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On Being Human

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Posted

In Ovid Metamorphoses the hunter Actaeon stumbles upon the Goddess Diana bathing in a pond. Having discovered the interloper, she turns him into a stag and fills him with panic. He flees the scene, but even as he is running, he can't believe how fast he is running. He looks at himself in the reflection of the water and cries out "Alas!" but no words come out, just a sound he finds strange.

His dogs, with whom he has come ahunting, spot him and give chase. He runs, and as he runs, he cries out, "It's me, Actaeon! Don't you recognise your master?" Of course they don;t and keep chasing. Still, as mucha s he cries out, the words dissolve into sounds and grunts. Actaeon's companions encourage the dogs, and look around searching, calling out for Actaeon to join in this chase. Actaeon hears the call of his name, he turns each time the name is called out, but of course he can do nothing about the situation.

What is it to be human? What defines our humanity? Actaeon ceases to be human once Diana changes him into a stag, but he does not cease being human, since he recognises the dogs as his own, and his friends, and his name, and his own transformation.

Is one's voice the defining feature of being human? And by voice, I do not merely mean, what we hear when you speak to the Other, but that quality that is recognisable by the other, and by which the other recognises you as being human. Is it to be recognised as human that we are human? Or is there a more inaugural moment of our human-ness?

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Posted

Just to carry on with where I left off (sorry, I ran out of time, and so the above seems a little truncated).

I have been working on charting a kind of Western metaphysics as depicted through the trajectory of Western Literature. This has been done before, I suppose, by Auerbach, amongst others, so I am not trailblazing here, but neither do I want to re-invent the wheel. However, I am interested in the interstices of being, a somewhat heideggerian project, project, but nevertheless, somthing that I have wanted to do for some time. It first began with an attempt to research the history of guilt, a kind of foucauldian excavation, but it has morphed into the question of human-ness itself.

So, to go back to my earlier post, it seems to me that the story lays bare two things: firstly that in ceasing to be human, Actaeon does not cease being human. The other thing that strikes me is this: Actaeon does not lose his fundamental characteristics. he is depicted as kind and gentle, a hero of the gentlest kind. By being transformed into a stag that is fleeing from his assailants, Diana seems to have transformed him into a 'pure' image of himself. This 'monstrosity' is itself part of Actaeon. So, in this sense, Ovid's tale enunciates a human-ness that is ambivalent, conditioned by whatever surrounds it, acts upon it, a porous stone that swallows and embodies what is outside of it.

The question I ask, I suppose, is being human, or talking about 'being human' really talking about the border-crossings and 'limits'?

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Posted

When I consider border crossings (mentioned in the previous post), two more literary situations come to the fore for me. This does not mean, of course, that there no other literary situations where certain borders are transgressed. For me, the two that stand out (because I like them!) is Kafka’s Metamorphosis and Robert Musil’s The Man without Qualities. As you can imagine, both these situations deal with a crossing over, or at least an ambivalence associated with place or being. Like Actaeon, both characters struggle and suffer the in-between-ness of their being.

Gregor Samsa for example, finds himself transformed into a bug when he wakes from “troubled dreams”. But what is intriguing here, in light of the comparison with Actaeon’s transformation, is that Gregor is not troubled his arachnitude. In fact, he wishes he could go back to work, and a little later on, feels anxiety over being late for work. But like Actaeon, he still sees himself as himself, still speaks with a human consciousness, still identifies himself with the human world, and is shocked, again like Actaeon over how his voice now sounds like. Another difference between the two characters is whereas Actaeon is chased and hunted down by his own ‘family’, Gregor is housed, and fed and tolerated by his. The true crisi occurs when mother and sister decide to remove his furniture from the bedroom. But removing the furniture marks the end of their recognition of Gregor as their son and brother. Gregor bemoans this removal and sees his onw sense of self being removed. In an ironic manner, Kafka depicts Gregor’s bourgeois conception of self, that is, the idea that the self is connected with property.

Kafka’s characters all seem to hover over this border crossing between the human and the non-human, almost like Giorgio Agamben’s conception of the Homo Sacer.

Then there is Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities. Take this passage for instance:

For the inhabitant of a country has at least nine characters: a professional one, a national one, a civic one, a class one, a geographical one, a sex one, a conscious one, an unconscious and perhaps even too a private one; he combines them all in himself, but they dissolve him, but he is really nothing but a little channel washed out by all these trickling streams, which flow into it and drain out of it again in order to join other little streams filling another little channel.

Again, we see in Musil’s extract a reference to porosity, the ambivalence of being a no-man. But if we were to accept Musil’s satirical approach, then our no-man-ness is our human-ness. Could being human, then, mean being on the borders between things, always at the crossroads. To be sure, Western Literature has always been riddled by this question. Characters are compromised, and in this compromise they seek out a truer definition of themselves. But there is, I feel a fundamental difference between post-Enlightenment thinking on the subject, and an Ovidian notion of self, which I shall elaborate later.

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Posted

I ended the last entry with a suggestion there is a fundamental difference between post-Enlightenment and Ovidian conceptions of self.

Let me try to unpack this a little.

I have mentioned earlier than post-Enlightenment writing is marked by an attempt at self-definition, marked by a constant encounter with the crossroads. This is the existential quicksand that threatens the individual with a kind of drowning that obliterates the "I". And as we know, our linguistic structures prioritise this "I", or as Arthur Koestler would say in his Darkness At Noon, the "grammatical I". The definition of the self becomes essential precisely because, and here I am opening myself up to a plethora of possible counterarguments, of the absolute alterity of God. The Supreme, the All-Knowing, the so-very-different-from-us God, the Pure, the Quintessence. It is because of this absolute alterity that we are more distinct, or insist on distinction.

But in the time Of Ovid, of Greek antiquity, there are almost no humans, merely mortals. Most of the characters or heroes are in some way products of the gods, they have divine ancestry. And Even Gods live 'human' lives. The alterity that we witness in a Christian enlightenment is all but missing. So, in Ovid's world, the interior/exterior boundaries do not work. The human being is not sealed off from whatever it is that isn't itself. But in the Western worldview, the human is forever under threat from the outside, and the resistance to this is monumental.

I am not sure if this helps with the exploration on being human, but I'll see where this leads me.

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Posted (edited)

I'm reading as I go and I was reminded of this great line from Schiller:

"While the Gods remained more human, the men were more divine.”

Edited by The Heretic

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Posted

Thanks for the reply, Heretic. I was beginning to think I was floundering in the interstices of the human as well, since my voice was not being heard!

I know this quote from Schiller, because Hegel refers to it as well in his Philosophy of History. This is his reaction:

But the greek Gods must not be regarded as more human than the Christian God. Christ is much more a Man: he lives, dies - suffers death on the cross which is infinitely more human than the humanity of the Greek idea of the beautiful. But in referring to this common element of the Greek and the Christian religions, it must be said of both, that if a manifestation of a God is to be supposed at all, his natural form must be that of the Spirit which for sensuous conception is essentially the human, for no other form can lay claim to spirituality

Here, Hegel sees the human as the embodiment of the supposed holy Spirit. One's human-ness is given to one by virtue of our being made in the image of a god. Even here, we are right back to the point which I mentioned earlier, about the absolute alterity of the Christian God which demarcates our human-ness as distinct, shaping our conception of who we are. Even Schiller's formulation serves a limited purpose here, because he too is subscribing to binary oppositions. He, too, in his conception of the Greek and Christian Gods, plays with the assumption of alterity. That has not changed.

I do not think, that in an era of digitalised and dis-embodied selves, the human is a stable concept. That is why I wish to revisit this conception, to embark on an archaeology of the human.

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Posted (edited)

Niven, I apologize for the utter lack of activity. TGL moves even slower than it used to, due to a smaller pool of active users. I will try and contribute with something more substantial than a quote, hopefully. :mrgreen:

So, what follows is a narrative that may help contextualize the concept of “human” throughout recorded history. A few insights gleaned from a fellow theothanatologist led me to the speculation that the changing nature of teleology must have given birth to the modern sense of being human, and explain the divide between the modern human and the ancient mortal:

If religion is essentially a teleological explanation, which presupposes that human life or the natural world has a purpose, and likely a hidden one, then this will serve as a key to the following insights:

  • Teleology in the ancient Hebraic culture from 800 to 150 BCE was the belief in Divine Will.
  • Circa 350 BCE, for the Hellenistic Greeks, specifically Plato, teleology was the notion of the Ideal Form. But the older Hellenic Greeks subscribed to Fate – an existence without teleological explanation.
  • By 300 CE, Platonism and the Hebraic culture merged the Divine Will and the Ideal Form and emerged as Christianity, which in turn became secularized as Western Culture thereafter.
  • Prior to the enlightenment, up till 1650, the center of authority resided in God, and institutionally, the Church. After the Enlightenment, about 1800, the center of authority had transferred to human reason.
  • A couple of decades later, Nietzsche declared that God was dead. However, Nietzsche also conceived a repository of two thousand years worth of inertia in teleology as Hinterwelt – the illusion of the after-world: heaven.
  • Despite the Enlightenment, we still held onto Hinterwelt, because teleology left too deep an imprint on Western culture. Religion still lingers, even though God has died.

This gradual shift in teleology must also have shaped the archaeology of the human.

Edited by The Heretic
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Posted

Oh dear.

I certainly did not wish to suggest that I was annoyed by the lack of activity. It was merely a passing comment where I tried to self-reflexively engage with what I was writing. So, I am not at all troubled!

As for your response, thank you. A neat little summation, concise but informative. That does give me a nice little trajectory or arc to play with. However, what this implies, informative as it is, is a linearity that perpetuates an ordered construction of the human. I know your post was in response to my seeking an archaeology of the human. But even within the Western conception of the human, there are representations that complicate and problematise this linear conception, even if the authors of these representations did not intend to do so. I will try to show this in the next post, and not for the next few days, Unfortunately. The weekend is upon us here, and I fly to Melbourne. But the next post, we visit Hamlet.

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Posted

Is one's voice the defining feature of being human? And by voice, I do not merely mean, what we hear when you speak to the Other, but that quality that is recognisable by the other, and by which the other recognises you as being human. Is it to be recognised as human that we are human? Or is there a more inaugural moment of our human-ness?

Actaeon does not lose his fundamental characteristics. he is depicted as kind and gentle, a hero of the gentlest kind. By being transformed into a stag that is fleeing from his assailants

Then there is Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities. Take this passage for instance:

For the inhabitant of a country has at least nine characters: a professional one, a national one, a civic one, a class one, a geographical one, a sex one, a conscious one, an unconscious and perhaps even too a private one; he combines them all in himself, but they dissolve him, but he is really nothing but a little channel washed out by all these trickling streams, which flow into it and drain out of it again in order to join other little streams filling another little channel.

Again, we see in Musil’s extract a reference to porosity, the ambivalence of being a no-man. But if we were to accept Musil’s satirical approach, then our no-man-ness is our human-ness. Could being human, then, mean being on the borders between things, always at the crossroads.

My thoughts likely would be irrelevant to an archaeological project regarding the human, nevertheless here are some of my immediate reactions.

First off, at least in the early or what often seems to be the most basic stages of their thinking, homo sapiens tend to organize matters in terms of categories such as human and not-human or threat and not-threat as well as professional and either not-professional or other-than-professional (just to touch upon the Musil passage). But what is the supposed significance of that designation called human? Does not the Actaeon story suggest that if there is value to be associated with human-ness then that value rests with characteristics or qualities which are desirable or laudable independent of any association with purported human-ness? Even if those qualities or characteristics are thought of as necessary to there being human-ness, there is still the matter of when might those characteristics or qualities be sufficient to result in human-ness, but the significance always resides in those qualities and characteristics rather than human-ness itself so that the importance of human-ness effectively - and essentially - dissolves. To put that same notion in semantic and logical terms, this is to say that human appears to be a non-necessary term.

Then again, the qualities and characteristics which would be necessary for there to be human-ness are not only invisible but are effectively nearly imperceptible to others without charitable effort and interpretation on the part of those others. Does a stag's face even have the musculature necessary to express kindness and gentleness in a way that is readily recognized by homo sapiens? Actaeon as stag would have available other means for expressing kindness and gentleness, but would his friends/assailants have interest in undertaking the patience necessary to perceive those qualities in a stag (or, for that matter, in other strangers)? Or are those assailants primarily driven/motivated by thinking in terms of categories which they have presumed as being both insoluble (as opposed to being dissolvable) and justifying of a certain lack of concern regarding that other whom they face/encounter?

Musil's man might well think of himself in terms of the noted "nine characters"; he might also think that he can traverse those categories or compartments without any need for concern about consistency across those compartments while still being a thing called a self. However, if a self is less a thing that exists than qualities yet to be made manifest, then the self is most aptly considered in terms of what is possible, given that so long as it is alive it is "always at the crossroads" of possibilities - in which case the self is always most intimately (characterized by) its response not just to what but, more importantly, to whom that self encounters. It is only the qualities manifest in response to the encountered other(s) that result in a self that is other than "a little channel washed out by all these trickling streams" that comprise the world.

Michael

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Posted

About to step into plane. Thanks for the response, Michael S. Pearl. Much of what you say I agree with it, but will respond when I can.

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Posted (edited)

Hi Michael,

thanks for the post. I have a few thoughts in response.

First off, at least in the early or what often seems to be the most basic stages of their thinking, homo sapiens tend to organize matters in terms of categories such as human and not-human or threat and not-threat as well as professional and either not-professional or other-than-professional (just to touch upon the Musil passage). But what is the supposed significance of that designation called human? Does not the Actaeon story suggest that if there is value to be associated with human-ness then that value rests with characteristics or qualities which are desirable or laudable independent of any association with purported human-ness? Even if those qualities or characteristics are thought of as necessary to there being human-ness, there is still the matter of when might those characteristics or qualities be sufficient to result in human-ness, but the significance always resides in those qualities and characteristics rather than human-ness itself so that the importance of human-ness effectively - and essentially - dissolves. To put that same notion in semantic and logical terms, this is to say that human appears to be a non-necessary term.

Yes, of course, Michael. The human, from what I’ve been discussing, appears to be a concept, nothing more, with no meaningful substance to it. And like many concepts or terms, is merely an arbitrary signifier for something else. But this is where things get tricky. I don’t agree (if you will allow me to be pedantic for a moment here) that it is true to say that “but the significance always resides in those qualities and characteristics rather than human-ness itself so that the importance of human-ness effectively - and essentially – dissolves” . The “characteristics and qualities” are themselves this thing called human-ness –they are the signifying elements of being human. The characteristics alone can’t be more important than human-ness. They are what is human. But we both can agree that this process of assigning human qualities to designate human-ness is an arbitrary one.

Yet, when a question is posed to us, a question that may come in the form of decision making, or a moral issue such as when we must make a decision about a person’s actions – it is inhuman to persecute and experiment on a whole race of people because we can, and because we have decided they are not human – when such things occur or such pronouncements are made, we revert back to a substantive emphasis on an underlying belief in human-ness, that there are some characteristics that define us as human or not human. Whether or not this term is “unnecessary”, logically speaking, from an existential and moral viewpoint, that is all we have recourse to.

But at which point, assuming that we cannot get away from using this “unnecessary” concept, do we stop being human, or begin to be human?

The Actaeon story gives us some clues though not comprehensive, and itself limiting. But, since we’ve started with it, let’s go with it for awhile. Physically, the stag cannot express the kind of signifiers that we humans would designate as “kindness and gentleness”. But what this story offers us, is a focalisation of the Stag/Actaeon. What this points to is not a true Stag-like perspective, but it does belie a kind of Greek perspective of the horror of being transformed, the horror of not being human any longer. This is more about the desire for recognition than it is about musculature.

Actaeon as stag would have available other means for expressing kindness and gentleness, but would his friends/assailants have interest in undertaking the patience necessary to perceive those qualities in a stag (or, for that matter, in other strangers)? Or are those assailants primarily driven/motivated by thinking in terms of categories which they have presumed as being both insoluble (as opposed to being dissolvable) and justifying of a certain lack of concern regarding that other whom they face/encounter?

But clearly, the companion’s inability or disinterest is not the issue as much as it is Actaeon’s persistent need to be recognized. The transformation has not ceased his being human, even if he has ceased to show any signs of being human.

Musil's man might well think of himself in terms of the noted "nine characters"; he might also think that he can traverse those categories or compartments without any need for concern about consistency across those compartments while still being a thing called a self. However, if a self is less a thing that exists than qualities yet to be made manifest, then the self is most aptly considered in terms of what is possible, given that so long as it is alive it is "always at the crossroads" of possibilities - in which case the self is always most intimately (characterized by) its response not just to what but, more importantly, to whom that self encounters. It is only the qualities manifest in response to the encountered other(s) that result in a self that is other than "a little channel washed out by all these trickling streams" that comprise the world.

Of course, Michael. What you are suggesting here is that the self is defined by the Other. Lacan’s famous dictum that “style is the person you’re talking to” is exactly that. Levinasian ethics says the same thing about the Other, that when one comes face to face with the Other, one not only understands or comes into being, but one also understands responsibility and being in the world. It is only in this face to face encounter with the other that the self is defined. If not, it remains as il y a, a “there is”, a possibility of something not yet known.

All this is not under question. But I am interested in this boundary crossing, the nature of it, and dynamics of negotiating this boundary. I am also interested in how Western literature negotiates this liminality. I’d like to get into Hamlet for a bit, but this will upcoming in the next few days.

Niven

Edited by nivenkumar
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Posted

I don’t agree (if you will allow me to be pedantic for a moment here) that it is true to say that “but the significance always resides in those qualities and characteristics rather than human-ness itself so that the importance of human-ness effectively - and essentially – dissolves” . The “characteristics and qualities” are themselves this thing called human-ness –they are the signifying elements of being human. The characteristics alone can’t be more important than human-ness. They are what is human. But we both can agree that this process of assigning human qualities to designate human-ness is an arbitrary one. ... But I am interested in this boundary crossing, the nature of it, and dynamics of negotiating this boundary.

I will only comment briefly for now, because I have to head into the city for a memorial service.

If the above exemplifies pedantry, then it is a most welcome - and, given your stated interest, certainly a necessary - thing!

Whereas human-ness seems to be well described here as "an arbitrary signifier", the qualities into which human-ness dissolves would seem to be often indefinite rather than arbitrary signifiers. What is (potentially) important or useful about such a distinction?

You are correct to note that expressively (and even conceptually) human beings commonly "revert back to a substantive emphasis on an underlying belief in human-ness", and you are correct to note that human beings similarly explain matters in terms of "inhuman", "not human", and the like. For that matter, you are also correct to emphasize the point that Homo sapiens so very often are driven by "the desire for recognition", a desire which especially in the most threatening circumstances is put forth in terms of wanting to be recognized for human-ness.

Here is where another feature of the Levinasian perspective is to be considered. The response to the encountered other is a responsibility that is utterly divorced from - and in no way dependent upon - reciprocity. The response is not justified or even sufficiently informed by a category such as human-ness. Instead, that response is outlined by recognition that the other is; that recognition does not wait for the desire of the other to be recognized, and then the response is tailored to or customized for the qualities which appear to be singularly the encountered other in terms of the crossroad-possibilities that are also singularly that other.

Since I am trying to be extremely brief here, this means that although human-ness must be appreciated as a non-justifying category that can always be replaced by the more specific qualities of the encountered other, we will still speak in terms of human-ness (when speaking of other Homo sapiens); hence, we are well advised to concurrently maintain streams of expression both in terms of human-ness and without resort to that very term so that we, in effect, switch between the two manners of expression. That is one way in which to "negotiat[e] this boundary" and cross it while dissolving it and maintaining it.

Michael

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Posted

Now that I'm back from the memorial service, I would like to take up one of the tangents compiled in my previous response.

I suggested a need to switch between expressions in terms of human-ness and expressions in terms of the qualities that would be regarded as in some way necessary for or somehow constitutive of human-ness. The expression in terms of qualities could (and should) always have with it the sense that it is being presented as being instead of human-ness, and this would be precisely because the human-ness category tends to get used as if it indicates a justifying sufficiency which qualities such as kindness and gentleness in themselves never do (which is why inhuman and subhuman are so easily used in justification/condemnation schemes which for poignancy need something other than what unkind or less than kind or ungentle would provide).

It is also important to take note of how readily human (and human-ness) is associated with the physical form of being a human rather than the qualities often thought of as being necessary to effect the best (other-than-just-physical) form of human.

Even if it were possible to stipulate a definition of human that well captured the non-physical qualities which are necessary for human-ness to be manifest, there would have to be refreshed explicit reference in terms of the qualities.

I think there is a related matter to be found in the following issue:

Gregor is housed, and fed and tolerated by his. The true crisis occurs when mother and sister decide to remove his furniture from the bedroom. But removing the furniture marks the end of their recognition of Gregor as their son and brother. Gregor bemoans this removal and sees his own sense of self being removed. In an ironic manner, Kafka depicts Gregor’s bourgeois conception of self, that is, the idea that the self is connected with property.

Routine and stability are critically important to the functioning of human beings; the removal of Gregor's furniture de-stabilizes him - let us say environmentally. Such a de-stabilization would likely only be temporary, given how very essential is the need for something recognizable as stability, and the development of some kind of routine is probably the most common and best way to (re)establish stability. Routine is closely tied to consistency, and in this way the need for physical routine may very well be tied to the consistency that can be insisted upon with categorization in terms of human-ness (especially when human-ness is intimately associated with the physical human form). Categorical consistency establishes or perceives more stark demarcations than can be provided by the non-physical qualities that are also associated with human-ness; hence the need both to use and annihilate categories such as by finding ways to express truths as apparent contradictions as often seems to occur in religious expressions, for example, and especially in the more mystical versions of those expressions.

Michael

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Posted

Michael,

this is brilliant, thank you! I have some thoughts about what you've said. Will get back to you on this. and I might even have to dust off my Levinas (oh boy!)

I understand the problem with categories. I seem to recall a discussion the both of us had years ago about evil. In that discussion I was suggesting a logocentric bias with the use of the word 'evil'. So, I can see how your words ring true here. The project of excavating liminality is at once a problem of language, but then, being a Derridean, everything is a problem of language for me! :rolleyes:

The reason I have not wished to dispense with the term 'human' is only because I felt the word itself contained these contradictions so nicely that it suited what I was attempting to do. But of course, I will reply in more detail soon.

Niven

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