Feb 7, 2011

Kojève's posthumanism

The first time I got in contact with Kojève's thinking was in Agamben's The Open, where he quotes what Kojève has to say about the End of History and what that would imply - the end of dialectics and Man. In general, I thought it was a really interesting discussion, if overall a little naïve in its understanding of history (does it really march forward towards a completion?). What I found very uncomfortable was Kojève's diagnoses of Japan and the USA's societies, in which he concluded that they were living in post-history. That made me feel uneasy, because that sounded very clearly to me as if he was saying he believed those societies had returned to a certain animal state.

I mean, I am the first to point out that equating someone with animals should not mean belittlement, but I still believe this issue should be treated carefully. For starters, I could not understand how exactly the American way of life could be deemed to be an animal state in any way. Some pages later, Agamben tells us that Kojève, some years after his lectures on Hegel, had the opportunity of visiting Japan and changed his mind: the Japanese did live in post-history, but they were not animals, since they were snobs - and no animal can be a snob, according to Kojève.

I started to think that maybe Kojève had a total different idea of what post-history and the post-human meant when compared to mine. For starters, I remember reading about Kojève's post-history in The Open and wondering outloud, "But would we still wear clothes??". Anyways, I had the opportunity of finally confronting my and Kojève's views on the subject last semester, when one of the professors in my (Literature Grad School) Department taught a course called "Post-historical, Post-autonomous, Post-human". I took it and I was a little surprised. He said his main focus in the course was mapping the reception Kojève's lectures had in Latin American readership especially on the debate on the "post-human". We read some interesting things that made sense to me, like Sloterdijk's Rules for the Human Park and Agamben's The Open. But most of the time we had some very weird discussions, not helped by the fact that most of my colleagues think discussions should go like: "There is this author, y'know? And he wrote this book, and I read it."

For some reason I spent half of the semester believing I was missing something. In the last class in the course, when we were discussing Bataille's reading of Kojéve's thoughts, I decided to ask: "Professor, how is it that talking about the human understading of death as something that separates us from the animal can be called 'post-human'?" His answer, which I guess I saw coming, was that from the moment you have a philosophical crisis in Europe (like the one around the 1930s) that threatens to evaporate most of what has been understood by God, Religion, the Nation, Society, Philosophy, the State and the task of Men in such a society, we no longer have a human per se. Especially if we're seeing everything from a Latin American point-of-view, which was our case.

So, after all that, I still don't know what to feel. In my mind, I tend to call Kojève's line of thought "institutional posthumanism". I understand the importance of placing the crisis in these institutions in their historical moment and comprehending the impact it had on reshaping our conceptions of humanity and animality. But at the same time I lean towards thinking that this a very narrow take on "the human". I don't think "the human" in the "post-human" can be reduced to only these institutions, otherwise I think it would be much easier to deconstruct. Or am I still missing something?


  1. Hey. Just discovered your blog, good to see posthumanism being thought all over the world (I think I'm pretty much the only one trying to import this line of thought to the University of Tartu, Estonia).

    Anyway, concerning Kojeve, Agamben does note that in these snob-related discussions "it is impossible to distinguish between absolute seriousness and an equally absolute irony" and that it is written in a "farcical tone". I read it mostly as Kojeve being a bit fanciful and not too serious. It should also be borne in mind that Kojeve's text is just an endless comment on Hegel, and Hegel's most famous (and from contemporary perspective, an eminently silly) idea was history as the completion and realization of the World-Spirit: for each "age", there is its set course determined by the spirit of the age, which slowly becomes realized over time.

    So my reading of these bits was essentially: Kojeve took Hegel's idea of World-Spirit and just had a fanciful play with it, toying a round a bit. No surprise really that it sounds puzzling today for non-Hegelians. Note though that this line of thought is still alive and well: Fukuyama's "End of History" stuff is also pure Hegelianism.

    1. Wow your reading makes total sense! Very insightful! Thanks for the comment!