what lies beyond humanism?

AndreaDworkinI am writing now in the wake of a conversation with a friend about her research in literary psychology, which asks whether analysis of the seminal book Intercourse by Andrea Dworkin (pictured) reveals an (unconscious) theological basis for her theory. It was a fascinating conversation and shed some light for me on a central theme in my own research, which I shall try to summarise here. The discourse and territory are unfamiliar so I must apologise in advance for any misrepresentation of ideas.

Noa Abend’s research takes as a starting point the idea that secular humanism can in itself be seen as a form of theology, in the sense that its root hypotheses remain unprovable, or ethical in nature. It is at this level that a reading of Dworkin’s work, explicitly atheistic, can perhaps be said to present a ‘theological’ position. Dworkin’s book Intercourse explores the position that heterosexual intercourse in a male-centric society is inextricably an act and a means of subordination of woman by man. She argues that this may be entered into willingly or unwillingly, and emphasized or minimised, but that the power dynamic is inherent. The book and its argument have been significant for feminist discourse and for countless individual readers, not least because they make explicit the hidden violence implicit in conventional western heterosexual attitudes to sex and gender.

I have come across Dworkin’s ideas in conversation, though I have never read her books, and I am inclined to agree with her arguments as I understand them. On the other hand, on encountering these ideas I am wary of the apparent determinism implicit in her position, and wonder also where queer realities fit in, as well as more broadly what the practical implications are for those who accept it. In response to my questions, Noa explained that Dworkin claims everything in society is culturally constructed, and refuses to enter into the debate about human ‘nature’, citing the holocaust as an ultimate justification for this attitude. For Dworkin, and perhaps others of her generation, it was critically important to distance herself from ideas of ‘nature’ that had been and were still used to justify inequality and supremacist agendas.

I think in many ways my own internalised philosophical position is similar, and I feel an immediate and strong aversion to deterministic meta-narratives. At the same time, I see a need to move beyond the point where nature is rejected as a cultural construct, since this too seems to me to support a human-centric and supremacist reading of the world. The question I want to ask is, can nature be brought back into the conversation as an actor, a participant? Not enlisted as a prop for human conceptions of the world but approached through new methods that enable a reciprocal exchange? The same danger that for Dworkin rested in claims for ‘nature’, seems to me still present in claims for ‘culture’, and this is borne out by the persistence of precisely those ‘inhuman’ activities – slavery, genocide, rape – which humanist thinking seeks to leave behind.

This question is, I think, a part of the wider discourse in geography and elsewhere that seeks to review the place of materiality and more-than-human lifeworlds in academic enquiry.


6 responses to “what lies beyond humanism?

  1. could homophobia in some ways relate to a deep underlying, and also not so underlying, fear of that inherent power dynamic being challenged/ changed within relationships and or wider culture?

  2. Pingback: what lies beyond humanism? | the weeds & the wilderness·

  3. I thank you for your development of this line of thought and the resulting notion that to reject nature as a cultural construct is in itself human-centric. I think you have articulated what I thought without my having sorted out my own articulation. I feel prompted to share that during a uni course on Shakespeare which leaned towards the Freudian in interpretation, there was one young woman who repeatedly insisted in loud tones that gender is purely a social construct; this bothered me. When Leila was born, during her very first hours and days, still in hospital, she would turn on high-wattage super-flirtation mode whenever a male doctor paid her any attention; the female doctor and nurses were more-or-less ignored by comparison. I couldn’t help but feel she knew something that young lady in my class had forgotten (or repressed).

    • * I should have written more carefully: I meant any one of the number of male doctors. This was not a personal issue, but was noticed by me & other family members in her interaction with many individuals working with her in the hospital.

  4. Just started the ‘Affect and Biopolitics’ unit (part of MSc Society and Space at Bristol Univeristy); reading Spinoza and various later commentators such as Sharp, who sees social constructionism as founded on a mind-body split inherited from Christian dualism, and ultimately as bound up with this dualism as a source of human violence and discontent. This left me with a sense of acute intellectual vertigo and confusion, but as the ideas have settled (on the cycle home) I realise this is in part what I was writing about here…

    Pleased to discover I’m on the right course!

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