Vol. 25 No. 12 · 19 June 2003

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Do your homework

Alzheimer’s disease provides a more instructive model than Huntington’s chorea for understanding how genes relate to organic maladies. In Huntington’s chorea, the existence of a ‘typographical error’ tells us that we will definitely develop the disease, but this is true of very few other diseases, despite what Slavoj Žižek (LRB, 22 May) says. Usually, it merely correlates with an increased chance of doing so. Moreover, not everyone who ultimately develops Alzheimer’s carries the errant gene. A great many so-called ‘genetic’ diseases work this way: in very few cases is there a direct correlation between a gene and a disease. Second, as every critic of bioreductivism has shown, it is a mistake to infer the role that genetic factors play in normal, healthy states from their role in abnormal or pathological conditions. Failing to understand the relevant biology, Žižek falls prey to the untenable idea that the genome provides a blueprint for the organism as a whole, the consequent reduction of one’s identity to one’s genes, and the unfounded belief that a host of life-enhancing, life-saving – or perhaps life-controlling – biogenetic inventions are but a few years away.

Roger Lancaster
George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia

Slavoj Žižek’s enthusiasm for biogenetic intervention is based on the assumption that we are genetically determined; in effect, he accepts the Watson/Crick genetic theory that has dominated the debate about heredity for the last fifty years. The publication of the human genome in February 2001 destroyed the myth of a one-to-one gene-trait inheritance process. Instances of this process such as Huntington’s chorea are very rare: heredity involves far more than just genes.

Watson and Crick’s Central Dogma collapsed with the revelation that prions, the smallest protein formations to which the term ‘life-form’ can be applied, pass on biological information without the use of nucleic acids. In addition, scientists have established that genes are pleiotropic: they convey many messages. The timing and nature of those messages is determined not by them, but by enzymes and other cellular structures that are not genetic.

All this has blown genetic determinism apart and prompted a revisiting of the phenotype – in other words, the cell and the organism are now regarded as totalities that are the agents of their own heredity. This has immediate implications for Žižek’s naive embrace of the idea that our biological identity is just a robotic assemblage of proteins run by master molecules called genes. it’s very old-fashioned science and makes for rigidity in both psychology and literature. It is also responsible for a succession of tedious and predictable science fiction movies.

Denys Trussell
Newton, Auckland

Slavoj Žižek’s piece on biogenetics ended where it should have begun. ‘Reducing my being to the genome forces me to traverse the phantasmal stuff of which my ego is made’: the epistemological divide between genetic and psychoanalytic explanations is not an artificial one. Minds don’t work like genes, any more than societies work like bodies. Žižek himself illustrates the danger of collapsing distinctions when he hails the exploits of Kevin Warwick. In March 2002, he says, Warwick ‘had his neuronal system directly linked to a computer network’, becoming ‘the first human being to whom data could be fed directly’. In fact, Warwick had a device implanted in his arm which administered small electric shocks and transmitted impulses produced by his own movements. And, er, that’s it. Žižek’s endorsement of the hype surrounding this experiment betrays a confusion of ontological levels. Some patterns of electrical impulses are structured and encoded in such a way as to make syntax and grammar relevant: take this letter, sent by e-mail. The only ‘data’ fed to Warwick’s ‘neuronal system’, however, were plain old electricity.

Phil Edwards

She, He, She

Donald MacKenzie (LRB, 22 May) writes of the hypothetical ethnoaccountant working for an American corporation that ‘she would find a myriad of special purpose entities’ and ‘she would also find that the different ways in which rules can be applied can have major financial consequences’. Male accountants have to put up with enough laddish ridicule as it is without the LRB implying that only a female accountant would be capable of applying the conclusions of Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations to the US Financial Accounting Standards Board rulebook. Correct discourse in the US now demands that the gender of non-specific personal pronouns should alternate. This can get a little confusing, but that’s the price we pay for progress.

Michael Dibdin

American Parsifal

Anatol Lieven is dreaming if he thinks that George Bush could lose the 2004 election (LRB, 8 May). Even if the economy runs into trouble, Bush will not be blamed – he is St George, the American Parsifal. Present polls indicate that he may even carry California. This suggests a shortcoming in left-liberal political analysis. Much attention has been given to the 25-30 per cent of voters who are Christian conservatives, eager to take money away from public services and give it to denominational schools and charities. But Bush also has the allegiance of the short-attention-span audience, not politically active or informed, but scared and angry, who have put their trust in a simple leader. After Clinton, who has discredited sophistication for a generation, Bush is a beacon of reliability.

Fred Matthews
Oakland, California

Who was Jesse James?

In his review of my book, Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War, Richard White (LRB, 5 June) fails to mention that he is the author of an influential analysis of Jesse James, which I criticise at length. In it he claimed that Civil War loyalties played no role in James’s popularity and attributed this to his ‘masculine virtue’, saying that his gang won respect as ‘strong men who could protect and revenge themselves’. This omission sets the tone for his essay. It was not my purpose, as he claims, to explain ‘why, a century and more after his death … James should be remembered and commemorated’. The Jesse James of folklore has been analysed often and well. I sought to understand why he was commemorated during his lifetime. There are several other misrepresentations.

White writes that ‘there was no Reconstruction in Missouri,’ a statement that is central to his attack on my book. He can assert this only by limiting his definition of Reconstruction to the Congressional acts relating strictly to the military administration of ten Confederate states. No historian of Reconstruction would accept this.

White’s only evidence for his claim that ‘Stiles exaggerates the suffering of Western Missouri’ during the Civil War is the 1870 Federal census, which shows the state rebounding from its wartime loss of population. However, I discuss at length the postwar influx of immigrants from the North, along with the return of wartime refugees. The newcomers, I argue, heightened grassroots tensions which encouraged James’s popularity. White also claims that I ‘will have none of’ the argument that Jesse James’s family was persecuted in the war, and faced retaliation afterwards. This is simply false. What I say in the book is that the family moved to the Confederate side before any suffering had been inflicted on them.

According to his review, I cast ‘robbery after robbery as either a symbolic political statement aimed at overthrowing Reconstruction or as an attempt to influence Missouri politics’. This is a distortion, and one that becomes bald misrepresentation when White claims that I depict the omnibus robbery of 1874 as an attempt to embarrass the Governor. I do indeed find political aspects to some robberies, but note that most were not directed against symbolic targets. A point of my argument that White ignores is that the outlaws’ symbolism was often confused.

White implies that if I had read such contemporary journals as Railway Age ‘with their complaints about robberies’ I would have realised that the railroad corporations hated the outlaws. I did read Railway Age and other industry journals, and discovered that the railroad press made virtually no mention of the James-Younger gang’s crimes, although the journals of the express companies (which handled fast deliveries, such as cash for banks) discussed them at length. In the outlaws’ initial wave of train robberies, in 1876, they struck no railroad twice, and robbed passengers only once. In that case, I found clear evidence that the railroad did not attempt to apprehend the bandits. It was the express companies that hired the Pinkertons and other detectives. I expected to find anti-railroad sentiment behind popular support for James during his lifetime, and reciprocal hatred from the railway corporations; I found none.

Most important, White claims that I eliminated all possible explanations for banditry but politics. This isn’t correct. I repeatedly state that plunder for its own sake was the foremost motivation in each crime. I do claim that Civil War loyalties and Reconstruction politics were central to James’s identity and popularity, but try to avoid the common fallacy that James’s criminal nature cancelled out his political nature – that he could not be both a violent felon and a man with strong partisan opinions. I argue that what separated James from virtually every other bandit of his era was his attempt to cast himself in a political light.

T.J. Stiles
New York


Miles Taylor refers to Henry George as a ‘socialist’ who advocated land nationalisation and a ‘single tax’ (LRB, 22 May). In fact, George was an anti-socialist; his advocacy of a single tax on land (replacing all other taxes) was his non-socialist panacea to ‘make land common property’ and resolve the social question. This is powerfully and eloquently delineated in Progress and Poverty (1879). Marx recognised George as a rival and wrote an erudite and witty critique of his ideas in a letter to Friedrich Sorge of 20 June 1881.

Nicholas Jacobs
London NW5

Et tu

If Cassius Dio is right about Caesar’s last words, their meaning may not be all that hard to guess (Letters, 5 June). Caesar’s skill with words is clear from his own writings, and it is hard to believe that his use of Greek, here of all times, was accidental, or that it escaped his notice that this particular form was common in curses. I have no idea about Greek inflectional endings, but the English translation has one fairly obvious meaning: ‘You too will die bloodily because of this deed.’ ‘My child’ is less easily explained. Given the closeness between Caesar and Brutus it could suggest Caesar’s sadness that Brutus, too, would die. Or it could be a way of emphasising the first part of the warning. The meaning would be something along these lines: ‘You too will die because of this; your death shall be child to mine.’ On the other hand, this may be too complex a thought for someone being stabbed 23 times.

Dan Jameson
Haltwhistle, Northumberland

Pick of the Pops

Michael Wood was right to trust his intuition (LRB, 5 June): the song ‘Personality’ is from the 1950s. It was written by Lloyd Price and Harold Logan in 1959, and was a bestselling single for both Price and Anthony Newley.

Ray Crozier

In 1974 ‘Personality’ returned briefly to the charts in a version by Lena Zavaroni, who was the inspiration for Andrew O’Hagan’s novel.

F. Crawford
Ellon, Aberdeenshire

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