Okay, so I’ve been playing with this whole Frankenstein and climate change thing, right? Well, I might have accidentally outlined more than that:
So in lieu of a detailed post or series on the subject, maybe it’s better if I just outline some of the ideas I’m playing with and trying to coalesce:
Frankenstein is a story about a creator failing to take full responsibility for his creation. Frankenstein’s creation is, well, monstrous, but not directly harmful if treated with respect. It is Frankenstein’s action of running away from his creation and its consequences that leads to misfortune, not the monster itself.
Interestingly, our (Western society, note, not trying to make any claims for anything global here, don’t worry) pop culture understanding of the story is very different – the monster itself is terrifying, and the story becomes a warning against tampering with nature/meddling with forces beyond our control.
This becomes especially true and interesting when looking at science and technology – wherever major changes are on the horizon, the monster looms as well. There are so many references! A whole issue of Science dedicated to the story! Frankenstein is intimately tied to scientific advancement and climate conditions (written in the aftermath of the short-term global climate consequences of Mt. Tambora’s eruption) of the time. This makes it an especially interesting and apt metaphor for these changes in our time.
But why do we insist on misusing the story for literally everything we aren’t sure of and don’t understand? A few ideas:
major shifts in science and technology generally require us to explore new territory – territory that often entails blurring cultural categories. Major advancements in science can be like opening Pandora’s box – the monsters come out and don’t want to go back in. For instance, vaccines (categories crossed: dead vs alive, healthy vs unhealthy), CRISPR (natural vs unnatural, nature vs nurture, also brings up issues of ethics and equality), climate change (again, natural vs unnatural, especially manmade vs out of our control, threatens to completely change environmental features we take for granted, etc).
A really big common theme for the scientific category crisis – we get hung up on what is “natural.” We’ve built this huge division between ourselves and the natural world – setting up “nature” as pristine, beyond our influence, and undeserving of our presence, and “humanity” as somehow unclean, and separate from nature. This causes all kinds of issues, from making it difficult to see our impact on the natural world, discouraging placing value in each other and our own created spaces, and making it nigh impossible to discuss ways to use our influence to make our environment more resilient and better able to support us and other species in times of change. The only good human influence on the natural world, we say, is no influence.
To make things even more complicated, in the case of climate change, we also have to deal with the uncertainty of what climate change actually means. It’s a really big concept and the numbers are hard to process. And there’s a great deal we just can’t and won’t know until it happens. This is monstrous in and of itself, and makes it even harder to get things done.
This all boils down to: in the face of climate change, we tend to freeze up and would almost rather do nothing or attempt more than is realistically possible (either way will lead to loss and may leave many vulnerable) rather than really address our culpability and find creative, practical ways to salvage what we can and move forward. We are so afraid of the monster we could create that we’d rather run away. We’re so afraid of ourselves.
So I guess the question is, how do we navigate complex issues with the ghost of Frankenstein over our shoulder? Step one, I think, is being aware of the conversations we are unwilling to have, and investigating why. Monsters serve a purpose, but you’ve got to acknowledge them, tame them, listen to what they have to say. Or else we’re all just running away.
I went down the rabbit hole of weird viruses, and am enchanted by the term “genomic accordions.” Basically, some viruses are good at rapidly expanding and contracting their genomes by adding or subtracting extra copies of genes. More copies helps respond to stress and develop new mutations. This paper describes the process in poxvirus. Or if you prefer, an episode of one of my favorite podcasts about it.
Speaking of fun viruses, check this one out! It splits its genome into separate pieces that each infect different cells…
Recently I went and visited my family in Washington and noted that there was a lot of moss around all the trees there. I don’t have a lot of moss in the forest where I live. I figured it had to do with the amount of rain, as we generally have a warmer, drier climate.
But then I went out to my forest between the rain this week, and was struck by the sight of an enormous tree completely coated in moss. The entire trunk was green.
But none of the trees around it had any moss. Poking around a bit more, I realized that all the trees with moss were Douglas firs, and the trees without (but often with a lichen?), were redwoods. This remained true wherever I went, suggesting it wasn’t some something to do with that particular tree’s environment. Being very much not a plant scientist (or a moss scientist), I didn’t know much about what was going on, and wondered if the species-specific moss growth had to do with something structural (is redwood bark too smooth for moss to grab on to? do douglas firs move water/nutrients in a way that moss can better appreciate?), or chemical (do redwoods deter moss growth?). I decided the chemical deterrent hypothesis made more sense, because I found moss on old redwood stumps that had lost most of their outer bark.
Having wasted a great deal of time eating lunch and staring at trees, I went back to the lab and did some reading:
Other people have observed this phenomenon (link to paper on JSTOR) through studies of epiphytes in redwood forest. The authors of this paper suggest moss are deterred by anti-fungals produced by redwoods. Also fascinating, they describe their tree-climbing equipment/process in their methods section! Also more complex tree structure/surface area = more species growing on it.
I think I’ve been stuck in this space where nothing is quite working right and everything is up in the air. It’s not atypical for things to be this way, but it’s an odd place to be and hard to exist in for long.
Science-wise, I’m living out a strange laboratory series of unfortunate events (who isn’t, really). For instance, I ordered a peptide for one project and it keeps getting delayed, another protein I’m trying to make is still stuck at the cloning stage (because I somehow ordered the wrong primers three times), and I can’t ever seem to make everything I need at the same time. I finally got to try to crystallize my proteins, and got crystals, but they’re uselessly tiny and uncooperative. Then after two months of trying to produce something else, I finally have all the proteins ready, only to learn that the microscope is down…and when I left for interviews last week, the building it’s in caught on fire…all is (mostly) well, but still. It kind of feels like I’m going in circles without making progress sometimes.
Of course this is a totally normal part of science, but it does get kind of discouraging. Oh well, nothing to do but press on…
And then there are grad school applications! I applied last fall, and thus far I’m really stuck. My favorite professors at one school are retiring, the more I learn about another program the less I’m interested in it, and my top choice/dream program did not accept me (of course). I just went to interview for the last program I applied for, and while everything was shiny and pretty and the people were nice, I just don’t see myself fitting in there. A lot of this I could have learned if I had done more research in advance, but let’s just say there were numerous obstacles to me applying at all this year. So now I’m stuck. Do I apply again next year? Do I go with whatever I get? Do I try to find another job that would give me more experience in the subjects I actually want to study? Or do I settle for something safe that I’m actually more likely to get accepted for?
So many questions, so little time to deal with them all.
I’m not sure what initially got me interested in monsters, but they’ve been a constant theme in my life for several years. I figure I should do a quick overview of the world of “monster theory” to which I’m likely to refer frequently, just for the sake of whoever hasn’t already fallen down this particular rabbit hole.
The etymology of “monster” suggests the function of monsters in stories: a monster means to warn, to demonstrate, to foretell.
Monster theory explores what monsters mean and what they do in the stories we tell. Monsters appear in all forms of media and have made their appearance as long as we’ve been telling stories. Many details change with the times, but some monsters appear again and again and again. Why is that? What are we afraid of? Some emotions are just so deeply part of the human experience and the stories we tell about ourselves and the world, we’ve created whole genres around them (like horror). What do these stories tell about ourselves? Exploring the things that frighten us is illuminating – underneath a simple story may lie hidden biases and room for improvement. This is why I like horror and monster-theorizing everything: it’s all about personal growth and being able to look our mistakes in the possibly-literal eye.
The Monster’s Body is a Cultural Body: Our monsters are created from our current cultural context: fears, anxieties, desires, etc. that we are wrestling with right now
The Monster Always Escapes: Monsters appear over and over again, mutating with culture; you can trace the changes and the common threads, but must always be aware of their shifting context.
The Monster is the Harbinger of Category Crisis: Monsters are difficult to describe because they exist in between categories – they reveal the ways binary thinking and adherence to categorization break down. Reality is messy and so are its monsters.
The Monster Dwells at the Gates of Difference: Monsters are the Other; they exist where we find experiences different than our own. They reveal our fears of what lies beyond our borders and norms.
The Monster Polices the Borders of the Possible: Monsters demarcate the borders of what we consider acceptable; monsters are transgressive and defy expectation.
Fear of the Monster is Really a Kind of Desire:Given the above, who doesn’t want to be a little monstrous? And who are we without them?
The Monster Stands at the Threshold of Becoming:Monsters tell us something about ourselves and our assumptions.
Beyond Cohen, some useful tools when hunting monsters:
Concepts of the uncanny & liminality – we all know it when we see it, but what effect does the uncanny have on a particular work of art? What do in-between spaces allow us to accomplish on a plot and personal level?
Personally, I really enjoyed the classes I’ve taken on theater history and monsters in drama – I think exploring how visual/performing arts are built up and why choices are made in presenting stories and characters provides valuable context for interpreting depictions of monsters in plays/films
History of favorite monsters and monster genres, obviously. History of horror, folktales and myths from particular regions, etc.. History in general, really. You need the context.
With stories in translation I really like to find multiple translations to compare and see how differently translators approach the text.
Two kind of guiding rules I try to follow:
The things people do can be monstrous, but people are people. I’m wary of labeling specific individuals as monsters, as I feel it makes them Other and makes it too easy to not admit our own culpability. Note this isn’t a hard and fast rule; I by no means mean this in any way that suggests victim blaming, or that hurtful actions are somehow okay because we could all have done it, etc. Evil is evil. But the power of monster stories lies in the conceptual and personal and less in the specifics.
Sometimes two monsters superficially look the same but underneath have wildly different genealogies. Sometimes two monsters look wildly different, but at the heart are telling us the same thing.
Okay enough background for now. Hopefully won’t make me sound too crazy when I inevitably end up on Frankenstein and climate change, vampire history, and modern fairy lore or whatever else I wander into.
It’s an off-and-on rainy morning here, so I’ve settled by the window with the best lighting and am doing my weekly skim through various papers and articles that caught my eye. This week in things I feel one should know about the world:
Gears! In insects! This is really old but I had apparently saved this to read later and never got around to it. Check out the video. If a design works at all, you’ll find it somewhere in nature…
It looks cavernous and unfamiliar at the moment, but time and words will wear all the newness away. I hope to fill the space with all things selcouth – the strange, the marvelous, the extraordinary and the extra-ordinary.
Why am I doing this? A few possibilities:
I want a place for all my words/projects/experiences to come home to, so when you read one poem, you know where to go to find its siblings
I want an excuse to write about monsters at great length
I need incentive to actually write anything at all, and a plan and a schedule and an audience are good for that
I have an insatiable desire to Teach People Things, and an interest in science communication and now I have a platform from which to explore that from time to time
I just need to complain to the void once in a while
What to expect:
Right now my goal is to just write something once a week. I’m hoping to build up more content over time and be able to post something two or three times a week. Posts may include any of the following:
Book recommendations (especially books that go together! I love putting together thematic pairings of interesting media!)
Ramblings about adventures in science, both the exciting bits and the occasional overwhelming despair. It’s mildly cathartic for me and possibly entertaining for you.
Essays about monsters
Breakdowns of interesting science papers I read because people are constantly discovering cool stuff and I just want everyone to know!
Pictures of interesting bits of nature encountered while out and about
Basically, anything and everything is fair game. If you’re here for the monsters but not the science, or vice versa, don’t fret, there will be tags. Feel free to navigate to the category of your choosing.
Thanks for joining me on this experiment in getting more writing done!
Welcome to the first of probably many posts in which I share book (and sometimes other media) recommendations on a theme…
Plants somehow became a major theme of 2018’s reading. I think it happened because at the beginning of the year I made a resolution to really pay attention to the world around me as part of Operation Un-depress Myself. I told myself to look at the trees on my walk from home to the bus stop or wherever I was going, and pay attention to how they changed with the seasons. It kind of worked. The side effect was a newfound fascination with all the ways plants have evolved to survive and adapt to changes.
Book #1: Semiosis, Sue Burke I had been wanting to read this one since before it was published; the promise of intelligent alien plants and language and interspecies interaction sounded like my kind of sci fi. I had mixed feelings about the style, but I found the creativity Burke put into her vegetal species refreshing and really fascinating after having read so much about real plant adaptations. If you’re looking for fleshed-out human characters, this isn’t really the place, as the book spans several generations to explore how people establish a civilization on a new planet and build relationships with the other forms of life already there.
Book #2: Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, Robin Wall Kimmerer I loved this book. Kimmerer is a good and thoughtful communicator, and her writing about the wonders of nature and the immense value of indigenous knowledge in understanding and working with the environment are refreshing and illuminating. So much of this book resonated with me; I wish more people shared her perspective in the scientific world and the world at large. Ultimately while this book celebrates nature’s ingenuity, it is also about people and our relationship with nature.
Book #3: The Songs of Trees: Stories from Nature’s Great Connectors, David George Haskell Honestly I could have recommended any of a number of other books in the genre of lyrical explorations of plant biology, but I preferred the style of this one. Each chapter revolves around a particular tree and delves into its web of interactions, revealing fascinating bits of history, botany, and ecology. As runners-up (choose your own tree adventure): The Hidden Life of Trees, The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World, or The Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring.