Don’t get me wrong here. We can predict some things and we can understand how people think and make decisions but we can’t do it with 100% accuracy. So Hollywood or Bollywood or ???? can put together film projects that are likely to be successes. Then something like ‘Twilight’ ( a series of books featuring a teen vampire love story which by all accounts is badly written and as corny as can be) comes along and nobody can understand the insane level of the popularity of the books or the movies. And, when all of the excitement has died down, in about 30 or so years, no one looking back will understand it either. After all, who now understands (or even remembers) the 1920s Rudolf Valentino craze? It can be explained but it can’t really be understood other than in the context of the time. To sum up, we can make suppositions in hindsight but we can’t use them for predictive purposes.
Now on to ‘frankenfoods’. First, I got the historical outlines from Susan Tyler Hitcthcock’s 2007 book, ‘Frankenstein, a cultural history’. The 1992 letter to the NY Times where the writer coined the phrase, frankenfoods, was noticed by some headline writers who subsequently used it in their headlines for some food and genetics-related stories. Then, the British tabloid writers noticed the term and started using it. After the term had been coined and used in the newspapers, the activist groups picked it up and started capitalizing on it.
The letter writer, Paul Lewis, is known for his anti-technology sentiments and has written about his ideas before. As far as I’m aware, this is the only time he has successfully coined a phrase that has come into popular usage.
In retrospect, it’s fairly easy to analyze. Frankenstein is a cultural icon which has come to symbolize our uneasiness about science, technology, and messing around with nature. The beauty of Frankenstein is that it’s internationally known. Linking the name with food made the phrase alliterative which gives it added punch. Translation problems when you consider them from a global perspective would be minimal. The meaning is carried largely with the prefix ‘franken’ and that crosses language barriers because the monster is called Frankenstein everywhere. (Note: In the novel, the creator’s name is Frankenstein; the monster is never named.) As for whether or not the word food is translated, I doubt it. In many cases you’d lose the alliteration and the rhythm and it would be easy to find out what it means.
Now try coining a phrase or a term that becomes a global phenomenon and that sums up your ideas while using an internationally known pop culture icon with the intention of mobilizing people to action of some kind. I find analyzing a lot easier.
It seems to me that no number of public forums or public engagement/understanding of science programmes could have curtailed the ‘frankenfoods’ phenomenon. There is a free floating anxiety about science and technology which is always present and sometimes it just has to run its course. So, public consultation/engagement/understanding of science exercises can’t be thought of as a guarantee against future science- or technology-based panics. More next week.