Another Perspective on Non-Human Minds

While listening to Peter Godfrey-Smith discuss octopuses on this month’s Recall This Book podcast, I thought of my time with orphaned chimpanzees in Cameroon from 2013 to 2019. For Other Minds, Godfrey-Smith went in search of encounters with nonhuman minds that were “as different as…we can find on Earth” and landed on cephalopods. In my anthropological research, I have been focused on encounters with nonhumans that are shockingly similar to us—chimpanzees.

My work in primate sanctuaries in Cameroon explores interspecies care and what happens when humans try to help orphaned chimps become chimps. In a 2018 post for Sapiens, reposted below, I wrote about how our overwhelming similarities make it difficult for humans to know how to care for chimpanzees. As I reread my essay, I ask myself if there is anything to be gained by thinking of chimps as aliens. By likening octopuses to intelligent aliens, Peter Godfrey-Smith gave readers an opening to the magnitude of interspecies difference that lay between us. He brought octopuses, in all their difference, closer. Could I use the same idea to hold chimps and humans apart? Would thinking of chimps as aliens have helped me see more of our interspecies difference? What might doing so show us about them and their lives?

At a sanctuary in Cameroon, caregiver Henriette holds Gnala, a 2-year-old chimpanzee who had previously lived in a human household as a pet. Amy Hanes/Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue

For Chimps, Human Touch Can Hurt

By Amy Hanes

The bruise on my bicep was starting to purple. Small, teeth-shaped scabs crusted over its center. While typing field notes, I stopped midsentence to poke the bruise and see if it still hurt. It did.

Being bitten was not what I expected when I traveled to Cameroon in 2015 for 18 months of dissertation research. During my fieldwork in chimpanzee sanctuaries, I would be bitten—multiple times—by Gnala. At a year old, Gnala (pronounced “Nya-la”) was the youngest chimp at the Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue (SYCR) when I arrived there.

While preparing to leave the U.S. for Cameroon, I helped name Gnala. The sanctuary had asked their Facebook followers to suggest names for a newly rescued chimp. She was tiny. Big ears framed a light-brown face, and her wide, honey-colored eyes made her seem perpetually surprised. I suggested Gnala, which means “sweetheart” in Zarma, a language I spoke while serving in the Peace Corps in Niger 10 years earlier. Gnala’s name soon became a running joke. Her biting, pinching, and hair pulling earned her the nickname “Little Devil.”

The SYCR, like more than a dozen other accredited primate sanctuaries in Africa, provides lifelong care for chimpanzees orphaned by the illegal pet, zoo, entertainment, and bushmeat trades. Orphaned chimpanzees that have been beaten by humans, isolated for long periods of time, or stuffed into boxes for transport and sale arrive at the sanctuary visibly terrified. Some scream or bang their heads against things, while others bite the caregivers who try to comfort them.

Gnala was different. By her second day, she enthusiastically sought human touch. Gnala solicited tickling like other chimps: presenting her back to the tickler, scrunching her shoulders up to her ears, and raising her hands as if to shield her neck from the almost unbearable pleasure of it all. When caregivers used chimpanzee gestures to signal the end of playtime, Gnala charged in for more, laughing, biting, and scratching with abandon.

Gnala, shown here at 14 months, has already learned behaviors from humans. For example, in this photo, she’s wiping excrement from her foot after a misstep. Amy Hanes/Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue

In recent years, wildlife sanctuaries, conservation organizations, and animal rights groups have told the public to stop touching chimpanzees and other wild animals. National Geographic, PETA, and even Instagram draw explicit links between human touch and harm. They discourage wildlife enthusiasts from visiting “fake sanctuaries” that let tourists play with wild animals. Sanctuary accreditation organizations, such as the Pan African Sanctuary Alliance (PASA), can refuse to accredit facilities that allow visitors to touch primates. They say that visitor illness, easily communicated through touch, can kill a young chimpanzee. Moreover, this touch—even if it is playful—can harm chimps and other wild animals by igniting a desire for human interaction.

These organizations are trying to educate a public that seems largely unaware of the link between playful touch and harm. Somewhere between 3.6 and 6 million tourists visit wildlife tourist attractions (WTA) annually. In a 2015 study, zoologists at the University of Oxford analyzed visitor feedback on WTAs on the online review forum TripAdvisor. Around 80 percent of reviewers failed to identify problematic practices as harmful; many comments praised organizations that offer close encounters with wildlife. For a little money, tourists can snuggle a sloth, swim with a baby tiger, or even tickle a rambunctious little chimp.

How does any of this do harm? Gnala arrived at the SYCR wanting human touch. Would playing with (healthy) visitors really hurt her?

In my work, I found that our touch presents a conundrum when it comes to chimpanzees. Sanctuary staff must touch Gnala to help her. She needs frequent, reassuring contact to support her development. In this sense, human touch can help. But human touch outside of a real sanctuary—even if that touch is sweet—harms, and that harm cuts deep. It can spark a series of events that irrevocably change a wild animal and may even threaten her life.

When Gnala was just weeks old, a wealthy Cameroonian businessman bought her from a poacher. He gave her to his children as a pet. The man’s brother knew keeping a chimp was illegal in Cameroon, and he reported the situation to the sanctuary. When SYCR staff told Gnala’s owner he had to surrender her, he pleaded his case. His children loved Gnala. She had the run of the house, climbing on the couch and eating human food. She was a part of their family, he said. Nonetheless, authorities confiscated Gnala, and she became the 71st chimpanzee at the SYCR.

Sheri Speede, an American veterinarian from Mississippi, founded the sanctuary in 1999. Its mission is twofold: ensuring the welfare of rescued chimps and promoting species conservation by helping to stop poaching and the illegal chimpanzee trade.

Ducelier, a Cameroonian volunteer, carries playmates Kimbang (left) and Gnala (right) through the forest at the Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue. Amy Hanes/Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue

Throughout Africa, poachers and wildlife traffickers sell adult chimps as bushmeat. Captured infants may go as far as the Middle East, where demand for exotic pets is growing, or China, where zoo owners know a cute baby chimp will attract large crowds. By some estimates, people pay tens of thousands of dollars for individual infants. Experts say fewer than 200,000 chimpanzees remain in the wild. When officials arrest traffickers and poachers in Cameroon, the chimps they seize go to the SYCR or one of Cameroon’s other two accredited sanctuaries, Ape Action Africa or the Limbe Wildlife Center. These sanctuaries therefore play a vital role in the wildlife law enforcement chain and are critical to conservation.

The SYCR is committed to chimpanzee welfare. They promise to provide lifelong care for orphaned chimps (who can live for up to 60 years) because reintroducing them to the wild is not always possible. Managers, staff, and volunteers from Cameroon, Europe, North America, and Australasia try to replicate forest living as best they can. The sanctuary sits on 225 acres of the Mbargue Forest. Adult chimps spend their days climbing tall trees and foraging for wild ginger in large forest enclosures, which range in size from 1 to 20 acres. The chimps eat tropical fruits and vegetables bought from local farmers, and sleep in large night cages for protection from poachers. Chimps and humans use chimpanzee alarm calls to communicate danger when they see cobras, vipers, or green mambas, one of the world’s deadliest snakes. Compared to the fate that awaited them, chimps at the SYCR lead a very good life.

When I met Gnala in 2015, she and a 1.5-year-old female named Kimbang spent their days in the forest, away from visitors. The pair stayed close to Henriette, their full-time Cameroonian caregiver. Henriette encouraged Gnala and Kimbang to do “chimp things” such as digging, climbing, and wrestling with each other.

I became one of Gnala’s volunteer caregivers because, as a cultural anthropologist, I gather data by participating in what I study. I was there to understand “care.” What is it for one species to care for and about another? How do humans from different countries, religions, languages—from different moral worlds—negotiate competing ideas about what makes for good care? To get an embodied sense of what it is like to care for infant chimps, I tended Gnala and Kimbang on Henriette’s days off.

Before I met Gnala and Kimbang, Lisa (a pseudonym), an assistant manager from Belgium, explained to me that we were to provide reassurance and discipline to the infants. Comforting them when they were frightened would help them learn to trust. Teaching them to recognize “no,” by redirecting their attention and hooting at them when they did wrong, would give them a sense of limits. To hoot like adult chimps, we dropped our voices a few octaves and grunted a loud, fast, “HOO!” Lisa stressed that understanding boundaries would help keep Gnala and Kimbang safer when it came time to integrate them with adult chimps.

Gnala and I got by with my redirection and hooting for several months. When she bit my shoelaces, I feigned interest in nearby millipedes or butterflies to redirect her attention elsewhere. I hooted at her for pinching me when I tried to disengage from play. Her pinches hurt, and her scratches stung, but Gnala was easy to forgive—until the day redirection and hooting stopped working. That was the day I began to question my own assumptions about harm and human touch.

Gnala and Kimbang finish half a papaya, and Kimbang springs up a tree. Gnala stays perched on my lap. It is the rainy season in 2015, and I have been working with Gnala for five months. The humidity makes it impossible to dry clothes, so my pants are damp and smell like mold. I wipe Gnala’s sticky hands with a leaf, but she is focused on something just above me. All at once, she launches herself at my face and grabs the knot of hair piled on top of my head. She hangs, one-handed, from my hair. My eyes water, and my scalp burns. I grab her at the waist to support her weight and relieve pressure. I hoot my best baritone hoot and bark her name, “GNALA!”

All five of her long fingers are threaded through my hair. I find two and try to pry them open. No dice. I hoot again, but she stays put. And then I laugh because I do not know what else to do. I cannot call over the radio and ask someone to come get the smallest chimp in the sanctuary off my head. While we sit there, I review my options. Chimp hoots are not cutting it. I wonder, what if I go more chimp? What if I bite her?

Kimbang bites Gnala in two ways. She uses what I think of as “blood bites,” which break skin and make Gnala scream, and “snap bites,” where she takes Gnala’s skin between her teeth, pulls it hard, and then releases it. I imagine that this rubber band motion feels like a hard pinch to Gnala, and it usually stops her from doing whatever she is doing. The snap bite is probably my best bet.

I try a final time to peel Gnala’s fingers open, and I hoot once more to make sure I exhaust all my options. Nothing happens, so I take a soft chunk of hairy forearm between my teeth, inhale, and bare down.

She does not move. I apply more pressure. Nothing.

Gnala, at age 2, has a powerful grip that allows her to navigate vines—and hang from humans. Amy Hanes/Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue

Chimps are said to have a higher pain tolerance than humans. If I bite her harder—if I’m a little more chimp—she will let go. I can do this, I tell myself. I try again, then stop.

Although human jaws are strong, and my ape self is capable of biting her, my human self is not. The pressure I need to use for a chimpanzee snap bite would break human skin. I cannot make myself say “no” like a chimp would. We sit like that until she finally releases her grip, drops into my lap, then darts off to examine the broken hairs she has made away with.

I often thought about harm and human touch throughout my remaining 14 months in Cameroon. I asked myself what kind of person bites a baby chimpanzee and how did we arrive at that moment: Gnala with her baby vise grip and me at a complete loss over what to do.

During interviews, I began asking directors, managers, staff, and volunteers if we should make our touch a little more chimp. Are we hurting infants by not disciplining them like chimpanzees would? When I asked Speede, she answered: “That could work, while they’re young, but as they get stronger than us we’d have to be really brutal to keep that up. … We wouldn’t do that because we wouldn’t want them to be scared of us.”

By the time I returned to Cameroon in 2018, 4-year-old Gnala had become too strong for Henriette to handle in the forest. Gnala’s strength, climbing ability, and foraging skills meant she was ready to be “adopted” by an adult female chimp. The managers identified Jantan to care for Gnala and Kimbang as if they were her own.

The adoption went smoothly. Jantan and Gnala now sleep side by side, and Gnala rides on her back around their forest enclosure. The threesome spends their time climbing, napping, and playing chase.

This time is a critical learning period for Gnala and Kimbang. Next year, they will be integrated into a larger forest enclosure with adult chimpanzees. Although extremely rare, infants can be injured or even killed during integrations if they do not adhere to chimpanzee social norms. Infants learn about nurturance, dominance, and chimp politics largely through observation. They see how grooming others can solidify shifting alliances. They witness aggression when males injure one another while vying for the position of alpha and when their group kills outsider chimps encroaching on their territory.

This adult chimpanzee group shares an enclosure at the Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue that spans 20 acres. Amy Hanes/Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue

Sanctuary staff often say that chimps like Gnala are the hardest to integrate, because chimps used in tourist attractions or kept as pets are largely ignorant of the role of aggression in chimpanzee society. The infants that know human touch—how human hands hold and human fingers tickle—are often unfamiliar with chimp social boundaries. For Gnala, that ignorance could be dangerous.

It’s early evening in April 2018, and Gnala stares at me from within the cage area where she sleeps. As I wait for her to reach her hand through the bars so I can drop an avocado into it, she extends her palm out farther than I expect. Gnala manages to flip her wrist and quickly dig her nails down deep into the back of my hand. “Owwww! Gnala!” I mumble as I snatch my hand back.

Gnala is bigger now—though she is still the smallest chimp in the sanctuary. She often stands on two legs and walks bipedally around the enclosure. Her face is darker, more of an ash brown.

Gnala positions herself a few feet above me. She clings to the cage bars and expertly waits until I look toward Kimbang. Gnala aims and drops the avocado I gave her on my head. I stand up, brush the dirt off my pants, and finally look down at my hand. A scratch or scrape itself is not dangerous unless it becomes infected, but it hurts.

When she scratched me, she drew blood.

Today, when volunteers come to the SYCR, managers warn them about how dangerous Gnala is. Do not be deceived by her size; small does not equal safe. Staff say Gnala may grow up to be the most aggressive chimp in the sanctuary. Her regular attempts to bite and scratch the humans caring for her is unusual when compared to the behavior of other chimps at her age. Their aggression, unlike Gnala’s, could often be explained by context: If an infant perceived a human’s actions as violating their boundaries, the chimp may bite. Gnala’s behavior is much less predictable. However, Gnala’s aggression toward humans, in and of itself, is not the problem. It is her sense of boundaries, and how untested they are, that is disquieting. Jantan indulges Gnala, as mother chimpanzees often do, which leaves staff with a lingering question: When she faces new adult chimpanzees with firm boundaries, will Gnala know when to stop?

For chimps like Gnala, human touch set a particular kind of harm in motion. It fractured her world, dividing her experience into a before and an after. In her short before, when she was a newborn with her chimp family in the forest, her body matched up to those around her. She touched and was touched by bodies that aligned with hers. She exercised her clinging reflexes days after birth and later would have tested her power in wrestling matches with her siblings. Their strength would have accommodated hers and helped her grow her own. But then time stopped.

Gnala, age 4, sits on a high platform with Jantan, an adult female who is helping the younger chimps learn more about their species’ behaviors and norms. Amy Hanes/Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue

Poachers forced Gnala into human touch. When a chimpanzee group flees poachers and a mother is shot mid-flight, she goes down with her infant. The infant’s grip is so tight that poachers must pry her from her mother’s body. Given this fact, Gnala’s first contact with human hands would have likely been violent.

When the Cameroonian father bought her for his children, she met a human touch that was different in tone. Children’s hands reached for her as they would a human baby or a hairy little doll. Being carried upright against a human chest would have been a mismatch for Gnala’s long arms. Her muscles would not fully develop. Over time, other incongruities would have appeared. Gnala’s mounting strength would quickly surpass that of the children’s. Her agility would make her hard to catch, tough to hold, and impossible to restrain.

Compared with the touch Gnala’s chimp family would have provided, the children’s touch would have been too soft and gentle. When she became too chimp for the children, their father could have kept her in a cage, dumped her somewhere, or sold her as bushmeat, all likely outcomes for chimps who have outgrown their pet status.

Gnala was not abused in the conventional sense, like many captive wild animals are. Her teeth were not pulled out with pliers to prevent her from biting. To our knowledge, she was not beaten. But she was harmed.

Although Gnala is one of the lucky orphans that made it to a sanctuary where humans encourage her chimpness, there is always a tipping point. As she ages, human efforts to emulate her chimp family will not be enough. Our muscles will not win in a tug of war. Our hands will be too small, our skin too sensitive. Our touch, and our ability to be touched by Gnala, will be too weak. As Speede pointed out, we would have to compensate by going much further than biting.

Rachel Hogan, a conservationist originally from the U.K., directs Ape Action Africa (AAA), the largest primate sanctuary in Cameroon. At the close of an interview, Hogan told me, “The truth is, we aren’t chimps. We aren’t really their mothers. We can’t give them what their mothers could have. Their mothers are gone.”

Hogan’s point gets to the heart of harm. Sanctuaries try to transition infants from human care to living with other chimpanzees as soon as possible, because human touch is not enough for a chimp. We give Gnala the best life we can. We use her vocalizations. We dig in the dirt next to her. We move through the forest with her on our backs. But our touch will always fall short.

Her life is irrevocably different due to human touch; Gnala must reconcile the human with the chimp. Sanctuary staff have tried to prepare her. They set boundaries with her and integrated Gnala with Jantan when she hit her tipping point. Soon she will enter an adult group. As much as humans tried to prepare her, and as much as Jantan will try to defend her, Gnala must find her way on her own.

Postscript: If you want to watch Gnala grow and follow her progress as she is integrated into her new adult chimp group, you can follow the SYCR on social media or check out Gnala’s adoption page on the SYCR website.

This work first appeared on SAPIENS under a CC BY-ND 4.0 license. Read the original here.

65 Octopus World: Other Minds with Peter Godfrey-Smith (EF, JP)

Peter Godfrey-Smith knows his cephalopods. Once of CUNY and now a professor of history and philosophy of science at University of Sydney, his truly capacious career includes books such as Theory and Reality (2003; 2nd edition in 2020), Darwinian Populations and Natural Selection (2009) and most recently Metazoa. RtB–including two Brandeis undergraduates as guest hosts, Izzy Dupré and Miriam Fisch– loves his astonishing book on the fundamental alterity of octopus intelligence and experience of the world, Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea and the Deep Origins of Consciousness. Another equally descriptive title for that book, and for the discussion we share with you here (after Thomas Nagel’s “What is it like to be a Bat?“) might be What is it Like to be an Octopus?

As always, below you will find helpful links for the works referenced in the episode, and a transcript for those who prefer or require a print version of the conversation. Please visit us at Recallthisbook.org (or even subscribe there) if you are interested in helpful bonus items like related short original articles, reading lists, visual supplements and past episodes grouped into categories for easy browsing.

Mentioned in the Episode

Adrian Tchaikovsky, Children of Ruin

“Open the pod bay doors, Hal”: a chilling line from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

District Nine (2009, dir. Neill Bloomkamp) in which giant intelligent shrimp from outer space play the role of octopus-like alien intelligence, and prompt a complex but unmistakably racist reaction on their arrival in South Africa.

Charles Darwin, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872)

Erik Linklater, Pirates in the Deep Green Sea (1949)

Listen and Read

Transcript

Here is the best way to access the episode, via our new partner, NBN.

65 Octopus World: Other Minds with Peter Godfrey-Smith (EF, JP) Recall This Book

Peter Godfrey-Smith knows his cephalopods. Once of CUNY and now a professor of history and philosophy of science at University of Sydney, his truly capacious career includes books such as Theory and Reality (2003; 2nd edition in 2020), Darwinian Populations and Natural Selection (2009) and most recently Metazoa. RtB–including two Brandeis undergraduates as guest hosts, Izzy Dupré and Miriam Fisch– loves his astonishing book on the fundamental alterity of octopus intelligence and experience of the world, Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea and the Deep Origins of Consciousness. Another equally descriptive title for that book, and for the discussion we share with you here (after Thomas Nagel's "What is it like to be a Bat?") might be What is it Like to be an Octopus? As always, below you will find helpful links for the works referenced in the episode, and a transcript for those who prefer or require a print version of the conversation. Please visit us at Recallthisbook.org (or even subscribe there) if you are interested in helpful bonus items like related short original articles, reading lists, visual supplements and past episodes grouped into categories for easy browsing. Mentioned in the Episode: –Adrian Tchaikovsky, Children of Ruin –"Open the pod bay doors, Hal": a chilling line from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) –District Nine (2009, dir. Neill Bloomkamp) in which giant intelligent shrimp from outer space play the role of octopus-like alien intelligence, and prompt a complex but unmistakably racist reaction on their arrival in South Africa. –Charles Darwin, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872) –Erik Linklater, Pirates in the Deep Green Sea (1949) Transcript Finally, all listeners and readers who are interested in the gentle art of podcasting are cordially invited to the inaugural Humanities Podcasting Symposium, held over Zoom, October 15-16. Latif Nasser of Radiolab will headline two days of workshops, seminars and discussions among scholars students and amateurs who have fallen in love with the pedagogical and intellectual possibilities the medium affords. Elizabeth and John will both be presenting. Join us. RSVP here Elizabeth Ferry is Professor of Anthropology at Brandeis University. Email: ferry@brandeis.edu. John Plotz is Barbara Mandel Professor of the Humanities at Brandeis University and co-founder of the Brandeis Educational Justice Initiative. Email: plotz@brandeis.edu. Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices
  1. 65 Octopus World: Other Minds with Peter Godfrey-Smith (EF, JP)
  2. 64 Brahmin Left 4: Adaner and John wrap up with Elizabeth
  3. 63 Brahmin Left 3: Arlie Hochschild (AU, JP)
  4. 62 Brahmin Left 2: Jan-Werner Müller (AU, JP)
  5. 61 Brahmin Left 1: Matt Karp on class dealignment (AU, JP)

Finally, all listeners and readers who are interested in the gentle art of podcasting are cordially invited to the inaugural Humanities Podcasting Symposium, held over Zoom, October 15-16. Latif Nasser of Radiolab will headline two days of workshops, seminars and discussions among scholars students and amateurs who have fallen in love with the pedagogical and intellectual possibilities the medium affords. Elizabeth and John will both be presenting. Join us! RSVP here

Everything Changes, Nothing Changes…RtB joins up with NBN

What changes about this podcast tomorrow? Depending on your vantage, absolutely nothing or quite a lot. If you crave clarity in your life, read on.

Tomorrow we will release RtB 65, a conversation with Peter Godfrey-Smith about octopus intelligence and the limitations of an anthropocentric view of conscious experience. Starting with 65, each and every podcast  episode we release will also go out simultaneously on the New Books Network, “a consortium of author-interview podcast channels dedicated to raising the level of public discourse via new media.” RtB has a dedicated page there and episodes will also show up in one or more of the “channels” NBN has established for folks with various intellectual interests. The podcasts that NBN has convened are great–this is definitely a club we want to be part of!

Why the change? We had a very pleasant series of conversations with the founder and host of NBN, Marshall Poe. We decided his model and ours work very well together. Ours is to create idiosyncratic, unexpected conversations between people across disciplines, such as tomorrow’s talk between anthropologist, biology-minded philosopher and SF critic. Theirs is to find promising intellectual podcasts of all stripes and bring them to folks who trust the NBN imprimatur as guarantee of thoughtful engagement with unexpected material. We think they will give a lot more listeners a chance to choose our episodes, if they seem appealing.

Our webpage is unchanged, as is our editing and the “show notes” we write for each episode. But you will notice one big change: ads. They make the network possible, and hence the chance for shows like ours to reach a wider audience. We remain the same (unpaid) hosts and guests. Such modest funding as we have, to stipend students who work on the show, still comes from Brandeis grants.

So please continue to reach out to us the same way, by twitter or email or directly to John Plotz and Elizabeth Ferry at Brandeis. And continue to urge your friends to subscribe here, or to access us via Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Stitcher. Same show, same editorial philosophy; just standing on a newer bigger soapbox.  Hope you approve!

Here, for example is an episode in the new format; if you enjoy the Megaphone interface, head on over to New Books Network to browse our back catalogue!

65 Octopus World: Other Minds with Peter Godfrey-Smith (EF, JP) Recall This Book

Peter Godfrey-Smith knows his cephalopods. Once of CUNY and now a professor of history and philosophy of science at University of Sydney, his truly capacious career includes books such as Theory and Reality (2003; 2nd edition in 2020), Darwinian Populations and Natural Selection (2009) and most recently Metazoa. RtB–including two Brandeis undergraduates as guest hosts, Izzy Dupré and Miriam Fisch– loves his astonishing book on the fundamental alterity of octopus intelligence and experience of the world, Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea and the Deep Origins of Consciousness. Another equally descriptive title for that book, and for the discussion we share with you here (after Thomas Nagel's "What is it like to be a Bat?") might be What is it Like to be an Octopus? As always, below you will find helpful links for the works referenced in the episode, and a transcript for those who prefer or require a print version of the conversation. Please visit us at Recallthisbook.org (or even subscribe there) if you are interested in helpful bonus items like related short original articles, reading lists, visual supplements and past episodes grouped into categories for easy browsing. Mentioned in the Episode: –Adrian Tchaikovsky, Children of Ruin –"Open the pod bay doors, Hal": a chilling line from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) –District Nine (2009, dir. Neill Bloomkamp) in which giant intelligent shrimp from outer space play the role of octopus-like alien intelligence, and prompt a complex but unmistakably racist reaction on their arrival in South Africa. –Charles Darwin, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872) –Erik Linklater, Pirates in the Deep Green Sea (1949) Transcript Finally, all listeners and readers who are interested in the gentle art of podcasting are cordially invited to the inaugural Humanities Podcasting Symposium, held over Zoom, October 15-16. Latif Nasser of Radiolab will headline two days of workshops, seminars and discussions among scholars students and amateurs who have fallen in love with the pedagogical and intellectual possibilities the medium affords. Elizabeth and John will both be presenting. Join us. RSVP here Elizabeth Ferry is Professor of Anthropology at Brandeis University. Email: ferry@brandeis.edu. John Plotz is Barbara Mandel Professor of the Humanities at Brandeis University and co-founder of the Brandeis Educational Justice Initiative. Email: plotz@brandeis.edu. Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices
  1. 65 Octopus World: Other Minds with Peter Godfrey-Smith (EF, JP)
  2. 64 Brahmin Left 4: Adaner and John wrap up with Elizabeth
  3. 63 Brahmin Left 3: Arlie Hochschild (AU, JP)
  4. 62 Brahmin Left 2: Jan-Werner Müller (AU, JP)
  5. 61 Brahmin Left 1: Matt Karp on class dealignment (AU, JP)

Recall this Book’s new monthly schedule, week by week

Starting with October’s episode, which features Peter Godfrey-Smith, philosopher of science and author of Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea and the Origins of Deep Consciousness, we are launching a new schedule for RTB content. Our main episode of the month will drop on the first Thursday of the month; on the second Thursday we’ll publish an essay (like Miranda’s essay this week) or commentary on our blog; and on the third Thursday more audio–a mini-episode or extension. On the fourth Thursday, we’ll send announcements and maybe other stuff for the next month’s episode. So, wish us luck, and get ready for Octopus Month, starting on October 7!

The Return of Sprezzatura: a 16th-Century Perspective on the Brahmin Left

by Miranda Peery

Recall this Book’s recent summer series on the Brahmin Left began with Jacobin’s Matt Karp arguing that “class dealignments” have arisen due to the failure of Left politics to address or understand the needs of the working class. This and subsequent discussions with Jan-Werner Müller (What is Populism?) and Arlie Hochschild (Strangers in Their Own Land) were inspired by Thomas Piketty’s account of the “Brahmin Left,” a highly educated cultural elite now aligned with liberal politics. This group dominates education, media, technology, and most of the cultural landscape, thus leading to what Piketty refers to as “class cleavages” that run the risk of producing a politics of resentment and alienation among what might be called the anti-Brahmin Right.

All three guests undertook ideological investigations into how the modern left has lost its way by catering to the interests of this privileged class. Thus, the argument goes, privileged voters of the Left have created the opposition that they now face. This pattern certainly resonates with an ongoing project for the American left, who, prompted by the election of Trump in 2016, have struggled to understand their own complicity (or lack thereof). This has led to an important revisiting of some economic, racial, gender and class divides, but has failed (at least so far) to ask some crucial questions: What is it about the Brahmin Left that provokes such a strong sense of resentment? Why does this feeling of alienation lead to such specific forms of performative opposition? I wonder if an answer can be found in a concept from 16th century Europe known as sprezzatura.

The notion of sprezzatura first appeared in Baldassare Castiglione’s 1528 work Il Cortegiano or The Book of the Courtier. The text takes the form of a long philosophical dialogue on the topic of what makes someone an ideal courtier, a person who is worthy to be close to and advise a Prince or political leader. In early modern England, the book became enormously popular after its translation by Thomas Hoby in 1561. In the text itself, sprezzatura is defined by the author as “a certain nonchalance, so as to conceal all art and make whatever one does or says appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it” (Castiglione, 32). It is the ability of the courtier to display “an easy facility in accomplishing difficult actions which hides the conscious effort that went into them.” Sprezzatura is, in essence, the ability to embody all of the aspects that society has deemed appropriate for a member of an elite class, while simultaneously appearing to exert no effort at doing so.

This marker of the early modern aristocratic class may not be as relegated to history as it appears.

In Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School, Shamus Rahman Khan (a onetime attendee and later teacher at the elite prep school St. Paul’s whose work was discussed in an earlier episode), describes the way that the school in the 21st century focuses on teaching “ease,” or, “feeling comfortable in just about any social situation.” (Khan, 20) This “embodied interactional resource” becomes naturalized through long exposure and immersion within the kinds of cliques and institutions that practice it, allowing the privileged to obscure structural inequality behind ideas like talent or skill. As Khan puts it, “What seems natural is made, but access to that making is strictly limited.” (16). For Kahn, this invisible argument for perceived meritocracy pretends not to advantage anyone while actually solidifying larger and larger class divides. Without mentioning it, both Khan and Piketty can be seen as making the point that the Brahmin Left, while culturally dominating the landscape, have created a new kind of sprezzatura.

“File:Mostaert Portrait of a courtier.jpg.” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository. 5 Feb 2021, 08:34 UTC. 22 Sep 2021, 19:06 <https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Mostaert_Portrait_of_a_courtier.jpg&oldid=530593838>.

In place of the conduct literature and Beau Brummel-esque nonchalance of renaissance courts, posh private schools and Brahmin Left social circles imbue the privileged (or those who can join them in a society where social mobility is diminishing) with all of the qualities that make them most likely to succeed in an American “meritocracy” that is no such thing. For anyone outside of these cultural reproduction centers, these codes are as inaccessible as any that the 16th century aristocracy ever dreamed up.

Hence the pushback that all three episodes discussed. In many ways, the desire to “Make America Great Again” can be read as a wish to make America simple again – that is, to render it understandable to those who feel that they have been left behind by the modern world. This world—with its tech-speak, internet language, social justice-focused discourse and endlessly renewing but hard to understand forms of communication—makes them feel obsolete, stupid, excluded and completely at odds with the social norms that have formed around them and that others seem to navigate with ease. Yet, as Khan illustrates, it comes no more naturally to people now than it did in the age of conduct books. Privilege is learned and reproduced—and pretends that it’s what comes naturally.

Burnett, Erin. “Bernie Sanders’ ‘Grumpy Chic’ STYLE Steals the Show at the Inauguration – CNN Video.” CNN, Cable News Network, 22 Jan. 2021, http://www.cnn.com/videos/style/2021/01/22/bernie-mittens-senator-sanders-inauguration-viral-fashion-moos-pkg-ebof-vpx.cnn.

In response, an anti-sprezzatura position seems, if not reasonable, at least predictable.

In episode #63, Hochschild points out that the power of Donald Trump is centrally the stealing of “legitimacy”, his “lightning in a jar,” offering a counter-narrative to the Brahmin Left’s apparent cultural dominance. One unexpected result of this mystification of norms has been the development of, not only a counter-narrative, but a kind of counter-sprezzatura.

Referring to his essay on the comparison between the current political moment and the Gilded Age (another period, much like the early modern in Europe, which relied heavily on sprezzatura-like class embodiment), in RtB episode #61 Matt Karp touches on the identarian logic of these kinds of cultural codes: “I still do think class does matter…my read is that even though it matters less and less electorally, I’m not convinced that it doesn’t matter politically or even if it doesn’t really matter to sort of social identities and social relationships. I think it’s really significant.”

In fact, that form of resentment may exist even among voters who form the core of the old Left. In that same episode, Karp points out that, “Cori Bush wins St. Louis over a machine candidate, but totally loses in North St. Louis in the kind of poor and working-class black communities and wins decisively among non-black gentrifiers in the central and southern parts of the city.” What are we to make of the fact that a candidate like Bush, who advocates for progressive policies aimed at helping the working class, can lose in neighborhoods that did turn out to vote in numbers for Joe Biden? Political or economic concerns alone can’t account for the divide. Instead, Karp’s point about these kind of de-couplings shows some of the ways that, even within the left, those who don’t have access to the kind of Brahmin Left “ease”, can become alienated by the invisible codes and markers which make up modern-day sprezzatura.

Weiss, Joanna. “The MAGA MASKS Bringing AMERICANS TOGETHER.” POLITICO, POLITICO, 29 May 2020, http://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2020/05/29/the-maga-masks-bringing-americans-together-289926.

Harry Berger describes sprezzatura as a form of defensive irony. In Donald Trump’s brash mocking of people who are different, in the ever-present laugh emoji of the internet troll on the posts of earnest liberals, and in the derisive term, “social justice warrior”, every effort to “own the libs” can be seen as the urge to tear down or render visible—and therefore inert—the very “ease” for which the Brahmin Left is known. At the same time, the rise of an intentional obfuscation-style of discourse and the smug “if you get it, you get it, if you don’t, you don’t” meme on the Right hint at a competition between two versions of sprezzatura, rather than a single, dominant strain. Much like the one embraced by the Brahmin Left, this counter-sprezzatura is created and reinforced by the social circles and institutions which surround its participants. It can be passed on generationally. It also mystifies its rules and codes – you must be enmeshed in it to understand how to perform it properly. Finally, and most importantly, you must not appear to be trying too hard. If the Brahmin Left has reinvigorated sprezzatura in their cultural dominance, the new Right, it seems, has decided that the best way to overcome it is to create their own.

Mentioned in the blog

Jan Werner-Mueller, What is Populism?

Arlie Hochschild, Strangers in Their Own Land

Thomas Piketty, Capital and Ideology

Baldassare Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier

Shamus Rahman Khan, Privilege: The Making of an Adolescent Elite at St. Paul’s School

Matt Karp, “The Politics of a Second Gilded Age”

Harry Berger, The Absence of Grace: Sprezzatura and Suspicion in Two Renaissance Courtesy Books

64 Brahmin Left 4: Adaner and John wrap up with Elizabeth

Our Summer series on the Brahmin Left, winding down as Fall approaches, was inspired by our bracing but terrifying interview with Thomas Piketty. It starts from the assumption that a major realignment (or, rather, a “dealignment”) from the class-based politics of the mid-20th century is underway all over Europe and North America–and perhaps worldwide. What caused that? Piketty’s explanation centers on the rise of the Brahmin Left. He maintains that Left parties have abandoned the working-class for an increasingly highly educated voter-base (as if on cue, Nate Cohn recently supplied this analysis).

We spoke with Matt Karp, Jan-Werner Mueller and Arlie Hochschild and learned far more than we bargained for. Karp is among those who point to political changes produced by the waning power of labor in our post-industrial era; Mueller points to populist revival and ethnonationalism resurgent; Hochschild notes the breakdown in the narratives that succeeded in tying working-class white voters to Left parties in the 20th century. Other scholars (we spoke with Quinn Slobodian in 2019 for example) see in the Right’s recent successes the latest twist in a neoliberalism controlled by corporate elites.

Continue reading “64 Brahmin Left 4: Adaner and John wrap up with Elizabeth”

62 Brahmin Left 2: Jan-Werner Müller (AU, JP)

This new series on the Brahmin Left was inspired by Adaner and John’s bracing but terrifying interview with Thomas Piketty. Piketty maintains that Left parties have abandoned the working-class for an increasingly highly educated voter-base. This has turned (or perhaps only threatens to turn) Left parties all over the developed World (US, Western Europe, Australia/NZ etc…) from champions of egalitarianism into defenders of the privileges and interests of the educated. So, how do various scholars make sense of this ongoing realignment (or perhaps “dealignment”) from the class-based politics of the mid-20th century?

In this set of three conversations we set out to ask a set of related questions around that claim. First, is Piketty right? Second, to the extent that he is, how do we understand class dealignment in both Europe and America? Some scholars point to “post-materialist” politics; others to populist revival or ethnonationalism resurgent; others to the collapse of the trade unions which linked the working-class to the parties of the Left. Some even see in the Right’s recent successes simply the latest twist in a neoliberalism controlled by corporate elites.

Continue reading “62 Brahmin Left 2: Jan-Werner Müller (AU, JP)”

61 Brahmin Left 1: Matt Karp on class dealignment (AU, JP)

This new series on the Brahmin Left was inspired by our bracing but terrifying interview with Thomas Piketty. So what even is the Brahmin Left? There seems to be little disagreement that a major realignment (or, rather, a “dealignment”) from the class-based politics of the mid-20th century is underway all over Europe and North America–and perhaps worldwide. Some scholars point to “post-materialist” politics; others to populist revival or ethno-nationalism resurgent; others to the collapse of the trade unions which linked the working-class to the parties of the Left. Some even see in the Right’s recent successes simply the latest twist in a neoliberalism controlled by corporate elites.

Piketty’s explanation, though, centers on the rise of the Brahmin Left. He maintains that Left parties have abandoned the working-class for an increasingly highly educated voter-base. This has turned Left parties from champions of egalitarianism into defenders of the privileges and interests of the educated.

Continue reading “61 Brahmin Left 1: Matt Karp on class dealignment (AU, JP)”

60 Sean Hill on Bodies in Space and Time (EF, EB)

Elizabeth is joined by Elizabeth Bradfield, poet, naturalist and professor of poetry at Brandeis, in a conversation with the poet Sean Hill, author of Blood Ties and Brown Liquor (2008) and Dangerous Goods (2014).

Sean read his “Musica Universalis in Fairbanks,” (it appeared in the Alaska Quarterly Review) and then, like someone seated in an archive turning over the pages of aged and delicate documents, unfolded his ideas about birds, borders, houses and “who was here before me.”

Continue reading “60 Sean Hill on Bodies in Space and Time (EF, EB)”

59 Recall This B-Side #4: Pardis Dabashi on “My Uncle Napoleon” (JP)

Iraj Pezeshkzad‘s My Uncle Napoleon is a slapstick and at times goofy love story, but it is also in the best tradition of sly anti-imperial satire. Scholar Pardis Dabashi came to it late, but she has all the convert’s zeal as she links it to a literary tradition that’s highly theoretical, but also delightfully far-flung. Plus, it makes her parents laugh….

Pardis’s talk with John is our last “Recall this B-Side,” drawn from the column John edits at  B-Side Books  and the book that collects 40 of these columns. It has been an unalloyed pleasure to spend June with this set of acoustic variations on the theme.

Continue reading “59 Recall This B-Side #4: Pardis Dabashi on “My Uncle Napoleon” (JP)”

58 Recall this B-Side #3: Caleb Crain on Daisy Ashford’s “The Young Visiters” (JP)

John’s favorite avocation is editing a Public Books column called B-Side Books, where writers resurrect beloved but neglected books. Now comes a book that collects 40 of these columns (the Washington Post review was a big thumbs-up, and John talked about the B-side concept on  Five Books).  

This week’s B-Sider is celebrated American novelist Caleb Crain (Necessary Errors and Overthrow). When not photographing cowbirds and orioles for his brilliantly titled Steamboats are Ruining Everything, Caleb took time to read and report on the best novel ever written by an under-10, The Young Visiters.

Continue reading “58 Recall this B-Side #3: Caleb Crain on Daisy Ashford’s “The Young Visiters” (JP)”

57 Recall this B-side #2: Elizabeth Ferry on “The Diary of ‘Helena Morley'” (JP)

Given this podcast’s love of neglected books, you won’t be shocked to know that John has a side-hustle–in which Elizabeth plays a significant part. He edits a Public Books column called B-Side Books, where writers like Namwali Serpell and Ursula Le Guin sing praises to a beloved but neglected book. Now, there is a book that collects 40 of these columns (Washington Post review; interview with John about the B-side concept on Five Books).  Find it as your local bookstore, or Columbia University Press, or Bookshop, (or even Amazon).

Continue reading “57 Recall this B-side #2: Elizabeth Ferry on “The Diary of ‘Helena Morley’” (JP)”

56 Recall This B-Side #1: Merve Emre on Natalia Ginzburg’s “The Dry Heart”

RtB loves the present-day shadows cast by neglected books, which can suddenly loom up out of the backlit past. So, you won’t be shocked to know that John has also been editing a Public Books column called B-Side Books. In it, around 50 writers (Ursula Le Guin was one) have made the case for un-forgetting a beloved book. Now, there is a book that collects 40 of these columns. Find it as your local bookstore, or Columbia University Press, or Bookshop, (or even Amazon).

Like our podcast, B-Side Books focuses on those moments when books topple off their shelves, open up, and start bellowing at you. The one that buttonholed Merve Emre (Oxford literature professor and author most recently of The Personality Brokers) was a novella by the luminous midcentury Italian pessimist, Natalia Ginzburg. And if you think you know precisely why a mid-century Italian writer would have a dark and bitter view of the world (already thinking of the Nazi shadows in work by Italo Calvino, Primo Levi and Giorgio Bassani) Ginzburg’s The Dry Heart will have you thinking again.

Continue reading “56 Recall This B-Side #1: Merve Emre on Natalia Ginzburg’s “The Dry Heart””

June is all about Forgotten Favorites: Introducing “Recall This B-Side”

You know how obsessed we at RtB are with books that are dredged up dripping out of the past, still coming in as hot as the day they were printed. Whether it is the 1968 Kerner Commission Report as prelude to the long hot Pandemic Summer of 2020 or Thomas Piketty using long-ignored tax records of slave societies in indicting present-day inequality regimes, the podcast is built around a simple premise. When old books topple off their shelves, open up, and start speaking–pay attention, pal!

So, you won’t be shocked to know that we actively seek out other ways to amplify those whispers from the stacks. For about four years now, John has been editing a column called B-Side Books at the journal Public Books. If you’re old enough to recall buying those little 45 rpm records (say, “Salad Days” by Minor Threat, in memory yet green) then you know the column is named after the obscure “flip side” that accompanies the song marketed to be a hit.

Continue reading “June is all about Forgotten Favorites: Introducing “Recall This B-Side””

55 David Ferry, Roger Reeves, and the Underworld

Their tongues are ashes when they’d speak to us.

David Ferry, “Resemblance”

The underworld, that repository of the Shades of the Dead, gets a lot of traffic from time to time, especially from heroes (Gilgamesh, Theseus, Odysseus, Aeneas) and poets (Orpheus, Virgil, Dante). Some come down for information or in hopes of rescuing or just seeing their loved ones, or perhaps for a sense of comfort in their grief. They often find those they have loved, but they rarely can bring them back. Comfort they never find, at least not in any easy way.

In conversation with Elizabeth for this episode of Recall this Book, poets Roger Reeves and David Ferry join the procession through the underworld, each one leading the other. They talk about David’s poem Resemblance, in which he sees his father, whose grave he just visited, eating in the corner of a small New Jersey restaurant and “listening to a conversation/With two or three others—Shades of the Dead come back/From where they went to when they went away?”

Continue reading “55 David Ferry, Roger Reeves, and the Underworld”

54 Crossover Month #3: Novel Dialogue with Helen Garner (Elizabeth McMahon, JP)


Crossover Month continues with a scintillating Australian fiction episode from Novel Dialogue, a new podcast hosted by the awesome Aarthi Vadde of Duke, and RTB’s own JP. If you like what you hear, please share the love by recommending it to friends, tagging @noveldialogue in your tweets, and subscribing to it via Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Stitcher.

Continue reading “54 Crossover Month #3: Novel Dialogue with Helen Garner (Elizabeth McMahon, JP)”

53 Crossover Month #2: Novel Dialogue (Orhan Pamuk, Bruce Robbins, JP)

Crossover Month continues with something completely different, and only a little bit incestuous. Novel Dialogue is a new podcast hosted by the awesome Aarthi Vadde of Duke, and RTB’s own JP. John and Aarthi serve as the third wheel (or if you prefer the social lubricant) for a scholar and a novelist who sit down each week to explore the making of novels, and what to make of them. If you like what you hear, please share the love by recommending it to friends, tagging @noveldialogue in your tweets, and subscribing to it via Apple Podcasts  Spotify or Stitcher

Continue reading “53 Crossover Month #2: Novel Dialogue (Orhan Pamuk, Bruce Robbins, JP)”

52 Crossover Month #1: “High Theory” and the Pastoral (Kim, Saronik, JP)

Kim Adams and Saronik Bosu share an office at the English department of NYU–and now they also share High Theory a podcast where you can “get high on the substance of theory.” Their lovable podcast always identifies a single manageable topic and asks three magic questions (what is your quest? is not one of them). Today that topic is “the pastoral”; in a role reversal, John asks the three questions of Saronik and Kim.

Topics covered include the joys of sharing an office, and the irony that podcasts mimic the very social face-to-face intimacy that they actually displace. John admits RtB’s informal motto, “After the conference, the bar” is blatantly cribbed from the cry of the Paris ’68ers: sous les pave, la plage (under the pavement, the beach).

Continue reading “52 Crossover Month #1: “High Theory” and the Pastoral (Kim, Saronik, JP)”

51 Recall This Buck 3: Thomas Piketty on Inequality and Ideology (Adaner, JP)

Is Thomas Piketty the world’s most famous economic historian ? A superstar enemy of plutocratic capitalism who wrote a pathbreaking bestseller, Capital in the 21st Century? Or simply a debonair and generous French intellectual happy to talk redistributive justice? Join John and Adaner Usmani (star of RTB’s episode 44: Racism as idea, Racism as Power Relation) to find out.

Why did we invite him? John thinks nobody is better than Piketty at mapping and explaining the nature and origin of the glaring and growing inequality that everywhere defines wealth distribution in the 21st century—both between societies and within them. His recent magnum opus, Capital and Ideology. ask what sorts of stories societies (and individuals within those societies) tell themselves so as to tolerate such inequality—and the poverty and misery it produces. Or even to see that inequality as part of the natural order of things.

Continue reading “51 Recall This Buck 3: Thomas Piketty on Inequality and Ideology (Adaner, JP)”

50 Greg Childs on Seditious Conspiracy; or, Why Words Matter

Continuing our conversation on the events at the Capitol and the end of the Trump era, John and Elizabeth spoke with Brandeis historian Greg Childs. He is an expert in Latin American political movements and public space; his Seditious Spaces: Race, Freedom, and the 1798 Conspiracy in Bahia, Brazil is forthcoming from Cambridge. His historical and hemispheric perspective helped bring out the differences between calling an event “sedition,” “seditious conspiracy” and “insurrection,” the new “Lost Cause” that many of those attacking the Capitol seem to hold on to and the particularities of Whiteness in the United States, as compared to elsewhere in the Americas. Greg even proposes a new word for what happened January 6th: counterinsurgency.

Continue reading “50 Greg Childs on Seditious Conspiracy; or, Why Words Matter”