Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Hybrid Pastoral

Reading Bruno Latour's We Have Never Been Modern and coming to certain provisional conclusions about his argument's implications for postmodern pastoral. The three spheres of critique or knowledge that Latour touches on are "naturalization, socialization and deconstruction" (5), which broadly correspond to the major divisions or disciplines of knowledge: the natural sciences, the social sciences, and literature/humanities (he also suggestively describes the realms proper to each sphere as "real, social and narrated" [7]). Each sphere of knowledge is carefully segregated from the others. And pastoral, it seems to me, can be an apt term for the utopian move away from the social: a retreat into the poetic to be sure, but Latour's configuration makes a pastoral of science visible as well.

At the same time, this attempt to segregate out the realm of social/political power, to enter into a zone of pure relation with language or with the nonhuman, inevitably has its social and political dimension. The renunciation of "politics as usual," is one of the strongest moves available to power—look at how Qadaffi is hanging on in part through his claim that he can't renounce power because he already has. After the coup that ended the Libyan monarchy, Qadaffi says, "I returned to my tent." (The infamous tent, incidentally, is a signifier of Qadaffi's Bedouin authenticity, and is also a zone in which he enjoys special sexual privileges—a perverse fulfillment of the pastoral escape from (sexual) mores tied to (re)production.) His unnamed sovereignty depends on its removal from the political and social sphere that he has done his best to eradicate, into the religio-pastoral narrative of "The Green Book."

Latour argues that the "work of purification" assigned to the division between humans and nonhumans, culture and nature, is made possible by the "work of translation" of hybrid networks—though to confront that connection between incommensurate ontologies is to undo the "Constitution" or "separation of powers" that is Latour's metaphor for the paradoxical configuration of purification and hybridity that produces modernity. I find this extremely useful in terms of explaining the potential of a postmodern pastoral, taking "postmodern" now in the literal sense Charles Olson gives it as what comes after the modern. Pastoral as traditionally conceived is a work of purification that is clandestinely also translation. Consider how the exiled Duke Senior in Shakespeare's As You Like It makes "sweet... the uses of adversity" by literally translating the nonhuman world into the terms of culture:
And this our life exempt from public haunt
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones and good in every thing. (2.1)
"'This is no flattery,'" the Duke says to himself about the elements, "'these are counsellors / That feelingly persuade me what I am.'" While many readers interpret this moment as Lear-lite—the Duke is persuaded by the elements that "what I am" is a mere mortal, no longer a king with two bodies but body alone—one could just as easily read the line, especially when juxtaposed with the "tongues in trees," as the restoration to the Duke of his royal identity by the nonhuman discourse of nature. The supposed purity of the non-verbal, non-social discourse of "feelingly" restores the Duke to his Dukeness. And certainly the course of the play suggests that the pastoral sojourn of the Duke and his court will return him to a sovereignty strengthened and refreshed by his experiences in the natural world.

Pastoral, then, is always a hybrid discourse. But its hybridity can be mystified or exposed, as a building's facade can conceal or reveal its structure. The postmodern pastoral that concerns me, a configuration of which will be presented by The Arcadia Project, exposes and plays with the dialectic of purification and translation, domination and emancipation. The latter refers to one of the central double-binds of modernity, by which domination of nature is supposed to lead to the emancipation of human beings-—yet, as Adorno and Horkheimer amply demonstrate in Dialectic of Enlightenment, the domination of nature ends up reinscribed in social relations. This is the severed Gordian knot, in Latour's language, that we must "retie," imagining anew the collective that includes humans and nonhumans, with "society" describing "one part only of our collectives, the divide invented by the social sciences" (4).

Since poetry has as its very ground the imagination of subjectivity (on the individual/lyric level but as importantly the collective/epic level), poetry is uniquely well suited for rethinking questions of collectivity and representation. At the same time, poetry is the most "networked" form of literary discourse, given how a poem mobilizes its elements (lines, words, phonemes, morphemes) along multiple axes of sound, image, connotation, and allusion. Pastoral, that fusty old genre, becomes the deterritorialized territory most useful for thinking these simultaneously. Putting the complex into the simple, indeed.

Finally, it's surprising and pleasing to re-encounter the language of the "hybrid" in the context of poetry, no longer as the anemic hodgepodge of epiphanic lyric and Language poetry that is our period's most familiar style, but in this more rigorous and urgent sense. If "American Hybrid" represents precisely the sort of unmarked move that consolidates power beyond politics (or in the literary context, beyond criticism), the hybridity of postmodern pastoral represents something more volatile, because it absorbs the task of critique, or translation, into and against itself, producing in the most interesting cases poems that destabilize and subvert the subject-object positions that sustain domination.


tom said...

After reading your "Theses on Visionary Materialism" and having been noting your interest in philosophy over some time, I find myself curious as to whether Bataille has held any interest for you? It seems to me that you might find his "Inner Experience" fruitful.

Unknown said...

I've read some Bataille, but I'm not familiar with Inner Experience, just his theories of general economy and some of the fiction like Story of the Eye. I'll have to check that out. He certainly seems to fall into the visionary monist territory that my earlier post describes, along with the likes of Foucault and Deleuze.

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