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HomeAnglophonia/Caliban33III - Real and Imaginary MeetingsAfter Ontology, After Essence: Re...

III - Real and Imaginary Meetings

After Ontology, After Essence: Recasting the ‘Human’ from within the Socio-Eco-Techno Interface

S. Romi Mukherjee
p. 197-218


Les limites érigées entre l’humain et le non-humain et entre l’humain en tant qu’espèce et l’Humain en tant que catégorie morale ne permettent pas de comprendre l’humain comme chiasme. Or, l’humain ne peut pas être réduit à l’homo-duplex simple, mais devrait être construit dialectiquement et en relation avec ce qui le problématise en tant que structure absolue. Il ne s’agit pas de se rabattre sur un antihumanisme vulgaire, mais plutôt de ré-ériger l’humain de l’intérieur de ce qu’on peut appeler l’interface socio-éco-technique. Une telle reformulation de l’humain nécessite qu’on rejette le fardeau de l’ontologie et de l’essence humaine. Elle ouvre une voie vers une éthique plus holiste qui ne suppose pas la maîtrise humaine, mais sa vulnérabilité et sa finitude – vers un nouvel humanisme.

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Parks, Camps, Petri-Dishes: Of the Human and human animals

  • 1 Space precludes a full genealogy of the Human and Humanism, but one could summarise the key atttibu (...)

1A chasm exists between the biological fact of the human and the concept of the Human. From within this chasm, the latter emerges as the moral frontier of the former. In between the two terms, one locates a space of agon and incommensurability. While the biological givenness of our status as humans can hardly be contested, the Human as the transcendental moral threshold of the human remains unachieved as an impossible absolute. Nonetheless, in spite of its impossibility and unachievement the Human remains the telos towards which the human animal inexorably tends – a telos that is infinitely deferred.1 The Human is an architectural metaphor – the human animal indeed rises up to the Human, “evolves,” and moves through a history of humanity and civilization which is understood as the progressive realization of Man and the progressive perfection of his various capacities. When grouped together, the aforementioned attributes can be described to form the contours of what is called human essence, a stable and transhistorical kernel which offers a perennial answer to the complex questions of what we are, what we can or should do, what we are for, and so on. However, our history illustrates the fragility of such an essence whose dark-underbelly is one of self-love, narcissism, and the will to mastery. It is, moreover, in the name of such an essence that many a civilizing-mission has been waged and the Human can readily be transformed into an ideological framework which naturalizes brutality, imperialism, and the dehumanization of those who have perceivably not realized its glory, let alone known anything of its Occidental origins. In a larger and more cosmopolitical sense, this essence and the ontologies that it presupposes are further called into question when the human is no longer posited as an autonomous entity, but rather reconstructed from within a dialectical nexus that emerges from his immersion in nature and technology and in relation to other non-human animals (which are all trampled by the Human and its essence in varying degrees). Such a repositioning of the human necessarily entails that the human strains to stand outside of itself, strains to rewrite itself from the sites of its negativity.

2Unlike non-human animals and nature, the Human, however, can be said to exist in a world which is not simply an environment. However, this world is never explicitly given in “human experience.” Nevertheless, in the development of this world, the abstract figure of the Human and its corollaries Humanity and Humanism emerge as forces which domesticate human animals—these “abstractions” come to engage in a type of man-husbandry. In the name of moral perfection and progress, they, in fact, delimit being and place it within the confines of the polis or city which Desmond Morris perspicaciously refers to as the human zoo (Morris 1969). When technologically inflected through convergence and bio-technologies, this zoo may, furthermore, reach its bio-political paroxysm in what Peter Sloterdijk has recently called “the human park” (Sloterdijk 1999) a genetically modified zoo where human animals are refined through new modes of human engineering. For James Lovelock, on the other hand, parks and zoos may be far too idyllic and the human predicament is actually one of a crepuscular “pathogenic organism, or like the cells of a tumour or neo-plasm,” mutating in the petri-dish that is called the world (Lovelock 1991, 153). The human is thus placed within a set of boundaried landscapes. The great illusion of the human camp is indeed the manner in which it dissimulates itself as the space of Man, the space of an abstraction or incompletion. Here, the Human tames human animals. Here, real and imaginary boundaries are forged between this new creation, the Human and the human animal, which was never very good at being an animal at all and even less at being Man. These borders, which are often violently erected, serve to guard a series of taxonomies between the human, human animal and animals, nature, and the world of matter; the great ontological fiction of humanity moves by way of making appeals to its own imagined transcendence in order to naturalize a hierarchical order between itself and all that exceeds it. The ontology of the human is arbitrary and merits being superseded by an approach that recognizes the human animal as being at once a socio-historical creature and also the result of a biological accident. As Christopher Hitchens has suggested:

Our place in the cosmos is so unimaginably small that we cannot, with our miserly endowment of cranial matter, contemplate it for long. No less difficult is the realization that we might be quite random presences on Earth (indeed we are the offspring of the Pikia or Pikaia gracilens an early vertebrate mistakenly classified as a worm which survived the Burgess decimation by mere contingency or “just history”)…We may have learned about our modest position on the scale, about how to prolong our lives, cure ourselves of disease, learn to respect and profit from the other tribes and other animals, and employ rockets and satellites for ease of communication; but then, the awareness that our death is coming and will be succeeded by the death of the species and the death of the universe is scant comfort. Still, at least we are not in the position of those humans who died without ever having the chance to tell their story, or who are dying today at this moment after a few bare, squirming minutes of painful and fearful existence. (Hitchens 2007, 91-92)

3Hitchens laments the human creature’s inability, obfuscated as it is by the master signifiers of civilization and humanity, to attain species consciousness or the apprehension of human history as arbitrary and ever haunted by singular and collective finitude. Species consciousness is, moreover, the hermeneutic space from wherein the human is not the Human, but rather a crossroads in itself, flanked by other forms of nature, other species forms, and other alterities that call into question its preeminence. The human camp is in fact designed to assure that the human animal does not come to species consciousness insofar as species consciousness is consciousness of death (ours and that of our life-world), one which explodes contemporary cultures of life (life insurance, health, eternity, youth, and various forms of popular and mediatised salvation). It thus besieges the Human with the impossibility of perfection, redemption, purity; it is that which affirms the fragility of the delicate human species which may in fact be thrust into the cosmos by chance only to interact with it in the most aleatory of manners. Species consciousness is therefore the systematic and harrowing re-posing of the question of the Heideggerean questions of being: why is there something instead of nothing – why are there beings at all – why hasn’t everything disappeared? (Heidegger 1949). It is the acceptance of the fact that there comes a point where philosophy stops, where the ground of human history becomes rough and may even go awry.

4It has, of course, become a truism to claim that humans are a species no different from any other. Such a slogan is misleading in that it does not ask three crucial questions: What kind of species or animal are humans in practice? What are the reasons for their boundedness – what do these boundaries tell us about this practice? and how do we gain access to the human with a view to not necessarily securing or domesticating it, but uncovering the anguish that it erects itself against – the anguish of ontological disintegration? The traumatic trace disavowed by the construct of the Human and humanity consists of not only the raw realities of the human animal, its negativity, and passional life, but also the fact that this animal is not autonomous, nor necessarily guided by equally abstract transcendental reason. What is disavowed is the human as an empirical nexus that is embedded in the socio-eco-techno system upon which it is dependent. And it is precisely in such a physical and epistemological “embedding” that the boundaries of the human are problematized through the radical interpolation of the human’s outside. It is precisely here that the human is laid bare, divested of its status as an idol and transformed into a “crossroads.” Against human transcendence, uprootedness, and ascent, one finds the looming traces of the immanent, the embedded, and the low. From within the interstices of this dual movement, one wonders if there can be a humanism that neither partakes of the abstract principles of “traditional” Humanism nor the far too rapid attempt to dispel the Human in either post-humanist, anti-humanist, or trans-humanist paradigms. Reconstructing the human means rethinking the human as crossroads; and the crossroads of the human is most saliently found in the interpolation of the human species by other “natures,” most prominently, the environment as “Nature,” the non-human animal as other “nature” or pre-human nature, and the technological frontier as second nature.


5The human is of nature, but it is in his nature to reject this embeddeness in favor of treating the environment as the simple stuff of the human project. This specular distance engenders, amongst other things, the false oppositions between culture and nature, the man-made and the natural, the human life world and the climate upon which it depends, and human ontology and non-human (non)ontology. In these boundaries, furthermore, are the commonplace rejections of environmental determinism and the degree to which climate creates character, shapes cultural practice and demography, drives conflict, production, consumption, and pleasure. The historical solidification of this boundary has transformed homo sapiens into what John Gray calls “homo rapiens,” very bad animals who have failed to notice that our fate and the rest of life on the Earth are the same and that we have been conditioned to accept the aberration that is the inexorable gulf between the human and the rest of the cosmos (Gray 2002, 7). While it might be tempting to succumb to Gray’s particular brand of nihilism which reduces homo rapiens to the status of straw dogs or false masters who simply destroy the balance of the Earth, few would deny that human subjects, while natural and perhaps capable of more naturalism, are neither identical nor analogous to nature which acts upon us as we act upon it. Or as Georges Bataille argued time and time again, romantic dreams of total ontological identification with nature are forever paralyzed by the simple fact that we can only “describe the immanence of the subject in relation to what does not happen (Bataille, 1998, 160). Following Bataille, immanence or total absorption in the natural is impossible, it is exactly that which does not happen. It is, of course, true that our dependence on nature is gloriously illustrated in the correspondence between the coincidence of our own terminus and the terminus of natural resources, as what will happen. Yet, while apocalypticism and apocalyptic desire is de rigueur in many ecological circles, the truth of the matter is that we remain unable to fully engage with the demise of our species and most exercises that attempt to do so prove to be the stuff of science fiction and not necessarily serious foresight. Yet our dependence on nature does not necessarily serve as the grounds to overcome the gulf. While we may dream of pure continuity with the organic world, the desire to be imploded into nature and the act of imploding into nature are by no means the same thing. Hence, as Timothy Morton has recently argued in Ecology without Nature:

I am immersed in nature is not a mantra whose repetition brings about its content. Thinking so is wishful thinking, otherwise known as the beautiful soul syndrome. The ultimate fantasy of ambience is that we could actually achieve ecology without a subject…Ecology without nature is not automated. It does not appeal to a continuum that subtends the passing show of life. Its ethics looks more like a perversion…against the affirmative talk of “dwelling” and the false immediacy of eco-mimesis, the aesthetic dimension of life does embody, in the negative, an ecology without nature…ecological politics has a noir form. We start by thinking that we can “save” something called “the world” “over there,” but end realizing that we ourselves are implicated. This is the solution to the beautiful soul’s syndrome: reframing our field of activity as one for which we ourselves are formally responsible…dark ecology undermines the naturalness of the stories we tell about how we are involved in nature. (Morton 182-183, 2007)

6Dark ecology also constitutes a radical undermining of the normative historical borders that we have erected between ourselves and nature, a necessary undermining and unraveling which illustrates how the human park was not built on nature, but in fatal interaction with it. The interface is then never smooth, but torn, conflicted, melancholic, and replete with impossibility – the impossibility of remaining Humanity, the impossibility of becoming immanent, the impossibility and condescension of the beautiful soul’s embrace of the tree, and the impossibility of not moving and not acting. In other words, there is a dialectical gray zone in our encounters with the environment, wherein we are implored to simultaneously mourn and lament the horizon of our nature which is the product of our ravaging of nature, to become animist and overcome the chasm between the human and environment in one fell swoop under the highly romantic delusion that this would set the course straight, and simultaneously cultivate ethical responsibility towards nature on the basis of various normative philosophies that remain highly anthropocentric in nature. In this chiasmus, the boundary is dissolved, re-entrenched, and thoroughly confused – or rather we come to incarnate the boundary and crossroads that itself is always unstable. The border exists to secure the fantasy of the utopian possibilities of humanity and such utopianism must be met with a certain pessimism, but pessimism need not become apocalyptic – it might simply be a question of being a bit more stoical in the face of ecological burdens, risks, and refluxes, a question of growing up a bit; apocalypse is easy. Incarnating the chiasmus of the boundary thus also necessitates dismantling the boundaries internal to the human itself. The human must be decomposed as a holistic and self-assured apparatus and along with it, its own metaphysical projection of the abstract figure of the Human in order to negotiate this boundary. Embedding the Human, or rather interpellating it with the human as species, reveals us to be much less self-assured and recasts us as relatively fractured beings – fractured beings whose boundaries, furthermore, cease to be even operational when broached by, for example, the natural disaster, the excess and alterity of the system and the pure product of that which it exceeds. Is this not the lesson of Byron’s Don Juan?

If from great nature’s or our own abyss
Of thought we could but snatch a certainty,
Perhaps mankind might find the path they miss─
But then’t would spoil much good philosophy.
One system eats another up, and this
Much as old Saturn ate his progeny;
For when his pious consort gave him stones
In lieu of sons, of these he made no bones. (Byron 471)

7Sustainability emerges as a contemporary attempt to snatch such certainty in a world that appears more and more like an abyss. Moreover, as a new type of good philosophy, it consoles with a path out of the rough ground of ecological imbalance. Yet, it might prove to be a redemptive pipe dream driven by anxiety and the perceived lack of balance in social, ecological, economic and other domains. It may simply be the by-product of the path missed and the impossibility of a second chance to rediscover and make right our course.

8Underneath the theology of sustainability, lies another possibility that does not rely on any hallowed foundation of the “One” “equilibrium,” or harmony. One could call such a possibility an ethical materialism or a radical naturalism. What is at stake here is a “non-system” which simply recognizes or proceeds from the fact that before society, economy, history, and dialectics, the human is posed in relation to climate, mud, storms, and flies, and embedded in a natural rawness that conforms neither to religion nor to social theory. Or, as Bataille again notes, the anthropoid foot raises the body from mud and bars itself from the subterranean. Once raised, it objectifies nature and develops a language of flowers which codes, for example, a rose with “love,” “ideal beauty,” “nobility,” and “purity”. But “love smells like death”, and the truth of the beautiful rose lies in the putrid roots, ”swarming under the surface of the soil, nauseating and naked like vermin…the ignoble sticky roots wallow in the ground, loving rottenness just as leaves love light…the term ‘base’ conforms to the systematic interpretation of the meaning of roots” (Bataille 1985, 13). The boundary between human animals and nature is also a boundary internal to the human itself.

  • 2 I certainly do not want to give the impression that the story of global environmental change is in (...)

9Biodiversity degradation further problematizes the boundary between the human and the natural, not least because of the already well-documented connections between biodiversity and human and cultural diversity, but because the discourse of biodiversity poses the question of nature as a political and ethical actor, a subject with a set of interests. The notion of “interest in ecology traverses a vast spectrum from hard anthropocentrism (climate change denial) to equally hard anti-anthropocentrism (the Gaia hypothesis). Again, by virtue of their respective absolutisms, both positions disavow the inter-dependent nature of humans and non-humans that constitutes the socio-eco-techno system and hence also, a series of complex ethical questions concerning the intrinsic value of not only human agents, but also what they act upon. The socio-eco-techno system and the larger biosphere are animated by conflicting and competing forces that reveal the degree to which human interests and non-human interests exist in pure antagonism. The still developing discipline of environmental ethics, of course, lodges itself within this antagonism and aspires to examine how it sets into play conflicting regimes of value. Nonetheless, all too often burdened by a principle-based normativity, environmental ethics continually stumbles when forced to establish consensus regarding the firm criteria from which value can be ascribed to the natural and the non-human. The burden of environmental evaluation is then one of incommensurability, a concept from moral philosophy which argues that ethics, morality, and the ascribing of value to things in the world may inevitably meet an insurmountable set of dilemmas when faced with a plurality of value systems. And insofar as environmental transformation obliges environmental evaluation to move beyond simply economic or utilitarian concerns that reduce all value to questions of profit, gain, or happiness, it occupies a tragic terrain where one value system finds itself uncomfortably confronted by the existence of another. Ethical and environmental incommensurability are further confounded by the very principle of systematic inter-dependence that forms the basis for biodiversity. Political and ethical choices need to not only be made between saving humans and saving trees, but also between non-human entities themselves. However, human actions upon non-human entities may potentially reverberate into a series of catastrophic and unknown future scenarios which may, in hindsight, illuminate the falsehood of certain current systems of value and evaluation. In other words, sacrificing a certain strain of fauna in order to save a certain strain of mammal may exacerbate biodiversity degradation even more and have a series of consequences on the lives of other human and non-human species that at first glance appear to be too genetically or physically distant to be implicated in such a decision. Because of the systematic inter-dependency of human and non-human entities, the destruction of one group of entities can have a host of effects on a series of others. And because of these concrete possibilities the ethical and philosophical task of ascribing internal value to non-human entities is clouded by both moral and scientific uncertainty. The question of the boundaries and certainly of the good boundary remains unclear.2

10These uncertainties are further foregrounded, in a radically more visceral manner, by the boundaries erected between human animals and their non-human counterparts. It is in nature too that we also experience the more dramatic encounter with the animal or those sometimes frightening and often cute and fuzzy reminders of our pre-human past. In the encounter, two aesthetic, moral, and worldly economies collide and with them also the uncanny traces of something shared yet disavowed.

Non-Human Animals

11The construction of the boundary between animal and the Human begins with a historical space of passage or transition. This transition, a transition from animal to man, is most gloriously typified by the invention of the tool. And in perfecting technological mastery over the animal, the human invents not only new forms of agriculture, farming, and tasty cuisine, but as Jean Baudrillard suggests “beasts of burden who work hard for man, beasts of demand that are summoned to respond to the interrogation of science, beasts of science that become the meat of the industry, beasts of somatization who are forced to answer for their psychic lifeeverything that has happened to them has happened to us… Our destiny has never been separate from theirs and this is a sort of bitter revenge on Human reason which has become used to upholding the absolute privilege over the bestial (Baudrillard 1994, 133). What debt then do we owe the animal? What would the balance sheets look like?

12Within the human zoo, one thus finds animal zoos that perpetuate the illusion of this privilege. In the spectacle of the animal, we negotiate through our disdain, our condescending sentimentality, our fears, and curiosity, something that is very much our own. And this something is part of a larger anxiety; while the human zoo might not necessarily be constructed by real iron cages, our plight is refracted in theirs. Their production, humiliation, and slaughter may, in fact, be the truth of our condition as well. Whence the truism of the criminal or victim who claims that he was treated like an animal or divested of his human rights – claims that are weakened when one examines the causal historical chain wherein the Human domesticates the anthropoid who in part domesticates the animal in order to enter into a series of other human-animal causal chains between production, consumption, absorption. In essence, the divide between human animals and nonhuman animals is not as vast as one would like to believe, but may simply be a question of evolutionary and historical degrees. Indeed, in lieu of both continuity and distinction, one could simply characterize this relationship of degrees as a site of both correspondence and alterity that can never resolve itself. Being when posed in regard to the animals that occupy the clearing in the Earth can be articulated through the Derridean line of questioning that incessantly asks what does the animal know of me? (Derrida 2002, 382). Again, however, whatever the animal may or might not think of me, the encounter between the two species is ripe with anxiety.

13It is well known that humans share more than 90 per cent of their genetic make-up with pigs. Regardless of this biological sharedness, there do exist of course boundaries between our next of kin, pigs, and ourselves (unless one reads Orwell’s Animal Farm as the allegory that it was meant to be). Pigs are peculiar creatures not least because of their power to command religious interdiction, be immortalized in the Chinese calendar and astrology as harbingers of bounty, become the stuff of so much caricature, be empathized with and, of course, deliver up hearty bacon. And while ham and cheddar remains an American classic, as Hitchens further observes porcophobia has reached such heights that some Muslim zealots in Europe are demanding that images of the three little pigs, Miss Piggy, Winnie the Pooh’s piglet, and other traditional pets and characters be moved from the gaze of their children (Hitchens 41, 2007). Such aversion to swine may seem unwarranted when we examine the real lives of pigs: they are extremely social animals who love the company of other pigs; nonetheless, they will engage in cannibalism if all other options are void. Body language is extremely important for them in courting and mating rituals. They enjoy games and are natural explorers and have also been known to be keen problem solvers. And contrary to popular opinion, they are quite clean animals who are meticulous about their environments. They are averse to travel, preferring to cuddle up with their mates and nestle. In terms of their interaction with human animals, it has further been noted that pigs develop particularly strong bonds with the humans that raise them and love being scratched on the belly. The hearts of pigs are also quite similar to ours and their heart valves are often used in heart transplants and other cardiac procedures.

14In his journal of a pig slaughterhouse, journalist Charlie LeDuff recounts his experiences on the kill floor:

Kill-floor work is hot, quick, and bloody. The hog is herded in from the stockyard, than stunned with an electric gun. It is lifted onto a conveyor belt, dazed but not dead and passed to a waiting group of men…they slit the neck, shackle the hind legs, and watch a machine lift the carcass into the air, letting its life flow out in a purple gush, into a steaming collection trough. The carcass is run through a scalding bath, trolleyed over the factory floor, and then dumped onto a table with all the force of quarter-ton water balloon. In the misty-red room, men slit the hog along its hind tendons and skewer the beast with hooks. It is again lifted and shot across the room on a pulley and bar, where it hangs with hundreds of others as if in some kind of horrific dry cleaning shop. It is then pulled through a wall of flames and met on the other side by more black men who, stripped to the waist beneath their smocks, scrape away any straggling bristles. The place reeks of sweat and scared animal, steam and blood. Nothing is wasted from these beasts, not the plasma, not the glands, not the bones. Everything is used, and the kill men, repeating slaughterhouse lore, say that even the squeal is sold (Leduff 188, 2003)

15There are, furthermore, two key empirical observations that are found in almost every sociology of the contemporary American slaughterhouse: the first being that the kill men are hierarchically divided by race, with white superintendents screaming orders to blacks employees who do the killing and disparaging the Mexicans who manage the cutting. The second point is that the turnover on the kill floor is 100 per cent and as Le Duff writes, five thousand quit and five thousand are hired every year. You hear people say, they don’t kill pigs in the plant, they kill people (Leduff 185). The kill floors are often populated by the most hardened of criminals, but even these ex-convicts, many of whom have killed many a human, have no stomach for the mechanized slaughtering of swine, a slaughtering that lacks the ritualistic charge and meaning of ancient sacrifices.

16These brief remarks on the life and death of pigs are not meant to function as a treatise on the question of animal rights nor inspire maudlin ecologies that take Bambi as their eminent paradigm. They are intended, however, to open up, once again, the human-animal interface as a site of contestation where the ethical looms large, particularly when, as Agamben again notes, the total humanization of the animal coincides with the total animalization of man (Agamben 77, 2003). That is, the ethical embrace of the animal, the application of human moral categories to animality follow a strange trajectory where humans actually regress to new forms of animal barbarism, aggression, and instinct. The larger issue is, of course, how to construct a universe with non-human animals and what such an order would entail precisely. In another sense, ethical explorations of what constitutes pluralism with the nonhuman and the inhuman require new paradigms that comprehend, as Levinas notes, that the dog, trop bête as he is, cannot universalize the maxim (Levinas 1990, 192). Conversely, the animal’s suffering and death also compel reflection on the nature of human empathy and our ability to understand the non-human animal’s pain (not to mention the pain of other human-animals) in terms of that of our own. Constructing the world beyond the Human as one with non-human animals requires not only that we contest the boundary between our species and others, but also recall that perhaps it is not a question of the animal’s subjectivity or capacity to articulate itself in our terms. The animal’s supposed muteness is not the grounds for his domestication nor the grounds for the non-granting of rights, but the occasion to think of alterity and ethics beyond the confines of symbolic communication and understanding.

17At the opposite end of the ferocious, the slaughtered, and the beastly, is also the encounter with the banality of house pets, petting zoos, and other critters. While many of us may prefer the loyal friendship of a dog to the vagaries of other human animals, Deleuze was right to ask on what grounds we treat our dogs like humans (creating Oedipal animals, Deleuze, 2004). They eat at the table with us, sleep in some of our beds, receive presents on Christmas, wear sweaters in the winter, run up hefty veterinarian bills, are included in our last wills, given pet therapy, are immortalized in salon portraits, and buried in pet cemeteries. Conversely, the butchering and eating of dogs in many countries is quite normal and greeted as a terrifying transgression by the aforementioned families who consider Fido to be a member of the family. The dog is a very specific transhistorical and transcultural species whose domestication into Canis familiaris has created an elite species particularly adept at being man’s best friend and indeed being loved. In many ways, this process of domestication is a great testament to what constitutes our rapprochement with the animal or rather how we familiarize the canine to serve very emotional and physical needs. The relationship between humans and dogs is one that resonates with trust, respect, warmth, and above all dependence; hence, the wonder of rescue dogs, seeing-eye dogs, police dogs, watch dogs, and dogs that get the morning paper. Dogs are social animals whose sociality is firmly imbricated in their relations with us. But then again, there are also wild dogs, pit bulls, and hounds of the Baskervilles that inspire awe and dread. What is, however, sure is that we do not earn or work for our dog’s love and respect. But the lack of work does not void the moral question concerning the intrinsic value of dogs (who may not really love us at all) and it does not foreclose the occasion to rethink the ethics of the human-animal boundary. Indeed, as John Berger notes, animals offer man a companionship which is different from any offered hy human exchange. Different because it is a companionship offered to the loneliness of man as a species (Berger 1980, 6). Species consciousness is not simply consciousness of the human infinite, but the loneliness of such finitude, one which could compel greater inter-species interaction.

18And what of the hyphen that uneasily appears in the semi-tautological term human-animal? In the Elementary Forms of Religious Life, Emile Durkheim, in his quest for forms of proto-republican symbolic life, recounts the totemism of the Kangaroo Clan of the Australian Arunta. Totemic societies, like the Arunta, are typified by the deep ontological identification between the members of the tribe and the totemic object, usually a plant or animal. As a hermeneutic, the totemic is the refusal of the boundary between the human and the non-human through the effusion of symbolic life and ritual: here, an image, emblem, or sign metastasizes beyond the flesh and bones of the animal itself and signifies at once social organization, moral life, and respect for the person. It is precisely from the totemic animal complex, that an anonymous moral force is diffused into all of the clan (Durkheim, 1995, 188). In effervescent festival the members of the clan would indeed become-kangaroo. And when in the throes of ecstasy, a member of the Kangaroo clan, says I am a kangaroo, he is claiming that he incarnates the moral core of the social, is transparent to the symbolic network that establishes the conditions of society, and is fierce like a kangaroo. As Durkheim remarks, the name is not simply a word, a mere combination of sounds; it is part of his being and, indeed an essential part. When a member of the kangaroo clan calls himself a kangaroo, he is in a sense an animal of that species…thus, each individual has a dual nature; two beings coexist in him, man and animal (Durkheim 134). In becoming-kangaroo, the clan member traverses symbolic regimes; he moves from a state of individuation (where the atomized subject reflects on the social), to a state of ritualized social fusion (where he comes to consciousness of himself as bound to society), to a state of becoming-animal or becoming-totem (where he is society both as subject and object). The animal represents, therefore, the limit point in the ontological chain, the last referent that seals the dense nexus of the individual, the social and moral force, the sacred – the whole.

19Becoming-nature and becoming-animal are also key motifs in the œuvre of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, who transpose becoming from the corporal level to the level of the psyche, of affect, and of sensation. In contrast to Durkheim’s republican animality, Deleuze and Guattari oppose becoming to stasis, structure, and the state. In other words, becoming need not be purely an affair of orgiastic effervescence. Becoming-animal and becoming-nature are micropolitical phenomena for Deleuze and Guattari wherein humans need not obey the identitarian shackles of the Human and may dissolve subjectivity in various dynamisms of alterity. Stated otherwise, becoming animal is a strategy for derailing and destabilizing normative and calcified forms of the human and the subject and their respective zoos. Moreover, if political life is subject to the laws of the human body, it must also be conceded that human life is equally subject to the same laws of nature that bind animals, laws that it must overcome in the name of civilization. Yet as civilization is forever an incomplete project and, as one of its most glowing achievements may in fact be the erection of the human zoo, the becoming-animal of civilization, be it in the form of the pastoral, the natural, the barbarian or the violent, traverses homo-duplex and forms the dark spot of the civilizing process. Hence, Deleuze and Guattari cite as examples to be studied:

becoming animal in the war machine, wildmen of all kinds (the war machine comes from without, it is extrinsic to the State, which treats the warrior as an anomalous power); becoming-animal in crime societies, leopard-men, crocodile-men (when the State prohibits tribal and local wars); becoming-animals in riot groups (when the Church and the State are faced with peasant movements containing a sorcery component, which they repress by setting up a whole trail and legal system designed to expose pacts with the devil); becoming-animal in asceticism groups, the grazing anchorite or wild-beast anchorite (the asceticism machine is in an anomalous position, on a line of flight, off to the side of the Church, and disputes the Church’s pretensions to set itself up as an imperial institution); becoming-animal is societies practicing sexual initiation of the “sacred deflowerer” type, wolf-men, goat-men, etc….it is no longer the subject of the statement who is a dog, with the subject of the enunciation remaining ‘like’ a man”, but “a circuit of states that forms a mutual becoming” – the becoming-dog of the man and the becoming-man of the dog? (Deleuze & Guattari 1987, 247)

20The philosophical engagement with the animal is, of course, not reduced to the nexuses of the Durkheimian and Deleuzian. Indeed, the animal remains the negativity of philosophical practice which has been quashed, exploded, and excoriated from antiquity to the present. What is, however, constant in the theoretical engagement with the animal is the apprehension of how, in these circuits and interfaces, becoming-animal or disavowing-animal is a technology that either chips away at the scaffolding of the human park or gloriously re-erects it. Our technology of animals and our own becoming-animal techniques are but one small fragment of our subjectivication by and imbrication in a larger socio-techno interface.

Cyborgs and Central Heating

21It would be a misnomer to assume that technology is mechanical, electric, computer-related, or comprised of wires (following Deleuze and Guattari again, circuits are points of becoming). It would be equally a misnomer to assume that technology is something we “use”. On the one hand, technology must be understood as techné, a type of know-how or as Heidegger suggests, a “bringing-forth” or unconcealing of the world – it is a type of poiesis and also a becoming in the purest sense of the word that can inter alia make the human more and indeed bring the human to overcome itself. On the other hand, we should recall that one does not use tools, but one is embedded in a matrix of the socio-techno-material; stated otherwise, there is something quite non-technical about technology which has an intrinsically social nature and can take the form of bodily and socializing techniques, the canalization of creative powers, becomings of all sorts, and of course the mechanical and material manipulation of ourselves and our life-worlds. Hence, we must speak of a biological and technical habitus of dependency and over-coming, one constituted by everything from creating art, to language, to ideological persuasion, to human enhancement and post-humanism, and various forms of convergence. In this sense, the human was never without technology and certainly not a monad who became human after the fact through the invention of tools. What is the relationship between these various techniques and technologies and their respective effects on the category of the human? A speculative philosophical anthropology might argue that the transition from homo sapiens to homo faber was not without drama. The advent of technological being may improve and augment being’s capacity, but may also domesticate it and transform being into the object of technology; we do not simply “use” tools, but tools introduce utility into our lives. With the tool comes the capacity for accumulation and the corollary realization of scarcity (physical, economic, emotive). The tool introduces “ends” into activity and thus potentially alienates us in objecthood and utility – whereby we become reified, that is: things to ourselves. By way of the tool, humans also develop a capacity for “objectivity”. Such objectivity (and its correlate, “subjectivity”) is a human achievement, and the achievement of subject/objectivity is best interpreted in light of the human quest to postpone death.

22In other words, technology can both dissolve borders, by dissolving human identity in the post-human cyborg (Haraway 1991), but it is also that which definitively creates the border between us and the natural order. What goes without saying is that the techno-species to come will crush all human determinism and the boundaries it engenders, but this is not to say that it will necessarily do away with boundaries tout court. Humans are hierarchical animals and one wonders whether the technologies they construct to reconstruct their humanness will not re-entrench such hierarchies in new forms. On one hand, while technology may be man-made, the very possibility of the cyborg calls into question not only the stable limits between man and machine, but also the very notion of man and his ethical life. On the other hand, the technological advances that create the new race of cyborgs may also create a sub-race of non-cyborg proles, open the possibility of greater bio-technological enslavement and domestication. It goes without saying that technology’s emancipatory capacities are haunted by its capacity to be transformed into a war machine. As Paul Virilio has argued,

Every technology produces, provokes, programs a specific accident. The invention of the airplane was the invention of the plane crash… [But] the negative side of speed and technology was censored. The technicians, by becoming technocrats, tended to positivize the object and say ‘I am hiding it. I am not showing it.’ There’s a lot to be said about the obscenity of technology. I believe that the accident is to the social sciences what sin is to human nature. It’s a certain relation to death, that is the revelation of the identity of the object. (Virilio 1997, 38-39)

23Technologies may therefore be pushing philosophy and science to the accident while these disciplines themselves, absorbed in hyper-velocity, hide not only death, but their own pending death. There is a false feeling of progress that covers the actual state of inertia. How to get past this and replace pessimism with a useful realism? One potential first step is to envisage real “extreme scenarios” and examine how their “nature” can bring us to re-elaborate an ethics of the socio-techno sphere with a view to creating ethical subjectivities that do not disavow their own very crepuscular status in a forgotten Petri dish.

24For instance, nanotechnology can be a key tool in tackling the various problems such as the scarcity of natural resources, rapid urbanization, pollution, illness and epidemic, equitable access to computers, and deteriorating living spaces. The argument for nanotechnologies thus claims that resolving these problems will contribute to a greater quality of life for all across the globe and bring us closer to an equitable and healthy society of vitality and opportunity. Yet nanotechnology intervenes in nature and hence immediately poses controversial moral questions about the degree to which humans have the right to pervert “the order of things” or “play god” and what their responsibilities to nature and others actually are. Hence, the radically Janus-faced nature of this thing we call technology: that which can turn us into things and destroy our life-worlds or that which can augment our capacity to be human – to be more human. Our futures are also “crossroads” where a choice presents itself, a choice between a utopia of the singularity or a post-apocaplyptic wasteland, a choice between techno-over-men and their underlings, and a choice between designer babies and normal kids like the ones most of us have. Scientific, social, and ethical uncertainty again clouds much of our fantasies and our foresight. However, we can no longer devote our energies to resolving the false question of whether technology and the human-techné interface is intrinsically good or bad. On the contrary, while humans may have no essence and may simply be organisms cast along a particular evolutionary path, our relationship to the fact of technology is ultimately bound up in the question of the ethics of science and technology, an ethics which occupies yet another boundary – that between mastery and non-mastery. Which is to say, as Jean-Michel Besnier has recently observed, “that the end of the human, the crossing of a boundary of evolution, along with the end of certitude or long-honed convictions about what we are and what we should be, should not necessarily be the pretext for the abdication of ethical life… indeed, post-humanism is not alien to the ethical preoccupations imposed on our world” (Besnier 2009, 165). On the contrary, it raises the stakes and renders even more radical the exigency of the ethical, specifically in our passage to radical alterity, non-human, other to ourselves, techno-mystics without a god, or perhaps, as Kojéve argued, post-humans who, satisfied and having realized absolute knowledge regress back (or progress towards) new forms of animality and barbarism in a park that might be quite comfortable and technologically advanced, but filled with ruthless animals who are not quite human either (Kojève 1980, 159-162). Whatever form this entity takes, the issue at hand is the degree to which the human body possesses an essence or functions as a vessel for what we could call the human spirit. Or perhaps, “spirit” too is another conceptual apparatus wielded by the makers of the human zoo.

25To invoke questions of “spirit” also brings us to debates on the order of the world, “nature” and “human enhancement” (in French referred to as human “improvement” or amélioration). It might be constructive to begin with what we already take for granted as always-already there: that we were once quite furry beasts whose thick pelts kept us warm. Now, of course, most of us have central heating. Our brains slowly grew bigger and more complex with our social organizations. After facing near extinction, we learned to adapt to our environments and did so through artificially constructing our environments as well, which in part become more and more technological and demand new modes of adaptation. Would it be so strange to think that adaptation to changing hyper-modernity might mean enhancing the human as a techno-organic species in what Nick Bostrom and Anders Sandberg call the “evolutionary heuristic,” an extrasomatic space of mutual enhancement and adaptation where technology as a species adapts to the human species and vice-versa (Bostrom and Sandberg 2008, 377-378). In other words, as humans do not possess any inherent essence, would it be so strange to hear in the near or distant future someone say “Once we were humans, but now we are…”? This could only be registered as a disturbance to the ontological relationship between the subject and the world if such an ontology existed. The breakthrough of central heating, email, light bulbs, bicycles, and the breakthroughs that form the horizon of human enhancement differ only by the degree of their adaptive capacity.

26Advocates of technological singularity, like José Cordeiro for instance, insist that the world is only half built and its beauty only half-achieved. Cordeiro’s embrace of singularity emerges from nothing short of the simple desire to beat back death. He remains convinced that “Humans will reach physical immortality via two fronts: biological replacement and rejuvenation as well as computational uploading and virtual reality…”; for Cordeiro we should not count on nature to help us either. Contra Bostrom and Sandberg, the heuristic is neither evolutionary nor dialectically bound to nature. Nature and biological evolution simply move too slowly (Cordeiro 2009). While death may be considered “bad” and something to beat back, one might want to reflect on the implications of immortality. Enhancement has the potential to transform us into very different creatures and thus, poses not only ethical questions about the risks and moral consequences of transformation, but also the ethics of this different creature. Many of those opposed to enhancement argue that such technological intervention into the “natural” order of human life is morally wrong precisely because it is “unnatural.” Pro-enhancement advocates, however, claim that one’s liberty should also include one’s autonomy to make the choice to be enhanced. Such techno-libertarianism also claims that any regulation of enhancement would be an affront to one’s right to choose how to live and what one can do to one’s own body. Moreover, if enhancement does not necessarily harm anyone else, can it be intrinsically demonized? The larger ethical question, of course, is what constitutes “harm”. And are not post-humans humans if the human be understood as embedded in technology? And as enhancement does not necessarily oppose some myth of the natural, does it not simply posit a “second nature”, and potentially many other natures? The path to second nature (artifical as it might be) should not be read as a transgression of an old boundary and irrevocable loss, but rather as a “natural” process in and of itself, the next step in the evolutionary chain. Does it really matter if I am a robot, a monster, a chimera, or a mutant? What matters is what I do and how I act and engage with others – the choices I make in a field of inter-subjective and inter-species uncertainty and ontological unknowingness.


27While the human may one day have multiple natures and perhaps not resemble any normative construction of the human as coextensive thing called humanity, the question of whether these transformations usher in greater sustainability, greater responsibility, better health (both physical and social), greater equity and innovation, and greater “human-ness” should continue to guide us. Although we might share much of our DNA with pigs, our capacities for auto-reflection, heightened forms of consideration, care, and deliberation, our sensuality and creativity, and above all our status as ethical subjects or persons make humans a very particular species. Yet these characteristics do not prevent us from sharing a common life with other non-human forms, nor do they testify to human superiority; on the contrary, these characteristics charge the human with a series of obligations and responsibilities to the non-human, responsibilities that are honed in the encounter that is again postponed by the enclosure of the human animal by a humanism that privileges its status as thoroughly autonomous.

28While haunted by non-human negativity, the human ultimately remains and his boundaries are both obstacles and loci of conflict just as much as they are necessities to civilization; some boundaries serve to hold us together, to sublimate our more perverse desires, and to “order” society in a manner that strives towards community, co-existence, and collective life. In other words, in the human park, there are boundaries that bind and exclude and other boundaries that must be transgressed in the name of human becoming, in the name of the human becoming more, and the surpassing of certain dimensions of itself. Hence, the importance of understanding the human as an interzone, threshold, or flux, characterized by, pace Spinoza, movements of stasis and striving in a dialectic of being boundaried and becoming. The critique of the human is one that moves by way of examining the political values embedded in this chiasmus and the degree to which they conform or break with our status as ethical animals. Indeed while the human zoo is a tragic place replete with uncomfortable and unhinging encounters, it can also potentially become a place where we can potentially flourish and flourishing here means dispensing with the destructive baggage of modernity and rethinking how the first boundary to cross might be the one that prevents me from understanding that the others’ capacity to flourish is bound to my capacity to flourish. And “others” here refers to all forms of alterity. This understanding stands to be revealed in the radical problematization of the human project and through a community bound in its mutual apprehension of finitude, human lack, and the impossibility of absolute humanity (particularly in light of global environmental change.) But, on the other hand, it might be realized through a healthy dose of pragmatism and a style of living that calls into question those boundaries. The unveiling of this understanding and practice is also a dialectical affair that seeks a reason to live in the face of such finitude. And anti-humanism, if understood as the critique of the excesses of the Human as a driver of modernity, also becomes ethically emboldened insofar as its foundations destabilize many of these boundaries and stand to illuminate the inter-dependency of the socio-eco-techno system. Ultimately, this is about ascribing to the human animal a greater reflexivity and coding human habitus as a space of conscious inquiry into the nature of boundaries and boundedness. This also means constantly re-examining the political and ethical frameworks that are customarily engendered the concept of the human and examining where they might need to be recalibrated in the light of environmental and technological transformations with a view to also reflecting on better human futures or a “new humanism” which may actually be the result of great becomings.

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1 Space precludes a full genealogy of the Human and Humanism, but one could summarise the key atttibutes of this moral threshold as such: the human raises itself to the Human in perfecting inter alia the capacity for reflection, the capacity to engage in political and ethical life, the capacity to demonstrate compassion and empathy towards others, the capacity to have innate dignity, and the capacity to enjoy the rights that protect such dignity. In synchrony with the development of these capacities the Human is also typified by its aesthetic and artistic life, its reason and scientism, its freedom of will and capacity to choose its own nature.

2 I certainly do not want to give the impression that the story of global environmental change is in any way foreclosed or that we find ourselves utterly bereft of possibility. Indeed, the vision of geo-engineered adaptation to environmental transformation can often be quite compelling. It is further interesting to reflect upon the philosophical and ethical repercussions of the geo-engineers’ fantasy come potential reality wherein not only is climate change rolled back, but with it, anti-humanism and philosophical pessimism concerning the status of man in the universe. Here it would not be man that was obsolete and dated but the entire ethos and theory of post-modernism itself. The larger question is whether the human would go back to its old ways, re-erect the binaries between itself and the non-human and bask once again in its technological might and capacity to beat back the harrowing forces of nature and its own destruction. Would this "second chance" produce a more humble and modest human, one who would cherish those things that he did not before?

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Bibliographical reference

S. Romi Mukherjee, « After Ontology, After Essence: Recasting the ‘Human’ from within the Socio-Eco-Techno Interface », Caliban, 33 | 2013, 197-218.

Electronic reference

S. Romi Mukherjee, « After Ontology, After Essence: Recasting the ‘Human’ from within the Socio-Eco-Techno Interface », Caliban [Online], 33 | 2013, Online since 09 December 2013, connection on 30 July 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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About the author

S. Romi Mukherjee

Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris.

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Licence Creative Commons
Caliban – French Journal of English Studies est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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