barricades and the lady with heart trouble

Posted in Uncategorized on March 30, 2010 by kan9us

“Women were taught how to be good consumers by buying the best products for the best price, just as any factory purchaser would do for his business. This disciplinary logic of the household made for an immediate association between protection of the home from an invasion of anything inferior or impure, and fear of the consequences of failure. Not only would an inability to stem the invasive tide of germs have a physical consequence for the health of the family, it would also cause a collapse of identity and social position.” (Critical Art Ensemble in Tactical Biopolitics 2008: 418)

In speaking to the discussion of fear and bodily boundaries presented in Bioparanoia and the Culture of Control, I would like to draw your attention to an ad that appeared in the June 1934 edition of McCall’s magazine.

The enlarged text can be read here

This ad, which features a forlorn woman puzzling over her marital woes, is framed as thirteenth in a series of “frank talks by eminent women physicians.” This makes it appear as though it is an authoritative health discussion rather than a product advertisement, obscuring the financial motives behind it. Indeed, as the above quote highlights, there appears to have been a conflation between consumerism and cleanliness, and keeping up with the Jones’ was both a monetary competition and a moral act. Failing to heed one’s mandate of maintaining medical-grade hygiene in all spheres of life (including the euphemistic “marital hygiene”) could lead to a “wretched marriage”, and all the social stigma that came attached.

In discussing the germ frenzy, CAE argue that growth of the disinfectant industry relies on “wasted activity – cleaning that which no longer needs cleaning” (419). Not just that which no longer requires it, but that which never did require such efforts also must fall under the industry’s advertising domain. Areas of the body that are now referred to as self-cleaning, often using metaphors of ecological balance wherein various species of bacteria and yeast coexist in unending competition (including this one  which refers to it as a life-long relationship we have with our “sea of microorganisms”) became the target of a series of ads for products such as lysol, or marvel hygiene spray . For such ads to be effective, however, fear must be instilled. The vagina has “hidden folds” where germs lurk threatening to turn marriages sour. The fear of gossip threatening ones social standing is used in this ad, which ironically frames douche use as a sign that “prudishness is as obsolete as the hoop skirt.” Happiness is a disinfected vagina.

Or a sterile one, which leads me to an aside about how Lysol was also used as a spermicide to regulate timing of pregnancies. Interesting how at a time when having kids was expected, semen was likened (through practical necessity I’m sure) to germs….

In the quest to achieve a new standard of purity, the inner folds of the body were subject to increasing standards of cosmetic attention (Lysterine was developed originally as a general antiseptic and became marketed as a mouthwash just after the first World War). That was then…

While douching is no longer recommended by doctors, the antiseptic push continues. Lysterine, for example, has continued to find ways to embed its fight against halitosis into a variety of products. And for that nasty bacteria that grows in our sticky sweaty armpits? First there were deodorants, then antiperspirants and now we are starting to see clinical strength treatments against perspiration appear on the shelves of drugstores (for ladies who don’t just glisten, they sweat!). No longer can we simply mask our stink with other stinks as the increase in chemical sensitivities pushes more and more places to instill rules against chemical scents (a trend I will not be fighting against!).  We can no longer mask our stink.  We must fight it.  We are forming barricades. Antiseptics keep germs out as we block our pores to keep sweat in.

In discussing this history, CAE argues that “eventually the antiseptic era of medicine gave way to the aseptic era, in which bacterial contamination was intentionally and actively avoided, and antiseptics were used as a second line of defense. This was the upside” (417). While avoiding infectious disease is most certainly a laudable goal, I question whether avoidance of the dirt and grime that makes us human is being circumvented a little too much. In addition to the immune defense argument provided briefly in the text, I would like to put forward another trend:  the increasing use of birth control methods among women that sharply reduce menstruation, such as depo provera.  By beginning this post discussing the history of Lysol in vaginas and ending it with a discussion of how menstruation is increasingly becoming optional I am not trying to argue that women are still afraid of losing social standing due to a lack of feminine hygiene.  I do, however, think that these barricades are becoming a bit intense, and I fear the next norm of personal hygiene.  It worries me when our own bodily processes become a choice and keeping up with ideals becomes more expensive and exclusive.  That being said, when I see you all on Thursday, I will be wearing deodorant.


criminal digestion

Posted in Uncategorized on March 17, 2010 by kan9us

For this weeks post I would like to direct you toward this article on the sea slug in New Scientist:

Solar Powered Sea Slug Harnesses Stolen Plant Genes

The article that accompanies it makes no mention of horizontal transfer in any other organisms except to say that “Greg Hurst of Liverpool University in the UK says that DNA jumping from one species to another is not unheard of but that normally the DNA does not appear to function in the new species.” Moreover, it is possible that they are passing the gene on to the next generation, producing both a lateral and vertical transfer of genetic material. What intrigues me the most about this particular article is that it highlights how scientists are imagining the genetic material that the slug is laterally acquiring as property of the algae, and the slug’s eating patterns as agentive (and immoral?) genetic practices. The slug is not simply acquiring genes, it is stealing them! That the transference of genes is thought of in propertied language is inherent in the term “kleptoplasty” used to describe “the phenomenon of stealing”. Despite the focus on “theft” and “stealing” in the article, the wikipedia entry for kleptoplasty refers to it as “a symbiotic phenomenon whereby plastids from algae are sequestered by host organisms”. The morality embedded in the term is thwarted through emphasis on the symbiotic relationship between organisms. Is this language usage an example of symbiopolitics? Helmreich advances Paxson’s discussion of microbiopolitics to include such interweavings of biological organisms, defining it as “the governance of relations among entangled living things” (Helmreich 2009: 15). In this article, new categories of biological agents are formulated and evaluated (not just according to anthropocentric criteria, but as anthropomorphic agents/criminals), though no discussion of human behavior enters into the discussion in this article. Interestingly, eating algae is not referred to in moralizing terms, but the incorporation of genetic material is. Genetic material is not merely a component of organisms, but property that each organism has exclusive rights to. Such a distinction between amoral and moral descriptions of organismic processes suggests to me that this phenomenon may be being experienced as a threat to the present classification paradigm.

n another article on the same enigmatic green sea slug in Wired highlights exactly that aspect: its ability to shake up boundaries between kingdoms. This article’s title says it all:Green Sea Slug is Part Animal, Part Plant

Echoing the shaking up of the tree of life caused by the platypus’ discovery in the 19th Century described by Helmreich (78), the slug, which is “shaped like a leaf itself” (a phenomenon also noted and also not well attended to in the New Scientist article) disturbs the flora/fauna barrier in a way that Zardus is quoted as referring to as a “fusion of plant and an animal”. Such an example suggests that polyglot categories (81) will indeed be necessary as scientists continue exploring genetic material.

eating animals shaped like other animals…

Posted in Uncategorized on March 10, 2010 by kan9us

In this weeks post I would like to discuss a marketing phenomenon that has puzzled me for quite some time: the marketing of processed food in animal shapes. I can think of several instances of this, from zoodles commercials featuring a small child excitedly squealing “I just had a hippopotamus for lunch” to the amazingly bizarre animal shaped chicken nuggets I once spotted in a grocery store freezer animal crackers, and vegetarian fake meats like tofurky or Dr. Praegers animal shaped vegetarian chicken nuggets. The plethora of products of this nature (particularly the animal shaped chicken!) suggests that animal consumption may indeed have a place among Taussig’s public secrets, at least among children. Indeed, the use of animal shapes by a company making food for vegetarians speaks to the disconnect between animals as cute and cuddly farm (or zoo) creatures and the food that appears on our plate, a disconnect that Shukin quotes Vialles as arguing that smell management plays an integral role in (2009: 63). Covering it in breadcrumbs surely aids in this project.

In conversation with the double entendre of rendering posed by Shukin (that is, meaning both making copies/models and the boiling down of animal remains), I would like to draw your attention toward a piece of poorly digitized nostalgia:

This video features Bill Cosby and a gaggle of children playing with Jell-O. As they pick up pieces of brightly coloured recycled animal parts cut into the shapes of animals (and interestingly, human lips, as a child gigglingly replaces her own lips with a bright red jell-o copy), the previous “first nature” existence that the product is made from is completely obscured. While this product doesn’t come pre-shaped as animals, the commercial suggests that animals are chief among the shapes they envision the consumer will cut into the product. Shukin argues that the market “fetishistically imbues commodities with a semblance of vital life while materially reducing life to the dead labor and nature of capital” (2009: 58). It appears that Kraft foods, the makers of Jell-O, did not feel that the market had imbued their product with enough life. As such, this “second life” animal product was made to remain more strongly glued together for the purpose of prompting children to reanimate the colorful Frankenstein’s monster of animal parts. What would Galvani have made of the idea to use the inherent electricity of children to induce “excited motions” in the dead? (145)

Imperialist nostalgia, Rosaldo is quoted as arguing, encompasses “an attitude of reverence toward the natural [that] developed at the same time that North Americans intensified their destruction of their human and natural environment” (278). Not all animals seem to fall into this category, however, as reverence toward animals we refer to as “livestock” are hardly revered. The children in the Jell-O commercial were not shown making shapes of cows or chicken, but birds in flight and dinosaurs, which, along with exotic animals only seen at the zoo, seem to be the preferred beasts of childhood necromancy. Indeed, the animal shaped chicken seems to point toward a disjuncture between those we eat, and those we pretend to eat (but would be horrified to see on our plates for real).

The vegetarian fake chicken in the shape of animals continues to confound me. Described on one website as “cute (and dare we say) even cuddly” suggesting that the link between eating animals and eating animal shapes does not occur to the seller. Discussing another irony, Shukin argues that “resource and animal conservation discourses need to be examined for how they may inadvertently advance rather than antagonize the hegemony of capital” (70). I question what can be done outside of, or adjacent to capital in such a way that does indeed antagonize. My sister’s kids are fond of a brand of organic cereal called “envirokids” that teaches them about habitat conservation, and a percentage of sales goes toward the WWF. This is likely exactly the type of product that Shukin would argue still operates within the rubric of capital. So I ask, what does a model look like that does not, and still is responsive to the needs of this exhausted populace?

Capitalizing on sleep deprivation … ?

Posted in Uncategorized on March 3, 2010 by kan9us

“Throughout the 1970s theorists of the new right called for a radical restructuring of the US economy. In order to reassert its world dominance, it was claimed, the United States would need to move from heavy industry to an innovation-based economy, one in which the creativity of the human mind (a resource without limits) would replace the mass-production of tangible commodities” (Cooper 2008: 18). The second report of the Club of Rome argued that “limits to growth were time-like rather than space-like (p16).

Since the ’70s, it would seem, there has been an increasing acknowledgement that the human mind does indeed have limits, and they are indeed those of time. It seems that if we go too long without rest, we break down, as the incalculable number of articles that discuss the relationship between sleep deprivation and poor learning attests (see for example: and from the past couple weeks). Possibly more worrisome, at least to the media it seems, is that it may also make you (gasp) FAT! (

That’s where this invention steps in to save our ailing minds and bodies:

That purports to allow you to achieve the equivalent of a full 8 hours of sleep in the time it takes to have a power nap through a cap that sends magnetic pulses to an area of the brain in order to produce slow wave sleep.

The full article can be read here: Sleep Machine

While this is still very much in the research phase (a number of papers have been published since this article assessing the impact of magnetic pulses to generate slow waves and its impact on later wakefulness) with no commercial applications yet, comments to this article such as this one:

speak to the perceived intersections between sleep, labour and the economy, particularly since this is a UK publication, a part of the world where they demand (and receive) considerably more vacation time. Indeed this echoes Cooper’s paraphrasing of Marx that the “capitalist promise is counterbalanced by willful deprivation, its plenitude of possible futures counteractualized as an impoverished, devastated present, always poised on the verge of depletion” (p20). The increasing attention to sleep in the media, and the exhausted fear that this device will signal the 23 hour workday suggests that much of humanity (as resource)  is indeed on the verge of depletion. The article frames the invention as a way to help insomniacs, yet it does point out the contradiction that the device doesn’t help people fall asleep, but instead changes their brain wave patterns once they are asleep to get rid of those pesky and inefficient other two NREM stages. While this device is hardly comparable to the amazing possibilities attributed to extremophiles, it does follow recent biology in its attention to “the limits and possible futures of life on earth” (p. 20), and as such, the promissory future hinted at that a power nap could soon “mimic the restorative benefits of 8 hours of rest” should be taken as seriously.

Through these assumptions about what stages matter for sleep’s rejuvenating powers, and the attempt to manipulate the brain into going into these stages instantly instead of cycling through the stages several times a night, these scientists are trying to crack the code to humanity’s daily limit to productivity. Indeed, this invention posits the brain as something that can be hacked into to receive greater gains from a smaller time period.   This prompts me to ask the following questions:  what would happen if we were able to make productive use of an extra 6 hours a day without suffering any decline in performance? Would our lives be enriched or would it raise the bar for what we are expected to accomplish in a day? Is this an example of commercial interests expanding into the sphere of ‘life itself’, as Cooper has argued? Would this promise of more life out of life be accompanied by a move to devalue life (as Cooper argues on page 49)? And if such a technology were indeed perfected, would it follow the same fate as ARVs in the third world, or would it follow the outsourcing of production, creating more violently exploitative factories?

stuff of nightmares part 2

Posted in Uncategorized on February 24, 2010 by kan9us

Apologies for continuing with the experiential renderings, but sometimes our own interactions with people and their machines can prove very interesting indeed….

In the follow up to my sleep study, I was told by my doctor that I have “sleep architecture that displays several indicators of depression”, and he proceeded to try to convince me that I am depressed despite my assertions to the contrary. In some ways this resonates with the discussion of the convincing power of visual data in Modeling Proteins, Making Scientists. Studies of sleep architecture may not produce models per se (though like Morrison and Morgan’s ‘renderings’ (quoted on page 64), its legitimacy is derived from its performance), but through these visualization practices, they do produce convincing data that is taken for the thing in itself (at least by this particular doctor) rather than the product of a certain experimental apparatus statistically correlated with particular experiences.

If you follow the link below, you will find an interactive graph depicting the sleep architecture of a “normal” individual:

By way of contrast with this “normal” subject, a depressed person has short REM latency (they go into REM sleep more quickly – which, while presumably undesirable as far as these researchers are concerned, is intentionally cultivated by “sleep hackers” like this guy: through intentional sleep deprivation). Other such indicators include:  i) sleep continuity disturbances (e.g. prolonged sleep latency, nocturnal awakenings, and early morning awakening);  ii) diminished slow wave, delta sleep (stages 3 and 4);  and iii) an altered intranight, temporal distribution of REM sleep, with increased REM sleep time and REM activity earlier in the night (Reynolds and Kupfer 1987). Another indicator to add to this list is time spent sleeping, with those with unipolar depression sleeping less per night than either “normals” or those with bipolar depression. I’m sure anyone who read my previous post would be surprised if I didn’t have at least some of these (especially those dealing with REM – though dreams and REM sleep aren’t as correlated as we’re usually told to believe), after my descriptions of the experimental apparatus, how difficult that made it to fall asleep and the nightmares and frequent awakenings that resulted. These patterns were not understood as resulting from the particularly fraught intra-action that I described previously, but were taken to be indicative of how I sleep generally, and by consequence of previous studies into mental illness and sleep, what my moods are. As such, I question in what ways diagnostic practices serve to animate the charts and statistics produced through research. It strikes me as dangerous that charts and statistics regarding structures of sleep can be taken as more authoritative as to the suffering of the patient than the patients own experiences. Such presumptions not only subordinate the patients experiences to medical categories, but, through equating prediction with certainty (roughly 70% of those with these features are depressed according to Fleming), serves to homogenize the experiences of all individuals with features of this architecture.

Joseph Dumit’s 2003 ethnography, Picturing Personhood, elaborates on how “normal” subjects are selected for PET scans according to gender, race, handedness, age etc such that women, racial and sexual minorities, lefties, and those not within a particular age group become eliminated from the category of “normal” (61-63). Graduate students (regardless of how white, male, heterosexual and righthanded), I suspect, would fail the ‘normal’ test too.

Dumit, Joseph

2003 Picturing Personhood: Brainscans and Biomedical Identity. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press.

Fleming, Jonathan

1988 Sleep Architecture in Depression: Interesting Finding, or Useful? In Progressive Neuropsychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry 13: 419-429.

Myers, Natasha

(forthcoming) Modeling Proteins, Making Scientists: Rendering Molecular Life in the Contemporary Biosciences.

Reynolds, CF. And Kupfer DJ

1987 Sleep research in affective illness: State of the art circa 1987. Sleep -1 0: 199-215.

This is the stuff that nightmares are made of….

Posted in Uncategorized on February 3, 2010 by kan9us

Recently I was admitted to a sleep clinic where I spent the night in a strange bed, with electrodes attached to my head (EEG), around the eyes (EOG), legs (EMG) and heart (ECG). The electrodes were attached to correspond with the frontal, central and occipital portions of my brain using a paste that conducts current from my scalp’s electrical potentials. The EEG records oscillations at a variety of frequencies, which represent synchronized activity over a network of neurons, and is then displayed on a computer screen in the control room. Ensnared in these contraptions for 9 hours, I managed to glean about three hours of sleep, during which time I had nightmare after nightmare separated by brief moments of consciousness that I intentionally induced to escape the dreams. Unfortunately I was unable to get my hands on the EEG readings from my sleep study, so this picture copied from the wikipedia page on REM sleep will have to suffice as an example of how my dream states were rendered visible to the sleep technicians in the control room:

Through EEG monitoring, sleep has been rendered visible, and has been the subject of a great deal of research since the 1930s when Alfred Lee Loomis first identified stages of sleep, which he classified into 5 stages (A-E), later classified as 4 numerical stages plus REM when REM was identified in 1957, and more recently reclassified into three stages plus REM as the distinction between stages 3 and 4 were deemed inconsequential, partly as a way to make the scoring of sleep cycles less laborious for the scorer, though this is seen by some as problematic due to the increase in intra-state variability. The way sleep stages are classified, therefore, has been relatively unstable, and there has been a considerable amount of research done recently to argue for altering the hertz at which different stages are delineated and to argue for dividing the stages further. Included in these studies are arguments that the entire system might need to be reworked due to the digitalization of recordings which allow for more automation of the process as algorithms can replace the scorer, who would only then be needed for surveillance and artifact decontamination. Sans labour issue, there are considerably less impediments to integrating the recent critiques for more heterogeneous analyses of recordings and the dismantling of categories such as the stages of sleep, and classes of sleep (the delineation of macrostructures – the 4 stages, and microstructures – shorter-lived events recognized on the EEG). Arguments against such automation center around human labour also: namely that readings are actually quite variable from individual to individual and that well-trained humans are more able to adapt to such modifications (Schulz 2008).

Beyond issues in classifying and interpreting the data, the apparatus itself encodes assumptions about the brain at rest. Firstly, there were only 6 electrodes attached to my scalp, which reflects the assumptions of what areas are necessary for recording sleep. Secondly, the electrical activity recorded reflects that which occurs in the more superficial layers of the cortex, which combined with placement, leaves significant amounts of the cortex (particularly in the basal and medial areas) unrecordable. And then there is the issue of artifact decontamination.

Both the character of my sleep that night and the way my sleep will be reported to the sleep specialist cannot be understood except in relation to this process of debate, the standardization of a particular way of classifying sleep for the purposes of quantification, and most importantly (as far as my nightmares are concerned) the recording apparatus itself. I am thus going to invoke Karen Barad’s notion of intra-activity in order to try to do justice to the efforts of sleep technicians to capture sleep for the purpose of diagnosis and treatment. Such an endeavor has the potential to become a never-ending russian doll of phenomena, so many of the intra-actions present in this scenario will necessarily be neglected. I do not often have nightmares and rarely choose to wake up before my alarm (what an appalling notion!), so what was being recorded was in no way representative of how I normally sleep. It was instead the intra-actions of tactile sensitivities with sticky goo and medical tape; nervousness and being in a sterile room that strangers had access to; being watched and the instruments that watched me – not only superficially through the cameras but on a minute scale as every eye twitch was being digitally rendered as waves visible and enduring for the technician’s purposes. This is the observer-effect exemplified. The faux hotel room appearance, awful Dali print (which may or may not have contributed to the nightmares) on the wall and the promotional materials that assured me that my sleep would be comfortable and “as if you were in the comfort of your own home”, all were complicit in presenting a view that the sleep that would be recorded would be nearly indistinguishable on paper from the sleep that I normally get. Moreover, pictures of various waves, coded, quantified, and presented in a report to the specialist are viewed as accurate and authoritative rather than the outcome of the intra-actions of particular understandings of what counts in sleep, the electronic apparatus’ that since the 1930s have been defining these understandings, and the nervous subject. I must admit to being frightened of discovering whether these renderings are taken to be more authoritative on my sleep than my accounts are when I go for my follow-up. Realism and mechanical objectivity may prove very frustrating indeed.

Barad, Karen

2003 Posthumanist Performativity: toward an understanding of how matter comes to matter. In Signs 28(3): 802-831.

Schulz, Hartmut

2008 Rethinking Sleep Analysis. In Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine 4(2): 99-103.

Prosthetic touch?

Posted in Uncategorized on January 20, 2010 by kan9us

Whilst watching Ichi, a 2008 movie about a blind swordswoman, it occurred to me that the relationship between prosthetics and sensation was never explicitly addressed in this text.  In this movie, the protagonist proclaims,

While we do see her learn about the world around her through touches other than that produced by the blade of her katana, rarely are they not filtered through prostheses of various kinds.  This got me thinking about both the relationship between knowledge and sensation/perception, if they can indeed be parsed, as well as the mediation of sensation through other objects.  Aristotle writes of the sense organ of touch as being interior rather than the skin, which is rather the medium through which the sensation is made detectable.  As such, all touch is prosthetic for Aristotle, and he was perhaps the first to arrive at the concept that Derrida referred to as the body’s “originary technicity”.

“It is in the imperceptible space between that which touches and that which is touched that the body can be felt, no matter how closely, to be different from another” (Heller-Roazen 2009: 27).  With regard to the very perceptible spaces of material aids does the body simply extend?