Monday, August 31, 2015

The Lord of the Rings - JRR Tolkien

Upon my third (perhaps fourth) reading of Tolkien's classic, I am struck by how little the story provides to the reader. Tolkien's work rarely feels heavy-handed and indeed puts a tremendous burden upon the reader to make their way in a world which is only gradually, and never completely, revealed to them. A deserved charge is that the tale too frequently references people, places, and events which otherwise go unacknowledged within this vast created world. While such references often allude to magical occurrences and fanciful creatures, the limited information provided suggests, rather than explains, a broader world which stretches beyond the character's times and actions. As the stakes and the scope grow, the reader, along with the four hobbits, gradually moves beyond their own parochialism. Thrust into world-altering events, the four hobbits grow as we would expect of a youth coming into adulthood. Throughout their journey they are exposed to, though never fully engaged with, a more 'adult' world of the powerful and terrible. The mystery they move through remains only partially illuminated. Similarly, to whom is the world ever fully understood?

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The History of Ornithology - Peter Bircham

If, as mentioned in an earlier review, there is no such thing as 'art,' only artists, we might similarly add that there is no such thing as 'ornithology', only ornithologists. Specifically, Bircham's account tells us only that the history of British ornithology has been composed by individuals (almost exclusively men) who are best understood within the confines of their era, their educational and field training, and the mode of biological and ecological science that prevailed in their lifetimes.

Much of this recounted history is as uninspiring as many non-ornithologists might assume. Too often it reads as a catalog of amateurs and academics. Debates surrounding Linnean nomenclature and listing techniques (among other issues) are treated primarily as esoteric territory battles with little exploration of how ornithology and ornithologists impacted the broader biological sciences. By keeping the focus narrowly upon ornithology, but not pursuing any specific aspect in too much depth, topics of certain interest - the first British bird book written, studies of migration, species classification - are sometimes subsumed to the inclusion of biographical synopsis of ornithologists' lives. At its weaker moments this history reads more like a chronicle. Relatively unexplored is the question of why a history of British ornithology is necessary and what it teaches us not only about the field and the biological sciences, but about our evolving relationship to birds and the environment at-large.

There are some great mysteries and wonders of the past, which Bircham touches upon; these convey a sense of how ornithological understanding has changed. We do well to remember that many of our scientific matters of fact are mediated and authorized by technological developments. How could proto-ornithologists have known where swallows migrated before the exploration of interior Africa? Without radio tracking how could avian movements be traced from county to county? Let alone country to country? Physical and social technologies (e.g. the development of laboratory sciences) were never a given as ornithology moved beyond bird-watching and cataloging to stand as a robust field of inquiry. Early chapters of Bircham's account transport the reader to a time when even the term scientist was unheard. These provide interesting moments of reflection. Missing is a more explicit engagement in these moments, and more clear discussion of why they raise questions which are pertinent for the modern reader.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Simians, Cyborgs, and Women - Donna Haraway

Lenses through which we see and languages through which we speak, are each integrally constitutive of how and what we know. Of the world we create and thus inhabit. The (re)invention of nature will be composed of how we imagine the divide between ourselves and the world - thus how we envision ourselves. In this collection of essays, Donna Haraway seeks to replace the closed, coherent imagined self with a social and world-inhabiting and creating identity which is more thoroughly local, contingent, and provisional. Simians, cyborgs, and women all represent alternate not-quite-fully human identities which have been used to draw boundaries in the hegemonic, masculine, reductionist, economic western patriarchy. Haraway seeks an alternate epistemology which is specifically located and thus not parochial, but which is strengthened through its intimate familiarity of perspective. The view from nowhere, she suggests, is no view at all.

Haraway takes the perspective that all scientific texts are situated entities susceptible to critique. Taking the position of social-embeddedness to a logical conclusion, she asks how the modes of metaphor and seeing through which we experience the natural, say studies of primatology, will condition our ways of understanding the always partially uncertain world. Visions of dominance hierarchies which focus upon aggression within primate communities risk overlooking how mutualistic interactions may also play a central role in group functioning and maintenance. When we draw parallels between our primate relatives and the human social world - as though chimps were somehow archaic people 'unpolluted' by the cultural factor - suddenly 'human nature' is imagined to likewise be expressive of dominant-subordinate relationships. This perspective feeds-back: our perspective along these lines deepen, altering how we see the world.

Rather than juxtapose the human with the natural, Haraway suggests that we are all more emblematic of the cyborg. That is, our bodies have been, and will continue to be, hybrids, composed of the natural world and technologies. She rejects the question, but what, underneath it all, is truly the human? There is no 'underneath it all.' The relationships which we embody are constitutive of reality. Hope to separate the human from the world - as though we would each have an unpolluted essence - are always false hopes. We are positioned and thus privileged within that unique position to know and express one of many worlds. Reality is the ever-transforming meeting place between the mind and the world. Never closed, always partial.