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  • Imagining Extinction: The Cultural Meanings of Endangered Species by Ursula K. Heise
  • Daniel Williams (bio)
Imagining Extinction: The Cultural Meanings of Endangered Species. By Ursula K. Heise. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2016. xiii + 280 pp. $27.50.

Ursula K. Heise's absorbing and eclectic book distinguishes itself from writing about extinction's historical emergence and contemporary urgency. On the cusp of the sixth mass extinction in Earth's history, Imagining Extinction instead presents us with a metanarrative about the various modes, genres, and rhetorics of cultural engagement with biodiversity and species endangerment. Using an array of literary texts, aesthetic artifacts, and discursive interventions drawn from the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, Heise poses vital questions about how cultural lenses can shape our understanding of extinction as a scientific and ethico-political challenge. The strong syncretism of approach that characterized her agenda-setting Sense of Place and Sense of Planet (2008) is similarly on offer in this vibrant study. Heise starts by producing fresh accounts of the interchange among cultural spheres, juxtaposing conservation science with popular-scientific writing, fiction, and contemporary art to assess the stakes of conjuring extinction in an elegiac mode. She then reverses course to apply a cultural studies optic to ecology, reading biodiversity databases as epics. The book's latter half raises the stakes of this magpie methodology, undertaking a compelling rapprochement among environmental, animal welfare, and social justice discourses, and ending with a moving plea for justice across species.

Chapter 1 considers the shared logics of scientific and cultural discourses about extinction. Heise examines conservation science's preference for species as the relevant category of analysis despite definitional uncertainties, categorical tensions among native, introduced, and invasive species, and related issues. Revealing nuances typically absent from popular treatments, she points to how this emphasis tilts extinction discourse toward "flagship [End Page 468] species" (24)—especially mammals and birds, rather than fish and fungi—as "proxies for ecosystems and biodiversity" (23). That such displacements have proven rhetorically useful and politically tractable is underscored by the widespread penchant for elegiac representations of single-species extinctions, which function as substitute discourses "for criticizing or resisting modernization and colonization" (23). Ranging from conservation biology to popular-scientific prose, experimental musical compositions (Lee Hyla, Sally McIntyre) to poetry (W. S. Merwin, Homero Aridjis), Heise probes the possibilities and limits of this melancholy commemoration of lost species. She also speculates about a comic approach to extinction in reading Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine's Last Chance to See.

The generic lens continues into Chapter 2, which surveys biodiversity databases like the Encyclopedia of Life (EoL) and ARKive that "seek to inventory the totality of biological life on Earth" (62), as well as catalogs like the Red List of Threatened Species compiled by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Heise reads these projects as poised between the conventions of Enlightenment encyclopedism and those of the constitutively open-ended genre that Franco Moretti dubs "modern epic." Alert to problems of emphasis and exclusion in such lists, Heise offers a searching account of how databases, while holding out "the potential of desentimentalizing extinction" (76), still exhibit narrative and elegiac features. She also shows how the "enumerative drive" (56) and "database aesthetic" (59) of conservation science jostle with elegiac representation in the ecofiction of Margaret Atwood (the MaddAddam trilogy) and Lydia Millet; in Maya Lin's multimedia memorial, What is Missing?; in the species-cataloging photographs of Joel Sartore; and in the biodiversity still life paintings of Isabella Kirkland. Across these objects, the urgency of comprehending extinction en masse marks "the transition from individual mourning to the confrontation with global loss" (61).

Turning to the role of institutions, Chapter 3 considers how cultural perceptions about valuing the nonhuman world—both intrinsically and instrumentally—crystallize in environmental law. In the United States, the Endangered Species Act focuses on species primarily; laws elsewhere on the globe have the broader remit of defending biodiversity as such. In the European Union, scientific frameworks guard ecosystems as part of a "shared transnational patrimony" (89), whereas in a member state like Germany a complex tradition of folding nature protections into the conservation of culture...


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pp. 468-472
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