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  • After Man
  • Alexander G. Weheliye (bio)

Though the human as a secular entity of scientific and humanistic inquiry has functioned as a central topos of modernity since the Renaissance, questions of humanity have gained an importance in the academy and beyond in the wake of recent technological developments, especially the advent of biotechnology and the proliferation of informational media. These discussions, which in critical discourses in the humanities and social sciences have relied heavily on the concepts of the cyborg and the posthuman, largely do not take into account race as a constitutive category in thinking about the parameters of humanity. Moreover, many invocations of posthumanism, whether in antihumanist poststructuralist theorizing or in current considerations of technology and animality, reinscribe the humanist subject ("man") as the personification of the human by insisting that this is the category to be overcome, rarely considering cultural and political formations outside the world of "man" that might offer alternative versions of humanity.1 My guiding question, put simply, is this: what different modalities of the human come to light if we do not take the liberal humanist figure of "man" as the master-subject but focus on how humanity has been imagined and lived by those subjects excluded from this domain?

Hortense Spillers has called for black studies to define its disciplinary object by virtue of "mov[ing] through a first step—to become a disciplinary object, or to undergo transformation of African-American studies into an 'object of knowledge,' rather than a more or less elaborate repertory of performative gestures and utterances" (464). In my opinion, the incipient promise that precipitated Spillers's injunction has yet to be fulfilled, leading to several disciplinary pitfalls that cannot but reticulate the structures of knowledge black studies initially sought to destroy. What is [End Page 321] needed, then, is a more careful elaboration of black studies in order to map the field both within its own institutional and intellectual genesis and in relation to other orders of knowledge. Yet, this can only be done if the human emerges as a central object of knowledge in black studies and its intellectual enterprise is no longer conscripted to the realm of the particular, either by its practioners or by critics outside the field. For the relegation of black thought to the confines of particularity only affirms the status of black subjects as beyond the grasp of the human. Given the histories of slavery, colonialism, segregation, lynching, etc., humanity has always been a principal question within black life and thought in the West; at the moment in which blackness becomes apposite to humanity, "man's" conditions of possibility lose their ontological thrust, because their limitations are rendered abundantly clear. Thus, the functioning of blackness as both inside and outside modernity sets the stage for a general theory of the human, and not its particular exception.2

Some scholars associated with different variants of minority discourse have begun to undertake the project of thinking humanity from perspectives beyond the liberal humanist subject, man.3 There humanity emerges as an "object of knowledge," which offers the means of conceptualizing how the human materializes in the worlds of those subjects habitually not thought to define or belong to this field. The greatest contribution of black studies—and minority discourse more generally—to critical thinking is the transformation of the human into a heuristic model and not an ontological fait accompli, which seems particularly important in our current historical moment. In what follows, I use Sylvia Wynter's work to illustrate that black studies provides a conceptual precipice from and through which to imagine new styles of humanity. This spot should be understood neither as an identitarian land claim concerned with particular borders nor a universal terra nullius, but instead as a ceaselessly shifting ground that voyages in and out of the human. By contrast, the insights reaped from the comparison of different black populations in recent formulations of black diaspora studies tend to reinforce exactly this particularity, thereby consenting to the current governing manifestation of the human. Turning to the problematic of (black) suffering, I highlight how the universalization of the exception in the thought of Giorgio Agamben also disables thinking humanity...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1468-4365
Print ISSN
0896-7148
Pages
pp. 321-336
Launched on MUSE
2008-03-13
Open Access
No
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