, but that there seems to be an innate *need* for it, a desire for it [that is somehow universally felt yet locally particularized], that could be usefully "hooked," I think, to projects aimed at what we could call "the good." Why do we need beauty? How does it sustain us or make us more whole as persons? How does it provide for us a fantastic inner life that has nothing to do with specific purposes [is even superficially superfluous] yet helps us hold ourselves in *useful* suspension?

What might ultimately be more valuable to the individual psyche as it develops its own "history"--the *idea* or *image* or *representation* of a glowing green bunny, bodied forth in the literature of fairy tale or cinema anime, or the "real" thing, scuttling, first, between the rooms of the artist's abode, but then multiplied [cloned] and made available to everyone as a mass market commodity? Do you want your imaginary and fantastic creatures to come to life, transgenically, or to remain as a type of art that is only as animated as the thought you give to them? I thought about this, especially, in relation to JJC's son, who thinks Alba is "cool," and who, from earlier posts, I know possesses a rich imaginative interior life. How would the force of the narrative of "Pan's Labyrinth" be altered if, instead of understanding that the heroine, Ophelia, traverses the fine line between real and unreal worlds, that she instead simply steps back and forth between two equally "real" worlds--her intelligence and imagination no longer her route of refuge and heroism.

Of course, a bioluminescent bunny isn't *that* big of a deal--it's not a *talking* bioluminescent bunny with a vest and pocket watch who falls down rabbit holes into other worlds. No, that's something else entirely. Equally useless, perhaps, but somehow, more beautiful, I would argue, by virtue of its light touch within the material world--it exists as a vapor of language and cognition, yet is no less palpably "real" in its powers to move our thoughts and emotions.

I pretty much agree with everything you say about nature/Nature, JJC, and it would be intellectually "lame" of me to argue the main points here. Suffice to say, as random and as uncircumscribed, as "without fixed boundaries" or rules or "morality" as nature often obviously is, I would just tentatively suggest that the idea of inviolability *is* often built in to the biology of various living forms--think of the thorns on roses, or the spines of a porcupine, or the shell of a bi-valve sea organism, or the poison enclosed within a seed-pod, etc. etc. etc. Whatever is alive has some part of its physiology or structure that is designed to protect itself from invasion or to ensure its replication--again, etc. etc. etc. I think we have to consider living organisms, including rabbit eggs, as possessing some sort of integrity in and of themselevs, while, at the same time, I side with those, like the bio-ethical philosopher Peter Singer, that just because something is "alive" does not mean it is yet a "person," and therefore due all the rights of "persons," however you might define those. Fetuses, chromosomes in petri dishes, fertilized eggs, etc.--these are the *matter* of living organisms which have not yet become "persons" and to which we hesitate to grant [and even deny] psychic status. If we impart to all living organisms *too much* sanctity, we risk making too much of ourselves, and of nature more generally. But if we withdraw the marker "sacred" altogether, what are we left with? What are the moral limits, then, to what we can "make" and "unmake"?

It's true, JJC, that Alba's life seems more "humanely guarded than the lives of most animals"--perhaps that is also the central problem.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Whatever is alive has some part of its physiology or structure that is designed to protect itself from invasion or to ensure its replication--again, etc. etc. etc. I think we have to consider living organisms, including rabbit eggs, as possessing some sort of integrity in and of themselevs,

Great comments, Eileen. I like these lines, but I disagree somewhat with them, simply because
(1) sometimes that integrity dissolves in trans-species alliance (the reproductive system of much fauna includes insect pollinators -- flowers can't have sex without bees integrated into their systems)
(2) sometimes the organism isn't the whole or integral or straightforward thing it seems (think of Stephen Jay Gould on spandrels, the added extras that evolution bequeaths to organisms that seem like art. Sometimes they are lame, like dark spots; sometimes they are a cerebral inheritance that make us presuppose divinity and nature as an agent)

As to alba's triviality, agreed: I think you know me well enough to realize that my pattern is to spin the grandiose out of the trivial. Sometimes it works, lots of times it doesn't.

But Alba isn't so small to me. She makes me think about processes that are always already at work, renders them strange, and makes me see beauty in places where I usually glimpse (when I'm feeling anthropomorphic) the pathetic and the cruel.

Thanks, Eileen and Holly, for an intriguing discussion.

Eileen Joy said...

By invoking the term "integrity," I'm mainly pointing to something too abstract, I think, that can't be borne out or explained simply through "Nature" and "her" processes. Yes, bees pollinate flowers [an obvious transspecies alliance--the movie "Adaptation," loosely based on Orleans' book "The Orchid Thief," is eloquent on this point], and there are all sorts of ways in which these alliances "naturally" occur. By invoking the idea of living organisms having some kind of "integrity," I think I'm just asking [and here, in a way, agreeing with JJC] that, as the "humans," who really *do* possess the greatest means of manipulating the world and even of creating new worlds, that we carefully consider how things exist in and of themselves *without us* and why leaving some species *alone*, so to speak, might matter. Just because there is no god, or "Nature" with a capital "N," does not mean that we should consider the whole world a kind of randomly assembled chaotic & purposeless structure that can be fiddled with at will--even if we just consider the billion-to-one odds that this world would have even come into being at all [the best argument, too, against the possibility of other "earths" being out there somewhere or other "intelligent" life forms] is reason enough, I believe, to treat the world we have luckily inherited more with wonder and care than as endlessly malleable *materia*. Obviously, we intervene into nature all the time for really good reasons: to produce energy, food, shelter, healing medicines, etc., but I guess, at the end of a day, I'm an adherent of Thoreau's: simplify, simplify, simplify. And maybe, also, I've read too much Barry Lopez [who I have met and had dinner with and who I consider to be a kind of modern saint].

There's another angle to this Alba story that I was trying to articulate in my earlier post but which wasn't quite coming out right, having to do with what we might called our desire for "reality" entertainments or "real"/"virtual" experience and art. Transgenic art, in a way, opens up the possibility of not just dreaming [and writing or drawing or sculpting, etc.] fantastic "creatures," but bringing them "to life," so to speak, and perhaps--beyond just the singular Alba--populating little worlds with them. There is a palpable cultural desire to make certain fantasy scenarios so virtually "real" that one could inhabit two sensations in the form of one figuration at once: the "real" and the "not-real." But Alba also shows what happens when the "not-real" is, in point of fact, real. Holly is right, I think, to point out that, for all of the theoretical and social posturing and supposed deep consideration of the "phases" of Alba's creation and development, Alba is first and foremost a thought experiment--one made "real" in a lab. But this is also a thought experiment with some thought and volition of its own--just as with children, just because you created it, doesn't mean you "own" it. And that's where things always get interesting. Imagine if someone injected their unborn fetus with jellyfish protein and then displayed that child as a work of art, online and in various "installation sites." We would think that was fucked-up and sad, but we don't accord anything else that is alive the same rights that we accord to ourselves. For this same reason, I also hate zoos.

In the end, I acknowledge that I can't really make the ethical argument I want to make without invoking some kind of mysticism of "sacred" being, which might have no grounding in empirical reality. It is a side, however, for which I am willing to err.

Eileen Joy said...

I forgot to say in last post that the Alba project reminded me of a much worse "art" experiment I heard about on NPR recently: a group of scientists want to recreate the initial starting conditions of the "big bang" in a lab. It wouldn't *really* be like the original "big bang," they aver, but something very close to it, only "in miniature"? Huh? Has anyone ever read Italo Calvino's hilarious short story "All At One Point," about these characters who inhabit the very dense and infinitesimally small "point" of matter just prior to the moment before it explodes and expands into the currently existing universe? It's hysterical. Maybe it's just me, but I think attempting to recreate the "big bang," or "primordial soup," as some call it, is kind of insane. Though I suppose, if it could work, maybe we could put it in a kind of soda can, and just as this earth is about to let out its last gasp, either due to a viral pandemic, global warming, nuclear war, or a hideously huge asteroid collision, we could pop it open. Just a thought.

Anonymous said...

I don't know if this will work, but below is a link to the review of the new exhibit on art and feminism at the Museum of Contemporary Art in LA. Call me simple, but this is a case in which I understand what the project has to say, even if (by its very definition) it cannot gather a set of unified voices. Though this show promises to be problematic in all sorts of ways, its gathering at least addresses the ethical/political problems its very production entails:

Also, here's an instance in which something really stupid/trivial produces something really great/beautiful (which, I would suggest, is what JJC has done through his meditations on Alba). It is only a movie review, but one of the best I've read in a long, long time. Though the movie *300* promises to be as "stupid" as A.O. Scott says, his engagement with this film is an jubilant example of the review (art)form: "[*300*] offers up a bombastic spectacle of honor and betrayal, rendered in images that might have been airbrushed onto a customized van sometime in the late 1970s." How cool is that?


Anonymous said...

A. O. Scott is a bit of a laughing-stock around here, but I must admit the sentence that Holly quotes is a zinger. Whether a trivial has been made grand, I cannot say.

Jeffrey: would you expand on this a bit? Me don't get it.

I tend to think of nature as being like god: it doesn't actually exist, but we humans posit it retroactively (out of convenience or out of a desire to place order where it ain't) as a kind of unified entity in order to ascribe agency, unity, and significance in places where those things are not necessarily to be found. So, it's tough for me think of nature as being sacred or unified or full of meaning when in fact it is (in my guess, not in my knowledge) a useful shorthand at best.

Glaukôpis said...

I finally sat down and read all of this discussion--wow.

Just one random thing to say, as I haven't a clue where I stand on this, though.

Eileen, concerning recreating the big bang, there was a Star Trek: DS9 episode, actually, in which a mini-universe was accidentally started and that was expanding and displacing "this" universe. Ethical questions, of course, arose as to its right to exist (with its possibly sentient creatures), despite the fact that it would wipe out everyone existing in "this" universe.

Ultimately, of course, they chose their own universe over the mini one that had just begun forming.

I think the argument, also, was that in the mini-universe, a lot more time had passed, and thus life somewhat as we know it (or not) could already have evolved.

Eileen Joy said...

Oddly enough, we actually quote A.O. Scott's review of Michael Winterbottom's film "Code 46" in our Introduction to "The Postmodern Beowulf"--even more oddly enough, it just struck me that Winterbottom's film [which I love and taught last year alongside Wells's "The Island of Dr. Moreau" in a Brit. Lit. survey] is actually apropos to our conversation here, because it is retelling of the Oedipus myth in which determininist biology replaces fate, and in which the question is raised again and again: how much free will do we really think we have [will have] in a world that has been rather minutely genetically "engineered" and micro-policed? The answer, in reverse-sentimental fashion, is that, while love [even when it is incestuous] is, as always, its own form of rebellion, it cannot win. Wouldn't Spielberg's film [taken over from Kubrick] "A.I." also fit in somehow to this conversation, since it's main character is a mechanically/transgenically-designed "child" who, once "imprinted" by his adoptive mother *becomes* more "human," but is still able to be discarded as "trash" later since hs is, supposedly, "artificial." I've always thought this was a brilliant, if flawed film [if, indeed, Spielberg had simply ended it when our artificial hero was submerged in the water covering New York City while staring at the statue of the Blue Fairy, who he thinks is "real," the film could have been perfect, albeit depressing as hell, but at least more realistic].

I'm glad Michael U. has requoted JJC because that reminds me of something I meant to say earlier and forgot: while I agree with JJC that there is likely no God with a capital "G" or Nature with a capital "N," that does not, for me necessitate a mainly purposeless, random world [at least, as regards the processes of generation and regeneration of various life forms]. If Richard Dawkins is right--vis-a-vis his idea of the "selfish gene"--then the very smallest parts of our biology [not counting what exists at the atomic and sub-atomic level] have intense will and purposefulness [which is not to say that this willfulness is always a good thing, from a moral or even, sometimes, from a common-sensical utilitarian perspective, only that I think, life, in general, has "intention" written all over it].

Glaukopidos--thanks for the "Star Trek" reference!

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Michael: I meant the human predilection to gather discrete phenomenon into a unity and then ascribe to that entity an intentionality and/or agency.

Weirdly, as I am just now catching up on my reading from LAST Sunday, I noticed a few paragraphs in the NYT magazine that put what I just said more lucidly. It's from the article "Darwin’s God" by Robin Henig, a longish piece that examines why every human culture seems to dream that we have a divinity shaping our ends. Here is a short section that in the "agent detection" portion gets at what I was trying to say ("nature" can substitute for god in the following for scientists/atheists/agnostics):
Hardships of early human life favored the evolution of certain cognitive tools, among them the ability to infer the presence of organisms that might do harm, to come up with causal narratives for natural events and to recognize that other people have minds of their own with their own beliefs, desires and intentions. Psychologists call these tools, respectively, agent detection, causal reasoning and theory of mind.

Agent detection evolved because assuming the presence of an agent — which is jargon for any creature with volitional, independent behavior — is more adaptive than assuming its absence. If you are a caveman on the savannah, you are better off presuming that the motion you detect out of the corner of your eye is an agent and something to run from, even if you are wrong. If it turns out to have been just the rustling of leaves, you are still alive; if what you took to be leaves rustling was really a hyena about to pounce, you are dead.

A classic experiment from the 1940s by the psychologists Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel suggested that imputing agency is so automatic that people may do it even for geometric shapes. For the experiment, subjects watched a film of triangles and circles moving around. When asked what they had been watching, the subjects used words like “chase” and “capture.” They did not just see the random movement of shapes on a screen; they saw pursuit, planning, escape.

So if there is motion just out of our line of sight, we presume it is caused by an agent, an animal or person with the ability to move independently. This usually operates in one direction only; lots of people mistake a rock for a bear, but almost no one mistakes a bear for a rock.

What does this mean for belief in the supernatural? It means our brains are primed for it, ready to presume the presence of agents even when such presence confounds logic. “The most central concepts in religions are related to agents,” Justin Barrett, a psychologist, wrote in his 2004 summary of the byproduct theory, “Why Would Anyone Believe in God?” Religious agents are often supernatural, he wrote, “people with superpowers, statues that can answer requests or disembodied minds that can act on us and the world.”

A second mental module that primes us for religion is causal reasoning. The human brain has evolved the capacity to impose a narrative, complete with chronology and cause-and-effect logic, on whatever it encounters, no matter how apparently random. “We automatically, and often unconsciously, look for an explanation of why things happen to us,” Barrett wrote, “and ‘stuff just happens’ is no explanation. Gods, by virtue of their strange physical properties and their mysterious superpowers, make fine candidates for causes of many of these unusual events.”

OK, that is quite simplified, but it makes the point that often when humans think they are perceiving agency and unity (as in God, Nature, or Evolution as volitionally-driven pre-existent things) they are in fact indulging in some retroactive positing and colelctivizing.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

PS I am not saying that god or nature or evolution are wholly intentionless -- not at all -- but that they (to the extent that they exist as things) are really heterogeneous alliances of forces and have multiple, often quite conflicting intentions (or directions). Sometimes our shorthand designations for such things give them an ontology/solidity/unity that they don't (it seems to me) really possess.

Anonymous said...

I wanted to confirm what I suspected you were arguing before asking these impertinent questions:

This "human predilection" as you call it, is it a good thing or a bad thing? Does it vary culturally or historically? Ethically what are the stakes? And, most crucially, assuming that you truly believe that humans think of nature as a unity, but also that you, a human, go against the grain instead seeing everywhere "heterogeneous alliances of forces," what are the consequences of such a position for you, in the everyday? Can you provide an example of how such a position has helped you or others?

I'm not trying to be a dick here--these are the sorts of questions, but posed much more sharply, that I'll be asking at the Zoo. It seems that what you're saying could be significant, but there is as yet no way to tell unless there is some follow-through concerning how such a perspective might matter.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

I don't think it's a matter of such a tendency being good or bad. Is agent ascription useful? I guess so. Is it ethically suspect? I have no idea. Could be. Cultural and historical effects? Variable, I would imagine, but probably typically similar (actually, the materials I've quote state the effects are similar across time and culture and I don't have a compelling reason to be dubious). Consequences for observers who throughout history have glimpsed multiplicity and multidirectionality in supposed unities like nature, evolution, divinity: probably not huge, don't really know. Does it help me or others? Probably not a lot. It's not exactly secret or arcane knowledge, so I'd say that like anything that can be learned as part of a science or psychology curriculum or whatever it can be helpful in some contexts and a trivia fact in others.

Seems like you're driving at something I am missing?

Anonymous said...

I see. For me, what you pose--the tendency of humans to retroactively assign unity and agency to nature--has some serious implications for how we relate to the world.

Let me try this: Biology, as you doubtless know, describes the human organism as a collection of cells composed of molecules and atoms. All of these elements are in constant flux, and simple reflection demonstrates that the boundary between the human body and its environment is actually quite arbitrary. Example: When I hold an apple in my hand, the apple is clearly not part of "me." It remains a separate object as I chew it, and perhaps even in my stomach, when I could still throw it back up. But is the apple "me" when in my intestines? How about when the apple's sugars are circulating in my blood? Or when the energy from those sugars has gone into building new cells?

We also know that the level at which we identify "an organism" is arbitrary. An ant colony or beehive may be seen as a collection of individuals, but the communities are more meaningfully understood as complex organisms, much as our bodies can be seen as collection of interdependent cells (cf. Thomas, 1995).

So, if we take seriously the ideas that there is no bounded self (and hence no bounded nature), that the two flow into one another, that the cherished self is an event that arises when supporting conditions exist and passes when they do not, that the self is more "state" than "trait," then we have the ground for an ethical work--scholarly and/or therapeutic--where, once concerns for self-defense and narcissism are diminished, the way is clear for things like compassionate response and perception of genuine interdependence. We're talking about the work of Jean Baker Miller and Janet Surrey and others of the Stone Center at Wellesley around what they called "relational-cultural" theory and therapy (RCT). (And, of course, the tradition is only about 2500 years old [Buddhist psychology]). Miller and Stiver (1997) describe five desired outcomes of the restoration of mutual connection: 1) new energy and vitality, 2) greater capacity to act, 3) increased clarity, 4) enhanced self-worth, and 5) the desire and capacity for more connection.

Marsha Linehan's (1993) work with persons dxed w/Borderline Personality Disorder is also relevant here. Her method is derived from Buddhist and, I would argue, Gestalt frameworks.

When you translate all this into pedagogical method, as I am doing in my essay for Eileen, you come around to a highly ethical endeavor, charged in ways that the "dreamers" like Maslow (1966) and Brown (1971) were onto long ago. I am interested in the reasons we "forgot" them.


Brown, G. I. (1971). Human teaching for human learning: An introduction to confluent education. New York: Viking.

Linehan, M. M. (1993). Cognitive-behavioral treatment of Borderline Personality Disorder. New York: Guilford.

Maslow, A. The psychology of science: A reconnaissance. New York: Harper & Row.

Miller, J. B., & Stiver, I. (1997). The healing connection. Boston: Beacon Press.

Thomas, L. (1995). The lives of a cell: Notes of a biology watcher. New York: Penguin.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Wow. I thought that was beautifully put, Michael. Useful and provocative.

Karl Steel said...

I am trying to get deep into the diss., so no time to respond to this thread with what it deserves. I do have one thrust:

Imagine if someone injected their unborn fetus with jellyfish protein and then displayed that child as a work of art, online and in various "installation sites." We would think that was fucked-up and sad

This comment begins to drive at how I'd like to read the Glowing Bunny. Rather than wondering about the limits of Science and Nature or the boundaries of the self, whether human, animal, or other, rather than wondering about which 'alien' genetic material is ours and which is not, I want to push at nature itself, to lead the bunny, so to speak, where it doesn't want to go. First, I think this bunny should make us wonder, or recoil, at many purebred dogs, the small, aesthetically pleasing ones, and not simply the blue dogs of Japan; Alba should make us wonder about bulldogs and pugs, popular animals, particularly here among New York yuppies, animals full of canine joyousness but animals that are prone to respiratory disorders, animals that can be birthed only through C-Section (at least for bulldogs), animals that really should not be. Maybe. I treat the dog run at Washington Sq Park like my cheap zoo, and I see these dogs, and their pleasure is being alive is undeniable: but if they didn't exist at all, I don't think anything would be lost, at least not to them.

Which leads me to my next point, such as it is. It'd be easy to say that dogbreeding is 'unnatural' and that we should all own mutts, if we own at all. But I want to go after bringing anything into this world; I want to see Alba, or a pug, as the image of a human child. Reproduction, the foundation of the natural (and whose presence as such makes it the bete noire of Queer Theory?), is also an assault on agency, perhaps the assault on agency, that is, if we listen seriously to that teenage cliche: "I never asked to be born."

Think of this:
Alba's name was chosen by consensus between my wife Ruth, my daughter Miriam, and myself. The second phase is the ongoing debate, which started with the first public announcement of Alba's birth, in the context of the Planet Work conference, in San Francisco, on May 14, 2000. The third phase will take place when the bunny comes home to Chicago, becoming part of my family and living with us from this point on.

Note the traditional family narrative, where the glowing bunny fits nicely into the structure where a child normally would be. We have the selection of a name, the announcement, the delivery of Alba, created not so much not against but indifferently to her will, to the family. Is this not the very image of the human family (having a little chuckle at my Zizek echo), of the child thrust into this world?

This is all I have to say, for now (as the diss does call). I'm led into this discussion by two recent posts at Pandagon about abortion and disability, one by Bérubé and one by Marcotte.

Sorry for a comment that's at best evocative, but this is all I can do (right now?).