Scientists recently designated the contemporary era as the sixth age of mass extinction, and the first in which humanity has played the primary role. This course explores how man-made, or anthropogenic, extinction is being conceptualized and represented in literature, visual art and other cultural artifacts. We’ll explore how writers and artists think about and with the idea of our age of extinction as an urgent conceptual, representational and ethical problem, and the modes and media they use. Aesthetic approaches to this environmental crisis implicitly or explicitly force us to address the question of the ethical possibilities of the arts and encourage us to rethink what ethical engagement might look like across longer timescales and global networks of action.
We’ll address one of the most pressing global issues of our time through the close analysis of literary texts, visual art, data visualizations, audio recordings, photojournalism and film that try to give a shape to a process that is not always visible, immediately experienced, or easily apprehended. We will ask how extinction has been imagined, through what forms and aesthetic expressions, and to what uses it has been put. What kinds of historical narratives and innovative visualizations emerge from efforts to imagine extinction? What aesthetic strategies do writers and artists use to conceptualize the idea of extinction within and alongside other historical, cultural and scientific processes – imperial expansion and colonization, conflict, fantasies of lost worlds, “deep” time, re-wilding, and so-called “de-extinction,” the resurrection of species?