Sunday, April 29, 2012

Humanity in a Post-human World

In a nutshell: Postmodern critical theory has undermined our belief in a unified individual subject with a core human nature that transcends social construction and historical specificity. But we need not choose between our individuality and our humanity, nor need we give up on core humanist values or a pedagogical focus on humanism and the human condition. 

In a recent post, I wrote about my discovery that my students by and large are not familiar with the term "human condition," nor do they have any sense of what humanism is. This helps explain why it is so challenging to get students to think about literature in broad humanistic terms, rather than in the narrow, instrumental, moral-of-the-story type terms to which we are accustomed. With the help of Edward Said's Humanism and Democratic Criticism, I traced this erasure of humanism to the advent of French critical theory in the 1960s and 70s, as well as the rise of identity politics in the 1980s and 90s. What I would like to do here on Pedagogishness is provide some thought-tools for bringing the human condition, humanism, and humanistic values back into the classroom.

One thing I did not know until several weeks ago was the origin of the term "human condition." According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term was coined by French humanist Pierre Boaistuau (c. 1517-1566), who wrote a philosophical treatise called the Theatrum Mundi in which he exhorted, "Let us learn, by the great miseries and afflictions that God has sent us, the great fragility and misery of our human condition." The phrase in the original French is, of course, notre condition humaine.  Boaistuau's Theatrum Mundi was published in an English translation by John Alday in 1566, and the term became not only current in English, but central to notions of Renaissance humanism.

As you can see, the notion of the human condition was from its Renaissance beginnings bound with the ideas that (1) there is a personal God, (2) he has an active hand in human affairs, (3) he is the source of human misery and affliction, and (4) the essential condition of humankind is weakness, frailty, and misery.

Now, that message certainly worked for the Renaissance, and continued to be palatable throughout the Reformation, and indeed resonates with a Hobbesian notion of human life as "nasty, brutish, and short," and therefore jibes well with the social contract theory of such thinkers as Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. On the other hand, even with Hobbes, we see the notion of internecine human conflict coming to supplant that of divinely engineered human suffering. And by the time of Rousseau and the Enlightenment, the human condition is coming to be seen as one of infinite progress and perfectibility, not only through reason, but through a burgeoning realm of science and technology. So even long before we get to 20th-century French critical theory and American identity politics, we can see a certain erosion of the core humanistic idea of a human condition whose inherent frailty and fallibility transcend historical specificities of society and culture.

In the recent post alluded to at the outset, I briefly discussed Edward Said's argument, in Humanism and Democratic Criticism, for embracing postmodern critical theory while retaining a fundamental commitment to humanism, humanistic values, and even the so-called "grand narratives" of enlightenment and emancipation. Let me quote Said at greater length here:
Although I was one of the first critics to engage with and discuss French theory in the American university, [James] Clifford [in a 1980 review of Said's groundbreaking and influential 1978 monograph, Orientalism] correctly saw that I somehow remained unaffected by that theory's ideological antihumanism, mainly, I think, because I did not (and still do not) see in humanism only the kind of totalizing and essentializing trends that Clifford identified. Nor have I been convinced of the arguments put forward in the wake of structuralist antihumanism by postmodernism or by its dismissive attitudes to what Jean-Francois Lyotard famously called the grand narratives of enlightenment and emancipation. On the contrary...people all over the world can be and are moved by ideals of justice and equality.... Change is human history, and human history as made by human action and understood accordingly is the very ground of the humanities. (Said, p. 10)
In another recent post, I said that I was inspired by the example of my husband, the poet and scholar Jason Schneiderman, when he taught English 220, the introduction to literary study at Hunter College, as a graduate teaching fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center. In one regard, Jason treated his literature students the way he treats his creative writing students: he insists on the specificity of human experience, and refuses to allow students to identify with a character, setting, event, or situation in a poem, story, or play. Jason and I would argue about this. Jason, I would say, I see your point about specificity, but identification is how we relate to literature; that commonality of human experience is what draws us into the text. No! he would reply. I don't need to read a story, poem, or play to learn about my own life; I need to read a story, poem, or play to learn about somebody else's life, about that which I am not, that which I have not experienced. Literature is about empathy with the experience of another that is not my experience.

I could not argue with Jason's success as a teacher (his students never let him forget it), but neither could I adopt his approach. I continued to think that literature was about identification, or, in the classic Aristotelian formulation, revealing the universal in the particular. But Jason said no, literature does not reveal the universal in the particular, literature reveals the particular in the particular, and that is its value. And now that I think of it in terms of humanism, antihumanism, and Edward Said's insistence that we can embrace postmodern critical theory while retaining our commitment to enlightenment and emancipation, I'm inclined to think Jason was right all along. The human condition is particularity--particularities of race, class, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, nationality, experiences of freedom, slavery, justice, injustice, inclusion, isolation, joy, sorrow, and so forth. The human condition is E.M. Forster's "Only connect." It's not the universal in the particular; rather, it's the universality of the particular: there will always be difference; there will never be uniformity--of experience, identity, belief, or what have you.

As usual, this post is getting long and I fear I have raised more questions than I have provided answers. I said at the outset that I wanted to provide thought-tools for bringing the human condition, humanism, and humanistic values back into the classroom, and I'm not sure I have done so in any very practical way. But perhaps these observations will help some teachers think about their own commitments, and how they can bring their humanistic values into the classroom and keep them there, even in the face of resistance from various social, cultural, and political forces. This discussion remains, and will remain for some time, to be continued.


  1. I did also say that identification is inevitable, ie, you don't need my class to think about how you're just like Hamlet (or how Hamlet is just like you). The hard part is the close reading... The discovery of what the text reveals that you hadn't expected, which does play out as particularity.