The Culture of the Inhuman

"Among the welter of cultural icons in the contemporary world, what is lacking is any representation of the human. The image of the human is absent from culture. Culture no longers offers access to our humanity... Ensconced behind the cultural mask, we have lost touch with the 'natural light' of reason, that Rousseauesque ability to withdraw into oneself in order to listen to 'the voice of conscience amid the silence of the passions.'"

-- Hélé Béji, "The Culture of the Inhuman"

The following is an excerpt from Hélé Béji's article, "The Culture of the Inhuman," which was published in Jérôme Bindé's The Future of Values: 21st-Century Talks (2004). Ms. Béji is President of the International College of Tunis and the author of L’Imposture Culturelle (1997), among other works.

"My title -- 'the culture of the inhuman' -- links two words that are in principle contradictory. Consciousness of culture as the basis or essence of our humanity has been raised to a supreme pitch in the modern world. We should not feel ourselves to be human without this tangible relationship with our culture, whichever it happens to be. Under the influence of European philosophy, decolonization ushered in a more inclusive concept of humanism, one postulating the equal worth of all cultures and entitling them all to universal recognition, in opposition to the hierarchical conception of civilization, too sullied by its dark colonial past. The dignity of every culture has been restored to confound the racial prejudice of the civilized man.

"However, in the wake of the domestic triumphs of decolonization, this cultural humanism took a different turn. The pendulum swung the other way, and the decolonized peoples discovered a new kind of cultural pride in inverted colonial prejudice. Pluralism, diversity and difference, initially so productive, have become the seedbeds of a form of discrimination as virulent and intolerant as any racial ideology; culture having supplanted race, every culture, whether strong or weak, is today an apology for itself that is not amenable to rational criticism since each culture invokes its own rationality. No possibility of neutral arbitration exists any longer since every culture fixes its own rules of the game; no law is in a position to pass judgement since every culture prescribes its own rights in line with its own convictions...

"[One of the traits] that makes cultural rights inhuman is that they place the Arab, Jewish, Muslim, Corsican, Basque, Serbian, American, Western or other cultural condition above the human condition. It is in this respect that the cultural illusion is most destructive: when one believes oneself to be human only by virtue of having a culture and not by nature, and when human dignity is circumscribed in terms of ethnic, religious, national or imperial origin. The word 'culture' is then no longer understood in the sense of autonomous self-realization but rather as the allegiance of conscience to a deterministic primacy. Let us not forget Hannah Arendt's admonition when she was accused, concerning her analysis of the Eichmann trial, of 'not loving the Jews,' of not believing in them in an absolute manner: 'Does this people no longer believe in anything but itself? What good could come of that?' She went on to say that she felt no love for the Jewish people any more than for the Germans, the French, the Americans or the working class and that the only kind of love she believed in was that of individuals. 'Such a love of the Jews,' she declared, 'would seem to me, being Jewish myself, somewhat suspect'...

"Among the welter of cultural icons in the contemporary world, what is lacking is any representation of the human. The image of the human is absent from culture. Culture no longers offers access to our humanity, and this is perhaps what abstract painting is telling us when it goes beyond figuration in order to portray the density and pulse of the inner life of contemporary man. The cultural criterion no longer provides the foundation for an ethic of recognition. Ethnic consciousness has liquated ethical awareness. Ensconced behind the cultural mask, we have lost touch with the 'natural light' of reason, that Rousseauesque ability to withdraw into oneself in order to listen to 'the voice of conscience amid the silence of the passions.'

"The purpose of any genuine culture is to distinguish the human from the inhuman. The predilection for difference has been taken so far that the differences inherent in the human have been obscured. Man no longer wishes to resemble man. The old criteria of human identity no longer interest anyone. So long as we stand out from the crowd, we are happy to attach another name to ourselves -- such as 'monster,' for example. We are cultivating the image of the monster (from monstro, -are, to show, show oneself; or from moneo, which gave monstrum, a prodigious phenomenon outside nature). People are no longer attached to their nature; they are settling for an inhuman culture in order to assert their difference. The monster is no longer concerned about belonging to the realm of human; it wants to belong to some other species and even claims a philosophical right to be a monster, i.e., someone who is insensitive not only to the sufferings of others but to his own sufferings as well."

 

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