You can’t figure out the bag I’m in

21 05 2014

[Updated below]

Race is a social construct.

1. This does not mean race is not real. This is always the problem with any mention of social construction—you’re saying it’s not real!—but there is no reason to conclude that that which is constructed is not real.

The United States is a social construction, and it is real. Language is a social construction, and it is real. Political parties, political movements, constitutions: all socially constructed, all real.

(Are all social constructions fictions? And what is the relationship of fiction to reality? More complicated question, more complicated answer, but the short version to both is: Depends on how you define fiction. But that’s another post.)

2. This does mean it has a history, one which varies across time and space. In 19th century Europe one could speak of German and Slavic and English (etc.) races, and further distinguish Jews as a race.

That broadly ethnic version of race was transported across the Atlantic, but was overcome—due in no small part to the necessities of settlement and slave society—by an understanding of white, black, and ‘the savage’ races.

Black was always clear: those of African origin; savage would be understood as Indian; and white was reserved for northern and western European Christians. These lines could be blurred and stretched—whites would eventually include southern Europeans, the Irish, and Jews, and today some Hispanics are crossing into white—as well as added to, as with ‘asiatic’, ‘oriental’, or Asian peoples, as well as the aforementioned Hispanic.

Current US census categories include “White, Black or African American, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, and Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander”. The Census sites notes “The racial categories included in the census questionnaire generally reflect a social definition of race recognized in this country and not an attempt to define race biologically, anthropologically, or genetically.”

Further, and in late recognition of interracial reproduction, “[p]eople may choose to report more than one race to indicate their racial mixture,” . . .

The Census is hardly the last word on the issue, but that categories have changed and, with the allowance of multi-racial reporting, become more fluid indicates that race is largely what we say it is.

3. To state that something is a social construct is not to deny any material contribution to that construct.

Are differences in skin color influenced by genetics? Yes. Hair color and texture? Yes. Bone structures? Yes.

4. Does this mean race is biological?

Long breath in and out.

Both the long and short answers are “yes and no”. Phenotypic differences are influenced by biology and in some cases determined by genetics, but the sorting of these biologically- and genetically-influenced/determined phenotypic differences into races tends to elide the complexity of the mechanisms involved in those influences/determinations.

Thus, if one wants to speak of genetic differences among humans, one is much better off referring to “populations” (or, perhaps, “ethnicities”): the term is anchored in geography, and allows for understanding of such terms as gene  or allele frequencies and genetic drift. Some genes are more likely to appear in some populations and not others (for both evolutionary and non-evolutionary, i.e., “drift” reasons); in some cases those variations will be visible in appearance.

In other words, there are many genetic populations and there are differences between those populations; in some cases those differences which are visible are assigned a racial character.

As Agustin Fuentes has pointed out, the assignment of certain characteristics, and those with x number of those characteristics to a race, ignores the fact that “race” encompasses many genetic populations. To state that “there are racial differences between Africans and Asians” is false not because there are no genetic differences between Africans and Asians but because the use of the term “race” erases the genetic differences among Africans and Asians: again, there are many genetic populations within each “race”.

So, again, the determination of race is at least as much about what we say it is than with genetics.

4 5. This is not even to get into breeding across populations, and the determination of the race of cross-population offspring.

5 6. This is also not even to get into complex (multiple genetic and other contributions) traits such as personality, intelligence, temperament, and behavior.

It is possible, perhaps even likely, that there are variations in the allele frequencies contributing to these complex traits across populations. The identification and characterization of these alleles (and their possible interactions among the alleles and with other factors) is only beginning, however, which means any conclusions about these variations are grossly premature.

6 7. I will not be reading Nicholas Wade’s book.

Perhaps a nice book on population genetics, instead.


*Update: Criminy, can I not even count? Should I blame my Irish or my German genes for the lack? Or maybe it was a stray Danish or French allele.

Anyway, the real reason for the update: Anne Fausto-Sterling reviewed a number of books on race, genetics, and epigenetics which both overlaps with and extends my argument—and with fewer typos!

Blown backwards into the future

14 05 2014

Benjamin conjured history as an angel.

Let’s sit with that for a bit, as it’s a lovely sad conjuring.

There is no repair, not for the angel, not for us. Sad, perhaps, but not unbearably so.

There is also no going back, as that angel learned. If the past is an ocean, then history is diving in and bringing the bits and debris and life to the surface, to the present, to see what we’ve got. We can bring what’s down below to the surface and we can make sense of it, but it is our sense, a present sense. And the things themselves, especially the lives themselves, are changed for having been dragged from the deep.

Diving, digging, spelunking: all this bringing to the surface the bits and debris in attempt to recreate life. History as simulacrum.

And the epochs and eras and moments? Those are the bits highlighted or strung together: the Renaissance or Scientific Revolution or Modernity or the Enlightenment. It gives us a way to see.

Usually, when I speak of seeing, I speak metaphorically. But I wanted literally to see where these different moments were in relation to one another, so I ran parallel timelines of European history—scientific, cultural, religious, political, trade—down sheets of paper taped in my hallway, then plotted out those moments.


This is an incomplete draft—I clearly need to allow more room on the final version—but it’s not hard to see how this moment was understand as Italian Renaissance at its ripest.

Or here, as what we now call the Scientific Revolution gets underway:


These give me that bird’s eye view of the middle centuries of the last millennium; they also make me wonder what isn’t there, isn’t recorded in any of the texts I’m using.

What moments are still underground? And what stories will we tell if we ever unearth them?


And I know things now

7 05 2014

Modernity is dead is in a coma.

Okay, not modernity—modernity is still kickin’—but my medieval/modern project to suss out the beginnings of modernity, yeah, that’s on life support. I’ll probably never pull the plug, but the chances of recovery at this point are slim.

The main problem was that I never had a thesis. As a former post-modernist I was interested in the pre-mod: learning about the last great (Euro) transition might help me to make sense of what may or may not be another transitional moment.

And I learned a lot! I knew pitifully little about European history—couldn’t have told you the difference between the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, that’s how bad I was—and now I know something more. I’d now be comfortable positioning the Renaissance as the final flowering of the medieval era, arguing that the 16th and 17th centuries were the double-hinge between the medieval and the modern, that the Enlightenment was about the new moderns getting chesty, that Nietzsche crowbarred open the crack first noticed by the sophists, and that the medieval era in Europe did not truly end until the end of World War I.

None of these is a particularly novel observation. I make no pretense of expertise nor even much beyond a rudimentary working knowledge: there are still large gaps in my knowledge and large books to be read. And I will continue reading for a very long time.

But I don’t have a point to that reading beyond the knowledge itself. It’s possible that something at some point will present itself as a specific route to be followed, but right now, the past is an ocean, not a river.

That’s all right. I’m a fan of useless knowledge and wandering thoughts.

Better not look down

31 03 2014

It is apparently only okay to talk about how bad things used to be if you contrast it with how great things are now.

Things used to be overwhelmingly terrible and are now just ordinarily terrible! Progress!

And if it’s progress, then maybe it’s not so terrible, hmmm? So maybe you should just turn that frown upside down, Mr. Coates and go back to talking about stuff that makes us feel good.


19 02 2014

Why is it those who yell loudest about hewing to tradition care the least about history?

I know, I know. . . .

For together we cannot fail

2 09 2013

This is history, not abstraction.

This is life, today, all around the world.

Springtime for Hitler

28 07 2013

Austria kinda creeps me out.

Rest assured, I have no reason to be so out-creeped—it is not my area of study, I’ve never visited, I used to enjoy this bar/restaurant in Minneapolis that served Austrian food, and I have fond memories of my time in The Sound of Music—but somethin’ about the place sets me off.

Hitler! You might say: It’s Hitler!

Ehhhh, maaaaybeee—except I’m not creeped out by Germany. Yes, der Futur Führer was born and grew up in what is now Austria, but he was just a whiny loser as he mooned about Vienna: he did his real damage while based in the country to his north.

Still, there may be something about German efforts to come to terms with its past which contrasts favorably to Austria, which, famously, has not.

Ah: the creep may come from a sense of all kinds of nasty shit fermenting away below the surface.

Remember that guy who kidnapped and raped his own daughter and kept her and her kids in his basement? Not surprised that this happened in Austria.

Now, I repeat: this is completely unfair to Austria, especially given the recent escape by three women from years-long imprisonment from a house in Cleveland. There are psychopaths and serial criminals—not to mention unmentioned crimes of the state—in every country, so it’s unfair to single out Austria.

But I’m still singling out Austria.

All of this is a very long way to a very short point: the recent “discovery” of a village bell dedicated to Adolph Hitler is yet another crack in  the Austrian-victim-of-Anschluss excuse for history, and as such, ought to be celebrated.

I get the point of Raimund Fastenbauer that the bell could become a pilgrimage site for neo-Nazis and thus should be “disappeared”, but given how much mid-century Austrian history has been disappeared, I think getting rid of the bell is the exact wrong approach.

Let it ring out, literally and metaphorically. Let it be seen, and heard. Let it be talked about.

After 80 years, let it finally be talked about.

Whoo-oop, just a little bit

1 07 2013

dmf is right: I gotta lay off the blogs that are leading me to screw myself into the ground.

Y’know, Sullivan with his Baldwin-proves-liberals-suck rampage (and before that, Clinton, and Palin, . . .). I don’t disagree with him (that Baldwin’s an asshole, and his Tweet, hateful), but jeez, make the point, and move on.

I mean, Alec Baldwin is an actor. An actor. That’s it. So you don’t like the people who like him, which gives you a chance to get all tribal and everything. Fine. We all get tribal some times. Just. . . own the tribalism, man, and stifle the it’s-the-principle! nonsense.

And Dreher, oy, reading him of late (Paula Deen, Trayvon Martin, liberals always and everywhere) is plucking my last nerves. The meanness, the double-treble-quadruple standards, the pissiness at pushback. . . .

Oy doesn’t begin to cover it.


Oh, and then there’s this.

Makes me so proud I work for CUNY.


There’s a difference between motive and intention, isn’t there? It seems that there’s a difference.

Motive is where something starts, and intention is where it leads, right?

Yeah, I think that’s right.


So I’ve been turning over this thought in my head about the whiteness of the GOP and arguments (click here for a Crooked Timber post that has the various relevant links) that Republicans don’t have to worry about being the party of the pasty.

I think they do.

I don’t have this all worked out, but it seems that in order for the GOP to be the White Party they’re going to have to entice voters based on their whiteness, and I don’t know how many folks think of themselves primarily as white.

This is the crumbling underside of the default standard of white: regular [i.e., non-academic, non-race-politicized] white folks haven’t had to think about their whiteness. To bring them to you, you first have to bring them to their whiteness, convince them that their whiteness ought to be their primary concern, then further convince them that their candidates will do the most to preserve their white privilege.

Yes, whitey-first appeals have worked and will continue to work in a number of districts, but I don’t see how this appeal can be expanded, largely because I don’t know how much white folks who aren’t already racialists really want to be racialists. I think white-first appeals would turn them off, maybe make them less likely to vote Republican.

Most Americans don’t want to think of themselves as racists—even the racists don’t want to be seen as racists—and aren’t in a hurry to separate themselves (in their imaginations, at least, if not always in practice) from their fellow Americans. We’re not always large, but an awful lot of us aspire to be.

I don’t know, I’m probably talking out of my nose. It just seems like  focus-on-the-whites is a losing proposition with many of those very same whites.


Okay, back to Dreher—but to one of those posts that make me go Hmm rather than AAAAAAARGHHH! Namely,  on the problem with ‘the right side of history’ arguments.

Someone as non-whiggish as me casts a similarly skeptical eye on those claims, but skeptic that I am, I go even further: If there is no right side to history (which there isn’t), why the fealty to moralities anchored deep within that history, i.e., traditions?

I mean, isn’t the advocacy of tradition based on a notion of the judgment of history (properly threshed, of course)?

More talking out of my nose, I suppose, and maybe these are really two separate things.

But I kinda think not.

Modern thought(less): time isn’t holding us, time isn’t after us

10 10 2012

Been awhile, hasn’t it?

No, I haven’t given up on my attempt to make sense of the outer reaches of modernity by looking at the [European] origins of modernity, but I haven’t made much headway, either.

Oh, I been readin’, oh yeah, but have I done anything with all that reading? Not really. Beyond the most basic fact that modernity and secularism two-stepped across the centuries, as well as the sense that medievalism lasted into the 20th century, I have information, history, ideas—but no theory.

Peter Gay’s two-volume essay on the Enlightenment (called, handily enough, The Enlightenment) has been helpful in understanding how the ideas of the early modern period were cemented in intellectual thought, but precisely because these men were already modern, they are of less help in understanding those who became modern, or who were medieval-moderns.

Newton, for example, was a kind of medieval-modern. His work in physics, optics, and calculus encompass a large portion of the foundation of modern science, but he also conducted experiments in alchemy; the founding of a new kind of knowledge had not yet erased the old.

Other, scattered thoughts: The Crusades were crucial in re-introducing into Europe the ideas of the ancient Greeks. . . although, even here, al-Andalus also provided an entree for Muslim knowledge of and elaboration on Levantine thought into a Christian worldview. Also, I haven’t read much on the impact of westward exploration and colonization on European thought. Hm.

Evolution in war strategy and armaments—I’m thinking here of the recruitment and consolidation of armies—undoubtedly played a role, as did consequences of those wars, especially the Thirty Years War. (The Treaty of Westphalia is commonly considered an origin in the development of the concept of state sovereignty. Which reminds me: Foucault.)

What else. I haven’t read much in terms of everyday life during this period, although I do have Braudel and Natalie Zemon Davis on my reading lists. I’m still not sure where to put the on-the-ground stuff, interested as I am in intellectual history. Still, a concentration on thoughts untethered from practice yields shallow history.

I have developed an abiding hatred for the Spanish Empire. This may be unfair to the Spaniards, but they turn up again and again as the bad guys. (How’s that for subtle interpretation?) I’ve got a big-ass book on the history of the Dutch Republic that I’m looking forward to, not least because of the central role of the Dutch in the development of capitalism.

Capitalism, yeah, haven’t talked much about that, either. Can’t talk about modernity without talkin’ bout capitalism.

Still, I really want to try to nail down the emergence of the individual as a political subject: there is no modernity without this emergence. The Reformation and the wars of religion are crucial, of course, but I want to understand precisely how the connection was made between the individual and his relationship to God and the emergence of the concept of the individual citizen’s relationship to the state. (I say concept because it took awhile for the walk to catch up to the talk.)

I have no plans to abandon this project, but if I can’t get it together, I may have to abandon my hopes for this project.

Maybe I should do that sooner rather than later: I’m always better after I’ve left hope behind.

Onward, Christian soldiers

27 06 2012

Done with Calvin and on to the Thirty Years War.

Yes, the project on modernity rumbles on, as I dart back and forth between the 16th and 20th centuries (with occasional forays into the 15th and 14th centuries), jumbling up the wars of religion and emperors and kings and popes and princes and reformers and Reformers and . . . everything everything everything.

May I pause just to note what pleasure, what pure pleasure it gives me to see shapes and movement arise from what had once been a white, blank field of the past?

Consider this line from CV Wedgewood: “Pursuing the shadow of a universal power the German rulers forfeited the chance of a national one.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates has remarked on the beauty of her Wedgewood—and yes, she has a way with words—but her facility with the language reveals a nimbleness of thought, and this one, elegantly expressed, conveys the tragic risk of greatness: Go big and you lose the small, and in losing the small, you lose it all.

Only Pursuing the shadow of a universal power the German rulers forfeited the chance of a national one in its specificity is far more breathtaking and heartbreaking than my pallid generalization.

And it is the specificity itself which provides that pleasure: there was nothing, and now there is something.

Now, before I repeat that last line to end the post, I do want to interject with one observation about Calvin’s Reformed thought, specifically, his doctrine of double predestination (God elects both who goes to heaven and who goes to hell): why would anyone believe this?

Calvin argued that only a few of the professing Christians would be saved and most lost, that there was absolutely nothing the individual (an utterly depraved being) could do to save herself—so why would anyone cleave to a belief system which gave you rotten odds and no way to change them?

One possibility is that most Reformers didn’t believe in predestination, double or otherwise; another is that Reformers did believe in double predestination, but also believed that they were the elect. So, yeah, sucks to be you, o depraved man, but I am so filled with the spirit that there is no way God hasn’t picked me for His team.

There is no rational reason* to believe this; since people believed nonetheless, then it is clear that something other than reason is required to explain the spread of the Reformed faith.

(*Reason in terms of: why pick this religion over that one, not: why pick any religion at all. Context, people, context.)

Anyway, Calvin was much more impressed with himself than I was with him—although it must be noted he had a few more followers than the 19 who follow me (in this blog, anyway).

Oh, man, it’s getting late and I’m getting frantic for sleep so yes, let’s return to pleasure and knowledge and movement where before there was stillness and lines where before there was blankness and etchings across the smooth surface  and something, something rather than nothing.


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