BY JOANNA ZYLINSKA
The apocalypse is back—with a vengeance! Cue the visually intriguing Altered Carbon on Netflix, the conceptually teasing yet disappointingly humanist Humans on Channel 4 in the UK, and the just plain terrible Blade Runner 2049 (surely a crime against cinema, if not against humanity). But let me make what might seem like an odd link. The current return of the android, the robot, and the cyborg on the big and small screen, fueled by a renewed interest in Artificial Intelligence (AI) on the part of Silicon Valley researchers and investors, looks to me like a response (although not necessarily a direct or even acknowledged one) to a number of planetary-scale issues. Among them are climate change, the depletion of the Earth’s resources, and the impending extinction of various species—including our own. In other words, I am making a connection here between the apocalyptic prophecies about AI replacing “us” with the dominant crisis narrative of our times: the Anthropocene.
My recently published short book, The End of Man: A Feminist Counterapocalypse, examines this existential anxiety about the future of our planet, and of ourselves as a species. But it also probes the gender aspect of the whole apocalyptic “end of man” scenario as it unfolds both in AI and the Anthropocene narratives. Offering an ironic take on various contemporary eco-political crises, from the climate catastrophe and the threats to the human species posed by AI through to the widespread rise of populist politics, it responds by outlining an alternative ethical vision. My aim is to figure out better ways of living in a high-tech-driven world—while also probing the very nature of this “better.” This is why for me AI stands not just for Artificial Intelligence but also for the Anthropocene Imperative: a call to humans to respond to the multiple crises of life while there is still time. But this call also involves challenging the supposed uniformity of this human as some kind of “eternal man” who has despoiled the planet—but who has it in “him” to repair it too.
There are other reasons why deciding what form such an ethical response to a planetary crisis should take is not easy. Even though it supposedly stretches back at least 250 years, to the early days of fossil fuel excavation and burning, the Anthropocene cannot actually be seen, and hence known, by us contemporary humans because of the vastness of the time period across which it has unfolded. It can only be envisaged. The photo-film Exit Man, included with the book and presented here, stages a visit to a “local museum of the Anthropocene” of my making, with a view to imagining a different future for humanity. It also offers a different mode of scholarly engagement with issues that challenge not just our thought processes and conceptual frameworks but also our very being in the world.
Curiously, in the current Silicon Valley-fueled climate, the apocalyptic-sounding “end of man” is mainly presented as an upgrade: an evolution of the fleshy model that is quickly becoming obsolete. And so if the planet is proving to be more and more uninhabitable, the next logical step for the redeemers of today is to reach for what many venture capital-driven saviors are calling, without irony, a “technofix.” The 1980s cyborg figurations are thus returning under the umbrella of human enhancement research, gerontology, and indeed, AI. In this mode of thinking the Anthropos, or man himself, is seen as fully fixable, to the extent that death becomes rebranded as a “technical glitch.” But should man’s upgrade process fail or take too long, an alternative plan is currently under development: a literal escape to heaven, aka planetary relocation. (Thank you, Elon Musk!) It is important to note that such outsider solutions are not just being proposed by high tech entrepreneurs on their celestial missions. They are also part of our current political landscape, with its procession of strongmen that are promising us earthly redemption and perpetual abundance: making America, Britain, or Poland great again.
One way to start challenging this macho-techno-apocalypticism is precisely by envisaging something like a “feminist counterapocalypse”. Adopting precarity as the fundamental condition of living in the global post-industrial world, a feminist counterapocalypse would contest many of the technicist solutions that are currently being proposed—while not being anti-technological itself. It would also reposition the standalone subject of ethics and politics as always already multiple, strange, and strange-to-itself. Indeed, what the “end of man” prophecy actually signals is not so much the extinction of the human species but rather the expiration of the White Christian Man as the key subject of history. The feminist counterapocalyptic agenda thus promises liberation from that form of subjectivity that is pinned to a competitive, overachieving, and overreaching masculinity. It also opens up to the precarious lives and bodies of human and nonhuman others—including the male bodies and minds that have been discarded in the downsizing process of disruptive technocapitalism, or made redundant by AI. Because, under the current conditions, we all need to ask: If unbridled progress is no longer an option, what kinds of coexistences and collaborations do we want to create in its aftermath?
Joanna Zylinska is professor of new media and communications at Goldsmiths, University of London, author of seven books (including Nonhuman Photography and Minimal Ethics for the Anthropocene), and a photomedia artist.