Please begin reading this project by choosing one of seven possible pathways (the starting points, or portals, to the paths are listed below). Each pathway explores one possible story of the human or humanoid loss of wings. As it does so, it will use the tools of cultural and media analysis, history of science, political economic analysis, or cultural studies to forge new ways of thinking about how human and non-human bodies are related through flesh and story. Created as a companion site for the book by Phillip Thurtle, Biology in the Grid: Graphic Design and the Envisioning of Life (University of Minnesota Press, 2018), the site uses the concept of grids and modularity to create new forms of multimodal scholarship. Each path can be taken on its own, as a short form of scholarship on a specific cultural moment in defining what bodies might do, or as an element of a large mythopoeic reservoir of observations on the role of bodies in scientific and popular culture. Especially important for following these stories, is the concept of haunting through Gothic moments. Each of these stories are intended to haunt each other. This means that they not only add to each other, creating a fuller picture of how bodies relate--they also haunt each other through their absence. Thus, every body not only roughly registers what has occurred during evolution and development, they also mark lost potentials that haunt the organism as it continues to change. Viewing cultural and biological evolution as haunted by outcomes not taken, shapes a view of life that emphasizes the relatedness and the differences of all living beings.
This is a remarkable time in the history of biological thought. Experiments during the past few decades have changed scientists' views of how genes contribute to evolution and development. Genes were once thought to carry the instructions for building an organism, much like a blueprint carries instructions for building a house. Now genes are considered more like exquisitely sensitive switches that initiate and refine sequences of events. This new understanding of how genes operate changes how we think about how organisms develop and how they are related to each other.
For instance, scientists now know that humans possess all the molecular machinery needed to develop wings. All the molecules needed to turn genes on or off in winged animals, are active in humans as well. The fact that humans don't have wings, however, has haunted stories of personal and social transformation for millennia. There are many popular stories where the development of wings is considered a testament to humankind's divine nature. A good example of this is the myth of Icarus, where wings signal the potential to transcend earthbound existence. But what we learned about recent biology suggests that we might have this backward. What if our stories about gaining wings are really ghost stories about a shared biological potential with other animals? Might these stories of wings, then, be an unconscious but biological testament to what we have lost in becoming human? Might the important evolutionary and psychological moment, then, be when we lost our wings, as opposed to the potential of growing them?
The Losing My Wings project explores this moment of loss and transformation through the collection of stories from film, literature, popular culture, and the history of science. What the site allows users to do is to traverse these stories to envision new narratives about the loss of wings and understand how important this specific myth of bodily transformation haunts scientific thought as well as a wider cultural discourse. Just choose a starting point and begin to explore the different ways that humans, humanoids, and other creatures have lost their wings. Here are the starting points:
Gothic Fables of Losing My Wings
- Yagharek Longs to Fly
- Human Limb Development
- Fallen Angels
- How the Fly Lost its Wings
- Popular Culture and Extraordinary Bodies
- From Sensory Bristles to the Spots on a Butterfly's Wing
- Gothic Biology
Each of the portals to the paths on the splash page of the project uses a specific wing to haunt its loss.
"Yagharek Longs to Fly" is haunted by the large and structurally solid wings of a heron.
The developing wing of the chick embryo haunts the path on "Human Limb Development". Chicken wings are the most popular model used to map vertebrate limb development. Alcian blue stains the polysaccharides in the developing cartilage a royal blue.
A wing plucked from the angel Gabriel, as found in Fra Angelico's, "Annunciation" (1438-1445), haunts the path of "Fallen Angels".
The diminutive but detailed wing of the common domestic fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, haunts the path of "How the Fly Lost its Wings".
"Popular Culture and Extraordinary Bodies" is haunted by the wing of a sandpiper, a bird that is often found on the shore, a fecund ecological zone found between water and earth.
The spotted wing of the butterfly known as the common buckeye haunts the path of "From Sensory Bristles to the Spots of a Butterfly's Wing".
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the wing of a bat haunts the path for "Gothic Biology".
Author - Phillip Thurtle
Programmer/Designer - Michael Beach
Aesthetic Consultant/Designer - Hannah Patterson
Programmer - John Morrow
This project was generously funded by the Simpson Center for the Humanities at the University of Washington
Much of the historical and theoretical reflection that gave birth to this project can be found in Phillip Thurtle, Biology in the Grid: Graphic Design and the Envisioning of Life (University of Minnesota Press, 2018).