Coronavirus and the Second Coming of (Hu)Man

Michel Foucault – Image Source: YouTube

Coronavirus has bridged the gap between life and death. The distant death has become a near actuality. We are challenged to live with an imminent death. The undoing of life has entered our life and disrupted our ways of being human. It is time to think about human life in its integrity in the wake of the global pandemic. The pandemic is opening new vistas on the nature and character of human life. It is a special way that opens us to the radical finitude of humans. We attempt to try to engender the new vistas open by the pandemic in this study. We have divided the study into three parts. The first part studies the Foucaultian Analytic of human finitude. The second part draws us to the kind of human finitude made visible by the global pandemic. The third part deals with the possibility that the new human finitude associated with the global pandemic may stage radically new possibilities of being human. We call these new radical possibilities the second coming of the (Hu)Man.1

I

Foucaultian Analytic of Human Finitude

The Death of Man

The last nail has been put on the coffin of Humans by coronavirus. It firmly challenges every shade of anthropocentrism. It seems to have interrogated that man as a bearer of progressive telos of history . Michel Foucault had already declared that man is dead. He thought that man was a recent invention and is threatened with erasure like the face drawn in the sand at the edge of the sea. Although there are critiques of Foucault, we can still trace a thinker earlier than him who also denounced the notion of man. We can trace such a position in Karl Marx. Marx said “I do not see any man, I only see workers, bourgeois and intellectual”. What we have come to understand in the wake of the global pandemic is that the meaning that we can assign to words like man/Human in his/her corporeal, labouring, speaking existence has to include his or her radically finite. This means the global pandemic has marked in red lines that the Das Ding of humans is finitude. The content that we give to our understandings of finitude changes over time. Foucault seems to suggest that a kind understanding of finitude that belongs to the nineteen century which became the foundation of human sciences is dead. This is why he thinks man is a recent invention and is eroded by meaning. In other words, the conditions apriori conditions of possibilities that grounded our understanding of man have dissolved and we have to bury that understanding of man. Man can no longer enjoy a privileged location in the order of the world.

Man as Subject and Object of Knowledge

Foucault clearly shows a shift from knowledge as representation to the representing subject. The classical period thought of knowledge as representation of things and believed that things were representable . Under modernity, the focus shifted from representations to the representing subject. This shift is clearly visible in Kant who puts his focus on the activity of representation with an intention to find an a priori condition that will become foundation for all representational content. Foucault teaches that the very being of what is represented fell outside of representation. Since we have no knowledge of the numena, man (who is also a construct) became the foundation of empirical knowledge . To be known is still to be represented But it has to conform to the condition laid out by Kant in the Transcendental Aesthetic and Transcendental Analytic . At the same time man is also the object of representation of the same condition of possibilities. This is what Foucault calls man in this context as an empirico-transcendental doublet. This means man represents himself in space (where he sees his body) and time (where he sees his consciousness of his internal states). Thus, with Kant man appears as an object of knowledge as well as became the condition of possibility of knowledge. This means there is a split in man. There is an empirical I of self apprehension conscious of the internal states and there is the transcendental I of the I think of transcendental apperception.

Finitude Marked by Modernity

From Kant onwards a new understanding of human finitude developed. This understanding is completely different from the classical period where Infinite was central.2 This is why Descartes could prove the existence of God from the very presence of an Infinite Idea. This meant that Descartes gave ontological pre-eminence over the finite. The fact that effect cannot be greater than the cause, leaves the only possibility for Descartes to conclude that the infinite idea was infused in us by God himself. While this being so, Foucault says that the hallmark of the anthropological turn is that the human finitude is not thought with reference to God as done by Descartes but is thought through cross reference to self. This means human science (knowledge) is founded on the background of this new understanding of human finitude. Foucault points to what may be called empirical as we as well as transcendental shades of understanding of finitude. The empirical finitude has to do with the subjection of humans to the forms of life, labour and language. This means humans are subjected to various biological, environmental and social processes over which they have little control right from their birth. These are the forms (life, labour and language) where humans learn to live their finitude. These forms are also objects of knowledge that are refined as biology, economics and linguistics. To build this knowledge, humans depend on their transcendental aspect that determines the conditions under which all empirical objects are epistemically defined. Thus, transcendental finitude makes our knowledge possible. It is through this understanding of finitude that man became the subject of all knowledge and object of possible knowledge

II

Coronavirus and Human Finitude

Living our Finitude

Coronavirus does not allow us to posit humans as the pinnacle of creation. No entity can be given a divine status. No human is divine. Everything cannot be totalized under the category of humans. We have reached a point where primacy of the human over everything is put into question. We thought following Heidegger we know that only humans can put the condition of their possibility into question. Because of this ability of self-distantiated interrogation, Heidegger might have named man as Dasien. It is this ability to stand apart from beings in their totality and their stable presence, Dasien is let free the very meaning of being in its totality. Coronavirus has not taken away this ability of asking questions. Particularly it has sharpened the question ‘who I am?’, and its allied questions ’what ought to be ?’, and ‘what have I the possibilities of being?’ Coronavirus has derailed our ways of being human but all the same, it has opened alternate ways of being human in the world. It has not taken away our finitude. This is why we do not just ask the ontological question ‘who am I?’ but raise the ontological question ‘what it means to be human?’It is the ontological question that illuminates the way we live our finitude. The Global pandemic has intensified this radical way of living our finitude.

Facing the Revelatory Power of Death

It has opened us to the revelatory power of death. Once again, Heidegger becomes insightful to explore the revelatory power death that we face today because of the global pandemic. Death which always was an impending distant possibility is threatening to be a near actuality because of Covid-19. We are forcefully reminded that humans are a finite mortal entity. Maybe it is important to scrutinize the conditions of possibility of this forceful realization of our finitude and mortality. At the ontic level, it is the covid-19 infection and its embrace of entire humanity. The ontic spectrum includes the radical indeterminacy associated with the transmission of infection as well as the possibilities of death that it can bring to us. At the ontological level is one of radical finitude that belongs to the common humanity of each of us. We live this finitude at the level of being vulnerable to the infection as well as possible death. It appears that humans have to pass through self-policing regimes and when infected with the deadly virus offer themselves to the gaze of the Doctor (expert)who puts the infected person onto strict medical regimes. Certainly, we are facing our finitude in the most radical manner today. It might remind us of the anthropology of controversial German philosopher Arnold Gehlen who views humans marked with a profound lack that makes them less than animals. He thinks that as compared to other animals man is distinctly deficient. Man lacks the natural instincts which are power weapons for survival.3 This is why he says man depends on technology for survival. In the context of the pandemic humans need medical knowhow and technology for survival.

Living an Aufhebung

It seems that the pandemic has declared the death of ultra individualism. The fact that we can save ourselves only by saving the other shows that I –for-myself culture has become self defeating. The break from I-for-myself opens other ways of being ‘I’. The fact that I save myself by saving the other though practices of dying to the self is already a death blow to ecological living. Use of the mask, practice of social distance, hand hygiene, practice of self- quarantine are all geared to the protection of the self by protecting the other. It is by caring for the finitude of the other, the vulnerable and the poor that we can protect ourselves. Pandemic is like my neighbour’s house is on fire. One cannot remain passive about the neighbour’s house on fire. If one opts for passivism, one’s own house will catch fire. The condition of the pandemic made it possible for the ‘I-for-other appear’ and ‘I-for-myself’ to die. It is a kind of a Hegelian sublation or aufhebung. This means there is transmuting of the I into a caring WE which is the synoptic I with its other.4 Thus, the I overflows into the other and vice versa to make a caring WE. This means the pandemic opens possibilities of the second coming of man/ Humans. The second coming of (Hu)man is just happening and has not come to an end. How will this second coming of man be staged and unfolded remains undecided. This is in line with Derrida who thinks that the death of man is not possible without some form of transfiguration to a new stage.

III

The Second Coming of (Hu)Man

Hesitant Living

Coronavirus has awakened us from the dogmatic slumbers of anthropology. It does not mean we see humans as less than animals like Arnold Gehelen wants us to think. Although we can feel the self under siege, we cannot think of the finitude in the idiom of Gehelen. All inequalities melt in front of covid-19. It has become like death a great equalizer. It has become a great opportunity to learn to live. We are pushed into what may be called hesitant living. Our life is circumvented by the virus. It is in this hesitant living that we are living out our vulnerability and finitude. This is a revelatory power of this hesitant living. It is not the death of humans but is a second coming of the (Hu)man. Hesitant living is a kind of circumcision of our life. It is living with death in our mouth. It is living with an anticipated future disaster in the present. In some way each of us has the burden of the possible infection that we might get. Moreover, the pain of the death and struggles of humanity against covid-19 come close to us with the death of our own loved ones. Our present is then fully infiltrated with pain and loss that covid-19 brings. The pain of this loss also embeds our hesitant living. Our present is punctured by this anterior possibility. But our hope is that with Covid vaccine our hesitant present will come to an end. We have to face the specters of covid-19 everywhere. It has not just punctured our time. It has alienated us from our space. Hesitant living has marked our space and we do feel safe anywhere. Our unhoming has come full circle. There are blessings with hesitant living. It may assist us to understand death and teach us how to embrace death when it becomes inevitable. Besides, it has given us lessons and experience of survivors.

Living with Death 

The virus can slip anytime into our life. We cannot be fully self present to ourselves without calculating the possible infection and even death. Our infection being in the field of probability we are afflicted by an absent presence. The hetero and the thanato have come to live in the bio. Haunting otherness and death embeds our self sameness and innocence of life. In fact death becomes the otherness of life that is not waiting at the end of life but is all the time life is carrying the weight of death. The otherness or death is at the core of life and not merely its end goal. Death undermines life and life overcomes death all the time. We seem to be waging a battle against an enemy that always seems to be one step ahead of us. Like death, somehow covid-19 is inscribed into us. It has somewhat undone our life and community. We confined to hesitant living. Maybe we can make the hesitant living the basis of our life and community. Hesitant living has certainly borough ethics into our life. Life has moving towards death has already undoing attached to it. There is this hesitant living attached to it. The very dynamism and becoming of life is one that is making it a hesitant living. We have forgotten the hesitant dimension of life. Thanks to the global pandemic hesitant living has become the order of life. Hesitant living show life is can be lived in a full continuous totalized flow. It can only be lived with an interruptive sip by sip. It opens nonlinear way of life. It shows that life is not linear progression. It can take multiple directions. Life is never smooth. Hesitant living is a suspended living. It makes us feel that things are not working. In some sense we think life is not adding up. This is death ridden life. Life is always pulled back. The wound of death on the face of life refuses to be healed. Covid-19 has radicalised our experience of living with death. Life as having been marked with death cannot be fully immanentized. Death constantly opens it to the transcendent. Life can only be lived as immanent seeking transcendence. It is an immanent transcendence that reaches its climax in death.

Giving up Logocentrisms

We are facing an interrupted presence of the virus. It does not mean that it is absent. It is in accordance with the order of life. We have seen that life cannot be fully self present to itself. It is always marked by the possibility of being impossible (death). This is also true of the virus. It needs a living victim who becomes a vector. Though the virus can be found on surfaces, it cannot survive for long. It needs the human victim who will allow it to replicate and live. This fact can explain how life is an interrupted living. Such a hesitant living that has disrupted human life and community under covid-19 can become the very foundation of human life and community. Sense of incompleteness produces our sense of dependence and becomes the ignition point of human community life. But there is no perfect community possible. All communities are marked by their disappearance (death). All communities live on the edge of being broken down. There is something that is unworking within them. This is why community life is political. This unworking or undoing is embedded in the very process of being communities. In fact we have to give up logocentric understanding of life and human communities. Life is not just marked by positivities, it is also marked with negativities. All Possibilities in life are contingent and are rooted into our finitude. The singular event of the global pandemic opens us to the undoing (death) dimension of life and human communities. The present absence of the virus is congruent to the possibility of being impossible that marks our life all the time. This is why we have to reject logocentrism that do not take an integral view of life. Logocentrism do consider the dynamic undoing or unworking side of life. It is this disruptive dimension of life that becomes the living dynamism of life. The seconding of the (hu)man in a post-covid-19 condition is challenged and accepts the radical impossibility (death) that marks all possibilities of human life.

Conclusion 

The covid-19 pandemic does not lead to the death of man but opens new possibilities of understanding finitude in a radical sense. Our study shows that after covid-19 a new understanding of human finitude is opening up. We are living this finitude by adopting a hesitant living. Our hesitant living manifests that life is an immanent transcendence that is intimately marked by death. Life is a way of living death. Death is not a distant part of life. it is the other of life that is intimately linked to life.

Sources

  1. Term (Hu)Man suggests that man cannot be dead. But will transfigure into a new meaning and ways of being human.
  2. Foucault thinks that the classical period extends from the end of renaissance in the mid 17th century to the turn of the 19th century. Here the notion of man that we encountered in the 1960s has no place. Foucault uses its absence as a point of demarcation for the invention of man.
  3. Link accessed on 22/11/2020
  4. It is singular plurals of Jean- Luc Nancy

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