Rereading Walter Benn Michaels’ Gold Standard

November 21, 2008 at 6:46 am Leave a comment

I’d like to explore the idea that, as I recently expressed to a friend, it’s not that Michaels’ reading of the logic of naturalism in The Gold Standard is incorrect, it’s that his reading of his reading is wrong.

Michaels writes that

in naturalism, no persons are natural. In naturalism, personality is always corporate and all fictions, like souls metaphorized in bodies, are corporate fictions. (213)

What he means is that personality is only representation, devoid of any content beyond its situation, or perhaps less felicitously, its situationality–that is, its historical ontology. Personality is corporate because like a legal corporation, or indeed like money, its ontological status is purely the symptom of representation. It lives as a discourse, a species of logic, beyond which is only material, and not more: a brain without soul.

Failing to be a person, [the economy] images by the way it isn’t a person the condition in naturalism of the possibility of persons. (180)

In other words, the possibility of persons in naturalism, is, like economic value, imaginary, that is, a construct. The economy, of course, is a set of rules that function in Adam Smith’s famous formulation as a hidden hand. The process of production and consumption is not about who people are; it is about the roles they perform. These roles are specifically not likened to a subject, a Bill, Todd, or Jane. The hand produces the possibility of subjects that are always versions of itself. Whatever Bill, Todd, and Jane believe they are doing is irrelevant. Whatever I believe my naturalist fiction about Bill, Todd, and Jane means is irrelevant. Meaning and being are only possible as a kind of historical fiction that, for Michaels, tells one story: it’s the economy.

This is the heart of Michaels book:

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 and economic interests of the people or groups of people (e.g., classes) who held 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 that logic. (177)

The economy is a priori. If the interests of some people and some groups did not produce the beliefs that constitute the logic of naturalism, then they are left with what remains, to consume those beliefs. For Michaels,

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. (172-3)

Of the aforementioned dichotomies, it’s material and representation, the stuff of phenomenology, that captures Michaels’ understanding of the working out of conflicts staged by naturalist texts. Phenomenology is the business of how one makes sense of, or if you like, consumes experience. The knowledge produced by one’s class experience falls under the purview of epistemology. I prefer to read naturalism as working-in a set of conflicts to get beyond them. Michaels is right that the economy is prior and constitutive, but wrong to suggest that the logic of naturalism that stages conflicts between material and representation is sufficient to explain naturalism as such. Any working-out implies a third term, however inchoate. It is towards the production of that term that studies of literary naturalism might best take aim.

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