It's Hard (Not) to Be Human

'What It Means to Be Human: Reflections from 1791 to the Present'

by James Williams

17 January 2012

If in the past few decades, humanist inquiry has examined the disfranchisement of women, non-white populations and non-heterosexual individuals, the last few years have witnessed a significant shift in focus to subjects that have traditionally been described as non-human: automata and objects, for instance, and as here, animals.
cover art

What It Means to Be Human: Reflections from 1791 to the Present

Joanna Bourke

US: Dec 2011

Once upon a time the humanities devoted themselves to studying and appreciating “the best that has been thought and said”—in other words, to the superlative achievements of the human mind in art, literature, and music. Or at least this is what they’re supposed to do, according to the 19th-century critic Matthew Arnold. Whether or not the academic humanities—an obviously vast and various collection of subjects, interests, approaches, and curricula—ever really understood their mission in these terms is debatable. It is, however, the case that these days, the phrase tends to serve as a rallying cry for defenses of traditionally canonical art and literature and the imperative to admire their aesthetic and intellectual significance.

Devotees of the approach to the humanities commended by Arnold tend to espouse a general cultural, social, and religious conservatism—Roger Kimball, an American art historian and intellectual, and Roger Scruton, a British philosopher, come to mind. Like Arnold, the two Rogers see in the (roughly) European or Western tradition an unsurpassed expression of the complexities of being human, the capacity for experiencing and expressing the sublime for example (neither, however, views it as the substitute for a defunct religious tradition in the way that Arnold proposed).

Scruton and Kimball exist either at the periphery of or in open antagonism with the academic establishment, a point I make (along with the excursus into academic history of the previous two paragraphs) to emphasize how foreign an Arnoldian viewpoint is to contemporary humanistic study at American and British universities and colleges. Shorthand must suffice here, but the general trend in the academic humanities since, roughly, the late ‘60s, has been to move away from the celebration and inculcation of appreciation for a received body or art and literature. Instead, the mission of much scholarship is to trouble the assumptions that underwrite the creation of canons of art and literature and the allegedly problematic political and economic realities they both reflect and promote.

On the evidence of What It Means to Be Human: Reflections from 1791 to the Present Joanna Bourke, professor of history at the University of London, is firmly in this camp. Indeed, the aim of the volume is to unsettle the very concept of what constitutes human nature. She writes in the introduction to her study:

“It turns out that the concept ‘human is very volatile. In every period of history and every culture, commonsensical constructions of ‘the human’ and ‘the animal’ exist, but the distinction is constantly undermined and re-constructed. My point is not simply that there is a porous boundary between the human and the animal (although there certainly is), but that the distinction is both contested and policed with demonic precision. In complex and sometimes contradictory ways, the ideas, values and practices used to justify the sovereignty of a particular understanding of ‘the human’ over the rest of sentient life are what create society and social life… What philosopher Giorgio Agamben has called the ‘anthropological machine’, or the compulsive inclination to demarcate the territory of the human from that of the non-human, is one of the great driving forces of history. Delimiting those territories not only involves violence but inspires it.”


Those familiar with Jacques Derrida’s concept of deconstruction will recognize its influence, both here and throughout the work. In fact, Bourke explicitly states that Derrida’s work is the guide-star of her study. Her later use of the adjective “famous” to describe a passage from one of Derrida’s works would also seem to indicate that she has, like many of Derrida’s enthusiasts, lost sight of the fact that knowledge of his work, much less appreciation for it, is shared by a very small percentage of the general population.

More importantly, appreciation for What It Means to Be Human will largely be determined by the reader’s sympathy for trends in the academic humanities that can loosely be described as post-structuralist. If in the past few decades, humanist inquiry has examined the disfranchisement of women, non-white populations, non-heterosexual individuals, and so on, the last few years have witnessed a significant, though by no means universal, shift in focus to subjects that have traditionally been described as non-human—automata and objects, for instance, and as here, animals. Bourke contends that the very terms and intellectual paradigms that once excluded women and persons of African descent from the fellowship of the human are deeply similar—in some cases, identical—to those used to exclude, for example, pigs, chimpanzees, and dogs.

In other words, the volume is interested in how “human” is not a universally recognized acknowledgment of an intrinsic essence but, rather, a title that certain groups reserve for themselves so that they might exercise ideological, political, and physical power over other beings. Readers of Bourke’s volume are, then, faced with this central irony: while it is an exercise in humanistic inquiry, its aim is to illustrate the dangers of “human” as a taxonomic classification of living beings—the toll of suffering, abuse, and oppression it has caused (according to Bourke). 

Here it must be noted that while Bourke several times acknowledges the influence of Derrida’s work on the volume, nowhere does she mention the work of Michel Foucault, whose obsession with a numinous “power” as the engine of society and culture is clearly on display here. Whatever reasons there may be for this, it bears noting that when it comes to use of the historical record Bourke, like Foucault, is… well, the kind term here would be “creative”, the less kind, “haphazard”.

The subtitle “Reflections from 1791 to the Present” suggests that What It Means to be Human will examine the definition of the human as it has existed in the modern world in at least somewhat chronological fashion—and this it does, in a way. The presents and reflects on material from the late 18th to early 21st centuries.

It does so, though, in rather perambulatory fashion (the inclusion of brief summaries of each of the six parts into which the volume is organized seems to be an attempt to impose a kind of after-the-fact organizational structure on the mass of material). As for that mass, the volume certainly cannot be accused of intellectual narrow-mindedness. It examines literature (Franz Kafka’s story “A Report to an Academy”), a letter to the editor of a London newspaper dated 1872, scientific experiments of various kinds, practices in plastic surgery, and on and on. The individual objects are usually intriguing—and Bourke often does a fine job of elucidating their significance—but their relevance to larger, more comprehensive realities of the time and place from which they emerge is at best underdeveloped, at worst entirely missing.

The work also runs into the central problem of so much deconstructionist-oriented scholarship, namely that it leaves the reader with the inclination to ask, “So what?” Bourke claims in the conclusion that the guiding figures and concepts of the work offer a vaguely progressive alternative to the models of humanity that the volume considers:

“They provide a way of playing with difference, while avoiding the tendency to invent other creatures (human or animal) in our own image or to use them as pawns in our own ideological or material battles. They are tools, if you like, that offer a subversive critique of identity political, based on a play of difference (‘them’) versus sameness (‘us’). They deny the hierarchies that work against justice while, at the same time, paying homage to a desire for authenticity, certainty, and community.”

This is from the conclusion, and it goes on in this vein for awhile longer (with a repetition of terms that indicates either fervor or poor editing). It is also, of course, very nearly meaningless. Still, if the post-human becomes a fixture of future humanistic study, What It Means To Be Human should prove a significant early installment in the discourse.

What It Means to Be Human: Reflections from 1791 to the Present



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