The politics of being human

Most of our science and philosophy is ‘humanist’ and anthropocentric. It carves up the world into neat little distinctions between man and nature, human and animal, and human or non-human. It places man at the centre of its politics and legitimates his dominion over other beings and things.

However, the Human Genome Project revealed that 98% of human DNA is the same as that of a chimpanzee.  What’s more, human DNA is made up of the same atoms and molecules as inorganic matter. These findings present fundamental existential and political questions about what it means to be human. Our individual and collective response to this question has vast ramifications for our everyday personal relations and our conditions of existence on planet earth.

For, just like our planet, the human body is a finely tuned balance of different chemical and biological systems – and the politics and practices that follow from an anthropocentric humanism are destructive to this precarious balance.

Can we really define our humanity in isolation from the non-human elements that constitute our existence? Can we live without inorganic elements that make up part of us? Do we want to live without the friendly bacteria that colonizes our guts? Where do we draw the boundary between humans and non-humans?

The way that we respond to these questions has real political consequences. If we accept that humans are different in kind to all other beings and entities, then we create a rigid distinction between the human and the non-human and give legitimacy to our current patterns of consumption and production. If, however, we acknowledge that there is only a difference of degree between humans and non-humans and that non-humans also have a capacity for agency then we acknowledge the basic inter-connectedness between different entities. This is more likely to make us radically rethink our everyday relations with the different parts of ourselves some of which are non-human.

Indeed, the ecosystems of the earth and our bodies are under threat from the way we live today. Low sperm counts, the growth in fat cells, and the alarming increase in cancer rates are just a few of the effects of living this bifurcated existence, where we are willing to go on developing chemical products on a mass scale with little regard for the negative impact of these practices on the microorganisms and species that sustain our conditions of existence. The use of pesticides and other chemicals used in agricultural processes and in the production of consumer products, not only adversely impact the earth and wildlife, but some are starting to affect our very genetic makeup and disturbing our neurological functions. These are some of the consequences of our anthropocentric domination of our planet, and we need to rethink our practices and relations to each other and the world.

Bonnie Honig is developing a new ‘agonistic humanism’ which is attentive to man’s mortality and suffering, but also celebrates the human capacity for pleasure, mutuality, care, action and innovation. My paper for the recent CONCEPT conference on Honig’s work echoed many of her sentiments about ‘agonistic humanism’. However, I argued that Honig’s approach does not go far enough because the capacity for action and innovation is limited to human actors. Using the work of Jane Bennett I showed that to be human is to be caught in a web of relations and processes, and that the human and non-human ‘other’ is always already part of us.

There is no separate object, entity, or being called ‘man’, but just our conditions of existence, which are comprised of relations, connections, assemblages and networks between different human and non-human entities. Human life without these non-human aspects is impossible. The artist Kate Macdowell gestures towards this in her piece Casualty which illustrates this post. Thus, humanism needs to be redefined to include the nonhuman or intra-human. Any knowledge or experience that fails to acknowledge its non-human, in-human, post-humanism and inorganic constituents isn’t placing the human high enough. It is self-defeating because it undermines its own conditions of possibility and is ecologically dangerous for life.

We need an ecology of everyday life. It is not enough to think local and act global because we live in an inter-connected world where an innocent act in one context has ramifications for the political and ecosystems of individual bodies, our communities, and the earth. When we act we need to think what are the potential chemical, biological, physical, political and social impacts on an individual, local, and global level. We need to think – how does what we do and how we do it impact upon the living conditions of other humans in a different part of the globe, as well as the non-human entities that are part of our bodies and our conditions of existence?

Gulshan Khan

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