Agrarian Theory: Down to Earth and Campus

A new book considers New Agrarianism and its uncertain place in U.S. universities.

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Grounded Vision:
New Agrarianism and the Academy

By William H. Major
222 pp., University of Alabama Press, 2011, $35.00

In the early years of the republic, Thomas Jefferson imagined the yeoman farmer as the backbone of a virtuous society. Those of us at the Yonder might still echo that sentiment, but there’s no denying that the number of Americans living on the land has dwindled. Monocropping and market economics have supplanted the diversified, self-sufficient farmstead, and while a certain mythos of rural virtue persists, the cultural consensus around broad-based land ownership has for the most part unraveled.

Since the 1970s, though, a group of writers known as the New Agrarians has been pushing back, none more forcefully than farmer, poet, and social critic Wendell Berry. Berry and others have argued that agrarian values are not just quaint holdovers from an earlier time but offer a powerful critique of contemporary materialism, rootlessness, and environmental degradation. With Grounded Vision, William H. Major puts Berry’s ideas (and those of fellow New Agrarians like Wes Jackson and Gene Logsdon) into dialogue with various critical traditions in the humanities. At the same time, Major considers the question of why academia has been slow to embrace new agrarianism, even as so many other -isms have come and gone like the seasons.

Major stumbled across Wendell Berry in graduate school while trudging his way through tomes of French theory, wishing for a different kind of theory that would “stick to his bones.” While Major’s analysis of Berry’s writings in Grounded Vision is patient and meticulous, his treatment of other theoretical traditions is uneven. For instance, he caricatures postmodernism as little more than “academic navel gazing and ironic detachment,” dredging up old debates about language and its relationship to the world that have long been resolved or abandoned. In later chapters, though, he asks how the figure of the small farmer is made invisible by specific theoretical assumptions, and how agrarian values like stewardship and devotion to place might contribute to ongoing conversations about gender or globalization.

Ryan Beiler/Sojourners
The work of Kentucky farmer and author Wendell Berry drew scholar William Major to New Agrarianism.

Perhaps the strongest section of Grounded Vision is Major’s chapter on agrarianism, work, and pleasure. Major opens with a provocative quote from Wendell Berry:

    “We can say without exaggeration that the present national ambition of the United States is unemployment. People live for quitting time, for weekends, for vacations, and for retirement; moreover, this ambition seems to be classless, as true in the executive suites as on the assembly lines. One works, not because the work is necessary, valuable, and useful to a desirable end, or because one loves to do it, but only to be able to quit—a condition that a saner time would regard as infernal, a condemnation. This is explained, of course, by the dullness of the work, by the loss of responsibility for, or credit for, or knowledge of the thing made.”

Marx, of course, said much the same thing a hundred years earlier, but Major thoughtfully shows how the New Agrarians have raised particular questions about the relationship between work and leisure. Is free time, purchased with technological conveniences, an inherent good? What is it good for? Is it always preferable to time spent in one’s body, on the land, in networks of mutual obligation? Or are there other words for the sort of work that modern society has taught us to call drudgery? Major tries not to romanticize physical labor, whether in the field or the farmhouse kitchen, but he is at his most eloquent when he connects agrarian values with “the kind of work through which we might experience joy.”

Karin Higgins/US Davis
A worker/pupil at University of California Davis’s thriving Student Farm.

Major never really answers his own question about why new agrarianism hasn’t taken root in the academy, other than arguing that rural people and places often get short shrift in university settings. That’s true, but it doesn’t explain why certain rural issues have managed to gain traction: the current uptick of interest in rural queer studies, for instance, or the student farm movement.

Figuring out why Wendell Berry hasn’t become part of the canon would mean asking broader questions about how the humanities have been sidelined at American universities in favor of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields with greater economic clout, or how land-grant universities that historically linked rural communities to the halls of academe have increasingly aligned their research agendas with the needs of agribusiness.

  William H. Major

Questions like these are beyond the scope of Major’s book, which is, in the end, a book about theory. Major acknowledges in his preface to Grounded Vision that most New Agrarians frankly have little patience for high-flown academic discourse. But, after all, it is a theory of land management that says fields should be planted from fencerow to fencerow, and a theory of economics that says exporting to a world market counts for more than feeding one’s family. Major understands that theory matters for rural America, now more than ever. To theorize is to clarify how we want to structure the ways we eat and live.

Marcel LaFlamme is a graduate student of the Department of Anthropology at Rice University in Houston.

 

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