Amanda Tinkle: Okay! So I think we are all here now today. Me; I will be interviewing you, and as well as Curren, who is here.
Curren Gauss: Hi! Sorry, I had to put my roommate’s cat away because he likes it when people are talking behind closed doors. So… he likes to scream, and I didn't know if that would be fun for the podcast. But, I'm here now!
Selka: [laughs] Nice to meet you!
Curren Gauss: Nice to meet you too!
Amanda Tinkle: Alright! As you know, my name's Amanda. I was in your class, Post-Apocalyptic and Dystopian Fiction last fall; and you’re a professor of religious studies– so, I was kind of wondering what your particular fields are of interest, and what piqued your interest in this question of ‘what is it mean to be human’ that we have talked about?
Selka: Yeah. Thanks. And thanks for the invitation to do the podcast. I appreciate it. Good to see you again. So yeah, religious studies is an interdisciplinary field. So a lot of us have, you know, degrees in different- in different home disciplines. So I'm a cultural anthropologist, and my research interests up into Yeah, for most of my career, I've been doing research on religion and race in Brazil.
So the my interest in the question of what it means to be human, and post apocalyptic and dystopian fiction, that stuff comes kind of recently, and isn't really part of my, or at least the post apocalyptic and dystopian fiction part of it doesn't really come from my training as a cultural anthropologist, but my concern with the question of what it means to be human, I mean, makes sense for an anthropologist since anthropology is the study of human humanity from different from different angles. So, yeah, I think both as an anthropologist, and as someone in religious studies, I think, I think that question of what it what it means to be human resonates in both of those both of those fields.
And I think my, my main interest in that question is, or my, the way that I want to tackle that question is not so much, you know, answering what it means to be human, in, in any sort of final final terms, but in sort of pushing us to think about the concept of the human as a historical and relational concepts. So I'm, you know, if you asked me, What do I think it means to be human? I mean, I have my own sort of, I guess, personal views on that.
But as a scholar, I'm mainly interested in answering answering the questions, so we can sort of get it what's behind the question and what's at stake in the question, but yeah, it took to sum up my answer, I think, you know, as because of my background in anthropology, and because people in religious studies are, have always been interested in the question of what it means to be human, and even more so in, in recent decades. You know, all of that has kind of shaped my interest in that question.
Amanda Tinkle: Yeah. And can you kind of explain what, like, is it possible to be viewed as less than human depending on where you're from? or anything like that?
Selka: Yeah. So historically, and then this is why I'm talking about this is why I talked about thinking about the concept of human of the human historically and relationally. So, historically, there have been people that today we would, we would, without a doubt, classify as taxonomically human, you know, like Homo sapiens sapiens, who have been considered either not human or less than human. So if we look back to the history of European conquest of the Americas, of the transatlantic slave trade, you know, the, the humanity of indigenous peoples of the Americas and the humanity of, of Africans, enslaved Africans was was in question for, for European conquistadores and, and colonists.
And, you know, to some extent, there was some debate around the, the extent to which indigenous peoples in the Americas were human, but by and large, the kind of the, the prevailing notion was that, you know, Europeans were fully were fully human and other peoples around the globe were, you know, more distant from being, you know, more or less distant from being fully human, or we're not considered fully human, or we're not considered human at all. We're considered closer to animal. So, yes.
And I mean, we, that sort of gradation of humaneness, you know, continues through the early 20th century in the form of scientific racism, right. So this was the idea of gradations of humanity or humaneness was not a, this wasn't a kind of fringe thing, this was something that was part of the European enlightenment part of part of scientific discourse. And of course, continues today through 2022. We may not, we may not see these kinds of distinctions between levels of humaneness in, you know, science textbooks or in, in, you know, in other kind of mainstream institutions, but it's sort of still embedded in the culture and in sort of, in our politics, that some people are more more human than others.
Amanda Tinkle: And what kind of were those qualifications historically, and even presently, for those viewpoints of who is human, and who wasn't?
Selka: Yeah, so. I mean, I can I can talk about that from the perspective of, well, in the spring, I taught a graduate course, on religion in the colonial encounter. So we talked a lot about the ways that colonial administrators, and missionaries, the ways that they talked about the people that they encountered, in, in the colonial in the colonial enterprise, and the ways that colonial administrators and missionaries sort of dismissed or sort of cast out on the humanity of those that they were encountering.
So a lot of the language that we looked at in that seminar, the dehumanizing language to be looked at in that seminar had to do with framing colonized peoples as savage or irrational, there was a whole vocabulary for talking about, I mean, “savage” in the 18th, 19th century, had a relative had often had a specific meaning. I mean, we think that term is we have, it gives us a general impression of someone who is sort of wild and untamed. But for anthropologists of the 19th century that had a very specific kind of evolutionary... "savagery" was a very specific kind of evolutionary stage.
So a lot of the distinctions, you know, that were part of the grid, you know, that were part of ways of classifying people is more or less human, had to do with it, at least, when we're talking about anthropology and, you know, early anthropology, and its intersection with the colonial enterprise had to do with people's culture and ideas about people's capacity for rational thought, and those kinds of things. And then, I mean, of course, when we get if we look at the other, you know, the more sort of, there were also biological distinctions that were key to this, you know, key key to what we're talking about here.
The early 20th century, the history of eugenics is all about, it's all about looking at how looking at certain populations or races and how more or less pure they are relative to other populations or races, which that that purity seems to suggest something about, you know, how purely human or how superior one population or races compared to compared to others. So, yeah, there were cultural, psychological and biological distinctions that, that we're that sort of it's sort of under underwrote this system of classification through which people were saying allotted is more or less human.
Amanda Tinkle: Yeah- and so, you know, I was thinking about eugenics earlier and you brought up like scientific distinctions and things like that... and it's when you think about identifying as something, identifying as a human being, that's not really something that you think about in context of like, a personal identity, like, who you are. And it seems like culture has a lot to do with that. But what kind of impact does just this label of being human have on individuals? And even if they don't really realize it's like, concepts influencing their identity?
Selka: Yeah, I mean, I, I think that… so the way, the way that I understand the question is, you know, if we were to make a list of things, if somebody asked us to make a list of five words that describe us, human might not be that might not be on most of our lists, because it seems to be obvious. You know, that, if we're speaking and interacting, then we must be we must be human, but but there are these ways, even in everyday speech, that we kind of question and negotiate our human-ness. So, I sent out a message, an email message with some news, and somebody who one of my colleagues called me about it, like five minutes later to talk, you know, to talk more. So anyway, my impression of that person's response to my email message by, you know, wanting to call me and talk to me about it personally, I thought that that was a very human response to me, right?
So we use the term "human" not just to, sort of, to classify people taxonomically, as you know, part of this genus and species, whatever, it also has these kinds of value, value relative and ideological sort of associations with it. So being human, you know, it's a, that has resonances with, you know, moral and ethical resonances and has a sort of sense of being connected with other with other people with being empathetic, being compassionate, right?
When we say something's "inhuman," what does that mean? It's, it means it's monstrous. It can mean it's monstrous, but it can also mean it can also, it can also suggest a lack of compassion, or empathy, those kinds of things. So I think, yeah, and I, and maybe, and maybe that's the agitated, humane and inhumane, those, those are words that get it that sort of connotation of, of human as well. So there's all these ways that the question of the human and the question of being a person having rights and, and so on, do come up in everyday life. And then I could say something about AI, and how that fits into this, but I'll, I'm anticipating them, I come up with a future question. So I'll leave it right there.
Curren Gauss: Given, like, your experiences with other cultures, and I know you talked a little bit about your experience with like Brazil and religion there. How does the idea of human change based on culture and individual?
Selka: Yeah, um, so I mean, that's, that is a good question. And the answer is kind of complicated. So let me- let me think, let me talk about Brazil, which is where I've done nearly all of my ethnographic fieldwork. And in Brazil, I work on Afro-Brazilian religion, mainly. And so yeah, the- the main Afro-Brazilian religion that I- that I've studied is Camdomblé, which is similar to voodoo and Haitian Vodou, or Lucumí, in Cuba. And so Camdomblé is- it revolves around devotion to two entities or deities called orixás or orishas, and it's and those, those entities become embodied in their in devotees. So you know, people, we often refer to that colloquially as spirit possession.
So, most kind of lay practitioners in Portuguese would say something like incorporation rather than spirit possession. Because, you know, square possession kind of has certain connotations, especially in the US also in, in, in, in Brazil, when talking about the human eye when talking about humaneness or being human, you know, I've often heard candidly, practitioners say things like, "we're all human beings," right, which is a familiar claim that people make all around the globe, to say, look, we're all equal, and we all deserve respect.
So on one level, I would say that, you know, in the, the kind of lay practitioners understand and use the language of, you know, they use the language of the, of the human in a way that's familiar across the globe, right, in terms of human rights, human respect, human dignity. And, of course, in, in Brazil, as in many places, where people practice African derived religions, you know, there's a certain definite amount of persecution, and discrimination against those religions. So that's where, you know, many practitioners would use this language of humanity and humaneness and respect for the human and for human dignity.
So on that on one level, that that discourse of human dignity, I think, circulates globally even if people understand it a little differently, or sometimes maybe even significantly differently, in local in local places, but where... so at the same time, like, in Camdomblé cosmology, or in the Camdomblé worldview, there are different ideas about what it means to be human and on the level of, you know, on an ontological level or on level of reality.
Curren Gauss: Would you say that that, like, spirituality that you're talking about heavily informs identity in Brazil? And unlike culture?
Selka: Yes. I mean, so, yeah, generally, and anecdotally, so for me, having grown up in the U.S. and mostly suburban spaces, and a time where, you know, at least, like my parents, you know, became disenchanted with religion at some point. So I'm not saying that I grew up in a time when the US was secularizing. Because, of course, I grew up in the 80s, 70s, and 80s, when, you know, certain forms of religion were actually, you know, sort of growing. But at least the kind of place that I grew up, there was a sort of disenchantment with- with religion. But other anthropologists also, like Roberto de monta, I think, have written about the ways that oh, sorry, Carlos Brando, I think has written about the way that all of the pot, you know, all of the popular religions practice in Brazil sort of share an understanding of this kind of spiritual world that's around us all the time. And that has an input, you know, that has a dynamic in which the living are in a dynamic relationship. Right. So that's, again, painting with kind of a broad brush.
But I don't want to, you know, give like this impression that Brazil's this sort of mystical spiritual place in the US is the secularized you know, that's far too simple. But there is a relative depending on what space we're comparing in the US, maybe the university would be one, you know, University is a is a is a fairly, you know, kind of materialist rationalist kind of place. Compare that with, with similar spaces in Brazil and the way that those spaces are open to the idea of, of this dynamic relationship between the spiritual and the material. There is a relative difference there.
Curren Gauss: That's– sorry, that's just, like, so interesting. I've never really heard anybody talk about the spiritual world like that in relation to like the physical world and it's the way that, that- kicked my desk, sorry- but the way that- that can like inform identity is so important, and I've just never heard anyone talk about that. I'm kind of changing gears a little bit but still talking about identity. In your opinion, and with your experiences, what would you say is the most impactful source of identity across, like different societies?
Selka: Capitalism? Next question. [laughs] I mean, I'm kidding. But I feel… yeah, like in over the past few centuries, capitalism has sort of shaped the structures that we live within and global dynamics to, to an unprecedented degree. I think capitalism, nationalism, I mean, these are all things that I mean, if we look at the headlines today, you know, capitalism, nationalism, these, these are things that are at stake. And in many of the many of the developments, that that are that are that we're all kind of concerned with over, you know, over the past few years, and past few decades, that kind of thing.
But I, but I mean, so beyond that, I would say in terms of our everyday lives, you know, when when people heard the news about Roe versus Wade, a couple of days ago, gender and sexuality may have, you know, for many people move to the move to the forum, you know, move to the foreground to the center of questions of, you know, what mattered in that minute. And then, but as we as, as we shift to other moments and other contexts, it might be race, right? So for somebody who is who's the victim of police, police violence, for, you know, doing nothing but kind of walking down the street. That might be a moment, where we're all of a sudden race become race out, outstrips everything, as the most important aspect of identity.
I mean, so if capitalism and nationalisms sort of shape, the world that we live in on on this broad kind of historical scale, then we can see how, you know, capitalism and nationalism, both of those are concerned, you know, that these are the, those are the things that, that allow race and gender as we know them to take shape. Right, so they're not unrelated to, to race and, and gender, those kinds of things.
Curren Gauss: I'd say that makes sense, especially when not to, like, talk about Roe v. Wade again, but as you were, like talking about that, I feel like all of that is even informed by capitalism, like you're talking about, and it makes gender and sexuality and race, more important, but it's all based on those, like decisions and like in a capitalist society, like that's kind of really informs identity. Yeah. Yeah. I think that makes sense.
Selka: And, I mean, I, I didn't mention religion in any of that, which is kind of a weird thing. Studies, but maybe I didn't, because it's, it's so hard for me to say. I mean, just like anything else, exactly how religion, religion doesn't have, you know, some determinate impact on individuals and cultures, right. So the role religion would play in any of these, you know, recent global events that we've been looking at is, is complicated. And often contradictory, those kinds of things, but But certainly, yeah, it many, in many moments, our sort of religious and spiritual commitments, can sort of overshadow everything else about our identities and moments where we're trying to, you know, for example, contemplate you know, the wider meaning of it, all those those sorts of things.
Amanda Tinkle: Yeah, and I, I love that we've been able to talk about, like, the different influences on identity, whether it be race, religion, culture, where you're born and how you were raised and stuff like that. And it seems to be a lot of things can really shape and form your identity. And it seems like you said it can be constant in some things and malleable and others like this question of what is it like to be black? Or what is it like to be this or that? It's a really exciting conversation to have and it kind of shows you just how many things can be unanswerable.
And just like the question of what does it mean to be human kind of like that question. It doesn't seem to be able to be He answered. And so I wanted to kind of bring everything back to the course that we took, when we talked about this question of what it means to be human. Can you just briefly explain what that class was the post apocalyptic and dystopian fiction for anybody that doesn't know?
Selka: Yeah, so that class was, I mean, that, when it came out of… for me was I just wanted to teach on something different from my teacher on something separate from my research specialty. So that was the idea. And then, you know, I can't I just like, I read and watch sci-fi and post apocalyptic stuff. So we, yes, post apocalyptic and dystopian fiction. So yeah. Post apocalyptic fiction deals with, you know, speculation about what the world might look like, good or bad. After the world as we know, it ends, dystopian, you know, fiction deals with speculation about in the future, or an alternative, present, or past where life has just society has has become repressive and unpleasant. As opposed to utopian, utopian would be a perfect world, dystopian would be a broken world, something like that. So you know, that part's kind of gloomy.
So it's post apocalyptic and dystopian fiction with I mean, I, I have tried to, every time I've taught it, make the syllabus appropriately, focused on concerns about the world, becoming dystopian, but also to allow some space for, you know, for some optimism, where it's where it's warranted, or at least open up the question of open up the question of optimism versus pessimism, that sort of thing. So when it comes down to the question of what it means to be human, that comes up in the course a lot of different ways.
Because what, what the post apocalyptic scenario allows for is for people to or what it's, what it's often used for, is a way of imagining what people would be like if society collapsed, right? And so that, I think, I think, philosophers, social scientists, and many novelists have understood that is, this is like a thought experiment for what human nature really is. We could only see human nature if society were, we could see human nature in its purest form. If society were, were absent. I'll stop.
Amanda Tinkle: Yes, so yeah, in the class, I remember that second half of the, the class specifically with the technological advancements, we also talked about things like transhumanism actually happening right now. And in the we talked about "Blade Runner" and "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep" and how, in these, you know, works of fiction. There are they are human, they seem very human, these android-like, beings. And so it was hard to discern who was human who was wasn't, especially in the film version, where you're seeing people play these kinds of androids.
And so I was interested in how, you know, human like androids play into this, you know, this barrier between human identity and also how Transhumanism is already, you know, becoming something that people are experimenting with. And so if you could just explain like transhumanism, and what kind of dilemmas that's going to cause for understanding what is human and what those boundaries are.
Selka: Yeah, sure. So, maybe I'm not doing transhumanism full justice by saying, you know, literally more or less literally, it's about going beyond the human passing- beyond the boundary of- of what we currently understand as human. But that I mean, that can mean different things. So for- for people who identify as transhumanists today, which is there are many different groups within that category, but some of them are interested in enhancing, you know, working off of what humanity what, what it means to be human today, and then enhancing it through expanding or intensifying our sensory capabilities. As we talked about in class that might include expanding the lifespan, you know, so changing the parameters of the human and going beyond the limitations of what it means to be human, that, but, you know, philosophically that raises the question of like, what is it that is valuable and good about? About being our I mean, the first question is, what is essentially human? And if we change aspects of ourselves as, as aspects of ourselves, when is there a point beyond which we're no longer we're no longer human?
So, I mean, so many people who identify as transhumanist today, particularly kind of a techie, sort of people, who are who identify as transhumanist, talk about uploading minds to the, you know, to the, to the web or something. And that could mean, they, many of these folks imagine that that is, what would make us immortal, would make them immortal? So is immortality- does being immortal make us no longer human? Yeah, and one of the things that we talked about in class, if you remember, was the way that if Transhumanism is, is about going, going beyond what we might think of as the limitations of being human, then what about the how would the How would access to those enhancements or improvements be distributed across society? Right? Presumably, they would cost money.
And, and so transhumanist technologies could introduce a sort of hierarchy between those who were, you know, superhuman, and those who were below that, which, you know, of course, many, there's a lot of contemporary sort of narrative, popular narratives that focus on that, like, the Amazon series "The Boys," you know, so that the, this whole question of superhuman and human in fiction is a is a is a popular sort of concern.
And there's the possibility, I mean, on a personal level, I'm not, I'm pretty skeptical about this sort of uploading your mind to the, to the web kind of thing. But there is very real possibility for certain kinds of enhancements, what enhancements, I'm using the language that many transhumanists would use, that would be only available to people with, you know, certain kinds of genetic engineering, other kinds of other kinds of prosthetics or whatever, that could create the sorts of divisions that would be that would just exacerbate inequalities and create different levels of humanity.
Amanda Tinkle: Thank you so much for joining us today. We had a great time talking to you. We love learning about technological advancements and, like, especially because we're always looking towards the future, and discussion of religions, especially learning about Brazil today. That was very informative and interesting to learn. So thank you so much for joining us. And I believe that we are all done today. Thank you again. Curren, do you have anything you'd like to say?
Curren Gauss: Just thank you. And it was lovely to meet you.
Selka: Yeah, you too. Thanks to you. Thanks to you both for inviting me to do this. This is great.