Thursday, June 2, 2011

Hsuan Hsu - Naturalism and "Pastoral Power"

Foucault’s argument that modern forms of governmentality derive from eastern and Christian concepts of “pastoral power” suggests that the pastoral relation between shepherds and flocks may help illuminate about post-Enlightenment tactics for monitoring and optimizing the life of populations. I’d like to make a few points with a view to clarifying some intersections between environmental criticism and Foucault’s discussions of governmentality and biopower.

1.The "problem of population"--which Foucault frames as a modern version of the pastoral problem of tending the flock (a "multiplicity on the move")--involves questions like: how can the state manage food supplies, climate, resources, and risk factors so as to optimize the life of the population? And what happens when the population is differentiated along lines of class, race, gender, and sexual orientation?

2.Foucault’s claim that apparatuses of security address emergent problems of “the case, risk, danger, and crisis” suggests that concepts of probability and risk exposure were important factors in the emergence of modern forms of government. Factors targeted by “governmentality”—risks, birth rates, illnesses, and endemic diseases—involve the hybridization (or what Foucault calls the “intrication”) of humans and “nature.” Modern risks are produced and differentiated through activities—such as social practices, urban planning, and working conditions—that differentially interconnect human populations with “natural” phenomena.

3.Foucault’s conceptualization of environment as intricately bound up with populations also provides a way to understand state practices that target something like what Tim Morton calls “ecology without nature.” “The milieu is a set of natural givens—rivers, marshes, hills—and a set of artificial givens—an agglomeration of individuals, of houses, etcetera…. Finally, the milieu appears as a field of intervention in which, instead of affecting individuals as a set of legal subjects capable of voluntary actions—which would be the case of sovereignty—and instead of affecting them as a multiplicity of organisms, of bodies capable of performances, and of required performances—as in discipline—one tries to affect, precisely, a population.” (S,T,P 21).

4.If we conceive of pastoral not as the description of pure or aestheticized “Nature” but as a mode of tending and governing flocks, then literary naturalism may be to populations what pastoral is to sheep. By emphasizing environmental determinism, likening humans to animals, minimizing voluntarism, and gravitating towards urban or industrial locations where nature and society are always mutually imbricated, naturalist fiction deals precisely with “a multiplicity of individuals who are fundamentally and essentially only exist biologically bound to the materiality within which they live” (S,T,P 21). Naturalist settings are viscous milieus that stick to characters & insinuate themselves into bodies and minds. This environmental determinism makes characters—or at least the masses of characters (what Frank Norris calls the “human swarm”) that often play a role in the background of naturalist fiction—continuous with animals: they act on instinct, but on the instincts instilled by social and geographical conditions.

5.Is naturalism (and social realist film) making a comeback, spurred by the insights of the environmental justice movement and, perhaps, by the recent economic crisis? I’m just starting this line of inquiry, so I could use reading suggestions—but Helena Maria Viramontes’s Their Dogs Came With Them is an exemplary instance of a reclaimed naturalism that quite literally deals with a (racialized) population on the move, detailing the lives of young women and men coming of age in East L.A. during the peak decades of freeway construction. But Viramontes’s interest in airborne pollutants in her two novels—along with contemporary problems involving unevenly distributed radioactive and chemical risks—raises further questions about how naturalism needs to be reshaped, & I’d like to propose the concept of “magical naturalism” to name an emerging genre that strategically introduces fantastic or unreal elements (monsters, gods, improbable plots, blatant historical revisionism) to force invisible and difficult-to-prove risk factors into visibility.

1 comment:

  1. Given your interest in biopolitics and flocking, you may want to see the 2007 film BLACK SHEEP, directed by Jonathan King. It's a comedy-horror film about a New Zealand sheep farm that is secretly a genetic engineering lab in which sheep are turned carnivorous and vampiric. Hilarity ensues, along with a satiric examination of Green politics.