by Joyelle McSweeney on Jul.24, 2014
[Michael Martin Shea is a poet and 2014 Fulbright Fellow to Argentina. His research interests include ecopoetics, political theory, Latin American poetry, and contemporary American avant-gardes. This essay is part of a larger project that attempts to historicize the Necropastoral, both philosophically and aesthetically. He lives in Las Vegas, Nevada.]
Like my dad always says, “There’s more than one way to necropasotral.” And if we can think of the necropastoral as a mode of reading, (Joyelle calls it a “reframing”), then it follows that, like any critical praxis, there are theoretical underpinnings, forerunners, sleeper-ideas that prefigure and inform the current moment. The ones who furnished the war-room with all these fancy snacks. The most obvious, of course, is Raymond Williams’ The Country and The City, but I’m more interested in the work of Giorgio Agamben and his theorization on the state of exception.
Agamben’s work draws from his analysis of the logic of sovereignty as articulated by Carl Schmitt (the, ahem, Nazi thinker)—that sovereignty is given by the power to suspend or supersede the law, or, in other words, to create a state of exception. Sovereign violence is the prime example—I mean, y’all heard about these drone strikes? But this leads to a paradox: if the sovereign can suspend the law, then the sovereign is above the law at the same time as his/her existence as sovereign is constituted by the prior existence of the law. Sovereignty is marked by being both outside the law’s domain and inscribed at its center.
Of course, this is the case all the time—this logic upholds the juridical society by marking the law’s “threshold or limit concept,” so long as the state of exception is fundamentally different from the normal case. What Agamben is really interested in is when the state of exception and the rule become one—his example, surprise, is Nazi Germany. With the law suspended in toto, the threshold of the law begins to disappear.And when this happens, it reveals the fundamental locus of sovereign power as residing in the presumed displacement of physical life for the achievement of political life. Or, in other words, the law is thought to exist to turn bare life, flesh, material being into the good life, the intellectual life, the enlightened; what the state of exception demonstrates is that this displacement is a false construction—the bios, the bodies, were there all along. They were always what the law depended on and acted on, that which necessitated the creation of the law and sustained the law as the object of sovereign violence, its legitimizing threat. And now that the state of exception has become the rule, the primacy of the body, its vulnerability as a political object, is front-and-center. Or, to let Agamben say it himself:
At once excluding bare life from and capturing it within the political order, the state of exception actually constituted, in its very separateness, the hidden foundation on which the entire political system rested. When its borders begin to be blurred, the bare life that dwelt there frees itself in the city and becomes both subject and object of the conflicts of the political order.
If this sounds familiar, it might be because the pastoral relies on the same logic of displacement—a fantasy of a bodiless, deathless existence. The good life. It’s a projection that claims bare life, violence, disease—it all lies over there (in the city, outside the law) when, really, the call is already coming from inside the house. And likewise, the necropastoral is a similar blurring of the already-false lines, making that inside/outside logic explicit and, in the process, re-centering our focus on the body, on death, on corruption, on everything we thought we excluded. But more than drawing simple parallels, I want to make a point about Necro-P as a politically expedient mode of reading and creating texts. Agamben goes on to argue that post-9/11 conditions have essentially allowed for the creation of a permanent state of emergency, demonstrated by suicide bombings, extra-juridical killings, airport scanners, indefinite detention at Guantanamo Bay, NSA data collection—not to mention the various other aspects of biopower already in-play. And from this, it follows that the necropastoral is not so much an aesthetic of deracinated window-dressings (we can say “drone strikes” too!) as it is a theoretically solvent response to the ubiquity of this exploded dialectic, to the incessancy of our bodily existence as the “medium for infection, saturation, death.” In fact, if we are forced into a world where the exception is the rule and our bodies are collateral, then an art of celebrating the fall of our false exclusions can even be seen as a re-appropriation of power: this time, we’re the ones exploding the illusion. Or rather, yes, the necropastoral is a mode of aesthetic decadence, but it’s also an appropriately politicized rejection of a pastoral mirage that, in the words of Williams, “served to cover and to evade the actual and bitter contradictions of the time.”