The Outrageous Guilt of Humanism

In the midst of the dialogue with Derrida entitled “Violence Against Animals,” psychoanalyst Elisabeth Roudinesco professes an attachment to “the idea of a certain division between the animal and the human” (For What Tomorrow … 72). This “attachment” is, I believe, exactly what Derrida attempts to interrupt when, immediately prior to this statement of attachment (in response to a question about the apparent “excess” of prohibitions against cruelty), he asks Roudinesco what she would do if she “were actually placed every day before the spectacle of this industrial slaughter” (71). Roudinesco replies somewhat brusquely,

I wouldn’t eat meat anymore, or I would live somewhere else. But I prefer not to see it, even though I know that this intolerable thing exists. I don’t think that the visibilility of a situation allows one to know it better. Knowing is not the same as looking (71).

Derrida insists, however, that she consider the situation more deeply:

But if, every day, there passed before your eyes, slowly, without giving you time to be distracted, a truck filled with calves leaving the stable on its way to the slaughterhouse, would you be unable to eat meat for a long time? (71)

To which Roudinesco responds:

I would move away. But really, sometimes I believe that, in order to understand a situation better and to have the necessary distance, it is best not to be an eyewitness to it (72).

The point, of course, is that Roudinesco is already a witness, that it is not that she can choose not to witness, but rather that she can only choose not to be a witness to that which she cannot not witness—the sole form of guilt which, according to Primo Levi, cannot be absolved. It is the guilt, in other words, of disavowal, of the refusal to bear witness to the trace which remains to interrupt every metaphysics, every oppressive structure of dependence-exclusion.

What Derrida’s questioning in fact draws attention to is the refusal of a possible encounter through the conserving safety of a theoretical separation within the calculability of moral, economic, or religious discourse. One which serves to double the separation on the ontological level. In this way, contemptible socioeconomic practices becomes habitually—academically—denoted as “intolerable,” and which in so doing are thus rendered tolerable insofar as the unremarked guilt is neatly and conveniently assuaged. In other words, that which cannot not be witnessed is safely displaced onto the level of everyday facts. Indeed, there is nothing more factual and everyday than what for Roudinesco is the apparent “necessity for industrial organisation in raising and slaughtering animals” (71).

By contrast, intolerability is precisely an injunction—never a choice—which displaces this bodying outside of the everyday and into the impossibility of continuing to be, and which is at once the affirmation of, and attestation to, the encounter. That which cannot be tolerated is never the tolerable-intolerable, but rather the most undeniable and the most material, that which can be no longer missed and not yet mis-taken. This in turn leads us, by way of Levi, to the guilt of humanism itself.

*          *          *

In Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History (2009), Susan Buck-Morss asserts an “undeniable political experience of guilt that we humans feel when witnessing something deeply wrong with the principles that govern our everyday world” (83). Here again, the question clearly concerns the relation of guilt and bearing witness, a witnessing which happens to a body before any possibility of choice and which, while it can indeed be spoken about, it cannot, however, “be known” insofar as it contradicts the “official order.” The “truth,” writes Buck-Morss, while “available to conscious perception, is at the same time ‘disavowed’” (83). As a result, this “experience of guilt,” an experience which for Buck-Morss presupposes the existence of universal moral truths, potentially places an individual in conflict with its community, and as such “entails being a traitor to the collective that claims you (through nation or class, religion or race [and, I would add, through species])” (83).

More than this, however, Buck-Morss claims that such “guilt has its source in the gap between reality and social fantasy, rather than between reality and individual fantasy. It can turn interpretative analysis into political critique by breaking the official silence that sanctions the wrong state of things” (83-4). Here, however, it is the very espousal of an “unapologetically humanist project” of universal history (xi) which in fact prevents Buck-Morss from engaging with the encounter which renders such guilt undisavowable—the guilt of humanism itself.

It is all too easy, Buck-Morss suggests, to share in the “moral outrage” over the way European Enlightenment philosophers responded to the ongoing systematic oppression that was slavery, and yet—

we cannot deny that a comparable moral outrage is occurring at this moment, one that future generations will find just as deplorable (this is our moral hope), the fact that political collectives proclaim themselves champions of human rights and the rule of law and then deny these to a whole list of enemy exceptions, as if humanity itself were the monopoly of their own privileged members—their war a just war, their terrorist acts a moral duty, their death and destruction legitimated by reason, or progress, or the divine (149).

As we know, Carl Schmitt argues that the claim to a universal humanity is always a particularly brutal ruse of war, passing off a specific interest as universal. Indeed, the evocation of a universal concept is in a certain sense always a usurpation, given the impossibility of a presuppositionless position. What, for example, might be the criteria for identifying “humanity” without implying a whole determinate culture and, in this case, moving as it does via Hegel, an explicitly Christian culture? Irrespective of Buck-Morss’s attempts to evade its implication in focussing upon “the experience of historical rupture as a moment of clarity” (147), the claim to humanity is nonetheless always to proclaim inhumanity, and thus repeat inversely the denied humanity which the claim claims to reclaim.

In other words, Buck-Morss misunderstands that humanism is only insofar as it sets up a limit between the human and the animal. Such is the demand for line-drawing which humanism can never avoid, and which ever again founds that animalisation of the other which is the very condition for those political collectives she imagines her humanism will overcome, simply by its focus on the transitory. Without ever asking the question of the animal, Buck-Morss never questions the very conditions of humanism. As a result, and while she would no doubt refuse any claim to a universal (essentialist) race or gender, in positing a “new” humanism she in fact falls prey to that very thing for which she berates those Enlightenment philosophers. That is to say, to an absolute blindness to the slavery that literally exists all around her, and to the contradictions which remark our shared political guilt, a blindness which future, and indeed present, generations “will find just as deplorable” (although it is not a hope I would define as moral). The irony of Buck-Morss’s “unapologetically humanist project” is, in other words, the absence of the “contradictory guilt” of humanism itself.



Buck-Morss, Susan Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009).

Derrida, Jacques and Elisabeth Roudinesco “Violence Against Animals” in For What Tomorrow … A Dialogue trans. Jeff Fort (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004), 62-76.

Schmitt, Carl The Concept of the Political trans. George Schwab (Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 1996).


About Richard Iveson

Postdoctoral Research Fellow I have a PhD from Goldsmiths College, University of London; my teaching and research interests include animal studies; Continental philosophy; posthumanism; cultural studies; biotechnology and cyberculture; post-Marxism. Books; Being and Not Being: On Posthuman Temporarily (London & Washington: Rowman & Littlefield International, 2016), forthcoming. Zoogenesis: Thinking Encounter with Animals ( London: Pavement Books, 2014). View all posts by Richard Iveson

One response to “The Outrageous Guilt of Humanism

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s