Secular Religion for the Post-antihumanist Age
A Critical Introduction to Silo’s New Humanism
- Rajesh Kumar Sharma
Against the dense maya of much postmodern tantra, Silo’s philosophy stands out for its lucidity, accessibility and practicability.1 It unites a believer’s faith with a humanist’s skepticism in a formation of ideas and practices that could be described as a secular religion. Silo calls it New Humanism.
This is the religion of the reconstructed human being of the post-subject, post-deconstruction age. It significantly advances Fredric Jameson’s project of radical analysis of the cultural logic of late capitalism by offering a coherent position for transformative praxis in this era of extreme disorientation. Jameson sees the spatial disorientation caused by late capitalism as a simulation and concealment of the ideological and spiritual disorientation of our times. The resulting cognitive disorientation has a seductive vertiginous attraction that deflects critical attention from the workings of capital. Silo, on his part, maps the crisis of orientation from an interventionist’s position. He does not ignore the emergence of simulated subjectivities (such as the avatars that crowd the cyberspace) but unlike Baudrillard he is not darkly inclined to (mis)recognize ‘terminal’ identities as the inauspicious portents of substitute subjectivities. While it is true that for him transformation is of the essence of the human, he also believes –as his position on intention and intervention indicates– that the human being will eventually elude all manipulative formulation and overcome the attempts and situations that dehumanize him/her. From a stance that is neither naïvely uncomplicated nor unduly complex, Silo thus redefines the humanist position for an age that has been proclaimed, with a kind of celebratory suicidal wish, as anti-human and “closed” for discussion.
The subjectivities that he proposes can be described as non-essentialist, historically specific, multiple, open, ethical, optimistic and interventionist. This is not an exhaustive list of the descriptions but it should indicate the irreducibility of his stance, which is grounded in the current world situation and acknowledges the inescapable provisionality of interventions. Unsupported by any master narrative, Silo’s vision embraces the globe: the interventions visualized are local and specific but with global effects. Indeed, the most significant thing about the project which he proposes for dealing with the global crisis is that it is rooted in intervention in the individual’s immediate community that he evocatively calls “the neighbourhood”.
The finest exposition of Silo’s ideas is to be found in his
Letters to My Friends on the Social and Personal Crisis in the Present Time.
He wrote these letters between
The first three letters treat principally of the current global crisis and the strategies to address it. The first describes how the crisis is the consequence of rapid changes causing acute disorientation. Unlike Huxley and Orwell however, Silo’s response to the crisis is not melancholy and pessimistic. Nor does he fear the supposed power of the ‘bad guys’ to take control of the historical processes for selfish evil ends (Letters 33).
The central characteristic of the crisis, according to Silo, is the contradiction between the potential of economic, political and technological forces to satisfy the people’s aspirations for a better life and the frustration of those aspirations. The frustration flows from the destructive way these forces have been generally employed, which has increased the inequalities of wealth and undermined the human relationships by producing widespread dislocation, competition and isolation. Worse, there is little effort to explore genuine alternatives to address the problem. The problems of political economy get treated like those of corporate finance. Consequently, the free market economy is trusted blindly. Myths are cultivated, such as those of the self-regulation of the economic process, the inevitability of progress despite the existing disparities, the universal desirability of the free economies as model economies, the relatively greater scope of scientific and technological development in a free economy, and the “innate virtues” of some communities to achieve greater success. Instead of looking for alternatives to the prevailing system, correctives are sought within the system for whatever appears as a defect with reference to the systemic ‘norms’. The extent to which the corporatisation of cultural norms has spread becomes obvious when we consider that the finest model of the future human being that is today proposed is a typical company executive:
The human being, who has struggled so much for his welfare, will finally have reached heaven. Leaping from planet to planet he will have discovered happiness. Established there, he will be a young man who is [a] competitive, seductive, acquisitive … and pragmatic (above all, pragmatic)…executive of the company! (45)
Against such distressing disorientation, Silo advocates the cultivation of “a new sensibility…a new tactical disposition in front of life” that would be endowed with global comprehension yet grounded in local action. This is necessary because the age of mass movements and leaders has long since passed (47-48). In an oracular register, Silo invokes the Destiny of the human being “which has moved peoples in their best evolutionary direction.” This Destiny waits to speak yet again through the human being of the future who is open, articulate, fearless and regardful of every other person. Such a person is moved by internal and interpersonal coherence: his feeling, speech and action cohere and he would treat others as he would wish them to treat him. Triple aspiration guides such a person’s conduct: for proportion, for growing adaptation and for opportuneness (48-49). The first implies the right ordering of priorities; the second, an increasing influence in the direction of the proposed orientation; and the third, the practice of retreating and advancing, in response to the call of the moment, against powerful opposing forces. With such “tactical disposition in front of life”, a person can make significant micro-interventions in the historical process that have the potential to give a human direction to the apparently blind and incomprehensible changes.
In his second letter, Silo returns momentarily to the beginning of the first. To the pessimistic response to the crisis mentioned there, he adds the inventory of other usual responses, like the optimistic-mechanistic, the anti-historic, the cynical, the stoic, the epicurean, and the narrowly individualistic. He mentions the breakdown of old structures (which he would analyse in detail in the tenth letter) and the growing concentration of power, particularly in the form of finance capital and banking. An opaque crisis, thus, engulfs everything, from the national state to the society, from the group to the individual. It can be discerned also in the processes of regionalization and globalization. Political systems lose their autonomy even as the company, representing the international finance capital, slyly invades ever more territories of life.2 Gradually, a system of masked controls evolves and the freedoms become increasingly superficial and unreal. Political participation dwindles and social solidarities wane. A new scale of values, with money as the highest value, flourishes. All this complements the growing inability of people to reflect critically on values. Reflexivity, a defining characteristic of modernity as identified by Anthony Giddens, seems not to recognize the larger ethical framework in which it ought to be operating.
But the crisis, if seen in terms of vaster processes, points also to new possibilities: the human being is challenged to assert his intention and power against the threat of anti-human forces. The present is one such moment, the moment of crisis and of challenge.
And in this moment one must begin with oneself, Silo argues in the third letter. Coherence, internal as well as interpersonal, is the principal antidote to the malaise of overwhelming disorientation that marks our times. The individual is situated in a network of historically given relationships that limit his freedom and choice (70-71). In order to give a direction to his life, he has to change the environment. And he must begin with the immediate environment. Gradually the change may spread, through “the projection of … influence” (76). The intentionally altered environment, albeit only marginally so, will enhance the possibility of realizing a good life.
The fourth letter clarifies the philosophical and political foundations of the New Humanism propounded by Silo. It deals, on the one hand, with the nature of the world, time, consciousness, subjectivity, the human being, and pain and suffering; on the other, it tries to comprehend the new manifestations of violence, the nature of the state and the para-state, and such issues as the concentration of power and the dissolution of social structures. Silo sees humanization as pointing the way beyond the gathering crisis, though he concedes that in the prevailing environment there are few takers for even the simplest ideas that could give a foundation to people’s lives. The reason is these ideas do not fit into the current code of comprehensibility as people are prepared to comprehend only what is entertaining, profitable and/or fashionable.
The founding ethic of Silo’s New Humanism is the care of the particular. With this strategic move, he disciplines the master narratives that have flourished around such transcendental signifiers as the Will and the Unconscious. Every human being has a specific situation. He may not have chosen it but he certainly finds himself placed in it and limited by it. But then the world is “not just a conglomeration of natural objects but … an articulation of other human beings, of objects and signs produced or modified by them” (94). And like the world which is not a self-enclosed transparency but is humanized through and through, the human being too is “open” and his consciousness is “configurated intersubjectively” (95). The legacies of Sartre, Heidegger and Foucault meet thus in a stark confluence in Silo’s thought, complicating the question of agency yet casting into relief also, paradoxically, the power of agency.
The de-essentializing move (that spans the distance between “common sense” humanism and the fundamentally reflexive New Humanism) is completed in Silo’s definition of the human being. In place of the symbolic-linguistic subject conceived outside temporality, Silo proposes a historical-social being who has “the capacity of accumulation and incorporation into the temporal”. The conception is reminiscent of the Buddhist conception of the non-essentialist and momentary self which forms from moment to moment in the flux of temporality. While it is indicative of the possibly transcultural affiliations of Silo’s thought, it reveals also Silo’s intellectual engagement with the poststructuralists, particularly Foucault for whom subjectivities are, to a great extent, discursive formations, specific to temporalities. The compassional tranquility of a Buddha and the intellectual passion of a Foucault resonate in the supreme trust that Silo reposes in the human agency when all has been said and done. Knowledge does not negate agency. The dispersal of the essential Human Being does not signify the end of the human being. The complexity of formation called the human being seems to be all the more reason for the transforming action. “Man is the historic being whose way of social action transforms his own nature,” Silo remarks (96). The definition is completed in the sixth letter in which “the world” is added to “the human nature” as object of transformation (147). Silo’s postmodern humanist stance is, thus, best illustrated in the simultaneous emphasis he places on the non-natural, historical-social particularity of the human being on the one hand and the transforming power of intentional consciousness on the other. The de-essentialized human being, for Silo, does not fade out of existence; rather, the historical dimension renders the transformative intervention logical and feasible.
The will to overcome pain and suffering drives the human endeavours for transformation. Since pain and suffering arise from temporal-spatial want and finitude, the intervention is also set in the temporal-spatial landscape of human subjectivity-objectivity. The categorical interpermeation characterizes Silo’s conception of subjectivity and temporality too. Our perceptions, like the texts for Barthes and Derrida, are marked by retentions and futurisations, the fact that makes the subjective temporality different from the calendar time. Social temporality too is multi-layered on account of the generational dialectic. With the personal and the collective temporal landscape interpenetrating, subjectivity is thus never singular nor ever static (101-106).
Such a conception of subjectivity would obviously require a new ethical imperative. That is provided by Silo’s concept of coherence. As a visual-narrative signifier that quite remarkably fits the postmodern bill, it replaces the existentialist concept of authenticity which, primarily on account of its representationalist overload, cannot stand the paradoxical demands of the postmodern age. To humanize means “to come out of objectification in order to affirm the intentionality of every human being, and the primacy of the future over the present situation” (110). The more the coherence, the greater the humanization. And this coherence is not circular, closed and politically sterile, but many-dimensional, open and politically transformative:
… the evidence arises that human action does not start and end in a vicious circle of enclosure, and that a life aspiring to coherence should open up, widening its influence towards people and environments, promoting not just a conception or ideas but rather precise actions that growingly widen freedom (112).
Part of this letter carries also Silo’s reflections on violence, the state and the concentration of power. He points out that while the state has failed to secure people from the violence implicit in their reduction to mere prostheses of others, it is coming increasingly under the shadow of the para-state that, in the form of multinational corporate interests, grows progressively powerful. Silo hopes, however, that the logic of structural dynamics will force the emerging monopolistic global system to become immobile and, eventually, collapse. As cracks develop in the system, we must look to the future, to a better social organization in which power will not be concentrated in private or governmental hands. The motivating principle of this organization will be humanization, the process that opens the human being toward the future instead of reducing him to a thing. The human intention to orient the changes will prevail over the temptation to surrender to chaos.
Lest the affirmation of faith in the transformative human intention should sound unrealistic to the people who have heard the rumble of falling Communist regimes in the USSR and Eastern Europe, Silo’s fifth letter aims “to rescue human values and to reawaken ideals towards a possible direction” (114-115). It is written against the “defeatism” of the times (115). Aptly then, the most important thing, according to Silo, is to know if one wants to live and to know in which conditions one wishes to do it. The freedom of choice is a real human freedom and is the source of every meaning and value (115-116). In choosing to live according to our intentions, we exercise the freedom to give meaning to our existence. We can choose between “[a] deep personal and social transformation” on the one side and a passive resignation to circumstances on the other. It just depends on whether we see nothing wrong with the way the world is going or see it as being in the grip of a grave crisis breaking out in rampant violence, injustice and inequality (118). Of course, what blinds and paralyzes people is the loss of old and “stable references”. The previous forms of struggle have become obsolete and the disintegrating social fabric discourages the mobilization of groups. People react to the crisis either by withdrawing into themselves or by condemning an abstract and obscure notion of “the System” (119-120). The great movements of history having become impossible to repeat, people fail to appreciate their own potential as the protagonists of micro-transformations appropriate to these times. These micro-transformations will emerge from work “rooted in neighbourhoods” and will regenerate the community at a time when the centralized structures are sick and disintegrating (121-122).
Silo conceives of the defining human project as a project of transformation. So long as one unthinkingly surrenders to the immediate situation and is satisfied with the performance of contradictory actions, one’s human potential remains unrealized; for that can be realized only in a transformative project (123-24). The manipulators employ various strategies to keep people’s minds off transformative endeavours. Sometimes gradualism is used to make people endure the present pain while happiness is postponed ad infinitum. Sometimes the secondary things are given precedence over the primary. Information is abused, distorted and even substituted to make people docile and insensitive to the urgency of transformation (125-29). The New Humanist Movement, hence, avoids seduction by the mass media (134).
The New Humanism recognizes the debt it owes to historic humanism by reaffirming the values of the freedom of conscience and of the struggle against obscurantism. However, it is oriented toward the future. It aspires for genuine internationalism, for a world that is not uniform but multifarious and free from the tyranny of hierarchy and centralization (136-37). Obviously, this aspiration looks beyond the hidden trap-texts of Eurocentrism and neoliberalism that lie under the project of the historic humanism. This accounts for an important distinction of the New Humanism.
The sixth letter begins with these preliminaries and goes on to examine the issues of capital and democracy in the Document of the Humanist Movement (which forms part of the letter). The value of money is not doubted, for instance, but its “tyranny” is opposed. It is not an “abstract” tyranny either, but has “a name, representatives, executors and indubitable procedures” (138). Speculative capital is progressively swallowing the sovereignty of the state and consequently the para-state is emerging which, not content with dominating the objectivity, is steadily spreading its control over subjectivities by means of the communication and information media. The capital in its march “even progressively discard[s] the human being” (139). The monstrous greed of speculation diverts the technological resources away from the solution of general human problems of food, health and work. And to tackle the resulting chaos, the capital begins to “discipline society” (140).
The New Humanists do not object to profits but to speculation and usury. They view labour and capital as “factors of production”. They believe in employing the capital for the greatest productive yield and oppose sub-investment, fraudulent bankruptcy, forced indebtedness and capital flight (140-41). Through their actions in the labour as well as the political field, they aim at saving the state from becoming “an instrument of the international finance capital” (142).
While speculative capital threatens to overpower the state, a profound crisis grips the basic practices and institutions of democracy. The separation of powers is breaking down, the very idea of representation gets perverted and the respect for the minorities is vanishing (143). The elected come to represent, increasingly, not the electors but the interests that finance the party machinery. The situation requires that in the interest of real democracy we give urgent attention to popular consultation, plebiscite and direct election. Silo recommends harnessing the modern technology to strengthen these processes (144-45).
He hopes that foregrounding the issues of labour and capital and real democracy will initiate a new kind of political struggle that will lay the foundations of a new, dynamic society (146). What is needed is not simple protest but a conscious effort at transformation (151). Along the way, anti-humanist positions also have to be tackled. From the anti-humanist ecological movements that give precedence to Nature over the human being (and gloss over the role of the military-industrial complex in engineering the ecological disaster) to the right-wing self-proclaimed “humanists” who indulge in religious persecutions, there is a wide spectrum of positions which should compel a distinction between naïve humanism and conscious humanism (152-54).
It is also remarkable that the New Humanists are not motivated by any transcendental teleology. Instead, they “act according to what they consider more just, aiming at transformations that they find adequate and feasible at this time in which they happen to live” (155). They understand that ideals and ideas are not absolute and transcendental but relative to time.
Carrying on from here, Silo takes up in the seventh letter the idea of revolution that the latter-day opinion-makers dismiss as outdated (157-59). He reworks the idea in the sense of specific micro-transformations operating in the framework provided by the values of “free education and health” which would “replace the paradigm of the present society attached to wealth and power” (165). It is, at one level, a social revolution that would radically transform people’s lives and envisages “the drastic transformation of structures” with the human being as the central reference (166-68). At another level, it is a total revolution, one that involves the very being of the human. Silo cites G. Petrovic’s definition of revolution as “the creation of an essentially different way of being, different from every non-human, anti-human, and still not completely human being”. Petrovic identifies revolution with “the highest form of being, as being in plenitude and as Being-in-Freedom” (168). At stake then is the human essentiality, the being human. And this means that the human being must “get out of the field of necessity and move into the field of freedom” (169). The new revolutionary, then, is “a humanizer of the world” (170). He is not a violent epic protagonist. The Indian non-violent revolution (led by Gandhi) was, therefore, special: it introduced “a new methodology of action and struggle” although it remained “inconclusive” (166-67).
The site of the New Humanist revolution, too, is not the epic landscape peopled by faceless multitudes but the “action fronts” working in the neighbourhoods as engines of specific micro-transformations. These action fronts orient the social forces in the direction of revolution. “[T]he revolutionary process is … a set of mechanical conditions generated in the development of the system” (175). The present situation is such that globalization has produced deep disorder in the system which is, consequently, slipping out of the hands of the controlling minority. That minority is resorting to the use of increasing violence and other resources to retain its control even as the system hurtles towards a global collapse (176-78). At this juncture, it is imperative that human beings exercise their intention to avert the impending catastrophe and give orientation to the events instead of allowing themselves to be carried off by the current of circumstances. Action fronts have a decisive role precisely here. These guide the “mechanical conditions” towards a humanizing revolution.
Even the armed forces have to respond in a new way to the emerging situation, Silo argues in the eighth letter. They must become the allies of the people wherever a hiatus opens up between the state and the people. When people want revolution, the armed forces have an obligation to facilitate it even if that means disobedience to the state leadership. The new situation requires a fundamental rethinking of the role of these forces in view of such developments as the increasing permeability of borders, the erosion of the state’s sovereignty as a result of economic and other factors, the temptation of the powerful countries to exercise disproportionate force against “defenseless countries” and the rise of terrorism armed with advanced technologies of warfare. Paradoxically, the armed forces have to dedicate themselves to the new historical task of preventing wars (179-202).
The discourse of human rights comes in for a modest but penetrating scrutiny in the ninth letter. These rights often become an excuse for military intervention on the one hand and are conveniently overlooked on the other whenever it suits the interests of capital. Besides, “the cultural thesis” is frequently invoked against the call for universal human rights. But as Silo quite straightforwardly contends: “[T]he acknowledgement we make of cultural realities does not invalidate the existence of a common human structure under historical becoming….” Perhaps the resistance to human rights arises precisely from the unacknowledged recognition of their power as “aspirations”. The fact that they embody “aspirations” means that they have a certain radical potential: they are the enabling instruments that help us interrogate “the present powers” and inspire us to struggle for change (203-223).
The tenth letter dwells on the global crisis precipitated by the accelerating changes in technology and structures. Groups and individuals are caught in changes that defy comprehension on account of speed. The rampant and accelerating de-structuring can be tackled only if the situation is comprehended globally and action initiated in “the minimal fields of social, group and personal specificity” (227). However, this action works on the terminal or viral paradigm appropriate to the postmodern times, at the level of randomly appearing events. The change is envisaged not as a gradual global transformation but as scattered multiple consequences of a series of “‘demonstration effects’ … producing a general turning point of the process” (227).
As an honest thinker who is not scared by the logic of his vision and is prepared to confront its darkest limits, Silo expects the de-structuring to continue until it reaches the neighbourhood and the individual. In all fields – political, economic, religious, generational, etc. – he foresees radical de-structuring as gathering momentum and driving the existing world toward dissolution. Yet the dissolution, tragic though it be, would “[light] the birth of a new civilization – the world civilization” (241). The new civilization would be shaped by the hands of those whose work, “low profile” but foundational, is embedded in their specific environments. Such people, Silo says, will embody the Destiny of the human being.
In the context of Silo’s conception of the human being, the reference to Destiny might sound out of place. Yet the reference is not thoughtless. For Silo, the human being is, along with the world in which he finds himself, a project. The inevitability with which the future will unfold need not necessarily be conceived as a transcendentally authored Destiny. On the contrary, it can be conceived as the effect of human choice and action. To the extent that these choices and actions open up a better future for more and more people, these indeed embody a common human Destiny.
1 Silo is
the pen name of Mario Luis Rodriguez Cobos, an Argentinian philosopher. His Letters to My Friends on the Social and
Personal Crisis in the Present Time has been published in
2 Silo’s insight into the working of capital is on similar lines as Slavoj Zizek’s in his analysis of “auto-colonisation”. See Slavoj Zizek, “Multiculturalism, or the Cultural Logic of Multinational Capitalism”, New Left Review, 225, September/October 1997.
Dr. Rajesh Kumar Sharma
Department of English
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