Posts Tagged ‘ derrida ’


This post is written in response to weekly readings for HUCO617: Posthumanism. This week we were reading Humanism, by Tony Davies, which describes the emergence of “Humanism” as a concept, a movement, a pedagogy, a philosophy, an ideology, a ‘Snark’.

There are so many weighty concepts and reversals worth discussing in Davies’ Humanism that it is hard to know where to start.  Perhaps the most important aspect of Davies’ history of the term is something he never quite addresses: the structure of the text itself.

Davies’ approach to reaching a whole and encompassing definition of ‘Humanism’ says quite a lot about our own historical moment and the current state of (post)Humanism.  In his introduction Davies carefully notes that his history is not strictly chronological but should follow an internal logic, a narrative that identifies the plurality of Humanism and enumerates its myriad conflicting variations.   He begins with the 19th and 20th century attempts to first legitimize the essential and universal qualities of Humanism (undermined by the political ends such attempts are invariably put to) and then to deconstruct and disable the validity of these same qualities, and indeed, the validity of Humanism itself as a concept; then moves on to 15th century Italy and the origins of the European Renaissance (a period he does not forget to point out is just as fabricated as ‘Humanism’), pauses on the Enlightenment when the notions of essence and universality of Man are at once crystallized and inextricably bound up in the very real politics and power structures/struggles of the period; and, finally, ends at the present moment, with the realization that the very idea of Humanism is so problematic—so “chimerical” (128)—that it might not be salvageable, and yet it remains a sole refuge from a vast, cold, and unsettling universe within which our utter insignificance is wretchedly felt.  Derrida whispers through Davies’ approach to defining Humanism within a particular historical context, and then starkly proving how the definition is not humanism, is in fact an antihumanism according to how we have come to conceive the concept in terms of universality and individuality.  Like Derrida in Différance, Davies enacts the quixotic struggle to find a central truth in the plurality of meanings by circling the concept of ‘Humanism’, and in so doing proves that there is no centre [1].  There is no one ‘true’ meaning, only movement between different conceptions of the word, between the presence and absence of supporting values, humanism and antihumanism, human and Other.

I want to linger a moment on the idea of the Other, which Davies only briefly touches on in his conclusion with a too-quick summary of Emmanuel Levinas and Ted Hughes’ ‘Wodwo’ (142-146).  Making a radical move Davies denies himself, I’m going to define ‘Humanism’ right now as “the pursuit of human identity “; Levinas says that ‘humanity’ is “a continuous and precarious process of becoming human…[and] the inescapable recognition that our humanity is on loan from others” (142).  We are defined as human by those things we perceive as not-human, we become ‘human’ only as a mirror reflection of the foreign, the different.  Ted Hughes’ poem gives voice to the Wodwo, a “half-human”, “larval shape” arrested in a state of becoming (144); to me, it reads rather like the internal monologue of Frankenstein’s monster in the moment it achieves self-awareness.  In Davies words, the poem is about “identity as movement, not destination; seeking, not finding” (143).  Both the Wodwo and the Monster are figures moving between the Other and the Human.  And perhaps this movement is what (post)Humanism should be about, what it has always been about.

I’m fascinated by the notion of the Other because I feel it plays a key role in the analysis of popular science-fiction narratives.  It provides a fertile landscape in which to explore the figure of the robot, the cyborg, and its significance in literature.


[1] In his concluding chapter, Davies describes how the pursuit of progress through a science founded on Reason—a defining feature of Humanism—has displaced “the very notion of ‘centre’ that secures the conceptual scaffolding of the human.” (132)

Understanding Robots Through Derrida

This post is written in response to weekly readings for HUCO617: Posthumanism.  This week we were reading Jacques Derrida; specifically in the context of this response, “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences”, Writing and Difference, pp. 278-293.

In “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences”, Derrida casts the use of discourses as a way of criticizing the discourse itself, of invalidating its own premises.  At this point, I don’t pretend to completely understand the significance of what Derrida is saying (I suspect I’d need months or years at a minimum to fully grasp it), but this notion of the destruction of a thing by its own means, its own contradictions, strikes a chord with me.  Specifically, the opposition of human-machine and the anxiety prevalent in almost all narratives about the robot seems to embody this principle in microcosm; we fear our own destruction or substitution at the hands of what we have created, artificial beings cast in our own reflection.

I use Karel Čapek’s perspective on the robot, as I’ve used it before, as an emblem of the opposition at the heart of defining what is human (  Čapek’s 1921 play R.U.R. captures the fearful aspect of what results from the human endeavour to duplicate the creation of the Biblical God, to make life in our own image.  From a structuralist position, the “robot” is the centre of this discourse; the “robot” represents both the perfect human and the monstrously not-human, and as such exists both within and outside of the discourse depending on one’s approach.  From this we can already recognize the paradoxical difference Derrida suggests with post-structuralism.

The comment I want to make (and am probably making a hack job of it) is that perhaps the anxiety critics feel towards post-structuralism, like Harold Bloom from our previous readings, is at least similar if not identical to the anxiety we feel towards robotics.  We see this anxiety expressed in literature in innumerable ways: from Shelley’s monster to Rossum’s robots, Asimov’s laws to Dick’s replicants, Star Wars‘ droids to Gibson’s Neuromancer, they all represent the tension between progress (both technological and existential) and the fear of replacement (or death).  And isn’t that the same tension that exists in post-structuralism?  To take the concepts of a given discourse and employ them “to destroy the old machinery to which they belong and of which they themselves are pieces” (284); in other words, using principles from an existing system in order to re-imagine it, recreate it.  The tension is between method (the instruments of a system) and the truth (the “objective signification” it represents), borrowing from the language Derrida uses in his analysis of Lévi-Strauss.  Or is the tension between the old and the new in the continual act of re-constructing and replacing of the system from within itself?   All of these examples bring to mind the image of the Ouroboros, the snake biting its own tail in a perpetual cycle of re-invention.