Download the PDF of our Call for Proposals: After Extinction 2015 CFP


What comes after extinction? In ongoing debates about the anthropocene, the question of extinction is very much present, in relation both to the anthropogenic Sixth Extinction and to the premediated extinction of humans. Our predominant understanding of extinction today relates to natural species extinctions caused largely by human actions.  But in the twenty-first century categorical distinctions between humans and nonhumans or culture and nature are no longer tenable—if they ever really were. Indeed as Darwin was not even the first to note, mass extinction events preceded the appearance of humans on the planet.

The concept of species extinction first emerged in the eighteenth century to explain fossils that had no living correlates, which challenged predominant Christian notions of the Great Chain of Being in which Nature was understood as a complete whole, created by God without gap or imperfection. If Nature contained all and only those species that were divinely created, how could any of them be allowed to go extinct or how could new species emerge? Darwin’s mid-nineteenth-century theory of natural selection treats the origin of species as reliant on chance and accident, not divine purpose, and therefore offers a fundamentally different understanding of their disappearance or extinction as part and parcel of the process of natural selection.

Today we think as well of the extinction of cultural forms: languages, customs and traditions; craft and artisanal skills; media, technologies, and operating systems; public institutions. In the face of this extended sense of extinction, asking what comes after extinction is not only to inquire about the future of humans and nonhumans, but also to investigate to what extent the concept’s origins still inflect current understandings of extinction. Does the very concept of extinction bear traces of an ontology that is alien to natural, social, and human scientists in the 21st century?

In asking what comes after extinction, then, we mean on the one hand to refer to the event of extinction: what comes after extinction events, whether local events like the extinction of a species or more massive events like the Sixth Extinction? If we think of the event of extinction not as destructive or final, but as generative, as what Whitehead would call “an occasion of experience,” then what comes after this occasion, what comes next? Is extinction something that only happens belatedly, after there are already species or forms or practices in place?  Or does the very possibility of extinction work in a more radical form, as already present in the origin of species more generally?  Is there a sense in which extinction might be prior to or even generative of the evolution or emergence of any form of life or being?

But in asking what comes after extinction we mean also to refer to the concept of extinction. What comes after thinking extinction?  Where are we left?  What happens after we are placed in the position, individually and collectively, of thinking extinction? when we are put in the position of having to think about endings and what comes after them in the deepest sense of the term?  What happens to writing, theory, and philosophy after thinking the event of extinction? After extinction, what happens to the fundamental philosophical distinction between the human and the nonhuman?

C21’s conference After Extinction will pursue the question of what it means to come “after” extinction in three different but related senses.

1) In temporal terms, what comes after extinction, not only the event of extinction but also the concept? After we think extinction what comes next? Are there historical models or examples of what comes after? Can these past extinctions measure up to present day events, or do the possible scales on which extinction might operate today make such comparisons incompatible? Is extinction something that only happens belatedly, after there are already species or forms or practices in place, or does extinction work prior to the emergence of species, as generative of the evolution or emergence of any form of life or being? Is extinction terminal or can species return, a la Jurassic Park or European projects to restore the auroch or Przewalski’s horse?  Can dead or dying languages be revitalized?

2) In an epistemological sense, what does it mean for an image, graphic, text, video or film to “take after” the concept of extinction, to mediate it in such a way as to resemble or be mimetic of extinction. What is “after extinction” in the sense that a painting is “after O’Keeffe” or a child “takes after” its parent? In order to be recognized as coming after extinction an event or occasion must be seen as being related to extinction, to have been consequent or emergent from the event of extinction. Thus we mean to explore the premediation of future extinctions in a variety of formal and informal, print, audiovisual, and networked media.  What forms of knowledge emerge in such anticipatory pursuits?

3) In spatial terms, what will remain physically after extinction?  Extinction is not simply death or absence but a geophysical event that occurs in space.  What does it mean to pursue extinction, to go “after” it with technologies and scientific techniques of making extinction legible by premediating its possible occurrence through climate change modeling or pandemic forecasting?  How should one act “after extinction” in order to plan for, prevent, or preempt the end of crucial life forms, for example, by establishing seed banks or stockpiling DNA? How does the extinction of one species threaten the lifeblood of the entire biosphere (e.g., the impact of bee colony collapse on particular flora and fauna as well as on human practices like agriculture)?  Have new artifacts surfaced either as sentinels or fossils of extinction (e.g., animal carcasses washed up on shore filled with plastic, or mutant plants in irradiated nuclear test fields)? Even if extinction has always been thought of as impacting a larger ecology, has the scale of risk changed in light of the accelerated networks of the 21st century?

We seek proposals for critical, historical, and theoretical papers or creative presentations that address the questions posed by the concept of After Extinction.

Please send your abstract (up to 250 words) and a brief (1-page) CV by Friday, January 16 to Richard Grusin, Director, Center for 21st Century Studies,

Confirmed plenary speakers for the conference are: Daryl Baldwin (Miami University), Claire Colebrook (Penn State), William Connolly (Johns Hopkins), Joseph Masco (University of Chicago), Cary Wolfe (Rice University), Joanna Zylinska (Goldsmiths, University of London)


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