On Specialization

Sometimes I wish I could specialize more – work at a research university where I could do one or two things but do them superbly. Instead, I work as one of only four full-time staff at a small comprehensive college where I do ALL THE THINGS: website, ILS, e-resources, contracts and budgeting, technical support, instruction, reference, scholarly communications, and more.

Inevitably, I sometimes I feel inadequate to the volume and variety of work I have to do. On the other hand, I get to go home every day feeling that I achieved at least one concrete goal. Every sixteen hours I commence a very different workday. There is no sameness in my job.

And then I remember Robert Heinlein’s quote. He was a fascist SOB, but this is a good saying.

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

I love my job. 🙂

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Racializing Predator – The Movie

So, Predator. It’s a fun movie, thanks to the silly, over-the-top machoismo of Arnold Schwarzenegger and his action-movie cohorts. But the film’s racial subtext is startling.

The Predator

The Predator howls defiance

Think about it: the eponymous villain is a technologically advanced extraterrestrial creature, sure, but also a jungle-loving savage with dreadlocks, prominent facial features, vicious and inarticulate howls, a penchant for necklaces of skulls and other bling, and labeled a predator, racialized just like so many other big black males, including the 7’2” black actor (Kevin Peter Hall) who was cast into the role. To beat this menace to society, the big white male lead, a German strongman nicknamed “Dutch” (most Aryan of nationalities), goes blackface by smearing himself with mud that conceals his body heat. The real black guys on Dutch’s team who defy the villain die quickly (so do the other whites), and apparently the Latino guerillas and villagers have failed for years to take down the predator. You gotta be an Anglo-American dude with a German accent and roided-up muscles in order to take down a Predator so blatantly modeled on the racialized nightmares of white men.

Transhumanism: Utopia for the Privileged

I wrote this discussion board post for E-Learning and Digital Cultures, a MOOC offered by the University of Edinburgh. Readings included the Transhumanist Declaration. This is my response.

The Transhumanist Declaration constructs technology as a blinkered utopian ideology. Here are eight reasons why this is a problem.

1) The declaration is Western-centric. It whole-heartedly buys into the notion of “progress” (an article of faith for Westerners from medieval Catholics to diehard Communists) and “human potential” (an Aristotelian precept that has informed Western thought ever since–look at Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs). Problem is, Asian and indigenous philosophies generally adopt a cyclical worldview, in contrast to the linear Western Weltanschaaung. The declaration is highly Western-centric.

2) The declaration absurdly proposes to establish “forums” for “constructive discussion,” when in fact the global community has repeatedly failed to agree on implementing even a land-mine treaty ban or a 5% CO2 emissions cut. No amount of research or positive thinking will prompt concerted global action.

3) The declaration is classist. While it stresses the reduction of suffering and promotes human rights, it assumes that participants in the transhumanist project have disposable income and leisure time to participate in discussion forums and acquire bodily and cognitive enhancements. This is impossible for the vast majority of humans under the current global capitalist system.

4) Although the declaration acknowledges the risks accompanying biotech, it, it is unrealistic, dreaming of human liberation from earthly “confinement” and the realization of maximum human “potential.” Enough religious and secular utopian schemes have failed to prove that circumstances, including people, have a deplorable tendency to deviate from such utopian programs.

5) The declaration shows fuzzy thinking by resorting to platitudes: “Although all progress is change, not all change is progress.” Biotechnology is too existentially problematic a tool to dismiss with such platitudes.

6) The declaration stresses freedom of personal choice to apply enhancing biotechnologies. But what if someone is too poor to afford an enhancement? And what if people chose to modify themselves to eliminate free will?

7) The declaration embraces technology not as an instrument or a means to an end, but as an article of faith. Technology is a non-monistic plural–“technologies”–not a singular entity that will somehow empower human beings to transcend their adjectives.

8) The declaration does not self-critique.

All that being said, I admire the declaration’s embrace of animal rights, scientific research, freedom of choice, and moral responsibility for future generations. And certainly it is a declaration of intent a la the Futurist Manifesto, the Communist Manifesto, or the Rights of Man, and therefore does not need to be a closely reasoned argument backed by a plan of action. Nevertheless, its vision smacks of ideologization, utopianism, and privilege.

In the Country of the Blind, Carnivorous Plants Are King

The Day of the Triffids (1951) by John Wyndham is an entertaining but awkward marriage of scifi silliness and social parable. When almost the entire population goes suddenly blind after watching a weirdly green meteor shower, the human race struggles to survive and behave decently amid chaos and despair. Survival is made harder by the rise of the triffids: towering mobile carnivorous plants genetically engineered to prey on humans. The opening scene of our hero wandering from a hospital into deserted London inspired 28 Days Later, while the brave new world of blindness surely contributed to Jose Saramago’s Blindness.

Marronage and the Specter of Black Autonomy

Slavery’s Exiles: The Story of the American Maroons (2014) by Sylviane A. Diouf is a compelling, comprehensive, and original study of slaves in the American South who escaped into the wilderness rather than to the North. The term “maroons” was long reserved for use by Latin American and Caribbean historians, while scholarship and popular understanding of American slavery focuses on runaways who sought refuge in white-dominated free society. Reflecting this white-centric bias, 12 Years a Slave, Mississippi Burning, Amistad, and other pop culture representations depict whites as pivotal, whether as villains or saviours. It is Brad Pitt’s white abolitionist who saves Solomon Northrup.

Telling the story of maroons inverts this metanarrative of white hegemony. Thousands of black men, women, and children escaped to the South’s bayous and forests to live singly or build autonomous communities, living off the land, raiding plantations, and sometimes engaging in shootouts with white pursuers. They endured hunger, frostbite, bloodhounds, and armed pursuers to achieve autonomy and dignity, sans white benefactors.

The story of the American maroons is worth telling, and Diouf does a superb job of it.