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.