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May 2021 Issue [Readings]

Actuary of the Apocalypse

From “The Anti-Extinction Engine,” which appeared in the Winter 2020 issue of The Yale Review.

In Good Morning Revolution—­a volume of Langston Hughes’s contributions to revolutionary magazines—­there is a small poem, “Johannesburg Mines,” about a big question:

In the Johannesburg mines
There are 240,000 natives working.

What kind of poem
Would you make out of that?

240,000 natives working
In the Johannesburg mines.

The poem does not sentimentalize the suffering of the colonized workers in the name of politics and likewise does not aestheticize this suffering in the name of art. It also resolutely does not forget these workers or allow them to be forgotten, nor does it forget to mark its own place in the history of class struggle. It is generous to the future, too, because of the portability of its form, by which I mean it is a form that can now travel from person to person and era to era, allowing for new poems to be made. Hughes has in this poem given the world an enduring form, one with which each of us can write our own version, substituting for the first and third couplet other brutal facts of the world. The volta of the poem remains intact in its possible rewritings: What kind of poem / Would you make out of that? It turns on these lines and becomes its largest version, and as it does so, it reflects the facts back as a mirror, forcing a devastating encounter. The contradiction of a world that holds both poetry and exploited labor is exposed. The poem’s question is the poem’s own answer, which is that things must not continue like this, and yet they do.

I know someone whose job was to write code for a program that predicts population decline and the extinction of various species under various sets of climate possibilities. For forty hours a week, every week, he attempted to model these future systems of death, to automate anxious imagination about the worst that could happen, and in what proportions and to whom or what. I called him an actuary of the apocalypse. His job was an attempt to teach machines to forge a relationship with the future, to create for them the sinews and binary trees of extinction—­if this bad thing, then that one—­so that the machines could imagine a world more terrible, more full of sorrow and loss, than this one. Imagining the worst was once a profoundly human activity; now it is also the work of our tools, to which we provide a body of despair so that they might begin to make a pattern for our coming sadness.

This extinction engine does not sentimentalize or aestheticize the materials of the world. It creates portable forms: in this it has a few things in common with Hughes’s poem. Indeed, the program presents something that resembles fact, as the Hughes poem does. But what is the difference? Well, there is at least this one: in the extinction engine, what we once thought of as “nature” is reordered into extinction probabilities via code by the very materials and processes, such as my friend’s labor and the extracted fuel used to power his work machines, that are part of what created these extinction probabilities in the first place. Hughes, on the other hand, has created a poem that might be called an anti-­extinction engine. Even if all the paper and pens and books and screens disappeared tomorrow, few who seriously contemplated this poem and its startling operation would ever be able to forget their encounter with it. It is a poem that remains in memory, moves with history, inhabits struggles, is transmitted across languages, haunts individuals, compels the future, a poem that must always be driven to resolve the contradictions it reveals.

Hughes’s poem asks, “What kind of poem / Would you make out of that?” The extinction engine asks quite a different question, this one more grim. As Alice Becker-­Ho once wrote: “Questions asked by machines are met with answers they themselves have devised.”

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