Should we think of the biosphere as suffused with the performing arts? Racing Extinction (2015), the film that kicked off the Timescales conference, and Wai Chee Dimock’s talk, ‘Vanishing Sounds: Thoreau and the Sixth Extinction’, both implied such notions of performance in their concern for endangered species. Their shared argument goes: if you can think of a Manta ray as dancing, or of spadefoot toads as an orchestra, you might wake up sooner to the ongoing sixth extinction.
Every species, imagined this way, is an artistic community; its extinction is the extinction of a tradition of performance. We might quibble over the philosophical problem of whether dance, music, language and culture are exclusively human — but to me what the film and the talk presented was a tactical anthropomorphism.
Question 1: Does this equation work, of biological species with cultural traditions (and vice versa, surely)? Or does it merely overwrite the being of an animal with our own expectations of performance? Racing Extinction believes that it does work; that it can lead to changes in policy, and to an end in the trafficking of endangered species, if it can be scaled up and mass-projected. The film’s mandate is to persuade us that if New York or Los Angeles decide to #StartWith1Thing (by refusing to order shark fin soup, they suggest) then our notions of beauty will acquire -- in practice, not in theory -- a conservational function.
(What about those of us who cannot sing and dance? We are a large, multi-species community; we'd find a place in arguments for intrinsic worth or ecological webbing, but would fail all auditions for our own survival --)
Question 2: does the urgency of ecological crisis call for corresponding urgencies of method? Should a film concerned with the consequences of industrial-economic speed transfer such speed into its own style: caffeinated action-sequences, the language of racing and triumph, the stings that echo a reality show? Whether this was a typically American-capitalist production remained unasked in a laudatory Q&A. Perhaps that slot is too readily available, in the cultures of American institutions, for speed, ambition and winning.
Michael Moore offered one answer to Question 2 years ago, when he described his own capital-intensive film-making as the rope by which the system might hang itself. The ‘Concluding Remarks’ panel of Timescales offered another, cautioning us against the insistence on urgency, especially when crises are urgent...
If we must retreat from industrial-economic haste, then Dimock’s recuperation of Thoreau remembered how “the shore rang with the trump of bullfrogs, the sturdy spirits of ancient wine–bibbers and wassailers, still unrepentant, trying to sing a catch in their Stygian lake…”. (Thoreau has earlier asked us not to read, but to 'see' instead -- yet his own reading is alive and well in his descriptions of sound.) Dimock has argued elsewhere that elegy, with its twofold temporality, is the Anthropocene’s genre: a lament for what we have, that returns from a future of loss to the present. Her recasting of Walden as an acoustic zone allows us to think of extinction in sonic terms, as sonic loss.
Question 3: Does sound arrest us in ways especially suited to conservational elegy? Or will we fall back to saying, “It depends on what you mean by sound, who’s listening, where, when.” Might the disappearance of bio-sounds help us understand, as Dimock stressed, that “the Anthropocene is not a conjectural concept”? Great questions, in the Q&A: on extinction's relation to archiving, and if there’s an ethics of salvage, since salvage too has its methodology of urgency in which seed-banks might be abstracted from culture, reduced to their mere seedness...
Finally, Question 4: Is the species necessarily extinction's unit of analysis?