On the concept of pre-extinction

Typically, we think of extinction in terms of the death of the last individual member of the species facing extinction. A species goes extinct when there aren’t any more organisms belonging to it still walking around.

What comes to mind is a short fragment by Jorge Luis Borges, “The Witness” (1967). In the fragment, Borges reflects on the fact that, when a person dies, whole archives of memory disappear, as well. At a determinate point in historical time, there was only one person left who had seen the construction of Göbekli Tepe, or who watched the Great Library of Alexandria burning. With the passing of these most likely unaware individuals, whole worlds winked out of lived experience forever. Borges then scales the observation down to more quotidian details of everyday life and, indeed, of the experiential singularity of each person: “What will die with me when I die? What pathetic or frail form will the world lose? Perhaps the voice of Macedonio Fernandez, the image of a horse in the vacant space at Serrano and Charcas, a bar of sulfur in the drawer of a mahogany desk?”

But Borges’ insight can be scaled up to include every other form of life, too. It is an simple enough task, albeit a melancholy one, to imagine, for example, the very last mammoth, a feeble dwarf staggering across Wrangel Island to its doom, carrying in its skull the fading memories of life among its kind. The image is fanciful, perhaps. Yet there was, in fact, such a mammoth, just like there was a last survivor of every species now extinct, which bore the ghost of the whole species. Recall that more than 99% of every species that ever evolved is now extinct. In many regards, our planet is a tomb world, the materially encrypted register of life’s strange and darkly energetic passage from the sun to the earth’s surface. On the long view, extinction is the norm. Even the sun is dying. The deep future may hold only iron stars.

Nevertheless, it can also be productive to conceive of extinction differently, even speculatively. The value of thinking through speculative extinctions is in mapping out the territories of absence, collapse, destruction, failure, loss, and subtraction that affect the range of possible futures we face at any given point.

For example: Consider the idea that mammoths did not go extinct on Wrangel Island approximately 4,000 years ago, when the last mammoth perished under the cold-eyed moon. Instead, viewed from the perspective of higher-order processes spanning millennia, mammoths actually went extinct many thousands of years earlier. It just took that long for the process of extinction to manifest itself fully. As the Ice Age burned away, the late Pleistocene Period drew to a close, and so did the mortal march of the mammoths. Environmental changes leading to their extinction were baked-in long before the late stage of that species took place. In this regard, you could refer, perhaps, to the explanatory or speculative value of the concept of pre-extinction. Even if, in conventional terms, mammoths did not go extinct until after the Wrangel Island Event, they had been pre-extinct for many thousands of years.

The scale and scope of this concept remains to be determined because, of course, it is always easier to map out temporal territory after it has been traversed. A perspectival distortion in the construction of history is that its arc usually bends toward the teller. Imagine, then, following Stephen Baxter, the tenor of a history as told by the mammoths themselves. The ineluctability of the extinction of the mammoths is an artifact of hindsight, but this implies a fundamental structural relationship between extinction and time. Processes unfolding at scales far beyond the “middle scale” of experiential lifeworlds (even that of very comparatively long-lived organisms, like Greenland sharks or various plants) form causal strangeways all their own.

Refiguring the category of the organism in terms of its pre-extinction frees up the concept of life itself for use. This concept becomes an object we can start to repurpose experimentally. Instead of abandoning the concept of life due to concerns about its conceptual imprecision, or the undue sentimentality that so often enshrouds it, redescribing the concept of life itself generates downstream effects for life itself – that is to say, for organisms as they act and unfold in their lifeworlds – because such a program of redescription opens up life itself for use. Note the irony here: experimentally repurposing the object called life itself (i.e., object use) necessitates a passage through extinction (i.e., object destruction). This is an alien pathway, a left turn in thought that strikes off orthogonally from the familiar territory of the standard assumption (e.g., the standard assumption that the future will resemble the past).

Accordingly, instead of sacralizing the concept of life itself (and thereby entombing it in intractable affective and ideational meshworks of fear and obscurantism, masquerading as affection, caution, and respect), life itself should be opened up for use – that is to say, for experimentation, for living, even – rather than sequestered behind the conceptual fairytales our civilization uses in lieu of producing speculative breakthroughs. Consider a line from Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Gay Science (1882): “Let us be on our guard against saying that death is contrary to life. The living being is only a species of dead being, and a very rare species.”

Recall another short fragment by Borges, “On Exactitude in Science” (1946), which describes the development of a speculative cartography so expansive that its maps become coextensive with the territories they limn. Borges emphasizes the irony of this development: “The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.” Often, this fragment gets read as a melancholy reflection on the doom of all such aspirations to completeness. But once you start considering the fact that the ruin of this map serves as a new habitat – as literally rewilded space – the narrative function or meaning of the fragment starts to shift. Are we not always living among tattered ruins?