The ‘Rembrandts of anatomical preparation’ who turned skeletons into art

Originally posted on :

Engraving of a tableau by Frederik Ruysch  (1744) Etching with engraving. National Library of Medicine. Engraving of a tableau by Frederik Ruysch (1744) Etching with engraving Image credit: . National Library of Medicine.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, makers of osteological specimens built fanciful displays with skeletons standing in landscapes made with embalmed human organs, skeletons dangling hearts on a string like a yo-yo, or specimens playing instruments while sitting on a pedestal.   While these kinds of anatomical specimens may seem morbid today, a couple hundred years ago they were considered just as scientific as artistic, and were a common part of museum collections.

These early anatomists created sculptures out of human remains to get the public interested in human anatomy and reduce any disgust felt about showing human skeletons. Any aversion people might have felt towards the presentation of human cadavers was likely due to the association that corpses had with capital punishment because of commonplace public executions, the fact that executioners displayed the decomposing bodies of criminals for…

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If I wrote something glorifying a society which had committed multiple atrocities

…including but not limited to active disenfranchisement, displacement of indigenous populations, causing a preventable famine, covering up death tolls, etc, you’d think I was insane, delusional, or simply a horribly socially inappropriate, reactionary type of person.

And yet a subgenre has risen up around a culture which systematically, over the course of hundreds of years, helped drive multiple indigenous cultures to the verge of extinction, perpetrated massacres against the natives of various territories, and whose effects have directly contributed to conflicts continuing within those formerly invaded territories to this day. (And, yes, those things above, too.)

I’m talking, of course, about steampunk.

I feel a little bad saying this, because I do enjoy the aesthetic (gears! buttons! flounces!), but it’s not okay.

Rewriting the narrative so that everyone is empowered and the minorities aren’t treated like third-class citizens in their own country is about as useful as whitewashing a rotten wall. Sure, you might be able to sell the house now, but it’s still a shitty, rotten house. You should expose it for what it is, and then tear it down and build a new one.

And this wouldn’t be even close to okay if we were discussing the Nazi regime (I keep wanting to add other genocides here, but the Serbian massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and boys was recently denied status as a genocide, so how many of those other incidents are really known? Armenia, Cambodia, various Latin American regimes, various incidents in the Balkans, Rwanda, Sudan…for a good overview of genocide and the man who helped push the term into the UN’s official lexicon, see ‘A Problem From Hell,’ aka light reading per my AP US teacher.)

So why is it okay to paint over the egregiously mercantilist, self-aggrandizing policies of Victorian Britain, and a society that was both internally and externally repressive?

It seems to me there are two reasons regarding the latter.

a) America doesn’t do a particularly good job of teaching how devastating the impact of colonialism was – after all, this is the country which fought off the British (never mind that the people fighting happened to have helped eradicate the original inhabitants) – and frankly, a lot of the real human impact from that era still isn’t out in the open, because it was underreported by the entities in power during that era. (You could make a case for the fact that native collusion undermines the purely negative impact of colonialism, but I would point out that’s only at the outset, and does nothing to change the fact that the society itself was extremely biased. Rudyard Kipling, anyone?)

Since Americans dominate the English-speaking market, we have to be a major focus of change.

b) The countries in which these events occurred are still, by and large, still marginalized. I mean, the last time I recall a strong discussion of post-colonial impact was when the events of the Rwandan massacre were coming into full light – in, what, 2004, ten years after they had actually happened. (Yes, I’m aware that was Belgium, not Britain.) Anyway, we just don’t have it pushed in our face the way the Holocaust was and is – which isn’t to say there should be less of the Holocaust but rather more of everything else.

And there’s no reason that everyone who was affected by it should move to the Western world and enter Western industries to make a point.

They shouldn’t have to.

It is important to own a legacy.

Trying to reinvent a time period which was certainly not pro-woman or pro-minority is not owning that legacy.

(As far as glossing over the internal repression goes…that seems an attempt, albeit one which also does the disservice of failing to explore how strong women during that time period really found power, to criticize reality.)

If we aren’t willing to take an honest look at an era, then why is that era in the picture at all? I understand taking elements from things that exist – I do it myself; who wouldn’t – but not attempting to grab all the trappings of an oppressive time period and treat them as something wonderful, when that society’s rigid morals and classism influenced those trappings, too. I’m not sure anyone would take seriously a setting which looked exactly like ancient Athens and then try to set it up to have equally empowered citizens who only entered age-appropriate dalliances while still writing homilies to the lovely shape in the sand when a boy sits down and where the wealthy women remained inside the house – and even layers and layers of clothing. (Aristophanes’ ‘Frogs,’ I think, unless it’s ‘Clouds.’)

Social history is not independent of politics. Writers should not treat it as such.

Now that she’s back in the atmosphere….

I feel like I should say something to explain where I’ve been, but I don’t really have an explanation, or for that matter excuses. I still managed to read something like 50 books in 2014, I’ve already read 4 books this year—I’m scaling back other stuff so I start paying attention here again properly.

At this rate, I might even finish editing a piece and send it out for publication. O:

Five good reasons to shut up about your Nano plans

1. They don’t matter. NaNo novels aren’t finished products. They’re hideous messes. Yet, it’s a popular activity that many published authors engage in (probably). Why? Because they prove something to you. The social aspect of having a website and hashtag and, well, Interweb just obscure the fact that NaNo is as personal a venture as anything can be. It doesn’t take a village to write fifty thousand words.

2. Remember that “writing” thing? There’s no reason to write nothing until November. If anything, now is a perfect time to figure out your voice and practice with sketches or exercises so you don’t fizzle out and spend the rest of your month whining or looking for prompts on the forums. Plus, speaking from experience, you need a certain amount of detail in mind to reach novel length.

3. Performance anxiety. NaNo is about quantity, not quality. If you get everyone and their mom hyped up about your idea, how easy will you find crapping out the first draft of that story?

4. You need to be excited through November. Okay, maybe you are self absorbed enough (or… fine, have a long enough attention span) to still be excited and fresh on November 29. But for the rest of humanity…. Make yourself anticipate. Rev up the engine, don’t burn half your fuel half a month out.

5. No, seriously. I don’t care. Finished products are where it’s at. If you can’t deliver, don’t make the promise… and it’s not deliverable until it’s done.

20 words that once meant something very different

Originally posted on ideas.ted.com:

Words change meaning all the time — and over time. Language historian Anne Curzan takes a closer look at this phenomenon, and shares some words that used to mean something totally different.

Words change meaning over time in ways that might surprise you. We sometimes notice words changing meaning under our noses (e.g., unique coming to mean “very unusual” rather than “one of a kind”) — and it can be disconcerting. How in the world are we all going to communicate effectively if we allow words to shift in meaning like that?

The good news: History tells us that we’ll be fine. Words have been changing meaning — sometimes radically — as long as there have been words and speakers to speak them. Here is just a small sampling of words you may not have realized didn’t always mean what they mean today.

  1. Nice: This word used to mean “silly, foolish…

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Book Review: ‘Them’ by Jon Ronson

Them: Adventures with ExtremistsThem: Adventures with Extremists by Jon Ronson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I don’t like conspiracy theories. I think the notion that even a powerful group of individuals can control world events is absurd, given how inherently unpredictable people are.

But….
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Gallery: What inequality looks like

Originally posted on ideas.ted.com:

QWA-category-Inequality

Inequality is a complicated term. It can be applied to so many factors, for one thing. There’s income inequality, asset inequality, gender inequality, social, class, political … you name it, someone, somewhere likely feels (and is) hard done by. And, for all the focus that Thomas Piketty has gained for his analysis of a new, ever-diverging global class of the superrich, inequality is still personal. As such, we asked an international group of artists, designers, photographers and activists to provide one image that encapsulates what inequality means to them — and to explain their selection. See them all below.

Photograph: Ryan Lobo.

Ryan Lobo, photographer, India

“Here is a photograph I made of a little boy who lives in a slum outside one of India’s most successful IT companies, the Infosys building in Bangalore.

India has very unequal patterns of development, and though the economy has benefited, most of India’s 1.28 billion people remain deeply disadvantaged.

I…

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Graphic Anthology Review: ‘Wild Ocean’ edited by Matt Dembicki

Wild Ocean: Sharks, Whales, Rays, and Other Endangered Sea CreaturesWild Ocean: Sharks, Whales, Rays, and Other Endangered Sea Creatures by Matt Dembicki

My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

Review from a digital copy.

This anthology offers a quick overview of twelve different oceanic species, each with a different scope of interactions with humans and within the ocean itself. Plots range from serious—capturing illegal fishermen who are doing it to survive—to lighthearted—a kid playing with a blue whale toy while his dad goes to a conference. Overall, the stories end happily, but the long-term prognosis for our oceans is grim, and that isn’t left out. Given that the point is to raise awareness, there’s no reason why it should be.

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Why does #YesAllWomen matter to me?

I’ve never been on the receiving end of misogyny. Before someone brings up “internalized misogyny” or whatever the cool kids are calling dissenting opinions these days, my mother is awesome and, despite growing up in a culture that pushed her into the kitchen and then marriage, never let me think I had to do any of it. I’m not a victim, and construing me as one is as insulting as doing the same based on my skin color.
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Anthology Review: ‘Singapore Noir’ edited by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan

Singapore NoirSingapore Noir by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Review from ARC. Expected publication June 3, 2014.

Given that this book is being published in America by a US-based company, I’m going to go ahead and assume that it is primarily geared towards people who aren’t intimately familiar with Singapore. The fact that it’s in English particularly doesn’t mean much; English is prevalent over there. Or should I say Singlish? I had a Singaporean roommate first year of university and the cadence of speech is quite different-lah. Continue reading