The Gold Standard, Again

March 16, 2007 at 9:19 pm Leave a comment

I’m going to put up a number of somewhat lengthy quotes that capture important moments of from “The Gold Standard” chapter of Walter Benn Michaels’ The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism. I quote at length because I fear my attempt to summarize Michaels’ argument will not quite do it justice. From time to time, I’ll jump in with some thoughts of my own, in particular where I worry that Michaels’ reading of “the logic of naturalism” or more specifically, the conclusions he derives from his reading of this logic, go astray.

“There are at least two such logics running through this discourse [of naturalism], or rather, two such logics that constitute it. One could, perhaps, best describe naturalism as the working-out of a set of conflicts between pretty things and curious ones, material and representation, hard money and soft, beast and soul. But this doesn’t mean that the naturalist writer is someone who has chosen the beastly side of these dichotomies (the side literary history ordinarily associates with naturalism) or even that he is someone who has chosen with any consistency either side. The consistency–indeed, the identity–of naturalism resides in the logics and in their antithetical  relation to one another, not necessarily in any individual, any text, or even any single sentence” (173).

On this account naturalism is something like a tension between at least  two terms in a series of binary terms. (Michaels in fact frequently teaches by reading two columns of dichotomous terms he’s written on the chalk board.) I’m not sure what Michael’s intends by a “working-out” “of a set of conflicts.” Is this working-out dialectical? The point seems to be not that any “side,” beast or soul, for example, finds favor in literary naturalism, but that the ongoing tension between these terms is the consistency or identity of  (Michaels might not like this term) transcendent naturalist logics that reside beyond any single text, author, sentence–beyond any single inscription. This tension can be located, perhaps, in the discourse of naturalism produced by a certain consistency in the tension between ostensibly opposed terms typically associated with natualist texts.

A discussion of Frank Norris’ Vandover and the Brute gives some sense of this:

“Le Conte [An anthropologist, Norris’ favorite professor at Berkeley], for example, describes the relation of animals to men in terms that repeat the goldbug description of the relation between paper [as in soft money] and precious metals: ‘The resemblance is  great, but the difference is immense. . . . It is the shadow and substance, promise and fulfillment’; but he goes on to finish the comparison,’Still better, it is like embryo and child.’ The weirdness of this set of similes is that while it begins by imagining animals as trompe l’oeil representations of men (understanding the words uttered by a trained magpie, to use a [William] Jamesian example, as trompe l’oeil representations of language), it ends by imagining the reflecting shadow turned into an anticipating embryo (as if the talking magpie were not imitating human speech but originating it). In the first sentence animals are deceptive representations of humans; in the second, they have already become humans precisely because of their capacity to represent. And this opposition is repeated more penetratingly in Vandover and the Brute. Vandover, prowling about his room on all fours, utters ‘a sound, half word, half cry, “Wolf–wolf!”‘ (Vandover 310). In the mouth, or rather the ‘throat,’ of the brute, the name of a thing is revealed to be really the sound the thing makes. Norris presses home the denial of representation by way of onomatopoeia; words are reduced to the sounds they are made of, and instead of the magpie imitating language, language imitates the magpie. But at the same time, Vandover’s gambling companion, a deaf-mute known as ‘the Dummy,’ is made so drunk that, as Vandover does his ‘dog act,’ the Dummy begins to ‘talk,’ ‘pouring out a stream’ of ‘birdlike twitterings’ among which one could ‘now and then . . . catch a word or two’ (Vandover 298). Never having spoken any words, never even having heard any, the Dummy (like the magpie) nevertheless produces sounds that inexplicably turn out to be language” (173-4).

Vandover and the Brute does not resolve these contradictions, and, more important, it does not thematize them either–it isn’t about the conflict between material and representation it is an example of that conflict” (174).

What to do with this example?

“To think this is only to imagine a thematics in which authors have been replaced by language, the characteristic gesture not of literature but of a certain literary formalism so eager to preserve the ontological privilege of the text that it becomes in its most desperate moments indistinguishable from goldbug materialism. But my point here is not to criticize that literary materialism per se any more than it is to attack the notion that democracy needs a dollar ‘as good as gold.’ I want only to locate both these positions and their negations in the logic, or rather the double logic, of naturalism and, in so doing, to suggest one way of shifting the focus of literary history from the individual text or author to structures whose coherence, interest, and effect may be greater than that of either author or text” (175).


“My point here is not that complicated literary texts resist ideology. It is instead that when we look closely at the structure of beliefs that constitute the logic of naturalism, we see no consistent connection between them and the political interests of the people or groups of people (e.g., classes) who hold them. Which is not to say that the interests of some people and some groups were not in fact served by the logic of naturalist representation, but only that their interests did not produce the beliefs that constitute the logic” (177).

This account strikes me as an overly positivistic. “When we look closely at the structure of beliefs that constitute the logic of naturalism, we see no consistent connection between them and the political interests of the people or groups of people (e.g., classes) who hold them.” What are these political interests? How might the working-through of unresolved tensions announce the political interests of a class for whom an entire mode of production and its logics are not discernible as political interests–because they anticipate a politics for which there is as yet no language, only anticipatory and negative or destructive logics. Put more strongly, in so far as they build their barricades from the worn-out terms of a decadent realism and its mode of production, the current mode of production producing all understandings of “the self,”——naturalism articulates the logics of  a class (in both senses) of writers at war with the world they see–and trying to unthink that world toward something else, something new that won’t resemble a “consistent connection” to anything that has been.

On Michaels account, a structure of beliefs becomes the possession of a class and sign of its interest. But a belief is not a television. You can see whether there’s a television in a person’s living room and decide that that indicates the fulfillment of middle-class interest. This is the consumption, proof-is-in-the-putting, “it’s how much you make” account of class. You can tell ’em by the way they look.

Naturalist logic doesn’t (usually) announce the politics its writers desire, but they are quite clear on that count, elsewhere.

I’ll have another post on Michaels soon.


Entry filed under: American Literary Naturalism, animals/men, Foucault, Frank Norris, Gold Standard, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, McTeague, Vandover and the Brute, Walter Benn Michaels.

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