Frédéric Neyrat

Escaping Humanism

The crisis of the environment has led numerous forms of contemporary thought to challenge the idea that anthropocentrism comes from Humanism, reconsidering man as one of the elements that exist within nature. The philosopher Frédéric Neyrat considers that we have nonetheless never stopped being humanists, and works for his part on developing the figure of a labyrinthine human being who, refusing to subject chaos to order, would use it to loosen the grip of order. Post or trans-humanist perspectives, stemming from new hybridities, seem to him to extend Humanism, despite their promises to go further than the modern separations between nature and technology, between human and non-human. Is it necessary to substitute a fanatical hybridization for the cartesian/capitalist divide, that we now know is the source of catastrophe? Risking a monopoly and a technological nightmare, he opposes “non-fusional alliances”. Associated with the figure of the labyrinth, these alliances form what he qualifies as “anti-humanism”, a new existentialism that allows us to surpass humanism while at the same time avoiding false post-humanist exits.

In Homo Labyrinthus : humanisme, antihumanisme, posthumanisme, you show that we never stopped being humanist. Could you explain this idea?

It all depends of course on one’s definition of humanism. The problem with this notion is that it is subjected to a constant process of reinterpretation, this process being no doubt linked to the fact that humanism was first a retroactive interpretation. Thomas More, like Erasmus before him, did not use the term humanism, with both of them speaking of umanista, a term that describes the professor of grammar, of rhetoric. When we speak of humanism, we keep introducing something into the past that was never really there, and we invent a humanity for ourselves such as it should have been. Humanism is the human who dreams that he is capable of being what he should have been.

This dream means three things. Firstly, that humanism is a malleable notion, subject to reinterpretations. One can thus speak of the humanism of the Renaissance, that of anthropocentric modernity that was successfully established with Bacon and Descartes in the seventeenth century, that of the autonomous subject of the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, or that of a godless human being in the nineteenth century. Secondly, that the human in humanism is himself considered as a being in becoming, always capable of being something other than what he is, and this is what links the position of Pico della Mirandola to that of Sartre: the human being, says Pico della Mirandola, is a “chameleon” who must “freely complete his form”; yes, adds Sartre, he chooses his way of existing. Thirdly, that the future of human beings consists of remaking themselves as they had wanted to be: it is not that “man,” as defended by Foucault, is a face destined to be erased in the sand, it is that this erasure is a step on the Sisyphean path that drives the human being from one face to the next, from one shape to another, from one society  toward another.

When speaking of “homo labyrinthus,” I wanted to exacerbate this observation, showing that the only way of halting this compulsion for reformation, this requirement for transformation, this harassing superego that now demands that we rid ourselves of what we were in the past in order to feed the capitalist Moloch and its accelerationist drive, is to leave a gaping hole between two forms, between the two faces of the human. To leave this gap wide open means not transforming the indeterminacy that constantly makes and unmakes the human into a new determination, itself temporary. The labyrinthine human being is one who, instead of subjecting chaos to order, uses the former to loosen the grip of the latter. Within the labyrinth, the inhumanity that prevents the human being from taking himself for himself reigns, in other words, a being that remakes itself to the complete loss of its own image. In the labyrinth, Narcissus has been appeased.

We are not even close to moving away from this path, with post-humanism not representing an “after-humanism” but even more humanism. Can you expand on this idea? Rather than removing the gulf that has been hollowed out between man and “nature,” do “technical bodies” seem to you to have made it even worse?

If my approach to the word humanism is correct, then it is clear that too many so-called post-humanist propositions are nothing more than extensions of humanism. The idea, for example, according to which post-humanism would be founded on the future of humanism, on the contrary, on an immutable essence, was quite surprising to Erasmus, who claimed that we are not “born” a human, but rather “become” one. Posthumanism is alas, far too often a term that covers the absence of resistance to the modern requirement for permanent change.

The permanent call to change is accompanied by the promise that consists of going beyond the separation between nature and technique, nature and technology, and human and non-human. It was, and continues to be, necessary to oppose the western divide that consists of creating an airtight separation between the human being on one hand and nature on the other, with the latter being seen as a “resource” or a factor of production—on this point I refer to the analyses of Jason W. Moore, dedicated to the way in which capitalist modernity, the “capitalocene,” has created “inexpensive nature,”Jason W. Moore, “The Rise of Cheap Nature,” in Anthropocene or Capitalocene ? Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism, ed. Jason W. Moore (PM Press / Kairos, 2016), 78–115. which is also malleable, as flexible as a worker should be according to the labor law currently being prepared by President Macron and his humanist ministers. The question is to know whether, in place of the Cartesian-capitalist divide that leads directly to climate change, the intensification of hurricanes, and to further havoc, one must substitute a forcible hybridization, in other words, abolish all separation.

On one hand, one must always ask who is producing the “technical bodies,” as you call them. If it is a laboratory, a Silicon Valley industry, or a myriad of humans, then the fabrication itself retains, when it comes to the subject and production, what it claims to go beyond with regard to the object being produced! When we abolish the gap between human and non-human, we risk filling it with spyware, a backdoor, surveillance software, or a surveillance cable, thanks to which we will be able to, in all humanity, gather all of the big data on you that is essential to your happiness—on Thus, when questioning the figures of the posthuman, it is necessary to know who is giving the orders: who or what, within the cyborg, is at the helm. On the other hand, how are the human-machine or mice-technology alliances inherently better than their separation? In Videodrome as in The Fly, David Cronenberg clearly saw that the fusion of human and technology, or even of human, animal, and technology, could quickly become a nightmare.

However, the criticisms that I am making here are in no way a refusal of the relationship between humans and technology, but rather to be considered as a non-fusional alliance, a marriage, an encounter that establishes a field of intensity between the instances at stake, one that is in a position to redistribute their existences. My posthuman is a parahuman who has not forgotten his inhumanity, but uses it in the service of happiness, to participate in something that escapes the human and machine-like instances that are solicitedOn para humans, see Monique Allewaert, Ariel’s Ecology (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013).. An example? Quasimodo! There existed, Victor Hugo tells us in The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, “between” Notre Dame and the suffering creature “so many magnetic affinities, so many material affinities,” that “the rugged cathedral was his shell.” Quasimodo “vibrated” with the bell that rang, “trembling in unison with the tower from head to toe”. What appears then, in favor of the alliance between Quasimodo and Notre-Dame, is not technological prowess, or a bio-art gadget, but a metaphor: not our dreams-that-have-finally-come-true, but reality finally raised to the status of dream. Now the metaphor held as such requires that something remain unachieved, or not built. The unachieved, or unbuilt, instead of proposing a gap between nature and human beings, proposes a place to be left vacant, the place of the metaphor. Metaphor Square, could this be the place of no place that the whole city secretly desires?

You advocate the need for a new anti-humanism to drive a politics of existences, of multiple singularities, of different forms of life (according to Wittgenstein). What do you mean by this? Does this new existentialism seem to you to follow in the wake of, or be out of step with, the precepts of flat ontology? 

I used the expression anti humanism for the reasons that I have just given: in order not to miss the end of humanism, or in order to avoid the fake end of humanism. Anti humanism is not an end in itself, this term does not describe a desired world, rather it describes what is required to achieve a world that is not that of the capitalocene. Anti humanism promises to go back to the two ideas that I have just mentioned: the labyrinth as a monument in memory of that which we have had to forget to remain foreign to our own selves, and the alliance as an encounter via which singularities are revealed to be other than themselves. What it is important to grasp each time is the singularity of existences.

Whereas the term existence must be taken, etymologically, as being-on-the-outside.  A being does not begin first by being within itself, before going outside of itself. Rather it is necessary to hold that this being initially exists only outside of oneself. Everything starts outside. And it is outside thus imagined where things happen, or don’t happen—encounters, collisions, marriages, or even nothing. My goal then is not to imagine modes of existence, like Latour, because the term, borrowed from the latin modus, first means “measure,” then “moderation,” even though existence means without-measure, that which is not only to have been measured but indeed measurable. What I am trying to do, is to see how the baseless fact of existence is stimulated in the living being, or in artificial intelligence, or in Quasimodo—which is almost quasi modo, but never someone who is identifiable, not human nor animal, and animal and human—straddling the bell of Notre Dame.

But the list that I have begun here—the living being, AI, Quasimodo—is a fractured one, it supposes no ontological equivalency. The radicalized existentialism that I propose cannot therefore be of the order of a flat ontology, and there are at least two reasons for this. First, because starting from existence means rejecting any idea of a “primary” ontology: ontology, the science of being, can only be secondary, it is the view that afterward applies thinking to layers of existence, the speculative geology of the existent. To put ontology first, so as to derive existence any ontological tendency. It is at the same time both agonizing and wonderful, and that makes the living something other than a “partner,” unless of course you only use this name to refer to things that contemplate eating you.

Secondly, placing the emergence of the existential first is to break all platitudes: to exist is to begin by opening a depth of field. The idea according to which modernity led to everything being flattened is the idea of domination, in other words the idea of the victors. But thinking should provide relief to the vanquished and repressed, that which could never exist. Let me use an example: it is said that the Galilean revolution consisted of bringing heaven down to Earth, of homogenizing laws, of flattening transcendence; but we can also place the emphasis on another, repressed, tendency, one that consists of promoting the Earth to the rank of “noble star,” as Nicolas of Cusa said, of elevating the Earth to the level of a singular, or rather eccentric, form of existence. Eccentric, existence is neither an essence, nor an object, but rather, as I suggest, a path: the opening of a field that objects to everything that reduces its foundational chasm. Let me add in passing that though I cannot agree with flat ontologies or object-orientated objects, I do not reject the tendencies of so-called speculative realism at all, admiring as I do the philosophy of Iain Hamilton Grant and attentive as I am to the “pan-psychic” research of Steven Shaviro—to cite only two examples.“Enquête sur le Nouveau Champ Spéculatif” (with Frédéric Bisson), Multitudes no. 65 (2016), 34–41.

If there are only paths, then the living is one among them. By living I mean that which resists the intact, the unscathed, the untouched, the state where nothing else can ever happen. Of course, I am playing with Xavier Bichat’s formula here—life as “the set of functions which resist death.” But I think that death could be a considerable ally to help the living to resist that which stops it resisting.  I will admit here to, once again against all equivalency, a form of vitalism. Not a generalized vitalism, that claims that everything is alive, nor a restrained vitalism, that claims that life is nothing more than matter and that it can only be explained through the use of the physical sciences, but rather this vitalism that, for Georges Canguilhem, was more  a “requirement” than a “doctrine”: an ethical or existential vitalism.Georges Canguilhem, La Connaissance de la vie (1952). Concerning the different vitalisms, I refer to the second chapter of my Literature and Materialism (Routledge, forthcoming 2019).

This existential vitalism rejects the axiom that everything is alive. However, the space of that which can be promoted to the rank of living is opened. What counts above all is for one to choose one’s side: “rather life,” said André Breton. It is an ethical position that implies a hierarchy, an affirmative position that refuses to place all things on the same level: existentialist vitalism is opposed to everything that makes life impossible.

However, I don’t think that it is possible to choose the side of Everything—that is the ideology of domination (Anthropocene Man, etc.)—or to propose an ethics of matter—everything is matter? Okay, what then? I even think that an ecocentric ethics can only be constituted in this way by starting with an ethical priority concerned with the threat to the living, this being determined by economic, social, and political conditions of exploitation, coloniality, voluntary destruction of the environment, etc.

It is only on the basis of this vitalism that I can envision a relationship with technologies: what technologies favor that which resists the intact? What technical alliance will allow Quasimodo to feel more joy than sadness? What art will be able to celebrate the way in which the universe can, thanks to the living, perceive itself and—why not—enjoy itself? A politics of existence is what should be able to answer these questions. It translates vital requirements in terms of propositions or prohibitions: should this airport be built or not? This dam? This useless and environmentally harmful high-speed train?

You have published a new book that deals with the idea of the atopia. Has this concept evolved since you began to use it? Do contemporary events and mutations seem to you to provide more relevance to your thinking about the outside?

Atopias: Manifesto for a Radical Existentialism is the amended translation of a work that was originally published in FrenchAtopias: Manifesto for a Radical Existentialism (New York: Fordham University Press, 2017).. What seems important to me about our discussion is to grasp the idea that the outside that I speak about in the book is not an outside over there that would oppose an inside over here, but—almost in reverse—this outside that brings me here, in search of an eventual inside over there. Such a condition, atopian, literally without place, is a condition of aboriginal wandering that considers a house simply as an encampment, I mean to say, something that takes the place of inside.

Perhaps it is because of the belief of some that they are “in” “their” country, “their” nation, and seeing foreigners arrive from “outside,” that human beings seeking refuge end up drowning in the Mediterranean Sea. To break with this belief, it would be necessary for us to recognize the atopia that is part of who we are, in other words that something within us is irreparably without place. Yes, the living that we know is terrestrial; but its atopia cuts it off from its roots, or plunges them into the sky, turning it into an extra-terrestrial. This does not mean that one shouldn’t build a shelter, a house or a nest, it means that the living being has all the more need for a favorable living environment when we consider that the environment is a transitory situation. In the words of Paul Bowles, “only the sky protects us from a vast, dark universe.” The anxiety and wonder of existence devoted to the living that experiences it, a condition that I propose to study in a book called Échapper à l’horreur. Court traité des interruptions merveilleuses (Escaping Horror: Short Treaty of Marvelous Interruptions).Frédéric Neyrat, Échapper à l’horreur. Court traité des interruptions merveilleuses (Paris: Nouvelles Éditions Lignes, 2017).


This article was initially published in Stream 04 - The Paradoxes of the living in November 2017.

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