Tag Archives: history

History Carnival 129: A Brave New Year

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Here at Performing Humanity, we’re thrilled to have a chance to kick off the new year in collaboration with History Carnival.  Over the past month you have nominated some of the most exciting history blogs and articles of December 2013; and we were fascinated to locate trends regarding the human body, its interiority, and what we learn when those interiors are publicly exposed. Some historians were intrigued by the reverse: what do exteriors teach us about humans and their interiors? Furthermore, what relationships do individual bodies have to the systems they build, participate in, control, and are controlled by?

George Campbell Gosling examined the relationships among internal medicine, nutrition, and human compassion during wartime in Japan, telling the story of Cicely Williams and her roles in the Changi Gaol and with the World Health Organization.

Concerned the adornment of the surfaces of human bodies, Mark Patton posted at English Historical Fiction Authors about a cache of 16th-17th century jewels lost during the Great Fire and unearthed in London in 1912. His reflection suggested that such ornaments reveal a great deal more about their owners’ interior sympathies and alliances than one might expect.

Recent work at Women’s History Network continues the trend of focusing on female bodies; in this case, the blog tracks stories from female refugees during WWI and considers the challenges they faced in owning their  bodies, having social agency, and claiming space within their families while confronting international conflict.

A Visitor’s Guide to Victorian England highlighted the inside/outside realities of prison, focusing on the role Holloway Prison played for men and women accused of crimes.

With a similar interest, Nancy Bilyeau of English Historical Fiction Authors, considered the Westminster Gate-House Prison and the famous poets and adventurers it once housed.

The Smithsonian’s blog Past Imperfect took us back to the 1980s to consider the emergence of the AIDS epidemic and how a variety of ad campaigns for safe sex dealt with issues of race and sexual orientation. Similar considerations were occurring at Nursing Clio, where Rachel Epp Buller explored the history of the epidemic and how, as a result of changes in social behavior and medical treatment, safe-sex and health advertising campaigns have been able to shift their message from the community and towards individuals.Screen Shot 2013-12-27 at 12.15.58 PM

Ken Owen, at The Junto Blog, discussed how opening American history to acknowledge slavery, contact narratives, and cross-national interactions both helps us to educate our students responsibly about our complex human past, but also poses challenges to survey courses facing time constraints.

While The Junto was concerned with how opening history effects current communities, The History Vault featured an interview with Adrian Teal — the questions du jour emphasized the personal nature of historical studies and research methods.

Across multiple blogs and Twitter, the past, present, and future of the academic profession came under debate, with particular attention to the crisis surrounding contingent and adjunct faculty. In response to news emerging from UC Riverside about its timeline for notifying interview candidates, Rebecca Schuman of Pan Kisses Kafka called a search committee to task for assuming that past approaches to the MLA attendance hold true for scholars emerging into an evolving and increasingly strained market. Claire Potter, of Tenured Radical, responded by drawing attention to the ways social media has changed past approaches to conflict, conflict resolution, and discourse surrounding in-field tension. Chiming in as well, Post Academic in NYC asserted that such debates at times lose sight of the treatment of contingent faculty and graduate students — “unconscionable” treatment that might lead us to question academia’s position qua profession.

Finally, the passing of Nelson Mandela prompted The National Archives’ Rediscovering Black History to repost Tina L. Ligon and Michael Arzate’s post celebrating the leader’s last birthday. Here, the writers performed a photo and narrative retrospective of the fight Mandela led for human rights. Not afraid to tackle the difficult questions of posturing, positioning, and historical revision surrounding Mandela and Apartheid, Jamie Miller asked at The Imperial and Global Forum why our knowledge of the system remains incomplete and what responsibilities we have to fill the lacunae.

Thanks to the talented bloggers whose work we’ve featured, to those who provided nominations, to History Carnival for its collaboration, and to all of our readers for their support!

History Carnival: Call for Submissions

Performing Humanity will be proud to host the first History Carnival edition of 2014!

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Beginning December 1, 2013, we invite you to nominate the most influential, compelling, and otherwise intellectually stimulating history posts from the month of December. In particular, we encourage submissions that promote dialogue that queer conceptions of humanness.

Please fill out this form to submit. We look forward to sharing with you in 2014!

History Carnival 122: Humans in the “Natural” World

This past month, Performing Humanity  had the pleasure of reviewing and annotating the most compelling, insightful, and (at times) downright strange blog posts for History Carnival.  Screen Shot 2013-05-12 at 10.55.11 AM

As a site engaged in questions of animal-human definitions, we were unsurprisingly fascinated by the number of sites exploring how humans interact with the natural world–and how such interaction shaped human behavior, blurred categories of natural and unnatural, led to battles for control, and generated fact and  fiction. For example, Terri Windling of Myth & Moor provided a historical overview of the origins and cultural traditions associated in Britain with wild folklore and the figure of “Jack the Green,” who blends natural elements with human form. Lisa Smith at The Sloane Letters Blog detailed the long-standing early modern tradition of linking epilepsy to the cycles of the moon–which suggests an intense tie between human bodies and the wider universe.  For Many Headed Monster, Laura Sangha reported on early astrological traditions and the methods through which humans have traced the stars’ relationship with nature to provide daily advice about topics from crop-planting, to horse-gelding, to avoiding scabs and melancholy.  Also concerned with humans’ knowledge about the universe, Meg Rosenburg of True Anomalies  took up historical approaches to the moon, its geography, and how we have measured and mapped it.

Several blogs drew attention toward humans’ interactions with each other’s living bodies as social and scientific phenomena. Romeo Vitelli, writing for Providentia, explored the strange case of Elizabeth Canning, whose accusations of abduction against her neighbors continues to raise questions about human-to-human violence and the  desire for fame. Dr. Alun Whithey examined how one early Welsh doctor’s childhood curiosity about medicine and the human body led  to a successful surgical career and to his role as  a founding member of “a global super-power” that we now call the US.

Over at The Repository for the Royal Society, Felicity Henderson focused specifically on scientific repositories and the use of animal and human artifacts for early exploration.

The month was also exciting for anyone with a devotion to historical queens and courts. Attending to how queens’  lives mixed high political intrigue with animalistic desires, Get Lost in a Story provided an overview of recent queens’ novels as well as an interview with  fiction writer Barbara Kyle.  More information on Kyle’s work–in addition to a discussion of the role of reason and emotion in the governing styles of Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots–appeared at Historical Novel Society.  Historical Tapestry hosted Gillian Bagwell’s report on the events at the Restoration court from July 1660. Engaging history actively through experimentation, Molly Taylor-Poleskey recounted (and recreated) Prince Friedrich Wilhelm’s regular breakfast of beer soup for The Recipes Project.

Discussion also abounded regarding the university’s humanistic traditions and our shifting ethical roles within them. At  Air Minded, independent historian Brett Holman sought to draw further attention and debate toward A. D. Harvey’s recent scholarly transgressions. Michael D. Hattem of The Junto considered how views of the American Revolution have changed in Americanist scholarship. Meanwhile, guest writer David J. Gary also addressed readers of The Junto, considering the moral and pedagogical positions of librarians, the intersecting roles of MA, PhD, and MLS degrees, and provided advice for students emerging in the field.


By Dr. Blake Hestir

The eccentric pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles of Acragas in the mid-Fifth Century B.C.E. heroically wrote in dactylic hexameter of the origin of animals:

 By her [Love] many neckless faces sprouted,

And arms were wandering naked, bereft of shoulders,

And eyes were roaming alone, in need of foreheads. (Trans. McKirahan)

 He continued,

 Many came into being with faces and chests on both sides,

Man-faced ox-progeny, and some to the contrary rose up

As ox-headed things with the form of men, compounded partly from men

And partly from women, fitted with shadowy parts.

 Aside from an interest in surreal barnyard animals—and if sources are correct, a penchant for wearing purple robes, a gold crown, and bronze shoes—Empedocles was an avid intellectual whose poems were well stocked with philosophical insights about the nature of the cosmos and how one ought to live. One of his remarkable views suggests that the sundry species of living organisms did not come about for some natural purpose or end (telos), but because their parts randomly combined to form creatures that could survive and reproduce.

Empedocles thinks the cosmos consists of four elements or “roots,” earth, water, air, and fire, as well as two natural principles or forces, what he calls Love and Strife. By Love what is unlike is attracted to what is unlike, and by Strife like attracts like. Under the influence of these principles, the elements mix randomly over time to form compounds, eventually the parts of animals, which are “fitted together” into various configurations, some amusingly grotesque like the man-faced ox-progeny. Humans, other animals, and plants are those combinations that retained the ability to survive and reproduce due to the fortuitous arrangement of their parts.

Empedocles makes no mention of humans holding any special status over animals and plants, and in fact in his religious writings, he claims that humans return again as animals or plants:

For I have already once become a boy and a girl

And a bush and a bird and a [mute] fish [from the sea].

 And further that justice is universal and extends to all living things:

 But what is lawful for all extends far

Through the wide-ruling aither and through the immense glare.

 There are accompanying prohibitions against eating meat and even some plants. Remarkably also, Empedocles’ view of the generation of animals looks something like a proto-evolutionary view (or perhaps de-evolutionary depending on whether the cosmos is moving towards a dominant period of Strife or Love) with some nod towards something vaguely similar to what we post-Darwinians have come to describe as natural selection. But it would be a long time before Darwin.

Why so long? One significant obstacle to the proliferation of the Empedoclean conception of biological development—aside from its poetic obscurity—was Aristotle, who in the Physics outwardly attacks the randomness at the heart of the Empedoclean cosmogony. Aristotle argues that the random “fitting together” of parts cannot account for the regularity and complexity of nature.

Aristotle replaces randomness or material “necessity”—that things are the way they are exclusively because of their material nature—with what he considers the more plausible and defensible explanation: nature is inherently purposive. Enter the Aristotelian teleological worldview.

In his biological work the Generation of Animals, Aristotle writes, “we must not say that each [of the products of nature] is of a certain quality because it becomes so, rather that they become so and so because they are so and so” (Gen. An. V.1). On Aristotle’s view, nature does not operate randomly as a series of “pushes” by material composition, but rather as a series of “pulls” by essence into proper form. Each type of living being is shaped by its characteristic essence that explains what it is and what it is for. For example, a human is essentially a rational bipedal animal. To reason is our natural purpose, the cause of our existence as human. We are pulled into our fully functional form by our natural telos.

An implication of the Aristotelian view is that although creatures such as humans, lions, dogs, fish, and birds, etc. share the feature of being animals, each species is essentially different from the other species. So, humans are essentially different from other animals—this biological difference amounts to a metaphysical difference. Moreover, Aristotle thinks that the rational faculty is the most divine of all, and so humans are naturally positioned above the other animals to the extent that all those creatures lack the rational faculty.

Aristotle’s response to the materialism of Empedocles, as well as that of the ancient Greek atomists, was important and influential. The strength of Aristotle’s position was due in large part to his rigorous methodological and systematic approach to science. Yet the dominance of the Aristotelian worldview perpetuated an unfortunate speciesist attitude toward animals. In the end, Aristotle’s teleology and accompanying view of animals was to win out over Empedocles’ man-faced ox-progeny, at least for a while. The resurgence of materialism and science during the Modern period marked the beginning of the end of the Aristotelian paradigm. Darwin would deliver the final blow.


Blake Hestir is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Texas Christian University.


Image: Web: http://publishing.cdlib.org/

Aristotle. Generation of Animals. Intro., text, trans. A. L. Peck. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1963. Print.

The Complete Works of Aristotle. Ed. J. Barnes. Princeton, NJ: PrincetonUniversity Press, 1984. Print.

Henry, D. “Generation of Animals.” A Companion to Aristotle. Ed. G. Anagnastopoulos. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. 368–84. Print.

Johnson, M. Aristotle on Teleology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. Print.

Kirk, G.S., J.E. Raven, and M. Schofield. The Presocratic Philosophers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1957/1983. Print.

Lennox, J. Aristotle’s Philosophy of Biology: Studies in the Origins of Life Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Print.

McKirahan, R. Philosophy Before Socrates. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Co.,Inc., 1994. Print.

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