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A Rise in Humanity

Felwine Sarr

A Rise in Humanity

Felwine Sarr

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1First, I would like to thank Jean-François Bayart and the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies here in Geneva, for inviting me to give the opening lecture of this academic year.

2I am very thrilled at this opportunity to share some ideas and concerns with students, colleagues and a broader audience.

3A rise in humanity is an idea I borrow from Frantz Fanon. Just around the decolonial period, Fanon asked newly decolonized countries not to imitate Europe, but to be creative and to raise humanity to another level. We were at that time in a context of decolonization, and the challenges of political sovereignty and self-determination were crucial for millions of humans across the planet. Raising humanity to another level was a synonym for freeing humanity from domination, racism and economic exploitation ... but also for being creative in the production of social, cultural, political and economic forms of life.

4What could rising in humanity mean nowadays?

5Over the last five centuries, Europe has played a critical role in the dynamics of countries in Africa, Asia and America (both North and South); by being a hegemonic power, shaping more or less the (political, economic and cultural) dynamics of these continents. One could look at the question of the current relations between the four continents by exploring the potential of South-South relations, and the role that the US and Europe still play; or the role of China as a rising player in the global dynamics.

6For me, the questions we are dealing with (in the present) are much more critical. The challenge we have to face is to build a common world and to inhabit our planet in a way that sustains life; and for that, a shift in our imaginaries, epistemologies and practices is necessary.

7The present we are experiencing is shaped by a plurality of dynamics that interact at various levels. We live in a world that is driven by internal, external, local and global dynamics: globalization of the neoliberal economy, climate change, issues of human mobility, technology, etc. It seems, therefore, that the present we are experiencing, in various parts of this world, is somehow strange.

8The crises and multiples dystopias we are facing at a global level sometimes make us feel that the world is a derelict boat.

9Our postmodernity has become a time characterized (marked) by a future without promise – except that of avoiding the disasters it announces (ecological crises, growing insecurity, ethno-nationalism, racism, xenophobia, religious extremism, etc.). The only expectations that seem still to apply are those of a technological future or of a post-humanist era.

10A crucial challenge that humanity faces is the necessity to protect the conditions of human life. Our hand (with the help of technology) has become so strong, and the impact of human activities on the biotope so harmful, that it is not being alarmist to consider that the human, through some of his actions, has put the idea of the future at risk (futuricide). This question remains unresolved.

11Rising in humanity first requires us to face the present and its challenges. Facing the present is looking deeply at it, clarifying the mechanisms that have produced the current world we are experiencing (economic, political, relational, global dynamics). Making an effort to be lucid and intelligible, but also to find the productive potentialities of the present and to activate them.

12Human beings and societies need to take ownership of their present and future, and fill it with meanings. How can we invent what the historian François Hartog refers to as a regime of historicity, one that promotes a rise in humanity without necessarily reactivating the myth of progress? Is humanity still a relevant concept? Our interaction with all living beings is crucial, and the scope of humanity appears more and more restrictive.

13My lecture will explore some of these issues and propose paths to re- engage at a collective level with the adventure of meanings.

14A major aspect (characteristic) of the advent of Western modernity was the promise of a future defined by progress in all areas of social life. In the regime of historicity of modernity, the future was characterized by the promise of greater well-being. Despite undeniable improvements in terms of civil liberties, technological advances and the modernization of social life, the belief that the march of human history is one of continuous progress has gradually collapsed. The crises and the dystopias that have accompanied the reign of instrumental reason have ended up undermining our belief in a better tomorrow.

15They have also led, in the West, to a relationship with time characterized by a hypertrophy of the present, which François Hartog calls presentism.

16Presentism is an overweighting of the time-modality of the present, that reduces the past and the future in the experience of the density (texture) of time. Postmodernity is therefore characterized by an excess of presentism. After the failure of the narratives that promised the advent of new times (communism, socialism, etc.), our present moment seems to be characterized by the proclaimed end of all Utopias.

17The question for us then is what Utopia can be constructed or re-activated? And more than Utopias, a change of episteme in the Foucauldian sense is probably necessary, or a critical reflection on the episteme of modernity (based on Reason, Order and Progress) and its outcomes.

18For the societies of the Global South (Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America), considered as lagging behind the normal course of the world, this question of the present and the future arises somehow differently. To them, promises of economic development, democracy and modernity to come – or to conquer – are made continuously. Such a retroactive teleology reduces them to societal mimicry, and enforces the myth of a linear path of history and progress.

19For African nations, the question of thinking their destiny (their present and their future) is crucial – thinking it by mobilizing their mythological universes, their history, their cultural references, their symbolic resources. It is not about retreating into a singular identity or advocating for some imaginary purity. History shows that the dynamics and temporalities of societies are connected to others, at different scales (global, transnational, regional, local) which are interconnected. It is about re-inventing one’s world by also relying on existing dynamic cultural resources, and drawing vital elements from them. No future can be built without a foundation. Every society (culture or civilization) perpetuates a cultural matrix, while transforming it, according to the evolution of the world.

20It is, therefore, impossible to conceive of a single history for all human societies. We must get out of a linear conception of History and a narrative that condemns all other peoples of the world to follow the path of Euro-American societies, or engage in a mere repetition of it. If culture is a means for the production of being, then we must admit the multiplicity of collective ways of being and societal forms of life, the plurality of histories, as well as the possibility of several worlds, within the world (as mentioned by Jérôme Baschet).

21For Africans, to face the present and to respond to its challenges means reinventing economic, political and social forms, and giving birth to newly imagined communities. But, at the same time, we admit the co-presence of a plurality of worlds and historical trajectories, and our task is to inhabit the world and make it livable for all peoples and beings. This could be the main objective of a rise in humanity.

22A new way of inhabiting the world is to base it on the production of qualitative relationships between nations, actors, individuals and nature. However, shifting the episteme based on a mechanistic order that seeks to be the master and possessor of nature, and the regime of beliefs and categories based on a mythological universe of mastering, controlling and exploiting, is one of the most difficult tasks we have in these times.

23Changing our imaginaries of progress, redefining the values around which the technical order (economy) is organized, and grounding them on the social goals that we have collectively chosen is one of our major tasks.

24If we look at the Global North, not in terms of geography but as a symbolic entity, grounded on its own consciousness of the role it plays in the world, it seems to me that the so-called Global North has not yet decided to fundamentally change its ways of relating with the countries of the so-called Global South; in particular, by consciously retreating from a hegemonic power position and engaging in building a common world. Extractivism, asymmetric economic relations, autism or the militarization of its borders are some examples of how the Global North relates with Others today. The relations between the Global North and the Global South are still characterized by imbalances and asymmetries, even if we are living in a post-colonial period.

25The notion of a relationship is central to the production of life and society. This world we have created is a result of multiple relationships articulated at various scales and levels (nano, micro and macro) with various actors, generating multiple interactions in a dynamic open system. To be, fundamentally, is to be related. Society, nations, the world, becoming a human, all of these are the results of relationships.

26We are experiencing a crisis of relationality. Most of the time, we do not consider the relationship a space of mutual fecundity, gain or nourishment, but rather a war zone; a battlefield for extraction, plundering and agglomerating (material and symbolic resources), on an individual basis. So-called international relations (economic, political and social) are based on the principles of war, conquest and the defense of one’s private and exclusive interests.

27A new way of living the world can be grounded on the production of qualitative relationships, as a new paradigm. A Civilization that has been achieved is one that produces relationships of quality between its components. This could be a way of rising in humanity.

28For a rise in humanity, the utopia we are able to build or re-activate is one where the world is considered as a space we share, with the idea of a co-ownership of beings. Building not only a human society at a global scale, but a society of beings that recognizes all its members, enlarging the notion of the community to foreigners, to animal species, to vegetal species, to our ancestors, to the earth (alma mater); and also to those who are not yet born (the idea of transgenerational responsibility, the rights of the future generations ...). This enlarged notion of society, requires rethinking the notion of society itself, of alterity, and of the feelings and narratives of belonging. For that purpose, we need to widen our vision of politics and rethink our way of living the world.

29Our humanization process is incomplete, progress in the quality of the relationships we produce is a next step that can be considered a rise in humanity ...

30We could consider the global management of the issues related to the basic necessities of life: education, health, feeding people. This is technically possible. Globalization has produced transnational actors that already operate at a transnational level (scale), but mostly for private interests. Many human activities, as well as the circulation of information, goods and services, are now de-territorialized. Sanitary and climate risks and most societal questions are also transnational; but we continue to consider them and manage them in the space of the nation-state. Our treatment of the political and legal questions of our time is out of phase with our reality. We have a challenge of perspective and scale. How to consider and to reflect on social dynamics at the right scale?

31Every social, political, historical and economic order is sustained and reproduced by an epistemic order. This regulates our understanding of the world and its subjectivities. Changing the paradigms and the epistemic order on which we ground our behavior is a necessity. In order to imagine and construct a different present and future.

32It is possible to create a world citizenship in addition to our national citizenship, which would ensure the fundamental human rights of each human being. Migrants could benefit from this world citizenship. Humanity is singular and plural, and politics is the art of managing this plurality.

33Social and political life can only be achieved among humans on the condition of being recognized and accepted by them. This recognition, and its consequences that are care and reciprocity, would be guaranteed by this global citizenship.

34Living the world is considering yourself as belonging to a wider space than your own ethnic group, your nation, the continent where you were born, those who have the same eye color as you, or the same level of wealth. It’s fully inhabiting its geographies, wearing its multiple faces and being a depositary of the legacies of its cultural diversity. For this to happen, we need to change the space of our language itself and get rid of the private appropriation in our everyday language of spaces, places and of our common heritage. We need to produce a lexicon of the common world, to escape the fragmented version of the world we are experiencing.

35Rising in humanity is also facing one of the ontological challenges we have, related to the sense of being human.

36The ontological challenge is linked to the desire of humans (at least some of them) to extract themselves from the natural conditions of human life. The temptation to create and recreate themselves, and to transcend the limits of their biological condition, is becoming more and more pressing in the most technologically advanced parts of the world.

37In short, a desire for a mutation of the human species towards a hybrid humanity, a biological-technical assembly as the support and the place from which one experiences life: a Human-Machine, as an embodied form of an augmented humanity.

38Technology thus moves from a tool of mediation between matter (the material) and the spirit to an eschatology. One that accompanies the project of the artificialization of life, as well as the will to extract oneself from one’s natural (biological) conditions and operate an ontological shift.

39This project of a technological eschatology (augmented human, transhumanism) suggests potential new meanings for what it is to be human and alive. The old human dreams of immortality and omnipotence, as well as of liberation from our condition of vulnerability, find an echo here. This augmented human, by integrating prostheses into its organism, would free itself from the constraints related to the limits of the body and the brain. The possibilities of the extension of the body and of decorporation – with its widening of the perceptive faculties – will make the body no longer the only seat (place) of human consciousness. The virtual becomes a possible medium for its existence and its deployment.

40This is a question for the defenders of the mutation of the human species, to decondition the human condition, by increasing and widening our faculties of action, perception and knowledge.

41This new configuration offers important possibilities for regenerative medicine and is considered by the proponents of transhumanism as a qualitative evolutionary leap. A new way of being alive now consists in questioning our umbilical link with the rest of the living, or increasing our ability to produce negentropy with the artificial.

42We can ask ourselves: Is this process of artificializing the conditions of life a necessity, or the expression of an existential and identity crisis that we are going through?

43More than who we are, the question arises of who we want to become as a species? Should we preserve the living as it has been given to us, or accelerate its mutation and thereby open the way to a new condition of the post-modern human? The enterprise of modifying the living, of genetically altering it, including attempts to modify the human genome, are part of this latter logic.

44Yet, this desire to extract ourselves from the natural (biological) conditions of human life confronts us with an impossibility. We are still extremely dependent for our survival on our biotope. The project to artificialize the conditions of life has to date not been able to provide us the resources necessary for our life on earth.

45A question arises:

46How to articulate this imaginary of the mutation to a vision at the height of the vertiginous possibilities that it offers, on the one hand; and to avoid, on the other hand, that through its excesses, it precipitates us towards ruin, with no new wisdom to guide us?

47In a reflection on how to live a good life in a bad life, Judith Butler has pointed out that we cannot envisage human bodies without evoking the environments, the machines, the complex systems of social interdependence on which they rest, and which represent the necessary conditions of their existence and survival. To satisfy the requirements which allow the body to subsist is a prerequisite of life; but to be livable, life must go beyond the survival of the body and its fundamental requirements, and examine the capacity to lead a desired and meaningful life. Judith Butler emphasizes that one can survive without being able to live one's life. This concern joins those of Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum in their reflections on our capabilities and the possibility of leading a life that one has chosen, and for which one has determined the meanings and the scale of values.

48For Judith Butler, thinking about a livable life is drawing the consequences of the fact that, since we are human-animal, our existence depends on support systems that are both human and non-human.

49We live within social organizations of life, biopolitical regimes that often neglect them, or sometimes try to deny them. We cannot subsist without these social forms of life. Donna Haraway emphasizes that the complex relations which constitute our bodily life must lead us not only to conceive a human ideal, but also to deal with the complex set of relations without which we do not exist. My own life, my social life is more extended, because it is articulated to those of other living beings. To lead a good life is also to think and acknowledge that our ontologies are relational.

50Rising in humanity is therefore thinking beyond humanity.

51The urgency is therefore to rethink the ethical and philosophical foundations, as well as the imaginaries, of our relationship with the living. To understand and acknowledge the fact that our condition (as human-living-beings) is consubstantially linked to that of the living, and to the interactions that we maintain with it. Our ontology is fundamentally relational. It is a question of cooperating with the communities of beings, by establishing relations of mutuality with them, grounded on reciprocity, care and repair. To take care of and to repair the living is necessary for us, because through this gesture, we repair and preserve ourselves.

52It is a question of freeing ourselves collectively from the myth of our self-sufficiency, as well as from the fantasy of our capacity of self-creation. To get rid of this desire to get out of the relationship of debt and dependence that the conditions of life impose on us; as well as of the idea that we are the ones who give life to ourselves. The arts have largely explored the limits of this delirium of power, and this desire of absolute autonomy.

53Let me here advocate for a new ecology of bonds.

54An instrumental relationship with nature, inherited from the mechanistic cosmology of Western modernity, has led us to overexploit the resources of the biotope and to endanger the conditions of reproduction of life on earth.

55This relationship has its roots in a representation of the centrality of our humanity in the order of the living; in a cosmology of separation; and in the transformation of the rest of the living into objects subjected by an instrumental reason to our exclusive ends. This social, economic and environmental unbinding is one of our major challenges. It is necessary for us to answer the following questions: How do we establish new relationships with the earth, the living, the non-human? How do we produce economic forms that meet the needs of all beings (not just humans), while preserving life? How can we rearticulate, repair and heal the social, political and all-living bonds that a negative linked economy has damaged?

56Responding to the challenges posed by our techno-scientific civilization (delinking, climate disruption, ongoing ecocide, risk of futuricide) requires us to rethink/reinvent the cosmologies and cosmovisions that underlie and structure our relationship with the living, our place within this order and the relationships we maintain with its different forms of life. This leads us to consider the ontologies of the bonds and cosmologies that produce forms of life that preserve the equilibrium of the living, the quality of our social cooperation.

57It is a question of rethinking the ethical and philosophical foundations as well as the imaginaries of our relationship with living beings, by rebuilding relational ontologies. In Africa, Latin America, Amazonia, Oceania and premodern Europe, human groups have created cosmologies and cosmovisions that have established relationships between humans and non-humans based on the unity of the living. These cosmologies establish a continuum between beings and do not make a clear distinction between humans, plants and animals. There is no clear separation between nature and culture (Philippe Descola). Moreover, reflexive consciousness, intentionality, sociality and an affective life are not the exclusive property of humans. Collectives of human, animal and vegetal beings share the attributes of mortality, social life, reciprocity and knowledge. Interactions with communities of living beings are obviously conceived on the basis of utility and necessity, but also on the basis of affinity, cooperation and interdependence. Because of the metamorphic capacity of the living, the borders between collectives of existing are porous, along with their ontological categorizations.

58These cosmologies postulate a continuity between individual and social bodies and ecosystems, which implies that damage to the environment affects social bonds, and vice versa. Social, political and environmental issues must therefore be considered together; and these cosmologies are important imaginary, symbolic and political resources that allow us to develop a new relational ontology.

59To conclude:

60To be alive is also to construct meanings. What would we have done with our increased and preserved vitality? To what end? More than a teleology, it is a question of constructing a teleonomy that assigns our chosen meanings to the adventure of life. Life is never exhausted by the categories we apply to it, nor the objectives to which we might assign it. The long history of life can be seen as an infinite source of potential. Several forms of life and existence are possible.

61We only experience a particular form of life, whose texture is more diverse. Staying alive by enriching life with meaning, but also by exploring other forms that our biology allows us.

62One possibility is to approach life with the ethics of the traveler who stops at a caravanserai, or the host who makes the house more inhabitable than he found it.

63To bring vitality to its fullest, to sow the seeds of life and growth in all things around us, to share life, to make it grow, to disseminate it, to nourish it, to disappear and leave the place, having always given more than we have received.

64Rising in humanity is also asking oneself: with my actions, what type world am I contributing to? Did my gesture reproduce the conditions of injustice, domination and devastation, or did it contribute to making this world more flourishing, more open and more livable?

Dakar-Zurich-Geneva, 22 September 2021, 17:30.


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