On Being Human

9 02 2011

Blade Runner thus gives a double twist to the commonsense distinction between human and android. Man is a replicant who does not know it; yet if this were all, the film would involve a simplistic reductionist notion that our self-experience qua free “human” agents is an illusion founded upon our ignorance of the causal nexus which regulates our lives. For that reason, we should supplement the former statement: it is only when, at the level of the enunciated content, I assume my replicant-status, that, at the level of enunciation, I become a truly human subject. “I am a replicant” is the statement of the subject in its purest – the same as in Althusser’s theory of ideology where the statement “I am in ideology” is the only way for me to truly avoid the vicious circle of ideology (or the Spinozeian version of it: the awareness that nothing can ever escape the grasp of necessity is the only way of us to be truly free.) In short, the implicit thesis of Blade Runner is that replicants are pure subjects precisely insofar as they testify that every positive, substantial content, inclusive of the intimate fantasies, is not “their own “ but already implanted. In this precise sense, subject is by definition nostalgic, a subject of loss. Let us recall how, in Blade Runner, Rachael silently starts to cry when Deckard proves to her that she is a replicant. The silent grief over the loss of her “humanity,” the infinite longing to be or to become human again, although she knows this will never happen; or conversely, the eternal gnawing doubt over whether I am truly human or just an android – it is these very undecided, intermediate states which make me human.

-Slavoj Zizek, Tarrying with the Negative: Kant, Hegel, and the Critique of Ideology


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12 02 2011
Arturo Vasquez

Often, the pop-realist rhetoric of “common sense” often masks an agenda that seeks to impose a normative where one does not exist (one can still not get an “ought” from an “is”). Of course, the fact that I have a penis and that I cannot doubt the fact necessarily means that homosexuals should be treated as second class citizens and women can’t serve in combat (duh!). If you don’t read into my reactionary spin and share my American disdain for all of that queer French philosophy and other ideas that make my head hurt, you are just denying reality. Haven’t you read the memo?

In all seriousness, and attempting to move the conversation back to the original quote, Zizek is not saying that we should doubt for an instant that we are bipedal rational animals made of flesh and blood. He is saying that such a state has indeterminacy at its center (Sartre basically argued the same thing in a way). To echo someone else who commented, the fact that you are human being does not tell you what being a human being means, or we would all be instant sages. Do we have free will or not? How programmed are we by our surroundings? When did we gain consciousness? What does consciousness mean? Those who obsess about reality and the senses do so with a hidden agenda. To be fair to modern philosophy, it has never been about doubting whether my hand in front of my face is really my hand. It is about, rather, thinking about what that actually means. That sort of pop-realist rhetoric of trying to draw the fact of the hand in front of my face into a discourse opposing all of the perverts and the pinko commies is ideology at is most crass.

What Zizek is saying is something worth contemplating. It is only in the grafting of myself into necessity, into the limitations that are at the center of my being, that I find my freedom, that I am truly myself. Even my saying that I am a determined being following a pre-established program means that I am truly human, precisely because I am aware of it and unsure in the face of it. I would not want that point to get lost in the uninformed comments of a person who seeks only to denigrate ideas that are threatening to his idea of the normative.

12 02 2011
sortacatholic

The impasse between sciens and scientia in the socio-ritual sphere is often an affectation of those who should know better. Empirical or scientific knowledge tells us that the “sun rising in the east” is a complex dance of cosmology. Knowledge beyond visual comprehension will not stop those who are convinced that the halt of the sun during the Israelite’s battle against the Amorites in Joshua 10 indicates that an alternate cosmology fitted to an inerrant Bible.

The hatreds, passions, and surrender of scientia to a necessarily fallible sciens defines ritual, social allegiance, and ideological adherence — that is, “religion”. A great portion of trust in an alternate anthropology, cosmology, and salvation narrative relies on the demarcation of the self against “secularity”, self against Other, self against even modern notions of human compassion and justice.

Those who advocate for a world “just as it is seen” must bear responsibility for their statements in the postmodern sphere, even if one rejects this sphere as corrupt or even unworthy of respect.

12 02 2011
Chris

“Doubting the sun rises in the east does not make us the wiser for it. Whereas asking why it does so can.”

Actually, doubting that the sun rises in the east does make us wiser. Thanks to Copernicus and Galileo, who doubted that very thing, we’re since the wiser for knowing that, strictly speaking, it doesn’t.

12 02 2011
love the girls

Karl H writes : “it seemed like you disagreed with this for some reason.”

It depends on what the ‘doubt’ is. Doubting the sun rises in the east does not make us the wiser for it. Whereas asking why it does so can.

Which is why I disagreed with the initial thread post, it doubted that the sun does rise in the east.

Btw, I’m impossible to insult and considered your comment rather interesting.

12 02 2011
KarlH

That wasn’t really meant to be an insult, it’s just that a methodology of doubt, to whatever extent, is sort of necessary for all philosophy to occur. And it seemed like you disagreed with this for some reason.

11 02 2011
Chris

What he said 😉

I might just add that the medievals drew a helpful distinction between “scientia quia” and “scientia propter quid.” Knowing that (quia) I’m human is one thing; understanding what (propter quid) makes me human is something else, both much harder to determine and very much worth pursuing.

11 02 2011
Turmarion

Is that “tiny, minuscule part of reality” sufficient to know you are human?

Of course. As to the original post, I will honestly say that having re-read it, I’m not really sure what Žižek is actually talking about, or if he’s even saying anything meaningful at all.

Žižek aside, if you watch Blade Runner, or better, read the source novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the point that Ridley Scott (the director) and the late, great Philip K. Dick (the original author) are making is that if we make sufficiently intelligent and human-like computers or androids (“replicants” in the movie), it might become difficult to draw the line between “real” humans and intelligent machines. I’m inclined to agree with Roger Penrose who, in The Emperor’s New Mind argues, based on Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems, that machines will never truly think like we do. Nevertheless, we can’t be totally sure yet, and the question is at least worth asking.

What you are saying, if I’m reading you right, is that we obviously know that we’re human, that the world is real, and that as humans we can use common sense to live humane lives, which is the most important thing we, as humans, are called to do. To that extent, I agree with you–a simple, unsophisticated person with a good heart and stout common sense (say, Samwise Gamgee) is better than a highly erudite but evil intellectual (such as Saruman). However, there seems to be a strong undercurrent of “and besides, all that science and philosophy is a bunch of highfalutin folderol that’s not any good for us in the end and just distracts people from what’s really important,” in what you say.

If I’m being unfair in reading that in what you say, then I’m willing to be corrected. If I’m right, though, then while you’re entitled to your opinion, I’d have to strongly disagree. The very fact that you use computers to post here, and presumably also use modern transportation, medicine, etc. means that you are benefiting from the fruits of said folderol, which implies that maybe it isn’t folderol after all. Maybe it’s better to be Samwise than Saruman; and maybe we’ve become too unthinkingly enamored of technology; but the world’s a complex place, and wanting to understand it isn’t intrinsically wrong, either. After all, Gandalf was a good guy!

11 02 2011
love the girls

Karl H writes : “I do not think you have developed a mind for philosophy”

Perhaps not, but I can usually get the really simple concepts OK. But you will find the difference in understanding, other than where you are think it is.

11 02 2011
love the girls

“What Chris and I are both saying is that while the world outside us is real, and our God-given senses give us real information, that information is just a tiny, minuscule part of reality.”

OK.
Is that “tiny, minuscule part of reality” sufficient to know you are human? Because the quote from the thread post denies that it is sufficient and that our humanity comes from that insufficiency which is to say our humanity is intertwined with ignorance of knowing our nature sufficiently . Which is what I was commenting on. And which comment was in turn taken exception to.

11 02 2011
KarlH

Descartes was a rather practical man who trusted his senses for the most part and practiced external sciences. I do not think you have developed a mind for philosophy—this is maybe not a bad thing. In Meditations, etc., Descartes is simply employing a methodology of doubt for the sake of philosophical rumination, namely for the purpose of understanding our reality from a different perspective and revealing the truths that are most apparent (from a largely empirical mindset). If you want to blame someone for developing a dualism, blame his detractors and interpreters. From what we know, Descartes trusted his senses and the objective reality of his body and lived accordingly (actually, part of the argument for him being a secret atheist relies on the fact that he had so much respect for the human body and the sciences).

11 02 2011
love the girls

Or let me put it this way. No one at the zoo has difficulty distinguishing the humans from the other animals. God gave us sufficient capacity to distinguish one from the others. We may not fully know their human nature, but we do sufficiently grasp their human nature so as to make the necessary distinction.

So likewise with the simplest man, he does grasp human nature. At a distance he may mistake a statue for a person, but that is because the knowledge is more remote, but our knowledge of ourselves is not remote. We do know ourselves to be human.

11 02 2011
Turmarion

It seems there’s some talking past each other going on here. love the girls, you originally said, “God made the world about us very easy for us to grasp.” It seems to me self-evident (to use a term you apparently like) that the world about us is not easy for us to grasp, and I cited several Scriptural passages that support that.

Then you say, “I[f] you’re a Calvinist or the like, then you can never have certitude of anything outside of yourself….. But yet here you are on this blog pretending that you do have certitude with your definitive comment.” I am neither Calvinist nor the like, but you are attributing to me the exact opposite of what I said. I claim certitude on very few things, if any. That was my point–the world is not “very easy to grasp” and it’s difficult to understand it beyond the superficial obvious appearances. So far from making a “definitive comment”, I’m saying that such comments are hard to make, outside of perhaps mathematics.

Finally, you say the following to Chris (with whom I’d have to agree on all his posts here):

God gave us eyes to see with. And gave us a world we could actually know with those eyes. What we see is not a deception. It’s not the matrix modern physics pretends it to be.

Neither of us is saying that the exterior world is an illusion or that we might be brains in a vat, or attached to the Matrix. Modern science doesn’t say that either, and if you think otherwise, you don’t understand modern science. What Chris and I are both saying is that while the world outside us is real, and our God-given senses give us real information, that information is just a tiny, minuscule part of reality.

Yes, my eyes tell me that things fall down–but it took centuries before Newton formulated the law of gravity. And our eyes tell us that lighter objects such as feathers fall more slowly than heavy objects such as rocks, but that’s wrong–air resistance causes that. In a vacuum, both a feather and a rock fall at the same time. This is a simle demonstration often done in high school science classes, and I’m sure you could find it on YouTube. Or, if you want a simple example, drop a piece of paper and a rock–and then crumble the paper into a ball. Note that in the latter case, while the weight of the paper hasn’t changed, it falls straight down, just like the rock, rather than floating gently down as it did previously.

Anyway, maybe you’re not interested in science and you’re saying that our senses give us adequate information about the world to function as human beings, with which I’d agree; but I agree with Chris that you seem to want to expunge all the mystery and complexity from the world. Give God more credit than that–He made a world that’s at least a little complex and interesting!

11 02 2011
love the girls

Chris,
You don’t need to know the nature of man to know you are a man. God gave us common sense, and the other senses so that the most simple can have certitude of the sensible world about him.

He also gave the simplest of us the capacity to know that he is a man.

As for Descartes and all that comes from him. The world would be better off if he had not strayed from mathematics.

11 02 2011
Chris

I might also add, each one of these things is fraught with mystery. What is this “I” that exists, asked Descartes? And again, Aquinas would agree that we have no direct apprehension of our soul. What’s the essence of a human being? If it were so easy to grasp, the issues of abortion and stem-cell research would have been mooted from the start. And it took human beings, for whom (according to you) God made it so easy to grasp the world, a very long time to figure out why it is that some rocks DO seem to move themselves. It was only after a bit of science that we figured out that magnets are something special. (Recall that Heraclitus thought magnets have souls. He must have had his head in a mud puddle too.)

The issue isn’t that people who find the world deeply mysterious have their head in mud puddles; rather it’s that you, who apparently think there’s no mystery to it at all, have your head tightly fettered in Plato’s cave.

11 02 2011
Chris

So, by your reckoning, grasping that I exist, that I’m human, and that rocks do not move themselves is tantamount to grasping THE WORLD. A bit of a leap there, no?

11 02 2011
love the girls

Christ writes : “what we do grasp comes through the long, hard slog of scientific inquiry.”

Do you exist? Yes you do. Do rocks move of their own Will? No, they do not.

And more precisely to the discussion. Are you human? Yes you are. If you can’t answer yes immediately, self evidently, then that slogging is a waste of effort, because you house is resting on sand.

Androids cannot think reflectively, only living creatures can do it. Some questions further our knowledge, and some are just sticking ones head in a mud puddle.

11 02 2011
Chris

“Chris,
You are putting how we actually come to know ass backwards.”

I’m doing no such thing. You made the outrageously false claim that “God made the world very easy for us to grasp” and I simply called you out on it. Even Aquinas would have laughed at such nonsense. He didn’t think we have a very good grasp of essences at all, and what we do grasp comes through the long, hard slog of scientific inquiry.

11 02 2011
love the girls

Turmarion,

I you’re a Calvinist or the like, then you can never have certitude of anything outside of yourself. You are trapped into yourself. But yet here you are on this blog pretending that you do have certitude with your definitive comment.

11 02 2011
love the girls

Chris,
You are putting how we actually come to know ass backwards. We start with what is better known to us. Of which our knowing we are human is among them. It is self evident.

If the self evident cannot be accepted for what it is, then only ignorance can follow no matter how sophisticated the complex you build afterward.

God gave us eyes to see with. And gave us a world we could actually know with those eyes. What we see is not a deception. It’s not the matrix modern physics pretends it to be.

11 02 2011
Turmarion

High five! 😉

11 02 2011
Chris

Oh yes, very easy. I mean, if the proper interpretation of quantum mechanics isn’t plainly obvious to you, it can only be because you have your head deep in a mud puddle.

11 02 2011
Turmarion

love the girls: God made the world about us very easy for us to grasp.

??!! Might wanna check out Job, chapters 38-40, Isaiah 55:8-9, and Psalm 139, to name a few; that is, if you need Scriptural warrant for what I’d say is pretty much self-evident….

11 02 2011
love the girls

God made the world about us very easy for us to grasp. Why some insist on shoving their heads deep into a mud puddle in order to have a clearer vision of the world about them is a mystery. But what we do know is that doing so doesn’t improve the eyesight.

9 02 2011
Owen White

Beautiful passage. Thank you.

9 02 2011
Charles Curtis

Yeah. Zizek is always amusing. I say in relation and response to this, that if being human is in anyway truly tragic or comic, that is to say meaningful at all in any way, it will be in our finally escaping the grasp of necessity.

Being human is predicated on personhood (anti-replicantness) which is only another way of saying on and in transcendence and forgiveness. Which is why Zizek, if he is finally honest with himself and the rest of us, will die a Christian.

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