Saturday, August 20, 2011

My Eaton Conference Talk on Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland

I'm currently working on transforming this into my first chapter for my dissertation, and I thought that I would put this initial draft up to see what folks think. What is worth saving and expanding, and what should be gotten rid of? I was fairly happy with this as a talk, although it was not universally popular with the small crowd there. I believe the work was referred to as 'presentist', which I think means that it didn't as as apologia for Gilman. At the same time, I should note that I am not interested in acting in the role of the prosecutor, either. Rather I am interested in exploring her work as a sort symptomatic formation, gesturing towards the forms of expertise and institutional structures that would arise in the post-war period. Or perhaps more precisely, I'm interested in looking at the way that it aligned with the social forces of its time that would eventually form those policies. This is not to say that Gilman's vision aligns perfectly with what Friedman would call the 'feminine mystique.' After all, Gilman was working towards a end of the isolation of housework, but both her work and the post war period were interested in modernizing the household economy through a combination of technology and a grid of discourses of expertise. I think I will leave the conversation at that.

The reception history of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland fits nicely into a fairly conventional narrative of academic feminism. Gilman was significant not only for her fictional work, but for her substantial popular sociological work as well. Gilman produced several books and countless articles critically analyzing sexuality, gender, evolutionary theory, and economics. Gilman biographer Judith A. Allen noted that Gilman’s rediscovery by historian Carl Degler in the 1950’s and 1960’s, “appeared in the wake of widely lauded postwar feminist texts,” the English translation of De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex in 1953 and the 1963 publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. (Allen 6) Feminist scholarship of the 1970’s and the 1980’s saw Gilman’s work as a precedent for their calls for women’s liberation, tying into academic feminism’s cross-disciplinary effort to create a theoretical and historical archive for the movement. Herland ties neatly into those later collective feminist efforts. Originally published as a serial in Gilman’s monthly magazine Forerunner in 1915, the novel was only rediscovered in the 1970’s and was finally published in book form in 1979. The novel becomes one of many rediscovered artifacts during the initial phase of feminist scholarship of the 1970’s and 1980’s. In particular, the novel played a significant role in conceptualizing the subgenre of feminist science fiction, providing a significant precedent for the genre, linking it to the longer tradition of the women’s movement.

Gilman’s work also fit into the critiques posed by Black feminists and other feminists of color, beginning with the critical interventions made by the poet Audre Lorde, feminist critic bell hooks, and the later work produced by Gloria Anzaldua amongst others. This work challenged the assumptions of the primarily white academic analysis of radical feminism, focusing on the gaps, lacunae, and contradiction in their analysis of the category of woman. That work very easily implicates the work of Gilman, particularly through the assumptions implicit in her evolutionary, neo-Darwinian framework. As Allen notes, there have been, “intense debates since the 1990’s over Gilman and class, race, ethnicity, and eugenics, particularly as contributed by advocates of new race history, whiteness studies, third wave feminism, and antiracism.” (Allen xiv) Even as Gilman used this framework to critique the domestic structures of the household, she legitimized the larger framework of Eurocentric, white supremacy. That framework operates through a logic of what Johannes Fabian in his critique of anthropology calls the absence of co-evalence, the “persistent tendency to place the referent(s) of anthropology in a Time other than the present of the producer of anthropological discourse.” (Fabian 31) Within that context, Gilman poses an evolutionary hierarchy of humanity, legitimizing and reinforcing the racialized categories of colonialism, along with a set of racializing assumptions about the working classes and new immigrants. However, the concerns about Gilman’s politics within critical studies of science fiction start earlier than that date. Joanna Russ’ 1979 review of the text brings attention to Gilman’s racism, and critiques its hierarchical, evolutionary logic.

My particular engagement with the work of Gilman is aligned with the emergent reassessment of her work. Gilman’s feminism is inescapably marked by the white supremacy and class politics of her time in ways that are not easily dismissed. My argument is that we can begin to read those aspects of her politics as congruent to her larger political aims, rather than in contradiction to them. As Allen notes, Gilman’s critique of the heterosexual institutions of sexuality and domesticity, are tied into her opposition of the provincial labor of ‘sex’, to the far more profound labor of ‘race,’ which derives from her Darwinist framework. This is developed in small section from her work, Women and Economics.

“Natural selection develops race. Sexual selection develops sex. Sex-development is one throughout its varied forms, tending to only to reproduce what is. But race development rises ever in higher and higher manifestation of energy. As sexes, we share our distinction with the animal kingdom almost to the beginning of life, and with the vegetable world as well. As races, we differ in ascending degree; and the human race stands highest in the scale of life so far.

When, then, it can be shown that sex-distinction in the human race is so excessive as not only to affect injuriously its own purpose, but to check and pervert the progress of the race, it becomes a matter for most serious consideration. Nothing could be more inevitable, however, under our sexuo-economic relation. By the economic dependence of the human female upon the male, the balance of forces is altered. Natural selection no longer checks the action of sexual selection, but co-operates with it.” (Gilman, Women, 37)

As Allen correctly notes, all references to race contained in Gilman’s work reference the human race, rather than any specifically, socially constructed category. But, that category itself is understood within the logic of an evolutionary hierarchy, moving from the primitive to the modern. Sympathetic critics have read Gilman’s work as an unacknowledged predecessor to Foucault’s critical analysis of sexuality, arguing that her construction of an analysis on the basis of the ‘sexuo-economic’ basis of sex and gender relations presages Foucault’s work within the History of Sexuality. (Allen 10) I would argue that, on the contrary, Gilman is better read is better read as contributing to the maintenance and intensification of that structure, proposing new and more efficient forms of reproductive labor. Gilman’s critique of the ‘sexuo-economic’ system is rooted in that evolutionary ideology, marking the conventions of reproductive labor as ‘primitive.’ The dependence of women upon men in this primitive system of ‘sexual selection,’ a category of evolutionary process that Gilman associates with conservation or the tendency “to only reproduce what is” disrupts the hierarchical evolutionary process of ‘natural selection.’ It’s difficult to avoid the similarity in this language to the various text examined by Foucault, focused on the instrumentalization of the bourgeois child’s body, regulating and shaping its reproductive energies.

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. Gilman also contributes to the process of the slow integration of the working classes into the discursive apparatuses of sexuality, a process beginning in the 19th century and concluding in the middle of the 20th century. Additionally, this process of integration of the working classes into the regime of sexuality ties in neatly with the attempts on the part of Fordist intellectuals to create what Stuart Ewen calls a social democracy of consumption, the attempt to incorporate workers into the system of industrial mass production capitalism as consumers, rather than simply as cogs. That project aimed to restructure the aspirations and desires of the restless and excluded working classes, while maintaining the larger apparatus of capitalist accumulation.

My particular engagement with Gilman’s novel is strongly informed by Phillip Wegner’s analysis of Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backwards contained in his text, Imaginary Communities: Utopia, the Nation, and the Spatial Histories of Modernity and is largely complimentary to that argument. Gilman was strongly influenced by Bellamy’s work, and was briefly involved in the Nationalist movement that Bellamy created in the wake of the success of his utopia, Looking Backwards. In turn, that text informs the formal and political engagements of Gilman’s Herland. Both texts are written in response to the reorganization of American society in response to the rise of industrial, mass production, Bellamy’s text produced at the beginning of that process and Gilman’s text produced well into its formation. Wegner argues that Bellamy’s text argues, “the modern American nation state can be formed only through a collective act of forgetting, a breaking of the bonds of the past, and a reorientation toward a single future.” (Wegner 63) That process of forgetting, as Wegner notes, is crucial to the process of reproducing the imagined community of the nation. Bellamy’s text is able to imagine a new, more powerful nation arising from the current tumult of industrial class struggle through the erasure of the relations and means of production. Instead, we are offered a unified, middle class vision of the nation, built upon consumption based on the newly created department store. Wegner states, “The whole of society in Bellamy’s utopia thus has been transformed into a giant marketplace, occupied by a population that now functionally defines itself according to the sheer circular formality of the commodity process: the endless consumptions of fetishized goods, objects that magically seem to produce themselves, becoming a social end in itself.” (Wegner 80) Gilman’s work, rather than reducing the world to consumption, reduces it to the biopolitical realm of reproductive labor, focusing on motherhood and the raising of children, but expanding into the biology of animal husbandry and horticulture.

My initial impulse to follow this train of thought came out of my reading of a short article of Gilman’s contained in the 1980 collection, The Politics of Housework. Gilman’s article, “The Home: Its Work and Influence” poses a substantial challenge to the 19th century cult of motherhood, but that challenge operates through her evolutionary, Darwinist framework. Gilman poses a need to modernize the ‘primeval’ labor of the household with the new forms of expertise developed in the disciplines of ‘Household Science’ and ‘Domestic economics.’ Building on this new disciplinary framework, she proposes the sweeping away of the amateur, sentimentalized labor of the isolate household replacing it with newer, efficient, scientific procedures and techniques. Critic Sally Stein amongst others has explored the impact of assembly line production techniques on the conventional structures of the household, bringing not only the new technologies of the era into the house, but also the techniques developed in the Taylorist division of labor. The same forms of time-motion study used in the workplace to economize the movement of the worker were envisioned and implemented in the transformation of household labor, producing an instrumentalized economy of the household. Despite Gilman’s ability to shock sensibilities, her new experimental household built upon the techniques of domination and exploitation developed in the workplace, rather than challenged them.

It’s important to note that Gilman’s vision of the new, managed space of domestic and reproductive labor is not the privatized space of the household that eventually becomes the dominant post-war structure. Rather than translating the scientific management of Fordist modes of production to the privatized space of the home, Gilman proposes a far more direct model, proposing collective modes of daycare, cooking, and other aspects of domesticity. Unlike the later attempts to organize around the concept of wages for housewives who saw their campaign as a larger struggle to bring down the capitalist world system, Gilman was genuinely committed to these modes of collectivized, trained wage labor positions. However, her vision of modernizing the labor of the household presented a similar challenge to the erasure of that labor within the sentimentalized guise of motherhood. Although Gilman’s projection of the Fordist collective household draws upon and legitimates the apparatuses of expertise later to legitimate what Betty Friedan would later call ‘the feminine mystique,’ it cannot be read as a simple blueprint of the post-war economy.

However, the difference between Gilman’s vision of domestic and reproductive labor and the feminine mystique of domesticity blurs considerably as we enter into her utopian vision of Herland. The shift from the negative work of critique to the positive work of imagining an alternative society reintroduces the conventionality of reproductive labor and introduces a mystique of motherhood. It constructs this new model through a journey of intensive epistemological work, moving from the generic form of the primitive jungle, to the capture of the protagonists in the modernist Grecian city of Herland, and then to the enclosed space of the school house and the larger training space of the society. Within that explicitly epistemological framework, the reader is expected to follow the educational journey of the na├»ve male protagonists of the novel. However, satire supplements this educational program. As Joanna Russ notes, “There is the primitive delight of wish-fulfillment, i.e. escorting American men all over Herland (the book follows the classic Utopian pattern of lots of tours and discussions) and hearing the say, “Yes, you’re right. You’re absolutely right. Feminism is the hope of the world.”” (Russ 152) The end point of this pedagogical journey is marriage, created in the modernist terrain of the utopia of the city, rather than the primitive jungle of the old household.

To accomplish this work, Gilman’s utopia works through the convention of what Frederic Jameson calls world reduction. We are given glances of a large urban society, but are only given fragments of information about the structures of administration and production in that city. The initial description of the city combines the orderly fantasy of the garden city with the exoticism of ‘pre-Incan architecture in Peru, combining the clean lines of modernism with mosaics of monoliths. (Gilman, Herland, 35) During the return of the three protagonists to the city after an initial escape attempt, the narrative offers a brief description of the nation of Herland. “We rolled through many villages and towns, and I soon saw that the parklike beauty of our first-seen city was no exception.” (Gilman, Herland 44-45) But beyond the assurance of the nation’s uniform beauty, we are offered no information about administration or governance of the land beyond a brief reference to the coveted status of ‘overmother.’ Additionally, we have no way ascertaining either the modes or the relations of production of the land. Instead, we are given a world defined by the reproductive labor of domesticity. The walls of the household are broken down and the work of raising children, educating them, caring for them spreads across the nation of Herland as its exclusive project. Even the biological labors of breeding animals and the tending of gardens ties back into the central function of motherhood, operating as thin metaphors for family planning and the eugenics project. The nation becomes an overwhelming metaphor for the new household, redefined by the novum of a system of evolutionary rationality.


To define that system, the novel must first open in the terrain of the primitive. The group of adventurers, Jeff Margrave, poet and botanist, Terry Nicholson, who studied geography and meteorology, and the sociologist narrator, Vandyck Jennings began their journey of exploring, “the thousand tributaries and enormous hinterland of a great river, up where the maps had to be made, savage dialects studied, and all manner of strange flora and fauna expected.” (Gilman, Herland, 4) The narrative offers no more detail concerning the location of the utopian space of the narrative. Instead, the space is marked as the generic primitive, outside the maps, anthropology, and the botanical and the zoological sciences of Europe. The structure of this generic primitive defines the journey into the land of Herland, shifting from the predictable anthropological journey into the exploration of the novum of Herland.

“As we got further and further upstream, in a dark tangle of rivers, lakes, morasses and dense forests, with here and there an unexpected long spur running out from the big mountain beyond, I notice that more and more of these savages had a story about a strange and terrible “Woman Land” in the high distance.

“Up yonder,” “Over there,” “Way up”—was all the direction they could offer, but their legends all agreed on the main point—that there was this strange country where no men lived—only women and girl children.”

Had no one else gone? Yes—a good many—but they never came back. It was no place for men—that they seemed sure of.

I told the boys these stories, and they laughed at them. Naturally I did myself. I knew the stuff that savage dreams are made of.” (Gilman, Herland, 4)

The nation of women exists within this generic, primitive space, but it stands outside of its generic logic. The “strange and terrible “Woman Land”” could only be seen “in the high distance” of that primitive space. The ‘savages’ of Gilman’s narrative operate outside of the cognitive map of its modern other, unable to even identify its location outside of a broad sense that it sat above them, hostile and alien. The society of the ‘savages,’ returning to Fabian’s critique, operates in a different temporality of the modern society of women. The protagonists of the story laughed at the obscure narratives of the ‘savages,’ but they are equally implicated in the temporal critique of the narrative.

As the group prepared to discover the nature of the society, they speculated on the nature of the society.

“We talked and talked.

And with all my airs of sociological superiority I was no nearer than any of them.

It was funny though, in the light of what we did find those extremely clear ideas of ours as to what a country of women would be like. It was no use to tell ourselves and one another that all this was idle speculation. We were idle and we did speculate, on the ocean voyage and the river voyage, too.” (Gilman, Herland, 10)

Despite ‘airs’ of civilizational and disciplinary superiority, the men entering the utopian space of the community of women were no more able to predict or immediately comprehend what they would find than the surrounding ‘savages.’ The protagonists themselves were caught in the same ‘primitive’ logic of the surrounding villages. As the narrator notes, “We were not in the least “advanced” on the woman question, any of us, then.” The incomprehension of the ‘idle speculation’ of the narrators returns us to Gilman’s critique of the household economy, which was also defined as ‘primitive,’ in opposition to the modern forms of science and technology defining the rest of the society. The narrators must begin their journey within the terrain of the generically primitive precisely because they themselves are defined by the primitive state of the domestic labor of the individual household. The three figures could accomplish little more than the derided savage. However, this critique makes no effort to mark their dismissive assessment of the local population as skewed or biased in any way. Instead the critique embedded in the linkage between the two groups is grounded in the very binary between the modern and the primitive. The figuration of the generic primitive frames and grounds the critical framework of the narrative, its invisible walls enclosing the utopian space of the novel.

The movement into the utopian space of Herland immediately begins to challenge the expectations of the protagonists, shifting from the primitive to the intensely controlled space of the garden city.

“The road was some sort of hard manufactured stuff, sloped slightly to shed rain, with every curve and grade and gutter as perfect as if it were Europe’s best…. Here was evidently a people highly skilled, efficient, caring for their country, as a florist cares for his costliest orchids. Under the soft brilliant blue of that clear sky, in the pleasant shade of those endless rows of trees, we walked unharmed, the placid silence broken only by the birds.” (Gilman, Herland, 20.)

The movement from the space of the primitive to the country of women is not simply a shift in space, but is also a shift in temporality, moving from the generic space of expedition to the modernist space of ‘Europe’s best.’ The first signifier of this shift is the existence of the modern roadway, but the passage lingers on the description of the flora and the fauna of the place. The sign and seal of modernity is the ability to tend to the plants and animals, to shape them, and to construct a neat and orderly landscape, defined by tranquility and the sound of birds. The architecture was noted for its integration into this landscape. In contrast to the ‘offensive mess man made in the face of nature’ that defined the cities of California, the architecture complimented the natural surroundings. Modernity is then defined by the ability to shape biological material from the chaos of the primitive, and to construct architecture that blends into the modernized ‘endless rows of trees’ and carefully shaped and pruned landscape. In short, the modernity of Herland is biopolitical, not industrial. Just as significant, the land was described in terms of the household. “We felt like small boys, very small boys, caught doing mischief in some gracious lady’s house.” (Gilman, Herland, 20)

The narrative expands on the scope and intensity of that political shaping of life, or what Foucault called the shift from the sovereign act of ‘letting live’ and ‘making die’ to the regulatory act of ‘making live’ and ‘letting die.’ Through the educational process of the protagonists, we discover that the society regulates all aspects of life within their domain, selectively breeding cats to make no noise and to refuse to hunt birds, for instance. In addition, they had let several species die, including cattle, horses, and the domesticated dog. It’s difficult to avoid reading these moments within Jameson’s linkage of the utopian form with the Freudian reading of the daydream as a form of wish fulfillment. The narrative, after all, offers the fantasy of cats that don’t kill songbirds, an absence of the violence of dogs, etc. But focusing on that would miss out on the ability of the society to shape every aspect of life in its boundaries. Operating within an orthodox Suvinite framework, this biopolitical control is the novum of the narrative. Beyond those acts of making live and letting die, Gilman states, “They had worked out a chemistry, a botany, a physics, with all the blends where a science touches an art, or merges into an industry, to such a fullness of knowledge as made us feel like school children.” (Gilman, Herland, 65)

That knowledge of the sciences and the intense regulatory mechanisms of life that defined the society were directed towards the central function of the society, motherhood. The society was created out an elaborate history of a slaveholding, polygamous people, destroyed by conquest, during its decline. The women of the society took over when the slaves attempted to take over the society. After the slaves killed the remaining men, they were killed by the women. Shortly after, the women began to give birth by parthenogenesis, allowing for the society to continue. Motherhood is described in terms that would later appear in Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique.

“Here was Mother Earth, bearing fruit. All that they ate was fruit of motherhood, from seed or egg or their product. By motherhood they were born and by motherhood they lived—life was, to them, just the long cycle of motherhood.

But very early they recognized the need of improvement as well as of mere repetition, and devoted their combined intelligence to that problem—how to make the best kind of people. First this was merely the hope of bearing better ones, and then they recognized that however the children differed at birth, the real growth lay later—through education.” (Gilman, Herland, 61)

The structures of the society are focused on the raising of children, and more significantly, all the needs and desires of the society are directed to this end. That work is collective and is the work of every member of the society. The utopian space of Herland may have shattered the binary of private and public, but it has done so by totalizing the domestic and reproductive labor of motherhood, leaving no outside to its responsibilities. Within that project, the society intensely controlled the process of who can and cannot have a child, banning ‘unfit’ mothers from having children. The society was defined by a Eugenics project of population control, as well marking the fit and the unfit. The intense control of the flora and fauna of the land is replicated in the control of the human society. The mystique enters into the picture explicitly through the universal consent to these policies, accepting the universal goal of motherhood and furthering the reach.

Despite the explicit Eugenic dimension contained in the social structure, the primary tool used to transform the society was education, as noted by the passage above. This pedagogical dimension of the society defines the majority of the narrative, following the protagonists of the society as they moved from the primary school of their initial enclosure to the secondary school or university of young women that they later graduate into. That process, which was ostensibly staged as an exchange of information, trained the protagonists into the logic of the society. They learned the language, the institutions, and the scientific knowledge of the society. That process of learning was defined by one on one education by a set of older women, labeled ‘Aunts.’ Later, the men learned from the women who they later married in a strange ceremony, publicized throughout the nation. This pedagogical process, ostensibly collective, was put into practice in a manner that was both individuated, and conventionally heteronormative.

That heteronormative process defined the telos of the process, creating a new form of the heteronormative marriage, directed towards the goals of the society. Rather than refusing the erotic as Joanna Russ’ reading claims, the narrative offered a new norm of heterosexual marriage, one directed towards synthesizing the ‘sex’ work of reproduction with the ‘race’ work of evolutionary transformation. That model failed through the limitations of the men of the narrative, but Gilman’s narrative continued in a sequel in which the women of the narrative moved out into the world at large, advocating the combination of eugenics and motherhood, mirroring the political work of Gilman herself.




No comments:

Post a Comment