Human/Animal : Stathis Gourgouris

This is how Marx finally accounts for his configuration of the specific/generic (Gattungswesen, species-being) nature of the human, which is unlike all other nature:

The human is not merely a natural being; it is a human natural being . . . Therefore, human objects are not natural objects as they immediately present themselves, and neither is human sense as it immediately is—as it is objectively—human sensibility, human objectivity. Neither nature objectively nor nature subjectively is directly given in a form adequate to the human being.22

Human nature is not natural in any sense; or rather, what is natural about it is that it is human. Yet, what is human is a perpetually (self-) altering relation to the natural, and therefore no concept of nature can exist in adequation with the human. As space of perpetual alteration and self-alteration, the natural is tantamount to the worldly, the historical: “History is the true natural history of the human” is how Marx’s paragraph ends.

The radical groundlessness of humanity’s interrogation and meaning, with which we began our excursion into Marx, does not bar humanity’s relational determination. But it does bar any fixed, whether a priori or teleological, determination. In the last instance, human-being may be thought of as a worldly condition in which the ability to absorb the world—via one’s senses, as a mark of sensuous being—is tantamount to the ability to transform the world.

This is ultimately why the power of labor in Marx is never instrumental; it is trans-formative and it is precisely this force of poiēsis that is at work as history upon nature: “The forming [Bildung] of the five senses is a labour of the entire history of the world down to the present.”23 In other words, one can see or hear not solely because one is born with the capacity to see or hear. The significance of what one sees or hears, how one sees or hears, what is considered visible, what is an object of listening, what is the value of listening, and so on, all this is a process of Bildung, a process of society’s poiēsis by virtue of humanity’s labor—a process by which human senses are formed. This process is not a matter of culture, of civilizing the beast, but, on the contrary, the very penchant of human animality in the strictest sui generis sense: “Neither nature objectively nor nature subjectively is directly given in a form adequate to the human being.”24

To address this problem of double inadequation, we must consider that in the composite name human-being—even if we want to continue to imagine it as an ontological condition—the interrogative pressure must be placed on “human,” not on “being,” because it is the human that intrinsically constitutes the grounds of the self-interrogation of being and thereby creates whatever meanings this being might come to have or to be.

These meanings, I repeat, are never given once and for all but are interminably negotiable and alterable by virtue of the very mutability of the human. The ontological question regarding the human can never be reduced to an account of Being and its permutations, unless Being is an interminably mutable category that rests on nothing and signifies nothing in itself or in an other. In short: it is (the condition of) “being human” that enables (the meaning of) “human being” and not the other way around.

Obviously, I’m not arguing that humanity is a mere cultural category, whose relativism could eventually lead us to entertain the ridiculous notion of multiple humanities. But nor am I to settle for understanding humanity according to some sort of onto-theology, which would ascribe to humanity immutable and essential characteristics in all cases determinable outside its social-historical domain. (It goes without saying that such onto-theology would include traditional notions of humanism.) Rather, I argue that the self-determining mutability of humanity is precisely what accounts for its singularity. This mutability is recognizable—indeed, even simply possible—as a social-historical condition, which means that, if we have to speak of humanity at all in terms of ontology, we would speak of historical ontology.

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

23. Karl Marx, “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844,” 302.

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

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