This is a recording of my recent talk at the Environmental Humanities programme at the University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia. Thanks to Thom Van Dooren and Matt Kearnes for organising.
This is a recording of my recent talk at the Environmental Humanities programme at the University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia. Thanks to Thom Van Dooren and Matt Kearnes for organising.
This is a full recording of a talk I gave at the New School for Social Research in New York on 27 October, 2016, including perceptive and generous comments by Rafi Youatt. It was part of a workshop entitled “Global Politics Without Ignorance” organised by Anne McNevin, Erdinc Erdem and others at the New School. The workshop focused on different understandings of knowledge and ignorance within global politics, drawing on critical race theory and embracing a wide variety of approaches, including decolonial and posthumanist thought.
A couple of notes. First, whenever I use the terms ‘human’ or ‘humanity’ (or emphasise something weirdly), assume I’m doing air quotes. Second, I refer to a few others in the room by first name only – they are: Anne (McNevin), Rafi (Youatt), Patrick (Jackson) and Zuleika (Arashiro). Because I can’t include embedded quotes in audio form, I’d like to cite the sources of a couple of things I mention. My discussion of refusals by plants is drawn largely from the work of Wendy Makoons Geniusz and Robin Wall Kimmerer; while the discussion of the Sedna and the withdrawal of animals is drawn from the work of Tim Leduc . I also want to thank the Creatures’ Collective for inspiring and co-incubating many of the ideas discussed here.
The imagery in the background is called ‘Transversals’ and was produced during the workshop as I began thinking through this alternative to ‘(the) global’ or ‘universals’ (more on this to follow…)
Over the last year or so, it’s been my privilege to help convene a wonderful collective of scholars, writers, thinkers and knowledge-keepers – the Creatures Collective. We are a group of Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars (I am amongst the latter) who are working together and as part of broader collectives, families and relations to contest dominant narratives of the global extinction crisis. Our conversations center plural forms of Indigenous knowledge and we strive to approach our work as a lived, experiential ethics – what Creature Noah Theriault has called ‘more-than-research’. This approach seeks not only to understand the protocols, laws and bonds broken by ‘extinction’, but also actively to help remake them. This is not only research – it aspires to be a lived, committed, embodied form of work.
I have felt disconnected from this kind of work for most of my career. Finishing my PhD as the global financial crisis ramped up, I entered a UK academic job market in which staying afloat meant producing large numbers of quantifiable, ranked outputs and generating constant flows of grant money (or at least applications). Achievements were not experienced so much as measured, assessed and compiled, calculated into averages and translated into floating numerical indicators of ‘excellence’. Conventions of value and prestige consigned entire categories of publication and modes of working to worthlessness. For instance, a colleague was told that many of her early publications were ‘CV pollution’. Working weekends and late into the night were so normalized that it was considered self-indulgent to take them off. Even if the actual expectations for outputs were not outrageous, I felt enveloped by the pressure to maintain whatever level of productivity I’d reached, constantly attempting to overshoot in the hopes of making some space to catch my breath. Of course, as soon as I did, new demands consumed my hard-hoarded time. As I ‘progressed in my career’, I watched my PhD students racing to publish at an even faster rate than I had found necessary, barely taking the time to settle into their projects before being consumed in frantic job-market strategizing.
This logic and lifestyle were not exactly difficult for me to internalize. If anything, I adapted to them them with an unhealthy degree of compliance. But doing so had deep implications for how work felt. The grating anxiety of quantification formed a thick callous, separating me from my work. I entered a kind of dissociative state in which the work I was doing passed through me without making much of an impression. The time or energy I felt I had available to commit to a piece of work was limited: as soon as a book or article was published, it dropped out of my circle of concern. I became prolific and promiscuous with projects, jumping from one to the next, phasing each one to match the machinery of deadlines, publication gaps and reviewing backups to ensure a constant feed of outputs. What this actually fed was my anxiety: any gaps in the assembly line became signals of failure. Getting promoted and achieving other ‘milestones’ didn’t remove the deadening buzz of pressurized momentum – if anything, they amplified it.
My experience is hardly unique: the culture of constant anxiety, strain, workaholism and wildly inflating expectations is the norm in neo-liberal universities. How are academics expected to deal with this? Well, we are encouraged to develop something called a ‘work/life balance’. At first glance, this sounds like a good idea: earmarking some time free from constant performance surveillance and production mania. But in reality, ‘work/life balance’ is a tool of neoliberal resilience – it encourages small periods of rest in order to sustain high levels of productivity. More than this, it installs a dichotomy between work and life that is harmful to both. It is not simply that ‘work/life’ balance frames ‘life’ as fragments of excess or waste – what is left over after work (if that ‘after’ ever arrives). Just as alarming is the fact that work is opposed to life – it becomes lifeless.
Collaborating with the Creatures Collective has brought me to a different understanding that I will call lifework (centring life, and opposed to the harsh severance of work/life or the disjointing of work-life). Within this group, we talk about work as ethics, as the embodied fulfillment of responsibilities, as relation-weaving and worldmaking. Work is lived, and work has life – one lives, and lives with, one’s work as one lives with other beings. This absolutely does not mean that formal, professional ‘work’ should be allowed to bleed into every aspect of one’s daily life. There are always aspects of working in a modern Western institution that produce abstraction and disconnection, and need to be strictly limited. It also does not mean shirking the duty to publish, write grant proposals or ‘produce’ in those conventional senses. It is still possible to operate in these worlds and to honour many of the demands that they make. Lifework is vigorous, creative and highly generative of a wide range of ‘outcomes’- but production is part of the life of the work, and not an end in itself. It involves recognizing the life (one’s ‘own’ and that of others) put into one’s work, being present in that work and in those lives. Lifework recognizes that work produces beings that affect worlds around them, deserve respect, and command care.
Here are a few of the things I’ve learned and principles I’m trying to live up to since working as part of this collective. Because we are a collective, these ideas are ours and not ‘mine’ – but I would not claim to speak for the group as a whole. Instead, I would say that these ideas are inspired and fostered by our collaborative work and relations. These ideas are also deeply influenced by Indigenous research methods, and by the approaches of Indigenous scholar-friends, but they are not, strictly speaking, Indigenous methods. Instead, they are reflections about the lifework I’m engaging in with others, and how I’m learning to care for it:
Lifework is a responsibility. By virtue of being who and what I am, on this land and planet, as a being that harms other beings in my existence and actions, I have responsibilities to them. The work I do should clarify these responsibilities and help me to live up to them.
Lifework is a commitment that goes far beyond production. I need to make the commitment to every piece of work I do, with all that entails: obligation, care, humility and patience. Regardless of pressures, norms or incentives, I should not begin any piece of work that I am not willing to commit to care for in this way.
Knowledge, ideas, wisdom, creativity and inspiration are gifts. I work with them, but they are not mine in a proprietary way: they are always given, and maintained, by plural others. I need to recognize and receive them as gifts, and wherever it is possible, to reciprocate. I also need to understand lifework in the form of gifts. This does not mean assuming that my work is so excellent that I consider it a ‘gift to the world’. On the contrary, it means having the humility to think about how it can serve others and meet their needs, how it can be given without demanding reciprocity (which would involve exchange, not giving – see Rauna Kuokannen’s excellent work on this subject).
Lifework should not be rushed. It requires building community, living with ideas, changing one’s mind, allowing experience and relations to shape me. All of this takes time; it richens and ripens over time. Lifework needs to be lived with.
Putting something into words – especially shared words – has power and impact, no matter how small or indirect. It may be necessary to wait patiently until I can speak or write about something with integrity before I try to do so.
Just because I can master a subject, form of knowledge, or practice does not mean that I should. I need to be careful, respectful and attentive about what is ‘for me’ and what isn’t. I need to know the limits of my knowledge and place limits on what I expose, take, transport to other spheres or transform.
I need to be concerned about the lives of ideas, words and knowledge that I work with. That means that I need to think carefully about what might be done with those beings, how they might be received, interpreted, instrumentalized, abused, commodified or otherwise co-opted. This does not necessarily mean refusing to write or speak about them, but rather committing to care for them after they are put into different worlds (e.g. in print, online, or into antagonistic forms of academic discourse). It also does not reflect any fantasies of control over the lives of ideas once they leave me, or a stubborn refusal to allow them to be changed, hybridized, hacked, or remixed. Instead, it calls for a commitment to care for those ideas, to defend and protect them when needed, but also to embrace their transformations. This responsibility does not end with publication: it simply enters a new phase.
Keeping secrets, holding knowledge, is as important as disseminating it widely. The imperative to ‘mobilize’ knowledge amongst wide public audiences is a part of academic life. It can be serve a lot of worthy purposes – for instance, fulfilling one’s duties to communities and broader publics, raising awareness of important issues, helping to decolonize knowledge, and creating beneficial networks. However, it can also expose knowledge to predation, instrumentalization, (willful) misinterpretation or violation. Concepts like ‘impact’ and ‘knowledge mobilization’ suggest that knowledge is beneficial to the extent that it is made public. This suggests that all of ‘humanity’ should have a claim to particular knowledge. In fact, sometimes protecting knowledge means keeping it secret, helping to nurture modes of transmission that are closed to outsiders (and respecting this in one’s own actions). It might mean refusing to divulge information that could result in harm, or in cases in which exposure is harm in itself (Simpson 2014). Even if this means that much of the knowledge shared in co-researching is ‘off the record’, this kind of work makes important contributions to the nurturing of knowledge.
When I learn from others, I am taking something and I owe something in return – if only the necessary respect. I may not always be allowed to take what I want. There are obligations involved, permission to be asked, negotiations to be carried out. Others (human and otherwise) can always refuse, and I need to honour and learn from, rather than resent, those refusals.
Lifework must embody my ethics, not just comply with them. Of course, any action compromises my ethics (aside from, and sometimes in conflict with, codes of institutional or professional ethics) should not be part of the work I do. But beyond this negative account, the work I do should help to realize my ethical commitments in the world. My work and ways of working must be ethical acts in themselves.
If I ever find myself working on something that I find boring, repetitive or uninteresting, I should not be doing it. To work with ideas or beings that I don’t actively care about is disrespectful to those things. I should be the right person to make each argument I’m making. If I am not inspired or called by it, then I am not the right person.
Each piece of work I do takes a great deal, not only from me, but from all of the others that co-work with me: time taken away from other things, care, energy, resources, input, patience, calories, bytes, printed paper, emotion, and so on. For this reason, no project should be considered a ‘throwaway’, or a quick job (this calls to mind the recent idea of the ‘quick monograph’ now circulating in UK academia). Rushing to produce something and then abandoning it is deeply wasteful and contemptuous of the value of all of these beings that co-create it.
Sometimes lifeworking in this way means starting from scratch. No matter what I have done or achieved, if I am entering into a new place or body of knowledge, or interacting with beings who are new to me, I need to start from the ground up. There is no shame or loss of stature in this – it is a privilege to be allowed to begin again and renew as one moves through different worlds. This learning takes the time, energy and commitment of others, which all need to be respected, and should not be taken for granted or treated as an entitlement.
These are a few of the ideas I am reflecting on – and living with – as I try to move from work/life to lifework. I am not claiming that I live up to these principles completely, or every day. Instead, they are intentions that are guiding my work, helping me to find – and hopefully to nurture – the life in and around it. I would love to hear from others who are trying to do the same.
*Note: I want to recognise that it’s relatively easy for me to write these things from the privileged position of tenure. Colleagues who do not (yet) have this security, and/or are working against structural forms of exclusion, may find it much riskier to talk about their experiences, let alone to criticise the power structures that lock so many of us into unhealthy work-lives. For that reason, I strongly believe that it falls on those of us with tenure (or equivalent job security) do everything we can to create a culture in which all of our colleagues have the time and space to take care of themselves and others. This not only means trying to achieve wellness, kindness and reciprocity in our own lifework, and being a source of support for others, but also talking about these issues in order to make healthier ways of working acceptable in our workplaces.
On Wednesday, 1 June, I am honoured to host some of the most fascinating scholars working at the intersection of Indigenous philosophy and ecological crisis, both here in Canada and around the world, at the event Indigenous Visions of the Global Extinction Crisis . If you happen to be in the Waterloo area, please join us for the opening event, which will include Haudenosaunee remembrance and condolence ceremonies, a talking circle featuring workshop participants and all attendees, songs from the Waterloo Aboriginal Students Association and an art exhibition/ spoken word performance featuring the work of the very talented Cara Loft and Zoe Todd . This event will mark the beginning of a collaborative project that features contributions from (in alphabetical order): Tim Leduc, Genese Sodikoff, Makere Stewart-Harawira, Noah Theriault, Zoe Todd, Vanessa Watts and Sarah Wright (joining us on behalf of the Bawaka Country Research Collective) Special thanks also to my colleagues at the Office of Aboriginal Initiatives at Wilfrid Laurier University (especially Jean Becker, Melissa Ireland and Kandice Baptiste) for their guidance, input and teachings. I am grateful to the gifted (and tireless) Tahnee Prior for her help in organising the event, and to the Balsillie School of International Affairs, Wilfrid Laurier University and the Independent Social Research Foundation for funding this event.
For those of you who can’t join us in person, I’d like to share an abridged version of my opening talk for the event, to give you a sense of the community and projects we are aiming to build. Please note that the text has been edited to remove personal and/or ceremonial aspects of the event out of respect for these people and traditions.
This workshop marks the beginning of an ongoing, collaborative project, so please get in touch if you are interested in finding out more.
Thank you so much for coming today. I am honoured that you could all join us for the opening of this new project, and I look forward to learning from and with all of you over the next hours and days .I hope that this will event will mark the beginning of many rewarding relationships and new collaborations.
We’ll begin by acknowledging that we are on the traditional territory of the Neutral, Anishnawbe and Haudenosaunee peoples and offering a formal expression of gratitude to them as our hosts.
[distribution of tobacco twists to elders and invited participants]
… Before handing over to William Wordworth to begin the remembrance and condolence ceremonies, I’d like to say a few words about why we have come together for this few days of sharing, learning and envisioning.
Western science tells us that the Earth is in the midst of a global extinction crisis. The biological extinction of life forms is accelerating rapidly and across the planet as a result of human activity. We are warned that this may be the beginning of a ‘6th mass extinction’ in which most existing life forms may be eliminated in a few centuries.
Yet there is little discussion of what ‘extinction’ means – it is simply assumed to mean the death of ‘every member of a species’. There are so many problems with this definition: not least the Linnaean mode of classification that has given us the concept of species or the more recent construct of ‘biodiversity’, both of which exclude myriad forms of life and relations and draw sharp boundaries between ‘living’ and ‘dead’ that confound the basic principles of so many living cosmologies.
Even the concept of extinction as the irreversible elimination of a life form effaces the ways in which relations ‘extinct’ life forms may continue through relations with the spirit world, through genetic entanglement, and through lived histories that extend across the imposed boundaries of ‘species’.
Crucially, all of these concepts embed deeply colonial ideas of ‘nature’ and human relations with it – from the early roots of conservation in the creation of national parks and the violent eviction of their human inhabitants, to contemporary forms of hyper-capitalist conservation in which ‘species’ and ‘ecosystems’ are traded, offset and financialized as commodities, severing relations of kinship and care.
These concepts furnished by Western secular science cannot capture the enormity of the global extinction crisis – and they mask the violent erasures that they create, including the crowding out of alternative accounts and ways of being-knowing.
Talking to colleagues and friends from different Indigenous communities, I’ve learned how loaded the term ‘extinction’ can be: it evokes colonial beliefs that Indigenous peoples are ‘extinct’, or headed for extinction. I can’t think of a less appropriate way to describe communities whose powerful, collaborative acts of survivance in the face of waves of crisis and violence epitomises the vibrancy of life and strength.
So, we need new terms, concepts and frameworks, but also stories, songs, images, dances, communities of intention – in a word, visions.
These visions must be expansive enough – both in timescale, geographical scale and the complexity they can embrace – to address the global extinction crisis (or whatever we want to call it!) They must reach back into the deep, ancestral past – and far forward into plural possible futures, while remaining grounded in the everyday experiences of multi-species communities in which we are all, differently, enmeshed. They must address the entangled vulnerabilities of Earthly life, rejecting sharp distinctions between humans and nature, living and dead, tradition and modernity.
What better place to look than the rich, vibrant multitude of living Indigenous philosophies and cosmologies?These cosmologies have survived, adapted and nurtured plural life-forms across millennia, negotiating and fostering life in the face of crisis. Indeed, for many Indigenous peoples, the apocalypse has already happened, with the advent of European colonisation. For several centuries, they have been responding, adapting and creating in the face of violence, rupture and destruction – not least the expropriation of their ancestral lands and the severance of their fundamental relations with specific places and beings.
This workshop builds on the intuition that Indigenous philosophy and cosmology can offer radically different approaches to understanding the global extinction crisis. It rejects the Cartesian, rationalist logic of classification and scientific management, instead embracing plural understandings of how humans and other beings form, sustain and care for multiple worlds here on Earth.
While ‘Traditional Ecological Knowledge’ – localizes Indigenous knowledge, Indigenous philosophies and cosmologies have much to offer in terms of wrestling with the global nature of this crisis, and should not be parochialized against the backdrop of apparently ‘universal’ Western scientific and governance perspectives. I certainly do not want to downplay the importance of connection to specific places and beings, but rather to explore the global significance of contemporary, living Indigenous thought. As Vine Deloria Jr and Rauna Kuokannen (amongst others) have argued, Indigenous knowledge tends to be instrumentalized, treated a source of empirical material that can be used to substantiate the claims of Western science and policy-making. Yet diverse bodies of Indigenous knowledge offer profoundly distinct cosmologies, frameworks, philosophies and spiritualities that are also abstract and transcendent, while remaining grounded in place and concrete experience. Moreover, the idea of ‘traditional’ knowledge imposes a linear, progressivist view of time which parcels it out neatly into past, present and future – and relegates Indigenous thought to the past. Instead, embrace multiple temporalities and are energised by Indigenous visions of multiple possible futures.
Our goal in this project is to engage a wide range of forms of Indigenous knowledge in order to identify resonances amongst them – NOT to find one universal, over-arching theory. In so doing, we hope to generate new insights and visions for apprehending the multiple dimensions of the global extinction crisis, decolonizing the structures of knowledge that dominate the way it is discussed, researched and governed, and cultivate creative, visionary responses to it.
The following images are from the exhibition “Cultural Projections” by Cara Loft. Cara is Aboriginal Recruitment and Outreach Officer for the Office of Aboriginal Initiatives at Wilfrid Laurier University. She is a Mohawk Woman from wolf clan and her home community is Tyendinaga First Nation. Cara holds a BA in Health Sciences and a postgraduate degree in International Development, with a focus on community development in First Nations communities in Ontario. She is an avid beader, a women’s traditional dancer and hand drummer. Cara is passionate about supporting aboriginal youth in Canada in all capacities possible, and her current work focuses on bolstering education, leadership & cultural pride. “Cultural Projections” highlights Cara’s experiences travelling through Aboriginal communities in Northern Ontario, with a focus on pathways and passages.
52.9259° N, 82.4289° W
Attawapiskat First Nation lies on the western side of James Bay. It is an isolated Cree community with a population of 1,549. Each December a Winter Road is constructed to connect the remote communities of Moosonee, Kashechewan, Fort Albany and Attawapiskat. Attawapiskat being the most northern and remote stop on the James Bay Winter Road. When driving on the Winter Road, the first view you see on the way into Attawapiskat in the Catholic Church sitting high on the hill top. This serves as a reminder of the colonization that took hold of the ‘People of the Parting Stone’ and continues to grip this community. This is reflected in the flagrant natural resources extraction from the open pit Victor Diamond Mine, located a mere 90 km from Attawapiskat.
43.7418° N, 7.4230° E
Beausoliel First Nation is spread across three Indian Reserves, the one pictured here is Christian Island located in Georgian Bay. The peoples of Christian Island largely depend on the ferry system to move back and forth to the mainland; and also move supplies onto the island. Recently one of the main passenger ferries, the 57 year-old M.V. Sandy Graham, was deemed unsafe and had to have $500, 000 worth of repairs to make it usable again. The other ferry, the Indian Maiden, is also in need of repairs as well. Pictured here, we see a community member using their own barge to transport equipment to Christian Island. According to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People’s: “Indigenous peoples have the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or other-wise used or acquired.” Without access to a working ferry, the peoples of Christian Island are at risk of losing their traditional territory and way of life.
48.6833° N, 85.6333° W
Pic Mobert is an Anishnabeg First Nation community composed of two small reserves located along the White River in Ontario: Pic Mobert North and Pic Mobert South. These rural communities have roughly 400 band members living on reserve. One of the staple foods in this community is the fish; providing both a practical source of food and cultural connection to the land and waters. Pictured here is a pike caught through the traditional practice of netting. An oasis in North Western Ontario; Pic Mobert is still considered an impoverished reserve without the proper health, education & social resources to address the issues within their communities. Despite these gaps, the cultural connection to land and water is strong and speaks to the resiliency of these communities.
Serpent River is an Anishnabeg community located along the North Shore of Lake Huron. The traditional territory of these peoples extends from the North Channel of Lake Huron, to just past the city of Elliot Lake. In 1847, uranium was discovered near Elliot Lake prompting the Chief at the time to demand protection from mining exploitation. Thus began the era of natural resource extraction from the Serpent River territory. Today, Serpent River is a modest community of 373 on reserve band members that sits quietly on the banks of Lake Huron. Despite a history of land misuse, the natural beauty of this territory is not lost today. Pictured here are the tree’s mid-fall in Serpent River.
Garden River First Nation is located near Sault Ste Marie and is a largely Anishnabeg community. With roughly 1,100 band members, this community sits mainly along the St. Mary’s River and Highway 17B passes through their traditional territory. There has been dispute over Highway 17B and its passage through the Garden River Community, mainly due to the deaths of community members on this road. In April of 2016, band members from Garden River closed down highway 17B for a day to highlight the meaningless accidents and tragedies that happen along this highway. Pictured here is the old rail bridge over Garden River, and a written affirmation of who the traditional title holders and protectors of this territory are.
Fish Friday Images by Zoe Todd
Zoe Todd is a lecturer in Anthropology at Carleton University. A Métis scholar from amiskwaciwâskahikan (Edmonton), her work spans the subjects of human-fish relations, Indigenous philosophy, feminism, art, and the important role of Indigenous legal orders within the legal pluralities that shape Canada. Her series of ‘Fish Friday’ images (posted every Friday on her website and Twitter account) explore the fish stories that and creatures that have shaped her more-than-human relations web of relations.
This month’s post comes courtesy of E-IR. It offers some reflections on the discussions related to ‘posthuman security’ that have been brewing over the past couple of years. It is part of a series that also includes contributions from Elke Schwartz, Matt McDonald and (coming soon) Carolin Kaltofen. Thanks to Clara Eroukmanoff and the E-IR editorial team for putting this series together.
This article has also been published on Global Policy Journal’s blog.
Extinction and mass extinction are complex phenomena that entangle multiple dimensions of life, ethics, politics, economics and art. But how do they relate to gender and sexuality? A few months ago, I was asked to write a chapter for a textbook on gender and nature that would address this question. This was a welcome and stimulating challenge, which gave me the opportunity to dig more deeply into the crossings between feminism, gender studies, queer theory and studies of extinction – fields which are connected in multiple, sometimes not-so-obvious ways. In many ways, this is a project of bridging, extending and teasing out resonances between literatures. Decades of eco-feminisms, feminist environmentalisms and environmental feminisms have produced rich discussions on the relationships between gender sexuality and the ecosphere. However, with the notable exception of Claire Colebrook, very few scholars of gender and queer theory have engaged directly with extinction. The concept does appear in eco-feminist works, but it is almost always invoked rhetorically, as an opaque worst case scenario used to underscore the enormity of destructive power structures and relations. In these discourses (like many others), the concept of extinction is something of a black box, and it most often treated as a non sequitur: it is assumed to mean “the death of every member of a species”, and there is rarely discussion of its many other dimensions, relations and implications. At the same time, emerging work in the humanities on extinction and mass extinction holds great potential for exploring the links between gender, sexuality, survival and extinction that can be nurtured further.
Reflecting on the connections between these fields is not only a promising way of theorising extinction in a more robust and plural way, but it can also contribute to feminist, gender and queer scholarship in rich ways. To this end, I’ve tried to tease out some of the most potent intersections between these fields, bringing them into direct confrontation with extinction, and with existing modes of response to it. Here are a few of the nodes that I think have great potential for further development.
Feminist critiques of neo-liberal conservation
One of the most integral arguments within ecological feminisms is that patriarchal, extractive logics underpin the destruction of ‘nature’. Carolyn Merchant popularized this argument by tracing the roots of the current ecological crisis to the scientific revolution and the rise of capitalism in the early modern period of European history. For Merchant, the transition from a belief system in which the Earth was understood to be a living ‘mother’ to one in which it was refigured as a passive female body removed constraints on destructive activity. From this perspective, the logics and resulting cultures of extractive patriarchy underpin destructive relations between humans and the Earth. Subsequently, authors such as Kay Warren and Val Plumwood have argued that the converse is also true. That is, that the separation of ‘man’ and ‘Earth’ entrenches relations of superiority, subordination and instrumentality that have helped to sustain oppressive gender categories – along with other exclusive categories such as race and species (see the work of Greta Gaard on this subject).
These arguments provide an important basis for critiquing dominant political framings of and responses to extinction and prospect of mass extinction, in particular neoliberal logics of conservation. They suggest that the androcentric, extractive logics that gave rise to early capitalism undergird human activities that may lead to extinction. Yet, as Sian Sullivan’s excellent work attests to, the very same logics of accumulation, extraction and financialization are central to contemporary conservation efforts. In fact, since the inception of the term ‘biodiversity’ in the late 1980s, conservationists have sought to incentivize the protection of diverse life forms by emphasizing their resource value. In these discourses, even non-monetary forms of value – for instance, spiritual, scientific or aesthetic value – are treated as dwindling resources. Conservation, in this context, is framed as a means of accumulating, securing and managing capital in the hopes of a future profit. This logic has become particularly pronounced in discourses of ‘ecosystems services’, which attempt to re-evaluate ecosystems in terms of the ‘free’ services they provide to economies, and incentivise forms of development based on leveraging this ‘capital’.
Ecological feminist arguments focus attention on the cultures, norms and logics that underpin destructive human activity. They also historicize the convergence of the rise of capitalist economic organization, modern patriarchy, the separation of ‘humans’ and ‘nature’ and cultural frameworks that produce the destruction of ecosystems. This line of analysis helps to identify how neoliberal forms of conservation that understand ‘biodiversity’ in terms of capital and resources, in the nature of creative/destructive flows of capital, propel the exact same forces they resist. As a result, extinction is becoming an important propellor of neo-liberal capitalism. So, existing discourses and practices around extinction and the ‘management’ of biodiversity need to be understood as being enfolded in the processes of capitalism, sometimes quite literally. Emerging financial instruments such as ‘biodiversity banking’ and biodiversity derivatives epitomize this framing, but it is also reflected in the broader language and political economy of conservation. By highlighting the historicity, continuities and transformations of the central logics of capitalism and its embeddedness in relations of hierarchy, feminist critiques have an important role to play in re-thinking dominant frames of extinction and the commodification of biodiversity.
The reproduction of survival/ the survival of reproduction
Extinction is almost always understood against the horizon of survival and the imperative to sustain it – at least for life forms deemed to be of value to humans. In many cases, this imperative takes the form of deliberate strategies for enforcing existence. Donna Haraway’s influential book When Species Meet devotes considerable attention to the logics, practices and politics of Species Survival Plans. These plans monitor and enforce reproduction amongst ‘endangered’ species, not least by collecting data on populations, genetic profiles and genetic materials to enable selective breeding. This strategy assumes that all organisms can, should, and can be made to exercise their reproductive capacities in order to resist extinction, and it actively mobilizes members of ‘endangered species’ into this project. In so doing, it helps to entrench norms regarding gender, sexuality and reproductive labour that are deeply entrenched in modern, Western human cultures.
Attention to these programmes highlights an important way in which extinction is gendered in dominant scientific and policy frameworks. Specifically, strategic breeding programmes share in the belief that reproduction is an imperative for those capable of reproducing if ‘the species’ is at risk’. This belief is directly related to Western norms of the reproductive imperative for women. Indeed, Haraway points out that it is precisely “‘woman’s’ putative self-defining responsibility to ‘the species’ as this singular and typological female is reduced to her reproductive function”. In a similar sense, within SSPs and other strategies of enforced survival, entire life forms are reduced to their reproductive capacities. Moreover, programmes of enforced survival can, in the context of sexual reproduction, disproportionately burden female organisms with the task of avoiding extinction. This logic is particularly fraught in discussions of the possibility of human extinction, in which female fertility (captured in the standard policy language of ‘births per woman’) is framed simultaneously as a threat to survival, and the only hope for escaping extinction (see, for instance, Alan Weisman’s comments on this). In these ways, the securitization of survival entrenches the intersectional categories of gender, species and race discussed above.
Dominant discourses of extinction and conservation also entrench and privilege sexual reproduction, in ways that entrench heteronormative assumptions and norms.
This is reflected in the way that the subjects of extinction and conservation are framed. The standard object of conservation is the biological ‘species’, a term which is defined by the ability of organisms to reproduce sexually. As Myra Hird has pointed out, this conception of ‘species’ makes it appear as if sexual reproduction is the ‘best’ means of sustaining the existence of a life form. However, Hird’s work demonstrates that Earthly life forms actually engage in myriad forms of reproduction, from the free exchange of DNA between bacteria to the hermaphroditic practices of some fish. The upshot of these arguments is that Earthly life is sustained through a huge variety of reproductive activities that do not conform to biological understandings of life processes or species. Crucially, Hird argues that there is no necessary hierarchy between forms of reproduction. In Darwinian terms, all species that manage to survive are equally successful. However, by conflating survival with sexual reproduction, existing discourses of extinction embed hetero-normative frameworks that devalue other forms of reproduction. They also reduce reproduction to the imperative to survive, ignoring the myriad cultural, political, aesthetic, sensual and other dimensions of reproduction.
Extinction can be a mother….
In a related sense, feminists and eco-feminists have long problematized the implicit link made between the practices of mothering (attributed uncritically to all females) and ecological sustainability. Indeed, some eco-feminists – Mies and Shiva amongst them – make this a central plank of their arguments and political projects, calling for the mobilization of maternal care as a means of protecting future (human) generations. However, as Cate Sandilands has pointed out, aside from presuming that mothering is a fundamental feature of females in general, this approach does not cross species borders. Instead, she argues, it constrains women’s political action to the private sphere of the family and inter-human interactions. This, in turn, may enact severe cultural constraints on women’s sense of ethico-political agency in the face of the multi-species (perhaps pan-species) phenomenon that is extinction.
At the same time, the maternal archetype is often applied to the Earth as a whole. In some cases, this metaphor has a positive normative valence. For instance, indigenous and campesino-led movements in Ecuador and Bolivia have succeeded in creating new laws which recognize the rights of Pachamama (an Amazonian deity whose name is often translated as ‘Mother Earth’). These movements frame the Earth as a beloved female figure reliant on the protection of her (human) children.
A very different narrative can be found amongst the (predominantly male, especially in the field of human extinction) scientists who study extinction. In their discourses, the Earth is often presented as a ‘bad’ mother: that is, a volatile, withholding or even vengeful figure who cares little for humans. For instance, James Lovelock’s famous image of Gaia depicts the earth as a single, living organization that self-regulates myriad complex processes in order to ensure her life, while being indifferent to the comings and goings of the forms of life who compose her. Peter Ward proposes a different planetary avatar: the (once again, ancient Greek) figure of Media, “sorceress, a princess – and a killer of her own children”. In these two cases, extinction (of humans and other species) is understood to be a sign of ‘bad motherhood’. The Earth has shirked, or even subverted, the norms of nurturing and care to which ‘she’ is expected to confirm. Her indifference to the well-being of her ‘children’ is understood to be both cruel and capricious, and her fluctuations are interpreted as acts of revenge. Perhaps surprisingly (given that these arguments are made by self-identified scientists), extinction is presented as the product of emotion, the result of poorly-constrained female subjectivity crying out for the rationalised discipline historically associated with occidental notions of maleness.
These images draw on dominant Western gender stereotypes to portray the female planet as irrational, unstable, or capricious. From one perspective, such images might be subverted in order to unsettle the dominant conceptions of motherhood discussed above. However, in their current form, they gender extinction in a blunt way, framing it as the devastating outcome of allowing female subjectivity free rein. This calls for a re-appraisal of Merchant’s claim (see above) that the rise of modern European society marked the death of the Earth as a mother figure, particularly in industrial and scientific discourses. In these latter discourses, ‘she’ is not only presented as very much alive, but also as destructively deviant. Instead of inspiring care, ‘her’ persistence – her unwillingness to die, perhaps – prompts calls for increased instrumental control amongst these influential scientists. In this sense, ‘mother nature’ is made into the subject of exploitative control, whether dead or alive. Paying attention to this ‘undead’ version of the ‘Earth mother’ highlights the deeply gendered nature of dominant conceptions of extinction itself.
The death of (sexual) difference and the evolution of politics
Extinction does not just involve the death of organisms, but also the destruction of the forms of difference produced by evolution. Elizabeth Grosz re-reads the seminal works of Charles Darwin through the ideas of Luce Irigaray, arguing that evolution has given rise to irreducible sexual difference. Indeed, she argues that
“sexual selection ensures that sexual difference remains…irreducible to and impossible to generalize into a neutral and inclusive humanity. Sexual difference entails that…the human exists in two nonreducible forms… whose interests cannot be assumed to be the same, but may negotiate a common interest in collective survival”
For Grosz, these forms of irreducible difference each produce ‘endless variety’ on each side of the sexual bifurcation – including variations or intersexes that lie between its categories. She contends that Darwin’s notion of sexual selection anticipates one of Irigaray’s central claims: that the irreducibility of sexual difference makes possible the productive inventiveness that yields diverse forms of life as evolution moves through time. Attentiveness to the role of sexual difference in evolution, she claims, can provide the basis for a new feminism rooted in respect for radical otherness. In contrast, we can understand extinction as the ending of these processes, and of the vital, open-ended creativity they embody. From this perspective, extinction destroys the open-ended, creative processes of differentiation made possible by sexual difference. However, it might also form the focal point for new politics based on the recognition and cultivation of qualitative difference in kind – rather than (just) the commodified, financialized units of ‘biodiversity’.
Indeed, scholars of feminism and queer theory who have engaged directly with extinction argue that it can open up new horizons of ethico-political action. The possibility of mass extinction – and human extinction in particular – is often presented as the negation of all political possibility. However, the ‘figural extinction’ (see Colebrook, above) of gendered and hetero-normative conceptions of ‘humanity’ may also open up unprecedented opportunities to transform social norms and power structures that enforce inequalities of gender, sexuality, race and species. It is important to note that ‘figural extinction’ need not involve the biological elimination of homo sapiens or any other species; contemplating it does not require harbouring an extinction-wish. Instead, it points to the dissolution of the idea of a bounded, separate, superior ‘humanity’, and of the socio-cultural frameworks that sustain it.
Indeed, for Colebrook, contemplating the demise of homo sapiens forces one to think about what other kinds of life forms might evolve from, or instead of, ‘humanity’ as we know it. She also questions whether the dominant norm of ‘humanity’ can justify its existence, which is usually simply presupposed to be a cosmic good. Rather than an expression of misanthropy, Colebrook’s question urges humans to think how they might become otherwise. For instance, questioning the survival of humanity-as-it-is might pave the way for “a radical feminism could provide a genuine thought of life beyond the human. Here, there would be no woman who remains close to the earth, life, and cosmos: no woman who provides man with the other he has always required for his own redemption” (see Colebrook 2014).
In a similar sense, Rosi Braidotti ponders concrete, everyday forms of action that can connect the figural extinction of ‘humanity’ to political transformation. Specifically, she suggests that thinking and writing as if ‘humanity’ were already extinct is the ‘ultimate gesture of defamiliarization’. This, in turn, can help humans “think critically about who we are and what we are actually in the process of becoming”. Braidotti believes that engaging in this kind of ethico-political action can produce new modes of community and solidarity based on an “enlarged sense of inter-connection between self and others, including the non-human or ‘earth’ others”. This, in turn, can lead to an understanding of life that affirms and accommodates not only those forms of life that currently exist, but also those to come. Adopting this attitude, she contends, may counter-act the oppressive and often depoliticizing messages of catastrophe, and retrenchments of existing, exclusive forms of humanism, that are often prompted by public discourses on extinction.
For all of these authors, contemplating human extinction need not be a purely morbid or nihilistic pursuit. Instead, it can open modes of being to radical alterity, making possible transformations that are blocked by the firm normative boundaries that bolster modern humanism. Transcending these boundaries can open up diverse forms of life and flourishing that enable wholly new ways of being. From this perspective, extinction need not be simply a matter of death and destruction, but also of creativity, rejuvenation and the realization of possibilities – including radical conceptions of feminism, gender and queer theory.
This brief discussion suggests that there are multiple nodes of intersection between feminisms, queer theories and the concept of extinction. By exploring these intersections, it is possible to begin to open up the conceptual black box of extinction by deploying the tools and perspectives developed by decades of research in these fields. However, confronting extinction may also provide rich opportunities for advancing and deepening studies of gender and sexuality. My current research seeks to pluralize conceptions of (mass) extinction and possible responses to it. Instead of attempting to ‘(re)define’ extinction as a unitary concept, its goal is to proliferate public sources of inspiration for understanding and grappling with this phenomenon. I think that further exploration of the intersections briefly outlined here is one important pathway towards this goal.
How can one represent extinction, or the possibility of mass extinction? It’s always difficult to find ways of (re)presenting abstract ideas, but extinction seems to pose an additional challenge. Rather than an event or an object, it’s an unhappening, an unbecoming, an accumulation of absences, whether acknowledged or ignored. And how can one represent a phenomenon that’s unfolding at a planetary level (even a cosmic one, if we consider that the only known life is on Earth), and at the level of genes? It may be difficult and not entirely possible to do so. However, I think it’s crucial to multiply the modes of engagement with extinction if humans are to engage responsively with it. So I’ve been grappling with these questions in my latest art project, as my own small contribution to the project of multiplying responsiveness.
I started by exploring how extinction is depicted in various popular sources. I looked at the photos that accompany statistics on rates of extinction in newspapers and policy reports, as well as the covers of popular books on extinction. What most of these sources had in common was that they used organisms – and almost always animals – to represent extinction In other words, they focused on the positive presence of the creatures whose (impending) absence they are intended to draw attention to. What’s more, they tend to provide figural depictions of these organisms, reflecting them as whole, integral bodies.
The most (literally) monumental example of this is the Mass Extinction Memorial Observatory (MEMO) project currently being built on the island of Portland off the south coast of Dorset. The structure is ostensibly inspired by the fossils of extinct arthropods found on the island, and will be hewn out of the granite in which these fossils are embedded. It is intended to function as a ‘cathedral of biodiversity’, a ‘place of mourning and warning’ (and a fee-charging tourist destination). The building comprises an inner atrium housing a bell that will be rung each time a species is declared extinct. Visitors will ascend to the top of the building on a spiral walkway, whose walls will be inscribed with stone carvings of extinct beings. As the photos of some of the plaques suggest, these organisms are presented as stylized, figural, whole individuals, each meant to represent an entire species. This representation of extinction creates an impression that species go extinction ‘one-by-one’, that they disappear fully-formed. It does not reflect profound processes of fracturing, partial survival and inter-mingling that result in the fragmentation of life through extinction.
Riffing off the idea of a memorial-type response to (mass) extinction, but rejecting the idea of figural, monumental, representations, my project focuses precisely on fragmentation. It consists of a series of images produced through the projection of light through layered, painted glass fragments. To create the images, I started with pieces of broken glass (donated by my friends at Bon Papillon in Edinburgh). Each piece was painted not with the image of a whole, organism, but rather with a shard – a series of cells, a colony of bacteria, a swatch of feathers or skin. This produced around 35 fragments, which can be layered together to produce unique images – indeed, no two projections are exactly the same. Using slide projectors or mini-projectors, the images can be superimposed onto any surface in a darkened room. They work especially well on statues and the sides of buildings. In fact, one of the advantages of using projections is that they can be used as temporary graffiti, literally flashing images of extinction onto everyday urban structures and subverting the permanence they seek to embody. Indeed, in contrast to the MEMO carvings, these projections are deliberately not made to last. Like the forms of life they represent, they are ephemeral and constantly transforming; this is the source of their ability to subvert.
This project is one modest attempt to contribute to the burgeoning of artistic representations of (mass) extinction. Although it engages critically with some existing projects, its aim is not to undercut their value, but rather to provide a different interpretation and mode of response. Indeed, my goal is not to provide a definitive image of mass extinction. Rather, it expresses a desire to multiply and pluralize the ways in which people engage with this world-altering phenomenon.
Some examples of the eco-fragments projections: