Extinction Studies

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"Another movement, this time originating in the US, has gained a foothold in certain circles in the French social sciences: “extinction studies.” Like catastrophists and other collapsologists, its proponents foresee an ending that is already in motion, an “evil that is coming” as the philosopher and psychoanalyst Pierre-Henri Castel would have it. These scholars are inclined to favor the notion of extinction (particularly with respect to animal species) over that of the Anthropocene. Extinction is couched as a “‘hyperconcept,’ associated with but opposed to the notion of the Anthropocene. It shares the latter’s underlying premises but rejects the associated rhetoric and operational modes,” writes the young art historian Romain Noël in an issue of the journal Critique, coedited by Noël himself and entitled “Living in a Ruined World” (in French on cairn.info).

24Noël is not averse to the term “apocalypse” but, drawing particularly on the work of US philosopher Donna Haraway, argues that there is scope to “remedy the apocalyptic discourses promoted by the Anthropocene.” How? By “exploring the circumstances of loss and by telling stories of grief . . . . Because if extinction, more than the Anthropocene, comes to define the era in which we are now evolving, then the science we require will be incapable of dealing with its overtly psychopathological dimension. Those who deal in pathos and the human psyche (including psychoanalysts and psychiatrists, but also writers and artists) will deepen our understanding of grief (whether real, feared, or anticipated) in an effort to blunt, if not wholly absorb, the sheer force of the trauma and potential morbidity.” Rather than the “weapon of mass destruction” that the apocalypse represents, extinction studies wields “more modest weaponry: stories, investigations, the everyday ways in which the effects make themselves felt.” In doing so, this discipline becomes a “fundamentally melancholy creed,” which inquires into “what could very well have been the original and secret intent of all ethnological and anthropological exploration: to forge a melancholy science that, in its focus on ‘other’ lives, accommodates the ‘tradition of the vanquished’ of which Walter Benjamin was so fond.”