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July 8, 2020

Prof. explores history behind antihumanism

By CLAIRE FOX | December 8, 2016

As the concluding event in the Department of Anthropology’s Fall 2016 Colloquium, Professor and Chair of the English Department Christopher Nealon gave a talk titled “Antihumanism and Anticapitalism,” on Tuesday, Dec. 6 in Mergenthaler Hall. In his lecture, Nealon explored the academic history of antihumanism and its application in fields ranging from politics to environmentalism.

Nealon began by saying he chose a very neutral title for this talk but that what he aimed to discuss was more specific.

“When I posted to friends on Facebook that I was going to be joining you all, some of my avowed antihumanist friends gave it a big thumbs up,” he said. “I realized I should have titled my talk something more honest and forthright, which is more like ‘antihumanism makes for bad anticapitalism.’”

His project, which is tentatively called “The Limits of Academic Antihumanism,” aims to develop a clear picture of the origins and extent of contemporary antihumanism and can be divided into having four distinct goals.

“First, by demonstrating how many different discourses in which antihumanism plays a role, I want to establish a previously unacknowledged breadth to it,” he said.

Nealon explained that although antihumanist thought is often considered to have arisen during the French post-structuralist strain of thought during the 1960s, it actually has older origins and can be traced through history.

“The sources of antihumanism are as old as the classic rhetoric of misanthropy and include an enduring strain of Christian theology that insists on an infinite humbling distance between God and man,” he said. “Many of the arguments made against humanism in these discourses can be traced to 19th century German debates about the philosophical significance in the advances in biology, which many at the time took to indicate the possibility that humanity is ill-suited to survival on Earth.”

His second goal is to develop a clearer picture of the similarities between antihumanist languages, and his third goal is to deepen an understanding of antihumanism’s left-leaning vocabularies that can be traced back to conservative sources.

Lastly, Nealon wants to display the idea that although antihumanism is generally framed as an argument about humanity, its claims may be most significant for the tone in which they are delivered.

“Our insignificance, for instance, can be imagined and described in such tones that are both wonderstruck and baleful,” he said. “So, imagine Carl Sagan telling us that we are tiny in the face of the universe and then imagine Heidegger saying it.”

In the context of a contemporary discussion, Nealon pointed to the different areas where antihumanism is present. He spoke first about antihumanism in the political sphere.

“In contemporary politics, antihumanism shapes a whole flank of environmentalist discourse that bemoans humanity’s supposedly innate repetitiousness,” he said.

Moreover, antihumanist strains are visible in current anti-racist and queer rhetoric.

“Afro-pessimists argue that since full humanity has never been historically granted to black people in America, they might best give up on the category of the human altogether as a staging ground of appeals for dignity,” he said. “A similar argument can be found in queer theory, which includes a whole variety of bids for seeing queerness as monstrous or inhuman.”

Additionally, Nealon discussed how antihumanism is present in discussions about the future of society.

“We can even find a strange strain of antihumanism in the techno-optimistic rhetoric of Silicon Valley,” he said, “not least in conversations about a singularity that is the projected future moment not so very far from now when robots will surpass humans in every aspect of cognition, possibly including emotion.”

Naveeda Khan, an associate professor and director of graduate studies in the Anthropology Department, was most interested in the antihumanist discourse’s relation to environmentalist rhetoric.

“Wearing my other kind of hat, not as an anthropologist, but as someone who is deeply interested in and concerned about climate change, the discussion made me wonder if there are many more processes at work than we have been giving credence to outside of antihumanism’s critique of capitalism and its effect on our planet,” Khan said.

Junior William Whalen-Bridge said that he attended the event out or pure curiosity, not knowing much about the topic of antihumanism beforehand, but that he walked away with several thoughts on the discussion.

“I mostly connected with the ideas presented about antihumanism in current topics and going forward,” Whalenbridge said. “Even though it’s a pretty intellectual term to be using and recognizing, it’s something that sort of pervades a lot of debate right now, especially in our current political climate.”

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