Tag Archives: extinction

Decolonizing against extinction part II: Extinction is not a metaphor – it is literally genocide



Buffalo Calf by Mark Spearman Licensed under Creative Commons 2.0 Generic.

Extinction is not a metaphor…

Extinction has become an emblem of Western, and white-dominated, fears about ‘the end of the(ir) world’. This scientific term is saturated with emotional potency, stretched and contorted to embody almost any nightmare, from climate change to asteroid strikes. In academic and public contexts alike, it is regularly interchanged with other terms and concepts – for instance, ‘species death’, global warming or ecological collapse. Diffused into sublime scales – mass extinctions measured in millions of (Gregorian calendar) years, a planet totalized by the threat of nuclear destruction – ‘extinction’ has become an empty superlative, one that that gestures to an abstract form of unthinkability. It teases Western subjects with images of generalized demise that might, if it gets bad enough, even threaten us, or the figure of ‘humanity’ that we enshrine as a universal. This figure of ‘humanity’, derived from Western European enlightenment ideals, emphasizes individual, autonomous actors who are fully integrated into the global market system; who are responsible citizens of nation-states; who conform to Western ideas of health and well-being; who partake of ‘culture’; who participate in democratic state-based politics; who refrain from physical violence; and who manage their ‘resources’ responsibly (Mitchell 2014).

Oddly, exposure to the fear of extinction contributes to the formation and bolstering of contemporary Western subjects. Contemplating the sublime destruction of ‘humanity’ offers the thrill of abjection: the perverse pleasure derived from exposure to something by which one is revolted. Claire Colebrook detects this thrill-seeking impulse in the profusion of Western blockbuster films and TV shows that imagine and envision the destruction of earth, or at least of ‘humanity’. It also throbs through a flurry of recent best-selling books – both fiction and speculative non-fiction (see Oreskes and Conway 2014; Newitz 2013; Weisman 2008). In a forthcoming intervention, Noah Theriault and I (2018) argue that these imaginaries are a form of porn that normalizes the profound violences driving extinction, while cocooning its viewers in the secure space of the voyeur. Certainly, there are many Western scientists, conservationists and policy-makers who are genuinely committed to stopping the extinction of others, perhaps out of fear for their own futures. Yet extinction is not quite real for Western, and especially white, subjects; it is a fantasy of negation that evokes thrill, melancholy, anger and existential purpose. It is a metaphor that expresses the destructive desires of these beings, and the negativity against which we define our subjectivity.

But extinction is not a metaphor: it is a very real expression of violence that systematically destroys particular beings, worlds, life forms and the relations that enable them to flourish. These are real, unique beings, worlds and relations – as well as somebody’s family, Ancestors, siblings, future generations – who are violently destroyed. Extinction can only be used unironically as a metaphor by people who have never been threatened with it, told it is their inevitable fate, or lost their relatives and Ancestors to it – and who assume that they probably never will.

This argument is directly inspired by the call to arms issued in 2012 by Eve Tuck and Wayne K. Yang and more recently by Cutcha Risling-Baldy. The first, seminal piece demonstrates how settler cultures use the violence of metaphorical abstraction to excuse themselves from the real work of decolonization: ensuring that land and power is in Indigenous hands. Risling-Baldy’s brilliant follow-up extends this logic to explain how First People like Coyote have been reduced to metaphors through settler appropriation. In both cases, engagement with Indigenous peoples and their relations masks moves to innocence: acts that make it appear as if settlers are engaging in decolonization, while in fact we are consolidating the power structures that privilege us.

In this series, want to show how Western, and white-dominated, discourses on ‘extinction’ appear to address the systematic destruction of peoples and other beings while enacting moves to innocence that mask their culpability and perpetuate structures of violence. As I argued in Part I of this series, extinction is an expression of colonial violence. As such, it needs to be addressed through direct decolonization, including the dismantling of settler colonial structures of violence, and the resurgence of Indigenous worlds. Following Tuck, Yang and Risling-Baldy’s lead,  I want to show how and why the violences that drive extinction have come to be invisible within mainstream discourses. Salient amongst these is the practice of genocide against Indigenous peoples other than humans.

…it is literally genocide.

What Western science calls ‘extinction’ is not an unfortunate, unintended consequence of desirable ‘human’ activities. It is an embodiment of particular patterns of  structural violence that disproportionately affect specific racialized groups.  In some cases, ‘extinction’ is directly, deliberately and systematically inflicted in order to create space for aggressors, including settler states. For this reason, it has rightly been framed as an aspect or tool of colonial genocides against Indigenous human peoples. Indeed, many theorists have shown that the ‘extirpation’ of life forms (their total removal from a particular place) is an instrument for enacting genocide upon Indigenous humans (see Mazis 2008; Laduke 1999; Stannard 1994). Specifically, the removal of key sources of food, clothing and other basic materials makes survival on the land impossible for the people targeted.

Nehiyaw thinker Tasha Hubbard (2014) makes a qualitatively distinct argument. She points out that the Buffalo are First People, the elder brothers of the Nehiyaw people (and other Indigenous nations – see Benton-Banai 2010). Starting in the mid-1800s, the tens of millions of buffalo that ranged across Turtle Island were nearly eliminated through strategic patterns of killing carried out by settler-state-sponsored military and commercial forces. Their killing was linked to governmental imperatives to clear and territorially annex the Great Plains by removing its Indigenous peoples. As Hubbard points out, methods of destroying buffalo herds included large-scale killing, but also the disruption of their social structures, the destruction of the ecosystems on which they rely, and the removal of calves. These acts involve each of the components of the definition of genocide enshrined in the UN Genocide Convention: 

(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

From Hubbard’s viewpoint, rooted in Nehiyaw philosophy and ethical-legal principles, the  systematic destruction of the buffalo is not like genocide, nor is it exclusively a tool for carrying out genocide against human peoples. It is genocide in its own right: an attempt to destroy a particular First People and the possibilities of its continuity. In other words, the deliberate and systematic attempt to eliminate the buffalo, enacted by settler states, simultaneously enacted genocide against Indigenous peoples and their nonhuman relatives.

Genocides of Indigenous peoples (human and otherwise) continue apace in contemporary settler states, transformed into multiple manifestations. For instance, they are integral to ‘biosecurity’ strategies designed to police the biological boundaries of these states and their citizens. Laced with racializing and xenophobic rhetoric (Subramaniam 2001), strategies such as culling or planned


Flying fox and her cub by Richard Wasserman licensed under Creative Commons 2.0. Attribution-Non-commercial-Non-Derivs

eradications are intended to remove ‘invasive’ or ‘foreign’ life forms in order to protect ‘Native’ ones. Many of the ‘invasive’ life forms targeted for destruction were transported to unfamiliar lands through colonial patterns of settlement and global trade flows.

However, this logic of elimination (Wolfe 2006) is often perverted, turned against Indigenous* beings whose flourishing impedes the expansion or consolidation of the colonial state. For instance, Deborah Bird Rose (2011 a, 2011 b) shows how this form of violence is continually waged against flying foxes, who are framed by the settler state as “pest[s] whose extinction is [deliberately] sought”. This act of elimination involves explicit genocidal ideation, or the imagination of the destruction of a people. Rose characterizes it as a “matter of imagining a world without [dingoes or flying foxes], then setting out to create it” (Rose 2011a). The Australian settler state has used multiple tactics to induce terror and preclude flourishing amongst flying foxes, from the emission of high-pitched electronic signals to smearing trees with python excrement (Rose 2011b). Indeed, in 2014, I lived near to the roosting site of a group of flying foxes in Turrbal and Jagera Country (suburban Brisbane to settlers). Such nesting places are called ‘colonies’ , reflecting a Western scientific rhetoric that frames Indigenous peoples as ‘invaders’ of the settler state. The trees that housed the nesting site backed onto a municipal facility, whose fence had been covered with barbed wire, in which many of the bats snared their wings and starved to death.  This ‘security’ measure – designed to protect the facilities relied upon by urban settlers from the intrusion of flying foxes – is a powerful weapon for precluding ongoing flourishing of Indigenous other-than-human peoples. I learned from neighbours that this ‘colony’ had previously been ‘moved’ from several other sites around the city, suffering significant declines in population each time. Indeed, despite reported declines of 95% in flying fox communities in Queensland and neighbouring New South Wales, the Queensland settler state legalized the shooting of the bats in 2012 by fruitgrowers.

Of course, in some cases, the elimination of life forms is not as targeted or intentional – it may take the form of land-based extractive violence, the creep of ocean acidification, the decimation of rainforests by climate change. Proponents of a Eurocentric definition of genocide could argue that these events lack intention. Indeed, within international law, intention to commit genocide is a necessary criteria for conviction. However, theorists of critical genocide studies have long argued that this definition is inadequate: it brackets out a great many of the acts, logics and structures that produce the destruction of unique peoples. According to Tony Barta, definitions of genocide that focus on ‘purposeful annihilation’, and in particular on physical killing, have “devalu[ed] all other concepts of less planned destruction, even if the effects are the same” (Barta 2000, 238). For this reason, he shifts the focus from ‘genocidal intention’ to ‘genocidal outcome’ – that is, from the abstract assignation of genocidal agency to the felt and embodied effects of eliminative violence. It is the focus on intent, he contends, that allows white Australians to imagine that their relationship with Aboriginal people is non-genocidal despite overwhelming evidence of systematic and deliberate racialized destruction over several centuries. In contrast, an approach based on ‘genocidal outcomes’ makes it possible to account for complex causality and weak intentionality – that is, for myriad acts mediated by subtle, normalized structures that, together, work to eliminate a people. I want to argue that the same logic applies to nonhuman peoples: the destruction of a life form, its relations with other beings and its possible futures is a genocidal outcome, whether or not intention can be identified.

Similarly, Christopher Powell (2007) argues that, since a ‘genos’ is a

“network of practical social relations, destruction of a genos means the forcible breaking down of those relationships…these effects could be produced without a coherent intent to destroy. They could result from sporadic and uncoordinated actions whose underlying connection is the production of a new society in which there is simply no room for the genos in question to exist. They might even result from well-meaning attempts to do good” (Powell 2007, 538)

As I have argued elsewhere, extinction is defined by the breaking of relations and the systematic destruction of the conditions of plurality that nurture co-flourishing worlds. Whether inflicted out as a deliberate act of extirpation, or as the convergent effect of eliminative logics expressed over centuries and enormous spatial scales, extinction is the destruction of relations and the heterogenous societies they nurture.

Understood in this way, ‘extinction’ is not a metaphor for genocide or other forms of large-scale violence: it is a distinct manifestation of genocide. Masking the genocidal logics that drive extinction involves several moves to innocence (Tuck and Yang 2012). Treating extinction as something short of genocide entrenches Eurocentric understandings of personhood that are limited to homo sapiens, which is itself an act of violence against these peoples. Ironically, the entrenchment of this dichotomy also enables the logic of ‘dehumanization’, in which human communities are likened to reviled nonhumans (for instance, cockroaches) in order to motivate violence against them. As I have argued elsewhere (Mitchell 2014), the logic of generalised ‘dehumanisation’ is uniquely effective in Western frameworks in which the lack of ethical status for beings other than humans removes obstacles to their mass destruction. Within worlds in which human and nonhuman persons are linked through complex systems of law, treaties, protocols and long-standing relations, this claim is illogical. Within Western settler states, however, it functions as a means of justifying ongoing violence against Indigenous peoples and their relations.

In addition, by framing extinction as a problem for a universal figure of ‘humanity’ (more on this to follow…) mainstream discourses of extinction obscure its profound entwinement with race and racializing structures.  These examples make it clear that eliminative violence is targeted on specific groups of people and their other-than-human relations, as defined by the aggressors. Indeed, patterns of genocidal violence extend racializing categories, hierarchies and eliminative impulses to other-than-human peoples. Just as approaching gender violence separately from race effaces their intersection, understanding extinction as distinct from race is deeply misleading. This is not only because racialized people are more likely to suffer from the effects of ‘extinction’ and other forms of environmental racism (which they are). It is also because the eliminative violence that drives extinction extend and enact race beyond the category of homo sapiens by defining particular groups against white settler norms and as threats to the settler society. To approach extinction separately from issues of race is, therefore, to miss one of its most defining features.

Extinction is not a metaphor – in many cases, it is quite literally genocide enacted against Indigenous peoples and their other-than-human relations. To treat it as a metaphor is to obscure and participate in the structures of violence that drive it. From this perspective, in addition to active decolonisation efforts, and the resurgence of Indigenous peoples, addressing extinction also requires attacking the genocidal, racializing,  eliminative logics that are diffused throughout settler (and other) states. It also requires honouring the unique relations, worlds and peoples that are targeted by these discourses and practices.

*In this context (referring to flying foxes and other non-human peoples), I use the term ‘Indigenous’ to refer to the historical inhabitation and co-constitution of a particular place, and enmeshment in meaningful relationships with the other beings that co-constitute that place. Within this perspective, life forms deemed ‘exotic’ or even ‘invasive’ in Western science could potentially become part of that place if accepted by, and in mutually beneficial relations with, existing communities. I use the term in contrast to narratives of ‘native’ or, sometimes ‘Indigenous’ species, which make dichotomous distinctions between those beings deemed to be ‘endogenous’ and ‘exogenous’.





Can water go extinct?



Water, and its protectors, are fighting for survival. As I’m writing, the Supreme Court of Canada is hearing historic legal challenges from the Chippewas of the Thames and the Inuit of the Clyde River. The Chippewas are protesting the reversal of and increased flow along Enbridge’s Line 9, which transports oil through more than 100 waterways across southern Ontario and Quebec. The Inuit of the Clyde River, Nunavut, are protesting seismic testing by mining corporations that threatens to disrupt or displace marine life forms on which they rely. Both parties are presenting evidence that decisions on these extractive processes were made in violation of treaty rights.

A matter of hours before these cases were heard, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau approved two more major pipeline projects in British Columbia –  the Transmountain and Line 3 projects – that will vastly expand the amount of oil transported from the Alberta Tar Sands to global markets. These pipelines will also increase the exposure of the province’s rivers and coasts to the threat of chemical spills from the pipes themselves and increased tanker traffic, whose possible negative effects on marine life have not been sufficiently examined. 

The toxification of water in Canada, and especially in Aboriginal communities, is a constant threat to livelihoods and ways of life. Just a week before the Supreme Court Hearings, a report by the Toronto Star found that residents of Asubpeeschoseewagong First Nation (Grassy Narrows) Ontario, are consuming fish containing 13 times the acceptable levels of mercury. This is the ongoing and neglected legacy of the dumping of 10 tons of mercury into the Wabigoon River in the 1960s.

And of course, further south, one of the most remarkable social movements of the this generation is taking place. Militarized police forces are using water cannons, rubber bullets, barbed wire and old-fashioned physical violence to protect pipeline developers against thousands of water protectors, composed largely of members of the Sioux Nation and their allies, camped at Standing Rock. Whether in court, in the camp or in their own communities, water protectors are putting their bodies on the line to demonstrate that ‘water is life’.

If water is life, can it die, can it go extinct – and does this matter? At the moment, I am working to re-think mainstream accounts of extinction so that they better reflect the enormity of what is at stake. Standard biological definitions – ‘the death of every member of a species’ – are fraught with exclusions and constraints that, despite feverish rhetoric surrounding  a possible ‘sixth mass extinction event’, actually downplay the gravity of the situation. My (developing) ideas on global extinction are not conventional. I refuse to focus only on ‘species’ that are deemed to be ‘living’ within Western scientific frameworks of knowledge. Instead, I am examining how structures  of violence – in particular, colonial and extractive modalities – destroy the continuity of worlds and the co-constitution of the beings that create them.

From this perspective, global extinction is not just an ‘(unintended) effect’ emerging from the actions of ‘humans’ as a whole. Instead, it is a mode of structured destruction, a large-scale syndrome of combined violences concentrated in particular places and sustained by the efforts and power of particular groups of humans. These structures are uniquely global – and I don’t use this term to refer to a ‘neutral’ measure of scale. Rather, it reflects a particular mode of large-scale worlding, rooted in European images of an encompassing globe, that seeks to elide itself with earth (for more thoughts on this, check out last month’s post). These structures fracture worlds, protocols, life forms and collective continuities achieved amongst them.

If we approach global extinction this way, how does water fit in? Can it die, and can in go extinct?  In a recent book, Elizabeth Povinelli asks whether rocks can die. She has particular rocks in mind: Two Women Sitting Down, two female rat and bandicoot Dreamings in the Northern Territory in Australia. In 2011, the Two Women were fractured by OM Manganese, the mining company extracting minerals in the region for export to Chinese markets. Although this was the first legal suit in which destruction of a sacred site was successfully brought by Indigenous owners in Australia, the amount of the damages awarded ($150 000) was paltry.

Two Women Sitting Down

Two Women Sitting Down

More to the point, though, Povinelli stresses that the charge was not manslaughter, but rather desecration of a sacred site. Her work has long documented the ways in which state actors pay lip service to the animacy of Dreamings. In fact, they often demand that Indigenous communities perform certain ‘beliefs’ that confirm Western stereotypes and standards of ‘authenticity’. But at the same time, it is clear that the animacy of these beings is regarded by state actors as a matter of ‘belief’, ‘myth’ or ‘metaphor’, rather than knowledge. This explains why the destruction of Two Women Sitting Down did not ‘count’ as a killing, but rather a kind of offence against ‘beliefs’.

According to Povinelli, Two Women Sitting Down and other Dreamings challenge the basic foundations of geontology: the structures of power and knowledge in which ‘Life’ is divided from ‘Non-life’ within Western scientific culture. For Povinelli, geontology underpins all forms of bio-, necro- and thanato-politics. These are strategies used to manage life and death through, amongst other strategies, population control, security regimes, conservation practices and genetic engineering. Geontology also provides the foundations for the construction of resources, commodification and the circulation of capital by designating what does and does not have ethical standing – and therefore, what can be used as ‘resource’. ‘Non-Life’ almost always falls into the ‘resource’ category.

Simply by existing as themselves, figures like Two Women Sitting Down unsettle the boundaries between Life and Non-Life – and, I would argue of the scope of harm (or something like it). This does not only go for rocks. Povinelli also writes about Tjipel, a ‘transgender creek’ whose multiple becomings – as human girl, river, resource, Dreaming, home, relation, possible fracking site and more – confound geontological categories.

Other bodies of water, too, are asserting themselves across geontological boundaries to transform politics. For instance, in 2012, the Whanganui River in Aotearoa New Zealand was given a legal identity under the name Te Awa Tupua (claims to traditional ownership of the river are ongoing). This gave the river the same rights and interests long offered to corporations. In asserting its personhood in legal terms, Te Awa Tupua became the first body of water to receive this status. However, formal legal status is not required for water to disrupt entrenched, colonial political categories. The water protectors at Standing Rock, on the coast of British Columbia, all along Line 9, the Clyde River, Grassy Narrows and elsewhere are not just advocating for water, but as water. This constitutes another powerful challenge to dominant political regimes, and asserts water as a political and ethical being, that can live, die and experience harms.

But can water ‘go extinct’, and does this matter? If so, this might offer a way to bring the status of water as life into mainstream discourses – not as an alternative to recognising the political, ethical and legal status of water, but rather as a complement. Before exploring this question, it’s important to distinguish death from extinction, especially in the way I’m re-framing these terms. As Deborah Bird Rose has pointed out, life and death intertwine so that death is twisted back into life, in part through the collective efforts of the living, ensuring the continuity of multi-life-form communities. Extinction destroys both life and death –  as such, it cannot be the same as death, or simply a scaled-up version of death. I would add to this that while death refers to the Western scientific definition for the cessation of life in an individual organism, extinction applies to multi-life-form collectives. That is, extinction is the destruction of plural modes of being, their deep histories and contingent futures. Also, as I have argued above, global extinction is not just an accumulation of deaths, or even of species extinctions, but large-scale structures of violence that sever the creative continuities of life.

Water is not included in mainstream discourses of extinction, except occasionally as a factor in the deaths of animal or, more rarely, plant populations. That is, water is not considered to be a being capable of going extinct, or a subject of extinction. This assumption exemplifies the kinds of geontological and biontological reasoning that Povinelli is concerned with. Unlike many other cosmologies, in Western science, water is understood as a form of Nonlife that relates to Life as a resource that supports its vital processes. However, a closer look at Western understandings of water show that these assumptions do not hold water.

This understanding of water imagines it as a pure, neutral medium that is somehow outside of, or an external medium for life (and its messy, colliding histories), a resource that life ‘uses’ instrumentally. Under the banner of H20, Western cultures frame water in terms of its chemical composition, as a ‘pure’ substance or theoretical abstraction. Jamie Linton calls this imaginary substance ‘modern water’. In fact, actual waters are co-constituted by beings that are usually coded as ‘life’ in Western terms. This includes not only macro-fauna such as fish, algae or kelp, but also the myriad bacterial and other microscopic beings, alive and dead, that constitute it. These beings cannot be meaningfully separated from water,  so water is not just a ‘resource’ for them, but the condition of their existence. Similarly, the ‘modern water’ paradigm promotes an imaginary, generic idea of water that is ultimately the same in its physical properties wherever it appears, give or take differences in temperature, salinity, mineral content and so forth, and of course, the effects of ‘pollution’.  In fact, waters are also made plural by the singular constellations of beings – classed as Life and Non-Life, organic and inorganic, by Western science – that co-constitute them. As such, the toxification, damming or other damaging of a body of water constitutes the destruction of unique worlds, not the manipulation of a generic substance.

At the same time, it is better known that water constitutes living beings. It is a well-worn cliche that water makes up most of the human body, including the structure of living cells. However, less recognized is the way in which water is the condition of the modes of being coded as ‘Life’ by Western science. Instead, it tends to be treated as a resource that is separate from organisms and brought into them through eating, drinking or absorption. On the contrary, water is as much a milieu for ‘land-dwelling’ creatures as air is. It is not outside of bodies, but always-already part of them. Beyond nourishing bodies, quenching their thirst and lubricating their movements, water conditions and transforms life.  Moving through bodies and worlds, it leaves traces or concentrations of toxicity that inhibit life or force it into new modes of growth. Patterns of evaporation and rainfall creatively constrain the life forms that emerge in the effort for collective survival (for instance, the difference between rainforest amphibians and desert plants). The volume and direction of rivers affects not only access to water, but also the way that life orients itself in space towards or away from it. Water conducts sound – greatly intensified by shipping and mining – that can allow cetaceans to communicate, but also injure, disorient and displace them, along with other marine life forms and the communities that live in concert with them. In all of these cases, water is an inalienable condition of life, not a substrate that ‘Life’ uses instrumentally.

From this perspective, life is co-constituted by water and vice versa (to say nothing of how water co-constitutes other forms of ‘Non-Life’, including place, climate, air and soil). Changes in water alter the conditions for the flourishing of life forms and can drive their extinction. But at the same time, the elimination or displacement of life forms that co-constitute water undermine its conditions and the singular worlds it forms. Of course it is possible theoretically to imagine an abstract version of H20 without any traces of ‘Life’ or other forms of ‘Nonlife’, but this would not be the concrete, plural waters on which multi-life-form worlds rely. So, even from perspective rooted in Western science, water co-constitutes, is co-constituted by, and therefore is life. Carried to its logical conclusions, Western science finally,  arrives where multiple bodies of Indigenous thought have dwelled for millennia.

Viewed in this way, water can go extinct, in the sense that I have described above. That is, water is a co-constituent of multi-life form worlds whose integrity and continuity is severed when any of them are destroyed. Another way of putting this is to say that it is impossible to understand global extinction without including water (or air, or soil, but those require a separate discussion). The harm and destruction of global extinction are distributed across bodies, boundaries, ‘species’ and geontological categories in such a way that their full impact can’t be grasped if any of these beings are excluded. From this perspective, the harms and violences of global extinction accrue directly to water in itself, not just as an indirect resource for life.

What is the advantage of understanding water as a subject of extinction? First, this approach helps to break down divisions that impose particular ontologies and denigrate forms of being that don’t ‘count as Life’. In so doing, it provides another fulcrum for destabilising dominant modes of politics that exclude ‘Non-Life’ (including forms of life categorised as such). This can complement the powerful efforts of Indigenous groups and their allies around the world to assert the living status of water. Second, this approach offers a much more comprehensive account of extinction and the enormity of the damage it inflicts across worlds.  In a similar sense, understanding the destruction of waters as part of global extinction underscores the importance of water for the continuity of life on earth in a broader, more-than-human ethical sense. Third, understanding threats to water in terms of global extinction offers another way of highlighting, diagnosing and resisting the structured destructions, slow and fast violences advancing across the earth. It is important to stress that this argument is indebted to Indigenous knowledges about water and not intended to displace them with yet another ‘Western’ approach. On the contrary, my aim is to show Western knowledge systems and political powers cannot avoid facing the consequences of their arbitrary distinctions between ‘Life’ and ‘Nonlife’, and the violences carried out in order to maintain them.

Ignoring Extinction/Refusing Global Politics


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…)


*Please also see Lifework Part II*

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.

Photo Aug 25, 09 52 55.jpg

Some members of the Creatures Collective co-writing. Clockwise from right: Zoe Todd, Erik Mandawe, June Rubis, Noah Theriault, Audra Mitchell. Other member of the collective include Sarah Wright, Tim Leduc, Vanessa Watts and Genese Sodikoff.

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.






Gendering extinction

"Improvisation 7.09" by Dominic Minichiello (Cover image for Sex After Life by Claire Colebrook (http://bit.ly/1N4IUbg)

“Improvisation 7.09” by Dominic Minichiello (Cover image for Sex After Life by Claire Colebrook (http://bit.ly/1N4IUbg)

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.

Sea anemones reproducing asexually. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons (http://bit.ly/1MI842n)

Sea anemones reproducing asexually. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons (http://bit.ly/1MI842n)

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.

representation of Pachamama. Courtesy of Wikimedia commons (http://bit.ly/1MI7GRj)

representation of Pachamama. Courtesy of Wikimedia commons (http://bit.ly/1MI7GRj).

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.


Eco-fragments: (re)presenting mass extinction

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.

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Images from the MEMO website: http://www.memoproject.org

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: 

Eco-fragments 1

Eco-fragments 1 by Audra Mitchell. All rights reserved.

Eco-fragments 2. All rights reserved.

Eco-fragments 2 by Audra Mitchell. All rights reserved.

Eco-fragments 3. All rights reserved.

Eco-fragments 3 by Audra Mitchell. All rights reserved.

Eco-fragments 4. All rights reserved.

Eco-fragments 4 by Audra Mitchell. All rights reserved.


Eco-fragments 5 by Audra Mitchell. All rights reserved.

Eco-fragments 6. All rights reserved.

Eco-fragments 6 by Audra Mitchell. All rights reserved.

Eco-fragments 7. All rights reserved.

Eco-fragments 7 by Audra Mitchell. All rights reserved.

Eco-fragments 8. All rights reserved.

Eco-fragments 8 by Audra Mitchell. All rights reserved.

Posthumanist post-colonialism?

In 1987, a group of leading conservation biologists called for a “new age of exploration and classification of the biosphere on a scale to rival that of the colonization of the new world”. And indeed, scientific-political responses to mass extinction have taken

Baby rhinoceros in ex situ conservation programme. Photo by Ritu Raj Konwa, TheHindu.com.

Baby rhinoceros in ex situ conservation programme. Photo by Ritu Raj Konwa, TheHindu.com.

markedly colonial forms. For instance, huge effort and resource has been invested in the collection of comprehensive data on existing species, as reflected in projects such as the IUCN’s Red List and the ‘Encyclopedia of Life’. These projects employ the distinctly colonial strategy of using taxonomic knowledge to subjectify and control the Other (see, for instance, Said 2003). Indeed, the objective of these data collection programmes is to support biopolitical efforts to ‘make life live’, or, in Achille Mbembe’s words, to ‘abolish mortality’. This goal is most directly reflected in ‘ex situ conservation’ programmes. In these contexts, life forms classified as endangered are entered into global breeding programmes and made to reproduce in ways that are often indistinguishable from coercion (see the work of Van Dooren and Chrulew). These strategies exemplify a colonial logic in which billions of beings are suspended between being and nothingness “dwel[ling] close to death” in a state of “half life” (Mbembe 2001). In this context, all life on Earth is imagined as wretched: driven to the edge of extinction yet (selectively) forced to remain in existence.

What framework can one use to engage critically with these kinds of responses to mass extinction? On the one hand, they are clearly linked with the maintenance of boundaries, hierarchies, violence and power dynamics used to separate humans and other beings. From this perspective, they look like issues for posthumanist critique. On the other hand, the particular logics and strategies used in response to mass extinction owe much to the repertoire of colonial thought and practice, and therefore demand insights from postcolonial and decolonial thought. Engaging critically with responses to mass extinction seems to call for a form of engagement that synthesizes the two. And this is far from the only issue that makes such a demand. To name just a few, the logics and practices surrounding geo-engineering, synthetic biology, and space colonization all cry out for this kind of response. Why, then, do the two bodies of thought remain so separate?

Rob Nixon and Graham Huggan have each helped to explain why proponents of environmental thinking and postcolonialism have been reluctant to join forces. For Nixon, US-dominated environmentalist narratives have traditionally clashed with the aims and ethos of postcolonial thinkers in several ways. For instance, he argues that where the former stressed purity (e.g. of ‘wildnerness’) and connection to place, the latter has tended to place more value on hybridity and cosmopolitanism. Moreover, he contends that the anti-humanist strains of some strands of environmentalism jar with the postcolonial commitment to humanism and equality. By framing certain groups of humans as ‘excessive’ (primarily in terms of population), they appear to reproduce the violent logics of colonial power. For his part, Huggan points out that environmentalism is viewed by some postcolonial theorists as yet another means for extending neocolonial forms of control. The example of colonial conservation, discussed above, does little to dispel this fear. From these perspectives, the orientations and normative commitments of the two approaches seem to pull in different directions.

However, it is crucial to note that Nixon and Huggan are writing about environmentalism, and not posthumanism (for a brief introduction, see this post). Posthumanists might be environmentalists, or not – and vice versa. Rather than espousing a particular ideal of an ‘environment’ to be preserved, posthumanism does precisely what it says on the tin: it attempts to decentre and deconstruct dogmatic forms of humanism. While many variations of posthumanist thought focus on the relations between humans and other beings, they do not necessarily espouse the notion of an ‘environment’ (let alone ‘nature’). Instead, they are concerned with the boundaries and hierarchies constructed between beings, and with what these structures efface. However, for precisely this reason, the integration of posthumanism and postcolonialism might be an even harder sell.

There are good reasons for posthumanists to engage with postcolonial thought in order to contest the erased histories and power dynamics that have entrenched exclusive norms of ‘humanity’ and its planetary dominance. In other words, it is quite logical to imagine decolonial or postcolonial posthumanist approaches, and some authors have already begun to elaborate them. For instance, Erika Cudworth and Stephen Hobden have shown how norms of ‘civilization’ underpin assumptions about a firm boundary between humans and other animals, and of the dominance of the former over the latter. Deconstructing these standards, they claim, denaturalizes claims about both the superiority of humans over ‘nature’, and of certain groups of humans over each other. In making this argument, Cudworth and Hobden call for the exploration of “new possibilities for humanism without the imperialist baggage of a civilising mission”. Nonetheless, their work seeks to unsettle the humanist ethos that lies at the heart of postcolonial theory.

However, the central place of humanism in postcolonial theory prevents an easy reconciliation with posthumanism. This raises a crucial question: could there be a posthumanist postcolonialism? Moreover, are there good reasons for postcolonial theorists to adopt a posthumanist perspective? What’s in it for them? I want to argue that there are, indeed, very strong reasons for adopting this kind of perspective. Most importantly, posthumanist perspectives can help to resolve a perennial tension within postcolonialism: the tendency of humanism to entrench the conditions of dehumanization. Several of the key texts of postcolonial theory identify dehumanization as one of the primary tools of colonial rule. In his introduction to Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, Jean-Paul Sartre contends that violence in the colonies does not only have for its aim the keeping of…enslaved men at arm’s length; it seeks to dehumanize them”. Dehumanization is said to occur when biologically human subjects are socially constructed as any one of a range of nonhuman beings: threatening animals (lions, hippopotami, ants, gorillas, even zombies or tribal masks) (Mbembe 2001); ‘things’ (Césaire 1955); or ‘vegetal’ forms (Fanon, 1963) that can be harvested like the ‘fruits of the trees’ (Arendt, 1976). Moreover, Aimé Césaire contends that dehumanization applies not only to the subjects of colonialism, but also redounds onto the colonizers. As he puts it, “colonization…dehumanizes even the most civilized man”.


‘Dingo-proof’ fence, Australia – a literal expression of the boundary between humans and other animals. Photo by James Woodford Sydney Morning Herald.

As I have argued elsewhere, dehumanization functions only when it is possible to posit a sharp boundary between the onto-ethical category of ‘humanity’ and everything else in the universe. In order for it to be effective – that is, in order for dehumanizors to get other people to treat another being as ‘dehumanized’ – two conditions must be in place. First, there must be a widespread belief that anything that does not fit the normative criteria of ‘humanity’ has no ethical standing and can be disposed of with impunity. It is only on this basis that dehumanization functions as an expeditor and justification of violence. Second, it must be assumed that there is a firm boundary separating ‘humans’ from ‘nonhumans’, and that simply categorizing a being on one side or the other is enough to determine its onto-ethical status. As Samera Esmeir puts it, this logic underpins “the idea that humanity can be given or taken back”. In short, the functionality of dehumanization utterly relies on the positing of a firm boundary between humans and other beings.

One of the most important normative tools of postcolonialism is to assert the humanity of the oppressed in the face of the peoples and structures that would dehumanize them. For instance, Fanon interpellates colonial subjects to ‘rehabilitate mankind’ by demanding their rightful membership in the category of humanity. Similarly, Said undermines the claims of dehumanizing colonial logics by invoking universal humanism based on shared rationality. Yet their calls have ironic consequences. Paradoxically, by asserting one’s ‘humanness’, one entrenches the set of beliefs that renders it revocable.

There are several ways of countering the logic of dehumanization without entrenching its basic onto-ethical principles. One is to invoke a transcendental notion of ‘humanity’, rooted in a divine realm that is not subject to the transformations and manipulations of human agency. This type of belief underpins Christian (and other transcendental) systems in which humanity is endowed by the divine. This kind of argument helps to address the second condition of dehumanization: the belief that humans (or their social structures) can invest or divest beings with humanity. However, it may also entrench rigid and timeless norms of ‘humanity’. And, as Neta Crawford  has argued, it is the ability to extend or otherwise alter the boundaries of ‘humanity’ that has enabled the recognition of the ethical standing of many peoples. A posthumanist account, on the other hand, offers an immanent means for addressing this problem that retains, in fact affirms, the fluidity of being and becoming on Earth.This approach rejects both of the conditions of dehumanization, undermining its possibility. It requires embracing the idea that there is no such thing as a ‘pure’ human – just as there is no such thing as a ‘pure race’, or ‘untouched nature’. Esmeir  identifies the embryo of this idea in Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth. He argues that dehumanization (and (re-)humanization) will always be partial processes, “because the nonhuman coexists with and within the human”. The force of Fanon’s argument lies in the assertion that a being can retain its ‘humanity’ – that is, its ethical core – even when the boundaries between it and other forms of being are dissolved.

Adopting this orientation would involve recognizing the multitude of ways in which human beings are entangled and co-constituted by other beings – animals, plants, metals, machines, and matter of all forms. Crucially, recognizing the entanglement of humans with other beings does not mean yielding to attempts to degrade the status of humanity. On the contrary, as Jane Bennett puts it, recognizing the liveliness of all matter not only minimizes differences between objects and subjects, but elevates all materiality such that “all bodies become more than mere objects”. In such a context, it would be nonsensical to claim that a being was disposable or inferior simply on the basis of its being ‘non-human’, and the rug would be pulled from underneath the logic of dehumanization.

I want to be very clear: this argument is not intended to let perpetrators of dehumanization off the hook, or to downplay the violence that their actions involve. And I am certainly not advocating that the targets of dehumanizing violence accept or capitulate to these violent acts. On the contrary, I am arguing that they can radically neutralize the process of dehumanization by removing the basis on which it operates. Dehumanization functions only insofar as people believe in its effectiveness – that is, to the extent that they accept the two conditions discussed above and act accordingly. A posthumanist postcolonial approach makes it possible to undermine this logic.

There are multiple other ways in which posthumanism and postcolonialism could be fused in mutually strengthening ways. In fact, this would be less a matter of joining separate discourses than of drawing out existing affinities – or, simply put, following through key principles of each discourse to their logical conclusions. There are a few obvious starting points for such a project.

First, one of the most important values of postcolonial thought is the recognition and embrace of heterogeneity. As Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak argues, “the colonized subaltern subject is irretrievably heterogeneous”; it is figured as a homogeneous mass only by the essentialist, taxonomic categories imposed upon it. Indeed, Chandra Talpede Mohanty contends that 14367854917_ed681fe74b_zsubaltern groups such as ‘women’ are constructed on the basis of a perceived common experience of oppression. These arguments are mirrored in Jacques Derrida’s treatment of the ‘animal’: a category used to homogenize an almost unthinkably diverse set of beings, and to construct them through their shared subjection to industrialized violence. Each of these approaches acknowledges the violence of erasure and homogenization enacted by ontological categories, whether the distinction between ‘subaltern’ and colonizer, ‘man’ and ‘woman’, or ‘human’ and ‘animal’. But instead of arguing for the inclusion of the second term in each pair within the first, these approaches call for the celebration and expression of diversity.

In the same spirit, Césaire rejects a both ‘narrow particularism’ and ‘disembodied universalism’, seeking a “universal rich with all that is particular…the deepening of each particular, the coexistence of them all”. These ideas are mirrored in Isabelle Stengers’ notion of ‘cosmopolitics’, which involves involves attending to the multiple, diverse and constantly transforming beings that constitute the cosmos. Although it does not advocate treating each being as equal (normatively or ontologically), it insists on acknowledgement and responsiveness to modes of being that do not necessarily fit with a universal ideal or common form of measurement – for instance, the category of ‘humanity’. Crucially, this includes finding ways of attending to the “shadows of that which does not have, cannot have or does not want to have a political voice” (Stengers 2005, 996). In a context in which the subaltern is too diffuse and heterogeneous to ‘speak’ as a unified subject, it is necessary to engage in “measuring silences” (Spivak 1985, 92). Indeed, Stengers argues that, in a cosmpolitical context, all beings can ‘force thought’ in a manner similar to what Homi Bhabha has called ‘presencing’. That is, they can slow the universalizing process by unsettling existing assumptions, boundaries and patterns of political action. Drawing on this principle, a posthumanist postcolonial ethos can cultivate responsiveness to the multiple forms of presencing. Instead of pursuing a humanism made to the measure of the human world, cosmopolitics calls for an ethics responsive to the universe in all of its heterogeneity.

Various postcolonial positions also call for a relational ethics across the boundaries that define ‘humanity’. They encourage genuine forms of ‘contact’ (Césaire 1955) not based on violence and subjugation, but instead generative of “solidarities across class, race and national boundaries” (Mohanty 2003, 19). A posthumanist postcolonial ethos would involve extending these affinities and connections across the boundary of species and forms of being. Mbembe (2001) recognizes how colonial violence encompasses a range of humans, plants, animals and objects. Indeed, he argues that colonial violence annihilates subjects by forging a “close connection, both venal and convivial, among slave-being, animal-being, native-being, and thing-being” (Mbembe 2001, 240). In other words, colonial power does not only makes slaves of humans, and animals of slaves, but also slaves of animals and so forth. This is a mode of ‘being-together’, but not of ‘existing together’ (Mbembe 2001, 27) in the sense of recognizing the other as a full participant in being. A crucial means for resisting this kind of negative conviviality would be to convert it into a positive form, as Donna Haraway’s recent work suggests. This entails cultivating a sense of responsiveness and accountability to the other beings with which humans interact – not by humanizing them, but rather by understanding the multiple ways in which we cohabit with them. For Haraway, living well with others does not involve aspiring to an impossible ideal of nonviolence. Instead, involves cultivating a “responsible relation to always asymmetrical living and dying, and nurturing and killing” (Haraway 2008, L751- 759). This, in turn, demands a form of ‘becoming-with’ as ‘becoming worldly’: building sites of attachment with other beings, and tying ‘knots’ which bind humans into patterns of “response and regard that change the subject- and the object” (Haraway 2008, L4588). In other words, Haraway calls for the diametric opposite of dehumanization and its boomerang effect: a mode of interaction in which each being is enriched in its trajectory of becoming through contact with the other.

As this brief discussion has suggested, there are numerous shared nodes of postcolonial and posthumanist thought. Cultivating them would not involve ‘exporting’ ideas from one into the other, but rather on amplifying existing resonances. At its root, this is a move to recognize not only shared aims, overlaps or similarities, but rather the fact that both bodies of thought contest and struggle against the same logics, violences, structures and repertoires of action. Although I have analyzed the issue in terms of ‘postcolonial posthumanisms’ and ‘posthumanist postcolonialisms’ to reflect existing perceptions, I don’t intend to suggest that either approach should dominate. What I am proposing is a mutual co-extension , of postcolonial thought and ethics beyond the boundaries of the normatively ‘human’, and of posthumanism into the realm of global ethics. Even better, a decolonial ethos that centres Indigenous and other non-Western cosmovisions that do not rely on Cartesian dichotomies, holds huge promise (more on this to come…)This kind of approach can better equip us to confront an Anthropocene epoch in which ‘humanity’ and colonial power are increasingly conflated.


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