Black Performance Theory: The Africanist Dancing Body and Transformations Within the Mainstream

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Black Performance Theory, a collection of essays edited by Thomas F. DeFrantz and Anita Gonzalez, establishes Black expressive culture as an area of academic inquiry and acknowledges the emergence and dynamism of Black performativity (Gonzalez and DeFrantz 1). In the introduction, DeFrantz and Gonzalez chronicle the emergence and transformation of Black Performance Theory from Zora Neale Hurston’s “Characteristics of Negro Expression,” to Robert Farris Thompson’s “Africanist aesthetics,” to contemporary efforts by scholars to provide a nuanced discussion of Black performance as historically and artistically significant (2-5). Undergirding Black Performance Theory are ideas and negotiations of Black/Blackness, Diaspora, Black sensibilities, performance, and theory — what they are, where they happen, how they happen, and their implications. A primary and crucial claim made by DeFrantz and Gonzalez is that Black sensibilities emerge in performance whether Black bodies are present or not, but underlying this point is that Black performance is always enabled by Black sensibilities, expressive practices, and people (1). While the collection spans a wide variety of performative practices and works, I focus this critical analysis on two essays that explicitly deal with Africanist dancing bodies and Black sensibilities within the mainstream dancescape. The first essay, written by Carl Paris, explores the question of imminent spiritual potentialities in the works of two postmodern Black male choreographers (Paris 99). The second essay, written by DeFrantz himself, “explores slippage from Africanist performance histories to global hip-hop corporealities” (223). I argue that both essays, though different in dance topic and critique, exemplify the transformational nature of the Africanist dancing body on, through, and by the mainstream. Furthermore, the concepts of connectivity and communal practice underlie both analyses, highlighting the interplay of Black sensibilities with mainstream and global spaces.

In his essay, “Reading ‘Spirit’ and the Dancing Body in the Choreography of Ronald K. Brown and Reggie Wilson,” Carl Paris, dancer, choreographer, and a scholar of Dance and Cultural Studies, engages a variety of Black dance, Black theology, and anthropological sources to read “imminent potentiality” through the works of Brown and Wilson (Paris 102). Citing key Black Dance scholars, like Brenda Dixon Gottschild, Robert Farris Thompson, DeFrantz, Sterling Stuckey, and Halifu Osumare, Paris begins his argument by discussing the role of spirit and the spiritual in the African Diaspora worldview and how it permeates all aspects of Black life (100). He then goes on to discuss the inherent spirituality in modern dance, as discussed by Gerald Myers (101). Combining the inherent spirituality of both Black life and modern dance, Paris then interprets the work of Brown and Wilson, demonstrating how they merge Africanist cultural elements and modern dance to produce choreography that links the negotiation of identities with Africanist cosmological and cultural elements that are grounded in community practice.

Noted Black Dance scholar, DeFrantz, in his essay, “Hip-Hop Habitus v. 2.0,” examines the transformation of hip-hop from a site of local social resistance to an aesthetic of pleasure and cool. For DeFrantz, this transformation is a result of hip-hop’s entrance into the mainstream and its subsequent commodification and consumption on a global scale. Habitus provides the conceptual framework for DeFrantz to argue that hip-hop, like other forms of Black social dance, exemplifies how Black expressive culture can emerge as an agent of social change, but once compressed into popular culture, loses its vitality as a resistant aesthetic practice as it begins to comply with the very system to which it creatively responded (237).  Thus, DeFrantz is in conversation with not only other Black Dance scholars as he reviews the literature on hip-hop, but also with sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, whose quotes on habitus from The Logic of Reason outline the sections of the essay.

My decision to group these two essays in the same critical analysis arises out of the way that they both provide examples of the transformational nature of Black Dance, particularly the negotiation of identities that happens through Black Dance. In the introduction, DeFrantz, and Gonzalez provide their definitions of “Black.” DeFrantz describes it as “the manifestation of Africanist aesthetics” (5) and “action engaged to enlarge capacity, confirm presence, to dare” (5), while Gonzalez describes it as “a response to histories” (6) and “a dialogic imagination. . .[that] responds to imaginations about black identities” (6). These descriptions of “Black” are found in the works of Brown and Wilson, as analyzed by Paris, and in DeFrantz’ discussion of hip-hop habitus. For example, in Paris’ essay, he notes the dualistic nature of Brown and Wilson’s choreography as they integrate Black aesthetics/culture and postmodern dance (102). In doing so, they engage how the sense of self interacts with the dominant culture and the histories that produced it, and at the same time, they use the spiritual element of the dance to transform the sense of self beyond the monolithic notions of the dominant culture.

DeFrantz’s “Hip-Hop Habitus v. 2.0” also confirms the negotiation of identities through Black Dance. In reference to the shifting purpose of hip-hop dance once it is taken out of its original, local contexts, DeFrantz writes, “Public dance competitions change the idiom and its possibilities. . .But in black communities pleasure must be aligned with aesthetic purpose and social function of one sort or another. Global stages overwhelm social function beyond their local identities. . .” (234-235). This suggests that where hip-hop in its local contexts serves as the manifestation of African aesthetics and the confirmation of presence, on the global stage, it becomes imaginations about identities, and therefore, exemplifies the dialogic nature of Black performance even when there is no conscious consideration of the performers’ identities or the histories out of which they emerge. This flexibility is a key component of Black performance which allows Black Dance to transform and be transformed by the mainstream.

In this negotiation of Black identities, there also lies a connectivity and communal element that both Paris and DeFrantz note as key components of the choreographic works and expressive idioms discussed. In the introduction, DeFrantz and Gonzalez describe Diaspora as a “process of community and unification”(11), so “[p]erformance becomes a dialogue between ourselves and others as we ‘make sense’ of diasporic journeys” (11). According to Paris, Wilson and Brown’s choreographies are underscored by the community/unification aspect. Paris notes Brown’s use of a circular formation to convey a sense of antiphonal interaction between individual and community (104), as well as how the unfolding of the choreography suggests the interplay between the spiritual individual and the well-being of the community (107). In addition, Paris maintains that in Wilson’s work, “the dancing body conveys spirit and meaning through community and cultural representation” (112), and Wilson draws in the unification aspect of Diaspora by bringing together three different companies from three different cultures with different backgrounds in dance and training. This serves to amplify “a unified sense of spiritual and community practice” (112).

In a different way, DeFrantz suggests how hip-hop dance and its global reach exemplifies the connectivity and community underlying Diaspora and its representations in Black performance. In his review of previous hip-hop scholarship, DeFrantz writes that for the second generation of hip-hop scholars, hip-hop “became a connectivity for youth across a geography, practiced locally” (226). As he goes on to discuss these “youth” and those engaged in hop-hop dance, he notes that not all of them are Black, or even consciously connected to the socio-historical contexts out of which the dance style emerged. However, something important to consider is the endurance of the imperative to innovate and what that suggests about identity formation within the social landscape. Like Brown’s choreography, hip-hop exemplifies the capacity to work as an individual within a group dynamic. It also demonstrates how that individuality simultaneously influences the group dynamic, much like how the spiritual individual interacts with the well-being of the community. Furthermore, while DeFrantz argues that the “aesthetic of the cool” and the driving force of pleasure behind hip-hop’s global popularity is problematic through the habitus framework, the aesthetic/pleasure aspect is the unifying force across various borders. This is significant because it corroborates DeFrantz and Gonzalez’s introductory claim that even when Black bodies are not present, Black performance is made possible by Black sensibilities, expressive practices, and people (1). Thus, there is an important interaction between Black sensibilities and mainstream spaces that demonstrates the capacity of Black Dance to reach beyond the individual and not only extend out into already-established communities, but to carve new spaces of community, as well.

Black Performance Theory is a critically important work because it introduces various frameworks by which Black expressive works can be interpreted, and in doing so, it establishes the dynamic nature of Black Performance, and by extension Black Dance. This makes it a key source for my exploration into Black women’s capacity to use Black Dance as a vehicle for restructuring boundaries. As they discuss in their introduction, the editors of this collection of essays are not wedded to any framework, but they do make it explicit that their goal is to demonstrate the reach of Black sensibilities and the possibilities of Black performance through Black sensibilities, expressive cultures, and people. One shortcoming of the two essays, due to my focus being on Black women, is that both essays are concerned with men and masculinist performances. However, they still provided valuable information on the role of Black Dance in negotiating identities and carving spaces that simultaneously work within the dominant culture and transform or get transformed by the mainstream. Furthermore, while Paris and DeFrantz focus on men and masculinist performances, Daphne A. Brooks provides an analysis of work by Nina Simone and Adrienne Kennedy to highlight negotiations of Black womanhood through sonic forms in her essay “Afro-sonic Feminist Praxis: Nina Simone and Adrienne Kennedy in High Fidelity.” She examines how sonic distortions found in “Four Women” and Funnyhouse of a Negro exemplify Black women’s discursive practice of speaking in racial and gendered voices, the (dis)identification these dual voices signify, and the histories out of which these voices emerge (Brooks). Like DeFrantz and Paris, Brook draws attention to the interplay between self-identification and hegemonic structures, and how performance is the method for negotiating these identities. Overall, Black Performance Theory is a crucial collection of work and adds much to Black Studies and Performance Studies scholarship, while also raising questions for further examination.


Works Cited

Brooks, Daphne. “Afro-sonic Feminist Praxis: Nina Simone and Adrienne Kennedy in High Fidelity.” Black Performance Theory, edited by Anita Gonzalez and Thomas F. DeFrantz, Duke University Press, 2014, pp. 204-222.

DeFrantz, Thomas F. “Hip-Hop Habitus v. 2.0.” Black Performance Theory, edited by Anita Gonzalez and Thomas F. DeFrantz, Duke University Press, 2014, pp. 223-242.

Gonzalez, Anita, and Thomas F. DeFrantz, editors. “From ‘Negro Expression’ to ‘Black Performance’.” Black Performance Theory, Duke University Press, 2014, pp. 1-15.

Paris, Carl. “Reading ‘Spirit’ and the Dancing Body in the Choreography of Ronald K. Brown and Reggie Wilson.” Black Performance Theory, edited by Anita Gonzalez and Thomas F. DeFrantz, Duke University Press, 2014, pp. 99-114.


Kant We Hegel Our Way Out of This? The Problem of People in Postcolonial Studies


Postcolonial theory has a people problem. By this, I do not mean to suggest those who practice, write, or otherwise espouse a postcolonial perspective on cultural affairs are somehow tricky, obtuse, or otherwise problematic to deal with in professional settings. Even if this were the case, the solution to the deficiencies in postcolonial theory most certainly does not lie in the mandatory installation of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation “Genuine People Personality” (Adams 95) software on every humanities department’s server the world over. Instead, I am unabashedly suggesting that postcolonial theoreticians’ overemphasis on people as the site of analysis lies at the heart of the limitations of the field’s key terms, epistemological boundaries, and approach to understanding phenomena as a whole. Indeed, if postcolonial theory and its related concepts and methods are to have any intellectual purchase, then it is time to abandon its anthropocentric approach to explaining how the world works in favor of perspectives which include non-human entities in colonial processes.

The goals of postcolonial practice occupy several intellectual nodes. One likely comes in the identification of the impact on the psyche and society of those people who suffer under the weight of the colonial project. A second is a means of demonstrating how human knowledge and the institutions it produces has been constructed to create a racist, gendered, and other exploitive architectures to justify and sustain patterns of oppression. A third occurs around communicating the stories of humans before contact and colonization, their collective trauma and resistance to occupation, so that they may liberate themselves to live in freedom in particular cultural conjunctures. What unites these goals are both their evident anthropocentric character and the aims of shifting the locus of analysis from inside the minds of characters in the colonial drama to the human subject positions and collectivities which play out in social and cultural life. Concerns about the colonization of humans were rightly on the minds of postcolonial thinkers during the 20th century. Roughly one-third of all humans alive at the middle of the 20th century lived in non-self governing territories; diplomatic speak for a colony, a mandate, a protectorate, or some other entity which lacked state sovereignty. The onset of the Cold War, the withdrawal from imperial possessions as the global balance of state power shifted, the emergence of wars of national liberation, and the politics of various United Nations organs, and the proliferation of capitalism all worked to create a context for seeing the value of changing the dynamics of political colonization around the world. For postcolonial academics, whose published work came to the party a full generation (Eagleton 204-206) after the formal processes of political decolonization began, their concerns centered mainly on cultural interpretations of identity. This work is done to not only voice, explain and lay blame in the history of colonial relations, but also to point towards ways in which colonial logics, in varying degrees of Derridean-ness, can be deconstructed. This sort of postcolonial analysis fails to acknowledge that colonialism extends beyond the narrow frame of political colonialism, regardless of the suspension of the UN Trusteeship Council’s work in 1994.

The fluid definition of postcoloniality reflects the apparent fact the term ‘postcolonial’ has severe limitations. Loomba rightly situates the very language of postcolonial studies, arguing that the word ‘postcolonial’ itself is only useful “with caution and qualification” and that if divorced from specific historical circumstances, “postcoloniality cannot be meaningfully investigated, and instead, the term begins to obscure the very relations of domination it seeks to uncover.” (16) In turn, Hardt and Negri see postcolonial thought, particularly Bhabha’s binary-busting mechanism of hybridity, as epiphenomenal of the logics of power and Empire. (145-146) These critiques point to another obvious fact: the colonial condition has not ended. Colonialism, neo or otherwise, is not merely or even primarily about the oppression of people. Imperial projects are ontologically materialist in its exploitation of territory through settlement, resources through extraction, surplus value through labor, and profit through finance. In other words, understanding colonialism means examining exploitive relationships between things; a perspective that does not dismiss humans, but indeed dissenters them from the analysis. In the same way that Roy (54) suggests that an exclusive focus on human rights is a camera obscura of contemporary conflict which ignores the vital, fundamental importance of territorial appropriation and resource extraction, so too does postcolonial theory distract of a richer understanding and resistance to the colonial project as a whole by focusing on the epiphenomena of humanity through concepts such as subalternity, the native informant, and hybridity which not only foreclose a sophisticated understanding of human social affairs, but offer a nihilistic and narrow reading of life itself.

There are solutions to the people-based problems of postcolonial theory. Emerging transdisciplinary scholarship focus attention on how the myriad of non-human forms of life, as well as objects themselves, shape and,  are shaped by colonial processes. In turn, theoretical and philosophical debates over “cenes” and the ontology of things point to how holistic work on colonialism necessitates the inclusion of non-human entities to produce robust analyses. Postcolonial theory may have its roots in the study of human affairs, but humans are not the only agents or objects that make up imperial practices; thus the study of colonialism should, therefore, continue to expand to reflect these realities.


The Problem of People

People are a problem in postcolonial theory on at least two levels. First, analyses that focus attention wholly on humans foreclose how colonialism influences other forms of life, as well objects, things, and other aspects of the physical world. People-centered approaches not only limits the field of colonialism’s impact on culture but also miss how material culture can work to sustain and expand colonial projects. Anthropocentric thinking emerges in the precursors and foundational work of postcolonial thought. Cesaire, Fanon, and Memmi all root their analysis of colonial conditions in varying degrees of psychoanalytic thinking. Indeed, it is the emergence, power, and durability of psychoanalysis which not only directly impacted early postcolonial theorists —Fanon, for example, was trained as a psychologist –but speak to what has become an emblematic feature of the humanities; the conceptual and theoretical borrowing from other intellectual disciplines in order to find novel ways to study humans. Digressing into the various critiques of each of these psychological schools would be beside the point at this juncture, although there is something delicious in thinking about Deleuze and Guattari’s critique of psychoanalysis as, “a capitalist disorder.” (Crews 176) Rather, the fact that postcolonial theory latched onto and then extended ideas which were oriented exclusively towards thinking about people, and oppressed people, in particular, was the first act in narrowing the aperture of postcolonial thought for the remainder of the century. The intertwining of psychoanalysis and postcolonial theory is not surprising, for psychoanalysis may be an emancipatory schema committed to freeing, “human beings from what frustrates their fulfillment and well being.” (Eagleton 166) Liberating oneself from slavery, servitude, or the precariat class under the weight of colonialism certainly seems like a worthwhile endeavor for psychoanalytic thinking.

Cesaire may root his work in Marxist analysis, yet the language he employs, “First we must study how colonization works to decivilize the colonizer, to brutalize him in the truest sense of the word” (35) is nothing short of anthropocentric. Cesaire’s suggestion that “no one colonizes innocently,” (39) is an intelligent rebuttal to attempts to negate human complicity in colonization –perhaps an earlier, more poetic version of Goldhagen’s provocative thesis on ‘ordinary’ Germans during the Second World War.  While Cesaire works to frame colonialism in economically imperial terms, his argument about both mental states of colonizer and colonized, the latter often dehumanized through the racial component of colonialism, reaffirms that he sees the colonial project as one that lies exclusively in the world of human affairs. In the same vein, Memmi articulates his analysis of colonialism in wonderfully parsimonious terms, “the best possible definition of a colony: a place where one earns more and spends less.” (4)

In a similar vein, Fanon’s works rehumanize the racialized construction of blackness in the face of white supremacy, “I start suffering from not being a white man insofar as the white man discriminates against me; turns me into a colonzes subject; robs me of any value or originality; tells me I am a parasite in the world, that I should toe the line of the white world as quickly as possible , and that we are brute beasts, that we are walking manure, a hideous forerunner of tender cane and silky cotton, that I have no place in this world.” (78) For Fanon, the task of his critique is to expose how the racism that is inherent to colonialism makes him something other than a human, “I am an object among other objects.” (89) But what if we all are objects? What if, rather than setting up human-centric hierarchies, we think about the structures and impact of all objects within particular systems? By framing his opposition to colonialism as a project of rehumanization, Fanon closes off broader, more accurate ways of reading and resisting colonialism, by privileging human existence over those very beasts abused under colonization.

Memmi spends chapter after chapter working through the positionality of the hypothetical colonizer and colonized person, looking to unpack the relationship between these protagonists, intertwined in the tragedy of colonialism. Memmi invokes adjectives such as “disfigurement,” (147) “annihilation,”(151) and ”liberation” (152) to describe the personal outcomes of this relationship. Memmi hints at a broader understanding of the colonial frame but then pulls back towards his exclusively human analysis, “Colonization is, above all, economic and political exploitation. If the colonized is eliminated, the colony becomes a country like any other, and who then will be exploited?” (149) Finally, Memmi writes that the human free of colonialism, “will be a whole and free man;” (153) reaffirming that colonialism and its end is species, or indeed agent-specific to humans.

The point of postcolonial criticism and action should not only be one of ending the exploitation of humans but exploitation writ large; an argument that is sorely absent from postcolonialist theory and praxis because of the anthropocentric nature of their intellectual project. The second people-problem in postcolonial thought: the anthropocentric logic of self-centered human inquiry forecloses other ways of knowing, and thus selectively limits the utility of postcolonial perspectives and concepts. For example, it is worth considering the intellectual options available to anti-colonial intellectuals in the early part of the 20th-century that would have allowed for a more robust postcolonial praxis beyond that of psychological critiques. While it is easy to levy critiques against postcolonialism theory’s myopic foci from the safety of the early 21st century now that many national liberation struggles have been played out, doing so would reek of post hoc commentary. Early postcolonial theorists did not participate in a world with robust environmental criticism, indeed developed theories of nationalism, not even World Systems Theory. But they did have the concept of ‘imperialism,’ a materialist-based, not-exclusively anthropocentric way of understanding and resisting colonial logics that was available to mid- and late-20th century postcolonial thinkers. Indeed, it is curious to ponder why ideas which were so widely in circulation seem completely absent from this postcolonial perspective. Hobson’s turn of the 20th-century analysis of imperialism as the natural extension of capitalist logic beyond the borders of the nation-state not only accurately diagnose the problem of imperialism, but also frame solutions to avoiding colonial logics through capital controls and domestic reinvestment. Hobson’s study is an assessment of both the human and non-human aspects of colonialism, one that rightly sees exploitation in broad terms beyond that of the individual. So influential was Hobson’s thesis that Lenin built and expanded on these ideas for his most prominent of publications, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism. Synthesizing Hobson and Marx and Engels, Lenin sees financial capital, a non-human object, as the driver of colonialism, one that produces the incentives for imperial policies, extractive economies, and the offshoring of class conflict, the latter being remarkably similar to Memmi’s definition of colonialism. As with much of Marxist influence in the postwar period, (Hobsbawm) Hobson and Lenin-based understandings of imperialism serve to inform anti-imperial praxis in Latin America, from overtly Marxian political and cultural analyses (Morana, Dussel, and Jauregui) to pedagogy, (Freire) to liberation theology. So too can the legacy of Hobson and Lenin be found at the heart of World Systems Theory and in particular, Hardt and Negri’s profoundly influential Empire. Each of these analyses not only avoids the personal and psychoanalytic approach to critiquing the colonial condition, but they are also overtly solidarist and at least are open to, if not outright considerate of, their treatment of human and non-human things.

Hobson and Lenin are nowhere to be found in the analyses of the psychoanalytic approach to postcolonial thought, even though Hobson’s (in English) and Lenin’s (published in English in 1939) work predate and were available to Cesaire, Fanon, and Memmi. But let’s not merely hold these three accountable on their own; their reasons for missing Hobson and Lenin are likely unknowable. Where are Hobson and Lenin, and the study of imperialism in general, in the intellectual history of postcolonialism? Gandhi offers no analysis of either Hobson or Lenin and frames imperialism as “Western Nationalism;” (195) a curious connotation as national liberation and nationalism are the some of the very solutions postcolonialists espouse towards countering logics of imperialism. Indeed nationalism(s) is a key blind spot for postcolonial thought. Loomba is also silent on Hobson, dedicates less than a page to Lenin (10-11) in context with situating the term ‘imperialism’ itself, and dedicates a mere six pages (256) in the entire volume to the concept. Even the inexorable Spivak avoids Hobson entirely, and only discusses Lenin as an apologist for state power. (83) Spivak dedicates pages of prose and footnotes towards imperialism, although much of this comes in the form of her “unquiet ghosts” on the subject. (Eagleton 3) Said reserves just a single line for Hobson, “For imperialists like Balfour, or for anti-imperialists like J.A. Hobson, the Oriental, like the African, is a member of a subject race and not exclusively an inhabitant of a geographical area.” (92) Lenin escapes Said’s sting insofar as he does not appear at all in Said’s seminal work. Imperialism features in Said’s Orientalism of course but Said frames it mainly as a Western construct, rather than a capitalist one. Perhaps this is a reason –there is never ‘the’ reason –why Hobson, Lenin, and imperialism never gain any traction in postcolonial conversations.

Anthropocentrism lies at the heart of some critical postcolonial concepts. Spivak’s conception of the subaltern is a way of thinking through how to name and amplify individual and collective identities under colonization. Spivak’s argument that, “The subaltern as female cannot be heard of read” (104) has its problems, as stories of and by these very women exist and are acknowledged, for example, in testimonio literature the world over. Spivak perhaps concedes this conceptual shortcoming with the intervention of the native informant concept (4); the human tasked with speaking on behalf of their culture under colonization. Spivak’s conception of the subaltern or that of the native informant is emblematic of postcolonialism thinkers’ intense focus on the human subject position which works to foreclose an acknowledgment of other forms of exploitation. The very notion of speaking, and the silences that Spivak sees as a part of the imperial project, presumes that human communication is the only form of dialogue worth acknowledging or even apprehending. In turn, Bhabha’s work on identity also suffers from the same problem of anthropocentrism, although from a different perspective from Spivak’s  Whereas Spivak wants the reader to hear and see those who are obscured by colonialism, Bhabha claims that these folks are already visible, we’re just looking in the wrong places. For Bhabha, an individual’s identity is a hybrid of their cultural condition, one that is shaped and informed by the long arc of colonialism. (277) For Bhabha, there is no Other in a binary sense, only individuals, and groups operating in third spaces between reified conceptions of colonizer and colonized. (66-69) These liminal locales may be sites of oppression or cosmopolitanism, but for Bhabha’s reader, they are spaces dominated, if not exclusively occupied, by human affairs and relationships.

Can postcolonial theory resolve the twin traps of personhood? Such a move will be tricky, as the concept of the subaltern, the native informant, and hybridity are devoutly anthropocentric in their ontology. Focusing on personhood is a central pillar of postcolonial thought, as the intellectual legacy of the Enlightenment shapes the way we have prioritized our politics; both postcolonialists and the rest of us, even if the former is uncomfortable with the idea. Abandoning Hegelian notions of the Self and the Other will be difficult to realize unless one is willing to reconsider humanity’s relationship to life writ large, a perspective that finds its home most prominently in emerging, interdisciplinary ways of knowing. This does not mean colonizing non-Western, indigenous, or other ways of knowing to recapture some lost intellectual framework, although acknowledging these cosmologies is undoubtedly the right thing to do. Instead, rejecting anthropocentrism means considering all of how colonialism impacts and informs material agents in cultural contexts.


Postcolonial Materials

Cross-disciplinary analysis of colonial projects opens up rich ways of understanding how non-human entities contribute to and are influenced by imperialism. Such work invariably involves the methods, evidence, and other tools from cultural, environmental, and literary studies, along with history. Postcolonial theory rests on the practice of traversing intellectual disciplines, and so extending the logic of interdisciplinary practice is essential understanding what Lowe (19) sees as “the intimacies” inherent in colonial practice. For example, paper, sugar, tea, and floral prints; each are seemingly innocuous on their own, and yet each object shapes and is shaped by colonial practices just like humans. Derived from one of the earliest merchantable economies of North America, (Cronon 109) lumber extraction drove efforts of British and later American settler-colonists across the continent; displacing flora and fauna along the way. The colonial logic of the mechanization of production and profit-seeking helped to change the sourcing of paper from rags to wood pulp, producing profound changes to cultural, economic, and environmental landscapes of colonized spaces of nineteenth-century western Massachusetts. (McGaw) In turn, Senchyne (144-148) suggests that the materiality of paper works to develop and further racialized hierarchies by operating within Robinson’s (3) conception of “racial capitalism;” part and parcel of the colonial project. In this case, non-human life such as trees and their surrounding ecosystem, as well as machines and objects themselves that contribute to the production and use of paper embody and normalize colonial legacies.

Focusing attention on production practices reveals both colonialism’s history and current state of affairs. Tsing’s conception of scalability, economies that perpetually expand without the need of changing the essential elements of production, decenter but do not displace humans from colonial narratives (505). In particular, the historical development and contemporary practice of the sugar industry rest upon colonial methods of expansion, standardization, and commodification. (Tsing 510-515) The drive to grow and profit from sugar serves to explain the long arc of capitalist territorial expansion, slave and “free” labor, and deforestation, which in turn influences contemporary demand and practice for cheap food. (Patel and Moore 14-18, 32-34) Indeed, Manning (2004) suggests that food is both an indicator and tool of colonialism. Colonization stabilized episodic famines in Europe (41) where “Agriculture was not so much about food as it was about the accumulation of wealth. It benefited some humans, and those people have been in charge ever since.” (38)

Exemplifying this focus on things instead of people, Lowe demonstrates that, “trades in tea, cottons, silks, and opium connect slave labor in the cotton fields of the U.S. South, the history of Asian textile design and production, and the role of the East India and China trades in the rise of British ‘free-trade’ imperialism.” (74) English tea drinking practice and culture is not contingent on the cultural behavior of humans in Great Britain, but rather the presence of “sugar from the West Indies, tea and china service imported from China, tables made of hardwoods from the West Indies, splendid dresses made from Indian cottons.” (82) What Lowe and the other scholarship makes clear is that an anthropocentric postcolonial perspective that privileges human identity and agency as the site of analysis obscures or subordinates material objects that are essential to understanding the onset and endurance of colonialism.


Speculating Future Postcolonialisms

Thinking about colonialism in a non-anthropocentric way becomes an access point for scholarship on biocolonialism, environmental racism, and speciesism. (Huggan and Tiffin 4-11) This perspective is but one way of rescuing the concepts of the subaltern, the native informant, and hybridity. Animals, in parallel to Spivak’s reading of the term, cannot speak or be heard. Individuals, or better yet animals themselves can, in turn, speak on behalf of non-human objects from their cultural perspective; we merely have to listen. Hybrid locations and cultures can be remapped to acknowledge the existence of non-human actants in these spaces. The slums of Kibera are probably spaces where Bhabha would find hybrid cultures and identities that have been informed by the British colonial experience, so why not the wildlife reserves and parks established by the British East Africa Protectorate? (Chongwa 39-40) These parks are undoubtedly cosmopolitan, home to a broader variety of species and identities that can be found even in the capitalist-core cities of London or New York. Kenyan national parks undoubtedly reflect a legacy of colonialism, including the exercise of colonial power, intervenes in the culture of those who inhabit those spaces if culture is ordinary, learned and lived experiences. (Williams 4-5) There are problems with this line of reasoning for sure, cultural appropriation perhaps the most prominent one, yet questions of who has the authorial power to speak on behalf of something else don’t merely emerge when we are analyzing the colonization of non-humans; the critique is part and parcel to cultural studies as a whole. Instead, decentering humans from colonial studies means acknowledging that the colonization of non-humans occurs in similar and different ways than those of us who work in academia generally recognize.

An edge of contemporary ecocriticism, postcolonial environmental theory synthesizes various scholarly approaches towards understanding the historical, present, and future arc of colonial projects. A core area of study within postcolonial environmental theory addresses the origins and nature of “cenes:” Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Themocene, Chthulucene, and more.  (Balkan 2017) From these standpoints, colonialism is not an exclusive function of human agency at the species level, as climatic and extinction structures work with a variety of entities to further colonial practices in combined and uneven ways. Taking the analytical logic of structures and agents further, Bennett and fellow vibrant materialists understand social action and agency by exploring the assemblages of actants in particular contexts; for example, North American power grids. (24-28) In other words, one can apprehend colonial conditions by acknowledging the agency and influence of all types of objects beyond anthropocentric limits. The point here is that inquiry into colonialism need not be, nor never should it ever have been, exclusively about humans. Some of the more intriguing work in this area lies at the forefront of energy humanities (Imre and Boyer) and petroculture studies, (Wilson, Carlson, and Szeman) whereby access to or in pursuit of fossil fuels enable colonial action and where energy itself exerts agency and structures relationships between all varieties of objects. Thus colonialism remains alive and well, even if humans claim to have abandoned colonialism because the concomitant exploitation of colonization occurs in spaces with and without humans.

Landscapes, flora, and fauna are curiously absent from foundational postcolonial analysis, and so too are markets, machines, and commodities, the engines of capitalist colonial projects. For example, French imperial control over Martinique, where both Cesaire and Fanon hail from, and Tunisia, Memmi’s country of origin, was not exclusively about the power and exploitation of the local population. Ports in Forte-de-France and Tunis and the shipping lanes which connected these colonial entities to the broader Francophone imperial system and modern capitalist world system undoubtedly impacted the environs that Cesaire, Fanon, and Memmi were so passionate about liberating. Rail lines from Tunis stretch outward toward mines and oil fields across northern Africa, linking further on to the extraction of timber, rubber, and ivory from the heart of the continent. Territory, homes, waterways, mammals, libraries, communication networks; all were occupied and exploited by French colonial capitalism. Yes, the colonial condition for the locals in Martinique and Tunisia were deplorable, but Cesaire’s, Fanon’s, and Memmi’s reading of and solution to the colonial situation is suspiciously one-sided. Where is the critique of the French imperial system’s brutalization of the pastoral? Where is the precise, detailed accounting of how the expansion of capitalism from the French core to the Caribbean and North African periphery exploited all aspects of life, not just the local population of bipedal hominids? Flipping the script slightly, is it merely the colonial mindset, and not the literal tools of the trade in the form of flotilla and firearms, which implicate themselves in the colonization of people, places, and everything else in the space? The imposition of the Francophone educational system did not merely colonize locals’ school experiences or knowledge structures; books, buildings, and budgets all became ripe for the picking at the hands of French imperialists. Cesaire, Fanon, and Memmi are rather silent on these issues, and yet exploitation of all things –not merely humans –is at the heart of the colonial project. By failing to fully develop a critique of colonialism beyond the exploitation of humans, thereby privileging one type of object over another, these thinkers set the stage for an anthropocentric reading of postcolonial thought which inevitably comes to misread the proliferation and durability of colonialism to the present day. Our task is not to discard the aforementioned work, but to recognize the inherent anthropocentrism of their work as an intellectual limit to overcome in the present and future critique of colonial practices.

There are other, perhaps more worthy assessments of postcolonial thinking than those I have outlined here. The endurance of settler colonialism on indigenous spaces life is probably the most heartbreaking critique of the limits of postcolonial intellectual project, especially as the rise of postcolonial thought in the 1990s was wrapped up in thinking about emerging identities and nationalism at the end of the Cold War and not about the continued occupation and oppression of indigenous peoples under Empire. The problem of nationalism, the Janus-face of postcolonial thought, also works to limit the utility of contemporary postcolonial thinking, as national liberation ascribes both a vector for overturning European colonialism, but also a means of sustaining colonialism and oppression through Empire, settler colonialism, or blatant imperial capitalism. The problem of anthropocentric thinking may be a nuanced and somewhat troubling issue to work through. After all, postcolonial thought roots itself in the humanities and the social sciences where we primarily, if not exclusively, study human affairs. As I have hopefully argued to some reasonable extent, human-centric thinking has neither resolved the problems of colonialism nor provided entirely accurate accounts of the phenomena in the first place. Anthropocentrism blinds our analytical view to see difficulties in purely human terms, both in their causes and their effects. Decentering, and not discarding humans, from our analysis of exploitation opens up more comprehensive ways of reading the dilemmas that are before us. None of this is easy, either intellectually or practically. Yet if humanities scholars and teachers are genuinely interested in addressing issues of ethics and justice, disrupting locations and the exercise of power and exploitation, then our first acts should be to selflessly acknowledge that thinking exclusively about humans –from our philosophical, economic, and political models to our analyses and critiques of current and future conditions –may in itself be the problem. Put another way: if one is genuinely interested in overturning the colonial project, then it is worth naming all of how such exploitation exists and work, even in small ways, to end imperial interventions into life. We must do better than we have done so far.





Works Cited


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No Place Like Home: Magical Ruralism as Cultural Discourse


The iconic film The Wizard of Oz (1939) begins with Dorothy (Judy Garland) desperately wanting to escape from Kansas.  At its core, The Wizard of Oz is a film about a magical journey from rural Kansas to the gleaming Emerald City.  This basic narrative of a young person leaving his or her rural home for the intoxicating promise of urban opportunity underlies many works from the canon of modern American literature.  Since the colonial era, negotiations of rural and urban, country and city, have been central to the shaping of American nationalism.  In the United States, perceptions of countryside influenced settlement and colonization, Jeffersonian ideology, visions of the frontier, agrarian fantasies, the aftermath of the Dust Bowl, and a host of other historical developments and attitudes.  Essentially, American history reflects shifting attitudes about rural cultures and landscapes with contemporary rural culture struggling, in a sense, to define itself against urban-oriented cultural paradigms.

Characters like Dorothy Gale are commonplace in modern American literature.  During the first half of the twentieth century, canonical, widely known literary works by Sherwood Anderson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis, and others portrayed rural American life as essentially alienated from modernity.  Theodore Dreiser’s Carrie Meeber and Sinclair Lewis’s Carol Kennicott yearned to escape small town life in favor of the opportunities and excitement promised by the city. Jay Gatsby, arguably one of the most famous characters in all of American literature, sheds his Minnesota identity to remake himself into a sophisticated, wealthy Easterner.  Gatsby’s lavish mansion is Oz-like in its colorful extravagance and absurdity; he is so obsessed with the pursuit of urban excess that his fantasies ultimately destroy him.  Gatsby’s dream hinges on a complete departure from his rural origins—to win Daisy, he must become a wealthy, sophisticated Easterner.  This narrative of departure works as a kind of twentieth century rural “grand narrative” in that canonical works of American literature legitimized and codified the inferiority of rural culture within the broader context of modernity.  This rural grand narrative hinged on presenting rural life as stifling, boring, and lacking in opportunities.

The question of how rural culture has responded to this grand narrative throughout the late twentieth century and beyond requires further scholarly attention.  While various theories of postmodernism address what Frederic Jameson calls the “cultural logic of late capitalism,” work on rural narratives and culture from the postmodern era is sparse.  In Knowing Your Place: Rural Identity and Cultural Hierarchy (1997), Barbara Ching and Gerald W. Creed argue that postmodern scholarship and society as a whole tend to marginalize rural culture and suggest that “the urban-identified can confidently assume the cultural value of their situation while the rural-identified must struggle to gain recognition” (4).  This “struggle to gain recognition” is a defining feature of rural cultural discourse from the postmodern era and beyond.  In his recent study of Midwestern regionalism, From Warm Center to Ragged Edge (2017), Jon K. Lauck describes how dominant culture in the twentieth century turned away from once-celebrated rural regionalisms: “For the past half century, the prevailing forces and trends in high and popular culture and in the American academy have not been conducive to the study of midwestern history and have cut against a focus on the Midwest as a particular region” (2).  I argue that re-enchantment emerges as the means through which rural culture has attempted to “gain recognition.” A study of postmodern rural narratives and cultural artifacts reveals historical re-conceptualization wherein marginalization of rural space is acknowledged and transformed through magical rural imagery. The conditions of multinational capitalism form the driving force behind the marginalization of rural culture, and postmodern rural narratives respond to these conditions through re-enchantment of pastoral images, forms, or other rural symbols.  I call the cultural discourse that emerges magical ruralism.  In the discussion that follows, I describe how place has functioned in pastoral and modern rural narratives as a way to show how postmodern rural literature and culture more generally can be read as responding to the conditions of postmodernity through re-enchantment of mythical, pastoral, or modern (often industrial) forms.  I trace how postmodern texts by Tim O’Brien, Stephen King, Louise Erdrich, E. Annie Proulx and others exemplify the use of magical ruralism in literature.  Various cultural artifacts, including roadside monuments, are surveyed as a way to show how magical ruralism is a discourse evident in both literature and culture more broadly.


Rural Grand Narratives

Because magical ruralism surveys a broad range of examples not limited to literature, a broad definition of “rural” informs my analysis. The Oxford English Dictionary (2011) provides multiple definitions of “rural,” including “as living in the country as opposed to the town or city” and “of, relating to, or characteristic of peasants or country people; simple, unpolished; rustic.” Definitions of “rural” consistently characterize “rural” as alienated from sophistication. As described above, many grand, canonical narratives of the early twentieth century reinforce the idea that one must abandon rural life in order to achieve modernity and sophistication. In The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1979), Jean-Franҫois Lyotard argues that postmodernism involves the collapse or revising of the grand narrative. Attempting to understand the tension between rural and urban culture is a kind of grand narrative in itself.  As Raymond Williams explains in The Country and the City (1973):

On the country has gathered the idea of a natural way of life: of peace, innocence, and simple virtue.  One the city has gathered the idea of an achieved centre: of learning, communication, light.  Powerful hostile associations have also developed: on the city as a place of noise, worldliness, and ambition; on the country as a place of backwardness, ignorance, limitation. A contrast between country and city, as fundamental ways of life, reaches back into classical times. (1)

The qualities Williams assigns to the country—peace, innocence, and simplicity—are familiar elements of what might be termed the primary rural narrative form: the pastoral.  According to Terry Gifford, a pastoral narrative features a rural or country setting, often juxtaposed in some way with an urban setting (2).  A traditional pastoral work represents the rural country environment as idyllic, simple, and desirable.  Of course, the pastoral narrative is familiar when viewed in the context of the grand narrative underlying American history and nationalism.  In The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America (1964), Leo Marx explains that rural landscape figured prominently in how early America was imagined as a garden of unlimited potential:

Beginning in Jefferson’s time, the cardinal image of American aspirations was a rural landscape, a well-ordered green garden magnified to continental size. Although it probably shows a farmhouse or a neat white village, the scene usually is dominated by natural objects: in the foreground a pasture, a twisting brook with cattle grazing nearby,     then a clump of elms on a rise in the middle distance and beyond that, way off on the   western horizon, a line of dark hills.  This is the countryside of the old Republic, a chaste, uncomplicated land of rural virtue. (141)

As Marx documents, land was a crucial factor in how the early American republic defined itself against Europe.  Fascination with “unsettled,” remote landscapes spurred westward expansion as individuals searched for arable land, gold, or other early symbols of the American Dream.  Rural life occupied a prominent position in the cultural hierarchy of the early American republic as evidenced by its role in both the formation of a national mythology and in its ability to inspire the general population.
At the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, Frederick Jackson Turner famously declared the closing of the American frontier.  This is a crucial moment in that Jackson’s speech symbolically suggests that the promises of happiness and riches linked to the pastoral and frontier myths are no longer accessible.  Modernity and modern literature would only confirm this, and a number of fundamental examples of the modern American novel can also be read as rural grand narratives.  In his book The Midwestern Ascendancy in American Writing (1992), Ron Weber notes that many seminal works of modern American fiction were penned by Midwestern authors and made use of Midwestern settings as microcosms of “American life.”  Weber points out that the pinnacle of this “Midwestern ascendancy” was the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Minnesotan Sinclair Lewis in 1930.  In the canonical texts that Weber addresses in his study, including Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (1919), Lewis’s Main Street (1920), Babbitt (1922), and Arrowsmith (1925) and others, the Midwest is portrayed as “cut off” from civilization and as hopelessly conformist.  The Great Gatsby suggests that Gatsby’s dream is of a kind of sophistication not available in Jay Gatz’s Midwestern home.  Similarly, in Winesburg, Ohio, George Willard as author and artist must flee Winesburg—a town portrayed by Anderson as a place where dreamers turn into “grotesques.”  In L. Frank Baum’s novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), which is especially important to the forthcoming discussion of magical ruralism, Kansas is described as a colorless, exhausted world.  Like the urban areas in The Great Gatsby and Winesburg, Ohio, the Emerald City appears as a place where dreams supposedly come true and wherein the “drab” qualities of small town Midwestern life might be countered.
These rural grand narratives provide context for how rural space has assumed a marginalized, inferior position in the postmodern cultural hierarchy.  As foundational examples of canonical texts, these novels also position marginalization of rural space and culture as a central narrative within the field of literary studies.  As Max Weber argues in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), the modern condition is one of disenchantment.  The canonical modern narratives discussed above present rural landscapes and communities as disenchanted and lacking in sophistication.  Magical ruralist texts use re-enchantment as a strategy for countering this cultural marginalization.  Ching and Creed identify a “radical embracing of that marginality by many people in order to contest the late twentieth century’s hegemonic urbanity and it associated socio-political structures” (5).  Magical ruralism surfaces as the cultural discourse where this “embracing of marginality” takes shape, with the supposedly boring and ordinary elements of rural life transformed into something spectacular.


Magical Ruralism
Importantly, a major figure in postmodern literature has pointed to a famous rural narrative as a significant factor in his development as a writer.  In his 1992 essay “Out of Kansas,” Salman Rushdie describes the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz as the text that inspired him to write.  The similarities between the film and Rushdie’s use of magical realism are obvious, and Rushdie acknowledges the prominent green hues in the movie as a source for the “green and black” dreams of Saleem Sinai, narrator of Rushdie’s 1980 novel Midnight’s Children (17).  The links between magical realism and postmodern rural literature extend beyond Rushdie’s essay.  In her excellent discussion of the elements of magical realism, Wendy B. Faris writes that “magical realism has tended to concentrate on rural settings and to rely on rural inspiration—almost a postmodern pastoralism” (Zamora and Faris 182).  In both well-known magical realist narratives and in postmodern rural narratives, rural or “village” life is often threatened by the forces of late capitalism.  Magic and fantasy emerge as means through which characters manage the anxiety associated with existing in such an environment.
Both magical realism and magical ruralism are discourses of marginalization, but to equate magical realism and magical ruralism would be to overlook the significant differences that emerge when tracing the sources of marginalization.  Whereas the forces of capitalism have contributed to marginalization and displacement of indigenous populations and villages worldwide, colonialism and its legacy play a significant role in how magical ruralism and magical realism differ.  In suggesting that both magical realism and magical ruralism are discourses of marginalization, I am not suggesting that the sources or effects of marginalization are equal.  In his article “Magic Realism as Postcolonial Discourse” (1995), Stephen Slemon describes magical realism as a postcolonial discourse historically associated with the Third World (Zamora and Faris 408).  Slemon points out how overuse of “magical realism” can prove problematic: “the concept of magical realism itself threatens to become a monumentalizing category for literary practice and to offer centralizing genre systems a single locus upon which the massive problem of difference in literary expression can be managed into recognizable meaning in one swift pass” (Zamora and Faris 409).  Magical ruralism offers an alternative lens, related to magical realism, through which cultural responses to the marginalization of postmodern rural space and culture can be approached.  Magical ruralism differs from magical realism in that magical ruralist texts enchant or re-enchant decidedly rural forms and materials, both natural and unnatural.  Like pastoralism, these rural “raw materials” are largely Western, often secular forms and concepts.  As with many magical realist texts, ordinary forms and materials assume magical or supernatural powers in the magical ruralist text.  In her article “Scheherazade’s Children: Magical Realism and Postmodern Fiction,” Faris explains that “magical realism combines realism and the fantastic in such a way that magical elements grow organically out of the reality portrayed” (164).  Magical ruralist texts tend to draw from a more recent past than magical realist texts; although this is not true of all magical ruralist texts, many of the examples I survey below reveal a re-enchantment of machinery, commercial imagery, or other post-industrial material.  Magical realist texts often make use of a more distant, pre-industrial past, including “non-Western cultural systems that privilege mystery over empiricism, empathy over technology, tradition over innovation” (Zamora and Faris 3).

Magical ruralist literature typically reveals a central anxiety concerning rural life and/or rural landscapes.  Re-enchantment of rural raw materials functions as a response to that anxiety.  In Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods (1994) and in Stephen King’s story “Children of the Corn” (1977), rural raw materials are re-enchanted in a way that both re-conceptualizes history and manages anxieties concerning rural space.  In both texts, enchantment is linked to commodification, in the sense that tourism plays an important role in both narratives.  In In the Lake of the Woods, the Lake of the Woods in Northern Minnesota—a definitely “remote” location—is presented as a locus of subjectivity, mystery, and supernatural power linked to re-enchanting of rural Midwestern landscapes.  “Magic” works in the novel as a depictive re-conceptualizing of the dominant, popular constructions of remote Midwestern space as empty and vacuous—in the novel, remote space as empty and vacuous is aligned with rural space as landscape of spectacle, which is in turn related to the hyper-violent nature of postmodern society.  Importantly, the lake is also linked to protagonist John Wade’s apparently “magical powers”—Wade, a Vietnam veteran and probable PTSD victim—is nicknamed “Sorcerer,” and the novel details his ability to make people disappear.  The subsequent disappearance of Wade’s wife conjures ghostly imagery and references, calling to mind relevant moments in Winesburg, Ohio as George Willard looks upon the deserted fairgrounds in “Sophistication” and notes that “there are ghosts all around,” and reminiscent of the ghostly voices that permeate Masters’s Spoon River Anthology.  Enacting a pastoral journey to the lake forces Wade and his wife into a confrontation with anxiety that eventually culminates in an unsolvable mystery potentially fueled  by rural magic.

In King’s “Children of the Corn,” two Eastern tourists, Burt and Vicky, are driving through Nebraska on their way to California.  The story makes clear that Burt and Vicky are anxious about their encounter with rural landscapes—they point out how “boring” and monotonous the surroundings are, for example.  Importantly, the story complicates whether or not the couple’s eventually horrific discoveries and experiences are even real, as Burt at one point wonders whether he might be dreaming (King 267).  Quantic and Hafen describe the Great Plains as a “state of mind” (xxi) which informs the dreamlike quality of Burt and Vicky’s confrontation with rural space.  Just as the ghost-like baseball players in Phil Alden Robinson’s film Field of Dreams (1989) seem to originate in the corn field, so too do the beings that torment Burt and Vicky. Like O’Brien’s novel, the story revolves around a confrontation with remote space; unlike the modern rural grand narratives discussed earlier, In the Lake of the Woods and “The Children of the Corn” assign magical properties to rural space.  Burt notices that the corn is “perfect” and “impossibly” free from weeds.  The corn also takes on a supernatural, intoxicating quality, as Burt “became aware of the corn fragrance in his nose now, all around him.  The wind through the tops of the plants made a sound like voices.  Soothing.  Whatever had been done in the name of this corn, it was now his protector” (King 269).  Upon getting lost in the cornfield, Burt oscillates between feelings of comfort and feelings of intense fear, with the sacred and the profane coalescing in the image of a crucifix made from corn husks, which Burt describes as “fabulous art” and which Vicky describes as “hideous.”  Again, the marginalized status of the Midwest is re-conceptualized.  King presents the rural Midwest as a landscape of spectacle and as a re-enchanted, postmodern Arcadia of sorts where rural raw materials assume magical properties.
This re-enchanted Arcadia is also populated by species of images, to borrow garden terminology, that are both natural and mechanistic.  As Leo Marx points out, the “garden myth” is bound up in the idea that gardening represents a kind of ideal fusion between nature and machinery.  This is perhaps best symbolized in the work of Willa Cather and in the famous image of the shadow of the plow in the setting sun that Jim Burden describes in My Ántonia.  Relatedly, Marx explains that Ralph Waldo Emerson saw “genius” as stemming from uniting the nature and the machine.  Texts invested in magical ruralist discourse tend to engage with these ideas and to revise related images through postmodern strategies of historical re-conceptualization (Hutcheon) and pastiche.  In the postmodern world the “rural,” like the notion of “wilderness,” is largely illusory or simulated, and it is difficult to posit that an ideal harmony between nature and machine can truly exist when nature has grown increasingly difficult to separate from “the machine.”  In the work of E. Annie Proulx and Louise Erdrich, Cather’s image of the plow in the setting sun is revised and re-worked in ways that evidence the inseparable nature of “the rural” and “the machine” within the postmodern world but that also attempt to expose the unique, magical nature of the rural machine.

In Erdrich’s The Beet Queen, Karl describes an air seeder as “a miracle” (101); the novel also presents the local beet refinery as “Oz.”  Importantly, both the air seeder and the beet refinery are machines in the garden; neither is a natural form, yet both are clearly symbolic of rural culture.  The novel engages with the difficult place of the rural within the postmodern world, as the butcher shop where Mary Adare works and which unites all of the characters in the novel is threatened by an increasingly apparent desire for “one stop shopping” and the “big box store.”  Although Quantic reads the novel as evidencing the “unbearable” nature of the “closed garden” (98-99), I argue that Erdrich’s work is actually invested in a kind of re-enchantment of the uniquely rural materials that do remain and that do serve as important ways in which rural Midwesterners understand their own identities, even when these objects—air seeders and local beet refineries—are related to machinery.
A similar strategy of historical re-conceptualization and recycling of familiar “garden” images is used by E. Annie Proulx in her collections Close Range: Wyoming Stories (1999) and Bad Dirt: Wyoming Stories 2 (2004), wherein remote Wyoming landscapes are juxtaposed with often strange, fantastic imagery that is often related to a revision of “machine in the garden” imagery.  In her essay “Making Space: A Notebook,” Sandra Lim describes remote Wyoming landscapes as a way to reflect on the relationships between time, place, and poetry.  Lim writes, “To arrive at any one place in a poem is like witnessing the poet come to his or her own senses: you see a vivid and reasonable hallucination before you” (Lessley and Snider 77).  This “reasonable hallucination” evokes the blending of rural reality and magic typical of magical ruralism and illuminates this blending as it surfaces in Proulx’s stories.   In “The Bunchgrass Edge of the World,” Aladdin, a rancher, is given a magical moniker as a result of a green-shaded lamp arriving in the mail from Sears on the day of his birth.  In this way, the rural rancher is a product of both a kind of frontier landscape but also of a capitalistic commodity.  The symbolic space where these two factors meet overlaps with the space of enchantment.  The story also details Aladdin’s sister Ottaline’s conversations with a run-down John Deere tractor.  Both Ottaline and the tractor are presented in the story as similarly “ugly,” marginalized, and “broken”; the voice of the talking John Deere, not dissimilar from the voice in Field of Dreams, essentially voices the concerns of both the tractor and Ottaline as outsiders.  Giving the tractor a voice, although the story later reveals that the tractor cannot actually talk, works as a kind of re-enchantment of a symbolically “outdated” rural machine.  At one point in the story, Ottaline asks the tractor, “Are you like an enchanted thing? A damn story where some girl lets a warty toad sleep in her shoe and in the mornin the toad’s a good-lookin dude makin omelettes?” (138). Ottaline demonstrates a clear awareness of herself within a broader narrative.  The quotation also draws on fairy tale imagery and situates Ottaline as a character within her own fairy tale.
Proulx employs magical ruralist strategies in blending re-enchantment and postmodern narrative technique.  In her stories “A Lonely Coast” and “The Trickle-Down Effect,” Proulx engages in a kind of pastiche of Cather’s plow image that, I argue, inverts and re-enchants that image that, on its own, is no longer a viable ideal in the postmodern world.  “A Lonely Coast” begins with a question to the reader as to whether or not he or she has ever seen a burning house off in the distance while driving at night on a remote highway.  “A Lonely Coast” goes on to describe the spectacular, unique qualities of that image, emphasizing that it is unique to the type of landscape found only in Wyoming or in similarly remote areas:

You ever see a house burning up in the night, way to hell and gone out there on the plains? Nothing but blackness and your headlights cutting a little wedge into it, could be the middle of the ocean for all you can see.  And in that big dark a crown of flame the size of your thumbnail trembles.  You’ll drive for an hour seeing it until it burns out or you do, until you pull off the road to close your eyes or to look up at the sky punched with bullet holes, see them trying for the stairs, but mostly you don’t give a damn.  They are too far away, like everything else.  (189)

“The Trickle-Down Effect” makes use of a similar image.  Deb Sipple is hauling a load of hay bales back to Wyoming, driving through the night and throwing cigarette butts out the window.  Unknown to him, the cigarette butts are actually landing in the hay, igniting the bed of his truck.  Proulx describes the image of Sipple piloting the rig back into town as “the closest thing to a meteor ever seen in Elk Tooth” (54).  These images can be defined as magical images.  At its most basic level, a “magic” entails a power or happening contrary to natural law or logic.  Additionally, the Oxford English Dictionary (2011) defines “magic” as “an inexplicable and remarkable influence producing surprising results; an enchanting or mystical quality; glamour, appeal,” and further as “the art of producing. . . apparently inexplicable phenomena; conjuring.”  Both images from Proulx characterize isolated rural landscapes as theater for spectacular phenomena; the burning house and ignited hay bales are extraordinary to the point of conjuring illusions of oceans and meteors.

I argue that both images represent a kind of re-working and re-enchantment of Cather’s plow in the sun image in that they depict fantastic, distinctly postmodern, distinctly rural juxtapositions of nature and machine.  Postmodern rural space is constructed through the discourse of magical ruralism not as a resurrection of the “real” pastoral garden or of the frontier, but as a re-enchanted, postmodern space of spectacle.  Indeed, part of the value of the work of Erdrich and Proulx, for scholars, is in how both authors’ narratives cast postmodern rural culture and space as inherently different and perhaps even strange in the presence of experiences and imagery that are not available in urban areas.

Giants on the Earth: Rural Landscapes of Spectacle

“If you build it, he will come.”  In the film Field of Dreams (1989), this message from an unknown, disembodied voice drives Kevin Costner’s character Ray Kinsella to plow under his corn to build a baseball field.  Kinsella is anxious about his rural life; originally from California, Kinsella has moved to his wife’s home state of Iowa to try his hand at farming.  Despite mockery from his fellow farmers, Kinsella follows the voice’s advice and watches in disbelief as dead former baseball players, including Kinsella’s father and Shoeless Joe Jackson, inexplicably emerge from the cornfields to play baseball on Kinsella’s “field of dreams.”  By the end of the film, the baseball field has become an impossible portal of sorts, where those who believe in its magic can travel through time and space.  However, the film ends with a clear message: the magical baseball field and the family farm can simultaneously survive only if the Kinsella family starts charging admission.  Young Karen Kinsella, the voice of a new generation, prophesizes that “people will come,” and the closing image of the film shows a long trail of car headlights piloting through the dark Iowa countryside toward the magical farm.

Implicitly, rural life can persist only if it is willing to re-cast itself as a landscape of magic and spectacle to be consumed by urban outsiders.  Many actual rural communities have embraced “re-enchantment” as a way to spur tourism and economic activity.  In her book The Colossus of Roads: Myth and Symbol Along the American Highway (1984), art historian Karal Ann Marling studies the cultural significance of various Midwestern roadside attractions, including the Paul Bunyan and Babe statue in Bemidji, Minnesota; the Jolly Green Giant statue in Blue Earth, Minnesota; and Pierre, the Talking Voyageur Statue in Two Harbors, Minnesota.  The Blue Earth Jolly Green Giant functions as a bricolage of mythical, modern, and postmodern.  As a completely green, towering figure, the Jolly Green Giant resembles various mythological characters, including the Green Man, the Green Knight of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and, to a contemporary visitor, perhaps even the Incredible Hulk.  Built in 1978, the Blue Earth Jolly Green Giant statue contributes to characterizations of the rural landscape as a landscape of spectacle. The statue re-conjures the magical, idyllic conditions of Fitzgerald’s “green breast of the new world”; this is evident on the company’s present-day website, which currently features a video of the Green Giant happily strolling through green rolling hills while a family eats Green Giant vegetables (  Marling describes how the statue is also imagined by the community of Blue Earth, MN as a way for the community to assert its uniqueness to a largely urban audience: “Like the Paul Bunyan of 1937, the Jolly Green Giant of 1978 is a resonant mark of local presence, a magnet drawing the traveler off the highway, into the mythical realm of the American Midwest” (4).  This example shows how magical ruralist artifacts often paradoxically respond to the conditions of postmodernity while simultaneously appropriating capitalistic and/or commercial forms or agendas.  As a kind of secular “god” figure, the Blue Earth Green Giant is a pastoral image in that the character is literally made of green leaves.  However, the statue also glorifies a processed commercial product.  Unlike magical realist texts, which are often read as “writing against” or challenging hegemonic forces, the Blue Earth Green Giant seems to satisfy these forces through re-enchantment of pastoral and commercial imagery.  Countless other unusual monuments and roadside attractions exist throughout rural America and function as examples of magical ruralist discourse: like the baseball field in the film Field of Dreams, these texts attempt to characterize rural elsewhere as unique destinations worthy of interest.  Geographer Jeffrey Hopkins argues that the kind of “place promotion” evident in such roadside monuments functions as a “postmodern imperative” (66) for many rural communities.  Re-enchantment works as both an imaginative and commercialized narrative strategy.


Implications for Scholars and Beyond

Even as the digital age has closed the gap, to some extent, between rural and urban space, the differences between rural and urban culture continue to shape not only artistic and popular imaginations, but also the everyday lives of individuals throughout the United States.  As Minnesota-born Mark Wunderlich writes in his essay “Famous Mushroom,” “Growing up queer in the rural Midwest, I knew there was no life for me there; I would have to leave, and I would most likely have to move to a city.  In an urban place I could make friends, find a society in which I belonged, and live a life of culture and books and like-minded comradery” (Lessley and Snider 269).  A quick glance at the 2016 United States Presidential Election electoral map reveals distinct trends in the voting patterns of “red states” versus “blue states.”  The electoral map is a useful symbol for understanding the intriguing position of rural studies in the twenty-first century.  While general cultural, ideological, and socioeconomic differences certainly persist between rural and urban spaces, these differences are complex, shifting, and shaped by narrative and historical forces.  Negotiating the challenges that can come with growing up in a rural area with the natural affections and nostalgia linked to one’s sense of “home” is often both bewildering and transformational.  In turning to the rural, scholars will encounter a trove of examples for how rural culture has responded to its perception, both self-defined and externally defined, in the era of late capitalism and beyond.

Specifically, Midwestern and Great Plains literary studies continue to explore the concept of Midwestern regionalism.  Magical ruralism provides a theoretical pathway for new scholarship on rural cultural discourse.  In defining magical ruralism, I have chosen texts situated in rural Midwestern settings and published squarely within the postmodern era; the surveyed texts call into question how both individuals and communities make sense of postmodern rural existence.  In focusing on Midwestern and Great Plains texts, I hope to advance discussions of the nature of Midwestern and Great Plains regional literatures in the era of late capitalism and beyond.  While situating magical ruralism within the context of rural American literature as a whole is beyond the scope of this article, the discourse is grounded in yet not confined to Midwestern and Great Plains literature.  Indeed, rural, agrarian landscapes and cultures exist throughout the world, and magical ruralism can provide a lens through which scholars might examine cultural responses to the conditions of postmodernity from various perspectives and regional contexts.
Magical ruralism is also relevant to broader discussions of urbanity, scholarship, and the management of human resources within the field of literary studies.  While rural states house some of the most prestigious English programs in the country, including the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, rural colleges and universities simultaneously struggle to attract and keep quality faculty who may not want to live in a remote location.  Scholars from rural states may feel pressured to leave their home regions for large and/or urban universities in other states, where both prestige and opportunity are more plentiful.  Ching and Creed explain, “In the West, few intellectuals have deep rural roots, and for those who do, education often severs these connections.  The traditional pedagogical agenda, with its emphasis on enlightenment through the liberal arts, has long been opposed to the supposed essence of rusticity—lack of cultural sophistication and a preference for practical know-how over erudition” (10).  The goal is not to generalize practitioners of education at the college and university level as hostile to rural concerns and citizens, but rather to point out the real implications, for our field and beyond, of the popular attitudes toward rural space and culture in the postmodern era and beyond.  For any scholar who has ever discounted a job due to its remote location, or for any rural student who has wondered why no courses in “local” literature appear in a curriculum, the question of how the academy shapes, contributes to, and historicizes rural culture is relevant.

Finally, magical ruralism is borne out in real economic and community development strategies.  As Hopkins demonstrates, “place promotion” has emerged as an economic strategy for many rural and remote communities.  In examples like the Blue Earth Green Giant, “Oz” has become an economic strategy intended to bring tourists to rural communities.  Karen Kinsella’s prediction that “people will come” reflects a strategy of survival for rural communities: magical ruralism is a theoretical lens for approaching rural literature, but also a broader cultural logic wherein magic and re-enchantment collide with and often attempt to counter historical forces.




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