For this edition on Genes, DJ Robynn put together this special remix of songs selected by this month’s contributions to go with their pieces: Alondra Nelson talked to EM about the sociocultural implications of genetic screening tests, touching on uses of genetic analysis in such varied settings as the early Black Panthers’ community-based genetic screening programs for sickle cell anemia, the criminal justice system, and popular TV shows; Julia Serano described how cultural boundaries can be replicated in our (mis)understandings of biology; Clare Wilkinson-Weber wrote about jeans, Indian film and fashion; and Christopher Kelty shared Jonathan Coulton’s biologically-inspired music with us.
For our edition on Genes, DJ Robynn put together this special remix of songs collected from this month’s contributors.
The songs in this mix are:
- Translinear Light – Alice Coltrane
- The All of Everything – Sun Ra
- Roll and Tumble – DJ Krush
- Jeans – Quadron
- Melt! – Flying Lotus
- I’m Too Sexy – Right Said Fred
- Arey Ek Hai Anaar Yahan – Govinda, Alka Yagnik, Nikhil Vinay
- Sexy And I Know It – LMFAO
- It’s Tricky – Run DMC
- Pre-med – Bitesize
- That Spells DNA – Jonathan Coulton
- I Wanna Be Sedated – the Ramones
- Company IV – Philip Glass
The music in this mix was selected by this month’s contributors:
Alondra Nelson talked to EM about the sociocultural implications of genetic screening tests, touching on uses of genetic analysis in such varied settings as the early Black Panthers’ community-based genetic screening programs for sickle cell anemia, the criminal justice system, and popular TV shows like Finding Your Roots and Who Do You Think You Are. She also described the music that came to mind for her when thinking about her research:
Both Sun Ra and Alice Coltrane are making what you might call scientific music, but it’s also metaphysical music. Part of what’s so interesting to me as a researcher about contemporary genetics and what we think it means in society, is that it’s making claims about science or the scientific, but we’re also asking it to do some pretty significant metaphysical work. The work of Sun Ra and Alice Coltrane resonate with me in that regard. And Sun Ra also of course because there’s a lot of discord and cacophony in the work. Coltrane is a bit more melodic. Sun Ra, you have crashing, booming — depending on what your taste is, even difficult to hear – combinations and recombinations of sound. So I think that the Sun Ra pieces are also a manifestation of the discord in how we think about ourselves and our communities after the genome. But also discord with the hyperbole that does not render the full complexity of human experience and human societies.
Julia Serano described the ways in which cultural boundaries can be replicated in people’s (mis)understandings of biology (…):
Biology as it gets taught in school, you learn to put things into categories: These are dogs; these are cats. These are women; these are men. We learn to organize everything into these clear cut categories — but in biology, there really are no clear-cut categories. You can put dogs and cats into separate categories, and sometimes that’s useful, but they once shared a similar ancestor together. There is a lot of overlap between the types of genes they have, and their behaviors.
Certainly, the remarkable capacity of jeans to find a place within schemes of dress worldwide is testament to the powers of worldwide production and distribution networks that now bring jeans within the reach of so many. Equally important though are those material qualities of jeans that, in interaction with the wearer’s body, make jeans such a supple and appealing garment. What all of this entails for what jeans “mean” is complicated, though.
And thanks to Christopher Kelty for sharing Jonathan Coulton’s music.
We talked to Julia Serano over beer and french fries in Uptown Oakland.
EM: I don’t know anything about molecular biology, but I was wondering if you could tell me a little bit about your PhD and your research.
I was a life science major in college, and then I went to get my PhD at Columbia. My degree is in biochemistry and molecular biophysics, which is weird because I don’t really do biochemistry or biophysics. A lot of times the specific titles are related to history, when the fields were more separate, but now there’s more interaction between different subfields.
Most of my thesis research is related to developmental biology, and genetics and molecular biology. Developmental biology involves trying to understand how all animals and plants start out as one cell, and then they develop into animals that have different types of tissues and skin cells and nerve cells and muscle cells.
Genetics started out as a field where people found mutations — where, you know, an animal someone was studying became somewhat different. Now genetics is not only about studying mutations, but trying to understand the underlying genes. Molecular biology started out almost as the reverse, where it’s looking at specific molecules, whether they be DNA or proteins, and from there trying to figure out what they do… Mostly what I did as a developmental biologist was study questions related to how cells and embryos develop, using tools to look at the genes that are involved in that process, and trying figure out how genes work.
EM: Were you interested in that growing up?
Sort of. I was generally interested in science as a kid. I remember especially my parents and relatives getting me dinosaur books and outer space books — I was just generally science curious as a kid growing up. But then in high school when you have to start thinking about ‘What am I going to do for a living’, I really had no idea. Biology was the field that I liked the best, so that’s why I majored in it. I didn’t have any idea of what I would necessarily do with a biology degree, but I was just like, well, that’s the class I like the most, so I went into that.
This is all fruit fly stuff
EM: Your band is called Bitesize, right, and then I saw your paper about “bitesize” (“The Drosophila synaptotagmin-like protein bitesize is required for growth and has mRNA localization sequences within its open reading frame“), so I was curious about that.
Sure yeah, yeah. While I was doing my postdoc, I was also in a band and we were called Bitesize. I remember in the lab — we were studying fruit flies; this is all fruit fly stuff — someone who I worked with had discovered a gene in which, when it’s mutated, the flies are smaller in size than normal flies, or wild-type flies. Generally if you identify a gene, you get to name it. So she was trying to come up with ideas, and I suggested to her “Lilliputian.”
She ended up using that, and then afterwards I’m like, “I should have told her ‘bitesize’! I could have had my band’s name be a name of a gene.” Then one of the genes I was working on, when I finally got mutations in it, it had a similar phenotype in that they were smaller than average. So I used it as a way to have a little inside joke and call it “bitesize.” Especially in drosophila, fruit fly genetics, there’s a tradition of people being creative with their names.
EM: There was something in your paper about protein coding…
Basically when we talk about genes, a gene is a part of DNA that is like a blueprint to do something for the animal. When a gene is turned on in a cell, you make copies of RNA. They’re temporary copies, called mRNAs for Messenger RNA. So then, mRNAs get translated into proteins. Proteins are little machines that more often than not are actually doing things in the cell.
Some RNAs get made and just float around the cell, and some proteins get made. When it’s advantageous for the cell to only make the protein in one area, RNAs can get transported or localized to that particular part of the cell. The whole thing with bitesize was about those RNAs that get localized. Usually the part of the RNA that makes that happen isn’t also the part that makes the protein. But in bitesize, the part that’s responsible for the localization of the RNA is actually in the part that codes for the protein, which is very unusual. So it was esoteric, kind of an intriguing finding — not necessarily like an ‘oh my god’, earth shattering thing. It’s possible, but it’s rare.
The natural/unnatural binary
EM: I wanted to ask about the new book.
The new book is called Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive. It takes off where my last book, Whipping Girl, left off. In Whipping Girl I talked about different types of sexism, and especially my experiences of them as a trans woman. Being a trans woman who’s very active in feminist movements and also in queer or LGBTQ spaces and movements, there’s a long history of those movements — while they’re all trying to fight sexism in certain ways — that sometimes they exclude people who are a part of their own movements. Sometimes the way people are excluded is through — sexism! Or through the idea that certain types of genders and sexualities are more legitimate, real, natural or righteous than others.
Over the years I have been writing as a trans woman, and also as someone who is bisexual, and also as someone who is feminine — all three of which can be seen as suspect. I’ve critiqued those types of exclusive attitudes in the past, but kind of on a one-by-one basis… like explaining why trans women shouldn’t be excluded, or why bisexuals shouldn’t be excluded, and so on. In noticing the parallels between those, with this book I wanted to take a wider view and ask why we create movements that are exclusive. What’s wrong with our theories and our strategies that we create movements where a lot of people, who should feel empowered by these movements, are left out?
EM: Thinking about that, do you have a sense of what people mean when they say “natural”?
In trans politics, people often talk about the gender binary and why the gender binary is bad. I would add to that: lots of binaries are bad, and probably amongst the ones that I would like to see destroyed the most are the real/fake binary or the natural/unnatural binary… In our society we tend to see things that are natural as being automatically healthy or automatically moral, and things that are unnatural as being automatically unhealthy and automatically immoral. People are constantly using the word “natural” in this way, and we buy into it — but there are natural products that will kill you. Snake venom is natural.
Sometimes it’s useful to talk about why things are good or why things are bad; why things are healthy or not healthy. But generally speaking I don’t see that the natural versus unnatural distinction helps us at all. What really hits me, as someone who has training in biology but also is involved in social justice movements, is that the whole idea of “unnatural” is usually used to put people down; to imply that whatever they’re doing in inherently wrong. I’ve always found it weird, because we’re biological beings, right, so isn’t everything we do natural? I just find that the idea of natural is used generally to make certain things seem better than others with no foundational basis… As a trans person and as a queer person, whenever I hear things humans do described as natural or unnatural, I’m always a little worried.Read More… Genes, fruit flies and the Ramones with Julia Serano
This week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu unwittingly turned himself into an object of ridicule for claiming that among the various freedoms denied to Iranians was the right to wear jeans. In no time at all, social media immediately buzzed into life to prove Netanyahu wrong – at least with regard to jeans-wearing. Setting aside all the claims and counterclaims that might be made (and have been made) between Israel and Iran, what is striking about this example is that jeans-wearing should have been invoked as an indicator of a free citizenry in the first place.
Daniel Miller and Sophie Woodward first drew our attention to the protean nature of denim around the world in their essay, Manifesto for a Study of Denim (Miller & Woodward, 2007). Certainly, the remarkable capacity of jeans to find a place within schemes of dress worldwide is testament to the powers of worldwide production and distribution networks that now bring jeans within the reach of so many. Equally important though are those material qualities of jeans that, in interaction with the wearer’s body, make jeans such a supple and appealing garment. What all of this entails for what jeans “mean” is complicated, though, for just as the association with youth, autonomy and individuality has valence in location after location (just ask Mr. Netanyahu), so also, as anthropologists might expect, there is also some important variation. The Global Denim Project, hosted by University College London, gives a taste of the research that is being done to probe both the continuities and discontinuities of jeans production, circulation, and consumption.
Wearing jeans carries few to no connotations of political liberty in India; they are, though, resiliently symptomatic of modernity, and by extension, of the wearer him or herself as modern. With the “consumer-citizen” having taken on the mantle of normativity in urban India, the more ubiquitous and familiar jeans become, the more modern the sartorial landscape appears to be. Wearing jeans, as opposed to wearing a uniform, a business suit, or an item of “Indian” or “traditional” clothing, is an act that speaks of individual motivation, global fashion consciousness, and personal choice. Jeans are not considered suitable for many of the same settings from which they are debarred in Western society (formal occasions, workplaces and so on). Media events though are a key exception, and film award ceremonies commonly feature major male film stars (though not female stars) wearing jeans — sometimes quite dramatically distressed jeans — under a formal jacket and with formal shoes.
As a peculiar distillation and selection of the broader dress spectrum in India, film – even in the “realist” mode – can clothe a larger or smaller number of cast members in jeans, depending upon the tastes and preferences of director, designer, and actor. Extras (known as “junior artists”), dancers, all can wear jeans, though only if they are, like the hero or heroine, young. But when putting denim on lead actors, female or male, more strategic thinking comes into play. Dressing the leads communicates about the character’s flair and distinctiveness, and also serves to confirm the actor’s credibility as a style leader in their own right.
Appearing in jeans – any jeans — began in the 1970s as an unmistakable sign of heroic energy and fashion consciousness; since the floodgates have opened to allow in more global brands, as well as corporate alliances between designers and textile producers (e.g. Diesel and Arvind Mills), having a pair of jeans by itself no longer proclaims the wearer’s sophistication and distinction from non-wearers (formerly committed to synthetic trousers and working men’s pajamas). Now that these self-same working men (though not yet women) wear jeans to dig ditches and build offices, the rich must exploit their knowledge and access to exclusive brands to keep themselves apart – a gambit that only works to the extent that fashion knowledge becomes more widely disseminated, since jeans, to put it baldly, are difficult to make appear different one pair from another. So it is among the topmost consumers that squabbles erupt over ever-finer discriminations in the jeans they buy, their choices basically revolving around particular brands, some of which have only entered the sub-continent in the last few years.
Film stars are in this top layer as personal consumers, although as product endorsers, they attach their names to brands as mundane as Levis and Wrangler. And in a reflection of the lingering association of film with all that is common and crass, fashion commentary often dismisses “filmi” denim as “big brand” style, as opposed to the ruinously expensive designer jeans that the more discriminating customer likes to buy. Stars are by no means universally lauded for their personal taste: far from it. Even designers lament the “cluelessness” of some of the celebrities they have to dress. But tales from the film world contain plenty of evidence for stars issuing firm directives that they will only wear the most exclusive, most hard to get jeans, meaning that the “regression to the mean” to which denim is strangely prone can befuddle the most enlightened consumer.
Stars want top brands because they feel they have “earned” them, but the intensely personal experience of wearing jeans is a factor in their choices as well. From the point of view of the wearer, fit, finish, and internal detailing set apart the exclusive brand label from the cheapest variety. There is also the “feel” of denim, where – in one of the curious paradoxes of jeans that simultaneously explains their massive popularity – the softer, the more relaxed, the more “used” it feels, the more comfortable and desirable it is.
In 2013, jeans are so common for film heroes as to have become banal. Young women wear jeans in films to a marked degree as well, but the as-yet unquestioned propriety of saris and salwar-kameez in India means that play with women’s costume remains more complex — spanning Western and Indian styles, and incorporating fusion where possible, to a much greater degree. What one doesn’t see in film so much is the irruption of jeans into the dress of characters that are in fact much more prone to sartorial reductionism than either heroes or heroines: I mean here older character actors. In my visits to Mumbai over the past few years, I have noticed more and more middle-aged, even elderly middle class people wearing jeans either as at-home wear or as casual wear to put on at weekends. Women pair their jeans – typically of the loose “Mom” variety – with a kamiz (tunic top); men opt for a kurta. This is not the stuff of “fashion” in the conventional sense, although it does suggest some shifts in fashion understood as a variety of self-making, with clothes as its primary device. That these trends are not typically picked up in film costuming reminds us that performance stresses dress as iconography more than ethnography. In films, for the most part, jeans maintain their association with youth while older characters stick to their saris and suits, in keeping with the expectation that the young hero and heroine are the ones with emancipatory ideas in mind, while the oldsters stick to the values of tradition.
Which in turn provokes a final thought: if it is a small matter these days for youth to get access to jeans – in India, in Israel, in Iran – what does it mean when jeans spread into other generations? Do the wearers thereby acquire the “freedoms” of youth? Or do they take on the dress the better to suppress such imaginings?
Miller, D., & Woodward, S. (2007). Manifesto for a study of denim*. Social Anthropology, 15(3), 335–351. doi:10.1111/j.0964-0282.2007.00024.x
A clip from the film Dulaara featuring Clare’s contribution to this edition’s music mix
Arey Ek Hai Anaar Yahan (Meri Pant Bhi Sexy/”My Pants are Sexy”) by Govinda, Alka Yagnik & Nikhil Vinay:
Ed. Note: Alondra Nelson (@alondra) is an interdisciplinary social scientist who writes about science, technology and inequality. Her forthcoming book is The Social Life of DNA. In this interview we did via Skype, she talks about the implications of the expanding use of genetic analysis, touching on subjects such as the early Black Panthers’ use of community-based genetic screening for sickle cell anemia, the criminal justice system, and popular TV shows like Finding Your Roots and Who Do You Think You Are.
(PS: This edition of EM comes with a soundtrack. We asked Dr. Nelson what music the topics she is researching brought to mind for her, and she followed up with an email noting all the songs contained in this post, which will also be in our playlist.)
I wanted to ask you first about what you’re working on these days. I think you have a new book coming out.
My book The Social Life of DNA (@sociallifeofdna) is coming out next year with Beacon Press. “The social life of DNA” is both a methodological phrase and also an analytical or theoretical claim. The methodological use, you won’t be surprised to hear, comes from Arjun Appadurai and his edited collection The Social Life of Things, which was about material culture – much more material than the genetics ancestry testing that I follow in my work. Appadurai’s mandate is that scholars can understand social meaning, in part, by following things around. That important insight was from the late 1980s. And, then more proximate to us, about six or seven years ago Sarah Franklin and Celia Roberts wrote a book called Born and Made, which was on preimplantation genetic diagnosis, or PGD. In that book, they discussed what they called “the social life of PGD;” as ethnographers, they were in some regards following tests around and following users around. People who had done the diagnostic tests, and the various stakeholders who were involved in the tests…
I think what’s different about the way that I’m using [the social life of things model] is that there’s an ephemerality to genetics; you can’t see or follow necessarily with your eye — the gene or the genome. You can’t even really follow the genetic ancestry tests, which are often inferences about forms of identity: racial identity, ethnic identity. Increasingly, they’re inferences about health factors and the like. It’s harder to follow these around.
Interpreting genetic ancestry tests
In my earlier ethnographic work, I was trying to understand what people got out of the tests, because you’re basically sending cheek cells to a company in a FedEx package, and you get back pieces of paper that give you inferences about who you are. In some instances you’re getting sets of genetic markers written down on these pieces of paper, but the untrained eye doesn’t really know what to make of all of those As, C, G, and Ts. At any rate, these lists of genetic markers or “certificates of ancestry” that one receives are the outcome of the process. These artifacts aren’t always interesting in and of themselves. Far more interesting, I found, was the social life of the test results. I came to follow the way that these genetic ancestry tests came to be used in ways that we couldn’t necessarily anticipate.Read More… Alondra Nelson on the Social Life of DNA