Monday, 4 May 2009

Post-Modernism as Anti-Humanism? A Response to Reiner Schurmann

Back in 1979 Reiner Schurmann wrote an article entitled "Anti-Humanism: Reflections of the Turn Towards the Post-Modern Epoch." In it he purported to see in philosophy the signs of a move to a new epoch in which the human subject is no longer at the centre. Prior to this there was a "humanistic epochal economy" as Schurmann calls it, but the philosophies of Marx, Nietzsche and Heidegger (the three he focuses on in the article) signal its expiration. Beneath the title of the article, a quote from Foucault's "Order of Things" sums up the main idea: "Man is an invention of recent date. And one perhaps nearing its end."

The primary idea which has had its day is that of the subject as a point of origin. Epistemologically, the humanist idea is evident both in Plato and Descartes for whom knowledge can be based on clear and distinct ideas available to the private reflection of the subject. For the anti-humanist, knowledge rests on a historically shifting order of things - a transient order that the individual is subject to, not the origin of.

A similar shift occurs in the conception of the practical subject. As Schurmann puts it, the individual "even less appears as history-making, as a person responsible for his doings, as the initiator of a new order of things - in one phrase, as a moral agent."

Now there is definitely a shift in philosophy away from transcendental subjectivity, but to lump Marx and Nietzsche and Heidegger in the same bag and call them anti-humanists is just too much to swallow. Take Marx: one of the key quotes Schurmann relies upon includes the following comment about the proletariat being a class which "suffers the total loss of humanity and which can only redeem itself by a total redemption of humanity." Clearly, when Marx criticises idealist notions of human subjectivity he does so for the sake of developing a theory to assist the redemption of humanity. Hardly anti-humanism.

Similarly with Nietzsche. On Schurmann's reading, Nietsche affirms "the radical fluidity of inorganic, organic, social and cultural forces, all treated as equal so long as one of them does not impose its temporary order upon the others." He makes it sound as if for Nietzsche human being dissolves completely into a play of forces. Is this so? Admittedly, Nietzsche does recall feeling himself to be "6,000 feet beyond man and time" (while out walking in the countryside in 1881) but does he not mean "beyond the motley humanity of the town square down in the valley" as opposed to "beyond humanity as such"? And was the point of thinking on his feet while walking across the hillsides not to gain a more lively sense of himself - a self more aware of its humanity than the Cartesian subject locked in darkness, imagining itself to be mere thought? Again and again, Nietzsche tries to point to a new type of man - and Zarathustra is meant to be the paragon. As he puts it a few pages after the quote that Schurmann lifts from Ecce Homo: he holds up "the ideal of a human, superhuman well-being and benevolence that will often appear inhuman - for example when it confronts all earthly seriousness so far, all solenmity in gesture, word, tone, eye, morality, and task so far, as if it were their most incarnate and involuntary parody - and in spite of all of this, it is perhaps only with him that great seriousness really begins, that the real question mark is posed for the first time, that the destiny of the soul changes, the hand moves forward, the tragedy begins."

Is there not an opposition to a certain kind - certain kinds - of humanity in the name the name of a better kind of humanity? This is blotted out completely by the term "anti-humanism".

What irritates most of all is Schurmann's apathy - his quiescent fatalism. He refers back to the Stoics in glowing terms, saying that the post-modern anti-humanists manifest the same wise equanimity. He also says that understanding "always comes ... once the battle is over. What gives rise to thinking thus totally escapes our grips." "Totally"! Now this might be true of Heidegger, but surely not Marx and Nietzsche. Doesn't Nietzsche's genealogy of morals aim to come to some kind of grip with the past in order to have a more confident attitude towards the present and the future? And there is a struggle here - hardly equanimity - one that arises out of a disgust with the present and a concern for the future. Similar traits are evident in Marx, although the focus is on property relations and the commodity form instead of psychology. And if Marx ends up being something of an economic determinist it is only because he thinks he can see a crisis brewing - a crisis which is perceived to offer a tremendous opportunity for humanity at last to realise its highest potential. This hardly amounts to equanimity.

What is most repugnant is this equanimity. It reminds us of Richard Rorty, who we saw on stage describing the liberal imaginary and shrugging his shoulders nonchalantly, brushing off our objections that there were things about that fragmentary and contradictory status quo that we couldn't just affirm with equanimity. If equanimity is the prevailing mood of post-modernism, we reject post-modernism. Although there is no simple humanism that we can fall back on, it looks to us as if this talk of anti-humanism, which initially looks like a bold negation, ends up implicitly affirming a world order that is, in fact, anti-human. In a sense, it is because anti-humanism is true that it must be rejected as false - the standpoint of the latter truth being some remnant of humanity that we are still aware of.

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