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Rural studies have highlighted rural idylls as something which rural inhabitants and armchair urban residents: Rural Geography Essay, UCC, Ireland

University University College Cork (UCC)
Subject Rural Geography

Introduction

Rural studies have highlighted rural idylls as something which rural inhabitants and ‘armchair urban residents’ (Bunce, 1994) aspire to, perhaps as a vision of a good place to live or as a repository of values. Williams (1973), Marx (1964), and Short (2006), amongst others, demonstrated how in many countries rural life has been portrayed for centuries as simple, innocent, and virtuous as
part of a pastoral myth of a lost Eden, divorced from harsher realities of rural life and masking exploitation and oppression.

Such rural idylls are now recognized amongst academics as normative and power-infused, in so far as they seek to construct rurality in certain ways. Indeed, authors such as Halfacree (1993) have argued that the rural idyll is a visioning of rural areas by a hegemonic middle-class culture, imposed on rural residents. Such constructions are spatially and historically contingent.

While there is nothing wrong with nostalgia per se, studies commonly blame discourses of the rural idyll for exacerbating many aspects of rural poverty and disadvantage in the UK and elsewhere, while others question to what extent such an idyll is (or ever was) attainable. Moreover, does the rural idyll represent nostalgia for an imagined golden age of indeterminate date (Short, 2006), a search for enchanted places with idealized qualities today (Savage, 2010),
or a vision for the desired future

Utopia as method

One approach might be to build upon recent interest in reviving utopian thinking as a means of identifying and imagining desired alternative futures, despite the dominant political and intellectual cultures being anti-utopian. Thus, in Levitas’ work (2007; 2012), utopia is seen as both prevalent and necessary, though understood as a method rather than as a goal, and accompanied by a recognition of provisionality, responsibility, and necessary failure.

Levitas’ (2007, 290) starting point is that utopia may be understood, following Bloch (1986), as “the expression of the desire for a better way of being.” In his book, The Principle of Hope, Bloch talks of utopia as a form of anticipatory consciousness e the not yet which we may contrast with the essentially nostalgic, backward-looking has been, rural idyll.

“For Bloch, utopia as forwarding dreaming is not an esoteric byway of culture nor a distraction from class struggle, but an indispensable element in the production of future”

Good places

In the academic literature, there is a voluminous literature on rurality (reviewed in Halfacree, 2006; Woods, 2011; Heley and Jones, 2012), but there appears to be remarkably little discussion of what might constitute a Good Countryside, in this sense of desired alternative futures or underpinning morality.

Instead, we find debates on sustainability or sustainable rural communities, reflecting perhaps a taken-for-granted assumption that these are already good places which only need to be preserved or sustained, in line with discourses of the rural idyll. Perhaps the moral superiority of rural communities and places is readily assumed by residents and researchers alike? And perhaps it suits the powerful in rural societies for the status quo to be celebrated rather than scrutinized?

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Towards a Good Countryside

This paper turns now, in the light of this urban literature, to consider what might constitute a Good Countryside. As a starting point, while also bearing in mind Mackenzie’s and Gray and Lawrence’s work, we might seek to translate Amin’s four registers from the urban to the rural as follows.

In the urban context, Repair is seen predominantly in technological terms as maintaining the invisible systems which enable the complexity of everyday life in the city to proceed – a technological unconscious (Thrift, 2005) or the life support system of cities with a potential dark side as a means of social control and surveillance (Graham, 2010; Graham and Marvin, 2001).

Amin’s concern is to subject such systems to democratic scrutiny, such that the good city “is the city of continual maintenance and repair, underpinned by a complex political economy of attention and coordination” (Amin, 2006, 1015). It must guard against inequality by ensuring universal and affordable access to the basics of shelter, sanitation, food, water, communication and
mobility.

Discussion: approaching the Good Countryside

Having considered how ideas of the Good City might inform reimagining the rural, what then might characterize the Good Countryside? What morality might underpin this, and who should decide it, how and at what scales? The question also arises of how to proceed in practice, both in eliminating evils and in pursuing collective and inclusive forward dreaming and anticipatory consciousness, as suggested by Levitas. What roles might academics play in these processes?

The morality of a Good City and a Good Countryside, on this reading, are consistent with one another, as might be expected, but they present different challenges. In urban studies, repair and maintenance of the physical infrastructure are emphasized, whereas in rural contexts, a concern for social sustainability sits alongside the challenges of ICT and transport provision.

Difference and diversity tend to be less evident in rural settlements, again making the challenge of relatedness qualitatively different from that in more mixed (socially and ethnically) urban settings.

The challenges of participating in the public realm may be shaped by different social relations, for example of feudalism, paternalism or clientelism as well as by distance and a loss of public spaces. And, of course, the rural idyll may offer quite a different idea of enchantment in rural places to the bohemian talent-magnets of the city elites.

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