In 1961, two chimpanzees successfully completed suborbital and orbital flight missions for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). NASA’s website tells us that the journey of the first of these chimpanzees, Ham, “paved the way for the successful launch of America's first human astronaut, Alan B. Shepard, Jr., on May 5, 1961.” NASA’s site gives other biographical details, such as Ham's post-cosmonaut life spent in two places, the National Zoo in Washington and the North Carolina Zoological Park in Asheboro. Upon his death in 1983, Ham's remains were sent to the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology. Eventually, his body (excepting his skeleton) "was respectfully laid to rest in front of the International Space Hall of Fame in Alamogordo, New Mexico."

NASA's website elaborates in more minimal fashion events concerning Enos, the second chimpanzee, despite the fact that his accomplishment would seem to have exceeded Ham's. In late November 1961, Enos flew aboard Mercury-Atlas 5, completing the first orbit of the earth by a hominoid, a dress rehearsal for the launch of Lt. John H. Glenn, Jr., on Mercury-Atlas 6, three months later. (Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth, completing three orbits on February 20, 1962.) NASA's website tells us that Enos died at Holloman Air Force Base of "a non-space related case of dysentery 11 months after his flight."[1] The whereabouts of his remains is not mentioned. 


 Oddity Problem (source Madrigal)

Image 1: Oddity Problem (source Madrigal)

The brevity of Enos’s life and story likely results from what reporter Alexis Madrigal writing for The Atlantic in 2011 calls "The Horrible Thing that Happened to Enos When He Orbited Earth 50 Years Ago." As part of the tests for mental acuity, astro-chimps were enrolled in "avoidance training": electric shocks were delivered to their feet when they incorrectly carried out small tasks— for instance, picking out the odd shape among a set of three (see image 1). During Enos's flight the machinery malfunctioned so that Enos couldn’t select the correct answer.  He was delivered 33 shocks in a row. Then on a second go-round the same thing happened with Enos receiving 76 shocks in total. Moreover, upon his return to Earth, Enos's capsule did not land where NASA anticipated, meaning he was stuck an additional 3 hours and 20 minutes in the capsule: "By the time the USS Stormes crew extracted him, 'The subject had broken through the protective belly panel and had removed or damaged most of the physiological sensors. [... ] He had also forcibly removed the urinary catheter while the balloon was still inflated.’"

These stories are also featured on the website for Project “Release and Restitution for Chimpanzees in U.S. Laboratories.” Playing a prominent role in the activist work of the project, sixteen chimpanzee portraits include a headshot of each chimp, along with his/her name and a short tag line—e.g., “One of a Kind,” “Too Much for Too Long,” “The Simple Things”—these phrases pulled from a paragraph detailing the chimp’s biography.   Several of the captions also feature an alphanumeric shorthand, “Ch. 454,” “Ch. 440,” “Ch. 170,” underneath the chimpanzee’s humanized names, for instance, Pepper, Wenka, and Yoko ( This peculiar notation also displays on the website of photo-artist Frank Noeller’s project “Captive Beauty”, where it appears in scare quotes, for instance, on the bio of Tom, a chimpanzee costarring in Allison Argo’s documentary “Chimpanzees: An Unnatural History,” which aired on PBS’s Nature in November 2006:

Tom[2] was born in Africa. Taken from his family, he spent his first 30 years in the laboratory. Tom arrived at LEMSIP [ Laboratory for Experimental Research and Surgery in Primates (at NYU)] on August 13, 1982 from the Buckshire Corporation at about 15 years old. In his subsequent 15 years at LEMSIP, "Ch-411" was knocked down[3] over 369 times. Tom was inoculated with HIV in 1984 and for the rest of his time at the lab he was used mostly for vaccine research. Completely uncooperative in the lab, he was even knocked down for cage changes. After enduring some 56 punch liver biopsies, 1 open liver wedge biopsy, 3 lymph node and 3 bone marrow biopsies, Tom gave up. Plagued constantly by intestinal parasites, he often had diarrhea and no appetite. When he had some strength, he banged constantly on his cage. (Noeller)

Given the animal cruelty recounted in the above paragraph, it may seem in bad taste to quibble over the temporal collapse performed in this “bio” whereby the chimpanzee born in Africa and later subject to 369 knockdowns is called “Tom” as if birthed with this generic Anglo-European moniker.[4]  Part of the “restitution” performed by the website, in other words, is constituted by the baptism of the chimpanzees with human names, a crucial first step in the biographical endowment of these chimpanzees with storied forms that render their lives legible in the idiom of politically worthy life (bios rather than zoe—protected life versus bare, animal life).

Taking the NASA and Project Rescue and Restitution websites as critical background, this essay explores a poem by the Chinese Canadian author Larissa Lai for the ways it both refers to and exceeds the biographical format that has become de rigeur in animal rescue stories. Published in 2009, “ham” makes tangible a tension between, on the one hand, grieving the fate of chimpanzees reduced to their instrumentality in furthering the progress of Man (via their role as test subjects in the space program as well as in infectious disease research); and on the other, contemplations of the virus, specifically such retroviruses as HIV and porcine endogenous retrovirus (PERV). The poem performs an exuberance linked to the obligate parasitism of these near life forms, their rollicking tempos moving with the “voracious[ness of] … polysexual possibility” (Lai, 104).  While Lai offers a good deal of citational matter in her poem that point the reader toward the space chimp program as the impetus of her elegy, it is as if, in imitation of the manner in which chimpanzee cells were infected with human viruses, the biographical elements of “ham” come to host a not-quite-live ludic spiral of musical fragments.

In an essay published in 1991 subtitled “Must a Chinese American Critic Choose Between Feminism and Heroism,” woman of color literary critic King-Kok Cheung spoke of being pulled in two directions. One direction was defined by cultural nationalists in Asian American cultural studies, who were bent on combatting the emasculation of Asian American men in U.S. grassroots politics and popular culture. The other direction was defined by a pacifist feminist project discomforted by endorsing the fighting traditions of Asians, viewing that strategy as one that might change the skin color of the victors but keep the same antagonistic game (of violent winners and violated losers) in place.  Cheung, in short, reiterated Audre Lorde’s famous dictum that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”  Both Cheung’s and Lorde’s writings emerged in the 1980s and early 1990s as part of a group of articulations testifying to the distinctive set of issues faced by women of color in the U.S.[5] Expanding upon this criticism, I here address another false choice arising from two heuristics tied to distinct political commitments and distinct scales of time.  Let us shorthand this dilemma one of being caught between a women of color analytic (an analytic largely associated with the method of intersectionality and with social justice for humans)[6] and a queer virological one (which may or may not be coextensive with an critical animal studies approach (see Weil).[7]

In this paper, I first address how species arrogance dovetails with mechanisms that underlie hierarchies of race and gender that channel which populations will bear the risks for others, which populations will be exposed to precarity—or pushed to the limits of their presumed greater resilience—all in the name of the greater good.

In this endeavor, I draw on Melinda Cooper and Catherine Waldby’s excellent revision to Marx’s labor theory of value to draw out the contemporary (bioeconomic) modes of capitalist accumulation that depend on the nonrecognition of “clinical labor,” that is, the labor performed by test subjects. Expanding upon feminist work on unwaged reproductive labor and caring work, these scholars are primarily concerned with the extraction of value from the metabolic labor of human bodies. Through extending their insights to the extraction of value from other nonhuman living entities, I contour the brinkmanship in biological resilience to which certain populations are brought in the name of optimizing the health and well-being of a politically privileged, putatively more worthy sector of biological life. 

At the same time, this essay also considers what other scales of action and affective registers an intersectional, women of color feminism seems less interested in pursuing. My postulation is that viral, improvisational, self-surpassing, and nonearnest practices don’t appear as much of a priority in our genealogy of open-endedness that begins with intersectionality. To make this case, I turn briefly to insights from virological science and queer theory.[8] Here, I argue that Lai’s stylistic and structural nods to the amorality of viruses (their recombinatory power) cannot be viewed as second-order phenomena, as a noisy distraction to the more significant exposé the poem delivers by way of its signified content—concerning laboratory tests on primate kin as allegorical for the clinical labors the contemporary bioeconomy sources from a largely colored, vulnerable population in the U.S. In Lai’s rehearsing of chimpanzee labors, she addresses precisely the racial and gendered formations mediating this nexus of entangled risks, labors, and ostensible benefit, but does so not solely to draw out the inequities within populations of humans but to emphasize the trans-species intimacies taking place that shake up notions of ethical obligations as merely continuous with prioritizing human survival. In splicing scientific (virological) enumeration with both pop tunes and songs of lament, Lai provides a stylistic commentary on the discursive technologies that underlie the supposed neutral pursuit of conventional science as it meets up with the perception of the observer as also an implicated actor in the scene of experimental relations. Lexical flourishes and drag humor are key to comprehending Lai’s poem in a way that admires its pleasurable excesses and not solely its utility (toward accumulative or activist ends).

Black, Asian, and Chimp Entanglements

In her thirty-three page poem, “ham” (2009), Larissa Lai reminds her readers of how cross-species biological resemblance (e.g., between man and chimpanzee) and political denial of that very kinship underwrites Man’s greatest technological achievements, namely interplanetary travel (the exploration of the cosmos), while intracellular recoding and genetic recombinatory methods (the manipulation of inner space) relies upon harnessing the labor and aptitude of bacteria and viruses. Lai’s poem takes its title from the NASA chimpanzee whose successful suborbital travel by rocket in 1961 occasioned his renaming in both biblical and acronymic fashion. H-A-M immediately calls to mind the outcast Black son of Noah, but the appellation also alludes to Holloman Airforce Medical Center in New Mexico, the intermediary dwelling site of the astro-chimp after his abduction from Africa. According to Donna Haraway, the primate whose official name at Holloman was #65 only received the biblical appellation upon the determination of his safe descent back to Earth because if “the mission had to be ‘aborted,’ the authorities did not want the public worrying about the death of a famous and named, even if not quite human astronaut” (Haraway 1989, 138). Yet, Ham’s handlers at Holloman couldn’t help themselves from crafting a nonnumerical but no less dehumanizing sobriquet for the chimpanzee: “Chop Chop Chang.” 

Lyrically giving voice to the first-person perspective of “ham” (in lowercase throughout the poem), Lai renarrates cosmonaut history from the perspective of one of its test subjects, “almost human but not white [. . . ] 98.5 percent check[ing] out for biomedical verisimilitude” (91). Following NASA’s lead, Lai would appear to elevate the chimpanzee to a cosmonaut pantheon that includes Glenn: “i was there first […] emperor of the final frontier” (91); however, in attributing hipster lingo to “ham”–“your future the power of my now… my space, ya dig”—Lai imbues her lyrical lament with humor. Rather than performing heroic demeanor and reclaiming victorious manhood for the former Chop Chop Chang, the poem hams it up. Through these means, Lai partly forgoes the solemn project of establishing the chimpanzee as the prior claimant to space exploration, satellite technology, and gravity-defying survival. Instead, through a viral practice that I will dub a queer of color style, the sly jiving of “ham” also diminishes those very achievements.

Not that “ham” doesn’t have its serious moments. For instance, in a section titled “c4, c3: looking out for number one,” Lai repeats key details from the biography of the aforementioned Tom, who underwent “56 punch liver biopsies…[and] innoculation with HIV”: “this is uncle tom to ground control […] i rock  myself to sleep/ bite my thumb              off the joint/ there’s no ointment for this appointment/ no prescription for the test case scenario” (108).  Bastardizing a line from the David Bowie hit “Space Oddity,” Lai replaces “this is major tom to ground control” with “this is uncle tom to ground control,” suggesting the continuities amongst the experimental uses of chimpanzees by NASA, the vivisection and intoxication of these same primates by academic research institutions such as LEMPSIP (punch liver biopsies likely signal Tom’s enrollment in hepatitis c research), and the medical experiments conducted on African Americans, most famously in the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male (1932-1972) where 600 men with latent syphilis were left untreated so that observers could document the natural course of the disease.[9]

Melinda Cooper and Catherine Waldby offer the terms “clinical labor” and “risk-bearing” labor to draw attention to the way in which ingesting prospective new medicines or testing out vaccines as part of a controlled study is a type of unofficial and often uncompensated labor even as it is not treated as such. Summarizing the history of such clinical labor in the U.S. and Europe, the sociologists note that “during and after World War II, research subjects were recruited from the ranks of the socially marginalized—orphans, state wards, indigent public hospital patients, conscripted soldiers, and prisoners.  After Word War II and up until the late 1970s, American prisons would provide the bulk of experimental research subjects to both U.S. and European pharmaceutical firms” (144). These prisons were often partnered with academic research hospital and clinics. 

Since 1981 when the U.S. outlawed clinical trials in prison, a decentralized system emerged in which randomized control trials were to take place increasingly in privately owned clinical research organizations (CROs): “Over the course of the last two to three decades, the clinical trial process has evolved from a carceral model of highly regimented, mass-produced experimentation based in the public prison and university research hospital to a more decentralized, contract-based model in which drug testing is outsourced to private research organizations and nonacademic clinicians” (131). And yet, these authors emphasize, the populations who have been overrepresented in U.S. prisons—African Americans and Latinos[10]–and thereby the de facto test subjects prior to 1981 remain the preponderant populations heavily recruited by contemporary CROs in Phase 1 toxicity trials:

The widespread use of criminal record checks in vetting prospective candidates [for jobs] means that ex-prisoners, much like undocumented migrants, are marginalized from formal employment. Phase 1 clinical trial work is one activity that does not demand either a criminal record check or proof of citizenship (although it does require a social security number). There is a close, often competitive relationship between prison labor, undocumented migrant workers, and offshore labor forces, all of which can be maneuvered against each other to depress wage levels in general. Perhaps it would be apposite to conceive of the class dynamics of Phase 1 clinical trial work [as one in which] African American and Latino trial recruits v[ie] for…positions within the U.S. contract research market and [are] potentially pitted against Phase 1 recruits in locations such as China, where Phase 1 multinational trials are beginning to be introduced. (155)

As these authors do, Lai’s poem connects the structural position of African Americans and Latinos under the U.S. racialized state to the health-compromised poor of China under postsocialist medical regimes preferring the values of innovation (measured in rising stock valuations) over the public weal. But unlike Cooper and Waldby’s scholarship, Lai’s poem connects this “clinical” experimental labor to animal sacrifices in velocity and physical force experiments of the mid-twentieth century.

To reiterate the earlier point, Lai substitutes “uncle tom” for “major tom”—a small change with enormous significance. Since at least 1919, “Uncle Tom” has acted as an epithet referring to an African American who acts slavish, curries favor with whites, and remains complicit in his/her own subordination (Springern).[11] In the detail of (uncle) Tom’s biting off his own thumb at the joint, Lai draws our attention to the rather short-sighted arguments regarding the self-damaging, risky behaviors of populations who have been willing to take on, or more to the point, have been infrastructurally channeled into such “risk-bearing” labor. Biting off his own thumb, Tom the chimpanzee’s self-harm is on a continuum with behaviors done by humans in mental distress (other behaviors of this sort include eating feces and hair plucking).[12] It would be scandalous to frame this self-mutilation as an indication that chimpanzees as a population are inclined to unhealthful behavior. The epithet of “Uncle Tom” as cited above, however, underscores how focusing on proximal causes and the agency of individuals—rather than institutions—acts as a pretext to blame victims for their manifest wounds rather than seeking out their multifaceted, infrastructural origins. 

A section titled “lament,” worth quoting in its entirety, continues the poem’s focus on the use of primates in assisting virological research of the 1980s. The lament alludes to AIDS activist Jeff Getty receiving a bone marrow transplant from a baboon, in the hope that the graft would produce white blood cells naturally resistant to HIV:[13]



to see difference              against strangeness of same

           species barrier porous at the level of marrow

           harrows blood

                             brood i’m forbidden

                                                    breeding experimental subjects

                                                                     to research interspecies disease

          fleas I’d groom off your arms

if I were i (109)


Adopting the voice of the baboon donor (who will be forced to give the “gift” of his marrow), this lament urges the audience to “brood” over the contradictory logic underlying this xenotransplantation experiment: it requires that the baboon marrow graft simultaneously be “same” enough so as not to be rejected by its human host but also productive of enough future “strangeness” in its white blood cell manufacture so that those very cells might resist the already embedded human viral load. Julia Kristeva refers to the abject as that which is neither subject nor object, neither self nor other, but that which blurs the boundary between the two, thereby provoking horror. Primates could be considered the clinical abject—treated as biological familiars of humans so that their tissues and bodies can serve wholesale as “animal models” in medical research or as bioemporiums for transplantable donor tissues for human recipients. At the same time, they are designated nonhuman others—that which morally justifies the nonconsensual use of their bodies and body parts in medical experiments—and also that which rationalizes captive chimpanzee breeding programs (“breeding experimental subjects/ to research interspecies disease”). That is, the 1975 adoption of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species greatly curtailed the “importation of chimpanzees from the wild” (Conlee and Boysen 121), thus prompting a surge in breeding programs of chimpanzees in captivity, so as to keep HIV and hepatitis researchers well supplied.[14]

This lament of “ham” drives home the coercive intimacies of humans with apes and old world monkeys, as in the visceral and economic incorporation of the latter’s metabolic labor (their blood marrow’s capacities) under the guise that these primates (like indigenous human natives according to the colonizers that encounter them) are “not quite, not white” (the iconic phrase coined by postcolonial critic Homi Bhabha, whom Lai acknowledges in her endnotes). Coercive intimacy also bespeaks the rendering of these primates virus-like (as if parasitic). That is, in the name of furthering research and saving (human) lives, humans discursively and materially render their simian familiars into bare life (zoe). This reduction to mere animality involves both the disruption of baboons’ own networks of social reciprocity presumed in blood relations (“harrows blood/ brood i’m forbidden”) and the rendering of chimpanzee sexuality (aka “breeding”) simultaneously prolific and foreclosed (i.e., already instrumentalized).

Through single letter substitutions and insertions (marrow to harrows, blood to brood), “ham” depicts its simian speaker lamenting both the human instrumental incitement of his fecundity coupled with the interdiction forbidding these primates from enjoying social reciprocity in relation to these very progeny (who might act as potential caretakers of the aged in the future). Fulsome biological reproductive capacity enveloped within the organism (aka autopoesis), then, is not that which renders life “life”—that is, more than virus-like AND more-than-bare (more than zoe). Rather, social relationality—namely, behavioral acts of intra- and inter-species caring for (“fleas i’d groom off your arms”) and reciprocal recognition of deserving to be cared for—constitute the protected life form of bios or dignified life (a sociality existing in the animal wild but stripped from baboons and chimpanzees in captivity).[15] Thus, the contradiction that “breeding [simians as] experimental subjects” continues even as “brood i’m forbidden” speaks to an implicit core argument put forth in this stanza worth reiterating: coercive intimacy bespeaks the rendering of the primate as if parasitic. Here, I would point to the way in which the rhetorical or taxonomic designation of viruses, chimpanzees, and baboons as lesser vitalities AND the material rendering of animal (primate) lives “as if parasitic”—aka coercively dependent on laboratory and/or carceral infrastructures for their biological needs—coexist as two sides of the same coin of biopolitical management (driven by the maximization of nonsustainable financial surplus). To flesh out this idea of animal life made virus-like, let us turn now to the biology of viruses.

Biology of Viruses and Critical Biopolitical Studies

With respect to an emerging area of research I call critical biopolitical studies (an analytic combining critical race theory, biopolitical theory, and insights from feminist and queer Science and Technology Studies),[16] viruses are useful when thinking about life vs non-life. Until the turn of the twenty-first century (and the discovery of giant viruses like Mimi, Pandora, and Pithos), viruses were not considered life because they lack the major physiological properties of other biological organisms, namely “metabolism, growth, and reproduction” (Forterre 156). Viruses are obligate intracellular parasites that borrow (or take over) a host’s (e.g., a bacteria’s) ribosomes (loci of protein synthesis) to create more copies of themselves. When not intracellular (aka in a host cell), viruses exist as virions, some of which can crystallize. They are substantial, freestanding entities empirically affirmed (by electron microscopy in 1946). Yet, “an isolated virion is inert: it has no metabolic equipment, [and] thus cannot do any chemical reactions on its own. Virions can be separated into separate nucleic acid and protein components, each separately crystallized and stored, and yet if mixed back together, can reassemble and be just as ‘viable,’ as infective, as before.”[17] Precisely this capacity of some virions to crystallize—according to French virologist Pierre Forterre—convinced scientists that viruses were molecules and not cells—aka not life (since one definition of life makes cellular composition its fundamental characteristic).

Depending upon one’s point of view, the fact that biological viruses obviate the necessity of coming equipped with the complete protein synthesis machinery required to produce more of themselves either confirms the virus’s classification as beyond the pale of normative vitality or prompts reconsideration of the narrow temporal and spatial confines with which we habitually frame our units of analysis, thereby obscuring our view of the richness of life’s variety and interdependence. Despite science’s regard of its epistemic categories as nonideological, there are potent exchanges between the scientific and the political, as demonstrated by Jih-Fei Cheng’s recent work on the salience of racial and sexual categories specific to Euro-American empire in the figuration of the first virus ever to be discovered and purified, the tobacco mosaic virus, as turning tobacco mulatto (Cheng).[18]

The scientific designation of viruses as not-quite-life begs this question: what connections might exist between, on the one hand, viruses’ uncertain status as not-quite-life and, on the other, continuing challenges (on the part of the oppressed) to the foundational division Giorgio Agamben designates as at the core of biopolitics[19]—the cleaving of life into a privileged, valued segment (bios) and a contrastive remainder warranting a lesser regard (zoe).  In holding side-by-side the biopolitical classification of some humans (the colored, poor, colonized, transgender) as zoe—mere animal life—and the biological classification of some life forms (viruses) as not life—mere RNA and DNA parasites or fragments of cells—we can investigate the skewed, sometimes fraught relation between the insights to be gleaned from the biological study of the microbial world and the insights to be retained from social justice movements and the epistemologies these movements have generated.

To return, then, to the specifics of why viruses are in some quarters still not considered life, permit me this simplification accompanied by a provocation: viruses, like queers who refuse reprosexuality, exist in seeming defiance of the centrality of vital mandates to make more of themselves (to reproduce). Independent of other life forms, viruses can be considered entities with “no future,” to bend Lee Edelman’s characterization of heteronormative society’s disdain for queer lives.[20] Put more punningly and in a nod to my training as a literary critic, viruses do not qualify as "autopoietic"[21] or self-reproducing entities, but merely as poetic.  

The statement that viruses have no future, of course, is counterintuitive since the adverb “viral” (like a virus) has, through social media lexicons, come to refer to an exponential explosion of a meme, infobyte, political ad, or consumable, a phenomenon made possible through the distributed electronic networks of our digital and cellular connections. For heuristic reasons, I wish to emphasize the distinction between the meanings of viral evoked in media studies and the meanings to be derived from the virological literature on viruses. The lay meaning of “viral” emphasizes amplitude (a difference of degree) and is likely derivative from the comparatively speedy assemblage of virions versus mitotic and meiotic modes of producing somatic cells and gametes. What I want to emphasize as an overlooked quality (a difference in kind) that is also very much a part of our semantics of viruses—and which I will also pursue through the reading of Lai’s poem about chimpanzees—are the viruses’ practices of interdependency and nonautonomy–its obligate character, its being bound to other species.

Moreover, a virus—while singular as to the specific type infecting an organism— nevertheless signifies a plural actant. The visible mosaicism on the tobacco leaf’s surface or the fatigue and headache a human feels when infected by an influenza virus—the symptomatic signs—correspond to the lytic phase when the walls of host cells break down (or lyse) due to the large number of viral progeny in those cells. It is the multitudinous or nonsingular quality of viruses that also renders them good to think with, specifically good to think the limits of biography as a preferred mode of countering the anonymity underlying both dehumanization of colored and indigenous populations (the relegation of humans to bare life, foreclosed life, social death) and animal cruelty (tied to nonhuman animals’ social insignificance but huge purported “value” to biomedical and aerospace research). Currently at the cutting edge of new discoveries that reverberate back to central questions concerning “what is life,” viruses have also suggested new biotechnical tools (such as gene therapy—where a harmless retrovirus is used to insert useful genes into genomes that lack them).[22]

Most significantly for my purposes, viruses are driving a shift in definitions of life away from the autonomy or self-sustaining qualities of life and toward the cross-species entanglements immanent not just to microbial but also vertebrate existence and generation. Energy conversion, genetic conservation and replication, and propagative properties can be distributed across large swaths of space and time (the reactivation of crystallized virus parts). Viruses are entryways (among many others that feminist science and technology scholars are taking) for the “reciprocal capture” of humans in practice with animals, insects, plants, chemicals, and other microscopic live-non-live agencies (Stengers quoted in Myers). Interspecies ecologies constitute not simply the infrastructure for reproduction—the making more of the same—but the pleasure, lilt, practices, momentum and contact improvisations involved in all those aspects of living that are not reducible to mere propagation.

“oops, i did it again/ repetition’s such a drag”

In an earlier reading of Lai’s poem,[23] I claimed that the movement of the poetic voice away from the focalized biography of Ham (in aeronautics) to a more diffuse mash-up of details taken from dreadful experiments on primates and other animals (namely, pigs) had implications for activism’s preference for biography. Because the process of representationally focalizing on “the one”—the singular named hero—necessarily leaves out “the many,” to quote Alex Woloch’s formulation, the poet Lai runs into structural problems personifying each and every member of this damaged multitude. She thereby, I claimed, decentered both man and the focalized biography as vehicle for endowing life with its proper (politically worthy) shape.

Here, my expansion and revision of that argument goes toward not simply the poem’s useful work in drawing attention to the erased or unexpressed “cousin other[s]” (115) of historic Man, but also the very dialectic between two imperatives or worldviews, one that cognizes life/being as a competition (with winners and losers) and the other that celebrates, in a more humble and ludic fashion, an enduring vital persistence that accepts “afterness” (the condition of that which follows in a temporal series) as neither losing nor winning. Playing upon the way that viruses use the cellular metabolism of their infected hosts to “preserve” their own DNA but also “perv” (104) or mutate their host’s chromosomes, the formal techniques of Lai’s poem draw readerly attention to the dropping out of letters—e.g., “p e rve”—and whole words, whereby the nonexpression of preserved units in a prior chain of linked nucleotide codes or letters enables distinctive protein expression and hence new somatic and semantic assemblages.[24] By way of her poem's part titles, its visual layout, and its structural patterns, Lai suffuses her poem with “drag” humor, a parasitic trickster style that quotes and laughs at the imperative of “the race”—who will win this heroic trial and claim mastery of the universe. Against the earnestness of the race, Lai offers the persistence of “the ditty”—the playful, often banal pop tune.

Using the “companion species” figure of the chimpanzee, “ham” makes reference to at least two historical races unfolding in the second half of the twentieth century: the space race (aka the Cold War contest between the U.S. and the Soviets) and the race to defeat AIDS (virological research consumed huge resources—including the experimental labor of chimpanzees and baboons—in the 1980s and 1990s). Indeed, several lines within the poem—“i was there first” (91), “dreaming it’s an arm/ racing for space” (99), “accumulation’s second ticks in offshore banks/ swifter than tankers can shift hard currency” (100), “the master’s clock/ shall not destroy the master’s rocket” (103), and “geography’s mire racing animal to man” (113)—allude to a competition between sovereign nations, between animal and man, between petrochemical industrial capital and supposedly clean information (qua satellite-assisted) capital, or between organic life’s memory and time itself. In its very form, “ham” appears to mime the prefab structure of agonistic drama.

Beginning with her two epigraphs, the first from Lloyd Swenson and James Grimwood’s This New Ocean: A History of Project Mercury and the second from Elton John’s song “Rocket Man” (1972),[25] Lai patterns her thirty-three-page poem as a dialectic between two types of expressive verbalizations, one from the realm of scientific documentation, the other from the domain of art and entertainment. In doing so, the poet, in addition to drawing out the racing teams of U.S. vs. Soviets and a cost-benefit analysis of Chimpanzee sacrifice vs. Man’s welfare, sets up another epistemological and inscriptive tension between the authority of the sciences and the frivolity of the arts.[26] That is, two types of stanza groupings alternate as the poem unfolds. One group is composed of a single stanza of two-to-five lines, mostly left-margin–aligned, tightly typeset, with single-word titles referring to musical forms: “song,” “ditty,” “rondo,” “dance,” “lament,” and “serenade.” These single stanzas are interleaved between sets of stanzas in numbered series, the first of which has a fully written, compound title, such as “culture, nature: rocket man” (bold mine) followed in the series by an alphanumeric shorthand with a colon and then subtitle: “c1, n2: brother,” “c1, n3: darwin,” “c1, n4: noah,” and so on. Likewise, the set whose first stanza is titled “crime, punishment: nasa to coulston” (bold mine) has succeeding stanzas titled “c3, p2: first infection,” “c3, p3: cordelia,” and “c3, p4: deep inside we’re all the same” (see table 1.1).



Before colon

After Colon



[         ]

c1, n2

c1, n3

c1, n4

c1, n5


culture, nature


rocket man







[         ]

c2, n2

c2, n3

c2, n4


c u later, not applicable [n/a]  


chinaman’s hat



monsanto’s mutations



[         ]

c3, p2

c3, p3

c3, p4


crime, punishment


nasa to coulston

first infection


deep inside we’re all the same



[         ]

c4, c2

c4, c3


cure, curé


the tower

paradise cost

looking out for number one



[         ]

c5, r2

c5, r3

c5, r4

c5, r5


call, response


immunity’s hope

mikado’s unconscious


media coverage

reading strategy




[         ]

c6, s2

c6, s3

c6, s4

circle, square


mutation’s revenge

ooo ooo eee eee

got cells?



[         ]

c7, v2


circumference, volume


spilling lesson

the hum of ham


TABLE 1.1   Musical Structure and Subtitles in Larissa Lai’s “ham”


In the stanza sets, the alphanumeric codes proliferate in quantitative and qualitative polysemy. Because the numbers tick up one by one, they emulate a scoreboard between two racing teams of (cold) warring parties. From another perspective, a notation such as c1, n4 evokes abbreviations given to viruses such as the H1N1 (novel swine) and H5N1 (novel avian) influenza.[27] These structural elements remind “ham’s” audience of the 1960s space race (the rush to be first in traveling the cosmos), of the scientific tracking of viruses (the exploration by electron microscopy of the microcosmos[28]), and of temporality writ large. That is, these abbreviations before the colon attest to an orthographic simplification tied to the scrivener’s struggle against a finite amount of time—as in the text message lingo “c u later.” Using such formal methods, the poem forces us to consider that even though being first on the scene is usually a mark of achievement (the latecomer thought to be laggard), the biopolitical tool of nonrecognition has narrated homo sapiens sapiens’ later evolutionary arrival both on terra firma and in interstellar space as a mark of humanity’s superior “god-given dominion over animal” (Lai, 102).

Between the stanza sets “c5, r*” and “c6, s*,” there is no short stanza corresponding to what I’ve called the refrain. Perhaps this is because the verses preceding this gap refer to “call, response,” itself a musical form. And while I’ve spoken of a single-stanza-with-a-musical-form-in-its-title being missing at this point in the poem’s structure, figured another way, it is also the case that “call, response”—that musical form—is not missing but has elongated and taken on the morphology of the alphanumeric stanza sets. Suggestively, the structuration of the poem performs a hybridization, as it were, of artistic (musical) and scientific lexicons. 

As my analysis in prior sections of this essay suggests, the alphanumeric stanza sets are replete with partial references to specific historical events and bioscientific achievements. These partial references entice the reflective audience to decode their meanings. This leaves the shorter single stanza sets at risk for being overlooked as they offer less documentary recollection and more comic relief. To wit, the “ditty,” delivered as the second refrain, consists of the following two lines:

oops i did it again

          repetition’s such a drag.  (95)


The two lines say something similar—they are repetitions on the same theme (of repetition), but their distinctiveness lies in their degrees of earnestness and brand recognition so to speak (the latter itself a function of radio circulation). Alluding to Britney Spears’s hit of 2000. the first line underscores pop music (and its accompanying infrastructures to make a single go viral) as a contrapuntal archive to that of scientific history, military-political history, and canonical literary references (to Shakespeare, Sophocles, Jack London, E.M. Forster and others) from which the alphanumeric stanzas amply quote. The second line, following after the jejune “oops, i did it again,” functions as bored commentary; “repetition’s such a drag” both ironically inhabits repetition and disidentifies[29] with what it inhabits. It does a drag (campy and disidentified) performance of repetitiveness. Repetition or the persistence of prior pattern is what the poem counts on its audience to hear (and see) in its “boat of quotes”; and yet, by also providing repetitions that are off by a single letter, rasping rhyme, or affective charge, the quotes the poem floats are distinctly not reproductions of the same. 

Through a mise en abyme of repetition, mimicry, and punning, “ham” makes capital use of (erroneous) transcription. As “michelango refeats islamic technology” (98) so does john glenn refeat chop chop chang aka ham, so does ham become pig-product spam, so does ham become “nam our chop chop/ too close to airlift home” and “man” mirrors “ham” (as RNA mirroring DNA). That is, with the simple shortening of a vertical line, an “h” becomes “n” so that “ham our chop chop” become “nam our chop chop” (105). In addition, Lai transforms the onomatopoeia “chop chop” through the simple placement of a successive phrase “too close to airlift home.” Effectively, “chop chop” sounds the helicopter or “chopper’s” blades as they whir, a subtle reference to the Vietnam War. The reference to “airlift” congeals the association of ham-the-chimp with nam-the-war. Airlift recalls the notorious biopolitical splitting of kin and kind, as the 1975 Operation Babylift and other airlift operations (e.g., Operation New Life) selectively helicoptered (thereby providing refuge for) some South Vietnamese allies of the U.S. when U.S. troops retreated before the “Fall of Saigon.”

Across the poem’s unfolding, Lai splices in segments of lyrics from popular music (e.g., “kitschy kitschy ya ya” (113), “another little piece of my heart” (118), “I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together” (119)) with sometimes a key word or letter altered, as in

 mr. sandman

                                                pork chop        chopped ham

                                    roast lamb        a can of spam

whenever you want me

all i have to do

                                    is preen.        (96)

The effect of “ham’s” spiraling puns and stalled lyrics (functioning as prompts-to-memory) is that of making various melodies—“muzak of the spheres” (91)—spring to mind.[30] The poem effects something akin to a role reversal, putting its listeners/readers in the place of the experimental animal in a twenty-first century trial of auditory recall.  In this mnemonic acuity test, the canalized memory pathways of “ham’s” audience (if they were brought up in North America during the latter half of the twentieth century) are ignited so that whole songs—the remaining portions of the lyrical strings—spill forth as mental symphony into a resounding virtual space (inner space of the subject’s body). In place of coercive intimacy, Lai uses the phrase “new politics of intimacy” to describe the experimental training of sensory replay in this fashion, the crossing and mixing (scrabbling) of viral—live and non-live—biological and artifactual sounds apprehended via this coded replay.

In this placing of the human (anglophone) subject in the role of lab animal, the poem “ham,” through this role reversal, could be credited with effecting a kind of social justice (a poetic justice).  In other words, “ham,” we might say, effects a comic deterritorializing action, undercutting the many human organizations (including heroic biographical discourse) through which the species-being of homo sapiens sapiens continues to define for itself a surplus (of wealth, health, energy, vitality, future pluripotency, and so forth) beyond mere sustainability. Paying close attention to structural, graphical and melodic aspects of this poetry yields an antenna tuned not simply to the tragically contoured humanist diegesis of its narrative (though this is certainly a compositional element of “ham”) but to its proliferating harmonies and hums: the “too fluid to graph” exponential yield of its primate-porcine-bacterial-viral variations.

A partial list of the many biotech feats to which the poem alludes (and which length constraints preclude a fuller treatment) would also include the xenotransplantation of a chimpanzee heart into the chest of 68 year old Boyd Rush by the surgeon James Hardy in 1964; the concerns over porcine endogenous retrovirus (PERV) found to infect human cells in culture, which prompted worries over the use of pig tissue in replacement heart valves; and the genetic modifications on crops researched and marketed by agribusiness giant Monsanto. The poem reveals these technological achievements as an extended list of barbarisms (an inhumane cascade of “accidental” harm done to primates) but in an accretive style that is not so much indifferent but breathless, as if the time to grieve any singular loss is cut short by calamity after calamity.[31]   In addition “ham” refers as well to art house fashion, such as the infamous Comme de Garcons’ clothing line, “Dress Meets Body, Body Meets Dress,” released in 1996, called the “lumps and bumps” or “tumor” showcase in the media but which the poem dubs a “couture of butchered interiors” (119). Here, the poem mocks the way in which even biological disregulation and disease symptoms can be remade into commodified surplus.

Indeed, Lai’s poem seems not so much to propose a solution, as much as to witness and testify, in “rondo” form, to the “ruse of capital circulation/ accumulation’s second ticks in offshore banks/ swifter than tankers can shift hard currency/ digital dials reaching out to touch someone” (100).  The accumulation techniques of what Giovanni Arrighi (after Adam Smith) calls “unnatural capitalism”—a capitalism that overcomes high level equilibrium traps through territorial expansion and the military destruction of existing civilizations—has “reach[ed] out,” leaving few places of the globe untouched.  Thus, in its concluding stanza, the poetic chorus performs a distress call, a low-level “hum” shrouded from the radar of tanker engines of greed but possibly imperceptible as well to other human actants desirous of reversing course:

c7, v2: the hum of ham

cat’s out of cradle

    treadle spins civilization

                           porous chorus springs mutation selection

finch chimp fish or him

     predilection for reproduction         seduction of expansion coefficient

                                    twinkling flesh things and green things

                  cell’s bells call in greed’s bills

cashing out on a may day morning.   (121)


Through small substitutions—akin to transcription errors—this “hum of ham” remains open to both pessimistic and modestly hopeful interpretations. For instance, “cat’s in the cradle” is a folk explanation for how a sleeping infant who dies inexplicably has had her breath taken away (feline fur has smothered the babe), a cause of death now labeled Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. With its substitution of “out” for “in”—“cat out of cradle,” this line seems to mix the phrases “cat’s out of the bag” and “cat’s in the cradle”—the unstoppable predator cat being the current tyranny of global capital.  However, the note that “cat’s out of cradle” could strike a listener with optimism—there is breathing space to hum an alternative to the relentless violence of militarized capitalist expansion.  Against the “seduction of expansion coefficient,” “ham” proposes “cell’s bells [calling] in greed’s bills / cashing out on a may day morning” (121).  “Cashing out” syntactically refers to what the cells do to greed.  Cells— biological materials organized into systems such as the neuro-gastrointestinal-immunological complexes of chimpanzees and humans—call in the debt created by a cash-capitalist world.[32]  They simply break down into ruin, leaving sounds of distress— m’aider (help me) anglicized as “may day”—that may or may not be heard.  To refer again to the biographies of Tom and Enos, the official causes of death attributed to each were, respectively, cases of diarrhea and “non-space related dysentery”: their stomachs simply gave up.  The decline of intestinal, biological function in these primates sounds the alarm for similar bodily wreckage amongst humans. May day, as well, is a celebration of spring, the season of rebirth.  The extent to which this concluding hum acts the harbinger of renewal (for chimp and man rather than simply for increasing financial profits) may be a function literally of how ham’s “m’aider/may day” is received.

My dutiful parsing of “ham’s” many references would seem to imply that “ham” requires an active receiver.   Here, I refer to an audience’s attunement not simply to deciphering the historical events in aeronautics, biomedicine, and animal sacrifice to which the poem alludes, but also to its political aesthetic of repetition. (Indeed, the “may day” to which the final stanza alludes is itself an echo of the prior “call, response” highlighted in the poem’s structure.) Recalling Marx’s dictum that “history repeats itself, first as tragedy then as farce,” what interpretive responsibility does the critic have toward letting the ludic, even absurdist tenor, of much of Lai’s poem spill forth, even or especially when it would appear to undercut the serious work of valorizing the heroic chimpanzees whom man has made into chopped “ham”? 

I want to reflect as well on the pitfall of seriousness with which my own interpretation of “ham” transforms its hamminess into utility (which may be a function of the demands of social critique).  That is, the urge to rectify and “save” (the chimps) banishes the gratuitously erotic and risible details of both animality and moneran viality to which the poem also gives witness.  Here I allude to two sections of the poem that underscore an erotic promiscuity that can be signified as both embarrassing and gleeful. It is to these stanzas that I now turn.

The Hypersexuality of Microbes

To recapitulate, the stanza sets alternate between artistic and scientific lexicons and at one point, perform a migration and/or hybridization with respect to a series of stanzas linked to the “call, response:” title card.   The refrain directly preceding the “call, response” series is titled “lament,” which I previously noted voices melancholy over the “brood I’m forbidden.” It also voices the wronged chimpanzee’s avowal of relationality to her human violators despite having been abused by them: “fleas i’d groom off your arms/ if i were i” (109).  This “lament” projects the type of kinesthetic caring action humans might be persuaded to enact toward other species if they would only “ape” them, so to speak.  If this lament also functions as its own call (a version of “m’aider” with “how to” instructions included), the response that follows is not that of human tenderness.  Or put another way, the poem delays testifying to human efforts to “save the chimps” until its penultimate stanza.  Instead, “ham” follows this m’aider—call for help—with unfolding escapades of microbial sex. By doing so, the poem suggests that if a justice is exacted upon humans for their (collateral, rationalized) violence, it will come not through human action (better bioethics or restitution and release programs to save the Chimpanzees but from the abundant fertility (superfecundity) of the microbial universe. 

Switching from singular “i” to plural “we,” the voice of “ham” rejoices at “bacterial mutation/ small cell’s elation at technology’s defeat/ thought bunnies were bad?/  we reproduce on your juice….cowboys of inner space/ race irrelevant    we hump from meat machine to meat machine…. No halt to proliferation plus differentiation/ we model minority’s retort to business/ plague robber to abandon ship” (111).   “We” refers to bacteria such as Staphylococcus aureus and Yersinia pestis, the bacterium believed to have caused the bubonic “plague” stretching across Eurasia in the fourteenth century. One-letter slippages—“minority retort” instead of “minority report” —and phonemic substitutions—“plague robbers” instead of “grave robbers”—allude to twenty-first–century detective work on exhumed corpses to determine the Chinese origins and intermediaries (the oriental rat fleas, carriers of Yersinia pestis) responsible for the pandemic. [33]  Fear of contagion becomes psychically managed by localizing plague sources to Chinese bacteria. 

Despite attempts by Canadians and Anglo-Americans to localize anxieties linked to globalization (and, more specifically, to the current bioeconomy’s silent partnership with neoliberalism[34]) by way of securing national borders or retrospectively affirming the epidemiological salience of geopolitical territories, the microscopic organisms at the hinge of life-not-life will continue to persevere, or more indelicately “hump from meat machine to meat machine….we model minorit[ies].”  With this latter phrase associating a bacterial superfecundity with an Asian/American “retort” to business and trade, the poem accomplishes at least two things.  First, it recalls the entwined history of blacks and Asians in U.S. racialization, [35] an entanglement already introduced by way of the appellations HAM-Chop Chop Chang (as well as the continuities among the populations that Cooper and Waldby suggest have become channeled into risk-bearing labor), but here heralding as well the rhetoric of (neo)liberal biopolitics. In 1966 sociologist William Petersen coined the term model minorities, referring to Japanese Americans who ostensibly did not need governmental aid despite their marginalization.  As many have argued, while seeming to favor Asians, the model minority myth functioned to target African Americans for further discrimination; it insinuated that the U.S. government need not affirmatively counteract decades of Black enslavement and Jim Crow rule. In its embrace of Asians because they do not seek the aid of the American government, the model minority myth also, more subtly, discouraged outrage at the radioactive damage and chemical poisoning done to Asian homelands (and their populations) that accompanied the militarization of the Pacific during WWII and through the so-called “Cold War.”[36]

Secondly, the model minority reference in the poem furthers the association of infectious pandemics with Asian populations.  The image of fecund bacterial multiplication (superabundant cycles of generation that allow for antibiotic resistance to develop across a short period of human-scaled time) is heightened by an overlay of the racialized stereotype of the overachieving Asian/American (“we hump from meat machine to meat machine…we model minorit[ies]”). It is as if Lai resignifies what Celine Parreñas Shimizu has termed the “hypersexuality of race,” wherein bottom receptivity and penetrability (a sexuality defined by coital position) is projected onto Asians. Instead of rejecting this “porous[ness] (121),” the plural and Orientalized microbes of this stanza queerly sing and gyrate their embrace of “proliferation plus differentiation” (111), their having “gone wild as girls” (113). 

Significantly, this gleeful, collective swerve (gyration) to gratuitous eroticism is itself a repetition—a veritable cross-gender and cross-species “drag” performance of an earlier moment of levity that my initial readings of this poem simply missed.  In a section titled “c3, p3: cordelia,” Lai alludes to the 76 shocks that Enos (Hebrew for “man”) endured, even though the name “Enos” never appears in the poem:

dry-cure my meat                                 loves salt

                no peer but the leer of the chimp’s pimp

mission controls organ arrangement

                              registers levers

shock of memory of shock      while earthbound spock babies

routinized on tested formula

                           the blame and not white

sequence levers’ proper timing

                                          the master’s clock shall not destroy

                                          the master’s rocket  (103).[37] 

Underscoring the non-lionized (erased) vital aspects of chimpanzee lives, the poetic voice speaks of “mission controls organ arrangement” recalling that Enos’s handlers hitched him to a balloon type catheter rather than a sheath (condom-like) one, a measure taken, unsuccessfully as it turns out, to “dry-cure” Enos from a juicy habit—his penchant for masturbating in public (“my meat loves    salt”).[38] Except for Madrigal’s 2011 article, accounts of Enos’s participation in the space program never fail to mention that the media dubbed him “Enos the Penis” after he publically pulled down his pants and proceeded to masturbate at the press conference following his successful orbits around Earth (Schefter, DeGroot, and Burgess and Dubbs). How are we to grapple with the amorality of comedy, its treacherous deflation that can go just as easily toward “finally stickin’ it to the man” (116) as much as it can toward emphasizing the less-than-noble actions of the suffering Chimpanzee?

While the levity in the foregoing analysis has acknowledged the tenor of the historical archive’s account of Enos, it is important to note that within Lai’s poem “hump[ing]” predilections are spoken in an unmistakably gleeful and campy fashion. Through the repetition (with a difference) of Enos’ masturbatory acts, this embrace of bacterial polysexual practices stands in for (dresses in the drag of) “Enos the penis” –his gratuitous erotic expenditures.  The odd effect of this farcical humping is to (in backformation) preserve the dissenting queerness of Enos’s drifting handedness, his detours away from pulling the correct lever (responding to his space oddity problem) to salting his meat. 


 Humor brings one back to philosophical pessimism…but works not as “the source of life’s despair but as its affirmation—that even in its fragmentation, in its failures, it can still be lived…”  –Raihan Kadri

Cooper and Waldby’s articulation of clinical labor places African Americans, Latinos, undocumented immigrant labor, and offshore Chinese and Indian labor all on the same side (they are all populations in precarity that biocapital pits against each other).  In other words, the two teams they are implicitly interested in making legible against the false divisions of national citizenship are, on the one hand, the clinical laborers whose metabolic resilience and ultimate susceptibility to toxicants and other clinical stressors are exploited in the pursuit of new drugs and transplant therapies, and on the other, the value-extracting researchers and big pharma organizations of the innovative wellness industry.  The distinction (not quite opposition) that I claim Lai’s poem helps us understand is that between competition writ large (the idea of progress as a race either against a national opponent, a past iteration of civilization, or the ticking down of a patent’s profitable duration) and vital, playful persistence which is not the same thing as stasis.  Persistence is the recognition of the prior framework—the history that has unfolded, the archive of time/succession as it has been comprehended and explained, the sociological or ecological contexts motivating and shaping outcomes—as a fragment of something larger and more expansive..  Here I use the term “expansive” not to privilege the cosmos—the interstellar galaxies—but also to encompass the microcosmos—the agencies from below.

There’s a tension in my argument. One the one hand, I consider the poem important because it makes legible the clinical labor of animals (including humans)— the testing of their metabolic and regenerative limits (under the pressure of novel physical forces and chemical brews)—in the search for preventive or ameliorative therapies. I argue for recognizing the specificity of populations that serve predominantly as risk-bearing laborers in research work done on behalf of the medical-pharmaceutical complex.  This portion of my argument is earnest and partakes of a hermeneutics of suspicion.  Its tone toggles between outrage and elegy (look at the lives lost and harmed!).  On the other hand, my claim is that remaining in the aforementioned register of analysis (of earnest tonality), paradoxically, cleaves not to an animal politics as much as to an idealist ethics that underlies modernity’s most exclusionary and violent tendencies (including imperialist conquest).[39]  The earnest register of analysis misses the argument of the poem contained in its form and style and cannot make sense of its “boat of quotes…homoncular junk” as anything but distracting noise.  These operations of the poem endorse the primacy of the “viral” or playful aspects of signification that have a microcosmic corollary in the recombinatory, improvisational and obligate “scrabbl[ings]” of contagious contact.  In this way, I point to at least two registers of engaging our animal-viscerality to which intersectional feminist, queer assemblagist, and critical biopolitical studies scholars may be persuaded: one that extends the idea of and socio-legal apparatus of protected personhood to those outside personhood’s current boundaries and the other that adopts a more thorough entangled (involutionary) affirmation of the processional mutations of lively entities, their interspecies relationality, and their/our obligate character. 


Works Cited

  • Arrighi, Giovanni. Adam Smith in Beijing: Lineages of the Twenty-First Century. New York: Verso, 2009.
  • Bersani, Leo. “Is the Rectum a Grave?” October 43 (Winter, 1987): 197-222.
  • Birkett, Lucy and Nicholas Newton-Fisher. “How Abnormal Is the Behaviour of Captive, Zoo-Living Chimpanzees?” PLoS ONE 6, no. 6 (publication date): e20101,  doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0020101.
  • Brandt, Allan M. “Racism and Research: The Case of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study.” Hastings Center Magazine. Dec. 1978. Accessed 11 Sept. 2015.
  • Burgess, Colin, and Chris Dubbs. Animals in Space: From Research Rockets to the Space Shuttle. New York: Springer-Praxis Books, 2007.
  • Carroll, Sean B. Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo Devo. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2005.
  • Carter, J. Stein. “Viruses.” UC Clermont College Biology Department. 15 Jan. 2014. Accessed 11 Sept. 2015.
  • Cheng, Jih-Fei. “‘El Tabaco se ha mulato’: Globalizing Race, Viruses, and Scientific Observation in the Late Nineteenth Century.” Catalyst: Feminism, Theory, Technoscience 1, no. 1 (2015): 1-14.
  • Cheung, King-Kok. “The Woman Warrior versus The Chinaman Pacific: Must a Chinese American Critic Choose between Feminism and Heroism.” Conflicts in Feminism. Eds. Marianne Hirsch and Evelyn Fox Keller. New York: Routledge, 1990. 234-54. Print.
  • Cho, Sumi, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, and Leslie McCall. “Toward a Field of Intersectionality Studies: Theory, Applications, and Praxis.” Signs 38, no. 4 (2013): 785-810.
  • Cow, Rey. Ethics after Idealism: Theory, Culture, Ethnicity, Reading. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1998.
  • Claverie, Jean-Michel. “Viruses Take Center Stage in Cellular Evolution.” Genome Biology 7, no. 6 (2006), doi: 10.1186/gb-2006-7-6-110.
  • Conger, Cristen. “Can people get bone marrow transplants from baboons?” 5 Jan. 2009. Accessed 13 Sept. 2015.
  • Conlee, Kathleen M., and Sarah T. Boysen. “Chimpanzees in Research: Past, Present, and Future.” The State of the Animals III. Eds. Deborah J. Salem and Andrew N. Rowan. Washington, DC: Humane Society Press, 2005. 119-133.
  • Cooper, Melinda, and Catherine Waldby. Clinical Labor: Tissue Donors and Research Subjects in the Global Bioeconomy. Durham: Duke UP, 2014.
  • Crenshaw, Kimberlé. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color." Stanford Law Review 43, no. 1241 (1991): 1241-1299.
  • DeGroot, Gerard J. Dark Side of the Moon: The Magnificent Madness of the American Lunar Quest. New York: NYU Press, 2006.
  • Edelman, Lee. No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Durham: Duke UP, 2004.
  • Forterre, Patrick. Talk for the 2008 Natural Genetic Engineering and Natural Genome Editing symposium. GenConText Research, n.d. Accessed 11 Sept. 2015.
  • Gariban, Sarah. “Task Accomplished: Symbolism over Science.” St. Andrews Historical Journal. 25 Nov. 2013. Accessed 17 Sept. 2015.
  • Halberstam, Judith. The Queer Art of Failure. Durham: Duke UP, 2011.
  • Haraway, Donna. Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science. NY & London: Routledge, 1989.
  • Hull, Gloria T., Patricia Bell Scott, and Barbara Smith, eds. But Some of Us Are Brave: All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men. New York: The Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 1982.
  • Hustak, Carla, and Natasha Myers. “Involutionary Momentum: Affective Ecologies and the Sciences of Plant/Insect Encounters.” differences 23, no. 3 (2012): 74-118.
  • Jerng, Mark. “Giving Form to Life: Cloning and Narrative Expectations of the Human. Partial Answers: Journal of Literature and the History of Ideas 6, no. 2 (2008): 369-93.
  • Johnson, Ronald. Radi Os. Chicago: Flood Editions, 2005.
  • Kim, Jodi. The Ends of Empire: Asian American Critique and the Cold War. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.
  • Knight, Andrew. “The Beginning of the End for Chimpanzee Experiments?” Philosophy, Ethics, and Humanities in Medicine 3, no. 16 (June 2008). doi: 10.1186/1747-5341-3-16.
  • Lai, Larissa. “ham.” Automaton Biographies. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2009. 86-121.
  • Lorde, Audre. “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Berkeley, CA: The Crossing Press, (1984) 2007. 110-13. Print.
  • Lowe, Lisa.  Intimacies of Four Continents.  Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015.
  • Madrigal, Alexis C. “The Horrible Thing That Happened to Enos the Chimp When He Orbited Earth 50 Years Ago.” The Atlantic. 29 Nov. 2011. Accessed 15 Sept. 2015.
  • Michaels, Marian G., Christina Kaufman, Paul A. Volberding, Phaguni Gupta, William M. Switzer, Walid Heneine, Paul Sandstrom, Lawrence Kaplan, Patrick Swift, Lloyd Damon, and Suzanne T. Ildstad. “Baboon Bone-Marrow Xenotransplant in a Patient with Advanced HIV Disease: Case Report and 8-Year Follow-Up.” Transplantation 78, no. 11 (2004): 1582-1589.
  • Mullen, Harryette. Recyclopedia: Trimmings, S*PeRM**K*T, and Muse & Drudge. Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 2006.
  • Muñoz, José Esteban. Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999.
  • Musser, Amber Jamila. Sensational Flesh: Race, Power, and Masochism. New York: NYU Press, 2014.
  • Rose, Nikolas. The Politics of Life Itself: Biomedicine, Power, and Subjectivity in the Twenty-First Century. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2006.
  • Schefter, James. The Race: The Complete True Story of How America Beat Russia to the Moon. New York: Anchor Books, 1999.
  • Shimakawa, Karen. National Abjection: The Asian American Body Onstage. Durham: Duke UP, 2002.
  • Spingarn, Adena. “When ‘Uncle Tom’ Became an Insult.” The Root. 17 May 2010. Accessed 11 Sept. 2015.
  • Stockton, Kathyrn Bond. The Queer Child, or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century. Durham: Duke UP, 2009.
  • Wade, Nicholas. “Europe’s Plagues Came From China, Study Finds.” The New York Times. 31 Oct. 2010. Accessed 11 Sept. 2015.
  • Weheliye, Alexander G. Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human. Durham: Duke UP, 2014.
  • Weil, Kari. Thinking Animals: Why Animal Studies Now? New York: Columbia UP, 2012. Kindle edition.
  • Wilson, Elizabeth A. Gut Feminism. Durham: Duke UP, 2015.
  • Woloch, Alex. The One vs. the Many: Minor Characters and the Space of the Protagonist in the Novel. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2003. Kindle Edition.  
  • “Xenotransplantation Timeline.” Biotechnology Learning Hub. 20 Dec. 2011. Accessed 1 Sept. 2015.



[1] (last checked 4/15/16)

[2] Tom was rescued by Fauna Foundation in 1997 and died in December 2009. On April 17, 2008, the Great Ape Protection Act (GAPA) was introduced into Congress. The bill – reintroduced in 2009 as H.R.1326 and in 2010 as S.3694 – would prohibit invasive research on great apes and retire all federally owned chimpanzees to sanctuary.

[3] “Knockdowns” refer to the process whereby chimpanzees—several times stronger than humans—are repeatedly shot with anesthetizing drugs. As explained by animal rescue proponents, because the chimpanzees register terror at impending medical interventions, knockdowns involve a stalking of the animal by human handlers outfitted with tranquilizing guns.

[4] “Thomas” derives from the Aramaic for “twin,” but “Tom” has acquired significance in American English as a reference to a bland, nonunique human male: any Tom, Dick or Harry. The name “Tom” also alludes to the chimpanzee as a suffering biographical subject akin to his (speculated) namesake, the slave Uncle Tom in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous novel.

[5] See “All the Women are White, All the Men are Black, But Some of Us Are Brave” (1982) ed. Gloria Hull, Barbara Smith, and Patricia Scott; Cherrie Moraga and Gloria E. Anzaldúa’s This Bridge Called My Back (1984); and Kimberlé Crenshaw’s “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women” (1991).

[6] In her foundational law review article, "Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women" (1991), Kimberlé Crenshaw challenged the "putatively universal subject of antidiscrimination law." Focusing on interlocking oppressions, Crenshaw decried the way in which flattening "power relationships into unidimensional notions of discrimination" (791) left black women, in particular, with harms that could not be adjudicated through the courts. Intersectionality has been used to refer to the ontological fact of interlocking oppressions, which is to say, the actual existing interactions of categories of difference, including but not limited to race, class, gender, sexuality, disability, and so forth, in such a way as to intensify inequality (and violence to women) and in a not strictly additive fashion. Yet it has also been identified as an analytical lens with a particular buzzword cachet. Crenshaw, along with Sumi Cho and Leslie McCall, in 2013 ultimately land on intersectionality as both a collaborative practice and a protocol for asking questions: "intersectionality is best framed as an analytic sensibility...conceiving of categories not as distinct but as always permeated by other categories, fluid and changing, always in the process of creating and being created by dynamics of power" (795).

[7] Kari Weil proposes that contemporary approaches to animal studies—she includes writings by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Jacques Derrida, Donna Haraway, Barbara Herrnstein-Smith, Cary Wolfe, Gary L. Francione, among others—have raised “questions of language, epistemology, and ethics that have been raised in various ways by women’s studies and postcolonial studies” (loc. 372). These various studies, she claims, share an approach to ethics rife with a sense of human limits; this ethical turn “is an attempt to recognize and extend care to others while acknowledging that we may not know what the best form of care is for an other whom we cannot presume to know. It is a concern with and for alterity, especially insofar as alterity brings us to the limits of our own self-certainty and certainty about the world” (loc. 568).

[8] The so-called antisocial strain of queer theory associated with Lee Edelman and Leo Bersani has gained increasing prominence, somewhat eclipsing queer theorists’ ludic emphases on drag performance and campiness that were once highly influential. My own consideration of this poem’s performative “hamming it up” (its camp aesthetic) is indebted to this strain of queer theory (cf. José Esteban Muñoz’s Disidentifications).

[9] See Brandt.

[10] Quoting Jill Fisher, Cooper and Waldby note that, currently, “the majority of recruits [for Phase 1 clinical trials] are low-income minority men. [In the southwest of the U.S.], these recruits are mostly Latinos, who otherwise might work as day laborers in the urban informal economy, while in other parts of the country most are African American” (152).

[11] Uncle Tom is the eponymous African American slave made famous by Harriet Beecher Stowe in her 1852 sentimental novel that persuaded many to the abolitionist movement.

[12] See Birkett and Newton-Fisher. The documented behaviors, which included self-mutilation, repetitive hand-rubbing, and consumption of feces, are symptoms of compromised mental health and atypical of chimpanzees in the wild.

[13] See Conlee and Boysen; Michaels et al.; and Conger. Getty’s health improved after the surgery but not because of the baboon graft; it is more likely attributable to the heavy radiation and chemotherapy to suppress his immune system that he underwent before the surgery. Getty died 11 years after the transplantation (Conger).

[14] At the time of the poem’s publication, chimpanzees in captivity were listed as “threatened” even though in the wild they were designated as “endangered” (Conlee, 120). In his survey of invasive experiments using chimpanzees from 1995 to 2004, Andrew Knight finds that 48.5% were for biological experiments (cognitive, neurological, neuroanatomical) and 41.5% for virological experiments.

[15] According to Knight, “Chimpanzees are highly social animals, and the disruption of social networks when animals are captured from the wild–as many older research chimpanzees once were–or when subjected to confinement or translocation during biomedical research, may add to their suffering. The social relationships of chimpanzees appear to encompass prolonged rearing of offspring, close and affectionate family bonds, friendship, and mourning behavior following the deaths of companions.”

[16] Examples of recent scholarship taking a critical biopolitical studies approach include Mel Chen’s Animacies, Alexander Weheliye’s Habeas Viscus, Amber Jamilla Musser’s Sensational Flesh, and Jih-Fei Cheng’s “‘El Tabaco se ha mulato’: Globalizing Race, Viruses, and Scientific Observation in the Late Nineteenth Century.”

[17] From University of Cincinnati, Clermont College Biology Department, Bio106 Viruses website at

[18] Radically dependent on another organism’s ribosomal machinery, the virus—especially the retrovirus—leaves a transposed trace of itself, even after, so to speak, leaving. Examining the figurations of the tobacco mosaic virus (the first virus identified as such in 1898 by Beijerinck), Jih-Fei Cheng notes that prior to empirical confirmation of viral substance—by way of the electron microscope—the virus was a speculative name for an invisible (at the time) agent responsible for the albinism or spotted appearance and curling up of the tobacco leaf. Focusing on the local Colombian phrase “el tabaco se ha mulato” or “the tobacco has become mulatto” (referring to the leaf curling like mulatto hair) recounted in French naval officer Jules Crevaux’s travel writings, Cheng limns the racial and sexual thinking specific to Euro-American empire that names this hard-to-detect agent as akin to a mulatto, a person who can pass for one race or another, i.e., cross boundaries without detection. As Cheng puts it, the virus “capaciously nam[es] the desire and failure of geopolitical control” (28-9)…. “[Viruses] emerge in the instances where national borders are expanded and/or shored and where bodies commingle promiscuously across the lines of scrimmage” (5).

[19] Critical race theorists have critiqued the rather unnuanced dichotomy of bios and zoe, with bios roughly conforming to the personhood granted to the possessive individual and zoe being everything else. The protected life of the “person” receives state protections and social recognition, but this recognition rests on the genocide and relegation to inhuman or inferior human status of indigenous populations, slaves, indentured laborers, the poor, the transgender, the dysgenic, and so forth. Alexander Weheliye insists on the salience of racializing assemblages that produce a hierarchical trichotomy of full humans (or persons), not quite humans (slaves, the indentured, the dysgenic, and so forth), and nonhumans. From populations historically excluded from the privileged community of Western Man, Weheliye argues, we can find alternative notions of the human.

[20] For Edelman, queerness is aligned with no future, with the lack or refusal to have progeny—to multiply or even repopulate—not because of gays and lesbians’ biological incapacity to reproduce but because of representations of them as a menace to children and, thereby, to the future. Rather than counter the alignment of queerness and death by emphasizing gay and lesbian convivial relations with reprosexuality and the raising of further generations, Edelman adopts the provocative stance of embracing the reply of “no” to calls for the generating of more life. There are many critics of this negative or pessimistic strand of queer articulation (Muñoz, Judith Halberstam, Kathryn Bond Stockton). What I’d like us to review, instead, are Edelman’s premises for his political seizing upon (and resignifying of) the negative—that across the twentieth century homophobic popular culture has imagined and portrayed queers as a menace to children, as a threat to repro-futurity writ large, precisely because queers (prior to in vitro ART) lack the complete components to reproduce, to make more of themselves. My phrasing, here, echoes the recently revised description of a characteristic once fundamental to our understanding of viruses.

[21] Biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela crafted the autopoietic definition of life. The term “autopoietic” derives from the Greek auto-,, meaning "self", and poiesis, meaning "creation, production," and refers to a system capable of reproducing and maintaining itself.

[22] Viruses contradicted the central dogma of molecular biology (that DNA makes RNA and RNA makes protein). Retroviruses (single strand + RNA viruses) were discovered to defy this dogma—which has not undermined this biological dogma but modified it.

[23] In a lecture last winter in preparation for the relaunching of Genders, I expanded upon a small portion of The Exquisite Corpse of Asian America: Biopolitics, Biosociality and Posthuman Ecologies with a section devoted to “ham.”

[24] The assembling of “endless forms most beautiful” from an ancient genetic toolbox shared across most if not all kingdoms of life has been detailed by evo-devo biologist Sean Carroll. Key to this new discovery in biology is the regulatory or suppressing action of noncoding or junk DNA—what Carroll calls genetic switches—and which excision poetry illustrates by way of creating a new work of art. For instance, Ronald Johnson’s Radi Os, through the whiting out or omission of most of the text of a prior book or code—e.g., the 1892 edition of Milton’s Paradise Lost—stands as a pre-eminent example of white-out or deletion poetry, as does Harryette Mullen’s poem S*PERM**K*T (with “u ar e” replaced by asterisks).

[25] “Rocket Man” is itself thought to be a repetition on the theme of astronaut flight established in David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” (1969).

[26] In her chronicling of the series of trials in which chimpanzees have been human champions, so to speak, Lai invents a hybrid genre borrowing elements from (the scientist’s/biologist’s) lab notes and from classical musical forms.

[27] Our acronyms H1N1 (for Spanish flu in 1918 and Swine flu in 2009) are references to the surface proteins, Hemagluttin and Neuraminadase.

[28] Before the invention of the electron microscope, first prototyped in 1933, viruses were submicroscopic and invisible.

[29] The term “disidentifies” is José Esteban Muñoz’s. See Disidentifications.

[30] The stanza alludes to the Chordettes single, “Mr. Sandman” (no. 1 on Billboard charts in 1954),” as well as the Everly Brothers’ hit “All I Have To Do Is Dream” (the only single ever to be at No. 1 on all of Billboard’s singles charts simultaneously, on June 2, 1958).

[31] The earnest liberal response to the dreadful cruelties rehearsed with respect to Tom, Ham, and others would be to release and provide restitution—and indeed, activist efforts did lead to sanctuary for many chimpanzees who had been held captive and tortured for most of their lives. In “spilling lesson,” the penultimate stanza of the poem, Lai offers a summary of what happened to the chimpanzees: “look those who didn’t die/ in weightlessness crash test inoculation experiment/ we were saved save the chimps/ from coulston’s violation of animal rights/ a florida sanctuary…. imagining africa/ second nature improves incarceration/ waiting for the call of the filed” (120).

[32] Lai peppers the poem with reference to global corporations such as Coca Cola and Monsanto associating the former not with “adding life” (as its popular advertisement would have it) but as adding “strife” (98) and the latter with “mutations.”

[33] During the early 2000s, some scientists postulated that the plague was caused by an ebola-like virus rather than the bacteria linked to bubonic plague. A year after the publication of “ham”, other scientists, examining corpses from burial sites known to contain the remains of plague victims, declared definitively that, as a New Yorrk Times article put it, “Europe’s Plagues Came From China, Study Finds” (October 31, 2010).

[34] As outlined by Nikolas Rose in “The Politics of Life Itself,” neoliberal governance devolves to individuals more and more of the responsibilities for providing the social safety net previously provided by government. Under the guise of promoting individual responsibility, neoliberal governance withdraws from citizens the measure of protection against health accidents and against financial and bodily harm—a protection that had formerly been the obligation of the state.

[35] For an excellent account of that entanglement, see Lisa Lowe’s Intimacies of Four Continents.

[36] See Jodi Kim on the Cold War as catachrestic of the “hot wars” simultaneously undertaken in Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos during the Cold War era.

[37] Lai transforms Lorde’s architectural conceit of house and tools to a temporal conceit of launch sequences and rockets. In other words, as long as humanity engages in the innovation race—of being there first—it commits itself to a biopolitical calculus separating the more technologically and/or militarily advanced species-being from the unworthy laggard ones. High tech armaments and other rocket paraphernalia will stand as the symbol of this master race’s or master species’ destructiveness inseparable from its myopic and instrumental regard for the “other brother”—the merely animal.

[38] Most histories of the chimpanzees in space program comment on Enos’s embarrassing habit: “Enos, who had a rather embarrassing penchant for public masturbation, exhibited this distinct lack of self-control at his postflight press conference, earning him the name ‘Enos the penis.’ America had achieved more than a dog in space; they had a masturbating hominid to their name.”

[39] By idealism, I invoke Rey Chow’s sense of the word in Ethics After Idealism.


Comment on this article.