Much of twentieth-century continental philosophy has defined its task as “witnessing the inhuman.” With this is meant, first of all, a critical diagnostic aiming to uncover the nihilism that brought the modern world into the abyss. The philosophical side of this critique is famously the deconstruction of metaphysics. But witnessing the inhuman also has a positive meaning: the imperative to move beyond the separation of the human and the inhuman forces philosophy to correctly identify the inhuman at the heart of the human. This essay engages two attempts at solving the double task of witnessing the inhuman. In the first part, Giorgio Agamben's ethics of testimony is situated in his general project of a deconstruction of what he sees as the inherently dangerous metaphysics of Western logos, conducive to the destructive biopolitics that found in Auschwitz its fateful realization. Rather than a critique at a conceptual level, Agamben's overall project is questioned here on the basis of its practical consequences. Against the disempowering of praxis, Maurice Merleau-Ponty's alternative mode of constructing the witnessing of the inhuman is upheld. Merleau-Ponty's critique of humanism is the most fruitful one, I claim, because it is the one that opens the most promising horizon for truly effective models of ethical, political, and aesthetic praxis.
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Jean-Philippe Deranty; Witnessing the Inhuman: Agamben or Merleau-Ponty. South Atlantic Quarterly 1 January 2008; 107 (1): 165–186. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00382876-2007-061
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