Can the Necropastoral be Political?

by on Jan.31, 2011

Catastrophic birth defects caused by industrial mercury poisoning, Minamata, Japan

In a word, Yes.

When I reframe the pastoral—already a defunct, anachronistic, dead, imperial and imperialistic literary form—as a necropastoral, I am calling attention to the excesses, intensities, inequalities, anachronisms, morbidities already implicit in a genre contrived to represent separation, quarantine, timelessness, stasis, protection from upset and death.

The necropastoral exposes the pastoral as saturated with the counterfeit, with anachronism, with death: counterfeit in that it was an urbane and courtly form supposedly trading on rustic and agrarian simplicity; anachronistic as it purported to embody a both an earlier Golden Age and a continual present tense, just adjacent to courtly, urban or imperial time; and deathly in that it was a twin or doppelganger of the Afterlife. Arcadia’s most famous resident, after all, is Death himself; Death says “I” in Arcadia. [Death says, “ego”; Death says “I’ll be your mirror.”]

Finally, the term ‘necropastoral’ trades on the adjacency of the pastoral to infection, political upset, plagues, the pastoral as the space into which fictional courtiers travel in the time of plague, carrying the plague of fiction with it. The contamination of the (fictive) pastoral with the (fictive) urbane creates the plague of literature. The necropastoral allows that contamination to metastasize, refuses to hold the line back on chaos, infection, decay.

So the term ‘necropastoral’ hypertrophies the morbid, counterfeit nature of the classical pastoral, while breeding mutant lilacs out of the dead plague ground of later models. Necropastoral seeks to activate these suppressed aspects of pastoral—the necrotized, the infectious, the counterfeit , the pastoral as a site not of separation but of deadly traffic, not of a wall but a membrane, not an idyll but an unstable compact, not a place of simplicity but of the worst intentions. Where classical pastoral insists on separation and containment, necropastoral posits supersaturation, leaking, countercontamination. Our contemporary understandings of biohazard and ecology activates the specter of necropastoral ; our ravenous media (over-)exposes it; the necropastoral is the toxic double of our eviscerating, flammable contemporary world, where avian flu, swine flu, mad cow disease, toxic contamination via industrial waste, hormones in milk, poisons leaching out of formaldehyde FEMA trailers, have destroyed the idea of the bordered or bounded body and marked the porousness of the human body as its most characteristic quality. The body is a medium for infection, saturation, death. The supersaturated, leaking membrane of the necropastoral is thus politicized by our modern understanding of ecology, globalization, the damage of industrial politics does to bodies. The spectral quality of capitalism, the way money and debt accrues and erodes in damaging patterns, the way damage to bodies is sometimes the first materialization of corporate malfeasance, the occult way capitalism’s distribution systems amplify economic, political, biological damage as it spreads across the globe—this is necropastoral, the lethal double of the pastoral and its fantasy of permanent, separated, rural peace. In emphasizing the counterfeit nature of pastoral, the necropastoral makes visible the fact that nothing is pure or natural, that mutation and evolution are inhuman technologies, that all political assertions of the natural and the pure are themselves moribund and counterfeit, infected and rabid.

Jack Smith’s film “Normal Love” is an infectious example of the necropastoral in this political vector, its inflamed, febrile palate hazily presenting a bunch of heavily costumed, transgendered, downtown urban denizens dressed as screen gods and goddesses and occupying a kind of anachronistic, broken down Hollywood Elysium, featuring spraypainted leaves and cows. The very formlessness of “Normal Love”, the wastefulness of its gratuitous makeup and costumes and use of time and sprawling cast, the expenditure of time involved in its ‘production’ (whole days spent making up the actors and spraypainting the leaves a preferable shade of green), indeed, the absolutely unproductive nature of its production rendered it unmarketable, unsalable, even unnameable. Caught up in its glamour, its Fata Morgana,Smith edited and re-edited this footage for decades, could neither complete the film nor settle on a title; Diane di Prima, who acted in the film, says Normal Love “literally cast a spell on him from which the artist never emerged.” Smith could not extricate himself from the fatal/fetal membrane of this contaminating, mutating, untimely, poorly paced, put-on spectacular, this entirely gorgeous, entirely gratuitous necropastoral.

Ariana Reinas’s The Cow might be another; in both works, the damaged, mutated body cannot help producing lyric beauty like another kind of engorgement, another kind of sepsis, another kind of eruption, another kind of leak.

And so are Raul Zurita’s plangeant, particulate necro-epics, which expose the landscape of Chile as a mass grave and piece together particulated, aerated voices, bodies, testimonies, the living, the ghostly, and the dead, not into rehumanized sovereign forms but into a membranous, inter-penetrating, fluxing, supersaturated, hyperanimated radiant hyperfabric (-ation).

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7 comments for this entry:
  1. Jon Woodward

    I submit here a link to a poem of mine, hopefully humbly and acting on the hunch that poems form (or could form) a part of this discourse. For a while I was working in concentric circles around the famous Proteus story from the Odyssey, where Menelaos and his men hide inside the corpses of Proteus the herdsman’s animals, then spring out and ambush him, at which point he undergoes bizarre transformations.

    I wonder too how Abraham Smith’s waterfall of shitkicker twang fits into all of this. I’m reading Hank on the bus these days — there’s an electrical optimism in his work that’s maybe different than the necropastoral, but there’s certainly enough scary backcountry Americana to put it in the ballpark.

  2. Lara Glenum

    “…all political assertions of the natural and the pure are themselves moribund and counterfeit, infected and rabid.”

    Amen. Baudelaire is surely jizzing himself in his grave!

  3. Christopher Higgs

    Hi, Joyelle,

    I’ve really been enjoying these posts on the necropastoral. So much to think about. If you’re interested, I puzzled over it at htmlgiant:


  4. James Pate

    This is a great post…In some ways, it reminds me of Derrida’s argument that Artaud is by far and away a more politically revolutionary figure than Brecht, something I talk about in a previous post. The art of alienation still has a very conservative, humanist notion about issues of representation, etc…

    The “institutional critique” approach to political art only goes so far (plus, what’s more institutional now then the so-called “institutional critique”).

  5. Corey

    I have a question, Joyelle, and apologies if they’re ignorant of the more comprehensive argument made previously and prior to this one.

    The point about Zurita’s Chile. As a process for highlighting the ontogeny of contagion, over the fixed binary, say, of pastoral to wasteland, what would it be about the “mass grave” that is necropastoral in the context of Chile?

    And, I promise I’m not being pedantic, the industrial poisoning case – the “etai-etai” disease, if I’m right in assuming you’re referencing – illustrated, what about the “abject” is better described by the “necropastoral”. I understood it in the membranic manner you described previously, and now am a little confused by its closeness to abjection.

    Thanks, keep theorising!

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