The Question of Humanism

When I look at the calls for papers I recently posted next to the posts about my own teaching, I am struck by the unanswered question of “humanism” itself. Obviously, I am not the first person to wonder if the environmental humanities are really a humanism or something else. This is complicated by a number of different approaches. In Western Europe, the fear that environmentalism is really a disguised form of blood-and-soil fascism makes it difficult to question traditional humanisms without appearing to be anti-humanist. In the United States, Social Ecology has worried that postmodernism is a form of anti-humanism, and ecocriticism’s suspicion of poststructuralism amounted to the same thing. Meanwhile, the idea of the posthuman, raised in Science Studies by Donna Haraway and in literary studies by Katherine Hayles, suggests that the center of anthropocentrism–the idea that humans are the apex of Creation or the height of evolution–is beginning to shiver and shift its shape. Post-humanism becomes posthuman-ism in light of cyborgs, gene therapy, Animal Studies, Gaia Theory, the Endosymbiosis Hypothesis, and Latourian quasi-objects. 

All of that is well and cool, but my own questions about humanism radiate from the classroom, where I find myself, over and over, trying to show students how to think in a world-centered way. By now you are saying that maybe the “center” is the problem–50 points to Gryffindor for the first reader who can spot the Deconstructive origin of that idea! But seriously, when I try to explain climatological feedback loops, or trophic cascades, or the histories of civilizations that didn’t have the Web, I begin to suspect that classical and Renaissance humanism are, at the same time, indispensable and highly toxic. Indispensable because the intellectual traditions of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment make my explanations possible, and toxic because, well, there aren’t enough beasts, forests, and elements in them. And, with all due respect to Nietzsche, Heidegger, Sartre, Camus, and all those other heroes of the Abyss: to negate something is to stink of it nonetheless. 

If the environmental humanities are really going to overcome the discontents of “humanism” with a more modest view of our place in the universe, it would be wise to make that clear from the beginning. Which is going to take a lot of work. 

It would be interesting to know how other people think about this.


8 thoughts on “The Question of Humanism”

  1. I’ve been fascinated by Deleuze my entire intellectual career. I was “turned on” to him and Guattari as an undergrad, but have kept returning to his work. Although I find it hard to bring him into classes — even graduate courses — he still informs how I think about things. While he’s indebted to your “heroes of the Abyss,” he seems to interpret differently b/c Abyss is not a negative or an absence. Rather, it is the infinite creative capacity of systems — a fractal abyss that is as (chaotically) structured as it is infinite. And this jibes with my own sense of environmentalism. We may well ruin the earth and take countless species with us. But are we more destructive than comets and asteroids that caused similar extinctions? My guess is we are not, as bad as we are. The universe is far more inventive than we. For that reason alone, we should proceed *much* more cautiously than we are.

  2. Thanks for this, dave. I agree that Deleuze and Guattari offer a different way of speaking about environmentalism, and their Abyss is different than the classic existential/phenomenological one. I think, though, that D & G achieve this by abandoning a number of basic principles of classical humanism, such as the idea of the human as the end of creation, and the notion of a strict boundary between individual humans, and humanity as a species, and the material flux around us. If I read them right, we are a series of dynamic fluxes-within-flows, or something like that. I think this way of rereading the world and our place in it can be very useful, but it underlines my earlier point that the “environmental humanities” are probably not a kind of humanism in the classic sense. How do you feel about this?

  3. I’d agree that they are certainly not humanist in the ways it has been defined in Western letters. That said, they — Deleuze especially — tirelessly looks back to these definitions and uncovers/ re-reads humanism’s figures. Thus, Deleuze seems to offer something of a path you seem wary of with respect to its toxicity and indispensability. And, yeah, it isn’t an easy path, so I’m not critiquing your caution — far from it. I’m merely raising the question, as John Muckelbauer does in _The Future of Invention_ if Deleuze provides some method by which we might create something without already marring its future. In that respect, Zizek’s recent critique of environmentalism (as a form of fascism) seems muted if not countered.

  4. I had no idea that Zizek had joined the chorus–would you mind telling me where? Is it THE FRAGILE ABSOLUTE?

    About the Abyss–I don’t mean to sound like I hate those guys. I don’t. Camus, in particular, is one of my favorite angry Catholic boys, and Nietzsche can be pretty funny sometimes. It’s just that I don’t think that anti-humanism is the response that we need to classical humanism, and if the Abyss functions only as the inverse of God in someone’s system–the thing that sucks the meaning out of human life instead of granting it–what we have is a kind of negative anthropocentrism.

    I think D & G do offer us new paths that are not merely reversals of what we’ve had, and I look forward to understanding their thought better. Though A THOUSAND PLATEAUS is sometimes baffling, it is not toxic in the way negative humanism can be at least for me.

    One of the things I find hopeful about, for instance, the Sustainability conference in Florida, advertised below, is that the questions it frames are about humans in community with other species, humans are part of a larger system. Humans in context, not humans as apex. If this is what the environmental humanities will look like in the future, then we’re going to move the humanities beyond humanism. Even the European idea of the “human sciences” will not be enough. I don’t want to quibble about terms before the next paradigm really starts to form, but terms are worth worrying about.

  5. SZ posted a two-part essay on his website. You can find it at and a response to it at . Given SZ’s interpretation of Deleuze already in print (Organs without Bodies, 2004, Routledge), I think what you spot in Camus and Nietzsche may apply to Zizek. After all, he urges us to enjoy our symptoms, not repress them, ala Lacan.

    I much prefer folks like Aldo Leopold or Rachel Carson who seem to me all about living and being of this world. Just because “this world” is ultimately undefinable or infinitely interpretable doesn’t make it an “abyss” – a nothing, an absence, a lack of meaning. And that is, ultimately, Deleuze’s genius: with his concept of “the virtual,” all of our definitions and interpretations of “this world” are admitted and confirmed. In fact, they add to the sum total of “this world” in productive ways.

    Of course, I may not be the most objective here, having undergone something of a conversion in my research. Where it centered on the effects of “trauma” (an abyss) for my dissertation, I realized through the defense that this prevented me from talking about the “physical” or “biological” in any way. As Deleuze said of something else, it was “Pious, still all too pious.”

  6. As a side note, Timothy Morton’s Ecology Without Nature motions towards an interesting reading of D & G’s poststructuralism. Though the argument is fragmented, he seems to forward that this notion of creativity (Bergson) is still a totalizing force and in many ways, still maintains many of the aspects that make Nature problematic for the late moderns like Zizek, Jameson, Kristeva and Adorno and Horkheimer.

    Take, however, this reference with a grain of salt. It’s good book but full of sweeping generalizations and suffers from heavy periodization.

    More generally, I do think the methodological validity of negation has been lost here. The negation is not nothingness (abyss) – Heidegger was very clear on this – the negation must be made in reference to something that once existed. Thus why Heidegger, Spivak and Derrida maintain the word, yet have stricken it through to show that the word is being effaced/erased. Negation is not an absence it is an erasure.

  7. Thanks for the references, Dave. I will follow up on Zizek with their help.

    And I agree with you, Robert, that the value of negation, as in negative dialectics, ought not to be lost. For the record, I was was not trying to diss the Abyss–I have a time-share there. Rather, I was trying to say that formulations of the Abyss as simply the opposite of creation, being, and meaning in an anthropocentric cosmology cannot help us create an alternative to such a cosmology. On the other hand, the kind of negation you’re talking about CAN help us because it does not simply point back to the origin point. I’m not an enemy of the “heroes of the Abyss,” but I am opposed to a naive nihilism that uses their thought to merely reverse the tenets of classical Western theism.

    The best book on the Abyss I have read is Catherine Keller’s FACE OF THE DEEP, and I recommend it heartily to everyone.

  8. Senses make SENSE.

    Humanism has to be awareness of the own humanity to be natural an interconnected empathy to the whole.

    The concept needs the experience to not get misused.

    The more I am truly myself, the more I care naturally about humanity.

    It helps also to “smell” the abuse of words.
    The way to hell is paved with “good intentions”,
    the way to power is filled with “sound good noises”.

    Lets trust our inner wisdom, and swim against “nice/nescius=ignorant” mainstream word streams.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s