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Commentary

The concept of man

What is called “man” is a product of “discursive formations” and of the “sociopolitical contingencies” of the various epochs of human history. The concept of “man” is beyond grammar and logic. “Man” is an invention of society, in the same way that “being” is an invention of metaphysics. Citizenship has become the basis of the equality of people, albeit wrongly. Bias, not the concept of nationhood, has something to do with it. It is rooted in self-interest and the desire to protect territory. The other, an outsider, is an enemy, not a friend.

Our desires do not only define us. They also make us, creating the artificial out of the natural, and so we have become, in the same way that Frantz Fanon thought about it, “brown skins with white masks.” Distance produces the desire to connect with people. Social media transforms this into a need. For two beings to express their affection, they have to consume a commodity. Soon, it is the commodity, not what they feel for each other, that would characterize the quality of their relationship. Life becomes a question of what you lack, not a concern for the person you love.

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Beauty is no more than an oppressive standard, and success is its equivalent in our souls. In the mind of many, a defeated man is not a man but a “loser.” For those among us who judge the humanity of others, a garbage collector is not a man but a garbage collector. This is why nobody wants to lose and no one ever dreams of becoming a garbage collector. We wrongly believe this way because man is patterned after the gods, the wrong gods, the gods of war and destruction. Yet, I suppose, man is not fashioned out of marbles. We are made from clay.

The limits of man also make his existence a possibility. Hence, our finitude is both contingent and fundamental. Locating man in the transcendental subject displaces him from the empirical. But explaining man in terms of the empirical (economics, psychology, biology) also uproots man from what is transcendental. Husserl’s grounding of man in the transcendental subject, a Kantian synthesis of “man as subject” and “man as object,” reduces everything to pure thought. But “what I am” is always more than “what I think.” Heidegger attempts to solve this paradox by suggesting that our mode of being is a “being-in-the-world.”

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But such a conception remains politically naive. Heidegger’s being has failed to see all the suffering and pain in the world. Yet, in treating man as a result of historical forces (Hegel, Marx), we also encounter the duality of man as both the maker and the product of the same history—another paradox. So, who is this being we call “man”? Perhaps we need to first ask: What is truth? It is not man who has the power to define who he is. Rather, it is the truth that gives him the power and, thus, the ability to describe himself. The truth, however, belongs to no one. Knowledge, Foucault says, arises from power relations. As such, “in knowing, we control and in controlling, we know.”

What the history of thought has failed to account for in its effort to understand man is the reality of madness. It is madness that actually defines politics in this world. People’s normalizing judgments, for instance, are a means of control emanating from certain standards and/or our ethical commitments. This makes human beings a “case” that can be subjected to manipulation. The same translates to disciplinary power, the “invisible” inside of us that observes and judges. Our institutions, which have control over us, are the instruments of discipline that have since replaced the sovereignty of kings and magistrates. If the most ruthless people are in hell—e.g., Hitler, Stalin, Idi Amin—I wonder how the one on the throne could have survived all the madness. The same madness existed before in Rwanda; now it is in Syria. It is a madness about which the whole of human civilization has done nothing.

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Christopher Ryan Maboloc, PhD, teaches philosophy at Ateneo de Davao University.

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