Human/Animal : Stathis Gourgouris

Part II.

To be radical is to go to the root of the matter.
For humanity, however, the root is humanity itself.

Karl Marx, 184310

The apparent circularity of this statement is much richer than it might seem. In fact, it is not quite circularity, except in the obvious redoubling of a self-reflexive figure. On the contrary, it opens the way to a peculiar mode of obtaining and sustaining knowledge, a mode consubstantial with the domain of the human, in the sense that whatever framework is signified by “humanity” constructs the epistemological terms of its own possibilities of knowledge. This framework is mapped simultaneously by the radical stakes raised by the question “what is human?” as well as the stakes raised by the question “what does the human do (in order to be human)?” I see these two questions as co-incident, and it is this order of co-incidence, rather than circularity, that characterizes the epistemological quandary of Marx’s statement.

The primary and most evident thing about this statement is that no radical understanding of humanity can come from elsewhere, from another domain or vantage point—meaning, not from God, not from Science, not from History, not from Philosophy, for these are already domains constructed and structured by humanity, even if in exorbitant foolishness humanity has granted them, in the guise of various modes and practices, transcendental authority and monopoly of truth.

Marx’s early notion that all critique is essentially critique of religion might be seen metaphorically as the cipher for his relentless critique of all transcendentalist truth claims regardless, a critique that extends throughout his work, except for those moments of metaphysical weakness when he privileged History over those who actually make it. Perhaps one might simply say that all transcendentalist truth claims are mere attributes of humanity and, in this respect, secondary to what might make humanity a radical source of knowledge. Radical here, from Marx’s standpoint—if we distance ourselves from naturalist metaphors—means whatever has neither basis nor cause, whatever has nothing underneath on which it might stand, but also nothing beyond it which might serve as objective limit point or external guarantee.  

Hence, the knowledge of humanity is always radical because nothing else authorizes it, because it is simultaneously, co-incidentally, both the subject and the object of (its) knowledge.11 The notion of co-incidence gets us out of the debilitating circularity in the sense that in order to make oneself one’s object of knowledge one must already put into practice a radical interrogation of what makes one the subject of this knowledge, the subject of this cognitive object.

Conversely, no subject can claim a position of radical self-interrogation unless one recognizes one’s subjective being as a perpetual object of question, thereby forbidding the position of an a priori transcendental subject, in effect unalterable, self-sufficient, and self-enclosed. In this framework, neither of the two positions (neither subject nor object) can possibly precede each other, but nor can they collapse into a tautology, because their very being is differential, open to (self-) interrogation and (self-) alteration.

What does this mean exactly? I am venturing on an argument where the question “what is human?” is the primary signification of being human—not the content, the answer to the question, but the question itself.12 This is not because being human is unknowable, in the same way, for example, that in certain religions God is quintessentially unknowable because ultimately undefinable or in mathematics the number resulting from division by zero is always undefined (nonsensical and thus unknowable). Rather, what is knowable (and sensible) about the human seems to have been always (historically speaking) subject to question, with all kinds of postulated, contested, and overturned theories about how to answer this question.

Additionally, insofar as it is thus the ground of its own possibility of knowledge, what is knowable about the human remains, all the while even as such theories are postulated, contended, and overturned—a point of interrogation, a question as such. In other words, being human is a question because one bizarre but consistent force that makes human beings radically human is precisely their penchant for questioning anything and everything in their environment, even if the answers they often produce and assume may be entirely unfathomable, unreal, useless, or catastrophic.

Here, the nature of how this interrogation takes place, as well as what sorts of answers are produced in various social-historical instances, is of crucial importance and deserves to be studied in detail, though such specifics cannot override the radical interrogative stratum I am suggesting. In the end, the matter of barring cognitive authority that resides in anything prior or beyond is the most radical element in Marx’s understanding and crucial to the trajectory of our inquiry.

10. Karl Marx, “A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction” in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works Vol. 3 (New York: International Publishers, 1975), 182.

11. Interestingly, when Léopold Senghor argues that négritude is humanism for the 20th century, he begins by defining it, in very similar terms (though in clear opposition to a Marxian analysis), as “enracinement en soi et confirmation de soi: de son être.” Senghor’s essay belongs entirely to the Bandung humanism that Mufti is theorizing, as noted above—again, a text entirely neglected in the debate. See Léopold Sédar Senghor, La Négritude est un Humanisme du XXe siècle, (Beirut: Les Conférences du Cénacle, 1966), 9.

12. Admittedly, there is an affinity here with Heidegger’s understanding of the human as the questioning being stranded in the seas of time. The affinity ends, however, when such understanding that pertains to a certain living being turns to an assertion that questioning is the object/state of Being and time the (dispersed) space of this Being. This path of responses to the question “what is Being?” is inevitably transcendentalist, because it assumes, one way or another, that this “is” signifies a determinable and meaningful situation—which then makes Being the site of determinacy: a determined site (Da-Sein) and a determinant site. What I’m pressing on here is that the very animality of the human consists of a self-interrogative (thus self-altering) capacity as such, of an intrinsically siteless condition of self-interrogative psyche—other than the most obvious and necessary site of the body, which the psyche ‘insanely’ disregards despite the fact that it ‘lives’ because of it and by means of it. One of the many creations of the psyche is, of course, Being, expressible and conceivable always as a specific social-imaginary signification that bears an indefinite number of names, representations, or situations so long as history exists. All theo-onto-logical configurations of nature and time that produce a transcendental Being must be dismantled, if human-being—as an interrogative, mutable, social-historical condition—is to eschew heteronomous determination.

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