Thursday, July 31, 2008

What Is a Human Being?

In a class I just gave at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation, we were looking at the latest evidence from Africa--mostly from South Africa--to show in detail the single origin of all people, all the people dispersed across the globe now and fighting so unnecessarily. We are all blood kin. It is a beautiful fact. This class, called The Latest Findings from Africa -- What Is a Human Being? looked at the question, what does it mean to be human? When did the evolutionary line from which modern Homo sapiens emerged actually become Homo sapiens, attain humanity?

The current series of issues in The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known deals with that, beginning with an anonymous review written in 1850 (Quarterly Review) about which I'll say more another time. The review is written passionately, and insists--at such an early time, 9 years before Darwin published Origin of Species--that all varieties of humanity across the globe evolved from a single source. The opposites of variety and unity, or many and one, are written about with a true egalitarian passion by this reviewer, as a matter of scientific fact. The atmosphere of the time, with attempts to justify slavery in so many quarters, "scientific" and not, is stoutly opposed in the article.

But in the class to which I'm referring, we asked about the first appearance of human beings as we know them: our undoubted direct ancestors in body, mind, and culture. And the oldest clear occurrence is in South Africa--the Blombos Cave and Stillbay region--some 70,000 years before the present. Sophisticated stone tools called bifacial points are there--and delicately made implements of polished bone, 40,000 years or so before they appeared in Europe: a fact that has surprised archaeology.

The people of Europe are direct descendents of those culture-brothers-and-sisters who left Africa and eventually found their way to Europe with the tool kit first observed in Blombos, at the southern tip of South Africa, by the seashore.

And the first "scratchings" of art are there: red ochre oblongs engraved with straight lines in regular geometric patterns! This is the first time in the world such a thing occurred. Even if earlier instances are found, this gathering of artifacts shows that the minds that made them were like our own. Humanity did not have to wait until the flowering of Franco-Cantabrian art for the art instinct to have begun to show itself.

What all this comes to is that a tremendous threshold had been crossed by 70,000 years ago--the threshold into humanity. The relation of person to world, and the relation of person to his or her self, had changed.

So then, what changed? And how do we know these living beings really did change from their ancestors? All of us feel we can be more human. What does that mean?

In the class I pointed to the fact that opposites that are in animals, including our immediate primate ancestors, came to a new, richer and kinder relation in human beings as we became truly human. And they can be in a better relation still. Those I spoke about first were Subjective and Objective. I learned how crucial these were from a lecture by Eli Siegel, founder of Aesthetic Realism--I'll quote this lecture in a moment. And there will be more about this entire subject later.

The answer to What does it mean to be human?--to be a person? we discussed was in several paragraphs of Mr. Siegel's lecture titled Aesthetic Realism and People. I will reproduce two paragraphs which are crucial both anthropologically and philosophically here, from issue no. 606, The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known (14 November 1984). I will not attempt to comment now, but I will later. Note that there is humor here along with philosophic strictness:

To know what people are is very necessary, because through knowing what other people are we know about ourselves. There is not a person who has ever lived who can't tell us something about ourselves. For that matter, there isn't a thing. People are simply things, more complete than other things. The difference between a person and a lamp post is that the lamp post is a person who is incomplete because the lamp post is not conscious of itself. In other words, when that which is in the lamp post is in such a form that the reality becomes aware of itself and aware of things that can be called purposes--a certain attitude to everything else--the lamp post would be a person. It is necessary to see that between things and people there is a continuity; between people and ourselves, our very selves, there is also continuity; and at no point is the continuity broken.

People are simply reality when most complete; reality when aware of itself. The importance of people is that they are reality in the richest form. Through seeing that reality can be people, we see what reality can do. And so our attitude to plants and animals and to rocks and the skies can become richer.

A person is a living being that can look at itself--look at one's motives, see how justly one is looking at the world--and be a critic of oneself. It is a great fact that out of inanimate reality, billions of years of whirling atoms, arose awareness. We are "reality when aware of itself."

The simple fact that people in Blombos caves decorated their bodies with beads made of shell, perhaps colored themselves with that red ochre, shows in the most elemental way that they were aware of themselves. "How do I look?" is a sentence of self-awareness. And when one looks at one's own motives, and asks, "How to I look to myself? Do I like myself or not, for the way I was angry last night?" it's self-awareness even more grandly. All this came from the evolution of inorganic matter into matter with awareness.

The period of South African prehistory in which awareness of self was emerging, when a new relation of opposites in the human consciousness was coming to be,is one of the highest points of human evolution. And we came from them.

For more about the Aesthetic Realism understanding of Anthropology, see Aesthetic Realism: A New Perspective for Anthropology and Sociology.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Can People of One Culture Understand People of Another, Really? If So, How?

It is possible--in fact it is necessary--for people of one culture to be able to understand people of any other culture. If it is true, as some think, that every culture is so completely unique that the feelings of a person born into it cannot be understood by a person of another background--well then, how can there be hope for the world to be kind? How can there be hope for citizens of the United States, steeped in American culture, to understand the people of Iraq from within and so, be kind? How can there be hope for Palestinians and Israelis to understand one another so deeply that war and hate are no longer the compelling things they have been for years?

For mutual understanding between people of different backgrounds to be possible--and we know it has occurred in history--there must be things that every culture has in common, every person has in common. It is this common basis that makes possible the "translations" we know have occurred: as when, for example, Sir Walter Scott wrote about a Jewish family, Isaac and Rebecca, with sympathy and accuracy in his novel Ivanhoe.

Certainly every culture is unique: the culture of Japan is unique. The culture of the Paiute-Shoshone nation is unique. But is every unique culture made up of general components shared by all cultures? Is every unique individual human being made up of general components shared by all people? Is it right to say that representatives of three cultures--let's say the Inuit of Alaska, the Mengti of New Guinea, and the Americans of Mt. Vernon, NY--are like the elements Zinc, Potassium, and Argon which are, all three, built of the same particles: protons, neutrons, electrons? Are there "elements" that build every culture, and are in a unique arrangement in each? If so, what are they? How can they be discerned and described?

There is an obligation on the part of every anthropologist to use our discipline, anthropology, to cross the cultural barricades that have separated people. As students of culture we ought to be in a unique position to make international understanding a reality. But that has not happened--and will not happen--through the accustomed channels. The big reason is this: Anthropology is still looking for a way, or method, of understanding a culture so that (1) the anthropologist can describe it truly and (2) people of any other culture can understand that description. I believe there are already some anthropological works that do convey inner feelings present uniquely in specific world cultures. Three are E.E. Evans-Pritchard's The Nuer; Bronislaw Malinowski's Sexual Life of Savages in Northwestern Melanesia; and Margaret Mead's Coming of Age in Samoa . But if we ask how can we do this ourselves, what information about a culture and selves in it we need to convey, and how we can gather that information, there is only one place in anthropological theory to find the answer.

It is the mission of this website to show that the method of Aesthetic Realism--the education founded by the poet, critic, and scholar Eli Siegel--is the means to meet this large and humane goal of scientific anthropology.

The Permanent Opposites Are the Natural Units Anthropology Needs

In every branch of science there are natural units by which measurements can be expressed. What are the natural units of anthropology?

A meter is a natural unit of length which is unquestionably used to measure--anything: the diameter of a star; the circumference of a diamond ring; the height of a child. Writes, "The meter was originally based on the size of the Earth, with the distance from the equator to the North Pole being arbitrarily defined as 10 million m."

What about the feelings of people? Are there natural units within them? For instance, if a person in China a thousand years ago left home to go on a journey, and then came back, would his or her feeling be intelligible to a person in any part of the world, of any culture? Are tears universal? Are smiles universal? Is longing universal? Are reunions universal? Here, I would say two pairs of "natural units" are the opposites of Separation and Junction, and For and Against.

The poem of Li Po (AD 701 - 762) "The River Merchant's Wife" has the immense poignancy of separation and junction, for and against. These opposites are so deeply and exactly seen by Li Po that the power of his poem to communicate deep feeling transcends cultural barriers. This poem enables a human self of ancient China to show itself clearly to a human self in America. It was translated by Arthur Waley and then Ezra Pound. All successful art refutes the notion that people of different cultures cannot communicate their deepest feelings.

A major purpose of my website Aesthetic Realism: A New Perspective for Anthropology to show how the natural units of anthropology--the actual elemental forces in the human self, and in culture, and in society--are the opposites that philosophy, aesthetics, and physics employ.

Among the most salient opposites in anthropology are: self and world, difference and sameness, separation and junction, order and freedom, for and against. They are aesthetic opposites, as first defined and described by Eli Siegel. I refer the reader, for example, to his Is Beauty the Making One of Opposites? (1955). Look at Freedom and Order and ask, Is any society without both? I will be saying more about the natural units of anthropology as time goes on, and why they are necessary and also give anthropology a beauty akin to art and literature.

Anthropology Is about You and Everyone

Taught by Arnold Perey
Spring 2008
Aesthetic Realism Foundation

January 23 • The Scientific Concept of Contempt

The difference between what a thing deserves and what a person gives it, explained Eli Siegel, is one definition of contempt. The contempt principle is new to the social sciences and necessary in order to understand anthropology & oneself.

February 6 • Liking the World: The Evidence from Anthropology

The thing that makes human selves different from other life forms is seeing and caring for the world’s structure of opposites, and showing this in art, science, and in language itself.

Saturday February 23 • Selves and World in a Great Museum

Anthropology class joins THE VISUAL ARTS AND THE OPPOSITES class at the Museum of Natural History (Central Park West @ 79 th - 81 st Street) at 11 AM.

March 5 • Equality, What Is It?

Looking at tribal cultures in Africa, America, and elsewhere—& wealth inequities in the U.S. today—we ask, “What is equality, really?”

March 19 • Good and Apparent Good

When Hamlet questioned the apparent good of avenging his father, did he stand for the best in a human self—in Africa, Asia, Oceania, or Manhattan?

April 2 • Selfishness: the One Thing Seen As Evil in Cultures Worldwide

From the Wall Street Journal: “Trader Made Billions on Subprime. John Paulson Bet Big on Drop in Housing Values” (1.15.08).

April 16 • The Organizing Principle Is Always Aesthetic

Students in the class speak on instances of anthropology, explained by Eli Siegel's Theory of Opposites.


Resources by Ellen Reiss, Class Chairman of Aesthetic Realism. Important, powerful instances of her writing in the fields of literature and the social sciences