Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Strong Humanism, Weak Humanism, Beyond Humanism

This post follows up on my earlier post about Leigh Johnson's concept of weak humanism. Again, I encourage you to take the time to listen to her dialogue, here. Also, as a note, she has further clarified her position in a blog post. Considering the majority of my response to the podcast had been written before that was posted, I will include my responses to clarification in a second post, and my first post will not be edited to respond to her new points, but hopefully I will have a part two up tomorrow.

Johnson begins her argument by stating she wants to defend human rights, philosophically. She feels in order to do that she needs a proper thought of humanism (and here is my first question: Does she really need a humanism here? What about a philosophical anthropology? Would she, like Judith Butler is attempting, be able to make the argument for human rights from a non-anthropocentric anthropology that avoids any sort of humanism?). Contrasting earlier modalities of humanism (which she terms 'strong humanism,' in that the traits of humanism that mattered were positive attributes such as autonomy, rationality, etc.), she proposes a new type of humanism (which she terms 'weak humanism,' not because the humanism is weak, but because the humanism is based upon qualities like weakness, vulnerability, precariousness, etc.). Strong humanism sets the bar of admittance to the human subject too high, which not only leaves out groups that might not be able to make strong claims on rationality and autonomy, but more importantly does nothing for groups that are systematically expropriated from categories of strong humanism. In this, her work follows not only poststructuralist criticisms of humanism, but perhaps more strongly follows decolonial criticisms of humanism: the work of people like Frantz Fanon, Aimé Césaire, Slyvia Wynter, Nelson Maldonado-Torres, etc. The decolonial tradition has criticized humanism for its colonialist, imperialist, eugenicist, and frankly genocidal contours. These thinkers have shown how humanism not only justified colonial expansion, but also systematically denied admittance to the human subject to racialized and sexed bodies. Or, if racialized and sexed bodies were granted admittance, it was only as mimic men. After this critique, all of these thinkers make a second move; a call for a new humanism, one which will be true and real. While Johnson doesn't spend a lot of time explaining the critique against strong humanism, one assumes that all of this is in the background of her work. And if that assumption is made, it is not at all surprising that she too is constructing a new, true and real, counter-hegemonic humanism.
One of the major differences between her work and many of the decolonial thinkers is that whereas most decolonial thinkers simply assert the need for a new and true humanism, Johnson spends her time advancing the necessary step of a philosophical anthropology to support the new and true humanism. (There are, of course, several notable exceptions of decolonial thinkers who do engage in this necessary step. I would feel particularly amiss if I didn't mention the work of Slyvia Wynter again, who makes the strongest arguments in this direction, even if I ultimately disagree with her). Johnson's humanism of weakness and vulnerability is one that seeks to define the human in terms of a shared sense of being wounded, hurt, tortured, killed. One that seeks to privilege sentience over sapience as the primary quality necessary for an ethical and political response. Weakness and finitude are brought into the discussion not just to create a lower admittance into the human, but also because it is at the level of finitude we need an ethics and a politics. It is only because of our shared finitude that we are infinitely responsible for le tout autre. In this I would like to say I am agreement with Christopher Long's comment that it is at the basis of our vulnerability we are actually talking about a strength. The fiction of the autonomous and atomistic individual is an anemic fiction, actually weak because it cannot feed upon the powers of the common, a common that is possible only because of a shared finitude. Our responsibility to the wholly other is not, in this view, a burden. It is rather a practice of joy, an affirmation of life.
It is here that my confusion (or perhaps a critique hidden as confusion, though I honestly want to advance in the spirit of confusion, not critique) begins. I am working on how the concepts of abandonment, exposure, and vulnerability can be a way of entering into the dialogue of community that we find in Bataille, Blanchot, Nancy, Derrida, Agamben, and Esposito. But for me, such a community can never be a community of humans, but must be a community of animals (including humans!). When we look at capacities like vulnerability, percarity, suffering, joy, are we looking at capacities that are unique to the human? Are these the categories that make us human? That separate and demarcate the human from other animals? Or, are these the categories that come not from our humanness but from our animalness? Are not vulnerability and finitude the affirmation that we are one animal among others? An animal among other animals that suffer, that celebrate, that mourn and are mourned. As Butler argues in her Frames of War, "The point, however, would not be to catalog the forms of life damaged by war, but to reconceive life itself as a set of largely unwilled interdependencies, even systemic relations, which imply that the 'ontology' of the human is not separable from the 'ontology' of the animal. It is not just a question of two categories that overlap, but of a co-constitution that implies the need for a reconceptualization of the ontology of life itself" (pp. 75-76). Are we not talking about, ultimately, not a humanism of weakness but an animalism of weakness? Can we not think, along with Derrida, who contends in The Animal That Therefore I Am:
Being able to suffer is no longer a power; it is a possibility without power, a possibility of the impossible. Mortality resides there, as the most radical means of thinking the finitude that we share with animals, the mortality that belongs to the very finitude of life, to the experience of compassion, to the possibility of sharing the possibility of this nonpower, the possibility of this impossibility, the anguish of this vulnerability, and the vulnerability of this anguish. (p. 28).

If we are going to advance that our morality is tied up with mortality, how can we remain anthropocentric? Does not an argument for a shared vulnerability demand we jettison the anthropocentrism that got us in our present situation in the first place?
That is, I think, where my confusion has to open itself up to critique. This is where we have to go beyond humanism. I don't think it is enough to say, 'I am only concerned with human issues, and am therefore not trying to think animal issues.' I understand that one has a finite resources to work on certain political and ethical issues, but we are not talking about that right now. We are instead talking about the philosophical underpinnings for action, and those cannot exclude the wholly other because your current responsibility is not a response to that other. To paraphrase Derrida, one has to think without alibis. Not only can you not exclude the wholly other (and at this second that stands in for other animals), but it is necessary to understand the interlocking of oppressions. I don't know if I have time to go into this now, but let me advance one argument here. If you are able to expropriate beings into 'merely' animals, and if that 'animal' suffering is not considered equal to 'human' suffering, how do you stop anything? How do you stop the torture of 'terrorists' who are, as you know, animals? How do you stop the genocide of those that are, as you know, subhumans? How do human rights work if the victims' very humanity is exactly what is contested? (I am wish I had more posted on this issue. I have a rough draft of a conference paper on this exact question. I am not in total agreement with it anymore, but it might be considered interesting for showing some of the ways I am trying to explore these questions. Read it here). It seems that the only way for a weak humanism to work is for it to stop being a humanism at all.