He he he he and he and he and and he and he and he and and as
and as he and as he and he.
He is and as he is, and as he is and he is,
he is and as he
Gertrude Stein, If I told him, 1923
The main tenet of posthuman feminism is that the notion of humanism needs to be reviewed and assessed critically but not thrown away entirely. The posthuman predicament assumes the relative success of equality-minded feminism. This chapter lays the groundwork by first briefly explaining the masculinist roots of Eurocentric humanism as well as its philosophical critiques. It will then proceed by giving a genealogy of the historical ties that bind Western feminism to humanism. Humanism is the backbone of the women’s emancipation project carried out in three major bodies of thought proclaiming universal human rights: classical liberalism; socialist humanism; and Black, anti-colonialist, anti-racist and Indigenous voices. The chapter ends with an evaluation of how LGBTQ+ theories and practices are positioned in the aftermath of humanism. They pursue a similar project of emancipation with claims to equality and struggles for recognition and justice, but they radically move away from the normative idea of the human built into humanism, ‘queering’ it into inhumanism.
The Man of Reason as the Image of Humanism
Humanism has helped construct liberal democracies by upholding the separation of Church from State and instigating fundamental freedom under the rule of law. From the Enlightenment, humanism took its emancipatory belief in the universal powers of scientific reason and faith in technological progress, as well as adjacent values such as secular tolerance and equality for all. As such, humanism supports the Western project of modernity, including its industrial, imperialist and bellicose inclinations (Davies, 1997).
The main version of humanism that plays out in the posthuman convergence is a retake on the European renaissance ideal of the human as ‘the measure of all things’ or the ‘Man of Reason’ (Lloyd, 1984). This European humanist ideal positions the universalizing powers of a sovereign notion of reason as the basic unit of reference to define what counts as human. This hegemonic idea of ‘Man’ as coinciding with universal reason also claims exclusive rights to self-regulating rational judgement, moral self-improvement and enlightened governance for European subjects. That image was represented visually by Leonardo in the famous sketch of the Vetruvian body as the perfectly proportioned, healthy, male and white model, which became the golden mean for classical aesthetics and architecture (Braidotti, 2013). The human thus defined is not so much a species as a marker of European culture and society and for the scientific and technological activities it privileges.
The humanist values and their rationalist underpinnings apply both to individuals and to groups operating within scientific and moral criteria of human perfectibility. They thus act as the motor of human evolution coinciding with the teleological progress of human civilization (intrinsically assumed to be European) through science and technology. The ‘Man’ of classical humanism was positioned at the pinnacle of an evolutionary scale, which classified different classes of beings lower down the hierarchical ranks and files. They are the ‘others’ defined as the negative opposites of the dominant human norm.1
The point here is that difference, being ‘other than’ or ‘different from’ ‘Man’, is actually negatively perceived as ‘worth less than’
‘Man’. This epistemic and symbolic exclusion is no abstraction: it translates into ruthless violence for the real-life people who happen to coincide with categories of negative difference. They are the women and LGBTQ+ people (sexualized others), Black and Indigenous people (racialized others) and the animals, plants and earth entities (naturalized others). Their social and symbolic existence was denied, leaving them disposable and unprotected. They are multiple and disqualified, whereas ‘Man’ is One and fully entitled.
The power of ‘Man’ as a hegemonic civilizational model was instrumental to the project of Western modernity and the colonial ideology of European expansion. ‘White Man’s burden’ as a tool of imperialist and patriarchal governance assumed that Europe is not just a geo-political location, but rather a universal attribute of human consciousness that can transfer its quality to any suitable subjects, provided they comply with the required discipline. Europe as superior universal consciousness posits the power of reason as its distinctive characteristic and humanistic universalism as its particularity. It encloses an allegedly universal notion of reason within ‘the snowy masculinist precincts of European philosophy’ and its relentless pursuit of gaining material access to real-life others (Weheliye, 2014: 47).
Controlled by white, European, heterosexual, property-owning, male, legal citizens, mainstream humanistic culture upholds dominant memory and selects who gets to write official history. It functions as a centralized databank that edits out and de-selects the existence, activities, practices as well as the alternative or subjugated memories of the multiple sexualized and racialized minorities (Wynter, 2015). Think, for instance, of the extent to which European mythologies, National Art Galleries, Science and Natural History museums are filled with signs and traces of the subjugation of women, Black and Indigenous people, animal and earth others (Ang, 2019). Their representations are overdetermined and depicted as necessarily absent, excluded from the centre stage. These multitudes of others are as plentiful as they are nameless: so many Indigenous people, Orientalized women, exotic birds, captive Africans, devious mermaids and scary monsters of all denominations abound, but there is only ever one ‘Man’. In the Odyssey
, the archetypical figure of Odysseus goes by the name of ‘Nobody’,
representing all men and as such becoming the negative of ‘everybody’.2
Man, thus defined is the zero degree of otherness or deviation from the human standard he embodies and projects to normative heights. Like a blank that can be endlessly refilled, he who-shall-not-be-named is entitled to call all others by his name. The mythologized Man in the figure of Odysseus is the face of Anthropos in Western culture.
Disenchantment with the Humanist Figure of ‘Man’
There is a strong European philosophical genealogy of critical reassessment of humanism in modernity, starting with the controversial case of Nietzsche, and moving beyond. As early as 1933, Freud and Einstein pointed out in their correspondence – published as the pamphlet Why War? – that the relationship between humans and science was broken. Technologically driven modern warfare was revealing the depth of the collective death drive (Thanatos) and humans’ fatal attraction for self-destruction. The post-war generation of Continental philosophers expressed their disenchantment with the unfulfilled promises of the humanist belief in science-driven progress and false announcements of equality-for-all. They proposed a critical break from the exclusionary version of humanism that positions Eurocentric ‘Man’ as the alleged universal measure of human progress.
In the 1950s, anti-colonialist psychiatrist Franz Fanon exposed the depth of irrational and traumatizing violence that drove European domination of the colonized dispossessed others. Jean-Paul Sartre stated plainly that Europe had betrayed the humanist ideal in the colonies and the concentration camps of the Second World War and exposed the complicity of humanism with both fascism and colonialism. In keeping with postcolonial thought, Sartre endorsed a possible renewal of this concept through non-Western humanisms, notably in his preface to Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth (1963 ). In the 1961 meditation Has Man a Future?, Bertrand Russell excoriated the hypocrisy of the scientific community regarding the irrationality of nuclear weapons and assessed future technological options for humanity rather negatively. The role of science in enabling nuclear doom – rather than enlightened human progress – weighed heavily upon that generation.
Beauvoir’s feminist humanism (1973 ) was multi-layered but at some level quite familiar, in that her vision emphasized women’s equality that has since become mainstream. Equality is defined with reference to the rights and entitlements enjoyed by men, and the feminist project consisted for Beauvoir in balancing the power relations between the two sexes.3
Emphasizing citizenship rights, but also the symbolic representation of women as capable of transcendence, and hence of higher levels of consciousness, Beauvoir targeted the patriarchal arguments for the alleged inferiority of women and tore them to pieces. She argued that patriarchal culture is not dominant because it is superior rationally, epistemically or morally. It is rather the case that, being dominant, it has appropriated the rational, epistemic and moral means to build its hegemonic hold over the social and symbolic structures, including knowledge production, science and technology. Another significant level of Beauvoir’s humanism concerned her socialist creed: she followed Marxist humanism in arguing that the full potential of all humans, and especially of women, has been thwarted by capitalism. Only a full-scale socialist revolution can liberate women, and men, by transforming society radically. Beauvoir never questioned the validity or power of the model of the human built into the feminist emancipatory and socialist politics, but wanted to open it up to the excluded.
Critiques of the tradition of humanism grew in the 1970s when the second wave of feminism arose, the Black anti-racist movement took off, the decolonialization movement unfolded, gay liberation started, radical ecology blossomed, and youth rebellions multiplied. Those radical social movements of the 1970s, in the context of the Cold War, challenged both the unfulfilled promises of Western democracies and the never-achieved utopias of the Marxist revolutionary programme (Judt, 2005). Their aims and constituencies often overlapped, with many socialist feminists doubling up as ecofeminists and peace activists.4
Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (1977) assessed historical and contemporary forms of European fascism5
as the sign of the definitive failure of humanism. Michel Serres (2016) added to this list of grievances the technologically driven Hiroshima and Nagasaki genocides by the US military. He
attacked the contemporary ‘thanatocracy’ and its uses of science to destroy humanity and its planetary home. Derrida (1984) also commented on the nuclear end-time and pointed out that flawed humanism and anthropocentric exceptionalism threaten the well-being and survival of all species, including our own.
Both the horrors of the Second World War and the nuclear era in the Cold War that followed had turned upside down the Enlightenment promise of liberating mankind through scientific rationality. Foucault (1970) drew his own conclusions from these critical insights in his famous thesis about the death of ‘Man’. He argued that the historical project of humanism, a pillar of European modernity and of its rationalist, technological development, was reaching the end of its historical cycle and was destined soon to be over. That particular ‘Man’ is dead and his zombified replicants are quite scary. What was left over from European humanism is a glorious tradition of texts and a mixed history of world events. They need to be reassessed critically in terms of the systemic patterns of sexualized, racialized and naturalized exclusions which they endorsed, operationalized and hence made thinkable. This passing of ‘Man’ was not merely a negative comment, as the end of a specific – and for Foucault relatively recent – vision of the human. It was meant also as an affirmative inauguration of new processes of knowledge and insights about life, living systems and what constitutes the human in all of its complexities and multiplicities.
Let it be noted, however, that the announcement of the death of that Man of Reason may have been exaggerated and that he may still be quite capable of multiple after-lives. The NASA-led explorations of outer space, for instance, adopted the Vitruvian Renaissance representation of that human as the badge for their missions. That image was therefore sewed onto the astronauts’ suits and has been flying on the flag that was planted on the surface of the Moon on 20 July 1969. As we shall see later, the project of human enhancement and intergalactic expansion is not necessarily incompatible with humanism.
The vicissitudes of philosophical critiques of humanism followed their own itinerary (Soper, 1986), intersecting productively, but not always necessarily coinciding with discussions about the status of the human in feminist, anti-racist, decolonial and Indigenous theories. There are severa...