Human/Animal : Stathis Gourgouris

Such inquiry would place human animality at the forefront of our thinking, which cannot be conducted outside the problematic of sexual difference and sexual gendering, as well as questions of race and non-European traditions of humanism, so long as these are taken as frameworks of knowledge and not as mere problematics of identity or social reproduction.8

At the same time, this question of the human as a framework of knowledge cannot be posed without considering whatever domains are deemed to be beyond the human, though paradoxically residing within the purview of the human. Such domains could be identified by a variety of names: transcendental, metaphysical, supernatural, spectral, virtual, etc., but also ontological and orthological, or however we may wish to name the realm that concerns questions of Being as such or Reason as such—that is, as self-identical or tautological categories. These domains can also be noted simply as “non-human” or “inhuman” as long as we hear the compromising resonance of using these composite categorical names.

Moreover, such inquiry also cannot be conducted within the parameters of philosophy, if by philosophy we mean to constrain ourselves within the conceptual capacities of language. The factual contradiction that to claim to overcome the human is no more than being human is also at work in the biggest problem facing philosophy since Kant: the presumption that comprehension of what may be generally understood as the ‘non-human’ (the object or ‘reality’ as such) is impossible beyond mere conceptualization of phenomena.

The drive to conquer the knowledge of what cannot be intimately known is commensurate with the drive to create a metaphysics, an entire world in effect alien to the world in which it lives, purposely unreal and ultimately unknown (or not fully knowable) and, even more paradoxically, purported to account conceptually for the ultimate unaccountability and inconceivability of the real and the known.

It’s not a matter of not knowing the thing in itself, but of unhinging “knowing” from “accounting” and “conceptualizing” the thing—which is never in-itself, and that is the toughest nut to crack. If traditional humanism showed contempt for knowing the “animal” as the thing-in-itself (and thus repressed the unsurpassable animality of the human), the presumption to overcome humanism in the name of yet another “post-” made of the “animal”—sometimes in that very name, but other times in the compromised negativity of the “non-” or “in-”human—nothing but a reiteration of that venerable beyond that safeguards humanity’s philosophical mastery of the world. 

Finally, such epistemological inquiry would have to include the political question acutely posed by Gayatri Spivak—“who slips into the place of the ‘human’ of ‘humanism’?”9—as long as it vows to keep this a question and not seek easy and permanent answers. For whatever perspective would be entailed by a presumed answer (along ethno-geographical, historical-philosophical, psycho-sexual, literary-linguistic, or geopolitical lines), it can neither really produce an answer as such—that is, fulfill the truth demands sought in such an answer—nor produce a critique of the objects announced by the question (“humanism” and the “human”), except partially and provisionally.

The question, nonetheless, must be posed, continuously and invariably, in order to remind us, if nothing else, that even attempting to answer it entails making a political decision—itself, as we shall see, an essential dimension of the overarching question “what is human?”

From this standpoint, the foundations of “what is human” do not precede but always reside in front, in the future, of the human. At the very least, they inhere in the course of coming-to-be human. Hence, they can never really be traced, except as retroactive conjurings. These conjurings survive most of all when they become occult. Countless philosophies of the human, from classic humanism and Naturphilosophie to all sorts of transcendentalist configurations of Being, prey on the human as so much assimilable substance, whose interminable nature turns out to be God’s gift to the sustenance of all kinds of insatiable metaphysics. The seductiveness of apocalyptic posthumanity, whether in theory or in spectacle, is but the contemporary expression of humanity’s incessant drive to prey on itself in search of a beyond.

In this respect, I dwell on the obvious: from a certain standpoint (which I very much espouse), the domains of “beyond-the-human” are domains of human creation. The notion of creation must be understood to invoke a poiētic potential, a kind of formative (which is always also transformative) dynamic residing in the capacity of the radical imagination to alter what exists. This capacity belongs more to the psyche and less to the (rational) mind and is exercised as social-historical realization, that is, not as some Romantic inclination for individual genius.

To say that humans create what is beyond-the-human does not mean that there is no other to the human, or that humans are masters of the universe. It means that, whatever it is, alterity has no meaning in and of itself. Or to be precise, whenever we say that alterity has meaning in and of itself (which is another way of saying that alterity has/is identity), we are merely playing in an ontotheological sandbox, whereby whatever is said to be human will be ultimately determined by whatever is said to be beyond-the-human. Indeed—and this is a significant component of my entire argument—it is the human psyche, as an intrinsic alterity auto-constitutive of the human, that animates the demands and venues for meaning which then enable whatever is deemed to be “beyond-the-human” to emerge and be fashioned.

This particular penchant of human beings to create realms and domains which they then deem unreachable in human terms, domains that are situated in some indeterminable or even absolute outside relative to human existence, seems to me to be a unique characteristic of the human, perhaps even consubstantial with the human, and thus a fascinating point to anchor our inquiry. The fact that humans consistently create a space beyond-the-human and on it rest the foundation, origin, or source of their self-definition—that is to say, the originary signifying framework, the meaning, of the question “what is human?”—is to me the real archē of any such investigation.

8. In regard to the second: In his current work, Aamir Mufti makes an elementary yet radical point (because altogether neglected, as the elementary often is in scholarship), namely that Edward Said’s critique of European anti-humanism belongs to a broader non-European humanism marked by the political and aesthetic imagination of colonized peoples as it converged in the conference at Bandung in 1955, which launched the non-aligned movement and the very concept of the Third World. As a gesture of resistance to the dehumanization of colonized peoples, Bandung humanism does not need the authorization of either traditional European humanism or 1960s European anti-humanism. From the Bandung standpoint, the second is still in the orbit of the first. Said’s “non-humanist humanism” (in his own words) is the distilled expression of this geo-historical position: a humanism that is not universal, strictly speaking—that is to say, monolingual as Mufti puts it—but conversational across the worldly terrain of modes and sites of social being, whose forces can be assembled in counter-formation to resist and reconfigure inherited classifications, boundaries, and structures of orthodoxy and established power. I am drawing mainly from Mufti’s as yet unpublished book Forget English as well as from numerous personal conversations on this matter.

9. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Death of a Discipline (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), 26.

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