The Climate-Migration-Industrial Complex

First published here on the Public Seminar web site: January 10, 2020

Thomas Nail

Associate professor of Philosophy at the University of Denver

Thirty years ago there were fifteen border walls around the world. Now there are seventy walls and over one billion national and international migrants. International migrants alone may even double in the next forty years due to global warming. It is not surprising that over the past two decades, we have also seen the rise of an increasingly powerful global climate-security market designed to profit from (and help sustain) these crises. The construction of walls and fences to block rising sea levels and incoming people has become one of the world’s fastest growing industries, alongside the detention and deportation of migrants, and is projected to reach $742 billion by 2023. I believe we are witnessing the emergence of what we might call a “climate-migration-industrial complex.”

This complex is composed of private companies who profit by securitizing nation-states from the effects of climate-related events, including migration. This includes private detention centers, border construction companies, surveillance technology consultants and developers, deportation and transportation contractors, and a growing army of other subcontractors profiting from insecurity more broadly. Every feature of this crisis complex is an opportunity for profit. For example, even when security measures “fail” and migrants cross borders illegally, or remain beyond their visas to live without status as “criminals,” there is an entire wing of private companies paid to hunt them down, detain them, and deport them just across the border, where they can return and begin the market cycle all over again. Each step in the “crimmigration” process now has its own cottage industry and dedicated army of lobbyists to perpetuate the laws that support it.

Here is the incredible double paradox that forms the backbone of the climate-migration-industrial complex: right-wing nationalists and their politicians claim they want to deport all undocumented migrants, but if they did, they would destroy their own economy. Capitalists, on the other hand, want to grow the economy with migrant labor (any honest economist will tell you that immigration almost always leads to growth in GDP), but if that labor is too expensive, then it’s not nearly as profitable.

Trump is the Janus-faced embodiment of this anti-immigrant, pro-economy dilemma and the solution to it — not that he necessarily knows it. With one hand, migrant labor is strategically criminalized and devalorized by a xenophobic state, and with the other, it is securitized and hyper-exploited by the economy. It is a win-win situation for right-wing capitalists but a crucial element is still missing: what will continue to compel migrants to leave their homes and work as exploited criminals in an increasingly xenophobic country?

This is where the figure of the climate migrant comes in. What we call “climate migrants” or “climate refugees” are not the victims of merely “natural disasters,” because climate change is not a strictly natural process — it is also highly political. The causes of climate-related migration are disproportionately produced by rich Western countries and the effects are disproportionately suffered by poorer countries. The circumstances that determine who is forced to migrate are also influenced by the history of colonialism, global inequality, and the same conditions that have propelled economic migration for decades. In short, the fact that climate change benefits the perpetrators of climate destruction by producing an increasing supply of desperate, criminalized, physically and economically displaced laborers is no coincidence. In fact, it is the key to the Trump “solution.”

Another key is the use of climate change to acquire new land. When people are forced to migrate out of a territory, or when frozen territories thaw, new lands, waters, and forests become open to extractive industries like mining, drilling, fishing, and logging. Trump’s recent (and ridiculous) bid to buy the thawing territory of Greenland for its oil and gas reserves is one example of this. Climate-stricken urban areas open up new real estate markets, as the gentrification of New Orleans after hurricane Katrina illustrated. In other words, climate change might not mean the end of capitalism, but rather could actually signal its resurgence from current falling rates of ecological profit. During colonialism, everything and everyone that could be easily appropriated (oil, slaves, old-growth forests, etc.), was gobbled up. The workers who are left today under post-colonialism demand more money and more rights. The minerals left are more expensive to extract. This is why capitalists have increasingly retreated to financial speculation, and now to monetizing their own crises.

If only there were new ways, the capitalist dreams, to kick start the economy and cheaply dislodge huge numbers of people from their land, devalorize their labor, and then appropriate that labor extremely cheaply. In other words, if climate change did not exist, capitalism would have to create it. Luckily for the capitalists, it does exist, because they did create it. Climate migrants now form what we might call a “disposable climate labor army,” conscripted out of a standing reserve of global poverty from wherever the next climate-related disaster strikes, and deployed wherever capitalism demands precarious, securitized, and criminalized labor to be exploited.

We need to rethink the whole framing of the climate migration “crisis.” Among other things, we need a more movement-oriented political theory to grapple better with the highly mobile events of our time — what I call a “kinopolitics.” The advent of the Capitalocene/Kinocene makes possible today the insight that nature, humans, and society have always been in motion. Humans are and have always been fundamentally migratory, just as the climate and the earth are. These twin insights might sound obvious today, but if taken seriously, they offer a complete inversion of the dominant interpretive paradigms of the climate and migration crises.

Humans and Earth have always been in motion, but not all patterns of motion are the same. There is no natural, normal, or default state of the earth or of human society. Therefore, we have to study the patterns of circulation that make possible these metastable states and not take them as given. This is what I have tried to work out in The Figure of the Migrant (2015) and Theory of the Border (2016). Unfortunately, the dominant framework for thinking about the climate and migrant crises is currently upside down. It starts from the perspective of a triple stasis: 1) that the earth and human society are in some sense separable and static, or at least stable, structures; 2) that the future should continue to be stable as well; and 3) that if there is not stability, then there is a “crisis.” Mobility, then, is a crisis only if we assume that there was or should be stasis in the first place. For example, migrants are said to destabilize society, and climate change is said to destabilize the earth.

From a kinopolitical perspective, we can see that the opposite is, in fact, true: Humans were first migratory, and only later settled into more metastable patterns of social-circulation (made historically possible by the social expulsion and dispossession of others). Migrants are not outside society but have played a productive and reproductive role throughout history. Migrant movements are constitutive and even transformative elements of society, rather than exceptional or marginal phenomena. The real question is how we ever came to act and think as if societies were not processes of social circulation that relied on migration as their conditions of reproduction. The earth, too, was first migratory, and only later did it settle into metastable patterns of geological and atmospheric circulation (e.g. the Holocene). Why did we ever think of the earth as a stable surface, immune from human activity in the first place?

The problem with the prevailing interpretation of climate change and migration is that the flawed paradigm that has defined the “crisis,” the notion of stasis, is also proposed as the solution “Let’s just get things back to normal stability again.” In short, I think a new paradigm is needed that does not use the same tools that generated the “crisis” to solve it — i.e. capitalism, colonialism, and the nation-state.

Today’s migrant “crisis” is a product of the paradox at the heart of the capitalist, territorial nation-state form, just as the climate crisis is an expression of the paradox at the heart of anthropocentrism. The solutions, therefore, will not come from the forms in crisis but only from the birth of new forms-in-motion that begin with the theoretical primacy of the very characteristic that is dissolving the old forms: the inherent mobility of the migrant climate and the climate migrant.

Thomas Nail is associate professor of philosophy at the University of Denver, working on a series of books on the philosophy of movement. His most recent book is Theory of the Image (Oxford University Press, 2018).

Keywords: CapitalismClimateClimate CrisisEconomicsForced migrationMigrationPolitics

Destroyer of Worlds

George Monbiot

New research suggests there was no state of grace: for two million years humankind has been the natural world’s nemesis.

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 25th March 2014

You want to know who we are? Really? You think you do, but you will regret it. This article, if you have any love for the world, will inject you with a venom – a soul-scraping sadness – without an obvious antidote.

The Anthropocene, now a popular term among scientists, is the epoch in which we live: one dominated by human impacts on the living world. Most date it from the beginning of the industrial revolution. But it might have begun much earlier, with a killing spree that commenced two million years ago. What rose onto its hindlegs on the African savannahs was, from the outset, death: the destroyer of worlds.

Before Homo erectus, perhaps our first recognisably-human ancestor, emerged in Africa, the continent abounded with monsters. There were several species of elephants. There were sabretooths and false sabretooths, giant hyaenas and creatures like those released in The Hunger Games: amphicyonids, or bear dogs, vast predators with an enormous bite.

Amphicyonid ("bear dog") skeleton

Amphicyonid (“bear dog”) skeleton

Professor Blaire van Valkenburgh has developed a means by which we could roughly determine how many of these animals there were(1). When there are few predators and plenty of prey, the predators eat only the best parts of the carcass. When competition is intense, they eat everything, including the bones. The more bones a carnivore eats, the more likely its teeth are to be worn or broken. The breakages in carnivores’ teeth were massively greater in the pre-human era(2).

Blaire van Valkenburgh's tooth breakage graph

Blaire van Valkenburgh’s tooth breakage graph

Not only were there more species of predators, including species much larger than any found on earth today, but they appear to have been much more abundant – and desperate. We evolved in a terrible, wonderful world – that was no match for us.

Homo erectus possessed several traits that appear to have made it invincible: intelligence, cooperation; an ability to switch to almost any food when times were tough; and a throwing arm that allowed it to do something no other species has ever managed – to fight from a distance. (The increasing distance from which we fight is both a benchmark and a determinant of human history). It could have driven giant predators off their prey and harried monstrous herbivores to exhaustion and death.

As the paleontologists Lars Werdelin and Margaret Lewis show, the disappearance of much of the African megafauna appears to have coincided with the switch towards meat eating by human ancestors(3). The great extent and strange pattern of extinction (concentrated among huge, specialist animals at the top of the food chain) is not easy to explain by other means.

At the Oxford megafauna conference last week, I listened as many of the world’s leading scientists in this field mapped out a new understanding of the human impact on the planet(4). Almost everywhere we went, humankind erased a world of wonders, changing the way the biosphere functions. For example, modern humans arrived in Europe and Australia at about the same time – between 40 and 50,000 years ago – with similar consequences. In Europe, where animals had learnt to fear previous versions of the bipedal ape, the extinctions happened slowly. Within some 10 or 15,000 years, the continent had lost its straight-tusked elephants, forest rhinos, hippos, hyaenas and monstrous scimitar cats.

Straight tusked elephants once dominated the British ecosystem

Straight tusked elephants once dominated the British ecosystem

In Australia, where no hominim had set foot before modern humans arrived, the collapse was  almost instant. The rhinoceros-sized wombat(5), the ten-foot kangaroo, the marsupial lion, the monitor lizard larger than a Nile crocodile(6), the giant marsupial tapir, the horned tortoise as big as a car(7) – all went, in ecological terms, overnight.

Giant monitor lizard skeleton

Giant monitor lizard skeleton

A few months ago, a well-publicised paper claimed that the great beasts of the Americas – mammoths and mastodons, giant ground sloths, lions and sabretooths, eight-foot beavers(8), a bird with a 26-foot wingspan(9) – could not have been exterminated by humans, because the fossil evidence for their extinction marginally pre-dates the evidence for human arrival(10).

I have never seen a paper demolished as elegantly and decisively as this was at last week’s conference. The archaeologist Todd Surovell demonstrated that the mismatch is just what you would expect if humans were responsible(11). Mass destruction is easy to detect in the fossil record: in one layer bones are everywhere, in the next they are nowhere. But people living at low densities with basic technologies leave almost no traces. With the human growth rates and kill rates you’d expect in the first pulse of settlement (about 14,000 years ago), the great beasts would have lasted only 1,000 years. His work suggests that the most reliable indicator of human arrival in the fossil record is a wave of large mammal extinctions.

These species were not just ornaments of the natural world. The new work presented at the conference suggests that they shaped the rest of the ecosystem. In Britain during the last interglacial period, elephants, rhinos and other great beasts maintained a mosaic of habitats: a mixture of closed canopy forest, open forest, glade and sward(12). In Australia, the sudden flush of vegetation that followed the loss of large herbivores caused stacks of leaf litter to build up, which became the rainforests’ pyre: fires (natural or manmade) soon transformed these lush places into dry forest and scrub(13).

In the Amazon and other regions, large herbivores moved nutrients from rich soils to poor ones, radically altering plant growth(14,15). One controversial paper suggests that the eradication of the monsters of the Americas caused such a sharp loss of atmospheric methane (generated in their guts) that it could have triggered the short ice age which began 12,800 years ago, called the Younger Dryas(16).

And still we have not stopped. Poaching has reduced the population of African forest elephants by 65% since 2002(17). The range of the Asian elephant – which once lived from Turkey to the coast of China – has contracted by 97%; the ranges of the Asian rhinos by over 99%(18). Elephants distribute the seeds of hundreds of rainforest tree species; without them these trees are functionally extinct(19,20).

Is this all we are? A diminutive monster that can leave no door closed, no hiding place intact, that is now doing to the great beasts of the sea what we did so long ago to the great beasts of the land? Or can we stop? Can we use our ingenuity, which for two million years has turned so inventively to destruction, to defy our evolutionary history?


1. eg Wendy J. Binder and Blaire Van Valkenburgh, 2010. A comparison of tooth wear and breakage in Rancho La Brea sabertooth cats and dire wolves across time. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.


3. Lars Werdelin, 2013. King of Beasts. Scientific American.


5. Diprotodon.

6. Megalania.


8. Castoroides ohioensis

9. The Argentine roc (Argentavis magnificens).

10. Matthew T. Boulanger and R. Lee Lyman, 2014. Northeastern North American Pleistocene megafauna chronologically overlapped minimally with Paleoindians. Quaternary Science Reviews 85, pp35-46.


12. Christopher J. Sandom et al, 2014. High herbivore density associated with vegetation diversity in interglacial ecosystems. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 111, no. 11, pp4162–4167.

13. Susan Rule et al, 23rd March 2012. The Aftermath of Megafaunal Extinction: Ecosystem Transformation in Pleistocene Australia. Science Vol. 335, pp 1483-1486. doi: 10.1126/science.1214261.

14. Christopher E. Doughty, AdamWolf and Yadvinder Malhi, 11 August 2013. The legacy of the Pleistocene megafauna extinctions on nutrient availability in Amazonia. Nature Geoscience vol. 6, pp761–764. doi: 10.1038/ngeo1895.

15. Adam Wolf, Christopher E. Doughty, Yadvinder Malhi, Lateral Diffusion of Nutrients by Mammalian Herbivores in Terrestrial Ecosystems. PLOS One, doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0071352.

16. Felisa A. Smith, 2010. Methane emissions from extinct megafauna. Nature Geoscience 3, 374 – 375. doi:10.1038/ngeo877.

17. Fiona Maisels, pers comm. This is an update of the figures published here:




Our Dystopian Predicament: On Prospects of Unprecedented Change

Zoltán Boldizsár Simon

The following text is a lightly edited excerpt from History in Times of Unprecedented Change: A Theory for the 21st Century (London: Bloomsbury, 2019)

Dystopian ecological and technological scenarios have become dominant visions of the future in post-Second World War Western societies. Whereas modern utopias called for longer-term gradual achievement, today’s dystopian prospects impose themselves on humanity in the shape of a sudden event.

I reckon that this statement might sound rather suspicious. For how could a future prospect impose itself on humanity? Would this entail the attribution of agency to something inanimate? Well, yes and no. It would certainly entail the attribution of agency to something non-human, but non-human does not really mean inanimate. Recent dystopian prospects revolve around the agency of nature or the agency of machines, both of them being non-human but animate. Besides, their attributed agency does not appear as independent of human agency. The central tenet of the postulated agency of nature and machines in ecological and technological prospects is actually that it arises out of human action and appears as initially human-induced. The keyword here is initially. Because, at the same time, the agency of both nature and machines is expected to increase and gain entirely new dimensions at the expense of human agency, the loss of which is precisely what constitutes the perceived threat.

To gain a better understanding of the situation, consider how, on the one hand, the prospect of global nuclear warfare, anthropogenic climate change and technological apocalypse appear as inherent threats which indeed are results of (inconsiderate) human activity and human agency. Nick Bostrom wonderfully captures the novelty of the challenge of facing threats brought about by human activity by making a distinction between ‘anthropogenic existential risks’ as opposed to ‘natural existential risks’ (2013: 15–16). Whereas humanity has faced various natural existential risks before (such as asteroid impacts), the threats to humankind increasingly appear as consequences of human activity, attesting to a sense of unprecedented human capacities.

The most momentous affirmation of such increased human powers has been made already in the 1950s by Julian Huxley, claiming in his essay on transhumanism that it appears ‘as if man had been suddenly appointed managing director of the biggest business of all, the business of evolution’ ([1957] 1968: 73). At the same time, the more critical contemporary voice of Hannah Arendt, commenting on what is known today as the first events of the Space Race and on the same potential of science and technology to further increase human powers, painted a more balanced picture:

This future man, whom the scientists tell us they will produce in no more than a hundred years, seems to be possessed by a rebellion against human existence as it has been given, a free gift from nowhere (secularly speaking), which he wishes to exchange, as it were, for something he has made himself. There is no reason to doubt our abilities to accomplish such an exchange, just as there is no reason to doubt our present ability to destroy all organic life on earth. (1958: 2–3)

The prospect of human-induced climate catastrophe, although conceivable for decades and remarked on since the early postwar years, has entered a wider circulation of ideas somewhat later than Arendt and Huxley’s considerations. It has joined the threat posed by the increased human ‘ability to destroy all organic life on earth’ especially as following the quick spread of the notion of the Anthropocene to describe anthropogenic changes in the earth system and the emergence of earth system science. In the view of Clive Hamilton (2017), the latter is the proper context of the notion, representing a wholesale paradigm shift precisely because of new conceptualizations being inseparable from the birth of new sciences. Whether or not this is the case, the three prospects together – a climate apocalypse, a technoscientific catastrophe and a global nuclear warfare – appear today as the postwar triad of cataclysm.

The dystopian visions of climate change and technology revolve around the possibility of passing a point of no return. Once it is passed, the threat consists of nature taking over what has initially been human-induced and human-controlled change, or of a human-created ‘superintelligence’ – defined by Bostrom as ‘any intellect that greatly exceeds the cognitive performance of humans in virtually all domains of interest’ (2014: 22) – surpassing human intelligence. Whatever may happen afterwards is no longer accessible for human reasoning, given that it no longer entails human mastery. This is precisely what makes such prospects unsettling at best or catastrophic at worst: the cognitive inaccessibility of the possible consequences of human agency in bringing about its own insignificance as measured against the capacities of its own creations. In the technological domain, the notion that captures such a vision of the future of passing a point of no return is technological singularity. Although ‘singularity’ has been used earlier in the context of technology, the term ‘technological singularity’ has been put into wider circulation by Vernor Vinge in the 1990s. It describes the potential eruption of a sudden, game-changer event in the shape of the creation of greater-than-human intelligence that presumably creates even greater and greater superhuman intelligence at an explosive pace. Or, in the words of Vinge, ‘from the human point of view this change will be a throwing away of all the previous rules, perhaps in the blink of an eye, an exponential runaway beyond any hope of control’ (1993: 12).

To a certain extent, passing the point of no return in an event-like manner may be true of the prospect of a global nuclear warfare too. This was the initial threat that led the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists to set up the symbolic Doomsday Clock in 1947. As the ‘2018 Doomsday Clock Statement’ explains, the intention behind introducing the clock was ‘using the imagery of apocalypse (midnight) and the contemporary idiom of nuclear explosion (countdown to zero) to convey threats to humanity and the planet’ (Mecklin 2018: 2). The statement sets the clock to two minutes to midnight, half a minute closer than it was set by the previous 2017 statement, and – reflecting recent global policy agendas – it marks the return of the centrality of the nuclear threat by nevertheless keeping its focus on the entire postwar triad of cataclysm.

Compared to the prospect of nuclear self-destruction, a climate and a technological catastrophe, although being conceivable earlier, are only more recently emerging as widely recognized dominant threats, recognized as anthropogenic existential risks. The theme of anthropogenic climate change and the notion of the Anthropocene – the proposed but not yet canonized geological epoch of humans becoming agents that shape the earth system – even conquered the agenda of historians. Following the pioneering adventures of Dipesh Chakrabarty (2009) into mapping the consequences of the notion of the Anthropocene for the discipline and the concept of history, historians – in line with practically any other domain of academic knowledge-production within the humanities and social sciences – have begun to explore the impact and use of the notion in historical scholarship (for instance, Robin 2013; Thomas 2014; Bonneuil and Fressoz 2016; Mikhail 2016).

However, whereas Chakrabarty’s initial point of departure was an extinction scenario that challenges the deep continuity of the modern processual notion of history and thus is ‘deeply destructive of our general sense of history’ (2009: 198), historians in particular and humanities and social sciences research in general typically seem more interested in maintaining business as usual. Instead of asking the question of how the current humanities knowledge regime may be challenged together with its established categories of critical scholarship by novel conceptualizations, they apply their long-existing categories to the new that is supposed to challenge them (until it no longer looks challenging). Where Chakrabarty (2015) sees an emerging zoecentric worldview focusing on life and featuring the anthropos as a species understanding of the human being, critical humanities only see ‘the ongoing fraud that calls itself “Anthropos”’ (Cohen and Colebrook 2017: 134), a deception of a universal humanity brought together under a threat in the name of survival. Historians Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz go even further by claiming that an undifferentiated notion of the anthropos is put out by geologists, earth system and climate scientists to pave their own way to achieve a ‘command post of a disheveled planet and its errant humanity. A geo-government of scientists!’ (2016: 80).

The debate between a new understanding of the human predicament as emerging in a scientific discourse and the categories of critical humanities scholarship will most likely continue. It is not my intention even to attempt to resolve it. What I would like to point out is only that my focus nevertheless lies with what I think is the more interesting and challenging question in Chakrabarty’s initial engagement: the one that senses a potential transformation of the way in which we conceive of ourselves and the world historically, instead of the one that habitually domesticates a new idea by applying the already existing conceptual tools of humanities criticism. Although the latter is equally legitimate and important, in times of unprecedented change the question is not that of how to accommodate that which is perceived as genuine novelty into our familiar ways of thinking. Rather, the question is how to recognize its novelty by creating a fresh set of concepts within the humanities and the social sciences (potentially in cooperation with the natural sciences).

The same goes for technological visions, which have not had a similar impact yet in the discipline of history. The growing societal engagement in debating visions of the future typically boils down in historical studies to histories that explore how the future was conceived of in the past. Although investigating past visions of the future has become a rather lively historical research topic recently (see especially the work of Jenny Andersson 2018; and Andersson and Rindzevičiūtė 2015), the historical profession is still largely missing out the otherwise widespread debate on the broader technological vision of the future today: on artificial intelligence, transhumanism, bioengineering, nanotechnology, human enhancement or genome editing (with the latter being a positive exception thanks to the recently initiated Double Helix History project at The University of Manchester). The two kinds of engagement could not be farther from each other. On the one hand, looking for traces and precedents of our current societal investment by mapping past expectations of the future is the standard historical operation. On the other, just as in the case of the Anthropocene debate, taking part in the wider discussion on recent future prospects that spark such ‘historical’ interest may challenge the very historical operation historians put to work when they align with societal interests and begin to study past visions of the future.

That today’s technological-scientific prospects matter immensely for the way we conceive of ourselves and the world historically is best attested to by the fact that this is practically the only thing that made Francis Fukuyama reconsider his ‘end of history’ thesis. Although scholars in the humanities and social sciences seem to have irrevocably linked him to the idea of ‘the end of history’, Fukuyama has already moved on. In a book on the prospect of biotechnology, published only a decade after The End of History, Fukuyama reflected on his previous theory as follows:

As the more perceptive critics of the concept of the ‘end of history’ have pointed out, there can be no end of history without an end of modern natural science and technology. Not only are we not at an end of science and technology; we appear to be poised at the cusp of one of the most momentous periods of technological advance in history. Biotechnology and a greater scientific understanding of the human brain promise to have extremely significant political ramifications. (2002: 15)

In these sentences, Fukuyama vests technology with the potential of carrying the historical process as we know it further, meaning that history as the course of affairs just goes on as fuelled by technologies that engineer even the human being. Such an understanding of today’s technology is nevertheless obviously limited inasmuch as it remains within the confines of the modern historical sensibility and within the confines of a political framework in which technology is subordinated to politics. At a later stage I will return to the question of the relationship between the political domain and technology both in the modern and in the postwar historical sensibilities. For the current line of argument, the more important point is that Fukuyama, even if in a misguided way as seen from the viewpoint of this book, at least recognizes the link between a sense of historicity and visions of the future.

Despite the elevated tone of the above quote, Fukuyama is aware that technology’s potential to appear as a vehicle of improvement is only one side of the coin. The other side is the prospect of doom, as ‘the most significant threat posed by contemporary biotechnology is the possibility that it will alter human nature and thereby move it into a “posthuman” stage of history’ (Fukuyama 2002: 7). The inherent ambivalence of the technological prospect of the posthuman is a fairly common observation, having already been present in Arendt’s view. Today, it is a concern not only for Fukuyama and other bioconservatives in debates about the general prospect of a posthuman future to be brought about by technology, but also for advocates of radical enhancement. What they disagree about most deeply is what exactly they consider as ‘promise’ and ‘threat’. Whereas escaping the confines of (a statistically defined) human nature is a threat to Fukuyama (129–47), the very same prospect constitutes a promise for Bostrom (2003), the most prominent transhumanist philosopher today. And if this comes out as a promise for transhumanism, then the threat must be found elsewhere. For Bostrom, it takes the shape of an extinction event, regardless of whether the life threatened by extinction is human or posthuman. Hence the definition of existential risk – as ‘one that threatens the premature extinction of Earth-originating intelligent life or the permanent and drastic destruction of its potential for desirable future development’ (Bostrom 2013: 15) – can refer to a category even broader than humanity.

The simultaneity of the positive promise and the existential threat appears to build upon conflicting sets of ideas. Whereas the promise invokes a modern utopian structure of delivering a better future to be realized, the latter warns about the necessity to avoid the inherent perils of venturing into something unknown. Whereas the former claims a familiar historical trajectory of the betterment of human capacities, the latter claims to transcend those capacities that appear only as obstacles and unnecessary limitations. Although sometimes even transhumanists themselves mix up their own conceptual stakes by claiming continuity with Enlightenment ideals of human perfectibility, their promise is not about making already assumed human potentials better but about creating that which is better than human (Simon 2019). Nevertheless, the transhumanist project of enhancing humans by technological means is upheld as a promise as frequently as it is considered to be a threat, or is just debated in both terms without either explicitly advocating or opposing the transhumanist project itself (for example, Agar 2010; Fuller and Lipinska 2014; Sharon 2014; Hurlbut and Tirosh-Samuelson 2016).

All this clearly testifies that although it is possible to talk about the growing prominence, pertinence and dominance of postwar dystopian thought, it would be misleading to suggest that the Western world completely lacks or is heading toward the total absence of utopian thought. In fact, the postwar dominance of the dystopian is the most apparent precisely in the structural feature that even the remnants of modern utopian thought appear now as inherently dystopian, due to the sense of having something ahead that has no precedent. It is the either deliberate or unintentional bringing about the unprecedented – the unknown, the impenetrable by human reasoning – that constitutes the inherent risk of losing or simply not having human control over whatever is brought about.


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Simon, Zoltán Boldizsár (2019) “The Story of Humanity and the Challenge of Posthumanity,” History of the Human Sciences, 32(2): 101–120.

Thomas, Julia Adeney (2014), “History and Biology in the Anthropocene: Problems of Scale, Problems of Value,” American Historical Review, 119 (5): 1587–1607.

Vinge, Vernor (1993), “The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era,” in Vision-21: Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering in the Era of Cyberspace, 11–22, Proceedings of a symposium cosponsored by the NASA Lewis Research Center and the Ohio Aerospace Institute, Westlake, Ohio, March 30–31.

Metabolic Monstrosities: Vampire Capital in the Anthropocene

Gregory Marks

Original posted on December 14, 2019 by thewastedworld

Paraphrasing a passage from Marx in the Grundrisse, Stavros Tombazos remarks that “every economy is in the end an economy of time” (2014, 13). This is to say that the productivity of labour, the accumulation of wealth, and the circulation of goods and resources which make up an economy in its broadest sense are all components of a particular organisation of time. Changes to this economic organisation are therefore felt not only in the transformations they effect materially, but also in the order of temporality and the rhythms of life possible under a particular economic system. This fact that the passage of time, which is so often taken for a given, is in actuality conditioned by the material and economic conditions in which we live is nowhere more apparent than in our present moment of climate change and ecological catastrophe.

Two long centuries of industrial capitalism have left us with a perception of time which is no longer adequate to the material conditions now reshaping our lives. The ecological historians Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz typify this old order of time by its dependence on the extraction of fossil fuels: “The continuous time of industrial capitalism,” they write, was “projected onto cultural representations of the future, conceived as a continuous progress unfurling to the rhythm of productivity gains” (2016, 203). The shock of our present moment is that this steady and linear increase in productivity, conceptualised as the natural progress toward a tomorrow greater than today, was only ever the product of a temporary influx of energy from a diminishing resource. As Rob Nixon writes, “in this interregnum between energy regimes, we are living on borrowed time—borrowed from the past and from the future,” with the continuation of the status quo only accelerating us “toward an abbreviated collective future as fossils in the making” (2011, 69).

In the twilight years of fossil capitalism we see the emergence of a new organisation of time in which the present is no longer able to fuel itself at the expense of the future, and the accumulated destruction of the past returns at a planetary level. To address this disjunction between the time of capital and the temporalities of nature upon which it feeds, I will offer an account of the metabolic rift theory of contemporary ecosocialists and attempt to expand this metabolic account into more monstrous territory by way of Marx’s own characterisation of capital’s vampiric thirst. Consequently, I wish to suggest Walter Benjamin’s approach to history, nature, and capital as a potential bridge between the metabolic account of capital’s planetary depredation and the project of ideological critique required to lift the haze of our temporal stasis and dispel the vampire’s curse for good.


In the first volume of Capital, Marx writes that “labour is, first of all, a process between man and nature, a process by which man, through his own actions, mediates, regulates and controls the metabolism between himself and nature. […] Through this movement he acts upon external nature and changes it, and in this way he simultaneously changes his own nature” (1976, 283). Not merely an action taken upon nature, labour is the act of controlling the exchange between humanity and nature and the mutual transformation that result from that exchange. As has been remarked upon by the ecosocialists John Bellamy Foster (2000), Paul Burkett (2014), and Kohei Saito (2018), Marx’s conception of labour and the relation it establishes between humanity and nature hinges upon the concept of metabolism. Borrowed from the agronomist Justus von Liebig, Marx’s conception of metabolic exchange draws from its origins in chemistry, as “an incessant process of organic exchange of old and new compounds through combinations, assimilations, and excretions so that every organic action can continue,” and is applied “not just to organic bodies but also to various interactions in one or multiple ecosystems, even on a global scale, whether ‘industrial metabolism’ or ‘social metabolism’” (Saito 2018, 69-70).

In any material system, whether it involves bodies or machines, or if it occurs at the scale of an individual or a society, necessarily involves a metabolic exchange of chemicals and energy to keep that system in motion. Like the economy at large, metabolism is here characterised as a temporal relation, describing the rates of exchange between a given system and its natural foundations. What has emerged under capitalism, however, is a particular disjunction between natural and economic temporalities, tearing an ever widening metabolic rift between them. We now face a “contradiction of nature’s time versus capital’s”—as Paul Burkett writes:

“Capitalism’s accelerated throughput involves a conflict between the time nature requires to produce and absorb materials and energy versus the competitively enforced dynamic of maximum monetary accumulation in any given time period by all available material means” (2014, 112).

Under capitalism the metabolism between humanity and nature is pushed out of joint, not simply in a Malthusian trap of consumption outstripping production, but through the complex web of exchanges and processes by which capital trades short-term gains in profit for a long future of pernicious outcomes. McKenzie Wark remarks:

“Marx’s example of metabolic rift was the way nineteenth-century English farming extracted nutrients such as nitrates from the soil, which growing plants absorbed, which farmers harvested as crops, which workers in the cities ate to fuel their industrious labors, and who would then shit and piss the waste products out of their private metabolisms. Those waste products, including the nitrates, flow through run-off and sewers and pour out to sea. Whole industries for making artificial fertilizer would arise to address this rift—in turn causing further metabolic rifts elsewhere” (2015, xiv).

Whereas previous societies met natural limits at local levels, in the forms of soil exhaustion and resource depletion, capitalism constantly moves further and further afield to expand the scope of its markets, seize resources from abroad, and dispossess its periphery of labour and lands. Each limit which manifests on a local level is transcended and passed over to seek new sources of accumulation. Yet, as Marx makes clear, “from the fact that capital posits every such limit as a barrier and hence gets ideally beyond it, it does not by any means follow that it has really overcome it” (1973, 410).

Although able to escape or even feed upon the market fluctuations of natural crises by exploiting the elasticity of material limits, capital cannot overcome these limits entirely, and instead searches widely for means of delaying the inevitable. In Kohei Saito’s words: “Capital always tries to overcome its limitations through the development of productive forces, new technologies, and international commerce, but, precisely as a result of such continuous attempts to expand its scale, it reinforces its tendency to exploit natural forces (including human labor power) in search of cheaper raw and auxiliary materials, foods, and energies on a global scale” (2018, 96). Each temporary crisis overcome only offsets systemic collapse in the present by increasing the scope of the next crisis, so that eventually the entire earth is caught in the metabolic rift and a real global limit is reached.


With “its blind and measureless drive, its insatiable appetite for surplus labour,” coupled with its relentless feeding upon both present and future life, it is no wonder that Marx gestures toward the vampire to characterise capital (1976, 375). In a now famous passage from Capital’s first volume, Marx describes capital as “dead labour which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour,” and elsewhere as driven by a “vampire thirst for the living blood of labour”  (1976, 342; 367). The vampire emerges here not only as a figure out of time, the dead which will not die, but as a conspicuously metabolic monster, which is driven not by malice or moral failure, but by a primal drive to sustain itself on the vital processes of the living. The vampire as metabolic monstrosity is not original to Marx, and may be found in Liebig’s own writings on agronomy, in which he remarks—on the topic of the imperial seizure of guano and other fertilisers from around the world—that “Great Britain seizes from other countries their conditions of their own fertility… Vampire-like, it clings to the throat of Europe, one could even say of the whole world, sucking its best blood” (Bonneuil & Fressoz 2016, 186-7).

Beyond its polemical flourish, the evocation of the vampire plays the fundamental role of revealing in a single image the hidden mechanisms of capital’s bloodied feast. As Foster and Burkett remark: “Marx’s use of metabolism was not ‘analogical’, but was meant to promote the basis for a materialist and dialectical understanding of the human productive relation to nature” (2016 35-6). Similarly, I wish to argue that capital is not merely like a vampire, but literally exercises a vampiric relation with the living both in its parasitic thirst for accumulation and in the psychic bondage it exercises over its victims. In addition to characterising capital as predominated by metabolic processes, the vampiric metaphor brings with it the connotations of bewitchment, invisibility, and the thraldom of the victim to the vampire. In effect, the conjunction of vampire-capital merges the logic of metabolism with the ideological apparatus that conceals it. As David McNally writes in Monsters of the Market:

“Capital’s great powers of illusion lie in the way it invisibilises its own monstrous formation. In endeavouring to pull off the magic-cap of modernity, Marx sought a confrontation with monstrosity. He set out to reveal the legions of vampires and werewolves that inhere in capital so that they might be banished” (2011, 114).

Just as the time of capitalist production instils in those caught within it the rhythms of industry and the progressive increase of productive forces, the occlusion of its metabolic imbalance exercises its own temporal logic. Capital doesn’t only drain the living of their lifeblood, but does so at times and intervals which, at least for the time being, evade direct perception. Counter to the theories of Max Weber, for whom modernity was the triumph of reason over myth, we may refer Walter Benjamin’s proposition that: “Capitalism was a natural phenomenon with which a new dream-filled sleep came over Europe, and, through it, a reactivation of mythic forces” (1999, K1a,8). The identification of capital’s metabolic relation to humanity and nature as vampiric goes some way in piercing through the new myths of capitalism’s dream-filled sleep. Firstly, it dispels the ideological haze that disguises the slow desiccation of labour and nature under capitalism as just or necessary. As McNally remarks:

“If there is a Marxist Gothic, then, it is one that insists, amongst other things, on journeying through the night spaces of the capitalist underworld, on visiting the secret dungeons that harbour labouring bodies in pain” (2011, 138).

Secondly, it reveals that the cyclical crises and disasters of capitalism are not abnormalities or irregularities in the upward arch of progress, but are rather the throes of pain of myriad metabolisms caught between the vampire’s fangs. As Benjamin writes:

“The concept of progress must be grounded in the idea of catastrophe. That things are ‘status quo” is the catastrophe. It is not an ever-present possibility but what in each case is given. […] Hell is not something that awaits us, but this life here and now” (1999, N9a,1).


Benjamin’s project of uncovering the dark, magical underbelly of capitalist modernity—what Margaret Cohen (1993) has called a form of “Gothic Marxism”—puts him in welcome company among the vampires and werewolves of Marx’s imaginary. But for all Benjamin’s success as a critic of culture, ideology, and history, his relevance to an ecologically-conscious Marxism is less clear. Writing in Marx’s Ecology, John Bellamy Foster sets himself apart from the Western Marxists for their failure to take the materialist account of nature seriously. “The Frankfurt School,” Foster writes, “developed an ‘ecological’ critique which was almost entirely culturalist in form, lacking any […] analysis of the real, material alienation of nature, for example, Marx’s theory of metabolic rift” (2000, 245).

By way of a conclusion, I’d like to put this claim under pressure on two fronts: Firstly, with the claim that in Benjamin—if not in other Frankfurt thinkers—we do in fact find a thoroughly materialist account of nature, which both refuses any account of history separate from its natural conditions and any theorisation of nature impervious to historical alteration. Secondly, I wish to argue that within Benjamin’s philosophy of nature we also discover hints of a metabolic relation between humanity and nature which will allow us to bridge the gap between a Gothic Marxist critique of ideology and the ecological thought necessary for a twenty-first century Marxism.

From his early works through to his last, Benjamin’s thought returned not only to the question of nature and its place within the course of history, but also the moment when the “antithesis of history and nature” is undone, and “history passes into the setting” as another component of a purely material world (2019, 81). This entry of history into nature—and nature into history—preoccupies Benjamin’s thought in his final unfinished work, The Arcades Project, in which the history of the nineteenth century is conceived in naturalistic terms as composed of fossils from a vanished age. From out of the rubble of this earlier stage of capitalism, Benjamin pieces together a genealogy of late capitalism to reveal the ideological effects that emerge when history and nature are conceptually divorced. As Susan Buck-Morss writes:

“Whenever theory posited ‘nature’ or ‘history’ as an ontological first principle, this double character of the concepts was lost, and with it the potential for critical negativity: either social conditions were affirmed as ‘natural’ without regard for their historical becoming, or the actual historical process was affirmed as essential” (1977, 54).

In Benjamin’s own terms, so long as the modern environments of “architecture, fashion,” and “even the weather” are left unconsidered as products of human intention, “they are as much natural processes as digestion, breathing, and the like. They stand in the cycle of the eternally selfsame, until the collective seizes upon them in politics and history emerges” (1999, K1,5). What we take to be merely “natural,” whether it is the drive for profit or a change in the weather, exists for us only unconsciously until we recognise the mutually constitutive relationship between these seemingly natural facts and the history which we collectively create. Without this moment of awakening to our own natural history, the course of historical events seem inevitable and beyond our grasp. “To the dreaming collective,” writes Benjamin, “the decline of an economic era seems like the end of the world itself” (1999, R2,3). In our own era of apocalyptic foreboding we are in dire need of a politics able to pierce through this myth of inevitable catastrophe to confront the ecological and economic disjunction at its heart.

Despite its seeming inevitability as a fact of nature, the “ecological rift is, at bottom, the product of a social rift: the domination of human being by human being” (Foster et al. 2010, 47). “Accordingly,” writes Kohei Saito, “Marx’s socialist project demands the rehabilitation of the humans-nature relationship through the restriction and finally the transcendence of the alien force of reification (2018, 133). Or, as Benjamin put it many years prior, the vital task of our technical knowledge “is not the mastery of nature but of the relation between nature and man” (1979, 104). Here we see clearest the metabolic potential of Benjamin’s natural philosophy: To master not nature itself but the relation between humanity and nature is to understand the metabolic exchanges which conjoin earthly processes and human affairs. But what Benjamin’s writing also makes clear is that an understanding of our metabolic relation to the earth is not sufficient in itself. To be politically effective an ecologically-conscious Marxism must be coupled with an insight into the ideological structures that obscure our metabolic relations and instil in us a faith in temporalities of infinite progress or inevitable disaster. The vampiric grip of capital, which obscures the means of its mastery even as it deploys them upon humanity and nature alike, can only be cast off by a conscious and collective mastery of our relations to nature and the initiation a new metabolism with the earth.


Benjamin, Walter. One Way Street and Other Writings. Translated by Edmund Jephcott and Kingsley Shorter. London: Verso, 1979.

——. The Arcades Project. Translated by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin. Cambridge: Belknap, 1999.

——. The Origin of the German Trauerspiel. Translated by Howard Eiland. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2019.

Bonneuil, Christophe and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz. The Shock of the Anthropocene. Translated by David Fernbach. London: Verso, 2016.

Buck-Morss, Susan. The Origins of Negative Dialectics. New York: The Free Press, 1977.

Burkett, Paul. Marx and Nature: A Red and Green Perspective. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2014.

Cohen, Margaret. Profane Illumination: Walter Benjamin and the Paris of Surrealist Revolution. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

Foster, John Bellamy. Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000.

Foster, John Bellamy, and Paul Burkett. Marx and the Earth: An Anti-Critique. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2016.

Foster, John Bellamy, Brett Clark, and Richard York. The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2010.

Marx, Karl. Grundrisse. Translated by Martin Nicolaus. London: Penguin Books, 1973.

——. Capital Volume I. Translated by Ben Fowkes. London: Penguin Books, 1976.

McNally, David. Monsters of the Market: Zombies, Vampires and Global Capitalism. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2011.

Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011.

Saito, Kohei. Karl Marx’s Ecosocialism: Capital, Nature, and the Unfinished Critique of Political Economy. New Delhi: Dev Publishers, 2018.

Tombazos, Stavros. Time in Marx: The Categories of Time in Marx’s Capital. Translated by Christakis Georgiou. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2014.

Wark, McKenzie. Molecular Red: Theory for the Anthropocene. London: Verso, 2015.



In Television of the Anthropocene Part I (that I wrote exactly a year ago), I introduced the idea of the Television of the Anthropocene, and I suggested that ‘the re-emergence of sci-fi, fantasy, and post-apocalyptic genres and generic hybrids on television that address questions about human and non-human futures was unsurprising and was in line with the social and cultural status of the television as the dominant medium of storytelling’ (Palatinus 2017). I suggested thinking about television through the ‘AnthropoScreen’, denoting both a temporal/epochal positioning of the medium as well as a political ecology of the screen where we’re dealing with a ‘plethora of images’ relegated to the Anthropocene – narratives, figurations, cultural ideas produced and disseminated via the converging media of literary fiction and television, that engage with the beginning and the end of human future as we know it’ in programmes like The 100 (CW, 2014-), Incorporated (Syfy, 2016), Into the Badlands (AMC, 2015-), The Expanse (Syfy, 2015-), Zoo (CBS, 2015-), Helix (Syfy, 2014-2015), Extant (CBS, 2014-2015) and of course The Walking Dead (AMC, 2010-).

In that text, my focus was primarily on post-apocalyptic scenarios because of their figurations of catastrophe through climate change, nuclear endgames or pandemic outbreaks, resulting in an ecosystem where human existence is relativised to an extreme and where humans learn to adapt to a radically changed environment. To negotiate the nexus between the epochal and conceptual implications of the AnthropoScreen, it will be essential at one point that we rethink the role of ‘television-as-medium’, and consequently, the role of media, similarly to that of humans, in a changed ecosystem, with special attention to the ways media themselves have become an ecological factor and a framework through which we negotiate post-Anthropocene existence (Maxwell and Miller, 2012; Parikka, 2015). Still, I would like to continue now with considerations of television’s role in the circulation of posthuman sensibilities and of cultural imaginaries of a post-singularity world.

Over the past years, there’s been an emergence of film and television texts (Ex Machina Garland, 2014), Automata (Ibanez, 2014), Lucy (Besson, 2014), Transcendence (Pfister, 2014), Blade Runner 2049 (Villeneuve, 2017) or on TV Person of Interest (CBS, 2011-2016), Humans (Channel4/AMC, 2015-, based on the Swedish original Real Humans, SVT, 2012-2014), Extant (CBS, 2014-2015), Almost Human (Fox, 2013-2014), Westworld (HBO, 2016-), etc.) revolving around the advent of intelligent machines and humanoid robots that not only interact with humans and facilitate their everyday living by becoming their prosthetic supplements, but also gain consciousness and sentience, and are able to emulate human behavior to such an extent that the thin line between human and machine becomes penetrable. Such non-organic organisms are then frequently depicted not only as humans’ Other, as projections of our fears and anxieties about our own improved (cognitively and physiologically enhanced) selves predicated purely on objective-driven logic, efficiency and objective-focused operations, but, on the other hand, also as those that indirectly highlight the ineffable, unnamable qualities (or at least the challenges the explication of these qualities entail) that make us ‘human’.

These narratives habitually mobilise post-Anthropocene scenarios that entail the repositioning of the human in a changed ecosystem. As it was argued before, the Anthropocene denotes an epoch characterized by the ‘human dominance of biological, chemical and geological processes on Earth’ (Crutzen and Schwagerl, 2011). If the Anthropocene implies human becoming a force shaping both organic and inorganic matter, post-Anthropocene would refer to a subsequent near-future time when the existing societal hierarchies come under question through narratives that repurpose the ‘classic tropes of technophobia, post-colonial and post-capitalist discourses, social polarisation and totalitarianism, bio-power, genetic engineering and environmentalism, in the context of perpetual war and a culture of paranoia’ (Palatinus 2017).

AI and humanoid machines have been populating science-fiction both on paper and on the screen for a long time. While acknowledging the historical legacies of classical narratives that have by now attained a cult status (from 2001 A Space Odyssey (Kubrik, 1968) to the Star Trek franchise (NBC, 1966-), Blade Runner (Scott, 1982)the Terminator franchise and Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009, Sci-Fi Channel), films and television from the past decade are also set apart from that legacy: Ex Machina, Blade Runner 2049Westworld, Almost Human, Extant and Humans not only negotiate ways for the coexistence of human and nonhuman species in a post-singularity ecosystem, they call attention to the a peculiar from of ‘extimity’ (cf. Miller, 2008) – the displacement and de-humanisation of human otherness via machine. Extimity in this regard would refer to a constant bouncing between the assertion and disavowal/revocation of human(like) intimacy between humans and the ‘things’. Given the versatility of both the symbolisations and conceptualisations of AI, these programme texts also ask – what exactly do we mean by it? And aren’t we expanding its notion a bit too broad to include just about everything, from androids to machine learning to the very set of algorithms that make the positing of AI possible in the first place? And what is the correlation between ‘AI a la fiction’, and real-life applications?

Fig. 1: Humans (Channel4/AMC, 2015-, based on the Swedish original Real Humans, SVT, 2012-2014)

The past decade has seen a proliferation of cultural ideas depicting intersections between human and non-human (machine and / or animal) species. Among these, accounts of the accelerating capabilities of intelligent machines (and of machine-intelligence), their purpose, the range of their possible applications, and opinions about the ways these imminent changes will have impacted human life in the near-future have been rather divisive. On television, Person of Interest (CBS, 2011-2016), ExtantHumans and Westworld exemplify stipulations of the changes technological acceleration and the arrival of machines with human-like intelligence will have brought about. These ideas tap into current discourses on post- and trans-human futures as well as into the cultural legacies that representations of the future draw on (Jameson, 2005, Roden 2014). Ray Kurzweil offers a celebratory approach to the techno-utopian and techno-deterministic transformation of humans into ‘spiritual machines’ (Kurzweil, 1999), and anticipates that technological singularity, the merger of human technology with human intelligence, will eventually result in our ability to transcend the limitations of our biology and our physical bodies. The synths of humans offer a vision of just that, especially through the lead character of Leo Elster (Colin Morgan), a part synth (and the son of David Elster, the creator of conscious synths) who features significant prosthetic supplementation to his brain, which he needed after an accident.

Glen Mazis suggests we think of the human and the nonhuman in terms of a ‘relation-ship’ (2008), acknowledging, however, that recognising machines as ‘having a personhood’ would mean calling into question ‘another absolute divide to which we cling – the absolute difference between the animate and inanimate’ (242). This becomes a recurring trope on TV, with the anthropomorphic characters of the Machine in Person of Interest, and in Almost Human through John Kennex’s (Karl Urban) initial reluctance to accept his own prosthetic limb, and to trust and bond with Dorian, a synthetic police robot assigned to him as a partner.

Rosi Braidotti contemplates the possibility of that when she calls for the repositioning of the foundation of critical posthumanism (2013) and assumes ‘the primacy of intelligent and self-organizing matter (2018). Her agenda here is less about a radical suspension of obvious binaries (body-mind, organic-inorganic, embodiment-embrainment, nature-culture), but rather an attempt to highlight their continuity. She explains that the posthuman ‘is normatively neutral and it does not automatically point to the end of the species’, but rather, as a figuration, it is ‘both situated and partial – it does not define the new human condition, but offers a spectrum through which we can capture the complexity of ongoing processes of subject-formation’ (2018).

While Nick Bostrom’s techno-skeptical embrace of humanity through transhumanism reinscribes human(istic) hierarchies via maintaining belief in the perfectability of human through technological enhancement (2014),[1] Katherine Hayles’ reminds us that the cultural imaginaries of nonhuman otherness also constitute a political agenda that moves beyond binary oppositions (1999). Opening up further dimensions and configurations of animate and inanimate materialities in contemporary art, Barbara Stafford explores of the move from communicable matter to the (re-)emergence of ‘ineffable’ entities encompassing ‘living technology’, ‘technologies of the extended mind’, ‘bio-fictions’ and ‘multispecies intra-actions’ (2016). This ineffability is what underlies the question of sentience, suffering and the ability to create memories and snap in and out of ‘being awake’ or ‘being in a dream’ in the case of the hosts of Westworld, and we see the same ineffability being played out (and its significance being played down) in the scene where Niska (Emily Berrington) in Humans appears before a tribunal to determine whether she’s conscious, and whether as a conscious being (not a thing!) she (notice the female pronoun used interchangeably with the neuter pronoun throughout the series) is entitled to a human trial for a murder she committed in self-defense.

Niska’s outburst (that results in her killing a human) is triggered by her being ‘forced’ to work as a sexbot and literally experiencing those encounters as rape. The accumulated pain and repressed memories of humiliation and direct objectification in the hands of (male) humans – who in fact think of Niska as an object, a sex toy that ‘functions’ and ‘performs’ algorithmically, according to scripted response loops, without having the ability to know and do anything else (that is, to have an awareness and comprehension of alternatives outside of the perceived reality of her programming). She is denied the ability to ‘feel’, and as a consequence to experience real pain and suffering. Her exclusive place is that of submission, without the possibility of even having the concept of preference for what registers as pleasurable, arousing or tender, and consequently without the ability to take initiative. For the visitors of the brothel, Niska is an ‘it’ rather than a ‘she’.  Abuse, for Niska, therefore does not simply amount to the physical and psychological trauma of the forced intercourse. But rather, by being reduced to mere instrumentality, the abuse is the refusal to acknowledge her as a life-form. from her reduction to mere instrumentality, the refusal to acknowledge her as a life-form. Laura (Kathrine Parkinson) and her family are some of the few humans who advocate the acknowledgement of synth sentience and try to emancipate them via forms of familial intimacy (their house synth Mia/Anita (Gemma Chan) becoming more like a family member). But even within this context, the initial intimacy is turned extimate, when we witness a bracketing-out of the human-like qualities of the synths when Laura’s husband has sex with Anita and then orders her to delete all memories of the intercourse.

We see similar displays of abuse in Westworld: the bracketing-out of agency on the part of the hosts, and the suspension of responsibility on the part of the guests is one of the principles on which the theme park operates, a feature that also becomes its key selling point. The memories of the hosts are deleted every time they reach the end of their scripted narratives so they can go back and relive the same experiences without having memories of them. As one of the technicians responsible for the maintenance of the hosts remarks, “Can you imagine what would happen if the hosts remembered what the guests do to them? (…) We give them the concept of a dream, mostly nightmares.”

Fig. 2: Westworld (HBO, 2016-)

As we have seen, television’s concern is not so much (or no longer) the mechanisation – more particularly the ‘machinisation’ of the human, but quite the contrary, the ‘humanisation’ of machinic entities. This, of course, also necessitates the recognition of the fact that such forms of humanisation or ‘anthropomorphisation’ are as old as any form of symbolisation, and clearly have to do with psychological imperatives that lie at the core of (human) subjectivity, and the affective dimension which television has always been prone to enhance. But what happens if we? suggest that what ‘articulations of the human via machines’ really entails is not so much, or not only, a merger of machine and human in a continuity that dismantles demarcations via disembodied and re-embodied forms of subjectivity, but rather an abstraction and algorithmisation of the human, and its replication and emulation via machine?

This of course is just one avenue of the many: humanoid machines have been around on television for a very long time. What’s more interesting, and more pressing today, is the postulation of intelligent / sentient machines that don’t simply emulate human qualities but take on a consciousness, intelligence, cognitive and perhaps even emotional traits akin to subjectivity and, consequently, agency that is comparable to those of humans. These programme texts ask: what if the ‘post’ in post-human refers not only to an irreversible temporality (what comes after humans, as a further evolutionary step, as the marker of end of human history as Kurzweil defines singularity)? What if the post in post-human refers to a ‘beyond’ – to an ontological form that human reason cannot yet fathom or stipulate? What if the post-human, the non-human, the machinic has always figured as the articulation par excellence of the human – by way of a negative dialectic? A true (re-)embodiment of that which the human is not (but hopes to be)? A sense of becoming – always-already en-route to its own transcendence? There seems to be a disconnect between the techno-scientific optimism of transhumanist philosophies (and the transhuman ethos in general), and popular renditions and projections of the same perceived futures in various forms of media. From dystopian novels to film and television to video games – and even to social media, there’s multiple visual renditions circulating (both generating and challenging ideologies) about post-human and/or transhuman ecologies. They call attention to the demise of our natural environment and depict said demise as being a necessary and inevitable result (by way of both environmental exploitation as well as the enhancing and broadening of social polarisation via exploitative labour and the increasing corporatisation of structures like healthcare, agriculture, communications technologies, education, etc.) of the very technological acceleration that (is supposed to) make a transhuman future possible.

In actuality the prominence of accelerationism (the ideology-turned-myth of steady and sustainable progress towards a self-perfecting network of systems that gradually suspend the necessity of human intervention, thus eventually disengaging /disabling human agency in the management of interconnected ecosystems) appears to be the drive dictating the tempo of research and development, using various types of media to promote their agenda and to bring the public to their sides, with soaring funding opportunities embedded in the self-serving mechanisms of the system. Film, television and video games offer a significantly different take on the question of accelerationism: the scenarios about the ways our techno-deterministic futures might play out vary, of course, but the one sentiment most of these cultural narratives have in common is the underlying skepticism, or even downright apocalypticism, about the advent of singularity.

As a consequence, the above examples inscribe themselves into a history of similarly-themed sci-fi narratives, but are set apart from them in peculiar ways: on the one hand, just like their intertextual predecessors, these narratives mobilise the old trope of technology as a threat to human life, they subvert utopistic techno-positivism and the absolutisation of big data that have become trend-setting after the algorithmic turn (Uricchio, 2011). On the other hand, they highlight a number of urgencies that have become paramount in critical discourses on technology, AI, disembodied and re-embodied intelligence, the technological mediation of cognitive processes and data. Are we to subscribe to post-apocalyptic warnings about sentient machines wiping humanity out, or are we to embrace a (Kurzweilian) utopia where humans morph into machine-enhanced cyborgic posthumans that live forever? What we witness, rather, is television’s commentary on the gradual move through the reification of Darwinian evolutionary logic, from par excellence manifestations of the Deleuzean bodies without organs, of disembodied consciousness, to the inexplicable evolution of self-replicating, self-organizing humanoid machines.

An earlier version of this blog first appeared in CSTonline on 23 November 2018

David Levente Palatinus is Lecturer in Media and Cultural Studies and founder of the Anthropocene Media Lab at the University of Ruzomberok. His research moves between and across visual studies, digital media, and cultural theory. He has worked and written on violence in serial culture, medicine and autopsy, autoimmunity and war, and digital subjectivity in the Anthropocene. He is co-editor of the ECREA section of Critical Studies in Television Online, and sits on the editorial board of Americana – E-Journal of American Studies (Hungary) and Rewind: British and American Studies Series of Aras Edizioni (Fano, Italy). He is co-editor of the volume Crime and Detection in the Age of Electronic Reproduction (forthcoming, Americana Ebooks). His book Spectres of Medicine: The Ethos of Contemporary Medical Dramas will be published next year by Aras Edizioni (Italy).


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[1] Bostrom, Nick. Superintelligence: Paths, dangers, strategies. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2014.