Review of Imaging Extinction: The Cultural Meanings of Endangered Species | Leonardo

Review of Imaging Extinction: The Cultural Meanings of Endangered Species

Imaging Extinction: The Cultural Meanings of Endangered Species
by Ursula K. Heise

The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, 2016
288 pp., illus., 3 col., 13 b/w. Trade, $82.50; paper, $27.50, eBook, $27.50
ISBN: 9780226358024; ISBN: 9780226358161; ISBN: 9780226358338

Reviewed by: 
Jan Baetens
April 2017

If a great book is defined by the fact that it helps you think differently, then Ursula K. Heise's new book is a truly great book. Next to its scholarly and stylistic qualities, which are great, Imaging Extinction is also a work that both frames and reframes the field of ecocriticism. It frames the field thanks to the broadness of the material and issues it studies. It also reframes it to its new, that is cultural take, on the dispute on the extinction of species.

According to many biologists as well as the general public, extremely sensitive to this kind of scientific research, we are currently facing a new mass extinction of species in the history of life on Earth. Yet this crisis is not only studied by scientists, it is also a hot topic in cultural production and political activism. The essential claim of Ursula K. Heise is that it is time to reconsider the productive interaction between culture and science in the larger debates on extinction and biodiversity. Generally speaking, the relationship between both fields is seen as a one-way traffic: scientists observe, measure, analyze, determine what is right or wrong, while cultural agents (writers, poets, filmmakers, photographers, etc.) come always after these specialists, their intervention being that of science vulgarization as well as of awareness and consciousness-raising. Cultural agents, in this perspective, have certainly a major role to play, but their impact is limited to social and cultural action and does not apply to science itself, which remains free from cultural speculation.

A representative of cultural studies in literature and science studies (to label her work as an example of ecocriticism would not do justice to the broad scope of her research), Heise instead makes a plea for the crucial importance of cultural elements for a better understanding of science itself. Such a claim is of course not totally new (the productive role of culture, more precisely of language has been a permanent and extremely stimulating concern since the 1980s), but the foregrounding of culture, that is of cultural values having to do with the basic difference between what we value as a community and what we don't, be it by choice, indifference, or ignorance, is an important innovation in the debate on biodiversity (which is the larger horizon of the extinction debate).

Imagining Extinction opens with a fascinating evaluation of the criteria that enable us to measure biodiversity. For if it is "easy" to observer that this or that species has disappeared, there is no direct link between species extinction and declining biodiversity. Not only because the disappearance of a species cannot be interpreted in absolute terms (it can be nuanced by historical criteria, for instance when we compare the current state of biodiversity with previous periods that had suffered even greater species extinction than what may be happening today), but also because the "scientific" definition of a species is always biased or, more positively said, influenced and determined by other, that is cultural criteria: certain species are considered more important than others and the presence or absence of the former (the dodo, the whale, the gorilla, etc.) will have a completely different impact than the absence or presence of the latter (for instance a mutating virus). This difference is not just theoretical, it is directly and materially reflected in the actual research, which overlooks many species for reasons that are inextricably scientific, cultural, and economic (as is well known, it is easier to get funding to study the possible extinction of a species we consider "essential" than to study the life or death of species that remain under the radar. Moreover, the debate on the place and role of species, which tends to isolate certain species from their environment, is very different from the more general discussion on biodiversity, which needs sometimes very different techniques of measuring and appreciation.

Heise's book is divided in two major parts (each of them having three chapters). The first part is mainly devoted to a cultural reading of conservation politics and policies and offers comparative close-readings of, for instance, scientific databases recording species and environmental laws. The comparative aspect of the analysis is key here, for it is what discloses the cultural embedding of what can no longer be called scientific "facts": the way we measure, the way we protect, the way we evaluate the failure or success of biodiversity policies cannot be separated from a cultural context that proves extremely diverse. We imagine species very differently when the general framework is that of a species taxonomy than when we focus on the more encompassing notion of landscape or environment. In a similar way, the cultural meaning of species or environmental protection depends a lot on the way in which we establish a link with the human beings as they interact with other species (if a certain species is considered harmful, its extinction will not be deplored) and with the larger environment (if biodiversity is seen as something that can help give poor people a better life, we may be more tolerant towards certain interventions that other groups may consider intrusive, if not utterly harmful).

The second part of the book takes as its starting point the often strong conflict between animal welfare activism, which defends the individual rights of any individual animal, and conservationist groups or policies, which defend a more holistic approach of biodiversity. Here as well, the author's thinking relies on the indepth reading of certain cultural productions, whose sometimes overtly fictional character (Heise has a healthy interest in science fiction) is not analyzed as subjective or unscientific reworkings of the scientists' work, but as windows into the cultural roots of scientific thinking and as opportunities to sketch both new insights and new solutions.

For Ursula K. Heise, the critical reading of the tensions and paradoxes displayed by works of fiction or cultural interventions in the scientific field is never a neutral or transparent or ivory tower activity. Although the author is extremely careful in discarding all monolithic interpretation or ecocritical radicalism (her critique of ecological nostalgia is one of the threads that run through the whole book), Imagining Extinction is also a plea for a well-balanced and culturally aware environmental justice and multispecies justice, that accepts to take into account both general principles and context-sensitivity.