Sunday, August 22, 2010

In the Name of Science, Part 1

An article in a new issue of Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature (a special issue subtitled "US Women Writing Race") examines Mary Bradley Lane's 1881 utopia, Mizora: A Prophecy. I remember hearing a few years ago that a new edition of it had recently been published (I think this must have been the 1999 Bison edition), but after reading a review of it in the New York Review of Science Fiction (by Gwyneth Jones, if I'm recalling correctly), I decided to pass on reading it myself. As a utopia, judging by the review, it sounded not just tedious, but awful. Katherine Broad's "Race, Reproduction, and the Failures of Feminism in Mary Bradley Lane's Mizora" pretty much makes the case that the book really can't be considered feminist, though the publishers of the 2000 edition markets the book as "an 1880s radical feminist utopia." Yes, Mizora is a separatist utopia where men do not exist and women have produced a "scientifically" ordered "civilization." But Lane's founding assumption is that perfection is embodied in women who have blonde hair and blue eyes and perfectly healthy bodies. And as Broad remarks, "Mizora is not just about women's abilities to control nature, technology, sexuality, and labor. It is also about women being controlled." (262)

What most interests me in Broad's article is her discussion of the role science and technology play in creating this racist utopia. The most glaring "science" in Lane's utopia is an extreme eugenicist practice supposedly responsible for creating a "perfect" society. Mizora achieved its "perfection" after centuries of eugenic practice: "Crime is evolved from perverted natures, and natures become perverted from ill-usage. It merges into a peculiar structure of the brain that becomes hereditary...The only remedy was annihilation. Criminals had no posterity." As Broad remarks,

In this simplified narrative of historical progression, crime is not an act but a person--the criminal--who disappears along with other social undesirables like men, blacks, and even brunettes. Not surprisingly, the mentally and physically disabled cared for in Looking Backward have no place in Mizora. Scientifically aided and state sponsored evolution works in the name of progress to facilitate the emergence and perpetuity of a superior civilization whose advanced status is determined by the legibility of citizens' biologies and their supposedly corresponding inner pathologies. (258)

Sad to say, the notion that crime is not so much an act but a person comes horribly close to mainstream thought in the US today-- that, at least, is the subtext of current practice (as opposed to the principles of, say, the US Constitution). In short, Lane's assumption is that "criminality" is genetic in origin and found in the genes of brunettes, women of color, and all men.

According to Broad Lane also uses "science" to eliminate poverty and industrialized labor. "Lane achieves egalitarianism only be eliminating the need for laboring classes and the negative associations of low-class and immigrant workers." In Mizora, "cooks are chemists and housekeepers artists who have chosen their highly respected positions through the natural calling of their innate abilities. Once their domestic actities are considered scientific they becme 'respectable', a transformation that simultaneously elevates and undercuts traditionally female activities by granting importance only through scientific validation." (259) This seems less like actual science, though, than job reclassifications. (Spin control!)

But in what sense are any of these techniques "scientific" or "science"-based? It seems to me that science here has become a referent not to a method for producing knowledge, but rather to any set of techniques exerting control over nature and human perception. Lane seems to take science to be nothing more than a set of tools allowing people in power to reshape the world and manipulate human nature and social organization. Utopia is achieved, then, by using such "science" to extrapolate on the basis of one's beliefs.

I should probably note that a reviewer at the SF Site had this to say about Lane's depiction of science:
Lane's portrayal of the Mizoran society's development as largely a result of advancements in science is fairly remarkable. While it ignores any possible detrimental consequences of scientific discoveries, and the issue of unisexual mammalian reproduction is basically ignored, the existence of video-phones, carbon dioxide enrichment of greenhouse crops, and the understanding of food preparation as a form of experimental chemistry are remarkable.

But then he also found the book eminently--and comfortably--"feminist":
Lane's Mizora shows women to be intelligent, cooperative and capable of peaceful productive higher civilization. However, its feminism is in no way strident; men are more ignored and forgotten than hated, and its surface-world female heroine appears largely taken aback by her civilization's barbarity. [...] for women, Mizora will certainly be an interesting look into the mind of an obviously intelligent Victorian woman, and for those other men an interesting cultural and literary landmark of women's literature that at least isn't stridently anti-male.

Hmm. So he doesn't notice the racism, or if he does, it doesn't bother him enough to mention it. But what he does mention is that despite the absence (and exclusion of men) from this "utopia," its "feminism" isn't "strident"! Well Lane's "feminism" doesn't come anywhere near my own notion of feminism, anymore than Lane's view of "science" matches my own notion of science.

Not surprisingly, while I was reading Broad's article, I easily recalled that numerous examples of such "scientific" practices abounded in the 19th century, under the banner of  pseudo-sciences like eugenics (aka Social Darwinism), craniometry, phrenology, etc. But after finishing the article, I realized that we constantly encounter fresh examples of the same kind of thinking today, in the 21st century-- particularly in studies designed to establish that characteristics that conform to entrenched beliefs and attitudes about race, gender, and sex differences are biologically determined and not an artifact of social organization. Obviously we often see this in psychological studies designed to establish race, gender, and sex differences. But we also encounter this in studies of the brain. (Think of how frequently MRI scans of particular areas of the brain center on an obsession with establishing differences between the brains of men and women!)  And of course in the never-ending search for genetic evidence explaining every sort of social behavior as hard-wired. Such differences are presumably what granting agencies want to fund. But considering the limited resources available for research in the sciences that isn't aimed at either building bigger and deadlier weapons or garnering greater profits for multinational corporations peddling chemicals of one sort or another, such a focus is a terrible waste and distraction.


Josh said...

Okay, it's distressing that the SFSite reviewer is partying like it's 1975; and the novel sounds seriously fascistic. But "eugenics (aka Social Darwinism)"? Ann points out that "Eugenics is based on the assumption that Social Darwinism will not work, and that without social intervention, the socially and genetically undesirable will find each other, and have sex with each other, and breed, and will eventually outnumber the desirables."

Timmi Duchamp said...

Technically Ann's correct, Josh, but while Spencerian "Social Darwinism" used natural selection in a sense Darwin himself did not propose as an alibi for vast inequality, many Social Darwinists also urged that society be shaped via eugenics-- creating an "improved model of Darwinian evolution." After all, Galton (Darwin's cousin & the man who began the eugenicist movement) argued that humans had been thwarting evolution by providing social support to the unfit, & thus natural selection hadn't been allowed to work-- & that thus an active eugenicist movement was required to compensate for unnatural interference. Granted, the eugenicists went further in their "reasoning" than the Social Darwinists, but I suspect most people who bought into Social Darwinism believed that the only reason the "less intelligent" outnumbered the "intelligent" was because natural selection had long been prevented from doing its job.

Josh said...

Part of the problem is that the term "Social Darwinism," popularized by Hofstadter in the 1940s in order to connect various reprehensible forms of laissez-faire capitalism (see post and all the comments here[I don't remember having written the comment signed "Josh," but it does sound like my prose, doesn't it?]) is so vague; and of course, today's right-wing efforts to blame Darwin for Hitler don't help! But "major eugenicists invoked Social Darwinist principles" is, to my mind, different from suggesting that the terms are synonymous. The Social Darwinist credo of "Don't do anything to prevent our inferiors from dying out like they oughtta" was not held by such advocates of eugenics as Bernard Shaw, Helen Keller, Clarence Darrow, and W.E.B. Du Bois. Dunno about Jack London and Charlotte Perkins Gilman: do you?

Timmi Duchamp said...

Great link, Josh! In short, it was all a great deal more complicated than I'd been thinking. I especially appreciate Timothy Burke's lengthy comment. The portion of his comment that's probably most pertinent to my post is this:

"There are a very substantial number of tropes, terms, events and so on which are taken as historical truths which, when you take the trouble to trace them back, rest on very slender and sometimes extremely old scholarly foundations. You could spend your life as a historian just doing skeptical investigation of many commonly reproduced ideas about the past and probably debunk or at least complicate half of them. Eugenics is an interesting example that's closely linked to "Social Darwinism": it differed very substantially from nation to nation, but in England and the United States, it actually had very little to say about people of color, contra the commonly received view (which I often see in humanistic writing). It certainly had a powerful racial referent, but a lot of that was implicit, and almost always directed at white people, at a notion that the hierarchical place of whites was threatened by their ebbing biological strength due to their over-civilization. In other words, it was a lot weirder than the commonsensical invocation of it often looks."

I think that makes Lane's choice of settling on color (in addition to gender) as the key to eugenic perfection even more striking. (As for Charlotte Perkins Gilman: she was pro-Eugenics, too. I know she wrote an article titled "Social Darwinism" published in 1907, but I don't know what she said in it.)

Josh said...

Ooh, Tim Burke's, like, my favorite centrist evar. I would go so far as to say that he's almost always right about the topics he discusses in the blogosphere, except when he's contradicted by Patrick Nielsen Hayden, who's to his left on a few significant issues. And Tim's so flattered by my mention of him on page 27 of It Walks in Beauty!

Squeeing aside, here's the followup conversation over at SEK's (now with added Ray Davis!)

Josh said...

I just did some Google Scholaring on Gilman, who I think problematizes your argument. She's rather famously to the right of Pat Buchanan on immigration, black Americans, and maybe Jews: see, among many books and articles, Dana Seitler's "Unnatural Selections: Mothers, Eugenic Feminism, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Regeneration Narratives" in American Quarterly 55.1 (March 2003), or A.E. Weinbaum's "Writing Feminist Genealogy: Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Racial Nationalism, and the Reproduction of Maternalist Feminism" in Feminist Studies 27.2 (Summer 2001). Unlike Margaret Sanger, a proponent of eugenics whose racism is largely right-wing myth (as I understand it, they dropped all the words preceding "in" from a sentence saying something like "We must work hard to fight the understandable anxiety that in introducing birth control our goal is to exterminate the Negro"), Gilman seems to have been into both (this does not really refute Burke: one can subscribe to two unfortunate beliefs without thinking that they're connected). But Egan (Hypatia 4.1 (Spring 1989)) makes a good case that the socialist Gilman was openly opposed to Social Darwinism.

It seems we're back in How do we think about politically appalling feminists territory.

Timmi Duchamp said...

Thanks, Josh, for sending me Thomas Leonard's History of Political Economy essay. It looks as though just about every educated person in favor of social reform in the US & Britain were proponents of eugenics-- which means Lane's choosing to make eugenics the cornerstone of her utopia wouldn't have struck most people as in any way out of the ordinary-- only her assumption that male genes numbered among those that needed to be eradicated. & since, according to Leonard, even in the 19th century the term "social darwinist" was an epithet of abuse & moreover was a term that could accurately be applied to only two persons, clearly it's a label that needs to be retired to the, ah, "agenda farm." & so I can safely promise to never again let the expression pass my lips.

More interesting, of course, is the mass belief that eugenics was a real "science."

Josh said...

Yeah, it's not so much the eugenics here as the goals to which it's put, notably creating a pure white Nordic population.

As for every educated person in favor of social reform believing in eugenics, that generalization overlooks the Catholics. Chesterton was certainly in favor of social reform ("distributism").