Friday, March 23, 2012

A short second posting on Charlotte Perkins Gilman's biopolitics

     I wrote a fairly lengthy posting on the ways that Gilman's biopolitical reforms were negotiated through a set of particularly economic terms. One of the points that I felt was left undeveloped was the linkage between biological race and economic structure. While working on my dissertation, I came across a fairly curious quote within Gilman's first major sociological treatise, Women and Economics. Within those pages, Gilman attempts to argue that the lack of women's economic independence leads to a sort of pathological development in the evolution of the race. In effect, women become a sort of evolutionary drag on the race, constituting a sort of primitive remainder of early individualistic economic practices. However, she one of her argument is through her interpretation of the impact of years of anti-semitic oppression on the Jewish diaspora.

     “As one clear, world-known instance of the effect of economic conditions upon the human creature, note the marked race-modification of the Hebrew people under the enforced restrictions of the last two thousand years. Here is a people rising to national prominence, first as a pastoral, and then as an agricultural nation; only partially commercial through race affinity with the Phoenicians, the pioneer traders of the world. Under the social power of a united Christendom—united at least in this most unchristian deed—the Jew was forced to get his livelihood by commercial methods solely. Many effects can be traced in him to the fierce pressure of the social conditions to which he was subjected: the intense family devotion of a people who had no country, no king, no room for joy and pride except the family; the reduced size and tremendous vitality and endurance of the pitilessly selected survivors of the Ghetto; the repeated bursts of erratic genius from the human spirit so inhumanly restrained. But more patent still is the effect of the economic conditions,--the artificial development of a race of traders and dealers in money, from the lowest pawnbroker to the house of Rothschild; a special kind of people, bred of the economic environment in which they were compelled to live.” (Gilman 4)

      It's immediately clear that we are dealing with an explanation of the diaspora that partakes in some of the same forms of anti-semitism that the short paragraph is trying to diagnose. Like a lot of contemporary analysis, we have a sort of reductive interpretation of a broad set of experiences, erasing the intense multiplicity of forms of labor and sociability in the life of the diaspora.  Working-class life disappears, experiences working the land disappears, intellectual life disappears, and what remains is a set of stereotypical expectations around finance.  Still, this aspect of Gilman's analysis isn't what I want to focus on.  As anti-semitism goes at the time, this is fairly mild stuff, and its not really a substantial part of Gilman's legacy within a variety of feminist movements.  Far more interesting is the sort of racial Lamarckian interpretation of economic life.  The experiences of historical racism creates a sort of pathology within the economic life of the 'Hebrew people' stunting their growth, producing 'a race of traders and dealers in money, from the lowest pawnbroker to the house of Rothschild.' 
     Perhaps to put a bit more bluntly, Gilman is positing that collective economic activity produces biological race.  Or perhaps more specifically, economic activity defines the racial potential of a group, its relation to modernity, its commitment to a variety of discourses around civilization.  The tragedy of the Jewish people from Gilman's perspective is their homogenous experience, defined by the limited horizons above.  She implies that the Jewish is defined by the oikos, the realm of the family, the realm of economic production, to the exclusion of the political sphere, a sphere defined by nations, kings, and the ability to express pride in something other than the family.  In a curious sense, this links up with the limitations of (white) women who are kept in the even more confining space of the household.  The difference is that (white) women are biologically linked to (white) men, creating a heterogeneity that both is the tragedy of their situation, but also their possible salvation. 

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