Life on Earth is facing a mass extinction event of our own making. Human activity is changing the biology and the meaning of extinction. What Is Extinction? examines several key moments that have come to define the terms of extinction over the past two centuries, exploring instances of animal and human finitude and the cultural forms used to document and interpret these events.
Offering a critical theory for the critically endangered, Joshua Schuster proposes that different discourses of limits and lastness appear in specific extinction events over time as a response to changing attitudes toward species frailty. Understanding these extinction events also involves examining what happens when the conceptual and cultural forms used to account for species finitude are pressed to their limits as well. Schuster provides close readings of several case studies of extinction that bring together environmental humanities and multispecies methods with media-specific analyses at the terminus of life.
What Is Extinction? delves into the development of last animal photography, the anthropological and psychoanalytic fascination with human origins and ends, the invention of new literary genres of last fictions, the rise of new extreme biopolitics in the Third Reich that attempted to change the meaning of extinction, and the current pursuit of de-extinction technologies. Schuster offers timely interpretations of how definitions and visions of extinction have changed in the past and continue to change in the present.
Introduction | 1
1 Photographing the Last Animal | 43
2 Indigeneity and Anthropology in Last Worlds | 69
3 Literary Extinctions and the Existentiality of Reading | 109
4 Concepts of Extinction in the Holocaust | 134
5 Critical Theory for the Critically Endangered | 167
6 What Is De-Extinction? | 198
Conclusion | 231
Acknowledgments | 247
Notes | 251
Index | 279
Joshua Schuster is an Associate Professor of English and a core faculty member of the Centre for the Study of Theory and Criticism at Western University. He is the author of The Ecology of Modernism: American Environments and Avant-Garde Poetics and co-author of Calamity Theory: Three Critiques of Existential Risk.
"What Is Extinction? A Natural and Cultural History of Last Animals provides a much-needed, in-depth examination of the paradox of extinction – which both signifies the ultimate threat to any given species, as well as serves as its inevitable conclusion – through a wide range of case studies that roughly chart the development of Eurowestern settler colonialism. Schuster makes an important contribution to the recent development of extinction studies, particularly by engaging and extending discussions of the multiform ways in which the histories of mass killings of human and nonhuman animals intertwine."
– Susan McHugh, author of Love in a Time of Slaughters: Human-Animal Stories Against Genocide and Extinction
"How are we to understand the unknowable, the extinction of humans? Joshua Schuster helps us grapple with the end by framing extinction broadly to encompass genocides (Native American Indian populations and European Jews), animal extinctions (as documented in photography), speculative extinctions (the last human as in HG Well's The Time Machine), and gestured solutions such as re-wilding as de-extinction. Schuster's detailed investigation into each shattering event provides lessons we have poorly learned that bear correction. With its novel framing What Is Extinction? provides a breadth and depth for rethinking this pressing question. Schuster concludes with a hopeful possibility and pressing imperative: to live on a shared earth that demands an ecological lives of hospitality."
– Ron Broglio, author of Animal Revolution