The Silence of the Transgenic Lambs

I was just in middle of writing an essay on transbiology, when I saw an article on a genetically modified sheep, whose fat is supposed to be beneficial for people with cardiovascular diseases.

Chinese scientists have cloned a genetically modified sheep containing a “good” type of fat found naturally in nuts, seeds, fish and leafy greens that helps reduce the risk of heart attacks and cardiovascular disease.

What struck me most about this news is that instead of getting the “good” type of fat from nuts, seeds and leafy greens, the scientists from the Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI), the Institute of Genetics and Developmental Biology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Shihezi University in Xinjiang and the Chinese government decided to invest lots of money in a complex process of producing a transgenic animal. In the meantime, meat consumption is one of the major environmental threats. Recently China has become the leader in world’s meat consumption, leaving the U.S far behind.

More than a quarter of all the meat produced worldwide is now eaten in China, and the country’s 1.35 billion people are hungry for more. (…) Altogether, China harvested the largest grain crop of any country in history in 2011. A full one third of that harvest is going to feed animals to meet the growing demand for meat, milk, eggs, and farmed fish.

Source: sustainablog (http://s.tt/1a0J4)

Of course, here I have to warn against demonizing China as a global polluter, that often happens in the environmentalism discourses, especially those coming from the West. The U.S. remains the unquestioned leader in GM crops production. Last year AquaBounty, an American biotechnological company, patented a genetically modified Atlantic salmon, owning an animal as a product.

AquAdvantage® Salmon (AAS) include a gene from the Chinook salmon, which provides the fish with the potential to grow to market size in half the time of conventional salmon. In all other respects, AAS are identical to other Atlantic salmon.

The trademark on a breed of animals, promising an “advantage” (probably mostly to the producers) seems a very perverse idea. But the question remains: why bother with a lengthy and difficult process of inserting a gene linked to the production of polyunsaturated fatty acids into a donor cell taken from the ear of a Chinese Merino sheep, then inserting the cell into an unfertilized egg and implanting it into the womb of a surrogate sheep? Human health. That seems to be an answer of the scientists. Well, guess what, why not turning vegetarian/vegan, or just simply introduce more leafy greens and nuts into your diet? Instead, the greens will be consumed by a transgenic sheep, so that consumers can enjoy their terribly expensive lamb steak from Peng®Peng©BetterFuture, assuring themselves that the more they eat, the healthier they get. Capitalism in a romance with science.

This reminds me of Eduardo Kac’s controversial transgenic artwork, the GFP Bunny. In 2000 Kac created Alba, a green glowing rabbit, with a florescent gene found in the jellyfish Aequorea Victoria implanted in her. It might seem that this kind of art project is meaningless and problematic. However, the artist is mostly interested not in the embodied existence of a green chimerical rabbit, but in the process of its social integration, and the debates that it created. He writes:

As a transgenic artist, I am not interested in the creation of genetic objects, but on the invention of transgenic social subjects. In other words, what is important is the completely integrated process of creating the bunny, bringing her to society at large, and providing her with a loving, caring, and nurturing environment in which she can grow safe and healthy. This integrated process is important because it places genetic engineering in a social context in which the relationship between the private and the public spheres are negotiated. In other words, biotechnology, the private realm of family life, and the social domain of public opinion are discussed in relation to one another. Transgenic art is not about the crafting of genetic objets d’art, either inert or imbued with vitality.

In this sense, Kac’s art points to the problem of lack of responsibility in creating transgenic organisms. The low-fat sheep seems to be a perfect example of that. Please don’t get me wrong — I am not against the transgenic animals, in fact I think that hybrids surround us whether we like it or not and following Bruno Latour, I believe that modernity is all about proliferation of natureculture hybrids. What does the Chinese sheep teach us about human relations to animals and to nature? In my view the painfully anthropocentric approach revealed in producing a living being just for the betterment of human health.

The new cloned celebrity called Peng Peng is a close relative of Dolly, the infamous British sheep. Sarah Franklin in her book Dolly Mixtures “tries to situate her [Dolly’s] emergence as part of the history of agricultural innovation and its close connection to life sciences – in particular reproductive biomedicine.”[1] Digging in Dolly’s genealogy and rich significance of her existence to the politics, medicine, ethics and economics, Franklin manages to reveal the historical trajectory that made the sheep a biosocial entity, queering the notions of the biological, the cultural, the technological and the political. With the new form of reproduction (trangenesis) Dolly still belongs to the long history of animal husbandry, control over their bodies and reproduction, and even imperial expansion. Franklin writes: “because Dolly’s assisted creation out of technologically altered cells confirms the viability of new forms of coming into being, or procreation, her existence can be seen to redefine the limits of the biological, with implications for how both sex and reproduction are understood and practiced.”[2] What she calls “remixing of sex” shows how transbiological imaginary thoroughly affects reproduction, sex, and sexuality. Later in the book, she even mentions how cloning is associated with the fear of same-sex reproduction.[3] She draws on Jackie Stacey’s analysis of science-fiction cinema featuring new genetics. Stacey noticed: “The reproduction of sameness through sexual difference is no longer so straightforward when the means for assuring its continuity are new technologies of replication that trouble the authority of paternity, inheritance, and heterosexuality in the cultural imagination.”[4]

Just as Dolly mobilized the British biotechnological industry, bridging it with the long history of wool production, export of animals to the new world, colonization and the Australian outback, Peng Peng’s location is crucial. She was conceived in a laboratory  in Shenzhen in southern China, in one of the biggest Special Economic Zones (SEZs), where free market ideology flourishes and huge amounts of goods consumed in a global  market are produced at the expense of cheap labour.


[1] Sarah Franklin, Dolly Mixtures: The Remaking of Genealogy (Durham, London: Duke University Press, 2007), 1.

[2] Ibid., 5.

[3] Ibid., 203.

[4] Jackie Stacey, “Masculinity, Masquerade, and Genetic Impersonation:               Gattaca’s Queer Visions,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 30, no. 3 (March 2005): 1873.

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Sustainability doesn’t have to be sexist!

This article was first published in the Q? zine created by the Radical Queer Affinity Collective. Cyborg monkey is happily part of this collective 🙂 The article was written in response to a campaign organised by the Sustainable Campus Initiative at the Central European University in Budapest. 

The golden rule of capitalist marketing says that ‘sex sells’. Although using sexual and erotic imagery in salesmanship is as old as the idea of advertising itself, it has not died out. ‘Young entrepreneurs’ still believe that whatever they want to sell (be it beer, cars, hammers, jeans, coffins, roof tiles or, organic fertilizer), putting an image of a female body next to it will increase the chances of catching their clientele’s attention. That is why public space is literally littered with boobs and asses. Vintage sexist ads are being mocked now as an obvious example of anachronism, but the trend to make a more or less subtle ‘wink’ to customers still continues.

Ok, everybody knows what’s wrong with sex in advertising and how it objectifies women’s bodies. But what about using sex to promote a ‘good cause’? Let me give you an example of that: “Two on one? Is much more fun!” or “Turning this off turns me on!”

poster 1

Sounds familiar? Yes, these are slogans from the new SCI (Sustainable Campus Initiative) campaign that you might have noticed on the posters put in computer labs. The Sustainability is sexy campaign seeks to make CEU students aware of energy savings that they could make by turning the computer screens off in the labs and printing double-sided. But why on Mother Earth do they have to do that using sexist means?! Let me briefly review the message that comes across with the beautiful posters I am talking about. If I print double-sided will it enhance my chances of getting laid or maybe even to have a threesome? If I turn off the screen in the basement lab do I run the risk of some guy creeping up behind me because he was inexplicably “turned on”? And who knows what would happen if I were to turn the lights off (apparently it should get better)? Not to mention that all the posters are meant exclusively for a heteronormative eye.

poster 3

SCI seems to be inspired by the infamous PETA (People for Ethical Treatment of Animals) strategy that uses sexism and nudity as a cheap trick to attract attention to animal rights. Naked sexy bodies wrapped in plastic like chicken meat, models posing with animal skins, a shot of female lingerie with body hair (the slogan says: “Fur trim. Unattractive”), urging ice-creams producers to use human breast milk instead of cow milk – that’s PETA’s shock therapy. ‘Sex sells’ in its fullest!

PETA's ad 1

PETA's ad 2

PETA's ad 3

PETA's ad 4

The latest video commercial from the “Veggie Love” campaign shows barely dressed women getting down and dirty with… vegetables! So who is a target of this kind of advertising? Licking pumpkin and imitating masturbation with asparagus somehow does not convince me to go vegetarian. Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy green porn and I know sex toys are expensive, so cheaper organic substitutes are not such a bad idea, but PETA’s ads are clearly misogynist. PETA responds to criticism by pointing out that, “since the organization is run by a woman, they could not possibly be accused of sexism.” Great logic, let us think about that for a second. Hmm, “The US is not racist, because Obama is black”. The problem is that one type of oppression is prioritized over another. Hey PETA, why not try to be more concerned with the ethical treatment of women?

Coming back to the SCI case, what is it all about? In the Proposal for a Sustainable Campus at CEU in the section 2.1.1 on education it is argued that:

The most important task during the year students spend with CEU is to make them feel that the sustainable lifestyle and habits that CEU supports and takes for granted are desirable, normal and things, habits to be taken home and inculcated into their local populations when they return to their countries, that this is ‘the way things should be done’ by civilized, socially and environmentally aware citizens.

I think that my ‘local population’ better knows how ‘things should be done’ and how to care about the environment without offending women and using them as tokens only. Unfortunately the author clearly assumes that my lifestyle (and yours too) is not sustainable enough, as the ‘local population’ of my species has to be some savage, uncivilized, non-western wasteland. Let there be dragons! The report on the sustainable campus conveniently doesn’t mention the key word here: development. ‘Sustainability’ inevitably comes in a package with ‘development’. The whole project is yet another alliance between the patriarchal system and capitalism to launch a developmental mission to civilize savage populations. Of course what is also nearly forgotten is that the idea of sustainability is linked to responsibility. The poster action and SCI’s strategy can in no way be termed ‘responsible’. By utilizing such techniques to reach a goal, SCI leaves a giant sexist footprint behind and they’d better deal with it soon, because the struggle for the environment is a serious one! If you are not creative enough to come up with something actually interesting, and if you cannot make yourself fight for a clean campus without simultaneously exploiting women, it is better to say nothing instead. Sustainability should be thought of in relation to equality.

Feminism shares the environmental concerns! While we appreciate the tremendous efforts of SCI to raise awareness about environmental issues, we certainly do not appreciate the cheap mainstream tactics of selling the message.This is a common fight, and powers should be consolidated, instead of being compromised by sexist culture. Hopefully SCI will realize that and try to change their poor strategy of drawing students’ attention to a very important cause. But maybe they need some help, so I invite you to come up with an alternative to the shameful Sustainability is sexy campaign. Anyone can think of a way to prove that green activism doesn’t have to be sexist, racist, or classist. Design a poster or leaflet, make a video or sticker, and share! Let’s turn it into a kick-ass action!