Evelyne Grossman

Limits of the Human: Literary and Philosophical Disfigurations
in the Twentieth Century

Jean-François Lyotard produced, to my mind, the clearest ideas on the (at least) double meaning of the concept of the inhuman or inhumanity, and on the dangers and absurdities that must unavoidably result from this duplicity. When in 1988 Lyotard published L’inhumain (The Inhuman), the notion of humanism had long been questioned, problematized, and historicized in Europe. In France the humanism controversy, as it was later to be called, started in the 1960s, stirred up by structuralism (Claude Lévi-Strauss), psychoanalysis (Jacques Lacan), semiology (Roland Barthes), philosophy (Michel Foucault, Louis Althusser, and others), and literature (first of all by the Nouveau Roman of the mid-1950s, then by Maurice Blanchot, Samuel Beckett, and many others). A very informative summary of these debates can be found in the June 1966 interview that Foucault gave after the publication of his book The Order of Things, entitled “Is Man Dead?”

What does Foucault say? In short he says that humanism is a mirage, Western culture’s retrospective illusion. He reminds us that children learn in secondary school that the sixteenth century was the century of Humanism, that Classicism developed the large themes of human nature:

We imagine that Humanism was the major driving force behind our historical development and also its final reward [...]. We marvel at the concern for the human in our present culture. If we speak of contemporary barbarism, we mean machines, or certain institutions, to the extent that they appear to us to be non-human.[1]

But this is all wrong, Foucault says. The Humanist movement started in fact at the end of the nineteenth century; the Man-form therefore emerged at that time. There was no room for Man in the culture of the previous centuries (from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries): cultural space was then filled by God (together with the laws of the material world and space, etc.). Man had first to be constructed as an object of knowledge; only then could the moral themes of contemporary humanism develop, in particular the “soft humanisms” of Albert Camus, Antoine deSaint-Exupéry, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in France. In fact, Foucault concludes, “man is an invention and the archaeology of our ideas shows readily his recent birth. And perhaps his end soon to come.” Recall the famous metaphor of the human face fading in the sand.

Many philosophers such as Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre insist that humanism had emerged as an inverted theology (substituting man for God); they show, in particular, how humanism appropriated divine attributes such as creative power, the power to “make a world exist.” Foucault insists, as we know, that the new culture emerging in the twentieth century started with Friedrich Nietzsche’s announcing not that God’s death was the advent of man, but rather his disappearance—God and man having been bound by strange family ties, such that man could not survive God’s death.

The issue of the death of a certain Western humanism following God’s death (and of the traditional vision of a centered, intentional, conscious subject) is indeed at the heart of much of twentieth century literature and philosophy. I want to speak briefly of this using examples from France, in order to show how the disappearance of man was finally rejected, and how the constant, methodical exploration of the inhuman amounted to a more or less (often less) explicit and conscious attempt at relocating man into an infinity that no thinker can apparently truly renounce. Is there an atheist infinity, a strictly non-theological infinity? This is a vast question, which we will not try to answer here.

At any rate, the idea of the inhuman being at the very heart of the human, as part of its definition, of its very “essence,” seems to me to be indeed a key idea of contemporary thought. Hence the difficulties, by the way, in treating ethical questions on a concrete, actual, limited human scale (such as Jacques Derrida’s declaring in the end that justice is “undeconstructible,” or Emmanuel Levinas ending in the Talmud). And also the proximity, more or less admitted, more or less accepted, to mysticism. Calling someone a “mystic” has often been a form of criticism (like Sartre’s comments on Georges Bataille) and betrayed rather an unconscious projection of nostalgic longings for a divine infinity, now lost forever. Blanchot, Antonin Artaud, Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, etc., have sometimes been called mystics. We can admit the word, for my part, if we understand it to mean a constant search for an exit from human finiteness.

What they all wanted to invent or reinvent, therefore, is the idea of the inhumanity of man in the sense of an exit from human limitations, an inclusion of animal as well as divine parts, the possibility of madness, loss of proportions, barbarism. Inhuman therefore means to go beyond the limits of classical rationality, the will to integrate that which goes “infinitely beyond man,” as Blaise Pascal says (the infinite), but also that from which man was once thought to be irreducibly different, by being definitely superior within the hierarchy of realms set up by the classical vision: the animal, the material, the surrounding world.

Starting from the death of the traditional figure of man (in particular that of the “soft” humanists who were defeated, to say the least, by the repeated waves of barbarism flooding the twentieth and twenty-first centuries), the question would then be: How can we reinvent a new humanism (a different humanism?) for the next centuries, which would include the inhuman, which would not repress it, would not deny it, but on the contrary would include its terrifying potentialities, facing them with full awareness?

Before looking at concrete examples, let us glance at a side issue. Why the proximity amongst philosophical writers (such as Sartre, Nietzsche, and others), philosophically interested writers (Blanchot, Bataille), and philosophers with a passion for literature (Deleuze, Derrida, Heidegger, etc.) regarding this issue? My hypothesis is that, throughout the twentieth century, language has been literally divinized; this would be even the major transformation during the twentieth century (at least in France). The apotheosis is most explicit in Foucault and Blanchot (though also in Derrida’s deconstruction, not to mention in Heidegger’s later writings). For Foucault, only literature knows the “experience of radical thinking,” thanks to the experience of the infinity of language (the experience of the being of language), finding an unexpected exit from the anthropological fate of the social sciences, which were necessary as an inspiration for the philosophical revolution.

But what is language for most of them? It is precisely not what past centuries believed it to be, the “human discourse” characteristic of man and making him different from animals, not to say from stones. On the contrary, the twentieth century discovers language as the inhuman essence of man. That which divides him and makes him different from himself (Sigmund Freud, Lacan), that which he will never “own,” which will be forever alien to him (Derrida, Deleuze), this infinity whose eternal murmurings may at any time make him insane (Blanchot, Artaud). Hence, probably, these authors’ fascination with literature, with poetry.

Let me review a few examples of what I called modern “disfigurings” of man in the sense of the destabilizing movement that has transformed the traditional figure of man, opening it into infinity. Literature, philosophy, Blanchot writes, “give voice in man to that which does not speak, to the unnamed, to that which has no truth, no justice, no law, where man does not recognize himself [...].”[2] Literature, in Blanchot’s sense, thus confuses man’s figurations; it destroys the illusory narcissist recognition of self by self (in Lacan’s sense of the recognition of the image in the mirror), it opens into what goes beyond it, what deforms it. Figuring the unfigurable requires the dissolution of coagulated forms, their opening up, their displacement, precisely what twentieth century writers have been doing all the time.

The example of Artaud: He was not only a writer, a poet, an actor, an artist, a theatre theoretician (he wrote The Theatre and its Double, where he sought to invent a new “Theatre of Cruelty”), but that he also spent nine years of his life in various psychiatric asylums, diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, and died in 1948. Throughout his life he defended the idea that man had to be reinvented, restored to his eternal and infinite form. In a letter, for instance, he writes, “today men call human the castration of man’s superhuman part.” Artaud constantly insists that he found evidence in ancient cultures, whether Mexican, Indian or Egyptian, of the acted-out poetry, the cruel theatre he wanted to reinvent. He kept reading about these cultures, looking for still present traces of an enunciation uttered from a position different from the Western subjectivity that is reduced to a well-defined psychological individual.

Our notion of a limited subject, Artaud suggests, reduces it to the logic of the individual ego. We must recover a different subject, a different form of enunciation, where the individual succeeds in dissolving in a subjectivity that absorbs and supersedes him. Man is then no longer a psychological individual, a “diminished man,” the “worn-out and vile” idea of man dominant since Renaissance humanism, he writes in a 1936 text symbolically entitled “The White Man’s Eternal Treason:” “The word humanism means in fact nothing else than man’s abdication.”[3] For Artaud, man is also that superhuman part, which binds him to the unbounded, but has been castrated by Western rationality; Heliogabalus, the God-Man, escaping all psychological reduction and interpretation; Montezuma, the Aztecs’ astrological king, torn between myth and history. Psychological man must be dissolved in order to recover the true dimensions of body and language: the unbounded.

The more man is concerned with himself, the more his concerns escape him in reality. egocentrism individualism and psychologic opposed to humanism, if we narrow in on man, we always find what is not man, looking for the character means looking for separation, means anti-human specialization. psychology is not the science of man—quite the contrary.[4]

Ten years later, Artaud comments on his drawings in a text entitled “The Human Face:” “I sometimes put objects, trees, or animals next to human faces, not being sure of the limits of the human ego’s body.”[5] For him, primitive rites are interesting in that they provide a “unitary” and collective position of enunciation, which does not separate subject and object, matter and spirit, man and beast; in each temporary crystallization of the living, myth finds passages and analogies effacing the limits of individuality. In theatre, Man the actor incarnates the human body’s power of incompleteness. “This brings us to refuse the usual limitations of man and of his powers,” writes Artaud, “and to extend to infinity the limits of what one calls reality.” It is what he means when he pleads for an “authentic alienation,” that of the poet, of the artist, of the actor, of the “insane man” welcoming the disintegrating powers of the shapeless and of the monstrous, while inventing new literary and plastic representations.

Psychoanalysis, he says in short, was frightened of the unconscious and of the madness the unconscious reveals; psychoanalysis attempted to channel the desubjectivating violence of the unconscious. But alienation is the disfiguring power of the other in me, this movement that persists in shaking me and prevents my stabilization in a “being,” the subject of an identity, the master of my thoughts. Alienation opens up into the unfigurable: a seeing mixed with writing, a writing perforated by the inaudible, the invisible. The alienated body of the actor is this malleability in act. He gives us the unfigurable to read and to see. In this sense Artaud’s act-body, unrepresentable, molecular and dancing, this multiple and (in every sense) inconceivable theatre-body, could possibly help us to grasp the disfiguring that emerges in modern writing, and more widely in the contemporary imagination: that of an improper, post-identitary body, a multiple and porous body, neither open nor closed, incomplete: “The body is a frantic multitude.” This also states clearly the dangers of madness. In this sense Artaud was an explorer of regions that of course form our horizon, but that we do not necessarily have to visit on ourselves.

A Few Words Now on Modern Experiences of an “Exit from Self”

In a book entitled The Anxiety of Thinking, I have recently attempted to show how many modern writers (poets, writers, philosophical writers like Derrida, Deleuze, Jean-Luc Nancy, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, Levinas, and others) have explored what shakes the quiet foundation within thinking of what we believe our thinking to be: our identity. They explored precisely the anxiety of the inhuman.

We all know the famous episode of the chestnut tree root in Sartre’s Nausea, where for a moment he experiences being a chestnut tree root, whose existence invades him, floods his own existence. Sartre describes here the unsettling impression of a hole opening within oneself: I escape and flow away through this opening—a hemorrhaging of being with which I leak and spill outwards while the outside threatens to invade me… a nauseating to and fro movement marking our deficient physical and psychological envelopes. Being becomes porous, perforated by anxiety. The ontological experience of being is, then, first of all that of dishumanization:

Being cannot be thought from a distance: it must invade you all of a sudden, stand on you with its heavy weight, on your heart, like a huge and motionless beast […]. The tips of the branches were teeming with existence, always new but never being born. The wind’s existence settled on the tree like an enormous fly; and the tree shivered.[6]

The philosopher Levinas also speaks of the experience that occurs when one is exhausted or has been sleepless all night, the experience of an anonymous “rustling of being,” a pre-human murmur that he calls the there is. An anxiety caused by boundlessness, by the shapeless teeming of being, of the not–yet–human prowling in the regions of madness.

Pierre Fédida recently proposed distinguishing between the inhuman and the dishuman. By “dishuman,” he means those extreme psychological experiences in which the image of similarity, the figure of the other man, is temporarily abolished: the experience of barbarism, the programmed effacement of all traces of the human. Modern massacres display daily a raving will to blot out all traces of humanity in our fellow humans. But we also experience the dishuman in the psychiatric clinic mentioned by Fédida, where certain borderline or psychotic patients fancy being a tree, a stone, a machine. I refer you to the American psychiatrist Harold Searles’s beautiful book The Nonhuman Environment (1960), where he describes these kinds of experiences in his psychotic patients as they fail to differentiate inner and outer reality. Again this reminds us of the dangers of exploring human limits. The anxiety caused by the inhuman (or the dishuman, as Fédida says) has probably best been grasped by psychoanalysis, which has recognized the essential role played by the “passion to negate” in every creative process.

The expression “passion to negate” is proposed by Blanchot. He uses it when he speaks of Bataille and his inner experience as that of a “passion for negative thinking,” the tireless exploration of an excess of negativity. Excess, exorbitance, impossible: Bataille’s readers are familiar with these words which probably mean that which keeps escaping us, “this excess of negativity” incessantly attempting to displace the limits of human thought. Bataille’s inner experience would indeed then qualify as one of Blanchot’s “borderline experiences.” Blanchot sees the same kind of tireless negativity acting through all of Nietzsche’s thought, man as an “infinite power of negation.”[7]

“This excess of ‘negativity’,” writes Blanchot, “is for us the infinite core of the passion of thinking.”[8] This is, I think, a fundamental statement, which we must keep in mind while reading the texts of these twentieth century philosophical writers if we want to understand the relationship between anxiety, exit from self, and the indefatigable energy of negativity that makes their writings so singular. They grapple with nothing less than what we sometimes call the inhuman, and sometimes the sublime. Lyotard, as we know, singled out both terms in turn and insisted on the importance of anxiety when facing the inhuman as that destructive power which goes beyond the individual, that “unthinkable” which deters all thought. Seventeenth and eighteenth century Europe, he insisted, called sublime precisely this paradoxical mixture of joy and anxiety, of excitement and depression.[9]

These authors always start from the tremendous creative power at the core of negativity when they constantly explore the force that dissolves forms and confuses identities: deconstruction (Derrida), dropout, disaster (Blanchot), recantation (Levinas), uncreation, literature of the unword (Beckett), Lacan’s litany “there is no…,” Foucault’s end of man—all ironically turning finiteness upside down. The same untying gesture tries all the time to cut off thought from its certainties and man from his finiteness. The strength of these writings consists precisely in pushing anxiety beyond limits (including the danger of madness framing all borderline experience) in order to shatter all forms by mobilizing the dissolvent powers of an excess of anxiety. Then the void shows itself as it really is: a tremendous teeming of energies, an infinitely vibrating mobility, rather than an absence of life. All form is illusion, as contemporary physics suggests; we move amidst atoms swarming without end; all matter is a proliferating, vibrating energy, circulation, trajectory, pulsation, down to its very depths… nothing like the classical stability of extension and substance.

This is what these authors seem to have perceived better than anyone else, rediscovering within their writing practice the Pre-Socratics’ intuitions of the structure of matter. We are but passing atomic aggregates, Artaud, Bataille, Beckett, and others keep repeating. “We share all possible forms of life,” writes Artaud in 1936 in Mexico,

it is absurd to limit life. Some of what we have been and above all of what we must be lies stubbornly hidden in stones, in plants, animals, landscapes and woods. Particles of our past and future ego wander through nature, where very accurate laws keep bringing them together. And we must keep tracking down replicas, active, nervous, even fluid replicas hidden in these decomposing elements.[10]

Bataille, in Inner Experience, discusses at great length the physicist Paul Langevin’s The Concept of Particles and Atoms, published 1934. He often borrows from Langevin’s reflections on the ungraspable inner trepidation of organic life (energetic contamination, current, electrical streaming). “Man is a particle woven into unstable and tangled units,” Bataille writes, and then speaks of anxiety suddenly vanishing through the dissolution of all sensation of an ego’s rigid forms.

And, Finally, Jacques Derrida and Gilles Deleuze

First, Derrida and his twofold exploration: madness on the one hand, animality on the other. Throughout his life, Derrida continued to ask: What form of writing would succeed in accepting the danger of madness in order to unfold its full creative richness, its boundless vitality, its fantastic inventiveness? In other words, what form of thinking would succeed in overcoming the limitations, the restrictions coming from the quiet certainty of (or the obsession with) not being mad? See his text, “The Cogito and the History of Madness,” on René Descartes.[11] We know, of course, where all this may lead. The philosopher’s intention was therefore not to pursue an excess of poetic delirium, since his pretended madness had its “method,” as we also know. But at least some of Derrida’s reflections concerning boundaries, limits, sharing and crossing borders (a reflection that is necessarily ethical and political, as well as, philosophical) were founded on the question of man’s inhuman frontiers. We know that Artaud never ceased to fascinate him, especially Artaud’s exploration of the boundlessness active in language. Deconstruction was then also to be an exploration of the unstable, disfigured boundaries of language. I will not insist on this; I would like instead to look at Derrida’s other exploration, that of animality.

I refer among others to his 1997 text, “The Animal That Therefore I Am,” which finally is nothing else than his attempt to deconstruct the figure of man, the idea that something “properly” human makes him irreducibly different from animals. Logocentrism, Derrida reminds us, is first of all a statement concerning animals, namely that they are deprived of logos (which, he adds, has been maintained from Aristotle through Heidegger, from Descartes to Immanuel Kant and Lacan). But, Derrida says, “the animal sees us, and we are naked when facing him. And this may be the beginning of thinking.”[12] There is no simple boundary between man and animals, between the human and the inhuman; there is rather a multiplicity of limits and of life’s heterogeneous structures, there are “organizational and disorganization relationships between realms, which become more and more difficult to dissociate.” We must therefore, he concludes, invent a “human concept of animals”[13] (or maybe an animal concept of man; but Derrida never went so far).

Finally, there is Deleuze, who, in my opinion, most radically disposed of the figure of classical humanism. Nothing is more alien to Deleuze’s thinking than humanist and personalist discourse, and not merely because of its mystifying ambience of moralism. Deleuze’s program amounts to dissolving the ego in favor of a non-personal, non-identitary subjectivity, in favor of what he calls the “impersonal powers,” including of course all that goes beyond man. This means less shape than force, event. It means, for example, thinking in terms of language events, in terms of flows, lay-outs and deterritorialization instead of the human face, figure, and form. Deleuze is interested in metamorphoses; Gregor Samsa’s into an animal is emblematic. Deleuze speaks early of “becoming animal,” by which he means the end of the man/ animal, human/ non-human opposition, the production of a continuous zone of transformations between the human and animal poles. “Becoming animal,” Deleuze writes, means

drawing escape lines, reaching a continuum of intensities where all forms and also all meaning dissolve […] in favor of amorphous matter. […] Kafka’s animals never refer to a mythology or to archetypes; they only correspond to [...] zones of liberated intensities where contents are emancipated from their forms.[14]

Becoming animal is therefore, for Deleuze, a condition of artistic practice. He speaks of Marcel Proust becoming a spider, Franz Kafka becoming an animal, Herman Melville’s Ahab becoming a whale. For example, in Logique de la sensation (The Logic of Sensation), his book on Francis Bacon’s paintings that has become a classic, he shows how Bacon succeeds in “revealing the head under the face,” in recovering “the head’s animal traits,”[15] in making these zones of the indiscernability, the undecidecidability of man and animal, visible and palpable. “From man to the beast,” writes Deleuze,

there is not a similitude but a fundamental identity, [...] deeper than all forms of sentimental identification: the man that suffers is a beast, the beast that suffers is a man. This is the reality of becoming. Which revolutionary artist, politician, religious man or any other revolutionary man has never felt this ultimate moment when he was purely a beast, becoming responsible not for dying calves but to dying calves?[16]

In this sense Deleuze repeats Artaud’s formula (he too, like all the rest, had been reading much of Artaud). The formula is: Man (Deleuze speaks of the “Man-form,” Artaud of the human body’s anatomical enclosure) has been a form of prison for life. Another form is probably being born, not necessarily a human form, as Deleuze suggests in a 1986 interview:

This may be an animal form and man only its avatar; a divine form, and man its reflection […], today man enters into relationships with yet other forces (the cosmos in the vastness of space, particles in matter, silicon in machines…).[17]

In other words, the question will no longer be human versus inhuman, but rather one about a process reiterated without end, about unstable forms in eternal movement, evolution; what Deleuze calls the power of non-organic life, of which man is only one of its passing forms.

[1] Michel Foucault: Dits et Ecrits. Vol. 1: 1954–1969, Paris 1994, p. 568. All translations from the French are by Christophe Kotanyi.

[2] Maurice Blanchot: L’Espace littéraire. Paris 1955, p. 309.

[3] Antonin Artaud: Oeuvres complètes. Vol. VIII, Paris 1971, p. 135.

[4] Ibid., pp. 115 f.

[5] Idem: “Le visage humain” [1947], in: L’Ephémère, no. 13 (1970), p. 47.

[6] Jean-Paul Sartre: La Nausée. Paris 1972, pp. 186 f.

[7] Maurice Blanchot: “Du côté de Nietzsche,” in: La part du feu [The Work of Fire]. Paris 1949, p. 285.

[8] Idem: L’Entretien infini [The Infinite Conversation]. Paris 1969, p. 308.

[9] Jean-François Lyotard: L’Inhumain, Paris 1988 and Leçons sur l’Analytique du sublime [Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime]. Paris 1991.

[10] Antonin Artaud: “Messages révolutionnaires,” in: idem: Oeuvres (1971), p. 728.

[11] See Jacques Derrida: L’Écriture et la différence. Paris 1967.

[12] Idem: “L’animal donc que je suis (à suivre),” in: Marie-Louise Mallet (ed.): L’Animal autobiographique. Autour de Jacques Derrida. Paris 1999, pp. 251–301, p. 279.

[13] Ibid., p. 285.

[14] Gilles Deleuze with Félix Guattari: Kafka. Pour une littérature mineure. Paris 1975, p. 24.

[15] Gilles Deleuze: Logique de la sensation. Paris 1981, p. 27.

[16] Ibid., p. 21.

[17] Idem: Pourparlers 1972–1990. Paris 1990, p. 160.

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