Humanism at the Limits: Alienation, Difference, Critique
Walker, Drew Carraway
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This dissertation emerges from an analysis of the recent focus on the vulnerability and finitude of human life as an ethical foundation for politics. I argue that this humanist turn reinforces the experience of vulnerability and precariousness and, thus, promotes a conservative politics of alienation and recovery rather than of active social transformation and a politics of difference. In this new humanist guise alienation is figured as a problem to be ameliorated by the recovery or recognition of our common finitude that we have presumably lost. In response, I present an approach to the human that pursues limit experiences of the human and forms of power and politics that persist and work at the margins of norms and experiences––what I call a “humanism at the limits.” To do so, I develop a model of alienation in which experiences of alienation are always multiple and historically and socially specific, and thus must be examined and worked against in their particularity. I examine this image of the human and alienation through several problematics: the legacy of humanist Marxism and what I call “the Feuerbach problem” in critical thought; Judith Butler’s use of the figure of the human and its implications for social movements like AIDS activism; the dilemmas of subjectivity in the work of Butler and Louis Althusser and the subject’s relation to dominant forms of power; the possibility of a “weak,” or strategic, approach to critical theory that avoids the traps of strong, paranoid readings, particularly those that see the state as a threatening “cold monster”; and, finally, the project of failure as articulated by queer theories of politics and the dramatic work of Samuel Beckett. This dissertation works to chart a course that recognizes the limits of human agency and that sees the conditions of alienation that attend them, but that attempts to resist the false choice of revolution or recovery. A humanism at the limits affirms that there are many lives worth living and promotes an image of politics that might see such lives proliferate in our contemporary conjuncture where such possibilities are both profound and precarious.