Faculty Forum

Vol 12. No. 3

15 December 2000

In This Issue

Editorial: On Secrecy

On page 2, you will find the minutes of the October meeting of the Academic Council. Regular readers of these minutes will be struck by the uncharacteristic brevity of this set. The reason is simple: nearly all of the meeting was conducted in executive session, behind closed doors.

Going into private session is not unusual for the council, because it must consider, on behalf of the faculty, nominations for honorary degrees. Obviously that discussion must not be public, since the merits of the careers of individuals are being weighed to see if they are worthy of being honored formally by this insitution.

But the matter at hand this time was not honorary degrees, or anything that involved individual cases. The council closed the doors to hear a report from the Provost concerning the work of the Committee on Appointments, Promotions and Tenure (APT). That committee does indeed deal with individuals, lots of them, but it does not report on specific cases to anyone but the Provost. According to colleagues who were at the meeting, no individual cases were brought up. That, of course, would be highly improper even in a closed-door meeting of the council.

So why close the doors? I invite the Provost, or the chairman of the council, to explain it in these pages.

I have a long history with the Academic Council, covering most of the years of its existence. I chaired the council for two years and was on its Executive Committee several times. But never do I remember the council closing the doors to talk about the work of the APT committee. Such discussions were frequent, every year or two. And they were often contentious, as when allegations were made about discrimination against women. But they were public.

The APT committee already has a reputation, not without reason, for high-handedness and bureaucratic aloofness. (In a future issue, it will be the subject of one of my “Monsters I Helped Create” confessions.) To suggest that its operations are too hush-hush for public discussion will surely feed the unpleasant suspicions many faculty already have.

My Most Formative Class

Kathy Rudy

At the recent Founder’s Day ceremony, Prof. Rudy gave a short speech upon receiving this year’s Alumni Teaching Award. This $5000 award goes to a person selected by alumni and current students.
Last week, one of my students asked me which of my own undergraduate classes was most formative in my academic training. I fumbled around for a while, mumbling something about Aristotle and Aquinas, trying to sound impressive, but knowing full well that I really didn’t remember much from my undergraduate days. I was young, I told myself, it was the 70’s, and intellectual work was one of the last things on my mind. To tell the truth, I really only remember one class with total clarity. I want to use the occasion of this teaching award to explore why this class remains so vivid in my memory, and what I learned from it that—in some small way—I might pass on.

The setting was the mid-70’s, a small Catholic college in Upstate NY, and rather unwittingly I signed up for a class in something called “Organizing 101.” I was a pretty organized person and therefore thought that maybe I would get a good grade in the class. We started by reading the works of labor, political, and community organizers—people like Si Kahn, Saul Alinsky, Lenin, etc.—pretty dry material and not very relevant to what I thought organization meant at the time. Never bargain through representatives chosen by management, always get consensus, listen to what people think they need rather than assuming you know, set your demands higher than your expectations so you have room to negotiate, etc. Pretty simple stuff, stuff I would certainly have forgotten if my experience had ended with those books. But, fortunately, it didn’t.

Almost half-way through the semester, the teacher just stopped coming to class. No explanations, no excuses. At first, the thirty of us in class were quite happy about the unanticipated holiday. But week after week, as we showed up and he didn’t, we started to get nervous and maybe even a little resentful. How were we going to be graded? We had paid our tuition (actually our parents had), and we were owed the education. It wasn’t fair that he just stopped coming. We needed to do something. We tried all the legitimate routes to get our situation remedied. We went to the professors office, but he was never there. We spoke to the dept chair and then the president of the college, all to no avail. We did some research and found out that because the class had met less than 1/2 of the meeting times, we wouldn’t get credit for the course even though it had been paid for. We thought about continuing the class without him—i.e., reading along, discussing the syllabus, and doing our homework—but administrators told us that we couldn’t get credit unless the teacher was present. We began to get enraged.

I remember as if it were yesterday the day that one of our classmates came up with the idea that maybe we should use the very techniques we had learned in the first weeks of class! We could organize ourselves, he suggested, and make demands that would get our needs met. Immediately, the class divided, about 2/3 thinking that this was a great way to give the teacher a taste of his own medicine, and 1/3 (the obedient Catholics) believing that we should just continue to show up and wait patiently. (It never occurred to any of us that implementing these skills was exactly what our sage professor had envisioned.) Over the next few weeks, we talked the good Catholics into joining us, refused to bargain accept as a whole, demanded that all of us be given A’s, and asked for double course credit to compensate for the time and energy we spent dealing with this situation. When neither the teacher nor the president would meet with us, we picketed the school, encouraging other students to boycott classes in solidarity with our plight. Because it was by now getting close to finals, very few outside students joined us, but we did manage to get on the front page of the college weekly newspaper. On the last day of class, the dean of students came out to the picket line and told us that we were all getting A’s, but credit for one class only. That was it. We all went home for the summer, and when we returned in the fall, everyone (including the professor) acted as if nothing had happened.

Socrates once wrote this: “I cannot teach anybody anything, I can only make them think.”  The experience we had in that class made us think in a way that changed many of our lives. For that one instant in our formal educations, we felt what it was like to transform information into action. We took the words printed in books and made them relevant to our lives. We developed our own sense of value and worth by witnessing, first-hand, the power of collective action. In the midst of all the fear, anger, frustration, and heated debate that that situation produced, we learned something that that lived not only in our brains, but in our hearts and blood and muscles as well. In the middle of a blur of educational paperwork, that teacher made us think.

I would never attempt to replicate this experiment in the litigious 21st century, even with tenure. But I think a lot about that class, especially when my own classes are feeling slow, tedious, or unpleasant. What is it that I want my students to learn? To know in the hearts and blood and muscles as well as their minds? How can I simulate an experience for them that will make them feel the importance of what we’re studying? How can I make them stay up late at night debating and working through the issues at hand? This semester, for example, my reproductive ethics class has been feeling too abstract and disconnected; as a result, last week I stopped my lectures and gave the students an unplanned assignment: each of them should assume that they are infertile and go out into the world and develop a plan to get a baby. (Parents here shouldn’t be too alarmed, as I stressed the idea that I only wanted a plan.)  It is my hope that my students will, at some level, experience the joys and frustrations that accompany our increasingly complex fertility treatments and adoption systems, that they will understand the ethics of reproduction from a new angle. How comfortable are they going to be hiring a poor surrogate to carry their child? Or paying large sums of money for healthy international babies? Or undergoing dozens of tests, treatments and even surgeries in order to carry a child? Or dealing with the neglect and mistreatment of children in our substandard and overburdened foster care system? What will they learn about themselves as they make these decisions? How can I help them map these experiences onto the existing literature?

However, the real work of education does not pay off immediately, but only emerges in the long run, when the texts and facts and arguments lie just beyond recollection. Our education, as B. F. Skinner once said, “is what survives when what has been learned has been forgotten.” At that point, when we can no longer recall any of the details of all the irrelevant information we absorbed during our college years, if we are very lucky and had good teachers like this guy that taught me Organizing 101, something will come forth as central to our character. Something will be remembered in a way that says, aha—that was the point of all those years. Only then is education truly successful.

It occurs to me that the students who nominated me for this distinguished award have little idea, yet, what their education is really about. They cannot know, now—in the middle of their orgo tests and attempts to read 500 page novels the night before class—what will matter to them in the long run. Even getting them to “practice” infertility may not produce the kind of relevance I hope for; only time will tell if the things I’ve forced them to think about will matter in the long run. However, even though my students may not know what their education is really about yet, it is my deepest hope that the alumni who’ve sponsored this award do have some inkling of what their education is about, and that they have given me this award anyway.

The Faculty as Hustlers

John Staddon

Stuart Rojstaczer has pointed out the contradictory messages we are getting about overhead recovery (FF, October 20). The situation reminds me of the old joke about the widget-maker who is told by his accountant that he is losing 10 cents on every widget. “That’s OK” he responds “we make it up on the volume.”  We apparently lose money at the current overhead rate. Yet we are assured that more grants will solve the problem. But in fact, as Rojstaczer points out, overhead “recovery” rate is not an objective number, it “simply reflects the political winds and level of negotiating prowess of the Duke administration.”  If more proof is needed, simply compare the average overhead rates at private universities (where competitive incentives are high) to those at state schools (where they are lower): overhead rates average some 10 points higher at private schools.

So what makes honorable administrators assume this Janus-like position: complaining about the research briar patch abroad, welcoming it at home?  There are two possible answers, one innocent, the other less so. The innocent possibility is that it’s all a matter of lag. There is always an immediate benefit to each new research grant, but the costs associated with it are delayed.  Perception is much more attuned to changes than absolute levels. Each new grant confers a short-term benefit. Perhaps the short-term gain just overshadows a long-term loss. In this case, we should be brave, bite the bullet, and quit applying for new grants. It may hurt at first, but in the long run we will be better off giving up these costly prizes.

The other possibility is less creditable: perhaps the rhetoric is different home and abroad just because the payoffs are different. Perhaps grants really are dollar earners, no matter what our accountants say to the Feds, so that it is right and proper we should all be urged to go out and bring in more grants: Death of the faculty, but birth of a salesman.

Which view are we to believe? Are our leaders fools or knaves—or perhaps just good people doing the best they can in confusing circumstances?  I don’t know, but the message increasingly is that grants are in fact a source of profit and the university is indeed a business, in which case the only decision to be made is which division, teaching or research, makes more money. If teaching makes less than research or even actually loses money, as some of the statements we hear seem to imply, then why not drop it and turn the whole place into a research institute?  Of course, if we do, then “curiosity driven” research ? which was once the only kind of research thought appropriate for a university (which was in turn almost the only place that supported it) ? curiosity-driven research must now be supplanted by work in a “mainstream area” that will make Duke “more prominent and more noticeable.”  After all, “The government would like universities to focus more on things that can be convincing, as leading to some public good1.” In other words, rather than searching for truth we should all be trying to something that looks plausibly useful to the public.  As an eminent contributor to a recent Harvard panel discussion put it “There seems to be a mismatch between where the university really excels and the problems that are most pressing for society, like children in poverty.”

What kind of vision is this! What creature will we become if we go along this path?  Why would anyone with talent, ambition and interest in the life of the mind go into a university, where the intellectual dimension is subordinated to a kind of sentimental meliorism and the primary energizer is trends in Federal funding?  What’s more, upside possibilities in the granting system are severely limited so if $$ are what really matter, there are much more profitable careers to be found in business and the professions.  Is this really the game we want to play?

There are solutions to this dilemma. It is possible to conceive of a vision for Duke that doesn’t turn us either into a research factory or an ivory tower. But I am afraid our leaders have yet to articulate it.

1 Academic Council Minutes, September 21, 2000.

Tweaking the Admissions Process or the Status Quo?

Stuart Rojstaczer

Oh how Duke longs to be considered a serious place for undergraduate study. Ever since Reynolds Price made his 1992 Founders Day address, a speech that he refers to as “my folly” (we should all be lucky enough to commit such follies), we‚ve been wrestling with our lack of intellectualism. The latest attempt at beefing up our intellectual capital consists of a proposed tweaking of our undergraduate admissions process. We are likely going to add a separate category in the evaluation of applicants that singles out intellectual commitment. Symbolically, this isn’t a bad thing to do. But the prospect is gloomy that this change in our admissions process will have significant impact. Given the data that we have on our applicants, separating the intellectually motivated from the merely smart and academically talented would require psychic powers.

It’s a funny thing, this battle between what we are and what we might want to be. Our students like the fact that we are a mainstream institution free of expectations that students engage weighty intellectualism. We are known for our unique combination of laid back academic standards, very tough admission requirements (except for legacies and children of wealthy families), significant Greek life, and top-notch basketball. That’s what most students come here for. The intellectual life is a viable option to pursue, but isn’t a requirement for admission or academic success. And our typical student is very bright, personable, fun to be around, and has career ambitions in business, law or medicine. 

It’s a successful niche. Students apply here in big numbers because of our mix of academics and social life. And we benefit from our uniqueness. We are a different kettle of fish, an unpretentious alternative to the Ivies.

But there are problems with this niche. It’s great for the type of students we attract, but maybe it isn’t so great for faculty and administration. It’s kind of embarrassing to talk to your friends at those precious few academically focused schools and compare notes on your teaching experiences. We all know that there are a few schools in this country (curiously they are mostly elite liberal arts colleges like Amherst, Swarthmore, and Williams) where the intellectual expectations are significantly higher for undergraduates than they are here. Most of their students are similar in attitude and make up to those at Duke. But those schools differ in that they also have a critical mass of intellectually engaged students. These students want to pursue the intellectual life. They don’t have to be forced to do it. We get this kind of student at Duke as well, but not in large enough numbers to significantly influence Duke culture. We want more of them. The problem is that to get more of those intellectual types we’d have to substantially change our university. Students who are primarily interested in pursuing the life of the mind while at college are typically not interested in coming to a campus where high expectations are optional. 

The faculty doesn’t want Duke to be known as a school that, like most, principally provides social and economic accreditation for students. We don’t want graduation to be the contemporary equivalent of a debutante ball. We want to be able to say that Duke is different than that. There are maybe twenty universities and colleges in this country that have the kind of intellectual ambience that we crave. For seven years, we have made some efforts to be more like those magical twenty schools. It hasn’t worked.

In a recent and excellent piece in the student magazine TowerView, Phil Tinari listed some of our attempts at creating a more intellectual campus including enhanced merit based scholarships, Curriculum 2000, and the Focus Program. Some of these efforts have been a waste of time (it’s no wonder that our change in curriculum is now known as Ridiculum 2000). Many of them have resulted in pleasant improvements in undergraduate education (like the Focus Program).  But we still our nowhere near to being a serious, intellectually engaged place. Like most elite private research universities, the hardest thing about Duke is gaining admission.

Recently, I went on a tour of college campuses in my new role as the parent of a college-bound kid (my daughter). Most of the places I visited have the kind of reputation for intellectual intensity to which we intermittently aspire. Unlike here, there were no televisions in their cafeterias. On Sunday morning at one of these places (Wesleyan), the library was jammed full of students studying. At breakfast, I overheard conversations from students about the dangers of the global marketplace and the importance of improvisation in 17th century church music. OK, I know that I am falling prey partly to “grass is greener syndrome.” But these places were different. They were palpably different in terms ofatmosphere. And there is the strongest likelihood that they we will never be close to having the same level of intellectual intensity that they do. There are just too many major logistical differences between them and us. Those logistical differences mean that they can attract significantly more intellectually engaged students than we do.

It’s important for us to realize the limitations of what we can accomplish. In our efforts to improve Duke, we’ve been trying to tweak the status quo. We haven’t tried to significantly venture outside the boundaries of how most major universities and colleges work. In contrast, most of the schools that I visited were well outside those boundaries. If we want to approach their intellectual ambience, we are going to have to do more than tweak the system. And some of the changes that we would have to make are undoubtedly impossible.

The schools that I visited had at most a few small fraternities. This inverse correlation between fraternities and intellectual intensity isn’t coincidental. Reynolds Price, in his Founder’s Day address, called for the elimination of fraternities at Duke. His recommendation was completely ignored. We know that a strong fraternity scene is antithetical to having a serious campus. It isn’t just that fraternities are havens for drunkenness and debauchery (at Duke most of the “d&d” has moved to off campus fraternity-based houses). But their presence attracts the kind of college applicant that desires the fraternity experience. We can continue to try to tweak the status quo and try to make fraternities wreak less havoc. In doing this, we are falling far short of what is necessary.  And what is necessary is difficult to achieve. Dartmouth, a school very similar to Duke in its student profile, tried to severely restrict fraternity life over the past year. Outraged alumni and students are successfully repelling this effort, an indication of just how hard it is to move out of the mainstream.

The schools that I visited didn’t have big time basketball or football. At Duke, we’ve consciously decided to limit the corruption of big time sports by making only a nominal effort to pursue football. It’s wonderful that we do this, and it is decision that is outside of the typical university norm. But basketball is a corrupting influence as well. Don’t get me wrong. I love to watch our Blue Devils play in Cameron. But I don’t like to have students in my classes whose primary motivation for coming to Duke is the success of our basketball team. I don’t like to hear about basketball players suspended for cheating or failing classes. Mainstream college campuses have big time sports. Serious campuses don’t. You just can’t have it both ways.

There are other significant differences between those campuses that we envy and the path that we follow. For example, they are far more restrictive than us when they admit legacies and children of wealthy families. Currently we admit fifty percent of our legacy applicants. Five to six percent of our admissions are allocated to substandard applicants from wealthy families. This translates into a student body where ten to fifteen percent are admitted despite a lack of academic interest or talent. We can’t make this kind of sacrifice in our admissions standards and expect to have a top-notch intellectual group of students. And we don’t need the money that bad.  There is a movement afoot to make slight reductions in the number of students we admit this way. If we want to find more intellectual students, we are going to have to significantly restrict admissions on the basis of family wealth and ties.

But the most significant difference between the serious and the mainstream schools like Duke is that serious schools have high consistently high intellectual standards in the classroom. At Duke, a smart student can coast and still maintain a B plus average. We get some of the smartest, academically talented students in the country. Why shouldn’t we consistently challenge them? We in general don’t do this (I know that there are many exceptions to this rule). We don’t do it for a number of reasons, from concerns about the impact of difficult classes on enrollment, to concerns that difficult classes require more work for professors. But by not having high expectations, we are doing our students a disservice. It is in essence, irresponsible behavior. And if we expected more, Duke would be more attractive to those serious-minded students we want to get. 

It is one thing to lament our lack of intellectualism. It is quite another to make the substantive changes necessary to improve out intellectual climate. There is only so much that schools like Duke - wed to fraternity life and big time basketball, and addicted to donations from parents of undergraduate applicants - can do. We can, however, make small individual efforts and maybe that‚s about as much as we can reasonably expect. For example, I’ve decided to do my tiny bit to improve the undergraduate experience and upgrade my expectations of students in the classroom. Four years ago, I felt compelled to become the purveyor of easy workload, easily graded classes. It was a cheap and successful effort to attract students, but it has not been satisfying emotionally and intellectually. 

I’m going back to being the old Stuart, the one who tried to challenge students in the classroom. Obviously, this is a personal decision and not anything close to a university wide effort. The net effect is that there will be three less “cheesy” classes at the university. I cordially invite other instructors to do the same. Who knows? Maybe it is possible to collectively raise our standards in the classroom this way. What is certain is that if we don’t make collective efforts like this, we won’t ever come close to attracting a critical mass of students driven by intellectual achievement.

Eduardo Kac and the Glowing Bunny

Kalman Bland

Recently Duke was favored by a visit from the “transgenic artist” Eduardo Kac, who works at the Art Institute of Chicago. Kac is known recently for his work with a genetically altered rabbit named Alba (and the controversy surround Alba’s ownership). He presented a talk entitled “Art, Genetics and Ethics: The Transgenic Art of Eduardo Kac.” This well-attended lecture was followed by a panel discussion involving four members of the Duke faculty, among them Prof. Bland. Here is the text of Prof. Bland’s remarks.
In responding to Eduardo Kac, I take my clues from Susan Sontag and two philosophers, Arthur Danto and Bugs Bunny.  Susan Sontag convinced me that “real art” is unsettling, “it has the capacity to make us nervous.”1  Arthur Danto persuaded me to forgo the rigid definitions of aesthetic fundamentalism.  Pondering the implications of Duchamp’s ready-made urinals and Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes, Danto concluded that art is the “transfiguration of the commonplace.”  He discovered that artists “perform the subtle miracle of transforming, into works of art, objects from the Lebenswelt of commonplace existence.” As for Bugs Bunny, the wise-cracking, carrot-munching sage, his philosophic credentials are impeccable.  Like Socrates, he is pursued by uptight Athenian opponents, Elmer Fudd, whose intentions are to kill.  Like Socrates, Bugs Bunny raises questions that are immortal:  “What’s up, doc?”  I therefore concede that Alba, the transgenic, fluorescent bunny, is art because it makes people nervous and transfigures a commonplace.  Slightly hare-brained myself, however, I say, “What’s up, Kac?”  What sort of art are you up to?

Once upon a time, chimeras were terrifying monsters.  According to Hesiod, the “Chimaera” was a creature “who breathed raging fire; a creature fearful, great, swift-footed and strong; who had three heads, one of a grim-eyed lion, another of a goat, and another of a snake, a fierce dragon; in its front, it was a lion; in its rear, a dragon; in its middle, a goat, breathing forth a fearful blast of fire.”  Formidable creature that it was, the Chimaera took the likes of airborne Pegasus and noble Bellerophon to be vanquished.3  According to Apollodorus, “the Chimera was more than a match for many men, let alone one… .it devastated the country and harried the cattle; for it was single creature with the power of three beasts.”4  I wonder if Alba, the green fluorescent protein bunny, might do the same.

But where have all the chimeras gone, long time ago?  Eduardo Kac describes Alba, as a “chimera,” the kind of “cross-species hybrid creatures [that] have been part of our imaginary for millenia.”5  Not exactly.  Once upon a time, our imaginary was more robust.  Once upon a time, to qualify as a chimera, beasts needed to combine three creatures.  Nowadays, standards have been lowered, drastically.  The combination of two suffices.  Reduced in complexity and power by a third, the chimera has suffered additional humiliations.  Nowadays, we encounter Alba, the designer pet, the huggable, cuddly, genetically modified but nevertheless utterly lovable, lagomorph instead of the undomesticated, fire breathing harrier of cattle, devastator of countrysides, the creature who is supposed to be more than a match for many men, let alone one.  As Eduardo Kac declared, understating the case and obscuring the atrophy of contemporary imagination, “a profound cultural transformation takes place when chimeras leap from legend to life, from representation to reality.”6  If so, the GFP Bunny is a sign that times have sadly changed.  Art has become literal minded and less imaginative.  The monsters have gone, nature is no longer terrifying, no longer red in tooth, red in claw.  Human control is benevolent, omnipresent and omnipotent.  Genetic engineering poses no threats.  Apparently, all is well.  There’s nothing to worry about.  Perhaps nature and technology, with the help of Euardo Kac, have been recreated in the image of politicians who call for a gentler and kinder America.  Perhaps I’m being unfair.  Perhaps Alba, the lovable designer pet, is an impassioned political protest, a happening, a gesture steeped in critical irony.  One way or the other, images always remain a step or two ahead of their interpreters.  Eduardo Kac can control the color of his rabbits, but he cannot control the impact of his artwork on society, regardless of his intentions.

In asking what sort of art the transgenic bunny embodies, I mean more than the atrophy of imagination, the obscuring of technology’s threats, and the denial of nature’s fangs.  Once upon time, artists made incomplete and inanimate artifacts hoping that they would be perfected and come to life.  Often, they did, if not for the artists then for the viewers beholding the artifacts.  Think of Pygmalion, the ardent bachelor and skillful sculptor, who according to Ovid, with the divine help of Venus found his ivory statue of a beautiful maiden transformed into loving flesh and blood, capable of bearing him a daughter named Paphos.7  Nowadays, artists simplify and reverse the process.  Dispensing with the tools of their trade, some sculptors make do without slabs of stone, hammers, and chisels.  They commission scientific laboratories to make a living creature which the artist then transforms into an object, a commodity, something to be owned, a designer pet, an act rationalized by Eduardo Kac as a means subordinated to an end:  the production of a conversation piece, a symbol for the “ethical implications of genetic engineering,” “an examination of the notions of normalcy, heterogeneity, purity, hybridity, and otherness,” and a stimulus for “interspecies communication between humans and transgenic animals.”8

In asking what sort of art the transgenic bunny embodies, I also invoke what Aristotle called the efficient cause .  We call it agency, the mystique of the artist, the performative power of speech-acts.  Once upon a time, the gods spoke and worlds magically came to be.  “Yehi Or, fiat lumen,” let there be light, and there was light.  Nowadays, the gods are quiet but artists have become loquacious.  They say, let there be art, and there was art.  Alba is art not because Eduardo Kac put in a hard day at the studio but because he is an artist who declared a specific feat of science to be artwork..  The implications are intriguing.  Without artistic declaration, there is no difference between Eduardo Kac’s bunny and the splendid rainbows created by non-artist suburbanites who water their lawns with sprinklers on sunny days or the colorful spheroids made by non-artist children who playfully blow soap bubbles.  Because of artistic declaration, we can expect to read in tomorrow’s inflammatory headlines that an artist who set a house to torch was found innocent of arson, his lawyers defending him on the grounds of aesthetic license.  Let me explain.  Consider smoke.  As M. G. J. Minnaert, the Dutch astronomer observed, “Our chimney smoke and the smoke from factories is generally black in incident light, however thick and opaque the column of smoke, which shows that the soot flakes not only scatter light, but also strongly absorb it.  Thin layers of smoke of this kind make the sky seem brown when you look through them… . This agrees with the fact that the absorption of carbon increases rapidly from the red to the violet of the spectrum; this characteristic is exemplified in the blood-red color of the sun when seen through the smoke of a house on fire.”9  Why then tempt the fates and genetically modify a living bunny, all in the name of art?  Let’s find any old wooden house awaiting demolition, hire an artist to set it on fire at sunset, then sit back, ignore the pollution, and watch a cosmic, transmedia artwork.

Eduardo Kac’s answer might be that a burning house will never do, that only a living, quintessentially othered bunny can promote our respect for the creatures with whom we symbiotically share this planet.  Eduardo Kac wants us to cherish biodiversity and establish I-Thou relationships with animals.  We can accomplish the same ethical goals by urging everyone to go the nearest animal shelter and adopt the mangiest, most mongrelized, non-genetically modified dog.  Are we incapable of being transformed by the “emotional and cognitive lives” of any animal we take for a pet, living in intimacy with it, even if it is not a transgenic oddity?

Finally:  Hoping to take lessons from our fellow creatures, the animals, do we not stand to gain more from following the example of naturalists like Barbara Smuts than from the aesthetic practices of Eduardo Kac?  When Barbara Smuts first began working with baboons in western Tanzania, her “main problem was learning to keep up with them while remaining alert to poisonous snakes, irascible buffalo, aggressive bees, and leg breaking pig-holes.  Fortunately, these challenges eased over time, mainly because [she] was traveling in the company of expert guides—baboons who could spot a predator a mile away and seemed to possess a sixth sense for the proximity of snakes.  Abandoning [her]self to their far superior knowledge, [she] moved as a humble disciple, learning from masters about being an African anthropoid.”10  Returning from scientific research in Africa, Barbara Smuts discovered that she was “lonely for non human company.  “This yearning,” she writes, “was greatly eased by [her] dog Safi, who like the baboons, [gave her] the joyful intersubjectivity that transcends species boundaries.”  She increasingly found opportunities for allowing Safi to be her guide through life, in the wild and at home, instead of controlling and training Safi as we have learned to do with our “pets.”  I urge you to read Barbara Smuts’s account of her discipleship with Safi in J. M. Coetzee’s remarkable book, The Lives of Animals, and to decide for yourself whether we ought to imitate and admire Eduardo Kac’s omnipotent control over nature or follow the humble path marked by ordinary animals like Safi.

1 Against Interpretation, 8.
2 The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, v-vi.
3 Theogony, 319-25.
4 Library II:iiii.
5 “Transgenic Art,” http://www.ekac.org/transgenic.html.
6 Ibid.
7 Metamorphoses, X:243-97.
8 “GFB Bunny,” http://www.ekac.org/gfpbunny.html).
9 Light and Color in the Outdooors, 260-1.
10 J. M. Coetzee, The Lives of Animals, 107-20.

Annals of New Age Science

Here are more goodies from Prof. Robert Park’s weekly online column What’s New?

[Two items from recent columns, on magnetic clothing.]

FALL FASHION TIP: YOU JUST HAVE TO WEAR MAGNETS, DAAAHLING. The word this season... accessorize! There are just sooooo many delicious items: the Eclipse magnetic pendant, the Solar magna- ball bracelet, the Lyon Magnetic Ear Stud. Don’t forget to sashay down to Florsheim for a pair of Magna-Force shoes (WN 11 AUG 00). And ladies - there’s Lum magnetic lipstick for the perfect effulgence! Men: just a touch of Essential 7 magnetic fragrance - remember, less is more! Now, just one more item to complete the outfit: Gary Null’s unisex magnetic underwear. It “penetrates the prostate, colon, ovaries, uterus and reproductive organs.” (Probably not all on the same person.) Advertisers for magnetic products say they’re effective because the pineal gland is a “magnetic engine.” Fine, so put the shorts where they can do the most good - on your head. That way the rest of us will know who you are. Just another WN style tip. Ta Ta!

FATAL ATTRACTION: FLORSHEIM PULLS ITS HEALTH CLAIMS. Faced with a consumer lawsuit in California, and ridicule from the scientific community, Florsheim has yanked the brochures that described the “science” behind its MagneForce shoes (WN 18 Aug 00). Its web page, which once claimed that its magnetic insole, “increases circulation: reduces foot, leg and back fatigue; provides natural pain relief and increased energy level,” now simply says it’s, “the first shoe with its own power supply.

[Now an item about the recent election.]

ELECTION: HOW DID THE PHYSICISTS DO? “This shows every vote counts,” remarked plasma physicist Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ). And he wasn’t talking about Florida. With 1500 provisional ballots still outstanding, Holt claims he leads Dick Zimmer by 292 votes. Zimmer says he leads Holt by 393. Oh, for math standards! No such problem for nuclear physicist Rep. Vern Ehlers (R-MI), who was reelected with 65% of the popular vote. And the White House? Natural Law Party candidate physicist John Hagelin fared poorly, because, as he explained, “our solutions have been co-opted.” Co-opted? Has Hagelin’s corps of yogic flyers (WN 9 Apr 99) sold out to the mainstream? Inquiring minds demand an answer.

[Here is the earlier item referred to.]

At a Washington press conference this morning, string theorist and Natural Law Party presidential candidate John Hagelin proposed a more effective air campaign: an elite corps of 7,000 trained Yogic flyers. The trained meditators, he explained, would spread tranquility with a quantum-mechanical consciousness field. It’s been proven, he said, citing the 1993 Demonstration to Reduce Violence in Washington,DC. WN covered that demonstration (WN 23 Jul 93). The murder rate in the capital soared to an all-time high during the 8-week project, but Hagelin later explained it would have been 18% higher if the meditators hadn’t been there meditating (WN 7 Oct 94). NATO must guarantee the security of the flyers presumably by force. He was perplexed that Madeleine Albright had rejected the plan. The press conference ended with 12 trained yogic flyers bouncing around on mattresses. It was clear to me his plan would work. Serbian troops viewing 7,000 bouncing yogic flyers would be rendered helpless by laughter.

[Finally, the insidious and invisible electromagnetic field.]

CELL PHONE HAZARD: WHO LET THE DOGS OUT? It looked like the fear-lobby was finally caged. The public scare over EMFs was dissipating as a result of definitive studies that showed no link between power lines and cancer (WN 4 Jul 97). But, the calm was only temporary. The fear-lobby is now aggressively scaring the public over the dangers of cell phones. In response, a panel of experts in Britain was recently convened to examine the issue. The panel recognized that there is no compelling evidence that cell phones cause cancer. And, in fact, the low-levels of radiation don’t even provide any physical mechanism to induce cancer. Nevertheless, the panel recommended a “precautionary approach” regarding microwaves. It’s deja mu. Before Paul Brodeur wrote Currents of Death and started the “prudent avoidance” power line hysteria (WN 25 Aug 89), he wrote The Zapping of America, which warned of the dangers of microwaves. Since World War II, background radiation levels had risen to 100 million times the “natural” background, he howled. Yawn. In terms of health risks, that’s still a totally insignificant level. An industry is now popping up to protect consumers from their own cell phones. Products include headsets and speaker-phone attachments “to keep the radiation away”. Fine, but what about all that pesky second-hand radiation? Maybe someone should encase the phones in a cubicle and put them on street corners.