The Human Genre Project


It was, it seemed, a simple loss: a line segment, of no obvious importance, mistakenly erased. In its absence, the blueprint appeared no different. And yet these plans, when translated to create a man, appeared defective in two respects. The ears were imperfect, failing to convey a spectrum of sound; the sperm, also, were imperfect, failing, at final push, to attain the egg.
It was an odd pair of consequences, affecting two parts, ear and sperm, which bore not the faintest relationship. One, nestled at body’s crown, conveyed speech and music to the brain. The other, stored in a pendulum at base of the trunk, served at the climax of sex.
The pairing of these consequences—deafness and infertility—hinted at a difference, startling and strange, between the blueprint and the body it encoded. Against the measure of the body, the logic of the blueprint appeared bizarre and half-mad: in it, ear unit was paired with sperm unit, their edges adjacent, like fused twins.
As we struggle to understand this organization, we descend, ourselves, into a different sort of madness. In an effort to reconcile these two pathologies—deficiencies of ear and deficiencies of sperm—we create new pictures, flashes from some senseless film:

We imagine, first, a flock of sperm, uselessly navigating the ear canal...the residue, perhaps, of some unusual fetish. The sperm’s presence clogs the passage, creating a temporary deafness. Within this stickiness, sound becomes a soupy murmur.
We imagine, next, an orchestral performance, consisting of the soft sounds of doomed sperm, dramatically amplified. Swish-Swish! Thud-Thud! The sounds frame a futile journey: tails, thrashing against the current, intent upon a goal—Egg, egg, egg!—they are incapable of reaching. In the concert hall, the futility of this performance is accentuated by presentation to an audience of deaf persons, who are incapable of perceiving any of it.
We imagine, further, a set of collages, mounted in an art hall, in which the pictures of many sperm are cut and pasted to form the outlines of an ear. In a complementary exhibit, mounted in a neighboring gallery, pictures of ears, just so, are cut and pasted to create the outlines of a giant sperm. Each structure, thus composed, is physiologically useless.
We imagine, still more, a series of tales, as reported by travelers to impossible countries, which record the appearance and behavior of the countries’ inhabitants. In one, there is a tribe of persons, shaped like ears, who mournfully inform us: “We are infertile. We are the last of our kind.” They do not have proper faces, and the pits of their ear canals serve as mouths. In another tale, there are tadpole-like men, shaped like sperm, who croak to us, in ill-modulated voices: “I cannot hear you. Speak up! Speak up!” They cup their vestigial ears with their vestigial hands. Their tails, stiff with age, twitch arthritically.
We imagine, finally, a philosophical treatise, centered on a tedious metaphor: sound as sperm. In it, sound—like sperm—serves as a kind of generative principle, which, in the absence of a functional ear, is incapable of creating offspring: delight, disgust, or the simple acknowledgment, “I have heard you.” The treatise persists over centuries. It sits, dust-ridden, in the upper corner of a private library, waiting for the scholar, not yet born, who will briefly peruse it.

The madness, of course, which has motivated these pictures, is a sort of deafness. It is a refusal to acknowledge that language—rich, strange, though entirely discernible—that connects the body to its blueprint. It is the work of a caricaturist, obsessed by crude contradictions, and indifferent to subtlety.
In a similar sense, the madness constitutes its own sort of infertility. For a time, it pushes forward, as if capable of accomplishing something; at last, however, it halts, motionless and dissipated. It acknowledges its sterility. It admits, at last, that there is nothing more to say.

Two genes—STRC, which is expressed in the inner ear, and CATSPER2, which is expressed in sperm—are located on the same section of Chromosome 15. Deletions of this section cause deafness and male infertility.

Rachel Rodman