“Suicide is the single biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK,” and the second biggest cause of death of young males in the United States. These statistics raise serious questions about the well-being of a large sector of populations in the so-called developed world. This state of events has found its literalization in a 2010 article in the Atlantic by Hannah Rosin titled “The End of Men,” which was subsequently turned into a book. A genre of “pop sociology meets apocalypticism to emerge triumphant in the end,” Rosin’s book does indeed discuss the gradual disappearance of men from various facets of public and private life, yet it is ostensibly about the end of patriarchy. Her argument, backed with figures supposedly from all over the world (but with a strong bias toward Kansas), highlights the fact that there are more women today in every sector of education and the economy than there had been at any previous point in history, even if relatively few women occupy the topmost positions. What’s more, the age-old preference for sons is also supposedly eroding worldwide. With industrial jobs disappearing and physical strength being removed from a typical list of essential workers’ attributes, women are said to be thriving in the modern service economy. “What if modern, postindustrial society is simply better suited to women?” asks Rosin breezily. Her analysis is not particularly scholarly or thorough: it is rooted in the deeply ideological assumption that “geopolitics and global culture are, ultimately, Darwinian.” Men are ending, claims Rosin, because they do not fit into the new economic model, with women’s soft skills—“social intelligence, open communication, the ability to sit still and focus”—better suited to the marketplace of what Franco “Bifo” Berardi has called semiocapitalism: “the contemporary regime of production in which capital valorization is based on the constant emanation of information flows.” The family structure has also changed, with women now setting the terms of the relationship and being less willing to devote their lives to playing a supporting role in a household—especially after they have lost respect for its prior male “head.”
Even though a certain tone of lament over the prophesized “end of men” can be detected in Rosin’s narrative, her story ultimately lacks not only ethical compassion but also political understanding. Superficially empowering in the same way that Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In was said to be empowering, Rosin’s argument is actually pernicious because it presents as natural the political decisions that have been taken with regard to the current dominant economic model and what counts as value within it, with derivatives, debts, and other forms of financial abstraction seen as more profitable than the material objects of labor and trade. In the process she demonstrates a limited understanding of both patriarchy—which for her seems to entail a competition between the sexes in which there can only be one winner—and of feminism, positioned as a process of catch-up with the system’s inherent inequalities remaining firmly in place. It seems that in Rosin’s universe gender relations can change to the extent that the domination of manhood can be sociobiologically weakened, but the economic system that sustains them cannot. In a rather scathing review of Rosin’s book, Jennifer Homans has observed that “‘The end of men’ is the end of a manufacturing-based economy and the men who worked there, many of whom are now unemployed, depressed, increasingly dependent on the state and women to support them.” Yet, to paraphrase Fredric Jameson, it seems easier for Rosin to imagine the end of man than the end of capitalism.
As should have become clear by now, my analysis in this book of the “end of man” is not meant to be yet another example of “men-bashing.” On the contrary, my argument arises out of a deep concern for the lives of humans of different and diverse gender identifications, in all their nonhuman entanglements, under the finalist, apocalyptic conditions and narratives of the present day. So, even though the “end of man” may indeed signal the possible withering of a particular form of white Christian masculine subjectivity as the dominant orientation of our cultural and political discourses, it is meant to read as a diagnosis of a political condition and a positing of a political opportunity rather than as a psychological or biological diagnosis of the extinction of a particular species. (It also needs to be acknowledged that, structurally, there is nothing about the imaginary reign of, say, women that would guarantee a fullness of society and a happily ever after.) At the same time, this opportunity responds to the unfolding of a particular condition of economic and existential precarity explored by Bifo as a symptom of the current iteration of hypercapitalism, with the heroes of the age of production now turned into ghosts. From this perspective, it makes sense to evoke finalism and the apocalypse because “surviving in such conditions means literally surviving the end of the world, in a condition of meaninglessness and loneliness, in a perpetual condition wherein the exchange of meaningful signs with one’s fellow creatures is impossible.” It is in this context that the Trump phenomenon can be understood as not only the last gasp of a particular version of white masculinity but also as a symptom of a particular generational vulnerability.
Rather than bemoan the passing of macho heroism and thus symbolically reinstate it, Bifo issues a call for justice in the form of a requiem for the lives lost to suicide by young and middle-aged males in the global world, from the United States to Finland, Japan, India, and the Middle East. He argues that in the first two decades of the twenty-first century, a century “inaugurated by a monumental act of suicide” (i.e., 9/11), “suicide has come to be perceived increasingly as the only effective action of the oppressed, the only action which can actually dispel anxiety, depression and impotence.” By saying this, Berardi is not imposing any kind of moral relativism or equating terrorist suicide attacks with individual suicides of distressed postlaborers. What he is doing is recognizing various manifestations of a self-destructive tendency at the core of contemporary masculinity, which he links with multiple sociopolitical developments in different parts of the world.
As if in defiance of Silicon Valley’s hyperhumanist hopes for the emergence of Man 2.0, Bifo’s ghostly nonheroes experience the psychosis of living in the hyperreal. In hyperreality, the mass shootings-cum-suicides on campuses and other gathering sites for youth from the United States to Norway mimic the recurrent aesthetic of the video game, where the terrorist attacks have already been seen before as doomsday-style media entertainment. In the light of irresolvable distress, as well as corporeal and mental precarity, perhaps suicide does indeed become a way of enacting the “end of man” while hanging on to the remnants of self-sovereignty and dignity. This form of escape does not seem any more psychotic than the tech billionaires’ dreams of escape to another planet.
Intriguingly but also worryingly, those escapist dreams have recently taken a new form: time travel without relocation or expense. I am referring to the latest conceptual offering from our Silicon Valley saviors in the shape of the “simulation hypothesis”: a Matrix-like belief that “what we experience as reality is actually a giant computer simulation created by a more sophisticated intelligence.” Embraced by, among others, Elon Musk of the abovementioned SpaceX and venture capitalist Sam Altman, a chairman of the OpenAI project, the simulation theory was laid down by philosopher Nick Bostrom. Bostrom’s 2003 paper on the topic opens with the following credo: “At least one of the following propositions is true: (1) the human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a ‘posthuman’ stage; (2) any posthuman civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history (or variations thereof); (3) we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation.” Bostrom does not definitively state that the simulation thesis trumps the other two but considers it entirely plausible, with future technologically advanced civilizations running “detailed simulations of their forebears.” Based on the assumption of “substrate-independence”—a conviction that life is just a set of computational processes that can be enacted in any medium—this form of disembodied posthumanism, famously taken to task by N. Katherine Hayles in How We Became Posthuman, differs from what has become known as the “critical posthumanism” making waves in cultural theory over the last decade or so. In a similar vein to my future-looking political concept of “the end of man,” critical posthumanism sees the posthuman as an opening toward a different conceptualization of subjectivity beyond the limitations of the singular, liberal, human subject, with its gender-, race-, and powerblindness.
Unlike the posthumanism (or transhumanism) of Bostrom, the current AI brigade, and the cyberneticists of yesteryear, critical posthumanism embraces complexity, distribution, and context dependency as necessary for the conceptualization of life. While it recognizes that various kinds of high-level computational processes can occur in different media, and that future experiments with simulation and consciousness may no doubt surprise or even supersede our present selves, it also adopts a “situated” notion of life as a process to be seen across a whole organism or even clusters of organisms. Everything else becomes a metaphysical game in which this nebulous substance called life, like the ancient nous or the Christian soul, can be transferred to higher-level computation systems beyond any material forms that constitute it. This is not to say that critical posthumanism cannot imagine a different embodiment of life beyond its current carbon dependency. It is rather to contest the possibility of introducing a radical structural caesura between the substrate (say, the carbon-based body) and the content (that is, this unchangeable life “thing” that can be unproblematically extricated from its substrate and transferred to another).
While Bifo remains alert to the damaging effects of living in the semiocapitalist simulation, the tech billionaires and other advocates of human enhancement and planetary or AI transcendence consider simulation just the next logical step in the development of technology on our planet. In fact, it may have already happened, with evidence supposedly provided by the fact that the universe “behaves mathematically and is broken up into pieces (subatomic particles) like a pixelated video game.” What Bostrom identifies as a “naturalistic theogony” of his simulated world is therefore just a version of the current politico-economic system, with structuralist computer-game aesthetics used to explain supposedly eternal natural laws. As Bostrom imagines it:
In some ways, the posthumans running a simulation are like gods in relation to the people inhabiting the simulation: the posthumans created the world we see; they are of superior intelligence; they are “omnipotent” in the sense that they can interfere in the workings of our world even in ways that violate its physical laws; and they are “omniscient” in the sense that they can monitor everything that happens. However, all the demigods except those at the fundamental level of reality are subject to sanctions by the more powerful gods living at lower levels.
There is something reassuring about the metaphysical fantasy of the simulation theory because it promises the rich and powerful that things will change while also staying the same, at least for those in charge. This story is thus music to the ears of the current theocracy of Silicon Valley billionaires, who are increasingly in the business of accompanying or even replacing states when it comes to the delivery of our basic services and the governance of our lives. It is because they see themselves as already having transcended toward the status of Homo deus, with their capital offering the promise of a bodily upgrade, immortality (typically described as “solving the death problem”), or a planetary exit. Others, less capable and less successful, will have to slot neatly into this new naturalized cyberscape.
It is interesting that Silicon Valley has been relatively quiet on the Anthropocene and climate-change front, preferring to rebrand all kinds of planetary issues as technological problems that require technological fixes. The apocalypticism of the Anthropocene narrative does not sit well with the teleological optimism of the tech billionaires, yet the latter mood is arguably the offshoot of the former. The Anthropocene narrative is a kind of “great leveller” not because it treats all humans as equally “guilty” of despoiling the Earth but rather because it carries with it a form of finalist political schadenfreude. In the extinction event, the rich will finally be equal with the poor and will go down all the same. In turn, Silicon Valley transcendentalism, ostensibly engaged in combating global problems in order to “make the world a better place,” in fact avoids any radical planetary transformation while leaving the escape hatch open for the “god class.”