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Being Human?

Human cheek cells, CC image license

This issue was the focus of this 2020's Forum Philo, two days of sharing and debate by intellectuals and writers. The philosopher Étienne Balibar chose to approach it through the notion of ‘species’, so central in this time of pandemic.

The question of this year’s Forum Philo is quite simply: ‘Being Human?’ In other words, it is about ‘what we are’, each for ourselves and all together: for each other, with each other. Behind these banal formulas, everyone knows there is a problem: who is this ‘we’, what do we mean when we say ‘we’, and in the name of whom or what are we speaking? Concepts such as humanity, the human race, population and species come to mind, depending on the point of view at which one places oneself in order to collectivise those whom we perceive as fellow human beings.

Among all these notions, I am going to favour the notion of species, which seems to me to crystallise fundamental questions today. I would like to reflect on its meaning, its uses, its ‘genealogy’, as it is precisely here that a philosopher, using all available knowledge, can try to investigate a problem. It is topical, insofar as the Covid-19 pandemic, which we are experiencing with difficulty and without a foreseeable end, gives it a strategic function, at the crossroads of biology, medicine and anthropology. It brings together questions that are as old as metaphysics and natural history in the West, about what makes (or does not make) humanity unique as a living species, and what we mean by ‘species’. What kind of unity, what margin of variation, what prospects for evolution or transformation does it denote?

Proceeding as rapidly as I can, I will formulate three hypotheses. The first concerns the question of unity. Before our eyes, in ‘real time’, the human species no longer designates simply a type to which we conform as individuals or even an ‘essence’ (what is ‘specifically human’) in which we participate (including in the form of a gene pool distributed among us). It refers to a material interdependence of unprecedented intensity and universality. What Auguste Comte in the 19th century called the ‘Great Being’ seems to be materialising before us, or rather within us. For the virus jumps all frontiers and overcomes all confinements, making each one of us a risk and potentially a recourse. Contagion, dissemination and immunisation follow one another to define a public health problem common to the whole species, something that we can follow Michel Foucault in calling biopolitics.

But there is more. Covid-19 is a zoonosis, a disease transmitted from animals to humans which has, as the saying goes, ‘crossed the species barrier’ – an expression previously unknown to the general public but widely used today. What this points out is that the human species is not a species among others, but a species along with others, sharing (and competing) with them in a common environment. Exchanges between all of these are part of evolution and end up creating a ‘second nature’, which is not specific to humans but the common property of all species, and can also become their misfortune. For these exchanges are unequal and unbalanced: by exploiting or repressing, even exterminating other species, by colonising all living environments on planet Earth and subjecting them to its needs, our species has led the whole of life to the point where transformation becomes destruction, where habitability and reproduction are in question. If the human species is not to annihilate what makes it live, it must learn to govern its environment and its exchanges, and therefore to govern itself, in its entirety. The biopolitical problem becomes cosmopolitical.

However, it is on this point that difficulties multiply. The question of unity has its reverse side: disunity, even intrinsic disunity. The human species is not a community, it is not a society, it is not a people. The transition from ‘passive’ to ‘active’ unity is not only difficult, it seems utopian. The more humanity unifies, the more it divides against itself. Here I am skipping over all the obvious but of course fundamental references (growing social inequalities, class differences, antagonisms of nation and religion, etc.), and focus on what the pandemic is bringing to the forefront and touches on the meaning of species.

I myself have called global differences ‘anthropological’, opposing like to like without ever being able to say exactly where the demarcations go, or to get rid of them by decree: gender, age, race, culture, certain occupational differences. Before our eyes, these differences are becoming inequalities with respect to security, health and death, institutional discrimination suffered or encouraged, which ‘undo’ the unity of the species in the moment of common risk. In the end, there may even be elimination: that of the ‘first nations’, still ‘too many’ on the planet, that of ‘wanderers’, migrants or refugees, that mobile part of humanity who we lock up not to protect it but to let it die. Biopolitics becomes ‘necropolitics’, in the expression of Achille Mbembe.

Biopolitics, cosmopolitics and necropolitics are not one and the same, but they are aspects of the same problem, which comes to us through ‘our’ species and questions us both about what it has been and what it can become. It is, of course, the reign of uncertainty and paradox: what Maurice Blanchot, commenting on Robert Antelme’s book written on his return from concentration camp and precisely entitled L’Espèce humaine (1947), formulated as follows: the human being is ‘the indestructible that can be destroyed’. But which must not be destroyed. A problem that today we must extend beyond the ‘frontiers’ of the species itself, and locate wherever it arises.

Translated by David Fernbach