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Many Humanisms, Many Modernities: Contesting Talal Asad’s Anti-Humanist Critique of Humanitarianism


In his recent essay “Reflections on Violence, Law, and Humanitarianism,” Talal Asad offers a genealogy of the notions ‘human,’ ‘humanism,’ and ‘humanitarian,’ and charts their changing meanings and interconnections. The genealogy he unveils is complex, but its goal is one: to take us through a critique of humanitarianism and, most specifically, a critique of military humanitarianism. In opposition to Charles Taylor’s (purported) view of modernity as moral progress toward the culture of universal benevolence, Asad argues that modern notions of ‘human’ and ‘humanism’ legitimize a particular kind of violence that is constitutive of humanitarianism (395).

In linking the category of the ‘human’ to modern humanitarian interventions, Asad wants to show how it can happen that a universal category of ‘humanity’—“a large, all embracing category whose members have a single essence”(395)—humanizes some and dehumanizes others. Asad finds the roots of this possibility in Christianity. The exercise of violence, Asad contends, is intrinsic to the Christian understanding of what it means to be human due to Christianity’s approach of “reaching out” to those in need with both “charity and chastisement” (398). What is more, the modern idea of the human, while secularized, remains faithful to its Christian origins in two ways: by sustaining the dual emphasis on cruelty and benevolence and by upholding the simultaneous inclusion of some and exclusion of others.

There are many insights in Asad’s genealogy of the notions of ‘human,’ ‘humanism,’ and ‘humanitarianism.’ The links he establishes between modern and Christian understandings of notions of ‘human’ and ‘humanity’ help explain the theological and exclusivist origins of the word ‘humanitarianism’ in the 19th century: at the time, the term expressed the orthodox majority’s disapproval of Christians “who subscribed to the exclusively human nature of Jesus” (401). Asad also successfully relates his genealogical account of humanitarianism to his larger critique of modern nation-states, to ultimately unmask military humanitarianism and the fact that some states do and others do not possess the power to exercise violence. Most of all, Asad excels in the critique of humanitarianism when he uncovers the fluid and entangled character of various categories that help shape it (‘human,’ ‘humanity,’ ‘humanism’), and as he invites us to expose Western moral and moralizing self-understanding.

Notwithstanding these insights, Asad’s continued and exclusive focus on the Christian roots of Western modernity significantly limits both his genealogical endeavor and his critique of humanitarian interventions. Because of this focus, Asad does not recognize that there has always been more than one—Christian and Western—story of humanism. The retrieval of the ideals of self-cultivation and dignity of human beings in the Chinese humanist tradition, or in Islamic thought, indicate that probing the ideas of what it means to be human and what it means to flourish have hardly been reserved for the Christian and Western ethical and political imagination. A broader, comparative exploration of the notions of ‘human,’ ‘humanity,’ and ‘humanism’ would also suggest that one of Asad’s central points—the argument that the (unreflexive) universalist “concept of the human” intrinsically carries “the idea of difference” (402)—is as relevant for Christian as for other traditional humanistic endeavors. Most importantly, moving beyond the preoccupation with the Christian-Western framework of modernity would destabilize the central assumptions of Asad’s genealogy of humanism. Such shift would compel us to ask: if there was never only one Christian and/or Western secularized tradition of humanism through history, why would there be only a single story of humanism and humanitarianism in the present?

Undertaking such a genealogy of contemporary humanisms and humanitarianisms necessitates the acceptance of the idea of multiple modernities, whether one sees these modernities as contending with, or informing and enriching, each other. Asad does acknowledge, “‘modernity’ is neither a totally coherent object nor a clearly bounded one”; he also recognizes that “many of its elements originate in relations with the histories of peoples outside Europe” (Formations of the Secular, 2003: 13-14). But Asad also unequivocally posits modernity as a project that “aims at institutionalizing a number of (sometimes conflicting, often evolving) principles: constitutionalism…democracy, human rights, civil equality…consumerism, freedom of the market…secularism,” (Ibid) and, as he would likely add today, humanitarianism. In his observations, Asad gestures toward the continued change of the principles of modernity; in his genealogies of humanitarianism, religion, or secularism, he attends to the multiplicity and porousness of meanings and boundaries of these categories and institutions. Yet, while concerned with past transformations, Asad’s genealogical accounts tend to marginalize the complicated and constantly changing current embodiments of the categories in question. This is not paradoxical but unavoidable: as I have written elsewhere, Asad’s whole project intends to unmask the powers of Western modernity as a hegemonic and universalizing project. However, this larger objective (and, I would suggest, the implicit normative purpose) of Asad’s genealogical quests does not alter the question raised before: if we know that there have always been many humanisms, why accept the view that we are living today with just one story of humanism and humanitarianism?

Due to his sole preoccupation with a secularized Christian and Western story of human-humanism-humanitarianism, Asad’s genealogy misses ongoing, creative, and complex contemporary engagements with the ethics and practices, promises and ambivalences of all humanistic projects—engagements that can and do inform the ways in which humanitarianism is being envisioned, enacted, and critiqued. For some time now, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Confucian, and secular thinkers have been trying to conceive of more chastened humanistic dispositions, which not only attempt to avoid the dehumanization or exclusion of others but, more importantly, which affirm the responsibilities we have to one another as well as to the non-human world.

Particularly worth noting here are William Schweiker’s and Edward Said’s humanistic statements. The former is theological, the latter secular; the first is primarily ethical, the second principally critical and political in character. But Schweiker and Said share in common a serious and deep engagement with the critiques of humanism such as the one Asad offers. Schweiker and Said thus address the traps of (particularist) universalisms and affirm the value of pluralism in humanistic imaginaries. They tackle the dangers of traditional humanism’s optimism and unrestrained claim to power by chastening their humanistic visions—beginning with the recognition of the limitations and fragility of human capacities and underscoring the importance of reflexivity and self-critique in humanistic pursuits (in Schweiker’s case, most importantly, by giving humanism an orientation beyond intra-human ends). In so doing, Schweiker and Said do not only establish humanistic orientations as vital for ethics and politics today; they also help us see that all humanitarian visions and actions are necessarily, by virtue of being human, hopeful and tragic at the same time. Such visions inherently carry ambiguities that, to follow Didier Fassin, shape humanitarian reason to reflect both solidarity and inequality.

In his reflections on Asad’s thinking on the human and humanism, Aamir Mufti suggests that Asad’s own critique is ‘interventionist’ in character and dependent on the very categories he exposes. Mufti is especially troubled by what he sees as Asad’s different treatment of modernity and religious traditions—what he understands as Asad’s expectation of self-critique from the former but not from the latter. Mufti’s is an important argument because it points to the normative reasons for the boundaries of Asad’s genealogical method. On my reading, however, Asad does not demand modernity’s self-critique because he does not think it is possible. His writings carry an argument that all dissonant voices—the external voices of (religious) traditions or the internal (modern) voices of self-criticism, as one could interpret the contemporary humanistic endeavors—are ultimately incorporated, adopted, and consumed by the hegemonic powers of the secularized Christian, Western, modern project. This line of thinking is both what is at stake in, and what limits, Asad’s critique of contemporary humanitarianism. He convincingly unpacks the modalities of power that constitute and permeate modern life but, just like other anti-humanists (as Schweiker points out), Asad offers no tools that would guide and restrain the powers of the modern.

As a result, we have before us two possibilities: on the one hand, the limbo of modernity’s critique and perpetual suspicion regarding its institutions, including humanism and humanitarianism, and, on the other, the development of humanisms that are chastened, reflexive and self-critical, hopeful but also painfully aware of the limits of all human(itarian) labor.

Slavica Jakelić is Assistant Professor of Humanities and Social Thought at Christ College—the Honors College of Valparaiso University and for the Spring semester of 2016 a Luce Visiting Professor of Religion, Conflict, and Peacebuilding at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame. Her scholarly interests and publications center on religion and collective identity, the relationship of religious and secular humanisms, theories of religion and secularism, , interreligious dialogue, and conflict resolution. She is the author or editor of several volumes, including, most recently, Collectivistic Religions: Religion, Choice, and Identity in Late Modernity (2010). She is currently working on a book entitled The Practice of Religious and Secular Humanisms.

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