Monday, December 20, 2010

The History of Her Blood

I expect that most of you will know the story of HeLa. Thanks to some fairly meticulous note-taking, I can establish that I first came across it in 2004 and that for a while I considered writing about it in my dissertation. But then, fascinating and apposite as it was, it was simply too good for that particular purpose: it was a story with too much history, and it was a history that I didn’t feel I could do justice to. I turned to the past of my own family instead, to something to which I felt that I belonged and that I could control, in order to argue for the historical class divides in documenting and memorialising the individual. I compared the minute and near-obsessive recording of the childhood of Winston Churchill with the single surviving photograph of my maternal grandmother before the age of 50. Nowadays every one of us in the developed world is a Churchill, I concluded. And what did that mean?

There are but a handful of photographs of Henrietta Lacks as a young woman. She is a little girl. She marries. And then some time later she poses for the shot reproduced above, not knowing – of this we can be certain – that the image would end up in countless articles and essays and blog posts such as this one, as well as on the cover of a best-selling book, each one of those reproductions, an appropriation. But we are just compelled. That’s what the story of HeLa is, above, all – compelling.

Henrietta Lacks died after a brief and agonising battle with cervical cancer in 1951, when she was just thirty-one years old. After the initial examination, her attending physician at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore – one of the few hospitals that would treat African Americans without charge at the time, albeit in segregated wards – had given a sample of her tumour to Dr. George Gey, a researcher at the institution who had been trying unsuccessfully for years to grow human cells outside the body. Those particular cancer cells were to be the first that proved capable of surviving on a dish, where they thrived in fact beyond anyone’s imagination, growing at an even faster rate than they did inside of Henrietta. It was soon established that the cultures were capable of spawning an entire new generation with each passing day. When news reached him that Henrietta had died as a result of this astonishingly aggressive tumour, Gey sent his laboratory assistant to collect a second sample from the coroner in charge of the autopsy. On neither occasion was consent sought from either the patient or the family, as was customary at the time (and it remains something of a murky area to this day). But Henrietta’s cells weren’t like any other specimen collected to date: they could grow, and grow indefinitely. It was the first immortal cell line. Gey named it HeLa, after Henrietta Lacks, but spoke of their ‘donor’ no more. She no longer mattered.

HeLa’s first job was to help in the fight against polio. A cell production factory was set up for this purpose at the Tuskegee Institute (yes, that Tuskegee Institute) capable of producing twenty thousand tubes of HeLa, or about 6 trillion cells, every week. At this early stage it was all still done in the name of science and reputations, but soon the range of applications that HeLa cells made possible gave way to commercial exploitation. Companies like Microbiological Associates began producing HeLa cells on an even larger scale, and this time for gain. The biotech industry was born.

HeLa cells were sent into space by the Soviets and NASA to test the effect of weightlessness on human tissues, they were cloned, they were used to test and produce vaccines and drugs, study cancer, map the human genome and engineer in vitro fertilisation. And then in the 1960s scientists found that they were able to produce other cell lines that weren’t HeLa, and with growing frequency. It became possible to create libraries of different human tissues to experiment on, except some researchers became suspicious. Stanley Gartler was the first to opine that all those other cell lines might not be different at all – that they could all have been taken over by HeLa due to the inadequate containment protocols in medical labs, and that that’s why they grew so successfully. This catastrophic hypothesis took years to gain acceptance, but when it finally did, it motivated scientists to approach the Lacks family. It was the first time since Henrietta’s death, more than two decades earlier.

Henrietta was buried by the grove in this picture, outside of Lackstown, in un unmarked grave not far from her mother’s headstone. Her principal and most dedicated biographer, Rebecca Skloot, has described ‘three body shaped indentations’ in the ground (121), any one of which could be Henrietta. She had been buried without a coffin, and when her body decomposed, the ground beneath it sagged in the shape of a person. I find this image heartrending: the empty space left by the body, the lost knowledge of which of the plots was hers. It speaks to me not only of her family’s dire poverty but also of a severed bond of memory, of a personal story that is not carried forward. And I don’t mean the story writ large: the Lackses had no reason at the time to suspect that Henrietta would ever become an important and emblematic figure. They simply ceased to speak of her. It was their way to cope with her sudden and traumatic departure.

Thus a quarter of a century later, when the family learnt of HeLa, they had to contend not only with being reminded of what their wife and mother and sister had been through, but also of the extraordinary second life she had since been living, completely unbeknownst to them. Who was this HeLa, this otherworldly double that was being sent into space and bombarded with viruses and experimental drugs? Could she feel pain? Did clones of Henrietta walk the streets? Nobody bothered to explain the intricacies of human cell experimentation to the Lackses, at least not in terms that they could understand. They were urged instead to give blood samples, ostensibly so that the doctors could find out if they had what she had. What the scientific community needed was in fact a way to identify Henrietta’s genetic material so that they could tell which cell lines had been contaminated by HeLa.


Whenever the story of Henrietta Lacks is told, due mention is made of the fact that her descendants cannot afford to buy medical insurance and thus benefit from most of the advances that her biological material made possible. Skloot writes this of Henrietta’s middle child:
Sonny had a quintuple bypass in 2003, when he was fifty-six years old—the last thing he remembered before falling unconscious under the anesthesia was a doctor standing over him saying his mother's cells were one of the most important things that had ever happened to medicine. Sonny woke up more than $125,000 in debt because he didn't have health insurance to cover the surgery. (306)
Yet in most summations the focus goes back to the original sampling of the tissue, at a time when neither law nor common practice dictated that consent should be sought or information given. Your body, everyone’s body implicitly belonged to science. And neither George Gey nor Johns Hopkins made money out of creating or distributing HeLa. But what about in the 1970s, when the Lacks family was asked to give their blood? By this stage HeLa was the key raw material to a multi-million dollar industry, and it’s not as if the proceeds where being redistributed to all of humankind in the form of equal access to medical advances. It ought to have been well understood at this point by even the most naïve of researchers that the genetic information of the members of the Lacks family was worth a lot of money to a lot of people. And yet it was solicited again free of charge or obligation, under the guise of a concern for their health and providing them with a service.

And so the Lackses where defrauded twice: of their property, and of their agency. To this day, the family’s best shot at a belated economic redress remains the foundation set up by Rebecca Skloot though the proceeds from the book that tells their story, which is the third thing that they (we) came for. Something else that was theirs, and has become ours. Private pain, and how they dealt with it; medical records; personal histories of at least two generations of the Lacks family: they are all in the public domain now. There was simply no way to protect the story once the family name had been leaked to the press, and the Lackses did well to entrust its most extensive, definitive treatment to a sensitive and capable chronicler in Rebecca Skloot.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is close to restorative in how it gives a voice to the family and endeavours to correct the many discrepancies and errors that had accumulated in years of less painstaking accounts. Significantly its central character isn’t Henrietta, but her daughter Deborah, the one who was most desperate to understand and remember: it was knowledge, above all, that she felt deprived of; she, who had no memory of her mother – who had died when she was fifteen months old – and had had to contend with her family’s reluctance to speak of her. In the end one gets the sense that Deborah found genuine comfort in coming to terms with Henrietta’s far more intricate and bewildering afterlife than in the ordinary life she couldn’t get access to, although that was far from a painless process either. In one of the book’s most memorable passages, Skloot tells of the exorcism performed on Deborah by her cousin Garry, a preacher, who succeeded in relieving her of the burden of that far too imperfect memory, which had brought her close to a complete physical breakdown.

Which brings us back to that remarkable presence/absence: a woman who has been dead for half a century and whose body has left an empty space in the ground where it was laid to rest, but whose surviving and constantly reproducing cells have been estimated to weigh today an aggregate of over 50 million metric tons (‘an inconceivable number,’ remarks Skloots, ‘given that an individual cell weighs almost nothing’ 2). And then there’s the weight of the story itself: all of the articles and the scientific papers and the blog posts, circulating electronically or in print, but never weightlessly, and of course the book, each hardback copy weighing 626 grams, with tens of thousands of copies sold. That ubiquitous image. And then the advances, the procedures, the devices, and the stock in the companies that produce and exchange them. All those nodes that cannot be disentangled: human lives, hardware, symbolic abstractions. Consent forms, medical records, family photos. Invisible cells that hop on specks of dust and move from dish to dish inside of laboratories.

At its most emblematic, the story of Henrietta Lacks is the story of the Social, of its irreducible complexity, of its permanently unstable categories, of its capacity to endow inert matter with layer upon layer of meaning. It is a story of race and class that was played out at the same time as the project of immortality through science was being articulated for the consumption of the white elites, who got to enjoy longer, healthier lives thanks to the infinite dissection of that single black body. It is, finally, the story of the elisions that are necessary in order for such fantasies to exist. As in the digitisation of the human on which the idea of computer-mediated immortality rests, Henrietta Lacks had to become HeLa – a file name – and all redundant aspects of her being had to be compressed, reduced into an algorithm. Likewise her family, her background, the social texture of her life had to be made irrelevant and quite simply forgotten. Two decades later, when it became necessary to involve Henrietta’s relatives, kinship had to be defined solely in terms of genetic information that could be retrieved in a single sitting, ensuring that there would be no ongoing relationship with the owners and carriers of that information.

They, as Henrietta before them, had to become the others whole lives are of no concern, a recurring subject of this blog this past year. But there’s another aspect to this: using the first two letters from your name and your surname to designate a part of you, or your genome to describe your whole person, are but two ways of making the subject fit into a template. Think about the formal characteristics of a Facebook profile, or the space that you are given to form an utterance on Twitter, and how they constrain the kind of person you can be, the range of what is possible for you to say. What elisions does that lead to? And conversely, how do those constraints define the non-subjects, those who simply cannot get online and speak or be spoken at all? I’ll make this one of the topics for next year. Have a good break, and as always thank you for reading.

Rebecca Skloot. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. New York: Crown Publishers, 2010.

Skloot has been writing about Henrietta Lacks for at least a decade, and earlier introductory articles are available here and here.

Dale Keigel. 'Immortal Cells, Enduring Issues.' John Hopskins Magazine, Winter 2010 issue.

This recent episode of the Radio Lab podcast series on 'famous tumours' (28 min mp3) is a very accessible introduction to the story of HeLa, with recorded material provided by Skloot including at around the 20 minute mark what I have referred to in the post with a little license as Deborah's exorcism.

With many thanks to Jake for his help with a small but naggingly elusive piece of information.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Immortalist

Alan Harrington died of leukaemia on May 23rd, 1997, at the age of 79, leaving a scant 200-word obituary in The New York Times whose contents were lazily plucked from bits of old reviews and Harrington’s obit in his hometown newspaper. Wikipedia didn’t exist back then, but if you were to search it for Alan Harrington today you’d only find the Welsh footballer, born 1933. Meanwhile, none of the Alan Harrington’s several books appears to still be in print.

Then again – to paraphrase Woody Allen – Harrington never wanted to achieve immortality through his works. He wanted to achieve it through not dying.

You’re looking at the cover of the 1979 Abacus edition – the second in Great Britain, where it had been first published by Panther Books in 1973 – of Alan Harrington’s The Immortalist. By this stage the book had lost its original subtitle (‘an Approach to the Engineering of Man's Divinity’) in favour of the more direct ‘How Science Could Give Humanity Eternal Life’. But note how the artwork on the cover undercuts the appeal to science: in the midst of a waste land, an adult foetus floats in an amniotic bubble; in front of him, also suspended, a mysterious green door, ever so slightly ajar; behind him, a dragon. Standard cheap fantasy or science-fiction Seventies fare, so cheap and so standard in fact that there’s no mention anywhere in the book of who the artist even is. But then, contrasting again with the picture you might have formed in your head at this point of a piece of sensationalistic and semi-lurid quasi-fiction, there’s Gore Vidal’s pronouncement at the top of the cover that what you’re holding in your hands is in fact ‘the most important book of our time’.

Such were the complicated beginnings of this idea – of immortality through scientific means – and such were the surprising difficulties in marketing it, in finding it an audience. The original proponent had been Robert CW Ettinger, who first wrote in a putative science-fiction story about the possibility that people could be cryogenically preserved upon death and wait in this suspended state for a futuristic cure. Ettinger reformulated this contention as an actual, feasible project in his 1962 treatise The Prospect of Immortality, which got significant attention from the media and is extensively covered in Harrington’s book. Yet at the time when The Immortalist was written only a handful of people had actually joined a cryonics organisation and undergone the procedure, including not Walt Disney. Three more decades later, the number worldwide is estimated at a paltry 200. Ettinger, who is still alive and does have his own Wikipedia page, predicted it would reach 40 billion before science became advanced enough to allow the thawing to begin, in three centuries’ time. I think it’s fair to say the project is running a little behind schedule, in spite of Ettinger himself having contributed not one but two dead wives to the cause.

Another cover from a Discus/Avon edition closer to the original publication date of The Immortalist (1969). Here the skin and clothing of a besuited and very elderly man are shed to reveal a naked young man inside, his hair neatly parted. The man is standing near the shore, evoking perhaps the idea of evolution from an earlier state of being, like when our primordial ancestors abandoned the ocean. The fleecy clouds in the background are a little reminiscent of Magritte. Ceci n’est pas un homme, perhaps? Except it is, that’s the whole point: to argue that man – the gender inflection on the two covers is not casual – can live forever and still be a man. Note however that both images portray a rebirth into adulthood, which is consistent with the cryonics project (in which most patients will need to be rejuvenated as well as brought back to life) but not with Harrington’s contention that medical science will simply stop us growing old in the first place.

So we haven’t even opened the book yet and the nature of its message and whether or not is to be taken seriously are already being cast into doubt. The New York Times review of June 20, 1969 echoes this frustration:
The sheer originality of "The Immortalist" provokes anxiety. One is never absolutely certain whether one is reading a bitter satire on inspirational self-help books, the obsessional mutterings of a compulsive, or a serious proposition.
The serious proposition, simply put, is that the time has come for humanity to kill death, ‘to put an end to mortality as a certain consequence of being born’ (3). After having launched into a lengthy and at times formidable elucidation of the history of the idea of immortality in religion and philosophy, and having rather sardonically dissected the vestigial need to keep a careful tally of one’s moral worth in the atheist West (‘Among the middle classes, God, supposedly dead, has reappeared in the form of a gigantic Computer of Excellence’, 106), Harrington gets to the point: can it be done, and should it be done? To which the answers are yes and yes. It can, because it stands to reason that it will: it might take some time, but we’ll figure out where the switch that triggers our senescence is hidden and how to turn it off; it should, because fear of death is in fact the cause of all major social ills, of violence and injustice and inequality; and furthermore, because not doing it would be tantamount to a betrayal of the species, just when we are so near to attaining the final victory against our cosmic enemy. In conclusion:
The immortalist argument holds this ground and will not step back from it: that death from deterioration of the body is an outrage and should be unceremoniously treated as such. "Do not go gentle into that good night" does not apply here. Rather aim not to go at all; mobilize the scientists, spend the money, and hunt death down like an outlaw. (208)

What Harrington proposes then is a sort of Manhattan Project for immortality, one of those endeavours for which Americans could claim at the time something of a track record, what with having just put a bunch of men on the moon and all. So long as you were prepared to mobilise the scientists and spend the money, it must have seemed that everything was achievable. But here’s the first rub: for like Ettinger before him, Harrington is quite aware of the imbalances in wealth and opportunity in American society, and that the prospect of immortality for the elites might seem abhorrent even to those who were prepared to scoff at the message of ‘Whitey on the Moon’. Ettinger is more sanguine in his response to this conundrum, but both men agree that it would be unthinkable to allow for social disparity in access to eternal life.
(Ettinger, 164): The stratification of society is resented by the people in the lower strata. Even such trifling distinctions as those between master and slave, or between commissar and worker, are only grudgingly endured, if at all. The chance of the masses holding still for the vastly greater split between mortal and immortal is nil. The elite have a fairly simple choice: share immortality, or be torn limb from limb.

(Harrington, 265): Consider a freezer program with affluent white people (their life insurance policies paid up) lying in neat rows waiting for the trumpet of science to return them to life, while the struggling black and brown masses continue to die as they always have. Do the cryonics partisans dare dream of the black and brown reaction to this final injustice? Not only are the exploiters oppressing us now, but they are planning to come back and sit on the world all over again—and on top of that they will not even die.

Hold on to these thoughts, for they’ll be central to next week’s discussion. For now I’ll observe that neither Ettinger nor Harrington – whilst maintaining that immortality will be achieved thanks to free enterprise and money – have actual suggestions regarding how society might be transformed into one in which health is a right guaranteed to all citizens, a problem far more complex and profound than even whether we’ll manage one day to defeat cancer or halt aging. Harrington appears in fact to take a chicken-and-egg approach to it, whereby without death we’ll live long enough to acquire the wisdom necessary to make the equal sharing of resources on a planetary scale and therefore immortality itself possible. For instance: rational solutions to the problem of over-population will be found by the year 2000, he argues, simply because nations ‘will have no choice’ (288), a contention that would strike most readers nowadays as risible, and bitterly so. In this respect the whole intellectual framework allowing for immortality to become syllogistically inevitable strikes one as wishful and naïve, beginning with the blind faith in the steady upwards trajectory of medical science: we know in fact that one of the great life-prolonging advances of the 20th Century, the organ transplant, is in danger of soon becoming impracticable; and we have learnt just today of a decrease in the average life-expectancy in the most wealthy and advanced country on the planet.

So what has happened to the most important book of our time? It briefly acquired a more sombre and authoritative cover, above, before going out of print. In the meantime, a new brand of far more creditable and persuasive transhumanists – the Moravecs and the Kurzweils and the Gordon Bells of this world – have supplanted those early prophets by doing away with the need for messy bodies, messier economies and wholesale political transformations: immortality will come to you by way of software, and your digital mind will occupy the world without dimensions of a computer network. Yet reading the early immortalists remains instructive if one wishes to trace the history of this extraordinary idea, and locate the contradictions that later, more shrewd proponents have been able to mask but not resolve.

The treatment of these ideas on this blog naturally will remain ongoing, but ahead of next week’s post I want to leave you to ponder the opening line of Ettinger’s Man into Superman (1972):
By working hard and saving my money, I intend to become an immortal superman.
It articulated two key propositions: that immortality is imminent and affordable, so long as you believe and are prepared to work hard for it; and that it is a belief in science and capitalism that defines those who are worthy of being saved, henceforth the supermen.

Alan Harrington. The Immortalist. London, Abacus, 1979.

Robert CW Ettinger. The Prospect of Immortality.
Robert CW Ettinger. Man into Superman.

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt. ‘Anybody Want to Live Forever?’ New York Times of June 20, 1969, p. 39. (With many thanks to Keir.)

Monday, December 6, 2010

In Order of Disappearance

It is not our goal to achieve a more transparent society; it’s our goal to achieve a more just society.

(Julian Assange)

As the story goes, when private Bradley Manning copied the war logs that eventually found their way to WikiLeaks and into the world’s newspapers he did so on a series of discs labelled 'Lady Gaga', disguising the procedure by wearing headphones and lip-synching to non-existent Gaga music. It is a colourful, possibly apocryphal detail that must not be allowed to detract from how insanely brave Manning was, if he is, indeed, the source of the leak. But it also highlights again the constant and often grotesque meshing of the trivial and the deadly, of pop and carnage, in our daily, hypermediated lives. I delved into this state of affairs at the time of the earthquake in Haiti not because I thought it was anything other than obvious, but rather to ask how can we sensitise ourselves again to the enormity of the crimes of our societies. Manning himself has asked the question, reportedly, heart-breakingly, in an online chat with the very person who ended up betraying his confidence to the authorities. He wrote this:
god knows what happens now … hopefully, worldwide discussion, debates and reforms. if not … we're doomed.

Manning is currently in solitary confinement at Quantico and looking at a maximum prison term of 52 years, unless the always charming presidential hopeful Mick Huckabee has his way and they execute him first. For every day Manning spends behind bars, we should be asking ourselves how closer we are to bringing the architects of the war in Iraq and the atrocities in Afghanistan in front of a tribunal, and how that debate and those reforms are coming on. It is, as in the case of the ongoing response to natural disasters, at least partly a matter of attention: for how long can we give this thing enough thought that we can effectively organise and bring about change? The discs, after all, were labelled 'Lady Gaga'. Are we sure that the matter is in fact grave and urgent enough?

The face of private Manning in the media is a grainy enlargement from what may be a family picture. But there is another face that looms in print and on our screens these days, larger, more sharply defined, and it’s the face of Julian Assange. At what point exactly did he become a character in the story? We know it wasn’t part of the original plan for the organization to have a front man, but he sure is that man now, and it probably helps WikiLeaks – if not exactly the leaked documents themselves – to stay in the news. The fact that Assange is able to answer questions and articulate the goals of the organization also has to be regarded as a positive contribution. But then there are the charm, the hair, his troubles with the law in Sweden and not one but two women. He has become a movie spy, or perhaps there simply needed to be a movie spy for us to be able to follow these developments at all, to make the release of diplomatic cables sexy enough. He contributes to our pop understanding of a profoundly complex set of events, institutions and relationships. He’s the male lead.

Ever since his languid likeness started circulating I have associated in my head Julian Assange with Cosmo, Ben Kingsley’s character in Sneakers. The film itself is far from memorable, but Kingsley brought a most Assange-like intensity to it, an incongruous, cold charm that compensated for the lack of depth in his character. On paper he is in fact the classic idealist turned villain, a former computer hacker and student activist whose desire for justice turns into hunger for money and power. Or so it seems, for on this point the story is a little ambiguous, and as he tries to recruit again his former college pal – the truly insipid Martin Bishop, played by Robert Redford – Cosmo talks of the universal key to document decryption he has obtained as the means to master the information flow and 'destroy all records of ownership'. Bishop doesn’t buy into this instant digitised revolution, and what’s more, he retorts that the pair were never activists to begin with: they were pranksters; they were in it ‘as a way to meet girls’. Grown-up Bishop is now a security expert, commissioned to penetrate banks systems so that they can be tightened up. He's the person in charge of making sure that there will be no leaks, if you will. He’s not an idealist and furthermore he has concluded that he never was.

It is typically, brazenly, unavoidably American that Bishop should be the good guy in this scenario, whereas Cosmo, the one who wants to do away with secrecy and possibly with capitalism, simply must be the villain. The film’s peculiar resolution, played screwball-style – Bishop and his gang return the universal decryptor to the NSA, in exchange for holiday packages and a Winnebago or, in Bishop’s case, the quashing of old charges – is dispiritingly conformist, and even as Redford allows himself one last laugh by revealing that he has actually disabled the device before handing it in, it grates that he was one of the faces of progressive cinema in the Seventies and the lead in Three Days of the Condor, a film that dealt so much more subtly and critically with the idea of the invisible government and its operations.

Then again, perhaps Sneakers is simply a film of its time. It was made in 1991, after the Cold War had drawn to a close and in the era of military interventions that purported to be transparently mediated, a sort of instant spectacle, swift and surgical, where you wouldn’t need secrecy because the enemy was simply powerless to conspire; whereas Three Days of the Condor was released in 1975, after the oil crisis, the Pentagon Papers and Watergate.

In the famous, climactic confrontation at the end of the film between Redford's character and Higgins, the deputy CIA director, the hero’s stance against the agency’s crimes and the circumvention of the American people is challenged on the basis that in time there will be another crisis worse than the oil shock, and only then – when plans to destabilise or invade the Middle East might come to fruition – it will make sense to ask those same people, was the price paid in terms of the human casualties and the principles betrayed too high?

That happens to be today’s storyline, and if Assange is its male lead then it would seem that whether or not he’s the good guy and what he’s doing is of value would depend on whom you asked, and that the audience is divided along lines that aren’t altogether predictable. There is a lot of liberal angst about his abrasive persona, his behaviour to his associates (comparisons to The Social Network have been frequent in this respect) and perhaps more legitimately the suspicion of rape that hangs over his head; there has been in the United States a Democratic administration looking to bring charges under the Espionage Act in the person of Attorney General Eric Holder, and various Republicans suggesting that Assange is a terrorist and that nothing short of capital punishment would do; there have been David Brooks and investigative journalists Steve Coll and Marc Thiessen skewering Assange and his organization from the pages of The New York Times, The New Yorker and The Washington Post. These last are the folks for whom, it seems, the appalling heights of cynicism of the last decade are a manifestation of civic pragmatism that it behoves the media to uphold, and the most abhorrent crimes against humanity in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Gaza are not only an acceptable price to pay, but a price that should remain untallied for the sake of Western security and peace of mind.

Of Assange’s most enthusiastic supporters I have less to say, other than to observe even amongst the most carefully worded opinions some who would lapse into dismissing, discrediting, smearing his female accusers more or less out of hand, if not to concoct the wholly predictable conspiracy theories regarding their motives. But there have also been a number of substantive, acute and useful analyses. I want to single out above all Aaron Bady, who this time last week did the thing that wasn’t sexy and examined two of Assange’s own critical essays from 2006 in which the aims of the organization are laid out. It is a remarkably lucid and helpful piece of writing that I urge you to make the time to read. At a juncture when it is difficult to cultivate one’s optimism, it gives me a glimmer of hope that we might find ways to have the debate that Manning asked for, that we might give this thing the attention it deserves, because the topic is not trivial, but goes to heart of the functioning of contemporary democracies and international institutions; and in fact that looking, as Bady and Assange do, at the formal characteristics of the communication – who is allowed to talk to whom and in what voice, under what level of scrutiny – is fundamental to understanding how the debate can be framed in the first place, how we can make it about those topics that seem so often unspeakable except amongst the converted: the reforms, a critique of imperialism that connects with a broad enough public to make a difference, how to restrict the capacity of our nations to wage wars, be they economic or military.

But then of course that glimmer is extinguished as soon as you let your mind wander back to the source of the information and to private Manning, who at this moment is isolated and allowed to speak to exactly no-one except his interrogators. We’d do well to ask what kind of society allows for people who aspire to be elected to the highest office in the land to suggest that such a person is the villain and ought to be executed; how is that public conversation framed, and how did it get that way? To make matters worse, not even his supporters are allowed to speak openly of what they think of his (alleged) actions, for implying that he is guilty of the leak would hurt his cause. We find ourselves therefore in the not a little Orwellian situation whereby the act of exposing war crimes cannot be spoken about, is pushed outside of discourse itself, and supporting the individual suspected of this act of bravery requires first of all that the bravery be stripped off of him. We stand by private Manning for the thing that we cannot say that he has done. In this film he has become the extra, the guy in the non-speaking role, lip-synching to a song that isn’t there.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Death or Lentils

Disclaimer: What follows is not intended as a polemic against the vegan movement. Not that it’s any of my business what other people choose to eat and why, but it seems to me that at least two of the most common reasons cited for becoming vegetarian or vegan – not abiding by the suffering of sentient creatures, and supporting more sustainable ways to produce food for everyone – are compelling and worthy of anyone’s consideration, including mine. What I want to comment on here are some narrow and specific rhetorical strands in the arguments in favour of ‘virtuous’ diets and lifestyles, and how they fit within contemporary ideology and the discourse about mortality. Regular readers of this blog will be broadly aware of where I’m coming from; others, I hope, won’t take offence where none is meant. 

When I asked Joe what made him decide to change, he responded very simply. “We believed you”.

(Caldwell Esselstyn)

Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn thinks he knows the cause of heart disease, and how to cure it. He might know how to prevent several of the most common types of cancer, too. It’s all in the diet. Renounce meat, eggs and dairy. Say goodbye to nuts and oils. Eat to live.

His contention, simply put, is that all the foods just mentioned injure the endothelial cells and impair their ability to produce nitric oxide, a compound whose several regulatory effects are fundamental for the prevention of heart disease. While the basis for this hypothesis is epidemiological – based on observations of populations in certain times and places who ate almost solely plant-based foods and lived free of heart disease – the effects on the endothelium of different foods can be readily observed by means of the brachial artery tourniquet test (or BART), informing the dietary prescriptions I just outlined. Besides oil, nuts and avocados, animal products are forbidden then not on ethical grounds but because of their harmful effects, which can be measured literally as they pass our lips.

I am not equipped to evaluate any of these expert claims. I might note with a degree of suspicion that the praise for Esselstyn’s book comes mostly from authors of other books of very similar bent, such as T. Colin Campbell’s The China Study, Dean Ornish’s Dr Dean Ornish’s Program for Reversing Heart Disease, Oz and Roizen’s You: The Owner’s Manual and others. I might also note that the BART test is mentioned on the Net almost exclusively in discussions regarding these books. Mindful of the methodological criticism for The China Study, I might suspend my judgment until Esselstyn’s Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease is subject to the same scrutiny, or the results of his research begin to be replicated elsewhere and on a greater number of patients. That being said, some aspects of the prescription fit in with what we know about the lower incidence of heart disease amongst people who eat primarily or exclusively plant-based foods, so it’s not a question for the lay person of having to take it entirely on faith. Yet faith comes into it precisely because of the language in which the diet is presented and marketed, employing rhetoric that we are accustomed to hear from our spiritual leaders.

Let’s start with the title of Esselstyn’s first chapter: Eating to live. To live longer and free of disease is a reasonable aspiration and we may wish to judge the contribution of medicine to society according to whether it can deliver on this front and do so equitably. By offering a dietary as opposed to a pharmacological cure, Esselstyn empowers his patients to be their own healers, which strikes us instinctively as a good thing. The move also takes power and control away from pharmaceutical companies – another highly desirable outcome. But if agency rests with us, how are we to choose the correct course of action? After all Esselstyn’s cure (the italics are his) is one amongst many; Robert Atkins, for one, had a radically different prescription.

The fabulously named nutrition expert Marion Nestle has written convincingly in Food Politics about the successful efforts of various commercial interests to interfere with or complicate the advice by the US authorities on what a healthy diet should consist of. She contends that this advice hasn’t appreciably changed over the last several decades – to eat a varied diet, in moderation, and with an emphasis on plant-based foods. But you can’t sell that. For one thing, it is not new. For another, it is not sufficiently prescriptive. Esselstyn knows you need to be sterner. He blurts it right out: moderation kills. Why eat something that you know will hurt you, even in small doses? Isn’t that tantamount to taking a poison? You wouldn’t have a few cigarettes reasoning that you might develop just a small lung cancer, or take a little bit of cocaine  – he said in his recent interview with Kim Hill. And if the comparison with drugs strikes you as retrograde or strident, remember that the aim is 'eating to live'. That is the endgame: to preserve yourself, to save yourself. It is not about morals, unless you chose to regard living a long and healthy life as a moral imperative.

Now consider Esselstyn’s core audience: heart disease sufferers, people who are painfully aware of their shortened life expectancy. He promises them that they will live. For how long? It doesn’t matter. If you had had a couple of heart attacks, wouldn’t just the prospect of eventually dying of something else seem like immortality? And it is precisely what this is, an immortality. When Esselstyn says that ‘[n]o one escapes in the end’ he doesn’t mean that you will at some point die regardless of how well you eat, but on the contrary that ‘eventually the traditional western diet guarantees some form of disease in all of us’. Our lifestyle is corrupt, and that’s what kills us. It is not time, it is not life itself.

As for Esselstyn, well, Esselstyn is God: ‘I am uncompromising. I am authoritative. But as I always tell my patients, I am a caring presence.’ His objective is to ward off evil, to ‘annihilate heart disease’. And Esselstyn’s patients are the saved. All the participants in his twenty-six year study have been cured of heart disease, except for one. He tells Kim Hill that he visited this patient at his home, looked into his fridge and cupboards. Let’s just say he was disappointed by what he found there. The prescription hadn’t been followed to the letter. Yet it is very simple. It goes like this. ‘You may not eat anything with a mother or a face’. Not because it is wrong, but because it hurts you. Also: ‘You must not consume oil of any kind—not a drop’. These are god-like commandments, regular thou-shalt-nots – except the Bible for one is in fact more flexible, limiting dietary prohibitions for the most part to certain times of the week or the year.

I find the image of the forbidden drop of oil quite arresting. What is this deadly substance that can corrupt the body in the most minute quantities? This is where the medical-scientific project appears to veer into a quasi-neurosis, and everyday practices that are in other respects progressive develop disquieting vocabularies of othering and revulsion. Christchurch researcher Annie Potts coined recently one such word, vegansexual, to describe vegans who wouldn’t have sex with meat-eaters. Here’s what some of the respondents to her study, entitled ‘Cruelty-Free Consumption in New Zealand’, had to say:

I couldn’t think of kissing lips that allow dead animal pieces to pass between them. [49, vegan, Auckland]

I believe we are what we consume so I really struggle with bodily fluids, especially sexually. [34, vegan, Christchurch]

I would not want to be intimate with someone whose body is literally made up from the bodies of others who have died for their sustenance. Non-vegetarian bodies smell different to me —they are, after all, literally sustained through carcasses—the murdered flesh of others. [55, ovo-vegetarian, Auckland]

There is a convergence in these ways of conceptualising nutrition and the body, a yearning to make oneself morally deserving of being healthy, free from contagion. Consider again Esselstyn’s instruction not to eat things with ‘a mother or a face’: even when it is intended as a prophylactic measure, it is spoken in the cryptic language of the mystics, as if to promise a safety that is neither bodily nor moral, but rather symbolic and spiritual. Another immortality, one of the very few kinds that remain available to us; one that doesn’t require literal, conscious belief, yet informs how we relate to our bodies, to public health and to the attendant politics, amidst regular calls to exclude drinkers or the obese from public hospitals, or make provisions contingent to how well you have behaved, to whether you mended your ways and started to exercise.

As I pick up in the weeks to come where I left off long ago, and resume the discussion of other contemporary approaches to immortality that are mediated by engineering and computer science, I’ll be confronted by ideas that I find in many respects more seductive than those of the healthy lifestyle movements, and I’ll have to dig deeper to summon the necessary scepticism. It might help in those moments to think of my father. After his first heart attack, Dad had to undergo regular check ups, and if this or that doctor happened to praise him for his exceptionally low cholesterol he would sometimes respond: ‘One of these days I’ll make a very healthy corpse’. I take it to mean that he wasn’t fooled, and that he didn’t expect to be saved. To eat a little better so that he could live a little longer, hopefully, yes, but nothing beyond that – he let no higher power or greater virtue creep into his secular worldview. And not everything that passed through his lips was part of the cure.

The quotations from Dr. Esselstyn that are not indicated as belonging to his interview with Kim Hill on Radio New Zealand National of November 27th, 2010, come from chapter one of his book, Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease, which is excerpted here.

Dr. Annie Potts' survey, entitled 'Cruelty-Free Consumption in New Zealand: A National Report on the Perspectives and Experiences of Vegetarians & Other Ethical Consumers', was published by the University of Canterbury in 2007 and is availabe in PDF here.

On the darker undertones of the idea that we are what we consume, I commend this brief recent post at Uninterpretative.

Update: Proving himself once again a man far, far ahead of his time, Philip Challinor warned us of the danger posed by the treacherous lentil all the way back in 2005.

Update 2: M. Jansen has supplied in the comments the link to a very solid-sounding critique of Esselstyn's work by Harriett Hall on the Science-Based Medicine blog.

Monday, November 22, 2010

It's Just a House

There’s a percentage on your mortgage and your house is gone
There’s a percentage on your mortgage and your life is gone

(Rock Off Crew, ‘Losing Our Home’)

Pixar’s Up is without a doubt the best film made to date about the subprime mortgage crisis, unless you were to contend that rather than about it was in and of the crisis. Writing began in 2004, near the peak of the housing bubble; the film was released five years later, when most Western nations were busy bleeding themselves dry to rescue what was left of their credit institutions and simultaneously doing nothing to prevent the most vulnerable borrowers from losing their homes, or else actively kicking them onto the kerb. Production took place whilst all of this unfolded, forming a perfectly rendered background of dying hopes and crumbling certainties.

‘What I am saying to you is that I have found a flaw in the model that I perceived is the critical functioning structure that defines how the world works.’ Alan Greenspan said this in October of 2008 in front of Henry Waxman and the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. That was the punishment for his leading role in causing the immiseration of millions of people: having to publicly concede that there may be a flaw in the model of the self-regulating free market. But spare a thought for the man, for it was no small admission: the model underpinned everything, it was the guarantor of American prosperity itself. In 2000, when Fannie Mae formulated a plan to extend home ownership to 18 million more low and middle income earning families, it chose to call it nothing less than its ‘American Dream Commitment.’ This commitment involved ‘bringing global capital to local communities,’ and global capital obliged, so long as it could place a bet on the outcome of each of those mortgages, which Greenspan dutifully allowed. What could possibly go wrong?

A flying house. An old man literally tethered to his only asset. Quite another dream, that of escaping with one’s home away from civilization and the economy, and inside of a childhood drawing. There. An image, like in one of those proposals that architects and design firms put forward for no practical purpose other than enhancing their creative reputation. Say, a vertical city built under a disused viaduct. Or a lone house perched atop a cliff, next to a waterfall.

When Up shifts out of its extended prologue and into the present tense, Mr Fredricksen is about to lose his house and be moved into a retirement village. The house itself is to be demolished to make way for a massive residential building, a development that this side of the crisis seems somewhat incongruous – are the busy city centers encroaching on the quiet suburbs these days in America? My head is full of stereotyped images of abandoned peripheries and dilapidated inner cities and commercial areas reclaimed for aspiring loft dwellers rather than large scale new construction, but I make no claim to actual knowledge. At any rate this aspect of the set up fits within the usual and supremely ironic Pixar theme of the struggle against the inexorable and dehumanizing march of progress told in the full glory of digital 3D. The face of evil here is a suited property developer who’s always talking on his cell phone despite appearing to be mouthless.

Fredericksen escapes the predicament by tying thousands of helium-filled balloons to the house, and it is clearly an escape in imagination as much as one in reality – set against the backdrop of the most catastrophic housing market collapse in history, it’s an image that demands to be deconstructed.

Floating gently above the clouds, away from earthly troubles. It is intriguing to speculate how the unfolding storlyine, the creeping of the word subprime into the media conversations and common parlance, the progressive deepening of the crisis might have affected at this time the screenwriters and the artists, many of whom would have had their own mortgages to service. Real estate prices in Emeryville, California, where Pixar Animation Studios is headquartered, began to tumble in the spring of 2007, although not quite as severely as in some other parts of the state, which was one of the worst affected by the crisis.

It is a storyline that you can also follow on the shelves of your local public library. Go to the real estate section and watch the mood swing on the book covers. In 2006, it’s upbeat books with fantastic titles along the lines of Proportunities: How to Use Creative Finance to Make a Fortune in Real Estate; by 2008, it’s the post-mortems of the bubble and the bust, and how to make the most of a bad situation. Whilst the Net has a funny way of overwriting its own past, there too with a little Google savvy you can take samples and measure the time it took for the perceptions and narratives to begin to match reality. One of my favourite documents is the Cato Institute daily podcast of 31st of August 2007, in which supply-side economist Alan Reynolds downplayed the implications of the subprime crisis for the housing market – let alone the wider economy – and placed the blame for it squarely on the borrowers themselves, whom he painted as either liars who fudged their loan applications or serial property ‘flippers’ motivated solely by greed. We know now what to make of both of those judgments, but it’s not just how comically wrong Reynolds turned out to be that makes the piece interesting; it is also his neoliberal emotional blindness to the lives of those who faced foreclosure. ‘They can just walk away’ was his somber summation. It would be nothing more than ‘an inconvenience’.

Apply your natural capacity for empathy, or watch Lesley Cockburn’s American Casino for a sense of the actual devastating impact of those foreclosures, which hit and continue to hit disproportionately inner city and African American communities. Yet interestingly the song by Baltimore band Rock Off Crew featured in the documentary opens with a line that is at odds with the remainder of the lyrics in its yearning not for a solution or respite, but for an escape:
All I want to do is get away, just get away
Away from the struggle and the repayments, away from having to carry the house on your back, or at the end of a rope, perhaps. Away from the American dream and the injection of global capital into local communities. At its most visually lyrical, Up literally embodies this yearning.

But just like the market, so too the house will have to come down eventually, and Fredericksen’s character arc is carefully paced so that by the time he has to let go of it, he is ready to do so. First he jettisons with a grunt of satisfaction his beloved furniture, full of the encoded gestures and memories of his life with late wife Ellie,

later he watches as the house itself disappears into the clouds. And when his young traveling companion commiserates him on his loss, there comes the quip that completes the arc: ‘It’s just a house’.

Just a house. One of the effects of the credit crisis has been to foreclose on the aspirations of home ownership of the working class, further deferring the promise of security and prosperity for all that free market theory regards as its inevitable long-term outcome. I don’t recall in which interview or at which juncture of the crisis Jon Stewart complained rather pathetically that ‘our wealth is our work’, as if his own ideology actually allowed for such an equation. If the ongoing crisis has (re)taught us anything, it is that our work will create somebody else’s wealth. And when the crunch comes, it's the working poor and the unemployed who have to learn to let go, to rise above their attachment to material goods, as if your house was really just a house, and not also a refuge, a shelter from the uncaring outside, the anchor to your community, the thing that once paid off protects you from being evicted or foreclosed, or cushions the blow if you lose your job.

In an interview for Democracy Now! on her documentary on the crisis, Lesley Cockburn spoke of how she and the other researchers had found one of the film’s main subjects, Baltimore high school teacher Denzel Mitchell, ‘inside a Goldman Sachs investment product’. She meant that they had traced the mortgage for his Baltimore home in a derivative devised and put together in Manhattan, but the choice of words is telling: it makes sense to say that they found him in there, wrapped in a financial instrument, his own little speculative bubble. Floating. This is the destiny that Fredericksen ultimately chooses not to pursue – to float away in his house, somewhere offshore, amongst the clouds. That terse statement of fact – ‘it’s just a house’ – becomes then also a refusal to be defined by a property relation, and the means to re-enter society as a free(er) subject. It’s the other side of walking away, of letting your house be taken.

In the very last image before the credits of Up start rolling we discover that the house has landed gently just where Ellie had fantasised as a child. It is a comforting resolution, inevitably so, full of symmetry and sentimental denouement, and yet at the same time unsettling, for it leaves us with the picture of a dream without its dreamer, of an economy without people. It is also therefore, in one final ambiguity, a picture of the crisis.

The hat tip for the link to Matt Taibi's article in the first paragraph goes to the indispensible Zunguzungu.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus

off the coast
there was

a splash quite unnoticed

Friends who email us their family pictures without resizing them first: we all have them. The photos in question are generally of children, but at first when you click all you can see on the screen is the extreme close up of the top left corner of a window frame, or some floor tiles, or random foliage. Sometimes you can’t even tell what it is that you’re looking at, or if it’s the right way up. By the time you’ve finally located the critters, their terrifying grins span across half the screen. Who are these enormous children, and how can we stop them from destroying the world?


One of the commonplaces of the critique of new media and the Internet in particular is the depth vs. shallowness argument. I’m diligently queuing for my library copy of Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows, so I can’t comment on it yet, but his earlier, well-known essay for The Atlantic is probably the single most widely circulated and debated formulation of the argument that the Net is biased towards short and instantly accessible texts, as opposed to longer texts requiring greater concentration for longer periods of time characteristic of book culture. Greater concentration leads to deeper reading, and for Carr, citing Maryanne Wolf, deep reading is indistinguishable from deep thinking; ergo the shorter bursts of concentration and the scanning, skimming style favoured by the Net must lead to shallow thinking – the kind of thinking that might have counselled, say, the dim-witted and sensationalistic title of Carr’s piece: ‘Is Google making us stupid?’

But I’m not interested today in countering that argument, at least not directly. I just want to contrast that image with another, see if thinking of digital texts in terms of their resolution might suggest another way of looking at seeing and reading, detail and meaning, what is deep and what is shallow.


When you open an image that doesn’t fit your screen, most viewers – including web browsers – will generally show the top left corner of it.

Do you even know at this point what you’re supposed to be looking at? Maybe not. Perhaps you just clicked on a semi-random link, or have been told to ‘check this out’. So many of our encounters with texts on the Net are blind dates. In this case, it’s a date with a high resolution image. In some browsers you could instantly resize it to fit the screen, but let’s suppose that you don’t – not yet. What kind of judgments do you make about the nature of the image, at first glance? You can tell that it’s a painting, perhaps you can date it with good approximation. You may be something of an expert, and be able to recognise it right away – but again, let’s suppose you’re not. How long before you start scrolling?

We’re getting towards the middle of the image. It’s a pastoral scene, by the sea, likely somewhere in Northern Europe, judging by the style. Is the sun setting or rising? If we’re in Belgium or the Netherlands, then we must be facing West towards the sea, and it’s the evening. More scrolling reveals the figure in the foreground to be a ploughman, patiently toiling even at this late hour. The metal coulter of his plough slices the earth with surgical precision, while the thick wooden share lifts the grassy top layer in neat strips.

Not far from the ploughman lies a sword in its scabbard. The sixteenth century was a time of (often bloody and disastrous) peasant uprisings: perhaps the painting signifies here that the humble ploughman knows that his place is in the fields, and the sword is best left sheathed; or perhaps to the contrary that the ploughman likes to keep his sword close by, and reserves the option to unsheathe it again.

Unable to see the whole picture, one is drawn towards more details. A fisherman;

a galleon packed with goods sailing in the direction of the harbour we encountered in the top left corner of the painting.

Does the purse next to the ploughman's sword denote the profits from the sale of agricultural goods? Everything in the painting thus far has conveyed a sense of quiet, languid industry, within an environment seemingly designed so that primary goods can be extracted from it and then traded for honest gain. And we may be content with that interpretation, and move on, for at some point after all one must stop reading.


Had we seen the whole picture, and had we known its title – Landscape with the Fall of Icarus – we would have searched for the mythical character, and we would have found him in short order in the bottom right corner of the canvas, where our eyes accustomed to the Latin script are trained to travel and come to a stop.

And around that detail, small but significant – all the more significant in fact because it is so small – we would have constructed an entirely different reading, the classical reading from Ovid: that of an act of hubris that fails to transform humanity. While Icarus plunges headfirst into the sea, his legs thrashing about pathetically, the life of earth-bound humans goes on, as does their work.

To see whole pictures, and in their proper context, is what book culture prepares us for. To have these images fit our textual environment, instead of having to uncover them bit by bit, pixel by pixel. At times a computer screen is a mask that hides more than it reveals precisely because of what falls outside of its margins, and you may be persuaded of this in spite of the specious, ad hoc nature of my example. But I still wouldn’t call this shallow.

Conversely, to approach the painting with advance knowledge of its title will produce a correct reading every time, one that you will find echoed and validated in the poetic reinterpretations of W.H. Auden’s and William Carlos Williams’. It is a perfectly satisfactory outcome. But I still wouldn’t call it deep.

The problem with this particular painting’s title is in fact precisely that it predetermines its meaning, and packages it so neatly that we can just stop there, content with the, yes, superficial explanation. But we should in fact regard this with suspicion: what are the chances that a renaissance artwork could in fact be so transparent to us?

Suppose that we had really encountered the image at too high a resolution, and had had to make sense of it little by little, in the manner that I have just described. We might have noticed along the way a lighter patch in the bush above the horse.

Suppose we had magnified it.

Do you see it? It's a human head: there is a corpse hiding in the undergrowth. And no, I'm not making this up – although Wikipedia's reasonably detailed entry on the painting makes no mention of it. It is in fact covered by several commentators, albeit mostly in passing. The most popular explanation is still Gustav Glück's, according to whom the detail originates in the German proverb 'Es bleibt keiin Pflug stehen um eines Menschen willen, der stirbt' (No plough comes to a standstill because a man dies). I defer to such learned authority, of course, but wouldn't the proverb be covered quite nicely by poor Icarus yonder? Couldn't it be rather that the detail was mischievously inserted by the artist to destabilise the straightforward interpretation of a painting that is itself about misdirection in the way it refuses to foreground its overt subject?

Surely not. I won't even point out the irony here – that Glück concurred at the time of his analysis (1936) with the prevailing view that the painting was by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, a hypothesis that has since been disproven. But I'm sure he was right about the other thing. Just like the eminent van Leppen was right when he explained the sword and the purse by means of another proverb, 'sword and money require careful hands' (meaning the hands of the ploughman). This is the same van Leppen who put forward the alchemical reading of the painting, which I shall briefly summarise here: the sun low on the horizon – instead of being high in the sky like the circumstances of the myth would suggest – symbolises the dawning of the philosopher's stone and perhaps alludes to the figure of the labyrinth (don't ask me how); the sea represents mercury, so treacherous for the inexperienced alchemist; the galleon is the crucible; the fall of Icarus is analogous to the precipitation of a substance; the ploughman is the farmer (for alchemists sometimes likened themselves to farmers); and the shepherd is the god Hermes, who tended sheep as a youngster. Thus the painting as a whole would be a visual compendium of the art of alchemy.

Now if any of the above sounds far fetched to you, may I suggest it’s because, like me, you’re not a renaissance art scholar? And that it may in fact be quite common in the study of paintings of this era to have a relatively straightforward interpretation overlaid onto others that are far more removed from contemporary sensibilities and modes of knowledge? Which is not to say that van Leppen is bound to be correct, either, nor that anything goes; but rather that it is appropriate for experts and lay people alike to approach these dense artworks and many other texts and artefacts –ancient and modern – at a high resolution, applying layers of interpretation on top of one another and discarding the ones that no longer seem convincing once the evidence is tallied; and furthermore, that it is a process that aims to go deep, as opposed to being satisfied with superficially plausible explanations, and that engages high level critical faculties and interpretive skills, along with new, or newly recovered, forms of literacy.

I am not putting this forward to defend the Net against its critics, but rather to call into question one specific critical frame. I contend that it’s not an issue of depth vs. shallowness, but not that there are no issues – and one could point to the proliferation of conspiracy theories on the Net as the flip side of where an over-developed attention to detail can lead us. On this too, I’m afraid, I’ll have a lot more to say in due course.

On the complexities of reading this painting and their broader implications, see Patrick Hunt's excellent 'Ekphrasis or Not? Ovid (Met. 8.183-235 ) in Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus'.

Robert Baldwin. 'Peasant Imagery and Bruegel's Fall of Icarus'. Konsthistorisk Tidskrift, LV, 3, 1986, pp. 101-114. (Also for the attribution to Glück of the interpretation of the corpse in the bush)

Piero Bianconi (ed.). L'opera completa di Bruegel. Milano: Rizzoli, 1967.

Monday, November 8, 2010


6 minutes and 2 seconds into The Big Snooze (1946), Bugs Bunny and a cross-dressing Elmer Fudd walk off the edge of the dream they’re sharing and begin to fall.

And fall,

and fall,

and fall.

Such an exquisitely unnerving spectacle. I believe it was Warner Brothers, rather than Disney, that perfected it: the extended free fall – a full forty-two seconds, in this case – towards what one might call an uncertain death. For you knew that there would be a gag in it, but not always safety. In Devil’s Feud Cake (1962), Yosemite Sam is actually killed when he hits the ground, whilst often at the end of a Road Runner cartoon it’s hard to be sure if Wile E. Coyote is going to be okay. A favourite example comes from Gee Whiz-z-z-z-z-z-z (1956), where the coyote successfully pleads for the spectacle to end before he reaches the bottom of the cliff.

But what makes the most exquisite prolonged fall scenes so unnerving is the existential terror that grips the cartoon avatars as they stare at what looks to them like real death. Those forty-two seconds in The Big Snooze are filled with the screaming anguish of Elmer Fudd, made even more jarring by Bugs' nonchalance, while the one-minute plane nosedive in Falling Hare (1943) gives the latter enough time to go through several stages of grief, including anger,


and acceptance.

In the end the plane runs out of gas, screeching to a halt inches from the ground, and Bugs is back to his wisecracking self before 'That's All, Folks!' has had time to flash across the screen, but the swift, silly resolution doesn't completely dissipate the tension, nor make you forget the time you were given to contemplate the end of life.

You’re also left with a philosophical quandary: are toons in fact indestructible? Wile E. Coyote obviously feels pain, he falls resignedly but with no apparent fear of death. He’s going to make a hole in the ground, and climb out of it, or heave up one big puff of canyon dust and return in the next scene. In the magnificent Russian Rhapsody (1944), Hitler actually tries to hasten his free fall to get out from underneath a nosediving bomber, and lands on his feet unharmed only to be crushed by the plane. But when Bugs falls out of the sky, he needs a device, a pun or a stratagem to stop him from actually hitting the ground at speed. In The Big Snooze, he has no fear because he carries a bottle of scalp tonic that ‘stops falling hare’. In Hare Lift (1951) and Devil’s Feud Cake, he pulls an ‘air brake’ and the plane comes to a miraculous stop. In High Diving Hare (1948), he remains suspended in mid-air and quips
I know this defies the law of gravity, but, you see, I never studied law.

The greater the danger, the sillier the punchline, or the bigger the cheat. Clearly what counted for the filmmakers was the fall itself, the chance to play with the expectations of the viewers and build up an unlikely, almost unbearable suspense. Comedy at the edge of a precipice of course was nothing new even back then. Harold Lloyd had made it into an art form, most famously in his Safety Last of 1923, whence this celebrated image:

Lloyd, Keaton and Chaplin were cartoon characters avant la lettre, only marginally less elastic and ultimately more destructible. They could take a lot of physical punishment but you just couldn’t push them off a plane or a building for there would be no way to save them. In 1988, Robert Zemeckis mixed it up by making Bob Hoskins fall off a cartoon building, in a long sequence – over one minute – of explicit homage to those Warner Brothers wartime cartoons. And Joel and Ethan Coen were obviously thinking of both those precedents, and Harold Lloyd’s to boot, in the two falling scenes in The Hudsucker Proxy (1994). The first one, lasting forty-four seconds, follows Hudsucker Industries CEO’s Waring Hudsucker suicide jump in front of his board of directors; whilst in the second one, that lasts several minutes in between other sequences, new CEO Norville Barnes slips off a ledge off the same building only to be saved by the janitor, who jams a broomstick between the cogs of the giant tower clock thereby stopping time.

Formally speaking, the Coens’ film was a filmed cartoon, and a mannered one at that. In 2007 the makers of Mad Men reverted to the actual form to stylishly metaphorise on the fall and fall of Don Draper.

But what these recent examples have in common is that the drama has been drained out; the calculation behind the spectacle is far too evident, like the ropes that support the abseiling artist in Don DeLillo’s Falling Man as he re-enacts that most iconic still image of a man falling off the North Tower of the World Trade Centre.

Yet in the age of slapstick they took falling altogether more seriously. Harold Lloyd, by doing his own death-defying stunts, and by representing the Roaring Twenties as a decade spent on a ledge; Robert Clampett and his fellow artists at Warner Brothers, by undercutting the march towards victory of wartime propaganda with their heroes and villains alike dropping interminably, torturously out of the sky. Not just images of falling, but images of the Fall, just as the Soviet troops marched on Majdanek and then Auschwitz, the Allies on Buchenwald. There is a temptation of course to read all of the art of that era as a sinister allegory, at the risk of overstating one’s case, but conversely it’s hard to know what else to make of the deep weirdness of those Warner Brothers’ cartoons, their manic swinging between the silly and the deadly.

Seven decades later, we live in different end times. We’re no longer falling headlong, but just as inexorably, and we need to update the imagery to suit. In this respect I find the title of James Meek’s latest novel very suggestive: We Are Now Beginning Our Descent. It will likely be a drawn out affair, with a lot more time for anger and for bargaining. And then perhaps at the end we’ll touch down gently and safely, only to open the cabin doors onto a world we can no longer inhabit.