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Opening Remarks to Extinction Thresholds

Opening Remarks to Extinction Thresholds
by Tiana Reid, IRWGS Grad Fellow, ’19 – ’20

Welcome. The title of this symposium is “Extinction Thresholds,” which follows a number of events in the fall semester including “Toward an Environmental Theory of Early Sexuality,” with Greta LaFleur, Associate Professor of American Studies at Yale, and “Planetary Dispossession: Ecological Inheritance and the Last Generation,” a talk by Kath Weston, Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh.

I’m going to revisit the event description for today and then riff on it a little bit—and by riff of course I mean offer a very much planned improvisation. In preparation for my opening remarks today, Diana resent me the event blurb, which I am going to read so we have some shared understanding of what prompted our gathering today:

As both a conceptual category with purchase across academic discourses and a material reality at once hyperpresent and historically entrenched, “extinction” is a rich site for timely interdisciplinary interventions. This symposium brings together a group of writers and scholars whose work explores the literary, political, ethical, and ontological dimensions of extinctions past, present and future. Among other questions, we will consider how to think extinction in ways that open up generative new possibilities for communication, relation, and knowledge formation beyond the category of the human.

Since extinction is a process, a state of becoming, I am keyed in to temporal markers in that blurb, such as “hyperpresent,” “historically entrenched” “timely” “past, present and future.” I linger on this question of time in order to highlight its unevenness, the way extinction has, does and will affect populations, places and historical conjunctures differently.

The liberal media is always reasking the questions: How much time do we have left? How much time do we have to “save the planet”? In 2018, for example, scientists said we had 12 years to attend to global warming to a maximum of 1.5 degrees Celsius. In July of last year, the BBC said scratch that, we have 18 months to take political measures to seriously deal with the climate catastrophe. This year—2020—was the new deadline. Prince Charles, of all people, said at a reception for Commonwealth foreign ministers in July: “I am firmly of the view that the next 18 months will decide our ability to keep climate change to survivable levels and to restore nature to the equilibrium we need for our survival.”

But who and what is surviving now? Who has survived in our past? Environmental catastrophes of course disproportionately affect people around the world whether through the severity of storms in the Caribbean or chronic illness due to exposure to toxins in the rust belt. So when they ask, how much time do we have left we also have to ask who are “we” anyway?

For Lapham’s Quarterly, the documentary filmmaker and writer Astra Taylor wrote an essay called “Out of Time: Listening to the climate’s clock.” I’m going to read a paragraph from her piece:

Part of the difficulty of addressing the climate crisis has to do with different timescales operating simultaneously. End of the world, end of the month. There are so many clocks and so little time: economic clocks, physical and chemical clocks, nature’s innumerable biological clocks, our inner psychological clocks, and collective cultural clocks. It’s a temporal cacophony, a disorienting polyrhythm. To figure out how to move forward, we should pause and delineate the different tempos we dwell within.

Capitalism’s clock ticks loudest in our ear, setting the primary rhythm we now march to—possibly off a cliff—yet the clock of industrial standardized time is a relatively new phenomenon in human history.

In counter distinction to what Taylor calls capitalism’s clock as our primary rhythm, W.E.B. Du Bois has spoken of what he called a “ secondary rhythm” in a 1905 theoretical text on the philosophy of the human called “Sociology Hesitant.” For Du Bois, primary rhythm denotes physical law and science and secondary rhythm is about social regularities “liable to stoppage and change” (ca. 1905, 278). And also chance. Those “actions undetermined by and independent of actions gone before” (Du Bois). Thus, Du Bois sees law and chance working side by side.

Somehow chance, then, is a thing to believe in. It might be the thing I believe in: possibilities, accidents, the law as something fragile, the remaining stars we can see at night, the will to survive, the gap between the threat of extinction and extinction proper, hope in dark, reactionary times, hope across time. “Somehow,” writes Taylor, “we have to manage to conceive of multiple timescales and horizons at once, or we are toast.”

And with that, I myself am out of time.

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