Instructor: Tyler Harper
In the summer of 2017, Times Higher Education published the results of a survey in which fifty Nobel laureates were asked a simple question: “What is the biggest threat to humankind?” In response, over a third of the laureates reported “population rise/environmental degradation,” while nearly a quarter selected “nuclear war.” The remaining votes were split between “infectious disease,” “selfishness,” “ignorance,” “fundamentalism,” “Trump,” “AI,” “inequality,” “drugs” and “Facebook.” Of course (excepting perhaps “drugs” and “Facebook”) these answers were not surprising. Today, it is common knowledge that human beings live in a galaxy among galaxies, terrestrial parasites sucking the blood of a star destined to burn out. On the coasts, real estate investors factor sea-level rise into their decision making, while the Silicon Valley elite build compounds in New Zealand to weather the coming global crisis. In our movie theaters, images of the apocalypse suffuse our popular consciousness—nuclear war, environmental catastrophe, and life-annihilating plagues surge at the box office, depicting science fictive futures that are entertaining precisely because they are based in scientific fact. In short, our contemporary imagination is apocalyptic—the possibility of human extinction is accepted as a mundane part of the dominant cultural fabric. The goal of this course will be to do the difficult work of confronting and thinking critically about this new state of affairs. Proceeding thematically, we will examine sources of and responses to the threat of human extinction, particularly as encoded and explored in modern film, literature, philosophy and music. Topics to be examined include the death of the sun, nuclear holocaust, doomsday cults, superbugs, global warming, environmental catastrophe, and the threats posed by artificial intelligence and bioengineering. At all times, efforts will be made to contextualize these threats/phenomena historically as well as philosophically. Particular attention will be paid to how the “meaning” of human extinction is figured in these works, and the way in which the function of genre (especially the “science fiction” genre) both frames and subverts this question. Readings/assignments will span literary science fiction and graphic novels (Edgar Allan Poe, H.G. Wells, C.S. Lewis, Octavia Butler, Alan Moore, Jeff VanderMeer), film/ television (Dr. Strangelove, The Road, Children of Men, Avatar, True Detective, The Walking Dead), philosophy (Friedrich Nietzsche, Hannah Arendt, Karl Jaspers, Francois Lyotard, Lee Edelman) and even rock, hip-hop and heavy metal (Pink Floyd, David Bowie, Busta Rhymes, Black Sabbath, Cattle Decapitation).