Claire Colebrook

Sex After Life: Essays on Extinction, Volume Two

    1. Feminist Extinction

    The Bloated Monster

    As the human race hurtles toward extinction, primarily as a result annihilating its own milieu, we feminists might respond by saying, ‘I told you so.’ Feminism is, like any ‘ism,’ perhaps too diverse to be given any grounding identity, yet it has most certainly been marked by critiques of man. Even in its earliest, liberal, and inclusive phases, feminism’s claim to include women within the category of ‘man’ or humanity did so not so much for its own sake as for the sake of life in general. It was not a question of women selfishly making a claim for themselves so much as a call for a better life for all in a new world of sex equality. Feminism has never been a special interests claim but has always appealed to some broader justice in which all humans would be included. As long as man excluded and enslaved what was other than himself—as long as he treated women as mere chattels—his own humanity would be diminished. As Mary Wollstonecraft pointed out in 1792, the relation of master to slave not only enslaves the weaker party, but also precludes the full development of ‘man’ as a rational being: ‘Birth, riches, and every extrinsic advantage that exalt a man above his fellows, without any mental exertion, sink him in reality below them. In proportion to his weakness, he is played upon by designing men, till the bloated monster has lost all traces of humanity’ (Wollstonecraft 2008, 53).

    Wollstonecraft’s argument is a typical early instance of an insistence on feminism as a better logic for all life. Even before the emergence of explicitly ecological modes of feminism, there had been a long-standing criticism of the limits or self-enclosure of man. But this long-standing resistance to man is intrinsic to the history of humanist self-critique. Feminism is best seen as an ultra-humanism in that it has, from its inception, been based on the idea that man can only come to himself and be properly human through the recognition of women. The very concept of feminist emancipation harbors an implicit ecology. From liberal to radical and post-structuralist feminisms, women have always fought for themselves in the name of justice and equilibrium (and not as a warring special-interest group). It should come as no surprise, then, that feminism would eventually claim an affinity to otherness in general (Schwab 1996, 34; Hitchcock 1993), and see itself as extending naturally into environmental and class concerns:

    More and more men are embracing eco-feminism because they see the depth of the analysis and realize that in shedding the privileges of a male-dominated culture they do more than create equal rights for all, that this great effort may actually save the earth and the life it supports. (Plant 1997, 129)

    There is—according to most forms of eco-feminism—something like an affinity and passion for life as such that has been deflected by a male or masculinist tendency towards mastery and domination of all otherness; this care or concern for life in general might be redeemed by a return to a saved earth. The relation between environmentalism and ethics is co-determining: without a concern for our milieu or the earth we could not possibly build a world of social justice, but without a harmonious and sexually ethical social order we could not possibly respond properly to our ecological milieu. It is not only in the specific branch of an ‘ethics of care’ or eco-feminism that the critique of masculinism becomes intertwined with a concern for the nonhuman. Eco-feminism is no minor offshoot of feminist thought but structures its genealogy: liberal feminism begins by saying that one cannot exclude a group of bodies from the rights of the humanity in general. Insofar as one is human (and therefore finite) there can be no precedence or pre-political mastery over any other being: sexual equality follows on from a liberal refusal of transcendence. But that refusal of transcendence not only precludes human-human mastery but indicates an overcoming of mastery as such. In the absence of any transcendent or absolute moral order we are all placed in a position of humility (Langton 1988). If an appeal to humanity in general overturns any possibility of a pre-given political hierarchy, because all humans are born equally rational, then that same humanizing gesture will lead to a questioning of the human. By what right can humanity be declared to be definitively rational, definitively self-conscious or definitively social-political? Who defines these privileged predicates?

    Second-wave feminism questions the very nature of ‘the human,’ and certainly does not embrace liberalism’s ‘self-evident’ values of instrumental reason and universalism. Perhaps the notion of the self freed from all prejudice is an elevation of a certain type of self, and perhaps another ethics of local attachments, embodied passions and specificity would be just as worthy of being deemed to be human. By the time eco-feminism emerges, the concern for the environment explicitly takes feminism from a mode of human-human combat (women fighting for their rights, for the sake of all humanity) to a war on the man of reason; for it is man whose drive to mastery for the sake of his own self-maintenance has resulted in an unwitting suicide. Enter post-humanism: ‘we’ no longer contest what should count as the properly human, for the very definition of the ‘properly human’ constitutes a chauvinistic exceptionalism of the species and enables an ongoing hegemony in which the label of ‘human’ smuggles in historical, cultural, sexual, racial and class norms. Post-humanism, of course, takes many forms—ranging from granting non-humans highly human qualities such as rights and cognition, to a questioning or rejection of the very qualities that had defined humanity (such as reason, language and technological progress). In all cases, though, there is a rejection of any simple notion of ‘man’ as a proper form or ground. Far from the post-human ‘turn’ being a vanquishing of feminism, one might say that the post-human is required by feminism’s critical trajectory. The very concept of the feminine splits humanity in two, precluding any simple human norm: either humanity must be redefined or broadened to include women, or the very question that enabled women to challenge the rights of man, will lead to a full-scale destruction of any assumed right whatsoever.

    Feminism’s recent turn to life (in environmentalism and ‘new materialisms’) should not appear as an addition or supplement but as the unfolding of the women’s movement’s proper potentiality. Indeed, this is just how eco-feminism has presented itself. It makes no sense to strive to transform our relation to the environment without transforming our own mode of being. Feminist criticisms of man would not be add-ons to environmentalism but would be crucial to any reconfiguration of ecological thinking. Insofar as man has always been defined as a rational animal who calculates, manipulates, and represents a world that is his proper domain—and if we assume that ‘a dominating position alienates human beings from the environment on which their survival depends’—a thought of life without or beyond man becomes imperative: ‘When human beings ignore natural processes, their antagonistic attitude towards nature leads not only to the destruction of the environment but also to self-destruction’ (Braidotti, Charkiewicz, Hausler and Wieringa 1994, 149).

    It is with this recognition of self-destruction that feminism gains general purchase. Feminism’s criticism of man will not only transform humanity and its milieu but will open up a new thought of life. It is not only the case that a reformed relation to the environment requires a reconfiguration of man; it is also the case that the project of transforming man—allowing him to become something other than the subject of instrumental reason—requires going beyond the bounds of the organism to consider life in general.

    But here we arrive at two questions: is care for the environment really an exit from the mode of anthropocentric blindness that has accelerated the destruction of the biosphere? And, would not a thought of life beyond the human environment—beyond our world, our environment, the place or home for which we care—be a more adequate response to man’s suicidal world tour? [1] Put differently, what I am suggesting here is that the very concept of ‘the environment’ (seen as that which environs, is vulnerable to our destruction and therefore worthy of concern) shares all those features and affective tendencies that structured the self-enclosed Cartesian subject that feminism has always had in its sites. The very notion of an environment that encircles our range of living practice, and the very notion of ‘woman’ as tied to place and oriented to care, always figure the world as our world. To say, as eco-feminists do, that we are essentially world-oriented and placed in a relation of care and concern to a world that is always place rather than meaningless space is to repeat the (masculine) reduction of the world to its sense for us. The problem, despite our protestations, is that we do not care. All the shrill protestations of proper care and connectedness maintain the anthropocentric alibi. Indeed, the criticism of the scientific disenchantment of the world, along with the lament that the world loses its meaning to become mere raw material as we fall further into a mode of patriarchal domination, maintains an insistence on the figure of the connected globe, or the environment as an auto-poetic, self-furthering and self-organizing totality: it is assumed that the proper relation to the milieu that sustains us would be an extension of virtues of respect, care, concern, and even communication to a nonhuman that is always presented in a normatively homely manner. [2] What remains out of play is a consideration of forces of life that are not discernible from within our milieu, and that do not perturb our coupling with nature.

    Even when the word vitalism is not used explicitly, we might observe, today, a vitalist ethics in general that dominates our time. Just as traditional vitalism set itself against René Descartes’ positing of an extended substance that was the basis for a mechanistic and calculable material world, so there is now a persistent, vehement, and near-universal denunciation of Cartesianism, summed up by Antonio Damasio as ‘Descartes’ error’ (Damasio 1994). Against the idea of a mental substance that represents an inert material world, neuroscientists, cognitive scientists, cognitive archaeologists, researchers of artificial life, and philosophers have insisted on characterizing life not in static or centered terms but as a plural and dynamic creativity. The mind or the self emerges from life rather than being the privileged point from which life is known. One could characterize this late twentieth-century anti-cognitive turn to life as a vitalism precisely because, like its pre-modern counterpart, it places an emphasis on dynamism, relations, active becoming, and creativity. Cartesianism, today, is deemed to be horrific for all the same reasons that it was condemned (mainly by theologians) in its first articulation: the Cartesian subject is a disconnected, character-less, disembodied, disenchanted, and disaffected ghost in a machine. If life has meaning—if it is never mere matter but always this particular felt life for this particular living organism—then one must discard Descartes’ error and arrive at a new Spinozism. For Damasio, this means that there is no self who perceives the world in a certain way and who is then affected emotionally by some external input. Rather, in the beginning is affect: an emotion that may or may not come to consciousness. The self is the ‘feeling’ of this event, which is also to say that the self does not end with the borders of the biological body.

    In terms of environmentalism and questions of the human being’s relation to the milieu that it has for so long disregarded, this might seem to be a salutary elimination of man as homo faber. It appears, perhaps, that from within their own trajectory, theories of ‘mind’ have arrived at the immersion of mind in life, at the recognition of the inextricable intertwining of the mind with its milieu—and perhaps even at the most profound of feminisms. Man as master of representation, cognition, calculation and disembodied distance has, without assistance, and in his own good time, recognized himself as an originally environmental being. Feminists have, in other words, been right all along, but man was capable of realizing the truths of feminist care and concern without the explicit intervention of feminism. Indeed, one of the definitive theorists of post-humanism, Cary Wolfe, negotiates his definition of post-humanism by shuttling back and forth between feminism’s insistence on the power relations among various knowledge practices and systems theory’s emphasis on embodied, situated and world-constituting knowledge, and then concludes that both disciplines have their limits in their containment within the human, the limit of which needs to be shattered by an exit from the human, possibly towards the animal: ‘the question is not who will get to be human, but what kinds of couplings across the humanist divide are possible and indeed unavoidable when we begin to observe the end of man’ (Wolfe 1995, 66).

    But is redemption this easy? Although we know that events are occurring for which the old models of calculative reason are inadequate, it is uncertain just what or how much we could tackle from our supposedly new point of view of engaged, dynamic, extended, embodied, and emotive selfhood. Is this new vitalism or anim(al)ism really a felicitous shift in modes of thinking that will allow us to deal with the current critical state of our milieu, or is it a reaction formation? I would suggest the latter, especially if we consider not only the joyous affirmations of life—with the discovery of empathy (Rivkin 2009), affect (Gregg and Seigworth 2010), embodiment (Rowlands 2010), universal creativity (Russell 2007), and wondrous futures (Levy 1997)—but also seemingly dire warnings. James Lovelock’s ‘final’ warning is, after all, a warning for us—otherwise it would not be final. It assumes our duration, the end of life for us (Lovelock 2009). To say that Gaia is vanishing is to equate our system of life with systematicity tout court. Could we not see the present as the end of this Gaia, if Gaia really is an apt figure? What is not considered—beyond questions of warning, surviving, saving, and death knells—is what kind of life the actual death of man might enable, whether ‘we’ ought to live on, and just what or who this saved ‘we’ approaching finality might be. If we are seeking to save ourselves then are we also saving the survival mechanisms that have brought the human species and its milieu to the brink of destruction? If we wish to destroy ‘man’ as the rapacious Cartesian, calculative subject of instrumental reason in order to save life, who is the ground of this futural and counter-human annihilation? For all the problems of destroying man in the name of something other than the human, and for all the resonance of this survivalist self-destruction with the very grips of humanism it is aiming to vanquish, so much of the post-human rhetoric today appears to declare itself as already attuned to the life that ‘man’ so lamentable ignored (up until now).

    It is just at the point at which the future’s potentiality and openness appears to be radically lacking in life that what counts as thinking (ranging from high theory to popular science) has discovered a life that goes beyond the old, limited, finite, and all too concrete models of mind. This seeming revolution of over-turning man for the sake of the life that man has denied is—far from being man’s other—the very hallmark of the end of man. Man has always existed as a being who ends himself: as soon as the human is given some natural or limited definition, man discovers that his real, creative, futural being lies in some not-yet realized becoming that will always save him from a past that he can denounce as both misguided and as at an end (Derrida 1969). Today, just as the human species faces possible and quite literal extinction, ‘man’ extinguishes himself: he declares that he is neither a brain in a body nor a mind in a machine, but always already ecological—sympathetically, emotionally, and systemically attuned to a broader milieu of life. Such claims range from popular neuroscience’s claims for emotional and affective selves, to system theory’s arguments for a self that extends beyond the bounds of the individual body and a whole series of appropriations of non-Western traditions of mindfulness in which the self can overcome its egoistic prison. Once again what is affirmed—against all the evidence for a malevolent relation or intrinsically suicidal system of humanity and its environs—is an original human connectedness, an irreducible system in which the world is never alien raw matter but always this particular world as it is disclosed for this particular organic life.

    But has man really extinguished himself? Has there not always been an insistence that thinking and being are the same, that—in old Parmenidean terms—to think is to be in accord with a movement of life that affirms and sustains itself? That is to say, man has continually realized that the world that he has depicted is to some extent a projection of his own mastering reason, and he has then gone on to claim that—after the Enlightenment—the same mythic world of his own imagination has been extirpated in order that man might arrive at life as it really is (Adorno and Horkheimer 2002). If there has continually—since Aristotle—been a reaction against Platonism and intellectualism, has this not been because such idealisms set themselves and their values above life? For the systems theory of Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, which has been so influential across a range of domains, there is not a primary world that is taken up and represented by a separate subject, since there is just this coupling of organism and the world that the organism inhabits (Maturana and Varela 1992). It is against this anti-Platonism or naïve literalism that I would suggest that we consider the world not as our own milieu but in its own duration. Perhaps we should think again about the supposedly evil Cartesian separation between mind and world, not as separate substances but as a separation between one being (man) for whom there can be something like substance, and whatever else in all its contingency would remain? Should we not be considering ourselves and conscious life not as emergent properties, but as a monstrosity that we do not feel, live, or determine but rather witness partially and ex post facto? That is to say: the end of man is both desirable and necessary, yet also impossible. Any attempt to vanquish man as a blight on earth has always depended on the notion of a proper human who would find himself, again, being at one with the earth.

    The Sex of Extinction

    Here we must turn to the sex of extinction, or what I will refer to as (s)ex-tinction: life, at least as it has been figured through the imaginary of man, always desires to exit itself, negating any determined or merely actual being. As man, today, faces his death in the literal sense, he summons forth his figural death; he demands and declares that man must become one with the life of which he is an expression. In this becoming-with-the-world has man become woman? In one sense the answer is yes, but this is not a new becoming-woman, nor is it a new vitalism. There has always been an affirmation of the life from which man emerges, a life that can be relived, reaffirmed, and plundered so that man may overcome his isolated subjective detachment in order to feel at one with his world. (This was, indeed, the shift from Platonism to Neo-Platonism, where the gap between ideals and the world as it is is covered over with a theory of emanation, in which all forms emerge from one fecund life.) Man has always been an environmental animal, has always viewed the world as his environs, has always been a mode of becoming-woman: he lives his proper being not in fully actualized and detached isolation, but through a more profound autonomy in which he recognizes and affirms himself through a world that is never alien, never mere matter, but always a sign of his proper and profound life. That is—and this is in the spirit of a quick, moral, and unthinking anti-Cartesianism—man is most properly himself when he relates to and lives himself through his own indispensable otherness. [3] If there has been a historical shift from instrumental Cartesianism—where the world is dead matter to be mastered—to environmentalism, then the latter move is a hyper-Cartesianism (since for the environmentalist the world is not really other, alien, or inhuman but always already at one with man’s proper life).

    A feminist critique of man—a man who has always been vitalist in his profound communion with life—would be the most tired of gestures. Man lives on by feminist critique, by continually surpassing and reviving his rationality through imbibing the blood of the dead, by returning to and retrieving the life beyond the bounds of his own life. Neither a traditional vitalism that regards matter as supplemented by spirit, nor a ‘new’ vitalism where matter is already dynamic will save us. What any vitalism will sustain is just this lure of saving life (as though one might find, in life, means for salvation). What we need to consider is the dead end of life: man lives on either by gathering all proper life within himself (seeing all life as mindful) or by positing a good life that will save him from himself.

    It is perhaps in this double bind (where man maintains himself in the face of extinction by extinguishing himself) that a radical feminism could provide a genuine thought of life beyond the human. Here, there would be no woman who remains close to the earth, life, and cosmos: no woman who provides man with the other he has always required for his own redemption. Feminism, today, facing the extinction of the human, should turn neither to man nor to woman: both of these figures remain human, all too human, as does the concept of the environment that has always allowed man to live on through a vitalist ethic. One would also need to say the same about post-humanism, which is more often than not an ultra-humanism. In many ways, what passes for post-humanism consists in the assertion that man is not an isolated animal with any specific features that would mark him off from life, for he is always already at one with life, animality, and technology. Rather than thinking of woman, the finality and redemption of man, or living beyond man in an era of the unified post-human (which takes heed of the final warning for us), what really needs to be confronted is the way in which the figure of ‘life’ has always justified man as an intrinsically post-human animal. Man has always been other than himself, always more than his own mere being.

    If vitalism has any general sense—and it has at least a performative force in current calls for a new vitalism—then it does so in opposition to what is perceived to be a long-standing condition of Western man. Man, according to anti-Cartesian and post-human critiques, has conceived of himself as an autonomous, mastering, representing, elevated, and rational near-divinity who owes nothing to his world. The turn to the environment, to becoming one with a vitality that exceeds the bounds of his own being, would supposedly be a departure from a history of instrumental reason. But the turn to vitalism is another vampire gesture: man consumes himself, and then imagines that he is no longer the rapacious animal he once was. Man believes he has exited his self-enclosure to find the world and his better post-feminist self. The concept of the environment—as that surrounding and infusing life from which we have emerged, and which, so the argument goes, would be retrievable through a vitalist overcoming of our malevolent detachment—maintains the same structure of anthropomorphism. What needs to be thought today is that which cannot be thought, lived, retrieved, or revitalized as the saving grace of man or woman.

    Not the Post-apocalyptic (Not the Post-human), Not Now

    To give a sense of what this might mean both critically and positively, we should perhaps ask what the future would be like beyond the figure of man (a figure that has always included both the post-human and woman). What if we were to approach the future through sexual difference, where sexual desire would be distinct from any notion of survival or organic self-maintenance? Here, one would need to abandon notions of survival, and of the post-human, precisely because these are recuperating gestures. If one considered sexual difference outside dualist gender binaries, one might confront proliferating differences. Difference is sexual, rather than gendered, when it is not the coupling of two kinds (or genres) for the sake of mutual self-maintenance and ongoing recognition. If a body connects with another body, not for the sake of its own survival or reproduction but through something like touch as such, then sexual difference would relate to what is other than itself without a view to shoring up its own being. To be open to what is not one’s own—to what cannot be figured as environment, ecology (with all its motifs of oikos and interconnectedness) or the posthuman—would have two consequences.

    First, one might ask about future modes of existence that are not based on survival (for any survival, as living on, would always be an extension of the present). Margaret Atwood’s great counter-post-apocalyptic novel The Year of the Flood does just that. In this novel, Atwood seems to be opening with a (now) standard post-apocalyptic landscape in which human life in its civilized and urbane modes has been destroyed, leaving a world of fragile living on. Through the use of flashbacks, Atwood describes a world prior to this wasted landscape: a world of traffic in women, of the manipulation of life for corporate expediency and commercial novelty, of a subclass of humans who function as manipulable matter for a techno-scientific capitalist elite, and of a language of noise and brand-names. Here, Atwood opens one path for thought: our post-apocalyptic future has already arrived. The nightmare dystopia of some supposedly science-fiction inhuman future whereby we have sacrificed our humanity to rapacity and venality has already arrived, and that is because that is how man has always lived. It is no accident that Atwood’s earlier fiction was remarkably prescient. Her depiction of a world in The Handmaid’s Tale in which women are bio-politically managed is not so much a warning for the future as it is a diagnosis of what humanity has always been: a passionate commitment to life that will allow the vital order to act as a foundation for moral managerialism. Second, and more important for my purposes here, The Year of the Flood describes another cult of the future—the Gardeners—whose ecological discourse of sacred life and the purity of the origins of their own retrieved humanity is structurally akin to the imagined ‘biopolitical’ corporatism that also establishes the extension and maximization of life as its lore. What Atwood suggests, against the present idea that man might surpass himself and find a new ecological future, is that such redemptive imaginaries have always allowed man to master life in order to maintain himself. Life—or its moral imaginary—has always been biopolitical: green, eco-feminist, vitalist and posthuman ‘turns’ to animality and the ecology all vanquish man as he has been for the sake of a new redeemed future, and do so because of a commitment to an ethical self who can always cast off what he is in order to become.

    But The Year of the Flood is not only critical and diagnostic. (This is where it differs from other twenty-first century critiques of life management, such as Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go of 2005). In addition to the ironic depiction of a world war between green appeals to life as it is and biopolitical futures celebrating a life that has survived beyond all human limits, Atwood presents the hint of a future of refusal in which the women who are traded, exchanged, and managed for the sake of biological variation and reproduction reject the biological family and familial production to produce new modes of haphazard social bonding (beyond sexuality) and new forms of bio-art that decay upon impact. In a world where a war takes place between eco-fascism (or saving life at all costs) and bio-politics (the management of life for the sake of maximized reproduction), Atwood describes fragile female characters who make their way through this landscape, forming lateral alliances of friendship rather than filial communities of reproduction. One of the characters has a successful career in bio-art, where she uses wasted bodily materials to produce artworks that are fleeting and ephemeral: ‘She liked to watch things move and grow and then disappear.’ [4] Atwood challenges the fetishized motif of life, the human mode of monumental archives, and the idea that in turning to ‘life,’ art and man might find endurance.

    What Atwood poses is a world beyond ‘woman’ as man’s better other. The Year of the Flood continues two critical traditions in feminist writing—one Romantic (that refuses what Freud referred to as the oceanic feeling or pre-Oedipal plenitude), and one modernist (that refuses a feminine fecundity that would revitalize all the dead systems of reified language and technology). Like Mary Shelley in Frankenstein, a novel that aligned the romantic artists who imagine nature as a benevolent feminine other with the scientist’s domination of nature as dead matter, The Year of the Flood presents a world in which ecological redemption (as eco-fascism) is the flipside of a bio-political management of life. The two warring factions in Atwood’s novel both make a claim to be acting for a life that would destroy previous modes of human self-imprisonment: the Adamic cult of Gardeners appeal to the vital value of the earth as a way of controlling bodies, production, and reproduction, while the governing corporation (CorpSeCorp) aims at maximizing life through genetic manipulation and data management. Both these factions are enabled by the post-apocalyptic imaginary or, to borrow a phrase from Lovelock, the imaginary of ‘final warning.’ If our only value and horizon is that of life, then only one path is permitted: that which saves and survives.

    Both Shelley’s Frankenstein and Atwood’s Year of the Flood display a quite common motif in feminist fiction writing to question the value of the maximization of life. In this respect one would have to associate at least one form of feminism, not with finding a ‘woman’ beyond man, but with a critique of all that has stood for ‘woman’ as man’s other. Such literature instead conducts thought experiments of futures that open up reproduction beyond any notion of self-managing humanity. The Year of the Flood continues a feminist-novelistic-radical capacity to question the very value of survival (which is also to say the value of value, if value has always been given as that which furthers life). It would be incorrect to label this tradition as science fiction, for the worlds depicted are those of the present scientific imaginary: in both Frankenstein and The Year of the Flood it is both science (as instrumental reason) and its supposed other (the ecological connectedness with life) that are presented as redemption narratives that fail to question just who this ‘man’ is whose survival we seek to maintain. One might say that the consequences one can draw from this feminist tradition are that man always plans his escape through imagined post-human futures and others, and that what is required to think beyond man as survival machine is a sense of the contamination of the ecological imaginary. This brings us to the second consequence, and the second tradition, in which the very figures of art, creativity, and production—tied to fruitful life—are also interrogated.

    This second critical tradition extended and radicalized by The Year of the Flood is the feminist modernist counter-aesthetic. In Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse—a novel that, like Atwood’s, ends with an ambivalent figure of the approach to (or refusal of) light—the central maternal nurturing figure, Mrs. Ramsay, dies. After an interlude (‘Time Passes’) that presents a falling of darkness, the final section of the novel concludes with the young female artist, Lily Briscoe, having a vision that prompts her to act almost destructively toward the conventional canvas. Not only does her vision result in a single dark line painted down the center of the picture of Mrs. Ramsay that she has been struggling to compose throughout the novel; her creative act is coupled with a recognition of art’s decay—as though Briscoe’s refusal of art history and representation is also an embrace of transience. This is not man as homo faber, being infused with a life other than his own that he goes on to present, represent, and preserve, for Lily’s approach to her canvas occurs quickly and almost as a distraction:

    Quickly, as if she were recalled by something over there, she turned to her canvas. There it was—her picture. Yes, with all its green and blues, its lines running up and across, its attempt at something [...]. With a sudden intensity, as if she saw it clear for a second, she drew a line there, in the centre. It was done; it was finished. Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision. (Woolf 2006, 170)

    The Year of the Flood also presents an art event amid a world of destruction, where the artwork is similarly confronted with impersonal forces of transience and that takes place in a milieu of post-human destruction, a destruction that has occurred because of the shrill and myopic desire for life. Just as To the Lighthouse is structured around the falling of an immense darkness (the ‘great’ war) that is the consequence rather than the overcoming of man’s apocalyptic imaginary (where man will arrive fully at nothing other than his own mastery), so The Year of the Flood presents the future of man. This future is one in which life is maximized, in which survival harnesses technology and nature for the sake of a time of continuity and extended futures. The minor ray of disturbance is given in a practice of bio-art that, quite unlike the dominant bio-art of the present that maintains man’s watchfulness over life, embraces disappearance:

    Amanda was in the Wisconsin desert, putting together one of the Bioart installations she’s been doing now that she’s into what she calls the art caper. It was cow bones this time. Wisconsin’s covered with cow bones [...] and she was dragging the cow bones into a pattern so big it could only be seen from above: huge capital letters, spelling out a word. Later she’d cover it in pancake syrup and wait until the insect life was all over it, and then take videos of it from the air, to put into galleries. She liked to watch things move and grow and then disappear [...]. Her Wisconsin thing was part of a series called The Living Word—she said for a joke that it was inspired by the Gardeners because they’d repressed us so much about writing things down. She’d begun with one-letter words—I and A and O—and then done two-letter words like It, and then three letters, and four, and five. Now she was up to six. They’d been written in all different materials, including fish guts and toxic-spill-killed birds and toilets from building demolition sites filled with used cooking oil and set on fire. (Atwood 2009, 56-57)

    Atwood depicts the artist, Amanda, not as one who will retrieve all that is proper, foundational, and eternal in life, but as a scammer, joker, or player who will take man’s game of life, money, and survival—including the sanctity of the word—and play with nonexistence. Beyond ‘man,’ there is perhaps only ‘woman’ and ‘life,’ and this is why man has always sustained himself by (figures of) becoming woman. Rather than think apocalyptically in terms of our own finality (or our own beyond or our very own post-humanity) we might—finally—be given the opportunity to think of a world without ends.

    Here lies the significance of Atwood’s work. First, she presents the imagined nightmare of a future world of man’s psychotic drive to master life as already evidenced in the present (rather than being some imagined or possible post-apocalyptic future). We are always and already so tied to life that it becomes the screen or tableau upon which we imagine nothing other than our own living. Second, like Shelley before her, she does not place a feminized nature outside man, for beyond ‘man’ one cannot figure the good life but only contingent, fragile, insecure, and ephemeral lives. Finally, one cannot appeal here to art or the aesthetic, for here, too, one encounters the fetishized figure of redemptive creation. In its place, Atwood, like Woolf and Shelley before her, imagines what life would be like if one could abandon the fantasy of one’s own endurance.


    1. I use the term man quite deliberately here: for it is this figure of man that has been adopted by both parties, both those who deploy notions of a generic humanity and those feminists who seek to find a space of ‘woman’ outside the man of reason. The concept of man also brings with it a certain concept of world: as Heidegger and others have pointed out, the earth becomes ‘world’ when it is lived as our own. return to text
    2. For a stringent critique of the myopias of environmental thinking, see Donna Haraway, When Species Meet (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008) 18. return to text
    3. It is for this reason that Luce Irigaray (1985) does not see Descartes as an ‘error’ in the history of thought but instead recognizes in the Cartesian cogito an ongoing appeal to a necessary otherness that will enable man to return to himself, and live himself as nothing more than the process of reflecting his own outside. return to text
    4. For an insightful criticism of bio-art’s putative break with ‘man’—a critique that would resonate with Atwood’s attempt to figure a bio-art of dead waste—see Nicole Anderson, ‘(Auto)Immunity: The Deconstruction and Politics of “Bio-Art” and Criticism,’ Parallax 16:4 (2010) 101–116. return to text