Monkeys in a lab wearing lab coats.

Nudity and Clothing in Monkeys, Scientists and Vaccines: What it Reveals and What it Hides

Tuesday, January 16, 2024

Why is the Western scientist always clothed? What would happen if science was conducted, metaphorically, in the nude? Thinking through this thought-experiment can lead us to a number of answers. Social norms may inform what clothing is worn by whom and where. To consider the social norms of clothing worn in the lab can begin to unravel assumptions of science, or of the lab-space, as being separate from the social. Clothes, too, are imperfect and porous barriers.

I write this paper in consideration of the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic, as a shared but uneven experience that cloaks all of my thinking and writing at this time. Not dissimilar from the changing weather that we are increasingly experiencing under climate change, COVID-19 wanes and waxes. It affects those with pre-existing vulnerabilities in compounding ways. Trends in apparel have also changed during this pandemic. Our clothes reflect the social conditions under which we choose them. More than that, they reflect our internal state of being – they are a form of expression, a self-soothing mechanism, and a way of manipulating our own energies.

Thinking along this vein, I consider COVID-19 vaccine development. Vaccine testing “usually requires several years of preclinical and clinical stages of evaluation and requires strict regulatory approvals before it can be manufactured in bulk,” but COVID-19 vaccines have been “developed at an unprecedently rapid speed through the use of animal models in vivo”. I draw direct quotes from here Tian, a bioengineer, to showcase an emotional disconnect, between the fear and anxiety of the present exceptional atmosphere of death under which this article is crafted, and the matter-of-fact scientific prose through which it is written. This “unprecedently rapid speed” of vaccine development, alongside other adaptations like working-from-home and virtual classrooms, are representative of how disability-accommodations that have been possible all along only become prioritized when profitable under White supremacist capitalism. 

The removal of emotions and personal reactions from such articles is too a way of dressing one’s words. Tian and others employed in monkey-science are not removed from the harms of the COVID-19 pandemic. To read such writing at this time carries a sort of dissonance on my end as a reader, which I want to be sensitive to. The lack of place for emotions, and for positionality, in classic scientific text is in itself perhaps a question of fashion and of mode.

Tian’s report is aimed at analyzing the experimental monkey shortage created by the COVID-19 lockdown – a supply and demand issue, as Tian writes it, indicative of how sale prices of monkeys have also skyrocketed. Writing in a way that I believe indicative of general sentiments of monkey research, Tian frames this “monkey shortage” as a problem, and one that “will not be solved easily” and requires urgent “countermeasures”. I think of this framing as a form of rhetorical sartorial device – the lack of laboratory-available monkeys is a problem because it is dressed by scientists like a problem. In this instance, the “problem” is displaced from the COVID-19 pandemic, or from climate change and related zoonotic events, to be one of markets. The monkey is clad as a commodity, to be create-able, expendable. The scientist is dressed as, well, scientist – unable to conduct their solution-making without resources, unable to operate unsourced and undressed.

These vaccines are produced and tested via monkey experimental subjects are then cloaked, or branded, in particular ways too – most receivers of the vaccine injection are unaware of the process through which it was produced and tested. This obscuring is, I believe, an example of what Gomez-Barris describes as colonial domination of the senses. I paraphrase Gomez-Barris to mean that humans are fragmented from nature and from non-human species through the dissemination of thought that stems from cosmologies that treat land and animal as extractable commodities. 

(I am aware of the contention surrounding end-user experience and reception of vaccines, and the distrust that many people have towards them. While I do not align with anti-vaxxers, I recognize that some of the arguments of this article could be interpreted so as to support rejection of COVID-19 vaccine uptake. I write in murky waters.)  

I seek to write alongside the intervention Gomez-Barris terms “decolonizing the senses,” but with a sensitivity to the ways in which this language fails to acknowledge and address the material harms of colonial violence. I propose an alternative language here, prioritizing the senses, that I hope captures the goal of her intervention well. In this paper, I seek to apply prioritizing the senses as method, which Gomez-Barris suggests can allow for the consideration of embodied knowing as research technology.

Prioritizing the senses to think through the role of monkey research subjects in vaccine testing and dissemination, we can see how the active obscuring of this information from the public is a way of perpetuating vivisectionist, human supremacist, and animal-commodifying political agendas through otherwise seemingly innocent vaccines. 

If aware of their monkey-derived safety, would people who otherwise choose to be vegan or vegetarian opt not to receive COVID-19 vaccines? Does this taking into self of vaccine also entail a sort of culpability in these harms, even if the consumer is unaware? Such questions motivate the thinking of this paper at the intersections of clothing, monkey-science, COVID-19 vaccines, and the senses. 

Gosine suggests that choice of clothing, closely connected to one’s understandings of gender presentation, is a learned set of behaviors and norms.[2] Gosine consider clothing be a material component of colonial gender hierarchies. The clothing of the scientist thus becomes a pertinent sight of inquiry. Clothes in this laboratory setting function as literal manifestations of the human/animal divide that Gosine traces as extending back to colonization, a “five-centuries-long struggle in the Americas for each of its colonial and postcolonial-era cultures to place distance between ourselves and animals.” 

This discursive distance between human an animal is also, I argue, building on Gosine’s thinking, a sensorial one. This is why clothing can function as an effective way of creating this distance and rupture – it obscures the senses. Clothing serves as a visual barrier against perception of the human body. It is a material strategy to create separation between human and animal, because it renders the animal naked in comparison. This nudity becomes a site for vulnerability and violence.

 If inter-species zoonosis is a genuine concern, then the biological and physiological similarity between human and animal is a site of vulnerability. Building on Gosine’s claims regarding the ways in which regulation of sex and gender expression are ways of placing distance between more human and less human, I argue that the non-gendered clothing of the laboratory is a way of attempting to further remove gender and sexuality from the laboratory setting, making the human even less animal. 

This attempt at control, however, is both ineffective and insufficient at both material and discursive attempts at creating this separation. Clothing, in the laboratory setting, must be seen as a symbolic rather than material garb. It is a ritual of Western science that seeks to regulate what sorts of humanness and animality are allowed in the laboratory.

Gosine writes, “which the material of clothing is an interface through which colonial-era anxieties about ‘race,’ gender, class, and sexuality continue to powerfully underpin and structure negotiations about Caribbean peoples’ animality”. I read Gosine’s argument as attributing colonial anxieties about the fragility of human/animal identification as the basis of regulations of intimacy. This regulation of intimacy results in legislative and social mores, but also in a fragmentation of humans socialized under them from their own sensory potentialities.

 Much like the valuation of clothing, which relies much on status and symbol, as much as on supply and demand, the valuation of the research monkey has also shifted in response to linked socialities. Because of the innate biological realities and limitations of the monkey research subject – limited breeding colonies and birth rates – the sales price of research monkeys has skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic

Just as we must think about the labor hours and conditions that go into the creation of any item of clothing to really understand its impacts, so are the vaccines packed with particular social implications. However, many people do not know the origins of their clothing. Such information is often obscured; information is not a guaranteed part of the economies of clothing, and of science. 

Thinking about the difficulty of accessing information, I return to Gomez-Barris’ methodology of prioritizing the senses. If we are to seriously follow this method in our considerations of clothing and nudity, we may find that it is not the item of clothing itself (object of study), but rather the clothing as it is worn throughout our days that carries true meaning. It is our maintenance, our washing, and our care for clothing (engagement with it) that cements its meaning in our daily lives, beyond the initial selection or prescription of it. 

The clothing of the lab can be grey and consistent across the genders, but it was filled differently by people of different genders, was tied differently, accessorized differently, breathed-life-into differently. It is in the everyday, in the comfort of consistency, in the slight variations that may be lost in such writing as this paper, that we can make sense of these items. 

To prioritize the senses can be a powerful intervention because it creates opportunities for undoing fragmentation between self and other that can be traced back to colonial fragmentation. The ways in which intimacies are regulated in the face of this fragmentation is something that is capturable in the senses – we can read legislation regarding gender-appropriate vestments, and we can remember and think through social mores surrounding fashion. 

What I am trying to draw attention to here is an intervention I am formulating on sensory- and affect- based analyses, the limitation of senses. Our senses are never sufficient to determine correct and generalizable understandings of reality, because the data-set that our senses can encounter in any given life-time is so small. The arbitrariness of which happenings we notice and which we don’t, and of which identities we are assigned and which we are not, points to the reality that most of existence is unraveling outside the bounds of human senses. 

Just like clothes can selectively obscure certain realities, while highlighting others, our attention is constantly being directed and manipulated by the social and physical environments within which we find ourselves. Manipulation of the senses is the every-day building block of how we experience life. Gomez-Barris suggests that research which prioritizes the senses must be done through intentional and deep engagement over time. To prioritize the senses is to realize that in sensorial abilities lies power and potential for change. 

To end: let’s consider the radical potentiality of nudity as rejection of Western standards. Let’s bare it all, sense it all. I jest. So, I ask again, why is the Western scientist always clothed? What would happen if science was conducted in the nude? The short answer is possibly that the lab would not be sterile in the way that it requires. Perhaps a first step would be for scientific practice to embrace a radical new potentiality, would be to bare all of its harms and discontents to the general public – to let it all hang out, regardless of its beauty or its ugly, instead of hiding it away.