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Historical Reflections from the 1800s to the Present

by Joanna Bourke

Pub Date: Dec. 13th, 2011
ISBN: 978-1-58243-608-1
Publisher: Counterpoint

A scholarly look at more than two centuries of varying interpretations of what it means to be human.

British historian Bourke (History/Birkbeck, Univ. of London; Rape: Sex, Violence, History, 2007, etc.) focuses on Anglo-Americans and Haitians, the former for their perceptions of cultural and ethnic outsiders, and the latter as an example of a subjugated people who revolted against their white colonial overseers and established a black republic. In examining the various distinctions made between human and nonhuman creatures, the author turns to the image of a Mobius strip, a one-sided surface with no beginning or end, for she finds the boundaries between human and nonhuman just as indistinguishable. All criteria for dividing human from nonhuman—e.g., language, intellectual ability, use of tools, possession of a soul or belief in God—are seen to be inadequate, but humanity's continuing and futile efforts to make such a demarcation is "the greatest driving force of history and also the inspiration for systematic violence.” Bourke ranges widely, looking at the denial of full humanity to women, children and nonwhites, at the arguments for and against the rights of animals and at the problems posed by the radical biotechnological techniques that have enabled the merging of human and animal cells. Her writing is dense and demands close reading, but the black-and-white drawings and photographs are often showstoppers, even stomach-turners. Among them are illustrations comparing the face of an Irishman to that of a dog, and of a Negro slave being boiled alive, and photographs likening the slaughter of pigs to the Holocaust.

Historians and philosophers may be engaged, but this is much too weighty for casual readers.