Mourning the Dodo: On Significant Otherness in the Anthropocene — Part 1

We welcome Tom Lekan, of the University of South Carolina, as a guest on the blog . . . click for his bio, or go to the “Who we are” tab. This is the first installment of a two-part post; please come back again next week for the conclusion.


Perched atop the weathered gray cliffs of the Isle of Portland off the southern coast of England, a massive stone memorial to the Sixth Great Extinction is emerging out of the bowels of a former granite quarry.  Designed by the architectural firm of renowned Tanzanian-born British architect David Adjaye and funded in part by the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Fund in the United States, the 30-meter high Mass Extinction Monitoring Observatory (MEMO) will comprise a monument to the 860 species of birds, mammals, sea life, and insects assessed as extinct since the demise of the dodo in the seventeenth century, along with a conservation education center. The designers conceive of the building’s form—which mimics the shape of turreted fossils frequently encountered along the beach in this area—as a “continuous spiral of stone” carved with stone relief images of the extinct animals.  More bas reliefs will be added in the future as additional species inevitably become extinct; when this happens, the bell of biodiversity (see video above), also “encrusted with fossils,” will ring out as it does annually on May 22, the International Day of Biological Diversity.[1]

One can’t help being struck by the audacity of Adjaye’s vision for MEMO, one of the first memorials to address head on the problems of telling meaningful stories within the vast geological timescales that define the Anthropocene.  Weaving together Portland site histories, “the epic of evolution,” and the fossil record of life, the site promises to help visitors recognize how the incremental loss of biodiversity across just a few generations has generated a catastrophe of planetary significance.  In just over 300 years, we have become like the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.  The Isle of Portland is part of the Jurassic Coast in the County of Dorset, a Geological World Heritage site containing the fossilized remains of 180 million years amidst the stratigraphic layers along its beach cliffs.  According to the online project prospectus, from this “magical location” atop the former Bower’s Quarry came the limestone that Sir Christopher Wren used in the rebuilding of London after the Great Fire of 1666.  It was here, too, that his collaborator, Robert Hook, pieced together a theory that the giant ammonites found in the stone must have come from a species “totally destroyed and annihilated”—an insight that emerged right about the same time that the dodo was dying out on Mauritius.

Adjaye’s team tells the story of the Anthropocene from a precise moment in the seventeenth century, a synchronicity of fossilized geo-history, the history of European expansion, and local natural history that informs the designers’ attempts to envisage future fossils as well.  Each new stone relief will come from the quarry, from which “indigenous stonemasons” from Portland will carve into the dead bodies of long-extinct plankton (the geological basis for the region’s famed limestone).  The designers have promised a light-filled interior space and a restored quarry grassland outside for performance art, exhibitions, installations, and festivals.  Though, as one critic has noted, the current estimate of 10,000 to 100,000 species going extinct annually would mean the bell would have to toll about 274 times a day—making it difficult to imagine being able to hear anything or anyone above the deafening noise from the top.[2]  Other critics have contended that the island’s isolated location will attract few visitors and doubt that stone bas-relief techniques—even those by fashioned by visiting artists and students in other locations, as the project promises—will inspire the same kind of wonder as the actual dinosaur fossils that kids love. One wonders, too, if the project’s £30 million price tag (roughly $43 million at last count) could be better spent updating woefully funded regional natural history museums or fostering local initiatives to investigate and stem species loss.  Such initiatives could then be part of Maya Lin’s brilliant What is Missing, a global, multi-media memorial to the planet.

For me, it was the lines in the prospectus about MEMO’s aspiration to become a “world heritage” architectural icon in the “age-old” tradition of Stonehenge, the Pyramids, and the Taj Mahal that transformed MEMO from an idiosyncratic Guggenheim of Lost Species into something more unsettling. Adyaje doesn’t just want to create a naturalistic counterpart to these icons, he wants a monument that rivals them, especially its competing U.K. limestone shrine, St. Paul’s Cathedral.  As someone who has engaged with memorials, commemorative practices, and memory landscapes in Berlin and elsewhere as part of my teaching and writing about urban history and German Studies, I’m keenly aware of the dangers of hubristically indulging in what Friedrich Nietzsche referred to as “monumental history.” By this, Nietzsche meant a process of examining the past with the explicit intent of finding models for one’s country, or one’s own life. The monumental past is concerned with the greatest moments in the history of humanity that provide the reassurance that greatness has been previously attained and can possibly be again. Such monumental history may seem odd in conjunction with MEMO—which after all is a monument to the colossal failure of our species.  And yet by linking the observatory to Stonehenge and the Taj Mahal, the site’s designers and patrons—who include Ed Wilson, the Duke of Edinburgh, Sir Tim Smits of the Eden Project, the list of royal and otherwise prominent individuals goes on—risk evading more critical understandings of the cultural and biological dimensions of the extinction crisis. As an environmental historian interested in the gritty and everyday land use struggles that have accompanied nature conservation and landscape preservation projects, I cringe a bit when I read that MEMO brings together the “soul of the artist” and the “authority of science” to energize the “instinctive wonder” of “our species.” Lurking in the background here is Wilson’s notion of disciplinary consilience, in which the humanities play the role of creatively disseminating the established facts of science—a big cosmic history of “us,” the Anthropos of the Anthropocene.[3] Nietzsche warned that such history fails to yield a more critical account of the contingencies, unexpected turns, and, most important, deeper causes of events.  His warning is still apt in my view when we are presented with “age-old” stories about humanity, the destroyer of other animals, across time, space, cultures, and relations of power.

But perhaps the point of MEMO is not critical or temporally specific understanding at all, but rather an empathetic engagement with our fellow creatures through mourning.  Indeed, framing environmental loss as a process of mourning offers a powerful, post-humanistic response to what may appear as cold scientific facts. While many activists continue to “race extinction,” as the recent Discovery Channel documentary demonstrated, scholars such as philosopher and anthropologist Thom van Dooren and indigenous studies investigator Ashlee Cunsolo Willox encourage us also to pause, reflect, and mourn that which has been irrevocably lost. Cultivating multispecies empathy and melancholic forms of interspecies affect, notes Cunsolo Willox in a recent call for papers, “has the potential to transcend anthropocentric values and become the mechanism through which we can begin to ground a different ecological ethic premised on shared interspecies loss and grief and on the recognition of non-humans as fellow vulnerable beings.”[4]

Van Dooren, for his part, rejects the notion that humans are exceptional in their need to mourn.  His research on the gravely endangered Hawaiian crow demonstrates that numerous avian species, along with elephants, foxes, and others, recognize and experience death and loss, a factor that draws us into an awareness of the multispecies continuities and entanglements that make life possible for everyone.[5]  Discerning the web of factors leading to extinction inevitably links scientific investigation to storytelling, and by telling stories about the significant others who co-populate the earth, Van Dooren asserts, they emerge as subjects of planetary history. Our companion species have a right to exist on their own terms, irrespective of the “ecosystem services” they might provide for human beings.

I’m not sure if Cunsolo Willox or Van Dooren would endorse MEMO as the architectural materialization of their post-humanist ideas about multispecies mourning, but it’s worth considering what types of extinction stories and empathetic engagements the Adjaye project opens up—and occludes.  Mourning non-humans is not the same as grieving and commemorating the problematic histories of human beings’ mass killing of each other in wars, genocides, or acts of terror.  And yet a big, expensive, and centralized memorial to a turning point in geological time caused by human beings will still invite fractured and contested accounts of the causes, consequences, and significance of extinction or near-extinction processes, the identification of human perpetrators in the mass killing of earthy life, and the appropriateness of different aesthetic choices for memorializing the “slow violence” of extinction on earth. The problem of mourning extinction is compounded by the fact that, unlike other memorials to atrocity, the extinction process is ongoing, and yet the victims or the descendants of victims cannot speak for themselves or seek restitution for their loss. They must rely on differentially situated human interlocutors who must tell of their suffering through narratives—or in the case of MEMO—stone reliefs—that are always already embedded in human beings’ phenomenological lifeworlds. Even as Wilson asks us to consider the horror of the last dodo being bludgeoned to death on Mauritius around 1662, the story is still a deeply humanitarian gesture. We can never have access to the experience of “dodo-ness,” even if it’s likely that dodos, like so many avian species, grieved their dead.


NOTES

[1] On the Mass Extinction Monitoring Observatory, see http://www.memoproject.org/ [Accessed 1 May 2016].  Online articles discussing the project include one in DeZeen online at www.dezeen.com/2014/11/13/david-adjaye-mass-extinction-memorial-observatory-construction-starts/, [accessed 1 May 2016] and one by Telegraph travel editor John O’Ceallaigh from 27 June 2013:  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/europe/united-kingdom/england/dorset/articles/The-Jurassic-Coasts-monument-to-extinction/.
[2] See the blog Babel: http://mainprjkt.com/mainprojekt/babel-what-the-huh-part-3-mass-extinction-60.
[3] On Wilson and cosmic histories of the Anthropocene, see religious studies scholar Lisa Sideris’s essay “Anthropocene Convergences: A Report from the Field,” in Robert Emmett and Thomas Lekan, eds.”Whose Anthropocene? Revisiting Dipesh Chakrabarty’s ‘Four Theses’,” RCC Perspectives: Transformations in Environment and Society 2016, no. 2., 89-96.  Available online at http://www.environmentandsociety.org/perspectives/2016/2/whose-anthropocene-revisiting-dipesh-chakrabartys-four-theses [accessed 1 May 2016].
[4] Ashlee Cunsolo Willox Call for Papers: Environment and/as Mourning: http://ashleecunsolowillox.ca/2012/06/28/call-for-papers-environment-andas-mourning/. [Accessed 25 January 2016.]
[5] Thom Van Dooren, Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014).

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5 thoughts on “Mourning the Dodo: On Significant Otherness in the Anthropocene — Part 1

  1. Welcome to the blog, Tom–and thanks for this fantastic post.

    First I want to share this photo:

    (Effie, a western lowland gorilla in London in 2010, shortly after the death of a companion. Credit Ruaridh Connellan/Barcroft Media — Getty Images)

    It’s from the recent New York Times review of Frans de Waal’s Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?–and resonated strongly with your account of animal mourning. It is increasingly clear that humans’ inner lives are not different in kind from the inner lives of many non-human species–though I think you are absolutely right when you end your piece with the observation that we are not likely to have a deep understanding of what it is like to be a different kind of creature than ourselves (we can have a hard enough time empathizing with other humans!). But I do think it is important to note the difference between mourning the loss of particular animals, perhaps on the basis of their own capacity for emotions we value, such as sorrow, and mourning the loss of a species to extinction. As is often noted that is a different order of loss–and something that could be felt even for creatures that plausibly have no inner life at all.

    But I mention mourning here mostly because I wondered about your use of the term “post-humanistic” in your presentation of these ideas–could you explain more what that means? Is it meant to convey an end to the idea that values traditionally associated with human beings should be limited only to human beings–i.e. that they should be extended to other species as well? I ask because one sense of the term “humane,” anyway, has included the extension of the consideration we are supposed to give each other to other creatures. So is the “post-humanistic” position meant to be stronger than this?

    Also–I’d like to pick up on the comparison you use between human beings as an agent of extinction and the asteroid impact that did in the dinosaurs. That very potent image represents human beings as a kind of alien intrusion into the pattern of life on Earth that destroys all life in its path. But there is another theory, presented in this story in the New York Times, to the effect that the extinction of the dinosaurs was due to volcanic eruptions–i.e. from a cause within the Earth, not from beyond it. (The most intriguing theory, I think, is that an asteroid impact might have triggered the volcanic activity.) So what if human beings are not the asteroid, but the volcanos? That is, what if we see ourselves not as something fundamentally alien to the system we are influencing, but something fundamentally part of it? I myself am drawn more to the latter image than the former, because I think the former can encourage the temptation to imagine human beings as conceptually separated from the rest of nature, rather than a natural agency with ever increasing potency. Here’s, then, a connection to the Anthropocene idea: as I’ve argued on this blog (e.g. here) I think is is incorrect to see the Anthropocene as a rupture in history, as if an asteroid appeared from out of nowhere. Rather, it is the culmination of processes that in effect began, slowly, when behaviorally modern humans first appeared–hence that have been present in the system even in predecessor species from which we inherited our capacities. (This is the notion we explored on this blog earlier this semester, in our Anthropocene Biosphere Project, by the way.)

    I’m curious what you think about these ideas–but most of all, I’m eager to read Part 2!

  2. Zev, thanks for these incredibly thoughtful observations on the post, which already have me jotting down fresh perspectives in my notes on the MEMO project and on Maya Lin’s “What is Missing” online exhibition. On posthumanism: I wrestle a bit with what distinguishes posthumanism from what we used to call a “strong non-anthropocentric” approach in environmental ethics. To me it’s not just about extending values we traditionally associate with humans to other animals (including the capacity to mourn), because such an approach would still create a hierarchy in which animals “more like us” (the ones that employ sophisticated semiotics, use tools, build long-term relationships, etc.) get top billing. The more radical turn is actually to de-throne human beings from the top of the heap–for example, by showing that the language capacity that supposedly sets us apart from other animals is really a blunt, opaque, and ultimately self-defeating instrument (as Derrida spoke about in his late writings). To the extent this line of thinking transforms other animals into subjects of their own histories, I’m all for it, as Thom van Dooren’s work does so well. But when scholars start down a path of believing they have cracked the code that blurs the boundaries between humans and other animals, or even human and plant communities (think of Kohn’s “How Forests Think”) I get deeply skeptical. We are still working with the fragmented narratives of differentially situated human beings–which is why I left us with a humanitarian (humane) gesture, rather than a posthumanist one.

    On the latter point about the asteroid–when I invited Dipesh Chakrabarty to visit our campus last year to speak about his work on climate history, I was writing up a blurb to try and convey the import of his ideas to non-specialist audiences, and spoke of the asteroid that “might” have triggered the K-T extinctions. And then a geologist colleague insisted that I change even that language–having sat inside that Chicxulub crater, she was adamant that this was no theory, but a scientific given, a reality! But what your comment gets at is the nested and cascading forms of causality that resonate across different scales–of the planetary (the asteroid that might have triggered volcanic eruptions), the global (the atmospheric changes linked to volcanic changes), the biogeographical (the reshaping of vegetation communities and zones that make life possible for different species), and so on. As humanists we are forced to contend always with competing scientific theories, each of which offers its own baseline, each of which suggests a different kind of narrative. At its core though I like your formulation very much–climate change doesn’t come as some monster from outer space, but as the unintended consequence of the the partnerships we have created and the world we have co-created with the earth’s carboniferous relics. My colleague and friend Tim LeCain has written about this in a recent short essay called “Heralding a New Humanism” that I’ll post here, which comes from a neo-materialist approach I find compelling:
    http://www.eurozine.com/articles/2016-04-15-lecain-en.html

    • I just read the LeCain piece, which I enjoyed very much–thanks for the link! Here are two thoughts that it (and your second paragraph) prompted (i.e. these are a bit less organized than thought-out responses . . .).

      First, though I like the “what if we’re the volcano” idea too, insofar as it “internalizes” the source of the problem rather than representing it as some anomalous intrusion, there is still a problem with the imagery . . . a problem which I sometimes think is present in Chakrabarty’s discussions too. That is that human influence is represented in geological terms, rather than as a biological phenomenon . . . so humanity is like an asteroid, or volcano, or climate, or erosion. But obviously human beings act on the world through metabolic processes–and, as we discuss a great deal on this blog, the biological phenomenon of niche construction seems to be a good way to categorize the kinds of transformations, at many scales, humans make to the physical landscape. But more importantly, in my view: thinking in terms of biology (not only regarding niche construction, but certainly regarding it) makes it very easy to dissolve the subject/object dichotomy that everyone wants to get rid of–as Richard Lewontin, the god-father of the niche construction concept makes clear, it is a way of thinking dialectically, i.e. of “aufhebening” that distinction.

      Second, I have to admit that I am not totally comfortable with the language of “partnerships” and “co-creation” in this context . . . here’s why. It is not exactly that those terms connote (at least to me) a kind of intentionality that I don’t think is present in the putative partner/collaborator. More troubling to me is that those terms bring with them an idea of shared responsibility–and I think of responsibility not solely as a causal notion, but as more centrally a moral notion. And I just don’t know what it means to hold (for example) coal responsible for climate change in a moral sense. I confess that I may be stuck in an overly simplistic way of thinking here–so I am eager to have this explained to me. But I have always imagined that the reason it makes sense to restrict agency to human beings is not that non-human entities lack causal power (they obviously don’t), but rather we are not really prepared to blame non-human entities, at least I’m not. Thus, to the extent that we want to be able to morally evaluate things like climate change I think it is important to be able to sharply distinguish between the human and non-human factors involved. This indeed puts human beings in a distinct category–but I don’t think this how human exceptionalism is traditionally understood. But again–I may be missing something important here: please let me know what you think!

  3. Thanks, Tom, for this very insightful analysis of MEMO. You put your finger on what is so often disturbing–cringe-inducing–about this mix of a celebratory and mournful mode in narrating and commemorating the Anthropocene, however it is done. It is also no coincidence that, as you say, this monument is intended to rival religious shrines or vaguely spiritual monuments; for that rivalry is part and parcel of the agenda that animates Wilson’s consilence and the modes of wonder he hope to evoke. The “authority of science” to present a superior form of wonder to those emanating from (merely) humanistic or spiritual endeavors is assumed. But often what we are left wondering at is the human, whether as awesome world-destroyer or global savior (with science, or rather, as you imply in your comment, a particular, preferred narrative of science) as the means of salvation. Not enough critical attention is paid to the way in which these age-old narratives and triumphalist mythic motifs are actually driving human-caused mass extinctions. “Let us see how high we can fly before the sun melts the wax in our wings,” Wilson likes to say, invoking Icarus. Well, things are now melting,aren’t they? We’ve seen how high we can fly. Some other kind of story, or stories, must interrupt these anthropic narratives if grief rather than celebration and excitement is to be the resounding note.

  4. I wonder if the monument’s designers included any humanities or critical social scientist types? I find again and again that well-intentioned efforts by conservationists to present these important topics get channeled into what my M.A. advisor Richard White called “just-so stories.” I find that these kind of background stories also hamstring efforts to collaborate across the sciences and humanities as well–I wrote about the Serengeti National Park Visitors Center, for example, which manages to tell the story of conservation from the perspective of a popular zoo director and television star in Germany, while leaving all of the panels about local Tanzanians’ interactions with the landscape to the bottom floor, at the end. I know that the designers meant to give visitors a clear message and a hero with which to identify, but I wonder: do they think that visitors cannot somehow handle complexity? What you identify so well here are those deep representational practices which seem commonsense because they are already embedded in mythical stories like that of Icarus!

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