Yellow Wallpaper, Gold Standard, Half of Introduction

March 5, 2007 at 2:50 am Leave a comment

I’ve only made it halfway through the introduction and feel the need to share Michaels’ deeply misguided reading of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper.”

Michaels begins his introduction by posing the question: “what kind of work is writing?”

He suggests “that the work of writing in “The Yellow Wallpaper” is the work of something like self-generation and that, far from being a story about a woman driven crazy by Weir Mitchell’s [famous for his “rest cure”] refusal to allow her to produce, it is about a woman driven crazy (if she is crazy) by a commitment to production so complete that it requires her to begin to produce herself” (5).

This already strikes me as something of a false dichotomy, Gilman’s story can be about her experience with a pernicious therapist, or it can be about what I’ll call Michaels’ imputed economy. No where is there room in the dichotomy for a woman (like so many women for whom she is the type) driven crazy (if she is crazy) by subjection to a “cure” that is itself an historical symptom of sexist ideologies produced to reproduce the dominant mode of production.

Michaels: “Against Gilman’s reading of herself as a priestess of production, one might then read “The Yellow Wallpaper” as undermining the gospel it meant to preach. Marking produces a “smooch” on the paper, a residue of one’s own body on the paper that is simultaneously an opening in the paper. Through that opening–itself an opening in a body, since the wallpaper is figured as skin, and the smooch is thus an orifice–emerges another body: or rather, more body, an important difference, since the narrator is giving birth not to her child but to herself. She is making herself out of her secretions, consuming her body in order to produce her body” (12).

A few questions arise. First, what is the status of Gilman’s “secretions”? Michaels characterizes Gilman’s claim [from Women and Economics, ed. Carl Degler] that “Economic production . . . is the natural expression of human energy;” “human beings tend to produce, as a gland to secrete” as a polemical point “insisting,” according to Michaels, “on the absolute priority of production . . . to emphasize the unnaturalness of an economic system that denies “free productive expression” to “half the human race,” i.e. to women.” “Women,” Michaels continues, “who are not allowed to work are like glands somehow prevented from secreting. In response to the claim that woman’s economic role as a”nonproductive consumer” is “natural,” Gilman thus appeals to a “process” more natural even than the “process of consumption.” But if the analogy between production and secretion effectively forestalls one kind of question–why do women want to work?–it raises at the same time the possibility of another–what exactly does production produce” (3).

Michaels posits Gilman’s answer to the question “what kind of work is writing?” as “simultaneously paradigmatic of “economic production” and, like production itself, as Gilman understands it, hardly economic at all” (3).

Again, how does Michaels understand the protagonist of “The Yellow Wallpaper” making herself out of her secretions? As a literal literary hormone, part of the protagonist’s bodily economy, or as Gilman seems to use it, as a metaphor suggesting the naturalness of a tendency to produce? The ambiguity of Michael’s use of “secretion” echoes the ambiguity of his use of “economy” divorced from material relations of production and consumption, yet necessarily partaking of these relations as an absent referent, in order to signify at all.

So the secretions (from a gland in the protagonists mind) constitute a form of production. They produce “herself.” And this process is analogous to William James’ theory of personal identity (cited in Michaels) whereby “each Thought is thus born an owner, and dies owned, transmitting whatever it realized as its Self to its own late proprietor””(9). James “owner” and “proprietor” seems to occupy a similarly dematerialized economy.

So a secretion for the narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper” either is, or brings about a thought whose death or consumption brings about/is another thought, and out of this process a coherent self is produced or written. Michaels suggests that the protagonist is “consuming her body to produce her body.” And the body is a text itself, upon which is inscribed, “a continual reminder that you are you, and the production of such reminders enforces the identity it memorializes” (7).

Thus, if “the threat of hysteria is the threat of losing self-control, of sometimes becoming someone else, the point of marking is to produce evidence that you are still the same person” (7). “From this perspective,” Michaels tells us, “the hysterical woman embodies not only the economic primacy of work but also the connection between the economic primacy of work and the philosophical problem of personal identity” (7).

But I still don’t understand, where is the “economy” in the primacy of this work. Michaels quotes Gilman: “The creative impulse, the desire to make, to express the inner thought in outer form . . . this is the distinguishing character of humanity” (116, 12). However, “when the “outer form” is the very substance of the inner thought,” Michaels objects, “creating seems less like making a body out of nothing [i.e. giving birth to one’s self] than like reconstituting it by redistributing it, reproducing it by circulating it. Insofar as the paper you mark will turn out to be you (its surface will be the surface of your own body) [the protagonist crawls along the wallpaper; it comes off on her], and insofar as the marks on that paper will involve putting something on it and taking something off it, even, eventually, taking something (yourself) out of it, Gilman’s distinction between making and taking (women are “forbidden to make but encouraged to take [118]) looks pretty shakey” (12).

But this only looks shakey if one conflates making one’s self with literary production. That’s Michaels’ shakey game. Gilman’s understanding women’s historically being forbidden and encouraged is of course historically valid, regardless of anything she might have written in “The Yellow Wallpaper.”

Leveling all texts into a unified semantic field allows him to conclude that “for Gilman, then, the work of writing is the work simultaneously of production and consumption, a work in which woman’s body is rewritten as the utopian body of the market economy, imagined as a scene of circulation so efficient that exchange is instantaneous: products not only exist to be consumed, but coming into existence they already are consumed” (13).

But it is not a market economy if there is no exchange. On this account the work of writing is immediate use-value. Michaels imputes a pre-capitalist “economy” by reading the logic of a local metaphor (“human beings tend to produce, as a gland to secrete”) through a short story to effectively dehistoricize the entirely historical oppression and response of Gilman’s protagonist.

It’s not that Michaels is unaware of exchange: “In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” being oneself depends on owning oneself, and owning oneself depends on producing oneself. Producing is thus a kind of buying–it gives you title to yourself–and a kind of selling too–your labor in making yourself is sold for the self you have made. There can be no question, then, of the self entering into exchange; exchange is the condition of its existence. Producer and consumer, buyer and seller, the narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper” need not leave her nursery to follow the other creeping women out into the market. Her nervous breakdown marks for Gilman the triumphant omnipresence of market relations” (13).

Perhaps in ’87 the end of history was already in the air? Do we want to play this game? Buried here is Locke’s contractarian notion that labor grants one a property in oneself. This logic excludes those whose labor does not count, classically thieves and slaves, with whom “women’s” work has been variously associated (See K’s dissertation). Michaels reproduces the logic of the protagonist’s oppression and attributes it to her as birth and liberation.

He says: “To read “The Yellow Wallpaper” in this way, then, is to read it as narrating the genesis of the marketplace or, more specifically, the birth of what historians have come to call (with varying degrees of disapproval) the “culture of consumption””(14).

If Michaels is right, the protagonist has reproduced the culture of her own consumption, thus consolidating the capitalist myth that one’s self and one’s sanity are predicated upon the naturalization of market relations. Subsuming production and consumption in the “self” suggests that production is consumption, as bourgeois ideology of a virulent modern variety is only too pleased to do.

Marx, of course, has some other ideas about production. From the preface of his Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy:

“In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general.”

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Entry filed under: American Literary Naturalism, books, capitalism, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, consumption, contract, Gold Standard, Literary Criticism, Locke, Marx, Walter Benn Michaels, William James, Yellow Wallpaper.

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