The Humanities After Humanism

Faisal Devji University of Oxford
Abstract: Touching upon the university, liberal society and the globe as sites in which the humanities locate themselves, this essay argues that the traditional subject of humanist reflection needs to be rethought. How might an esoteric approach to scholarship constitute a productive necessity for the humanities, serving to question the academy’s public role as much as its traditional duty of cultivating a private individual? For the humanist subject and his interior life is threatened by the emergence of global realities such as the human race. These realities possess neither existential nor political forms, but are for the moment manifested in sacrificial practices whose negativity provides an important new subject for the humanities.

There has been a great deal of hand-wringing recently about the fate of the university, and particularly that of the humanities within it (Warner 2014, 2015). Academic journals, literary reviews and even newspapers have carried stories about the managerial or neoliberal takeover of European and American institutions of higher education. Even when they are not private corporations intended to make profits, as in the UK, universities are said, in such narratives, to have been made subservient to a market logic that is destructive of intellectual life. This logic is meant to turn students into consumers, divide professors into stars who bring in grants or badly paid drones lacking job security, with success defined by international rankings and league tables.

Of the many screeds on the decline of the university, however, or even the humanities specifically, few present much in the way of recommendations for remedial action. And those that do rely on the traditional tools of institutional resistance on the one hand, which is to say mobilisation, protest, collective refusal, strikes and even lawsuits; or a new intellectual vision on the other. The most radical, but also pessimistic, account that I have come across of the first of these options is by the South African writer J. M. Coetzee (2013). Not surprisingly, it is also the only one that is not entirely focused on the Western European and North American academy and its history, attending instead to the very recent and even contemporary experience of many African, Asian, Latin American and Eastern European intellectuals in dealing with situations ranging from the neglect of universities to their repression by the state.

Seeing the traditional university heading for extinction, this time under the onslaught of neoliberal policies rather than old-fashioned ideologies or dictatorships, Coetzee turns to the familiar practices, at least outside the Euro-American intellectual arena, of informal teaching and underground writing as sites of survival and criticism, out of which a new political and academic world might emerge. In doing so he recognizes that the humanities will not suffer for lack of popularity or student interest, whatever their "public" reputation might be. Interesting about his view is its focus on the informal and even secretive or esoteric dimension of intellectual life, one that possesses a long political and philosophical genealogy. Such forms of scholarly practice, of course, also exit the "bourgeois" distinction of public and the private, both categories that define the university today, whether as an object of state supervision or a profit-making institution.

Condemned as it routinely is for being elitist, what I find intriguing about the resort to esotericism from writers on the left as much as the right, is the refusal to be fixed or classified within any order of visibility, of which the distinction between public and private is only one—but also, of course, that between the "ivory tower" and the "real world."

I shall return to what I am calling the esoteric dimension of intellectual life after considering the second kind of option proposed by scholars writing about the crisis of the university and the humanities. This has to do with a new intellectual vision, which may consist of breaking down the boundaries between the arts and sciences, or the academic and professional schools, something that is in fact already happening at several institutions of higher learning. My own discipline, history, is notorious, at least in the Euro-American academy, for its imperviousness to intellectual fashion or division into well-defined and competitive schools of thought. And yet even history has been shaken up of late by all this talk of crisis. David Armitage and Jo Guldi’s History Manifesto mourns the discipline’s loss of "influence" on policymaking, which they blame on its turning away from public engagement, broad historical narratives and "big data," despite the fact that history and economics remain the only two academic disciplines that continue to have a popular audience (Armitage and Guldi 2015).

While the debate over the History Manifesto continues to be a lively one, with Armitage and Guldi surely right in pointing to the crisis in higher education more generally, what interests me is how the "public" and even popular function of intellectuals is taken for granted by all sides. Yet surely the most politically "influential" intellectual movement of our time has been that which claims the most arcane of modern philosophers, Leo Strauss, as its founder and neoconservatism as its latter-day name. Not only was Strauss himself an esoteric thinker, he championed esotericism as the only form that intellectual life could take while still being politically consequential. And this because he thought that philosophy and politics were destructive of one another, and needed to be protected from a direct and so inevitably corrupting, if not violent, communication. Coming from the opposite direction as Coetzee, then, Strauss, also drawing upon a philosophical tradition going back to antiquity, ended up advocating the same status for the humanities.

Condemned as it routinely is for being elitist, what I find intriguing about the resort to esotericism from writers on the left as much as the right, is the refusal to be fixed or classified within any order of visibility, of which the distinction between public and private is only one—but also, of course, that between the "ivory tower" and the "real world." Surely to refuse identification is the first task of criticism, which lies at the very heart of the humanities. How might esotericism protect both itself and the world it seeks to transform, whose visibility is dangerous to intellectual life even when the latter isn’t ostensibly threatened by it? The managerial culture of higher education, needless to say, is governed precisely by a regime of visibility, which may therefore need to be rejected completely, or at least supplemented by scholarship as an esoteric practice of some kind.

Public intellectuals and private citizens

There is no going back to the "public" function of the modern university, tied as it was to a middle class that is for the first time unable to reproduce its hegemony, thus allowing the West to join the rest in this respect at least. I would like to suggest, then, that ideas about the intellectual’s "public" engagement, as much as the humanities’ role in shaping the citizen’s "private" life, are reactionary and unworkable ones. For these categories have been made redundant, and have even undergone a reversal, which I want to illustrate here by considering the ongoing debate on surveillance. Interesting about the recent revelations of government surveillance in the United States and United Kingdom, after all, has been the absence of public outrage in these countries. While commentators tend to attribute this to the real or imagined fears of terrorism that both states are said to promote among their citizens, I suspect something more is at work. Just as it is difficult to imagine much trust subsisting between these citizens and their governments, so, too, is there little sign that they are afraid of terrorism. Might it be the case, instead, that people don’t mind surveillance for entirely non-political reasons, because they have become accustomed to a media-dominated world in which it is difficult to draw the line between public and private in the form of webcams, reality television and monitoring to ensure accountability?

If we consider the acceptability of surveillance in a wider cultural context, it might be said to rely at least in part upon the exhibitionist desire for publicity, itself non-political, that is so characteristic of our media-saturated societies. Of course this is a trite enough point, curious about it being only how surveillance may actually recover a privacy lost not simply to entertainment media, but the whole enterprise of polling and surveying opinion. After all it is only by such sampling that both commercial and political decisions are made in the advanced democracies of Europe and America. By secretly acquiring and holding all manner of information about its citizens, including information of the most mundane and banal kind, the state is in effect reconstituting a private sphere for these citizens within its own domain, one that has been lost to the overwhelming reality as much as to the desire for publicity in the world outside.

Perverse as it is, this process is a fundamentally old-fashioned one, because it seeks to re-inscribe the classical distinction of public and private in a situation where it seems to have become vestigial. And this might be why those who criticize it can only condemn surveillance by invoking the equally traditional fears of tyranny and totalitarianism. Yet the emptying out of the old private sphere, initially for commercial and then for political uses, and both well before the current debate on surveillance, suggests that it is not a totalitarian logic that is at work. Indeed the opposite may well be the case, with the state trying to redraw a now atavistic division between public and private if only by occupying the latter category in a strange reversal. For the "liberal" state cannot exercise power in a situation where private and public have lost autonomy, and must create a division between them to operate.

In a short book called In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities, the French cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard argued that the notion of a "silent" or merely statistical majority represented the paradoxical attempt to create a "real" community of interests out of an average produced by surveys and polls (Baudrillard 2007). But the more such a population was sampled, the less it was capable of constituting itself into a community, which meant that its very visibility and lack of internal consistency made this group "resistant" to politics—a resistance made up not of reticence or concealment but by the very promiscuity of publicity and revelation. Precisely because nothing about this population was hidden, in other words, it was impossible either to know or to mobilise. For the survey and sample represent forms of grasping mass opinion that end up abstracting and making it completely opaque, while in the process destroying all "real" communities in the very effort to know them.

If the statistical forms of measuring opinion that Baudrillard wrote about fragmented the individual and made collectives abstract, surveillance reintegrates the individual and his singular intentionality. Yet this enterprise is, again, a very old-fashioned one, seeking to resuscitate the classical legal subject, responsible for his words and actions in conventional ways. But of course there is nothing traditional about this reconstituted subject, which is why in the United States the right-wing National Rifle Association’s argument, that the right to bear arms serves to check the tyranny of the state, is curiously similar to the one advocated by the left-wing American Civil Liberties Union. For this latter would have the state voluntarily or rather legally circumscribe its powers of surveillance to maintain a division between public and private realms. In either case the privacy for which protection is sought turns out to be a mere shadow, since the arms-bearing citizen is unable to resist the state, while a privacy guaranteed by this state’s self-restraint clearly has no autonomy.

Both the armed citizen and his unarmed cousin, therefore, deploy their entirely legalistic "private" status in new ways and to novel ends, however classical their constitutional language remains. The problem is that spatiality is no longer a viable marker of the distinction between spheres, not least because it represents the landed property that lay at the basis of this distinction historically, making "privacy" a fundamentally bourgeois category. The attack on privacy, then, is also one on private property in its earlier incarnation as land or space, which has been displaced not only by intellectual or intangible property, but also by the erasure of the line between public and private that is illustrated by the corporatization of governance as well as of "public" institutions like the university, to say nothing about the role of publicly traded private companies in mining personal data for state use.

Perhaps we should look outside the tradition of Western liberalism for a historical analysis of this situation. The Indian philosopher Mohammad Iqbal, for example, argued early in the last century that the modern distinction between public and private, which also served as the ground for that between the secular and the religious, or the civil and the political, was nothing but a version of the Christian division between the material and the spiritual (Iqbal 1992). It was, in other words, a metaphysical and not a functional separation. Echoing in some respect the argument of Marx’s essay "On the Jewish Question," Iqbal contended that this metaphysical distinction gave the categories of public and private their qualitative and apparently incommensurable character, based though they were on the defining role that private as opposed to public property was coming to play in a capitalist order. But such a distinction was, he thought, being made unsustainable by the very dominance of property in social life.

Spatiality, argued Iqbal, drawing on the French philosopher Henri Bergson, was not only a crude and slowed-down version of temporality, but, we might say, was also becoming volatilised as time (Iqbal 1990). He claimed, for instance, that unlike the spatial division of the spiritual and material, as church and state, in Christian Europe, in Shia Iran a belief in the coming of the messiah made for a temporal separation between a profane world and the religious utopia that had to wait until the end of time for instantiation. Today, with the dematerialization of property, we can see more clearly how space is being folded into time. But now the messiah’s arrival is speeded up, so that privacy exists only as a fleeting interval before the publicity of celebrity culture, or the exhibitionism of webcams and reality shows. It is this visibility that lends privacy a meaning, if only retroactively as something waiting to be seen. What becomes of the individual’s interiority here, whose cultivation had once defined the very purpose of the humanities?

Like Iqbal, his compatriot and contemporary Gandhi was critical of the distinction between public and private, seeing it as an instrument of violence. The Mahatma was clear that it was the state and its secretive operations that constituted the truly "private" sector of society. Against this he advocated a politics and an ethics of pure transparency, much to the annoyance of some of his followers, like India’s future prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who asked sarcastically if the Indian National Congress must announce all its plans to the colonial government and invite the arrest of its members (Gandhi 1976a, 426-30). Yet for Gandhi any resort to secrecy or privacy could only replicate and so eventually empower the state, itself the least "public" of entities. A life and politics made absolutely transparent, then, was meant not to demonstrate "accountability," as with liberalism, but rather to make possible the enemy’s conversion by the spectacle of one’s absolute and sacrificial visibility.

The attitudes of men like Gandhi and Iqbal illustrate that there have been other ways of considering and criticizing the distinction between public and private, including those that refuse to defend the latter category, and, without at all acquiescing in the state’s power, even exulting in its practical elimination as a form of law and property. These illustrations tell us that both the surveillance state and its Western critics are wedded to the same old and probably false notion of a spatial separation between spheres. For given the absence of any existential threat that terrorism poses to countries like Britain and the United States, the "irrational" expansion of surveillance there as much as the opposition to it occur, with however little popular interest, in order to reconstitute a spatial distinction between public and private that has become redundant in the meantime.

The human race as a negative reality

If there is one thing the humanities have to grapple with, it is surely the transformation of their very subject, which is to say humanity itself as a global fact. Having become an empirical reality, initially by its capacity to be understood statistically, and then to be managed by global policies regarding disease eradication or birth control, to say nothing of war, the human race has emerged as the true subject of global history. But as the subject of such a history, humanity must be conceived of in its sheer materiality, the sum total of living beings falling under the name mankind. For unlike the humanist individual who serves either as a universal ideal or as the reality of some particular history, and whose cultivation continues to provide the humanities with their purpose, mankind is always self-equivalent and can neither match up to nor fall short of itself. In this way humanity provides history with its first global subject, and indeed with its most sublime actor after God.

Of course humanity cannot be said to exist as an actor in any unified or self-conscious way, these criteria being themselves borrowed from the individual. And it is for the moment deprived even of the collective agency provided by political institutions, which are still international in character. Yet it is clear that the history of mankind can no longer be confined to the doings of men and women in their multiplicity but must deal with the fate of the race as a singularity. Concepts such as the "anthropocene" would even make the human race into a force of nature, depriving it of context and subjectivity at the same time (Chakrabarty 2009). Indeed the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy has even argued, with reference to the Fukushima disaster, that it is no longer possible to distinguish the "natural" from the "technological," an inability that had previously been theorized at the individual level in the figure of the cyborg (Nancy 2015; Haraway 1990). The effort to represent, embody and make an existential reality of this global reality characterises any number of contemporary political, cultural and religious movements, and it should be an important object of reflection across the humanities.

How might the history of humanity, then, be described in its existential and therefore also political dimension? While nineteenth-century thinkers in Europe produced a number of accounts purporting to be histories of humanity, often entailing the rise of some race or civilization to global dominance, it was in the twentieth century that humanity came to achieve a properly historical reality. But this only happened when the interconnections and dependencies first created by colonial expansion suddenly put the world itself at stake in moments of political or economic crisis beginning with the Great War. In diverse fields ranging from literature to medicine, but significantly not politics, the human race began to assume an historical countenance during this period, emerging as the globe’s true subject during the Cold War, whose nuclear arsenals made its extinction a real possibility. It was mortality that endowed the species with a properly historical reality.

The philosopher Karl Jaspers was among the first to explore the curiously negative and even posthumous character of the human race, one that it was difficult to lend an existential form. He thus came to see varieties of sacrifice like martyrdom as efforts to trace the lineaments of a species that could not otherwise be represented. In a lecture of 1945 subsequently published under the title "The question of German guilt," Jaspers distinguished traditional forms of guilt such as the moral, political and criminal from something he called metaphysical guilt. This latter, he said, was felt by those who were innocent of wrongdoing in all its conventional senses but continued, nevertheless, to accuse themselves of living while others had died under Nazi rule. Though he took Germany as his example of a place in which metaphysical guilt had come to the fore, Jaspers was clear that fascism and the war it occasioned provided only the origins of this widespread phenomenon, which arose out of the fact that responsibility could no longer be confined to particular individuals or groups in events like the Second World War, and belonged instead to the history of mankind:

It is only now that history has finally become world history—the global history of mankind. So our own situation can be grasped only together with the world-historical one. What has happened today has its causes in general human events and conditions, and only secondarily in special intra-national relations and the decisions of single groups of men (Jaspers 1961, 23–24).

The problem, of course, is that humanity has no political or juridical status and thus does not exist as a subject of history. Yet it cannot be said to be a fiction either, and Jaspers tells us that metaphysical guilt is a sign of the race’s otherwise invisible solidarity, betraying as it does a consciousness of shared responsibilities in the global arena brought to light by the war (Jaspers 1961, 71). Going beyond all moral, legal and political determinations of responsibility, metaphysical guilt invokes the species as a potential subject of history, if only by the desire to die in its name. For dying alone provides access to its negative being. Jaspers points out that such examples of unconditioned sacrifice are to be found, and are indeed celebrated, at the level of the family or between lovers, the source of metaphysical guilt being that they are not available, or very rarely so, at a purely human level (Jaspers 1961, 32).

In an essay on Europe and the atom bomb published in 1954, Hannah Arendt elaborated upon Jaspers’ ideas by arguing that the possibility of destruction on a planetary scale had made redundant the old language of sacrifice, together with the courage required for it in times of war (Arendt 1994). This language had for many centuries defined sacrifice as part of a relationship in which individuals and groups were able to risk their own lives or possessions, and sometimes those of others as well, for some person, people or principles that would survive them all. In other words sacrifice in its political aspect depended upon the survival of that nation, religion or other entity in whose behalf it was made, thus also guaranteeing the immortality of those who would give their lives for it. Indeed the courage of an individual willing to risk his life for some greater cause only became extraordinary if it stood out from the otherwise ordinary background of things as they always were and would continue to be.

With the atom bomb, however, the relationship between death and survival that had marked the language of sacrifice suddenly lost much if not all of its meaning, since a nuclear war was capable of destroying the possibility of human survival itself at a global level, or at least of altering it radically. And whether or not any political cause survived such a war alongside the victorious peoples and states who upheld it, the use of atomic weapons would certainly obliterate the very background of ordinariness against which the courage of sacrifice stood out and from which it took its meaning. Or as Arendt put it, writing about the worst-case scenario of a war that put the survival of the human race in peril:

Courage, under the circumstances of modern warfare, has lost much of its old meaning. By putting in jeopardy the survival of mankind and not only individual life, or at the most the life of a whole people, modern warfare is about to transform the individual mortal man into a conscious member of the human race, of whose immortality he needs to be sure in order to be courageous at all and for whose survival he must care more than for anything else (Arendt 1994, 422).

While Hannah Arendt was of course describing potentialities that have yet to be realized, her claim that atomic weapons have produced individuals who are self-conscious members of the human race does not require the occurrence of a nuclear war to hold true. And indeed how else are we to define the activists who sacrifice their lives and possessions for world peace, the environment or global Islam if not as embodiments of humanity in its own right? For given the institutional invisibility of the human race as a political actor, only such novel forms of sacrificial courage are capable of bringing it into being, though they must do so by undermining the relationship between death and survival upon which sacrifice had traditionally been founded.

Surely the new reality named by Jaspers and Arendt poses a challenge to the humanities as traditionally conceived. How might humanity as a posthumous reality be grasped if it possesses no existential dimension, apart from a sacrificial subjectivity? Perhaps the ideals that have traditionally been the preserve of the humanities can only be recovered by rejecting humanity’s positive or demographic form. And this means criticising the "humanitarian" projects that define it in increasingly violent ways, as historians such as Sam Moyn are already doing. This seemed to be the view held by Gandhi, who even considered the desire to serve the human race a sin. Early in July of 1937, a well-known Nazi journalist, SS officer and advisor to Hitler named Roland von Strunk visited Gandhi at his ashram in Segaon. In the course of their conversation, Gandhi pointed out what he thought was the fundamental contradiction in the attention that Europeans paid to the preservation of life:

But the West attaches an exaggerated importance to prolonging man’s earthly existence. Until the man’s last moment on earth you go on drugging him even by injecting. That, I think, is inconsistent with the recklessness with which they will shed their lives in war. Though I am opposed to war, there is no doubt that war induces reckless courage. Well, without ever having to engage in a war I want to learn from you the art of throwing away my life for a noble cause. But I do not want that excessive desire of living that Western medicine seems to encourage in man even at the cost of tenderness for subhuman life (Gandhi 1976b, 361).

Having expressed his horror of the hatreds sweeping Europe, Strunk must have been surprised to hear that Gandhi was in some ways even more contemptuous of life than Hitler. For the Mahatma’s desire to learn from the "reckless courage" of European warfare was not in the least premised upon the need to protect one’s own life, nor indeed the lives of one’s countrymen, racial brothers or partners in civilization, as was true both of the Nazis and their enemies. In fact Gandhi was clear that justifying war by means of the conventional link between taking life in order to save it could in no sense be considered rational. What the Mahatma found disturbing, in other words, was not that an inordinate concern with preserving life stood opposed to its casual disposal in battle, but rather that one led to the other in such a way as to make the love of life itself guilty of the desire for death. Only by giving up the thirst for life that was represented in modern war and medicine alike, he suggested, could the urge to kill be tamed.

From the kind of "subhuman life" that modern medicine sacrificed in its vivisections, to men and women rendered "subhuman" and thus available for fascism’s killing machines, Gandhi blamed humanity, or at least its definition in terms of life as an absolute value, for the massive scale of modern violence. And this not only allowed him to put the Nazis in the same category as their enemies as far as the espousal of such a value was concerned, but also to hold humanitarians and pacifists equally responsible for its violence. Indeed in some ways those dedicated to the cause of peace and humanity were even more culpable than the rest, if only because they might value life in far greater measure than others who were at least willing to sacrifice it in war. For in the very recklessness of this sacrifice the Mahatma saw the possibility of going beyond and even destroying life as an absolute value. The kind of violence that entailed risking one’s life, in other words, was capable of providing an opening for nonviolence, something that preventing war in the name of life’s sanctity never could. And this was why Gandhi wanted to learn the art of throwing one’s life away from those parts of European warfare that still involved such risk.

It was only by refusing to treat life as an absolute value that Gandhi was able to accomplish his aim and spiritualize politics, for he thought that as long as life remained its basis political action could never answer to moral principles. After all the preservation of life was an aim that all political actors shared, and therefore no moral principles could be drawn from it, these having been reduced merely to second-order justifications for valuing some lives over others. The paradoxical thing about the Mahatma’s glorification of sacrifice in the name of an ideal rather than a gross reality such as life, however, is that its rejection of this reality as an absolute value also entailed protecting it. Only by disdaining life could it be saved, while even politics in its most sacrificial forms, including the Cold War doctrine of "mutually assured destruction," continued being devoted to life’s preservation.



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