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.

003

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:

001

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.





Tradition!

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.








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