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.