03/15/2012 11:37 am ET Updated May 15, 2012

The Beauty in the "Beast": Humanity(-ies) in the Era of Globalization

Describing what was (and still is) broadly held as "abnormal" examples of biological development, J. B. Robinet observed in his book Considérations philosophiques sur la gradation naturelle des formes de l' être (1768)1:

We should believe that the most apparently bizarre forms... belong necessarily and essentially to the universal plan of being; that they are metamorphoses of the prototype as natural as the others, even though they present us with different phenomena;... that far from disturbing the order of things, they contribute to it.

Robinet was not writing from the point of view of a securely (en)forced political correctness like that often adopted (or simulated) by academics or other intellectuals today. By contrast to many representatives of the latter cast, who, at times, appropriate the cosmetics of such a discourse while at the same time vehemently advocating the status quo of power structures in their corresponding microcosms and the authority attributed to them, Robinet seems to articulate a rather genuine problematization of classificatory and wider ideological stereotypes. His emphasis on fluidity, creative intersections of different, even opposing, categories, ontological mobility, and epistemological receptiveness -- which stands in an intriguing opposition to his essentialized belief in a transcendental "universal plan" -- , finds a number of parallels in premodern societies, to a degree that may cause contemporary political and other advocates of our well-tempered-and-tamed (i.e. "plastic") multicultural tidiness to blush.

One, admittedly sensational, example may suffice to illustrate this point: in Byzantine religious tradition, which combined a great deal of ancient Greek and Oriental pagan elements, an odd hybridic creature was (and still is, in Greek Orthodoxy) venerated as a saint: Saint Christopher the Cynocephalus was imagined as a "human" being who had, as his epithet indicates, the head of a dog. In fact, in sanctioned pictorial representations of him (icons), St. Christopher is depicted as a dog-headed man, not unlike similar ancient Egyptian or Greek creatures. The daring oddity of this assimilation of marginal, unclassifiable remains of pagan imaginaries into an otherwise rigid religious system becomes even more prominent, if one takes into account the etymological, and popular religious associations of the name of the specific saint: "Christopher" is the one who "bears" (or "carries") Christ. The "carrier" of the founder of the specific religious tradition is thus identified as a "monstrous" entity uniting three different ontological domains: the animal world, humanity, sanctity. Although this instance by no means entails the absolution of the possible "sins" of the specific religious and cultural tradition, it points to the complexity of classificatory and ideological systems of representation in premodern imaginaries and realities, and may contribute to a much-needed critical distancing of our (post-)postmodern selves from our own, often narcissistic, evaluation of contemporary, sociopolitical values and systems of power construction.

Dominant (ethical, moral, legal, etc.) views on, and implementations of policies of multiculturalism and human rights are often based on very watertight classificatory segmentations: an individual is expected (or forced) to identify himself or herself with one, conveniently and rigidly determined, identity, while other, not rarely multifaceted, aspects of his/her individuality are neglected, suppressed, or eliminated. Such patterns of thought are of great interest not only as objects of theoretical or scientific investigation but also, and mainly, due to their role as fundamental constituents of wider nexuses of sociopolitical praxis.

Selective scapegoating is unfortunately one of the most tenacious strategies of "self-defense" that societies have practiced since primordial times: situated betwixt and between, marginal(ized) figures are perceived and treated as representatives of subversive, often demonized forces transgressing established sociocultural and classificatory boundaries. Resistant to straightforward taxonomic criteria, such individual or collective "identities" remain fluid, elusive, and, as a result, are deemed by agents of authoritative political discourses as potentially dangerous. Scapegoats and "black sheep" tend to thrive especially where and when manichaistic structures of thought and sociopolitical systems prevail. "Multiculturalism," to the extent it is based on comparable taxonomic premises (i.e. on the principle of more or less watertight criteria of identity) and on mechanisms of assimilation, may degenerate into a subtle ideological and political operation in the service of hegemonizing practices of sociocultural globalization/ homogenization and of accompanying strategies of marginalization.

If such sophisticated (more correctly: sophistic) systems of categorization and ideological control were manipulated only by advocates of the political establishment, they would be rather easily located; they become even more insidious and protean when adopted and implemented by cultural agencies such as Universities, which, in the Western (mainly European) imaginary, have been traditionally perceived and functioned as embodiments of free thought: instead of producers of critical thinking, academic institutions often function as reproducers of established ideological paradigms. The situation is even more complicated, when such strategies are endorsed and disseminated by empowered representatives of the Humanities, i.e. the area of studies that has traditionally been identified with intellectual innovation. Unfortunately, not rarely "humanists" ascribe particular cultural and practical value to scholarly and ideological discourses that advocate the status quo of reactionary polarities such as major (cultural traditions or fields of study) vs. minor; Western vs. "exotic"; profitable vs. non-profitable; marketable vs. non-marketable; popular vs. unpopular; authoritative vs. marginal; dominant vs. experimental; pure vs. hybridic, etc. Such polarizations reproduce a fundamental dogma of Western philosophical and metaphysical thought, whose hegemonizing theoretical force can be traced back to Aristotelian philosophy and its medieval canonization: tertium non datur ("no third [possibility] is given").

No doubt, the existence of the Humanities is currently under attack on many fronts and in many ways. This is inevitable in an epoch in which the very essence of "humanity" itself is subjected to radical redefinitions mainly due to uncontrollable technological developments. The Humanities can survive, only 1) if they resist universalizing trends in sociopolitical and ideological practices that promote polarizing systems of thought at the expense of variety, and 2) if they systematically put into question the premises of immediate profit, marketability, and commodification of knowledge.

1 - I use the translation included in the English edition of Michel Foucault's Les mots et les choses (The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, New York, Vintage Books, 1970, p. 155).