doctoral research, human animal hybrids

Innovative ways of using doctoral research – David Cameron & the pig’s head scandal

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Not much separates the human from the non-human animal. And humans have never been comfortable with this obvious familiarity, hence the strongly enforced distinction between species. The great taboo of bestiality blurs this separation and fractures the boundaries. No surprise then that the recent allegations of UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s student initiation ceremony involving a sex act with a dead pig has set the British media ablaze.

The allegations are disclosed in Lord Michael Ashcroft’s new unauthorised biography Call Me Dave. The Daily Mail – which is serializing the book – called the initiation event into the Piers Gaveston Oxford dining society “obscene”, ‘sordid” “outrageous” and “debauched”.

I found the news coverage fascinating because in my doctoral research, I explored the human animal hybrid in science fiction and the question of what makes us human and not animal is an ongoing philosophical concern.  Sexual exploits with animals (whether confirmed or denied, real or imagined in Cameron’s case) touch very deeply on our anxieties of what it means to be human. When it comes to bestiality, as I explored in a chapter “loving the hybrid” in my PhD and subsequent conference paper and book chapter (in “Forces of the Erotic: Past and Present Transgressions, Transformations and Bliss”) cultural concerns about species identity should not be overlooked.

The notion of species purity is one that has been strongly enforced by religion. Despite Darwinian notions of evolution, much of our culture operates on the assumption that humans are qualitatively different from other animals. This is what makes advances in biotechnology so challenging for many people. As we absorb the animal into us, via pig insulin or, as with former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, a bovine heart valve, where do we draw the line at ‘us’ and ‘them’?

Donna Haraway’s more recent works, The Companion Species Manifesto (2003) and When Species Meet (2008) focus on human relationships with companion animals and the expansion of ideas from “A Cyborg Manifesto”. With current biotechnological experiments to create hybrids, we are confronted with the vexed question of how far interventions into the human genome can be carried out without changing a human into a different species.

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Yet in spite of the fact that our relationship with animals even in this era of intense factory farming has, ironically, never been so intimate as a result of biotechnology, concern about the future of the animal is conflicted, with the majority of people making emotional decisions on which animals they feel should be eaten, protected, experimented on or kept as pets.

I would argue that the fate of transgenic animals whose organs are currently being used in xeno transplantation does not rate so highly in public consciousness because, like the animals we are eat, they are seen as sacrificial, as a means to benefit humankind. But it is one thing to sacrifice a pig and walk around with its insulin or transgenic organs. It is another matter to have sex with a pig, or even engage in an initiation rite in which your genitals are placed in a pig’s mouth. And so we come to the media coverage surrounding David Cameron and the pig’s head.

The Guardian was hard pressed to get excited enough to even find an adjective to describe further revelations that Cameron joined friend James Delingpole at his room at Christ Church College, Oxford and “smoked cannabis occasionally while listening to Supertramp as part of a group called the Flam club.”

No, the inference seems to be, a little dope dabbling is a fairly accepted, if not mandatory part of undergraduate life, even for someone who is now Prime Minister. Not so acts with a dead pig involving ‘privates’.

While there are allegations that Ashcroft dished the dirt because he was passed over for a significant government job, the fallout has gone beyond simple embarrassment and humiliation for the PM and entered into the realm of animal rights abuse.

According to NME, Morrisey, a highly regarded UK musician, has issued a joint statement that he claims is also sent on behalf of animal rights group PETA.

The statement reads, “No, boys won’t be boys – not when it’s sexual perversion and also involves a vulnerable victim of slaughter, a feeling being who lost his or her life and then was used for a prank…A prime minister is supposed to protect the most vulnerable.”

Indeed, one of the problems with bestiality is the issue of consent. Can an animal ever consent to an act of intercourse with a human? There is the issue of power imbalance, for a start.

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Any encounter where one party can be legally skinned, made into a handbag and also eaten is not on an equal footing in the bedroom. But if one partner is dead, then the issue of consent surely need not apply.

Other taboos, such as necrophilia step in. But the fact that the pig was dead when Cameron allegedly stuck ‘a private part of his anatomy’ in the pig’s mouth doesn’t seem to be the issue. The uproar about this allegation surrounds the taboo of bestiality, not necrophilia. By demanding that human beings do not engage with animals in sexual acts, the act of prohibition defines the differences between the species.

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Humans have long had a great fascination for sexual activity between creatures of different species. In his 2001 paperHeavy Petting philosopher Peter Singer argues that instances of sex across the species barrier are so frequent “it ceases to be an offence to our status and dignity as human beings.” No mention of the animal’s dignity.

We live in an era when many former sexual taboos, such as inter-racial sex and same sex relationships are far more visible and socially acceptable in the Western world. Sado-masochism and bondage have left the hushed back rooms of sex shops and hit the bestseller lists, through works such as E.L James’ Fifty Shades Of Gray.

From ‘The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk’, at The National Gallery of Victoria. Photo by Evelyn Tsitas
From ‘The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk’, at The National Gallery of Victoria. Photo by Evelyn Tsitas

Bestiality, however, is still not a topic that is openly discussed or deemed appropriate for even mainstream erotic fiction. Much less a politician’s dirty laundry.

The reaction on Twitter to the pig’s head allegations reveals one overwhelming fact – people find the idea of sex acts with a pig hilarious. According to The Conversation, one reason why #piggate played so well on Twitter is that making jokes about David Cameron and pigs allows us to turn the tables on the privileged and powerful.

However, while this may be the case, the humor is revealing in that it mostly speaks to our use of the pig as a product of consumption, or one that is in someway ‘unclean’. The Tweets may joke that we can no longer really trust where our bacon comes from, but none mention just how smart pigs are. A paper published in the latest issue of the International Journal of Comparative Psychology reveals that pigs have been found to be mentally and socially similar to dogs and chimpanzees.

In an age of biotechnology and genetic manipulation, the possibilities for the merging of the human and the animal can now occur at a molecular level. From pig cell insulin to transgenic animal organ transplants and chimerical eggs that are almost human, the boundary between the human and the animal is becoming increasingly blurred.

Historically, human society has evolved in close proximity with animals, and it is therefore not surprising that our myths, folklore and fiction have embraced the animal and our relationship with it. Fantastic beasts intertwining the human and animal are part of the history of the human imagination, in spite of the strongly enforced distinction between human and animal.

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In the 21st century, however, the primary socially acceptable literary outlet for this taboo is in “fantasy bestiality”, featuring mythical beasts such as dragons and satyrs. Paranormal genres allow readers to indulge in bestial sexual fantasies that are unspeakable within the wider community. These manifestations of bestiality do not entail a wider acceptance of these practices. According to Susan Squier “xenogenic desire” between species in literature can give expression to desire while simultaneously deauthorising it as ‘only fiction’.

DIFFERENT VERSIONS OF THIS BLOG:

Online Opinion: Species Purity Alarm: David Cameron & the Pig’s Head 

RMIT Blog Central: When Species Meet: The Media Response to the Pig-Gate Scandal

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Academic conferences, Academic Study, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, Doctoral misery, PhD completion, post submission blues, Publishing academic research, science fiction, Time management, University life

Far from the normal crowd: when your doctorate sets you apart

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This week, an academic turned to me in a meeting for my opinion on a survey he wanted to conduct with the general public. “As a normal person, how would you answer this question?” he asked. Quick as a flash, everyone else around the table responded with “but she’s not a normal person!”

When your upcoming holiday plans involve presenting a conference paper in Oxford on the erotic and the non human, as I am doing in September, this is widely regarded as placing you in the “not normal” category.

Indeed, if there is one thing that doctoral study does it is to set you apart from the ‘normal’ people. This of course can be a problem if your friends and family belong to that ‘normal’ group and you have moved away from them because of what you are studying.There are many advantages to coming from a family with several PhDs.

For instance, in my family, we speak the same language – the language of happiness deferral; of long tail gratification; of holidaying in conference zones, unreasonable academic hurdles, and so on.  This is a good thing, as no one feels alienated. My kin understand and appreciate the hard work, sacrifices and the emotional exhaustion at the end of the doctorate. And they also have shown me that there is a life post-PhD, even beyond coveted academic tenure.

It’s just as well, because as Rita says in “Educating Rita” once you have gone down the path of academic – the old you has gone – and this is who has taken your place. Maybe not everyone likes this new you. Even if you do.

The scene where Rita interrupts Dr. Frank Bryant – the middle-aged university lecturer – to tell him about seeing her first play – Macbeth – and her excitement “I just had to tell somebody!” – is a wonderful example of how finding people who can speak your language becomes so important when you are surrounded by ‘normal people’ – who perhaps don’t share your enthusiasms.

I love the shorthand I have with those who share my academic interests. For instance, I was recently sent a link to an article in New Scientist about growing human organs inside pigs by someone who just knew I would find it fascinating (thanks Emma!) – and perhaps my predilection for the macabre aspects of biotechnology are the very reason others think I am ‘not normal’.

I can’t help it. As part of my doctorate in creative writing, I have been researching the human animal hybrid in science fiction for the past four years, and I love it when life imitates art.

For instance, what I find fascinating about the recent turmoil in Australian politics is that our newly returned Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who disposed Prime Minister Julia Gillard in rather Shakespearean circumstances in the lead up to our upcoming election, has a bovine heart valve.  Now, considering that our first female Prime Minister had to endure endless comments about her childlessness, her figure, her unmarried status and her basic femaleness, I find it interesting that this animal fact goes unremarked.

Rudd even said he promised not to ‘moo’ in public. I however, seem to be the only one who remembers this, or is interested.

As a science fiction writer, I speculate on the following – if Natalie Cole feels a connection with Hispanic culture since receiving a kidney four years ago from Salvadorian donor, and claims this cultural transplant link has given her the strength to record her first post-operation album — totally in Spanish – then does Kevin Rudd have a similar connection to animals? Is he or has he become a vegan since receiving the bovine heart value? This could have implications in many areas of policy relating to the treatment of animals farmed for food.

This speculation of course, has nothing to do with the serious matter of politics. Just as the abuse “vitriol and bullying, often of a sexual nature” that Julia Gillard received as first female Prime Minister of Australia had nothing to do with politics, but rather, as many feminists such as Anne Summers claim, everything to do with gender. And also, perhaps, that I have strayed far from the pack into that zone where my research seems real, but life seems just plain weird. I mean, why lambast the then Prime Minister Gillard with questions about whether her partner is gay because he is a hairdresser, and then have the more excitable sections of the media silent on whether the now Prime Minister Rudd will moo in public or not?

Of course, the intensity and – shall we dare say – absurdity – of the doctoral journey means none of us come out unscathed. I am an Australian creative writing PhD student, not an American science PhD student – but even I howled with the laughter of recognition at this trailer for The PhD Movie. 

I mean, what PhD student doesn’t know that “jump to attention and do the impossible right NOW” – demands from supervisors and administrative staff? I remember just two weeks out from handing in receiving an email to say I had to do my completion seminar within weeks. The first thing I did was look at my diary and figure out how I could organise this. It was – seriously – only after a bewildered email to my supervisor wondering if this was a second completion seminar on top of the one I had done six months before that it was revealed to be an administrative error. But there I was, like a little lab rat, ready to keep running around that wheel.

One of the reasons so many agony posts on the Internet warn about not doing a doctorate is the slim chance these days of finding a job in the area you have committed four years of your life. I have spent years understanding this reality through dinner table conversations with my relatives – and it didn’t stop me doing a doctorate.

I know many people with doctorates who have gone back and done a vocational Masters degree to make them more employable. A recent Australian radio report investigated the current situation many PhD graduates find themselves in of having made the long journey and found there isn’t the job they want at the end.

I guess it comes back to what we consider normal. What are your expectations, anyway? And after all, I am a fiction writer, in Australia, a country with a small population – it goes without saying that I always knew I would have to get a paid job that wasn’t the same as my passion job.

I was told bluntly six months ago (by a fellow traveller in academia) that I was a fool to have done a doctorate in creative writing and in fact should have opted for public relations instead. My response was – maybe that is the more sensible, employable option, but I am a writer, and as the Indigo Girls sang in “Virginia Woolf” – a ‘woman of the page’ – carving words and stories that I hope touch people now and in years to come. I am part of a long tradition of writers through history who write and be damned.

Writers don’t do it for fame, fortune or anything other than the desire to tell stories and communicate with an audience. What if Virginia Woolf had pursued a ‘sensible option’ such as public relations instead of writing? Think of all who have been touched and moved and inspired by her work. Think of all that would be lost if Virginia had played it safe. If she’d been one of the ‘normal’ people – the world would be poorer.

So then, with no rewards in sight, no possibility of an academic job, and the certainty that you will end up distancing yourself from the pack of ‘normal’ people – why do a doctorate?

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Testing your boundaries is always a leap of faith and there are plenty of people who feel cheated by the time, effort and money they spent pursuing a doctorate. And let it be said there are plenty of people who regret other major decisions they have made – opting out of the workforce to raise children; buying a house; putting their savings in shares; getting married; not pursuing love; travelling instead of settling down and vice versa.

Life is risk and in living comes the possibility of regret and failure. Whatever the outcome of your doctorate, it is only absolute passion that will make the commitment worth the effort. Normal be dammed.

Academic Study, creative writing, Doctoral misery, horror, science fiction, Splice the Movie, The Island Of Doctor Moreau

The Horror, the horror: When your research gives you nightmares

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I don’t want to analyze my nightmares as they can be so horrible. No surprise, really, considering the steady diet of horror fiction I am consuming. Then again, at least I can take comfort in the thought that the bleakness I envelop myself in isn’t real – yet.

That’s the thing about science fiction and horror. It’s as damn well close to real as the long shadows of the past lapping at our memories, or stark reminders of the suffering all around us.

I have just written a blog “The lust that dare not speak its name” for the website Online Opinion about the German parliament’s decision to criminalize “using an animal for personal sexual activities” and to punish offenders with fines up to $34,000. My research took me into Zoophilia’s surprisingly long history and cultural representation – especially in science fiction. This is quite confronting.

Studying the past, and its particularly horrific events, can give doctoral students nightmares. An author told me that spending years working on a doctoral dissertation of WG Sebald’s Austerlitz (described as “a dreamlike meditation on memory and the Holocaust” ) wasn’t the best thing he could have done for his mental health. It made him depressed. In fact, if he had his time again, he’d choose something else. Maybe comedy.

No one who has studied Austerlitz comes away unchanged.  It tells the story of a Jewish man sent to England as a child through the Kindertransporte in 1939. In war, so much is lost, erased, forgotten, displaced. Of course, it’s not a happy book.

Examining the near future can be equally as bleak, at least if you take my extensive SF DVD and fiction collection as a starting point. It’s dystopia all the way. Even Danny Boyle’s SF movie Sunshine, while offering a ray of hope for the planet’s future, comes at the price of sacrifice. There is no such thing as a free lunch.

A case in point is Kazuo Ishiguro’s book Never Let Me Go. Here there is no such thing as a free life. The clones – humans born and raised to be live organ donors – accept their fate. They must die so that others may live. They have no agency, and as the story unfolds, the reader sees their entire lives are based on the lies they have been fed to keep them pliable and acquiescent.

The clones are human “monsters” created by science (despite the fact that it is society that is the collective monster in breeding clones for this unspeakable fate). The clones are a reverse version if you like of Frankenstein’s creature; a constructed living body that will be carved up until death. The creature was brought to life from the scraps of flesh from charnel houses; it’s to the mortuary the clones will go when they “complete”. This is Ishiguro’s chilling euphemism for giving everything to the greater power.

The one very liberating thing about studying the human-animal hybrid’s lifecycle is that this monster really does like to take its revenge. There is no clone acceptance of destiny for the snake woman of Jennifer Lynch’s incredible 2009 horror film Hisss 

Ditto the biotech monster Dren’s act of defiance in killing her father and raping her mother after she changes gender at the end of the 2009 movie Splice

Even Edward Prendick had to escape from HG Wells’ The Island Of Doctor Moreau, “for fear of the Beast Monsters”.

In some ways, it’s hard not to cheer the hybrid on, because they are treated so badly. Ever since Frankenstein’s creature was run out of town by the peasants unable to accept his abject monstrosity the hybrid in science fiction has been reviled and hunted.

It’s hard not to get caught up in the agony of the monster’s journey. And that’s what makes the research difficult. I discovered there’s a good reason I feel this way, and why my supervisor felt so depressed at the end of his marathon run. It’s also why people have been blogging about how depressed they feel after watching the movie Les Misérables.

There is actually a good reason for this misery – with Les Mis and the monsters I have been studying. In “Becoming a Vampire Without Being Bitten: The Narrative Collective Assimilation Hypothesis”, published in the 2011 journal Psychological Science, authors Shira Gabriel, PhD, associate professor of psychology at the University at Buffalo,, and Ariana Young, a UB graduate student working in the field of social psychology, found that by absorbing narratives, we can psychologically become a member of the group of characters described therein, a process that makes us feel connected to those characters and their social world.

Too bad if that world is one horrible, dystopian cesspit.

Narratives help us learn life lessons we couldn’t possibly acquire from experience. Hence the importance of story-telling in cultures. Yet while there is hope and humor in Dr Who and Star Trek, the same can’t be said for the books and films I am studying. Nothing, except the oblivion of death, awaits the hybrid.  For these scientifically created human monsters, it’s a short, brutal time filled with alienation, pain and misery. A bit like sitting through nearly three hours of Les Mis.

Sometimes, carrying around a fictional character’s pain and isolation is too much. That’s why I am becoming a bit concerned about my teenage son’s interest in my DVD collection

As part of my doctoral research, I have acquired a vast research library that he finds fascinating – as do his mates. He’s very popular when friends come for a sleep over. A tentative knock on my study door as I am writing away on a Saturday night will reveal a group of boys and the question, “Mum, can we borrow some of your research material?”

For, as well as the usual amount of books, photocopied parts of books, downloaded journal papers and print outs from every draft of my research, I have a vast selection of truly horrible, compelling, horror and science fiction films.

Research can be lonely, so it’s nice to get feedback from my avid teen audience. “That Japanese version of The Eye –  where the woman gets the transplanted eyes of a murder victim – it’s just – OMG! Revolting. I mean, really revolting.”

Or “My mate says that The Fly is the most disgusting film he’s seen, especially where the scientist totally likes turns into a fly and his jaw drops off and he like puts all the bits of himself that are still human into jars into the bathroom cabinet…”

I have yet to receive angry calls from parents about corrupting their children with Gothic horror, but I am waiting (I don’t allow them to watch my R rated horror). I can at least say I have fostered the idea that academia is really cool. Whether university will live up to expectations is another matter.

I guess that depends on whether they can come up with some hottie research topic of their own.