Human/Animal : Stathis Gourgouris

Whatever may be said about Marx following certain traditional humanist parameters (which cannot be disputed), his dialectical view, even at this early phase, so falsely rejected as “Hegelian” by Althusser—falsely, because dialectical thinking in Marx is always and quintessentially Hegelian in the most radical sense, as it takes up Hegel himself as the first order of sublation—produces a humanism that radically removes whatever prior authorizations it might have inherited. Hence, his well-known definition of the human species is not constituted on the basis of language, reason, biological superiority, or what have you, but on its own groundless radical terms: “The productive life is the life of the species [“generic life” – Gattungsleben]. It is life-engendering life.

The whole character of a species—its species-character—is contained in the character of its life activity; and free, conscious activity is the human species-character. Life itself appears only as a means to life [Lebensmittel].”13 A “means to life” suggests that one’s life is an object and a project, not mere extension of living, not mere life. It signifies no tautology between life and living in which the co-incidence between subject and object would be abolished by equivalence and would produce a significational collapse. 

Human life, for Marx, is “species-life” as such, generic life [Gattungsleben], much as what is famously translated as “species-being” should not overwrite its literal meaning: “generic essence” [Gattungswesen]. I understand how easily the “generic” notion translates into a universalist notion, especially in that it lacks any gender consciousness. The merits of criticizing such an association cannot be disputed, but within the language parameters of the day, readers who are careless regarding the Hegel in Marx—especially the Hegel who is dialectically undone in Marx—often skip from the objective to the universal without pause.

The “objectification of man’s species-life,” which is the project of human labor and upon which is unleashed the deadly force of capitalist alienation that turns humanity into a commodity and produces the condition of dehumanized being (entmenschtes Wesen), is a figure that overcomes the dichotomy between the particular and the universal.14 It is relentlessly particular because it pertains to every single mortal life and yet irreversibly social—historical being as universal—insofar as it pertains not to some, say, narcissistic self-actualization but to the production (and signification) of humanity itself: “Man’s individual and species-life are not different. . . It is precisely his particularity which makes him an individual and a real individual social being.”15

The ‘particularity’ of the subject is co-incident with the ‘universality’ of the object. This is why the alienation of labor—that is to say, the production of an estranged objectification of one’s life—is, at first instance, alienation from humanity itself: “When man confronts himself, he confronts the other man.”16 There is a crucial significance to the phrase—the core of Hegelian dialectics of historical consciousness.

“Self-consciousness is at home in its other-being [Anderssein] as such.”17 Marx will say later on, expressing as an after-thought the building block of this meditation. Otherness is internal to humanity, precisely because humanity’s “generic essence” is its own perpetual self-transformation or self-alteration—as genre, as species. There is no sole human being, complete and intact, in integral, natural, ontological singularity. Human-being is a turbulent condition of confronting this internal(ized) alterity that pertains to all human beings, intrinsic to the relation among human beings. It is elementary to remember—but we should—that alienation, as a widely debated and reconfigured concept in the long history of Marxist thinking, does not refer to individual alienation (though this happens and is real for every single individual person) but to the alienation of the social relation, to the individual as a social-being, a relational being.

This dismantles traditional views of what is internal and what is external. Let us examine Marx’s classic exhortation on objectivity: “A being which is not itself an object for some third being has no being for its object; i.e., it is not objectively related. Its being is not objective. A non-objective being is a non-being.”18 The obvious point of argument to be driven home here is that all individuals are each other’s objects (and objectives).

But Marx’s position is predicated on the understanding that one is an objective being in a double sense: not only an object to another, but also an object to oneself, a life-product of one’s labor. Thus, the externality of objective relations with another is not absolute. Rather, it works in relation with—indeed, it gives objective meaning to—the “objectification of species-life” that is one’s inevitable self-engagement with the world. More precisely, it enlivens one’s own (intrinsic) otherness: “As soon as I am not alone, I am anotheranother reality than the object outside of me.”19 This isn’t to say that I am determined by the object outside of me. Rather, the object outside of me energizes (creatively or destructively) my own self-objectification, my own other-being (Anderssein), which I would prefer to signify more precisely—though awkwardly—as my own othering-being, myself as self-othering being.

Just as, once you have posited an internal otherness, objectivity forecloses the possibility of absolute externality or absolute alterity, so the relational objectivity of the external other does make impossible an absolute self-enclosure, a totally internal(ized), inalienable subjectivity. Such a state would not be human—properly speaking, it would not be subjectivity, for, if nothing else, it would lack sensuous being: “To be sensuous, that is to be really existing, means to be an object of sense, to be a sensuous object, and thus to have sensuous subjects outside oneself—objects of one’s sensuousness. To be sensuous is to suffer.”20

In order not to lose the thread, let us bracket for a moment the last sentence—to which we shall return in the discussion about animality later on, but which in any case has to be understood neither in any abject sense (psychologically) nor any redemptive sense (theologically). Rather, following the thread of the argument here, to suffer, as indication of being sensuous, means to allow the world to inscribe your being so that you can feel the object-ness of your being, which in turn engages the objectifying energies of your being: “Man as an objective, sensuous being is therefore a suffering [liedendes] being—and because he feels that he suffers, a passionate [leidenschaftliches] being. Passion [die Leidenschaft, die Passion] is the essential power of man energetically bent on its object.”21

13. Karl Marx, “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844” in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works Vol. 3 (New York: International Publishers, 1975), 277. Much can be made of the phrase “life-engendering life” [das Leben erzeugende Leben] in terms of Francisco Varela’s theory of autopoietic living being.

14. Early in the text, Marx asserts that “the worker must sell himself and his humanity” (“Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844,” 239, my emphasis). This sort of conjunctive phrasing attests to a double condition: 1) humanity is a property that belongs, in the end, to humanity as such—in the radical sense of the initial quotation above, yet 2) humanity is (or rather, has become) also a commodity—that is, it also belongs to economy; it is determined by an economy. Insofar as it becomes a commodity, humanity annihilates itself. That is to say, it abdicates its self-authorization; it becomes dependent on an external system of reference. Capitalism is dehumanizing in this very strict sense as well.

15. Karl Marx, “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844,” 299.

16. Karl Marx, “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844,” 277.

17. Karl Marx, “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844,” 339.

18. Karl Marx, “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844,” 337.

19. Karl Marx, “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844,” 337.

20. Karl Marx, “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844,” 337.

21. Karl Marx, “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844,” 337.

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