- differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies
- Duke University Press
- Volume 14, Number 1, Spring 2003
- pp. 74-87
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differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 14.1 (2003) 74-87
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In memory of Gabriel Stepto,
estimat amic meu.
Kind old Mrs. Beckwith said something sensible. But it was a house full of unrelated passions—she had felt that all the evening. And on top of this chaos Mr. Ramsay got up, pressed her hand, and said: “You will find us much changed” and none of them had moved or had spoken; but had sat there as if they were forced to let him say it.
Because Humanists believe in the unity of humanity and have faith in the future of man, they have never been fanatics. After the Reformation they saw the limitations of both the Catholic and the Protestant positions, because they judged not from the narrow angle of one particular organization or power group, but from the vantage point of humanity. Humanism has always emerged as a reaction to a threat to mankind: in the Renaissance, to the threat of religious fanaticism; in the Enlightenment, to extreme nationalism and the enslavement of man by the machine and economic interests. The revival of Humanism today is a new reaction to this latter threat in a more intensified form—the fear that man may become the slave of things, the prisoner of circumstances he himself has created—and the wholly new threat to mankind’s physical existence posed by nuclear weapons.
The words that Plato puts in his stranger’s mouth are the program of a humanistic society, which embodies itself in a singular, complete humanist, the master of a royal pastoral art. The task of this superhumanist would be nothing other than designing a plan within and for [bei] an elite, which must be bred expressly on behalf of the whole [Ganzen] [. . .]. But now, after the great revolution [Umwälzung] (metabole), the gods under Zeus’s reign having withdrawn and leaving to man the responsibility for his own custody, the wise man stays behind as the worthiest guardian and breeder/educator [Zeuchter], in whom the heavenly vision of absolute good is most alive. Without the guiding image [Leitbild] of the wise, the care and cultivation [Pflege] of humanity remains a fruitless passion [eine vergebliche Leidenschaft].
—Sloterdijk 54–55, my translation [End Page 74]
A cliché: perched on an edge of the long trip from Fromm’s edited volume on Socialist Humanism to the Sloterdijk-Habermas debates of late 1999 and Edward Said’s lectures and recent publications on humanism and knowledge, astraddle the fence of the postmodern park, the critic contemplates the return to “humanism” in Western elite culture, a return that takes the shape of sharp critique, as in Sloterdijk’s writing, or of a polemical resemanticization and reappropriation, as in Said’s. For now, let’s use uncontroversial terms to describe with her (or with him) the new cultural passion for the “human.” We may agree that the Kantian claim to speak, as Fromm puts it, “not from the narrow angle of one particular organization or power group, but from the vantage point of humanity” masks the imperial subordination of particular identities and interests to a regulative image (Leitbild) of the human. Let’s also say, following a wing of the Frankfurt School, that this imperial subordination, this philosophical rage for order, counts as the afterlife of a certain Enlightenment. Unmasking the coercive interest of one or another form of universalism (for instance, the forms of anthropological universalism suggested by a “belief in the unity of humanity” and by “faith in the future of man”) has been the primary task for cultural criticism and various forms of deconstruction in the past quarter century. Finally, let’s reassure ourselves, along with the perched critic, that the resurgence of interest in “humanism” arises “as a reaction to a threat.” Or rather, as a reaction to three linked threats, registering in different domains and at different levels: the threats posed to liberal-democratic institutions by new and resurgent fundamentalisms, cultural, religious, and economic; those posed to local, national, cultural, and economic...