[What follows is a guest post by Vasile Stanescu. It began as an extended comment on my most recent blog post. I, however, gave the post its title, so any issues you have with that are on me. If you are interested in writing a guest post for my blog, please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org]
I think there is another link between these two long quotations. I think the polar bears do not “matter” because of calculative logics that only values species. While killing individual polar bears both wholly matters in its own right and does hurt the species as whole, the idea is that it only kills individual animals. However, animals in our culture have no “individuality;” animals are believed to be interchangeable, so a polar bear's “loss” is only perceived if there are no more polar bears at all. There is a similar logic at play with the current project to try and clone extinct animals from preserved DNA (no, not from amber). The danger of such a project is that there would seem to be no need (for many) to worry about animals’ loss or death or suffering as long as an infinite number of new animals could be “recreated” in the future. Indeed, there probably wouldn’t even be the “need” to recreate them in any literal sense (for many) as long as the potential of reaction existed –the simple idea of the possible animals or the DNA bank would stave off some peoples fears of species extinction and biodiversity loss based on the same idea that animals are infinitely reproducible. (We should write an article on the idea of animals’ rights in the age of mechanical reproduction). Here is an ABC article on the practice: "Scientist Preserve Endangered Species' DNA"; and here is a link to a nonprofit working on the topic: The Frozen Ark. The main idea I want to highlight from these practices is the much-repeated phrase that the point of preserving these animals DNA is as a “treasure-trove of knowledge.” What comes to matter via these discourses are not the animals themselves, but only the “knowledge” they represent which, since the animals can be transformed into knowledge, need not be grieved (much less saved) since they (it?) can be “preserved” forever.
So too, I think a similar calculus is at play in the new found fears for the global poor. It is worth remembering that the ethnographic fairs, zoos, sideshows, and circus of the 16-21 century have all paired the “exotic” animal with the “exotic” culture. Again, what seems to be at play is not a fear or concern of actual or individual people but a loss of “cultural” or “linguistic” diversity. And, much like “DNA banks” we witness the rise of “linguistic banks” to preserve languages before they are “lost forever.” For example, here’s an article on “Preserving Language Diversity: Computers can be a tool for making the survival of languages possible.” Again, a technological fix (to re-appropriate Homer Simpson’s claim about beer : Technology apparently has become “both the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems”). But what is even more important is the way in which linguistic and cultural diversity is justified:
Languages seem to be disappearing faster than ever before. I estimate that there are about 15 percent fewer languages now than in 1500 A.D. This is alarming in itself, but, just as important, the consequent reduction of cultural diversity may threaten humanity's survival. Our adaptive success as a species - with over 5 billion people in such diverse environments as jungles, deserts, and the Arctic - is due to "culture," implying the communication of ideas through language. Linguistic diversity relates to adaptational ideas about property, health care, food, children, power, and disputes. The loss of language diversity diminishes our ability to adapt because it decreases the pool of knowledge from which to draw.
The point is the calculative logic is, itself, a type of computeresque way of understanding the world. Somehow these moments of empathy or caring are elided in which the suffering of the world (be it animal or citizens of the global south) becomes repacked as only enlightened self-interest. The Endangered Languages Project, funded, in part, by Google, makes this linkages between animals and languages (and the easy techno fixes that are being proffered) even more clear, claiming:
Languages are entities that are alive and in constant flux, and their extinction is not new; however, the pace at which languages are disappearing today has no precedent and is alarming. Over 40 percent of the world’s approximate 7,000 languages are at risk of disappearing. But today we have tools and technology at our fingertips that could become a game changer.
The Endangered Languages Project puts technology at the service of the organizations and individuals working to confront the language endangerment by documenting, preserving and teaching them. Through this website, users can not only access the most up to date and comprehensive information on Endangered Languages as well as samples being provided by partners, but also play an active role in putting their languages online by submitting information or samples in the form of text, audio or video files. In addition, users will be able to share best practices and case studies through a knowledge sharing section and through joining relevant Google Groups.
I know that “Thing theory” has long been an interest of ours, but I cannot help but wonder—what are the political stakes behind defining languages themselves as an endangered living entity nearing extinction? I see in this move the erasure of the speakers of these languages who cannot but matter less as long as the “languages” themselves are “protected.” Furthermore, however, it seems to me that static perseveration via an audio of video upload (more true in the second example than the first) only “preservers” a language if it in fact ceases, itself, to be a living entity at all. Again, much like the DNA banks, the idea seems to be that static preservation of languages will, in some way or some manner, allow for their “recreation” in the future—although who would respeak these languages in the future (if anyone) is never addressed. In other words what we are offered is not the languages' protection but instead only a techno-mausoleum to their loss. More importantly, like the DNA banks to the “vanishing” animals, there seems to be a way in which the disappearing of the people (both individually and as groups) seems to no longer “count” since the formula that people=culture=language=information means that people can be “stored.” As though a person's language was her “cultural DNA,” as it were. The losses are rendered ungrievable because they can be endlessly preserved and recreated. Again, just in case anyone thinks I am making a stretch between this idea of species loss and linguistic and cultural loss here is an excerpt from the Endangered Languages Project on “Endangered languages: Why so important”:
The disappearance of an individual language constitutes a monumental loss of scientific information and cultural knowledge, comparable in gravity to the loss of a species - for example the Bengal tiger or the white whale. However, the disappearance of whole families of languages is a tragedy comparable in magnitude to the loss of whole branches of the animal kingdom (classes, orders, families), such as the loss of all felines or all cetaceans. Just as it would be difficult to understand the animal kingdom with major branches missing, it is impossible to understand the history and classification of human languages with the loss of entire language families.
The point of this, for me, is the calculus by which either “culture” or “species” becomes valued. Animals, themselves, as themselves, matter not at all. Even the loss of the entire species, as a group of animals who have all now died, matters not at all. What is calculated to count, to matter, is only the “monumental loss of scientific information.” So too, I wish to argue, the people of the global south are not, in and of themselves, deemed to count. While, as you know, I am a huge critic of Achille Mbembe (from his unnecessary coining of the neologism “necropolitics” to his incorrect understanding of Foucault) in this one area I have to completely agree with him that “death” in the post-colony are simply uncounted by "us," are simply viewed as a “letting die” of all involved. In both cases, for animals and the world’s poor, all that seems to “count” is the “monumental” scientific information. However if both animals and the poor are rendered as purely informational, as only counting in terms of the knowledge they can express, the very forces which are now fueling their shared destruction (Western capitalist global technological development and control) can, ironically, be viewed as the vehicle for their salvation by transforming both human and animals into pure information which can be “protected,” “preserved,” and mechanically reproduced forever.