More Gold Standard

March 17, 2007 at 5:07 pm Leave a comment

Optimation last night was minimal, as everyone has work to do today. Perhaps we’re all getting a bit old. Or a bit smarter.

I hope to finish Michaels’ The Gold Standard today and move back to an old friend, Donald Pizer–who…(dramatic pause)…reviews WBM’s Gold Standard. Naturally, I’ll have full coverage when the gloves come off.

On a personal note, before I get started with Michaels, my brother F is in town today to buy a house. This is the first time one of the brothers 3, of which I’m the oldest, have done anything of the sort. I don’t know what it would have been like to own a house at 25. Of course, at 30, I guess I still don’t know. I do have some nice books. I had some at 25, too. Maybe it’s enough. It’s not that I feel competitive about real estate or money or what have you, it just makes me think about the different lives we’re leading.

Michaels and I are leading different lives as well, as he’d be happy to point out were you to ask him. He seems (at least in ’87) to be far more interested in Foucault than I am. We resume with Michaels’ discussion of “no consistent connection between” “the structure of beliefs that constitute the logic of naturalism” and “the political and economic interests of the people or groups of people (e.g., classes) who hold them”.

Michaels: “This is something like what I take Foucault to be saying when, in the course of his well-known critique of the concept of ideology, he remarks that such a concept ‘refers . . . necessarily to something of the order of a subject’; it assumes, that is, the existence of subjects complete with interests and then imagines those subjects in more or less complicated (and more or less conscious) ways selecting their beliefs about the world in order to legitimate their interests. The subject of naturalism, however–at least as I have depicted him here–is typically unable to keep his beliefs lined up with his interests for more than two or three pages at a time, a failure that stems not from inadequate powers of concentration but from the fact that his identity as a subject consists only in the beliefs and desires made available by the naturalist logic–which is not produced by the naturalist subject but rather is the condition of his existence” (177).

It may be that the identity of a subject consists only in the beliefs and desires made available by the naturalist logic. Where, though, are the material coordinates of this logic? In other words, how is this logic of naturalism situated in relation to a moment of the mode of production?

I think by gold standard and logic of naturalism Michaels means something like: By reducing brutes to men like gold-money is reduced to gold-nature literary naturalists naturalize the money economy because the logic of gold (it’s a metal in nature, but also money, but when you say it’s money because it is gold–as the goldbugs did–it’s natural state erases the possibility of its socially constructed status as money for which the natural value of gold as nature is a necessary precondition. If gold is valuable because of it’s nature it cannot be valuable as money with out its nature. If it is just gold it can’t also be money without an act of imagination.) becomes, is already the logic of the possibility of people. In other words people are like gold in so far as they have a natural body that contains a brain, but this brain is not thought of as the mind or soul, though it is a necessary precondition for the a mind or soul.

If McTeague as a brute tries to take gold out of circulation by taking it into Death Valley–this reduction of man to a soulless brute condition resembles the withdrawal of gold from circulation–it’s journey back to nature. Michaels imagines this naturalist desire to escape a money economy as a conservative response to anxiety about the money economy–which he argues figures like McTeague naturalize (regardless of the political commitments of their authors) by equating the possibility of a moneyless economy with “the impossibility of soulless brutes.” I argue that this is but one moment of an anticipatory dialectic that Michaels is wrong to undialectically hail as an implicit naturalist end of history.

Michaels: “All the same, given an account of representation that ultimately identifies the possibility of money with the possibility of being a person, it would be foolish to imagine that the effect of such an account with respect to legitimating the money economy would be neutral. I would suggest instead that trompe l’oeil paintings, soulless brutes, and hard money were all conservative attempts to assert the ontological impossibility of what was already an historical fact, and that by identifying the possibility of a moneyless economy with what seemed to be the impossibility of soulless persons, this conservative reaction served only to legitimate what it reacted against. Identifying persons with money made money as irrevocable and unquestionable as persons. From this perspective, then, the logic of naturalism served the interests not of any individual or any group of individuals but of the money economy itself” (177-8).

I find this argument quite clever, but who held Michaels’ “perspective” in 1899? Michaels logic is compelling, but ahistorical (despite it’s New Historicist orientation) when it reads out the author, and undialectical when it understands (in formalist fashion) the text as the final word on itself, that is when the text is understood as its own horizon from which certain historical likenesses can at best be drawn. On this reading the text is rigorously unallegorical–it exemplifies concerns–it doesn’t navigate toward something beyond those concerns, beyond the text itself.

Michaels posits the money-economy as the subject of naturalist texts:

“From the standpoint of Foucault’s critique of ideology, however, this description remains problematic. The point of that critique (indeed the point of Foucault’s whole project) was ‘to dispense with the constituent subject, to get rid of the subject itself . . . to arrive at an analysis which could account for the constitution of the subject within an historical framework.’ But to speak of the interest of the money economy is hardly to get rid of the subject; it is instead to relocate it, to inscribe it at the level not of the individual or the class but of the economy. And rather than accounting for the constitution of the subject, such a procedure continues to insist that it is the subject that does the constituting. Thus the effect of insisting on the primacy of interests is to save the constituent subject. One might even say that the subject of naturalism becomes the money economy so that the economy can become a subject” (178).

I’d argue that rather than the subject of naturalism being the money economy, the subject of naturalism is history, of which the money economy is one moment to be transcended–indeed, that the soulless brute, rather than naturalizing the money economy, foregrounds “the brute” as a sign of symptoms to be transcended. Such transcendence of course entails a change in the mode of production. The naturalists don’t simply desire a moneless state of nature now declared impossible by the fact of their “soulless brute” characters likeness to concerns about the gold standard that seem in their inability to ever fully remove gold from circulation, to prove the ontological veracity of the money economy. Rather, their texts announce the possibility of a different humanity present in it’s textual (and historical) absence.

Michaels heads here:

“But can economies be subjects? Can they have intentions, desires, beliefs? Can they have interests? Individuals obviously can, classes can, but insofar as an economy is neither an individual nor a class, it is hard to see how it can be said to have interests. Indeed, from a certain standpoint, the whole point of the analysis I have attempted here has been, by subverting the primacy of the subject in literary history, to subvert also the primacy of interest. From this standpoint, the ascription of interests to a money economy (or, for that matter, to a disciplinary society) is only a figure of speech or a mistake, personification or pathetic fallacy. At the same time, however, as literary critics–and as critics in particular of naturalism–we can hardly dismiss this mistake, this particular figure, as one among others. For according to the logic of naturalism it is only because we are fascinated by such mistakes–by natural objects that look as if they were made by humans–that we have any economy at all. The foundation of our economy, the primitive desire to own, is nothing but our response to these mistakes, our desire to own the mistakes themselves” (178-9).

According to the logic of naturalism our economy is founded upon consumption of the mistake that ascribes interests to an economy that looks natural, but is in fact the product of a man-made error. This error resembles the gold standard confusion about what makes gold valuable. Because gold is believed to have value in-itself in nature, the economy can be mistaken as natural when it is similarly thought to have value in-itself, a life of its own.

Michaels: “If, however, the personification of nature constitutes the possibility of bourgeois economy, the personification of that economy provides another turn of the screw. For, unlike the ‘curious’ things  we find on the beach, the economy really is man-made, and yet it is still not a person. ‘People know what they do,’ Foucault once remarked; ‘they frequently know why they do what they do; but what they don’t know is what what they do does.” An economy is made up of what people do, and what people do is a funciton of, among other things, what they want; but what the economy does may not represent either what people do or what they want. It is, one might say, made up of people, and it acts like a person; but the person it acts like is not the people it is made up of. From this perspective, the desire to personify the economy is the desire to bridge the gap between our actions and the consequences of our actions by imagining a person who does not do what we do but who does do what what we do does. As it happens, there is no such person, because the economy cannot, on the one hand be reduced to the material it is made of (desires, actions) or, on the other hand, be turned into some other person and reduced to the material that person is made of (consequences), it provides a singularly compelling image of the naturalist distinction between material and identity. Failing to be a person, it images by the way it isn’t a person the condition in naturalism of the possibility of persons” (180).

I think I agree with this last sentence, but my understanding of the possibility of persons is not contingent on the animating reciprocity of mistaking the economy as natural. On the contrary the animating reciprocity is a degradation that subverts satisfaction in subjects that look like what life under industrial capitalist naturally makes them. Animal representations in fact try to out-nature naturalized relations under the capitalist mode of production. It is to  animal representations of capitalist relations that my dissertation attends.


Entry filed under: American Literary Naturalism, Foucault, Frank Norris, Gold Standard, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, McTeague, Walter Benn Michaels.

F comes to town tonight Final Gold Standard

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