The Horror of Humanism

A few days ago Paul Ennis posted a blogpost on humanism. In this post he asks why people associate speculative realism with anti-humanism, saying:

What I cannot understand is why people think speculative realism is out to debase the subject. Or why it is an anti-humanism.

I responded at the time with this:

I can only answer for myself here, but I am an anti-humanist (and I have argued before that [neo-]vitalism is as well).

I am an anti-humanist in two important ways. First, the human being is absolutely not the centre of the universe, not all things happen for humans. Second, the human being is not “the top” of philosophy either. Let me explain, in certain forms of vitalism (Schelling and Bergson for example), while there can and does exist phenomena outside of human thought, there is a generally teleology to nature whereby it is shown to have always progressed to the human, and now that there are human beings, nature has in some way achieved its goal. I reject this. While I agree that all of nature is an infinite striving and does indeed have a goal (infinite presence and/or absence), it is an impossible one to achieve and yet all of nature is this perpetual drive towards being. The point being that the human being is not the be-all, end-all of existence and so shouldn’t be considered as such for philosophy. The human being is different from other things, but it is not any more special. In this way, anti-humanism is not “against humans,” but “against humanism.”

What I wanted to do was expand on this comment, and give perhaps a clearer explanation of my anti-humanism.

I am not against the subject. I’m not about to buy into the Transcendental Subject or what have you, but I’m also not going to reduce the human being to nothing but a chemical abnormality or whatever. I’m not a reductionist. At least not in that way. I propose an ontology of drive, but that is not an ontology of sameness. Actually, sameness is precisely what I deem the impossible goal of all existents, with all beings exerting themselves on others. This is not the present state of reality however, there is difference and one of those differences is the human being. The human being is unique among other things, but that doesn’t make it better or more special. The human being is not the height of creation but neither does that mean it is nothing.

What does this mean exactly? Well, I can’t be against the subject and still follow psychoanalysis, which I do. I think psychoanalysis gives us an understanding not just of the human being, but of beings generally. There is a tendency however, which I tried to get at in my comment on Paul’s entry, and which Ian picked up on, that humanism acts largely as a form of prejudice. If I talk about the conatus of all existents, that seems to be fine, but if I talk about specific animals or beings or the general structure of reality, without talking about humans, I’m somehow debasing humanity. Anti-humanism is not anti-human. I am not going to advocate that humans beings should all die or that we are a worthless lot, but neither am I going to sing our praises and talk about how all of Nature and History were just building up to The Human ™ as if we are the be-all, end-all of all existents. Man, that cat over there must be jealous knowing that I am the height of achievement in nature!

The problem with “humanism” is that it leads to these ideas, these fantasies of the human being as royalty or even worse, as detached from Nature. In my first entry on survivalism, I included a video of Michael Pollan that I got from Reid. In the video he mentions the effect of the Cartesian model of subjectivity as leading to the idea that the human being remains fundamentally detached from Nature. The idea here is that our precious Egos are pure and rational and that we are not a part of dirty Nature with all of its sex and death. No! We are sex and death! But that doesn’t mean we don’t also have thought and culture and dignity. It just means that maybe we shouldn’t imagine ourselves as being so special and unique.

So by anti-humanism, I mean that we are not the centre and neither are we the top. The world exists without us, and we are not some grand achievement. Neither are we the masters of the universe, the Lords of Being, or any other ridiculous title. What Nature teaches us is that we are small and fragile. We do not command Nature, even as we destroy it (not that we could ever hope to destroy it totally).

Essentially, I would follow the general idea that the human arises out of the same mess of forces that all other things have, emerging as unique beings which long to be in a more complete (total) way. I think this is evident by the destruction we wreaked on the Earth. We generally have a problem with non-humans, as is evidenced by human history. That isn’t to say that human-caused extinctions or natural destruction are somehow excused on such an ontology, but is at least understandable. This is precisely why I have been attempting to think through a form of vitalist ethics that does not fall into the “might makes right” mentality that often comes from claiming that Life is the proper name of Being. This is why I try to emphasize stability as the goal of ethics, leading me to what I have this far termed “survivalism.” The biological/ecological emphasis of survivalism lends itself to a non-human-centric form of ethics, looking at the health and harm of systems rather than focusing on specific actions or intentions. Biology and ecology strive for stability, that of course means that things will die, that things must die, but what must be stopped is the collapse of systems of equilibrium. Slavery is a state of instability, as are racism, genocide, the destruction of habitat, environmental pollution, etc, etc. This also means, I hope, to get out of the Levinasian-Derridean ethic of the Other, which is lopsided and, as I have argued, impossible. Infinite responsibility and hospitality certainly sound nice on paper, but is more than a little impractical when it comes to ecological disaster. Do forests or oceans meet me in the Face-to-Face?

The first step, as I see it, is to take the human out of the centre. Not out of the system, we cannot escape Nature, but rather, we should view the system without centre, but as a network. Our ethical priority should not be questions of whether or not we understand Justice or whether we are following the moral law, but are we creating or destroying existents? Do the networks we live in function? This does of course include our human relations as well as all of the beings we are connected to on this planet. We should strive for the benefit of all or as many existents as possible. I could see how someone would raise the issue of this leading to an asceticism, but ultimately what I think it leads to is not a letting-things-be, but an ethic of creative involvement. It is not possible to exist without destroying other beings, we need to eat after all, as do all living things. But by looking at the system as a whole rather than the individual things, we can perhaps get a better perspective on whether we are creating new life or simply destroying it.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “The Horror of Humanism

  1. i appreciate this posts on many fronts. i am re-reading heidegger’s ‘letter on humanism’ and finding much of what you say so relevant to much of what he does not say.

    and still…
    “Do forests or oceans meet me in the Face-to-Face?”
    this line caught me off guard… while levinas did not mean a strict facial encounter, i do wonder if moving the face-to-face into different terminology would allow us to read the means for meeting forests, oceans in the mode of latour, as actors in a network that do face the human and properly de-face humanism….

    i think you are getting at this already, just voicing a nervousness about finding enemies in a form of reading which, as deleuze’ work so elegantly illustrates, could be read differently, for difference rather than against it. the against, the enemy, the either/or of reading levinas, derrida or otherwise seems to me to sneak in a not so subtle insistence that there is a way, one way, a single way, to read.

    not to say that’s how you are reading or do read, (clearly not, in fact) but just wondering what this implicit move blocks or produces…

    thanks for this post,
    nikki
    http://prosthetics.wordpress.com

  2. I’m not sure why the term humanism is being used for what to me seems more clearly defined as anthrocentrism. As I understand Humanism, it derives from the process of relative democratization that has occurred over the last few centuries, it’s a counterpoint to clericism, monarchism, class, a reaction to the sway of any hegemony, a call for the rights of people who’ve historically been exploited or marginalized. Am I missing something? Humanism is part of the process in which those fortunate enough to earn an education or have a voice have expressed value for what was formerly dismissed. I see speculative realism as an expression of an expansion of that same valuation beyond the sphere of the human, our consciousness and behavior. But why does this expanding valuation have to be anti-anything? Is it because we have set up the false dichotomy of the human and the natural? Sometimes it seems like human is not so human.

  3. In “Existentialism is a Humanism” (available in its entirety here), Sartre gives two definitions of ‘humanism.’ I am against both of them. The first, which Sartre himself says should be ridiculed, is that which emphasizes the magnificence of humanity, with the greatness of humanity leading to worship and, he claims, Fascism.

    The second is that which he emphasizes, that which includes Existentialism, and is that which claims “there is no other universe except the human universe, the universe of human subjectivity.” While I understand that he is largely attempting to save morality from a necessary Christian ethics, he falls in to the same trap as the idealists, emphasizing not only a solid transcendental cogito, but also in claiming that the world begins and ends with the human. I contend that it begins and ends with Nature, understand as both the processes and products that make up reality.

    Yes, humanism sounds lovely when we are dealing with human oppression (no one should be marginalized), but when doing metaphysics, the human being is not oppressed. The human has been privileged to the detriment of the rest of reality since at least the Moderns. Speculative realism is attempting to correct this problem by showing the human not to be the centre of reality, but only one of many things that make up our common existence.

  4. Pingback: Inhuman Growths | Ontologenesis

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