A Fashion Statement

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We’ve all heard of fashion statements. Sometimes the term signifies some bold choice of jewelry or a particularly revealing outfit.But sometimes the “statement” is something political or philosophical. For instance, Lady Gaga’s famous meat dress made a bold statement about the nature of stardom and consumerism. The above pieces may look a lot more normal than a dress made out of raw beef, but they’re actually far more transgressive. These are prototypes made with pig skin, but the plan is to make them out of lab-grown human skin, specifically skin grown from the DNA of fashion designer Alexander McQueen. The statement designer Tina Gorjanc is making is a warning about the commodification of human DNA, but I’m personally more interested in the philosophical questions inherent in the ethics of using human skin. Many react with horror when they find out about books that are bound in human skin, and movies like Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Silence of the Lambs have played on the horrors of human skin used for clothing, masks, lamp shades, etc. And that reflex is, I think, good. To violate Godwin’s Law, Nazi Germany shows what can happen when people get a little too comfortable with the idea of using human body parts for home decorative purposes.

But where does this sort of thing lie? This skin was never on a human body, or anything that had any sort of conscious life. Does that make it okay? Is it okay to grow other things in the lab, like organs? Is it okay to grow an entire body in the lab? Is it more okay if that body is complete except for a brain? And if all that is okay…then what exactly isn’t okay with using human skin that used to be on a human? Sure, murder is bad, but what if the person volunteered their skin? Is it okay to use a body or body parts for such an everyday artistic expression as fashion?

Thoughts? Leave them in the comments!

Not all who wander are lost

There was no post last week because we were in Illinois for Northwestern’s commencement.  My husband completed his PhD in Astrophysics last August, which was too late for him to participate in graduation activities with the class of 2012. Hence, he did it this year, voluminous robes and silly hats and all.  I’m incredibly proud of him.  His journey has been long and arduous, and his tenacity and pure, bullheaded stubbornness is amazing and admirable.

My own academic journey has been somewhat different.  Whereas Pete majored in astronomy as an undergrad and single-mindedly pushed toward a PhD in astronomy through rounds of rejection and years of toil, I majored in philosophy and pretty much knew that I wasn’t cut out to do much more with it.  By graduation I had an interest in studying theology and possibly becoming an Episcopal priest like my grandmother.  I was advised to get a taste of the real world first before pursuing seminary, so I got a job after undergrad.  A couple years later, I was still interested in theology, so I did a two year Master of Theological Studies degree at Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, MA (The school was absorbed by Boston College a couple years later).  I wanted to do a PhD, but it didn’t work out for a variety of reasons.  In retrospect, that’s a good thing.  The academic market, particularly in the humanities, is brutal, and I would have spent a lot of money (actually, borrowed a lot of money) for a degree that probably wouldn’t have gotten me a job.  Not to mention I had a young family, and if finding a job for one academic is difficult, finding jobs for two academics at the same institution…well, it happens, but that’s the exception.

So, I decided to cultivate my writing.  I can write anywhere, which is extremely useful as we follow Pete to post-docs and, god willing, professorships.  I have a great amount of flexibility, so Pete and I can work out childcare between the two of us.  And writing is something I’ve always loved, something I did even when I was studying philosophy and theology.  It makes me happy.  Which is good, considering I make almost no money doing it.

My path is really atypical, though.  There was a time when, if asked what I did, I would say I was an unemployed theologian.  I have this degree, and I’m not doing anything with it, right?

Well, not really.  One of the beauties about writing is that nothing in your past is useless.  The phrase “grist for the mill” is hopelessly cliche, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true.  All of your experiences, your studies, your loves and your fascinations, all of it weaves into your stories.  I’ve found that I bring a lot of theology and philosophy into my work.  For instance, I have a science fiction piece I call “Incarnation” where I explore the mind-body problem.  Another piece I’m working on now, more mainstream, concerns the capacity of people to be simultaneously admirable in some ways and worthy of condemnation in others, and whether those two sides can be separated, or if the admirable qualities are irrevocably tainted by the not so admirable ones.

I might not be writing articles or teaching classes on theology or philosophy.  But I’m telling stories that raise the same questions, that will hopefully get people thinking about the same issues.  That’s how I’m using my degree.