Human/Animal : Stathis Gourgouris

For Aristotle, the humanization of the human/animal is achieved not by reference to the natural capacity for society in the conventional sense of “natural”— that is, whereby “natural” signifies the means of the physical universe—but by virtue of a social-historical determination of humans belonging to a polis. Aristotle does consider the existence of the polis a natural event (pasa polis physei estin), but only in the sense that it bears the entelechy of communal association, indeed the perfectibility of the human/animal’s social bond.4 This may be a potentiality inherent in the nature of the thing, but its achievement-completion (its teleiopoiēsis) is a historical institution of a particular social imaginary.

Now, we are not Aristotelians to get hung up on entelechy; therefore, we can understand that there is nothing in the emergence of the polis that was predetermined or had to happen or is, for that matter, the manifestation of the perfectibility of community as such. We can concur, as historical thinkers outside the demand for entelechy, that the polis is a historical institution of a particular social imaginary and only as such, as a historical occurrence, a manifestation of the capacity of human-being, the concretization of its imagination. To be precise, what in this case animates human-being, insofar as it enables the institution of the polis, is predicated on sharing a communal interrogation and authorization of the law, whose ultimate consequence, actualized in the democratic polis, is to constitute a social bond that counters even the natural bonds of kinship. In this specific sense, zōon politikon does not pertain to a natural condition of zōon as such, and about this Aristotle is unequivocal.

The specific form of living being (eu zēn) that Aristotle recognizes to be the nature of the polis qualifies the matter of nature in living being in reverse: it is the politikon that bespeaks the nature of the human zōon, not the bare zōon as such.5 Indeed, Aristotle’s famous characterization gestures toward a physical nature exceeded—and surely, permeated and configured—by the political. The notion itself yields an uncannily precise expression of a key element in the Greek imaginary since the earliest vestiges of pre-Socratic thinking: namely, the intersection of physis with nomos, whereby both permeate each other without ever being reducible to each other.

No doubt, the specific content of nomos operating in this case is the gradual configuration of the polis toward the interrogation of the sources of law beyond the terms that are ritualistically instituted by custom and kinship. The democratic polis is surely the sublime, if precarious, form of this configuration, and it would be difficult to imagine how Aristotle could have come to the term zōon politikon without the historical actualization of democracy. The great American political theorist Sheldon Wolin puts it succinctly:

there is an extraordinary element in this characterization [because there had to have existed] a powerful, undeniable experience of politicalness, an actual practice sufficiently widespread to justify claiming it not simply as a human possibility but as the teleological principle of human nature itself. What was captured, a posteriori, by Aristotle’s formula was the revolution in the political accomplished by Athenian citizen democracy of the fifth century.6

The revolution of the political may be otherwise configured to be a revolution of the natural. As Wolin himself and many other thinkers of radical democracy recognize, this palpable and fully actualized political mode of living being (zōon) leans on the very processes of subjectification, configuring the sort of subjectivity whose nature is interrogative and transgressive while being at the same time collaborative and collective against previous structures of communal hierarchy.

What does this entail in broader anthropological terms? In the course of configuring ‘human nature’ over time, myriad societies and their myths have sought to establish ways whereby the human can be overcome. Permit me an assertion here as a point of departure: The claim to have overcome the human is a debilitating delusion precisely because—the clarity here is cruel and undeconstructible—only the human can claim to overcome the human. So, although the impetus in the most innovative work that identifies itself variously (and certainly self-critically) as “posthumanism” is genuinely an attempt to open a new epistemological horizon and invent a new framework of meaning that exceeds the inherited humanism that still inhabits us all, nonetheless the demand still bears upon us to elucidate the domain of the human and not evade it for some other domain (whether it’s information systems, animal studies, biotech genetics, artificial intelligence, or what have you), because, whether we like it or not, even in those domains the human remains the interrogative framework.7

This cannot be outmaneuvered, at least not until robots become capable of creating phantasms or other living creatures that communicate to us how they imagine an alternate universe that gives meaning to their world. In other words, the very being that enacts the interrogation must be interrogated in its own precarious and problematic name, for every other naming will remain at best allegorical and at worst prosthetic—in both cases, a convenient displacement of the inordinate stakes in the discussion.

For this reason, there cannot be a critical discussion of humanism without a critical reconfiguration of the human and thus the task to rethink humanism belongs to the indefinitely variable poiētic range of human-being as a condition. If it is to have any radical meaning today, humanism must be encountered in its full range as an epistemological framework, and specifically as the framework that fields the question “what is human?” as a constitutively open question. The framing itself points beyond the mere ontological dimension (“what is the human?”) to a broader inquiry into how an epistemology of the human produces, organizes, hierarchizes, but by the same token represses, disfigures or extinguishes, certain modes and objects of knowledge (including, we must add, humanity itself).

4. Note that, as Greek texts tell us over and over, to become apolis, to be exiled from the city, is tantamount to death—in fact, worse than death because one lives a life not worth living, a life of utter inhumanity or, as Aristotle, quoting Homer, says: “clanless, lawless, hearthless” (Politics, 1253a7). The polis first and foremost is not an actual place; it is an existential entity. Thucydides speaks of the Athenians or the Corinthians, not of Athens or Corinth and he quotes the general Nicias reminding the men of an old warrior code: “remember you are at once a city wherever you sit down” (History, 7.77). The polis is this conflictual, interrogative sharing, whose ‘place’ exists in the social-imaginary itself, even if narratives of autochthony, of being native to specific geographical coordinates, are inevitable processes of occluding this imaginary.

5. Here is not the occasion to analyze how Agamben’s famous invocation of zoē as ‘natural’ and not ‘political’ is at the very least inaccurate as far as Greek life is concerned.

6. Sheldon Wolin, “Transgression, Equality, and Voice” in Dēmokratia: A Conversation on Democracies, Ancient and Modern, ed. Josiah Ober and Charles Hedrick (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), 65-66.

7. The most focused and imaginative work in this direction has consistently been by Donna Haraway, Katherine Hayles, Cary Wolfe, and more recently, Jane Bennett and Rosi Braidotti. Their work has represents encounters with certain philosophical venues charted, variously, by Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, Jacques Derrida, Niklas Luhmann, Judith Butler, Bruno Latour, or Peter Sloterdijk—a formidable terrain. Much, however, can also be learned by reconsidering an earlier discussion, well under way in the 1970s, among thinkers such as Edgar Morin, Cornelius Castoriadis, Isabelle Stenghers, Henri Atlan, Jean-Pierre Dupuy, and, of course, the biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, whose Autopoiesis and Cognition (1972) remains, to my mind, groundbreaking. To do justice to this vast trajectory a whole other essay needs to be written, and however invaluable such an accounting, properly conducted, would be, it would take away presently from the painstaking process of articulating another way to think of human-being as such.

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