Grounded Vision: New Agrarianism and the Academy

Grounded Vision: New Agrarianism and the Academy

by William H. Major Ph.D.


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ISBN-13: 9780817317348
Publisher: University of Alabama Press
Publication date: 04/13/2011
Edition description: 1
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

William H. Major is an associate professor of English at Hillyer College, University of Hartfold.

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Grounded Vision

New Agrarianism and the Academy
By William H. Major

The University of Alabama Press

Copyright © 2011 The University of Alabama Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8173-1734-8

Chapter One

New Agrarianism

Retrospect and Prospects

Jefferson, Farming, and Land Ownership

One of the major obstacles to forming an agrarian conception of politics and ethics in an age of irony (or are we now post-irony?) is coming up with a working definition of agrarianism, one that, to quote Paul Thompson, has something to do with "food and fiber production" if only for the purposes of "introducing rigor into the discussion of agrarianism, and of evaluating whether a given claim or idea is agrarian in the relevant sense" ("Agrarianism" 26). Thompson emphasizes production, an approach that makes a good deal of sense if we are to understand the material basis of agrarian thought. But what if agrarianism is more than its base? This focus on production may be detrimental to a wider and possibly more relevant agrarian philosophy and critique, one that speaks to its political and cultural implications. As Stephanie Sarver suggests, "texts that consider agriculture often reveal the interplay of nonhuman nature and human culture; thus they provide an ideal ground for examining not only how humans relate to nature but also how their political, social, and economic institutions influence the way they impact the land they inhabit" (7). For Sarver, agriculture is also culture: "the farmer always exists at the nexus of nature and culture" (45). I value agrarian ism because of what it says about this nexus; if we can escape neither nature nor culture, agrarian thought has a great deal to say about how we might make the convergences between the two far more kind, all the while remembering that the ends are often the health of topsoil, the viability of the family farm, and the survival of small communities in a largely indifferent global age. A definition that emphasizes production is the right definition, but only if one sees in new agrarian ideology a separation between a healthy agricultural ethos and other forms of cultural production. What about an agrarianism for those people who have no dirt under their nails?

One of the questions raised by this book is whether it is desirable to propound an agrarian critique without positioning the small farm at the center of the analysis. This is a relevant concern, and one I answer by saying that of course the material circumstances of agrarian life, rural culture, and the small farm are germane. Berry, Logsdon, Hasselstrom, and others speak to the importance of rural life in virtually all of their work. I cannot improve upon what they have said. We will not have an agrari an ism without living and vibrant small farms, lest it become nothing more than a pastoral fantasy—real only through our cultural longing. Farm life and rural culture provide the foundation upon which agrarian social critique rests, but the material life of the farm is not my primary subject.

As a philosophy, agrarianism has been in "decline" since at least the nineteenth century (Thompson, "Agrarianism" 48). The causes of marginalization are many (Thompson mentions "antirural prejudice," our separation from "food production," and the conflation of agrarianism with "blood-and-soil nationalism" [48–49]), but the effects are the same: ideas and practices associated with the rural world are at best suspect, at worst neglected. I focus on agrarian theory to expand the marketplace of ideas and combat the "anti-rural prejudice" with which agrarians contend both within and outside the academy. To be sure, agrarian ism has always transcended agriculture in its social concerns; economics, politics, power, and all manner of cultural production come under its microscope, and thus its rejuvenation will surely also come not only through necessary production on the ground but also through the power of its ideas. The question is whether new agrarianism can wrest its small share of attention from academia, which possesses a sometimes blinkered worldview that primarily reflects urban and suburban concerns.

Today, farmers, farming, and rural life enjoy something of an ideological echo which says that they are intrinsically moral, simple, and good— fertilizer for a vibrant republic. We find ourselves squarely within the realms of myth and nostalgia. The question, however, should not be "whether farming enjoys any moral or political advantage" over other professions (Thompson, "Agrarianism" 27), as Thomas Jefferson claimed, or even whether farmers are the storehouse of democratic virtue. The point is that so many Americans believe that farming and rural life are inherently virtuous. This fantasy that rural life is inherently good is, of course, a part of a Jeffersonian vision that is less a lived reality for most Americans than it is a powerful means by which national consciousness is structured. Is it not possible to tap this resource, this influential fantasy, as a countercultural force in the twenty-first century? I am suggesting, then, that if farming and rural life still have an ideological toehold in this country, they might very well be put to some good use—not in the form of a lament for bygone times, though, but as a material friction to an ecologically destructive machine.

My point here is that although most new agrarians do highlight the concrete life of the small farm, the scope of their analysis transcends the rural to encompass most vectors of everyday life for urbanites and suburbanites. The ideal family farm, so much a part of the agrarian vision, makes possible the standard by which care and responsibility are measured. And yet, while agrarian writers can perhaps be accused of being out of touch with contemporary economic and social realities, I see them as fundamentally engaged with the very forces they are accused of escaping. No one can rightly accuse Berry, for example, of not grasping the material realities of globalism, since by virtue of his position as farmer he is a part of that realm. Sarver's reading of Emerson's essay "Farming" is pertinent here as well. Emerson's idea of farmer as "mediator between nature and society," Sarver notes, "remove[s] the farmer from the nature that is so vital to his spiritual well-being by shifting his attention from his relationship with nature to his relationship with society" (32–33). The farmer is necessarily wrapped up in the social world that obviates—if only for survival—anything more than a passing glance toward what some may think of as a better time. Nostalgia and sentiment are undone by economic reality.

"Country life," Raymond Williams reminds us, "has many meanings" (3), not the least of which is that ideas about the country "persist" even in the midst of urban and industrial ways of being (2). Indeed, our feelings about "the country" remain not in spite of but because of the industrialization of the world. Williams's central point, of course, is that we need to be wary of some of these connotations, that we need to historicize them in order to understand how they function in culture. His "escalator" theory of history suggests that in looking back we are usually just out of reach of the golden age, when alienation was not with us (9–12). We should watch out for "sentimental and intellectualized accounts of an unlocalised 'Old England,'" he tells us, if we are to understand the "pattern" of "real history" (10). Nostalgia is the enemy of history, for it blinds us, Williams intimates, from understanding and appreciating the material conditions of life—never the land of milk and honey of our imaginings. Yet if sometimes we find ourselves "using the past, the 'good old days,' as a stick to beat the present" (12), we do this for some reason. Certainly, agrarians employ the past in this way. Are they being ahistorical? Nostalgic? Sentimental? Within certain contemporary agrarian writings there are those references to the relatively recent past (before World War II, for instance) in which elements of rural life seemed better, such as the fairly comprehensible and comparatively stable nature of local communities. But if "other men's nostalgias offend" (Williams 12), they do so for good reason. This seeming coherence was (and is) not so great for some people who left seeking the urban centers because they knew very well where opportunity lay. African Americans fled life in the American South in a massive movement of people in the second decade of the twentieth century, and who can blame them? So, is bell hooks—not known for sentimentalism—waxing nostalgic when in "Touching the Earth" she suggests that "Living close to nature, black folks were able to cultivate a spirit of wonder and reverence for life. Growing food to sustain life and flowers to please the soul, they were able to make a connection with the earth that was ongoing and life-affirming" (53)? Her essay must be put into the larger theme of healing, which is very much of the moment and pertinent to agrarian writing. If African Americans were at one time "living close to nature" and profiting from this relationship—a questionable account, to be sure—they also understood that it was worth giving up. That there might be other costs when people left the land (land they often did not own) can only be calculated in retrospect.

Agrarian writers are now calculating these costs. We can accuse them of base nostalgia, or we can follow their lead and take a serious and sustained look at how each of us relates (or not) to the land. To do so would require, as Wes Jackson maintains, a new accounting, one that works outside traditional economic paradigms. This ledger "does not represent a call for a return to a former state. Quite the opposite. For if there is any lesson from what we understand about the nature of the universe, from the Big Bang to the present ... change is the rule" (Becoming 112). The fiction that agrarians suffer from the malaise of nostalgia ignores their sometimes ruthless examination of the present. The best agrarian writing looks at the past and tries to salvage what was worthy, but it also sees much that was not (racism, entrenched patriarchy, loss of topsoil) and that should be discarded. The pastoral idyll to which many Americans (and not just agrarians) remain in thrall may have been a largely fictional creation—and one that is conveniently used to beat up on the present— but to impart to that particular fiction the elements of material life that did function well is also to mistreat history.

Even family farmers have often enthusiastically supported some of the more detrimental approaches to agricultural production over the last century, such as the abuse of pesticides, herbicides, and industrial fertilizers, the shift from polyculture to large-scale monocultures, and the acquiescence to (if not the embrace of) get-big-or-get-out economics. For many farmers, these choices represent an economic survival of the fittest. In too many ways it seems clear that farming as it is practiced today can be neither the sole measure of virtuous agrarian life nor a model to which urban and suburban people should aspire, though the farm continues to provide the ideological backbone to agrarian social critique. I am not proposing that the family farm, now on life support, should be forgotten as a casualty of the current economic reality. I am only suggesting that the values and even the practices associated with new agrarian ism can offer important alternative models for those of us off the farm. As Jeffrey Burkhardt puts it, "neo-agrarian ism embodies a number of connected philosophical, metaphysical, epistemological, and ethical critiques, only one 'wing' of which explicitly calls for the political-economic protection of family farms" (288). New agrarian cultural critique builds upon the ideal family farm as a template for what could be; using good work and nature as standards (more on these later), agrarians propose a far more healthy and sustainable interaction between humans and the earth than is currently practiced by most of us.

Today it makes little sense to invoke Jefferson's vision of the yeoman farmer as the seedbed of a democratic republic in order to further the agrarian cause, as enticing as that may sound. As Berry notes, Jefferson believed that the "democratic state and democratic liberties depend upon democratic ownership of the land" ("Agrarian Standard" 29); such ownership has been the gold standard of the American agrarian ideal. But as Kimberly Smith has shown, Jefferson's vision is schizophrenic, tempering an egalitarian social attitude with a more aristocratic approach: "His vision of American agriculture turns out to be a mélange of elitist and democratic ideals: small family farmers relying principally on their own labor but not working too hard, producing enough for themselves but also for the market, actively engaged in commerce but not pursuing excessive wealth, and spending their spare time reading Homer and keeping informed about (but not too involved in) national politics" (Smith, Berry 18). Whether or not Jefferson's ideal ever materialized (it did not) or is even practicable today, there is clear evidence that the democratic and egalitarian sentiment contained in the ideal has been perverted by, among other things, the demarcation of land into larger and larger tracts owned by absentee barons and worked by those who have little investment in place. It can be argued that the current crisis in land ownership and stewardship—which surely is as much an environmental issue as it is one of economic justice—has been detrimental not only to democracy in its most vital and ideal effulgence but also to the very survival of rural life. But Jefferson's was an age of prospect—where land was plentiful (if you were white and male). Today we live in a time in which prospect must properly be paired with "limitation" (Berry, "Agrarian Standard" 29): limitation in size, limitation in use, and limitation in understanding. Indeed, recognizing and respecting limitation is part of the new agrarian way, and it forms a basis for agrarian critique of everything from consumerism to marriage. Given the current state of economics in farming, it is now clear that if the new agrarian basis for a lively and participatory democracy is to survive and prosper, it can no longer (if it ever could) be based on Jefferson's ideas of a nation of small landholders. "Jefferson's practicality in political economy," writes Drew McCoy, "was contained in an intellectual universe of assumptions, values, and expectations" that was a "distinctively eighteenth- century universe, a world of ideas with its own peculiar vocabulary, conceptual framework, and emotional context, irretrievably different from our modern world of political and economic assumptions" (7). In other words, what Jefferson imagined for the United States was based upon very specific historical circumstances—a time of radical change (McCoy 10–11). One has to wonder, then, what survives from that period. Are we still demonstrably interested in the intersection of politics and morality, the idea that for the republic to survive it must have a political economy that encourages "virtue" in its citizenry (McCoy 7)? If so, from what source might we derive such ideas today, when fragmentation and the daily chaos of modern life would seem to be leading us toward some other ideal: expedient, consumerist, technological? Surely we can no longer count solely on land ownership or rural living as providing the basis for the ethical and normative behavior agrarians propound.

In his discussion of agrarian values, Brian Donahue notes that if agrarians are stuck on land ownership as a prerequisite for a furthering of their goals, they will not get very far: "There is one bedrock agrarian value that is off my list: the necessity of widely dispersed private ownership of land by independent yeoman farmers to the moral and political health of the democratic republic—the fundamental Jeffersonian ideal" (38). Donahue is "not convinced private landownership is absolutely necessary to agrarian sensibility, or practice" (38). He continues: "Basing the agrarian ideal on widespread private ownership of land made sense two centuries ago. But now, in retrospect, isn't it clear that in a global market economy dominated by industrial capitalism this is just not an adequate basis for agrarian values of patient devotion to land and community?" (43). Moreover, Donahue notes that farming has never achieved anything approaching an "idyllic" state in this country (38–39); today's agrarians should not wish to return to a place that never existed: "It is essential that we agrarians acknowledge that, as a rule, agrarian life has been pretty bad" (38), not because farming itself is difficult (it is) but because farmers, especially small farmers, are often unrelentingly exploited, and in their economic exploitation follows the ruin of the land (39). "As it has operated in America," Donahue writes, "the market has systematically undercut all other agrarian values: care for the land, and healthy family and community life" (39). In this way, market values clearly trump the ethic of care so central to agrarian concerns; the economic reality of farming, best described by the sanitized euphemism "agribusiness," makes such care a fairly low priority. The issue then becomes how to mitigate the effects of the market on land and communities by emphasizing other approaches.


Excerpted from Grounded Vision by William H. Major Copyright © 2011 by The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Preface ix

Acknowledgments xiii

Introduction: Agriculture, New Agrarianism, and the Academy 1

1 New Agrarianism: Retrospect and Prospects 18

2 A Theory of Use: Ecocriticism and the New Agrarian Vision 35

3 New Agrarianism and Postmodernism: A Rural Perspective 62

4 "What Are People For?" New Agrarianism, Work, and Pleasure 86

5 A Theory of Resistance: Community in Agrarian Politics 125

6 Reconciliation: New Agrarianism and Ecofeminism 149

Conclusion: Toward a Cosmopolitanism Agrarianism? 173

Afterword: How I Became an Agrarian 192

Notes 195

Works Cited 207

Index 217


Scholars, students, and general readers interested in ecology, American literature, agrarianism, sustainable agriculture, ethics

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