Improbable Shepherds: Multispecies Polities and the Afterlife of Pastoral in Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam Trilogy
It comes as no coincidence that the founding scene of biopolitics, as conceived by Michel Foucault in his lecture course on Security, Territory, Population (1977–78), derives from the archetypal activity of shepherds counting their sheep. The essence of pastoral power derives from the coarticulation of human persons and sheep as coeval multiplicities. This co-articulation sports a series of metaphors by and through which forms of life (human and ovine) emerge. “Sheep” find themselves reduced to a subdued, docile, plant-like living “stock” that “grows” flesh and wool. Human animals find themselves variously articulated as both “shepherd” (agentive, wedded to an ethic of care) and simultaneously as “sheep” (objects of biopolitical care / violence). Elsewhere I have argued that the long tradition of pastoralism and pastoral care in their literary modes is subtended by an ovine or “sheepy” subtext that, from time to time, asserts its presence. Sheep, bystanders most usually to human dramas, make their presence known, constituting an ovine supplement or surplus that offers conceptual, affective, ideological resources to literary texts in imagining more capacious ways of being.
In this essay, I extend that argument by offering a reading of the ending of Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy as an explicitly multispecies response to pastoral as a mode. Jimmy, the protagonist of Oryx and Crake, lives through the postplague world brought about by his friend Crake as an “improbable shepherd” to an emerging plant-human-rodent hybrid species, named Crakers after their creator. The novel proceeds as a commentary on the generic limitations to the figure of the “last man” in disaster / extinction / plague narratives and develops a script for shepherding as a condition of care in launching a new species. By the end of the trilogy, this process is completed as the Crakers form a multispecies alliance with the genetically engineered super-intelligent-pigs-become-“pigoons” and the handful of human animals that remain. The trilogy remains an extinction narrative in which homo sapiens sapiens comes to its end but imagines that extinction as the coming into being of a multispecies polity. Discursively, this transition is marked by the transfer of narratorial control from the novel’s human narrators / scriptors to the Crakers themselves who come into writing. This transition also signals a re-coding of the trilogy itself as a set of stories that will become, in reduced form, the genesis narrative of and for the Crakers and their emerging polity. We read a novel that ceases to be a novel, becoming the sacred text or origin story for still other readers to come. In this sense, the structure to the trilogy corresponds quite closely to rationales currently articulated by some digital humanists that self-consciously ask humanists to construct archives oriented towards nonhuman, otherwise than human, or alien readers or decoders.
If, as Donna Haraway offers, it “matters which worlds world worlds and which stories tell stories,” then Atwood’s trilogy amounts to nothing less than an attempt to re-describe the lineaments to pastoral as a scene out of which more capacious gestures of care and concern might emerge. That said, the novels also plot a narrative of extinction in which the notion of an “afterlife” morphs into two separate and ultimately unrelated orientations: the dilution of the human into whatever the new species / interspecies alliance the Crakers shall become; and the time-bound, going extinct of those remaining humans whose fate is to pass into myth.
"Improbable Shepherds: Multispecies Polities and the Afterlife of Pastoral in Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam Trilogy,"
Criticism: Vol. 62:
3, Article 6.
Available at: https://digitalcommons.wayne.edu/criticism/vol62/iss3/6