Human Conditionality

Away from home means away from my usual routines, methods and places. But I’ve been enjoying my new blog and have been receiving some encouraging feedback, so I thought I’d make the effort to carry on this week even though this could be regarded as a ‘holiday’. Of course, we can’t take a holiday from our thoughts and a Blog is some kind of record of our thoughts translated into writing or perhaps influenced and inspired by writing.

Before my break began I managed to deliver what I hope is the final version of a long (8,000 word)  article for a prestigious online journal. I’ve been working on that, one way or another, and off and on for about two years. I won’t be paid for it, but it’s important to work to high external standards and to place your work in places where they might get noticed, as well as in places where they might create serious and enduring ripples, dialogue feedback etc. (as opposed to the everyday chit-chat of social media etc.)

It felt good to have this wrapped-up and to clear my head and come to another part of the world and leave usual routines behind. Nevertheless, I recalled that an ex-student has asked me to contribute a piece to a little publication she is planning, so I’ve made a few notes about that. She wants all the articles, poems, and various pieces to relate to the theme of ‘The Human Condition’. A pretty expansive title you might suppose, but it could be that these group of three words has changed its meaning since Hannah Arendt used them as the title of a book back in the late 1950s. It’s a book I worked with a little as an MA student but would now like to find the time to revisit. My main experience of Hannah Arendt is as the person who wrote the introduction to Walter Benjamin’s ‘Illuminations’ (she was an associate of Benjamin), a book, and an introduction, which truly changed my life and career, full of ideas I carry around with me as part of my flesh and blood.

From my present distance, far from my home and usual ways of working, and remote also from the time of Arendt’s ‘The Human Condition’, the publication date of 1958 makes me think of the humanist outpourings that pervaded art and thought in the period immediately after WW2 and prior to the youthful cultural revolutions and rampant Americanisation of world culture of the 1960s.

In the late 50s, many thinkers and artists  seem to have been immersed in debates about ‘The Human Condition’ (think of the images of works created by Samuel Beckett or Alberto Giacometti at that time) without perhaps being able to think of the ways in which today’s ‘human’ is newly intimidated and perhaps even abused by the technologies it has produced. Rather than Arendt, my current students are more likely to read Donna Haraway’s books on the ‘cyborg’ and various post-human or post-humanist (there is a distinction) ideas. So, if I have time, I will be dipping into this area, this overlap between generations of thinkers on ‘the human’, perhaps researching and writing something on the theme, and maybe comparing the use of the term ‘human’ in 1958 with its current use.

In the small notes I’ve made so far however, I chose instead to approach the ‘condition’ and the idea that to be human might be a ‘conditionality’ and not just a state or form of being. e.g. what might be the conditions for being human? On what does it depend? What does it require? In what ways might it be fixed or changing? Perhaps human beings have already tried to establish some of this in a set of universal ‘human rights’.

I think I will end the Blog this week with an image of and a link to the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (the link includes not only the rights themselves but also information about how and when and why they came into being). It reminds me that a brave art student that I worked with once had the rights printed out and applied to the steps and landing of the main college staircase, so that we all had to be reminded of them every day and several times each day.

But before ending, I just want to draw attention to the fact that these rights are also  writing, they are pieces of carefully crafted writing, they are words, and thus a good reminder that writing and words can and do shape the world we live in, even if our words, and even our most glorious words, may often seem weak, ineffectual, even useless in the face of brute violence, hatred and ignorance and carelessness.

We shouldn’t forget that our world, our life, our society, our experience is formed as much by words, by writing and by writers as it is formed by climate, by location, by minerals etc. This might be easy to forget this in a world where we seem to be using more and more words, more and more carelessly and cheaply than ever before, and it could be that the apparently depressin decline in the state of our societies and our politics is caused by this very careless new use of words and writing.

Perhaps we should strive then, where and whenever possible, to use our own words, and the history and the archive of the written word, more carefully, lovingly and responsibly, so as to to maintain and further our humanity, to extend and enhance whatever we might mean by ‘the human condition’, which today seems to increasingly blur into the animal condition, the plant condition, the climate condition and the condition of everything else on which the human depends.

Please read the 30 declarations here:




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s