Claire Colebrook

The Death of the PostHuman: Essays on Extinction, Volume One

    9. Why Saying ‘No’ to Life is Unacceptable

    Just what counts as acceptable or unacceptable is obviously a cultural, social and historical variable. That being so it might still be possible to make claims regarding broader structures of unacceptability, and certain motifs that, within epochs, dominate cultural production. We can perhaps begin by asking—today—just what might count as unacceptable in general. That is to say, one can imagine all forms of socially refused content, ranging from prohibited actions and lifestyles to censored content. But on what grounds or by what logic is the border between the acceptable and the unacceptable drawn? The problem can be given some generality and purchase today if we ask what the rationale for accepting or refusing something might be, and—further—what forms the limit of acceptability today. I would suggest that despite dispute over what counts as acceptable the governing rationale for dispute is the concept of life: one either argues for an intrinsic ‘right to life’ or one asserts one’s rights to choose on the basis of the autonomy of one’s own life. The logic of normativity is grounded on life, which is to say that norms are not—as they once might have been—given transcendently (as what is dictated by God or social propriety)—but are immanent to life. One either argues against gay marriage, single parenting or other alternative lifestyles on the grounds that it threatens ‘our way of life’ (including the family, reproduction, maintaining humanity as it is), or one insists on the right to determine one’s life. Cultural production also reinforces this unquestioned affirmation of life: from lifestyle channels, to reality television’s display of life, to celebrity culture to legal and medical dramas and the increasingly close-angled camera work displaying the minutiae of life, all external criteria give way to the value of life itself. At first glance it appears that the enlightenment project of removing all forms of transcendent justification—Church, State, privilege and prejudice—has been achieved, and now there is nothing other than life. And yet, such a frenzied surge in an unquestioning insistence on the value of life is accompanied both by an inability to confront the imminent demise of life (whether that be by way of accelerated extinction due to climate change, or disaster scenarios resulting from terrorism, nuclear warfare, viral pandemic or bio-weapons and resource depletion—or, the inevitable panic that would follow on from and exacerbate the appearance of any of these threats.) In addition to the shrill insistence on the primacy of life, and alongside the deluge of information regarding increasing and exponentially accelerating threats to life, there has been a strange incapacity to ask the question of life. That is: now that life appears to be in danger of disappearance, diminution or mutation beyond recognition, living humans indulge both in greater and greater insistence on the sanctity of life, and seem incapable of directly confronting the intensifying threats that menace the present.

    The hinge of the acceptable is life, both because acceptability is negotiated on the basis of life, and because any question of life is evidently unacceptable. This inadmissibility of the question is most clearly the case precisely when the question of life seems to have been posed. That is, when cultural production turns directly (as it does occasionally) to the problem of life, it is precisely at that point that the question of life refuses to be asked. The question of what we accept and do not accept, what we can consider or question and what remains beyond question, is probably always a query of some interest. But the question of the value of life should gain in interest (if not urgency) for us now, and for three reasons. First, the question or problem of life is now an actual question that is everywhere being asked (and yet also deferred in the very mode of the question’s formation.) We are no longer simply confronted with the ‘meaning’ of life, or the enigma of existence, for it is quite possible, probable or increasingly certain that we will begin to witness the beginning of the end of life (mass extinctions, resource depletion threatening human order, climate change that is moving at a pace beyond predictions of exponential acceleration, and even the strange mutation of the human brain via digital technologies and visual culture that may spell the ‘end’ of cognitive man). Yet, oddly enough, despite the urgency of this problem the question of life has—more than ever—been articulated in terms of meaning, with a flurry of supposedly deeply philosophical accounts of the unavoidable horizon of meaning when approaching what appears as life (Wolf 2010; Cottingham 2003; Eagleton 2007). Further, and despite recent academic and philosophical insistence upon life’s meaning, there has been a surge of cultural production focusing on life’s termination—ranging from disaster fiction and cinema to survival guides for end-of-the-world scenarios. In addition to a flourishing genre of post-apocalyptic cinema and literature, there have also been documentaries and non-fictional thought experiments about the world without humans, the aftermath that would follow catastrophes, and other human-witnessed post-human scenarios. In sum, the problem of the continuation of life ought to be at the forefront of reflective inquiry (and is indeed played out in a series of fictional and semi-fictional scenarios) but the problem is (in that very process of being played out) displaced. It is as though cultural production, at least in its dominant mode, is indulging in Freud’s grandson’s Fort-Da game: we play and replay the disappearance and reappearance of life, and do this to anticipate and master an event that concerns our (in this case, very real and possible) non-existence. Third and finally, even in its barely articulated, suggested, but not fully posed mode, the form of the question of life has altered in the twenty-first century. Until recently, if the problem of life were posed it took the form of theodicy, or justification: of how ‘we’ can explain life’s utter cruelty and seeming disregard for human suffering. It is this question that is played out in Job, in Greek tragedy, in Milton’s Paradise Lost and even perhaps in modern novels, such as William Godwin’s Caleb Williams, where inscrutable injustice is now politicized (and can be attributed to corrupt and therefore remediable institutions). A pre-modern form of tragedy would, in pre-Christian mode, confront the tragic contingency and inhumanity of life (and it was Nietzsche who admired this noble capacity of Greek tragedy’s encounter with the brute force of existence); in Christian thought, especially in its modern Miltonic mode, the seeming tragic senselessness of life will ultimately be redeemed in a regained paradise. In works such as Godwin’s Caleb Williams the experience of tragic desperation and the inhumanity of life is historicized and seen to be symptomatic of a social system that may (and should) be transformed. These modern novelistic explorations of life’s cruelty are tales of fortitude, and of the nobility and dignity of withstanding the force of existence. The endpoint of this tradition might be Kafka or Beckett, in which the individual confronts a life that is tragically void of all sense and (for that individual at least) hope. One can either interpret Kafka and Beckett existentially (as writers who face the void of non-meaning) or regard that experience of the void as a (potentially) political hope for a world of non-damaged life. It is perhaps thoroughly modern to shift from a tragic acceptance of the brute contingency of life to some sense that the struggle itself is one of personal meaning. (This was why Nietzsche so admired the ancient Greeks, for having the capacity to experience the violence and ‘festive cruelty’ of life’s force, without moralizing [Nietzsche 2000]. Today, and for some time, the tragic mode has become less acceptable as tragic. Some form of resolution or compensation usually closes narrative form. The forces of good triumph in the end, or suffering itself is given meaning: Hollywood cinema rarely allows itself a conclusion void of redemption, while tales of suffering—from Born on the Fourth of July (1989) to The Pursuit of Happyness (2006) and 127 Hours (2010) are morality plays of individual triumph rather than an exploration of cosmic indifference.) Even so, and despite a refusal to confront the limits of life just when the historical actuality of life’s end is becoming apparent, though not witnessed, it is possible to note a shift of genre away from human-to-human adversity to, at least initially, something like a war between humans and the cosmos (and this despite all the deep ecology proclamations of our oneness with life).

    A new mode of the question of life has come to dominate cultural production: not, ‘Why are humans subjected to the brutal force of existence?’ but: given human brutality and life-destructiveness, by what right will humans continue to survive? It is no longer life that needs to be justified, but the human species’ malevolent relation to life. Nietzsche had already charted the ways in which ‘man’ as a moral animal had been effected from an inability to accept the violence of the forces of life. Whereas Ancient Greek tragedy was initially akin to a theater of cruelty, not yet indulging in justification, the positing of a ‘higher world’ that would justify life created man as a slavish animal (Nietzsche 2007). When that higher world was turned inward, it was not God who enslaved man, but ‘humanity’: we are now always already guilty, chastened and humiliated by an ideal of our own making, and fall into nihilistic despair if the once imagined higher world seems no longer real. Freud made a similar observation: once we move from a tribal competitiveness and warring aggression and take on the command to love one’s neighbor as oneself we can only react neurotically: in my failure to love my fellow man I will turn that guilt back upon myself in damaging self-aggression. Both Freud and Nietzsche diagnosed the twentieth century’s incapacity to face up to the inhuman contingency of existence; if life is horrific then someone must be guilty, and why not both attribute that guilt to man as he has been, while insisting on a proper humanity that will emerge from the human wreckage?

    We simply cannot live existence without granting it some sort of meaning. That, itself, is not the problem. As Adorno and Horkheimer described the dialectic of enlightenment: the ‘shudder’ of existence prompts a magical projection of our own anthropomorphic limits on the world. If enlightenment destroys the mimesis or doubling of the world that has reconfigured life in order to render it acceptable to humans, this process of enlightenment nevertheless achieves ‘disenchantment’ by containing and mastering the world—silencing all the sounds of damage and suffering. The horrors of twentieth-century atrocities did much to destroy our forms of meaning, allowing high modernism and the art of the absurd to emerge. For Adorno, modern art’s refusal to grant the world harmonious order was a sign that we might be able to move beyond our inability to confront disjunction. We need to move beyond an absurd abandonment of all hope without falling back into kitsch resignation with art acting as the promise of happiness. Yet today it is not nihilistic despair in the face of non-meaning that seems to be the dominant affect. On the contrary, not only is meaning now the seemingly unquestionable horizon of human existence—ranging from ‘philosophical’ studies to the Oprah Winfrey Network and projects of individual self-development—cultural production reaches its points of tragic despair by questioning the rampant violence of humans in relation to life rather than life’s lack of concern for humans. It is not humanity that is cruelly placed in an inhuman world, so much as an inhuman humanity that has become unjustifiable in an anthropomorphized world.

    The Post-Apocalytpic

    The opening of the twenty-first century is marked by a supposedly new genre (or the efflorescence of an old genre) of the post-apocalyptic. However this term is used, one way we can make sense of the post-apocalyptic is to note that scenes of near-destruction of the human milieu are followed by an exploration of what will survive or remain, or what ought to survive or remain, after the absence of humanity as we now know it. The post-apocalyptic is best read as a question posed: just as the human species starts to approach the real possibility of its actual non-existence (whether through climate change, viral pandemic, terrorist use of nuclear or bio-weapons, wars on the terror aiming to avert the latter, resource depletion, panic, or any conjunction of the foregoing) there is a barely perceived and half-articulated problem of how and whether humans ought to survive. What is it about humanity that one would want to accept? Further—as the very use of the word ‘post-apocalyptic’ indicates—the genres and modes in which this problem is articulated preclude the problem from being posed. There is a constitutive inability to confront the very content that ‘we’ are nevertheless constantly replaying.

    According to Freud art is primarily a rendering acceptable of otherwise indulgently unacceptable private content (Freud 1908). Jokes, similarly, allow otherwise unacceptable content to circulate, allowing what can be thought but not really said to find some outlet (thus explaining, for Freud, the body’s explosion in laughter). Beyond Freud, and in a line that runs at least from Adorno to Jameson, there is a commitment to the idea of narrative and form as processes that render the intolerable tolerable. Despite its debt to Marx, this strand of what I would refer to as existential or Hegelian Marxism problematizes a Marxist concept of ‘the political’ that has tended to dominate whatever is left today of ideology critique: according to this basic Marxist imperative of politicizing or denaturalizing whatever appears as simple, inevitable, universal or irrevocable, one ought to historicize the present, and account for the genesis of the social and political world on the basis of ‘man’s’ transformation of that world. What appears as intolerable should not be seens as inevitable but re-read as an outcome of the division of labor and the conditions of production. Nothing should simply appear as transcendent, inhuman and inscrutable. For Adorno, working against theodicy, there is an imperative to maintain an irresolvable negativity or disjunction between the sense we make of the world and a ‘world itself’ that can only be given as other than the human (Adorno 1983, 361). The shudder of existence, or the brute otherness of life that simply cannot be lived, is tempered in general by the projective processes that form the world. What appears today in the form of ‘the aesthetic’ enables us to have some sense of a historical trajectory in which the radically alien and contingent force of life has passed through a process of animism, or a mythologizing reduction of the world, through enlightenment (or the reduction of the world to so much calculable and ‘disenchanted’ matter) through to modernism (Adorno and Horkheimer 2002). Modernism, for Adorno, is counter-bourgeois and counter-kitsch, an experience of form in its deadness, in its incommensurability with life. Without endorsing Adorno’s high modernist resistance to the easily consumed and already circulating forms that render the world always already amenable, it is nevertheless worthwhile to pursue this crucial insight: art can be seen as having a humanizing function, a rendering of the world into some form of manageable order. In quite different ways Paul de Man, also indebted to Hegel in some respects, and also less ready to see language’s ordering of the world as a process of meaning or familiarity, sought to draw attention—however impossibly—to language and form as radically inhuman (Cohen, Colebrook and Miller 2011). For both Adorno and De Man, the text or art operates as a disjunction, negation or instance of ‘deadness’ or ‘afterlife.’ It is the lure of ‘the aesthetic’ to imagine that art is somehow an expression of ‘life.’

    If art in general is a formalizing process that grants the raw violence of life some moralizing structure, then certain modes of narrative would seem to intensify what Fredric Jameson (writing after Adorno) has summarized as the ideological transformation of existential horror into social symbolization. Science fiction, for example, codes otherness as such into the delimited and opposed figure of the alien or invader (Jameson 2005, 141). (Spy fiction has its different narrative modes of discerning or reading just who or what counts as a threatening other, or just where the limits and readability of self and other lie). In so doing narrative parses into a temporal project—an overcoming of adversity—what could not be confronted as such: our subjection to life. The novelistic imagination tends to personalize, or even render familial, the symbolizing order that had once—in epic or tragic modes—required a confrontation with forces that required more than ‘life management.’ If one examines cultural production today the manifest content that seems at first to confront radically threatening forces is ultimately returned to the genres of family drama and romance, as though even the end of human existence could be Oedipalized. That is, there is an efflorescence of disaster and post-apocalyptic narrative, but always with a narrative resolution that restores a basic human binary (such as the romance ending that allows humanity to triumph in The Adjustment Bureau [2011] or the victory of New Age humanoids over corporate and military greed in Avatar [2009].) Even a story as bleak as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (especially in its cinematic adaptation of 2009), devolves around a father-son relation: the man and boy wander a landscape while struggling for survival against remaining humans; the journey concludes with a sense of the possible renewal of the family-maternal bond as the son is taken in by a potential new family. In blockbuster entertainment, the 2008 film Traitor figured the ‘war on terror’ and the conflict between fundamental Islam and US security and espionage as ultimately a problem of fraternal misunderstanding: the warring individuals ultimately find common cause in the discovery of their underlying humanity. It is as though terrorism and militarism could be overcome if only we could return, once again, to face-to-face encounters. One might add to this continual anthropogenicism any number of disaster epics that are organized into human-human agonistics: it is never the earth, the climate, contingency or catastrophe as such that is presented as the intruding force of destruction; rather, it is some identifiable face that allows the sheer violence of adversity to be translated into a resolvable and symbolized other.

    Occasionally, however, within narrative trajectories there have been moments when the question of life reaches articulation. If life—or the idea of a body that goes through time, manages an external world, and then arrives at its own end—has always been figured through some narrative imaginary that renders stark contingency into a mastered and acceptable sense (Brooks 1984), then the question of life seems to destroy narrative. I want to cite two pre-contemporary examples before looking at the different ways in which the question of life’s acceptability has changed its structure in the twenty-first century.

    Narrative Life

    In Milton’s Paradise Lost, which is a self-proclaimed theodicy or justification of the apparent intolerability of life, Adam asks God why he (Adam) was made so unfairly and impossibly free. If we accept that man deserves to be expelled from paradise because he chose to transgress the order of Eden, it does not follow that man deserved to be given this task in the first place. Adam’s lament cries out against the burden of human freedom, or man’s capacity to act against life. Why did God make him thus?

    Did I request thee, Maker, from my Clay
    To mould me Man, did I sollicite thee
    From darkness to promote me, or here place
    In this delicious Garden? as my Will
    Concurd not to my being, it were but right
    And equal to reduce me to my dust,
    Desirous to resigne, and render back
    All I receav'd, unable to performe
    Thy terms too hard, by which I was to hold
    The good I sought not. To the loss of that,
    Sufficient penaltie, why hast thou added
    The sense of endless woes? inexplicable
    Thy Justice seems; yet to say truth, too late,
    I thus contest; then should have been refusd
    Those terms whatever, when they were propos’d. (Paradise Lost 10: 742-757)

    God responds by unfolding a vision of history: Adam will see increasing violence and destruction, but will eventually see man benefit from grace and forgiveness. If, after all this evil, God will still sacrifice his son, allowing man to receive a law that is now internalized and accepted from a condition of forgiven fallenness, then life once more makes sense. Human life, for all its apparent perversity is ultimately a higher good, all the better for having turned away from, and then re-found, itself. One might say that all narratives are theodicies, or ways in which the seemingly senseless destruction of existence is given redemptive form. The unacceptable is rendered acceptable, not just in the sense of what is socially frowned upon being presented as more palatable—but in a more radical sense in which something like the social is formed. Narrative creates the lure of a world in common, an order of sense and humanity, in which otherness is personalized and rendered familial and familiar.

    This has specific purchase today: it is almost as though the more unimaginable the possible forces of destruction appear to be, the more local our narrative imagination becomes. In addition, though, to the process of narrative as social symbolization—in which order as such is constituted—the problems, intolerable conflicts or disjunctions to which narrative responds are varied. One can imagine the ways in which race, sex, social disintegration, internecine conflicts, historical transitions and so forth, all need to be worked through by narrative (Jameson 214). What is suggested by Adorno’s approach, and in Jameson’s concept of ideology, is that these ‘political’ figures are ideological precisely because they give a binary and humanized form to existential conflict as such:

    The fantasy level of a text would then be something like the primal motor force which gives any cultural artifact its resonance, but which must always find itself diverted to other, ideological functions, and reinvested by what we have called the political unconscious. (Jameson 129)

    On the one hand, then, there is an ordering or meaning-producing function of narrative, a function that answers what might be referred to in general as the problem of existence. On the other hand, there are historically specific ways in which the modes of this question or conflict are formed; the ways in which intolerable life is reconfigured and rendered acceptable vary according to just what the horrific other of humanity is deemed to be.

    In Paradise Lost, and theodicy generally, the problem is the burden of human freedom in relation to a God and life that must be conducive to harmony. In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein the similarly formed question is now directed to man (Victor Frankenstein) by his monstrous progeny. Here the question is not so much human freedom as humanity’s creation of a world in which its offspring are then abandoned. What duty do we owe to the future? If Victor Frankenstein plays God he does so not only in his creation of a living being who is at once a mirror of his own being and yet deemed by him to be lesser, but also in his tyrannical laying down of terms the monster cannot accept. Allegorically, Shelley can be seen to be posing Milton’s question again, somewhat blasphemously: what sort of God creates a being and then leaves it wandering in a world of despair? Or, as the monster accuses Victor, ‘You, my creator, abhor me; what hope can I gather from your fellow creatures, who owe me nothing? They spurn and hate me? The desert mountains and dreary glaciers are my refuge.’ (Shelley, 94.)

    The creature’s plea to his maker is also an allegorical questioning of humanity’s relation to production: how can we leave a populace of the future so miserably orphaned? In Shelley’s case this is sharpened by the fact that the monstrous being of the future promises to be less rapacious than man (even though he still is refused by his creator):

    ‘My food is not that of man; I do not destroy the lamb and the kid to glut my appetite; acorns and berries afford me sufficient nourishment. My companion will be of the same nature as myself, and will be content with the same fare. We shall make our bed of dried leaves; the sun shall shine on us as on man, and will ripen our food. The picture I present to you is peaceful and human, and you must feel that you could deny it only in the wantonness of power and cruelty. (Shelley, 128-9)

    Shelley’s novel is a play of mirrors (directly re-writing Paradise Lost), in which ‘man’s’ plea against existence is at once given a political-allegorical form (so that the monster appears to be a disenfranchised other who could, in theory, be redeemed and included), at the same time as the monster’s creator and pseudo-God also feels the utter horror of what it had intended to create as a free, productive and world transforming being. The maliciously and thoughtlessly reproductive Victor poses the same question to himself: how can one go on living when existence is intolerable, when one’s free actions yield such monstrous outcomes: ‘Cursed, cursed creator! Why did I live? Why, in that instant, did I not extinguish the spark of existence which you had so wantonly bestowed?’ (121). Shelley’s formulation aims to give some political purchase to the existential question, suggesting that it is Victor’s theological imaginary that prompts him first to play God and then to hold on to proper notions of man and morality in the face of the monster’s rather ecological and reasonable request. Even so, Shelley—like Milton—begins by posing the question of the intolerable terms of life for man. If Milton seeks resolution in grace, a ‘paradise within’ and a future when the world shall be ‘all in all’, Shelley suggests a more radical response: the truly human future does not close itself off to the non-carnivorous generations who will live in the glaciers and deserts. Something like the ‘properly human’ functions as Shelley’s political answer to the question of life. Like Marx, Adorno and Jameson after her, Shelley will suggest that the existential shudder of existence should properly be understood not as a relation between man and world, but among men. To varying degrees all these writers—from Milton and Shelley, to Marx, Adorno and Jameson—recognize that it is ideological and hasty to present adversity as a simple problem in the form of an isolated and humanized other, but it is also insufficient to abandon thinking and fall into an existential despair with regard to the brute violence of existence.

    Criticism, in this tradition, has as its task to hold on to the notion that damaged life might be redeemed, while avoiding the easy fantasy solution that would lie in attributing evil to some binary other. To this end Shelley undertakes a genealogy of the self: she describes the genesis of Victor’s monster, who first encounters the sensations of life and then becomes humanized by overhearing a reading of Milton’s Paradise Lost (and then Volney’s Ruins of Empire). After this basic training in humanity the monster is, however, spurned by those he encounters, primarily because of his visible difference from the humans with whom he feels such kinship. Shelley’s politicization of what seemed for Milton to be a problem of human freedom (or the relation between life and law) is—if we accept Jameson’s definition of ideology—a counter-ideological gesture. What appears as the pure horror of life, or what for the moralizing Victor can only be the menacing threat of beings who are radically other, is seen ultimately by Shelley to be a problem of critical enlightenment. What appears as existentially unacceptable should be transformed through social and political revolution. If recognition were granted to the potential hordes of the future one would be faced not with violence but sympathy and pity. Political solutions are therefore akin to the formalizing procedures of art: what appears as intractable, unacceptable, intolerable or horrifically other can be given resolution by transforming torment as such into an anthropogenic problem. If Jameson argues that ideology is the way in which politically unacceptable structures are given imaginary resolution, and that the social symbolism of narrative completes a redistribution that should properly be revolutionary, then this is because of his post-Marxist commitment to transforming seemingly natural, universal or intractable problems into human-to-human struggles.

    Minus the Political

    An entire genre of what has come to be known as post-apocalyptic film and literature currently and repeatedly, with ever increasing verve, plays out a fantasy of human near-disappearance and redemption, and does so precisely when our energies ought to be focused on what humans have done to the planet and how they might desist from so doing. In response to this deluge of cultural production, we would need to adjust the Marxist approach to politics and humanization. Marxist critique aims to humanize and historicize—the two gestures being the same: what appears to be simply and universally intolerable needs to be recognized as having a history, where history is a history of labor and human relations. When those human relations are naturalized or ‘frozen’—when the family or the male-female couple appears as the fantasy frame through which all horrors can ultimately be resolved—then, for Marxism, it is the figure of bourgeois man that needs to be criticized and historicized. The problem is deemed to be intra-human and intra-historical: we should be able to imagine forms of collective, non-exploitative and historically transformative modes of life—not resign ourselves to the apparent ‘natural’ injustices of the present. But what if the problem today were not that of a justice among humans? What if social political revolution among human beings were still to leave the relation between the human species and life in the same place? Today’s frequently cited Marxist cry—it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism—should be read as symptomatic. Should we not be more concerned with the world’s end than the relations among markets and individuals? The Marxist premise that we cannot save the world ecologically until capitalism is dealt with, should be questioned, and reversed: as long as we imagine life and the world to be primarily anthropogenic, or emerging from human meaning and history, we will not confront the disjunction between the human species (in all its modes) and the life that it regards as its own. A new mode of critique that would not be political would be required. Indeed, it is the political gesture, or the understanding of conflicts as ultimately intra-human, that needs to be questioned. One needs a hypo-Marxism or counter-Marxism whereby the very premise of Marxism—man as a laboring animal who furthers his own life—needs to be recognized as the limit of thinking. For what ‘we’ cannot accept is the obvious counter to this assumption: man is not an animal who furthers his own survival.

    For Milton and Shelley the problem was that of the violence of life for an ill-equipped human. Whereas Milton will respond theologically—arguing that God’s grace and the unfolding of human history will justify the seemingly unjustifiable torments of life, Shelley will adopt a more modern and political approach: humanity is capable of living well, living in a humane manner, if only social and political structures were transformed to be conducive to sympathy and recognition. If we came into existence like Frankenstein’s monster—through sensations, reading and a dwelling with loving others—rather than through doctrines of piety, then we would be capable of living without the torments of implacable injustice. Shelley diagnoses human despair and regards its genesis as human, but for that very reason also resolvable. And this is in accord with the critical tradition that I have already and that culminates in an Adorno who regards the violence of existence to be something humanity finds intolerable and will thereby either mythically project onto an animated other, or ‘rationally’ subject to its own order. Critique or dialectics recognizes that the sense or acceptability we have projected onto the world is at once not the world’s own and yet—politically—demands to be brought into being.

    Things have changed. The overwhelming question that presses itself upon us—requiring incessant repression and working through—is not the question of how we humans were placed in a world in which the task was too hard, the conditions too bleak or the burden of freedom too confronting. The question is not one of how we humans can justify hostile life, but how we can possibly justify ourselves given our malevolent relation to life.

    The current vogue for what is misleadingly called post-apocalyptic fiction seems to indicate that we are now feeling (if not thinking) a new relation between the human species and time. More accurately, we are experiencing humanity as a species, not just a humanity that emerged from the depths of time but a specified mode of organism that will one day have had its time. Just as post-Darwinian nineteenth-century literature had a sense of deep time—feeling some alarming presage of a time before humans and adjusted its plot structures accordingly, literary and cinematic form is struggling with forms of expression that might capture a new mode of inhuman time. We rehearse over and over again our near annihilation, playing a cosmic version of Freud’s grandson’s fort-da game, in which we replay our disappearance (semi-traumatically) and then stage our return and redemption (Freud 1961). This problem now focuses not on creation—why was man created given the hard terms of his existence?—but on extinction: what reasons might we fathom for wanting our survival? (Here it is not a question of justifying the life that man must face, but of justifying the man who has done so much to de-face life). Humanity has been violent all too violent; it is not the horror of existence that tortures humanity but a humanity that can do nothing other than destroy itself and its milieu, and all—perversely—for the sake of its own myopic, short-circuited and self-regarding future.

    Living Extinction

    In 2008 The Day the Earth Stood Still featured a deadpan alien (played appropriately by Keanu Reeves) who informed humanity that its violence and destructive modes of consumption no longer entitled it to life on earth.  The narrative of the film proved this judgment and diagnosis to be peremptory: Keanu is given the chance to see the benevolent side of humanity through the eyes of a young boy, and the annihilation of the human species is delayed.  A common motif in science fiction narratives of alien invasion, the judgment of humanity as life-denying and life-unworthy is neither refuted nor answered, but simply set aside as the plot hurtles toward redemption.  Humanity is split in two: the worthless, violent, historical and life-denying humans perceived by the judging aliens, and the proper (futural) humanity that is created and revealed by the morality tale of the narrative. In The Adjustment Bureau of 2011, human freedom—that which makes us human and therefore supposedly worthy—is judged to be the cause of sufficient destruction to the point where man’s free existence can no longer be permitted. This adaptation of a Philip K. Dick story features a team of intervening agents whose task is to allow humanity to run its proper and seemingly free course while making minor corrections if events appear to stray from their appropriate end. The heart of the film concerns a love story that is at odds with the prescribed order of events. Despite a series of more and more complex adjustments, and in the face of all adversity, the lovers—even with one of them knowing about the ‘adjustments’—remain committed to their love. They stand firm, despite the warnings of the catastrophes that follow. The tale is heroic and Promethean, but not tragic. In the end it is this miniscule and possibly disastrous granting of human love and freedom—against the ‘adjustments’ of the angelic guardians—that wins the day. One of the adjusters had already explained to the male lead (Matt Damon) that human freedom, when given free reign, has led to the dark ages and (among other things) the first and second world wars (including the Holocaust). Even so, narrative sympathy is with the love and freedom that asserts itself against such bureaucratic calculation, and this is in accord with a common motif of science fiction’s postulates of the end of man. There is something pernicious, evil or apolitical in simply denying the right to existence of humanity; such diagnoses appear as unacceptably ruthless, as having no feeling for the love and passion that makes us human. This is so much the case that dystopian visions of the world need be no different from the present other than presenting the absence of human passion, even if that absence creates a world of peace and happiness. The classical statement of this malaise is Brave New World (Huxley 1932) where a manufactured happiness is presented as horrifically inhuman, but the reasoning is the same in The Adjustment Bureau; there is something insidious about a world that might be managed, for our benefit, or in which it had been decided that we ought to be guided away from our freedom to be violent.

    As I have already suggested, the once common question of theodicy that challenged the goodness of life and man’s tragic subjection to a violence beyond that of his own comprehension, has been reversed into a problem of human destructiveness towards an otherwise neutral, if not benevolent, milieu. In the 2007 Oliver Hirschbiegel film The Invasion, the central character played by Nicole Kidman faces a world in which a virus is released when a space shuttle crashes to earth. The virus causes its hosts to become inhumanly robotic, void of all passion. Despite the absence of war and violence that would ensue, the narrative has a typical redemptive trajectory that sees the virus vanquished with the world returned to its human order. (Or disorder: the film concludes with newspaper headlines of war and other returns of violence.) Why, we might ask, do Brave New World scenarios of passionless peace seem so objectionable, and why—precisely when we do indeed face a future of possible human non-existence (and sooner rather than later)—is present discourse focused on how we might survive, rather than whether we ought to survive? Or, if we accept the parochial desire to survive why can we not hear all the voices that accuse us of an existential worthlessness? The present seems to be split between two myopias of the future: the first is evidenced by climate change policy’s discourse of managerialism. We speak of adaptation, mitigation, sustainability, cap and trade and even—despite cataclysmic game-changers—of recovery and renewal. Given the stark facts, how could ‘our’ survival possibly be adjusted in terms of using slightly less, or consuming at a slower rate, or with one part of the globe trading its destructive emissions with another? Even beyond the crises of climate change, other disaster scenarios—ranging from terrorism and viral pandemic to panic and systemic collapse—seem to require something that is a difference in kind, not degree. It could not be a question of either adjusting our desires and expectations to a diminished future, or finding other resources of energy and maintenance. For the problem lies not in the substance of energy—of what, if you like, we accept as our milieu—but the mode of acceptance as such. As long as there is something like life that presents itself as that which must be sustained, or—worse—as that by which we value sustainability (such that the good is what allows life to continue as it is), we have failed to ask the question that is being repeatedly articulated and yet never addressed.

    I want to conclude by looking at the new dominant mode of reaction formation questions: these are questions that at first glance appear to face forward to the future but that are ultimately ways in which the reality of the future is covered over. In short, one may say that it is precisely at the point in humanity’s history when the question of the acceptability of the species ought to be asked that this very question mutates into a defense mechanism. By asking how we will survive into the future, by anticipating an end unless we adapt, we repress the question of whether the survival of what has come to be known as life is something we should continue to admit as the only acceptable option.

    The Violence of the Question

    Before looking at the culturally dominant modes of the question I want to consider a philosophical example, for it brings the flagrant self-delusion of humanity into sharp focus. For quite some time the philosopher Peter Singer has posed a rather uncomfortable thought experiment: I am wearing a pair of designer shoes and I pass by a child drowning in water that is deep enough to kill the child but insufficiently deep to pose any risk to me. I decide not to save the child because doing so would damage my shoes (2009). (In an earlier version [1972] Singer simply set saving the child against allowing our clothes to become muddy.) Singer suggests that few, if any, of us would accept this decision. We would save the child. And yet, he goes on to argue, we continually choose small and not highly significant or necessary material pleasures over the minor and barely noticeable material sacrifices it would require to save the lives of distant others. If we faced up to the real situation of our choices—which Singer suggests we ought to do by extending the range of our consideration beyond the immediate sympathies of those who are present to us—then we would conclude that we ought to give up a not too significant portion of our material wealth for the sake of benefiting an other in a way that is far more life-preserving than the minor life-enhancement of a pair of designer shoes. In response to this provocation Richard W. Miller (2010) starts to assess the degree to which sympathy and sacrifice for others diminish what is integral to the self. He argues that it might make sense, in terms of a person’s self-definition and the duty they owe to themselves, to act more kindly to those closer at hand (including one’s children and one’s self). Singer’s case is already thoroughly (but perhaps disturbingly) reasonable. He is not asking us to sacrifice all inequalities or benefits for the sake of saving other lives, just those that would not diminish our own pleasures and happiness significantly. Singer accepts a limitation of sympathy and an apparently non-negotiable selfishness, such that his argument—for all its audacity as a thought experiment—is really quite compatible with a world in which some people just do have more than others. The critical responses to Singer’s principles of sympathy and charity disclose the degree to which human selfishness or self-maintenance is not only the accepted principle of living well, but lies at the heart of moral philosophy. Morality is deemed to be a question of doing what is required in order to be the being that I am (Wolf 2010). There is, it seems, a sense in which either acting without principle or giving up too much of one’s wealth would threaten my self-identity. What is scandalous, I would suggest, is not that humans have placed their own survival as more valuable than other lives, but that at the heart of moral philosophy is an assumption that nothing is more valuable or definitive of value than human life’s capacity to maintain and define itself. We ground value on life, either the sustainability of life, or our capacity to give our lives form and definition, or—to really face up to the circularity—we value life because it is life that makes value possible.

    Life is, properly considered (which is to say, always considered in terms of what defines humanity), selection: we say that something is living if it maintains or strives to maintain itself through time. The dispersed, the haphazard, the inert, the contingent, the diffuse and the unformed—these are not living. They are therefore not only not valuable but also (significantly) not valuing. We value what values: we defend animal life because it too makes its way in the world, possesses a degree of choosing this rather than that, and is therefore on its way to something like meaning or sense. We seem to think not only that the prima facie value of life lies in its modes of flourishing, but that something like destruction and annihilation are other than life and therefore unacceptable.

    This brings us back to the new mode of the existential question: how can humanity be at once the figure of that which renders life self-evidently valuable (because humanity is that animal that values) and yet be the being that has—through valuing itself—annihilated not only others of its own kind, but precipitated the end of all modes of life, valuing and otherwise? How is it that humanity defines itself as that being that inevitably chooses life, and yet has done so by saving only its own life? Why is it that the increasingly shrill affirmation of life—not just human life, but life as a living that furthers and values itself—occurs precisely at the moment in the history of life when it is at its most destructive and at its most evident end?

    In series three, episode nine, of True Blood (2010)the villainous anti-hero Russell Edgington appears suddenly on live National News to tear out and chew the spine from the broadcasting newsreader.  Edgington announces an end to vampire-human reconciliation—the seeming motif of True Blood's ongoing elegy to the desirability of human passion—and declares that a vile, destructive, violent and planet-destroying humanity must give way to another more worthy species. The question is not so much answered as deflected. The narrative trajectory of True Blood, its romantic propulsion, lies in the desirability of being human: while the villainous vampires embrace their immortality, the heroic central figure seeks the love that is only possible with human finitude. Despite this, of course, the vogue for vampire fiction and the fanzine embrace of Edgington as the twenty-first century’s ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ type suggests that the manifest yearning for being human covers over a deeper flirtation with a sense of the end of man. If humanity has always asked questions about its predicament, it has—as I have suggested—begun to consider the violence of its being in relation to the very figure of life that has rendered the human exemplary of life as such.

    Now, when the actual end of man approaches, when it seems necessary to ask what mode of the human—if any at all—should live on, the discourse of life can apparently only consider questions of degree rather than questions of kind. We ask how we might survive, adapt, mitigate or even trade our way into the future; we do not ask whether there is a future for us, and we cannot ask this because the ‘we’ of the question is at once that which has defined life and that which is essentially hurtling towards its own extinction. What disturbs us today is not theodicy, or how human life can live with the violence of its milieu, but anthropodicy, or how human life can avoid asking how it might justify itself.


    How has the common figure of the self-evident value of human life given way to an increasing sense of species guilt and preliminary mourning?  Why, just as humanity begins to have some sense of its end, are policies of survival, adaptation, mitigation and climate change, accompanied by a wide sense and figuration of the unacceptable nature of human life? Nothing defines the concept of reaction formation better than the present: everywhere there is evidence of the nonviable and unacceptable modus of human life, and yet the one notion that is unacceptable—incapable of being heard—is that human life has no value. This is not to say that—being without value—what has come to be known as humanity ought to extinguish itself, but rather to say that what is left of the human needs to confront the absence of value. (Some arguments, such as those of David Benatar (2006) that ‘prove’ that coming into human existence is always a harm—for all its provocation—remain thoroughly within the axiology of life: Benatar argues that human lives are more likely to be dominated by suffering rather than joy and are therefore not to be chosen. He therefore considers human life as something that humans choose or do not choose—when it is perhaps more probable that life is thrown at humans, and humans are thrown into life. It is perhaps more provocative not to ask about the value of human life for humans but of human life for life.) For it is value and the holding on to that which saves itself, preserves itself, values itself and maintains itself that has precluded confrontation with the question that we are at once screaming out and yet also not hearing.

    One way to pose the question of the unacceptable is to consider what we, as a species, might affirm as our own or reject as inhuman. This is a standard and complex border, played out in the thought experiments of monstrosity and the genre of the supposedly post-apocalyptic. If we imagine a future where certain aspects of humanity take over then we may adjust ourselves accordingly. Dystopias are warnings or cautionary tales in which a tendency of the present may be averted. (This is perhaps why many post-apocalyptic dystopias have considered unacceptable solutions to the problem of energy (ranging from the cannibalism of Soylent Green [1973] and Kenneth Cook’s Play Little Victims [1978] to the faux humans bred for maintaining the rest of us in Brave New World and Moon [2009].) Such dystopias would, presumably, act as salutary cautions against us following the course of our current actions to the nightmarish conclusions that would follow. If we imagine another species—vampires—who are defined by a certain inhumanity that has manifested itself in the human species, then the battle for humanity as life becomes a figural war against the future. The vampiric or zombied other is an allegory for humanity gone awry, the bad humanity from which we can save ourselves in order to emerge as properly and justifiably human. That is: we imagine what it might be for the inhumanity within ourselves—a rapacity, ruthlessness and consuming rage—to become a species in its own right (figured as the dystopian man of the future). Rather than deal with humanity’s war on itself we have narrativized and figured the horror of humanity into some distant other. We imagine that it is in the future that man becomes cannibalistic, void of empathy, ruthlessly calculative, and so dependent on technology that he ceases to think; in this exercise of the imagination we preclude considering all the ways in which this ‘other’ dystopian ‘man’ has already (and has always already) arrived.

    The supposedly future narratives of the post-apocalyptic are counter-futural. We represent the future as possibly overtaken by destruction, cannabilism, zombies, violent technocracy or the invasion of mindlessness; in so doing we present as possibly futural and counter-human just those tendencies that have marked the species to date. In so doing—for all our post-apocalyptic or techno-utopian posthuman imaginings—we remain tied to a nostalgia for the properly human that has supposedly been threatened by an inhumanity that may appear from without. We remain in a state of denial or reaction towards the future in two senses: humanity’s end presents itself to us, and rather than ask the question this poses we instead imagine external threats to the species that are then warded off in a clear species-species agonistics. (One would not want to read too much, or perhaps anything at all, into the current vogue for vampire fiction, except perhaps to note that like late eighteenth-century gothic it occurs alongside the frenzied affirmation of the life of man against various forms of threatening transcendence.) We also war against the future by presenting the world of the present—a world of species self-annihilation and global rapacity—as a future dystopia, or as a possibility that may occur unless humanity saves itself. What we do not ask, and herein would lie a possible acceptance of the future, is not whether man ought to survive, but why this question is so unacceptable as to be constantly displaced and dis-figured.