Thursday, June 2, 2011

Lance Newman - Radicalizing the Pastoral

Can the pastoral engender a new “eco-cosmopolitan” mode of environmental imagination (Heise 50)?

Can the pastoral encourage an ethic of “coexistentialism” with all other beings in “the mesh” (Morton 47)?

Or have twenty-three centuries of experimentation with the trope proven that the fantasy is just too fetching? Off our tin-eared reader goes again, searching for Arcadia in actual fields, traipsing blithely past the undocumented shepherds and cloned sheep.

The pastoral needs to be radicalized in both senses. Returning to the roots of the trope will push it in revolutionary new directions.

Since Theocritus and Virgil, “pastoral” has meant conventional poetry about stylized rural scenes where stock characters embody virtues and freedoms that are implicitly opposed to the corruption and bondage of an invisible nearby city. The pastoral is, or was, about transparently conventional Nature.

More recently, the term has been used to name any writing at all about Nature, especially the kind that relies on gauzy filters to create a compensatory and meretricious fantasy, as opposed to a critical dream.

In a time of unnatural disasters, CAFOs, mega-slums, and gated green retreats, the radical pastoral replaces nature porn with nature in drag in order “to inspire and fortify people in the collective struggle to achieve social justice and restore the earth” (Ammons xi).

The radical pastoral takes place in an otherwhere, a plainly artificial space, one that is brightly marked Nature, where contemporary ecosocial conflicts are restaged in abstract forms for purposes of analysis and critique.

The radical pastoral is not necessarily wry or ironic, but it does use wrenching strategies, such as pastiche, juxtaposition, shifting perspective, allegory, apostrophe, and cartoon, to keep the reader awake in the dream of Nature.

The radical pastoral riffs on “the neutrino’s paradoxical mode of existence,” the simultaneously material and symbolic state of Nature, by showing that our dreams shape how we live on the land (Stengers 14).

The radical pastoral resists “the final transcendent ‘peace’ of one green globe” and seeks out “dynamic and unstable articulations … among multiple and divergent worlds” (Walls).

The radical pastoral spotlights the moment of return, when the truths discovered in artificial Nature bear in on real life.

The radical pastoral wears its green fire on its sleeve, because it is trying above all to show that capitalism uses people to destroy Nature for money.

Works Cited and Consulted

Ammons, Elizabeth. Brave New Words: How Literature Will Save the Planet. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2010. Print.

Appiah, Kwame Anthony and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., eds. Identities. Spec. issue of Critical Inquiry 18.4 (1992): 625-884. Print

Buell, Lawrence. The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture. Cambridge, MA : Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1995.

Empson, William. Some Versions of Pastoral. New York: New Directions, 1950. Print.

Garrard, Greg. “Radical Pastoral?” Studies in Romanticism 35, no. 3, (1996): 449-465. Web.

Gifford, Terry. Pastoral. London: Routledge, 1999. Print.

Heise, Ursula K. Sense of Place and Sense of Planet: The Environmental Imagination of the Global. New York: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.

Jones, Mike Rodman. Radical Pastoral, 1381-1594: Appropriation and the Writing of Religious Controversy. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2011.

Marinelli, Peter V. Pastoral. London, Methuen, 1971. Print.

Marx, Leo. The Machine in the Garden; Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America. New York: Oxford UP, 1964.

Morton, Timothy. The Ecological Thought. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 2010. Print.

Shukin, Nicole. Animal Capital: Rendering Life in Biopolitical Times. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2009. Print.

Stengers, Isabelle. Cosmopolitics I. Trans. Robert Bononno. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2010. Print.

Walls, Laura. Message to the author. 5 October 2010. Email.

Williams, Raymond. The Country and the City. New York: Oxford UP, 1973. Print.


  1. In _Radical Pastoral, 1381-1594: Appropriation and the Writing of Religious Controversy_, Mike Rodman Jones argues that "pastoral has always been an inherently politicized genre" (3) and he describes "a tradition" during the Reformation "of polemical and satirical writing that depended on the efficacy of a language of rurality, and that frequently was characterized by a violently appropriative attitude to textuality and historicity..." (2). Many of the texts he discusses appropriate rhetorical elements of William Langland's _Piers Plowman_, and they valorize Protestant rural laborers vis-a-vis urban Catholic and Anglican priests, especially by developing ploughmen into anti-clerical and even anti-monarchical heroes.

  2. I really appreciate these comments. I wonder, though, about the radical pastoral as necessarily a "plainly artificial space." Does this prevent texts that draw on more simple, sentimental pastoral modes from functioning in radical ways? I suspect that even seemingly traditional pastoral narratives might still "restage ecosocial conflicts." One example of a text that does this might be Ruth Ozeki's All Over Creation (which I mentioned in my post here). Ozeki's pastoral isn't entirely sentimental, but I wouldn't say the farming community she idealizes is "artificial" either. She certainly intends to posit this neo-pastoral ideal against global agribusiness. Then again, as I think more about it, she does foreground nature's hybridity, which might be considered "artificial" insofar as the natural past her characters long for is acknowledged as one in which capital-N Nature has never existed. I suppose it's the word "artificial" that's giving me trouble here.