The contributors to Against Life think critically about the turn to life in recent theory and culture. Editors Alastair Hunt and Stephanie Youngblood shape their collection to provocatively challenge the assumption, rife throughout the humanities, that life needs to be cultivated, affirmed, and redeemed. The editors and their contributors explore how we might be better off daring to think ethics and politics, as well as the project of the humanities, in more radical terms, as a refusal to choose life. What forms of equality and freedom might emerge if we did not organize being-together under signs of life? Taken together, the essays in Against Life mark an important turn in the ethico-political work of the humanities.
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About the Author
ALASTAIR HUNT is an assistant professor of English at Portland State University.
STEPHANIE YOUNGBLOOD is an assistant professor of English at Tulsa Community College.
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By Alastair Hunt, Stephanie Youngblood
Northwestern University PressCopyright © 2016 Northwestern University Press
All rights reserved.
Terminal Regions: Queer Ecocriticism at the End
I. Save the Earth
In his 1989 book The End of Nature, widely credited as the first text to introduce the concept of global climate change to a mainstream audience, Bill McKibben accounted for Americans' hesitancy as environmental stewards by explaining that "the end of nature ... makes us reluctant to attach ourselves to its remnants, for the same reason that we usually don't choose friends from among the terminally ill." Coming as it does late in a book full of startling ethical and scientific claims, McKibben's comment can easily pass unnoticed, especially by those of us who grew up on a steady diet of bumper stickers, buttons, and Sierra Club mailings that named our primary tasks as environmentalists to be, first, to "love the planet" and then, presumably in and through that love, to "save the earth." In keeping with this familiar rhetoric, McKibben's statement predicates investment on health, and makes life and longevity the environmentalist's unquestioned priorities. For those of us in the game of saving, death is the ultimate failure. For those of us committed to planetary well-being, terminal illness is what we most fear. This logic seems simple enough, perhaps, and yet, if you are like me, McKibben's analogy is enough to give you pause. For although his comparison is designed to make us want to nurse the planet back to health, we are left to wonder about the fate of the terminally ill, those ailing beings whom the constituent members of McKibben's anonymous "we" are so reluctant to befriend. If we are not quite so ready as McKibben to align terminality with futurelessness, incapacity, and isolation, how might we relate to those whose lives are coming to an end? And how could the possible answers to this question offer a new mode of environmental relation both to a planet that is ailing and at risk, and to that vulnerability or weakness itself? The End of Nature does not necessarily encourage this line of inquiry, using the terminally ill as a figure, simply, for a planetary and personal fate that we wish to avoid. But I want to suggest that it might be time for ecocriticism and environmentalism alike to take seriously the issues of vulnerability that McKibben implicitly raises only to steadfastly avoid.
I have chosen to begin with McKibben's statement not only because it introduces what will become a central term in this essay — terminality — but also because it is emblematic of the phobic stance toward illness, frailty, and death apparent in much environmental (or, more properly, environmentalist) discourse. It almost goes without saying that mainstream environmentalism is an intensely vitalist movement, its rhetoric and its practices invested in saving, in healing, in promoting life, in protecting both ourselves and the planet on which we dwell. The threat of death and extinction serves largely to motivate us to immediate and intensive action; within the temporality of crisis, in other words, terminality is the horizon that we must work urgently to avoid. When death has figured as an affirmative aspect of environmental stewardship, rather than simply as a fate to be feared, it has tended to appear in a misanthropic and anti-humanist guise. Emerging mainly in the Deep Ecology movement's neo-Malthusian branches, which argue that environmental problems are fundamentally problems of human overpopulation, and that humanism, anthropocentrism, and their accompanying sins are to blame for planetary degradation, such portrayals of death figure it as a necessary path to zero or, more radically, negative population growth. And so we read in a 1987 article published by Earth First! activist Christopher Manes (under the pseudonym "Miss Ann Thropy") that AIDS, rather than an epidemiological problem to be solved, is in fact an environmental solution to be embraced. Or we see on the website and in the publicity materials of the Boston-based "Church of Euthanasia" the prominently placed slogan "Save the Planet, Kill Yourself," which leads in turn to the organization's four foundational practices: suicide, abortion, cannibalism, and sodomy. Analyzing the work of these groups could be a project of its own, but for now, I want mainly to highlight two aspects of their rhetoric: first, the way in which — in keeping with the intensity of a crisis-based political mode — the urgency of appeals to "save" are matched or mirrored by the urgency of appeals to kill or to let die, and, second, the extent to which death here, even while celebrated, exists primarily as a foil to and precondition for the continuance of life. Even when human death is advocated rather than feared, that is to say, the logic remains sacrificial, and the ultimate goal remains rescue — saving the planet (at virtually any cost) is an unquestioned aim. I want to counter or at least complicate these paradigms not by offering an alternate path to salvation, but rather by asking a controversial question that challenges their very premise. Why are we so sure that saving is what we need or want to do?
II. Queer Terminality: Reading and Repairing
I am of course not advocating that we disregard the well-being of the planet, that we adopt a fatalistic relationship toward mortality and ends. This is not an essay about the ethics of abandonment or neglect. However, I do want to suggest that the vitalism that suffuses environmentalist thought, that implicitly casts anything short of saving as a fundamental failure, not only makes it difficult to reckon with the questions of vulnerability, risk, and fragility that are centrally important to our present environmental moment, but also occludes the forms of action and relation that terminality itself can occasion. Rethinking terminality, I will argue, can help us to rethink both the temporality and the affects upon which we predicate — or in which we practice — environmental stewardship. And so if what environmentalism needs is a model for ethically relating to the terminally ill, or for thinking through the potentially affirmative relationship between terminality and relation, where might it — and we — turn? One answer is queer theory, this intellectual field that took much of its inaugural energy and impetus from the epidemiological and social crises surrounding HIV and AIDS, and whose most influential practitioners have lived and died and thought and written while companioned by terminality. So far in this piece, queerness has perhaps been the elephant in the room, appearing only in passing, as a set of practices, affiliated with death, that can — in the radical deep ecologists' logic — help to save the planet; or as a set of practices, defined in part by their non-reproductivity, that provide little entry into an insistently natalist, future-oriented environmentalism. But I want to turn now more directly to queerness, to suggest — as I aim to do throughout my work — that queer theory, queer literature, and queer modes of affiliation have more to contribute to environmental thinking than either of these accounts would suggest. In particular, I want to argue here that the way that queer literary scholars (and queer writers) have thought through the future of terminal beings — and the future of our relationship to such beings — can help environmentalism develop a non-melancholic, non-salvific relationship to vulnerability and risk alike. What would our environmental practices look like, in other words, if we treated the planet as terminal, albeit within a radically different time scale than the one that defines a human life span? What if, rather than predicating environmental investment solely on trying to prevent harm — a tactic that often leads to our feeling like we have come to the problem too late — we acknowledged that relation, investment, and even improvement can be predicated on an acknowledgment of endings rather than existing in fear of or opposition to them?
To begin to articulate the important conceptual resonances between queer theory and environmentalism, and to develop a response to terminality that can sit beside and gently challenge environmentalism's salvific bent, there are any number of places we could turn. We could look to Paul Monette's acclaimed 1988 memoir Borrowed Time, the narrative of his final months with Roger Horwitz, his longtime partner who died of AIDS in 1986, and to Caroline Vaughan's 1996 book of photography of the same title, which juxtaposes photographs of seemingly pristine natural landscapes with images of elderly, queer, and cross-dressing couples. Both on their own and in conjunction with each other, these texts ask what possibilities for relation exist amidst terminality, and what the similarities may be between a place (or planet) persisting in or on "borrowed time" and a human being (or human couple) doing the same. So too could we look to Angels in America, a text that, by virtue of the time of its writing and the time of its setting, intertwines portrayals of the HIV/AIDS epidemic with questions of prophetic temporality with references to the emerging discourse and growing problem of global climate change. Although the temporality of AIDS — and of AIDS-based terminality — has changed significantly since the play's 1991 debut, it remains — as playwright Tony Kushner commented in a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times — "scarily timely, in some ways that I wish it wasn't: the 'eco-cide' of global warming, the rise of the reactionary right in response to Obama's election, and the suicides and beatings of young gay men." (Add to this the findings by a 2009 poll that a significantly higher percentage of Americans believe in angels than believe in anthropogenic global warming, and we have quite the political conundrum on our hands.)
Or we could look, as I will now, to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, whose writing was deeply attuned to questions of terminality (and terminal communities) even before she herself was diagnosed with the cancer that would ultimately take her life. Remarkably, Sedgwick's body of work treats terminality not as an exceptional condition but rather as an exemplary one, and not as a realm defined by dwindling time but rather as itself a temporality in which alternate forms of relation and ethical investment can be developed. In her widely celebrated "Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading" essay, for instance, terminality becomes less an acute condition than an ongoing state:
A more recent contingency, in the brutal foreshortening of so many queer life spans, has deroutinized the temporality of many of us. ... I'm thinking, as I say this, of three very queer friendships I have. One of my friends is sixty; the other two are both thirty, and I, at forty-five, am exactly in the middle. ... In a "normal" generational narrative, our identifications with each other would be aligned with an expectation that in another fifteen years, I'd be situated comparably to where my sixty-year-old friend is, while my thirty-year-old friends would be situated comparably to where I am.
But we are all aware that the grounds of such friendships today are likely to differ from that model. ... Specifically, living with advanced breast cancer, I have little chance of ever being the age my older friend is now. My friends who are thirty are equally unlikely ever to experience my present, middle age: one is living with an advanced cancer caused by a massive environmental trauma (basically, he grew up on top of a toxic waste site); the other is living with HIV. The friend who is a very healthy sixty is much the likeliest of us to be living fifteen years from now.
It's hard to say, even to know, how these relationships are different from those shared by people of different ages on a landscape whose perspectival lines converge on a common disappearing point. I'm sure ours are more intensely motivated: whatever else we know, we know there isn't time to bullshit. But what it means to identify with each other must also be very different. On this scene, an older person doesn't love a younger as someone who will someday be where she now is, or vice versa. No one is, so to speak, passing on the family name; there's a sense in which our life narratives will barely overlap. There's another sense in which they slide up more intimately alongside one another than can any lives that are moving forward according to the regular schedule of the generations. It is one another immediately, one another as the present fullness of a becoming whose arc may extend no further, whom we each must learn to apprehend, fulfill, and bear company.
Although there is clearly much to say about both this passage and the essay as a whole, I want to focus my discussion on two main topics: first, the way in which terminality for Sedgwick becomes not simply a state but also a practice, and, second, the complicated — and importantly inclusive (or, to use one of Sedgwick's own terms, universalizing) — paradigms of belonging that inhere in this model of the terminal condition. To begin, it seems important to acknowledge the extent to which, throughout Sedgwick's work, attention to queer practices of reading is intertwined with attention to queer paradigms of relation, among which she counts the way in which the life trajectories of ill friends of different ages are unlikely ever to overlap. For Sedgwick in Touching Feeling, it's worth noting, friendships between the terminally ill — friendships "in which ... life narratives will barely overlap, [but also] ... slide up more intimately alongside one another than can any lives that are moving forward according to the regular schedule of the generations" — become an implicit model for or echo of the stance of the reparative reader, who resists "the dogged, defensive narrative stiffness of a paranoid temporality ... which ... takes its shape from a generational narrative characterized by a distinctly Oedipal regularity and repetitiveness." Although Sedgwick likely would connect the two under the rubric of queerness — the "three queer friendships" embodying the "queer possibility ... that ... generational relations don't always proceed in ... lockstep" — we may ask what would happen if we elided (or temporarily suspended) the middleman. What if to read reparatively, in other words, is not only to read queerly, but also to read terminally, or to read as if one were terminally ill? And what if terminality, in turn, were thought of not simply as a condition, but also as a deeply ethical — and importantly non-normative — practice in which we all (regardless of our current health) could engage? This possibility leads in turn to the second question introduced above, and to the matter of belonging and community. Here, I want to attend not to Sedgwick herself, and not to her friends living with terminal illness, but rather to the "very healthy" sixty-year-old, who — amidst her health, amidst her prophesied longevity — remains a queer participant in these friendships, and remains a denizen of the terminal world. (In my formulation of this possibility, we might hear echoes of Susan Sontag's claim, at the start of Illness as Metaphor, that we all carry passports for both the kingdom of the ill and the kingdom of the well.) Terminality, in Sedgwick's formulation, is the province not of individuals but rather of communities, and serves not as the end of or barrier to relation but rather as relation's very ground. Like queerness itself, terminality here yields an alternative to normative family structures, normative identificatory paradigms, and normative modes of temporal unfolding. What new paradigms of agency and community might emerge, Sedgwick invites us to ask, if we treated terminality as a chronic condition that we all share?
Excerpted from Against Life by Alastair Hunt, Stephanie Youngblood. Copyright © 2016 Northwestern University Press. Excerpted by permission of Northwestern University Press.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: Against Life Alastair Hunt Stephanie Youngblood 3
1 Terminal Regions: Queer Ecocriticism at the End Sarah Ensor 41
2 The Once and Future Humans: Between Happiness and Extinction Claire Colebrook 63
3 Vital Ethics: On Life and In/difference Jami Weinstein 87
4 The Precarious, the Immune, and the Thanatopolitical: Butler, Esposito, and Agamben on Reproductive Biopolitics Penelope Deutscher 119
5 James Agee's "A Mother's Tale" and the Biopolitics of Animal Life and Death in Postwar America Robert McKay 143
6 The Ends of Lyric's Animal Life; or, Why Did the Hedgehog Cross the Road? Isabel A. Moore 161
7 Mute Responsiveness: Language, Life, and Politics after Deconstruction Matthias Rudolf 191
8 Invidious Life Donna V. Jones 231
9 The Stranger at the Gate: An Interview Ranjana Khanna 257
Afterword: Again and Against Lee Edelman 269