Beware of the Posthuman: The Faciality of the Ascetic

We take it that ‘posthumanism’ has become a needless rhetorical exercise despite tons of works dedicated to its elaboration and presumably its emancipatory potential vis-à-vis the most persistent threat of the day, techno-determinism. [1] That its persistence is arguably self-reflexive in the sense that it is self-correcting is a sign that it is on to something.

The notion of self has to be implicated here, regardless whether the posthuman is already aggressively disabusing self-reflexivity of its unmistakable Kantian schemata, allegedly because there is no more self to begin with, an outcome of overcoming the self which otherwise played a crucial role in Kant’s system. Arguably, the posthuman advocates a notion of non-self (Bataille comes to mind) whose very act of self-transgression may lead to a relative perfection of knowledge into non-knowledge [2]. But where this relative perfection gives us a glimpse of the post-human, the human as a strict correlate of knowledge, what matters (or what can lay claim to correctness as far as Nietzsche is concerned) is how the attempt to overcome the ‘human’ satisfies at least the minimum requirement of transvaluation. Whether transvaluation gestures a direction towards the ‘posthuman’ is a matter in need of clarification, at least in Nietzsche’s terms.

Nietzsche’s over-all pronouncement in Genealogy, lest we forget, the focal point of the critique of the human, is at least obvious to Deleuze who understood his pronouncements as otherwise urgent, the urgency to raise the question of ‘who will undertake the critique of values’. [3] It would turn out that the question is really about pursuing a critique of the critic himself who turned out to be the ascetic—Nietzsche’s concept of overcoming is after all directed at the ascetic [4] that Kant valorised in all his Critiques. The ascetic is charged by Kant with the responsibility to critique the values of the past as they contaminate and underpin the present. The ascetic as critic is the faciality of Kant’s practical reason which is no longer that of the typical human if we can still think of the human as having all the healthy attributes in the wake of the death of God which Kant was also secretly trying to overcome (whose fulfillment, however, would need Nietzsche to explode like one of those machines [5]).

nietzsche and chaos

But the ascetic is the exhausted [6] face of pure reason, bound to the moral exhortation to save at least the minimum of the human, to save the will itself, as Nietzsche puts it, struggling in the midst of the ruins of the old world. The ascetic is encouraged by the Critiques to still entertain the objective illusion that he is still a subject by any means, and therefore a subject capable of undertaking a critique of how the subject itself has been obscured, displaced or sublated as a precondition for understanding the problem of metaphysics, the progenitor of past values or those which gave us the ruins in their unimaginable proportion (offering us more wars, hunger, famine, ecological disasters, etc.).But this is not only the way past values are wreaking havoc as they are also aggressively laying out the landscapes of the future imaginary which Kant would be happy to re-imagine by means of practical reason.

In other words, Kant resurrected the subject in the person of the ascetic. It is well to note here that the humanism of Kant (which acquires its post-Kantian sense in terms of the asceticism of philosophy) is the correct target of Nietzsche’s overcoming in light of the Kantian imaginary of the kingdom of ends. What underlies this kingdom is the discreet but powerful premise that humans are somehow capable of immortality if only that they could utilize to its moral perfectibility the exhortations of practical reason. Here, Kant has abandoned pure (speculative) reason in favor of practical (moral) reason which alone can figure out a way out of the antinomies of reason (such as played out in either science or philosophy) without incurring self-contradiction, that is to say, to simply exist without the comfort of speculation, or the extrinsic principle of the Idea, a kind of poverty dear to existentialism. It is of course debatable to say that Kant anticipated the existentialist movement, but with Nietzsche prying him open on behalf of our postmodern sensibility, it is fair to say that he rather anticipated a different kind of existentialism whose silent persistence may be aptly termed as posthumanist.

It is our contention here that the posthuman is what Kant was already affirming in the wake of the first Critique. For us, this necessarily requires confronting the question ‘what is Man?’ But we are not trying to revive existentialism here whose ushering in continental philosophy was rather premature. Contemporary existentialism (or at least the movement initiated by Sartre) was rather founded on a misguided relation to Heidegger’s Being and Time. Heidegger himself avoided the problem of the singularity of Man which reached its zenith in his infamous “Letter on Humanism.”7 Heidegger’s eschewal of the question instead favoured an appropriated existentiality that is deemed capable of surpassing nihilism only because this time it is devoid of any kind of attraction for philosophy (its attraction, if at all, has to be favoured rather by the Event, an appropriation of the kind only a releasement to mystery could express [8]) to raise the question anew as Kant had already buried this concept.

And yet the question ‘what is Man?’ has never been more relevant as we are confronted today with a deluge of post-humanism/s whose Kantian roots have never been problematized to its right context and magnitude. At least Sartre attempted to raise the problem from the ground up but only to find once again that the problem is better left untouched as the question of Man, as it had been raised in existentialism, secretly followed Kant’s clue—that practical reason could save all the antinomies of reason. Sartre was very much a child of continental philosophy with its paradigmatic allegiance to reflexivity, to a celebration of apodictic (moral) freedom. This is where Nietzsche comes in, arguably the outsider vis-à-vis the tradition of continental thought.

The Eschewal of the Question

The failure to raise the question (‘What is Man?’) becomes associated with the rise of the ascetic ideal which Nietzsche connects to the Kantian legacy. The ascetic ideal, as Nietzsche declares, is the existential condition of Man in which he “would rather will nothingness than not will at all.[9] To raise the question ‘What is Man?’ is to thus problematize the nihilism, the will to will nothing, that avoiding the question begets. (The avoidance of the question ironically begets the humanism deemed as antidote to the nagging persistence of the question. If Heidegger hated the term, he was right however in pointing out its conceptual baggage. Yet, he was entirely oblivious of the real question itself. It is no surprise why Heidegger left Being and Time unfinished. The point is–it has never been the question of Being, but rather of the critic, of the ascetic vis-a-vis the death of God). Consequently, the problematization of nihilism modifies the question into the ‘who’ of the agency that can take on the task of transvaluation.

We are therefore not surprised when Kant stopped short of proposing the fourth question a propos of the three famous questions that the Critique of Pure Reason offers to its readers, namely, 1)  What can I know? 2) What I ought to do? and 3) What may I hope? [10]. (Kant, however, raised the question in another work, in his lectures on Logic, but the effect is the same, as if the fourth question was never raised. In fact, according to him, the first three questions of the critique is already the question of Man). All throughout this questioning the presupposition of the unity of the ‘I’ gathers the three questions in an appropriative standpoint, that is, the standpoint of Man, but where Man has to be understood notwithstanding as a product of the noumenal appropriation of practical reason concerning the pre-existence of God, freedom and immortality.  The fourth question contains a term neglected in Kant, which as Deleuze correctly intimates, is otherwise necessary to make sense of the question who will undertake the critique of values that Kant initiated but failed to provide the right agency capable of achieving the task. [11]

Is this agency the ‘posthuman’? No. The posthuman is the ascetic of Kant, the human whose exhaustion already provides the answer to the question whether nihilism can be overcome. The exhausted cannot accomplish this task. If Kant valorised the posthuman it is no surprise why. Philosophy remains hostage to Kant’s asceticism as does the ‘general intellect’, for instance, in relation to the power of Capital which can indefinitely delay the question of emancipation, the fourth question that Kant, the real avant-garde of capital, suppressed. It would otherwise require in the Deleuzian sense a counter-philosophy of joy, [12] a rejuvenation of the body from out of the territorialized landscapes of freedom, yet it is freedom that is no longer attached to an exemplary causality, such as God or the immortality of the soul, and even less to an affirmation that Capital—the most immanent causal form of nihilism—cannot be overcome.

ascetic

This leads us to the radicalization of the fourth question from out of Nietzsche’s response to Kant’s questions in the Critique, that is, the question ‘who will undertake the critique of values’. Nietzsche charges this ‘who’ with the responsibility to undertake the transvaluation of values, the values that Kant resurrected from out of the ruins of traditional metaphysics while attempting to put a closure to it. In his most representative expression on this matter, Nietzsche says:

“Does one really in all seriousness still think (as the theologians deluded themselves for a while) that, for instance, Kant’s victory over the conceptual dogmas of theology (‘God’, ‘soul’, ‘freedom’, ‘immortality’) harmed [the] ideal? … What is certain is that, since Kant, all kinds of transcendentalists have once again won the day – they are liberated from the theologians: what luck! – Kant revealed to them the secret path along which they may from now on, in independence and with the greatest scientific respectability, pursue their ‘heart’s desire’.”[13]

We have never been posthuman in the same way the Kantian project of modernity, building on the efficacy of practical reason, is never meant as a forward march which arguably begets this post-human of contemporary theory, but as a regressive movement whose intention we were not allowed to suspect. The ‘post’ in the post-human is never meant as a projection, even less a trajectory for Kant lacked a conclusive assumption of time that can get away with the antinomies of reason which can yield equally true and false statements about the beginning and the lack of beginning of time. Recall that Kant dissolved the antinomies in favor of practical reason. But practical reason also lacks a projective aspect; needless to say, it is conservative, the one true virtue of modernity.

This is why we can never agree with Latour that ‘we have never been modern’.[14] Latour is discreetly defending Kant’s ascetic who in our time arguably possesses the power of reflexivity which can disabuse capitalism of its accelerating regression and hence to turn about in order to steer the course of history forward. On the contrary, we have always been modern as we have long before become ascetic whose reflexivity is never meant to raise the question of ‘who’ we have become.

The Way Forward

No doubt, capitalism or modernity has never been this-worldly. It thrives in the imaginary of the old world, its otherworldly character, whose values are the right values for its global dispensation. There lies the real faciality of nihilism—it is a nihilism that is devoid of any purpose except to delay the question of the ‘who’ in relation to the critique of values (or, in relation to the failed moment of existentialism, to suppress the real existentialism that Sartre also denied of us owing to his indebtedness to Kant, glossed over by his Nietzschean prose), and because the right agency to undertake the critique is blotted out in the picture, this nihilism has become a matter of pure willing, of practical reason. The regression of practical reason and the asceticism of philosophy today aims to silence the question, hence to deny the real threat of nihilism. Philosophy has become complicit with capital whose unmistakable goal is to deny the ultimate power of the question itself, the ‘who’ question which no longer requires philosophy and its audience, the question’s intrinsic power of the false [15] whose audience is rather flourishing beyond the walls of the asceticism of reason, beneath the locating, geo-tagging machines of capital.

The only way therefore is the way forward which requires of us that we turn about and face the real world behind us. But it is a world the posthuman will never ever choose to confront. It is a world already deep in ruins.

But already in this light, Nietzsche could not have chosen a more appropriate occasion to advocate an extreme type of garbage anthropology, the genealogy for our time, which illustrates for us that Kant’s rational anthropology has churned out a lot of cognitive post-human debris and more to pile up to the moral constitution of our psychotic age. It is indeed a stark contrast to the promise of clean and green ecology, what is promised precisely by the Critiques, the reconstruction of the ecology of the moral landscape of reason after destroying the old world along with its signature refuse – the bones of scholasticism. But against the background of climate entropy and ecological disasters, never has the question been more straightforward.

Tacloban typhoon aftermath

The ‘who question’ now addresses an army of sanitary workers, garbage collectors, waste disposal units, an assemblage of disaster management operatives; climate justice activists, hospice and rehab workers, and the like; peoples of deserted islands – the first victims of climate change, and the last men and women to whom the earth shall leave her place. Indeed, never has Nietzsche been much closer to the pedestrian, even more, truly prophetic of the power of the false – the power of the commons.

Notes

1. Excellent summaries of this issue are available at the following sites: http://darkecologies.com/2014/10/28/utopia-or-hell-the-future-as-posthuman-game-strategy/; http://deterritorialinvestigations.wordpress.com/2014/10/29/the-posthuman-and-the-information-guerrilla/. A video lecture of David Roden is available at http://syntheticzero.net/2014/10/28/how-human-will-posthumans-be-david-roden/. David Roden is the author of Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human.
2. Allan Stoekl, Bataille’s Peak: Energy, Religion and Postsustainability (Minnesota and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2007), 219, n. 10.
3. We are indebted to Deleuze with respect to the formulation of this question in his highly influential work Nietzsche and Philosophy (1983). See Gilles Deleuze, Nietzsche and Philosophy, trans. Hugh Tomlinson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983), 88.
4. See Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals: A Polemic. By way of clarification and supplement to my last book Beyond Good and Evil, trans. Douglas Smith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 136.
5.  See Iain Hamilton Grant, ‘At the Mountains of Madness. The Demonology of the New Earth and the Politics of Becoming’, in Keith Ansell Pearson (ed.) Deleuze and Philosophy. The Difference Engineer (Routledge, London and New York), 104.
6.   See Gilles Deleuze and Anthony Uhlman, “The Exhausted,” Substance, Vol. 24, No. 3, Issue 78 (1995), 3-28.
7. See Martin Heidegger, “Letter on Humanism,” in Basic Writings of Martin Heidegger, ed. David Farrel Krell (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1993).
8. Martin Heidegger, Discourse on Thinking, trans. John M. Anderson and E. Hans Freund (New York: Harper & Row, 1966), 54.
9. Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, 136.
10.   Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Werner Pluhar (Indianapolis and Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, 1996), 735, A820/B848.
11.   Deleuze, Nietzsche and Philosophy, 88.
12.   You may take a look at an example of this Deleuzian gesture at http://stephenvilaseca.wordpress.com/leonidas-martin/.
13.   Nietzsche, Genealogy, 130-31.
14.   Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, trans. Catherine Porter. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1993.
15.   Deleuze, heavily influenced by Nietzsche, develops this concept of the power of the false in his book Cinema 2: Time-Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta (London: Athlone Press, 2000), 121-38.
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One thought on “Beware of the Posthuman: The Faciality of the Ascetic”

  1. Just found the blog. Over at installing order.org we are starting a new format for people to contribute on a small scale. It is here: http://installingorder.org/2014/10/30/the-31-experiments-first-experiment/

    One of the topics were are going to tackle soon is “the Posthuman” and we’d like to invite you to join us. The goal is 500 words; totally direct and unedited; just an academic reaction.

    If you’re interested, please do write me: njr12 at psu.edu

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