From human to ahuman

FOR millennia humans have regarded themselves as being superior to the rest of the living world. It often takes the form of a kind of exceptionalism that assumes that the rules that apply to the rest of nature do not apply to humans.

At its most extreme it is exercised by nations, which see themselves as being exceptional or better than any other nation. We live in the anthropocene, a proposed geological epoch in which human activity has a significant negative impact on the Earth’s ecosystems including climate change. One response is what is called posthumanist theory, which posits the idea of people existing in a state beyond humanity.

However, Patricia MacCormack in The Ahuman Manifesto argues that posthumanism ‘seems to have exhausted itself in a morass of nihilism and despair’. And in what for many people is likely to come as an existential shock, MacCormack is proposing the end of humanity itself. She writes: “The death of the anthropocene opens up thousands of voices, trajectories and necessary activisms. I use death here as it will be used in the entire manifesto: both advocating for the deceleration of human life through cessation of reproduction, thus the death of humans (though, as will be clear, with care as we live out the lives we have), and the absolute end of the perception that apprehends all living organisms and relations through an anthropocentric-signifying system.” To which one reaction might be ‘wow’!

Is posthumanism itself now outdated?

She compares her position to that of Franco Berardi (aka Bifo) who is looking for an ‘ethical method of withdrawal from the present barbarism’ and to find ‘new ethical values’. In an uncompromising response MacCormack writes: “I share these ambitions with Bifo, but we diverge when he asks how can we remain human. My response is we should not want to.” Her fundamental position comes from the belief that we ‘humans are simply part of a thing known as earth’. We are not special in any way and what she is arguing for is ‘ultimately the end of humans’ violent occupation of Earth’. Her call to action is to:

Forsake human privilege.

Practice abolitionist veganism.

Cease reproduction of humans.

Develop experimental modes of expression beyond anthropocentric-signifying systems of representation and recognition – and

Care for the world at this time until we are gone.

“Ultimately, The Ahuman Manifesto is a a call to activism for the other at the expense of the self, not as a form of martyrdom, but because life in this book is understood ecosophically as a natural contract.” Interestingly, however, MacCormack combines the desire to kill off the human species with a new love of humanity as it disappears. A kind of death love one might show to someone with a terminal disease who wants to die. But this death love has a contradiction at its heart because if, as we slowly disappear, we can begin to love ourselves and the natural world more and more, then the less justification there is for ending humanity.

Another important point to make is that while she argues against human exceptionalism, she seems to be arguing that only humans, as far as we know, can even contemplate ending their time on Earth – thus demonstrating that we are truly exceptional. And, since it is extremely unlikely that humans as a whole will agree to cease their reproduction, the only realistic way of achieving MacCormack’s goal would appear to be some kind of forced process, so undermining her desire for humans to love each other more.

And yet there is truth in this book as well. There is truth when she draws out the paradox of a species that knows it cannot live for ever, yet covets ‘transhumanism, religious afterlives, eternal reincarnation or living on through our art or our children’.

We know we must die yet covet the afterlife

There is truth when she points out that ‘capitalism has converted pleasure to measure and desire so mechanized that we are striving to be equal to inanimate luxury objects even while claiming to be superior to sentient nonhumans.”

In a review of the book in issue 152 of Philosophy Now Dr Stephen Alexander argues that her ‘moralism triumphs over her own confessed world view’, although he agrees that her position is not ‘philosophical nihilism, but a form ethical affirmation’, which itself seems hard to justify.

One can get a lot out of this book if one sees it as a kind of thought experiment along the lines of what would happen to the world if humans extracted themselves from it? Central to this question, of course, is climate change. But in trying to slow down or even reverse climate change we are talking about saving humans in particular and biodiversity in general – the Earth itself will continue regardless until such time as the Sun collapses in on itself.

Ultimately, simply arguing against human exceptionalism does not in itself justify bringing humanity to a slow end. In many ways, although we are a part of nature not separate from it, we are in many ways extraordinarily exceptional. So, perhaps what we should be doing is trying to turn that exceptionalism into a more positive force than negative. Whether this is any more achievable that posthumanism or ahumanism is not clear.

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