Monday, December 20, 2010

What We Know About Ourselves

Three cheers for the American Museum of Natural History and its awesome "Hall of Human Origins," which, dear Gina noticed, was partially funded by the U.S. Congress (and lots of other donors).  There'll be no time for long writing this morning, so it will just be to say "thank goodness," there's an educated stand out there (in our nation's capital at that!) on human evolution.  The depressing amount of denial of reality that has to take place for any denial of evolution is here countered with thrilling (the entire human species has a DNA variation of .01 percent - we're that much alike, really), fascinating (cast after cast of the primate species that didn't make it), intriguing (more stuff than I had time to read about the big split in the family tree between Neanderthals and homo sapiens - the oldest "us vs. them," one that some have flirted with to explain monsters like Grendel - actually, a huge post awaits on this issue once I teach "Monsters and Marvels" again), and art historical (cave art from 15,000 B.C.E.!) scenarios to think through. The presence of artistic creativity at the end of this narrative of genetic survival is fantastic for discussion (idea for next survey class session on Paleolithic art!) - art is a moment of recognition, an act that collapses thousands of years of history into an "Oh! They did that, too!"  What I love is that, so is burial (and there's a great display and explanation of a Paleolithic burial site in modern-day Iraq).  Kunstwollen (the will to art), the Germans would say, and then draw all sorts of horrid racist conclusions about Paleolithic art in Europe and contemporary art in Africa.  Any critique of that move becomes a critique of a transcendental kunstwollen, a transcendental art history.  Art is always already historically specific.  And yet, I can't deny that thrill of recognition when I see cave painting - even though we really have no idea why they did it (oh, we have plenty of theories, lots and lots of theories: ritual, memory, mimesis, simulation, stimulation, pleasure... basically, all of the reasons that we make art). I can't deny that intense feeling of continuity, one that lasts so much longer than the one that writing/literature gives us.  But here, I'm invited to think of art along the lines of evolution - I don't know what that means yet, especially in terms of teaching, but I can't wait to think more about it. 

I mourn (ok, am angered by) any end of inquiry, any discourse that closes down questions, makes you stop asking, and the so-called anti-evolution, and anti-global warming campaigns make me nuts.  It's prompted several conversations here at the House of Inquiry, Laughter, and Babies about the presence of anti-knowledge groups throughout American history.  Iris and I are going home today and will be sad to go - glad to see Eleanor's Holiday Program at school tomorrow, but sad to leave this wonderful house and aaaah, our nation's capital.

You can totally see why when you have an aunt and uncle who make you a Shirley Temple in a super fancy glass that floats on ice.  And a baby cousin Henry who goes out and about in town with you to the American Museum of Natural History and smiles and hangs out and sleeps and is so, so dear.  Life is good in this happy house, as we discuss and play out this narrative of birth and infancy that has had stunning evolutionary success against so many odds.  What we know about ourselves is that we are part of an amazing set of shifting circumstances, some of which we recognize and make sense of, others of which we move within.

Oh! And they have an Easter Island Head at the American Museum of Natural History - notice the tiny hands folded across the bottom part of the statue, which is made of hardened volcanic ash.  Neolithic megaliths have always fascinated me, and they are now that much more gripping with Jeffrey Cohen's awesome Geochoreography ideas.  The move from Easter Island to D.C. must have been something.  Itinerant creatures we are all.


  1. So glad you had a wonderful trip meeting your nephew! Looks like a fabulous trip for Iris! And, I would love a Shirley Temple floating on ice at any time of the day :-) Love to you all and safe travels home!

  2. hey there - i've been keeping up with you guys on facebook - much cheer and merriment your way!
    love love love

  3. Nice post :) Maybe I will see you sometime in DC?

  4. What a wonderful idea! I dearly wish that I could go to "Animal, Vegetable, Mineral"(actually, I'm actively plotting to come). for now, i'll just reread your fantastic moon piece again - wondrous.