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cover of the book Theory's Empire

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cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

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cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

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cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Monday, November 19, 2007

The Urban Pastoral

Posted by Bill Benzon on 11/19/07 at 03:43 PM

It was in graduate school, I believe, that I heard someone call Hart Crane a poet of the “urban pastoral,” referring, I believe to his long poem, “The Bridge” – which I’ve not read. That was the first time I heard the phrase, “urban pastoral,” and it has stuck in my mind. But it hasn’t done much until the past year when I began wandering my Jersey City neighborhood, camera in hand, in search of wild graffiti.

I photographed the graffiti, of course – lot’s of it – but that’s not all. I photographed other things as well, close-ups of bees and flowers, panoramas of this or that neighborhood view, of the Manhattan skyline from Jersey City, and even sunrises and sunsets. Thus a month and a half ago I blogged “This Jersey City My Prison,” in which I set Coleridge’s “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison” amid photographs taken in Jersey City.

Coleridge wrote the poem while he was confined to the yard in his cottage in Britain’s fabled lake country. He was feeling sorry for himself because he had to miss a nature walk with his friends. Through identifying with his friend “gentle-hearted Charles!” who had “pined/ And hunger’d after nature, many a year,/ In the great City pent” Coleridge had managed to work himself out of a funk. Coming to a close, Coleridge asserts:

Henceforth I shall know
That Nature ne’er deserts the wise and pure; 

No plot so narrow, be but Nature there,

No waste so vacant, but may well employ 

Each faculty of sense, and keep the heart
Awake to Love and Beauty!


I, however, did not post my blog entry from a cottage in the lake country. I posted it from my apartment in Jersey City, a half dozen blocks from the Holland Tunnel, conduit to one of the largest cities in the world, one of a kind Coleridge could not have imagined.

I suppose one could read some kind of irony in the mismatch between my situation and Coleridge’s. But such was not my intention. The photographs I used for the poem are straight-forwardly beautiful. Or, at least, the creation of beauty is my intention. Whether I achieve it is up to others to decide.

I post my photographs at Flickr.com. One can join groups where people post images of some similar kind. Thus I belong to several graffiti groups, a Jersey City group, a Hudson County group, and several others. One of them is called “Urban Nature” and describes its theme thus: “The Urban Nature group is for images of nature in an urban context. It could be a tree on a street corner, a houseplant by a window, Central Park or Ueno Koen.” There’s more to it than that, though not enough to indicate that the group is about the celebration of the urban pastoral. Still, the suggestion is there in the fact that the group is moderated: photographs must be approved by an administrator or moderator before they become visible to others. The group currently has over 100,000 photographs posted by over 12,000 members. It is a bit less than three years old.

I don’t know what those numbers mean as I do not know what is typical of Flickr groups. I am, however, pretty sure that this is one of the larger groups posting to Flickr, probably in the top 10 percent by number of members and photographs, perhaps higher than that. I take this group’s existence as indicating significant interest in the urban pastoral.

Googling “urban pastoral” produces some interesting hits, though one has to weed through hits having to do with the clergy, e.g. “Seminary Consortium for Urban Pastoral Education.” One finds an essay by one “Donald M. Hassler” on “The Urban Pastoral and Labored Ease of Samuel R. Delany” in a collection of essays, The City in African-American Literature, edited by Yoshinobu Hakutani and Robert Butler. Then one finds that Dr. Matthew Gandy, of University College London, is running a series of workshops entitled, “From the technological sublime to the urban pastoral: rethinking urban and industrial landscapes:

The “sublime” and the “pastoral” are two of the most enduring ideas in the history and interpretation of landscape but how do these concepts relate to contemporary urban and industrial landscapes? The idea of the “sublime” has in recent years become a vibrant focus for interdisciplinary debate bringing together insights from architectural theory, art history, film studies, cultural geography and other fields of inquiry. Of particular interest is the use of this term in relation to urban and industrial landscapes where an emphasis on the “technological sublime” has emerged as part of a wider attempt to expand our understanding of landscapes that appear to fall outside of or some case contradict established genres of landscape interpretation. The emerging idea of the “urban pastoral” presents an equally rich set of conceptual themes for consideration and has recently been the focus of a range of critical writings on art, landscape and cultural change.

That seems about right, though I can’t say as I’ve been following any of the discussions he alludes to. Rather, I’ve just been following my camera and find myself in the thick of it.

The top hit, however, to the Amazon entry for Wickerby: An Urban Pastoral, by Charles Siebert. Verlyn Klinkenborg reviewed the book for The New York Times when it came out in 1999 (which also published the first chapter):

To reconnect humans with nature is one thing, but Siebert’s enterprise is to reconnect the city with nature. He does this partly through analogy, of course. A man who lives without permission in a tumbledown cabin is not, perhaps, that different from “the man in the house of refuse” who lives on the sidewalk in front of Siebert’s Crown Heights apartment building. But Siebert reconnects Wickerby and Brooklyn by taking the long view, the all-encompassing perspective that belonged to his father, the tool-and-die man, a maker of the tools that make other tools and a student of fabrication. Everything Siebert sees, plastic bags caught in trees, cassette tape lying unraveled in the grass, is, after his father’s lesson, “earth taken up and pressed against our variously shaped dies to form the parts that suit our briefly passing purposes.”

Siebert’s gospel is a synoptic one. It joins man and nature, machine and flesh, city and country in a single vision, which is rooted in an instinctive human ambition.

That seems to me a noble vision, a necessary one, to join “man and nature, machine and flesh, city and country,” though I’m not sure whether that can adequately be done through “instinctive human ambition,” nor for that matter do I know whether Klinkenborg’s reading is adequate to the book, which I have not yet read.

But that’s a quibble. I write this piece only to raise the issue of the urban pastoral, not to present my view of it. It is something I’m thinking about, working with, exploring, and mostly through photography rather than critical commentary.

As a parting gesture, let me suggest that Brad Bird’s Ratatouille is an urban pastoral.



Auden’s *Age of Anxiety* is a “baroque eclogue”...seems close.

By on 11/19/07 at 05:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

related tho i’m not sure just how

By nnyhav on 11/29/07 at 06:07 PM | Permanent link to this comment

You’re right, nnyhav, it’s dead-on. tho explicating why might be a bit of a job.

But I’m sure that my work with graffiti has been important in forming my sense of the urban pastoral. & i read Pynchon long enough ago that it’s had ample time to seep into my soul.

By Bill Benzon on 11/29/07 at 06:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bill---I find it fascinating that you have sent me to (among other places) an article about S R Delany.  I did a graphic novel with Chip (as he is usually known)and he has been a good friend for decades.  His favorite painting of mine is one based on a dream called City of Green Fire which brings certain natural elements (fire, water, fish) into a fantastical city.
I’m off tovisit your photos.....

By Mia Wolff on 12/27/07 at 10:17 AM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s interesting that that particular article - which I’ve not read - came up. I was just looking for references to “urban pastoral” and up comes Chip Delaney. It both did and did not surprise me. I read my way through most of his stuff up through Dhalgren when I was in graduate school. Read some of the Neveryona stuff, but really haven’t attempted to keep up.

As for graphic novels, maybe you should read my piece on Grooves, Grafs, and Toons: Transnational Cultural Forms, which touches on manga:

By Bill Benzon on 12/27/07 at 07:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Great article, it is a very important issue to talk about.

By landscape painting on 02/05/09 at 02:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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