Friday, 8 May 2009

The Crisis in Humanism III

The final part of the three-part series on the crisis of humanism by Joost van Loon.

Social scientists, as always, were a bit late to catch on. So, when Marxists were still occupying their time with debates about the relative force of structural conditions versus class struggle, geneticists were already ten steps ahead, re-interpreting all that exists as forms of data-in-procession. When humanists finally purged their beloved Birmingham School from Althusserian structuralism, as emblematically performed in a sort of confessional mode by Stuart Hall, no self-respecting biologist attained a notion of the human species that depended on an organic understanding of human being; instead, human being was a mere variation of protein codes.

However, even if social scientists cannot be blamed for not reading biology, they can be blamed for failing to understand the world they inhabit. I am introducing a very delicate issue here. By the time the poststructuralist challenge to humanism became popular in the academy (in the early 1980s), most western nations at least already had legalised abortion. That is to say, the society which social scientists at least are called to understand, had already moved on from an anthropocentric definition of life, to a more functional one. The question is not whether one defines abortion as a ‘reproductive right’ or as a ‘moral issue’ (e.g. Ferree et al, 2004). That is completely irrelevant. The issue here is what the very allowance of abortion means in terms of one’s understanding of what life is. If one accepts abortion, one is faced with a choice to either accept that it is a permissible form of murder (that is killing another human being) – which, in essence, runs counter to the basic premise of humanism (so brutally exposed in Auschwitz) - or that some human life forms are not human enough to qualify as a life form. That is to say, whereas the first option heralds the end of the hegemony of humanism, the second effectively changed the meaning of human life by default (e.g. by referring to this as ‘the fetal life frame’, Ferree et al (2004) are able to present an allegedly neutral account of abortion-debates as index-cases of the state of political culture in Germany and the USA; using or not using the fetal-life frame thus becomes itself an arbitrary choice, which is allegedly motivated by political interests or will to power).

Finally, the death of humanism could and should have been perceived by the social sciences a lot earlier because it was evidenced in the way in which human social forms were being reconfigured. The post-war era is often coined as an era of consumerism, commodification and individualization. All three terms are nails in the coffin if humanism. All three signal some form of dehumanization, transference of the unique centrality of the human being as origin and destiny of reason, to values derived from market-transactions, object-relations and alienation. Indeed, what today is celebrated as innovative theoretical concepts, e.g. actor networks or assemblages, are nothing but descriptors of processing that were already dominating popular culture in the 1950s and 1960s. The Frankfurt School theorists saw this and cried out in despair, but to no avail.

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