Defining “the human” has long been part of what is now called political theology – what Vincent Lloyd defines as “the discussion of religious concepts in a political context” (The Problem with Grace, 2). A historical line of the political/theological stakes of “the human” can be drawn from Thomas Aquinas’s expansive sense of humanitas in the thirteenth century to Bartolomé de las Casas’s advocacy for the humanity of Indigenous peoples (and initial call for the enslavement of Africans) in the sixteenth century to W. E. B. Du Bois’s observation in the twentieth century that, in the modern historiography of white European Christians, Africa and its diasporas have been “read almost out of the bounds of humanity” (The World and Africa, 50).
In almost every form of critical theory today, critiques of humanism abound, taking on the concept’s political/theological inheritance. Writing in 2009 from a position that has come to be known as decolonial theory, Walter Mignolo argues that “[f]rom the sixteenth century to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, He who speaks for the human is an actor embodying the Western ideal of being Christian, being man and being human. In other words, ‘human’ in human rights is an invention of Western imperial knowledge rather than the name of an existing entity to which everyone will have access too” (“Who Speaks for the ‘Human’ in Human Rights?” 10). Intervening in questions of human rights and international law, in her 2017 “Thinking Against Humanity,” Ayça Çubukçu reads Malcolm X and Frantz Fanon to argue that “violence is central, and hierarchy is intrinsic to the political and ethical operations of ‘humanity’” (253). Bringing together Continental metaphysics and Afropessimism, Calvin Warren takes “a world of antiblack brutality” as a point of departure in his 2018 Ontological Terror, articulating the titular concept as “the terror that ontological security is gone, the terror that ethical claims no longer have an anchor, and the terror of inhabiting existence outside the precincts of humanity and its humanism” (2, 3). For a final example, in her category-challenging 2020 book Becoming Human, Zakiyyah Iman Jackson reads African, African-American, and Caribbean texts as working to “critique and dispose prevailing conceptions of ‘the human’ found in Western science and philosophy” (1).
It is precisely in how it works against the critical grain that Paul Gilroy’s concept of “planetary humanism” speaks to questions of political theology today. Gilroy shares the above concerns about rights denial, exclusion, and violence. However, he builds on Black Atlantic philosophers—in particular Martinicans theorizing not only about decolonization, but also about a decolonized political imaginary—to contend that “the human” is worth salvaging.
“Nobody ever speaks of a human identity,” Gilroy observed in Against Race: Imagining Political Culture beyond the Color Line (98). He argues that claims to identity—gender or generation, religion or race—function “to delineate and subdivide humankind” (2, see also 14). As an alternative to identity-based “shortcuts to solidarity” that Gilroy describes as “automatic,” Against Race dares to imagine future solidarities based on the shared condition of our species in both its fragility and its dignity (38-39, 133). “The recurrence of pain, disease, humiliation… [and] grief,” as well as “care for those one loves,” he writes, “can all contribute to an abstract sense of a human similarity powerful enough to make solidarities based on cultural particularity appear suddenly trivial” (17). This “human similarity” is shared expansively enough to include all humans, across the world, in a “planetary humanism” (2). In order to introduce Gilroy’s planetary humanism, this essay examines how he reads the figures he draws on to develop the concept, explains what planetary humanism is not, and then suggests that the value of the concept might lie less in informing politics and more in offering a starting point for ethics.
Sources of Planetary Humanism
Gilroy follows Aimé Césaire’s critique of Western civilization in Discourse on Colonialism (1950) and responds to Césaire’s call in that book to develop “a humanism made to the measure of the world” (73). Gilroy also takes up the task Frantz Fanon sets in The Wretched of the Earth (1961)—that “For Europe, for ourselves and for humanity, comrades, we must turn over a new leaf, we must work out new concepts, and try to set afoot a new man” (254-255). Gilroy understands who fits under this “we” broadly. On his reading, Fanon’s diagnosis “is not merely that European imperial powers wrongfully deprived colonial subjects of their humanity, but that Europe has perpetrated the still greater crime of despoiling humanity of its elemental unity as a species” (71). In addition, Gilroy looks to Édouard Glissant’s concept of Relation as “a sharp departure from all currently fashionable obligations to celebrate incommensurability and cheerlead for absolute identity” (6-7). Finally, Gilroy cites Hannah Arendt several times in Against Race, and he has elsewhere noted that his book is modeled on Arendt’s 1951 The Origins of Totalitarianism. The “vulnerable figure” of Arendt’s basic human in The Origins of Totalitarianism—her famous line is “the world found nothing sacred in the abstract nakedness of being human” (299)—“might,” Gilroy says, “be described much more accurately as a racialized human: a particular, infra-human creation rather than a specimen of the catastrophically empty humanity that she wishes to repudiate. Her error corresponds to a refusal to engage racism directly and critically” (Retrieving the Human, 105).
Planetary Humanism as Method
Because Gilroy attends to theoretical multiplicity and mobility, any attempt to offer an exhaustive list of his influences would miss his larger point: thinking doesn’t just come from a single tradition, nor does it stay in one place. Gilroy’s planetary humanism, which has its sources in Caribbean critical theory, starts from a critique of how the racialized epistemology of modern Europe plays out violently in politics, that is, how who counts as “human” shapes what rights are afforded to those people and denied to others. He departs from his influences (e.g. Arendt) when they do not attend sufficiently to both how “the human” has been racialized and what forms of violence have resulted from that racialization.
Planetary humanism is not just a concept; it is also a method (Retrieving the Human, 53). To historicize modernity reveals the theoretical limits of regional and racial intellectual genealogies. Just as Gilroy is suspicious of “automatic” connections in politics, his method provides an alternative to simplistic, region- and race-based methods of study. For instance, Gilroy’s planetary humanistic method would ask scholars to consider German idealism not just in terms of Kant, Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel, as it is often taught in graduate seminars, but also as involving Kant’s changing position on colonization and Hegel’s considerations of Haiti. Similarly, such a method would ask scholars writing about Fanon to take seriously how he is in dialogue with Hegel and Sartre.
Gilroy’s historical method highlights the relevance of past struggles, especially coalitions across born-into lines, for the present. For instance, he uses photos of protest signs saying “Jews and Arabs Unite! Against British Imperialism,” suggesting that the method of his planetary humanism is to recycle what was fruitful about previous anti-imperial projects (“I thought recycling was good, obviously it’s not to everyone’s taste here,” he said to an audience in 2008 with characteristic good humor regarding criticism of his work [Retrieving the Human, 226]).
Gilroy builds on his argument in Against Race in subsequent writing. In Postcolonial Melancholia (2004), he doubles down on his previous claims by reiterating that racial identity is neither pre-political nor a natural (and therefore an inevitable) political force (33). In Darker than Blue (2010), he cultivates what Tavia Nyong’o summarizes as a “critical sympathy” of human rights and humanitarianism, thus challenging Left dismissals of those projects (Retrieving the Human, 187). And in his 2015 lecture “Offshore Humanism,” commenting on the Greek army sergeant Antonis Deligiorgis’s rescue of Eritrean and Syrian refugees, Gilroy argues that Deligiorgis made an exemplary ethical and humanitarian choice to recognize the refugees as human, adding that “ossified identity sinks quickly in this water.” Reading Gilroy’s earlier The Black Atlantic alongside Against Race, Darker than Blue, and his recent lectures, we can see that his twenty-first-century writings defend forms of humanism, human rights, and humanitarianism based on his previous research into alternative archives of each. That is, while humanism and claims to human rights might sound too entangled with slavery, capitalism, and imperialism if one starts from Thomas Jefferson and the U.S. Declaration of Independence or Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, human rights history looks quite different if one starts from Black Atlantic archives including Frederick Douglass and W. E. B. Du Bois.
What Planetary Humanism is Not
Understanding Gilroy’s trajectory prevents conflating his planetary humanism with either calls for post-racial social life or some popular forms of antiracism. His claim is not that we are beyond race but, as he puts it in Postcolonial Melancholia, that “the ability to imagine political, economic, and social systems in which ‘race’ makes no sense” is “an invaluable transitional exercise” to a more just world (54). In other words, his idea of race as making no sense is not a description. On the contrary, and as he puts it in his recent introduction to a collection of Stuart Hall’s writings on race, “Racism is not another layer of misery to be logged and added to the dismal effects of other social processes. It has a constitutive power. It shapes and determines economic and political relations” (2). Gilroy’s call to imagine a social system where race lacks a foothold is, then, an aspirational suggestion with pedagogical potential. Thought this way, planetary humanism is a strategy, or political tool, for imagining the world anew through an understanding of the historical struggles around who counts as “human.”
In regard to contemporary antiracism, and in contrast to those who argue that envisioning the suffering of others in faraway places is “tainted” with “imperial arrogance,” Gilroy affirms the political potential of cosmopolitan compassion that works, in thought and practice, across born-into attachments and boundaries (Postcolonial Melancholia, 63-64). Importantly, Gilroy bases his cosmopolitanism not just on rationality, as in the Kantian position, but on the struggles of Douglass, Anna Julia Cooper, Du Bois, Fanon, and others. He reads these struggles as invoking human communities beyond the boundaries of the nation. Thus, in contrast to antiracist workshops that focus mostly on what language we should use and what conversations churches and schools should have, Gilroy’s antiracism requires much more than just international sympathy or assertions of human commonality. It also requires a deep examination of anti-colonial histories and a robust engagement with the cultural and theoretical contributions that came out of those histories. In Gilroy’s own moving words, “The antiracism that inherited a worldly vision from pan-Africanism and passed it on to the anticolonial movements did not descend to the present through the temperate landscape of liberal pieties.” On the contrary: “It came via a disreputable abolitionism and translocal, multicultural, and anti-imperial activism that was allied with the insurrectionary practice of those who, though legally held in bondage, were subject to the larger immoralities of a race-friendly system of domination” (Postcolonial Melancholia, 57).
Humanism and Ethics
In a 2021 profile of Gilroy in The Guardian, Yohann Koshy called Gilroy “the last humanist.” Even if Paul Gilroy is the last humanist, and even given the limitations of his project, planetary humanism—as a concept, method, and strategy—remains a remarkably generative idea. Rather than appealing to the borders and identities into which we have been born, Gilroy imagines ethical and political bonds, senses of belonging and solidarity, that humans make and choose together. His humanism provides a method that connects these imaginative, future-oriented pursuits to historical struggles across race, class, and gender in which radical actors, often through great personal sacrifice, contested provincial and exclusive understandings of who counts as human. The stakes of this debate remain what they always have been: whether people—not necessarily “of culture or great education” but certainly “intellectually bold and inquiring” and “skeptical of the world’s social conventions,” as Du Bois describes the multiracial group that broke the law and laid down their lives to raid Harper’s Ferry—can successfully transform the hierarchies of personhood that remain in our unjust present (John Brown, 144). In the end, even as scholars today disavow humanism, Gilroy’s humanism remains central to understanding the present and endures, very much like the archives that have long been his focus, in ways often unfashionable, unmentioned, and misunderstood.
Gilroy’s “planetary humanism” contributes to political theology by offering more than a critique: in his work, humanism is a starting point, a concept to guide multicultural political projects today. The theorist who focuses on the “political” of “political theology” would still ask: Does Gilroy’s “planetary humanism” offer a vision more politically fruitful than Césaire’s revolutionary humanism? Certainly, in Edward Said’s terms about how theory travels, Gilroy “domesticates” or “degrades” Césaire’s concept (“Traveling Theory,” 206). In my view, however, by both building on and departing from Césaire—in creatively borrowing from him, as Said would put it—Gilroy might be most helpful less in dictating which political programs justice-oriented actors should advance (internationalism or cosmopolitanism?) and more in offering a point of entry into ethical binds in a deeply, and increasingly, multicultural world (how should I respond to another?) (“Traveling Theory,” 198).
To write this essay from Toronto is to write from a “civilization” that permits Nestlé to bottle water from Six Nations treaty land while many Six Nations members live without drinkable water. Amidst such brutality, to hold onto a belief in noncoercive human community can seem, even to the believers, to be merely wishful or simply naïve. But perhaps such a belief—felt through recurring pain and grief, expressed through mutual care—might be both abstract enough and strong enough to bind and keep together those working against exploitative forces and across (beyond?) race, those who still stubbornly insist on making a truly human world.
Acknowledgments: The author would like to thank Helen Kinsella, Sam Tecle, Nikolas Kompridis, Alejandro Vallega, Bina Gogineni, Rohini Patel, and Christopher Smith for discussion related to this essay.
Césaire, Aimé. Discourse on Colonialism. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1972.
Discourse advances a form of humanism that Gilroy both follows (in its reconstruction of a distinct form of humanism) and departs from (in its call for revolution).
Du Bois, W. E. B. Color and Democracy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
——. The World and Africa. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
Du Bois engaged human rights discourse in the late 1940s. The refusal of the U.S., Britain, France, and other countries to affirm decolonization as part of democracy and freedom contributed to Du Bois’s departure from using this discourse.
Gilroy, Paul. Against Race: Imagining Political Culture beyond the Color Line. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2000.
Gilroy lays out his concept of “planetary humanism” here.
——. Darker than Blue: On the Moral Economies of Black Atlantic Culture. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2011.
Gilroy connects humanism to the forms of transportation we use to get places and the music we listen to while riding in those forms. This book also elaborates on conviviality, which itself is an elaboration on his planetary humanism.
——. “Offshore Humanism.” Lecture given at King’s College London. 2015.
Gilroy includes as 20th-century humanist voices C. L. R. James, Senghor, Fanon, Césaire, Said, and Wynter.
——. Postcolonial Melancholia. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006.
Here Gilroy speaks about how humanism informs his concept of “conviviality,” which he frames as an advance on the discourse of multiculturalism.