Wednesday, August 31, 2011

"Presentist" Some of the tangents from my reading of the criticism of Gilman

     Judith A. Allen's biography, The Feminism of Charlotte Perkins Gilman: Sexualities, Histories, Progressivism largely operates as an apologia for its central figure.  Within that process, Allen offers a substantial exploration of Gilman's political and literary work, linking her reform Darwinist analytical approach that runs through her sociological work with her literary works, particularly the utopias.  The best moments of her work put Gilman's work within the context of her times, both in terms of the larger intellectual, political, and social formation that she lived in, as well as her interpersonal relations.  However, this same approach leads Allen to a strange reading of the recent critical trend in Gilman scholarship, defined by the work of Gail Bederman, Alys Weinbaum, and Louise Michel Newman.

      The immediate point of conflict is contained in the evaluation of Gilman.  Allen wants to defend Gilman against the various accusations of racism and classism introduced by recent feminist critics, but there is also a methodological conflict as well.  For Allen, the various critics of Gilman fall into the trap of what she calls 'presentism.'  The various critics judge Gilman's works on the basis of a set of standards that are incongruous with the world that Gilman lived in.  She makes some interesting points in this argument, pointing out that Gilman avoided many of the static assumptions made by her contemporaries about hierarchical racial categorization.  It's also significant for Allen that Gilman's contemporaries, including critics such as W.E.B. DuBois, Anna Julia Cooper, and Ida B. Wells, didn't target her for criticism despite their focus on 'racial subjugationists.'  At the same time, Allen's definition of racism is limited, defining the term in purely genetic or hereditary terms, effectively ignoring modes of racialization that don't operate within those limited terms.  Perhaps more significantly, Allen never deals with the deeply embedded racial assumptions contained in Gilman's reform Darwinism, as well as her latent Lamarckism.

     But perhaps more significantly, Allen makes a substantial misreading of the revisionists that she is debating.  She is correct in diagnosing that her opponents are interested in the present, but not quite in the way that she assumes.  Rather than statically placing a set of present assumptions on the past, these thinkers are interested in posing the question, how did we get to the present that we exist in?  And perhaps more significantly, how has the feminist movement contributed to the reproduction of forms of racism, rather than opposing them?  Allen places the revisionists within the debate between the 'second' and 'third' waves of feminism, but I would argue that these works are more influenced by the interventions by Black feminists such as bell hooks and Audre Lorde in the late 1970's and early 1980's.  These works are historical in nature, but they are not 'historicist' in nature.  Instead, they offer an engagement with history that has a linkage with the concept of history taken up by Michel Foucault, and theorized by the literary critic, Walter Benjamin, in his "On the Concept of History."  Benjamin notes in his oft quoted passage,

        "Articulating the past historically does not mean recognizing it "the way it really was."  It means appropriating a memory as it flashes up in a moment of danger.  Historical materialism wishes to hold fast that image of the past which unexpectedly appears to the historical subject in a moment of danger.  The danger threatens both the content of the tradition and those who inherit it.  For both, it is one and the same thing: the danger of becoming a tool of the ruling classes." (Benjamin 391)

     Within this context, we can see the 'revisionist' interventions as a set of interventions into the present.  Rather than operating within the historicist context of Allen, these authors attempt to shift the feminist movement of the present through a set of engagements with the history of that movement.  The moment of danger, 'the danger of becoming a tool of the ruling classes' is the way that the intertwined history of feminisms and racisms have shaped and constructed the institutions and forms of collectivity and subjectivity in the dominant structures of feminism.  It allows for a critical reassessment of current practices, as well as the sort of examination of familiar assumptions that Hegel puts at the center of critical theory.  On the other hand, we need to recognize a sort of pitfall in this approach.  To often academics have seen these sorts of interventions as a politics in and of itself.  No history is going to change social formations in and of itself, and those who think so are bound to end in either despair or self-deception.  Instead, we can think of these engagements as a sort preface to political engagement, a form of framing and conceptualizing projects and interventions.

No comments:

Post a Comment