Final Gold Standard

March 18, 2007 at 5:39 pm Leave a comment

Here’s a quick last post on Michaels’ Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism. Next I’m headed to Donald Pizer’s The Theory and Practice of American Literary Naturalism.

For now though, Michaels: “In the Song of the West, the epic life doubles the corporate life, production doubles consumption, the ‘fecundated earth’ (152) doubles the ‘fecudity of aggregation.’ They are all, as [Josiah] Royce and [Frank] Norris variously put it, ‘imeasurable,’ ‘illimitable,’ ‘immortal,’ ‘infinite,’ ‘insatiable.’ The corporation, the ‘artificial person,’ incarnates (for better or for worse) this transcendence of the limits that make up ‘natural’ persons. And in doing so, it represents what I take to be a central problem for natualism, the irruption in nature of the powerfully unnatural” (212).

This “irruption” of the powerfully unnatural, in so far as it subverts bad mimesis toward something radically unlike realism’s representation (and naturalization) of relations under industrial capitalism, in fact anticipates without representing something different than the status quo. On my account, what Michaels calls “the central problem for naturalism” is in fact it’s fundamental (and perhaps foundational?) virtue. However, it is impossible to recognize the formal and monstrous (in a good way) commitment to radical politics when naturalist author’s non-fictive texts have been excised. Naturalism makes men and women animals in anticipation of a moment when they can be human again. It is a fundamentally diachronic and dialectical move. Michaels heads in a different direction with this.

“The rhetoric of ‘force’ tries to solve this problem [the powerfully unnatural irruption in nature]. Substituting machines for men, it resolves the anomaly of the corporate person [an entity without body, yet having a body in the “eyes” of the law] by turning all persons corporate and natural both into entities. But just as Machen’s commonsense reduction of person to entity turned out to involve an irreducible and immaterial fictionality that produced instead a dazzling legitimation of corporate personality, so the corporate fiction of Royce and Norris continually produces persons out of material as unpromising as statistical aggregates or the ‘limitless’ ‘monotony of the . . . wheat lands” (229). It accomplishes this not by personification–treating the thing as if it were a person–but by seeing the immaterial in the material, seeing the person who is already there” (212).

This is useful. At some point, maybe in the first chapter, I’ll need to discuss what constitutes a “person” in naturalist fiction. Michaels sees the corporate human in the unnatural person. I see something less formally complete–the corporate entity has a body by way of that body’s legal recognition–whereas the naturalist body invokes the human body it is and is not, an action noecessarily involving the complicit readerly recognition that something more is wanting. This something more might resemble the aggregate of persons’ desires and actions embodied by a corporation–but these desires and actions’ indeterminacy fixes the coordinates of their representation beyond the possibility of recognition as a moment of “natural” capitalist exchange and anticipates, I argue, a communist mode of production, or, at least, something radically different.

Michaels: “While the word monopoly appears only once in the 450-odd pages of The Octopus, the word monotony appears over and over again, almost always describing the fields of wheat, ‘bounded only by the horizons’: ‘there was something inordinate about it all, something almost unnatural’ (48). What is ‘innordinate’ and ‘unnatural’ is the monopoly behind the monotony, the artificial person behind the natural one. Here is perhaps the deepest complicity between naturalism and the corporation. In naturalism, no persons are natural. In naturalism, personality is always corporate and all fictions, like souls metaphorized in bodies, are corporate fictions” (212-13).

I reject the “complicity” between naturalism and the corporation. While persons in naturalist fictions look something less than human–like so many brutes, and the corporation has a legal body if not a mind and soul–although both are something less than complete (as Michaels might say) in a certain sense, where Michaels and I differ is in what this sense means, that is, in my account, what it portends.

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Entry filed under: American Literary Naturalism, Frank Norris, Gold Standard, Josiah Royce, Pizer, Walter Benn Michaels.

More Gold Standard At Work

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