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“Enabling entanglements”: rethinking modernist difficulty in the sixth extinction

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journal contribution
posted on 2023-06-10, 01:27 authored by Shalini Sengupta
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. Indeed, it is the apocalyptic subject matter of Kapil’s story that makes the mutedness of these lines—the affective anesthesia they capture—all the more striking. There is little mourning or lament here about the catastrophic loss that the protagonist suffers; there is little joy or revelry at surviving a mass extinction event; and there is very little outrage at the annihilation of one’s home by the destructive effects of human influence and power. But there is something quite political about these lines as well. “If home is found on both sides of the globe,” Kapil further writes, “home is of course here, and always a missed land” (21). The lines offer a stark portrayal of the devastation of the planet from the perspective of the racialized subject. If mass extinction represents the monstrous alteration of planet Earth by human activities—the becoming-unhomely (unheimlich) of our home—then its recognition also brings with it a certain irony. The irony is no doubt relatable for many people of color (immigrants, in particular) who already experience home as a growing absence: that which is already unrecognizable, fractured, unhomely. The story pushes us to reckon with these disturbances and generates an indispensable vocabulary for thinking through issues of intersectionality that have been squeezed out of current debates on the sixth extinction. Pointedly, it seems to ask: who is the “us” by which collective survival is measured? And along similar lines: who or what is worth saving when the world comes to an end?


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