Thursday, September 09, 2004

The remains of Hurricane Frances have been giving Ithaca a good soaking the past couple of days; meanwhile, I've been trying to get back on the horse that threw me, Ol' Dissertation. The miscellaneous approach I'd been taking to what I called "pastoral moments" in various modernist and pomo poets was no longer plausible to me. I now believe there are three (well, four) major components to my argument, which is possible to arrange in a Lacan-style matheme:
R-------------> -- <-------------T
R is for Representation. This covers pastoral as a mode in which images of a typically rural/precapitalist way of life in implicit or explicit opposition to an urban/capitalist way of life are created. It thus falls under the signs of both of the Ns:

N1 is for Negativity, which is pastoral's old critical function (the superiority over the simple and concrete over the complex and abstract) intensified in response to the intensification of capitalist rationalism.

N2 is for Nature. It's still a vexed question for me whether we're dealing with some essentialized view of nature, as implied by a comment from Rayond Williams in which he equates "the ideas of human independence and renewal" with "the ideas of nature itself." This is a highly anthropocentric view of nature. Ecocriticism, on the other hand, would seem to argue for Nature as that which stands outside and apposite, if not opposed, to the human and human values, worth preserving not for the ways in which it renews us (which could simply be viewed as a "higher" form of instrumentalization) but for precisely its sheer Otherness, for the multiplicitous ways in which any natural object goes beyond the human tendency to reduce it to a natural resource—whether for production (forest as lumber) or recreation [forest as landscape). Still, either way, it seems appropriate that Negativity and Nature should both fall under the N, the sign to which an opposition to what is (mode of production or structure of consciousness or both) is assigned.

T is for Textuality. Upon this would hinge my interest in the "open" forms fostered by Pound and Williams and any claims I might make for the newness of 20th century pastoral experimentation. While Frost, Wendell Berry, Gary Snyder (as a Beat Snyder is actually a borderline case), et al are certainly concerned with R and the Ns (though they incorporate the Negative into their positive construction of Nature as a boundless though threatened originary force) they show little interest in T; their texts are readerly and organized along the old hegemonic lines in which the author presents limited options for interpretation to a passive reader. But I want to argue that there is a mimetic relationship between R and T when both are brought under the sign of Negativity. Just as a pastoral landscape will represent a space free from domination and exploitation, so will a poem of the "open field" work to manifest itself as an object within that landscape, in which the relations between and within signifiers are not foreclosed and restricted to the mode of meaning-production which exactly mimics capitalist production. The open field of postmodern pastoral is not a free for all of ludic resistance to domination, though; to be pastoral it still has to be committed to representation (of rurality, simplicity, constructions of N2) as one of its key components. Most Language poetry is not pastoral but utopian, with representation seen as a hegemonic thought-structure to be interrogated and overthrown. The value, therefore, of pastoral as something just shy of radical, just shy of revolutionary, is something I'm still asking myself about.

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