Joanna Zylinska
The End of Man: A Feminist Counterapocalypse
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018 (ISBN ISBN: 978-1-5179-0559-0)
Reviewed by Mary Trachsel, 2020

Apocalyptic predictions of mass extinction and ecological collapse have been a fixture in popular and academic appropriations of ecology and environmental science at least since Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (Carson 1962). In succeeding years, Carolyn Merchant's The Death of Nature, Bill McKibben's The End of Nature, Richard Leakey and Roger Lewin's The Sixth Extinction, Jared Diamond's Collapse, Alan Weisman's The World without Us, and Jedediah Purdy's After Nature are but a few of many testaments to the endurance of this narrative, each warning, implicitly or explicitly, that humans and other forms of life on Earth face imminent extinction (Merchant 1980; McKibben 1989; Leakey and Lewin 1995; Diamond 2005; Weisman 2007; Purdy 2015).

In The End of Man, Joanna Zylinska proposes an alternative narrative for this critical juncture in human history and geological time, one in which the "end of Man" signals not the end of humanity and all other life on Earth but the end of a particularly destructive (and self-destructive) way of being human. The counterapocalyptic future she envisions for life on planet Earth is one in which the ultimate ecological unraveling is averted by "the expiration of the White Christian Man as the key subject of history" (1).  

Zylinska begins her argument for counterapocalyptic possibility by briefly tracing the perpetual recurrence of the apocalypse story from its Judeo-Christian origins to its current intersection with the Anthropocene. In the present geological moment, technologically enhanced humanity teeters precariously between planetary mastery and self-annihilation and faces the grim realization that, ecologically speaking, these two options are one and the same: as civilized man claims an ever-larger portion of Earth's resources for himself, denying them to human and nonhuman others, he steadily weakens and destroys the web of life on which his own survival depends.

Zylinska counters the apocalypse by championing the human power to reflect, to imagine, and to change. Her hope lies in our ability to compose alternative human identities; in particular, she hopes we can imagine and fashion ourselves as a more relational and responsible species--one that has an inherent interest in coexisting with human and nonhuman others instead of either ignoring or annihilating them. In its emphasis on relationship and responsibility, as opposed to independence and entitlement, Zylinska's feminist counterapocalypse looks a lot like a world transformed by the relational ethics and epistemology that arose from Carol Gilligans's In a Different Voice and Mary Belenky and her colleagues' Women's Ways of Knowing and was fashioned early on by the maternal and care-based ethics and logic of feminist philosophers like Nel Noddings's Caring and Sarah Ruddick's Maternal Thinking (Gilligan 1982; Belenky et al. 1986; Noddings 1986; Ruddick 1989).    

The standard Anthropocene apocalypse story, Zylinska argues, is but a variant of a masculine narrative of continuous growth and expansion through conquest and colonization. The star protagonist in this narrative is a historical subject elevated by Judeo-Christian patriarchy and white privilege; in the present moment he is both empowered and doomed by his own science and technology, the products of uniquely human sapience and the instruments of his accelerated evolutionary success so far. Unable or unwilling to surrender the goals of human dominion and unchecked growth, civilized man, as he faces the apocalypse, looks for salvation where he has always looked: to scientific rationality and technological innovation, the very powers that brought him to his present, precarious pass. 

Civilized man's refusal to surrender the master's role on planet Earth means that his hopes of escape from environmental apocalypse are restricted by the premise of human exceptionalism and the logic of distinction, a Western intellectual tradition charted in Greg Goodale's The Rhetorical Construction of Man (Goodale 2015). Within this tradition, civilized man at the apocalyptic crossroads of the Anthropocene strategizes two possible escape routes: continuing to distinguish himself from the rest of the Earth through extraplanetary migration to new frontiers, or otherwise detaching from his natural environment through human ascendance to godlike invulnerability, thanks to developments in biotechnology and artificial intelligence.  

In place of self-differentiation from the rest of the natural world, Zylinska advocates a logic of continuity that perceives the self in its inevitable entanglements with other human and nonhuman lives. Her proposed relational subject is "more responsive and responsible" to the rest of nature than scientific and technological man has heretofore been (7). This counterapocalyptic subject rejects the myth of our species' fated maturation from primitive or "pre-tragic" embeddedness in Edenic Mother Nature to civilized estrangement from the home planet.  Instead of seeking human security in sterile isolation from and dominion over Nature, Zylinska proposes that humans accept the precarity of Nature as a constant and inevitable condition of life. Recognizing that human life is inevitably "contaminated" and otherwise threatened by human and nonhuman Others, Zylinska maintains, is a necessary first step toward a different kind of coexistence, a dynamic of Self and Other that privileges connection over separation.

Zylinska acknowledges that counterapocalyptic self-transformation is hard to believe in, particularly at the collective level of species.  As our environmental crisis deepens, she explains, radically changing natural environments begin to demand radically changing social, political, and economic systems, but as she notes in a recent interview with The Believer, apocalyptic man can more easily imagine the extinction of other-than-human nature than the extinction of human cultural systems we've come to rely on. In particular, she observes, "it's easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism--and not just its readjustment" (Roberts 2019).

If the standard tale of the apocalypse is a tragedy of mankind's fatal overreach, Zylinska's counterapocalypse turns toward comedy. Her narrative of human evolution might be called a picaresque, the life story of an errant species finally returning to the fold, a celebration of human potential to adapt and reform. In place of apocalyptic tragedy, Zylinska adopts a playful, forward-looking stance she calls "ironic" and "speculative," and she styles her argument as "light-hearted," even as she acknowledges the gravity of its subject, namely "the planetary crisis that embraces the environment, economy, and politics, as well as life itself" (1). 

This playfulness appears in the book's provocatively titled short chapters that divide her argument into roughly three stages. The first, marked by the chapters "First as Tragedy…," "Apocalypse Now!," and "Man's Tragic Worldview," links the apocalyptic storyline to the narrative perspective of white, Christian manhood. The second section, composed of "Men Repair the World for Me," "Project Man 2.0," and "Exit Man," reports on two solutions to the Anthropocene dilemma favored by the techno-logic of civilized man: re-engineering humanity to survive environmental collapse or leaving environmental destruction behind to colonize new worlds. 

Both of these solutions are projected as future eventualities, but the final section, consisting of "The End of the White Man," "The End of Men?," and "A Feminist Counterapocalypse," introduces "encystment" as a presently unfolding, political version of high-tech human escape and ascendance. A term coined by science-fiction writer Stanislaw Łem to denote the self-protective strategy of enclosing human civilization within a "cybernetic-sociotechnical shell" to ward off contamination (31), "encystment" is to Zylinska an expression of human exceptionalism that frequently manifests in the Western world as white supremacy, a masculinist politics grounded in fears that encroachment by Others portends the extinction of white Christian patriarchy.

Describing the rise of conservative populism across Europe and North America as evidence that this form of encystment is a widespread survival strategy in the Anthropocene, Zylinska turns finally to "critical posthumanism" (49) for release from the tragic, self-defeating, masculinist logic of human exceptionalism. She defines posthumanism as a process of decentering the historically privileged human subject from his illusory position as the crown of creation and moving him into the crowd with everyone else. This perspectival shift, she speculates, can advance the goal of coexistence within and beyond the human species.

Bound as we are to the perceptual limits of our biology, we can never fully escape the anthropocentrism beneath the logic of human exceptionalism. Accordingly, Zylinska refuses to renounce the objectifying epistemology of science and the dire predictions it produces about the future of life on Earth. She does, however, insist that science alone is inadequate to guide us through the Anthropocene, and she advocates seeking and sharpening new ways of understanding ourselves and interacting with the rest of the world. To that point, the book's coda urges readers to "sense" the Anthropocene as the occasion of our humanly embodied lives, not simply seeing it or knowing any part of it objectively, but breathing it, feeling it, tasting and smelling it, intuiting it, engaging it with the full range of the human sensorium. 

As Zylinska explains in her interview with The Believer, she wants to promote a "distributed mode of thinking," that can better approximate comprehension of what the philosopher Timothy Morton would describe as the "hyperobject" we've labeled the Anthropocene. To encourage multimodal perception on the way to self- and species-transformation, Zylinska augments the scholarly essay form of The End of Man with a photo film that shares the title of the book's sixth chapter, "Exit Man." Accessible through a link or a QR code on the final page of the text, the film features eerie background music and a technologically altered voice-over summarizing the central argument of the book. Meanwhile a succession of black and white photographs unfolds, presumably depicting the world Man leaves behind when he exits the planet. Prominent in these photos are urban landscapes, human skeletons and fossilized records of the past, plastic toy animals, drawings, statues, signs, tangles of electrical wiring, and other artifacts of built environments. The film concludes with the rhetorical question that prompts Zylinska's speculations in The End of Man: "If unbridled progress is no longer an option, what kinds of coexistence and collaboration do we want to create in its aftermath?"

A small paperback of only sixty-seven pages, The End of Man appears in the University of Minnesota's peer-reviewed series Forerunners: Ideas First. Described on the press website as "a thought-in-progress series of digital works" that represent points somewhere along the continuum from "fresh ideas" to "finished books," works in this series present scholarship that brings together "intense thinking, change, and speculation," and sparks continued thought and discussion among readers. Available from the press for $7.95 as a paperback and $4.95 as an ebook, The End of Man is affordable and easily accessible. Zylinska makes her case in a clear and inviting writing style, and the book can easily be read in a single sitting. This book and others in the Forerunners series, moreover, are well suited for inclusion in graduate courses because the rapid production enabled by their small scale and their in-progress stage of development invite readers into scholarly discussions as they are unfolding. 

The End of Man, Zylinska's contribution to discussions about human choices in the Anthropocene, outlines the project of a counterapocalyptic narrative, suggests and models a multi-modal methodology for engaging such an alternative to apocalyptic tragedy, but shares the actual, ongoing responsibility of composing a counternarrative with its readers. It is remarkable among scholarly works on the Anthropocene for its twofold refusal to deny the grim news from science or to succumb to cynicism or despair. What Zylinska makes clear is that humans cannot continue to carry on as usual unless we hope to hasten our own inevitable extinction on a planet we have, wittingly or not, engineered to become uninhabitable to an increasing number of species. Zylinska offers relationality as the part of human nature we most urgently need to develop in the Anthropocene, but she necessarily leaves open the question of how this can be done.  

The key problematic of the Anthropocene is to imagine our lives as our own and yet as component parts of what biologist Edward O. Wilson calls "superorganisms," populations such as an ant colonies, beehives, or human cities and nations that function collectively as single living entities (Wilson 2012). Zylinska challenges her readers to imagine ways of reconciling these and other, seemingly separate, self- and group-identities as humankind gropes its evolutionary pathway through the precarious conditions of Anthropocene.

Mary Trachsel is an Associate Professor in the Department of Rhetoric at the University of Iowa where she teaches entry-level college reading and writing.  Her research interests include care-based ethics, interspecies communication, environmental ethics, and animal welfare.

"Zylinska counters the apocalypse by championing the human power to reflect, to imagine, and to change. Her hope lies in our ability to compose alternative human identities; in particular, she hopes we can imagine and fashion ourselves as a more relational and responsible species--one that has an inherent interest in coexisting with human and nonhuman others"