In the age of global warming and the sixth mass extinction event, the notion of the Anthropocene carries a peculiar hope: perhaps someday, after the end of humankind, someone will still be around to read the remains of human civilization in a meaningful way. Considered in this light, the seemingly pessimistic concept, which even has been condemned for its supposed anthropocentrism, becomes a remedy for the prevalent but mistaken idea that the end of humanity necessarily coincides with the end of the world. How powerful this myth is becomes apparent by the fact that it even prevails in what, with reference to Freud, could very well be called a severe philosophical blow on “the universal narcissism of men”.[i] In the brief opening fable of “On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense” (1873), Nietzsche sets out to dismantle the universal aspirations of human knowledge by clearly locating the human species in geological deep time. Human intellect has no special place in the grand scheme of things, but is a brief disturbance of nature and a short, flickering moment in the history of the cosmos:
In some remote corner of the universe poured out into countless flickering solar systems there was once a star on which some clever animals invented knowledge. It was the most arrogant and most untruthful minute of ‘world history’; but still only a minute. When nature had drawn a few breaths the star solidified and the clever animals died.[ii]
As Nietzsche points out, human cognition does not transcend the material existence of the human species, and just as nature, or the universe, existed prior to its emergence, it will do just fine after its inevitable demise. What a devastating critique of human exceptionalism! Yet, as I mentioned, there prevails, at the heart of the criticism, a trace of this very exceptionalism, for, while Nietzsche is right to assert that human existence is contingent on cosmic conditions, he has less reason to believe that our short-lived species will prevail for another 4 or 5 billion years up until the eventual death of the sun. While it is true that the concept of the Anthropocene marks the probability that human extinction is imminent, it also opens up a new space for possible life, taking place in-between the death of the human and the collapse of the sun. It is from a point of view within this space that the remains of human civilization, as they have been preserved in the strata of geological deep time, may once more become readable by future forms of cognition. This is why the idea of the Anthropocene is less about the loss of the human than about the promise of a mutant life to come.
[i] Sigmund Freud, ”A Difficulty in the Path of Psycho-Analysis” , The Standard Edition of The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud XVII, trans. and ed. James Strachey, London: Hogarth Press, 1955, p. 139.
[ii] Friedrich Nietzsche, ”On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense” , Writings from the Early Notebooks, ed. Raymond Geuss & Alexander Nehamas, trans. Ladislaus Löb, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009, p. 253.