• The Sickness of Life: On the Problems with Anti-Natalism

    Ben Ware Considers the Emptiness of Opting Out

    I.

    Article continues below

    In Margaret Atwood’s 1981 novel Bodily Harm, the protagonist, Rennie, recalls a piece of graffiti she had once seen written on a toilet wall: “Life is just another sexually transmitted social disease.” This sentiment perfectly encapsulates the worldview of the philosopher-detective Rust (“Rust”) Cohle, whose character appears in season one of the HBO drama True Detective (2014).

    In episode one, Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and his partner Martin (“Marty”) Hart (Woody Harrelson) are driving through a desolate Louisiana landscape, trying to solve a horrific murder case, when Cohle is asked by Hart to explain his philosophical beliefs. Cohle’s response, almost comic in its tragic seriousness, evokes the ghosts of Schopenhauer and Emil Cioran:

    I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in human evolution. We became too self-aware; nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself. We are creatures that should not exist by natural law . . . I think the honorable thing for our species to do is deny our programming, stop reproducing, walk hand in hand into extinction, one last midnight, brothers and sisters, opting out of a raw deal.

    Cohle is here absolutely anti-natal: humanity should cease procreating and bring about its own extinction. But it is not only that human beings should “opt out” of the raw deal—we might say, the ordeal—that is life, but rather that it would be better for them not to have come into existence in the first place. The world, as Cohle says, is just “a giant gutter in outer space . . . Think of the hubris it must take to yank a soul out of nonexistence into this meat, to force a life into this thresher.” If one does have the misfortune of being born, then the best that can happen is a swift and early death: “the trouble with dying later is you’ve already grown up. The damage is done. It’s too late.”

    Article continues below

    This line of thinking has a rich intellectual history. In Oedipus at Colonus, lamenting the hero’s tragic fate, Sophocles has the chorus pronounce the famous and frightening lines:

    Not to be born is best
    by far: the next-best course,
    once born, is double-quick return to source.

    This tragic Sophoclean maxim also plays a key role for Nietzsche. In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche recounts the story of King Midas, who confronts the wise Silenus, companion of Dionysus, and asks him: what is the best and most desirable thing for humankind? Silenus responds with a “shrill laugh” before uttering the following words:

    Wretched ephemeral race, children of chance and tribulation, why do you force me to tell you the very thing which it would be most profitable for you not to hear? The very best thing is utterly beyond your reach: not to have been born, not to be, to be nothing. However, the second-best thing for you is to die soon.

    The pronouncement of the Sophoclean chorus finds its way into Freud’s Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious (1905), where it is given a particular comic twist: “Never to be born is the best thing for mortal men. ‘But,’ adds the philosophical comment in Fliegende Blätter, this happens to scarcely one person in a hundred thousand.” This proto-Beckettian witticism lands nicely—the sombre words of Sophocles are well met by the satirical reply. But Freud himself goes on to spoil the joke. Sounding like an uptight analytical philosopher, he says that the initial proposition, the pronouncement of the chorus, is ultimately “nonsense”; and this nonsense is precisely what is illuminated by the silly punchline:

    Article continues below

    The addition is attached to the original statement as an indisputably correct limitation, and is thus able to open our eyes to the fact that this solemnly accepted piece of wisdom is itself not much better than a piece of nonsense. Anyone who is not born is not a mortal man at all, and there is no good and no best for him.

    But here Freud appears to completely miss the point. Of course the never-existent are not in a position to proclaim that “the best” has happened to them; but this isn’t what Sophocles’s chorus is getting at. Rather, what their verse conveys is that coming into existence is always bad for those who suffer this fate. Consequently, although we might not be able to say of the never-existent that never existing is “best” for them, we can say—rightly or wrongly—of the existent that existence is bad for them and thus that it would have been better never to have been born. Understood in this way, life itself comes to be seen as a kind of tragic accident, a great ontological mistake. As the theorist Aaron Schuster neatly formulates it: “the human being is the sick animal that does not live its life but lives its failure not to be born.”

    As we saw in the case of Rust Cohle, the anti-natalist position attempts to provide one answer to the question of what is to be done when life is understood as a disease, as nothing but a futile squandering of organic material. No human life, according to this position, is ever worth the harm; even the most fortunate would be better off had they never existed.

    In any life, the quantum of pain always exceeds the quantum of pleasure; and therefore the only solution, according to the negative utilitarian logic that anti-natalism applies, is to refrain from bringing any new life into the world. The goal here then is a controlled extinction of the human species. By desisting from procreation we eradicate suffering and eventually arrive at Schopenhauer’s vision of a “crystalline state” or lifeless world. In the words of the philosopher Peter Wessel Zapffe: “know yourself—be infertile, and let the earth be silent after you.”

    Might it be possible to understand this position as a kind of enlightened pessimism? Could we not say that anti-natalism speaks the truth, that in renouncing all optimism about the human species it sees existence as it really is? Our answer here should be a resolute no, although our objection will no doubt sound somewhat counterintuitive. The problem with anti­-natalism is not that its pessimism is too radical, but rather that its pessimism isn’t radical enough.

    Article continues below
    The affirmation of human self-extinction is just as “heroic” as any form of tech-utopianism that claims that it, too, can solve all of nature’s problems.

    The first point to make is that anti-natalism’s equation of existence with universal suffering looks like a false totalization. While anti-natalism harps on the pains of existence—anxiety, boredom, melancholia, loneliness, chronic disease, bereavement—it has nothing to say about how human misery is unequally distributed along lines of class, race, gender, and geography, or how it might be exacerbated by such trifling matters as the relentless exploitation of labour, crippling inequality, or the continued expansion of a permanent war economy.

    While anti-natalism is thus relentlessly pessimistic about “life,” it is eerily silent about the profit system responsible for specific kinds of life-making. Its ideological starting point is to present reified human relations as the natural state of things: life just is (in Schopenhauer’s phrase) “a business that does not cover its costs.”

    But the problems with anti-natalism go further still. In addition to its apolitical pathology, it is also blind to the dialectics of human desire. According to the anti-natalist, the human subject is incapable of attaining any real and lasting pleasure or happiness, and this makes life an ultimately worthless enterprise. But the thing about pleasure and happiness is that they are rarely what they seem. In Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, for example, Hamm (a kind of anti-natalist figure himself) opens with the line: “Me to play . . . Can there be misery loftier than mine?” This is a wonderfully ambiguous pronouncement.

    On the one hand, Hamm is asking whether it is possible for anyone to suffer as much as him; on the other hand, he is announcing the absolute superiority of his own suffering—a superiority which he clearly enjoys. Proving that the human subject always has an eccentric relationship with its own jouissance, Hamm spends most of the play engaged in a discourse of despair (“I’ll tell you the combination of the larder if you promise to finish me off”) only to find that his unhappiness is precisely the source of his enjoyment. Unhappiness, we might say, always has a hole in it; and it is through this hole that happiness and enjoyment emerge as a kind of libidinal leakage or affective ooze.

    This is precisely what anti-natalism cannot grasp, or perhaps does not want to know. It does not see that pessimism is the fixed point around which its own enjoyment circulates. What singularizes the anti-natalist, what provides them with a specific way of going on, just is the view that “the best is not to be born” and that our ethical purpose now is to bring about the extinction of the species by refusing to procreate.

    Article continues below

    This is a life that sets itself against life, that carries death at its very core; but it is a life, nevertheless. If, strictly speaking, the anti-natalist should seek to return to source as quickly as possible, then why, we might ask, do they carry on living? Is it not because the surplus satisfaction found in their own bleak worldview is itself a precious treasure that they wish to protect at all costs?

     

    II.

    If the kind of anti-natalism we have just been discussing sees existence as bad primarily for the person who exists, then another type of anti-natalism views human existence as bad for nature. At the beginning of Nina Paley’s 2002 short film, Thank You for Not Breeding, Les U. Knight, founder of the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement (VHEMT), argues that the recovery of the earth’s biosphere depends upon the human species being allowed to die out.

    In the same film, Reverend Chris Korda, leader of the Church of Euthanasia, says that “we are treating the earth like a cigar, we are smoking it . . . and at some point there is going to be nothing left but ash.” The Church has one commandment, “Thou Shall Not Procreate,” and it promotes four ‘pillars’: suicide, abortion, sodomy (defined as any non-reproductive sexual act), and cannibalism (for those who insist on eating meat). The main slogan employed by the Church is: Save the Planet, Kill Yourself.

    This kind of ecological death activism finds its most systematic articulation in Patricia MacCormack’s The Ahuman Manifesto. According to MacCormack, “the death of the human is a necessity for all life to flourish.” As the world groans “under the weight of the parasitic pestilence of human life,” human extinction presents itself not only as a logical solution, but also as an ethical one: “The death of the human species is the most life-affirming event that could liberate the natural world from oppression . . . our death would be an act of affirmative ethics which would far exceed any localised acts of compassion because those acts would be bound by human contracts, social laws and the prevalent status of beings.” Bringing about the end of the “anthropocentric world” through self-extinction, refusing notions of futurity grounded on the idea of the “special child,” is, for MacCormack, “a form of secular ecstasy”: it “opens up the void that is a voluminous everything and wants for nothing.”

    There is an interesting connection between this dark Spinozian ecological anti-natalism and Lee Edelman’s polemical No Future thesis. For Edelman, contemporary social relations are organized by the imperatives of “reproductive futurism,” in which the image of the child serves as the “horizon of every acknowledged politics, the fantasmatic beneficiary of every political intervention.” The child, he argues, “has come to embody for us the telos of the social order and come to be seen as the one for whom that order is held in perpetual trust.”

    What would it mean, then, to refuse the child “as the emblem of futurity’s unquestioned value”? How might one say no to “the fascism of the baby’s face”? Edelman suggests an anti-natal, anti-social, future-negating queerness: one involving an unconditional fidelity to jouissance and the death drive.

    It might be said that only those who have a future in the first place have the luxury of flirting with the idea of rejecting it.

    Edelman’s ostensibly radical thesis reveals itself, however, to be problematic in at least two respects. First, playing fast and loose with Lacan’s ideas, it conceives of the death drive—simply—as pure negativity: a negativity that opposes “every form of social viability” and undoes all ideas of the future. If such a reading is crudely undialectical—blind to the death drive’s generative potential—then this theoretical misstep also has political consequences. For if the death drive, embodied in Edelman’s figure of the “sinthomosexual,” really does take delight in exclaiming “fuck off” in the face of the future, then this begins to sound rather strange at a moment when the human species has, in Thom van Dooren’s phrase, arrived at “the edge of extinction.”

    This situation already produces a new temporal landscape beyond the fantasy of reproductive futurism, one characterized by what van Dooren calls “a slow unravelling of intimately entangled ways of life that begins long before the death of the last individual and continues to ripple forward long afterward, drawing in living beings in a range of different ways.” No future indeed.

    Edelman’s articulation of queer negativity bears a curious resemblance to Marx’s famous description of capitalism in the 1848 Manifesto: “uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions . . . All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away . . . All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.” This leads us directly to the second problem with Edelman’s polemic. For him, liberation from futurism consists in voiding “every notion of the general good”; refusing “any backdoor hope for dialectical access to meaning”; and relinquishing the cruel optimism that attaches to all political projects. It is here, then, that a further connection to ecological anti-natalism becomes clear.

    Neither position can think how things might be beyond the future as mere replication of the present. Both positions, in their different ways, have absorbed (and been absorbed by) the infamous neoliberal dictum: ‘There is no alternative.’ Symptoms of the revival of the “end of history” narrative, and lacking any political proposal beyond pitting a minoritarian vanguard against the mass of normie “breeders,” both philosophies thus offer only a nihilistic negativity: a negativity that ultimately mirrors the auto-destructiveness of capitalism itself.

     

    III.

    It might be said that only those who have a future in the first place have the luxury of flirting with the idea of rejecting it. Those reduced to nothing by the profit system are, in fact, highly unlikely to desire the liquidation of the future or indeed the wholesale extinction of the human species—although they may well be up for killing their boss and stealing his car. While queer negativity and ecological anti-natalism both highlight the emptiness of liberal optimism, they nevertheless leave us politically short-changed—locking us into a dull presentism in which the possibility of new collective forms of life remains eternally repressed.

    Returning specifically to ecological anti-natalism, what, we might ask, in a final cranking of the philosophical gears, actually grounds the desire for human auto-extinction? What ideas motivate the wish for this particular kind of radical sacrifice?

    The first thing to say here is that the ecological anti-natalist appears to be suffering from the specific Western pathology that is species shame, linked in this particular case to the hypothesized advent of a new geological epoch wherein the effects of “human civilization” are said to have completely altered the planet’s ecosystems. Thus understood, voluntary human extinction becomes a response to the arrival of the so-called anthropocene: a kind of necessary self-punishment for what is perceived to be exploitative, ecophobic humanity, the destructive anthropos that cannot stop overburdening the fragile planet with its own kind.

    But we might also give this reading something of a twist, tilting it back in the direction of the death drive. In his late lectures on metaphysics, Adorno puts forward a new critical theory of death. The crux of his thesis is that because life under capitalism cannot be lived rightly, so it cannot be ended rightly either. The old idea of death as the meaningful conclusion or culmination of a life fully lived is now obsolete. There has been a change “in the rock strata of experience,” Adorno observes; death “no longer accords with the life of any individual . . . there is no longer an epic or a biblical death; no longer is a person able to die weary, old and sated with life.” Human experience has now become so utterly impoverished that the “terror of death today is largely the terror of seeing how much the living resemble it.”

    Against this background, might we not say that ecological anti-natalism is not simply concerned with “saving nature,” but rather with pursuing a literal attempt to die differently, to die a meaningful death, to die a right death in a wrong world? If, as Adorno says, “the individual today no longer exists and death is thus the annihilation of nothing,” might not voluntary human extinction be seen as an attempt to overcome this nothing—to live and to die for some perceived higher purpose, something that is truly singularizing? The paradox here, of course, is that the anti-natalist turns out to be acting just as affirmatively as any other worldly human subject. The affirmation of human self-extinction is just as “heroic” as any form of tech-utopianism that claims that it, too, can solve all of nature’s problems.

    _____________________________________

    From On Extinction by Ben Ware. Used with permission of the publisher, Verso Books. Copyright © 2024 by Ben Ware.

    Avatar
    Ben Ware
    Ben Ware is Co-Director of the Centre for Philosophy and Art at King’s College London where he is also a Senior Research Fellow in Philosophy. He is the author of Dialectic of the Ladder: Wittgenstein, the ‘Tractatus’ and Modernism (Bloomsbury, 2015); Living Wrong Life Rightly: Modernism, Ethics, and the Political Imagination (Palgrave, 2017); and editor of Francis Bacon: Painting, Philosophy, Psychoanalysis (Thames & Hudson, 2019). His recent essays have appeared in e-flux journal, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and ESP magazine.





    More Story
    Moira Donegan on Cultivating Invulnerability The Critic and Her Publics is a live interview series that asks the best and most prominent critics working today to perform...
  • Become a Lit Hub Supporting Member: Because Books Matter

    For the past decade, Literary Hub has brought you the best of the book world for free—no paywall. But our future relies on you. In return for a donation, you’ll get an ad-free reading experience, exclusive editors’ picks, book giveaways, and our coveted Joan Didion Lit Hub tote bag. Most importantly, you’ll keep independent book coverage alive and thriving on the internet.

    x