Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Time and bodies

The New York Times has initiated a new science column called Basics. The first installment is an article by Natalie Angier and may be of interest to readers of this blog. In "Making Sense of Time, Earthbound and Otherwise" Angier writes of time as impossibly long and incredibly short. What she stresses, though, is time's regularity ... and its humaneness. In fact it is quite an anthropocentric overview. Here's the conclusion:
We are poised between the extremities and homogeneities of nature, between delirium and ad infinitum, and our andante tempo may be the best, possibly the only pace open to us, or even to life generally. If we assume that whatever other intelligent beings that may be out there, in whatever alpha, beta or zepto barrio of the galaxy they may call home, arose through the gradual tragicomic tinkerings of natural selection, then they may well live lives proportioned much like ours, not too long and not too short. They’re dressed in a good pair of walking boots and taking it a day at a time. And if you listen closely you can hear them singing gibberish that sounds like Auld Lang Syne.

She forgot to mention that these Auld Lang Syne singing aliens also have ten pairs of legs and three mouths ... and that maybe they don't live their time as we do on this 365 day year 24 hour day globe.

Elsewhere, Gail Kern Paster's book Humoring the Body has been reviewed in The Medieval Review. Gail is my former colleague at GW (she is currently the director of the Folger Shakespeare Library), and I've always been a fan of her blend of historical precision, emphasis on materiality, and theory savvy. The review (by Jesse Swan) is at times overwritten ("these same features become, for the participating or at least provisionally acquiescent reader, masterful qualities contributing to the cogency of the substance of the book's effort"), but the points made are good ones. The book is quite valuable to any medievalist thinking about the body in time.

Finally, one more note about the body and its humors, this time in relation to the question of race and racism in the classical period: check out Mary Beard's blog, where she posts on Racism in Greece and Rome.

[updated at 10 AM to fix a link and add the reference to Beard]


Karl Steel said...

More to say later, but your Medieval Review link isn't working. Try this.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Thanks, Karl -- I think I have it working now.

Eileen Joy said...

I read the Beard essay and also added it to my syllabus for my monsters/demons seminar, so thanks for the link, JJC.

I have, over the past year or so, been trying to read more in classical studies, especially Hellenistic studies, and I'm noticing a certain dance that is always being played around the issue of whether or not the early Greeks were "racists," vis-a-vis the Persians, Scythians, "barbarians," etc. It would appear that there is quite a bit of discomfirt within classical studies in deploying the term "racism" when discussing early Greek culture, as if the word were either semantically inaccurate or anachronistic [which reminds me of the debate, earlier last year, over whether or not early Anglo-Saxons could have been "apartheid-style" racists]. If we assume that "race" is a modern category, rooted in certain biological assumptions that would not have been available, or "knowable" in early Greece, and that, furthermore, it always attaches to certain physically-visible characteristics, then, somehow, early Greeks weren't racist. They were proto-racists, in Ben Isaacs's terms, whose prejudices were based on "place" over skin color, let's say.

I'm nowhere even close to being an expert in this area, but even my rudimentary reading in early medieval monster-books and travelogues, and in the classical sources upon which they are based [Herotodus, Pliny, the "Letter of Fermes to Hadrian," the various pseudo-Alexander letters, etc.], and from what I know of early Greek laws regarding the place of the foreigner within the city-state, all I can say is, whether you call it "proto-racism" or "racism," it amounts to the same thing: a systematic "othering" of those who are not "the same," which systematic othering [epistemological in the first instance] can then be employed in the service of conquering, colonizing, ghettoizing, and prohibiting through legal means the movements/habitation of the Other.

It may be that, anthropologically-speaking, if there is a part of human nature, even in its evolutionary infancy, that is predisposed to dominating others, that something like "racism" was always close at hand as a means for determining who could be "used" and who was more "sacred."

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Welcome back, Eileen!

It does seem that agonziing over the existence of premodern race and racism is largely a waste of time, and usually an attempt to keep a beloved past pure of modern prejudices. But, as you say Eileen, humans do seem predisposed to anchor the other's difference in the other's body, and surely that is race.

Eileen Joy said...

Yes, JJC, early classical treatises on marvels + other peoples + other "animals" are certainly invested in describing differences that are mainly bodily and/or custom/habit-based. Even in its most contemporary sense, race=genus=species, and early monster-books, etc. are all about taking the human or specific animal template [goat, dog, bird, etc.] and adding to that other body "pieces" that therefore de-form the template and make it both "related" and "strange." New/deformed "species" = new/deformed "races" = racism. At least, I think so.