For their Daily Write on February 21, I asked my mythology students what they learned about the human condition from having read Homer's Odyssey. I asked that question to get them thinking in broad humanistic terms instead of in narrow "moral of the story" terms, which is their wont. But what I realized, upon reading the Daily Writes prior to the next class, was that a lot of them did not know what the term "human condition" meant. I was shocked, but not surprised, and ultimately kind of excited: here I seemed to have found a key, at least a partial one, to the problem I keep picking away at as a teacher of literature and culture: why my students seem to respond to literature in such narrow, instrumental terms instead of broad, humanistic ones. The fact is, for the most part, they have no real sense of what humanism is!
So I began putting together together some PowerPoint slides (large lecture class) on the human condition. Here are the definitions I found:
The positive and negative aspects of existence as a human being, esp. the inevitable events such as birth, childhood, adolescence, love, sex, reproduction, aging, and death
The state or condition of being human, esp. regarded as being inherently problematic or flawed. The condition of human beings collectively
Oxford English Dictionary
The unique and...inescapable features of being human in a social, cultural, and personal context. ...[T]he irreducible part of humanity that is inherent and not connected to factors such as gender, race or class
That part of the definition is very striking, and certainly did NOT go on my PowerPoint slide. Why not, and what is so striking about it? Well, two things. First, that word "inherent" means that the human condition is natural, not cultural: essential, not socially constructed. Second, that part about how the human condition is "not connected to factors such as gender, race or class." That's connected with the word "irreducible" earlier in the sentence, and suggests that there is some aspect of our humanity, our natural, inherent, irreducible humanity, that can be separated out from all (historically specific, socially constructed) aspects of our identity, such as race, class, gender, sexuality, nationality, immigration status, etc.
In other words, the human condition has nothing to do with our individual identity. For a split sec, I wondered...where on earth did that part of the definition come from? And then I realized: Ohhh...identity politics!!!
What do I mean by "identity politics"? Again, the Oxford English Dictionary:
The adherence by a group of people of a particular religion, race, social background, etc., to political beliefs or goals specific to the group concerned, as opposed to conforming to traditional broad-based party politicsIdentity politics is a term for the way politics and identity movements coalesced in the last quarter of the twentieth century. In particular, politics connected with the civil rights movement, the women's movement, the gay rights movement, and the various movements that emerged out of 1990s multiculturalism. But what the OED definition does not say is that not only was identity politics distinct from broad-based party politics; it was also distinct from the prevalent idea of humanism that helped bridge party divides for decades if not centuries before identity politics. Edward Said writes brilliantly about this in the first chapter of his 2004 book, Humanism and Democratic Criticism. He argues that the advent of French theory in the 1960s and 70s "brought about a severe if not crippling defeat of what was considered traditional humanism by the forces of structuralism and post-structuralism."
Based on the pioneering work of Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud in the nineteenth century, twentieth century thinkers like Claude Lévi-Strauss, Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault provided a theoretical basis for a backlash against traditional humanism. By arguing that psychological, social, and historical factors were the basis of a fragmented subjective identity, they undermined the traditional humanist idea, based on the Enlightenment refinement of the Cartesian cogito, of a unified rational subject with a core of humanity that transcended race, class, gender, society, culture, and history itself.
To be sure, I believe all of that French theoretical stuff that I just summarized ever so concisely in the preceding paragraph, as did Edward Said. But, as Said argues in Humanism and Democratic Criticism, we need not "see in humanism only the totalizing and essentializing trends" vitiated by postmodern critical theory, nor must we accept, along with postmodernism's critique of the Cartesian subject, "its dismissive attitudes to what Jean-Francois Lyotard famously called the grand narratives of enlightenment and emancipation" (Said, p. 10).
That's a really important argument Said is making; an argument, moreover, for why we do not have to choose between humanism and critical theory: why we do not have to leave the human condition at the door when we walk into a classroom informed by theoretically sophisticated notions of race, class, gender, sexuality, and the socially constructed, historically specific nature of individual identity. We do not have to choose, that is, between our individuality and our humanity.
Now, our students, by and large, don't know anything about any of this--nor do they necessarily need to. But what I am suggesting is that this history of antihumanism--in the wake of French critical theory, identity politics, and related social, cultural, and historical factors--is where that peculiar part of the Wikipedia definition of the human condition comes from, insisting that the human condition has nothing to do with race, class, gender, sexuality, nationality, immigration, or any of the other factors that define individual identity in our contemporary globalized (or, as Gayatri Chakrovorti Spivak would have us say, "planetary") world (see Chapter Three of Spivak's 2003 book, Death of a Discipline).
But it's not just about a Wikipedia definition; it's about a reality: the reality that our students, by and large, no longer have a sense of humanism or the human condition, because those notions were no longer fashionable, or even theoretically admissible, not so much in the classrooms of today (where the right wing is mounting a vociferous if ungainly defense of many good old fashioned humanist values), but in the classrooms where today's English and Comparative Literature professors earned their own BA's and PhD's. Thus, if we are going to have a truly critical pedagogy, a transformative pedagogy, a "post-punk" pedagogy, as I have advocated in recent posts, we need to resume teaching our students about the human condition, and asking them to think about the texts they read in terms of what those texts teach them about the human condition, which is to say about themselves, because there is no conflict between their individuality and their humanity.
We need to bring the human condition back...we need to make the human condition sexy again...we need to...oh, I give up, you know where this is going!