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May 05 2012

Bodies

There’s a strange essay by Anthony Pinn at RDF which is not going down very well with the readers who have been commenting so far. It’s very long and very…how shall I say, very baroque in a Literary Theory kind of way. A lot of words to say something not very complicated.

I’ll give you a little sample; see what you think.

Many atheists and theists share a hyper optimism regarding human progress.  While each group points to the demise of the other as a key component in positive human development – both also presume proper posture toward the world, and use of a certain set of tools, to promote human advancement.  For the theists this is all guided by the good intentions and assistance of a benevolent deity, and for the atheist it is premised on the reliability of scientific inquiry and reason.

While something of a hopeful outlook is a useful approach to ethical conduct, it should be guided and monitored by a sense of realism – recognition of persistent human misconduct and the resulting moral and ethical challenges.  Theists can always haul such problems to the altar, pray about them, ritualize them, or chalk them up to mystery.  For the atheists, the resolution isn’t so easily achieved. The difficulty for atheists isn’t mystical. It stems from a lack of acute attention to the cultural worlds in which we live, worlds that are not so easily unpacked and addressed through appeal to science and logic.  Cultural signs and symbols, cultural framings of life and life meaning are not necessarily guided by scientific method and do not necessary respond to reason.  Instead they function by means of both logic and illogic. Mindful of this, a few questions should be asked:  what is a proper atheistic response to moral failure?  What is the proper ethical posture toward human problems that seem to defy reason and logic?  And, in light of recent developments, do atheists understand and care about black bodies?

33 comments

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  1. 1
    Anthony K

    It stems from a lack of acute attention to the cultural worlds in which we live, worlds that are not so easily unpacked and addressed through appeal to science and logic.

    I didn’t realise atheists were all scientismistic bench lab techs made of straw, with no background in or understanding of the social sciences whatsoever.

    They’d better be careful when working with their Bunsen burners. Straw is pretty flammable.

  2. 2
    MichaelD

    Balck bodies? Its probably my science background causing me problems or maybe it makes more sense in the full article but I’m guessing he’s refering to black people? and not the theoretical black bodies in physics. Cause while interesting I have a hard time seeing how black bodies (physics) are even tangentially related to atheism.

    Checks before posting…. ok yes the link makes it clear its about Trayvon which makes much more sense at least. I’m still not sure why its black bodies and not say black people… While bodies have a nice aesthetic appeal and times I would think black minds say would be more important? That people are listening to black people.

    As to his main point (from what I grasp of it I have trouble reading his dense writing style) I think the underlying racism sexism etc is something not directly related to atheism but something we should as responsible moral people try to be aware of and strive to improve.

    I hate to say it but I think I’d just call this piece a failure. While it probably has important things to say the writing is so dense and full of jargon that makes it hard to read and persuade.

  3. 3
    Ian MacDougall

    “…recognition of persistent human misconduct and the resulting moral and ethical challenges. Theists can always haul such problems to the altar, pray about them, ritualize them, or chalk them up to mystery. For the atheists, the resolution isn’t so easily achieved…”

    Oh, I dunno. One can always drag them down to the local pub.

    “…The difficulty for atheists isn’t mystical. It stems from a lack of acute attention to the cultural worlds in which we live, worlds that are not so easily unpacked and addressed through appeal to science and logic…”

    ‘Science’ derives from the Latin ‘scientia’, meaning knowledge. The Universe is everything we know about. Is there anything beyond (1) what we know about or (2) ever can know about? (1)Plenty, and (2) probably. Except that once we know about it, it becomes part of the Universe.

    So “…cultural signs and symbols, cultural framings of life and life meaning are not necessarily guided by scientific method and do not necessary respond to reason…” becomes a bit of a fudge. Irrational and illogical behaviour can be studied via reason and in the light of what we know about everything else, and as part of the Universe.

    “…Instead they function by means of both logic and illogic…” And so the fudge continues; should from here on be referred to as The Fudge.

    “…Mindful of this, a few questions should be asked: what is a proper atheistic response to moral failure? What is the proper ethical posture toward human problems that seem to defy reason and logic?…” I think that they only need examining using the principles of unreason and illogic. Shouldn’t be too hard.

    “…And, in light of recent developments, do atheists understand and care about black bodies?” Here the mind boggles. Atheists and theists then join together in chorus: God help us!

  4. 4
    'Tis Himself

    Mr. Pinn is a most pretentious writer.

  5. 5
    Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden

    The Black body has long been a subject of analysis and is important here.

    The “Black mind” would be useless in relation to the shooting of Trayvon Martin because he was not killed for the contents of his mind, he was killed because of aspects of his body. Even if you believe that there was a fight and Trayvon caused some level of reasonable fear in Zimmerman such that the shooting was legal, it’s nonetheless true that his body resulted in Zimmerman creating the confrontation in the first place.

    See, for example, “Killing the Black Body” by Dorothy Roberts as a further example of using the “Black body” concept as a tool in analysis of social situations.

  6. 6
    sailor1031

    Well I tried to read it – I really tried. I even think I understood a couple of things he wrote but come on! Does nobody self-edit these days. I doubt if even Pinn could stand to read that whole thing – maybe that’s why he didn’t edit. And if it’s really about black bodies I’ve have thought there’d be a whole lot of math (after all brevity, concision and accuracy are why we use math).
    Whatever the message is intended to be It’s lost. Has anyone calculated the fog-index score for this article?

  7. 7
    BenSix

    …the environment in which such madness could take place, an environment in which some easily assume Martin must have been the aggressor…has been perfected over the course of centuries…

    I agree, of course, that one would be mistaken in “easily assum[ing]” that Martin was the aggressor. But what’s this…

    Progress on this front – dismantling the structures and ideologies that nurture dehumanization – would be a fitting response by atheists to the murder of Trayvon Martin…

    So, Mr Pinn is “easily assuming” that Zimmerman was the principle aggressor. Yes, he may have been – I wasn’t there – but he hasn’t been proved to be and there’s evidence – the images of a rather banged-up scalp and at least one witness’ testimony – that could, once all the data has been considered, lead his judges to conclusion that he wasn’t.

    This case – see also the “Collective Response” – is helping to expose peoples’ prejudices, even as they rail against those they think others hold. It’s foolish, unfair and, with several attacks in the States justified as being responses to Martin’s death, irresponsible.

  8. 8
    MichaelD

    @ Crip

    I suppose, I freely admit this is not a region I am well read on.

  9. 9
    Ophelia Benson

    The “Black mind” would be useless in relation to the shooting of Trayvon Martin because he was not killed for the contents of his mind, he was killed because of aspects of his body.

    Really! And how did his body get there without his mind?

  10. 10
    HP

    I fail to see anything strange or pretentious about the essay.

    Really. I’m don’t know what else to say. It’s a perfectly normal essay about possible humanist/atheist responses to the ongoing legacy of African chattel slavery. It’s not perfect, but there’s a lot of good stuff in there to chew on.

    Are you sure you linked the right URL? Maybe Pinn wrote another, actually strange essay that I missed.

  11. 11
    Ophelia Benson

    That’s fine! You don’t have to see it the way I did.

  12. 12
    Lyanna

    Well, a lot of oppression of black people and other minorities has been body-centric in its effects. Actually that’s true of a lot of oppression, period. So I don’t find the ‘bodies’ thing inherently strange. Dorothy Roberts’s book is definitely worth reading (particularly for those interested in reproductive rights).

    I don’t see anything wrong with the essay. It’s written in an unfamiliar style to a lot of people, probably, but so what? Not all writings are or have to be accessible to a general audience that hasn’t done a lot of reading on the subject. The essay’s not for everyone; it doesn’t mean it deserves mockery.

    It’s in no way a Literary Theory style either, IMO. Because it doesn’t use jargon. Just rather long sentences with complex structures, and the use of the term “bodies” to highlight the physical nature of oppression.

  13. 13
    Lyanna

    Really! And how did his body get there without his mind?

    This is missing the point for the sake of snark. The point is that it doesn’t matter exactly what Trayvon Martin was thinking or feeling. His body was where it “shouldn’t” have been. Yes, it couldn’t get there without his mind’s cooperation–his mind is a part of his body, after all–but his mind’s goals were (evidently) irrelevant to Zimmerman. Zimmerman thought Martin a threat because of Martin’s physical presence, not because of his thoughts on any subject.

  14. 14
    MichaelD

    I completely agree that it doesn’t have to be for everyone. But I do get the sense he is trying to say something to everyone. That`s kind of what disappoints me about it. That he some views he wants to see take over or reform the movement but cant seem to articulate them well. For example that we should be focusing on basic skepticism over focusing on religion. Which I`m not sure I agree with but is at least an interesting point of discussion.

    It just seems hampered by his writing style. You call them long complex sentences my essay writing professor would have called them fused sentences. While I think some people are a bit unfair I think it does stem from a failure of the article. At least as a persuasive piece for a general audience.

  15. 15
    M can help you with that.

    As someone who’s used to the jargon of the field, I found it relatively straightforward. Trying to translate a bit…it’s about how a structurally racist society/language/etc. understands bodies that are socially labelled “black” as not really counting in some significant sense. Yes, it’s irrational (and I think all of us, including Pinn, can basically take that as given); the tricky part is how to make that irrationality visible to the people who are being irrational. Just pointing it out doesn’t work, because again — irrational. It’s about an attempt to take racist irrationality apart by getting in there and chipping away. Understanding how the (irrational) racist symbolic world works in order to figure out where to most effectively apply pressure to blow the whole thing apart. I’m not entirely convinced about the effectiveness of the approach, but I think it’s a genuine effort.

  16. 16
    astrosmash

    Are you sure that this isn’t a rendering from Sokal’s postmodernist program?

  17. 17
    Egbert

    What I find interesting are the responses here and on RD.net. The responses here are far more sympathetic, but still recognize the problematic style of the article. Over at RD.net, the responses are more personal and hostile, like giving patronizing advice on writing style, and there is even a piece of unnecessary sexism.

  18. 18
    Bruce Gorton

    what is a proper atheistic response to moral failure?

    If a moral failure causes other people harm, then the proper response is to use whatever mechanisms are available to minimise the harm and stop it happening again. If it does not cause other people harm, then it really is none of our business.

    What is the proper ethical posture toward human problems that seem to defy reason and logic?

    To recognise our cognitive biases and seek more data, and to use what is available to make what is the best choice knowing that we may be wrong. To recognise that nobody ever promised being a good person would be easy.

    And, in light of recent developments, do atheists understand and care about black bodies?

    No and yes.

    We do not understand the black body and this is a good thing. When we do not understand, we listen and learn. When we think we understand, we ignore.

  19. 19
    emily isalwaysright

    Bruce, who is this “we” you feel so comfortable speaking for?

  20. 20
    emily isalwaysright

    Likewise, to Pinn, I would say re whether atheists care about black bodies: “which atheist in particular?” It’s like asking whether atheists are liberal or conservative. It’s irrelevant.

  21. 21
    Bruce Gorton

    emily isalwaysright

    When it comes to my statement on whether we understand – pretty much everyone. Our cognitive biases as human beings mean we pay less attention to things we think we understand, it is part of what fuels the Dunning Kruger effect.

    Besides, one cannot understand “The black body”. There are individuals you can learn from, and there are issues you can find out about, but as a whole there is no more a universal black body than there is a universal white one.

    It is something that strikes me as strange how we as human beings can be be comfortable with recognising individuality within our in-group, and then spend all our lives trying to to understand every outgroup en-masse as though all members of it were exactly the same.

    It is when we recognise individuality that we take that step from understand them to accepting us. Or at least that is my provisional understand pending further evidence.

    As to caring, that was more my natural optimism than anything strictly rational.

  22. 22
    Nathair

    Has anyone calculated the fog-index score for this article?

    A whopping 16. It’s also got a Flesch-Kincaid grade level of 13.79, generally expecting four years of post-secondary education for comprehension. Those are ridiculous stats for a non-technical ‘net opinion piece.

  23. 23
    Ophelia Benson

    See, I think # 15 is more useful than the entire article. It’s explanatory. The article is the opposite of explanatory – it sort of unclarifies what was clear.

    You’re right, Lyanna, I was snarky, but this kind of thing really frustrates me, because the kind of thing M Groesbeck said in # 15 is eminently worth saying so I wish people would say that instead of what Pinn said. I don’t think there is anything technical about what either of them said that requires some kind of specialized language that non-specialists can’t follow.

  24. 24
    Ophelia Benson

    And the bit about Trayvon Martin’s mind being irrelevant to Zimmerman – I don’t think that’s right at all. I think Zimmerman was making (obviously defective) surmises about what Martin’s intentions were based on things about his body (if you want to put it that way). The two go together.

  25. 25
    johno

    I think Mr. Pinn is a sociologist ;-)

  26. 26
    Ophelia Benson

    Nooooooooo. I like a joke as well as the next person, but that’s a slander on sociology.

    I know sociology had a rep for jargon at some point, but I think that was before Critical Theory came along. (Not the Horkheimer-Adorno version but the Literary Theory version.) The latter makes the former look like the cat sat on the mat.

  27. 27
    Lyanna

    “Irrelevant to Zimmerman” was probably the wrong way to put it, I agree. My point was that just by being there, without expressing any intent or thought at all, Martin’s body all by itself was seen as a threat.

    This is a rather different sort of situation than, for example, a black person trying to vote during the Jim Crow era, or trying to learn how to read during the slavery era. That is less body-centric. In those examples, the white supremacist regime is controlling the formation and expression of black people’s thoughts.

    In Trayvon Martin’s case, Zimmerman didn’t want him physically there, at all. He was not allowed to take up physical space. That was inherently suspicious. I think that’s an important point to emphasize.

  28. 28
    Ophelia Benson

    Well I think the not allowed to be there, at all, for no sane reason, is a very important point to raise, but I still don’t think the word “body” adds anything. (And in some ways it subtracts.) I’ve been thinking about it, and trying to puzzle out what it is supposed to add. I can see it being – if sparingly used – relevant to labor issues and slavery, in that people who exploit the labor of others are exploiting the bodies of others…But even then I think the utility is limited, because really they’re exploiting both; mind and body.

    And that’s the point, surely – people are whole people, they’re not just arms and a back. If they were it wouldn’t be a bad thing to exploit them.

  29. 29
    gillyc

    Even with the helpful ‘translation’ at #15, I’m having a hard time understanding the atheist/theist bits. Is there a difference between atheist racism and theist racism? Perhaps in the rationalisations made for it but I don’t see that there’s much difference in the fundamental causes.

    And Pinn seems to be completely ignoring black atheists. (“[D]o atheists understand and care about black bodies?” implies that all atheists are white, or at least that’s how I read it.)

  30. 30
    Ophelia Benson

    It’s such a bizarre question, too. I’m at a loss to know what he means by it.

    The more I think about it the more puzzled I am by the whole “bodies” thing – because it seems the opposite of liberationist or progressive or liberal or anything I take Pinn to be. The next step would be to replace the word “bodies” with “hunks of meat” – also accurate in a way, but also not a particularly humane or “caring” – speaking of caring – way to refer to people.

  31. 31
    Shatterface

    Is there a difference between atheist racism and theist racism?

    Yes – we can be racist too, but when we are called on it we can’t just shrug and say ‘because God sez’.

  32. 32
    Lyanna

    people who exploit the labor of others are exploiting the bodies of others…But even then I think the utility is limited, because really they’re exploiting both; mind and body.

    Not really. They’re harming the mind, but not exploiting it.

    For example: forcing black slaves to pick cotton all day long. Their minds aren’t being exploited. Just their physical ability to pick cotton. Their minds are being stunted and damaged, but not exploited. Not used for the white master’s benefit.

    A Roman slave who was a scribe is having his mind exploited, but a physical laborer in the fields is mostly having his body exploited.

    Or another example: the sexual and reproductive slavery of black women. That is pure bodily exploitation, using the women’s bodies for the slave-owners’ profits. They’re not really profiting from the women’s minds. They’re torturing their minds, but profiting from their specific bodily functions of sex and reproduction.

    I think using the term ‘bodies’ does highlight the very physical aspect of slavery, in a way that sometimes does get forgotten. Modern-day Americans sometimes like to talk about freedom in a very abstract way, and this is often especially true for Confederacy-apologists who claim that slavery wasn’t all THAT bad, really. Focusing on the sheer basic physical brutality of it is a good thing.

    That said, I think that physical brutality is somewhat hidden by the stylized, convoluted style used by Pinns and by some others who use this terminology.

  33. 33
    Jon Jermey

    When writing to impress rather than to convey information, it’s a standard technique to treat abstract concepts as if they were concrete nouns: and the commonest way to do this is by sticking ‘the’ in front of them. Writing about good things and beautiful things is nowhere near as impressive as writing about ‘the Good’ and ‘the Beautiful’. Or, of course, ‘the Deity’ or ‘the Divine’. Or ‘the black body’.

    There is not one black body, but millions of human bodies, some of which are covered in darkly pigmented skin which for various reasons some of us describe as ‘black’. Someone should point out to Pinn that ‘THE black body’ is pretentious and misleading nonsense. But since the goal of making sense would actually require him to apply thought and take care with language, I don’t expect it to have much impact on an aspiring postmodernist.

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