October 2011 Archives

In the news 10/16/11

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Lit review: The Cinematic Life of the Gene: Chapter 1

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Stacey, Jackie. The Cinematic Life of the Gene. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010.

Chapter 1: The Hell of the Same: Cloning, Baudrillard, and the Queering of Biology

This chapter is a close reading of Jean Baudrillard's writing on cloning, largely pulling from his 2002 work Screened Out. Using what Stacey calls his "discursive excess" (20), Baudrillard argues that the specter of cloning threatens to reverse evolution and annihilate that which makes our species successful: sexual difference. He positions cloning as a yearning to revert back to our "primitive" beginnings as self-replicating, undifferentiated single-celled organisms, erasing "the greatest revolution in the history of living beings," sexual reproduction (25).

Baudrillard describes this evolutionary step as the real sexual revolution. Further, he argues that the "sexual liberation"—that of birth control, feminism, and queer theory— is completely opposed to the evolutionary sexual revolution. Through its embrace of sameness, "[s]exual liberation, the so-called crowning achievement of the evolution of sexed forms of life, marks, in its full consequences, the end of the sexual revolution" (33). Stacey writes that Baudrillard "elevates heterosexuality to the foundational cornerstone of civilization" (30) and believes "[f]eminism and genetic engineering are united in their mission to undo the basic foundations of nature and culture and to dislodge sexual difference as the cornerstone of civilization" (33). Baudrillard's writing and the larger "genetic imaginary" show a "profound anxiety about the destabilization of sexual difference as the cornerstone of culture and about the introduction of unnatural forms which separate sexuality, reproduction, procreation, and kinship" (33).

Mystical pregnancy in Angel and Torchwood

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Screenshot from TorchwoodIn both the Angel episode "Expecting" and the Torchwood episode "Something Borrowed," main characters wake up 8 1/2 months pregnant after a night out drinking with friends. In "Something Borrowed," Gwen is bitten on the arm by a carnivorous shape-shifting alien she and her partner are hunting. That bite transfers eggs to her bloodstream which move to her uterus and begin to grow—quickly. Though the alien who bites Gwen is killed, its mate tracks down Gwen, intending to tear the eggs from her when they are mature. Oh, by the way, this is all happening on Gwen's wedding day.

screenshot from AngelIn "Expecting," the demon womb invasion happens via traditional human sex; the demon uses human males (who are in on the plot) as vehicles to impregnate human women. After sex with the man she is dating, Cordelia wakes up with seven little demons in her uterus. This also happens to the friends she was out with the night before and several other women.

Gwen is allowed more agency than Cordelia throughout the respective episode, though this would be true in many episodes of the shows. Cordelia's pregnancy is also a vehicle for the demon "father" to control both her mind and her body through a "psychic umbilical cord," while Gwen retains control. The solution to each pregnancy is to destroy the alien or demon who caused it. While Cordelia (under the mental influence of the demon) waits passive in a white gown while her two co-workers kill the demon, she does get to play a small part in its destruction: once it has been frozen to death with liquid nitrogen, she swings the pulley that smashes it to bits. Gwen devises a plan to kill the demon (using her wedding bouquet to conceal a gun) but the demon doesn't die. In the end, her male boss kills it and her husband destroys the eggs.

Ectogenesis in Brave New World

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cover of Brave New WorldAldous Huxley's stark dystopia Brave New World has had immense impact on way people think about a future with ectogenesis (external wombs). In the book, reproduction is carried out on an assembly line, and "Bokanovsky's process" is employed to make embryos bud into as many as ninety-six separate fetuses. Those destined for the lower classes are doused with alcohol and radiation to make sure their mental capacity is low. Rapidly maturing eggs (along with bokanovskification) allows them to get an "average of nearly eleven thousand brothers and sisters in a hundred and fifty batches of identical twins, all within two years of the same age" (Huxley 4). These people are created for factory work. The Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning can barely contain his excitement when he describes social stability as "ninety-six identical twins working ninety-six identical machines!" (4).

It is clear that no one is going to come out very well in this book, but what particular effects did Huxley see when women no longer give birth? In his world, freeing women from biological reproduction has not freed them from much else. Seventy percent of the women in this society are sterilized, and the other thirty percent subjected to rigorous and ongoing birth control training. With pregnancy divorced from sex, free love is encouraged, but as June Deery points out, "For women, it seems, 'free love' means always having to say yes." Thus middle-class worker Lenina "has to dope herself before having sex with a highly-placed male, but we don't see a man prostituting himself in this fashion" (Deery 261). Women are expected to be constantly sexually available and are discussed as objects. In one conversation a male character says to another: "Oh, she's a splendid girl. Wonderfully pneumatic. I'm surprised you haven't had her." The other replies "I can't think how it is I haven't. I certainly will. At the first opportunity" (Huxley 29).

In the news 10/3/11

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Recent articles directly or vaguely related to my areas of interest.

Astronaut Anna FisherThose writing our laws and funding our research have tough decisions to make about reproductive technologies. When it comes down to it, the task is to make decisions about technologies that are not yet available, based on how they will work in a society not yet conceived. As Michelle Stanworth writes, “By altering the boundaries between the biological and the social—by demanding human decision when previously there was biological destiny—the new technologies politicize issues concerning sexuality, reproduction, parenthood and the family” (2). Science is on the cusp of discoveries that might present women with the choice of internal or external gestation, conception with two eggs instead of an egg and a sperm, interspecies surrogacy, and a host of other options once explored only in the pages of science fiction. What is clear is that the decisions made and the research allowed in the next few decades will alter more than just pregnancy. The more complex the question “Where did I come from?,” the more possibilities there are for “Where are we going?”