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May 28, 2008

The Final Hours

Follow-up to Does the final push begin here and now? from Scribbles of a Dutch/Polishman

“Does the final push begin here and now?” I asked myself already on the 23rd of February. Looking back at it now, how early was that?!

But now it’s for real. Four days and three exams to go, my bachelor is soon coming to an end. I start in an hour and 15 minutes. In 75 hours and 15 minutes I’ll be done for good. This is the final push.

May 20, 2008

The Sociology Annual Debate: Human Folly over Transhumanism

“There is no scientific basis to the concept of humanity” was this years proposition at the Annual Sociology Debate. Hardly a topic I knew much about, but soon I discovered that was not necessary.

John HarrisSpeakers and audience were, to use a metaphor on the shortcomings of the human being, all feeling their way around in a dark room at this debate. Professor Harris from the University of Manchester (Law) and a co-editor of the Journal of Medical Ethics was invited to speak in favour of transhumanism, scetching a science-fiction type of future that had the audience both grinning and incredulous. The human being as it now exists, was prof. Harris’ proposition, will die out, and a very similar type of being that is better adapted must take his/her place. And if I understood him correctly, he argued that, if that is to happen anyway, we might as well participate proactively in the “shaping” of this “transhuman”. We are now working on the strengthening of regenerative capacities of the body (an arm chopped off will grow back again), our eyesight should not have to deteriate any longer, and the gaps in our memory would be bridged by synthetic implants that enable us to access memory at will. The audience was, I may say, a little flabbergasted. Beyond all the technological rifraf I was having some trouble understanding what it was that prof. Harris was really after: to transcend the human species, and to defend human interests at the same time? And if he, as he claimed “frankly did not care about the human being per sé”, how could he so easily assume that there was not also another type of animal specie “essence” that would be worth preserving in some evolved form?

Steve FullerProfessor Fuller from Sociology at Warwick, instead of arguing against, took a different route of critique. As might have been expected of him, he questioned the understanding of the concept “human being”, and the imminent self-glorification implicit in this understanding. Yes, we are essentially animals, he admitted, but the way we speak about ourselves and our experiences is in no way systematically connected to our bodies. In court, it is our story that the judge wants to hear. (Note the gap in reasoning here: for example dna-tests can provide “hard evidence” that overrides any sort of social narrative.) Through institutionalisation (what Fuller called the “universitas”, or “corporation”), human beings have created projects that exist as independent interests outside of their personal need for survival, as is common for other animals. Institutions, as Fuller noted, have historically included as well as excluded people, but the overall tendency has been towards greater inclusion and overcoming of social barriers: in our institutional roles we more and more often meet and interact with people of other backgrounds. However, we have not yet overcome all barriers and inequalities. And now we’re already looking at the next elite project of growing “beyond our species”?

These two stories seemed to provide two vivid panels of a larger painting. Or rather, perhaps, two corners of a huge mural. The questions from the floor revealed something about the very limited extent to which we had dug into the topic just yet. If we seek to become “fitter, more efficient”, asked one, why don’t we simply evolve into a photo-synthesising sponge? Fuller answered that what he wanted to know, was whether future species would still identify themselves with the “human project” as he set it out. Harris was more ambiguous. Yes, he would future beings to have some of our human aspects, a sort of likeness. But only millions of years ago, our ancestors looked like apes. How much do we have in common? Questions about guarantees against the abuse of such future potentials seemed poorly thought out. Harris believed these developments should take place within a Hobbesian-Bethamian framework: utilitarian equality and the welfare state. Admittedly, Fuller was in the comfortable position, not having to fend off such remarks. A last, and most interesting point came from a Warwick psychologist. We have up to now discussed the transhuman potential in terms of individuality, the “improvement of the human being”. But what improvement of human interaction does transhumanism bring?

From the debate, I took two major lessons home. One: sociologists need to start understanding and positioning themselves in ethical debates around bioscientifical developments. Two: all participants, and surely prof. Harris too, were still engaging in this debate with obvious partiality towards the human being as it is now, and not some higher truth. And that is a somewhat reassuring social observation.

April 29, 2008

Sociology Annual Debate 2008

The Sociology Annual Debate takes place on Monday 19 May, and is about the possibility of a scientific definition of humanity. An interesting topic, given the advance of a new technological era and its perceived threat by certain sociologists. See also flyer below. Please attend in large numbers!
Sociology Annual Debate

February 23, 2008

Does the final push begin here and now?

Four months (or probably a bit less) to go until the definite end of my bachelor studies, and I find myself spending the entire Saturday afternoon in the library’s quiet room.

“Is this so unusual?” the keen and brave reader now asks. And I must answer, unfortunately, more so than I would like it to be the case. I enjoy studying here and I am surely a whole lot more productive than outside the library. Yet it’s been a while since I spent several hours in the library, usually preferring to attempt studying at home then being distracted by a host of people, things and occurences. So I guess it follows that I ought to study in the library’s quiet room more often.

Now, four more months, three assessed essays, a dissertation, and then three more exams until the end. The sum of these factors will decide whether I will fall within the “first” bracket or simply a 2:1. Although I’m pretty tired of this course and by now I want it to end so that I can go on and do something else, my problem is that there are actually still real opportunities for me to take a first. You see the dilemma: push for it or not? Obviously teaching staff have been saying I should.

So today I bow myself over the first assessed essay of this year as best as I can. I am trying to answer whether it is realistic that hunger shall be halved by 2015, one of the millennium goals. (Idiosyncratically the convenor forget to mention which is the benchmark year by which to measure this “halving”. Nevermind, I’ll find out from Wikipedia.) Either way, a lot of the question seems to be coming down to the matters of information, well-informed policy, and more importantly: tackling ignorance. As R.I. Moore writes in the introduction of one of my sources: “Ignorance has many forms, and all of them are dangerous.” Hold that thought, Maarten, hold that thought.

February 21, 2008


From afar, a banner can be seen on the roof of the Students’ Union this week. It says: “HOW?”

Of course the first question I asked myself was, what do they mean? But then I realised it was a quite brilliant, simple and effective banner. How? It is a radically critical question. It takes enlightenment thinking a little step further. Not: why? which is, in some respects, a quite simple question to answer. Why? We will always find an answer, a justification, for things we do. But “how?” means something else: if you want it so bad, how are you going to make it happen? How is this feasible? How does it affect everyone involved?

How? A great question. A question asked by persistent people who go further, those who soon begin to annoy those who simply and only ask “why?”. Go Green Week’s thought for everyone this week.

January 24, 2008

Is Identity Relevant for Citizenship? An Instinctive Approach

Writing the above question down, I feel almost instinctively inclined to say: yes, of course, how can we be citizens if we don’t identify ourselves as such? But what does “identifying with” mean? Three meanings come to my mind: the relationship between me and this citizenship, the relationship between my small group and this citizenship, and the relationship between my small group and other small groups which are also granted this citizenship. Is there enough common ground for us to unite as citizens? Does it serve our interests evenly? Is the language in which this citizenship is defined couched in the words that the other groups feel comfortable with, or have I also had my say, and can identify with its rights and obligations? And then, how much do I need to agree with it, which part of my identity is called upon to identify with my citizenship?

Although “part of my identity” may in fact already appear significantly less instinctive, this certainly isn’t the case. Although we are at all times citizen, we are only so often reminded by it, which means that at all times we are not, our identity must be focussing on something else. It may be with our village, our student community, our group of indie friends or our climbing club mates. It this which is meant by: “multiple identities”, a concept in fact significantly less post-modern than it may at first glance appear to be. More than anything else, looking at the individual as a posessor of multiple identities, we apply on this individual a sophisticated, fluid mechanism, in which points of reference and focus vary in time and space. All of these identities have their own context, and might not even be coherent, or in the most extreme cases even mutually exclusive. In everyday language, this would mean that in some instances, you are something which at other moments, you will have to conceal. Not an ideal situation, of course, and it would seem preferable to possess a set of identities that is roughly referentially coherent. You then become a thing that at every moment reveals another facet, but at least of the same thing.

So citizenship? In a small community, it can require “thick” characteristics of coercion and obligation. In ancient Greece, city officials would walk the streets with a rope drenched in paint to force their citizens to the meeting. In our time, citizenship has tended to focus more on delivering, i.e. rights, than on coercion. Apart from the absolutely necessary (e.g. taxes and public order) it has tended to enforce little. This is a necessity deriving from the sheer size of our conglomerates of citizens (democracies), asking of the state to respect diversity. This citizenship is “thin”, a thing we have tended to praise, as it is a liberal and tends to value the individual.

Unfortunately, although citizenship in the modern state (or in the current EU, for that matter) does not ask of you to walk and talk in line, it’s requirements of identification are reified in no other way than other identities: they require renewal and participation, they need reshaping according to needs of time, and understanding for the diversity across space, to go short, citizenship needs affiliation. When citizens begin to demand without wanting to contribute, the nation state will start to tear. When citizens are asked to affilliate but are effectively barred from participating, the EU will eventually disintegrate.

October 20, 2007

Leaving Campus

Today I went off campus for the first time in nearly two weeks. Sitting on the bus on the way to Leamington Spa, a thing of every day in the second year of studies, suddenly becomes quite something. An afternoon trip to town. As soon as I leave campus and the bus driver hits the country road through the fields towards Kenilworth I become aware of something that’s with me all the day which is probably the reason why I normally don’t think about it: I really, seriously, don’t generally move out of an area with a radius of not more than at the most a few hundred meters, for days, even weeks.

People tend to speak of Warwick as “the bubble”, romanticising it into some mysterious fairytale-like place with other-worldly characteristics. As if something special is in the making here, an act performed by a hybrid coming together of a few thousand highly sensitive minds. That’s the boring, common version. Why not see it as a muddy, grassy hill on the outskirts of a medium-sized English city that most students feel too good for to visit it?

To go short and straight to the moral of this blog-story. Campuses are great stuff. But don’t become stagnant, and realise it takes extra energies to reach out and be a student in a wider context, rather than a student in bubble.

October 14, 2007

Straight From Warwick Campus

Equal opps officer of a sports club: “We have an equal opportunities problem. Too many people want to play.”

June 22, 2007

The Political Thought of Oliveres: No Moral Compromise

Arcadi OliveresA social-democrat and humanist of the purest kind, Arcadi Oliveres opinionates that we cannot allow to blur the line between clean and dirty when talking international politics and economics.

He was beyond a shade of doubt the most famous and probably most interesting professor that taught me here at the Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona. Even though an idealist, dreamer, and somewhat disorganised, he never allows compromise when denouncing corruption or nepotism in the international scene. He has faced the excesses of fascism and the oppressive nature of the totalitarian state when it deals with its opposition – he was there when prisoners were executed by the Franco regime during the early 1970s, an experience which, according to his book Contra la guerra y el hambre (Against War and Hunger), stills causes him nightmares.

For Oliveres, people and their rights come first, and however absurd it might seem at times, he tries to look beyond the official economic figures. He asks: how is it possible that rich countries demand ongoing trade liberalisation when they themselves liberalise and protect their markets just as it suits them, and calls this the starkest hypocricy. He notes that no rich country claimed to have the money to provide the entire world with basic water supplies, while months later these nations spent five times as much on the war in Iraq. He points out that the South actually sponsors the North through costly trade and international relations, sending each year four to five times more to the North through profits and debt relief, than the North sends to the South through official aid. He resents the fact that only three or four countries in the world have been committed to the 0,7% rule of development aid (set up in the 1970s!), calls this a total lack of solidarity, and notes that by now the percentage should really be around 3,5% to have any real effect. He questions immigration policy and cites Leontieff that only a sustained break of economic growth in the North can help the South out of misery. He is a realist, in the ideological sense. Perhaps more radically realistic than other thinkers that call themselves realists.

First Conference of Nations Without State
In November 2005, the First Meditterranean Conference of Nations Without State was held in Barcelona, on this photo Arcadi Oliveres to the far right.

Ideal types in order to make a point
Oliveres envisages a better world, or at least, the right direction towards it. The power of his thought is that he remains fixed towards that goal, without allowing the ideal to be watered down. When he proposes to be harsher with corporate tax evasion in Spain in order to pay the South back what the North took from it through unbalanced trade relations, he knows this will not happen today or tomorrow. Nonetheless, it does not prevent him from saying that it should if we want the entire world not to die from hunger and thirst, if we want to be the solidary “world citizens” that we call ourselves. He knows the army will not disappear anytime soon, still he feels the moral need to denounce it as a failing tool of social improvement.

All of this has with me at varied moments called up heavy protest from within: he is a dreamer, this is not real, this is a senseless comparison. Yet it is exactly the power of Oliveres’ political thought: he matches reality with his ideal types, does not avoid explaining what he thinks is just, and thus makes us ponder what is necessary to move towards improvement in this world which is far from being the best of all possible worlds.

February 15, 2007

Zo kan het óók…?

Tentamen schrijvenTwee weken geleden werd ik getroffen door een griep die me drie dagen in bed hield en waardoor ik het tentamen voor Spaanse Politiek II moest missen.

Nadat ik voor alle zekerheid na het beter worden eerst maar eens mijn andere tentamens maakte en op vakantie ging naar Frankrijk, liep ik vandaag eens langs bij de profesora om te zien hoe we dit gingen regelen. Tegen de tijd dat het herexamen afgenomen zou worden ben ik namelijk al het land uit.

Ik: Het bovenstaande. Kunnen we niet ergens in de komende tijd een datum overeenkomen?
Zij: Waarom doen we het niet gewoon vanmiddag om 3 uur? Ik moet morgen toch mijn cijfers inleveren.
Ik (perplex): maar… maar…
Zij: Wát nou maar? Als je toen gestudeerd had, moet je het toch nog steeds weten? Dit is het enige aanbod dat ik je kan doen.

Dus nam ik deze opmerking maar voor definitief aan en gaf met lede zenuwen en een hangend hoofd toe. “Oooooo-keeeeee dan.”

Nadat ik in haar kantoor aan het bureau was gaan zitten, gaf ze me twee vragen. “Maak eerst maar een schemaatje,” zei ze, en toen nog wat. Ik dus een schemaatje maken, en ik begon te schrijven voor de eerste vraag.

Na 10 minuten ongeduldig rommelen zei ze ineens: “Hee, maar dit is geen essay-opdracht hè?” Toen moest ik ophouden te schrijven en in tien zinnen uitleggen wat de vraag inhield waarna ze me een 7 gaf, “notable”.

Nog een keer perplex liep ik haar kantoor uit. Zó kan het dus ook!

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