Thursday, February 10, 2011

Advertisements for myself: Talk at the Eaton Conference on Saturday

   I thought I would put a brief announcement about a talk that I will be giving this Saturday, February 12th, during the 8:15-9:30 session of the 2011 Eaton Science Fiction Conference.  (With out a doubt, the most highly attended session of any conference.)  I suspect that most folks reading this blog will be asleep during this talk, but I would encourage attendance for my talk, so that I'm not sitting alone with my fellow presenters and the moderator.  (Check the link for more details on the conference.)  On the other hand, there is something very exciting to be able to make the statement that China Mieville are both presenting at the same conference, albeit with very different roles in the conference.  (hint: the 8:15am slot is not the time when keynote speakers talk.)  Here is my initial proposal for the talk....

   Charlotte Perkin Gilman’s utopian novel Herland was immediately heralded as a lost feminist classic upon its rediscovery and first publication as a novel in 1979.  The novel offered a trenchant critique of the systems of inequality and the exploitation and isolation of women through the presenting a fictional alternative society that both re-imagined motherhood as a socialized institution and escaped the modes of domination and exploitation found in the capitalism of her time.  Later scholars began to recognize that Gilman’s utopian vision was inextricably linked to a white supremacist project of eugenics.  The investment in eugenics was not unique to Gilman amongst progressive reformers, and links to a common interest in the belief that new techno-scientific discoveries could resolve the contradictions produced by capitalist modernity.  I want to look at Gilman’s interest in domesticity, technological innovation, and the biopolitics of eugenics in relationship to the post-war formation of domesticity critiqued by Betty Friedan amongst others.  My argument will be that, aside from the emphasis on collective motherhood, Gilman’s utopian conception has an uncanny resonance with the discursive formation of cold war domesticity, with its emphasis on expertise, reified notions of femininity, and whiteness.  As Elaine Tyler May notes, the domestic sphere was seen a space to neutralize the class struggle of the previous era. Gilman similarly gestures towards the utopia of Herland as an escape from the logic of class struggle.  If one were to look at the novel through the lens of Jameson’s critique of the utopian form, Herland can be read as a reduction of the world to the reproductive labor of the household.  It is a world of breeding animals, raising children, and education.  However these functions are never seen as separate institutions.  This gestures towards the increasing importance that the post World War II household would be expected to play in terms of emotional support and entertainment according Stephanie Coontz.  The contrasts that the novel sets up between the utopian space of Herland and the exploitation and violence of the outside world help establish the space as a sort of refuge from the world, one that bears an uncanny resemblance to the fantasies of the household that Coontz describes.  The novel culminates in the experimental marriage of the three men who discovered and named Herland to three women of the society.  This experiment fails with the attempted rape by one of the men involved in the experiment, which leads to their eventual to the expulsion of the men.  But the two successful relationships gesture towards the future culmination of the project of Herland ending in blissful, domestic heterosexuality.  This narrative dovetails with Gilman’s fascination with the ability of technology and expertise to end the drudgery of housework, and I intend to link the narrative to the non-fiction work that Gilman produced on economics, the household economy, and eugenics.

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