Famously posing a peculiar problem of translation, names are a necessary feature of our academic craft. We like to call things, but we may also need to, obviously, in order to give figure to that which we think and study. Remarkably true to that necessity, Stefanos Geroulanos tells us in the first pages of his impressive book that the “conceptual reorganization” he will describe and analyze became “an almost official face of French thought.” It was only later (with structuralism and everything, everyone, associated with and past it) that it “acquired the name ‘antihumanism.’” Geroulanos further proposes to expand the reach of the name “antihumanism” by meticulously documenting lesser known antecedents, earlier phases of what the term might otherwise designate, seeking thereby to bring together a fuller, and detailed, account of numerous and diverse actors, elements and factors, and trends too, which in fact jointly define the greater part of the last century. The question raised by and with the name is therefore crucial, for it asks whether it is possible to articulate with some coherence an account of twentieth-century French thought, with its sense of the century “as an unredeemable era welded by catastrophe,” to think with it, and simultaneously, “false secular utopias, political hopelessness, and humanist stalemate,” along with efforts directed toward “satisfactory alternatives to the economic, material, and political division and ruin of Europe”—all under one name (the answer is yes, by the way, and the demonstration is successful, formidably erudite, thoughtful, and engrossing). The name is meant to embrace all these and more, to fashion and gather “a set and perhaps even a system of philosophical and political arguments,” “reformulations of the theologico-political domain,” as well as “transformations in contemporary philosophy of science.” It points to philosophical, theological, and intellectual currents as diverse and distant as Catholic humanism, antifoundational realism, nonconformism, phenomenology, communism, existentialism, and more, without forgetting the impact of the latest developments in quantum physics. Philosophical and political, the name, “antihumanism,” collects a staggering, and well grounded, array of yet other names, proper names, of known and lesser known individuals, likely and unlikely to be found in proximity with each other, names such as Koyré and Maritain, Malraux and Sartre, de Lubac and Canguilhem, Kojève and Bataille, Hyppolite and Blanchot, Tran Duc Thao and Merleau-Ponty, Levinas and Heidegger. The wager of the book is that naming (and obviously understanding) such widespread and diverse gathering is not only possible, but is in fact necessary.
The name is here at once heading and title, analytic and synthetic category. The name is also, to repeat, “antihumanism.” At least for now. And already at such an early juncture, one may expect the return of a familiar question. For what is gained by renewing and expanding this name? Why seek a renewed sense for the name “antihumanism,” for that peculiar and particular term? As Geroulanos points out, Heidegger himself (later described as “discarding without replacing the word ‘humanism’”) had responded to a similar proposal to renew the sense of the word “humanism” with a certain wonder. “I wonder,” Heidegger wrote, “whether that is necessary. Or is the damage caused by all such terms still not sufficiently obvious?” But to evoke such danger would be facile here, for there is no doubt that humanism, among other obvious and less obvious dangers, has hardly left the scene. Surely, the interrogation of the concept and the figure of man has a long and eminent, if not necessarily well-known or well-understood, history, which deserved to be patiently excavated, and very much needs to be reactivated (please look out as well for the work of Samera Esmeir and Ayça Çubukçu). Geroulanos brilliantly delivers and provides a meticulous account of the arguments that engaged humanism and the damage done, insofar as it has meant or brought about dehumanization (a euphemistic name if there is one). Such damage, hardly collateral, is what French thinkers, all together now, were long trying to address from a wide variety of perspectives, “on a philosophical, theological, and scientific level, systematically and fervently.” All together, now and again. This means metaphysics and religion, epistemological revolutions, “Christomimetic” conceptions of man, the “critique of subjectivity and idealism,” which “came to offer novel theorizations of sovereignty, political engagement, and the possibility of action in a world beyond transcendence,” along with a commitment “to a theologico-political rejuvenation of man” and a later “turn toward language and being”—all this and more is what antihumanism names, what “allowed philosophers to speak of their age politically without really involving themselves in contemporary movements and without claiming a separation between philosophy and politics.”
There does come a surprise of sorts. For Geroulanos importantly establishes that man is the main philosophical (and political) problem, the true name and target that urgently unifies, if in its very negation (“man is negation” is a recurring theme in the book), all the thinkers and trends discussed. Antihumanistes, he rightly calls, encore un effort! Accordingly, the book traces the struggle against “the religion of man,” and takes as one of its premises that “where there is no God, there is no man either” (which means that, within the strict confines of the logic here deployed, the reverse must be equally true). And yet, somehow covertly—that is, if you omit the very title of the book and a few well dispersed and somehow unmotivated allusions—Geroulanos suggests otherwise. Against his better intentions (many of which I’ll admit sharing), he insists, and indeed surprisingly so, that the name “antihumanism” is not, as it turns out, quite the right name.
What, then, would be the name that will enable us to think the twentieth century (and perhaps the nineteenth as well) as a whole? Under what name will we, we philosophers and intellectual historians, articulate, if not the theory, at least the history, of our age? Judging the book by its cover, that name clearly is atheism. But why? Why atheism, before and after all? Why not linger instead in the vicinity of Hyppolite, say, or emulate his “indifference toward humanism,” and thus advocate indifference—at least toward atheism? Why not follow the approvingly described completion, radicalization, and codification of antihumanism by proposing a similar indifference, not only to man and to antihumanism, but also to God and to religion? Why speak instead, and somehow opaquely, of a “new atheist political theology”? And why—why after evoking devout Catholic thinkers (including one Cardinal), anthropotheism and theanthropy, philosophers and historians invested in the “understanding of the religious grounds and implications of modernity and the history of religious thought,” as well as those skeptical of our ability “to fully escape from the Judeo-Christian worldview”—why insist on the peculiar marker “atheism”? If much of the book is in fact oriented toward the “negotiation of antihumanism, the establishment of a philosophical and political negative anthropology premised on a radicalization of phenomenological approaches of the 1930s, but also on a wariness of political utopias, and a turn toward language and being,” why insist on atheism as the main, governing heading? It is indisputably the case that the name the book puts forward, and ends up reviving and renewing, does not uphold man and his negation, but God instead, God first and foremost. Appropriately or not, accurately or not, atheism names, if not Geroulanos’s own, a rampant theory for our age. For my own antihumanist sins, I do not know how or whether this word can make sense anew. Has it ever?
It does not seem implausible to ask (again, within the strict confines of the argument presented in the book) whether there can still be—there, where no man is—a God, in relation to whom (or perhaps to which) one would have to be and remain nothing less than indifferent? And if man is no God, if he is no theanthropos (and particularly not “the exemplary, original theanthropos, Christ”), then is it not “still man,” and therefore still God, “that we are talking about (and that Heidegger talks about), even if his references to a ‘human being’ (the word is maintained) require that it exist only in a different sense (as Dasein, not as human) and only in the shadow of Being”? Let me nonetheless agree with the gist of Geroulanos’s gesture, and uphold atheism for the name. I propose that atheism, for him, is a humanism (let us assume, for now, that it is for him alone). Like Heidegger’s, his would be “a humanism without man, a humanism that negates man to get to him–and in this sense, at once a protohumanism and a hyperhumanism.” Which is also to say that it would be at once a strange humanism and a surprising atheism, an atheism that negates God to get to him (where there is no man, there is no God either), a protoatheism and a hyperatheism. As Levinas made clear, this surprising atheism is emphatically about gods: it is about dead gods and gods that are withdrawn from the world, but who somehow threaten it. And so the final question is: which god or gods are we (not) speaking of here?
I do not think the book leaves any doubt at all (it speaks, in fact, volumes about one particular God), something which highlights the surprise (why atheism, as if this was about just any god?) and would confirm those who think that this peculiar atheism (after all, an old-new name that, judging from current blurbs, has brought much comfort to secular critics grown wary of a “religious trouble” at the heart of their affiliations), that this protoatheism and hyperatheism, belongs to a specific theological tradition. The death of God is not quite independent from the one theanthropos who died, is it? Atheism belongs to a political theology—it is political theology—still bent on a strange affirmation, on self-affirmation (over against Blanchot, perhaps, who at least “rejects any effort to find a positive foundation for meaning in Nietzsche’s death of God—that is, to grant the status of undisputed affirmation to atheism in general”).
But is it not the case as well that “atheism’s transformation reached a point where the claims and differences between possible minimal humanisms . . . no longer really makes a difference”? Atheism is a name, no more and no less than one name in a long list of names, with the tired look of a fake new skin: Christianity, postchristian humanism, the Judeo-Christian tradition, secularism, liberalism, atheism, etc. Hallowed be these names, as my final question can now be desperately rephrased as “what comes after Christianity?” And the answer, of course: “il n’y aura jamais plus rien de nouveau sur terre.” That is, not if Christianity—the religion of the new—under its many names and the accelerating shift of its guises and growth can help it. The Lord knows its efforts.
Kojève no doubt put the matter best when he asked his own version of the question, one that amounted to the renewal of sense for the word “humanism,” mentioned earlier, and which Beaufret had asked of Heidegger. Kojève asks:
Does the abandon of religious Christianity necessarily signify a relapse into paganism? Can one not overcome religious Christianity and conserve Christian anthropology—which more or less all of us accept—in abandoning Christian theology, which implies so many at least at first sight insurmountable difficulties . . . ?
Please note: Religious Christianity. As opposed to what other kind of Christianity? Consider the possibility this raises, namely, that there would be a religious Christianity, as well as an atheist one. There would be a Christianity that one can abandon, and one for keeps, a Christianity that, emptied of religious claims would be “the direct result of anthropotheist dimensions of Christianity, of Christianity’s self-undermining construction of a religious distinction between Man and God.” A Christianity that would be, still, Christianity, but with a difference. Believe you me, much as with humanism or modernity, or much as secularism these days (human rights, democracy, you know, those self-critical terms that are beyond criticism), there would be a better version of everything we do not want to let go of, or abandon. Christianity, in this new and improved version, would be something to keep of Christianity. It would be a Christianity without (religious) Christianity, to guard and to preserve. A kind of unfinished project of Christianity. No longer religious, if it ever were, it would still seek to impose itself and affirm itself, if under a new name or other. It would be a theory for our age that affirms and inflicts itself, disseminating names upon the world, universities, banks, and sartorial decrees too. But it would show much love, still, a love for reason and for humanity, even for posthumanity. This Christianity that is not Christianity would be a better Christianity, better than the secularisms and humanisms of old. Still uninterested in questioning its own relationship to God or to gods, to religion and politics (it is atheistic after all), it would affirm itself as atheism. It would willingly (lovingly) speak of religion, of religions and of political theology (of political theologies even). It would speak critically of science and of modernity, of world and of transcendence. It would speak and speak, God bless. Yet, between philosophy and politics, it would not have to speak, not really, of other gods, of other worlds, really, for there are none, none that remain and none to think with (especially not “religious” worlds). It would not have to rethink its atheism.
Today, for whatever reason, some of the worst neighborhoods of the real are called “religious.” In this world (the only world there is, God protect us), everybody knows that the past was “religious,” as are today some of the planet’s most “dangerous” regions. Just listen to your local humanist critic and intellectual historian, and to Hitchens and Dawkins too (more nuanced, the State Department’s advisories discriminate good from bad religions). Not only do we not want to live or visit there (oh, alright, but just a short visit—they might have good wine, and some world music or literature), we are also worried the neighbors might be taking over. They are wearing their beliefs on their sleeves, so to speak, clothing with untranslatable names (something more worrisome, it seems, than the increasing thickness of the body armors of our militarized police forces the world over). For our protection, we atheists put up new signs and new defenses. We establish some sartorial ground rules, minimally organize a neighborhood watch, build a few fences (not walls, that’s not the right name), perhaps set up some gates. The theory of our age does not need translation, nor does it need to think the endurance of imperialism and colonialism, the failure of decolonization, in France or in the United States of America. Hegel and Haiti (Susan Buck-Morss), philosophy and imperialism (Robert Young), nazism and colonialism (Hannah Arendt, Edward Said), the collusions of family quarrels—is there something, other atheisms even, to think still? There, or rather, here, where man would no longer be, are there any other gods? Do read Milind Wakankar, but until then, remember that the theory of our age cannot be bothered, for it knows religion—or God—when it sees one (or three. Or none). It knows what, where, and who God is. It has long translated the gods of the other, and their names. It invented the disciplines, after all, Orientalism, and the modern census too. That is why it can continue to pronounce, after it has named names: race, religion, the economy, financial products, civil society, and a few other things too. Still, let us rejoice, for the theory of our age has again a new name. It is atheism, a radical atheism perhaps, or better yet: an atheism of the other gods.