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Controversial Chimera

Here is an intriguing email and my response (both somewhat abridged, so let me know if you’d like the full versions). I showed the controversial image in question (Grasshopper in Cyberspace, Galina Lukshina, 2003) during a university presentation about my writing, when discussing the Riley mystery series.

CONCERN: Your seminar was fascinating [but] the image of the woman on her back in a very sexualized position, with the insect head twisted around is not appropriate. Yes, people have weird fetishes, and those fetishes can be the stuff of stories. But in a seminar to a scientific audience, it is simply not OK to have a distorted, naked body of a woman on the screen. Ugh.

REPLY: It was not my intention to offend, but to discomfort. In fact, that’s an important part of my fiction (the first two books raise difficult questions about justice and belonging). As I noted, my third book raises the question: What is natural/normal? And even more incisively, what makes being natural/normal “good”?

Philosophers ponder such questions on a regular basis, but your point was about the sensibilities of a scientific audience. I assumed scientists would be open to pondering biologically unusual phenomena. There is a long history of science working at the edges of social acceptability. Today there is public outrage toward GMOs, which are often perceived as unnatural abominations. As scientists, it would seem we should think deeply about what is normal or natural—and morally permissible.

But your central concern was the image itself. The artist was tapping into an ancient imaginative theme: the blending of human and animal forms. Many cultures have myths about chimeric creatures and some of these were highly sexualized, such as the Satyr. As you perceptively note regarding the image, the head is twisted into an unnatural orientation—and I might suggest that the notion of being “twisted” is part of what the artist was evoking.

So we come to your judgment that the image was a distorted thing worthy of, “Ugh!” That response is a starting (not ending) point in my teaching. Why are we offended—and is it defensible to be offended by GMOs, human deformities, and abnormal behaviors? Should we prohibit whatever offends us? In my third book these questions are taken seriously (along with a good story). I see my role as a professor and writer to encourage others to question, defend, and refine their judgments.

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