This post explores in more depth the inspiration and driving questions behind my new article “Beyond Species and Biodiversity: Problematizing Extinction” just published in Theory, Culture and Society. For a copy of the full article, feel free to contact me: amitchell [at] wlu.ca.
Extinction must be one of the most under-theorized, under-discussed, and under-thought concepts in academic discourses. Although thousands of books and articles have been produced about extinction, it is rare to come across a deep, reflexive account of what extinction is(n’t), what it means, what goes extinct, and what it means to ‘go extinct’. In fact, one of the few statements available regarding the meaning of extinction comes in the form of a definition: “extinction is… the death of every member of a species”. Meanwhile, most mainstream narratives of biodiversity define extinction as the diminishing of resources, which are increasingly framed in financial terms.
Surely extinction is more, or different than this – it involves the irreversible elimination of unique lifeways, but also the creation of vacuums that are filled by new ones. It is a deeply ethical problematic, not only in terms of the ‘bads’ and ‘goods’ that it generates, but also in terms of the chains of dependency and responsibility that emerge between life forms as they emerge, speciate and go extinct. At the same time, its normative valence is complicated: on the one hand, we can point to immense harms that extinction causes to the entangled worlds that sustain earthly life. On the other hand, becoming too attached to these worlds in their existing form can produce a form of ressentiment towards future worlds and life forms. This, in turn, may result in the disavowal of connections to a profoundly plural Earth. Instead, it’s important to focus on the dynamic aspects of being and extinction.
To do that, we need to think more deeply about the idea of ‘going’ extinct. Extinction is fundamentally about about transformation, change, (un)becoming and evolutionary movement. It is a process, rather than a punctual moment – for instance, the death of the ‘last member of a species’. As scholars like Genese Sodikoff have eloquently argued, extinction is both a creative and a destructive process. This is not the Schumpeterian ‘creative destruction’ that fuels and smoothens the processes of global capitalism. Rather, it consists in the punctuation and rupture of histories and lifeways through the intrusion of non-being, or the eruption of ‘the void’ into the realm of human-dominated worlding. Indeed, scholars of the non-relational argue that it is crucial to pay attention to absences, excesses and the realm beyond what human thought can capture. Those beings that have ‘gone extinct’ inhabit this space. Some of them (dinosaurs, for instance) haunt and shape human discourses, while others (non)-exist well beyond the borders of human thought, but nonetheless affect the conditions of existence on Earth.
And the subjects of extinction are have not always ‘gone’ at all. In fact, amongst the most prominent subjectivities emerging from the current global extinction crisis is that of ‘humanity’. Contemporary discourses emerging in such different fields as existential risk and the posthumanities argue that ‘humanity’ must face its own extinction, in both figurative and literal terms. Rather than (just) obliterating subjectivity, confrontation with this possibility also produces new understandings of the limitations and transformations of ‘the human’. On the one hand, it might produce resurgent (trans-)humanisms that further entrench these norms and strictures, or accentuate them further, in the attempt to sustain ‘humanity’ at all costs. On the other hand, it may also open up new opportunities for transformation beyond essentializing constructs such as gender and race.
My new article opens up a conversation about the diverse subjects that are produced by extinction, and by dominant responses to the threats it raises. It examines a range of forces – abstraction, abjection, absence and (the lack) of love – that shape and distort these subjectivities. In so doing, it moves far beyond the claim that ‘what goes extinct’ is ‘species’ or ‘biodiversity’, and that the only register to measure this change is that of quantitative loss. Instead, it moves towards a much more pluralistic understanding of what extinction is, does, creates and destroys. It ends by calling for a cosmopolitical ethical-political framework that can help to attune humans to the diverse subjects of extinction and stimulate responsiveness to the various claims they make on us.
The image at the top of this post is from a project by Artist As Citizen – the full set of cards can be downloaded here.