Patenting Genes — A Topic To Follow

I am still planning on doing a second post on my trip to Vietnam, but I’ve been a bit busy working on the dissertation and some other time-sensitive things lately.’

In the meantime, I thought I’d pass on some news that we should be watching:

Yes, the supreme court will soon be hearing a case about whether or not gene patentability is constitutional.

This is quite frankly, to put it bluntly, messed up.

Apparently patenting genes is and has been quite a booming industry, but as this article makes clear very early, the business side of this really murks up the ethical side. 

From a biopolitical standpoint, this is extremely interesting and we’ll see whether the supreme court finds that patenting human genetic material (aka owning the rights to DNA sequences inside living, human beings as intellectual property) is constitutional in the U.S.

Definitely a topic to follow.

I don’t know much about this practice or its scope, but I’ll try to learn a bit more about it in the coming weeks and write another post some time this spring on the Supreme Court’s ruling and critiquing gene patenting a bit more (again… when I’m more informed).

Quick Post: Zombie Cells (But they’re really not)

Hi Dear Reader, 

I just wanted to bring to your attention an interesting little piece of news — one that I find frustratingly titled. I first saw this on a huffington post article, and I refer you there for the details.

The huffpost article commits one of my pet peeves — it uses the word ‘zombie’ as an advertising gimmick (this happens sometimes when trying to broaden the appeal of scientific research and it just angers me, for all the reasons you could imagine as a reader of this blog). 

The article is about a study that effectively created functioning silicon replicas of living cells — to me this is a form of cloning, they should definitely be called doppelganger cells well before they are called zombie cells.

The actual research is interesting, cool, and mildly terrifying if you have a tendency to lean towards imagine the darker (rather than the brighter) future.



Movie Recommendation: Juan of the Dead

Hi dear reader,

Just a quick little post for you today — since I’ve been a little negligent in the blogging department lately. 

I just had the great fortune to purchase and watch Juan of the Dead, the Cuban zombie film that was making some big indie waves last year. 

I bought in as soon as I saw the tagline: “He’s Havana Killer Day.” Come on! How awesome is it that a pun that bad is the tagline?!?!? The awesomeness held throughout the film — though the ending was not my favorite. 

The film is pushed by an excellent performance by Alexis Díaz de Villegas, who plays the brilliant but underachieving wastrel, Juan. The character is great — he is witty, irreverent, sarcastic, and a man used to living in the moment. He is also infinitely more sympathizable than the hero of the majority of zombie films — he comes through as a dynamic and complex character, despite how little interest the film has in developing characters (this is no slap, the film is invested more in cheesy jokes, action, and moving the plot in all the best ways).

The fact that the zombies are called “dissidents” is brilliant, and the complex play between Capitalism and Communism in the plot and the dialog is stunning. 

On the whole, the film is amazing, though it isn’t perfect. The film’s female characters are highly sexualized — in fact the primary role of most female characters is that of a sexual object. It does do some interesting and redeeming things — the character La China offers an interesting example of something not really done in zombie films and she refreshingly muddies the gender waters… but only a little bit. 

There seems to be a bit of recurring homophobia — especially in the bromantic vein — too.

The solid plot, great cinematography, excellent acting, and just super refreshing take on the genre make this movie a great watch. 

And the fact that — like older zombie movies — there is no concern over what causes the outbreak or how it is stopped was refreshing, as well. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love writing about zombie and viruses and how inextricably tied they are, but I also love the in medias res zombie film (think post-Night Romero, or Fulci with even less confusing narrative).

I definitely recommend zombie lovers go out and get this Juan.

MLA 2013 Talk: Insecure Lives

Hi Dear Reader!

Off to a hectic start to the Fall quarter, but I didn’t forget about you!

Here is a look at my recent talk for MLA 2013, below I’ve inserted the talk itself. When I have a little more free time, I’ll also go back and add in screencaps of the slides, for now you’ll have to use your imagination. 

For those interested, but unsure whether they should proceed, in this talk, I use the Resident Evil transmedia franchise to demonstrate how contemporary popular culture participates in a problematic effacing of history in its portrayal of contagion and control. Specificity and historicity are erased by a flexibly defined monstrosity, which seems to automatically sanction violence. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, this should be an interesting condensation of the issues I often post about.

I hope you enjoy!


“Insecure Lives: Securing and Regulating Life in Contemporary Popular Culture”


 Slide 1

 So this paper was conceived of in the wake of the H1N1 flu scare, and it was especially influenced after hearing a talk by Andrew Lakoff  titled “Biopolitics in Real Time: The Actuary and the Sentinel in Global Health.” I was wondering, how do pop-cultural texts engage with global health issues. Recognizing that managing and securing health is indeed a global issue, and that infection “makes the interactions and connections of community visible” to paraphrase Priscilla Wald, I wanted to ask: how do pop-cultural texts like movies, video games, and comics think through the management and security of health in the global community.

As is often the case, what I started thinking about was different than what I ended up thinking through. Turning to the transmedia Resident Evil franchise and the figure of the zombie, I am going to try, in 15 minutes, to give you an idea how cultural productions and global health interact as part of a broader biopolitical matrix. Focusing on the virus and the zombie, I will demonstrate how popular narratives interested in the relation between health, security, and governance tend to demonstrate and validate a problematic, logic of defense which effaces historical and cultural context in the name of security. And I call this, not so creatively, the biopolitics of security.

In terms of my method, for the sake of time, in this paper I won’t get into too much theory, but I’m invested in thinking through the intersection of biopolitics, posthumanism, and critical race studies and social justice. I’m really influenced by Roberto Esposito and Michel Foucault.

So, to give you a sense of the movement of the paper, I begin by talking about the Resident Evil media franchise to get us thinking about the relation of cultural productions to the politics of global health. Through this, I will turn to the figures of the virus and the zombie which share a prominent place in Resident Evil (and I am arguing, in the way that popular culture imagines global health issues). Resident Evil – and other, similar outbreak, zombie, or post-apocalyptic narratives – reproduces, complicates, and exploits contemporary fears of global infection, and this validates the aforementioned logic of the biopolitics of security. As we will see, these narratives – and the broader political hegemony they reflect – validate extreme violence against perceived threats, and champion violently enforced, local security as an antidote to global terror and infection.


Opening on RE

Slide 2: RE Collage.

 So, for those of you unfamiliar with Resident Evil, it’s a transmedia franchise that has produced a slew of video games, seven novels, five live action films, two CGI films, annnnd some comics. It is a set of texts crafted and set throughout the world – especially the global north – in fact, the video games are developed, manufactured, sold, and set internationally. When I say it is a pop-culture text, I mean it: the latest installment of the video game series sold over 670,000 copies worldwide in its first week. (And for comparison I believe Fifty Shades of Grey set a new record when it sold just over 205,000 copies in its first week).

There are various iterations and plotlines to Resident Evil across its various media, however, all of them are intimately tied to the biopolitical interaction between the production and distribution of medicine and the exploitation of medical research for political gain – especially in the form of bioterrorism. The earlier narratives of the series position the transnational pharmaceutical corporation Umbrella as the main antagonist: developing biological weapons and illegally testing them on unsuspecting civilians (and these weapons take the shape of a virus that turns people into zombies, and can be modified to cause extreme mutations). – and pharmaceuticals and self-medication are a major component in all of the video games which feature mixing herbs to make medicine, and a somewhat miraculous first aid spray that heals all wounds.

Originally focused on local solutions to inter and transnational civil and human rights violations, the franchise has shifted its focus more towards an interconnected, global web of espionage, terrorism, and global health management. This has become the focus of the entire franchise recently – Slide 3: RE Retribution Poster – as the newest film Resident Evil Retribution features the tagline “Evil Goes Global.” And the most recent video game takes place in the US, Eastern Europe, and China, and features a fictional anti-bioterror military unit created by the UN, travelling the globe to police it – and to kill B.O.W. s or Bio Organic Weapons – infected people. Actually, as the shift of the game has gone global, its logic has also shifted, from finding and gathering evidence to uncover a global conspiracy, to slaughtering infected creatures. And the staple or default creature that you kill? A variation on the zombie, caused by exposure to one of a number of weaponized, laboratory created viruses.

So in a nutshell, in this franchise, through the intersection of global health and global terror, the zombie and the virus are united to make people into bio-weapons, which can then be denied humanity and slaughtered with impunity. Or, in other words, people are Othered to the extreme, made inhuman, and killed because they threaten to Other more people. All of a sudden this general arc – which is honestly the arc of most zombie narratives post-Night of the Living Dead (1968, so also post-civil rights) – seems a lot less innocent. The scope of this issue, and its relation to the resurgent popularity of the zombie will become clearer when we think through the history of the zombie and its relation to the global flow of bodies, politics, power, and medicine.

The Effacement of History

Historically, the zombie most likely comes from West African spiritual traditions, altered through diaspora and creolization caused by the slave trade. Connections identified by Zora Neale Hurston in her 1938 ethnology of Jamaica and Haiti, Tell My Horse. The zombie entered the imagination of the English speaking world largely through W.B. Seabrook’s 1929 ethnology of Haiti, The Magic IslandSlide 4: Magic Island copy. This directly inspired the Halperin brothers’ cult film, White Zombie (1932). A wave of popular zombie films soon followed. At nearly the same time, the invention of the electron microscope in 1931 allowed for the visualization of the formerly invisible virus – which had been theorized as an agent of infection smaller than bacteria. 1938 brought this zombie-virus nexus even closer together. In that year, Hurston published her ethnography, with a chapter devoted zombies, John Campbell Jr published his novella, Who Goes There, which compares those controlled by a microscopic, infectious alien life form to zombies, and the electron micrographs of the tobacco mosaic virus brought into view a previously invisible threat.

Early American adaptations of the zombie recognized its specificity to the Caribbean, and oftentimes its relation to Vodou; however, from the start, these texts began to efface its history while citing it. Even in the first zombie film, White Zombie (1932) – Slide 5: White Zombie – the ever so subtly named villain, Murder Legendre, played by Bela Lugosi, uses a mixture of mesmerism, pharmaceuticals, and adapted stereotypes of voodoo practice to zombify unsuspecting targets. The role of the medical – seen here in the introduction of a mysterious pharmaceutical mixture – serves to efface the cultural history of the zombie. This role, of the clinical overwriting the cultural history of the zombie, is identified by Wade Davis in his study of the Zombi in Haiti, The Serpent and the Rainbow (1985). More importantly, though, experience allows him to reverse this effacement. In his words Slide 6:

“I had arrived in Haiti to investigate zombis. A poison had been found and identified, and a substance had been indicated that was chemically capable of maintaining a person so poisoned in a zombi state. Yet as a Western scientist seeking a folk preparation I had found myself swept into a complex worldview utterly different from my own and one that left me demonstrating less the chemical basis of a popular believe than the psychological and cultural foundations of a chemical event.”

(As a fun aside, this deeply thoughtful book considering the intersection of science, bodies, and culture… was made into a Wes Craven thriller starring Bill Pullman)

This inscription of the medical over the socio-cultural on the bodies of zombies is even present in Seabrook’s ethnography, where his first encounter with a zombie leaves him nearly paralyzed with terror until he remembers seeing a lobotomized dog. Slide 7.

“I had seen so much previously in Haiti that was outside ordinary normal experience that for the flash of a second I had a sickening, almost panicky lapse in which I thought, or rather felt, “Great God, maybe this stuff is really true, and if it is true, it is rather awful, for it upsets everything.” By “everything” I meant the natural fixed laws and processes on which all modern human thought and actions are based. Then suddenly I remembered—and my mind seized the memory as a man sinking in water clutches to a solid plank—the face of a dog as I had once seen in the histological laboratory at Columbia. Its entire front brain had been removed in an experimental operation weeks before; it moved about, it was alive, but its eyes were like the eyes I now saw staring.” Seabrook 101

The laboratory setting and the memory of a scientific analog overwrites the whole scene for him, altering the figure of the zombie: it instantly becomes the infirm victim, rather than the threatening other. Furthermore, Seabrook’s clinical gaze obliterates the beseeching ethical gaze of the enslaved man brought before him as a zombie, rewriting him as the weak, the medically deficient.

Resident Evil, Popular Zombie Fictions, Global Biopolitics of Security

I’m sure you’ve noticed, but these days, zombies are all around us – our media is full of them. In everything from ad campaigns to encourage oral care – Slide 8: Zombie Mouth – to video games, movies, novels, and comics – Slide 9: Zombie Media Collage. The zombie is a global figure, featuring prominently in media from such varied countries as Cuba (Juan De Los Muertos 2012), Japan (Resident Evil Series began 1996), the US, the UK, and Spain, just to name a few countries with major zombie releases in the last 5 years.

Looking at how zombies are portrayed in recent cultural texts, we see that the clinical effacement outlined above enables a self-serving logic of defense. I’m going to spend a moment highlighting that in a variety of pop-culture texts – so my title isn’t entirely misleading.

So, using Resident Evil and some other zombie, post-apocalyptic, and/or outbreak texts, I’ll try to outline some of the major tropes of the pop-cultural interaction of this biopolitics of security.

Slide 10: Cities in Turmoil (States of Exception) (Resident Evil, WWZ, 28 Days & Weeks, Contagion, Sweet Tooth, Jericho)

Slide 11: Officers of the Law (White Patriarchy Saves the Social Order… that favors it) (The Walking Dead, Jericho, Night of the Living Dead, if you include military it expands exponentially… don’t forget shift in RE local police to national or international law)

Slide 12: Medical Officials Have Answers (Science Can Fix the Social Order if it only has Time!) (Obvious in RE, also first season of Walking Dead, Contagion to the max, Outbreak, etc all the way back to AT LEAST Microbe Hunters [1926])

Slide 13: Sympathize and Die (Think the Other, be the Other) (World War Z quote, Glissant on Alterity in poetics of relation: Thought of the Other versus the other of Thought: thinking through the other to the point of critical mass, the moment where one changes, exchanges, and is forced to act)

Slide 14 Thanks

Ruminations on Paul de Kruif’s _Microbe Hunters_

Dear Reader,

A Note: this review began on an immensely positive note and in immensely positive feelings, but some of the darker elements of the book really “stuck in my craw” as a professor of mine would say. You are forewarned…

I can see why Paul de Kruif’s international best seller has been reprinted several times.

Kruif’s storytelling ability is impressive, his candor infectious, and his speculation comic.

_Night of the Living Dead_/_The Dead Next Door_ Double Take

Hello Dear Reader,

I’ve been busy these past few days, no, not busy doing the writing I’ve been trying to do all summer… I’ll get to that today… er… after I write this epistle to you.

Yesterday I spent most of the day trying to put together my reader materials for ENGL193: Detective Fiction, which I will begin teaching for Summer Session B in a few weeks here at UCSB.

After realizing a) that I was trying to do too much and b) completely revamping the course to be about gothic detection or outbreak narratives were out of the question at this point, I packed it up and came home to watch some good ol’ zombie movie-age and ease my troubled mind.

Having rewatched Night of the Living Dead two nights ago, last night I — and my girlfriend and frolleague co-spectators — settled on J.R. Bookwalter’s blood-fest, The Dead Next Door. I thought I’d take to the blog and give you some thoughts on them.

Book Review Number 1: Colson Whitehead’s _Zone One_

At a glance:

Hardcover, from Doubleday Press, 259 pages, Print

Positive: strong finish, broad vocabulary, interesting take on post-apocalyptic economy

Negative: tries too hard, narrative structure (intentionally but maybe not successfully) convoluted, flashbacks and episodes longer (and less interesting in most cases) than linear plot

Rating: Better than okay.

Fans of zombie fiction: this book is worth a chance, but you have to meet it halfway… actually you have to meet it slightly more than that, that’s when it starts to get good.

If I could speak to the author: Colson Whitehead, though you will likely never read this: thank you. Despite being skeptical (read: picky and harsh) at first, I was won over by the thought that went into this novel. Though it takes you a while to hit your stride, when you get there you produce a gem in an otherwise dull landscape.

Full Review…