Saturday, 23 July 2005

Visible Evolution, or Visual Puns & the Logic of Concession Lindsay Beyerstein at the Washington Monthly registers her annoyance with the History Channel's ad campaign for Ape to Man, a new documentary series on the history of hominid evolution, evolutionary theory, and the evidence substantiating it. Beneath "a parody of a famous detail from the Sistine Chapel ceiling [in which] the hand of God has been replaced by a monkey's arm," the ad confronts the reader with the following question: "Has evolution made a monkey out of you?" Beyerstein responds: I was irritated to see such the conjunction of two misleading and inflammatory memes: evolution is usurping religion, and humans descended from monkeys. She nails two of my initial responses, but there's one implication of the visual pun she missed: the monkey's hand doesn't replace God's, it replaces Adam's. While that difference may not seem so significant, and while I know that I'm reading far too much into a single ad--especially given what will no doubt be a series larded with pro-evolutionary bias--I can't help but consider this ad in light of Intelligent Design. My annoyance extends from Spielberg's concessionary adaptation of Wells' decidedly anti-design novel War of the Worlds. (I detailed Wells' position elsewhere.) The problem with the visual pun isn't that it references Christianity, but that it (visually) concedes territory to the Intelligent Design community. Even if the concession is merely symbolic, that's damaging enough when the Intelligent Designers have close ties to the White House and the Young Earthers have clout and money enough to host the Creation Mega Conference. To put it another way: When the Reverend Jerry Falwell can triumphantly declare "The creation debate is being won!" without being laughed out of the room, even unintentional symbolic concessions worry me.
The Pickle Meme, Complete with Pictures The beatings in high school, the beatings in middle school, the beatings in elementary school, and the beatings in kindergarten nearly had me convinced otherwise, but this settles it: I've been memed. I belong. 1. How do you organize your collection? The Littlewomedievalist and I segregate our academic books from our general fiction, history, philosophy, &c. Then our academic books are sorted up on the basis of ownership. As you can see from the first photo on the left, the back bedroom is now a haven for books on medieval literature, philosophy, and history. To your right is the shelf in which all the books at all germane to my dissertation live. Other books squat there too, as you can tell: the works of literary journalism I teach occupy the second shelf. (Not pictured are chess books on the first shelf. No one needs to know how many chess books I've read.) The organizing principle behind this arrangement stresses convenience and pains the parts of my brain which demand order. I tend to use my shelves as a mneumonic, with books rotating alongside the rhythm of my work. So you can tell from the books on the right-hand side of that picture that I'm working on something that involves the popularization of science (The Blank Slate and Collapse), William and Henry James, popular American novels, and debates about the nature of the realism/naturalism distinction. These are the high traffic Americanist books, the ones whose rotations are so regular they're housed immediately beside my desk. Next to the kitchen, an anonymous Ikea bookshelf still bears the scars of my qualifying exams. You can see the generalist quality of this shelf: the theory I needed to work through my Theory list, the classics of American literary criticism, &c. Because it's adjacent to the kitchen, it also suffers the occasional invasion of convenience: I finished Lethem's Fortress of Solitude and needed some crackers, so now it sits beside some Kenneth Burke and (inexplicably) Charles Lyell. (The Lyell shouldn't be there. It misbehaves and will be punished.) The only other features of our collection worth mention are Theoryland and the Science Fiction & Irish Literature ghetto. Theoryland is stacked three rows deep. While I wish this were some clever commentary on "the depth of the books," it's really a testament to Gigantor--the 8.32 ft. tall solid-cherry monster once home to an ornamental law library but purchased for $80 in a secondhand shop--and his marketing prowess. All the books want to live on Gigantor. The sublime materiality of a 318 lbs. bookshelf in an apartment almost exclusively festooned with particle-board attracts all the best books. They know that social mobility flows both ways. On Monday you're right where you want to be, sandwiched between Derrida and Deleuze, a complete set of Durant's Story of Civilization above your head; on Tuesday you awake dazed in unfamiliar and unfriendly environs, comics and graphic novels to your left, Vintage reprints of Phillip K. Dick novels to your right....

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