Infrahumanisms: Science, Culture, and the Making of Modern Non/personhood

Infrahumanisms: Science, Culture, and the Making of Modern Non/personhood

by Megan H. Glick

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In Infrahumanisms Megan H. Glick considers how conversations surrounding nonhuman life have impacted a broad range of attitudes toward forms of human difference such as race, sexuality, and health. She examines the history of human and nonhuman subjectivity as told through twentieth-century scientific and cultural discourses that include pediatrics, primatology, eugenics, exobiology, and obesity research. Outlining how the category of the human is continuously redefined in relation to the infrahuman—a liminal position of speciation existing between the human and the nonhuman—Glick reads a number of phenomena, from early twentieth-century efforts to define children and higher order primates as liminally human and the postwar cultural fascination with extraterrestrial life to anxieties over AIDS, SARS, and other cross-species diseases. In these cases the efforts to define a universal humanity create the means with which to reinforce notions of human difference and maintain human-nonhuman hierarchies. In foregrounding how evolving definitions of the human reflect shifting attitudes about social inequality, Glick shows how the consideration of nonhuman subjectivities demands a rethinking of long-held truths about biological meaning and difference.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781478002598
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 12/14/2018
Series: ANIMA: Critical Race Studies Otherwise
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 288
File size: 21 MB
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About the Author

Megan H. Glick is Assistant Professor of American Studies at Wesleyan University.

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Brief Histories of Time


In 1920 Chicago attorney Sebastian Hinton filed for a patent on a structure called the "jungle gym." Fashioned from interlocking metal tubes, the jungle gym was designed to produce a vertical play space that could be installed in virtually any setting. Hinton based his invention on the premise that climbing was the best form of exercise for children, enabling them to perform the "natural method of locomotion which the evolutionary predecessors of the human race were designed to practice." On the jungle gym, Hinton reasoned, children would be able to play like "a troop of monkeys through the tree tops in a jungle," in much the same way that a "kitten might play with a ball." Asserting that the "monkey instinct" present in children would encourage their use of the structure, Hinton drew on a loose understanding of biological evolution and human morphology that had begun to develop within U.S. public consciousness during the early twentieth century. Yet by aligning children with kittens, he also made an odd analogy, raising questions about the logic of play itself as a vestigial form. If the kitten chased yarn instinctually because of the unnaturalness of domestication, it would follow that the child might perform the tasks of early man, not of "monkeys" in the "treetops." Either way, Hinton's invention located the child as a liminally human figure who must be made to perform and reperform evolutionary tasks.

Such ideas were not unique to Hinton's vision, and in fact marked a clear pattern of thought within early twentieth-century attitudes toward children's corporeal subjectivities. From the establishment of a children's rights discourse based on animal sentience rather than human rights; to the growth of the U.S. scouting movement, which incorporated children into animalistic rituals and identities; to the rise of pediatric science that established the child as a proto-evolutionary creature; and finally, to the birth of the playground movement that insisted on the construction of artificial green spaces to promote "wild" forms of play, the turn of the century witnessed the critical production of the child as a marginally human subject.

This chapter thinks through the category of childhood as an infrahumanist ontology of American modernity. In doing so, the generic terms child and children are commonly employed for two reasons. First and foremost, it is in keeping with the ambiguity of the vernacular of the period, which, as will be demonstrated, is clearly related, but also not simply reducible, to an idiom of the empirical, white, male subject who generally passes for the invisible "I." Second, and pursuant to this premise, it enables the category of age to surface as a primary determinant in the processes of children's identity formation, demonstrating the ways in which the meaning of childhood itself defied the expected mapping of social divisions. It is therefore precisely in the centering of the biological and cultural considerations of childhood in which another narrative emerges, one that does not conscript children within the expected processes of gender performance or racial typography but rather within a complicated progression of liminal humanity.

In order to understand the story of how the child becomes an infrahuman figure, it is first necessary to access the profound transformation of juridical and cultural attitudes toward children that occurred during the late nineteenth century, and that served as the framework through which infrahumanist visions were produced. By the mid-1800s, the location of the child within the modern processes of industrialization and urbanization became a central problem within U.S. political and social activist cultures. While the question of child labor was raised as a result of changes in the economy, the issue of child abuse also received newfound attention due to the efforts of humanitarian reformers, who advocated on behalf of various disenfranchised populations, including the poor, "insane," criminally institutionalized, and enslaved.

Like the eugenics movement that would follow during the twentieth century, humanitarianism used the language of the "human" ambiguously to represent a broader sense of social commonality rather than as a discrete biological sign of species identity. In this context, humanitarianism and the language of the human/e offered a framework for extending consideration toward liminal groups. Based on an empathetic sense of what it meant to experience physical pain (later understood as "sentience" in animal rights' literature), humanitarianism created a universal affiliation determined by a presumption of shared corporeal feeling among all living creatures. As historians of human rights have pointed out, the rise of humanitarian sentiment is inseparable from Enlightenment discourses of rationality, which emphasized reason and stigmatized the types of heightened emotionality that could lead to violence. As such, humane treatment became understood as marker of a properly civilized society, rather than a simple form of altruism.

While humanitarian reformers were successful in raising concerns about the treatment of groups at the borderlands of political and cultural agency, they also managed to reify the role of corporeality in the production of liminal subjectivities. By using the body as a barometer of the humane, humanitarian ideology produced devalued forms of subjectivity that stood in stark contrast to the rational empiricism so esteemed by the "modern" world. Ironically, then, to argue in favor of humanitarianism, or to argue on behalf of humane treatment, was in a sense to culturally de- anthropomorphize human beings, and to remember their sentient, animal selves in the interest of modern sensibilities.

This line of logic was made explicit in the transformation of animal protection organizations, which opened their doors to mistreated children during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. The formal relationship between the child and animal welfare movements was struck in 1874, when Henry Bergh, founder of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), helped remove a badly beaten ten-year-old girl from her foster family in New York City. Shortly thereafter, the Brooklyn Eagle reported that by rescuing the child under animal cruelty statutes, Bergh had "recognized the human race as animals." Bergh himself hoped that his actions might redraw the lines of kinship and affinity, declaring, "The child is an animal. If there is no justice for it as a human being, it shall at least have the right of the cur in the street. ... It shall not be abused."

Bergh's intervention pointed to a curious feature of nineteenth-century political culture. Animals were indeed understood to be more sympathetic creatures than children, who were often imagined to solicit the treatment they received. On the occasion that the courts did intervene into their lives, it was typically for punitive purposes that protected society from "troubled" youths rather than protecting children from the troubled society in which they lived. Yet Bergh's remarks also illustrate the ways in which late nineteenth-century visions of humanitarian reform established a language of "rights" that had nothing to do with notions of intellectual or political equality but began and ended with the pitiable "cur in the street." As Susan J. Pearson has argued, child welfare gained particular currency through its affiliation with animal protectionism. This connection was naturalized through designated similarities between the plight of nonhuman and nonadult subjects — whether in relation to issues of labor, abuse, trafficking, or safety in public spaces — producing an "ideology of sentimental liberalism ... that reconciled dependence with rights and pledged the use of state power to protect the helpless."

Within the domestic context, this association became fodder for the gradual rise of the welfare state, where policies of protectionism often contravened the rights of those who fell between the cracks of democratic citizenship. Overseas, protectionism became a guiding principle of U.S. imperial exceptionalism. As the U.S. became increasingly invested in colonial projects at the turn of the century, rhetorics of humanitarian concern enabled strategies of empire building that reconfigured military intervention as charity. In 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt articulated these connections while presenting his Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine to Congress. Arguing that the United States was indeed a "self-respecting, just, and far-seeing nation," Roosevelt pledged to "endeavor by every means to aid in the development of the various movements ... which tend to render nations ... more responsive to the general sentiment of humane and civilized mankind." At the same time, he warned that if other nations proved themselves unworthy of self-governance, they "may force the United States, however reluctantly ... to exercise an international police power." Pro-imperialists who did not share Roosevelt's "reluctance" to intervene nonetheless held a similar rationale for expanding the U.S.'s influence outside of national borders. Suggesting that the legacy of slavery in the United States made the nation "an ideal training and testing ground" for the "uplift [of] the child races everywhere"; "domestic blacks were but a small part of the 'white man's burden.'" Such rhetoric was indicative of broader late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century imperialist discourses, in which notions of "civilization" became articulated through overlapping trajectories of human morphology and childhood development. In particular, the popular metaphor of the colony- and/or-colonial-subject-as-child served to naturalize imperial conquest while subsuming the decline of formal U.S. isolationism under the rubric of humanitarian concern.

As Stuart Creighton Miller has demonstrated, U.S. formulations of foreign policy during this period centered on President William McKinley's notion of "benevolent assimilation," or, "the substitut[ion of] the mild sway of justice and right for arbitrary rule." Comparable to idioms of benevolent paternalism deployed under the institution of slavery, benevolent assimilation used the language of charity and kindness to deflect the grave power relations at hand. Roosevelt followed his predecessor's reasoning, stating that the "aim [of intervention] is high. We do not desire to do ... merely what has elsewhere been done for tropical peoples by even the best foreign governments. We hope to do for them what has never been done for any people of the tropics — to make them fit for self-government after the fashion of the really free nations. ... Such desertion of duty on our part would be a crime against humanity."

Establishing the exceptionalism of American "aims," Roosevelt justified military occupation in the Philippines, cautioning that the people were "thirty generations behind," and that the institutionalization of freedom and democratic governance might in fact be a long and halting progression. It was for this reason that he found it to be the duty of the American people to take up arms and enable the "emancipation" of the world. While requesting additional funding from Congress for the expansion of the naval forces, he quoted the now famous "old African proverb" that advised to "speak softly and carry a big stick." In many ways, Roosevelt's warning was a fitting metaphor for the changing conditions of democratic governance and American citizenship during an era of intense international arbitration and domestic transformation. Disavowing the implicit violence of global "police" work and colonial occupation, Roosevelt's paternalistic formula would remain at the forefront of U.S. foreign policy for years to come.

At the same time, the very idea that fear might be a greater motivator than force — that one might be made to know a "stick" without ever feeling its blows — was also an apt description of changing attitudes toward the proper treatment of U.S. children. As strident, "inhumane" measures of control fell out of favor, the question of how to best govern children in the modern era remained unclear. Because the children's "rights" discourse that grew out of humanitarian reform relied on a certain kind of disenfranchisement from adult liberties, the political vision of child protectionism, like that of colonial paternalism, ultimately provided a more totalizing form of control than the potentially violent embrace of a single household. For just as foreign interventionism required the governance of a "far-seeing" nation, so too did the conscription of unruly children demand surveillance of a different sort. As Ernest Thompson Seton, cofounder of the Boy Scouts of America, flatly declared in 1910, "control from without is a poor thing when you can have control from within."


The development of a distinct youth culture at the turn of the twentieth century marked a new moment in the lives of U.S. children, and it was an important instantiation of nascent modes of surveillance designed to monitor children's physical and psychological growth. As Progressive Era humanitarian reformers sought to create new institutions to protect American youths from the challenges of modernity, so too was the role of childhood reconceptualized in distinct ways. Sentimental concern for children's moral and physical vulnerability in urbanizing environments produced a framework for understanding childhood as a condition defined by imperilment and fear. Childhood became reimagined as a fragile time, in need of stricter boundaries and definitions; ultimately, the concurrent coalescence of the fields of public health, statistics, and pediatric medicine worked to produce more specific understandings of childhood as tied to specific temporal frames and chronological progressions.

By the first decade of the twentieth century, transformations of attitudes toward children could be seen across a variety of arenas, from social reform (e.g., child protectionism) to medical knowledge and consumer culture. The children's literature industry, for instance, grew substantially during the late 1800s and early 1900s. While this expansion mirrored other patterns in American publishing due to technological innovation, it was also the case that the content of manuscripts written for children changed dramatically. Scholars including Karen Sanchéz-Eppler and James Kincaid have demonstrated that narratives produced for children increasingly understood childhood as a special — even "magical" — time, a temporality deeply imbricated with notions of fantasy and dependent upon highly variable worlds of individual imagination.

The toy industry expanded at the same time, and manufacturers began to reconceive of their products in relation to newly sentimentalized understandings of the child. Emphasizing attributes like "softness" and "safety," modern toy makers began to replace traditional materials of wood, metal, and ceramic with cloth and yarn. As Sianne Ngai has noted, the popularization of plush toys in the early years of the twentieth century occurred in tandem with the rise of psychology. Arguing against earlier ideas of children as "naturally moral or virtuous creatures," psychologists increasingly asserted that children possessed innate tendencies toward aggression, brutality, and destruction. Thus while plush toys were popularly correlated with sentimental ideals of tenderness and care, they were also prized for their malleability and resilience against "the violence with which children were increasingly associated." This presumed dualism was emblematic of broader concerns surrounding children's lives and subjectivities that emerged during the Progressive Era; not only were children imagined as imperiled by external dangers, but so too were they understood as a threat in and of themselves. It was in this context that social reformers began advocating the institutionalization of public playgrounds, locations where Hinton's jungle gym, among other new play structures, would be erected in the interest of restructuring children's free time.

Prior to the development of playgrounds as child-specific spaces, the U.S. parks movement had already begun to carve out distinct spaces of nature. In urban settings, parks were understood to offer a respite from the ills of modern industrial life. By the turn of the century, social reformers including Jane Addams and Jacob Riis began advocating the specific design of parks to address the growing problem of juvenile delinquency in cities. Attempting to escape overcrowded living conditions, many children who lived in urban tenement housing were forced to play in the streets. In New York, the growing number of children in public spaces resulted in the illegalization of their presence, leading to the arrest of thousands of children during the late 1880s and 1890s. Social reformers argued that the instantiation of public playgrounds would resolve this issue by keeping the streets and jails clear of unwanted youths, while also serving a larger goal of improving child welfare. In 1906, reformers founded the American Playground Association (APA), and in 1907 began circulating a monthly periodical entitled The Playground dedicated to the promotion of their cause.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments  ix
Introduction: Toward a Theory of Infrahumanity  1
Part I. Bioexpansionism, 1900s-1930s
1. Brief Histories of Time: Nature, Culture, and the Making of Modern Childhood  29
2. Ocular Anthropomorphisms:Eugenics and Primatology at the Threshold of the "Almost Human"  56
Part II. Extraterrestriality, 1940s-1970s
3. On Alien Ground: Extraterrestrial Sightings, Atomic Warfare, and the Undoing of the Human Body  85
4. Inner and Outer Spaces: Exobiology, Human Genetics, and the Disembodiment of Corporeal Difference  110
Part III. Interiority, 1980s-2010s
5. Of Sodomy and Cannibalism: Disgust, Dehumanization, and the Rhetorics of Same-Sex and Cross-Species Contagion  139
6. Everything except the Squeal: Porcine Hybridity in the Obesity Epidemic and Xenotransplantation Research  159
Conclusion. The Plurality Is Near: Techniques of Symbiotic Re-speciation  196
Notes  209
Bibliography  247
Index  263

What People are Saying About This

Made to Matter: White Fathers, Stolen Generations - Fiona Probyn-Rapsey

“With superior scholarship and a daring treatment of her material, Megan H. Glick weaves together a wide variety of texts and historical periods in a sophisticated fashion. Glick's use of the concept ‘infrahuman’ to examine topics ranging from primatology and eugenics to obesity will be of great interest to scholars working in sociology, science and technology studies, animal studies, posthumanism, critical race studies, and gender studies. An insightful book and a strong contribution.”

Bioinsecurities: Disease Interventions, Empire, and the Government of Species - Neel Ahuja

Infrahumanisms makes new inroads into science studies, animal studies, and critical race literatures by tracking post-eugenic thought through scientific disciplines and popular culture. Offering eye-opening analyses of how nonhuman bodies configure the social field of human differences, Megan H. Glick's excellent work helps us understand the history of the posthuman grounded in the changing biopolitics of race and empire.”

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