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 courage, creative writing, Creative Writing PhD, Creativity, Publishing academic research, the creative life, writing and criticism, Writing strategies

Simply shocking: when our fiction writing pushes the boundaries

Photo taken at 'The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk', at The National Gallery of Victoria. 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

I admit I am hard to shock. As a journalist and a writer and academic, as someone who has spent my entire career working in the creative arts, that’s a given, really. It doesn’t work being a prude when studying art history. Or working in an art gallery. or writing speculative fiction.

Being a practitioner in the creative arts – whatever your medium – means being exposed to ideas and concepts that you may not agree with, but will push your boundaries. That’s why a lot of people fear the arts. That’s why on one hand they are derided as a ‘soft option’ and on the other hand, they are condemned for leading to the breakdown of civilization.

People are confronted by what they see in art galleries, museums, on the stage and on film and certainly between the pages of books, newspapers and magazines. Perhaps even more so than a screen grab on the Internet, where everything goes anyway. The authority held by the printed word still sways, and there is always the sort of person for whom breaking the spine of a ‘salacious’ book and opening the pages of a ‘naughty’ novel is akin to watching someone open their legs. Reading what they consider transgressive material is an act, for them, of promiscuity.

Photo taken at 'The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier: From the Sidewalk to the Catwalk', at The National Gallery of Victoria. 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

So, if to indulge in transgressive creative arts as a spectator can change you – for the worse – according to those who hold such values, what does it mean to make art that challenges? Do you become tainted by association? What sort of person, in fact, writes certain things in certain ways?

In short, if my fiction includes sexuality – am I what I write? Do people assume that I live the life of my protagonist? While agonising about this with my writing friends, I have had one reaction only. Amazement. Complete amazement that I could be worried about this, that I could consider it an issue.

“Do people assume because I write about killers, that I am a murderer?” asked one woman. By day she is a primary school teacher, married, and a grandmother. After hours she writes very successful True Crime.

We are not what we write. But are we our imagination?

The Mask, Dolls House installation by Evelyn Tsitas
The Mask, Dolls House installation by Evelyn Tsitas

More than one writing friend snorted and added “it’s called fiction for a reason, you are called a creative writer for a reason – no one in their ‘right’ mind would think a ‘writer’ is what they write.”

If you are an actor, do the public assume you are your roles? Many times, yes. Rita Hayworth used to say, They go to bed with Gilda; they wake up with me.”

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In a quote from the movie Notting Hill, the 1999 romantic comedy by Richard Curtis, the blurred lines some men have between reality and fiction are deftly explored:

Anna Scott: Rita Hayworth used to say, “They go to bed with Gilda; they wake up with me.”
William: Who’s Gilda?
Anna Scott: Her most famous part. Men went to bed with the dream; they didn’t like it when they would wake up with the reality. Do you feel that way?
William: You are lovelier this morning than you have ever been.

As a writer whose creative and academic practice pushes the boundaries, I felt for actress Dakota Johnson when it was revealed that her mother, the actress Melanie Griffith, was uncomfortable with her star role on the controversial movie Fifty Shades of Grey. I have had people close to me also feel uncomfortable about my work, and to question what it means for me to write work that challenges, to write characters in fiction that transgress, that are frankly outside the moral code of the mainstream. And yes, that worries me, even though my writing cohort say it should not.

The fact is, that if we are writing a work such as Fifty Shades of Grey, we must explore the darker parts of our imagination, and be aware of the secretive, transgressive nature of much sexuality.

But does doing this make us a worse person than the average punter? My Secret Garden, Nancy Friday’s groundbreaking book published more than 40 years ago on women’s sexual fantasies revealed taboos such as:

  • Pain and masochism
  • Domination
  • The sexuality of terror
  • The thrill of the forbidden
  • Transformation
  • The Zoo
  • Incest
  • Rape

Is a fiction writer who trawls these fantasies in effect simply taking one for the collective unconscious, for popular culture, or art – or the ‘team’ – if you like? Or are they just a nasty pornographer who should keep the door to the room marked ‘other’ firmly locked and away from the prying eyes of the world?

I don’t write or conduct academic research into the areas of the human and animal, the power struggle of the occult, or the bleakness of different aspects of grief and organ donation to shock. Although I know, outside my literary and academic circles, that it does. I do what I do because I want to explore certain aspects of the human psyche, the darkness of the human condition, and the point at which obsession renders the end result more important than the destructive path leading to that final point. My tropes are the about the use and abuse of power, betrayal, and transgression. Hardly the stuff of chick lit and romantic comedy, but the stuff of life.

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

I have published and presented academic papers on bestiality in science fiction, on issues of body ownership that are very upsetting for people; I have angered internet commentators with my articles relating to pro-choice (despite having published a high risk pregnancy book which explored why women – including myself – are so determined to carry a child to term despite the great risks to their own health), and I have drawn in a room full of bioethicists and scientists wanting to hear how the creative arts can and does shape and inform bioethical debates.

But while journalism and academia are good forums for these discussions, fiction writing is better. For instance, just because science can do something, should humanity follow? I can give no better example for the way than the way that fiction – and science fiction in particular – has spearheaded this debate than Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Written by an 18 year old Mary Shelley, no stranger at that age to the searing heartache and near death experience of several miscarriages, the book about a scientist who create a human without the intervention of woman, and if you so chose to call it that – God – is a touchstone for any current debate on stem cell research, and reproductive technology that pushes so many boundaries we no longer talk about two parents, but a myriad of biological entities and processes that will result in a child who has multiple ‘parents’ biological and often social as well.

South Metope 11 - Parthenon Marbles in the British Museum; the human Lapith forces his centaur opponent down, gripping him by the throat. Photo by Evelyn Tsitas
South Metope 11 – Parthenon Marbles in the British Museum; the human Lapith forces his centaur opponent down, gripping him by the throat. Photo by Evelyn Tsitas

But just because we can do something – should we? I am not saying any one person has the answer, and am loathe to leave things to the status quo (don’t rock the boat until its ready) but it is important as a society to investigate the social, emotional, and maternal-paternal implications of this, and the creative arts are the place where a narrative can be put on the facts. We all understand things a lot clearer when someone sits down in front of the community at the camp fire and says ‘let me tell you a story…’

It’s embedded in our DNA as humans, this need for stories, and in the Internet age this need for a narrative bleeds across the creative arts. Film is a powerful medium in that it provides the visual along with the story, and that for people is very immediate, engaging – and confronting.

So when Dakota Johnson’s mother says that she can’t see her daughter Dakota’s film Fifty Shades of Grey because of the sexual content, I feel for Dakota, because she is simply part of the story telling process. She is acting out in front of the collective camp fire, putting three dimensional representation to the words from a page. I know what it is like to be judged on your work and the choice of your content. How easy it must be to write inoffensive children’s fiction, or dry political commentary, or paint by numbers commercial fiction which can be read with distraction and no raised eyebrows on public transport. These writers do not have anyone looking over their shoulder, questioning their values, morality or integrity.

Sculpture and ring by Lisa Roet
Sculpture and ring by Lisa Roet, photo by Evelyn Tsitas (who proudly owns and wears the ring, made in the shape of a chimp finger)

Because to push the boundaries as an artist is the be the ultimate outsider – even if society comes around eventually to the place where you are right now – far, far out to sea, waving the flag, saying ‘look, guys, I can see this clearly – it isn’t nice, but I am not scared to look and report back. Meet me at the campfire, and I’ll tell you a story.”

I have been told “you can’t divorce the person from the writing” – meaning – there must be something very dark and ‘wrong’ with me as a person for daring to move my academic research into places that are upsetting, and frightening for some people.  Yes, of course, reading and publishing fiction is subjective. But I do not write by committee. Fiction writing is not a democracy. It is a little totalitarian state; my world, and I while listen to criticism – especially from publishers, and I will consider tweaking, changing and rewriting, I am also the first and last person my writing has to please.

 

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

Love it or hate it, EL James’ Fifty Shades of Grey – and the subsequent film, of which James is Executive Producer – gives women agency over their sexual fantasies. And let’s face it, at the heart of the book, the story of young woman selling her looks and sexuality to an older, wealthy man is a powerplay that goes back to the first campfire stories. But what is remarkable about James – and hats off to her for reaping the financial rewards – is that she has had the guts to stray from the pack of the everyday dissenters and go public with her work, and has found a willing audience.

Those of us who take a risk in the creative arts do so knowing that not everyone in the world at large will be happy with our choices. But what is the alternative? Silence? Pouring waster over the campfire and ordering everyone back into the darkness of the cave, where ideas, both glowing and darkly bitter, can flourish and fester without challenge?