There’s something incredibly unsettling about the dispassionate description captured in these lines, which the reader encounters midway through “Pinky Agarwalia,” a science fiction narrative written by the British-Indian poet Bhanu Kapil. By Kapil’s account, the story revolves around the destruction of what was once Earth by a thermonuclear war and opens in medias res with the narrative voice of its eponymous protagonist: the orphaned Punjabi child named Pinky Agarwalia.
Feather fashions were the subject of heated debate between the 1860s and 1920s, with feather-wearing women held largely accountable by anti-plumage trade campaigners for the decimation of exotic bird species. The UK Plumage (Prohibition) Bill of 1920, which sought to ban the importation of feathers used in women’s fashion, was the subject of Woolf’s “earliest feminist polemic,” her narrative essay “The Plumage Bill” (1920), which challenged the “injustice to women” implicit in the language of the plumage trade debate.
Recent fiction that portrays future climate-changed worlds might be seen as the foremost cultural expression of what the sociologist Ulrich Beck calls the “speculative age.” For Beck, such an age began as “risk society” emerged with recognition of the unprecedented dangers that modernity brought about as well as its benefits; this reflexive phase of modernity is characterized by a transition of concern from the production and distribution of wealth, to the production and distribution of risks. Certainly, much recent speculative
One of the saddest features of civilisation is the disappearance of so many beautiful and curious creatures from this world of ours. From all parts of the earth the same story comes; and we now seem to be within measurable distance of a time when wrecks and remnants of once compact and indigenous assemblages of organisms will be all that remain to us, and such a thing as a complete fauna will be unknown.
—Charles Dixon, Lost and Vanishing Birds, 1898
Initially hailed as an ur-text for feminist scholarship upon its first reprint in 1973, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall-Paper” (1892) has undergone a significant historicist reevaluation, beginning in the 1990s, which condemned the story on behalf of its author’s investments in eugenic feminism, the view that women’s reproductive roles should be weaponized as a tool of white supremacy through the enforcement of “racial hygiene.”
Other papers in this cluster illuminate how modernism and extinction are closely historically related, but my contribution here is specifically concerned with the utility of reading a poet—Ruth Lechlitner—who allows us to think about modernism and extinction along parallel tracks. Lechlitner’s work is attentive to extinction in diverse ways; her poetry confronts the extinction of human solidarity, the extinction of organic life by the machines of extractive capitalism, the extinction of our embeddedness, as human animals, in a multispecies ecology, and the global extinction threat of nuclear war.
In the autumn of 1941, David Jones is carving “bison in the caves of ice” into a hurried single-page fragment, one of the early “experiments” which would, a decade later, yield his late modernist epic poem The Anathemata. Before the final manuscript’s publication in 1952, both the bison and their ice caves will disappear from Jones’s drafts, their meltwater pooling in the footnotes where Jones anticipates the end of the world:
“How are we not all talking about this?” a student unmuted to ask in an environmental change-themed writing course, their voice rising to add, “It’s so relevant to what’s going on.” We had just finished reviewing a 2009 profile of climate scientist James Hansen written by Elizabeth Kolbert via then-unfamiliar webinar technology adopted during the first wave of the pandemic. With
1914—a year that looms large in modernist studies for many reasons, including the beginning of the First World War, the “Men of 1914” variant of literary modernism, and the publication of landmark works such as A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (in serial form), Tender Buttons, and Des Imagistes—also marks the extinction of the passenger pigeon. Martha, the species endling, died of old age at the Cincinnati Zoo on September 1.
Critical, speculative, and imaginative forays into modernism’s relationships with energy systems, ecological change, and the nonhuman world.