In his wonderful 1966 book The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, Michel Foucault concluded on a striking note that has haunted me ever since I first read it, over twenty years ago. He argued that ‘Man’ is ‘an invention of recent date’, but one so powerful that it has been able to reorganize the entire surface and structure of our politics, our sociality, and our thought. The Human became the fundamental source and site of knowledge, a puzzle to be investigated and solved, a thing to be classified and ordered, and more darkly, to be invented, emancipated, dominated, empowered, immunized and cleansed. For so long seen as the source and object of truth, the essence and ground of Being, the mystery of its own emancipation and power over nature, we were told the invention of Man was a rupture in thought that silently organized everything from the sciences of biology and economics to the animating ontologies of the state, democracy or communism. To add to the shock, Foucault also concluded that if Man was a recent invention, it was one ‘perhaps nearing its end’. We could wager—or perhaps hope—‘that man would be erased, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea’. It was an urgent task, he thought, to awaken ourselves from this ‘anthropological sleep’, this ‘dogmatism folded over on itself’.
The appearance of that rhythmic surge of the sea in Foucault’s eloquent closing metaphor portends the posthuman—given the insistence of posthuman theory that we displace the human from the centre of our thought and bring other species, the agency of matter, and the complexities of systems and ecologies, to the forefront of our ethical and political horizon. No longer is the human a bounded body, but one existentially dispersed among biosphere and biome; no longer is the human a ‘mind’ in awe of the starry heavens above and the moral law within, but an existence ethically bound to the social, ecological and cosmic systems that make it possible; no longer is the human the sole possessor of rights under the law, but other species and ecosystems as well; and no longer can we assume that the individual or the person, along with their collective avatar, humanity, is a secure anchor for rights, dignity and survival. Rather, with the invention of the human came the ability to divide and classify the human—to allocate more or less life, more or less suffering, more or less health, to the point of the ultimate threshold, wherein we decide what kind of life can live. And thus the words biopolitics, thanatopolitics, and genocide, also came into our knowledge.
Yet now we have moved from the era of genocide into the era of extinction, both as a possibility and a preoccupation for philosophy. Nuclear holocaust, mass species extinctions, and non-linear climate change: the triple harbingers and horrors of the Anthropocene, when ‘Man’ is the ultimate agent of epochal system change, suddenly revealed as the victim of his own mastery. So we can date the posthuman to the awareness of the Anthropocene, or the beginnings of the philosophical challenge to humanism that was announced by Foucault. Yet I think we can date it much earlier, to the works of Newton, Galileo, Descartes and especially Bacon, which paired an advocacy of the scientific method and mathematics with a hubristic belief in the unalloyed good of invention, technological progress and the dramatic increase in human power and mastery it would grant. Incredibly, Bacon argued that Man would recover his ‘empire over creation’ that was lost at the fall of Adam and Eve.
It has been a long journey from their vision and what it made possible: the circumnavigation of the earth; long centuries of capital accumulation through slavery and imperialism, investments that made the industrial revolution (and its greenhouse emissions) possible; and since, the multiple and tightly-bound military and technological revolutions that have filled our atmosphere with carbon, unified humanity electronically and endangered every living thing on this planet. In short, the Human was always pregnant with the Posthuman; the Anthropos with the Anthropocene.
Extinction then comes with a profound ethical, and political, demand. We must return to Foucault, and imagine ourselves standing in despair, in 2048, at the edge of a poisoned sea utterly empty of fish, to ask: Can we think our way out of the human before the planet, with a mute and irreversible finality, forces the question on us for real?