What is a human?
David Grandy called my attention to Richard Dawkins calling attention to G.G. Simpson’s assertion that “all attempts to answer that question before 1859 [the year Darwin published Origin of the Species] are worthless and . . . we will be better off if we ignore them completely.” Pay no attention to the human behind the definition of “human,” we’re told–or perhaps, warned. After all, paying close attention to the ways the human has been defined historically will certainly upset Fundamentalist-minded atheists and Christians alike; the folks who fear the liminal, the shifting, the outer rims, the ungraspable, the uncontrollable, the monster.
Fortunately, most philosophically-inclined folks aren’t persuaded or frightened enough by the Dawkins dictum to avoid looking over the sweep of available history of literature, philosophy, art, religion, science, to ponder what makes humans human. Christopher Higgs is one such thoughtadventurer. Just in time for Halloween, the Florida State professor and experimental fictionist has published a little essay in nineteen parts on this topic called Becoming Monster. It’s a snappy, thoughtful, challenging but accessible rumination on the idea that humans are both determined and determining, defining and defined, acted and acted upon, always becoming.
Appropriately enough, Higgs describes his little chapbook as “a kind of Frankensteinian fragmentation of critical, theoretical, and cultural material” with all the risk that entails (7). He doesn’t confine his source material to the reflections of Kant, Foucault, Bataille, Rorty, Deleuze and Derrida, but reaches to the more literary-philosophical products of de Beauvoir, Mary Shelley, Sylvia Plath, Henry Miller, on to pop cultural references from Jerry Springer and Pat Robertson. All throughout Higgs calls attention to the ways monsters are defined–sometimes the label is adopted with pride (“self-made monsters,” Higgs calls them, p. 23), other times it is assigned by others, with sometimes-monstrous results. Above all, being monster (like being human), then, involves certain ways of being in relation to others–sometimes an identity desired by the monster, sometimes projected onto the monster by a society of half-monster-half-human (might we call such a hybrid a plain old monster, or simply, “human”?).
The last page might’ve been appropriately designed to hold a mirror, like the weird bendy ones in some of my daughter’s books. Instead, he has a picture of the Duluth lynchings of 1920. Three black men accused of rape, later exonerated, reveal that the accuser has been the real monster. “Humans cannot admit they are monsters,” Higgs concludes. “They must create the illusion of bifurcation” (58). Put in a biblical turn of phrase, Higgs’s ruminations are a reminder that “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). The presence of the monster evokes the howl for grace.
This attractive little book is only 5 bucks from The Cupboard. It’s worth the read.
 David Grandy, “Genesis and Darwin: Finding Common and Uncommon Ground,” in Common Ground, Different Opinions: Latter-day Saints and Contemporary Issues ed. Justin F. White and James E. Faulconer (Draper, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2013), 348. See my review of this collection here.