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Creating a New Global Togetherness
Humanism – From the Concept of Individual to Dividual

The monument The Long March to Freedom in South Africa consists of statues representing individuals who struggled against oppression since the 1700s until the first elections post-apartheid in 1994.
The bronze statues at The Long March to Freedom in South Africa represent individuals who struggled against oppression since the 1700s until Freedom Day in 1994, the day of the first elections post-apartheid. | Photo (detail): Lyv Tianran © picture alliance / Xinhua News Agency

The concept of humanism involves much more than just being human. After all, as philosopher Michaela Ott writes, for a long time colonialism defined who was viewed as a person and who was not, and which compelling reasons there are for replacing this term with something more inclusive. 

By Michaela Ott

Humanism – a controversial concept all over the world today. After all, authors critical of colonialism, such as Frantz Fanon and Jean-Paul Sartre, were already seeking to delegitimise this progressive idea at the start of the 1960s. As a result, all humanitarian initiatives nowadays are tainted by dressed-up Western aggression – even the ones organised by the United Nations.

Nevertheless we keep hearing African and other voices from the Global South calling for a critical return to humaneness, simply because human status in history has not been accorded equally to all individuals and peoples due to racism.

This gives rise to the question of whether we need to change the concept of humanism so that it is no longer based on the idea of an autonomous profit-driven individual, but rather understands the person as an integral part of a structure in terms of biosociety, culture, media, environment and economy, and thus as a “(not in)dividual” – but instead shared in multiple directions and dependent on countless others.    

Release from the language of the colonisers

Jean-Paul Sartre’s postulation that the whole of humanity should be included in the humanistic ethic is undermined through his encounter with authors from other cultures. In his foreword to Léopold Sédar Senghor’s poetry collection Anthologie de la poésie nègre et malgache de langue francaise (i.e. Anthology of the negro and Malagasy poetry of French language), published in 1947, he admits that the experience of being addressed by Black authors means not only a change to himself, but a complete transformation of the world. He felt that the perspective of Black individuals destroys the colourless self-image of European people; the Black gaze instantly reveals the limitations of the white world.

And yet the poets of the Global South would first have to liberate themselves from the language of the coloniser, drive the whiteness out of it, smash it up and reimagine it – which actually did happen in Antillean Creole. Of course Sartre still hopes that, despite the poetic caricature of the European heritage, a new humanism will be resurrected and result in human universality again – under a Black majority from now on – which will include the white minority.

In his paper published in 1952 Peau noire masques blancs (Black Skin, White Masks), Frantz Fanon is already calling for a new humanism, that of “our coloured brothers”. He believed that the essence of Black people is not the same as the essence of people in general, in fact it is quite the opposite: a feeling of non-existence. A Black person’s right of existence is challenged right from the start; so first of all they have to be liberated from their efforts to become white.

Marginalisation through humanism

After the experience of the Algerian War of Independence, Fanon’s tone then becomes unrelenting in his book Les damnés de la terre (The Wretched of the Earth), which was published in 1961: what he now expects of decolonisation is the “replacement of one human race with another” – an absolute substitution. He believes that the humanist ideal has definitively proved itself unviable through the violence committed towards people in the colonies. European culture had forgotten that it was dehumanising and damaging itself as a result, he claims.

Sartre also acknowledges in his foreword to this paper that the “yellow and black voices” were now demonstrating the dual morality of the civilisation process, which declares humanism to be a universal concept and particularises the Africans in its racist practice. Ascribing and denying a human being their status at the same time, aspiring towards them yet hating them: this contradiction is explosive.

So according to Fanon, we cannot avoid unlearning the individualism conditioned into us and the idea of a society in which everyone is “locked into their own subjectivity”. Europe has shown, he says, that it is no longer capable of a credible humanism and is therefore running headlong to its own destruction: the colonial aggression will turn against Europe. But because Fanon still desires the striptease of that essentialising humanism, he even criticises Senghor’s concept of Négritude and its appreciation of the Black individual.

So an antihumanist programme defines the French philosophy that follows on from this. Denouncing humanism as a justification of the plundering becomes a motivator for the theories of Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. An affirmed deconstruction of humanist individualism is articulated through terms such as “ahuman” and “becoming asubjective”. The idea is to replace them with the concept of “becoming other” and the “dividual”, which refers to the process of interrelation between people and cultures, with countless “others”, not all human, as well as forms of affection not specific to one genre or culture.

From individual to dividual

Deleuze’s concept of the dividual, initially explained using the example of the non-individual expression of time-based art such as film or musical composition, is being applied today by anthropologists such as Argentinian Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, Marilyn Strathern from Britain and Indian Arjun Appadurai to define the blurred boundaries of people and social collectives, especially in Indigenous cultures, from late Deleuze also to the criticism of the way every individual is collected digitally and appropriated to databases.

Nevertheless we keep hearing African voices, for example that of Leonard Praeg from South Africa, calling for a return to a “critical humanism” and reflecting on questions of a “shared humanity”. Nigeria philosopher Olúfémi Táíwò remembers that ascribing the human nature Africans had been denied in colonial times was of utmost importance for the postcolonial self-image in Africa. For this reason it is seen as important to come up with human actors in the first place, or decide which human type is politically desirable.

The philosopher Fabien Eboussi Boulaga from Cameroon for his part laments the relinquishment of the term of humanity in contemporary French theories, and the fact that philosophising has been dismissed as reflecting about human life. That approach only brings up more specified others than reclassifiable and subjected subjects. With the relinquisment of the imperative of a common world, the people of the Earth are reduced to anthropological specimens for whom the last form of encounter has become war.

A programme of cross-cultural decolonisation is being put forward today by Cameroonian theorist Achille Mbembe, who wants to see all those excluded from the globalised value creation chains united together, not just Black people, under a principle of Black Reason (2013). He hopes for a new “universality in progress”, which will also take greater account of the unequal economic distribution.

To do justice to the specific situatedness of each unique human being today, I believe we need to strengthen perspectives and concepts in which the person can identify as a (non in)dividual participant in cross-cultural political ensembles and collectives that also include non-human agents, as called for by Fanon. Because it is only from the angle of the biosocial, ecological and economical dependency of people and society on each other that decisions can be made at local and global levels which are appropriate to the necessary planetary consciousness and help to assure the world’s survival.