What does it mean to be human, anyway?

Black and white photo of Phillip Thurtle
Phillip Thurtle is professor of History and Chair of the Comparative History of Ideas Department at the University of Washington. He received his PhD in history and the philosophy of science from Stanford University. He is the author and co-editor of numerous books and electronic media, including his most recent book, Biology in the Grid: Graphic Design and the Envisioning of Life (University of Minnesota Press, 2018). His research focuses on the affective-phenomenological domains of media, the role of technology in biomedical research, and theories of novelty in the life sciences. His most recent work is on the cellular spaces of transformation in evolutionary and developmental biology research and the cultural spaces of transmutation in popular culture and the arts.

Composite lives: animating concepts of justice

Understanding relationships is difficult. What at first seems simple unravels into increasing complexity the moment you begin to investigate it. This is because relationships are never just between two people; rather, they are a knot of interactions between who we think we are, what values we uphold, the spaces and times that we interact with each other, and the power relationships that constitute these spaces. And there are few more complex knots than that knitted by the use of the word “human.” What I intend to do in this short essay is to use a discussion on how art and science can help expose possible new ways of conceiving of the problems and potentials of thinking in terms of the “human.”

Let’s begin by using an example from a scene from Bambitchell’s film, Bugs & Beasts Before the Law, entitled “Inanimates in Exile,” to demonstrate the complexity of relationships knotted together in a specific concept of justice. This scene explores the peculiar medieval and early modern English common law concept of deodand. Under deodand, if someone’s property (either animal, plant, or an inanimate object) directly contributed to a person’s death then that object would be forfeit to God. The idea was that the King would take the offending object (or its equivalent value) and redirect its purpose towards a pious cause. The example given in the film is that of a wheel that falls off of a moving cart and kills a man. As it was the momentum of the wheel that killed the man, the wheel would be held liable, and the owner of the cart would forfeit the value of the wheel to the King who would then apply this value to strengthen the human relationship with god. To modern viewers, the concept smacks of animism as it directly implicates the object (and only indirectly implicates the owner of the object) as responsible for the crime. Even the sacrifice of the object to the King implies an acknowledgement of an entwined supernatural and moral authority as humans were thought to have dominion over the earth and the objects it contained. Only evil objects threatened to overturn this divine relationship between human and God. The sacrifice of the object, then, was less a punishment of the object than the correction of a malevolent order of relationships.

The scene in the video employs a number of filmic techniques to bring out the supernatural themes embodied in deodand. The accompanying music, for instance, combines psychedelic and religious musical effects to create a cantata sounding as if composed by a malicious demon. The dominant image during the scene is of an animated transparent red circle (sometimes circles) overlaid on the point of view of an individual wandering through the forest. The technique used to combine the two images is called compositing, where a single image is composited from two separate images, and it is frequently used in animation and special effects. In this case, the composited image combines a naturalistic woodland scene with the willful and mischievous movement of what should be an inanimate circle, effectively bringing a simple shape to life. The fact that Bambitchell uses a circle in this scene should not be overlooked.

Circles have played an especially important role in thinking about what it means to be human in the early modern and modern West. They do this through two very powerful formal properties. The first property is “inclusion,” as a circle has the power to efficiently circumscribe a boundary that separates an “interior” from an “exterior.” The second property is “closure,” as the circle allows for the completion of a curved line by drawing together the beginning and the end point, making sure that no elements cross the border. Much humanist thought derives from these two principles. For instance, the distinction between “self” and “environment” relies upon both “inclusion” and “closure.” The concept of “inclusion” allows one to take a complicated web of relationships and draw a boundary around the relationships thought to fit together in a systemic fashion. The concept of “closure” provides the luxury of thinking that these relationships are absolute: one can’t be part of the self and environment at the same time.

In the film, the circles move whimsically through the forest searching for objects that can be judged deodand. The concepts of inclusion and closure operate in the scene as well, as the circle highlights an object, thus separating it from the environment and giving it legal agency by designating it deodand. Many times, arguments about justice use the same type of circle logic. An overly simplistic example would be the widening of the circle of the “human” to confer specific rights upon animals. Or the inverse, where the designation of specific types of humans as animals allows for the removal of legal and political rights. The problem though is that drawing a circle often brings greater violence to subjects than originally supposed.

In her recent book, Becoming Human: Matter and Meaning in an Antiblack World, Zakiyyah Iman Jackson argues that the dichotomies created between animals and humans have actually contributed to anti-blackness in society. Jackson suggests that antiblackness doesn’t always happen through exclusion to the category of the human, “but as the violent imposition and appropriation—inclusion and recognition—of black(ened) humanity” (3). The problem isn’t one of being excluded from the circle of liberal humanism, but the violence of being included as an inferior type of humanity. “It is perhaps prior scholarship’s interpretation of this tradition [of blackness] as “denied humanity” that has facilitated a call for greater inclusion, as a corrective to what it deems as a historical exclusion of blackness” (3). Jackson’s point is that blackened bodies were neither fully excluded nor completely animal and they were still dispossessed of legal rights. “One consequence of this orientation,” writes Jackson, “is that many scholars have essentially ignored alternative conceptions of being and the nonhuman that have been produced by blackened people” (3). Are there other ways, then, that we can animate ways of thinking about the fraught overlap between ontology, knowledge, and the materiality of bodies than the simple logic of circles?

I spent a great deal of time looking at how bodies were thought to be organized in 19th and 20th century biology while researching my book, Biology in the Grid: Graphic Design and the Envisioning of Life. I too concluded that the logic of inclusion and exclusion in biological thought is much too simplistic for modern conceptions of bodies. Many scholars have noted how the German Ideological tradition influenced morphology (or the study of the forms of organisms) and how this influence privileged a view of the organism as a bounded whole (think circle) directing the development of each of its parts. I’ve argued though that if one looks more carefully, one can see that the holism of German morphology is slowly being displaced by a modern conception of the body as a grid composed of interchangeable parts. This change in bodily formation, from circles to grids, supports a very different idea of what it means to be human. This change isn’t in itself better, especially as this new conception of embodiment is supported by consumer culture and neo-liberal capital (you will find an extended analysis of this in the book). It does provide different problems and opportunities for thinking about how to ensure that all bodies are treated equitably.

A few of the key differences:
Gridded bodies aren’t whole. Gridded bodies aren’t completely circumscribed wholes subservient to the demands of the organism. Instead, they teem with internal forces which are often contradictory to each other and in callous disregard to the needs of the biological subject. Gridded bodies leak; they feel pain; and they often produce tensions within themselves as well as their environments.
Gridded bodies are incredibly varied within a species. Much 20th century biology was built on the assumption that there were two types of bodies: a normal body and deviations from this norm. Gridded bodies don’t have norms, they have statistical regularities that emerge from variations in how bodies respond to developmental, environmental, and social cues. For instance, the same genetic sequence can initiate the growth of an antenna as well as a leg depending on where and when that gene is expressed.
Gridded bodies enhance connections across species, weakening the influence of the demands of the complete organism. In the holistic conception of the body, the primary relationship is between the whole body and its parts. The gridded body’s primary relationship, however, is between the parts—and these parts aren’t limited to a single organism as they form relationships across species, phyla, and even kingdoms. Neil Shubin (among many others) has argued that human arms have strong anatomical and genetic connections to the fins of a fish. Whole bodies were once conceived of as a classical symphony where all musicians followed instructions to produce a masterwork of creation; gridded bodies unfurl over time, as if improvising on riffs that resonate with other works or provide disharmonious internal counterpoint.

These observations about forms expose different concerns about what it means to be “human.” Violence to bodies is not performed only through exclusion, it is also performed through how bodies are included. Also, understanding what has happened to a body (or psyche) after a trauma does not mean drawing the circular closed in a return to an idealized “healthy” state. It more likely means making a rigorous evaluation of the social, environmental, and biochemical coping strategies that one uses to navigate challenges presented by the world.

The schema I’ve presented above has one important flaw. It too assumes a form of closure as it creates a radical separation between circular bodies and gridded bodies. Pragmatically, bodies exist as both grids and circles and I suspect that systems of justice do as well. What this means is that we need effective ways for envisioning how these two schemas are often overlaid and influence each other when collected together. And this brings me back to the circle and deodand.

As I noted before, when Bambitchell created the image of the circle bounding through the forest, they provided us with another important conceptual tool: the composite. The effectiveness of the scene relies on their ability to create a composite image from two different parts, the circle and the woodland. The parts sometimes work together as a seamless whole, but they often don’t. One of my favorite moments in the scene, for instance, is when the circles flicker and pop and take on a vitality all their own.

And this brings me to my final observation about “the human.” Contemporary lives tend to be composite lives in their complexity. What we need is a way to hold together contrasting ways of thinking of relationships and power without collapsing them into singular animating frameworks. There is no singular term, such as “human,” that can encompass this complexity. Assuming there is one only compounds existing violence. Instead, mounting a creative challenge to entrenched social inequities demands we develop composite views of the entrenched knot of beliefs, material circumstances, and bodies that we call justice.

Jackson, Zakiyyah Iman. Becoming Human: Matter and Meaning in an Antiblack World (New York: New York University Press, 2020).
Shubin, Neil. Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body (New York: Pantheon Books, 2008).
Thurtle, Phillip. Biology in the Grid: Graphic Design and the Envisioning of Life (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018).