Simon Critchley’s series “The Stone” at the New York Times has just published an upbeat and important interview between Natasha Lennard and Carry Wolfe. It’s a sanguine introduction to posthumanism written for a general audience, an important intervention in a public forum as we gear up for the presidential inauguration. But why—why oh why!—did it have to be titled: “Is Humanism Really Humane?” ? Or perhaps I should be asking: why oh why did the piece not take the seeming paradox more seriously, i.e. more literally? Didn’t deconstruction teach us to respond à la lettre? Shouldn't we unpack how the "human" of the various "humanisms" is (not) related to the "human" of the category of the "humane," especially as we live in the age of the anthropos? This I attempt elsewhere (in a forthcoming piece), so for now just a few immediate thoughts. And, before anyone raises this point, it doesn’t matter who chose the title—that’s the title and the interview lives with it. It’s not being pedantic to argue that asking the question "Is Humanism Really Humane?" without unpacking etymologies and word histories—muddies the waters considerably.
For sure, Wolfe—who has thought and written a lot about humanism and posthumanism—opens the interview by acknowledging that “the subject of ‘humanism’ itself is a vast one,” that there are “many different varieties of it,” and that posthumanism “doesn’t mean ‘anti-humanism.’” Despite this plurality, despite the quotation marks that Wolfe himself puts around “humanism,” and despite the pledge that there is nothing “anti” about the “post,” Wolfe nonetheless proceeds to talk of the “sketches of the ‘human,’ ‘the animal’ or ‘nature’ that we get from the humanist tradition.” The emphasis is mine: he says “the humanist tradition.” This is a problem.
Where did the “the” come from? Where did the plurality go? Where did the quotation marks go? Later in the interview, Wolfe writes: “Humanism provides an important cultural inheritance and legacy, no doubt, but…”; and he talks of how “…the humanist philosophical tradition considered…” If there are multiple traditions of humanism, and if posthumanism is not anti-humanism, then what exactly are “the humanist tradition” and “humanism” within the bounds of this interview? Wolfe never says. He leaves this to Lennard, who defines humanism as “the hierarchical distinguishing between human and nonhuman animals based on a certain notion of ‘knowledge’ or ‘intelligence.’” And Wolfe, in his response, neither disagrees nor nuances.
Wolfe’s definition of posthumanism is, unlike his (half-disavowed) rejection of (which?) humanism, generous and cogent: “You find hints of [posthumanism] in anything that fundamentally decenters the human in relation to the world in which we find ourselves, whether we’re talking about other forms of life, the environment, technology or something else.” He continues as follows: “Perhaps more importantly, you find it in the realization that when you don’t allow the concept of the ‘human’ to do your heavy philosophical lifting, you are forced to come up with much more robust and complex accounts of whatever it is you’re talking about.” I could not agree more. As an early modernist, a scholar of the variety of humanism that Wolfe calls “Renaissance humanism,” I embrace that definition of posthumanism—it’s an essential anti-anthropocentric mode of inquiry—and I assert that one indeed finds “hints” of it in many places, including everywhere in early modern humanism, that moment before Latourian modernity untied the Gordian knot that we now collectively attempt to re-tie. Countless MLA papers this year made this point beyond all doubt--I think of Katie Chenoweth, Hassan Melehy, Vin Nardizzi, Karl Steel, and countless others.
As Kenneth Gouwens has pointed out in his fabulous “What Posthumanism Isn’t” piece in Joseph Campana and Scott Maisano’s book Renaissance Posthumanism, the humanism that Wolfe rejects is a very recent—historically and geographically situated—variety. It has nothing to do with early modern humanism, nor with 19th-century German reflections on the term. He doesn't say it does--but neither does he define humanism in any other more rigorous manner (in his book, he starts with Wikipedia). Wolfe's humanism is--shows Gouwens-- most clearly that of the “Humanist Manifesto” published in 1933, signed by thirty-four intellectuals including John Dewey (see Gouwens, p. 44). We would do well to remember that and either to be more precise about which humanism’s “humane-ness” we’re asking about, or else to change questions and ponder for example whether anthropocentrism is humane--at least that's a precise question. My only point here is that, as Latour has written recently, “the humanities have a problem with the word ‘human’” (“Life Among Conceptual Characters,” p. 474). To be continued...
*Thank you to Danielle Zuckerman, who knows a thing or two about the Anthropocene, for first bringing the New York Times piece to my attention.
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