july 20 2021
RESPONSE TO ALEX PRIEST IN LUMPEN #138
Priest’s article, with the rest of the issue, can be found here.
—By the time it makes its final appearance in the Chicago-based author’s 4000-word essay A Rural Reckoning in Lumpen’s recent Rural Issue, the capitalized “Rural” has completed its holy transformation. Amid the 101 instances in which the word appears prior, it pupates from its traditional role as adjective—“rural teenagers”, “deep-rural town”—into a fresh existence as a noun—“outlooks on the rural”, “mythologies of the rural”— from subject into object. But nowhere else is it consecrated among the class of proper nouns beside here in the dramatic sending off of his own self. For Priest, in its objective form, ‘rural’ is a space to be occupied beyond a purely physical realm and this occupation becomes an end in and of itself. ‘Rural’ becomes something to be had by way of a rigid set of aesthetic indices. This stands in contrast to its position as a subjective condition imbued onto an object from the exterior that is not necessarily entertained by the objects themselves (that of the aforementioned rural teenagers, the aforementioned rural town). Indeed, as I will attempt to argue, for the author, rural has become an objective identity and in his closing line, an attempt is made at its world premier as such. Over the course of the preceding essay, Priest purports to attempt to define what ‘Rural’ is, compelled by a perceived but very ill-defined injustice that has been perpetrated against people from and living in rural spaces. But I will illustrate that he fails to present a cogent rubric of evaluation. This has the effect of preventing him from grasping the very people and places he longs to capture. The author foregoes drawing any meaningful conclusions in favor of clumsily relating his own allegedly formative experiences detasseling corn in Emmetsburg, Iowa 20 years ago to his experience as a grocer in Chicago during the Covid-19 pandemic. These episodes are somehow meant to be synthesized as The Rural Experience, as if there could be such a thing. Priest insists that there is, the implication being that he is the exemplar of such. In short, Alex Priest sets out to salvage the misunderstood content of the rural and conveniently finds there nothing but himself.
“How can we reorient outlooks on the rural with respect, accuracy, and empathy?” Priest asks at the end of the first section of his essay, laying out the terms of his path forward. This is a few lines after he claims to have come to “fully understand the production value of land and commodity crops” as a teenager. This presents a compelling point of departure for an essay about rural America and Priest prefaces this endeavor with several paragraphs establishing his authority by detailing a summer spent detasseling corn as a 13 year old with his local peers. However, the thread is immediately abandoned. It is not revealed by the author in anything that follows how a full understanding of the value of land and commodities was arrived at via this experience nor is it demonstrated that this understanding exists at all. In fact, to the contrary: the author repeatedly stakes out positions that are mostly detached from economic considerations outright. Despite his best effort to spark the fire of an argument with language that incites notions of an underlying class-analysis, the reader struggles to glean anything substantive through the smoke.
Demonstrative of Priest’s flimsy position is the following statement, found in the same paragraph that features the above citations: “In the fifteen years since leaving the countryside, however, my rural experiences, including detasseling, have been devalued by a metronormative point of view that loathes the “flyover country”. This skewed worldview based on a geographic preference for the urbane, excludes my rural experiences with demoralizing effects” Ignoring for a moment what is at stake in all of this for Priest (what is the “value” of his rural experiences?), it would be difficult for the reader to make sense of what is meant by “a geographic preference for the urbane.” The author would seem to be suggesting that where we live is simply a matter of choice. For Priest, 80% of Americans are smashed together in metropolitan centers because they prefer the scenery. This necessarily means the other 20% must likewise be scattered about the countryside by their own volition; a position the author picks up and drops at his convenience depending on which point he’s throwing at the wall. When it comes to his own inhabiting Chicago (“To be clear, I never wanted to move to Chicago”), it wasn’t a choice. When it comes to stepdad Bernie (“my family is not conservative, backwards, or yearning to live in a city.”), it is a choice. There is no error in the discovery that some people are more free to make these decisions than others. But Priest rests the lion’s share of his general argument on a claim that population trends result from the preferences of individuals under a mysterious anti-rural spell. A fully developed understanding of value, land and commodities might carry the author a long way toward the ability to articulate the basis of the relationship between metropolitan and rural areas.
The claim to such an understanding is rendered further dubious by the author’s insistence that antagonism between the urban and the rural is a uniquely American—a “painfully American”—phenomenon, which he describes as “America’s forced distaste for the rural.” Priest appears unaware that the very genesis of capitalist production is staged on the violent expropriation of agricultural populations from the land. The conglomeration in cities and suburbs of masses of people with no property except their labor-power is a principle condition of any society organized by capital. The original appearance of such a society occurred in Europe, but its rapid accumulation and technical development soon established itself as a world-system, ensuring that various forms of antagonisms would arise between town and country in nearly every region on earth (see, for instance, the ongoing proletarianization of China’s agricultural population today). Despite his family’s purported worldliness, Priest fails to illuminate how this might have been used to bolster his analysis of the object of his essay, for he succeeds triumphantly in ignoring the bloody history (and present!) of capitalist industry and agriculture in America and has no recourse to investigate what he wants to investigate. What amounts, in the end, is little more than a naval gazing think-piece that can be easily situated toward the negative pole within its species of cultural criticism, among the books and Netflix movies from which he draws his ire.
On this score, it is hard to tell how Priest distinguishes himself from the academics and creative directors he correctly accuses of looking to simultaneously fabricate and capitalize on an emergent Rural identity. A quick glance at his website will reveal that Priest is college educated, relatively worldly and his resume is lined with several managerial and curatorial positions with art institutions and design firms, including the one occupied at the time of publication. The gig at the grocery store cited in his essay appears as the lone exception on his resume. However, this appears to have made such a monumental impact on the author’s socio-economic status that “14 months of employment at a grocery store” is credited with a shift in perspective which exonerates him from the charge of opportunism he levels onto his peers in the design and art world. This self-proclaimed immunity extends to his own status as a resident of the city as well. For Priest, remember, moving to Chicago was not a choice, so we had better not misidentify him as an urbanite. Predictably, the leniency he affords himself is not extended to his 2.5 million neighbors, a constituency he makes abstraction from in the character of the monolithic Chicago Resident who has “lived here their whole life and can’t imagine leaving.” Contrast this with Priest’s treatment of the rural denizen and the vast horizons of her imagination, someone who is“incredibly ingenious, intuitive and focused on other matters of the rural such as extreme disinvestment, climate change, food deserts, economics, international trade, and community support beyond identity, class, race, or gender expression”
Throughout the essay, the author thematically reverses the roles he feels are unfairly attributed to regional social groupings via a cultural hegemony that originates in the discourse of the urban liberal who presupposes itself as the normative citizen subject. In reaction, Priest paints his rural characters as progressive and the city dwellers as philistine. The effect of this narrative device dissolves quickly, not because an intelligent country bumpkin is inconceivable but rather because this type of binary is necessarily hyperbolic and limited in scope as a field for critical thought. In order to defend the rural citizen from the alleged vitriol of the mistaken, one-dimensional conceptions of a “metronormative” society, Priest can resort to nothing more lofty than returning the mud-slinging because his grasp of the content expressed by the concepts of “rural” and “urban” are absent; hinted at, but never substantiated. This is disappointing when he flirts again with a compelling change-of-trajectory midway through the piece where he reflects once more on his hometown: “Emmetsburg both fulfils and complicates many assumptions about rural Iowa: monocultures suffocate bio-diverse ecosystems; educated liberals worship at homophobic and conservative churches; women drive farm equipment while their husbands cook “supper”; gay adults are welcomed home while queer youth commit suicide; agricultural surplus is harvested by impoverished families; lackluster academics are disregarded for winning athletics.” Instead of unpacking the particularities of these themes, the author leaves them to flounder in a sea of abstract generalities. One can’t help but speculate that Priest knows if he were able to investigate the dynamics he can only allude to, he would find what he claims to be looking for but doesn’t actually want: that the residents of Emmetsburg share experiences with their counterparts in Chicago more often than not—the illusion of a universal Rural identity to author think-pieces about would be compromised. Mr. Priest is caught in a tough spot, between his intentions and their implications and with no cognitive tools to undertake a sophisticated analysis of the latter, he would have to admit that his rural identity pertains almost exclusively to the realm of aesthetics.
Much of the tone-setting in A Rural Reckoning is achieved via Priest’s implicit and explicit correlation between rural life and hard work, a relationship he is at pains to invoke with the reader: “Rural people know by experience that agricultural work is hard and relentless.”, “It is a rite of passage; a birthright to work hard.”, “The COVID-19 global pandemic has only exacerbated the widening gap between the rural and non-rural; the privileged and working-poor.”, “I do not need to be duped into resenting my ruralness or status as a working-class American or need to compare my earned work ethic.”, etc. Such is the general air of productivism emanating from Priest. He is unconcerned here with how this undermines his claim of “build[ing] bridges” with his coworkers during his tenure as supervisor of a grocery store. “I have learned how to ethically and empathically support my coworkers during these hard times through active listening and individual engagement,” he proudly announces. More importantly, the productivist—and we can admit, conservative—telescope through which he observes the rural and urban experiences presents significant implications for his ability to paint a cohesive picture of his subject-objects. Again, Priest seems unable to “detassel” his concept of the working-classes from purely aesthetic determinations; that is to say, for Priest, working-class is an objective space of identification delineated by forms removed of content. Enmeshed in this superficial preoccupation, Priest fits well among one of the great pastimes of the American social-democrats during much of the 20th century, fetishizing their own subjugation by capital, gatekeeping the walls of their fortress in order to secure their hard-hatted clique an extra dollar per hour from the boss. What this allows Priest to do in his narrative is imbue on to the ruralite evocative attributes such as sweat, fatigue, aching bodies, “work boots”, all kinds of descriptors which indicate manual labor. The only appearance of the urban worker, on the other hand, comes in the form of the exhausted trope “Karen,” who is implied here as a well-to-do liberal because she has the apparent privilege of shopping for groceries. The urban workers for Priest are “those lucky enough to “quarantine” and work from home.” The urban worker is alleged to be the producer of immaterial labor from the comfort of their homes. In a sensational breakdown of narrative finesse, the author juggles this character, in order to make a point about the backwardness of the urbane, to-and-fro between hands with the characters portrayed as his “diverse group of colleagues” but he cannot find the obvious channel of analysis before him. Admittedly, he has the sense to recognize a correlation between the urban workers and the rural workers, but it is immediately dissolved into the graveyard of liberal awareness-porn. The correlation for Priest is merely in “how the urban working-poor are mistreated and how rural folks are ignored.”
This theme continually anchors A Rural Reckoning, at moments when Priest might break into a stride of analysis, he recoils into a non-argument that takes the nebulous form of something that amounts to “Aw gee whiz, if only we were a little nicer to country folk.” However, the reader should pause before attributing such idealism to Priest alone. He can hardly be singled-out for failing to tease out the nature of social relations in a society wherein the conscious, personal bonds of dependence between people have been shattered. Instead, ours is a society that is constituted by an abstract, impersonal domination that has arisen as both cause and effect of a nearly universal condition of divorce between the vast majority of the population from the means of producing their own lives. In these conditions, proximity to the means of production emerges as the most consequential arena of sociopolitical struggle and it is in this context where the more overt and personal methods of social domination play out along with the corresponding rebellion against them; for example, those around racial violence, sexual violence and the normative gender binary, just to name a few in extremely general terms. The criss-crossing of social activity that orbits these forums of struggle find expression in popular thought as “identity politics,” often alongside a concept of “intersectionality”. The history of the radical origins of these two items lies beyond the scope of this piece, but their fate as tools of struggle—and the prospect of introducing “Rural” into this mix—can be illuminated preliminarily here by an exposition of Mr. Priest’s uncritical use of other identitarian categories, which I will now present as my conclusion.
In positing that Rural might have a claim as a valid form of political identity but uncovering little of its content, Priest is vulnerable to making careless blunders. For instance, nowhere in his essay does he engage directly with his own exploitation by capital. Miraculously, the word ‘capitalism’ does not appear once in the entire story. With that in mind, it should come as no surprise that during the first section of the piece, the author stirs numerous compelling questions in the mind of the reader that are of little consequence to him: Why are children and teenagers drafted for detasseling work on a temporary basis? What is the relationship between the math teacher, his students and the farm; what are the terms of the arrangement that allows for public school teachers to shuttle underage workers to the fields? How are these kids paid, hourly, daily, by piece; by whom? Who owns the land and who owns the farm? (I can’t help but mention in passing, and this results precisely because Priest fails to elaborate on the above questions, that the scene featuring Mr. Riley and his band of young laborers bears resemblance to the ‘gangs’ which sprung up in the agricultural districts of England in the 19th century, famously documented in Marx’s Capital) Further along in the story, the very same corn which confronted Priest as a child in Iowa as the material and product of his labor, now confronts him again two decades later in Chicago in the form of a commodity zipping around in the shopping carts of his customers at the grocery store. Not only does the corn here offer a golden thread for stitching up a compelling narrative about the relations between urban and rural communities, it is a ringing alarm clock at the heart of a story to anyone who finds significance in the relations of production—of which commodities and land can be said to form the pith—and the social conditions from which they arise and give rise to. But he completely fumbles the grocery bag. Had he positioned himself this way, he might have asked similar penetrating questions about the grocery store that he failed to ask about the farm: Who owns this store? Why aren’t the workers provided adequate safety equipment? Why are they powerless to refuse these dangerous circumstances? Instead of directing his anger toward the representatives of a despotic mode of production that allows hundreds of thousands of people to die prematurely as a result of their going to work, Priest’s frustration boils over into a screed targeted at a cartoonish city-slicker avatar. He never reconciles his argument to the fact that, by and large, his customers in the checkout aisle are workers too; in fact, many of them are “essential” workers like himself. It goes without saying that he does not pause to wonder if these people have jobs at all in a moment when the employment-population ratio had collapsed to nearly 50% virtually overnight. These miscues don’t prevent the author from making fashionable jabs at a useful concept of class elsewhere, but the punches never land. He uses a similar speed bag of buzz-words to rumble with race, gender and sexuality. In one remarkably tone-deaf passage, Priest, who is white, evokes George Floyd’s name to add import to a, frankly, spurious episode in which a customer tells him, “I hope you stop breathing.” He then claims to have been the target of “coded slavery language” in another interaction on the same day. Such is the intersectionality of Priest. As for class, what meaning can possibly be attached to it without an explication of capitalism? Short of this, Priest can muster little more than a YouTube-grade conspiracy theory that a “metronormative” agenda being cooked up by Hollywood and the big city bullies is the most pressing issue afflicting his rural individual today.
In the final analysis, it would require examination of a wide array of disparate scenarios to even begin to determine what constitutes a unifying rural political identity or what the stakes of such a task would be, something Priest exposes himself as wholly inadequate for. Tentatively, I am willing to agree that there is no monolithic rural experience, but this must go beyond simple platitudes. I furthermore concede that our rural populace faces unique challenges that might not be found in the city, but then the reverse must also be true. However, as helpful as it is for tracing historical developments, I find the town vs. country binary reductive and abstract in the first place. What do the geographies of rural Alaska and rural Mississippi have in common? Might the experiences of the inhabitants of each be so disparate that their common identification as Rural proves more confusing than clarifying? And what about suburban populations, where do they fall? And migrant workers, where claims them? Priest offers not a single word about prisons, which might have served him as the one truly “painfully American” phenomenon he sought in the baseless allegation of a structural anti-ruralism. The business of incarceration deeply complicates the relationship of rural and urban communities but it also provides us with a glimpse at one of the horrifying underbellies of the system that binds all of us together. Quasi-desolate rural communities are enticed to bid on the opportunity to host these facilities, which, on one hand, represent a chance to alleviate their own poverty by promises of employment in a branch of industry which feeds primarily on the demolition of working class and precariously-employed families living in inner cities on the other hand. On a third hand, so to speak, in building these prisons and creating (often temporary) jobs for the rural poor and simultaneously driving the urban poor into further cycles of poverty, the bag-men who flood capital into the construction and operation of jails realize handsome profits on the development of surplus land and the yields of prison bonds issued by the city and backed by the subsequent decades of its citizens’ taxes. Further elaboration on the spatial dynamics of the prison industry is out of place here, the point is simply to provide yet another example through which the division between rural and urban communities might be explored, or rather how they share in an unbreakable bond inside the regime of capital.
Unfortunately, A Rural Reckoning does not provoke in the imagination of the reader a sense that anything binds us, despite Priest’s plea for equality. While he struggles to provide substantive attributes by which we might measure our commonalities, how then could he have articulated our meaningful individualities? To identify one’s experience as “rural” is not particularly clarifying without concern for a plethora of intervening factors that condition our lives. In failing to look closely at these items together, Priest spares himself the embarrassment of finding out that he has taken for granted the ontological divide between country- and city-living postulated by the art directors and designers, filmmakers and novelists he longs to distance himself from. But we can attempt to account for this behavior. Capitalism has removed us from the immediate and conscious control over the production of ourselves and our futures, and thus eliminated the possibility of expressing our relations to one another through the planned and co-operative making of our lives and we are left with a horizon scant of options so we lapse into finding ourselves in things; things which we produce in a profligate, growing mass of shapes and sizes to match, until even our political dreams come to appear in this form. Commodity by commodity we build our maze. We reach for the nearest ones, turning them over and over in hand like magic 8-balls; in there, somewhere, we will find the secret, the answer to the question of who we are. Accordingly, in his essay, Priest hunts for the rural in what is immediately available to him. Cornfields, tractors, casseroles, it’s all there. You could’ve heard this song at the honky tonk. “Howdy, reader, don’t ya’ll recognize these?” he says with a wink, chewing on a blade of grass. At least you can two-step on George Strait, with Priest you get the words and none of the music—but he hears the song, all right. He sees the movies and books, too. He senses the rising stock of a homogeneous, objectified rural identity and he reckons he ought to get a piece of it. And with no access to an alternative means of producing or expressing his life, who can blame him?
march 28 2021