Spring 2015: What Was Antihumanism?

What Was Antihumanism?
Friday, April 10, 2015 – 1:30-5:30 p.m.

Director’s Conference Room, National Air & Space Museum
600 Independence Ave SW, Washington, DC 20560

Free and open to the public
(Please see important note about required RSVP at the bottom of this page)

Antihumanism is now enjoying a high intellectual profile across the humanities and the interpretive social sciences. Eco-critics point out the ways in which our hubris as a species has led to environmental destruction; speculative philosophers seek to remind us of the vastness of the cosmos and the depth of time, over and against the merely human dramas of cognition and rationality; queer theorists argue that sexuality, long a leading edge in critiques of the autonomous subject, may in fact imply a critique of humanness itself. Even book historians describe the production and circulation of books as vast, semi-autonomous system that makes the excesses of close reading and textual interpretation seem myopic and narcissistic. All the latest talk, it seems, depends on critiquing “the human.”

But the critique of the human has been a mainstay of the humanities for a century. On the one hand, the legacies of the two world wars and the beginnings of a taking-stock of the moral damage of colonialism and slavery gave thinkers as diverse as Martin Heidegger and Franz Fanon reason to argue that the practices of Enlightenment involved hypocritically overvaluing the “human.” On the other hand, technophilic discourses branching off of structuralism and cybernetics have been built around an impatience with the residues of human fallibility in the computer age, and have been continuously engaged in attempts to bracket the human in their modeling of complex systems.  

So if the antihumanism of 2015 looks a lot like the anti humanism of 1927, 1953, or 1986, what besides novelty makes it alluring today? Have its claims about the fatality, hubris, and fallibility of the human finally met their appointment with history? And if the discourse of antihumanism is always a discourse about modernity, are there ways to tell a critical story about modernity that aren’t antihumanist?

In conjunction with the symposium, the Potomac Center will host a graduate student workshop on WednesdayApril 15, at the University of Maryland.


The Critic as Antihumanist Humanist
Simon During

Professor at the Center for the History of European Discourses
University of Queensland

French Antihumanism and Modern Doubt
Stefanos Geroulanos

Associate Professor of History
New York University

Systems We Have Loved
Eve Meltzer

Associate Professor of Visual Studies, Gallatin School
New York University

Symposium Chair

Christopher Nealon
Professor of English
Johns Hopkins University

Important note: In keeping with Smithsonian security policy, ALL ATTENDEES MUST RSVP NO LATER THAN 48 HOURS BEFORE THE SYMPOSIUM. On the day of the symposium please report to the Security Desk at the museum’s south entrance (6th St. and Independence Ave. SW) for a visitor pass. (Those holding a Smithsonian ID badges need not RSVP and may precede directly to the Director’s conference Room.) You may RSVP here!

Videos of the lectures and discussion from this symposium are available here.