[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.”
Things have been pretty sleepy here in Montevidayo, but The Actuary has been posting several great posts.
For example, Drew Kalbach applies some recent media theory to Joyelle’s concepts of “bug-time” and The Necropastoral.
This space of urban-meets-nature-mingles-death is a space of failure, decay, and mutation, a space that proliferates more than it moves forward. It’s a model of time that is uninterested in a nice linear gesture, but wants a swarming thrust. It is very much this hypertrophic image of counterprotocol Galloway and Thacker begin to map out. McSweeney’s necropastoral is itself a shape, a site, for these potential exploits to take place, or maybe it is an exploit in itself. It takes advantage of a networked system’s ability to replicate quickly and efficiently by going through massive amounts of data, of creation, of artworks, many failures and successes and deaths, uninterested in posterity or futurity, in order to create something pushed beyond the confines of typical artistic practices. The necropastoral is a space of art, death, politics, mutation.
And Evan Bryson has an incredibly thoughtful post on Seth Oelbaum, the prince of darkness and fashion who has been terrorizing so many people on HTMLGiant over the past month or two:
His collapse of all hope to a point of bitter dismissal is, in its way, a thrilling move, and its trajectory is defined no more starkly than in the history of queer writing itself. (Only looking at the spines to my right, I see American Sympathy by Caleb Crain, Policing Public Sex edited by Dangerous Bedfellows, Samuel R. Delaney’s The Motion of Light on Water, and Tiresias: The Collected Poems by Leland Hickman. Each volume has that Cepheid pulse of gay agony and gay ecstasy.) Snuffling in this abyss, Karlie Kloss‘s editor is a kind of martyr, a cutthroat priss, freighting his stigmata. He is a disgrace without shame, a boy who trespasses to be caught; he acts out his misguided zealotry before an audience he hopes will punish him. “[The stigmatized] is generally warned against fully accepting as his own the negative attitude of others toward him,” notes Erving Goffman in Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. “He is likely to be warned against ‘minstrelization,’ whereby the stigmatized person ingratiatingly acts out before normals the full dance of bad qualities imputed to his kind, thereby consolidating a life situation into a clownish role.” Karlie Kloss‘s minstrelsy is the absurd consolidation of gay bad press.
But his discussion also makes some apt observations about the Gurlesque and Artaud:
“Two inmates sentenced for violence and theft, Juvenile Prison for Girls, 2008”
Depending on the havoc struck by Sandy, the Andrea Meislin Gallery in New York will be displaying Michal Chelbin’s striking photography show “Sailboats and Swans” until December 22. The title refers to the pastoral and fantastic fabrics and wallpapers which clothe the bodies and prisons in which Chelbin’s subjects, juvenile and female offenders, are incarcerated. In the irrational pastoralia of these cellblocks, boys sleep in military barracks under bucolic murals; girls convicted for assault pose in flowered dresses. The press release suggests,
These contradictions of life in prison abound in girls’ flowery dress prison uniforms, murderers working as nannies to other women’s babies in the new mothers’ prison, young girls serving time alongside grandmothers – perhaps witness to their own futures, and the mesmerizing human blend of fear and cruelty in the boys’ and mens’ prison – where big tattooed bodies are now zombie-like, worn down by the daily travails of trying to survive being locked up in a world devoid of hope.
With Sandy’s necropastoral proliferation bringing its damage to Manhattan, I’m sure none of our New York Montevidayans can take in this show for me and report back. But many images from this show are available on- line, and I find them extremely moving. In the ‘noplace’ of prison these incredibly youthful bodies are suspended from temporal linearity. The prisoners are “witness to their own futures” randomly removed from and reassigned new biological roles (murderers minding the babies of other mothers), locked up in kitsch landscapes in which fabrics and wallpaper have as much (or as little) agency as the human bodies themselves. The faces of the models are impassive yet something sears from these photographs, a force of life and/or death which, in the no-time of prison, can find no natural body but courses from surface to surface, form to form, looking for an egress but only finding the picture plane. As Artaud notes, “A little dead girl says: I am the one convulsed with horror in the live woman’s lungs. Get me out of here at once. ” The pain entrapped in these photos cannot exit through a punctum but saturates every object, frond, fabric, and form within the photo itself, everything trapped in its pane, like the bubble in Bishop’s Sonnet who can only find egress from the poem in that final exclamation point:
Caught – the bubble
in the spirit-level,
a creature divided;
and the compass needle
wobbling and wavering,
Freed – the broken
and the rainbow-bird
from the narrow bevel
of the empty mirror,
it feels like, gay!
Perhaps pain is like this frantic bubble, trying to push out of the photo via a Barthian punctum, yet finding its level always cruelly replenished, its impossible economy never reduced.
Confessionalism and Horse Fucking in the Necropastoral of Louise Glück, “Equus,” and Enumclaw, Washington
For my third annual post on art and the animal, I’m going to explore the moist, shadowy field where two taboos collide. Bestiality (actual and representational) and Confessionalism (poetic, Catholic, psychiatric, juridical) have been on my mind lately.
The State with the History of Extermination, Disenfranchisement, Suffering and Fraud
Florida is an American state where Disney World is. It was claimed in 1513 by Ponce DeLeon as he searched for the fountain of eternal youth—he named it Florida for its floweryness. It took three wars and a few hundred years to finally exterminate the Seminole Indians from this land ( exterminate from the Latin, ex-terminus, push over the border) so that, in the 20th century, it could become a haven of real-estate fraud and delinquency, boasting of the greatest percentage of foreclosures in the US in 2008. Its Republican governor Rick Scott was elected in 2010 despite the fact that the company of which he was CEO was convicted of 14 felony counts of Medicaid fraud and made to pay the government $600 million dollars in fines. By some estimates, Rick Scott has attempted to purge nearly 200,000 suspected “non-citizens” from his state’s voter rolls; 80 percent of those forced to prove their eligibility are Black or Hispanic.
AND The Prettiest Name…
Florida is also, according to Elizabeth Bishop, the state with the prettiest name. While prettiness is associated with weakness, it is also a weapon: this is the ambivalence of the necropastoral. For Bishop, the prettiness of Florida is completely toxic, undead, ex-terminus, grown through with mangrove roots like corpse fingernails, flown over by condors and other flesh eaters. Debt, death and extermination flourish in this flowery state, exposing its necropastoral force. The poem begins:
The state with the prettiest name,
the state that floats in brackish water, (continue reading…)
“The field– it’s covered in blood!”– ‘Watership Down’, ‘a world of difference’ and the Necropastoral
[[UPDATE: I’m certain there is an occult link between Watership Down and the ‘Bunny House’ sign in the ‘Food Now’ fake protest performance in Dan’s post just below. I think these two ‘training exercises’ are actually one continuous decades long training exercise.]]
Montevidayans, I’ve recently been musing on the feverdream that was the movie, ‘Watership Down’. This trailer pretty much sums it up as I remember it. Except in my memory, ‘heroic bravery’ is completely outweighed by violence, tyranny, and the excellently mis-matched evil eyes of the bad rabbit. And what the narrator calls ‘a world of difference’. I’m going to rewatch this film and write more, but for now, here’s the trailer. Anyone else remember this nasty bit of film?
OK so I woke up thinking about THIS poem again. Is it ruins porn? What happens in a time of civil war? The house collapses, the humans eat each other’s brutal hearts, and the honeybees move into the interstices to reboot post-apocalyptic time. Yeats oversaturates his imagery– he’s talking about his own ‘house’ and body and sense of history collapsing, yet there’s another house– the ‘house of the stare’ (i.e. starling)– which is going to be repossessed by the bees. I actually see this ‘nest’ as a stare’s carcass, a ribcage and cranium now to be Occupied by bees, who will fly the vessel around, a flying colony, right out of China Mieville. And of course I read that ‘stare’ as the gaze itself, to be occupied by bees, bees put out my eyes, what is this buzzing, a synesthesia which permits no insight and no outsight, a vision which is a medium for not sight but pain, a conversion of sight to pain, the nerve impulses a swarm (Yeats was no fan of mobs or swarms), WBY being flown over civil-war Ireland like bird-skeleton, a vessel, a war-machine steered by a pack of Killer Bees–
VI. The Stare’s Nest by My Window by Yeats
The bees build in the crevices
Of loosening masonry, and there
The mother birds bring grubs and flies.
My wall is loosening; honey-bees,
Come build in the empty house of the stare. (continue reading…)
Tense is the operative denominator, as each “King Prion” first relieves the pressure with a valve-like whistle. “Hoooooooo” begins each poem in this seven-poem series with identical titles, as if none will withstand the heat of its own impetus without a preliminary release. The device is leading, generative of that space of union between reader and written Barthes uses to characterize text, and as demanding of confrontation as Matthew Barney’s The Cremaster Cycle.[iv] If you have heard McSweeney read the poems aloud, its operatic call is as up-lilting as a farmer bidding stock, summoning the Landrace of Bentheium in from the pastures, the fleecy white subjects of commercial interests. These are not your grandfather’s purchases.
Regular Lucas, Sarah Fox and I had a Montevidayo meeting at this exhibition last Friday and it’s totally amazing. Anybody who lives in or near the Twin Cities should definitely get over to the Walker and see it ASAP. It’s certainly one of the best, most moving shows I’ve seen in a long, long time.
My immediate reference point for this overwhelming experience was when I went to see Kara Walker’s Walker show back in the 90s (can’t remember what year). This was one of Walker’s first big solo shows and I hadn’t even heard of her. I just walked in by happenstance and my first reaction was, “Ugh, how boring, 19th century silhouettes” but it was of course a trap: Before I knew it I had entered into the space of Walker’s sadistic fantasia and there was no way out.
[I see so many webby and glitchy potentials running between Kristen Stone’s Queeragripoetics and my ideas about Bug Time that I’m posting my paper on Bug Time here. Thanks, Kristen, for your awesome thinking and art!]
Invocation: “I am more powerful than a president. I am a charmed and desperate poet speaking to everyone.” Alice Notley, Culture of one, 18.
1. In his prescient book, prophetic like an ancient Greek oracle who, drugged on her tripod, could only look backwards, Toxic Archipelago: A History of Industrial Disease in Japan, Brett L. Walker introduces the notion that insects live on different time scales than humans—“high speed evolutionary time”, defined by mutation. selection, evolution. Given that the Japanese ‘rice hopper’ for example, enjoys a lifespan of fifty days and between two and six generations in a single human year, at least 150 generations of ‘hoppers’ can live in the span of a normal Japanese life. “Plus there are millions more insects than us, which means that mutations—say, a serendipitous (for the insect) genetic resistence to chemical insecticide or other anthropogenic force—are far more likely to occur.”
2. What model of literary time is provided by this mutating field time, this bug time, this spasming, chemically induced, methed up mutating, death time, this model of proliferant, buggered, buggy, moist, mutating, selecting, chitinous, gooey, bloated, dying time, a time defined by a spasming change of forms, by generational die-offs, by mutation, by poisoning, a dynamic challenge to continuity, and by sheer proliferation of alternatives, rather than linear succession? (continue reading…)