Thursday, June 2, 2011

Paul Outka - Inbetween Pastoral

I’d like to approach the question of the possible contemporary radicality of the pastoral by first noting how hopelessly multivalent “pastoral” is. If we imagine that “pastoral” has some generalized meaning or specific ideological content we risk two dangers (and I realize I’m likely stating the obvious here, especially to this crowd, but multivalence demands as much basic clarity as possible). First, we conflate nature and Nature, claiming to find meaning in a landscape rather than in the human practices and interpretative histories that in fact attach such meanings to the land. Second, we miss the extensive work that has been done on how profoundly race, gender, class and the like affect those meanings – the pastoral, for example, means something radically different to an enslaved person in early nineteenth-century Florida than it does to William Wordsworth. The pastoral can be radical or reactionary—indeed, it can be anything at all, because it’s nothing in particular. The question is what we should do, interpretively as well as physically with the pastoral landscape, how we might deploy its structure in the general service of whatever green politics we embrace and in the specific local struggles of where we dwell and the places we value.

On to that structure. To say that the pastoral landscape has no meaning in itself, that it is neither radical or reactionary, is not, of course, to say that the word doesn’t refer to a particular sort of landscape; only that we should, in Stenger’s terms, distinguish between the “raw” and “experimental” facts of the pastoral. For Stenger, a raw fact is “independent of us, like an earthquake or a tree falling on a passerby, [it] is associated with no obligation involving the meaning it must be given: it is available for any interpretation, any creation of meaning” (49-50). An experimental fact, conversely, demands a particular interpretation. It “reflects the singularity of the history in which it was produced… [a]nd the core of this history is that facts have value only if they can be recognized as being able to obligate practitioners to agree about their interpretation” (50). The pastoral landscape is a “raw fact,” not an experimental one – one cannot, I think, be obliged to agree to any interpretation of it, certainly not like the experimental conclusion a scientist might insist on from a set of raw facts.

So in this admittedly somewhat loose appropriation of Stenger, the “raw” pastoral refers to its fairly uncontroversial definition, its description of a particular sort of natural setting: an in-between landscape, neither urban nor wild, one in which a self-generating, self-sustaining non-human nature is a dominant feature (i.e., a CAFO or monoculture farm wouldn’t qualify), but one that also testifies everywhere to the history of human presence and labor – in, for example, the elimination of large predators, the presence of second growth trees, cleared land, domesticated animals. As an experience, the pastoral, or the representation of the pastoral, has historically often started from a narrative position outside of it, naming a moment of transition, a movement toward greater contact with the non-human natural, away from the “city,” from civilization – fewer pastoral encounters involve the viewer coming in from the wilderness or from within the scene itself. The pastoral is as much a green direction as a green location.

While it’s certainly tempting to drop the pastoral altogether given its longstanding tendency to dehistoricize labor and naturalize constructions of gender and race, I don’t think it’s either possible or ultimately desirable. Given the inbetween-ness of the definition I offer above, in a postnatural world—one in which the natural sublime is, at least in part, always already a consumer choice and what was“untouched” wilderness is warming and tainted with POPs—the pastoral is arguably all that’s left. It’s postnatural nature. Indeed, to be deliberately provocative, if a radical pastoral isn’t possible then a radical environmentalism isn’t either, at least here in the twenty-first century. The fact that the ground of the pastoral is toxed by our partially-repressed collective histories of oppression and cruelty doesn’t change the fact that such in-between spaces are the only ground that we have left. Explicitly recognizing the histories of racial and gender oppression and the obfuscation of labor that have long been a part of the pastoral tradition, and not turning “our” enjoyment of the landscape into a more generalized test of enlightened green subjectivity that leisured whites just happen to pass in overwhelming numbers, should help at least somewhat in avoiding a replication of those histories.

There are any number of ways we might put to use an embrace of inbetween pastoral landscapes, far more than I can reference here. Right now in my own work, I am particularly interested in how the pastoral might provide a model for incorporating posthuman and postnatural biotechnologies into a green politics that doesn’t depend on a long-lost vision of Natural purity as its raison d’etre. After all, domestication is one of the earliest and most profound of the human biotechnologies; we might learn lessons from the often unhappy history of such practices about how to integrate biotechnology and genetic modification into the landscape rather than seeing them as simply supplanting Nature and the natural. The difficulty of such an integration makes the urgency of the task no less pressing, and might be helped by the historical trajectory of the pastoral transition I noted earlier.


  1. In thinking about biotech and the pastoral, we might consider how the pastoral might help biotech to improve its aesthetics, that is, improve its capacity to produce pleasure and joy in ecological relationships. Biotech is often assigned a dystopian aesthetic value (cf. BLADERUNNER), but is this inevitable? When I brought a friend to a park I grew up in, a park that included a working farm from the 1890s, she said, "No wonder you became an ecocritic." Pastoral lets you pet the horses. We need to discover the biotech equivalent of petting the horses.

  2. In considering the goodness of biotech here are a few questions important to consider:

    -The rate and extent of evolutionary and ecological processes are usually slow and local-how does the rate and extent of development and/or introduction of new technology compare? How disruptive to nature's long-term self-organizing trends is the invention likely to be? How violent or gentle?

    -Have we taken into consideration all we don't know about the consequences of the manipulations we think we'd like to try out? Where we don't know, experience is teaching how very wise precaution is.

    -What are the similarities and differences between a horse and a "biobrick?"

    -Why does someone like Freeman Dyson think that it would be good to be able to grow potatoes on Mars?

  3. My colleagues Mike Ziser and Tim Morton have got me thinking about the georgic as an alternative to pastoral--one that highlights the direct modification of "nature" through labor. Perhaps the pastoral isn't "postnatural nature" so much as one of several possible ways of representing or perceiving "postnatural nature"? What kinds of relationships to labor and nature does pastoral reaffirm? If everything is "in-between" or hybrid, then there must now be different ways of inhabiting that in-betweenness...

    Your interest in biotechnology also raises 2 questions for me. One has to do with scale: how can pastoral (with its interest in a "middle landscape") engage with microscopic and nanotechnological phenomena and still be pastoral? And the other is about the relation between pastoral (often associated with nostalgia) and science fiction...