Review Of "What It Means To Be Human: Reflections From 1791 To The Present" By J. Bourke

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Bourke's witty, provocative look at what being human has meant during the past two centuries advances a strong Derridean deconstructivist critique of all essentializing attempts. Some turf is well trodden--e.g., that characterizations of the human often valorize maleness--but even here Bourke (history, Birkbeck College, Univ. of London) offers the kind of telling anecdote that provides punch. This history has both an agenda and a thesis. The agenda is to make readers think more clearly and become more sensitive to the hierarchical assumptions embedded in Western thought regarding the Other: women, slaves, animals, cannibalism, and racism. Talk of human rights is firmly rejected (though, curiously, without looking at its historical origins; see Charles Beitz's The Idea of Human Rights, 2009). Bourke's non-essentializing posits "negative zoélogy [which] ... injects instability and indeterminacy in our discussions ... its negativity generative: it incites imagination." But as with negative theology, with which Bourke compares her position, this revolt against conceptualizing has severe limits. It is one thing not to essentialize; it is another to try to describe something in wholly negative terms. Although this book is philosophically superficial, readers will find much to think through, especially Bourke's excellent examples of human obtuseness and cruelty. Summing Up: Recommended. Upper-division undergraduates through researchers/faculty; general readers.


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