Friday, June 28, 2013

“Daughters of Earth” and the Contingency of Futurity, a sort of conclusion

Merril’s later work gestured towards this possibility, although it never embodied it, fully.  Perhaps, the most notable example of this exploration occurs in the more expansive novella, “Daughters of Earth.”  Merril wrote the novella about two years after Shadow on the Hearth.  The novella shows a similar concern with the everyday life of domesticity, and women’s experiences within that sphere, but the narrative spans several generations, and moves from the confines of the household to the outer reaches of the solar system and beyond.  The domestic narrative leaves the confines of the household and becomes mobile, transforming through the progressive dialectic logic of space travel.  The narrative shifts out of the confined critique of Shadow on the Hearth, and its refusal to imagine an alternative to the conventional post war nuclear family, to the possibility of the breakup of that formation.  The narrative shifts from the conventional structures of the melodrama to a far more experimental form.  As Lisa Yaszek notes,
“”Daughters of the Earth” takes the form of a family history compiled and related primarily by Emma for Carla, as the latter prepares to lead humanity’s first subspace voyage.  Although Merril grants Emma a certain narrative authority, she balances her protagonist’s account of events with journal excerpts, newspaper clippings, and oral stories from Martha, Joan, Ariadne, and Leah.  Like other feminist authors ranging from Virginia Woolf in the 1920s and 1930s to Joanna Russ in the 1970s and 1980s, Merril refuses to subsume the experiences of women into a single voice but rather insists on the multiplicity of women’s subjective experiences.” (Yaszek 37)

As Yaszek notes, the narrative holds onto the former commitment to exploring the space of the private, rather than the public, but it does this without fully engaging with the conventions of the domestic melodrama.  Instead, the narrative is constructed through a fictionalized account of ‘journal excerpts, newspaper clippings, and oral stories,’ producing a narrative that is far more discontinuous, fragmented, and scattered than the more conventional domestic melodrama, although Yaszek’s comparison to the work of Woolf misses out on the work’s remaining commitment to aspects of domestic conventionality.  However, Yaszek is correct to emphasize the formal shift in Merril’s work, which is used to mark the shifts in the structures of domesticity and reproduction in the society.  More notably, the narrative deliberately marks this shift in narrative style early on with Ariadne’s early self-reflexive assessment of the narrative.
“Frankly, I hesitated for some time before I decided it was proper to include such bits in what is primarily intended to be an informational account. But information is not to be confused with statistics, and when I found myself uncertain, later, whether it was all right to include these explanatory asides, done my own way, with whatever idiosyncratic eccentricities or godlike presumptions of comprehension might be involved.” (Merril 58)

We are quickly told that we are not going to read a conventional story.  Instead, the narrator asserts her right to tell the story, “my own way, with whatever idiosyncratic eccentricities or godlike presumptions of comprehension might be involved.”  The narrative is marked as one that refuses conventionality, which is compared to statistics.  At the same time, it holds onto a claim of operating primarily as ‘an information account,’ keeping to a traditional science fictional claim to critical cognition.  The ‘hesitation’ of the narrative deliberately brings attention to itself as a non-normative structure, one that transgresses the norms of the genre.  As previously noted, the passage places the categories of ‘statistics’ and science fictional narrative conventions on one side, while placing both of them in opposition to ‘an informational account.’ 
At a more basic level, it also follows the structure offered by Shklovsky in his analysis of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories.  Shklovsky focuses on the role Watson plays in the narrative, both as narrator and na├»ve witness, providing a series of incorrect analyses of the clues along the way.  Shklovsky notes, “In this way, Watson serves to retard the action while at the same time directing the flow of events into separate channels.”  (Shklovsky 104)  Watson becomes a device to create tension and structure in the narrative, constructing an opposition between the common sense of Watson and the bohemian temperament of Holmes.  Merril’s narrative similarly attempts to produce rhythmic tension between domestic conventionalities, and the desire to settle, and the desire to explore, discover, and colonize.   The collage of fictionalized source documents attempts to reproduce this logic, through the generational tensions of the mothers and daughters in the story.  We might think of the narrative in the terms laid about by Georg Lukacs in The Historical Novel, except in a condensed form.  The shifting conventions of domestic life and the negotiations of the various protagonists become the way to measure the societal shifts described in the narrative.  The story makes the explicit through the comments of the primary narrator.
“But however we learn to juggle our bodies through space or time; we live our lives on a subjective time scale.  Thus, though I was born in 2026, and the Newhope landed on Uller in 2091, I was then, roughly, 27 years old—including two subjective years, overall, for the trip.
And although the sixty-one years I have lived here would be counted as closer to sixty-seven on Earth, or on Pluto, I think that the body—and I know that the mind—pays more attention to the rhythm of planetary seasons, the alterations of heat and cold and radiation intensities, than to the ticking of some cosmic metronome counting off whatever Absolute Time might be.” (Merril 59)

Change is mapped on to the body in its experiences ‘on a subjective time scale.’  One has to understand that basic fact to engage with the shifts of historical time, which cannot be understood as ‘the ticking of some cosmic metronome counting off whatever Absolute Time might be.’ Absolute time then stands in for empty homogenous time, which is supplanted by the time of revolution in its most literal sense.  The subjective time of the body is produced through the revolution of planets around the sun, ‘the rhythm of planetary seasons, and the alteration of heat and cold and radiation intensities.’  Rather than gesturing towards some form of geographical anthropology, the subjective experience of the body is defined by the dialectic of environment and the social structures designed to survive it.  The naturalized structures of days and years become contingent within the context of space travel.  At the same time, the narrative continually emphasizes the third part of the dialectic in rhythms of planetary seasons and planetary travel, which is most directly captured in the way that social reproduction is made analogous to the experiences defined by the revolution of planets.
“We still progress through adolescence and education (which once ended at 14, then 18, 21, 25…) to youth, marriage, procreation, maturity, middle age, senescence and death.  And in a similar way, I think, there are certain rhythms of human history which recur in (widening, perhaps enriched, but increasingly discernible) moderately predictable patterns of motion and emotion both.
A recognition of this sort of rhythm is implicit, I think, in the joke that would not go away, which finally made the official name of the—ship?—in which you will depart The Ark (for Archaic?).  In any case, this story is, on its most basic levels, an exposition of such rhythms.  Among them is the curious business of the generation, and their alterations: at least it was that thought (or rationale) that finally permitted me to indulge myself with my dramatic opening. (Merril 59-60) 

The conventions of social reproduction and the revolution of the planets are linked through the common concept of ‘rhythm.’  The ‘rhythms’ of human history are linked to the cyclical rhythms of the developmental phases of human life, ‘to youth, marriage, procreation, maturity, middle age, senescence and death,’ and therefore implicitly linked to the seasons.  The cyclicality of the rhythm is put in tension with the progressive narrative of expansion.  These contradictory concepts are held together by the dialectical form of ‘the curious business of the generation, and their alterations.’  The story claims to explicate the slow and evolutionary expansion of this structure, which evidently allows for its own explication.  It not only makes the claim that the narrative will provide a description of profound transformations in everyday life due to space travel, but the meaning contained in the continuing patterns that are revealed by those transformations.  Within this context, the passage both recognizes and disavows the religious dimension of revelation through its reference to the Ark, while refusing to acknowledge the biblical reference, dismissing it as a shorthand term for the archaic.  If we take the disavowed metaphor of the Ark seriously, spaceflight becomes a secularized version of that narrative, gesturing towards a new social compact.  The flood is replaced by the vacuum of space and each new planet points to the creation of a new social symbolic.  In effect, God’s promise not to flood the Earth is replaced by a rewriting of the norms of the family.  This process is limited to a kind of non-patriarchal serial monogamy, but it has moved resolutely outside of the stalled dialectic of Shadow on the Hearth.
  To understand this process, it is crucial to examine the change in family norms produced in the story briefly.  The novella opens within the same temporal framework of Shadow on the Hearth, slightly in the future of the book’s publication.  It opens from the perspective of a mother who is involved in the first space colonization plan.  The novel opens moments before the launching of that flight.  The essay works within the same basic narrative of complaint contained in Merril’s earlier work, dependent on the normative complaints of the nuclear family. The mother of the family, Martha, is essentially forced into the colonization to the Moon by her husband, George, within the context of his sense of mild patriarchal authority.  Martha’s interior monologue develops this sense of complaint, through her sense of disconnection from the conventions of the journey, both from the official nationalist narrative and the conventional expectations put on her as a mother.  The interiority of Martha became the small voice of protest against these narratives, a disruption to the hegemonic force of cold war space race.
However, this stalled dialectic of complaint radically shifts with each succeeding space journey.  Although the narrative oscillates between domestic conventionality and exploration, each succeeding generation of women lives a profoundly different type of life that the one before, destabilizing the naturalization of any particular form of domestic arrangement.  Those shifts are captured in the description of the colonization of the planet Uller, generations after the initial story of Martha. 
“By the time, too, there were some unattached men.  A good many of those early marriages broke up in the first year.  In spite of the growing emphasis on typically frontier-puritan monogamous family patterns, divorce was, of necessity, kept easy: simply a matter of mutual decision, and registration.  For that matter, the morality in the early years was more than of the huddled commune than of the pioneer farmland.
Emma saw a lot of men that winter.  Lee was a convenient age—old enough not to need hovering attention, young enough still to be asleep a large part of the time.  Emma was a romantic figure, too, by virtue of her widowhood; her long grief established her as a better marriage risk than those who had made an error the first time, and had had to admit it.  The dawning recognition of these facts provided her at first with amusement, and later with a certain degree of satisfaction.  She had been an intellectual adolescent, after all.  Now, for the first time, she found out what it was like to be a popular girl.  She discovered a new kind of pleasure in human relationships: the casual contact.
She found out that friends could be loved without being the beloved; that men could be friends without intensity; that affection came in varying degrees, and that she could have many different kinds of affection from many different people….” (Merril 97-98)

Despite the hardships of the early years of settlement, the colony is distinguished from its Midwestern antecedents.  Rather than producing ‘typically frontier-puritan monogamous family patterns, divorce was, of necessity, kept easy: simply a matter of mutual decision, and registration.’  The colony, while still implicitly operating within a hetero-normative logic, shifted towards a far more informal social contract of marriage.  This shift in the practices of marriage is presented in moral terms, as a part of the ‘enriching’ of the rhythms of history.  The shift from the general history of the colony to the particular history of Emma reinforces this shift in the normative expectations of marriage.  Emma is presented as taking on multiple lovers, and remains the moral center of the narrative.  Her actions allow her to feel empowered as an individual, but they also let her recognize the multiplicity of emotional and romantic relationships that are possible.  The passage is not entirely outside what might be considered a set of conventional narrative structure, as Emma becomes ‘a popular girl.’  At the same time, it refuses the sentimental logic of complaint that Berlant sees at the heart of melodramatic convention.  Through the multiplicity of possible relationships, the narrative moves towards an abandonment of the idealization of any particular relationship along with the need compensate for the inevitable failure that is tied to that idealization.  The passage gestures towards a pluralistic approach to family structure, while never fully explicating that multiplicity.  That gap points to a recognition of the contingency of any family structure, but it also cannot concretely imagine what that might look like.
At the same time, the inventiveness of the narrative, its attempt to create a fictionalized memory of the experience of women, as well as the imagined history of social reproduction continues to reproduce the private/public binary that defined the far more claustrophobic narrative of Shadow on the Hearth.  The exclusionary nature is most directly evident in the description of the conflict between the native Ullerns and the colonists.  The narrative refuses an easy narrative of either presenting the indigenous population as monstrous or radically innocent.  Instead, the understanding of the conflict and resolution is presented through the loss of Emma’s husband, and her attempts to understand that death.  She eventually realizes that the death was an accident due to a lack of knowledge on both sides of the conflict.  At the same time, this somewhat sentimental journey excludes a thorough political examination of the social and political arrangements that defined the situation.  We are offered very little detail on how the colonists divided into two opposing camps, or how the sympathetic camp of colonists was able to negotiate a peace.  Finally, we don’t know what that peace meant to those camps.  Instead, we are offered a brief comment, putting those questions to the side.
“Thad Levine wrote the story of the bitter three years’ quarrel in the colony, and wrote it far better than I could.  You have heard from me, and probably from a dozen others, too, the woe-filled history of the establishment of Josetown.  Jo himself wrote a painstaking account of the tortuous methodology by which the Ullern code was worked out, and I know you have read that, too.
(I am sternly repressing the inclination to excuse my many omissions pointing to the date above, and referring to the page number.  Time is short now, and the story too long.  But neither of these is an honest reason for my failure to do what I planned—no more than are my excuses in the paragraph immediately above.) (Merril 107-108)

Through this clever passage, any attempt to link the economy of social reproduction of the household and the larger questions of political economy are effectively elided.  It ducks this question by claiming a lack of competency, placing the political narrative into the hands of Thad Levine.  While the novella form perhaps made the inclusion of long didactic passages on economics, sociology, and political conflict impossible, the occlusion of this material draws on a set of patriarchal conventional assumptions.  Despite the text’s attempt to re-imagine social reproduction outside the regulatory norms of domesticity, those norms continue to have a profound hold on the imagination of the text.  Just as significantly, the refusal to place the political questions of the impact of colonization within the text neutralizes the potential anti-colonial critique of the text, leaving the ethical question of the engagement with the other intact, but erasing the questions of power and racialization central to that question.  In effect, the occlusions of the text are perhaps as significant to the construction of the genre as its engagements.  The end of the narrative seems to gesture towards this possibility, as the process of human expansion into the unknown continues with another couple leaving to found another colony.
Merril’s work begins to challenge the conventions of the domestic melodrama, by showing the limitations of the isolated nuclear family in Shadow on the Hearth, and by connecting transformations of the domesticity and marriage in “Daughters of Earth.”  However, neither narrative entirely escapes the regulatory structures of the generic structures that the narrative attempt to subvert.  Rather than acting within the role of prophet, the role Merril prescribes to the science fiction author, Merril offers critical and symptomatic engagement of her present, a present that is powerfully defined by the mutually implicated ideological formations of the cold war, McCarthyism, and the Feminine Mystique.  That engagement allows for an initial critical engagement with those intertwined formations, exposing the structures of domination and coercion contained with them, and gesturing towards the possibility of an alternative form of domesticity in the future.  However, it will take the later work of Joanna Russ, Ursula Le Guin, and Samuel Delany to move questions of social reproduction from the space of the privacy of the household into the political space of the public sphere through a renewed engagement with the utopian form.