I’ve often found it difficult to be certain that I have ever been human, or that my humanity has ever been special in any way. Perhaps this is because I’ve never been initiated or told that in fact I was a human and that I differed from other animals on intelligible grounds. Maybe it’s also because there is not much that differentiates the brute animal from a human; not even ‘the reasonableness test’ seems to do the trick. Dogs that rescue children from danger or elephants that defy their circus owners are not news, so we have little reason to sit pretty on any assurances that we are in fact, human. It’s possible that one ceased to be human a long time ago but hasn’t noticed it yet. The natural consequence is a callous treatment of self and others that is beyond any communicative action and reason, to the extent of undermining any ideas of social constructivism. It is this experience that leads me to believe that it’s possible that humans exist under special conditions that are related to a cosmic order that is beyond humanity itself. Such that we are only human when we are conscious of this order and choose to enact it in the course of our daily lives through ritual.
As a child, I discovered that people around could violate me and not even be aware of their actions. If things became unbearable, and I raised my voice, then a narrative of power and adult convenience would be created to correct my version of reality and restore social harmony. It was a kind of social imposition that was arbitrary and unconscious of itself. It was an instinctive reaction to reality that would even work against those advancing it. For example, adults are often correct in their judgements with respect to children as long as the effects are not directly visible to others and are not deemed reprehensible by others. This leaves wide space for violation of children and the emergence of character and behavior that is hardly desired; like rebellion.
It was only in my late teens that I discovered that children have ‘rights’. But so did I also learn that dogs, chicken and slugs too have rights, even though each of them is likely to end up in some person’s dinner plate. How these rights are derived and apportioned appears to be a matter of ‘chaotic and chancy creation of reality’ rather than any deliberate social construction. In the end, the victim has no source for redress for his or her pains and must be content with any delusions that pacify. After all, it may be an obvious observation that ‘the thing in itself is not accessible’.
Animals and plants have hierarchies and ideas of social order. Ergo, it’s indisputable that they too are persons, just like I am. History is replete with cross-cultural conversations with the sun to the point of inferring that the sun and other stars have their own personalities. Each constellation is a determinant of character according to the ancients. Like a child conceived in the midst of a storm must be born with diplomatic mettle. There’s a kind of experience that leads one to believe that even a swine is a person and some persons are swine.
One day my mom came home with a goat. She had tied a nice tether around its neck – I later learnt the goat was a ‘she’. It was a curious sight because I thought the goat was okay with walking next to my mom without bolting away, but who knows about some of these persons? They are quite unpredictable and we mostly have no clues about the small print of our social contract with them, especially when it was probably our ancestors who did the legal work during the ‘Neolithic settlement’.
But the goat turned out to be a good friend of mine. We would walk together for a few kilometers to her play and eat joint. And in typical social fashion, she found love, and, while we looked the other way, she gave birth to a son etc. That is, while it appeared as if the goat and I were in agreement on pasture and schedule, she had her own ideas that were only accessible after the fact. All I needed to do was to take her to the agora and get her back home in the evening as part of an ownership ritual that depended more on goodwill than a sense of duty.
There were times when her business got too engaging perhaps and she’d hide and do a night out. The first time this happened I went back home anxious. She could have been stolen. But when she came back home early in the morning, at the time I was supposed to be taking her to the agora, it occurred to me that we were dealing with a person. She came with a desperate bleat that must have meant something. Naturally, I inferred that it was calling out to me and I ended up giving her a name.
One day, she got sick; she had a cough, and I had some leftover syrup. After a teaspoon of the syrup thrice a day for three consecutive days, she was okay again. That’s how I had taken my portion, and it translated perfectly well. I was so pleased with my husbandry skills that it must have followed that she was grateful for saving her life. She owed me one for sure.
Like for most relationships, this one was also not well-defined. One day, I saw some policemen riding through our village on horseback and I thought I could copy them. My plan was to ride out on goatback and show the world that I didn’t think so lowly of myself. The best time would be early in the morning as we went to the pastures. The release of her tether would be followed by a quick jump on her back, and all would be okay.
It never struck me that my friend had a view that contrasted with mine. Or maybe all horses share the same attitude till they are broken. Whatever the case, she gave me a few butts on my stomach to drive the point home. I went to my bunker to contemplate the mutiny, cursing the ungrateful and selfish beast, certain that I’d never trust her again. Yet a curious fact is that she never dissented to being milked. Simply, the relationship had all the intrigues that are common among other persons that put a claim to humanity.
We didn’t get enough time to resolve our dispute and/or difference probably because of linguistic limitations. Her name was a word I can’t write down as yet, and was also a statement, question, and the whole package of language. Meaning was a matter of tone, context, conjecture and probably magic. She went along with this cryptic exchange and embraced a goatly world that I could neither access nor understand. Our areas of convergence in the utilitarian Venn appeared to allow for only a limited set of activities and responsibilities that defined a fictitious world.
She fell sick again. And since we had espied her eating polythene bags, and her symptoms included loss of appetite and weight, lethargy, and a cantankerous attitude to other persons, we decided to slaughter her. Again, she didn’t like the idea of being slaughtered. She cried all the way to death while knives driven by set jaws ensured any prayers led to the justice that she deserved.
Do you think we ought to have tried to find a vet to operate on her, remove the bags, and probably revert to zero grazing? If we could give her cough syrup, why not do an operation to save her life? Was the decision decided purely on cost factors? I have never settled these questions because there’s a voice that has been telling me that all life is utilitarian and that we live for as long as it is convenient for others who can change the facts to let us be. A kind of irrational grace that punctuates our otherwise desolate lives where meaning precedes existence.
Or was the decision to slaughter made on the basis of a demand for meat; a cherished political resource that brings kindred together in harmony? We eat to live and live to eat; this is a tautology that makes most persons busy for all their existences, if not deaths, and justifies most if not all the killing that happens in the wild and world.
Perhaps the decision was made on a version of common law. Since she (the goat) was almost nearing her prime, and meat is loved tender, and she was sick and opportunistic infections were lurking, then it was prudent to partake of her sooner, rather than later.
The reasoning sounds perfect to me. It’s even consistent with historical accounts of what people do when under siege and have run out of supplies. I think the children are eaten first. Their meat is tender and they run a risk of not being palatable if they’re to delay for much longer without food, especially with diseases lurking everywhere.
And besides, since we are what we eat, then eating our children is an act of love and keeps up with our identity. Some persons like the domestic cat will happily eat their kittens and save them the misery of a harsh world. Is the kitty weak and puny? Eat her up! Eat your children and survive to bear others.
This is a pro-life argument that validates abortion and any bickering is reduced to semantics and political ambition.
There are curiosities and some probable exceptions. Like when the elephant people attempt to bury their dead. When twigs are heaped on the corpse in a bid to make it a tree and thereby a perching for birds and bees then there’s a clear prohibition against the hyena and vulture people. But why would the elephants do that and not go further to prohibit the birth of any new elephants with tusks that attract poachers, for example?
A reason for the apparent burial could be the sheer terror of being unable to sustain the hideous sight of one of them not responding but getting stinky and soapy while being eaten up by strangers. A cat buries her shit too.
Do you know Pavlov’s dog probably had a religion? All the names of God for example, could be attributed to the humble doctor, and the bell ring could be conflated for the muezzin’s call. Imagine the anxieties caused when the muezzin calls but there’s no prayer.
‘We have sinned against our Lord’. The alpha cries in the kennel. The bitches in the population whine and wail and the little pup with weak legs is considered for sacrificial eating. There are instances when extremes will force the dogs to eat the god.
Some of these dog persons are free thinkers too. Only a very open-minded dog can decide to chase after a ball knowing that at the end of the day there’ll be some food, and playing fetch is a fair price. Persons that decide not to chase the ball because they are accustomed to chasing warthogs, squirrels and the like, are likely to be radical and fundamentalist and may be deemed as disruptions to the comforts of home.
Different people build settlements because it’s in their DNA. No one tells the bee to build a hive. Birds have clans. And suffering appears to be in the blood of all organisms.
One gets a feeling that Descartes was fooling himself that other people in the jungle and in the various settlements do not think, and are therefore, not. I’ve also had the same notion.
But the chickens in our village roam around the place and finally decide to go home.
When the rooster crows in the morning, it says nothing but, ‘Cogito, ergo sum!’
So, I’m an animal person like any other. No?
Just as I kill a cockroach person, so will the other person kill me if I stray into his/her domain or if we chance on some path and there’s opportunity and gain to boot.
What’s the value of a person’s life? And are our ways of valuation, any better than those of other beast persons?
When boat-loads of people are turned back, and left to drown in the Mediterranean Sea while trying to find relief; are we saying something that other people across the animal kingdom aren’t saying? There’s something curious and off about our thinking when we state that ‘Black or White lives matter’. The compartmentalization of lives into color or creed is so much like the logic of the wild.
Is humanity something special that isn’t with just any other kind of person? It’s said that there was a time in Europe when cosmology was human-centric and that humanity was conferred by a sense of entitlement and control over the environment. This was easy to take for granted since the convenience of the circles describing planetary motion erased any anthropocentric sense.
It appears that humanity ceased to believe in its existence while trailing Copernicus. The steps seem to have been gradual, beginning with first believing that humanity has no special place in the universe since “the sun doesn’t go round the earth’’ to all species are equated with a kind of inter-penetrative alliance that can turn a goat into a horse, and an ape into a human. Such changes were meant to make life easier in the sense of making the universe more intelligible and controllable.
Then came the belief that the organism left in the now ‘post-human’ world was, in fact, part of a long continuum of evolutionary becoming that was just like that of any other people in the animal and plant kingdoms. Herbert Spencer defined the ethos: ‘Survival is for the fittest’.
Capital acquired a new meaning. The more capital one had, the more flexible ‘they’ could be, and the more probable their survival was. Other institutions accepted the idea and the plight of the masses was made not just intelligible, but also acceptable. Suffering is part of universal competitiveness and progress. Miguel Cervantes nailed the coffin of noble humanity and his predecessors like Miguel Unamuno could only raise a dance of the dead that was anything but effectual. Nobility was doomed to failure, but trying to uphold it despite the realities of the times was salutary by virtue of the attempt and the deluding appearances to the naive.
Is it a wonder then, that Marx saw the internal contradictions of this post-human world and declared an alienation that would necessarily lead to revolution? Given that there are no longer humans but a single species (the cell) fighting for existential validity and identity from itself, such that being is not as important as having the means for being — capital — wouldn’t any innate ideas on human identity rise up in rage and claim its true status? Indeed, can one rule out a revolution from the universe itself, against such transgression?
If these Copernican ideas were rational, true, and even empirical, as the ‘anti-human’ would say, then we’d expect that the rationality would hold outside ‘society’, for ‘society’ is typically a human construct. But these beliefs and ideas were never, and have never abstracted from ‘society’. Let’s assume that human persons are in fact beasts, and in a state of nature, and that only a bigger and more terrifying beast — Leviathan — can bring order through awe. Why would the beasts care about culture? And, from history, we know that beasts care about their cultures. Humans for example, have taboos, and so do monkeys or dogs enforce a code in their interrelations.
In fact, what has come to emerge out of this post-Copernican world view is a society, or societies, that are biased towards serving a minority elite who have no other course of action but to engage in ‘philanthropy’, as if humanity doesn’t, in fact, exact philanthropy from all, irrespective of status or capital. If indeed it is true that survival is for the fittest, why do we have crimes and criminal law? The law is not an acquiescence to authority per se, but a philanthropic act of the common citizen who ideally comes before the state in importance and promotes the existence of the latter.
True to the spirit of the times, the post-humanist ends up claiming agnosticism. He asserts that we cannot know what is true as such except by our ability to survive and get what we desire from the universe. A case in point is the climate change crisis caused by human intervention. It’s only now that ideas are being sought on how to establish the sustainability of a productive relationship and the possible effects of an action given the complexity of a system. Prior to these efforts, the world and universe were deemed to be both mechanistic and linear. That is, we could only measure truth using the blinders of our wills and intentions. But if we don’t know, then we probably have the ability to learn adaptively quickly and effectively. This hope is quashed when it becomes apparent that human intelligence is too limited to understand certain concepts. Machines can think faster than human beings, and solve complex problems beyond human computational power. And given that the thing-in-itself can’t be known, then it would be better if all the serious thinking and cognition were left to artificial intelligence.
If life is about survival for the fittest, why doesn’t the post-human accept to battle it out with the artificially intelligent agent? Why doesn’t the post-human want to surrender to fate and let the machine be and do as it wishes? Picture Isaac Asimov declaring the rules for robots, and why the robot that can dream is a threat. Why do some people wish to escape to Mars and space-based settlements?
In my opinion, if the competition among post-humans necessitates the creation of a new species of persons that can exterminate them; and ‘survival for the fittest’ is ‘the law’, then the moral person should let nature take its course and let the new species of persons triumph.
Otherwise, it’s undeniable that humans hold a special place in the universe. This is made apparent when we consider that we are the only persons around who are concerned about themselves and the rest of the universe, to the extent of naming, and directly seeking to control life’s outcomes. Such that, we can say that what differentiates human persons from non-humans is the power to create and sustain entities and their worlds infinitely. Even in a fascist and/or in an anti-human/post-human world, we cling to our instinctive ideas about who we are, and its specialness with great tenacity. We create and name entities, therefore we are.
Humanity is not just special, but it is also sacred. By ‘sacred’ I mean that humanity holds an inviolable position in the universe that must always be treated with awe and respect. This is because by virtue of having the power to name and order reality, humans are bound to maintain the universe in an optimal position, even if it were at least for their own sake. There’s a significant problem in that we now appreciate our humanity unconsciously. We’d expected that the ‘enlightenment’ of Freud and c. would unveil our humanity and lead to the celebration of self-knowledge and ‘humanism’. But instead the converse has happened, and the disillusionment that has followed can be best shown by the schools of thought in the main branches of knowledge since then. By the nineteenth century Nietzsche had already shown reason for despair since God was dead and ‘Man’ needed to be replaced by the ‘over man’. This is an organism that can find no recourse in a force higher than his caprice and sense of culture, given the disconnect and apparent ignorance regarding the dynamism of the universe and its uniform laws. Nowadays, humanism is trying to find a home in the non-sacred, and the irreligious.
Alas, after the efforts of the Renaissance period to go back to the foundations of humanity, shared by Protagoras’s cry that ‘Man is the measure of all things’ came to a premature end, our world(s) went into an even darker age. Zarathustra must have needed a lamp. By the time Nietzsche was making his announcement, humanity was already rotting. The dead God that Nietzsche was seeing had fallen.
Is it a wonder then that the mythology of the walking dead is common in contemporary culture? Does it cause you a chuckle to note that the main political strategy of our time is based on the ability to start and sustain wars in order to keep the enemy under our mercy, because, otherwise a post-human collective can’t survive?
As long as humanity is held special and transcendent over other persons, then it is sacred. And that which confers or causes this sacredness is also sacred. To be human is to revere the sacred. The immigrants seeking refuge are sacred, all the races are sacred, and minority groups too are sacred. The masses suffering from poverty and disease are sacred.
If all humans are sacred, then all other persons become sacred. The trees, the birds, the worm, the virus are all sacred. Evil is the clash among the sacred. The devil too becomes sacred.
How then do we deal and relate with each other in our daily lives? What would change if we started to see our friends, and our enemies as sacred? Is it possible for us to be mindful of the sacredness of our clients, of our prisoners, of the ‘street people’? Can we be cognizant of the sacredness of our ecosystems?
A sacred view of life demands ‘empathic listening’; something very different from our favorite, ‘critical listening’. Empiricism is essential, but we also need a touch of the scholastic method. At least in the scholastic, after we’ve listened to the presentation of a person, we may take time to meditate on their worlds with a view to reconcile our differences. Humans from different world views can exchange and come up with a common truth, challenges can be met under a collective umbrella of mutual creativity.
Human dignity can be restored, our politics greatly transformed, science redefined, and our days filled with joy if we can recall how exactly we are sacred, and how the laws of the universe that make us sacred also apply to other creatures and features of our world. This connection makes the need for empathic listening a necessity, for without it humanity can’t be affirmed. There are many questions arising about how a human can ever be disciplined enough to listen to another person empathically. And given that listening is a skill, it’s inevitable to think of humanity as a technique, a method of being that is so fragile that it can be quickly and easily lost.
A moment of thought then makes it imperative that such a technique must accord to the architecture of human psycho-physiology. This is because all human cognition and perception is a function of this architecture. For example, the question of where dreams or thoughts come from is highly connected to the technique for being human. Ideas regarding the source(s) of dreams and thoughts can be traced back to the beginning of civilization, from Egypt to Mesopotamia. Indeed, there’s much to provide hope that such a humanist project is feasible and has in fact been actualized in the past. Our challenge then is that of taking the mantle from the renaissance and revivifying our archeology of knowledge even into the prehistoric and ahistorical periods, like the world of the collective consciousness that can be accessed via the dream and the vision. We must learn to perceive even that which is beyond our ‘five common senses’ and trace the world of archetypes that Carl Jung strove to share with the world.
Remembering these things may be a difficult task, but the burden of remembering true humanism is much lighter than the burden of contemporary life and its dehumanizing and intoxicating ideologies and practices. We are currently faced with challenges like mass poverty, climatic degradation, loss of freedoms within our nation-states, and a general trend towards nihilism. These experiences are suffocating and escalating commitment to them is likely to be counterproductive.
The truly revolutionary move therefore involves the paradox of being still and letting the cause of humanity to reveal itself to us in a transcendent way rather than taking the normal political action of activism and proselytization.
We have to open up to what we are currently unconscious of, and reconcile with it; we need to let the ‘id’ transform the ‘ego’, rather than the converse as Freud and much of contemporary psychology stipulates. For example, we should look at a psychotherapy of executing lessons from dreams and fantasies through surrender of our consciously made rules. Out of this surrender we’ll live up to the promise of a new kind of ‘super ego’ or ‘over man’ that breaks down all our barriers and guarantees human excellence without discrimination and fear since the source is the totality of the experience of the universe as an intelligent entity. That is, we become human when we integrate with the universe and communicate with it knowing that our task is that of affirming the goodness and life giving capacity of the universe.
This story appears in the Ritual issue of drr. Get a copy here.
Greenman Muleh Mbillo is an Akamba philosopher, artist and traditional healer according to the ancient practice of ‘Kamuti’ or ‘of the tree’. Greenman inherited this practice from birth and was later trained by Kanukwa, a female Akamba philosopher, who delivered him to be educated by Spirit. He is also a partaker of contemporary Western education through both established institutions and private education arrangement.
Greenman’s main interests are directed to the archaeology of ancient knowledge systems and especially that of the Akamba people, and more broadly, of the Khemetic people who established the African continent.