Monthly Archives: April 2014

Emily Anthes, Frankenstein’s Cat

Here, kitty kitty.

There’s not much to dislike about this painstakingly innocuous book, although there’s not much to feel strongly about either way–which is also essentially Anthes’s thesis: biotechnology is neither good nor bad; it’s a tool, and, as with any tool, we ought to think carefully about how we wield it.

Fair enough, and awfully hard to object to or muster up much enthusiasm about. Most disappointingly for me, Anthes never makes good on her allusion to Frankenstein. That’s a shame, because exploring in more depth the history of human objections to interspecies meddling might have given her argument more teeth, if only by introducing a coherent interlocutor. As it is, we never quite get a sense of the naysayers she’s addressing, aside from a little hemming and hawing from bioethicists and letter-writing whack-jobs.

Here’s an excellent example of style and content:

What’s more, genes from different species sometimes mingle in the natural world. Animals occasionally pursue torrid interspecies affairs, giving us ligers and tigons and zorses. (Oh my!) Different species of bacteria can spontaneously swap DNA in the wild, or transfer novel genes into insects, worms, and other animals … We can change animals faster and in more profound ways than nature does on its own, but the point is that there’s nothing inherently sacred about a species’s genome–it’s an amorphous, ever-changing thing.

Anthes’s main point here is that human genetic modification is not inherently different from “natural” genetic modification because species aren’t actually genetically discrete. But she deflates this bracing and necessary corrective with the punchy, coy language of an extended blog post. It’s almost as though she’s trying to head off criticism of the book’s science through gee-whiz wonder directed at innocuous targets: wirelessly controlled cockroaches, GloFish, and robo-rats, all of which get more genuine enthusiasm than the more useful but also more controversial possibilities of, say, using animals to produce medicines.

This is a decent introductory book, but I came away feeling that I hadn’t learned much beyond a few anecdotes. The one moment that generated a spark of excitement was this, which in modified form I used to say to undergrads:

Repugnance may be a good spark for public dialogue, but it shouldn’t be a substitute for it. Acting in an ethical manner sometimes requires rising above raw emotion … an emotional reaction [shouldn’t be] a replacement for moral and ethical reasoning.

Feeling may be first, but, pace e. e. cummings, it certainly shouldn’t be last.

Other Reviews


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Seriously, let it go

disney-frozen_elsa-wideEveryone (and by everyone, I mean a small portion of the Internet) is going on and on about whether Disney movies, and specifically Frozen, and even more specifically “Let It Go,” are secretly pro-gay propaganda. To which I say: obviously they are, if by “pro-gay propaganda” you mean that they forward a generically digestible message of self-acceptance and self-actualization.

The problem with insisting that “Let It Go” is a coming-out anthem is that, as an interpretive move, it replicates the errors of undergraduate literary criticism by insisting that texts are encoded messages that can be unlocked with a secret key, like a treasure map or a cipher. Even a mediocre-but-catchy Disney song is more complex than that. Personally, I find it more compelling as an expression of puberty–moving from the trope of virginal and untouched childhood to the so-called “natural” rhythms of womanhood (“I am one with the wind and rain”, and so on), but I’m certainly not going to deny anyone their interpretation.

Instead, I would suggest that reading Disney movies as pro-gay is just a little tired. It’s much more interesting to turn the analogy around–to reverse the vehicle and tenor–and say that “gayness” is the dominant trope of 21st century America. Thanks to a long tradition of American Protestantism, we’ve been conditioned to value a radical individualism that insists each person has a unique soul and a special set of gifts (a “talent,” in the Biblical language of Milton; a “power” in the language of today’s oh-so-popular superhero movies). In fact, by denying her family in order to live true to her own principles and values, Elsa is actually performing the radical severance that Christianity requires: “And every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life.” In the logic of the movie, she’s mistaken, but I think the comparison stands. 

“Let It Go” might be a coming-out anthem, but only because it uses the tropes of coming out as shorthand for self-acceptance. It certainly says something about contemporary culture–both religious and not–that sexual behavior is the most available way to represent being true to one’s self.

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An engaged audience is a disengaged public

Chris asked me the other night what I thought the opening of House of Cards was telling us, and in fact I think the credits are telling us quite a lot. They’re crystal clear and sped up: we see cars flashing through the capitol’s arteries, clouds contracting and expanding across the sky, trees quivering, day turning into night.

It’s a hyperreality that, taken together, reads as a distancing mechanism. It aestheticizes the show, stripping meaning from the content of the scenes in just the same way that the show itself does. As more than one critic has pointed out, the people of House of Cards are more like chess pieces than characters: agents without agency, pieces the writers move around in order to simulate the prestige dramas of cable networks in the same way that the House Whip moves magnets back and forth to signal the shifting allegiances of a political body concerned with power rather than efficacy, with form rather than content.

House of Cards is a show for generation willing to be outraged but not to act out that outrage. It’s designed to provoke audience engagement, which is precisely the opposite of political engagement. We discuss the political machinations and policies on comment boards and at wine parties instead of discussing actual politics, not apathetic but disenfranchised. Policymic has concluded that we’re not a democracy; House of Cards proves it.

In fact, we could say that House of Cards represents a certain kind of hollowing out: it removes the core of the prestige dramas it strives to imitate, creating a simulacrum of a show rather than the show itself. In a post-industrial America, with a hollowed-out middle class, a hollowed-out economy, and a hollowed-out infrastructure, House of Cards might not the kind of TV show we need, but it’s certainly the kind we deserve.

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formula feedingI’ve been doing a crash Google course in decision-making over the past three days, in the process of which I ran across both the Good Judgement Project and Penelope Trunk’s piece on trendspotting. Setting aside the absurdity of comparing the anecdotes of a deliberately trollish blogger with the measurable statistics of a researcher-led project, both the blog article and the judgement project pointed out that, given access to the same information, some people are better than others at forecasting. It’s unclear why, but my off-hand thought is that forecasting success depends on the same skills that underlie “intuition”: implicit recognition memory and the ability to spot patterns.

In any case, my only real claim to trendspotting bona fides is that I bought a pair of platform flip-flops a few weeks before everyone else in my high school did. That said, here are two random trends that I predict will be big in 2015:

(1) Formula feeding in the upper middle class. Research is increasingly showing that breastfeeding isn’t really all it’s cracked up to be, unless you’re talking about cracked nipples. (Just to be clear, I nursed my daughter for 26 months.) Upper middle class white ladies are urged to lean in, which is generally incompatible with extended breastfeeding unless you’re literally Sheryl Sandburg and can force your employees to meet you at your house. Added to that, evangelical mommy blogs are spending a lot of time talking about breastfeeding. Conclusion: formula feeding will become a way of signaling that we’re all much too busy and important to nurse.

(2) The name Jane. Fancy nineteenth century names have been back in for a while now–Penelope, Eleanor, and Charlotte are all name that we considered for our kid–so naturally normcore names are next. Once Kate Middleton names her kid George, can the world be far behind?


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From naturecore to normcore

Liz Lemon is my fashion icon #kiddingnotkidding

The New York Times’s example of normcore

The New York Times, of the “find three people and call it a trend” approach to style journalism, has up today a lengthy meditation about “normcore”: does it really exist, or is it simply a big in-joke? Is it a trend, or is it, in Alex Williams’s words, a “hypothetical movement that turns into a real movement through the power of sheer momentum”?

A little backstory: the word “normcore” was apparently invented by a firm of brand consultants, who wrote up a description of the so-called trend in a report as part of a London-based art project. In this articulation, normcore was supposed to be a “sociological attitude” rather than a “fashion trend”: in other words, normcore dosen’t signal a specific style so much as a stance, a way of participating in the mainstream rather than deliberately seeking subculture expertise and identification. One journalist cited in the article dismisses the idea that normcore could be a trend, because the whole point of normcore is that you dress to fit in, not to stand out: you wear a trucker hat to a NASCAR race and JINCOs to a rave.

Setting aside the irony of the New York Times conducting an ontological investigation into the nature of trends, the article misses a key assumption of fashion theory: there’s no such thing as outside fashion. “Normal” clothes don’t exist in some a priori mall that the Liz Lemons of the world inhabit and that hipsters can access when artisanal pickles become too mainstream. There’s no difference between “sociological attitudes” and “fashion trends”; ignoring trends is a trend.

"Contrive, if you can, not to look hampered in your own cravat"About 180 years ago, Catherine Gore’s 1841 novel Cecil took a nostalgic-slash-horrified retrospective view of the Regency of 40 years earlier, in the same way that we look back at the loose morals and unrestrained public hair of the 1970s. At one point early on, when Gore is still setting up the thematic interests of her three-volume novel, the fashionable Lady Harriet educates Cecil, a young “puppy” who keeps giving her the elaborate compliments that would have been popular forty decades before the Regency, in the up-to-date fashions of the times. As Lady Harriet explains, Cecil’s stiff compliments and stiffer cravat are really not the thing: “We are all pretending to be natural with all our might, till the affectation of nature has become as natural as any other affection” (74).

Hot off a busy decade of writing fashionable novels, Gore understood perfectly well that being “natural” is just another trend. See, being out of fashion isn’t the same as being outside of fashion. You might be out of fashion, but you’re never out of the fashion system; the whole system survives by continually bring in what was formerly out. Normcore is nothing more than Regency naturecore rebranded, the very definition of a trend.



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