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Nature versus Nurture. A history of identity and obsessions

Humankind ceases at the border of the tribe, of the linguistic group, even sometimes of the village.

Carl Lévi-Strauss, Race and History, 1952, UNESCO Paris (France), p. 21

What defines “human”? Are humans intrinsically compassionate, or cruel? Is their state of nature to be altruistic, or brutal? Do they come into the world and learn to tame their opportunistic instincts, or are they innocent and plied by the violence of the world as they grow?

These questions have been in the past at the center of the debate “nature vs. nurture”, which is the attempt to go back to the origins of humankind and determine whether our first fellow specimen was a noble savage, a gentle creature innately endowed with compassion; or a blank slate entirely shaped by experience, without predetermined guidelines nor outcomes in their behaviours; or a ghost in the machine, an entity of pure will and intellect, capable of moral choices and unconcerned with the tawdriness of the body.

Although such debates have proved over time to be flawed by countless cultural biases, if not completely irrelevant to the sake of knowledge of humankind, their seductive power lingers in politics, sciences, education and art.

The core of their resistance lies both in “nature” and “nurture” -a tribal, feral compulsion to fear, dominate and exclude the weak, and a cultural obsession with the concept of purity.

Man in the middle: the force of nature and nurture through adversities

The debate around the mutual influence of genes and environment historically oscillated around two extremes, pure behaviorism and innatism.

The spirit of times has determined in each century on which side the pendulum of science and philosophy would land, testifying how the “nature vs. nurture” debate is more a cultural phenomenon rather than an absolute truth.

Nonetheless, the acrimony with which philosophers and scientists have defended one party or the other has generated enough arguments to believe that there is a germ of correctness somewhere in the middle.

Otherwise, it would be difficult to explain the distribution of precise gene pools in specific geographic areas of planet Earth, or the transmission of traits that transcend the physical legacies coded within the DNA.

Accepting that environment and education condition each other in continuous loops explains why undesirable human behaviours cannot be fully engineered away, and are instead exerted differently among individuals and generations; or conversely, why the education received can only so much impact the set of genetic features inherited at birth.

The heritability index is a metric that measures how much of the difference on a specific trait between individuals is due to genetic factors. It has been the object of studies on twins, with the goal of investigating whether two or more people with a preset of identical genetic material would grow to be dramatically different people, based on the milieu in which they would be reared.

In an updated version of Cheng Sheng’s query

Are kings, generals, and ministers merely born into their kind?” (王侯將相寧有種乎

Sima Qian, Records of the Grand Historian, 94 BC

in 1961, New York-based child psychiatrists Dr. Peter Neubauer and Viola W. Bernards obtained funds from the Jewish Board of Finance to kick off a secret experimental study on sets of twins, so that the babies would be separated at birth and placed in adoptive families of different social classes, and monitored to determine which one had the most power, upbringing or nature. The surreal story of Edward Galland, David Kellman, and Robert Shafran is narrated in Tim Wardle’s 2018 documentary Three Identical Strangers.

Against all odds, the triplets grew up to have in common much more than the researchers had anticipated in the preliminary phase of the study.

First off, they showed early-on signs of separation anxiety, banging their heads against the bars of their cribs and often erupting in inconsolable wails without apparent reason.
At the age of 19, when they found out about each others’ existence, they discovered they shared the same appreciation for wrestling, Marlboro cigarettes and the same type of women.
And even later on in life, at the age of 56, the two surviving twins (Galland killed himself in 1995 as a result of his bipolar disorder, increasingly aggravated by the discovery of having two siblings) found out they both struggled with Ambylopia, a condition informally known as lazy eye.

Although Yale University has locked down the results of the study until 2065, there are signs of how a shared genetic history would determine similar developmental outcomes regardless of environmental variations.

On the other end of the spectrum, a means that has been tentatively adopted to examine the role of nurture in the development of humans is studies on language deprivation.

Needless to say, due to the inhumanity of such endeavours, the attempts historically made to prove the effects of language deprivation on children are wrapped in a halo of myth.
Claims of carry-out of such experiments appear as early as in Herodotus’s Histories and are attributed to the Egyptian pharaoh Psamtik I (664-610 BC). A more credited account also has been told about Mughal emperor Akbar the Great, who is said to have sent twelve children off to a house administered by mute nurses. Allegedly, the children, who did not receive any input of oral language during their upbringing, could also not speak -but would communicate through a system of hand signs.

Researchers have, in starts and stops, circled back to the effects that language exposure -or lack thereof- has on children.
In modern times, clinical studies focus on establishing whether the adoption of sign language may delay the absorption of spoken language, taken in through cochlear implants.

In an illuminating paper published in the Matern Child Health in January 2017, Wyatte C. Hall, a postdoctoral fellow at University of Rochester (NY, USA) offers a round up of formations within the medical community, that oppose early-on adoption of sign language as it is alleged to interfere with the mastery of spoken language in deaf patients.

Hall hints that the arguments in favour of postponing the teaching of sign language until after the absorption of spoken language may be impaired by ableist bias.

They point out to a study led by Olusola O. Adesope, Tracy Lavin, Terry Thompson and Charles Ungerleider that presents convincing evidence on how bilingual individuals are often associated with better cognitive outcomes when compared with monolinguals.

They also suggest that learning disabilities often associated with deafness may become a self-fulfilling prophecy, right because sign languages haven’t yet been appropriately recognized their status of complex, constructed systems of communication -exactly like spoken languages. In other words, deaf people with learning disabilities are evaluated as being “behind” on the scale of neurotypical development, although an eventual delay on development is not caused by deafness, but rather by the deprivation of adaptive learning strategies. Correlation is not equal to causation.

The case of (sign) language deprivation is a blatant example of how nurture manifests its necessity for survival.

Regardless of their channel of conveyance, language skills morph the structure of the brain, especially during the first five years of life, when neuroplasticity levels are still really high. Language deprivation seems to impact the growth of grey matter in some areas of the brain for life (Penicaud et al., 2013).

If this, and numerous other examples can be made to substantiate that either nature and nurture determine who we are and who we become, it is worthy to investigate the territory where the two intersect -Epigenetics.

Embedded legacy. How Epigenetics can explain who we are and who we become

In episode #202 – Fury or Forgiveness: Finding a Way Forward of the podcast This Jungian Life, Dr. Joseph L. Lee, a jungian analyst in Virginia Beach (VA, US) talks of his experience in treating patients that show chaotic, disorganized and mildly destructive behaviours.

He refers clinical pictures that, at first glance, carry no evidence of deep trauma. However, at a deeper analysis, one can spot inter-generational conflicts that revolve around a particular issue, for example a patient’s great-grandmother’s struggle with alcoholism.

Although it is the byproduct of a series of repeated choices, and not a condition that humans are born with, alcoholism can impact a person’s ability to function so deeply, that the consequences are spotted also in their offspring for generations, even in individuals who are not locked into the same behavioural patterns.

In short, a progenitor’s interactions with their surroundings can become an indivisible piece of genetic information that is passed on to future generations.

This is true not only for physical and behaviour-related modifications, but also for cultural legacies that turn into traumas stored in the body.
As an example, descendants of Jewish individuals that were affected by the diaspora of World War II have been found to be more likely to develop stress disorders, despite not having had direct exposure to the Holocaust. This theory was later on complemented by findings on the effects of “secondary traumatization” at the expenses of the children of the Vietnam war veterans, where psychiatrists Rosenheck and Nathan argued that living with a traumatized parent and being subjected to recollection of horrifying episodes could have consequences as impactful as if the children had witnessed tragic events first-hand.

Although such events do not alter the sequence of the DNA itself, they do affect the function of genomic DNA, which is how the DNA adapts and responds to the environment.
The processes that trigger such responses are chemical modifications of the DNA (methylation) or chromatine (histone modification) within single cells.

Without descending into too much detail about how these processes happen, shall it suffice to say that they are potent enough to raise questions about how, and where from, identities emerge.

Giovanni Boniolo and Giuseppe Testa, in a paper that appeared on the philosophy journal Erkenntnis in March 2012 with the title The Identity of Living Beings, Epigenetics, And the Modesty of Philosophy, pose a series of questions that are a spot-on scoping of Epigenetics as a discipline: which are the biological properties making that living being unique and different from the others? What does it take for a living being to persist from a time to another?

These questions alone foreshorten entire art movements that have tried, from a psychological standpoint, to interrogate the incomprehensibility of being in the world, without ever fully grasping the mystery of how we made it here.

Epigenetics and Art

Paul Gauguin, D’où venons-nous ? Que sommes-nous ? Où allons-nous ?, oil on canvas, 139,1 × 374,6 cm, 1897-98, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, US. Picture courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, US.

In the Museum of Fine Arts of Boston, US, a massive canvas of 139 x 374 cm is conserved, maintaining the aura of incompleteness it already had when it was finalized back in 1898.

Reading right to left, the depicted scene opens with a group of crouched women, conversing inattentively in presence of a baby, blissfully asleep.

Moving towards the left, other isolated groups of women appear, some raptured by the perception of higher deities, some scantily clad, old and exposed to extreme vulnerability due to the frailty of their body.

In the background, a somber idol observes the scene, unflappable in their stone-cold presence towering over the decaying warmth of human bodies.

This painting titled D’où venons-nous ? Que sommes-nous ? Où allons-nous ? was authored by Paul Gauguin between 1897 and 1898, at the peak of his depression and suicidal ideation.

Through the symbolism of which he had already invested the Tahitian subjects of his paintings, with this artwork Gauguin reflected on universal interrogatives -why are humans unable to explain, once and for all, the causes and the goals for which we are here? Why isn’t there -or better said, why are humans unable to agree upon and surrender to- a predictable script that defines how we are supposed to carry on with our existence? Why don’t we understand the world around us? What is the sense, and the purpose, of us being alive? What is the definition of human?

Unperturbed, the idol silently orchestrates all the characters in the scene. At a gesture of the hand, the idol makes the humans, the lush vegetation and the docile animals simultaneously present, and imposes a distraught, isolating silence, rather than engaging the voices of those around them in a harmonious conversation.

In this painting, Gauguin immortalized the primal feeling every newborn has, of having been bequeathed with a set of unspoken norms they cannot fully comprehend, even after they have grown up.

Gauguin’s spiritual symbolism addressed the bewilderment of Geworfenheit decades before Epigenetics made their first appearance in sciences, credited to biologist Conrad Waddington.

Ever since then, Epigenetics have supplied artists with a new epistemological language. Epigenetics have become a metaphor to explore hidden corners of one’s identity.

In her book Epigenetic Landscapes: Drawing as Metaphor, Susan Merrill Squier delves into the relationship between Waddington and the illustrator John Piper, who collaborated to inductively propose the notion of Epigenetics to the scientific community.

To do so, they picked the images of archetypal landscapes, that could ease in the reader into a new discipline centred on ambiguity and constant change.

The first image they picked is that of the river. Waddington and Piper’s river is not a linear, schematic representation of a stream of water. It is a granular depiction of a riverbed, where the protagonist is not the body of water, but rather the banks of soil surrounding it. Waddington and Piper’s river is a realistic representation that conflates the present spatiality of a river, and the evidence of the passing of time that shaped it.
Through this image, they amplified the range of factors that contribute to define an object’s identity. An object’s identity is not only made of its contingent physicality, but also of the moments in time, reactions and adaptations that helped narrowing the endless possibilities of being to those specific, present, visible features.

Conrad Waddington, John Piper, River, in Susan Squier, Epigenetic Landscapes, p. 23, Duke University Press, North Carolina, US, 2017

The second landscape is an embryo atop of a slope. Even more so, in this landscape we can foresee the limitless fluidity of movement. What the embryo will look and act like once fully developed, it will depend on the genetic information it will have received from its progenitors, how it will be fed, how it will settle on the slope, how hostile the environment around it will be, and how much its resilience will be tested.

Conrad Waddington, John Piper, Embryo, in Susan Squier, Epigenetic Landscapes, p. 70, Duke University Press, North Carolina, US, 2017

But for some artists, Epigenetics don’t hold such positively connoted imagery.

Identity is the molding of existence into one form, the embarkment onto a one-way path that requires all other viable routes to be excluded. But the footprints left at the crossroads of each individual’s life do not fade after their passage, instead they persist in the sight of those who come after, leading the way, but also burdening them with an impalpable, unsolvable loss.

Those who come after are confronted with the inescapable task of making sense out of wisdom that is not the result of their own experience.

Danish-Palestinian artist Larissa Sansour conceptualized a whole exhibition for the Venice Biennale in 2019 around Epigenetics and eloquently titled it Heirloom.

The cornerstone of the exhibition is a 28 minutes movie, In Vitro.
The title itself summons the idea of birth, but not the type of birth that happens under the well-known and yet unpredictable maternal labor. Instead, it hints to a clinically-led process of creation, where determinism and a sense of uprooting loom over the baby.

The movie, set in the post-apocalyptic ruins of Bethlehem, utilizes sci-fi tropes to illustrate an intergenerational broken line of communication.

Dunia (Hiam Abbass) is a 70 years old scientist, lying on her deathbed after having successfully survived an eco-disaster. In the movie, she is visited by Alia (Maisa Abd Elhadi), her 30 years old daughter who was born as part of a cloning program in the underground bunker that Dunia created to survive the catastrophe, and where she is currently hospitalized.

Alia, born after the catastrophe, has never seen the upper world. But her mind has been engineered so to contain the memories of her ancestors, and so to understand why a group of scientists led by Dunia is preparing to replant heirloom seeds collected before the catastrophe in the upper soil.

The movie is a conversation between mother and daughter that, under the pretext of a natural disaster, get to confront the cognitive dissonance they are experiencing.

While Dunia can justify the strenuous sacrifices of the present with a firsthand experience of a painful past, Alia feels imprisoned in a fear she’s ready to overcome.

“I don’t care about your nations. This scent, these fabrics, this history reduced to symbols and iconography”. This is how Alia addresses her mother on her deathbed, witnessing how her parent is unable to let go of that trauma even when there is a destiny of certain peace ahead of her.

The sci-fi archetypes allow Sansour to speak of the Palestinian question, placing a distance that safely empowers her to lay out in the open themes such as ethnic erasure, identity, nostalgia and the inability -or better, the hesitation- to imagine a future as a nation. The post-apocalyptic scenario serves as a screen where Sansour casts the consequences of climate change and political turmoil onto the frail state of preservation of Palestinian native crops.

Alia, as a clone who conserves the memories of her ancestors, is genetically planned to inherit trauma. Not only do the people around her constantly beat on the drum of a past threat, but she is herself a victim who cannot be rescued, since the knowledge of the threat has inexplicably been present to her ever since birth.

On the flip of the coin, Dunia wishes that Alia could radically embrace the potential of memories programming for a greater good -by designing and engineering a fertile past for the generations to come, thus breaking the cycle of trauma and initiating a cycle of prosperity.

In the wake of such utopian ambitions, not only artists, but also geneticists and anthropologists have dawdled with the idea that humans can be perfected to maximize the chances of living a happy life. But rather than increasing eudaimonia for the whole humankind, these pursuits have quickly slippered into a dangerous compiling of precise definitions of happiness, that were more often than not made to coincide with whiteness on the basis of racism.

Purely human. The idolatry of cleanliness bordering with racism

Facilis descensus Averno

Virgil, Aeneid, VI, 126

Good intentions have paved the way to Eugenics. If only the existence of humans could be made less miserable, anything would be worth trying.

Regrettably enough, of those many men of science who attempted to make the wealth of humankind flourish, only few have taken accountability for the suffering they caused in the process.

As a matter of fact, rather than doubling down on the efforts to improve the living conditions of humankind at wide, health and genetics experts have historically amplified white privilege, taking the shortcut of labelling as “undesirable” everything that fell out of the caucasian, Western-centric way of living.

If not all humans could aspire to be well-educated (needless to say, in compliance with Western-centric paradigms), healthy, long-living, untarnished by violence, then something must be flawed in those humans.

Rather than studying the ecological differences between environments, the variations in climate, pollution, nutrition and access to water; or dissecting the constraints of systems that enabled individuals to carve their way through violence, or at the contrary, submit, suffer of poorer health, and be excluded from academic and economic success, white scientific communities have historically blamed the disparity on individuals, resorting to theories such as the polygenism.

The theory of polygenism has found its fortune not only in mythology, but also in the history of science, especially between the XVIII and the XIX centuries. Among its defenders, names such as Voltaire, Hume, Cuvier, Vogt have argued that the physical differences amongst humans living in different areas of the planet was so remarkable, that only descending from different species could explain them.

John Thurnam and Joseph Barnard Davis went as far as to measure over 1700 skulls, both human and animal specimens, to affirm their theory that races could be classified based on how the measurements of the skulls of a particular ethnic group were distant from those of the skull of an ape, and how some groups would be evolutionarily more advanced than others.

Works of such kind opened the gates for racist justifications of slavery, as well as the birth of disciplines such as phrenology and physiognomy, sprouting from the core belief that physical attributes could predict the destiny each human could aspire to.

Coincidentally, such predictions seemed to favour the power holders of western, patriarchal, white societies, and reserve less favourable auspices to black people, indigenous populations, women, people with mental health issues, economically disadvantaged people.

In these latter groups, phrenologists often spotted slow learners, criminals, rascals, individuals inapt to receive an education, have a salaried position, own property, vote and nurture scientific or artistic inclinations.

J. De Ville, Phrenological bust, London, UK, 1821. Image courtesy of Wellcome Collection gallery (2018-03-29)

In the centuries XVIII and XIX, when the interest in data analysis started to rise, data were oftentimes weaponized to support the status-quo, rather than to assist to the emerging of a new truth.

Data were used to legitimize, reinforce and optimize the happiness of western Caucasians.

These were the years in which Gauss invented the average, a metric deriving from a dataset of combined entries, that aimed to find the middle point around which all variances could meet.

The average was the closest point to absolute certainty. Everything deviating from average could be considered an extraordinary occurrence, if not an error.

The average could also be made correspond with traits that presented themselves more often than others.
If one was, for example, a white European man, that led a lengthy portion of their adult life surrounded by a majority of people who looked exactly like them, it would be a fair conclusion to draw from evidence, that the average should be considered the white European man.

If that was the case, maybe one could dare and use statistics to help humanity seize control of unwanted imperfections.

Adolphe Quetelet, astronomer, mathematician, sociologist and statistician born in Ghent (Belgium) in 1796, made it his purpose to offer society a model that everyone could aspire to emulate, in order to secure a perfect state of health and a perfect body.

Between 1832 and 1835, Quetelet studied first white European newborns, then proceeded to white European adults, to establish the ideal ratio in height, weight, limb length, distance between the eyes, and other bodily measurements.

In a chapter of one of his treatises, titled Of the development of weight and of its relations to the development of the height of the body, Quetelet introduced the “Quetelet index”, a calculated proportion that stated that the perfect ratio of the human body would be to have one’s weight as the cube of one’s height. Dividing a person’s weight by the square of their height would determine how far off the person’s body was from the average.

The Quetelet index is at the base of a metric widely used to this day in the field of nutrition, which is the BMI (Body Mass Index).

Designed with European white men as sole reference to spot an ideal average, BMI is flawed by inherent misogyny, fat-phobia, asian-phobia and black-phobia among others.

Regardless of their gender, sex or ethnicity, all groups other than white Western males are disadvantaged on the BMI scale.

As BMI has been internationally adopted as an allegedly reliable metric to tell a healthy body from an unhealthy one, features that are more often encountered in non-white bodies have been automatically labelled as tainted.

As a consequence, when Capitalism found its way to speculate onto the cult of body shape, it enabled the idolatry of thinness versus fatness, and of whiteness versus blackness, planting the idea that there is a deficiency of morality in everything that distances itself from the white average.

Entire industries to this day thrive on inculcating the idea that the average is an aspirational goal one can achieve through self-control and with the help of consumer products, and that everyone could and should try to correct unfortunate genetics, to display an improved body and, ultimately, a faultless morale.

It is not without comical nor horrifying paradoxes, that industries have succeeded selling their products by leveraging the human desire not to be excluded, or not to be associated with an underperforming minority.

Is this you five years from now?, advertisement for Lucky Strike, American Tobacco Company, 1930. Picture courtesy of Digital History Library Ottawa, Canada

In 1930, Lucky Strike managed to acquire a whole new market demographic, by targeting their commercials to women. In one of these advertisements, the ghost of fatness is painted in a haunting shadow of blue, in contrast with a gleeful, slender woman who manages to control her hunger by reaching for a cigarette instead of a snack. Even lung damage is packaged as being preferable to being fat.

But the Capitalist generation, and exploitation, of body-image issues didn’t stop with fatness.

In fact, it went as far as to use cleanliness, made to coincide with purity, to convince consumer that exclusion is the way to self-individuation.

The whole hygiene industry is built on the narrative that the degree to which one can make oneself cleaner, healthier, more protected against the aggression by the hand of external organisms, and thus inherently more scientifically informed than others, is always perfectible -or else said, never enough.

The preoccupation for hygiene justified the launch of products (or the continuation of sales) such as bottled water, antibacterial soap, disinfecting wipes and detoxing medication that, as a matter of fact, also made us less resistant to external agents.

But once again, the way these products have been historically commercialized, and associated with imagery of whiteness, high-class and civility, made their consumption preferable to reduced immunization.

In her essay Tidy Whiteness: A Genealogy of Race, Purity and Hygiene, scholar Dana Berthold brings the example of the popularization of antibacterial soap. The concern with ensuring increasingly higher standards of hygiene in the 1990s went as far as to spread the common belief that soap needed antibiotics in its formula to be truly effective, when one of the major medical threats of our era is actually the nearing endpoint of antibiotics resistance.

Being clean is perceived as a condition of privilege, that symbolizes a moral defeat of dirtiness, impurity, sexual promiscuity and illiteracy. It indicates an availability of resources that allows one to bathe, and throw away single-use products more often than necessary. It has little to do with the conservation of physical health.

Berthold points out how cleanliness is an ideal we subconsciously pursue because of the psychological connotations inferred by language.

The linguistic genealogy of the link between whiteness and moral purity reaches back before the founding of the US. The OED’s seventh meaning of “white” is morally and spiritually pure (esp. when compared to something black). The word “fair” means both light and right. A white lie is an innocent lie. Whiteness is cleanliness, purity, the absence of a stain or mark. Franz Fanon reminds us, “In Europe… Satan is black, one talks of the shadow, when one is dirty one is black -whether one is thinking of physical dirtiness or moral dirtiness… blackness, darkness, shadow, shades, night, and the labyrinths of the earths, abysmal depths, blacken someone’s reputation; and on the other side, the bright look of innocence, the white dove of peace, magical, heavenly light” (Fanon 1967, 188-89).

Dana Berthold, Tidy Whiteness: A Genealogy of Race, Purity and Hygiene, in Ethics & The Environment, Vol 15, no. 1 (Spring 2010), pp. 1-26, Indiana University Press, US

Language is in itself a carrier of the idea that whiteness is preferable, or morally superior, to blackness and any other shade that is non-white.

Soap commercials have a history of perpetuating painful and racist images that suggest that non-whiteness is an impurity, and as such, it can be washed away.
Some of these commercials date back as early as Dove’s ad in 2017, demonstrating that political conscience alone has not yet overpowered unethical selling tactics (TRIGGER WARNING: the video below contains racist images).

The Long and Troubling History of Racist Soap Ads, Mic, 2017

In his book Chromophobia, Scottish artist David Batchelor explores how also in architecture, fashion and decorative arts the predilection for white is a mere act of class.

Colors are purged as the expression of the childish, feminine, unruly against the demure condescension of white. White and neutral tones are omnipresent as well in the glossy feeds of Instagram influencers, as a non-distracting backdrop for the relentless display of wealth.

The inclination towards white in matters that transcend hygiene exemplify that cleanliness has more to do with certain aesthetics rather than basic sanitation.

A tour of the triumphantly white Kardashian-West villa in suburban Los Angeles

Intrinsically, Capitalism reinforces that not belonging to a white lifestyle is in itself a failure in cleanliness, and that everyone who identifies as non-white is ontologically tainted.

The anti-Asian sentiment that rose all over the world in parallel with the spreading of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 confirmed, once again, that Western-centric societies have a tendency to blame even diseases on those who fail to be white, rather than investigating the nature of the pathogens that transmit a specific virus, or conditions that facilitate its spreading regardless of geographic areas.

Many more pieces of evidence could be brought to substantiate that the debate nature versus nurture, or the discourse on identity, has often been a shield to the pernicious conviction that identity is a process of individuation by exclusion.

Abandoning the route of nature versus nurture, the discourse on identity can assume other forms to become an act of inclusion and resistance.

Mestizaje: Identity as Resistance

María Lugones opened her 1994 essay Purity, Impurity and Separation (in Signs, Vol. 19, No. 2, pp. 458-479, Chicago Journals, Chicago, Illinois, US) with a metaphor that explained the two meanings of the word separar (to separate) in Spanish with extraordinary comedic force.

She chose the image of the preparation of mayonnaise. One could use the verb separar to indicate the action of dividing the egg white from the egg yolk, paying careful attention to removing impurities from one component or the other.

But one could use the verb separar also to describe the state of curdling, when the emulsion didn’t succeed and neither the egg nor the yolk could be salvaged, as they didn’t blend, but rather, they separated in a partly mixed state.

The verb separar could be used also in reference to identity politics.

The “lover of purity” would aim at separation so to fragment, categorize, discern, label and control the oppressed. The mestizo would separate to combine, multiply, confuse and resist the oppressor.

To Lugones, the curdled personality is that of the Chicano. In the Anglo-American imagination, the Chicano is a Mexican/American with a split identity.
The Anglo-American wants the Chicano to keep their Mexican culture (so to be separated from other, “full” Americans) and assimilate (so to be exploitable). Anglo-Americans thus deny that Chicanos can have a fully-formed self-conscience, since they don’t fully participate in one identity or the other.

But Lugones claims that the very experience of a hybrid identity is different from the racist myth of split identity. Hybrid identity is peculiar to the Chicano, to the mestizo, and that there is power in the consciousness of curdling.

The hybrid individual defy categorization and representation. Their identity is unpredictable, and escapes any logic of comprehension for the “lover of purity”. As Lugones puts it, “curdled thoughts are nonsensical”. Nonsensical thoughts and identities, that don’t ply to the “lover of purity”‘s desire for categorization, cannot be controlled.

Embracing curdling as a possibility of being is an act of resistance and survival.

In the closing paragraph, The art of curdling, Lugones outlines a joyous manifesto to encourage her readers to follow her, a Latina, queer and Lesbian philosopher, in the rebellious art of curdling:

Curdle-separation is not something that happens to us but something we do. (…) I recommend the cultivation of this art as a practice of resistance into transformation from oppressions as interlocked. It is a practice of festive resistance:

Bi- and multilingual experimentation;
code-switching;
categorial blurring and confusion;
caricaturing the selves we are in the worlds of our oppressors, infusing them with ambiguity;
practicing trickstery and foolery;
elaborate and explicitly marked gender transgression;
withdrawing our services from the pure or their agents whenever possible and with panache;
drag;
announcing the impurity of the pure by ridiculing his inability at self-maintenance;
playful reinvention of our names for things and people, multiple naming;
caricaturing of the fragmented selves we are in our groups;
revealing the chaotic in production;
revealing the process of producing order if we cannot help producing it;
undermine the orderliness of the social ordering;
marking our cultural mixtures as we move;
emphasizing cultural mestizaje;
crossing cultures;
etc.

María Lugones, Purity, Impurity and Separation (in Signs, Vol. 19, No. 2, pp. 458-479, Chicago Journals, Chicago, Illinois, US, Winter 1994)

Sources

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