Intellectual Biography Statement
Dr. Steven Best
The first significant arc of my intellectual trajectory began with my work on postmodern theory and cultural studies through my writings with renowned Continental Philosophy scholar, Douglas Kellner. We started collaborating on articles in 1985 when I was a graduate student in Philosophy at the University of Chicago. My relation with Doug Kellner evolved to the point that he and I wrote a trilogy of books on postmodern theory and cultural studies – Postmodern Theory: Critical Interrogations (1991), The Postmodern Turn (1997), and The Postmodern Adventure: Science, Technology, and Cultural Studies at the Third Millennium (2001). These books have been translated into numerous languages, have sold tens of thousands of copies, are standard volumes for graduate courses throughout the world, and have won wide critical acclaim. Indeed, The Postmodern Turn and The Postmodern Adventure both won Social Theory/Philosophy Book of the Year awards. Rounding out this trilogy further, I published my own book, The Politics of Historical Vision: Marx, Foucault, and Habermas (1995). In this work, I analyzed the political implications of different forms of historiography and I engaged three great theorists in numerous critical dialogues that map out the insights and blindness of classical modern (Marx), reconstructed modern (Habermas), and postmodern (Foucault) positions. The book received high praise from Richard Wolin, Mark Poster, and numerous others.
Key Critical Concerns
The thrust of my work alone and with Kellner has been to:
* Map the various paradigm shifts in thought (philosophy, sociology, science, etc.), culture, and the arts
* Analyze and dialectically evaluate the various meanings of “modern” and “postmodern” in different fields, disciplines, and in history itself
* Search for both continuities and discontinuities along modern/postmodern fault lines and within postmodern shifts in theory, the arts, and science; and
* Evaluate these changes from a critical and normative standpoint that seeks to advance possibilities for radical democracy
I have never indulged in postmodern theory in a fashionable, esoteric, elitist, or opportunistic way. Instead, I have always been concerned with one of Foucault’s questions – “What is our present moment?” – and the practical and political implications of the turbulent changes in contemporary history and culture. Dewey, Habermas, Foucault, critical theory, and feminism have been vital influences throughout my theoretical trajectory that to date has culminated in 8 books and over 100 articles and reviews. I strongly affirm the value of the “public intellectual” who can illuminate key issues and controversies of the present day, communicate these in clear and compelling terms to a wide audience, and precipitate critical thinking, education, and progressive social change.
Since the mid-1990s, my work evolved from research in postmodern social theory and cultural studies to take on some core issues in science and technology studies. From the premise that science, technology, and global capitalism are the most vital forces of change in modern and postmodern societies, and that they co-evolve in profound and intimate ways, Kellner and I wrote The Postmodern Adventure: Science, Technology, and Cultural Studies at the Third Millennium. Analyzing a wide array of related phenomena such as Thomas Pynchon’s novels, science fiction in literature and film, chaos and complexity theories in science, computerization and cyborg implosions between technology and the body, the Internet, genetic engineering and cloning, modern and postmodern wars, globalization, and environmentalism, we studied some of the key (often quite surreal) mutations in contemporary society (or, “global technocapitalism”). We charted a great “adventure” in human evolution that brings into being a wide array of complex and conflicting phenomena, noting some tendencies that augur greater democracy and other tendencies that threaten the continued survival of Homo sapiens altogether.
My most recent work builds on these critical trajectories as it seeks to create new bridges between academic and activist communities, and among various activist causes themselves. Specifically, I have begun to address urgent issues raised by environmentalism and animal rights from the standpoints of critical theory, feminism, cultural studies, postmodern theory, deep ecology, and normative ethics. I have engaged issues such as the commonalities of oppression involved in racism, sexism, and speciesism, while mounting philosophical arguments in favor of animal rights and a new environmental ethic. In essays such as “The New Abolitionism: Capitalism, Slavery, and Animal Liberation,” I have demonstrated the strong analogies between 19th century abolitionism in the US and the “new abolitionism” of the 21st century that seeks to emancipate animals from slavery to humans and from the ideology of human supremacy.
Moreover, I have broadened long-time concerns with (cultural and political) identity politics into a new framework of human identity politics. I extend the analyses of race, class, sexual, and gender identities to consider what it means, more broadly, to forge worldviews and identities as members of Homo sapiens -- as individuals within the human species whose broadest notion of self is socially constructed in relation/opposition to nonhuman animals. Using insights from Derrida, feminism, anthropology, Darwin, current cognitive ethology, and elsewhere, I have worked to break down the Berlin Wall that divides human and nonhuman animals in order to show how fallacious, motivated, and disastrous (morally, spiritually, socially, ecologically) is the ontological dualism between “humans” and “animals.” I question the rationalist fallacies informing humanist philosophies as I explore the meanings and possibilities of various forms of posthumanism. I show that even “radical humanism” is a scientifically invalid and morally prejudicial framework that needs to be overcome, and that struggles for human rights and liberation need to be articulated with struggles for animal rights and liberation.
In this vein, I co-edited, wrote the Introduction for, and contributed two essays to the first anthology and academic treatment of the Animal Liberation Front, Terrorists or Freedom Fighters? Reflections on the Liberation of Animals (Lantern Books, 2004). Collecting original essays from both academics and activists, including feminist and Native American viewpoints, this book explores the ethical, philosophical, political, and legal controversies surrounding the use of direct action tactics on behalf of the liberation of animals, as it compares human and animal liberation movements. Terrorists or Freedom Fighters is an exciting new volume; it already is considered to be one of the most important books in the rich literature of animal rights and has prompted new discussions in academic and activist communities.
Following the same interdisciplinary and multiperspectival approach, Nocella and I put together an even richer book, Igniting a Revolution: Voices in Defense of the Earth (AK Press, 2006). I edited the volume and wrote the lengthy historical and critical Introduction on the origin and trajectory of modern Western environmental movements. In a trailblazing manner, we employ a pluralist, multiperspectival, interdisciplinary, boundary-transgressing, bridge-building approach, one that brings together sundry people and positions that ordinarily never meet. With over forty contributors, Igniting a Revolution features a wide array of critical perspectives on social and environmental issues, ranging from social ecology, deep ecology, Earth First!, ecofeminism, and primitivism to Native Americans, Black liberationists, political prisoners, and animal/Earth liberation movements. An important task of the book is to decouple environmentalism from white, male, privileged positions; to diversify it along class, gender, racial, ethnic, and other lines; and to remove it from its single-issue pedestal. This book has made an immediate impact among academic and activist communities and has won broad acclaim for the unique and important book that it is.
In the new book that I am currently completing for Rowan and Littlefield, entitled Animal Rights and Moral Progress: The Struggle for Human Evolution (2007), I argue that the next logical and necessary step in Western cultural evolution is to broaden the notion of rights to include animals and thereby to fully represent and protect their interests in law. The book shows how human beings have written the narratives of their own historical development without proper grounding of their existence in relationship with other species and the natural world. The book covers the broad scope of human biological evolution from australopithecines to Homo forms, and debunks key historical myths such as “man the hunter” and “man the carnivore.” With due attention to the complexities of writing a historical narrative, I argue that there is a progressive movement in modern Western development that can be charted through the evolution of rights, whereby rights are extended (clearly imperfectly) to an increasingly broad human community. If society learns to follow the logical implications of rights, it will move further down the path (already started in highly significant ways) of extending basic rights to animals next. I argue that the “third stage of Enlightenment” -- building on the first two stages that emerged in the 18th century and then in the 1960s -- involves overcoming prejudices toward human and nonhuman species, and thereby supersedes not only racism, sexism, and homophobia, but also speciesism.
Whereas ethicists such as Arthur Kaplan argue that the notion of animal rights
“cheapens” human rights, I demonstrate, quite the contrary, that
animal rights redeems the prevailing humanist notions of rights from an arbitrary
and prejudicial limitation of their meaning and scope. Showing how the exploitation
of animals negatively affects human beings in a host of ways – ranging
from health and violent behavior to the global environmental crisis -- I argue
that a viable human future requires a radical rethinking of our relationship
to animals and the earth, extending basic moral and legal rights to animals,
and formulating new species identities rooted in an evolutionary and naturalist
understanding of human nature(s). Among other things, I currently am exploring
the rich possibilities of extending Sandra Harding’s standpoint theory
toward a new evaluation of the crises in the human world and its relation
to the natural world as can be uniquely revealed from the animal standpoint.
While animals obviously cannot “speak” about their sufferings
(which they nonetheless communicate in clear enough ways), it is only from
the standpoint of animal exploitation that we can glean key facets of the
pathology of human violence and illuminate important aspects of “misothery”
(the hatred of and alienation from the natural world) and the social and environmental
crises that so gravely threaten human existence.
Teaching and Activism
In addition to my productive research life, I am very dedicated to the mission of teaching. My student evaluations are always highly positive and my classes are popular. I teach a wide array of classes, including Modern Humanities, Introduction to Philosophy, Ethics, Logic and Critical Thinking, Social Philosophy, Science and Technology Studies, Environmental Ethics, Philosophy of History, and Philosophy of Law. Whether teaching advanced seminars on contemporary social theories or an Introduction to Philosophy class to nearly 500 students, I teach in a dynamic, energetic, non-dogmatic, dialogic manner that balances serious analysis with levity and humor. I teach socially relevant and controversial topics with the intent to awaken critical thinking processes and never to dictate the “correct conclusion.” I do not, however, rest satisfied with the relativist conclusion that all opinions of equal weight and value; rather, I urge students to scrutinize all positions critically and to provide the best possible rational support for their arguments that they can construct, understanding that their positions can always change in light of new facts, evidence, and insights.
To give an example of the kind of critical pedagogy I have done in El Paso, students in my Philosophy of Law class (Spring 2004) and I led a successful initiative at the City Council to pass a resolution declaring the PATRIOT Act to be unconstitutional. El Paso thereby became the 300th US city to win such a measure, succeeding where efforts in Austin and elsewhere failed. The research and numerous meetings with public officials paid off handsomely, and the result for my (somewhat jaded and apathetic) students was empowering and transformative.
As an “engaged intellectual,” I have been a highly visible human rights, animal rights, and environmental activist in the El Paso community and in far larger stages, both nationally and internationally. I receive numerous invitations to speak nationally and internationally on various topics and to diverse audiences in academic, activist, and community settings. I have spoken on theatre and narrative in Leon, France; on biotechnology and cloning in Essen, Germany; on abolitionism in the human and animal rights struggles in London, England; on environmentalism in Oslo, Norway and Stockholm, Sweden, and on applied ethics and terrorism in Cape Town and Johannesburg, South Africa. I have been Visiting Scholar at New Mexico State University; Keynote Speaker for an International Management conference in Manchester, England; and featured Earth Day speaker for the community of Fayetteville, Arkansas. Because of the interdisciplinary nature of my work, I have addressed audiences in diverse areas such as sociology, business and management, science, nutrition, and various activist causes.
Through my work in theory and politics, through essays, books, conferences, and activism, I have broken new ground in articulating commonalities between human liberation and animal liberation issues. I have built bridges between activists and academics, and among various academics themselves, where previously there were none. As evident in the lineup of conferences I have help to organize -- featuring Black Panthers, AIM activists, feminists, animal rights activists, environmentalists, and a host of others -- my work is not only interdisciplinary and bridge-building in theory, but also in practice.
With colleague Tony Nocella, I have also created an online academic/activist website, the Institute for Critical Animal Studies (ICAS). ICAS is the first scholarly center dedicated to philosophical discussion on animal liberation. It strives to advance the study, research, and dialogue of the principles and practices of animal rights. TheInstitute engages in critical examinations and philosophical dialogue through an online journal, research databases, a speaker’s bureau, and conferences on animal liberation issues. Furthermore, ICAS provides resources for exploring elements of other social justice struggles as it links them to a comprehensive vision of liberation that transcends human boundaries. As part of the project of ICAS, I also have created the first academic journal for animal liberation issues, entitled Journal for Critical Animal Studies. This is an interdisciplinary, peer-reviewed, academic journal that explores issues in animal rights/liberation issues and how they relate to other justice struggles and society as a whole. I serve as Chief Editor of the journal, presiding over the publication of five issues to date. I am Book Review editor for Democracy and Nature, and on the editorial boards of numerous academic journals. Also, I recently co-founded a new interdisciplinary academic journal on ecological politics with colleagues at Fresno State, entitled Green Theory and Practice.
Finally, embodying my commitments to making philosophy a relevant force and to exemplifying the virtues of the public intellectual, for 25 years I have been deeply involved with community groups on various issues. Most recently, since 1993 when I came to El Paso, I headed and worked with numerous animal advocacy and rescue groups, served as Vice-President of the Vegetarian Society of El Paso, and organized with the Green Party and numerous local environmental groups. Since 1992, I have hosted a local NPR affiliate radio show (broadcast globally over the Internet) that addresses urgent issues of the day as they relate to the matrix of human, animal, and environmental concerns. Widely recognized as a leading theorist and activist on animal and environmental issues, I have been featured in local, national, and international media (television, print, radio, and documentaries) countless. I have been interviewed about various philosophical topics – from animal rights and environmental ethics to film analysis and gun control – by National Public Radio, the Alan Colmes show, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, BBC News, Channel 4 in London, and the Guardian Independent, as well as media in Brazil, Barcelona, and France. I have also been featured in academic newspapers and magazines such as The Chronicle of Higher Education and The Philosopher’s Magazine.
I plan to deepen and developing my work in new directions – such as to be enriched by anthropology and history -- always striving to make philosophy a relevant force for progressive social change. Throughout my career as a student, academic, and community activist, I have developed an increasingly broad and comprehensive understanding of concepts such as power, democracy, rights, and freedom. I have learned to seek and draw connections among diverse phenomena, to analyze commonalities of oppression, and to grasp the interconnectedness of human, animal, and Earth interests. I have worked within, and worked against, the limitations of humanism and anthropocentrism to try to advance a broader ethic and concepts of rights, equality, and community. I hope my work is a small contribution to creating a more just and humane present, and to forging a future organized around values of democracy, equality, and peace rather than tyranny, hierarchy, and violence.
Associate Professor of Philosophy and Humanities
University of Texas, El Paso