Geroulanos’s central thesis is compelling but simple: French antihumanism, in its theoretical mode, was based on a radicalized “negative anthropology,” i.e., the idea that man is a negating animal, as articulated in a widespread rejection of neo-Kantianism, first by Heidegger and then passed on to French thinkers like Bataille and Blanchot, largely via Alexandre Kojève and his “end of history” argument. Instead of the homo absconditus that Ernst Bloch was to locate in Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann’s “Protestant anthropology,” we have here a “last man,” heir to those “negations” of the world named freedom, history, and individuality, whose historical realization reveals that humanness is ultimately based upon a relation to death. And to the degree that this antihumanism continues to order thinkers like de Man, Derrida, and Foucault, it has also shaped many Anglophone intellectuals of my generation. Geroulanos tells a story that thus illuminates us too.
Posts Tagged ‘antihumanism’
I begin this post by posing straightaway the questions that will guide my argument. In what way can atheism and antihumanism be posed and understood in intellectual history? In what sense do they constitute objects of study? How does one go about weaving and articulating for them an adequate intellectual-historical approach that may facilitate an understanding of texts, concepts, and systems of thought? I want to thank Martin Kavka, Sam Moyn, Judith Surkis, and Gil Anidjar for taking the time to read and address my book with the very encouraging care that each of them has taken. In what follows, I want to take into account a number of issues that they have raised, not so much to respond as to elaborate, in relation to their stances, some of the positions I have adopted in the book and in my introduction to this discussion. I thus frame this post as an attempt to tend first and foremost to methodological questions and critiques that have been raised directly or indirectly.
Famously posing a peculiar problem of translation, names are a necessary feature of our academic craft. We like to call things, but we may also need to, obviously, in order to give figure to that which we think and study. Remarkably true to that necessity, Stefanos Geroulanos tells us in the first pages of his impressive book that the “conceptual reorganization” he will describe and analyze became “an almost official face of French thought.” It was only later (with structuralism and everything, everyone, associated with and past it) that it “acquired the name ‘antihumanism’.” Geroulanos further proposes to expand the reach of the name “antihumanism” by meticulously documenting lesser known antecedents, earlier phases of what the term might otherwise designate, seeking thereby to bring together a fuller, and detailed, account of numerous and diverse actors, elements and factors, and trends too, which in fact jointly define the greater part of the last century.
“Man dies again.” Or so might one entitle a tabloid version of Stefanos Geroulanos’s excellent work on the history of antihumanist thought in twentieth-century France. The phrase, of course, echoes a New York Post headline—“Pope dies again”—that supposedly appeared when Pope John Paul I died in 1978, a mere 33 days after Pope Paul IV’s passing. Like that likely apocryphal tabloid title, the simplistic formula is an apparently contradictory, but perhaps telling, misreading. First, it drastically reduces the density, richness, and rigor of Geroulanos’s argument, which retraces multiple—at once overlapping and competing—formulations of atheistic critiques of humanism in the politically and intellectually turbulent decades following World War One. And second, it draws an associative link between the Post’s unintentional précis of papal political theology and those strains of French thinking which most insistently worked against the divinization of “Man.” Both the condensation and the displacement at work in the phrase seem to distort the book’s aims and claims beyond recognition.
“Some of our comrades conceive this humanism as though it were a young, fair-haired girl walking through a scented meadow, a damsel wreathed in flowers.” So reported Hélène Iswolsky, daughter of the last tsarist ambassador to Paris, citing a Soviet poet and “fanatical adherent of out-and-out communism” as to why the new Stalinist humanism was the real one, so long as it was defined correctly. “The picture is certainly attractive, and yet I must reject it,” the poet continued. “Something within me revolts against it. … We are always talking about ‘love, joy, and pride,’ which form the ingredients of humanism, but our younger writers are too apt to forget the fourth element of humanism, which is expressed in the austere but beautiful idea of hatred.”
One of the things that intellectual historians show us, although often only implicitly, is the fluidity of the terms of debates that we take to be self-evident. In An Atheism that Is Not Humanist Emerges in French Thought, Stefanos Geroulanos shows us this fluidity by focusing on the French history of objections to (and reformulations of) humanist discourse from 1929 to 1952, a history that suggests that the rigidity of the categories of “religion” and “humanism” in Anglophone discourse is exceptional and unnecessary.
In a 1956 text on ethics and literature, Emmanuel Levinas offered the following diagnosis of the philosophical trends of his time: “Contemporary thought holds the surprise for us of an atheism that is not humanist. The gods are dead or withdrawn from the world; concrete, even rational man does not contain the universe.” This atheism that is not humanist, the sense that certain strands of contemporary philosophy had abandoned secularism’s central ethical and political investment in humanism, poses the motivating question behind the book I am presenting for discussion here, An Atheism that Is Not Humanist Emerges in French Thought. In twentieth-century French thought, particularly in the period from the end of World War I through the late 1950s, a new form of atheism, and with it, a new conception of man, emerged and crystallized. What historians and critics of French thought, literature, and intellectual culture have, since the 1960s, called “antihumanism,” I argue, can be best understood in terms of this development, which is at once theological, epistemological, and political.