Sunday, May 25, 2014

There’s only one Santa Barbara shooter

Peter Sutcliffe was always different, but not by a wide margin: the world is full of men who beat their wives, destroy their self-respect, treat them like dirt. They do it because they hate and despise women, because they are disgusted by them, because they need to prove to themselves and to their friends that they are real men. Occasionally, for one in a million, it isn’t enough. Peter Sutcliffe was one of those. But when the trees are so dense, who can with certainty pick out the really rotten timber?
This is from the concluding paragraph of the chapter of Joan Smith’s 1989 Misogynies*

titled “There’s Only One Yorkshire Ripper.” In it, she analyzes, in the context of societal misogyny, the police investigation into the string of murders and attempted murders of women carried out by Peter Sutcliffe in northern England in the late 1970s. In the preface to the 2013 edition, Smith describes how these events originally provided the impetus for the book:
The murders seemed to me a pure manifestation of misogyny, the consequence in one disturbed individual of the suspicion and dislike for women which I saw all around me. Peter Sutcliffe’s hatred of women was extreme but it wasn’t unique, which was one of the reasons why the police had such trouble catching him. They thought he would stand out and I thought exactly the opposite: that he could hide quite easily in a culture which often displayed casual contempt for women. It later emerged that Sutcliffe had been interviewed ten times without ever becoming a serious suspect.
It seems relevant in light of the recent killings in Santa Barbara.

* I don’t endorse every argument in this book, but I do recommend it.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Neo-Liberal Genetics and The Trashing of Margaret Mead

“The practice of science, like all human activity, depends upon categories, understandings, and conventions of practice that are, inevitably, culturally and historically specific. …[T]he point is not that ‘good science’ operates outside of culture and without reference to cultural categories, while ‘bad science’ does not. On the contrary, it is precisely because ‘good science’ recognizes its inevitable situatedness within culture that it must always place its most fundamental categories, understandings, and conventions at risk through the examination of contrary evidence. At least ideally, the scientific method requires that a hypothesis be tested against empirical data that have the potential for disproving it – that is, against aspects of the world that are relevant, resistant, and not already internally implicated in its own presuppositions. It is precisely evolutionary psychology’s failure to do this that makes it ‘bad science’.” - Susan McKinnon, Neo-Liberal Genetics, pp. 120-121

“By misrepresenting Mead’s views and by presenting himself as the guardian of evolution and interactionism, Freeman asked his readers to dismiss Mead’s work as mistaken, misguided, anachronistic, and unscientific and accept his position as accurate, responsible, thoroughly scientific and a harbinger of the future. A number of intelligent people found this seemingly clear-cut choice attractive. After all, who could oppose evolution, science, and responsible scholarship? The real choice, however, was not between Mead, on the one hand, and Freeman, on the other. It was between wondering whether Freeman read what Mead had written about culture, biology, and evolution and, for whatever reason, omitted entire passages and works that did not support his argument, or whether he did not carefully read Mead and therefore was not fully aware of what she wrote.” - Paul Shankman, The Trashing of Margaret Mead, p. 224
I wish I’d read Susan McKinnon’s 2005 Neo-Liberal Genetics: The Myths and Moral Tales of Evolutionary Psychology

and Paul Shankman’s 2009 The Trashing of Margaret Mead: Anatomy of an Anthropological Controversy

when they were first published. It would have saved me some of the disappointment and exasperation I’ve experienced in the online science-atheism advocacy community.

Shankman’s book deals with the public controversy sparked a few decades ago when Derek Freeman published books claiming that Margaret Mead, who he claimed was the founding figure of an anti-evolutionary paradigm in anthropology, had actually been a naïve victim of a hoaxing during her fieldwork in Samoa. As the quotation above suggests, Freeman also sought, with a good deal of success among the public, to use his criticisms of Mead to begin the destruction of what he labeled an unscientific perspective and to promote one closer to Evolutionary Psychology. McKinnon’s pamphlet* is a more general scientific critique of Evolutionary Psychology from the perspective of cultural anthropology and related scientific fields.

Both books, which complement one another and other worthwhile works (Sahlins’ The Western Illusion of Human Nature, Fine’s Delusions of Gender, Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man,…), address both the science and the rhetoric of EP and related paradigms. Both describe in detail the scientific failings of EP – the unexamined presuppositions, the use of highly selective and often shoddy and even ridiculous** evidence, the flawed methods, the leaps of logic in analysis, and maybe most important the failure to engage with the full spectrum of evidence including that which potentially contradicts its claims and suggests different conclusions.

They also – McKinnon explicitly and Shankman more indirectly – discuss the rhetoric employed by EP advocates both within their books and in the public promotion of their approach. As both books describe, EP advocates make full use of rhetorical tactics to present themselves as the apolitical defenders of disinterested Science while their detractors are politicized and painted as unscientific wishful thinkers who can’t accept the irrefutable evidence. (This rhetoric is also highly gendered: opponents and their approaches are feminized while EP is portrayed as rational, intellectually courageous, masculine.)

I want to bring these works to more people’s attention because I believe there are many who are interested in considering the evidence and curious about what it shows – who aren’t so easily swayed by EP’s rhetorical bluster. Realistically, though, I’m not as optimistic that many of those already taken with EP will be interested in engaging with it seriously and respectfully and in the spirit of scientific inquiry. In fact, rhetoric consistently substitutes for substantive engagement in the responses to EP’s critics. A couple of years after the publication of McKinnon’s book, Henry Harpending wrote a review which Alex Golub at Savage Minds called “libelous.” Most striking are the rhetorical characterizations of McKinnon’s work quoted by Golub, which are so formulaic that you have to question whether Harpending even read the book he was reviewing. According to Golub, for example, he calls the 152-page well-organized pamphlet a “rambling screed,” and asserts that McKinnon “does not complain that evolutionary psychology is bad science according to standard criteria for evaluating science: Instead she dislikes the ‘rhetorical structures and strategies of the texts.’” As the quotation at the beginning of the post shows, though, it’s precisely on the basis of scientific criteria that McKinnon criticizes EP – the entire pamphlet is a presentation of the scientific failings of EP in the face of contrary evidence and compared to other explanations.

There just doesn’t seem to be any way to break through the rhetorical wall of condescending arrogance and draw EP advocates into a real engagement on these grounds, which in itself suggests that there’s something other than a dedication to science driving this movement. Which is especially depressing since it appears another round is about to begin with the publication of Nicholas Wade’s A Troublesome Inheritance.

* McKinnon’s pamphlet is published by Prickly Paradigm Press. The works in this series are all relevant to contemporary debates and issues, and I don’t understand why they haven’t been made into Kindle or e-books and sold online for a few dollars.

**To reiterate, because this is easily the worst: In looking for evidence concerning the possible inborn nature of human gendered toy preferences (presumed to be universal), the researchers presented vervet monkeys with a series of gendered objects, including cooking pans. They gave cooking pans. To vervet monkeys.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Augustin Hamon, “On the Definition of Crime,” Part 1

[A while ago, I ran across an interesting essay by the French anarchist-socialist Augustin Hamon, “On the Definition of Crime,” published in the New York Spanish-language anarchist newspaper El Despertar at the turn of the last century. It had caught my notice at the time because Hamon recognized crimes against nonhumans. Although I don’t agree with it in its entirety, I think the essay merits translation and dissemination, and I haven’t been able to find a version in English. “On the Definition of Crime” appeared in five segments from August 10 – November 20 of 1896, and my posts will be divided into the same segments. My translation skills are rusty, I’m afraid, and the essay might have originally been translated from French into Spanish for publication in the paper, adding more potential pitfalls; but I hope the meaning comes through. Following the translation, I’ll probably post my own critical analysis of the essay.]

“On the Definition of Crime,” Part 1 (August 10, 1896)

All criminological scholarship presupposes an exact definition of the word crime. If we didn’t have this, the different people who take up criminological study would come to understand the various aspects of their subject in a highly variable manner, and, consequently, the comparison of their theories and their works would be totally impossible, or at least fruitless, because the theories would begin from different bases and the works wouldn’t be comparable.

All science requires a precise terminology, with the goal of being able to speak about the phenomena observed and known by scholars. Thus in physics, in chemistry, in physiology, the technical terms used are perfectly defined, while in classical philosophy there’s a vague and ill-defined jumble that produces the greatest errors. When a physicist refers to Density, Gravity, Hydrostatics; when a chemist refers to oxygen, carbon, salts, all of the other physicists, all of the other chemists, know exactly what the writer is referring to. The same doesn’t happen in criminology, and when a criminalist speaks about crime, we don’t know what they mean by the term, or if we do know, their definition varies from those of other criminalists.

M. de Lombroso,* for example, writes about the criminal in all of his works, but refrains from defining crime, leaving to each reader the task of doing so according to their own viewpoint. The logical consequence is that each defines some people as criminals that others wouldn’t, and vice versa. This is a procedure that reveals a spirit as unmethodical as it is imprecise.

Other writers, undoubtedly more methodical, have recognized the problems with such an antiscientific mode of proceeding, which can only be described as the study of an indeterminate subject, and have attempted to define crime. Let’s see if they’ve been correct in their proposals.

The jurist calls a crime or an offense any infraction of the law. “Scientifically,” we’ve said elsewhere (1)**, “it’s impossible to have a discussion on this basis, because laws constantly modify and change; because the customs that give rise to these laws evolve rapidly, and because those of the most developed intelligence continually attack certain laws, demonstrating their absurdity and impotence.”

In defining crime, M. Garófalo*** (2) has employed the sentiments of piety and probity. Any offense against these sentiments is a crime. This definition, while preferable to the previous, isn’t acceptable either. In effect, infanticide and parricide offend the pious sentiments of civilized men, but they don’t absolutely offend those of some existing savages, nor did they offend those of Europeans themselves in previous epochs. It’s undeniable that sentiments vary, not only across space and time but among individuals in the same country and the same era. To determine crime on the basis of an offense against such variable sentiments is to give an unstable definition, and to render any serious study of the subject impossible.

M. Tarde**** has proposed another definition (3). “The idea of crime,” he says, “naturally and essentially implies a right or duty that is violated.” To explain this definition, it’s necessary to determine beforehand the meaning of the terms right and duty. To this end, M. Tarde has dedicated a multitude of pages of pure, rather confused metaphysics. “Right and duty,” he says, “are fixed preconceptions, determined in the same or similar way in all times and places,” which is completely false, because rights and duties have varied – as history and sociology demonstrate by various facts – according to epoch or country, and according to the social arrangements accepted by men. Parricide is a duty for certain savage peoples, and, as such, isn’t a crime by M. Tarde’s definition. Infanticide was a duty for the Greeks, therefore it wouldn’t be a crime either. Nevertheless, parricide and infanticide are horrible crimes for the civilized men of today. So it turns out that M. Tarde offers a definition of crime that varies across time and space, which provides too fragile a foundation on which to build the structure of criminological science.

* Cesare Lombroso.

** The notes and references suggested don’t appear in El Despertar.

*** Raffaele Garofalo.

**** Gabriel Tarde.

Friday, May 9, 2014

You want Medicaid or a monument?

Years ago, a friend and I were discussing the phrases our families used to keep egotism in check. In mine, the favored expression was “Pin a rose on you!” (which lost a good part of its meaning when it somehow turned in the popular culture into “Pin a rose on your nose!”). Her family’s was better, I had to admit: the response to perceived bragging was “You want a medal or a monument?”

So…some MSNBC shows are broadcasting live from the Sweet Auburn Springfest in Atlanta, GA. All In With Chris Hayes just featured an interview with Rev. Dr. Raphael G. Warnock, Senior Pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church. (I won’t dwell on the fact that he’s religious, since it’s not relevant to the great thing he just said.)

Warnock talked about how Georgia governor Nathan Deal has opposed Medicaid expansion in every way possible,* while, minutes before making this opposition law, signing legislation authorizing a monument for Martin Luther King, Jr., at the state capitol. In Warnock’s words:
Anyone who studied Dr. King is very clear Dr. King would choose Medicaid over a monument.
Absolutely true, and beautifully illustrative of differences between the biophilous and necrophilous tendencies. :)

* For the record, keeping more than half a million people from having health insurance.

Social workers speaking out

"Where are the social workers?” asked social worker Jack Carney back in 2012,
Where are the NASW [National Association of Social Workers] and its local and state-wide chapters? Over 12,000 individuals mental health professionals have publicly declared their concern at the planned 2013 publication of the DSM-5. They’ve signed the petition launched six months ago by the Society for Humanistic Psychology requesting that the DSM-5 Task Force delay publication of the new DSM and subject it to an independent scientific review. Fifty-one professional organizations have also endorsed the petition. It is extremely puzzling that the National Association of Social Workers and its local affiliates are not to be found among them.
Carney was an organizer of the DSM-5 boycott last year, and describes the campaign and its development into the NO-DSM DIAGNOSIS initiative here. While some of the individual voices critical of biopsychiatry have come from academic and clinical social workers, collectively the field has been relatively quiet compared to psychologists or even psychiatrists themselves. Indeed, the NASW seems to treat the publication of the DSM-5 as simply an educational and procedural matter.

So I was pleased to discover, reading a new piece by Philip Hickey at MIA,* that this January’s issue of Research on Social Work Practice was dedicated to a critical examination of the DSM-5. The article Hickey referred to in his post, Eileen Gambrill’s “The DSM as a Major Form of Dehumanization in the Modern World,” is unfortunately behind a paywall. But you can learn more about the issue and read the editorial by Jeffrey Lacasse, “After DSM-5: A Critical Mental Health Research Agenda for the 21st Century,” here.

While I was familiar with the basics, I learned several new things from Lacasse’s article about specific aspects of the spinning of biopsychiatry and psychiatric drugs in the DSM-5: for example, the field trials aren’t published as a collection within or connected to this edition; the section on “Limitations of the Categorical Approach” has been deleted; and, worst, references to the brain changes and akathesia associated with the use of neuroleptic (“antipsychotic”) drugs, even as the evidence continues to mount, have been purged.

Overall, the editorial provides a solid introduction to some of the major issues for an audience of social workers. I hope the issue is opening many social workers’ eyes to critical and social justice perspectives. As people dealing firsthand with problems of racism, poverty, insecurity, childhood trauma, and sexual violence, social workers are well placed both to recognize the harms of biopsychiatry’s depoliticizing approach and to develop humanistic alternatives.

* A post well worth reading on its own, especially for its discussion of the APA’s PR strategies. My favorite part:
It’s a fundamental fact of life, that spin and self-promotion can only take one so far. After that, we’re judged on our merits.

Psychiatry is not something good that needs some minor corrections. Psychiatry is something fundamentally flawed and rotten that needs to be marginalized, ostracized, and unambiguously condemned. Its concepts are spurious and its “treatments” are destructive and disempowering. At the present time, psychiatry’s fraudulent and destructive nature is being exposed daily on an increasingly wide spectrum of issues. The profession is literally reeling under a relentless barrage of well-deserved and overdue criticism. And psychiatry has nothing to offer in response but endless self-praise and self-justification orchestrated by professional advertisers. Every day psychiatry digs itself deeper into the mire of its own self-serving rhetoric. Even its own members are beginning to rebel.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The necrophilous Ayn Rand, Part 2

In my previous post, I described Erich Fromm’s notion of the necrophilous character, as both an individual and a cultural pathology. I noted that, reading Adam Lee’s series about Atlas Shrugged, I started to see Ayn Rand as a clear embodiment – a word she would likely cringe to hear applied to herself - of this character. This surprised me because Lee’s posts, for the most part, didn’t primarily concern this aspect of Rand’s psychology. Nor did I have the book available to search for more examples, which undoubtedly exist. I didn’t need it, since even the small sample of quotations presented by Lee in these assorted contexts just scream “Necrophile!”*

Rand’s necrophilous tendencies are apparent from her physical descriptions of her characters, particularly in comparison to her paeans to nonliving substances and technical processes. They can also be seen in her disregard for the natural world and celebration of ecological destruction. At times, Rand’s descriptions of nonliving objects even reveal a fascination with violence toward living beings.

In showing that “in Randworld, moral worth is linked to physical attractiveness, and heroes and villains can be recognized and distinguished from each other by sight,” Lee offers Rand’s physical descriptions of her protagonists, Hank Rearden and Dagny Taggart:
The glare cut a moment’s wedge across his eyes, which had the color and quality of pale blue ice – then across the black web of the metal column and the ash-blond strands of his hair – then across the belt of his trenchcoat and the pockets where he held his hands. His body was tall and gaunt; he had always been too tall for those around him. His face was cut by prominent cheekbones and by a few sharp lines; they were not the lines of age, he had always had them; this had made him look old at twenty, and young now, at forty-five. [p.34]
A sweep of brown hair fell back, almost touching the line of her shoulders. Her face was made of angular planes, the shape of her mouth clear-cut, a sensual mouth held closed with inflexible precision. She kept her hands in the coat pockets, her posture taut, as if she resented immobility, and unfeminine, as if she were unconscious of her own body and that it was a woman’s body. [p.20]
Most significant for my purposes is that what makes these characters attractive in Rand’s view is the extent to which they resemble nonliving things: icy eyes, sharp and angular features that know no age, precise and inflexible movements.** Taggart’s posture is explicitly contrasted with “womanly” or “feminine” embodiedness.

Even more telling, Lee provides, “[i]n the name of being fair to Rand” as a writer since he judges it “pretty good,” her vivid, breathless description of the pouring of molten steel at one of Rearden’s mills:
The narrow streak pouring through space had the pure white color of sunlight. Black coils of steam were boiling upward, streaked with violet red. Fountains of sparks shot in beating spasms, as from broken arteries. The air seemed torn to rags, reflecting a raging flame… But the liquid metal had no aspect of violence. It was a long white curve with the texture of satin and the friendly radiance of a smile. It flowed obediently through a spout of clay, with two brittle borders to restrain it, it fell through twenty feet of space, down into a ladle that held two hundred tons. [p.34]
While the human characters are praised for their resemblance to nonliving things, steel is imbued with the qualities of a living being, even the “friendly radiance of a smile”!

Rand’s disdain for the living world encompasses natural landscapes as well. Lee provides a quotation in which she describes a road trip taken by her heroes:
The earth went flowing under the hood of the car. Uncoiling from among the curves of Wisconsin’s hills, the highway was the only evidence of human labor, a precarious bridge stretched across a sea of brush, weeds and trees. The sea rolled softly, in sprays of yellow and orange, with a few red jets shooting up on the hillsides, with pools of remnant green in the hollows, under a pure blue sky.

…”What I’d like to see,” said Rearden, “is a billboard.” [p.262]
The presence of the natural world in human affairs is portrayed as illegitimate: “It was preposterous, he thought, this growing intrusion of the accidents of nature into the affairs of men…” In fact, the most tenderly described element of a vista turns out to be…a mass of coal smoke:
Mr. Mowen looked at the skyline, at the belts, the wheels, the smoke – the smoke that settled heavily, peacefully across the evening air, stretching in a long haze all the way to the city of New York somewhere beyond the sunset – and he felt reassured by the thought of New York in its ring of sacred fires, the ring of smokestacks, gas tanks, cranes and high tension lines. [p.255]
The passion “to destroy for the sake of destruction” and utter disregard for the natural consequences of destructive acts are evident in Rand’s apparent approval of a character’s setting fire to the oil wells he’s abandoning: “Later, when they told her that Ellis Wyatt had vanished, leaving nothing behind but a board he had nailed to a post at the foot of the hill, when she looked at his handwriting on the board, she felt as if she had almost known that these would be the words: ‘I am leaving it as I found it. Take over. It’s yours’.” Lee points out that it’s doubtful Wyatt had found the wells on fire when he arrived, but the point is that “Rand sees this as a grand gesture of defiance, a metaphorical middle finger extended to the looters.”

One of Lee’s recent posts is maybe the most interesting. The quotations he provides describe scenes in which Rearden has given Taggart various gifts. Lee uses these scenes to illustrate Rand’s attitude toward selfishness and giving, even in romantic relationships. She can’t allow Rearden to give a gift without driving home that no acts should ever be performed for the purpose of making another person happy. But the descriptions of the gifts are themselves interesting:
On the evening of a blizzard, she came home to find an enormous spread of tropical flowers standing in her living room against the dark glass of windows battered by snowflakes. They were stems of Hawaiian Torch Ginger, three feet tall; their large heads were cones of petals that had the sensual texture of soft leather and the color of blood.
She opened it and stared in incredulous bewilderment at a pendant made of a single pear-shaped ruby that spurted a violent fire on the white satin of the jeweler’s box….
She stood naked, the stone between her breasts, like a sparkling drop of blood.
Here, as in the description of molten steel above, a gem – a hard, nonliving substance - is granted life-like qualities. Even more suggestive of the linkage Fromm suggests between the two forms of necrophilism, living flowers call pleasingly to Rand’s mind injury (“the color of blood”) and eroticized death (“the sensual texture of leather”).

Described in Gary Weiss’s 2012 Ayn Rand Nation: The Hidden Struggle for America’s Soul, Rand’s personality was atrocious in many ways. In her life as in her art, she would probably provide an excellent case study for a Frommian (or Horneyan, for that matter) analysis, not just of Rand as an individual but of the culture that creates and sustains these pathological tendencies. As Fromm suggests, understanding the necrophilous character, especially in relation to capitalism, has important implications for psychological and ecological health.

* I believe Fromm was correct in his contention that such tendencies could be revealed in “marginal, unintended ‘insignificant’ actions, the ‘psychopathology of everyday life’” (Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, 374). While he at times took this observation to silly hyper-Freudian extremes – a person’s necrophilousness could be detected in “a particular kind of lifelessness in his conversation” (377), “a predilection for dark, light-absorbing colors” (377), an “incapacity to laugh” (378), and “a special affinity for bad odors” which can give necrophiles “the appearance of being ‘sniffers’” (378) – I do think it’s fair to look for evidence in a person’s literary or artistic works.

** I’m not suggesting that people with similar physical features to Rand’s heroes look less “human” or natural in my view. My argument concerns Rand’s attribution of nonliving/nonhuman qualities to these features and her disgust at what she considered fleshy, human bodies, which reveals an open contempt for the living human form. More generally, as I discussed in the previous post, an interest in the nonliving and mechanical is not in itself indicative of necrophilous tendencies; it has to be analyzed in terms of a person’s (or a culture’s) attitude toward living beings and the connotations living beings and nonliving artifacts have for them.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The necrophilous Ayn Rand, Part 1

I’ve recently started following along with Adam Lee’s insightful and entertaining journey through Ayn Rand’s 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged. Reading several of the older posts in his series as I’ve caught up, I’ve been struck by how well Rand seems to personify Erich Fromm’s conception of the necrophilous character. In this post I’ll describe what Fromm meant by the necrophilous character, and in the next I’ll draw on several quotations from Rand featured in Lee’s series as evidence of her necrophilous tendencies.

While Fromm saw the necrophilous* character as loosely related to sexual necrophilia, it was primarily drawn from a critical analysis of Freud’s idea of the “death instinct” and his own understanding of the human tendency and potential for biophilia. Here’s how Fromm defined biophilia and the basic biophilic ethic:
Biophilia is the passionate love of life and of all that is alive. It is the wish to further growth, whether in a person, a plant, an idea, or a social group.** The biophilous person prefers to construct rather than to retain. He wants to be more rather than to have more. He is capable of wondering, and he prefers to see something new rather than to find confirmation of the old. He loves the adventure of living more than he does certainty. He sees the whole rather than only the parts, structures rather than summations. He wants to mold and to influence by love, reason, and example; not by force, by cutting things apart, by the bureaucratic manner of administering people as if they were things….

Biophilic ethics have their own principle of good and evil. Good is all that serves life; evil is all that serves death. Good is reverence for life, all that enhances life, growth, unfolding. Evil is all that stifles life, narrows it down, cuts it into pieces. (Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, 406; all further Fromm quotations are from the same volume)
Necrophilous tendencies, as this suggests, were the antithesis of biophilic ones:
Necrophilia in the characterological sense can be described as the passionate attraction to all that is dead, decayed, putrid, sickly; it is the passion to transform that which is alive into something unalive; to destroy for the sake of destruction; the exclusive interest in all that is purely mechanical. It is the passion to tear apart living structures. (369; emphasis in original)
Fromm didn’t believe that we have a death instinct or that the necrophilous character was innate and unavoidable. Instead, he thought people naturally had a more biophilic orientation which served human health and growth, but that its development could be blocked or subverted by childhood experience or culture. “Destructiveness,” he argued,
is not parallel to, but the alternative to biophilia. Love of life or love of the dead is the fundamental alternative that confronts every human being. Necrophilia grows as the development of biophilia is stunted. Man is biologically endowed with the capacity for biophilia, but psychologically he has the potential for necrophilia as an alternative solution. (406-7; emphasis in original)
So necrophilous tendencies are likely to develop in certain cultural atmospheres that interfere with biophilic growth.

While the definition of the necrophilous character above might seem to have a fairly narrow range, Fromm saw necrophilous tendencies as encompassing much of modern Western culture. The love of the “nonliving” could be seen not only in the direct attraction to the “dead, decayed, putrid, sickly” but also in an undue affection for the technological and mechanical, one of “the simplest and most obvious characteristics of contemporary industrial man: the stifling of his focal interest in people, nature, and living structures, together with the increasing attraction of mechanical, nonalive artifacts” (381).

While one recent biographer has suggested that Fromm was anti-technology, and some of his statements superficially suggest a hostility to science, what he in fact seemed to oppose was a particular orientation toward and conception of science and technology: one that wasn’t centered on life and growth or based in love of humanity and the world, that was alienated and alienating. After describing some examples of technological necrophilousness involving cars, cameras, and – a great word – “gadgeteers,” for example, he clarifies:
…I do not imply that using an automobile, or taking pictures, or using gadgets is in itself a manifestation of necrophilous tendencies. But it assumes this quality when it becomes a substitute for interest in life and for exercising the rich functions with which the human being is endowed. I also do not imply that the engineer who is passionately interested in the construction of machines of all kinds shows, for this reason, a necrophilous tendency. He may be a very productive person with great love of life that he expresses in his attitude toward people, toward nature, toward art, and in his constructive technical ideas. I am referring, rather, to those individuals whose interest in artifacts has replaced their interest in what is alive and who deal with technical matters in a pedantic and unalive way. (382; emphasis in original)
Fromm’s go-to example of a techno-necrophilous culture (in contrast to the more traditionalist necrophilousness of the Spanish fascists) was F. T. Marinetti and the other Italian Futurists. Quoting from Marinetti’s 1909 “Futurist Manifesto”, he writes: “Here we see the essential elements of necrophilia: worship of speed and the machine; poetry as a means of attack; glorification of war; destruction of culture; hate against women; locomotives and airplanes as living forces” (383).

So as Fromm saw it necrophilous tendencies could be expressed through both the hatred of living things and the attraction to death, destruction, and decay and the rejection of the living world in favor of the mechanical, nonliving realm of techno-driven society. Importantly, though, in this age of ecological destruction, he recognized the latter as in some sense also an expression of the former:
The world of life has become a world of ‘no-life’; persons have become ‘nonpersons’, a world of death. Death is no longer symbolically expressed by unpleasant-smelling feces or corpses. Its symbols are now clean, shining machines; men are not attracted to smelly toilets, but to structures of aluminum and glass. But the reality behind this antiseptic façade becomes increasingly visible. Man, in the name of progress, is transforming the world into a stinking and poisonous place (and this is not symbolic).*** He pollutes the air, the water, the soil, the animals – and himself. He is doing this to a degree that has made it doubtful whether the earth will still be livable within a hundred years from now. He knows the facts, but in spite of many protesters, those in charge go on in the pursuit of technical ‘progress’ and are willing to sacrifice all life in the worship of their idol. (389; my emphasis)

…It makes little difference whether he does it intentionally or not. If he had no knowledge of the possible danger, he might be acquitted from responsibility. But it is the necrophilous element in his character that prevents him from making use of the knowledge he has.

We must conclude that the lifeless world of total technicalization is only another form of the world of death and decay. This fact is not conscious to most, but to use an expression of Freud’s, the repressed often returns, and the fascination with death and decay becomes as visible as in the malignant anal character. (390; my emphasis)
Though Fromm wrote in individual terms, he saw the necrophilous tendency as a cultural product (driven by capitalism and Cold War politics; he paid less attention to patriarchy). He didn’t claim that people could be neatly sorted into “necrophilous” and “biophilous” boxes, but that most people exhibited both tendencies to some degree and that their relative strength was influenced by experience within a given culture and age. Very few people, he argued, could be described as fully one or the other. But he did mention, notably, several individual scientists (391) whom he considered representative of biophilia, and contended that there existed “a small minority…in whom there is no trace of necrophilia, who are pure biophiles motivated by the most intense and pure love for all that is alive. Albert Schweitzer, Albert Einstein, and Pope John XXIII are among the well-known recent examples of this minority” (408).

I imagine many would question at least one person on this particular list - Fromm had an annoying tendency to idolize certain living or historical men (always men, as far as I can recall) as representatives of biophilia and as borderline messianic figures. In my next post, I’ll suggest some ways in which Ayn Rand fascinatingly illustrates the necrophilous character – in a manner that illuminates particular features of capitalism, patriarchy, and contemporary attitudes toward science, technology, and ecology.

* Fromm took the term from an angry response from Spanish writer-philosopher Miguel de Unamuno to a speech by the Francoist general José Millán Astray in 1936 which he quoted frequently (368).

** Although today the term “biophilia” connotes a relationship with the whole of the living world, Fromm’s formulation was often very human-centered. As his ideas developed, they did become more ecological (as can be seen in Anatomy and also in To Have or To Be?), but they never really came to include nonhuman animals in any meaningful way; in fact, nonhuman animals were often presented as objects or oppositional forces in Fromm’s work. This is somewhat surprising since Fromm repeatedly lists Albert Schweitzer as among those most representative of biophilia – “one of the great representatives of the love of life – both in his writings and in his person” (406). (I suppose this shouldn’t be so surprising: Jean-Paul Sartre was Schweitzer’s second cousin and he still managed to become one of the most speciesist of humanistic thinkers.)

*** The best example of the overlap between these two forms of necrophilousness, in which the attraction to the “antiseptic façade” barely conceals the desire for the “stinking and poisonous place” is in contemporary factory farming. As it grows bigger and more wrapped in mechanical rhetoric and “clean,” scientific practice, the ecological destruction becomes more and more visible – the toxic lagoons that surround CAFOs, the pollution of the surrounding water, the emissions of methane, the stench,…

Saturday, May 3, 2014

The Western Illusion of Human Nature

I’m surprised I hadn’t been aware earlier of Marshall Sahlins’ 2008 The Western Illusion of Human Nature, which can be read in a few hours online. Great little pamphlet.* It puts Steven Pinker’s Better Angels in historical perspective, three years before Pinker’s book was published.

I also just learned about Sahlins’ resignation from the National Academy of Sciences last year in response to the body’s election of Napoleon Chagnon and its ties to the US military. Coincidentally, I came across some recent references to Chagnon last week when offering links to a few critical articles about Better Angels, which I’ll reproduce here:
- “Reality Denial: Steven Pinker's Apologetics for Western-Imperial Violence,” by Edward S. Herman and David Peterson (not free of prejudices, but well worth reading)

- “Why Steven Pinker, Like Jared Diamond, Is Wrong,” by Stephen Corry

- “Pinker, Animals, and Hitler,” by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson (I haven't yet read the book, but it sounds rather like Pinker's whole premise is a libel against nonhuman animals: human violence is ultimately rooted in our animalistic impulses - Corry quotes Pinker as describing medieval people/culture as “animalistic” - which have recently been and continue to be “civilized” by primarily white males in Western Europe and the US; I believe Masson talks about Pinker in more depth in his new book, but I haven't read that yet, either)
Here’s an enlightening summary of the Chagnon controversy at Living Anthropologically.

* My criticisms involve the neglect of his debt to Kropotkin, the brief discussion of comparative attitudes toward hunted animals (not to say that it’s wrong – just incomplete, which irked me especially as I’m reading Brian Luke’s Brutal: Manhood and the Exploitation of Animals), and more generally the relative lack of attention to the speciesism at the heart of the ideology he describes.