Archive for the ‘eugenics’ Category

False Front Fiction No.1: “The Orgonocrats”

September 23, 2013

This is a new idea for a series of posts. What follows is a collection of ephemera — bits and pieces of fiction projects I have started, but never managed to finish. It’s in keeping with the subtitle of this blog (“fragments”) and an attempt to exorcise some creative demons and clear the mechanism for future forays. Hope you enjoy this first offering…

This incomplete fragment of fiction (hence the “false front”) was written a few years ago and intended as the beginning of a chapter of a sci-fi novel tentatively titled “The Orgonocrats”. It was inspired by research I was doing on Wilhelm Reich, the pioneering psychiatrist who proposed the idea of “orgone energy” — a kind of life energy permeating the universe and crucial in his understanding of sexuality and health. I’ve argued in a chapter of a book I recently co-edited that he is a kind of vitalist.

The premise behind “The Orgonocrats” was pretty straightforward, if quirky. Set in the fairly near (cyberpunk-esque) future, it envisions a society heavily influenced by eugenics, genetic engineering, designer babies, and all that jazz. Sexuality for the sake of reproduction has become somewhat passe — “normal” sex is thus a kind of taboo. This is made even more problematic because STDs and the like have mutated and spread in deadly proportions. At the same time, scientists have discovered that “orgone energy” is real; that it can be harvested and distilled. And in a world of alienation and isolation it has become a very desirable substance — both as drug, and (as I was going to reveal as the novel developed) as source of almost limitless “cosmic” energy with all sorts of potential applications. It is thus the “currency” in this new society — like oil is in ours — and there are attempts to control and dominate its production and distribution. That’s where the title — “The Orgonocrats” — comes in. The reference to “unbusted” clouds is a nod to Reich’s development of a device called a “cloudbuster” (which you can still go and see) that he thought could harness orgone energy to control the weather. I was going to use this idea, and the notion also hinted at in this piece that orgone has a key spiritual component, prominently in the novel. Without further ado, here’s a fragment of chapter one — “Hell’s Altar Boy”:

1. Hell’s Altar Boy

The stars, obscured by clouds – unbusted – for years. But that didn’t prevent the search for light. The girls were glowing, ringed with the rapture. Those Sisters of the Cosmic Embrace were cute, boy. All dressed (if that’s what you could call it) in slick sheer silver sass and high black bitch boots. Two of them were standing in front of a small marquee some clever, pseudo-literate wag had arranged to read: “Cum commune with the cosmos…”. But Mako didn’t have the “sense”, and rubbing wasn’t on his mind.

The Church of the Cosmic Embrace was tucked in a dark alley, indistinguishable from the rest of the rotting relics of the age of guns, germs and steel. No shiny glass and synth-ceramic bizboy arcologies around these parts. Just lots of forgotten middle tech, crumbling red brick and human detritus…And the sisters.

One of them moved into the alley to intercept Mako; A tall girl, no more than nineteen, but looking like she’d been to hell and back with a smile on her face – maybe she had. Her long, full, firm thighs were exposed and pale, framed by short shiny hot pants and high-heeled boots, laced about fifty times all the way up over her knees. Above a wide clear plastic belt was a stretch of creamy bare midriff, soft but tight, and a half-hearted silver sequin halter, barely covering the bottom of her big, round breasts. They spilled out of the top too, creamy quarts of fulsome flesh. Her hair was high and elaborate, like a blond bird of paradise, little twisty tendrils dangling alluringly at her temples. She completed the look with dark red-black lipstick, fake lashes and too much azure eye shadow.

“You looked charged up,” she said, smiling widely and reaching for his arm.

“Got places to go,” Mako replied, stopping at her touch but still half-turned to head down the alley, away from the sisterly temptress and her curvaceous cadre.

“Can take you wherever you want,” she beamed up at him, leading his eyes with her obscenely long silver painted nails. They slid sharply down from his temple to the collar of his weathered leather jacket. “And bring you back, too.”

“Sorry,” he turned to go, gently brushing her claws away from his face.

“What are you afraid of?” The girl asked, taking a different, more challenging tangent. This caught the attention of her companion, a shorter redhead with heavenly hips and hypnotic green eyes.

“Nothing” Mako replied. “I’m in the same business as you, just have better guarantees.” He reached into his jean pocket for something.

The girl panicked a little and stepped back, her thick-lash-framed eyes widening apprehensively. A professional, Mako knew she sensed a deal going bad. But not in the way she thought…

His hand came out with a small chrome vial, about twice the size of his index finger, with a bright, sharp digital readout along its side.

Just as the big blonde was about to shriek with fear, her petite redheaded friend came up behind her and touched her lightly on the shoulder, briefly startling her but also calming her.

“This is Mako,” the redhead said. “He’s a loan shark.”

Mako looked down at the vial in his hand, and reflected on how accurate that description was. “Lone” indeed.

Suddenly the sultry seller became a potential customer, as Mako uttered the simplest of pitches: “You want some?” He was deadpan, as if he didn’t care whether she bought from him or not. Someone always eventually, and eagerly, did.

“What is it?” the girl asked. Looking somewhat innocently from Mako back to her friend. Like a deer caught in headlights, this one. He looked over at the redhead and shook his head in disbelief.

“If you don’t know, you probably don’t want any.” The redhead intoned, trying to wake her luscious blonde friend from a stupor. Mako could already see she was hypnotically drawn to the vial in his hand. This was the part that always amazed him.

“You girls give it away in the ‘spirit’ of the church, or whatever they’re calling it these days. This is Holy Water to you, sugar.” He was being too cute – this poor creature was like a pretty pet. But the redhead might be more feral.

“Listen, Mako, we don’t need your theology lesson tonight, hun.” “Why don’t you keep rolling…” As if on queue, he thought.

“Right…Like I said, got places to be.” True enough. He turned to go.

“Is that pure o-gone?” The blonde asked, her mascara-laden eyes wide with amazement.

Mako spun back around with a devilish grin slowly spreading across his face. “Sure is.” He said…

Romantic Science Revisited

December 6, 2009

More on vitalism and romantic science, by way of another review of Richard Holmes’ The Age of Wonder, this one in City Journal magazine. I’ve mentioned Holmes on science and romanticism here and here. This reviewer remarks on the double-edged sword of the Romantic and its unbridled literary and cultural manifestations:

“The organic vitalism of the Romantics did something to correct what Cardinal Newman called the ‘dry and superficial’ thinking of the eighteenth century. But the Romantic approach held its own dangers. It is one thing to seek the secret of life, another to dabble in diablerie. Romantic wonder is closely connected to Romantic nightmare. The literary monsters of Byron, Beckford, and Mary Shelley find a political counterpart in the monstrous qualities of Bismarck’s German Reich, and perhaps a scientific one in the temptations of today’s genetic technology. It’s easy to play God, but difficult to keep hold of one’s beast.”

This idea of science as not just wonder but a darker incarnation of the psyche is a warning worthy of somber reflection in our hyper-technological age.

This Little Piggy is a Mutant

December 9, 2007

For the advancement of biomedical research and perhaps also in a unreported quest to produce the perfect Christmas ham — my alma mater has seen fit to clone pigs. I’m a fan of Babe too, but this pushes the bounds of necessity. Do we really “need” to clone pigs, or is this just some procedural publicity stunt? Look everybody, we can clone stuff! Neat!

Reading the fine print of the article and discovering that 17 pigs were cloned but only 10 remain because the research group decided to dissect 7 “copies” for the sake of medical curiosity (and to make sure they weren’t horrible mutants…) makes my anti-vivisectionist hackles go up. I mean, I ate bacon and ham today, but this sort of morbid Frankenporker stuff is a bit much. Qui bono? To push the porcine final frontier of medical research (you know, like Pigs…in…Space) when basic health care is sometimes still a hurdle? Hubris, plain and simple.

Curious to reflect on this minor science news story within the larger framework of the Global Day of Action on Climate Change. Superficially unrelated, there is a sense in which these two stories are symptomatic of the same problem — a basic perception that the natural world is all just a giant science project. These challenges — of environmental catastrophe and our ethically unlimited techno-scientific enterprise — are essentially linked. Like sausages.

Besides, cloning pigs? Really? So we can do what — create Homer Simpson’s ideal “magical animal”? Or determine the environmental factors that distinguish a Snowball from a Napoleon? Seems pretty ham-fisted to me.

Starling

November 10, 2007

I had a revelation about nature today. Walking back from the Lachine Canal I saw a group of European Starlings fighting over a chicken carcass. The thing about starlings is, that, like most of us, they’re not supposed to be here. Every European Starling in North America is a descendant of somewhere between 60 and 100 (reports vary) birds released into Central Park in the early 1890s. They are, in ecologist’s parlance, an “invasive species“. In this respect, we’re kissing cousins.

So, anyway, the starling now numbers some 200,000,000 or thereabouts, and is widespread. It’s one of the commonest birds in North America. I’ve seen them everywhere, from the mean streets of Pointe St. Charles to the highest mountaintops of the Rockies, to the beautiful shores of Vancouver Island. They’re the bird from central casting. Ubiquitous, chirpy and altogether plain.

The starlings hovering around the carcass were, I reflected, descendants of the few dozen foolishly released by a certain bozo (operating on the bizarre notion that all the birds mentioned in Shakespeare should be introduced to the New World…). Thriving because of their versatility. Traveling in noisy little gangs, European Starlings are perversely pesky — whistling at and cajoling local cats, intimidating squirrels, and overwhelming sparrows. When a group is around, you know it. Strangely, in this respect, they’re kind of like New Yorkers…Or really all Americans…

In perfect Social Darwinian fashion the starlings I watched today seemed far too busy bullying, thrusting, squawking, posturing, positioning and generally acting greedy, selfish and individualistic. None of them was eating much of anything.

If Aesop had written this fable a dog would have come by to snatch away the carcass, leaving the starlings hungry and outfoxed, so to speak. But, alas, they’re the master scavengers of the urban landscape, and manage to make a meal out of the littlest specks and crumbs. Like locusts with beaks.

Sad, really, as they have been one of the main sources of songbird decline, pushing more particular (and too-brightly colored) birds to the edge of scarcity. A monolithic monochrome army with wings.

Metaphor for the decline of diversity in general. But also a stern warning about ill-conceived attempts to guide the processes of nature. Frightening to think how some of the species adapted, changed, introduced or cloned today will impact the world 100 years from now.

The lesson of the humble starling is sure to seem quaint in comparison.

Next, Please

November 3, 2007

So, given how things were lost last Friday, cette semaine I decided to lay low and try my hand at some culture. In our era of technological determinism, that means watching a DVD: Next with Nicholas Cage. I like his permanently confused approach, and it was mildly effective in this film whose script was loosely based on a Philip K. Dick story, “The Golden Man”. Appreciated the ambiguous ending — unusual for a contemporary American blockbuster (funny that word, been thinking about its etymology a bit lately…). In the end, however, it was really just so-so.

Best film I’ve seen of late was the re-make of 3:10 to Yuma, which carries the tradition of westerns in fine form. Genre, but good genre. Originally from the pen of Elmore Leonard. A gritty pleasure to watch in an age of blue screens and CGI. Nice to see something that has a little texture. To boot, Russell Crowe is a bloody force of nature.

Maybe we just prefer more escapism when our real lives have plenty of texture.

Eugenics, Again

September 20, 2007

An interesting article in Dissent on the pro-choice movement and the “new” eugenics, found by way of Arts & Letters Daily. There are some thorny issues here, which the author effectively touches on. What isn’t discussed is the situation outside North America, which has a distinct flavor depending on the country concerned. Eugenics is one of those things that amalgamates uniquely in different cultural contexts. That is to say that like everything else, it has a history.

A poorly understood issue, and one I’ve talked about before. For those who might be curious to do some digging, I’m also including another [patented] bibliography; a tight, one-page synthesis of the key texts perused in preparation for a research proposal written in 2004 to do public policy work (I was a different person then, I swear…) relating to the issue of eugenics. One caveat…The proposal made it past the first couple of cuts, but didn’t get selected. Maybe that’s because I slapped it together in a week while riding the commuter train from the banlieu of Paris during a research trip…

The “New” Eugenics: State, Sterilization and the Individual

Mark B. Adams, ed., The Wellborn Science: Eugenics in Germany, France, Brazil, and Russia (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990).

Edwin Black, War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create a Master Race (New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 2003).

Gunnar Broberg and Nils Roll-Hansen, eds., Eugenics and the Welfare State: Sterilization Policy in Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Finland (East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 1996).

G. K. Chesterton, Eugenics and Other Evils (London: Cassell, 1922).

Troy Duster, Backdoor to Eugenics (London: Routledge, 2003).

Francis Galton, Inquiries into Human Faculty and its Development (London: Macmillan, 1883).

Allen E. Garland, “Is a New Eugenics Afoot?” Science 294 (2001), 59-61.

Joseph L. Graves, The Emperor’s New Clothes: Biological Theories of Race at the Millennium (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2001).

Jürgen Habermas, The Future of Human Nature (Malden, MA: Polity, 2003).

J. B. S. Haldane, Human Biology and Politics (London: British Science Guild, 1934).

Marouf Arif Hasian, The Rhetoric of Eugenics in Anglo-American Thought (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1996).

Daniel J. Kevles, In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity (New York: Knopf, 1985).

Daniel J. Kevles, “Eugenics and Human Rights,” British Medical Journal 319 (1999), 435-38.

Daniel J. Kevles and Leroy Hood, eds., The Code of Codes: Scientific and Social Issues in the Human Genome Project (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992).

Edward J. Larson, Sex, Race, and Science: Eugenics in the Deep South (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995).

Thomas Robert Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population: As it Affects the Future Improvement of Society, With Remarks on the Speculations of Mr. Godwin, M. Condorcet, and Other Writers (London: J. Johnson, 1798).

Pauline M. H. Mazumdar, Eugenics, Human Genetics and Human Failings: The Eugenics Society, its Source and its Critics in Britain (London: Routledge, 1992).

Angus McLaren, Our Own Master Race: Eugenics in Canada, 1885-1945 (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1990).

Diane B. Paul, The Politics of Heredity: Essays on Eugenics, Biomedicine, and the Nature-Nurture Debate (New York: State University of New York Press, 1998).

Dorothy Porter, Health, Civilization, and the State: A History of Public Health from Ancient to Modern Times (London: Routledge, 1999).

Nils, Roll-Hansen, “Eugenics in Scandinavia after 1945: Change of Values and Growth in Knowledge,” Scandinavian Journal of History 24 (1999), 199-213.

Nancy Stepan, The Hour of Eugenics: Race, Gender, and Nation in Latin America (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991).

Alexandra Stern, Mestizophilia, Biotypology, and Eugenics in Post-revolutionary Mexico: Towards a History of Science and the State, 1920-1960 (Chicago: Dept. of History, University of Chicago, n.d.).

Stephen Trombley, The Right to Reproduce: A History of Coercive Sterilization (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1988).

Peter Weingart, “Science and Political Culture: Eugenics in Comparative Perspective,” Scandinavian Journal of History 24 (1999), 163-177.

As you may have surmised, there was going to be some specific focus on Scandinavia…

Eugenics Timeline

April 19, 2007

Found this interesting historical timeline of eugenics. It starts with Sparta (those guys again…) and ends with cloned sheep. Something ironic about that…

To associate the term “eugenics” with the ancient Greeks is a bit of a misnomer (even though the word comes from the Greek for “well-born”) — what Plato discusses in the Republic is more social control than eugenics. Actually, understood historically, it’s neither. Eugenics (as noted here) only has meaning in relation to the rise of modern, industrial nation-state structures. Without that framework, it couldn’t thrive. It is, after all, not clearly distinguishable from the 19th century institutionalization of madness and mental illness so scathingly criticized by Foucault and others…

Eugenics seems passe. This may not be so. In fact, eugenics is transforming rapidly (critics talk of “liberal eugenics”), and through its association with our (now daily) revolutions in genetic and reproductive technology, looms menacingly over our age. But we know better than all those people a hundred years ago, so it’s OK.

Besides, now we’re on the cusp of being able to clone Spartans. That’s great…Don’t you think?

Georgia On My Mind

February 16, 2007

I love Georgia…It’s one of the most beautiful states in the union. I first tagged along with my mom on a business trip to Atlanta in about 1987…I remember Peachtree Plaza, watching Dominique Wilkins and the Hawks beat the San Antonio Spurs, and a steak dinner fit for a king. Since then, I’ve been back many times, and spent lengthy periods in the late-90s exploring the meandering banks of the Chattahoochee River around Atlanta while visiting. I’ve seen most of the state, from the Smoky Mountains in the upcountry north to the beautiful squares and gardens (and Oglethorpes…) of the coastal low country in Savannah and environs.

All this to say I appreciate the subtleties and varieties of the southern experience. I’m no southerner, mind you, but I understand the sense of history and nostalgia that pervades this part of the U.S., despite ill-conceived tangents…

It thus comes as a pleasant surprise that the Georgia state legislature has decided to debate the idea of an apology for the eugenic sterilization programs carried out there in the interwar years. The Atlanta Journal Constitution has a piece about it here. There’s also an op-ed in the Macon Telegraph that makes a simple, but thoroughly worthwhile, point. The history of eugenics is something I know a bit about — to me the whole idea of its past popularity symbolizes the most misguided and hubristic aspects of state-sanctioned science and its human costs.

Eugenics was a widespread phenomena in the west (and beyond…countries like Brazil had eugenics programs, too — partly in an effort to emulate the progress-loving west), and its history in the deep south is well documented in Edward J. Larson’s Sex, Race and Science: Eugenics in the Deep South (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995). More general introductions can be found in the work of Daniel J. Kevles, and Stephen Jay Gould talks about eugenics in his classic The Mismeasure of Man. They’re all worth a look.

In the end it doesn’t really matter whether the legislature apologizes or not (apologies for historical injustices have limited meaning anyway, and are too often thinly veiled publicity stunts…) — the mere fact of it being made an issue and placed into the mainstream public sphere is an accomplishment. Sure, there may be conflicting reasons for doing so (heck, perhaps the right to life people are driving it…), but if the end result is a few more people aware of and perhaps even vigilant about the often dangerous relationship between science and the state, then so much the better. I think that’s just peachy.


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