Saturday, July 11, 2020

A New Consideration of Mark Wheeler's Edition of "150 Years of Evolution: Darwin’s Impact on Contemporary Thought & Culture" From San Diego State University Press

Theory, Influence & Controversy in Mark Wheeler's Critical Anthology, 150 Years of Evolution: Darwin’s Impact on Contemporary Thought & Culture

Lorenzo Antonio Nericcio

In the century and a half since he published On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin has attained a near-mythic stature in the Western intellectual tradition. He is often cited as one of the founding fathers of contemporary naturalism—the view that all events in the universe have a natural (i.e. scientifically analyzable) explanation—which has largely unseated previously predominant religious explanations for life and its origins.

This intellectual upheaval was by no means restricted to the natural sciences. The theory of evolution has influenced the social sciences, the humanities, and the arts since its inception. 150 Years of Evolution: Darwin’s Impact on Contemporary Thought & Culture, a published anthology of papers delivered at a San Diego State conference discussing that topic, highlights these influences. 

What did Charles Darwin do to impact such topics as the debate over free will, human uniqueness in the animal kingdom, the classification of human religions, and feminist thought? Scholars of diverse disciplines assemble to examine this question, interrogating the way evolution and natural selection have shaped the past hundred and fifty years of thought in their respective fields. The anthology features writing by Curtin Johnson, Sandra Wawytko, Mary Traschel, and many others. For those familiar with Philip Appleman’s Darwin, and The Literary and Cultural Reception of Charles Darwin in Europe edited by Glick & Schafer, this collection offers further critical insight into Darwin’s continuing interdisciplinary relevance. 

Dr. Mark Wheeler, Professor of Philosophy at SDSU, skillfully compiles the collection of articles into a single volume. They read as a lively discussion on Darwin’s wide-reaching influence outside his original biological domain—an influence which, in many fields, is not uncontroversial. Those interested in the intersection of natural science and the humanist disciplines will find rich analysis in the pages of 150 Years of Evolution: fascinating to scholars of Charles Darwin’s natural selection, but accessible to those interested in a more general understanding of the theory.

The anthology is available in a glossy paperback edition, laid out with an elegant and readable typeface, and is conveniently available through Amazon books

Lorenzo is a CU Boulder MA graduate, professional content writer, and educator focusing on the intersection between the sciences and the humanities.

Tuesday, July 07, 2020

SDSU Press brings you an exclusive Interview with Professor Steven Bender on his best selling book, How the West Was Juan: Reimagining the U.S. / Mexico Border

Interviewed by David Ornelas                    
SDSU Press editorial/marketing associate

Professor Steven W. Bender
How the West Was Juan creatively approaches the current political stalemate over restrictive v. compassionate border policy by imagining a different U.S.-Mexico border, one that returns to the early 1800s U.S.-Mexico border. Steven Bender is a national academic leader on immigration law and policy, as well as an expert in real estate law. Among his honors, the Minority Groups Section of the Association of American Law Schools presented him with the C. Clyde Ferguson, Jr., Award, a prestigious national award recognizing scholarly reputation, mentoring of junior faculty, and teaching excellence. 

Exclusive Interview with Professor Steven W. Bender

David Ornelas: What’s your name, occupation and title?

Professor Steven Bender: Steven Bender, a law professor and associate dean at Seattle University.

David Ornelas: What inspired you to write your book? Especially how your book approaches the current political stalemate over restrictive v. compassionate border policy by imagining a different U.S.-Mexico border, one that returns to the early 1800s U.S.-Mexico border.

Professor Steven Bender: My aim with several books of late, including this one, is to look at contentious social and legal issues, in this case Mexican migration to the United States, through a novel lens to supply fresh perspectives on long-standing and sadly violent debates and policies. Imagining a return today to the early 1800s U.S.-Mexico border and the economy and culture and immigration policies and practices that might result reveals, at bottom, the artificiality and futility of borders, and therefore of armoring borders. As I have shown in other books, no border will exclude the human spirit and instinct to survive, and our best course is to be “good neighbors” as most U.S. states are to each other, including those many U.S. states in the terrain of what was once Mexico.

David Ornelas: In your book, we get to fully understand the Anglo migration to Mexico and Alto Mexico, then Mexico migration to Alto Mexico. What are your thoughts of this sense of this perverse prison we call “reality?”

Professor Steven Bender: Alto Mexico is what I call the current states of California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, as well as parts of Colorado, Wyoming, Kansas, and Oklahoma—spanning from the California/Oregon coastal border to Port Arthur, Texas on the Gulf of Mexico, all on land once governed by Spain and then Mexico. Most Mexican immigrants work and reside in this terrain today; a Mexico controlled Southwest would mean that these Mexican workers need not die in their journey to jobs in the Southwest, nor their families be in constant danger of being ripped apart. Still, the immigration issue would remain, as the rest of the United States—such as the Northwest, the Midwest, and the South, are equally reliant on cheap and precarious migrant labor from Mexico (and other global regions), raising the possibility the “border” would simply shift northward with all the same political pressures to armor it against the entry of illicit drugs demanded by U.S. addicts and users, and undocumented labor that we all rely on and benefit from, even those who rail against undocumented people.

David Ornelas: Having written different books encompassing legal, cultural, political and historical issues, which category do you feel your book, “How the West Was Juan: Re imagining the U.S. / Mexico Border” falls under? If they all apply to your book, can you explain which one and their connection?
Professor Steven Bender: Although I am trained as a legal scholar, I am also steeped in the values and practices of critical Outsider scholarship.  One of these values is the salience of critical histories in examining laws, policies, and practices of the present and their origins and motivations. I routinely excavate these histories as I did in How the West Was Juan. I don’t think you can tell a legal story without regard to history. Nor, as the grandson of two Mexican immigrants, can I tell a legal story divorced from the culture of my community and my background, having been born and raised in the East Los Angeles area in a Mexican American household by a Mexican mother and Mexican stepfather. Culture runs deep in my life, and I examine it, question it, while cherishing it daily.

David Ornelas: When writing your book, did you feel there was this idea of inaccuracy of our traditional history books that needs to be fixed in order for it to be accurate? If so, which certain topics should we dig deep into when considering histories’ inaccuracy?

Professor Steven Bender: History books gloss over the problematic acquisition of the terrain of the United States, some of which is still in the grip of imperial limbo such as Puerto Rico. In How the West Was Juan, my focus is on the terrain of Texas and the U.S. Southwest, and I critique how the protection of slavery provided the impetus for that acquisition through war. Before the civil war over slavery, the United States helped satiate its thirst for new terrain in order to protect the institution of slavery in Texas, as well as expand its control to West Coast ports, all in the interest of Manifest Destiny that white governance, rather than Mexican, native, or other people seen as non-white, was crucial to realize the fullest potential of the terrain.

David Ornelas: You state the book is devoted to asking the question, “with this critical history of U.S. ownership origins rooted in slavery, what now?” So from your standpoint, what now? Where do we go from here?

Professor Steven Bender: Today, finally, there is critical attention being paid to the origin of monuments to slavery and colonial histories across the United States. How the West Was Juan adds a provocative challenge to that national interrogation—how far does our literal deconstruction extend? If the terrain of Texas in U.S. control is demonstrably rooted in the ability of white settlers to own and abuse slaves in a plantation economy, then what does it take to dismantle that history? Are we to treat the ownership of Texas and the Southwest as we would native lands which will never be returned (while still mindful of the similar problematic history of Indian/Spanish settler/Mexican conflicts in the same terrain before U.S. conquest)? Who truly owns or should govern the Southwest? What reparations are necessary to undo the legacies of conquest and Manifest Destiny? If impractical or impossible, what is practical or possible? These are some of the issues debated through the lens of how the West was  once “Juan.”

David Ornelas: Is your book different or similar to your other published works in terms of the story you’re trying to convey?

Professor Steven Bender: I believe it is a unique perspective and lens. There are plenty of books on U.S. history, and many on immigration, but mine imagines an epiphany of the immorality of slavery that prevents the chain of events that led to the forcible U.S. taking of Mexico land, and then examines what that different U.S.-Mexico border today would mean for contentious policy issues such as immigration.

David Ornelas: Which claims or points does your book challenge when it comes to the past and present history of the U.S./Mexico Border?

Professor Steven Bender: Among my challenges are, similar to still-prevailing misconceptions of the Civil War, that the impetus for the acquisition of Texas and beyond was rooted not in local or state’s rights to governance and their local freedoms, but in slavery—essentially the “freedom” to hold black people unfree and to profit from their enslavement. Another key point of unlearning in this book is one revealed by an earlier book I wrote, Run for the Border, which confirms that no matter how the border is protected and armored, immigration/labor and goods desired by the other “side” will continue unimpaired through, among other motivations, the tenacity of the human spirit. How the West Was Juan adds the dimension to my prior study that no matter where the U.S.-Mexico border is located, the same dynamics will exist, that no border (whether physical or on a map) feasibly will stop.

David Ornelas: When reading your book, is there a specific part we should focus on when forming our own thoughts on the U.S./Mexico Border?

Professor Steven Bender: Particularly for those current residents of what I term Alto Mexico in Texas and the U.S. Southwest, they might imagine their life in a Mexico-controlled Alto Mexico. How would its economy, culture, laws, demographics, and communities differ from where they currently live? For those in the “rest” of the United States, what is the U.S. national identity without control of such vast terrain? Does an international border separating Oregon from California, or Oklahoma from Texas, for instance, change their opinion of the current U.S.-Mexico border? Of migration policy?

David Ornelas: The U.S./Mexico Border has been widely discussed in the past 7-8 years. When writing your book, which outside information did you focus on that you mentioned in your book? Was it politically driven or focusing on one certain key point that you want you reader’s to take into consideration when forming their own thoughts?

Professor Steven Bender: I try not to be driven by political considerations in my writing. Instead, my writing is rooted in concern for the “bottom,” those most adversely affected by law and societal practices. When I began thinking about a re-imagined U.S.-Mexico border—one returning to the U.S.-Mexico border of the early 1800s, I had no agenda other than to examine policy issues through that relocated lens and to see where it led, while ever mindful of the need for compassion for the lives of those we so often vilify in the interest of border security and the “rule of law.”

David Ornelas: As stated before, the U.S./Mexico Border has been in the front line for years now. Many stories surrounding immigration and migration. Why did you choose to focus a good portion of your book on the migration Anglo migration to Mexico and Alto migration, then Mexico migration to Alto Mexico?

Professor Steven Bender: In my earlier book Run for the Border, I focused on why and when and what people and goods were crossing the border through the centuries. When U.S. residents think of the southern border, invariably they focus on northbound movement of people and goods, in the latter case particularly drugs. But I wanted to focus in that book equally on flows of people and goods in the other direction, from partying youth on Mexican beaches, to retirees, to U.S. companies such as Walmart that displace smaller Mexican businesses, to criminals fleeing south in a “run for the border,” to guns and money headed south, made possible by the insatiable appetite of U.S. drug users of all stripes. In How the West Was Juan, I equally wanted readers to overcome their one-sided focus on travel northward from Mexico of people and goods, and to critically examine their own greater freedom to themselves head “south of the border,” wherever that border may lie, for retirement, work, or more often the vacation of their dreams.

David Ornelas: After a reader completes your book, What would you suggest they take away and apply to their future thinking when it comes to the U.S./Mexico Border?

Professor Steven Bender: My book in no way invites a forcible or even political reconquest of the Southwest back to Mexico control, but instead offers a novel lens for readers to think about the contentious issues we associate with the current U.S.-Mexico border and which divide so many. Ultimately, I hope that readers emerge with a sense of the connectedness of the two countries, whose legacies and futures are bound together as a writer once described the Rio Grande and the communities of El Paso and Ciudad Juárez on either side—“The river instead of separating them . . . bound them together.”

José Alaniz and “The Phantom Zone”: A Comic Collection of Catastrophic Proportions! Interviewed by Fabrizio Lacarra Ramirez – July 5, 2020

A fresh addition to the Amatl Comix series comes in the form of an eclectic compilation featuring José Alaniz’s best work: “The Phantom Zone and Other Stories”. This bundle stays true to its front-cover promise of ‘¡Pulse-Pounding Acción!’ with snappy, vibrant writing and a refusal to commit to any tone for too long. Any self-deprecating or heart-wrenching anecdote is swiftly followed by a zinger from the talking cat Seymour; entire chapters jumping restlessly between the two. Alaniz will punch you in the gut and then take you out for ice cream. Stupendously funny, terribly macabre, and stylistically enveloping, what we are presented in this author’s “Phantom Zone” is an experimental buffet of 5-star dishes.

From the big and busy streets of Seattle to the intimate, homesick memories of his home in old Edinburg, Alaniz opens to the reader ephemeral rifts of suffering and catharsis.

I would have loved to discuss the insides of this collection with Alaniz over a tall glass of brew, (or a modest cup of joe if that’s more his style) but given the current state of the world, we have devised a scheme for communication the likes of which defy the very concept of the current quarantine. What follows is an interview of author, artist, and professor José Alaniz through the modern telegram, otherwise known as the World Wide Web.

FABRIZIO LACARRA RAMIREZ: It’s clear you love superhero comics, and you included such work of your own design in this collection through the story The Texan and Chemo-Sabe, but what made you want to focus on a smaller, more personal story like the one of Chip?

JOSÉ ALANIZ: As noted in my introduction, I had started a comic strip with my friend Luke Garza called Celibate By Default. When that wasn’t working out, I revamped and repurposed the original concept myself. This was back in the early 90s, when I was working at the UT newspaper The Daily Texan, and trying out different strips all the time. The pressure to come up with something day in and day out led me to experiment with a lot of ideas! I had already produced The Texan and Chemo-Sabe; Joey, about a multiverse-hopping creature (which gave me an excuse to throw in many of my old ideas, settings and characters, like Otto the Super-Powered Bobcat, from my high school strip days); the autobiographical Electric Youth; and random strips about “Ervin the Cannibal,” among other things. This was happening at the end of a golden age for strips in the Texan, with outstanding cartoonists like Chris Ware, Tom King, Jeanette Moreno, Van Garrett, Robert Rodríguez, Marc Trujillo, John Keen, Corey Koleman, Walt Holcombe, the list goes on. Truly an extraordinary era.

The Phantom Zone came about, I guess, mostly as a way to differentiate what I was doing from those masterful people. I told one long episodic story in about 100 strips. True, Van was already doing that at the Texan, with his Burnt Orange Blues (that series lasted over five years, if I recall). Only after the strip got going did I start throwing in short story ideas I had had simmering in my brain a while, like the “search for the good” plot. Much of doing art is improvisation. The story pretty much told itself after a while.         

For a collection so full of damage, there are very often occurrences of hilarity. One of these is delivered through the talking cat Seymour. What purpose does it serve to have jokes embedded within a serious narrative?

Like so much of my life in Austin, I wanted the strip to have its heaviness and its lighter notes. Surreal and absurdist touches work very organically in a comic strip, as opposed to most other media, I’d say. I hope, too, that I captured a bit of what made Austin weird in that time period, something seen pretty clearly and endearingly in Richard Linklater’s film Slacker, which is all about “weird Austin.” As the story leaves Austin (in “Going Home” and “The Death of Chip”) things get a lot heavier, it’s true.

You make tons of music references throughout your work. What is the role of music in your creative process?

Yes, starting with the title, which I took from a song by my friend Paul English, a magnificent musician. Austin is a music town, what can I say! It always seemed like every other person you met could play the guitar and had a band. So many talented folks. So even though I had no music ability, I was always surrounded by musicians, and of course college is a time to discover many new things, including music. And it wasn’t always what you would expect, either; lots of what we listened to was older. My friend Bo Tisdale (another extraordinary musician) introduced me to Billie Holiday, just because it happened to be playing on his turntable once. I still remember listening for the first time to “The Piano Has Been Drinking” by Tom Waits at his apartment. Good times! Plus all the original songs my friends were churning out – including Paul’s The Phantom Zone.      

What is the “Phantom Zone”? The world of Chip and friends doesn’t seem to be particularly haunted by any literal phantoms; how would you define the term?

Well, it starts off early in the story as the amorphous state after the end of a relationship, when you can’t quite admit it’s over, and can’t see a way back, and don’t know what to do. Grief, depression, flailing, acting out, rage, psychotic breaks – it all falls into the category. But as the strip developed it became a grander metaphor for the time of uncertainty after college, and in general for how we make our way through life (at any age) mostly without seeing where we’re going or knowing what we’re doing. As John Lennon puts it, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” That’s the Phantom Zone. Of course, it’s also a borrowing. The Phantom Zone comes from the Superman mythos: a limbo-like purgatory where criminal Kryptonians wound up. A pop-culture version of Nepantla, the pre-Columbian Aztec state of “in-betweenness,” of not one thing or another, of liminality. That’s partly why I bring in Coatlicue at the end.   

You included a character by the name of Rug who worked as a cartoonist at the student paper. Was Rug based off a friend from your college days?

Yes and no. Like most of the characters, Rug was an amalgam of many people, experiences and memories of my Austin life. Oddly, Rug is the character who most closely resembles me – physically, I mean. I myself do not have a butterfly fetish.

Chip’s quest in the middle of The Phantom Zone can be considered as a search for a ‘good’, but it’s clear that goodness is subjective. What is your personal definition of ‘good’?

Gosh, that’s too hard. I went with this storyline partly because it allowed me to explore many different ideas about “the good,” simply by having Chip ask all his friends and acquaintances. It also helped with world-building, because Chip has to go to many different venues and settings to ask. One small anecdote. At a certain point, Chip is discussing the good with a philosophy professor, who dodges the question by saying his office hours have ended. That’s largely based on an interaction I had with a UT philosophy professor. We were debating something about God, as I recall, and at a certain point he cut off our discussion by saying, with a smirk, “This is as far as I can go in an undergraduate class.” I remember thinking, “If I ever become a college professor, I’ll never use that as an excuse when I’m losing.” I did in fact become a college professor, and have been true to my word.  

In The Texan and Chemo-Sabe, our titular sidekick says he has a problem arresting fellow Chicanos, but when they are unmasked to be Nazis in disguise, Chemo decides he’s okay with booking them. What do you have to say on the topic of morality vs. one’s culture? 

That strip has an unusual origin. An eagle-eyed reader will spot the fact that the art style subtly changes from one part to the next. That happened because originally I put together the first part of the story (the attack on the Mexican crooks, complete with Spanish misspellings) as an audition for the Texan comics page. I had no agenda or plan other than getting accepted by the Texan; I didn’t even think about continuing the story. Later, once I decided to run The Texan and Chemo-Sabe on the comics page (I’d gotten accepted, yay!), I had to come up with a resolution. Looking over the story again several months later, I rethought what I had done. Now Mexican/Mexican-American gangsters being whupped by a white guy in a cowboy hat didn’t look so appealing to me as an idea. Chemo’s comment about not wanting to arrest them spoke to my own discomfort with the image that I was perpetuating. So I found a solution: they’re not really Mexican crooks after all. A weak, silly parodic ending, I admit. But at least it pulls the rug out from under the very racialized representation I started out with.      

There is a scene later in the book that shows Chip and friends munching on some Mexican mushrooms, which make our protagonist feel like a superhero. Do you have any relationship with hallucinogenics in your personal life?

I went to college.

Chip’s decision to move away from home and do his part to end hunger in Africa becomes a double act of sacrifice when the Aztec goddess Coatlicue appears to snuff out his life. Was this an instance of metaphorical divine retribution, or a way of putting the character and his narrative behind you?

I would say Coatlicue does not snuff out his life; the Somali rebel forces, specifically the United Somali Congress (which Aminah refers to) kill him with one of their mines. I never show them, but we hear their gunfire and see the lump of earth under which the mine is buried. Coatlicue appears for reasons I don’t reveal in the story. Is she a herald of death? Is she “the ultimate mother,” as Aminah says, welcoming Chip home? Is she a hallucination prompted by the conversation with Aminah? Is she there simply because Chip is Mexican-American? ¿Quién sabe?

I can tell you about the person I dedicated the story to, Cynthia Elbaum. I met Cynthia in Moscow in the early 1990s. She was a bright, ambitious freelance photographer. She went to cover the first Chechen War, in 1994, as a photojournalist. One day, after I had left Russia and was once more living in the states, I was listening to NPR. This was in December, 1994. The announcer read out her name. She had been killed by an artillery attack in Grozny – from what I understand, an artillery attack on a civilian area. It was a profound shock. It also made me very angry that someone like Cynthia should die like that, when she was trying to show that war to the West with her pictures. It struck me as an example of the world’s injustice, how it swallows up good people, maybe the best of us, idealists like Rachel Corrie and many, many journalists all over the globe.  By then, I knew Chip was going to die (that gets foreshadowed in the original strip), I just didn’t quite know how. Cynthia’s death planted the seed for the story that eventually became “The Death of Chip.”

Planet of the Zooters is an entire comic section with nothing more than photographed folks and sheet music dividing the pages, hung up in a starry night sky. It goes without saying that words are not the only avenue of storytelling, but what would you say to the few poor souls out there with no knowledge of how to read sheet music?

Hey, I can’t read sheet music either! I did have trouble finding that piece, “Los Chucos Suaves” by the great Lalo Guerrero, in sheet music form, though. Eventually I had to pay a professional music notation service. I wanted that piece in the comic because it’s the ultimate zoot-suiter song. Planet of the Zooters brings together a lot of things: a formal experiment with music in comics; a zine aesthetic mashed up with a Mexican fotonovela; Kirby, Star Trek and Zoot Suit run through the rasquache cuisinart. But it started out as just a goof. On Halloween, 2015, my future wife Kristin and I were taking pictures in our costumes in front of the famous gum wall in Seattle, near the Pike Place Market. We also asked a stranger to shoot some of us together. We were just playing around. Later I was having a look at the pix, and a very loose plot suggested itself. So I put it together on photoshop with the help of my technical advisor Valerie Niemeyer, and there you go: zooter scifi to the beat of Guerrero.        

Emerald City is the most abstract cut of the collection and, along with being my favorite section, shared with us some of the intimate stories about your experiences in Seattle, including an incident report and a reimagining of a public shooting. What place do these have in a book about comics?

I’m glad you liked “Emerald City.” That included some of my most recent stuff, a lot of which I started at Dune, the monthly Seattle comics-making meet-up. Comics can tell any story. This part of the collection deals with incidents, experiences and objects related to my life in this city over the last five years, like bonding over Ms. Marvel with a deaf Somali girl on the light rail; having my backpack stolen and returned; joining the Seattle/King County Clinic comics journalism team; deciding to cut down on our use of plastic; and puzzling over a beautiful wooden statue of a unicorn in the neighborhood. Other pieces came from a diary I kept while taking a minicomics-making class from the great artist and teacher Eroyn Franklin. Seattle is a wonderful, wonderful comics town. The existence of this book totally owes to that fact. That’s why I wish Mark Campos, the heart and soul of our scene, were alive to see it. But he died tragically in 2018.    

Chip was happy to leave his home behind in search for something more, however, this sentiment is one you seem not to share in your personal life. How do you feel towards your hometown of old Edinburg now that it’s changed? 

Actually, I think Chip and I have more in common than you suspect. Chip does express love for his roots in “Going Home.” (By the way, his father and stepmother’s house in that story is modeled on the house I grew up in, at 821 East Kuhn in Edinburg.) I left home at 18, because I needed to escape the Rio Grande Valley. It’s true that when I left I thought I’d never go back. The world’s too big, life’s too short, etc. But then I grew up! Enough, anyway, to reassess the Valley and come to really love it as an adult, for all the things that make it unique. I love the border culture of the Valley, I love the language, the food (in moderation), the wildlife, the lifelong friends and family there. I tried to communicate that love especially in the one prose piece included in the collection, the short story “La Tempesta.”

When I visit the Valley I often have very full days, because I’m trying to see as much and as many people as possible. Since starting work on my new book of comics journalism, Fronteras de Fierro: Life on the Border in the Age of Walls, I’ve gone to many areas of the Valley I either hadn’t seen since I was a teen, like the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, or never seen before, like the lovely town of Roma. As for Edinburg, that’s always bittersweet. The older part of town, where I grew up, is still hanging in there, though every time I visit little chunks of it have been bitten off by “progress.” “Old Edinburg: Dead and Gone” is about that.

I think this massive modern courthouse they’re building in the center of town (ironically, on the bones of a previous courthouse which by the time I was born had been turned into a parking lot) is going to propel the city forward even faster. Population growth, changing demographics, the internet, the coronavirus pandemic and climate change, among other factors, will make Edinburg very different in the not-too-distant future, I suspect.

But I can’t see myself ever not loving mi gente y mi tierra.     

Treat yourself to José Alaniz’s brilliance with this fantastic collection.
Available on Amazon: