Friday, June 3, 2011

Larry Buell - Pastoral Goes Both Ways

"Pastoral" is one of those infinitely ductile ecocritical conjuring terms from the movement's inception onward--the ductility compounded by its prior ancient associations with a particular aesthetic mode that stretches back to classical antiquity. As Raymond Williams famously dramatized through his "escalator" metaphor in The Country and the City, pastoral can--indeed arguably in the first instance is--a "regressive" form of false cultural memory in the sense of looking back on a more allegedly felicitious closer-to-nature era now slipped away. This in part is what prompted Frederick Garber to define pastoral around the term/concept of "nostos," noting the etymological link to nostalgia. On the other hand, pastoral has always been a more urban-centric, urban-generated form than a bucolic grass-roots affair (hence the perfect appropriateness of a cityscape setting) that can credibly subserve radical agendas, such as protest against runaway modernization (e.g. Leo Marx's question-begging yet illuminating distinction between "simple" and "complex" pastoral) and, in contemporary times especially, the agendas of post-Rachel Carson public health environmentalism, of environmental justice ecocriticism, and of revisionist eco-writing from the nonwestern and especially the postcolonial world have been incentivized indispensably by appeal to the scandal of maldistribution of the basic entitlements of environmental health--clean air, safe drinking water, access to salubrious outdoor space--across population groups, especially rich vs. poor, white vs. nonwhite, first world vs. developing world. In such creative and critical interventions, the "backward-looking" invocations to a more equitable environmental status quo ante most definitely serve radically disruptive agendas, NOT anodyne feel-good euphemistic ones. To end with a swipe at the visual image at the head of this blog, though, I admit to its seeming to me to have a certain cutesy euphemized tranquil character amidst the semi-disorienting futorology that, for me at least, seems to blunt the necessary edge of radical pastoral as I understand it.


  1. I think the question of cuteness as a pastoral aesthetic, and its political implications, would be great to talk about at the roundtable. First, a note on the context of this image. I can easily see how one could be disconcerted by the cuteness of the bird-creature without the context of the rest of the book, where the political forces (totalitarian repression, militarism, satanic factories) that drive the immigrants in the first place are represented as giant, terrifying monsters, which contrast with the more tranquil figures of the new land.

    Second, we would have to consider that the simplified, rounded figures are part of the surrealism, and may be read as archetypal dream imagery, in which case we should not take the cuteness for granted, but assess the function of the figures as part of a psychic rather than a literal landscape.

    Finally, we should consider the aesthetic of kawaisa, "cuteness" (adjective kawaii, "cute, adorable") that has dominated Japanese popular culture for many decades. As an Australian, there is zero chance that Tan has not encountered kawaii culture, especially as applied to the representation of animals, cf. the global empire of Hello Kitty. So I think we are left with a question about the political function of cuteness as a pastoral aesthetic, rather than an a priori principle that cuteness can't be radical.

  2. I'm interested in how public health environmentalism, env justice activism, and nonwestern/poscolonial eco-writing have adapted & appropriated pastoral conventions to address questions of "maldistribution." What are some examples of "environmental justice pastoral"? Is "anti-pastoral" (a common environmental justice mode) still motivated by pastoral impulses? Are there examples of pastoral (which often seems to carry visual associations) that address invisible environmental risks? It seems to me that pastoral often takes for granted questions of access and the production of space, whereas group differentiated experiences of access, mobility, space-making, and risk are more central to writers and groups who focus more on distributive justice.