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A World Beyond Us: On Adam Kirsch’s “The Revolt Against Humanity”

Photo by Robert Anasch / Unsplash

THE REVOLT AGAINST HUMANITY: Imagining a Future Without Us (2023) belongs in a Columbia University series titled “Global Reports.” Reportage of the views of leading figures in “the revolt against humanity” indeed occupies many of its pages. But Adam Kirsch—best known as a poet and literary critic—does much more than report: he compares, analyzes, and assesses. With admirable concision and clarity, this short book achieves its stated aims not only to introduce some very challenging and disturbing ideas, but also to understand their historical background and appeal, and to reflect on their “possible implications for the future.”

The figures discussed by Kirsch fall into two groups that both “welcome” the fast-approaching “end of humanity’s reign on earth.” First are the “Anthropocene antihumanists.” Like environmental activists who predict “doomsday”—and for the same reasons—they anticipate the extinction of humanity, or, at any rate, of civilization as we know it. Unlike those activists, however, they celebrate, rather than bemoan or resist, our forthcoming demise. Nature, which we are in the business of destroying—along with ourselves—will be much better off without us. Second are the “transhumanists,” for whom humanity will not be entirely erased but transformed into “new forms of intelligent life that will no longer be Homo sapiens,” such as computers equipped with artificial general intelligence.

Antihumanists and transhumanists sound very different from one another, with the latter, notably, glorifying the scientific and technological juggernaut that the former hold responsible for the devastation of the earth. So has Kirsch, by covering them both, in effect written two books for the price of one? No, for while their “two ways of thinking […] appear to be opposites,” their affinities are close. Together, they comprise a revolt against humanity that is a “spiritual development of the first order,” in the same category as Christianity and communism—“a new way of making sense of the nature and purpose of human existence.”

The revolt against humanity, Kirsch argues, is no longer an “avant-garde phenomenon” of interest only to the chattering classes, and the spiritual development it represents is bound to impact our understanding of humanity’s place in the world. Antihumanists and transhumanists agree that human beings are not the sole source—or possessors—of meaning and value. For figures like the poet Robinson Jeffers and the philosopher Timothy Morton, nature itself is replete with significance, while prophets of a “posthuman” world, like Nick Bostrom, envisage creatures whose heightened musical sensibility will make Mozart sound to them like Muzak does to us. Again, the revolt is likely to “radicalize” what Foucault called “biopolitics.” As the antihumanist accusation of a moral crime against future generations and against nature gets louder, current commitments to increasing both population and wealth are liable to be abandoned—a prospect that many transhumanists will welcome, given their predilection for a small population of scientifically educated people focused more on working towards a high-tech utopia than on the comforts of life.

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