Book review: What it Means to be Human by Joanna Bourke
John Appleby explores the meaning of humanity
What it Means to be Human: Historical Reflections on What it Means to be Human, 1791 to the Present by Joanna Bourke (Virago)
Definitions come into sharpest focus at the border. Historian Joanna Bourke sets out to explore the question of what it means to be human by examining historical and literary discussions of what has been deemed not human. She takes as her springboard an 1872 letter to The Times signed by “An Earnest Englishwoman” wondering satirically whether, given the relative rights and freedoms enjoyed by women and animals, the former would not be better off classified as the latter.
The point here is not so simple as pointing out that some husbands treat their dogs better than their wives (although Bourke does raise this with her consideration of Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights); rather that, in 1872, public sympathy and even legislation appeared to place animals closer to the human ideal than women.
Throughout what follows Bourke returns to her Earnest Englishwoman and her provocative questions (the working title for the book was Are Women Animals?), and to two centuries of discussions about what falls on the other side of the boundary defining humanity, in order to show how notions of the human have been constructed through contrast with the animal, the “savage” and the not-quite-human.
Along the course of her grand historical tour, Bourke lays out her theoretical baggage. She draws parallels between her approach and that of “negative theology” (attempts to describe God by saying what he is not) and coins the term “negative zoélogy” for her method, though her too brief discussion fails to explain why she prefers “zoé” (life) rather than the usual anglicised “zoo” or, indeed, the common term for the study of life – “biology”.
Bourke does not travel light – she hefts a couple of heavyweight concepts. First, she appeals to the image of the Möbius strip, a topological figure in which there is no distinction between outside and inside. For her this captures the essence of the debate about human and non-human, suggesting they are equally indefinite, and that attempts to produce fixed definitions of what it means to be human are akin to tying knots in the strip. (Jacques Lacan applies a similar Möbius analogy to the relationship between the conscious and unconscious, although Bourke does not mention this.)
The second concept comes from the philosopher Jacques Derrida – “carnophallogocentrism”. Bourke uses this fearsome term to outline how full humanity is accorded only to those individuals who fulfill three conditions: that they are capable of sacrifice (“carno”, roughly meaning meat-eating, but Bourke finesses this with very interesting accounts of literal and symbolic cannibalism); male (“phallus”, e.g. Aristotle’s definition of man as a rational animal); and capable of speech (“logos” – one of Bourke’s examples is a discussion about whether deaf-mutes can be more than beasts, since, because they cannot speak, they cannot, it was thought, be rational).
Bourke employs this conceptual arsenal to attack both Anglo-American theologians and humanists for supposedly identifying the white middle-class European male as the peak of what it means to be human.
This framework is put to work across an eminently readable account of historical instances of disruptions of and anxieties about what counts as human. Bourke focuses on societal encounters with animals, women and “savages”, taking in such practices as the abilities of animals to communicate, the issue of whether animals and slaves feel pain, meat-eating, rights, cosmetic surgery and transplantation using non-human donors. She skilfully deploys a wealth of fascinating detail, ranging from attempts to teach apes to speak, via a discussion of a repulsively racist adventure story about cannibal slaves, to fears that women vaccinated with cow pox may end up in the embraces of bulls.
However, it is sometimes difficult to get a sense of how widely the opinions she examines were actually held. For example, she identifies the 19th century as a time when there was a huge expansion in meat-eating and then goes into great detail about 19th-century arguments against eating meat, but she does not offer a sense of how pervasive or influential these arguments were.
The core problem with Bourke’s approach is her uncritical use of her theoretical tools. The usefulness of the term “carnophallogocentrism”, for example, has come in for much – justifiable – criticism in academic circles, and not just white male middle-class ones. Yet Bourke presents it as an uncontroversial given and then reads all her historical evidence in its light. Likewise, her definition of humanism – as the doctrine that kills God and then deifies humanity – is one that many humanists (including, I venture, most readers of this magazine) will not recognise. The great stress that modern humanism lays upon biology, for example, suggests a recognition that humans are not somehow to be set above the rest of life as special autonomous subjects. Bourke might plausibly argue that this is what humanists claim but not what their practices demonstrate, but she does not. Thus a very readable historical account of debates about what it means to be human is let down by the rather too uncritical use of critical theory.