Why mourn auks?

It might seem strange to begin here by questioning the title I have only just given this blog, let alone a working title which is currently shared with my thesis. But increasingly I wonder if mourning is the right word for the sorts of practices I want to pursue in my explorations of the extinctions that mark the present. My concern here is that an anticipatory mourning might lead to an acceptance of a scale of loss that is by no means inevitable. The experience of this pre-emptive grief can be paralysing. It is a creeping sense that the world is dying as capitalism tightens its grip, and that one is powerless to stop it; where changes made on an individual level appear ineffectual given the scale and systemic nature of the problems faced.

What I am seeking through my practice-led research are creative pathways that move away from this fatalistic position, and instead begin to re-establish a sense of personal agency; ways of engaging with extinction that are hopeful, rather than hopeless. How, we might ask, could the extinctions that mark the extended present be thought differently? Perhaps in ways that might spark reparative processes of world-building? In this I take my cue from Donna Haraway and her articulations of practices of worlding. That is of turning ‘world’ into a verb, and in doing so transforming Earth from an exploitable, dying planetary body into a generative doing. Through my research I’m exploring what a creative engagement with the subject of extinction might add to such procreative work.

So why then should we mourn auks? In answering this question there are two key elements—what does it mean to mourn, and why mourn the long-extinct great auk? For Judith Butler (2004, p.7), the subject of mourning enables us to see how “our lives are profoundly implicated in the lives of others.” Mourning highlights how our lives are marked by interdependence. It therefore asks questions of self-identity—if we can be so affected, are our selves really so inward? So individuated and impermeable? Or does mourning reveal identity and the self to be porous, and constituted more through our relations with that which surrounds us?

But maybe when we undergo what we do [when mourning], something about who we are is revealed, something that delineates the ties we have to others, that shows us that these ties constitute what we are, ties or bonds that compose us. It is not as if an “I” exists independently over here and then simply loses a “you” over there, especially if the attachment to “you” is part of what composes who “I” am. […] Who “am” I, without you?[…] I think I have lost “you” only to discover that “I” have gone missing as well. (Ibid., p.22)

For Butler, mourning brings an inherently social reality to the fore. A body can never entirely be called one’s own, precisely because it exists in the social realm. In this there is vulnerability; our bodies are open to attack, to violence, to occupation and colonization, whether verbally, physically or ideologically. Controversially, this is true no matter how much we might believe in our own right to freedom and autonomy—it is a condition of existing in a world of living, social beings. However, seen another way, this vulnerability becomes a means of community; it is a shared experience that is common across all lively bodies, in all their difference.

Read in an ecological context, mourning refigures our relation to non-human others. It is the multitude of others that exist—the seeming infinite variety of forms of life—that co-constitute who we are, and are definitional of our being. As Butler suggests, the very “I” is called into question by its relation to the Other. Here though care must be taken not to reduce the value of other forms of life to the part they play in the construction of human identity. Rather, it must be recognized that there is not just one world with an all-inclusive humanity at the center. Worlds instead are innumerable, multiplying endlessly across species whose own identities emerge from their own relations with myriad others.  

Considered ecologically, Butler’s questioning of the politics of mourning—the questions of “Whose lives count as lives? And[…] what makes for a grievable life” (p.20) are provocative. They mark a space where unjust hierarchies can be recognized; hierarchies in which “certain[…] lives are more valuable than others, and [are] thus […] more grievable than others” (p.30). We are deeply attached to others, including to those to whom we in the West have so often denied value. To mourn auks then is a political act that challenges deeply held attitudes towards the non-human. It is to abandon the humanist myth of progress and exceptionalism, and to open oneself up to a more ecologically-orientated future; it is to be transformed.

Finally, why mourn the auk? Surely an engagement with a species still living would be more productive here? Why keep turning over the bones of the dead? The thing is I don’t consider the auk to be really gone. It continues to haunt the present, our culture, and our imaginations. I am interested in how the practices of creative historical research might enable a speaking for the dead that gives these ghosts a seat at the table. For surely their input is as key as those still living as we aim to make a “more response-able living and dying possible in times yet to come” (Haraway, 2016, p.69).

The occasional posts that will follow on this blog will form an ongoing informal archive of creative process and practice. These will think around the various academic interests that feed into my PhD research, namely extinction, multispecies worlds, archives, and landscape. A word of warning though—as with mourning, I recognise that this process of creative inquiry is not something that will ever be completed. It will always be transformative, leading to more questions along the way. I hope you enjoy some of the currents I follow enough to return and join me on this journey.

References

BUTLER, J. 2004. Precarious life : the powers of mourning and violence, London; Verso.

HARAWAY, D. J. 2016. Staying with the trouble : making kin in the Chthulucene, Durham; Duke University Press.

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