I am aware that it is my male privilege speaking here in part, but when I read older texts that use “man” to designate all of humanity generically, it doesn’t sound offensive and exclusionary so much as old-timey and mildly comical. I can’t help but read it mentally in the voice of the portentious movie trailer narrator (an association that was cemented in my mind by the shark fishing episode of Fishing with John, where the pompous narrator declares that for the sharks, “Man is on the menu”). There’s something about it that always feels overblown, somehow, as though a declaration about “man” is always intended much more grandiosely than an identical claim about “humanity” or “human beings” ever could be.
Some of that goes back to the syntactical possibilities the old-fashioned usage opens up: “man” can designate every individual human being and humanity as a whole. The word itself draws humanity into a unity in a seemingly much more organic way than the more abstract term “humanity.” “Man” has a story in a way that “humanity” does not, in a way that “human beings” never could.
Someone who can use the old-fashioned term “man” unironically believes in progress — or its opposite. A recent example is telling here. In the title cards for Battlestar Gallactica, we learn that “The Cylons were created by man.” It’s a weirdly archaic way to designate the creation of hyperintelligent androids — but it fits because it was a mistake, and one that decisively affects not only every single human being but the prospects for humanity as a whole. In BSG, the human race can be “man” because it has collectively sinned, been punished, and attempted (however incoherently) to redeem itself.
That is to say that “man” is first of all a theological term. It goes back to that first man, Adam, who was individually the entire human race and whose actions set humanity permanently off course. The optimistic, progressive “man” is the second Adam, Christ the redeemer, who reverses the work of his predecessor. It is a gendered term, undoubtedly, but it is so not simply because of its literal verbal meaning, but above all because it is drawing on a patriarchal religious tradition. “Man” is masculine in form because in that tradition only individual men had full legal agency — and hence full responsibility.
I don’t want to go back to that term, nor to its presuppositions. There’s something about its grammar that I would like to retrieve, though — the notion that humanity is more than the sum of all individuals, that we have a collective fate (if not a collective destiny), and that we can collectively make a decisive and irretrievable mistake. We didn’t lose those notions because we lost the term, of course — if anything, it was our increasing inability to imagine collective agency that allowed the edifice of “man” to crumble and become less an offence than a joke.
The bitter irony is that this shift in consciousness occurred just as humanity — I want to say “man” here — was polluting the earth in such a way as to endanger its ability to support life. In other words, humanity lost a sense of its collective agency and responsibility just as it started to commit what might amount to the unforgivable sin, the one that leaves no one behind to do the forgiving.
There is another aspect of the grammar of the term that is worth noting, however — it is in the third person. “Man” views humanity from an outside perspective. Especially in light of the theological resonances, we could say that it views humanity from a God’s eye view. And from that perspective, “man” is not so much an agent as a pawn — in a divine plan of salvation, which needs him to sin to get things rolling, just as much as in a narrative of progress. Perhaps “man” does not designate collective agency so much as collective guilt (the first Adam) or collective election (the second Adam).
In this case, the loss of “man” would be a first step toward a meaningful collective agency — a step into a “world come of age” in which humanity could start to say “we.”