Inhuman Words: Philology, Modernism, Poetry
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Inhuman Words:
Philology, Modernism, Poetry

This Hunger of the Word, common to the whole of modern poetry, makes poetic speech terrible and inhuman.

—Roland Barthes, Writing Degree Zero1

Dilemmas

Inhumanism is one of the great modern productions, as barbarously polyglot as automobile. Ananthropism and inhumanity are, in contrast, as pure and urbane as autokineton and ipse-mobile, while car conceals a classical engine made from Celtic parts under a rather battered and banal modern hood. Splicing philology with sexology, Havelock Ellis once complained that homosexuality, another barbarous modern coinage, is “a bastard term compounded of Greek and Latin elements.”2 “‘Homogenic’ has been suggested as a substitute,” he mused.3 Inhumanism compounds a Latin prefix of negation, the Latin adjective corresponding to homo, and the Greek suffix of verbs in -ίζειν. So whereas inhumanity and humanity alike trace their lineage to humanitas, a Latin noun of quality or state, inhumanism is verbal, suggesting a process and an imperative, like modernism and its many creeds and clubs: be modern, express yourself, construct in cubes, seize the future, and surpass the real. The Greek suffix turns a term “into an advocacy, a promotion, a movement presumably centered around a systematic philosophy, politics, ideology, or aesthetics.”4 For those who hurled such labels in abuse, it diagnosed “irrational adherence to the principles of a cult.”5 But [End Page 555] inhumanism hails the negation of an old cult, humanism, whose polyglot barbarism is early modern. So if the etymology of car reminds us that the Romans once borrowed a Celtic root (Gaulish carro-) to name a two-wheeled wagon (Latin carrus), the morphology of inhumanism records both conceptual opposition and historical transition, a transition in which concepts or systems or principles persist even in their negation.

Inhumanism suggests a posthumanism, then, but something else as well. Though the terms do often overlap, inhumanism emphasises active negation, nonhumanism mere difference, dehumanism a removal or reduction, and antihumanism a rivalry or antagonism. Moreover, the dialectic of history and concept in inhumanism, as its prefix and its suffix circle round its human, has a double value. While inhumanism hails the negation of that old cult, it also commits to the new cult of inhuman, whether that means hailing things or animals, gods or machines. Take William James’s use of these terms in his 1906 lecture, “The Present Dilemma in Philosophy.” The modern thinker confronts a conflict, James says, between a new “scientific loyalty to facts” and “the old confidence in human values”:

And this is then your dilemma: you find the two parts of your quaesitum hopelessly separated. You find empiricism with inhumanism and irreligion; or else you find a rationalistic philosophy that indeed may call itself religious, but that keeps out of all definite touch with concrete facts and joys and sorrows.6

Here, distinct movements and systems slip past and slide over one another. If those “human values” mean a commitment to what James calls “this actual world of finite human lives,” they are also opposed to lifeless empiricism and false or inadequate loyalties (“Present Dilemma,” 495). That is why, against history, James can align humanism with religion. Yet if religion and philosophy mean merely abstract or metaphysical speculation, they are opposed to matter, to the body, and to emotion. Human hovers somewhere between dust and the divine, and somewhere between an eternal concept and an historical contingency. Humanism means faith in or loyalty to the value of that human, or the values now held or once held by human beings. It means an intellectual history, a commitment to reason or philosophy, which, even as it replaces religion, repeats religion’s refusal to reduce homo to humus. And humanism means a cultural heritage, the humanist education presumed by James’s italicized Latin noun.

None of these circling senses is central or final, and that means arguments made with or about these terms circle each other too, emphasising this sense here and that sense there. Modern thought does not so much fix these stars in a constellation as set them all spinning yet more quickly. And the fact that human and inhuman, as more than merely indifferent categories, so often make...


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