Saving Species, Saving the Humanities: Ursula K. Heise’s ‘Imagining Extinction’

Posted by on Oct 5, 2016
Saving Species, Saving the Humanities: Ursula K. Heise’s ‘Imagining Extinction’

Emerging into the energetic light of an early fall day, campus fresh in the heat’s recession, I find my mind wound tightly within a strange double helix of extinction discourses: on the one hand, the decline of biodiversity resulting from the historical sixth mass extinction event and on the other, the ongoing talk of the humanities’ slow and steady death. Only last year, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker—regarded by many to be the poster child of small government—decided it was well within the reach of his own bureaucratic authority to challenge the humanities’ status in the mission statement of the University of Wisconsin, known to most simply as the “Wisconsin Idea.” According to Alia Wong in The Atlantic, Walker wanted to simplify the university’s conceptual mission in order to better meet “workforce needs.” Unsurprisingly, what was laid on the altar of the state’s bottom-lined and hyper-vocational approach to education were declarations regarding “the search for truth” or improving “the human condition.” 1

globeNo matter how much Walker revised his approach, subsequent clarifications on the matter sent a clear signal: the state was intent on finding, in his own words, the “savings that can be generated by an authority.” 2 It is as if Walker would have us excise imagination from the classroom in order to procure a more efficient and robotic labor force. Even Foucault did not imagine rhetoric this brittle.

And studies of “the Crisis in the Humanities” have now begun to approximate the apocalyptic language of the Anthropocene, spurring a mode of orphic vision on one extreme, or an untenable apologetics on the other. “Who Ruined the Humanities?” asked The Wall Street Journal in 2013; “How Humanities Can Help Fix the World” shot back The Chronicle of Higher Education as recently as this week. 3 Wars and rumors of wars: these are the signals of an extinction discourse, to be sure. I fear that the first thing to go will indeed be our imagination—our imagination of what the humanities can, must, or might be. In “How Humanities Can Help Fix the World,” John McCumber rightly argues that “the humanities teach us how not to be racists, by showing us how to open ourselves to what is different.” 4 And yet, I feel unsatisfied with the humanities being reduced to a singular, albeit worthy, function. Do we want to commoditize the humanities this way, assuring our STEM counterparts that a semester or two in our seminars will fix the systemic, racist attitudes in many young minds? Moreover, what to do if our humanities courses fail to deliver on such promises, unearthing what we have known all along: namely, that a humanities education does not always fit the “workforce”-driven patterns of neoliberal society?

The call to justify the humanities’ existence is as deafening as ever, interpellated as we are into a dominant economy of use value. I’d like to suggest, mostly in passing, that this is the same dominant economy that landed us here, in the midst of mass extinction. That species were traditionally valued only insofar as they were “useful” to modes of agriculture and production appears to be a fairly direct line to our present decline in biodiversity. Long forgotten are the days of stewardship, troubled by religious and cultural legacies though that term may be. Long forgotten are the days when species extinction was not an imminent concern, given that the last two and half centuries, at least, are marked by a growing awareness of irreversible ecological devastation.

9780226358161In Imagining Extinction: The Cultural Meanings of Endangered Species (2016), Ursula K. Heise offers a nuanced re-visioning of extinction discourse, inflected powerfully by literary traditions ranging from elegy to epic. The argument, in my reading, offers an evocative and long-awaited sequel to Lawrence Buell’s seminal study, The Environmental Imagination (1995), whereby the faculties of imagination are granted a vital role in addressing the overwhelming facts and figures of the Anthropocene. It is not only the “environment” at stake these days, but the subsistence of a multiplicity of beings living or dying on this planet. It was Buell who first considered the political and even ontological implications of human imagination brought to bear on the topic of environmental justice. “How we image a thing, true or false,” he contends, “affects our conduct toward it, the conduct of nations as well as persons.” 5

“Conduct” is arguably the organizing principle of Imagining Extinction, which surveys how creative modes—from databases to legal codes, from poetics to policy—may chart new paths for an emergent politics. From the outset, Heise astutely observes, “[Environmentalists’ and Scientists’] engagements with these species gain sociocultural traction to the extent that they become part of the stories that human communities tell about themselves: stories about their origins, their development, their identity, and their future horizons.” 6 This clear echoing of Buell’s project does not, however, merely retrace a critical lineage. Rather, her chosen texts largely diverge from the classical canon, witnessed most compellingly in her analysis of endangered species acts.

Listen to how Heise weaves together juridical concern and social imagination in her chapter, “The Legal Lives of Endangered Species”:

[I]t becomes clear that defining an “effective” or “successful” biodiversity conservation law is not only or even mainly a matter of counting how many species have been preserved or have died out under the law—an accounting that is, at any rate, quite difficult in practice—but also determining to what extent the law fulfills the political, social, and cultural purposes to which it links the conservation of biodiversity. Here again, biodiversity conservation turns out to be a matter of culture, history, and politics more than of biological science. 7

This passage provides a template for the kind of work undertaken in this important book. To read diverse textual responses to extinction and then reveal the poetic, imaginative foundation undergirding these otherwise technical or scientific documents. Put plainly, “Knowing what the numbers mean, and for whom, requires a knowledge of these stories [that communities tell about themselves].” 8

ursula-heiseIn the final chapter, “Multispecies Fictions for the Anthropocene,” Heise claims that the Anthropocene is profoundly beholden to the literary imagination, specifically in the genre of “Speculative Fiction”: “The notion of the Anthropocene itself … is often accompanied by the transfer of tropes and narrative strategies from science fiction to mainstream fiction and environmental nonfiction.” 9 Indeed, the deployment of fiction precisely underscores the potential threat of the Anthropocene; as a future event, the Anthropocene requires a narrative suturing between the then and the now, the approaching and the here. Bound by temporal division, suggests Heise, only the human imagination can seemingly inspire the kind of social and political action championed by environmentalists and scientists alike.

One might be curious to consider the perceived limits of human imagination, an idea that while implicit in the text, does not garner significant critical attention. This absence is perhaps most notable in the second chapter, “From Arks to Database, Epic, and Biodiversity,” where Heise argues that online databases like the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species operate in the traditional genres of elegy and epic. “The categorization structure of the IUCN’s database, in other words” writes Heise, “is underwritten by some of the same elegiac impulses that are also dominant in the literature and art concerning endangered species.” 10 But perhaps it will be wise to better define “imagination” and “narrative,” even if placing these terms within limits makes them less germane. I remain unconvinced that databases, despite their clear and “underlying narrative of decline,” can actually achieve passable variations of elegy, epic, or even the encyclopedic—the last of which may warrant more attention regarding how it is both similar to and different from “narrative,” broadly understood. 11 I am more disposed to regard data and quantifiable listing as narrative mimicry, which while satisfying the technophilic ambition of our time will always fall short of achieving literary structure and will thus continue to require extensive critical mediation.

That said, Imagining Extinction persuasively advocates for the centrality of the literary, the anthropological, the historical, and the psychological in coding and recoding our present considerations of extinction and the Anthropocene. Repeatedly, Heise draws our attention to “the stories we tell about ourselves.” Perhaps this, after all, is the humanities’ calling. Writing and rewriting stories about who we are, where we are, why we are. And yet, in the same way that I do not want the humanities reduced to a single function, I would also not want to reduce Heise’s Imagining Extinction to a single application. Self-consciously, the text seems crafted in order to lend itself to alliances far beyond a single discourse or discipline. Extinction, after all, is by its present definition uncontained and uncontainable.

how-big-do-polar-bears-get_7b8990a2-05f5-4658-a663-264134df9eb1At its boldest, Imagining Extinction goes so far as to imply that any and all “sociocultural traction” regarding extinction—and even the Anthropocene—is utterly contingent upon our ability to narrativize new and future worlds. At its more conservative, it frames environmental crises as built upon a mutually informed dialectic, wherein the sciences and the humanities serve commensurately vital roles. Either way, we find ourselves a long way from doubting the efficacy and necessity of work in the humanities. We find that the ongoing “search for truth”—the very search that Scott Walker would have us cut from the “Wisconsin Idea”—is an indissoluble component to the technical contributions of those who are under less scrutiny to justify their academic presence.

We find that the university’s own imagination might better account for the unseen but largely foundation work of the humanities, in granting the narrative terms and techniques upon which the biological and scientific future of the earth depends. The stories we tell about ourselves, in the present, directly shape the stories that will be told in coming epochs. Faced with the decline of both the academic humanities and ecological biodiversity, it is high time we began asking ourselves, What story are we telling?


Clint Wilson III is a CENHS predoctoral fellow, a Diana Hobby editorial fellow for Studies in English Literature: 1500–1900, and a PhD student in English at Rice University. His research explores the intersection of race, politics, and toxicity in the modernist imaginary, as well as the larger study of contamination in the environmental humanities.


  1. Alia Wong, “The Governor Who (Maybe) Tried to Kill Liberal-Arts Education,” The Atlantic, February 11, 2015,
  2. Ibid.
  3. See Lee Siegel, “Who Ruined the Humanities?,” The Wall Street Journal, July 12, 2013,; and John McCumber, “How Humanities Can Help Fix the World,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, October 2, 2016,
  4. McCumber, “How Humanities Can Help Fix the World.”
  5. Lawrence Buell, The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture (Cambridge MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1995), 3.
  6. Ursula Heise, Imagining Extinction: The Cultural Meanings of Endangered Species (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2016), 5.
  7. Ibid., 91–2.
  8. Ibid., 126.
  9. Ibid., 203.
  10. Ibid., 72.
  11. Ibid.