The Nude Photo Revolutionaries Calendar

In November, I wrote about Aliaa Magda Elmahdy, the Egyptian student and atheist who posted nude photos of herself as a protest against Islamist suppression of women's bodies and voices. Her explanation of what she was seeking to achieve is so perfect, I have to quote it again:


"Put on trial the artists' models who posed nude for art schools until the early 70s, hide the art books and destroy the nude statues of antiquity, then undress and stand before a mirror and burn your bodies that you despise to forever rid yourselves of your sexual hangups before you direct your humiliation and chauvinism and dare to try to deny me my freedom of expression."

In a society where religious morality police presume to dictate what is and isn't an acceptable means of self-expression, this was an incredible act of daring, and it's still not out of the question that the theocrats may succeed in punishing her for it. Ironically, by trying to get Elmahdy hauled into court for demonstrating that she possesses the same body parts as other human beings, they've proved both the point and the effectiveness of this manner of protest.

In a show of support and solidarity, the human-rights campaigner Maryam Namazie put together a Nude Photo Revolutionary Calendar (potentially NSFW), which has just been released for purchase or free download. Twelve prominent female writers, bloggers and activists posed for the calendar, each with a statement explaining why they chose to participate. (From what I understand, the submission process was open to men as well, but they didn't get any suitable entries. If you'd prefer a male calendar, there's always this one (definitely NSFW)).

This project has its detractors, of course, like this person who complained that the calendar is "encouraging people to sexualize women". This criticism makes the elementary mistake of confusing nudity and sex. You can be blatantly sexual while fully clothed; you can be naked without being sexual at all.

There were also these comments from I Blame the Patriarchy, which took a similar but more subtle tack:

I allege that, in a patriarchy, all images of women, particularly but not limited to those that involve nudity... are inherently pornographic. I allege this not because I believe that women are themselves inherently degraded pornbot livestock, but because the imagery is always realized under the auspices of — and for an audience acclimated to — a culture of pornsick patriarchal oppression. Images of women can only be interpreted from within a framework of misogyny that universally defines women in terms of male desire, male fantasy, male incontinence, and male power.

The argument from IBTP is that, even if a woman's body is depicted with no erotic intent, it will still be interpreted as pornographic, because that's the way our society is conditioned to view any image of a woman. I acknowledge there's some truth to that, but this argument strikes me as far too pessimistic: it seems to be saying that it's impossible to fight sexism, because men will always view women as objects for their gratification and there's no way to change that.

The whole point of Elmahdy's protest, and of this calendar, was to defeat this prejudice that women's bodies are always and intrinsically sexual. This belief leads Islamists to demand they wear veils, burqas, and other smothering clothing designed to dehumanize them and make them invisible, so as not to tempt men into uncontrollable lust. Ironically, this is the same belief that in our society exerts a constant pressure on women to be sexy - the same belief, but two very different manifestations.

If this calendar were like most images of women in the mass media - depicting only women who are drawn from a tiny and statistically unrepresentative slice of the population, encouraged to starve and mistreat themselves to maintain an unnatural weight and highly idealized body shape, and even after all that, digitally altered to remove all the blemishes and imperfections of actual bodies and promote a standard of beauty that no human being could ever realistically achieve - then complaints like these would have a point. As it is, I saw nothing in the calendar other than normal people, with a variety of ages and body types. No one viewing it could seriously believe that it was created to inspire lust.

The theocrats, who despise their own bodies and their own sex drives, are fervently against lust and view it as the responsibility of women to avoid provoking them to it. On the other hand, there are some circles within our society that are obsessed with sex, that pursue it far more than is healthy, and view it as the responsibility of women to be as sexy as possible, to dress and display themselves solely for men's gratification. In either case, the burden is put on women to conform to society's expectations. Protests like this one are clever because they confound both sets of unreasonable expectations at once: nude without being sexual, showing their bodies without acquiescing to inflexible, reductive and harmful standards about how to do that.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Ashes of cat named Pikachu to be launched into space

A space memorial company plans to launch the ashes of "Pikachu," a well-loved Tabby, into space.

GoFundMe/Steve Munt
Culture & Religion
  • Steve Munt, Pikachu's owner, created a GoFundMe page to raise money for the mission.
  • If all goes according to plan, Pikachu will be the second cat to enter space, the first being a French feline named Felicette.
  • It might seem frivolous, but the cat-lovers commenting on Munt's GoFundMe page would likely disagree.
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