A new article in Political Geography extends my ongoing research at the intersection of political economy, literature, and geography to delve into the constitution of frontier space in the work of Cormac McCarthy. Drawing from archival research at The Wittliff Collections with an interdisciplinary approach to world literature, my key question is how are the historical and racial geographies of the spatial expansion of capitalism best understood within Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, or The Evening Redness of the West? In tackling this question, I extend my earlier work on literary economy in Environment and Planning D, on The Border Trilogy also by Cormac McCarthy, and in Annals of the American Association of Geographers. In this post, my aim is to survey why literary knowledge of the economy—or literary economy—is so important in offering a registration of the monstrous forces that brought capital into being as well as its ongoing contemporary reproduction.
There is a factual husk to Blood Meridian and its setting in the US-Mexico borderlands of the 1840s and 1850s that delivers an account of real spaces and historical occurrences that shaped capitalist expansion in the region. These include the racialised acts of scalping Native Americans licensed by the state between the 1840s and 1850s in Mexico through the actions of the John Joel Glanton Gang; the slaughtering of the buffalo that reached its peak in the 1870s; and the systematic mapping and simplifying practices conducted through outposts of appropriation on the frontier, such as Fort Griffin, which signal the barbed-wire fencing of rangeland into ranches. As a space in flux, the frontier between the emerging territoriality of the United States and Mexico is treated, in Blood Meridian, as an encounter zone between capital and nature. But how are the violent historical and racial geographies of this spatial expansion to be approached within the literary texts of Cormac McCarthy and, specifically, Blood Meridian?
My argument proceeds along three principal axes. First, before considering a history of space my argument delivers a focus on a theory of space and its production, here drawing on the formants of space relayed by Henri Lefebvre’s contributions to radical geography. Second, inspiration is drawn from Marx’s Capital to deliver a nuanced and differentiated treatment of colonial relations of dispossession. Sensitive to a decolonised reading, I track the pre-history of capital through conditions of primitive accumulation and a whole series of forcible methods of violence based on ‘annihilation’ and ‘expropriation’ that are embedded in the transformation of ‘blood into capital’. Third, this is the backdrop to my re-reading and analysis of Blood Meridian to analyse 1) the environment of socially produced nature in the novel; 2) the expropriation of land and the attempted extirpation of Indigenous peoples; 3) the racialised ordering of space and territory; and 4) the culmination of these processes in the consolidation of the capitalist commodity form.
My argument is that Blood Meridian is not just a novel of primitive accumulation. For sure, as Mark Steven has documented, ‘McCarthy’s frontier is carved up by the manifold agents of primitive accumulation’, in terms of landscape and economy. Blood Meridian is this but it is also more. It is complexly both an account of the political economy of space and a treatise on the racial geographies of space-making contained therein. Blood Meridian thus registers the overarching process whereby, as Marx argued, ‘capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt’. Equally the novel draws a racialised thread through the spatial tapestry to address both statecraft and racecraft in the making of territory, as I recently discussed with Dallas Rogers for the Festival of Urbanism.
The political economy of scalping at the centre of Blood Meridian is pivotal to such racecraft. The Glanton Gang become contracted by the State of Chihuahua and General Ángel Trías to engage their filibustering acts of scalping Indigenous peoples with manifold consequences. My point here is that this can be understood as straightforward barbarity but it is also more complex. State space is both premise and result of the intrinsic violence or ‘dirty work’ of primitive accumulation and the attempts to empty space as much as possible of natural and social content. As William Clare Roberts states in Marx’s Inferno:
The point of Marx’s account of primitive accumulation is not that capital has its origin in acts of violence and theft, but that capital has its origin in the opportunistic exploitation of the new forms of freedom created by acts of violence and theft. Violence and theft cannot give rise to capital directly. There must be a displacement from the acts of violence and theft in the process of capitalising upon the conditions thereby created. Part and parcel of capital’s treachery is that it requires others to create its conditions of existence.
These others that engage in the dirty work of creating the conditions of existence of capital are the Glanton Gang. They embody the practices of ladronería or the racialised processes of violent theft, pillaging, slave-trading and plunder that encapsulate the transforming of territory into property on the geography of the frontier.
Equally, the political economy of buffalo hunting defines Blood Meridian leading to the conclusion of the book in the 1870s. As Candace Savage in A Geography of Blood has documented, the buffalo was a direct target for extirpation across North America. To lay bare this connection, she cites US Army Colonel Richard Dodge from 1882: ‘“Every dead buffalo is an Indian gone”’. Or as Nick Estes sums up in Our History is the Future: ‘An attack on the land and the buffalo was an attack on Indigenous subsistence practices and the ability to resist encroachment’.
The peak of the slaughtering of the buffalo is marked in Blood Meridian in the final full chapter of the novel by bonepickers that trawl the calcined architecture for skeletons to turn into commodities for the West. An old buffalo hunter recounts decimating herds of buffalo, ‘the rifflebarrel so hot the wiping patches sizzled in the bore’, leaving animals by the thousands and tens of thousands with their hides pegged out over square miles of ground, skinners working around the clock, wagons groaning under the weight of the hides while the meat is left rotting with flies and carrion feeding alongside the wolves. Towards the culmination of Blood Meridian the result of this single specific account of buffalo-hunting is the sum of 8 million hides heralding new forces in the metabolic interaction between society and nature.
The argument in my article is that in Blood Meridian territory (space) and time (history) are marked by the inferno of both tierras quemadas, tierras despobladas (burnt lands, depopulated lands) and tierras quebradas, tierras desamparadas (broken lands, forsaken lands) that cover the frontier’s geography. At the same time, though, there is a multiplicity to the text, so that it can also be read as a fragmented reflection on—or indirect figuration of—expressive insurgency and Indigenous defiance, struggle, and opposition intrinsic to the historical emergence of racial capitalism. Witness how the processes of racecraft meet Indigenous resistance, how the ‘hospitality’ of the Yuman-speaking Digueños comes to rescue the central character of the kid from the rapacious interests of Judge Holden after the disastrous ferry massacre, and the survivals of petroglyphs remain across the terrain as part of Indigenous spaces of difference.
Harold Bloom recognised Blood Meridian’s borderland violence as both an American and a wider tragedy of blood, so much so that what it depicts ‘seethes on’ in the US, as illustrated most recently in US Border Patrol agents whipping Haitian refugees attempting to cross the border at Del Rio, Texas. The result in Blood Meridian is a profound reflection on the acts of racecraft shaping the violent historical and racial geographies in the making of the southwestern US and northern Mexico. A literary economy approach helps to understand the frontiers of capital across economy, space, and literature.