The Last Sex on Earth: Teaching Mary Wollstonecraft and Lucy Corin in the Anthropocene

Chris Washington (Francis Marion University)

RC Editors Note: In its original form this essay was randomized. Unfortunately, this technical capability did not survive our recent migration.

But what on, or beyond, earth does this have to do with the Anthropocene and teaching Romanticism in the Anthropocene?

My thanks to the Francis Marion University Honors Program and its director, Dr. Jon Tuttle, for green-lighting this class. I also wish to think the 12 students who made the course a joy to teach with their vibrant, boundless curiosity and intelligence. This essay, in so many ways, would not exist without them.

As we have seen, postapocalyptic Romanticism makes claims on us about human reproduction and species extinction, the former often the forbearer of the latter, oddly, since repeopling leads to warfare that extinguishes humanity in Byron’s poem and other texts in this genre. Wollstonecraft, meanwhile, wants us to erase gender inequality in order to achieve social equality but to do so in ways that proliferate ever-novel iterations of sexual and moral love, both harbingers and enablers of more humans. In the end, we postulated that perhaps the only way for such perpetuation to occur is by thinking crosswise about extinction: human extinction necessarily precedes human reproduction. Only once we accept that we have no future might there be a future, one worth fighting for rather than against, one worth us all being post-Apocalyptasauri about. Perhaps the present must be a barren blooming of the future if the future keeps demanding more time to have less sex, less pleasure, and instead more pleasureless reproduction. Perhaps Wall-E and EVE (the name not for nothing a call-back to the biblical paradise’s Eve) are right in needing sexual and moral love to “raise” a plant not of their own robotic nonreproducing loins, exampling a jointure whose sexual tumescence is undescribable, a weird type of reproduction that is not human but a model for post-Apocalyptasauri reproduction. Perhaps the Apocalyptasauri-that-is-us—our unbending belief in a future paradise-to-come and like-minded climate-changing determination to prevent that future—means that we should start fucking so that we may enjoy our sex before it is the last because it will occur before whatever unannounced beginning, unheralded repeopling, may come, which is too late to enjoy since by then “us” is erased (if we are not already under erasure). Perhaps within that aporia exists the future inexistence of the existence of the future human “species,” the post-Apocalyptasauri? These are odd, strange thoughts, perhaps, but they are the thoughts we thought in this thought experiment of a class.

We generated only speculative answers to these questions in writing and discussion. For one, we could sketch out a different reproductive futurity from the patrilineal manscapes of The Road and Mad Max, as well as a jouissance, perhaps, that defies Rousseau’s notion of a last sex on earth in favor of Wollstonecraft’s celebratory sexual energy. We thought that, maybe, the Apocalyptasaurus’s “last sex on earth” introduced the possibility of new types of sex post-sex and with it re-people, “people” who are people but not people as we currently conceptualize people, but rather something radically different that we cannot yet know. It is a vision of futurity that perhaps extends in ecological directions wherein humans and the world become more entangled (perhaps in Karen Barad’s sense of “quantum entanglement,” wherein the subject and object mutually create the other as well as new spacetimes through intra-action) than we currently understand, leading us into the maze of a territory for which we do not as yet have a map. It is as if we have hyper-jumped into a future and find our bearings completely unbalanced. Such a scenario traverses both Edelman’s “no future” and Sheldon’s “child-to-come” since both are predicated on current notions of reproduction that are steadfastly human, although Sheldon does want to think beyond such categories. Perhaps the future will not be a future in human terms? Or perhaps Corin’s work affords us space for thinking beyond white heteronormative patriarchy, beyond the social contract(s) as we know it/them.

Although such reading was beyond the scope of this course, both Edelman and Sheldon touch on aspects of our analysis of Corin’s flash fiction and help delineate the final conclusions, such as they are, of the course. On our last day of reading, we considered the last flash fiction piece in her book, “What is was like was,” to think about the Apocalyptasaurus fucking in the field. ‘Stars fell in unison, and in a mossy grove on the hill, the Apocalyptasaurus was having the last sex on earth. I headed to the mobile unit. I hadn’t brought any animals because that’s how shortsighted I am. Something will provide, I seemed to be thinking, but who knows anymore, I haven’t had to think in so long I don’t know when I’m doing it or not. I drifted away. Unpeopling, repeopling, all in the past with the automatic sprinklers, and soon the cries of leftover apocalypses were all that remained. Some of the things we knew were true. I’d only wanted to keep the bells ringing. (182–83)’Throughout the course we established a distinction between apocalypse and postapocalypse. Apocalypse derives from the Greek apocalypsis and means “revelation,” as in a revelation of a renewed paradise on earth. In works like the ones in this course, this definition clearly does not apply. Postapocalypse means what comes after any renewed paradise is possible, when one lives with what remains of the human species in the ruins of societal structures. Corin’s fiction, in general, confounded us, but we excavated from this piece by-now familiar course themes. Stars falling imply disaster since “disaster” stems from the Latin dis-aster, or, as dis- means “apart,” the sense becomes a star apart from the sky, literally a falling, or in some cases, a dis-eased star. At once we are in postapocalyptic time even as the Apocalyptasaurus, seemingly a representative of paradise, engages in “the last sex on earth.” What could this possibly mean, we asked? Is it heralding a new form of sex, post-Apocalyptasaurus sex? What would that mean? And what does “unpeopling, repeopling” mean? Is the Apocalyptasaurus’s sex unpeopling the earth, removing all traces of humanity and, thereby, somehow, repeopling it with new people? Why does the speaker wish she has “brought . . . animals?” To carnivorously continue the human species? Or are animals necessary somehow for whatever the Apocalyptasaurus’s sexual ritual performs and produces? Is the Apocalyptasaurus a metaphor for capitalism and, like capitalism, needs to put animals to death for food? In the biblical paradise of the Garden of Eden, humans did not eat animals, so is this an indication of paradise’s contortion into nightmarish postapocalypse? If “leftover apocalypses were all that remained,” is that an indication that only remnants of paradise survive? Does “leftovers” fulfill this capitalist eating metaphor? If so, is that postapocalypse? Is that connected to the repeopling, the “re-people” being those leftovers? That the bells no longer seem to be ringing appears to be a metaphor for erstwhile society, but why a campanological metaphor that seems specifically to reference churches? What “things” and why were “some” (and why only some?) of them “true”?

The second text is Rebekah Sheldon’s The Child to Come (2016), which stakes out different ground in relation to the figure of the child and reproductive futurity: ‘The child binds the realization of nonhuman vitality back into the charmed circle of the human, encircling the future in the promise of generationality. For it is not just the case that the child retro-reproductively forecloses the future but also the figuration of the child as the self-similar issue of the present, the safe space of human prosperity and a return to a manageable nature, forecloses the mutational in the reproductive. And yet this grafting of the culture of life over the culturing of life generates a queer child-figure whose humanity is always suspiciously intimate with other-than-human forms-of-life. (6)’On Sheldon’s reading of the figure of the child—which for her is not tied to the symbolic order necessarily, as Edelman thinks, but to a historical post-1960s world that sees this figure as its future in the atomic age—it is, nonetheless, like the critical views Edelman’s polemic rails against, linked to reproductive futurity and the survival of the species. More children must be produced for the species to continue. Yet Sheldon also finds in the figure a double bind: on one hand, “the reproductive” that bars any mutational genealogical deviation from species homogeneity and, on the other, a grafting of the child onto life in so unnatural a way that it ensures such mutation and enwraps the figure with nonhuman possibility. Like the plant raised by those nonhumans, Wall-E and EVE, Sheldon theorizes a queer child-figure whose nonhuman entanglement evades the no-futurism of Edelman’s queer non-child-figure at the heart of the death drive of the species. Contra Edelman, Sheldon allows for a future, but one that avoids the manacles of heteronormative cultures of life Edelman fears and that instead prevents heterogeneity in whatever-is-to-come.

Corin’s One Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses proved at once to be the most illuminating and infuriating text (or set of texts) for interpretation. In my courses, I place emphasis on our own thoughts and interpretations that emerge from collective class discussion, making close reading and what follows from it the prime directive steering the ship. To this end, I rarely introduce outside secondary theories, and did not in this course, but it would pay, perhaps, to briefly mention two that relate to the class’s thinking. The first is Lee Edleman’s No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (2004). He writes, regarding the notion that the figure of the child underwrites any plausible notion of futurity: ‘For the social order exists for this universalized subject, this fantasmatic Child, a notional freedom more highly valued than the actuality of freedom itself, which might, after all, put at risk the Child to whom such a freedom falls due. Hence, whatever refuses this mandate by which our political institutions compel the collective reproduction of the Child must appear as a threat not only to the organization of a given social order but also, and far more ominously, to social order as such, insofar as it threatens the logic of futurism on which meaning always depends. (11)’For Edelman, queerness threatens the social order because the social order orders itself on what Edelman calls “reproductive futurism,” the need to replicate ourselves and our present through our children in the imagined future that recursively structures our present. Spawning generationally equals not only our genetic perpetuity but humanistic species vitality in general. Edelman argues, though, that “no future” is preferable to this type of future since this future requires a heteropatriarchal normativity that shuts down any queerness. In that sense, Edelman’s no future constitutes a to-be-hoped-for future-to-come in its negatively worked inclusivity. To put Edelman’s work in the context of the Anthropocene: we think our future will somehow be apocalyptic, a miraculous return to the past in a paradisiacal future, wherein even if we do not survive, our offspring will. As Edelman writes, we always seek to protect against that very future’s arrival with an endless replication of the present in the form of more children who are our replicants. However, to press Edelman’s thinking further into the postapocalyptic Anthropocene mud, since climate change projects against just such a future that features generations of children, we enter Edelman’s notion of queer no-futurity by force, as it were. For everybody. “No future,” in this postapocalyptic scenario, queers its own queerness and refuses the idea that we should not continue to reproduce. Instead, perversely, for there to be “no future” in the Anthropocene, we must reproduce precisely to preserve the human species in the present, to stave off a future with no people. If reproducing the present occurs through this endless replication of it in hetero-children, then it can also occur through an endless replication of queer, trans, or nonbinary children since what is really being produced are not children but time, the present. Queerness, on my reading of Edelman, then, is a paradoxically positively negative force in that it prevents such reproduction and thereby undoes heteronormative meaning-making, the social structures that cage queerness within these same limiting, confining frameworks of meaning, even as it also allows for new possibilities of nonheteronormative reproduction in the context of the Anthropocene’s strange temporality.

Roughly around this time we came to the end of our (re)reading of Rousseau and Wollstonecraft and made the hyperdrive jump to McCarthy’s The Road.

The more recent Mad Max: Fury Road, celebrated for its feminist take on the road movie, evinces a Christological fixation at odds with the version of human mortality The Road manifests. Mad Max is initially depicted as crucified, his arms splayed out, lashed upright to the front of a vehicle. Later, this metaphor is made explicit as he, Christlike, gives his blood to save the too-weak Imperator Furiosa, the purported heroine of the film that lends it a feminist voice. As many students pointed out in their essays, Immorten Joe, the “bad guy” leader of the society we see in the film, is purposefully associated with a god figure. Again and again, in discussion and essays, we recurred to Joe’s promise to Nux, one of his “war boys”: “I myself will carry you to the gates of Valhalla. You shall ride eternal, shiny and chrome.” Religious discourse, students argued, ultimately held out only illusory hope for a future, just as Joe’s promise turns out to be bunk, a claim meant to con his followers into doing his bidding. In our close reading of the last paragraph of The Road we had discovered something similar in postapocalyptic fiction: the future is constantly theorized in relation not to the hope of a future—since there is no future on earth for humans in a religious, or any, sense—but to procreation, the biopolitical production of new bodies. The unvoiced theme of postapocalyptic literature, then, according to this reading, is sex, literally the sexual act understood as a procreative act that leads to children. In The Road, the boy finds a family with other children to carry on once his father passes, whereas others in the novel seek to cannibalize children. Immorten Joe, on the other hand, keeps a stable of women as his consorts, not for reasons of love, but because he uses them as birthing vessels for him to breed new war boys. War, again, which was for a moment no more, is given birth again to glut—the war boys take marauders like Max and use them as blood donors to help themselves survive although they do not have what Captain McCrea of the Axiom would call “life.” Indeed, they have only a “half-life,” as it is termed in the film.

These final lines provided much room for discussion and despair. In a classroom close reading exercise, students spent ten minutes writing on these sentences. Subsequent discussion resulted in, initially, an either-or situation: either the natural world, “older than man,” preexists humanity and will perhaps continue postperishing of the species; or, for other students, humans’ capacity for wholesale destruction will tow the world in its wake to inexistence. But neither solution solves the problem of what the “mystery” is. Is it simply that the world is completely alien from humans and hence a thing of mystery that we cannot understand? Or is the mystery that humans will get no answers since the world is indifferent to their plight? Is this why the trout are inscribed with “maps and mazes,” at once signifying being able to find the right path and to find oneself, for however long, maybe five minutes or forever, lost without a map to the maze’s just-around-the corner exit? One requires a road to somewhere, the other a road to nowhere. Eventually, our reading decided, the humanless glens hum with mystery because no answers are possible; we cannot know prehumen existence fully, nor can we glimpse the future, even if that future includes humans. We are lost even though we think we are moving forward along a temporal axis mapped out for us—and this is one more reason to experiment with hyper-jump pedagogy. Our belief in a future may be not only impossible but also irrelevant: we are mapless in time’s nonhuman maze. At the same time, since this “thing . . . cannot be made right again,” we wondered whether the novel finally argues that these glens older than man have been irrevocably destroyed by humans. Perhaps, according to the novel, humans should cease to exist, some students suggested. Perhaps the man’s wife, an apparently cold-hearted, faithless villainess, who leaves him and their son in order to enter the darkness and die, had the right suicidal idea about human reproduction and extinction in that the former should cease and the latter increase? (This suggestion, we would later see, was incorrect because it is just another form of the novel’s misogyny.)

Over several weeks our close readings of fictional texts provided us an overview of how postapocalyptic literature configures sex and gender. In these narratives, women are reduced to little more than historically heteronormative pieces on patriarchy’s chessboard (patriarchy being the player whose king always checkmates). Sex disappears in these texts but reproduction, however weird in form, remains. The nihilism of Byron’s “Darkness,” for instance, recurs to Plato’s khora, the womb or breadbasket of the world preceding the world itself, personified in his poem as a “darkness” at the end of the world: “Darkness . . . she was the universe” (81–82). As dark womb, mother to a dead race and world, khoratic darkness becomes cyclical abortive genesis, birthing nothing since its offspring has expired. It is perhaps a kind of barren nonflowering, like those Wollstonecraft says characterized women: “one cause of this barren blooming I attribute to a false system of education, gathered from the books written on this subject by men who, considering females rather as women than human creatures” (10). Perhaps the most famous postapocalyptic contemporary work, besides the necrophiliac navel-gazing of The Walking Dead, is McCarthy’s dreary neoliberalism-championing mansplainer that takes as its raison d’etre the continuance of the patrilineal in the form of a father and son who, when they find the world’s last lonely can of Coca-Cola, remind us, like that other mainstream mansplainer, Mad Men, that such lineages always want to “buy the world a Coke.” Patrilinealism is a hungry, hungry hippo for capitalism, and thus goes hand-in-hand, as we’ve seen, with the state. In the novel, before the man’s wife leaves him to take death for a lover, comparing herself, to make sure we get the misogynistic point in neon red-district lights, to a “faithless slut” whose faithlessness breaks the social contract, they reenact the Rousseau-Wollstonecraft encounter (as we will see below): “there was no argument. The hundred nights they’d sat up debating the pros and cons of self destruction with the earnestness of philosophers chained to a madhouse wall” (59). They are not “survivors,” she declares, but “the walking dead in a horror film,” a similar distinction Wall-E makes (59). Meanwhile, the misogynistic portrayal of the mother figure who appears at novel’s end, “adopting” the orphaned boy, depicts her as the bad kind of looney tune, not at all like Bugs Bunny: a religious zealot who worships at the feet of a hope the final lines of the novel melancholically dispel even as its heteronormativity equates the human species with its masculine noun: “Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery” (286–87).

One theoretical underpinning of the course was that postapocalyptic literature, though ostensibly about the end of humanity, carries us back to the future, to the fundamental debate of Enlightenment politics that reappears in allegorical form in postapocalyptic literature. In postapocalyptic worlds, the disappearance of governmental and social institutions forces humans into a familiar (strangely, it is because these options are what disappeared) choice: libertarian anarchism—everyone in it for themselves—versus a new form of social-contract democratization for living together in a world where humans appear intent on killing each other off. This distinction is, at base, the difference between the thought of Thomas Hobbes and Rousseau. Both writers had their own theories about how to create self-governing societies that could avert the “war of all against all” we see depicted in our return to “the state of nature”—that imagined theoretical space of the Enlightenment—in postapocalyptic literature (Hobbes 76). This theoretical space structured Enlightenment debates over the proper role of government in citizens’ lives, leading to, through legal codification, covenants structuring the state’s politics. State-of-nature debates anticipate postapocalyptic literature, then, a genre that originated in 1816’s “the year without a summer” when Romantic-period authors began writing “last man” and “end-of-the-world” poems and novels. In poems such as Byron’s “Darkness” —which we read, annotated, and discussed on the first day of class as a kind of hors d'oeuvre, just as humanity is for “War” in the poem—humans must start over in forming governmental structures, building societies, or, as is so often the case in postapocalyptic literature, engaging in species-wide warfare that hastens their ultimate demise. “War,” the speaker of the poem tells us, “which for a moment was no more / did glut himself again” (38–39). Hobbes’ prediction—that war will proliferate without a social contract headed by a strong monarch who can restrain people—turns out, for Byron’s field-defining vision of postapocalyptic worlds, to best Rousseau’s claim that people in this savage state of nature will live contentedly alone or make common cause to survive (and here we can hear echoes of the Wall-E choice between stupefied survival or satisfied living as well).

Wollstonecraft of course also disagrees with Rousseau that women are dominant in society and argues consistently against this idea in her book, and our class found her deconstruction of Rousseau’s pathology to be a forceful corrective to Enlightenment debates about sex and gender. In short, by claiming sexual love gets banished in society in favor of moral love, Rousseau banished it from his own thinking, according to Wollstonecraft, thereby neutering his vision of society of any but reproductive purposes (as a psychobiographical note, Rousseau supposedly had five children and sent them to orphanages). Jouissance, then, finds no place in Rousseau’s society. Wollstonecraft, on the other hand, does not see sex solely as a matter of reproduction—it is a means of jouissance, of pleasure, of coming to the other. While many critics debate the status of sex in Wollstonecraft’s work, she actually unleashes sexual energy into Enlightenment and Romantic discourse as a positive force, one that is natural whereas sex-as-species-reproduction alone is, for her, as we saw in her reading of Rousseau, unnatural. Neither the prude some find nor the slut others fashion, Wollstonecraft in her feminism avows both sexual liberation and true love as progressive politics between individuals.

As scholars of the Enlightenment and Romanticism will recognize, many of these questions require historical and theoretical contexts to flesh out the terminology, concepts, and ideas. As the nature of the course was more broadly interdisciplinary and contemporary than would permit a full exploration of, say, “sensibility,” we made do with concise, though hopefully lucid, explanations. We glossed sensibility as an emotive attribute ascribed to women at the time, aligning them with emotional ontological states in contrast to men’s ostensibly more rational ontology. Some of this we returned to in earlier chapters of Wollstonecraft’s book to see, now, the impact of comments that had proved recalcitrant to our understanding the first time through.

These two passages, for instance: “it is asserted, in direct terms, that the minds of women are enfeebled by false refinement . . . and that . . . they are treated as a kind of subordinate beings, and not as a part of the human species, when improveable reason is allowed to be the dignified distinction which raises men above the brute creation” (Wollstonecraft 10); “Dismissing then those pretty feminine phrases, which the men condescendingly use to soften our slavish dependence, and despising that weak elegancy of mind, exquisite sensibility, and sweet docility of manners, supposed to be the s…

Doing so helped us realize how Wollstonecraft turns the tables on Rousseau, accusing him of being the one overwhelmed and controlled by emotion to the extent that it distorts his reason. Therefore, we realized, Wollstonecraft is proposing a solution to Rousseau’s delusive impassioned nature: he needs either to masturbate and alleviate his unstoppable desire for real sex, or to have real sex and put the brakes on his full-throttle masturbation. Given that Wollstonecraft proscribes masturbation subsequently in her text, it would seem odd, then, to prescribe it here; this must mean that she urges the latter. With the phrase, “had he given way to these desires,” she advocates that he enter the world and expend his lasciviousness in carnal pleasure with other humans. Here, a student pointed out the word “natural” as the opposite of Rousseau’s claim that “moral love” is “unnatural.” In fact, what we discovered is that Wollstonecraft reverses Rousseau’s argument entirely: in society, sexual love is necessary to preserve the imagination lest one give in to self-denial (again, we can see Rousseau’s sexual anxiety play out in the castration fantasy of Julie’s rewriting of the story of Abelard and Heloise), which debauches the purity of the imagination. Sex, for Wollstonecraft, despite her proclamations elsewhere in this Vindication, is natural and necessary. Nor, as for Rousseau, is sex merely reproductive in nature but rather vital to mental preservation. Men are ruled by their passions so strongly that it leads them into the error of becoming passionless, of fantasizing about sex rather than engaging in it, thereby distorting their reason. Men are not, as Rousseau thinks, enchained by women’s love but rather by their own mental enslavement to their own unfulfilled desires. To put it differently, as I have written elsewhere, if for Rousseau the state of nature requires a social contract and the social contract requires the state of nature—a seeming impossibility given his demarcation of the two spaces, yet one that his work nonetheless forwards—then, on Wollstonecraft’s reading of Rousseau, the state of nature in the social contract requires sex, and the social contract in the state of nature needs moral love (Washington).

Derrida famously reads masturbation in Rousseau as but another figure for supplementarity (or what Derrida otherwise calls “the trace” or différance) in Rousseau’s deconstruction of speech and writing, and students likewise zeroed in on a passage in Wollstonecraft on sexual gratification and the denial of one’s passions that we developed into a critique of Rousseau (Derrida, Grammatology 165–71). As Derrida notes, in The Confessions Rousseau has, in society, abjured sex for masturbation because the supplement of non-sex fills the lack of a sexual situation with his beloved adopted maman that was, unconsummated, itself sex as non-sex. Masturbation supplements the lack of real sex that, precisely because it needs to be supplemented, is not “real” enough in its realness, or even real at all, and not more real than the fantasy with which it must supplement itself. Masturbation, the lack of real sex, is therefore realer sex for Rousseau than real sex. Wollstonecraft’s critique/rebuke appears in chapter V on male authors who have made women objects of pity: ‘But all Rousseau’s errors in reasoning arose from sensibility, and sensibility to their charms women are very ready to forgive! When he should have reasoned he became impassioned, and reflection inflamed his imagination instead of enlightening his understanding. Even his virtues also led him farther astray; for, born with a warm constitution and lively fancy, nature carried him toward the other sex with such eager fondness, that he soon became lascivious. Had he given way to these desires, the fire would have extinguished itself in a natural manner; but virtue, and a romantic kind of delicacy, made him practise self-denial; yet, when fear, delicacy, or virtue, restrained him, he debauched his imagination, and reflecting on the sensations to which fancy gave force, he traced them in the most glowing colours, and sunk them deep into his soul. (95)’In order to explicate Wollstonecraft’s somewhat densely stated estimation of Rousseau, we asked some word-level questions. What does “sensibility” mean in this context and why would it be something that leads one into “errors”? How does “impassioned” work in opposition to “reasoned”? Or how does “imagination” work against “understanding”? How can virtue, which should provide a moral compass for a life of noble rectitude, lead one “farther astray”? Wollstonecraft seems to be implying that Rousseau “should have given way to these desires” of his for the other sex. But why? Usually we link debauchery to a physical act in accord with “lascivious,” so why does Wollstonecraft claim it was his imagination, as if his imagination itself were some eighteenth-century libertine, that did all this debauching? What, moreover, does “self-denial” mean in this context? Is she recommending that he should masturbate—perform “auto-affection” rather than “self-denial”—to relieve his lasciviousness rather than have sex? Or have sex rather than fantasize about it?

Both of these comments, the students noted, deplore the role of women in the state of nature and in society. In the second instance, they pointed out, Rousseau, perhaps unintentionally, lapses into a weird paradox, since he positions women as kings ruling over society. In the first passage, students noted that women are explicitly associated with objects for men in the state of nature: ‘The savage, lacking any sort of enlightenment, experiences passions only of the latter kind; his desires do not go beyond his physical needs; the only goods in the world he knows are food, a female, and repose, and the only evils he fears are pain and hunger. I say pain and not death, for an animal will never know what it is to die, and a knowledge of death and its terrors is one of man’s first acquisitions upon leaving the animal condition. (34–35)’ Rousseau’s idea that females are goods to be possessed led the class to question whether or not Rousseau’s other ideas were made in good faith and could be taken at face value (indeed, one question we would inconclusively pose later in the semester, borrowing the parlance of The Road: is Rousseau a “bad guy”?). The second passage on gender in the Discourse that students repeatedly returned to appears less bold-facedly retrograde in its gender assumptions but more complicated for the genuine aporia it opens in Rousseau’s state-of-nature politics. Rousseau distinguishes two types of love, the sexual and the emotional, which he calls “the moral side of love”: ‘The physical is the universal desire that leads one sex to unite with the other; the moral is what shapes desire and focuses it on a single object, or at least makes the desire for the chosen object more forceful. It is easily seen that the moral side of love is an unnatural sentiment, born of social custom and honoured by women with much care and skill in order to establish their power over men and so make dominant the sex that ought to obey. (49)’If, for Rousseau, the creation of society leads to inequality, then it appears that this inequality manifests, not by means of the enclosure of land and subsequent capitalistic divisions this introduces (“the true founder of civil society was the first man who, having enclosed a piece of land, thought of saying, ‘this is mine,’ and came across people simple enough to believe him” [55]), but through power machinations performed by gender involutions. It seems, students suggested, that for Rousseau inequality in society occurs via a script-flip: women, submissives who obey in the state of nature, become dominatrices using “moral love” to entrain men to obey them in society. Sexual love, for Rousseau, is natural to humans, whereas deeper attachment and sentiment is a perversion of the true state of things (perhaps this is the real key to Rousseau’s Julie, or the New Heloise [1761] in that the lovers are prevented from being together and, according to Rousseau’s views here, as well they should be). Following Rousseau’s logic, physical or sexual love in the state of nature is acceptable because it produces no attachment between the solitary individuals living in that state—sex is just an urge to be sated—whereas in society women form attachments to men not through physical seduction but by enticing them to feel, to have real feelings, moral love, for women. The great enemy of the human condition for Rousseau, then, is love but not sex, which flourished in the state of nature, but ceases in society when confronted and shackled by love. This, we said, puts a new spin on his famous opening line that “man was born free, and everywhere he is in chains” because women have men in chains by their love (Social 45)! The last sex on earth, for Rousseau, it turns out, occurred in the state of nature and human contact in society is therefore no more than mere facility to reproduction of the species. Moral love erases sexual pleasure in society.

Although I lack the space to cover every aspect of our discussions on Rousseau and Wollstonecraft, I want to highlight some of the passages that students fixed on since these passages, in our recyclical journey through them, bespeak the dilemma we had begun to sketch: should humans accede to extinction or somehow find a way to reproduce, to live in ways that are more than mere survival? Beyond reading these thinkers and discussing the thought experiment of the state of nature, we had not set an agenda when we initially read these two difficult texts. Very slowly, as our understanding of the two authors increased, we circled in on key moments in the texts that seemed to encapsulate not only larger points about the ideas the authors were developing but also, more crucially for us, evasions of certain other ideas. Regarding these evasions, students, for instance, both in our class discussions and in their short essays (our first paper was an exploratory one on Rousseau), found Rousseau to be an intriguing thinker but one who had little to say about gender (we could of course have looked at Emile [1762], which would have bolded his gender concerns, but since that work is not explicitly focused on the state of nature, we refrained). Part of this stemmed from the difficulty in coming to grips with what he meant by a state of nature. We eventually crystallized this, for discussion, as a time and place prior to human society in which humans lived individually alone and were perfectly content in that solitude. Having established a working definition of Rousseau’s concept, backtracking through the text helped us identify a few misogynist comments in Rousseau’s discursus that threatened to upend his larger argument about the state of nature’s placidity.

Although we did not know it to begin with, The Road and Mad Max set the agenda for the class in terms of sex and gender: both texts concern themselves primarily with reproduction—the boy in The Road and the war boys in Mad Max—but both also evince no joy or pleasure in the act of reproduction. To put it in Wall-E’s terms, the human species survives but does not live, auguring different futures of automation, bodies deprived of all but the basic needs: oxygen, water, food, shelter, and the trudge toward them in a depressing world with dwindling resources. In both texts, the characters have returned to a state of nature. Is this the paradise Rousseau imagined with his state of nature thought experiment?

When Paul de Man had his infamous deconstructive agon with Jacques Derrida, the crossroads of their rapprochement ran through the work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and dissension over exactly whose blind spot was blinder when it came to Rousseau (de Man; Derrida, “Typewriter” ). This agon serves as yet another reminder of the way logocentricism blinds even the best of critics to Rousseau’s prime interrogator of the Enlightenment: Mary Wollstonecraft. Wollstonecraft, whose critique of the patriarchal and capitalistic assumptions informing the work of both Edmund Burke and Rousseau gifted us radical critical tools for thinking about, and theorizing, sex and gender in democratic societies, also recalls us to the blind spot of postapocalyptic literature, namely . . . sex and gender.

Wollstonecraft’s daughter, Mary Shelley, wrote The Last Man (1826), indebted, as she said, to Byron’s “Darkness.” This novel does deal with sex and gender, as several critics have argued.

Our class, after a close-reading warm-up walk-through of Byron’s Darkness (1816), began reading and contrasting Rousseau’s A Discourse on Inequality (1755) with Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) before making a 200-year leap forward to McCarthy’s The Road (2006) and the film Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). We finished the course by reading Corin and conducting the above-mentioned group presentations (this essay began, then, where the class ended). If Wollstonecraft, in alerting us to the importance of sex and gender for establishing equality in societies, disrupts the genderless democratic debates of the Enlightenment, and given that the same debates recur in postapocalyptic fiction, then the past, at least from the perspective of the Enlightenment, is the future in that it still remains our present. But how do we get there, wherever there is?

What time is it then? And what time is it for the future of humanity, for our species reproduction, or, as Edelman calls it, our “reproductive futurity”? As Rebekah Sheldon remarks, “genealogical succession, the ‘so on’ of reproduction, derives its meaning-making force from conceiving of time as unfolding in a straight line running out to meet the horizon. Space travel is already a perversion of this conception of time” (67). Hyper-jump pedagogy reckons with this space travel temporal perversion—which we can see develop in our reading of Wall-E—by continuing to pervert how we conceive of reproduction in terms of chronos or telos, a straight line or a purpose-driven end. In short, what this class taught me is that to rethink survival, to rethink reproduction like those in Wall-E, the faceless, indiscernible children and the listless, indiscernible adults, surviving enough to survive but not to live, we have to rethink pedagogies that experiment with different futures; but since reproductivity is itself temporally based, we also have to think about what reproduction and sex might mean in these different temporalities and what nonnormative, radical temporalities mean for sex and reproduction.

And this is where what I want to call “hyper-jump pedagogy” can help us rethink teaching the Anthropocene in relation to Romanticism. Hyper-jump pedagogy reflects the scrambled futural temporality the Anthropocene places us in. We discussed this temporality in Derridean terms in class, although we did not frame it via his philosophy of time but through a discussion of Lucy Corin’s flash fiction, One Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses (2013). Corin’s work exemplifies an atemporal logic wherein the short pieces of fiction seem to arise in random order, as if a shuffling of cards, with no setting, location, or time announced. This atemporal dislocation rendered it impossible for us to discern fixed spacetime points for any one piece. In these fictions, the past could well take place before the present and the future before the past—but not in a flashback or flash-forward narrative chronological strategy; rather, each short fiction seemed radically unbound from the other, as if set in its own spacetime, some time always temporally to-come from the piece that preceded or anteceded it. Through this achronology we can better understand how the Derridean “to-come” signals more than a simple futurity; it marks how the future is always hyper-jumping away from us even as the future constantly arrives in each moment that becomes the present, which, in turn, becomes the past, which is, it follows, perpetually becoming the present which becomes the future. And yet, the future is always disappearing, which means that the future is also always still out there. Far ahead of us, if it exists, the future exists in the future (to put it paradoxically but accurately), always a hyper-jump away, a space-ial movement that traverses the erasure of time by leaping over the present-become-the-future to the future. Hyper-jump pedagogy takes this temporal challenge seriously by attempting to elide the limitations of typical class structures and chronological historicism—the time(s) that no longer inhere(s) in the logic of the Anthropocene—hyper-jumping from epoch to epoch, genre to genre, text to text without necessary linkages. In the Anthropocene, according to some predictions, humankind can no longer survive or live, and so our notion of time as a measurement of human lifespans linked to a future is (always) already under erasure. Hyper-jump pedagogy seeks to be a pedagogy for the Anthropocene, to discover linkages that do not yet exist, to go from the past and present into a future unknown, what might even be, in both the grammatical and temporal sense, a future imperfect or a present past participle.

By design we had no predetermined answers in this class because I purposefully wanted the course to operate as a semester-long thought experiment that explored, in the most wide-ranging sense of that term, the issues of sex and gender in the Anthropocene through a Romantic frame. We tend to think of the Anthropocene as a version of environmental or ecological crisis that results from climate change, worldwide deep-down damage that might kill the planet and the human species along with every other life form. But the focus on species and futurity tends to belie the gender and sexual politics that the former entails when interlocked with the latter: for the species to have a future, we must reproduce, must have sex. But, as Rosi Braidotti puts it when noting that we need to “rethink sexuality without genders,” “sexuality may be caught in the sex-gender binary but is not reducible to it” (36). Teaching the Anthropocene in the Romantic period, in this respect, is also a consideration of why and how we have sex and what sexuality is.

The above reading, at any rate, is an expanded version of the collective extemporaneous explication of the film we worked out in the honors course I taught, “Gender and Postapocalyptic Literature,” in the spring of 2017 at Francis Marion University. Students screened clips from the film during a group presentation in the final weeks of the class. During these group presentations, students chose to present on whatever text they wanted—whether that was film clips, short stories, novel snippets, poems, or television shows—as long as it spoke to the overall class theme of gender and postapocalypse. Our Wall-E reading stages a recurrent topic throughout the semester: should humans continue with the reproduction of their species if they are nothing more than destructive annihilators? Should, to borrow the title of Lee Edelman’s book, humans have “no future?” Or, perhaps, as we asked, humans simply do not have a future regardless of the fact that one way we conceptualize life is in relation to the idea of a future, that life will continue, individually and collectively, in a time-to-come? What if, though, there is no future? What if, having disrupted the parameters for life on earth, like the humans in Wall-E, the future, unbeknownst to us, has already been erased, time travel–like, by the past and our present? What if there is no future because we will be dead given that climate change makes the planet unlivable for humans? What if we have already, to borrow from Spaceballs (1987), “gone to plaid” in a hyperdrive jump that outdistances the possibility of our own future, of our own existence?

This capitalist critique also speaks to climate change in our present because it questions the fundamental assumption of the Anthropocene: humans may not be necessary for the earth’s survival but the earth is necessary for humans to have a life that is more than meaningless consumption. According to the film, if humans do continue unheedingly devouring everything in their path, they will become mere automatons controlled by capitalism’s invisible hands (indeed, the onboard computer system is named “AUTO,” a harbinger of what humans are becoming), just like we see on the Axiom where they are whisked away to different appointments with no real investment or volition manifest. They can’t get no satisfaction unless from stupefaction. Amidst humans’ stupefaction, the film deals a crushing blow to our anthropocentric perspective that humans are the center of the world, and, indeed, the universe. Wall-E, we see, has discovered a lone plant growing on the literal dumpster dive that is the earth (the film’s original working title was Trash Planet), and when he shows it to EVE, a search droid sent back to Earth to record its current vital status, her operational protocols kick in and she delivers the plant to the Axiom. This leads to a tense scene where the ship’s captain, McCrea, inspired by this fresh sprig of plant life, declares to the ship’s resisting onboard computer system, AUTO, that he wishes to return to Earth, to home. AUTO assures him that it is far better to remain in space where the humans can all survive since they continue to reproduce in a mechanical fashion, maintaining their species even though, stupefied, they derive no pleasure from the sexual act: AUTOmated sex. To AUTO’s assurance, McCrea loudly retorts, “I don’t want to survive, I want to LIVE!” This declaration captures the film’s overall thesis, which offers a genuine theorization of what life is and what living means, a theory that claims that humans need more than AUTOmated replication, they need jouissance, pleasure in sex, if they are more than to survive, as they are doing on the Axiom, if they are to live. As Wall-E and EVE, “parents” of the plant, demonstrate, though, the offspring of such sex might be more than simply an extension of the human species. Wall-E and EVE save the plant, raise it in a sense, while carrying out their love affair, creating a queer family. Perhaps, then, the film—beyond its capitalistic critique and climate change warning—wants us to rethink how and why we have sex and reproduce, as well as what we are reproducing and what constitutes a family-to-come in the “future.”

At the beginning of the film Wall-E (2008), we hover in space, gazing not on the image of the familiar pale blue dot of Earth but instead on a brown mud-ball blot before zooming in further on this dusky orb to witness the last vestiges of the havoc capitalism has wrought on the formerly populated planet. Here, a trash-compacting service droid—the titular Wall-E—continues his lonely work, picking up, breaking down, and stacking up garbage, marking the film as an environmental text on how capitalism’s commodity fetish piles rubbish we clamor for higher and higher. That hedonist humans and the capitalist system they adore have driven their abandonment of Earth is made clear once we travel with Wall-E to one of the ships that the humans fled the planet on, the Axiom. Here we find out that the purpose of Wall-E units is restorative; they are “Working to Dig you Out,” a tagline the BNL corporation has come up with that unintentionally captures how an environmental cleanup effort gets tangled within the “Workings” of capitalism. This project has failed, unsurprisingly, and humans remain islanded in a sea of stars while the earth, apparently, slowly dies. Meanwhile, the film is even more incisively cutting in its critique of human fallibility and folly. Aboard the Axiom, humans have achieved the ultimate supposed utopian terminus ad quem of capitalism—no longer able to stand up due to obesity and attendant atrophied muscles, they are hoovered about on floating beds to sample the goods available at a dazzling display of neon-fronted food shops and boutique beauty salons. They are no longer working but buying, as the slogan for BNL, “Buy N Large,” perfectly articulates in its witty pun: buy and become enlarged, exactly what has happened to these super-sized humans.

Perhaps this future is already the present—as perhaps the reading experience of this essay demonstrates as we arrive at the end, which is the beginning of the course, the past that has become the future. Hyper-jump pedagogy takes us back to the future, our past, to examine our present, the imperfect future.

Works Cited

Barad, Karen. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Duke UP, 2007.
Braidotti, Rosi. “Four Theses on the Posthuman.” Anthropocene Feminism, edited by Richard Grusin, U of Minnesota P, 2017, pp. 21–48.
Byron, George Gordon, Lord. “Darkness.” The Major Works, edited by Jerome McGann, Oxford UP, 2008, pp. 272–73.
Corin, Lucy. One Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses. McSweeney’s, 2013.
de Man, Paul. “The Rhetoric of Blindness: Jacques Derrida’s Reading of Rousseau.” Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism, U of Minnesota P, 1983, pp. 102–41.
Derrida, Jacques. “Typewriter Ribbon: Limited Ink (2) (‘within such limits’).” Material Events: Paul de Man and the Afterlife of Theory, edited by Tom Cohen, Barbara Cohen, J. Hillis Miller, and Andrzej Warminski, U of Minnesota P, 2001, pp. 277–360.
———. Of Grammatology. Translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Johns Hopkins UP, 1997.
Edelman, Lee. No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Duke UP, 2004.
Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. Edited by Edwin Curley, Hackett, 1994.
McCarthy, Cormac. The Road. Vintage, 2006.
Mad Max: Fury Road. Directed by George Miller, Warner Bros. Pictures, 2015.
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. Discourse on Inequality. Translated by Franklin Philip, Oxford UP, 1994.
———. The Social Contract. Translated by Christopher Betts, Oxford UP, 1994.
Sheldon, Rebekah. The Child to Come: Life after the Human Catastrophe. U of Minnesota P, 2016.
Spaceballs. Directed by Mel Brooks, Brooksfilms and Metro-Goldwin-Mayer, 1987.
Wall-E. Directed by Andrew Staunton, Pixar and Walt Disney Studios, 2008.
Washington, Chris. “Romantic Post-Apocalyptic Politics: Reveries of Rousseau in a World without Us.” Romanticism and Speculative Realism, edited by Chris Washington and Anne McCarthy, Bloomsbury, 2019.
Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Edited by Deidra Shauna Lynch, Norton, 2009.


1. My thanks to the Francis Marion University Honors Program and its director, Dr. Jon Tuttle, for green-lighting this class. I also wish to think the 12 students who made the course a joy to teach with their vibrant, boundless curiosity and intelligence. This essay, in so many ways, would not exist without them. [back]
2. These two passages, for instance: “it is asserted, in direct terms, that the minds of women are enfeebled by false refinement . . . and that . . . they are treated as a kind of subordinate beings, and not as a part of the human species, when improveable reason is allowed to be the dignified distinction which raises men above the brute creation” (Wollstonecraft 10); “Dismissing then those pretty feminine phrases, which the men condescendingly use to soften our slavish dependence, and despising that weak elegancy of mind, exquisite sensibility, and sweet docility of manners, supposed to be the sexual characteristics of the weaker vessel” (Wollstonecraft 12). [back]
3. Wollstonecraft’s daughter, Mary Shelley, wrote The Last Man (1826), indebted, as she said, to Byron’s “Darkness.” This novel does deal with sex and gender, as several critics have argued. [back]