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Anthropology

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Mary Midgley, Covid-19, and That Beastly Illusion

Mary Midgley (1919-2018) wrote her first book, Beast and Man, in her fifties; it was published shortly before her 60th birthdy. In her fifteen more books that followed, she continued to explore, with great subtlety and a far-reaching philosophical imagination, the relationship between humans, animals, nature, and the environment at large — all of which are notions that have been thrown into sharp relief by the global covid-19 pandemic. The very term “zoonosis” for a disease that crosses the animal-human boundary seems to suggest that animals are to blame. But, as BRB contributor Istvan Zardai, argues, such one-dimensional thinking would go against all that Midgley has shown us. In the end, the very notion of “beastliness” is an illusion we ought to resist, if we are to find better ways of living together with nature — which is, of course, the only way to live at all.

Down to Earth

In his book “Down to Earth” (2018), Bruno Latour explores the way in which global political action today embodies multiple contradictions in our relationship to that part of the Earth that comprises the crust and the atmosphere: that is, the narrow segment of the planet that we spend most of our time on and whose energy flows we harvest — and change. What happens when we come back down to this earth (or, as in the origianl French title, “Où atterrir”, where we land) from the lofty heights of most political and social criticism? As BRB reviewer Eric Kerr argues, first and foremost we must recognize that both localists (some of whom tend towards the reactionary) and globalists (who tend towards progressivism) are enmeshed in contradictions, and that our global and local politics, which seems so strangely — indeed, incommensurably — estranged, are, at the same time, deeply connected.

A Sociology of Texas

Texas looms large in the story that America tells about itself, and this has given rise to a subgenre where male writers from Texas (usually of European ancestry) seek to understand better, apologize for, and thoroughly explain to their readers the conditions of the author’s home state. Though Lawrence Wright’s ‘God Save Texas: A Journey into the Soul of the Lone Star State’ (Knopf, 2018) nominally falls into this subgenre, it manages to overcome the constraints that some with it, or so BRB reviewer Christopher Landrum argues. While much of the book examines how Texas’s economy, population, and political influence over the rest of the nation have expanded since about 1978, Wright is ambivalent, and more than a little impatient, with the continued “immature political culture” of Texas — a culture that, as the current occupants of the White House demonstrates, has long rubbed off on the rest of the country. All in all, the book, in spite of some glaring omissions, provides a readable and informative for Texas and non-Texas alike to gain a new perspective on the ‘lone star state’.

Rage, Time, and the Politico-Religious Revenge Banks

In his recent book ‘Rage and Time’ (originally published as ‘Zorn und Zeit’ in 2006), Peter Sloterdijk, best-known to the English-speaking world for his ‘Critique of Cynical Reason’, published in the 1980s, tells a compelling story of the mediations, exploitations, and translations of rage through, and into, the great religious and political ‘cosmologies’ of Western civilisation. ‘Rage and Time’, according to reviewer Francisco Klauser, is a powerfully written book about the sociopolitical ordering, coding, and accumulation of rage; a book which, in sum, acknowledges and investigates the role of rage as one of the driving forces of human history. However, while Sloterdijk’s narrative is rich in suggestive power, his analysis of the upcoming sociopolitical challenges in the 21st century remains essentially incomplete — the future of rage has yet to unfold.

Of Pencils and Pixels

Sonja Neef’s ‘Abdruck und Spur’ (‘Imprint and Trace’, 2008) offers a sweeping re-evaluation of the relationship of handwriting and technology. While the historical part of the book may be overambitious, insofar as it discusses even the evolutionary origins of handedness, reviewer Frank Berzbach applauds Neef for successfully defending her claim that ‘there is no final dichotomy between, on the one hand, printing as a mechanical, technical, or digital way of writing and, on the other hand, handwriting as an individual, unique, and singular trace’; instead, the two have been historically and systematically intertwined, and the Manual continues to survive in the Digital.