landscape, nature

The pastoral tradition: a critique

September 24, 2022

The pastoral no longer makes sense in the geological epoch of the Anthropocene. The current environmental crisis, in so far as it affects both our planet and our human population, the land and its inhabitants, and the human and the more-than-human, challenges culture to reconsider its conceptions of nature.  The pastoral is an outmoded genre because the relation between the human and nonhuman worlds is no longer a harmonious one; it has become destructive. This opens up the possibility for a post-colonial photography to critique the pastoral, since the visual arts, like any formalised discipline, are a prisoner of their history that cannot be simply erased. One way to critique the pastoral is to darken the pastoralism’s sunny and harmonious rural locales, and ironize its bright dreams with the stain of our complicit actions in environmental destruction and the sixth mass extinction event on planet Earth.

In a post colonial Australia what emerges from the stain is the dark pastoral:

wetland, Overland Corner, South Australia

One photographic response to the environmental crisis has been the retreat into the wilderness to represent and celebrate the natural environment, even though the machine is already in nature — ie., technology is threatening and destroying the very wild nature that is being celebrated by wilderness photographers. A complex pastoralism, as distinct from the above sentimental colonial settler one, rejects the peace, harmony and reconciliation of the human relation to nature as it incorporates its counter-force–this was the argument of Leo Marx in The Machine in the Garden in his account of the contradictory American pastoral. Thus Thoreau in Walden retreated to wild nature whilst accepting the existence of the railway at the far end of Walden Pond. In the 21st century a complex pastoralism would accept that wildernesss is being shaped by climate heating.

Given that the Anthropocene is premised on the collapse of the human /nature divide both an ecologically orientated photography and philosophy can no longer be nice and green and a celebration of all things natural. If we are to really think the interconnectedness of all forms of life and all things then hesitation, uncertainty, irony, and thoughtfulness need to be put back into ecological thinking. This points towards a dark ecology. Instead of looking back it looks at what we have now and looks forward. The irony of dark ecology assumes an awareness of our ecological dependency coupled with our realisation of how we have been re-shaping and damaging the planet’s ecological systems.

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