Friday, May 25, 2012

A more recent take on Gilman's Herland: An Opening Analysis

     Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s utopia, Herland, is simultaneously an exploration of space through the complex, planned interactions between the land, a variety of social institutions, and the community of women who created and live within those institutional structures, and an exploration of temporality, producing a narrative dependent on the imagined shift from the primitive to the modern. The narrative explores this interaction through the pedagogical process of the society as it tries to bring the three outsiders, the three male explorers who play the role of the protagonists, into the new rationalized structures of social reproduction. One of the didactic passages near the end of the first part of the narrative offers a useful entrance into Gilman’s political project. As they are about to be released into the general society of Herland, the men are offered an explanation for their imprisonment, as well as the central organizing logic of the society. When the most patriarchal of the three protagonists, Terry, asks if their imprisonment was imposed because they feared the men, the response is immediate.

    “Oh no,” she said quickly, in real surprise. “The danger is quite the other way. They might hurt you. If, by any accident, you did harm any one of us, you would have to face a million mothers.”

     He looked so amazed and outraged that Jeff and I laughed out right, but she went on gently.

     “I do not think you quite understand yet. You are but men, three men, in a country where the whole population are mothers—or are going to be. Motherhood means to us something which I cannot yet discover in any of the countries of which you tell us. You have spoken”—she turned to Jeff, “of Human Brotherhood as a great idea among you, but even that I judge is far from a practical expression?”

     Jeff nodded rather sadly. “Very far—“ he said.

     “Here we have Human Motherhood—in full working use,” she went on. “Nothing else except the literal sisterhood of our origin, and the far higher and deeper union of our social growth.

     “The children of this country are the one center and focus of all our thoughts. Every step of our advance is always considered in its effect on them—on the race. You see, we are Mothers,” she repeated, as if in that she had said it all.” (Gilman 67)

     At the center of the narrative, shaping its conception of space, time and institutions, is the concept of motherhood. Operating in a multiplicity of modalities, motherhood simultaneously operates as a social institution, an ideological formation creating bonds of social solidarity, legitimating and enacting forms of collective violence, and as the means of enacting a progressive and teleological political project. Motherhood both constitutes and is constituted by the biopolitical category of population, placing the tending and caring for biological life at the center of its project. At the most immediate level, the imaginary of Gilman’s Herland has an uncanny resonance with what Betty Friedan would call ‘the feminine mystique’ some 47 years later. Motherhood is not only the destiny of the women of Herland, but it also plays a central role constructing the social bonds of the community. The raising of children defines the alpha and omega of the society, defining its institutions and political projects. Motherhood simultaneously individuates potential mothers based on their fitness, while at the same time, produces a grid of intelligibility for the community of women as a whole. Rather than offering an uncanny precursor to the feminist projects of the 1960’s and 1970’s, Gilman’s narrative gestures towards the very institutional formations of femininity and sexuality that those movements were protesting.

     But beyond that, the speech also insists on the social reproductive function of the institution. Motherhood links to the distant origins of the nation to the present, or as Moadine puts it, Motherhood creates a link “to the literal sisterhood of our origin, and the far higher and deeper union of our social growth.” The link from an original sorority of the past provides a sense of connection to the contemporary political projects of the community. Those projects can only be understood in that context. Turning to the spacial metaphors of the quote, the ‘height’ of the social accomplishments of the community of women or the depth of commitment to that community is only measurable from the standpoint of the origin of the community. Or to translate this into the language of Benedict Anderson, motherhood creates the sense of continuity that allows for the formation of the imagined community of the nation. More notably, we can already see two of the significant conditions of the nationalist project, the sense of generational continuity and an open-ended sense of progressive time, which Anderson codified as empty, homogenous time of the nation, following the critical work of Walter Benjamin in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” The domestic sphere becomes the prime locus for shaping and reforming the nationalist project, the creation of new form of the national-popular. This nationalist dimension needs to be understood within the context of her involvement with the Nationalist political project created by utopian novelist and political theorist, Edward Bellamy. Responding to the radical shifts in the economic structures of post-bellum United States, particularly the increased class stratification and struggle created by the increased industrialization of the country after the war, Bellamy imagines a potential future that neutralizes those conflicts through the rationalization of production and consumption. Gilman begins her political activism within this movement, and her earliest publications are contained in the movement’s publications. While Gilman never abandons the basic framework of Bellamy’s analysis, despite her engagement with a multiplicity of movements, she focuses her intellectual work on the sex roles of the society, adding a libidinal and racial economy to the politics of consumption and production explored by Bellamy. In effect, Gilman incorporates a reform Darwinist analysis of sex roles into Bellamy’s reform program, and perhaps more significantly, shits it into the temporality of a biological, social-historical temporality.

     In effect, motherhood plays the role of a central regulatory mechanism of the society, organizing every aspect of its collective existence towards the rational needs of its evolutionary development and reproduction. We’re offered the secret code that links the cultivation of biological life to a project of political economy. The institution of motherhood instantly rationalizes the latter in service of the teleological drive of the former. Moreover, the sociological significance of these mechanisms is explored through the use of a utopian narrative, and indeed a narrative driven in part by very conventional romantic narrative structures, as critic Kathleen Margaret Lant points out in her reading of the text, ‘The Rape of the Text: Charlotte Perkins Violation of Herland.’ In her biographical project on Gilman, Judith A. Allen argues for a privileging of her sociological works, effectively reading her fictional works as an extension of that work. Indeed, rather than challenging the bulk literary criticism of this process of reading comes close to defining the field of Gilman criticism, both her critics and her apologists. The most notable revisionist accounts of Gilman, Gail Bederman’s Manliness and Civilization and Louise Michele Newman’s White Women’s Rights focus on her sociological work to the exclusion of her domestic and utopian fiction. Alys Weinbaum’s Wayward Reproductions is a notable exception, reading the racism of Gilman’s sociological work into her utopian fiction, although this engagement was driven less by a genre analysis than an attempt to respond to apologists attempt to place a firewall between her fiction and the problematic racial politics found in her sociology.

      I want to reverse that formula. Rather than reading Gilman’s fictional works, notably her utopian fiction of the Forerunner period as extensions of political sociological project, Gilman’s sociological work can be read as offering the intellectual infrastructure for a an evolutionary and progressive political project that finds its telos in the generic form of the utopia. We might take Gilman’s effort as a remarkable modeling exercise, akin to the architectural efforts on the part of Jeremy Bentham in his conceptualization of the panopticon, the idealized disciplinary model of the prison designed to reform the prisoner through the interiorization of the gaze of the guard. However, Gilman’s modeling, or perhaps more accurately, mapping doesn’t operate on the terrain of architecture. Instead, it finds its fullest form in the topography and temporality of the utopian and science fictional form. Rather than simply offering a vehicle for a set of sociological commentaries, the formal qualities of the utopia shape Gilman’s political project. Gilman implicitly sought to purify the empty homogenous time of the nation from its various impurities, placing the temporal marker of the primitive on them. Gilman re-imagines the nation through the regimes of consumption imagined by Bellamy, but with an emphasis on the domestic economy of the household. The sexual division of the household becomes the central obstacle to evolutionary progress of the race. Gilman’s Lamarckian framework simultaneously intensely biologists the sexual economy of the household and argues that this biological framework is malleable through social engineering. The utopian form binds these various elements into a coherent narrative, posing futurity as a critique and a foundational narrative of a future where the crisis is neutralized, and a new social symbolic is reestablished. This emphasis on futurity also places Gilman’s text on the borderline of a transition from the conventions of the classical utopian tradition to science fictional generic forms.

     Engaging in a generic analysis of Gilman’s work is an interesting exercise. Most analysis of her work is focused either on its position in the history of the feminist movement, or its political content in the form of its impact on social formations or its proposed political projects, leaving the question of how its formal qualities shape that work unanswered. Posing that very question strikes me as a significant one in understanding Gilman’s work because of the profound impact that popular generic forms had on the ways that Gilman framed and shaped her political project. Her engagement with utopian and domestic fiction was continually influenced by reform Darwinism producing an almost science fictional focus on the future. However, rather than seeing generic form as a simple vehicle for her scientific sociological analysis, that scientific discourse was constantly modified in order to fit generic convention. Gilman was not only a star on the popular lecture circuit, but a writer for popular magazines, including her own publication, The Forerunner, and a producer of domestic and utopian fiction, as well as mystery novels. She wrote short articles for Woman’s Journal, Saturday Evening Post, as well as traditional women’s magazines such as McCall’s and Good Housekeeping. This translates into her engagement with those forms throughout her work, which is defined by both the domestic narrative as well as the narrative utopian form. The present is always doubly haunted, by the primitive that continues to dwell in the repressive structure of its social institutions, and a progressive futurity that continually marks those limitations. This temporal framework not only dominates the logic of her fictional narratives, but provides an implicit temporal and therefore narratological to the non-fictional work.    
   At first glance, Gilman’s Herland reads like a conventional utopian narrative. The story is set in the present of its production, and operates within the traditional comparative narrative structure of earlier utopias, drawing from and satirizing the conventions of travel and exploration narratives. Susan Gubar, for instance, reads Herland in contrast to the patriarchal adventure narratives of H. Rider Haggard, most notably, She. The narrative also could be considered a lost race story, offering the novum or novelty of a lost racial history as a form of estrangement. It operates in that liminal space that Louis Marin argues defines the historical preconditions of the utopian narrative, despite the fact that the narrative falls out of the historical period that Marin argues operates as the horizon of the genre. Although there are some limitations to placing Herland, and the work of Gilman squarely within the traditional utopian form, engaging with the form allows for a productive understanding of the ideological horizons of the novel, along with its spatio-temporal logic. In the end, the novel ends up looking a lot more like traditional science fiction through its engagement with evolutionary biology in the form of a reform Darwinism in conversation with Social Darwinism and eugenics, but that shift to science fiction can only be understood through an engagement with the utopian form.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Interlude (6): An Interview with Richard Lewontin

An interesting interview with scientist and activist Richard Lewontin. Worth a glance. I recommend his Biology as Ideology and Not In Our Genes, which is a collaboration with a number of other politically radical scientists.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Part Two: Critique of Take Back UCI (self-critique)

      I'm now back from the Labor Notes conference, and have caught up on the sleep that I missed out on due to some enthusiastic grad student organizers from University of Wisconsin-Madison (never trust a Wisconsin grad student when he says he has 'a little bit of whiskey up in his hotel room.'  Their idea of 'a little bit' is far different than ours.)  I'm going to produce a bit of a write up of the conference later in the week, but I want to complete my thoughts on the (self) critique of Take Back UCI that I began on Thursday.  That initial comment got quite a bit of reads, but not much in the way of responses.  Hopefully, folks can begin a sort of conversation with the continuation of the piece here.  One last note, before I begin, my initial response got a fairly snarky and thoughtless response from Dmitriy Kunitskiy, host of the fairly uninteresting KUCI show, Countdown.  I'd like to distinguish my problems with the organization from his, which seem to be focused on both his fear of social justice movements and genuinely public spaces.  In any case, here is the second part of this article.

4. A lack of independent spaces for undergraduates:  This issue is a little more abstract than some of the other issues that I brought up in the first section of the article, but I think that it is equally significant.  One of the things that has struck me in the years that I have been at the University of California-Irvine is that there isn't a lot of spaces that are controlled by students.  The one exception might be the Cross-Cultural Center, but there seems to be a lot of admin control over that space, particularly manipulating the politics of that space through a lot of games around funding.  I don't want to dismiss the many great folks who do work there or some of the interesting projects, either, but it isn't independent space.  I'm used to the broader freedoms that we had at the university of minnesota, where the progressive student organization had a permanent office in the student center.  This was a space that we controlled with a very minimal rent that was paid for through the occasional benefit show at the whole (we once had a show where both Lifter Puller and Dillinger 4 played).  This gave us a place to meet, hang out, store stuff, talk, and think things through.   A number of folks are proposing a sort of independent, radical student library.  I think that this would really help activism a lot in Irvine if it was a genuinely independent undergrad space.

5. Media: Don't get me wrong.  There are a lot of limitations within this category that don't have anything to do with us.  It's not really surprising that we're not getting good coverage from the Orange County Register and the corporate media, but there is a lot of independent alternatives even in our area.  We have a number of potential contacts within KUCI, which we haven't taken as much advantage of as before.  We're not going to get a reasonable hearing from Countdown, but there are a number of interesting left wing folks on the station.  In addition, the OC Weekly has sympathetic folks, and there is the LA Pacifica station, which has expressed interest in us as well.  We've left press releases and connections to the last minute and haven't done the follow through on those connections, either.  Furthermore, we have lacked the independent media production that we have seen in other parts of the UC system.  Tetsuro Namba has produced some remarkably good analyses of the situation in UCI, but those essays haven't gone any farther than the local campus activist circles.  This is work that could contribute to the fight across the state, and we haven't created or followed through on the blog infrastructure to communicate with the rest of the state about those issues. (There are some things remaining from the 2009-2010 protests, but they haven't been utilized lately.)

6.  Provincialism:  One of the most frustrating things about the Irvine activist scene has been its lack of connection with the rest of the UC system, with its networks, its actions, etc.  These connections could contribute to having a better sense of the conflicts, ideas, and actions that are going on around us.  Moreover, we could contribute to the pool of ideas and actions that are going on.  We need to get our activists onto other campuses, and other cites of struggle, which the university is just one.  There are certainly some informal connections to the struggles in Santa Ana, as well as some older connections with the State University system that need to be rebuilt and strengthened, but those are limited to a small group of folks.  Similarly, we have connections to the rest of the UC system through union reform, but those connections are limited to a small group of folks, and haven't filtered down to the rank and file activists, particularly undergraduate activists.  I want to make it clear that I am not arguing that the activism outside of our small pond is superior to ours, far from it, but that engaging with folks involved in similar, but not the same project, can give us some perspective and creative ways of approaching our own projects.  I'd like to see our activist community tied into all social justice issues, but the question of the defense of public education seems to be the best place to start, given the common issues.  I also think that this needs to move beyond the university level to both the community college level as well as the CSUs.  Our common ability to think and act can be increased by this sort of communication, and I believe that we have as much to contribute in these conversations, as we have to receive.

I think that's it for now. 

Thursday, May 3, 2012

a short critique of the activist practices of take back uci (self-critique)

      In an attempt to start writing a bit more frequently, I thought I would send a brief critique of some of the current practices of Take Back UCI, which is an implicit self-critique because I've been involved pretty heavily in the group.  I'm not making any universal claims about movement politics through this engagement, and I'm not sure how valuable these comments will be outside of our particular context.  I'd be curious if resonates with other folks issues or not, though.  Perhaps we could get a small conversation going through this in the comments.  I'm just going to present a list of my thoughts in no particular order.

1.  Process.  In the three to four years that  I have been involved in UCI activist groups, this has been one of the most serious problems that has run through all the various groups and coalitions that I have been a part of.  Unfortunately, Take Back UCI is no exception to this.  Our meetings often run far longer than they should.  We repeat ourselves in multiple meetings, and decisions frequently are not followed through on.  Our lack of procedure additionally leads us to reinventing the wheel for a lot of our protests, taking a lot of time for stuff that should be routinized in order to focus on more interesting and serious problems.  In addition to this, the forms of informality lead to an informal mechanism of exclusion of new folks getting involved in the group.  These are all issues that could be solved through creating an atmosphere where meetings were guided by a set of simple rules that were discussed at the beginning of each meeting, rules that would guide conversation, and give new folks a more solid position to engage with the issues at the meeting.  The question of follow up is a slightly more vexed question, but having more formalized notes as well as expanding on our designation of tasks could work towards resolving these problems.

      It's notable that these same issues existed in the movement two years ago with far less of a negative impact, but those activist structures were far more hierarchical in nature.  The informal structures worked well when small groups of individuals were making the decisions, rather than the horizontal structures that we are trying to work with.  It's important to also note that those processes were only successful through a massive amount of labor on the part of those small groups, so I'm not criticizing them, but I do want to note that informality, rather than leading to strong democratic and horizontal organizing, often contributes to an atmosphere in which small, insider groups make the decisions, and that makes it extremely difficult to get into those groups.  In many ways, I think that we have been trying to combine informality with grass roots structures, thinking that they are compatible forms of organizing, when in many ways they are not.  If we want to use meeting spaces to fight the multiple structures of oppression in our society, rather than replicate them, we need structure.  Not endless structure, but real mechanisms of decision making and follow through that allow for meaningful access and contributions for all.

2.  Graduate Students.  Yes, I am part of the problem.  Graduate students have contributed to the shutting down of meeting space, through our tendency to talk too damn much in meetings.  We're trained to do this sort of thing, and our classes are often structured on the expectations that we can an will speak up as graduate students.  The problem is that this often freezes out undergraduates, and creates conversational settings that are not accessible to everyone involved.  At the same time, we as graduate students haven't been doing enough talking outside the meeting setting, as a colleague has noted.  We need to be doing a lot more work talking to our fellow graduate students and to the professors that we have greater access to, that is to say, we need to do more of the day to day organizing to enable bigger and more intensive actions.  We need to encourage our friends and colleagues to teach the budget, and to bring these issues of public education into the classroom.  In effect, we need to step back in meeting spaces, and step up as organizers in the spaces of the university where we have some influence.

3.  Outreach.  This is something that where we have had some substantial issues.  We should be in regular and formal contact with the various organizations in the cross-cultural center, with various social groups, and out fliering.  These are the sort of mechanisms that allow for events to bring thousands, rather than hundreds. We have been making an effort to talk to undergrads in various classrooms, but only in relationship to urgent actions.  We need to engage with the social, cultural, and political life of the university to a greater extent.  We should be talking to dance groups, the folks who run Acrobatics Everyday (they put on indie music shows), along with the substantial social and political groups on campuses.  These groups have ideas and skills that can contribute to the movement.  I'm not saying that they will be immediately on board.  Our university has a powerful effect of depoliticization, but we can only become stronger through these interactions.  We should begin every quarter by sending activists out to these various groups, along with making plans for that quarter, to invite them in to our processes, to criticize them, and to ask for there input into where we should be going, even if they don't want to be at our meetings

I have a few more points to make, and each of these deserves a great deal more time, but I'm going to leave there because I need to get on a plane to the Chicago Labor Notes conference soon.