All things weird and wonderful, 37

30 01 2014

Dancing bear! Real live honest-to-pete dancing bear!

Not in a circus—in the wild!

Photo by Nikolai Zinoviev

I don’t know if the story told by the photographer is true (and there are more pics at the link, above, so go see!), but he surmises that the Mr. Dancer was excited to see his long-lost sister.

Let’s see if my brother dances the next time he sees me. It’s been a few years, y’know.

h/t Cute Overload

Teacher teacher, can you reach me

30 01 2014

Classes have started again. Thank goddess.

I need the money (of course: I always need the money), but it’s more than that. While I’ve been working at home for the 2nd job, I just get. . . antsy before a new semester. Part of it is worry that my course will be cancelled, but even more so is the sense that my real work is in the classroom, so to be out of the classroom is, even if I have other work, to be out of work. My real work.

It’s taken me too long to get to this point, to know that, yeah, my real work is as a professor. Unfortunately, due to the many bad decisions I’ve made about my career, instead of being snugly ensconced in a nest somewhere in mid-level academia, I’m left to swing from semester to semester, hoping I can grab the next vine of courses just after I let go of this one.

(In 2011 those vines got yanked away a couple of times, and I crashed, hard. I won’t dig out from that financially until next year—if all goes well.)

Can I recover and manage to build some stability into my career? I dunno. You’ve only got so many years post-PhD to slide into the tenure track, and as I am some multiple of years beyond that time, I may have missed my chance(s).

But I don’t want to give it up, either. I enjoy teaching and am pretty good at it, and while I think academic publishing is a scam, I remain capable of solid research.

Oh, and have I mentioned that I am constitutionally unsuited for corporate work? Not that any corporation would have me.

I’ve gone round and round on this before, and have done nothing. Dmf has given me links to the, ah, Brooklyn Institute, I think, and there are plenty of non-CUNY institutions in the NYC area in which I could teach. (CUNY limits the number of courses adjuncts can teach any given semester & over the course of the year, so while I will send my c.v. to the campus closest to me, if I want more work I’ll have to go outside of CUNY.)

So there it is. I’ve finally figured out this is what I can do; now I need to just, y’know, do it.

All the little fishies come a-swimming to me

28 01 2014

With a whimper and a sigh, I will be dragged into social media:  I’ll have to join LinkedIn some time in the next month or so.

I’ve been working on this project (2nd job) which requires me to ferret out information on a particular group of people. Most of this info is more-or-less readily available, but some is behind various social media curtains.

To get a peek, I gotta hang my own curtain.

I’m not happy about it, but hey, if I’ma make my presence known, why not bare all and post a pic?


Yep, that’s pretty much what I feel about the whole thing.

And all the times will keep on changing

25 01 2014

It tells you how out of touch I am that I actually found this useful:


h/t: PZ Myers (who notes that the one thing missing is “blog”—tho’ perhaps that’s too old media to include)

Everybody knows the fight was fixed.

25 01 2014

I was never much taken in by the calligraphy Zen master, and thought that if you need to remind yourself “Don’t be evil”, well, you probably weren’t that good.

Yep, that was about right.

The appropriate adage to accompany the lawsuits? Fuck you, pay me.

That, or Go to jail. Go directly to jail.

Or both, both could work.


h/t: Anna Minard, Slog

Humans from earth, pt III

23 01 2014

So I fudged in the previous two posts.

I assigned the “practical” to pt I and the “ontological” to pt II, and then promised to return to the practical in this post. But really, it’s all been pretty much fudgily ontological,  or should I say, practically[-]ontological?

Which is to say, I think the question of being-in-the-world, the ontologically query, is also a question of great practical [political, ethical] urgency. Further, that the difficulty of the question ontologically is part of the urgency of the practical question of humanness gives that urgency purchase in the ontological.

Short version: the border between the two is foggy. Fudgey. Part of being human is to be recognized as human by other human beings. Which came first. . . ?

I don’t know, and I don’t know that anyone can know. One can argue, with TWO, that there is something irreducibly “human”  (his “concrete reality”) in our species-being, and that the lack of recognition of a group’s humanness is simply a kind of dodge, a repression, a story told to cover the horrors of inhuman treatment.

Among the books I pulled off my shelf was a copy of my dissertation. Early on I quote Elaine Pagels on the long history of “us vs. them”, as well as her caution that “[T]his virtually universal practice of calling one’s own people human and ‘dehumanizing’ others does not necessarily mean that people actually doubt or deny the humanness of others.”And she may be right.

But that concrete reality of the Arendtian-naked human, however practically correct it may seem, runs right into a practical problem: how do we know that this person is human except by the way we treat him? Isn’t the treatment of the other its own practical recognition of the status of that other?

I’ll come back to this, but in the meantime, a few examples:

  • Hans Frank, Nazi General Governor of Poland: “the Jews were a lower species of life, a kind of vermin upon contact infected the German people with deadly diseases” (Robert Lifton, Nazi Doctors)
  • Alfred Hoche, Freiburg psychiatrist referred in 1920 to “incurable idiots”, of those with “mental death” as “human ballast” and “empty shells of human beings” (Lifton)
  • “The Guarani-speaking Paraguayans who hunt the Ache and the Ache, both speak varieties of the same language stock, Tupi-Guarani. But the Guarani-speaking settlers are men of reason, while the hunting and gathering Ache are in their terminology merely Guayaki, ‘rabid rats’; and the rabid rats must be exterminated.” (Eric Wolf, quoted in Leo Kuper’s Genocide)
  • Colin Legum, writing of massacres in northern Nigeria: “While the peasants complained of exploitation, the educated Northerners spoke of Ibos as vermin, criminals, money-grabbers, and sub-humans without genuine culture”. (Kuper)
  • Wilfred Jones: “By a peculiar twist of logic (which has not been completely dispelled in our day) those afflicted with mental diseases were generally treated as if they had thereby been stripped of all human attributes, together with their rights and privileges as human beings.”

There are more, of course, unbearably many more, divvying people up by ethnicity, religion, mental capacity, morphology, language, culture—anything, really.

And here we are at the point at which TWO and I can point to the same evidence and reach opposite conclusions. TWO could say, “yes, but these people were all recognized as humans, and their oppressors and killers clearly had to try to take their humanness away from them—which ipso facto reinforces my point that they ‘really are’ humans”.

I, however, look at these examples and think, “our humanness can be taken away, which means that it is contingent, not absolute”.

If you are religious and have some belief in an after-life, an absolute humanness might be a kind of solace for the sufferings of this world: Even if your fellow species-beings treat you as a rat to be exterminated, you will be recognized as human by your god, and granted surcease as a result.

But I hold to no existence beyond this world (maybe there is, maybe there isn’t), so there is no solace in considering our status beyond this world. If I am to live as a human in this world, then I have to be recognized as human by other beings in this world. If I am not so recognized, then I can be abused, enslaved, killed, and justifiably so.

I can protest that I am human, but if you don’t see that in me, then my protests, even my own “absolute” beliefs in my own humanness, mean nothing.

This is the urgency of the point: our humanness can, in fact, be taken away from us. The only way, then, to insure that we are treated as humans is to reinforce our humanness over and over and over again.

It’s like setting down a tent and staking it to the ground: you have to go back round and round and pound those stakes back down to keep the whole tent from flying away.

It is power against power: the force of the hammer, the strength of the stakes, the firmness of the ground, against the wind and the rain and the mischief of those who would pull up those stakes.

If we recognize our fellow species-beings as human beings, if this is a “concrete reality”, it is only because we have made it so, because we have, in fact, poured concrete around those stakes. But even that concrete is not enough.

We have to remember why we poured that concrete in the first place, and be willing to reinforce those stakes over and over and over again.

Humans from earth, pt II

20 01 2014

Why ontological?

I like to make everything ontological, is one answer, but also because this is the level at which the question of being qua being occurs.

What does it mean to be human?

I suggested in the last post that biology may be a necessary-but-not-sufficient condition of humanness, and I hold to that—for now. It is entirely possible that at some point in the future humanness will be extended to non-biologically entities, although I don’t know that such recognition will be so extended during my lifetime. (After I’m dead? Let the living sort it out.)

More immediately tantalizing—and in a kind of reverse-example to offer to TWO—is the de facto semi-recognition extended to chimpanizees by the National Institutes of Health in their decision to restrict the kinds of federally-funded research which can now be performed using chimps.

TWO (or someone) might argue that this half-recognition is extended on the basis of biology, but if the biology is what matters—if biology is all that’s ever mattered—then why was such protection not extended until now?

Thus, I want to bring forward something which I referenced earlier: the necessity of recognition. It is not enough for one to have the biological substrate of the human, but that those with that substrate be recognized as human.

Recognized by whom? Well, that’s the kicker, ain’t it? It’s an inside game: those who are inside give the status to themselves, and decide who/what else gets to enter or may be forced to leave, and/or those with sufficient leverage  either “break” in and force recognition or so change the terms that they take the insider status for themselves.

In other words, it’s about power, which is an historically-contingent phenomenon.

Now, how did anyone come to recognize themselves as human? That’s a very damned good question, one worthy of a dissertation, but even without knowing the origin of this claimed status, it’s clear that some of claimed that status for them/ourselves, and on the basis of that status have granted them/ourselves certain protections and privileges not given to those lacking such status.

TWO argues that DNA (et. al.) ought to be the standard for recognition as it is “scientifically knowable in a more or less concrete fashion (thus my DNA point above) with a high degree of certainty and clarity”, and, again, as a practical matter, this has a lot going for it. I even think my reservations about the messiness of biology (e.g., what of those with +/- 46 chromosomes) can be assuaged with a very few addenda, such as “created with the gametes and borne of Homo sapiens” to cover those statistically outside of the norm.

(This should hold at least until we figure out artificial wombs and begin decanting our offspring, but again: I’ll be dead when this happens, so let the living figure it out.)

Others might argue for another standard—that we are created in the image of God, say (and let those who make this argument figure out what that means)—or add in various requirements for consciousness or certain characteristics or abilities: the crucial point is that the standard be settled (enough) for us to make practical decisions about those who are human (and not).

Well, that’s one crucial point: the other crucial point is that the standard doesn’t set itself.

We set the standard, and we do so based on commitments to forms of knowledge we find most compelling.

For TWO, the knowledge gained from biology is most compelling, and thus for him ought to serve as the standard. It’s not unreasonable—clarity, intersubjectivity (i.e., “scientifically knowable” by anyone who cares to know it), and concreteness are pretty damned good reasons—but it can’t justify itself, i.e., the reasons to adopt the “Homo sapiens standard” are external to the standard itself.

Huh, not being clear. What I mean to say is the establishment of the Homo sapiens standard  is one thing, and why we should take that standard as dispositive for humanness is another. I may like clarity, intersubjectivity, and concreteness, but why should those be the qualities we use to judge the standard?

This can lead into an epistemological dissolve, but I’ll bring it back to the practical in a moment. Do let me make one further point before doing so: that Homo sapiens is itself an historical construction, and that there has not always been agreement on who belongs in this species.  Again, we could slide down into the abyss on this observation (always a fun ride down, but perhaps a bit much for this particular conversation), but, again, I want to bring that point back up to the practical level.

And then, finally, on to those examples TWO requested. On to part III!

We’re humans from earth, pt. I

20 01 2014

*Updated* I just noted that the comment TWO referred to earlier as perhaps being stuck in moderation was in fact so stuck. I just noticed it now, so haven’t responded to it in either this post or in pt II (which I’ve already written); if necessary, I’ll make the necessary adjustments to my response in pt III.

A bit late—laziness and fun colluded to prevent a posting before this—but finally, on the instability of the human.

First, the initial claim, and The Wet One’s challenge to the claim and some back and forth (way way down the thread—and ignoring TWO’s snark about ivory towers):

ab: the “human” is a constructed being, so to look for the human in history is to make basic choices about what & how one looks at that history.

two: It’s constructed to a certain extent, yes, but there really is an irreducible humanness that really does exists. It’s visible in electron microscopes and the like if you need to look. It’s common to all of us humans and is about as constructed as is gravity or the sun.

Some back & forth on the biology itself (interesting in its own right, but not the issue in this post), then:

two: Biology isn’t a good foundation? What is better? I guess as a genetics student (undergrad only), I find that response kinda wanting. I’m well aware that there are plenty of morphological and genetic aberations that deviate quite widely from the norm, but for our purposes here, I think you and I (perhaps not all, but you and I at any rate) know what the norm is to determine “humanity.” Extra chromosomes, polydactly, other morphological aberations don’t really change this. It still falls within the realm of “human” for all intents and purposes. Don’t abstract away a reasonably concrete reality with ideas out at the 9th or 10th standard deviation from the norm. It just doesn’t seem to me to be terribly pragmatic or useful.

ab: At one level, there is the matter of what counts as “reasonably concrete realities”; I think this varies across time and place.

Related to this is my disagreement with the contention that those outside of the norm have fallen “within the realm of the ‘human’ for all intents and purposes’. They most assuredly have not and to the extent they do today is due to explicit efforts to change our understanding of the human.

two: [to paraphrase: examples from past and present, please!]

So there it is, in an ungainly nutshell.

First, to TWO’s contention Biology isn’t a good foundation? What is better?

I think it can and often does serve as a foundation, and as I noted in the previous ramble, I ought to have been more explicit about that. There is a certain practicality, today, in going along with the notion that any being borne of those already recognized as human, and who takes a form which is more-or-less similar to those already recognizably human, is herself human. Much of contemporary (bio)ethics and politics is predicated upon this biologically-based recognition.

And I do, in fact, talk about this in my bioethics class. Biology—genetics—matters! As I note, while we share almost all of our genes with chimpanzees and other apes, the fact that we are so morphologically (among other things) distinct suggests that those few genetic differences are powerful.

That said, I hold to my original contention as to the variability of the human, and the fact that while biology may be a necessary condition for recognition as human (tho’ this may change as AI evolves; subject for another post, perhaps), it is not sufficient.

Thus we may—I’ll let TWO speak for him (I think) -self—have arrived at the source of our disagreement: TWO takes biology as having an “is-ness” which is apparent, “pragmatic”, “useful” (to use two terms taking from another part of his comment), which obviousness marks it as having a (near?) absolute quality.

I don’t believe it has an absolute quality (and this is quite apart from our agreed-upon framework of evolution), but instead an historical quality. He thinks it is more or less fixed; I do not.

On a practical level*, our disagreement isn’t so great, as I noted, above. And that I think the human is historically contingent does not mean that the meaning isn’t durable, or stable for long terms.

Still, I think that the mention of embryos and fetuses is apt in highlighting that even at this practical level there is some disagreement as to status of entities which clearly share our biological material.

TWO responded in a comment to my last post

does anyone think that human embryo or fetuses (or those sourced from a human) would turn into anything else other than a human adult were it permitted to follow its natural journey through development? Would it ever become a cat, a blue whale, a crab or a robin? Does anyone doubt this?

I don’t, at least outside of science-fiction speculations, but note the “would turn into” and of the necessity of “development”. If the biology were dispositive in and of itself, no such development would be necessary—and, in fact, for pro-lifers, no such development is necessary: the embryo is a human person, full stop.

(Side note: there are all kinds of arguments about personhood out there, some of which I’ve discussed previously, but I don’t want to complicated this discussion even further by bringing in questions of the relationship of personhood to humanness.)

In some ways, the emphasis on development seems, well, an over-emphasis, for precisely the reason TWO points out—that conceptus ain’t gonna turn into a kitty. But insofar as we in the US (and elsewhere) are politically preoccupied with embryos and fetuses, and that a big question at the center of that preoccupation is When does the embryo/fetus become a human [person]?, then at a very practical level, it makes sense to look at development.

Now, you will no doubt have observed that, despite my side-note, I used the term “human person” rather than just “human” or “human being”: this is a concession to the way the question is often framed in ordinary discourse; in the debate over abortion or stem cells, it’s not referred to as the “embryo of Homo sapiens“, but “human embryo”.

For my purposes here that ordinary usage is unfortunate: to make my point as clearly as possible, the argument over the status of the embryo/fetus is not whether it is of the material of Homo sapiens (general agreement: yes), but when that biological material becomes human.

TWO argues that the biology answers the question for itself, but I argue that it cannot.

Which brings me to the ontological level—and part II.


*I am harkening back to my epistemological/ontological/practical distinction in calling this level “practical”: it is the level at which we live our daily lives, and at which politics, and ordinary-ethics (or discussions over “the right thing to do”) take place.

Of flesh and blood I’m made

16 01 2014

What is human?

I got into it with commenter The Wet One at TNC’s joint, who chided me not to, in effect, complicate straightforward matters. I responded that straightforward matters often are quite complicated.

In any case, he issued a specific challenge to claims I made regarding the variability of the human across time and space. This request was in response to this statement:

At one level, there is the matter of what counts as “reasonably concrete realities”; I think this varies across time and place.

Related to this is my disagreement with the contention that those outside of the norm have fallen “within the realm of the ‘human’ for all intents and purposes’. They most assuredly have not and to the extent they do today is due to explicit efforts to change our understanding of the human.

Examples, he asked?

As one of the mods was getting ready to close the thread, I could only offer up the easiest one: questions over the status of embryos and fetuses.

Still, while I think that a reasonable response, it is also incomplete, insofar as it doesn’t get at what and who I was thinking of in writing that comment: people with disabilities.

“People with disabilities”: even that phrase isn’t enough, because “disability” itself isn’t necessarily the apt word.  I had referred in an earlier comment to those whose morphology varied from the statistical norm; not all variations are disabilities in even the strictest sense.

In any case, when I went to my bookshelf to try to pull out specific, referenced, examples, I was stopped by that basic question which set off the whole debate: what is human?

Now, in asking that here I mean: how maximal an understanding of the human? Is to be human to be accorded a certain status and protection (“human rights”)? or is it more minimal, in the sense that one sees the other as kin of some sort, tho’ not necessarily of an equal sort?

Arendt argued for a minimalist sense when she noted there was nothing sacred in the “naked” [of the protections of the law] human, meaning that such status granted no particular privilege. That I both do and do not agree with this is the source of my estoppel.

Kuper in Genocide notes that dehumanization often precedes assault—which suggests that before the one goes after the other, that a kinship is recognized which must then be erased. But maybe not. I don’t know.

Is the human in the recognition? If you are akin to us (and we know that we are human), then we will grant such status (for whatever it’s worth) to you. We might still make distinctions amongst us as to who is superior/inferior, but still grant than an inferior human is still human. There’s something to that—something which I perhaps should have emphasized a bit more than I did in my initial go-’round with TWO.

But I also think are cases in which the kinship might repulse rather than draw in: that disgust or horror (or some kind of uncanny valley) gets in the way of seeing the disgusting/horrid/uncanny one as human. I’m thinking of the work of William Ian Miller and Martha Nussbaum, on disgust, and, perhaps, to various histories of medicine,especially regarding the mentally ill. Perhaps I should dig out that old paper on lobotomy. . . .

Oh, and yet another wrinkle: Insofar as I consider the meaning of the human to vary, I don’t know that one can elide differences between the words used to refer to said humans. “Savage” means one thing, “human” another, and the relationship between the two, well, contestable.

I’m rambling, and still without specific, referenced examples for TWO. I can go the easy route, show the 19th century charts comparing Africans to the great apes, the discussion of so-called “primitive peoples” (with the unveiled implication that such peoples weren’t, perhaps, human people). Could I mention that “orangutan” means “person of the forest”, or is that too glib? Too glib, I think. Not glib is the recent decision to limit greatly the use of chimpanzees in federally-funded research—the extension of protections to our kin, because a kinship is recognized.

And back around again. I don’t know that one can meaningfully separated the identity of  a being from the treatment of the identified being; identification and treatment somersault over and over one another.

So if one protections are offered to one member of H. sapiens and it is withdrawn from another, then it seems to say something about the status of that other: that we don’t recognize you as being one of us. We don’t recognize you as human.

If things can be done to someone with schizophrenia (old term: dementia praecox) or psychosis—various sorts of water or electric shocks, say—that would not be done to someone without these afflictions, then one might wonder whether the schizophrenic or psychotic is, in fact, recognized as human, that as long as the affliction is seen to define the being, then that being is not-quite-human.

Ah, so yet another turn. I allowed for the possibility of superior/inferior humans [which might render moot my examples from eugenics and racism]; what of lesser or more human? Is someone who is less human still human? What does that even mean?

Back to biology. Those born with what we now recognize as chromosomal abnormalities have not and are not always taken in, recognized as being “one of us”. A child with cri-du-chat syndrome does not act like a child without; what are the chances such children have always been recognized as human?

Oh, and I’m not even getting into religion and folklore and demons and fairies and whatnot. Is this not already too long?

I can’t re-read this for sense; no, this has all already flown apart.

I want a new drug

14 01 2014

I need a new conservative.

I’ve been reading Rod Dreher for years. He’s a “crunchy con”—localist, traditionalist, religious—and I’ve enjoyed him in about equal measure as he’s pissed me off.

Now, however, he just pisses me off (I’ll spare you the litany of why and how), so if I am not to retreat inside my leftist-commie-hippie-Brooklyn bubble, I need some fresh meat new columnist who with ideas and a viewpoint worth taking seriously.

Reihan Salam is probably worth a look, and maybe I’ll start reading First Things again. I already read Tyler Cowen regularly for the market-libertarian view (although I think Alex Tabarrok is an idiot), and stroll through Christianity Today a couple of times a week. I should probably add Front Porch Republic more regularly to the mix (tho’ those guys never use 10 words when 100 are available), and maybe there’s someone or two on Patheos who can expand my eyeballs.

What of conservative women who aren’t a) mere culture warriors or b) shills for the Republicans? Hm, anyone on Secular Right who’s particularly good?

I’m serious about all of this. I’m a leftist for all kinds of reasons, not least of which is that I think it’s the correct approach for understanding the world, but it ain’t the perfect approach, and I am liable to miss all kinds of things if I hold only to this view. I also don’t want to fall into mere warrior mode, and miss the fact that those who are conservative may also be funny and profound and share a taste in whisky, sci-fi, and assorted bad habits.

I had that with Dreher. I’ll keep reading him, as well as the other folks at American Conservative, but I am just. . . tired.

I need a new conservative.