Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

"The Wanted Stared Back": Biopolitics, Genre, and Sympathy in Cormac McCarthy's Child of God

Academic journal article The Southern Literary Journal

"The Wanted Stared Back": Biopolitics, Genre, and Sympathy in Cormac McCarthy's Child of God

Article excerpt

"Can any positive values," Katie Owens-Murphy queries, "be attributed to Lester Ballard, a voyeur, necrophiliac, and murderer?" (165). Debates over the amount of sympathy Ballard should receive have dominated the critical discussion of Cormac McCarthy's Child of God, with earlier critics like Walter Sullivan and Mark Royden Winchell answering a resounding "no" and more recent critics like Edwin T. Arnold and John Lang responding sharply against this earlier dismissal. Phrases and terms like "moral struggle," "heroism," "desire for companionship," "humanity," and "ethics" increasingly make appearances in the criticism on McCarthy's southern novels, contradicting earlier claims of his nihilism.1 This new critical move to apply an ethical framework to the Lester Ballard character should warrant our attention. Why is it, exactly, that readers and critics feel so compelled to find something redeeming in Ballard? McCarthy, I argue, sets a trap for readers and critics to do so. By manipulating narrative point of view and the generic expectations of Appalachian popular fiction, he encourages readers to focus on Ballard's humanity as the novel's central moral quandary as a way to avoid acknowledging modern society's systemic violence and its dehumanizing effects.

Instead of exhibiting the gratuitous nihilism as some early critics found in the novel, Child of God's vision of society depicts the techniques and logic of what Michel Foucault and Giorgio Agamben label "biopolitics." In biopolitical societies, man's biological life, rather than man's political, legal, or social life, becomes the focus of power. According to Agamben, the "decisive fact" of modernity is that "bare life"--a form of life, as Ewa Plonowska Ziarek explains, that is "[s] tripped from political significance and exposed to murderous violence," neither mere biological life (zoe) nor "the political life of speech and action" (bios)--coincides with the entire political realm (Agamben 9; Ziarek 194-195). For Foucault, man's bare life becomes politicized in the modern era in two interconnected ways: through disciplinary technologies focused on individual bodies and through regulatory technologies focused on populations. Disciplinary power, on the one hand, emerged to make individual bodies more productive and docile--that is, into bodies that "may be subjected, used, transformed, and improved"--through the use of surveillance, spatial distribution, and hierarchization, especially in controlled environments like schools, hospitals, and prisons (Discipline and Punish 136). On the other hand, biopower, the regulatory technology, is not concerned with the individual body but with "man-as-living-being, man-as-species" ("Society Must Be Defended" 243). It functions on the level of population--with "the population as political problem"--regulating issues like birth rates, endemics, and public hygiene ("Society Must Be Defended" 245). Together these two technologies of power, according to Foucault, have "taken control of life in general," resulting in "a kind of bestialization of man ... to both protect life and authorize a holocaust" ("Society Must Be Defended" 253, qtd. in Lambert 158).

McCarthy's critique of American biopolitics in Child of God relies heavily on the novel's engagement with the generic norms of Appalachian fiction. Since its emergence in the late nineteenth century, this genre, through its racialist qualities, both popularized the argument for biopolitical intervention in the region and constructed the region as a nostalgic retreat from the homogenizing, enervating forces of modernity in the national imaginary. Many critics who engage in the Is-Ballard-sympathetic debate, however, overlook or only note in passing the ties that the novel has to popular fiction focusing on Appalachia, choosing instead to highlight its connections to more literary genres like the southern pastoral or gothic. Yet from the first page, McCarthy populates his novel with character types, common plotlines, and central motifs from Appalachian fiction. …

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