A load of old bollocks

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A load of old bollocks

Post  eddie on Wed Oct 26, 2011 9:21 pm

What It Means to Be Human by Joanna Bourke - review

A book that takes on the biggest subject of all

John Gray
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 26 October 2011 10.00 BST


Rights and wrongs: mural showing Toussaint Louverture, leader of the Haitian slave revolt. Photograph: Jean-Marc Bernard/Realis Agence/Corbis

In a speech given in London in 1862, George Francis Train claimed that Africans were inferior to whites on the ground that black people were incapable of blushing. When the American businessman went on to maintain that God had made Africans "the servant of the Anglo-Saxon race", the audience cheered. But it was not just revealed religion that endorsed the belief in a hierarchy of "races" with white Anglo-Saxons at the top. So did the science of the day. The idea that black people were incapable of blushing was, Joanna Bourke tells us, "heavily debated by scientists such as Sir Charles Bell, Charles Darwin and others expert in physiognomy".


What it Means to be Human: Reflections from 1791 to the Present
by Joanna Bourke

Women were similarly assessed by experts in physiognomy, with the late 18th-century Swiss pastor and scientist Johann Kaspar Lavater, chief founder of the putative science, attributing to the female face a capacity for dissimulation, which demonstrated that women "are what they are only through men". Lavater also supported his belief in hierarchy by invoking religion. But here again the appeal to God was followed by an appeal to science, with a promoter of physiognomy writing in the 1880s that, whereas in the past the study of faces had been based on a belief in a divine plan, now "the argument of design is superseded by the principle of evolution".

The idea of racial hierarchy has a distinguished pedigree. Kant believed that "the Negroes of Africa have by nature no feeling that rises above the trifling", while Voltaire promoted a version of the pre-Adamite theory according to which Jews were remnants of an older, pre-human species. Auguste Comte, one of the founders of positivism – a movement that had a formative influence on John Stuart Mill and George Eliot, among others – was a supporter of phrenology who believed social science should be based on physical laws. Implementing Comte's programme, the criminologist Cesare Lombroso argued that law-breakers were reversions to ape-like species that could be identified by facial characteristics and the shapes of their heads. Techniques based on these ideas were used in courts in a number of European countries before the first world war and through the interwar period, and it was only with the defeat of nazism that the theories were discredited. There was not much opposition to "racial science" within science itself.

Like religion, science is commonly the servant of power. The hierarchies that so many scientists imagined to be rooted in biology were reflections of social structures that have since been challenged, and in some degree altered, as the balances of power in society have shifted. The interplay between power relations and ideas is an inexhaustibly interesting area of inquiry, but cultural history has been neglected in English-speaking countries, with many historians disdaining it as a type of dilettantism and historically illiterate philosophers analysing concepts as if they come from nowhere. Despite these obstacles the history of ideas has some notable practitioners, including Joanna Bourke. Fear: A Cultural History (2006) and Rape: Sex, Violence, History (2007) range over the whole of culture and are infused with an acutely observant intelligence. They are examples of that rarest of things – deeply scholarly books that are a joy to read.

In What It Means to Be Human Bourke addresses what, from one point of view, must be the biggest subject of all – the question of human identity. She starts by noting that distinctions between humans and animals are not fixed or impermeable. "The boundaries of the human and the animal turn out to be as entwined and indistinguishable as the inner and outer layers of a Möbius strip." Marking these boundaries is not a neutral exercise in establishing the facts – it is an exercise of power, which can be contested.

One of the protagonists in Bourke's story is "An Earnest Englishwoman", an unknown correspondent who wrote a letter to the Times in 1872 entitled "Are Women Animals?" protesting against the exclusion of women from full humanity in English law. The Earnest Englishwoman's intervention is important for Bourke, since it reveals a far-reaching truth: "The question 'who is truly human?' depends largely on the power of the law and judicial practice." Throughout the period she deals with – which begins with 1791, she tells us, because it was then that the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man "saw its first trial by fire, sword and rifle" in slave revolts on the French colony of Haiti – many different criteria were used to fix the boundary between human and non-human. Self-consciousness, language-use, tool-making and genetic inheritance were invoked, but whatever definition was adopted ended up endorsing laws that excluded some from full humanity.

This was not by accident, since excluding others was the point of making these distinctions. Bourke shows in absorbing detail how ideas of what is human and what animal have been deployed as weapons in ongoing conflicts. Uncovering the origins of debates about sentience and welfare, the ethics of cross-species transplantation and the peculiar logic whereby theories of human rights can be used to justify the practice of torture, she ranges across the cultural lexicon. Moving from Kafka's talking ape Red Peter to the sexual politics of Victorian anthropology, cannibalism to cosmetic surgery, Bourke's range of reference is astonishing. The result is a book that will amaze and entrance as much as it enlightens and instructs.

As Bourke writes, "To understand the instability of definitions of who is truly human, we need history." The panoramic view she presents of that instability is almost overwhelming. Yet reading What It Means to Be Human, I couldn't help thinking that the postmodern approach she adopts leads her to bypass the stubborn intractability of human conflict. Her method of analysis is a variant of deconstruction, a powerful tool in a number of contexts. It underpins her critique of human rights – "a volatile principle on which to base ethics", as she rightly observes – and her decisive conclusion, "The autonomous, self-willed 'human' at the heart of humanist thinking is a fantasy, a chimera." But when it denies the reality of anything that might be described as human nature, postmodernism creates a chimera of its own.

Bourke illustrates this danger when she espouses "negative zoélogy" – a heuristic technique for the study of humans modelled on negative theology, which refrained from ascribing any definite attributes to God. Together with other postmodernist tools, she believes, negative zoélogy "provides a way of playing with difference", making possible "a politics that is committed to the uniqueness of all life forms". The trouble is that while we may know nothing of God we know a good deal about human behaviour. Well before the financial crisis got seriously under way, it was possible to foresee the re-emergence of xenophobia and attacks on minorities in Europe and the rise of the apocalyptic right in America. Postmodernists – in this respect at one with liberal humanists – will say that these are specific historical practices, so they can be changed and transcended. Of course they should be resisted, but toxic reactions of these kinds are evidence of enduring human traits. Politics is not play, and when there are sudden, large-scale dislocations in material security it is a safe bet that things will pretty soon turn nasty.

When they deconstruct prevailing categories of thought, postmodernists perform a valuable service – not least by deflating the pretensions of science to explain human beings in terms of physiological laws. That doesn't mean the human world is radically indeterminate and can be remade according to whatever human beings decide. History discloses patterns of behaviour that – precisely because they recur in very different historical contexts – testify to permanent human vulnerabilities and flaws.

As Bourke seems to accept when she recounts the exchange, this may have been the message of an unidentified man interviewed by an American journalist in Rwanda not long after the genocide in which around a fifth of the country's population was killed. The man, who is described only as "a pygmy", asked the journalist if he had read Wuthering Heights, and went on to endorse what he described as the principle of the book – the idea that all humanity must unite together in the struggle against nature, "the only way for peace and reconciliation". After a pause, the journalist observed: "But humanity is part of nature, too." Unfazed, the "pygmy" replied, "That is exactly the problem."

John Gray's The Immortalization Commission is published by Allen Lane.
What did you think?

© 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved.


eddie
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Re: A load of old bollocks

Post  Yakima Canutt on Sun Apr 20, 2014 8:21 am

jeez, are they still writing these books on "Post-Modren Theories of Knowledge and Whatnot" ? this is the guff where they write real long sentences with lots of cutting-edge adjectives to convey fairly obvious notions like "those in power are powerful and they use their power accordingly, even in the domains of science and HIStory, because you see, people claim they are being objective but really they have agendas and biases and I will now take 339 pages to say this, with foot-notes"






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