"Clean hands": post-political form in Richard Powers's Gain.
The traditional book implicitly promises that all open frames will come together. The challenge of a book that's created out of two incommensurable frames is to show how they entangle without contriving a dramatic confrontation, say, in the form of a lawsuit. Gain suggests that any lawsuit resolution would be a red herring. A lawsuit is not going to give Laura any redress. No lawsuit is going to change the rules of existence or recast the dialogue between the personal and the corporate. ("Last")
Actually, the novel does feature a "lawsuit"--a class-action suit filed in the name of those sickened by Clare chemicals, including Laura Bodey--but, just as Powers suggests, this lawsuit never culminates in a "dramatic confrontation" between defendants and plaintiffs, in or outside the courtroom. Instead, the corporation settles, suddenly and inexplicably, and Laura can only surmise that "the common stock has fallen to unacceptable levels ... an offer is the more cost-effective solution" (333).
The anti-climatic quality of this resolution underscores what a courtroom confrontation might obscure--that no lawsuit is "going to give Laura any redress. "The lack of any kind of "dramatic confrontation" between Laura and Clare suggests, moreover, that no such confrontation could resolve the novels central conflict. That is, this omission signals that the novel is not ultimately concerned with the conflict between an individual consumer and individual corporation, but with, as Powers puts it, "the rules of existence," the broader "dialogue between the personal and the corporate." Powers's comments suggest, furthermore, that deferring a "dramatic confrontation" serves not only a rhetorical function, directing attention to the larger social processes on display, but also a mimetic one, representing a hard truth about these "rules of existence": in the era of multinational corporations, the relationship between the powerful and the powerless is increasingly mediated and complex, making "confrontation" more and more unlikely.
By counterposing the act of representing complex processes against the "traditional ... contriving [of] dramatic confrontation," Powers evokes long-running debates about the relationship between social totality and aesthetic form. To gain a critical perspective on his aesthetic strategies, it's worth briefly recalling Georg Lukacs's intervention in these debates. While Lukacs acknowledges that the global economy is (already, in 1932) too complex and decentralized to depict in terms of traditional character relationships, he argues that representing this "sum of facts" about the global economy is not the same as representing social "totality" ("Reportage" 74).Totality, in Lukacs's account, is the dialectical unity of social form and content, "the inextricable coalescence of accident and necessity" (58). Capturing it means capturing "the relationship of characters to objects and events, a dynamic interaction in which characters act and suffer" ("Narrate" 112)--the "turbulent, active interaction of men" (126).
In Gain, I argue, this antagonism is missing. The absence of a confrontation between Laura and the CEO of Clare is simply the most obvious and most plausible of a series of less obvious, less plausible ways Power's novel disavows struggle, "the turbulent, active interaction of men." Using the vocabulary of contemporary social movements, the relationship between Laura and the corporation that sickens her might be described as the conflict between a "stakeholder" and "shareholders"--that is, as the tension between a member of "the motley crew of suppliers, workers, consumers, patients, and even neighbors who happen to have a stake in a corporation's activities" (Feher 24), and those owners of the "common stock" who profit directly from Clare's activities. As various critics have noted, Gain thereby disarticulates the political from more traditional oppositions like the struggle between nations or between classes, as if to suggest that globalization has redrawn the lines of conflict and alliance. (1)
When I suggest that the novel disavows struggle, I do not simply mean that Powers breaks with the traditional categories of political opposition. Rather, my claim is that the novel seems to disavow political opposition altogether. This disavowal is evident in the very structure of its twinned storylines, which take the form of dramas of pattern recognition, driven not by conflicts of interest or ideology but by the question of whether characters will perceive the increasingly counterproductive dynamics of capital. Read together, these storylines imply that there are no conflicts of interest or ideology, but simply shared misperceptions of an inefficient system. We see a tension between ends (to maximize the quantity and quality of lives) and means (a reliance on market-driven, corporate-sponsored innovation), a tension figured as a misalignment between what people want and what corporations have been allowed to do. There are no intractable economic conflicts here: not between workers and owners, not between rich and poor, not even between "stakeholders" and "shareholders."
In fact, this narrative logic reveals what is already implicit in such "nongovernmental" movements as "stakeholder activism," which aspire "to be involved in politics without aspiring to govern, be governed by the best leaders, or abolish the institutions of government" (Feher 12). Like Gain, these movements suggest what might be described as a "post-political vision": social relations are comprised not by subjects in conflict but by diverse interests that are nevertheless commensurable with a singular "public interest," commensurable provided they are recognized and coordinated by a government that intervenes from somewhere outside the realm of "politics."
This same rationality is also implicit, I will argue, in the very social structure critiqued by both Gain and many of these "nongovernmental" movements: neoliberalism, the contemporary ideology which "holds that social good will be maximized by maximizing the reach and frequency of market transactions" (Harvey 3). Unlike classical liberalism, neoliberalism holds that such "market transactions" will maximize "social good" only if the proper conditions--including the training of citizens who will thrive in such markets--are carefully constructed by government (Mirowski 439). Connecting "social good" to "market transactions" nevertheless depends on a disavowal of the class antagonism intrinsic to capitalism. Deregulation, privatization, and the promotion of corporate rights have been crucial to this neoliberal project, which means that, despite Gains grim portrait of unchecked corporate power, the novel nevertheless shares an underlying political logic with the ideology most responsible for the expansion of this power.
The rest of this paper will trace out these contradictory dynamics, beginning with an analysis of how Powers articulates the complex connection between individuals and the development of multinational corporate capitalism. In my last two sections, I will show how his approach ultimately figures the resolution of the contradictions of class struggle, enacting a vision of the social that marks Gain as not only "post-political" but "post-historical"--with all the political and historical baggage those terms imply, and contrary to Powers's intention to think politically by thinking historically.
God and insurance, salve and salvation
A mode of governmentality entails an account of how the relationship among the state, the market, and individual subjects should be arranged to best fulfill government's biopolitical function, its concern with "the right of the social body to ensure, maintain, and develop its life" (Foucault 136). In essence, Gain is a narrative about how a counterproductive form of this relationship reproduces itself through ideological narratives unlike the narrative of Gain. The novel's political intervention is thus intended to support its aesthetic one, and vice versa. Both projects are animated by a faith in the power of pattern recognition or misrecognition--instead of political conflict--as the motor of historical change.
Iterations of the ideological narratives critiqued by Gain appear throughout the novel, but one particularly succinct version appears on a cardboard calling card bearing one of the first Clare slogans, dating back to when it was still simply a family business, "S, R, & B Clare.... He that hath clean hands shall grow stronger and stronger" (71).This card appears twice in the book: first as a fragment in the novel's textual collage, second as an artifact in a private museum dedicated to Clare memorabilia, which Laura visits late in her illness. Spying the card, Laura muses: "What else did anyone ever want? Here it is, the thin thing pulling life on, the value-added thread tying salve to salvation" (295).
This "thin thing" is a miniature narrative, and like all the other mini-narratives in the novel, it ties "salve to salvation." That is, they all narrate the possibility, inevitability, or indisputability of an improved quality of life through the consumption of what might be called--using a metaphoric license granted by the novel itself--"biotechnology," from soap to genetic engineering, from pharmaceuticals to life insurance. "Thank God for insurance" (114), Laura muses, during a chemotherapy treatment: "Anyone who denies progress has never seen a parent die from inability to pay for treatment." Gain suggests that such "undeniable" narratives conceal a crucial contradiction, one well-articulated by Melinda Cooper--drawing on Marx--in her recent analysis of finance-driven life science: "As long as life science production is subject to the imperatives of capitalist accumulation, the promise of a surplus of life will be predicated on a corresponding move to devaluate life" (49).This is because:
there is one limit that capitalism never escapes--the imperative to derive profit and thus to recapture the "new" within the property form.... It cannot expand into a new-space time of accumulation, beyond its actual limits, without bringing this one internal limitation along with it. Thus, even when it seems to move into the most evanescent and unexpected of futures, it will need to subtract from the very surplus it calls into being. Only on this condition can the promise of surplus life be rendered profitable. (25)
Promising only "surplus life," the ideological narratives in Gain conceal this necessary devaluation of life, a contradiction the novel exposes through a tactic of ironic juxtaposition.
In the narrative voiced by Laura Bodey, for example, the "progress" that saves lives, insurance, is predicated on a simultaneous, disavowed devaluation of life: the life that will not be saved because of a lack of insurance. Laura never questions the link between "treatment" and the ability "to pay for treatment," or--what amounts to same thing--the ability to pay for insurance. As Laura muses about insurance, hooked up to her chemotherapy, she takes in a medicine that is also a poison, a cure for the effects of pollution that is itself a pollutant: "Cisplatin, she remembers. The killer heavy metal.... The kind of stuff they'd sue you for letting within ten miles of the village water supply. But here they've worked her up a private hip flask" (114). More pointedly, we later learn that Laura's chemical treatment is produced, in part, by Clare, the same company that produced the "life-enhancing" chemicals that seem to have made her sick in the first place. Such loops suggest that these technologies of surplus life produce not only surplus death, but new markets for new technologies of surplus life, leading to surplus "life" for the Clare corporation, at the expense of victims like Laura Bodey.
Again and again, we see innovations in "business," as represented by Clare, that transform the products or byproducts of business--from toxins to the disruptions of "creative destruction" itself--into new avenues of accumulation, new ways to "survive" periods of over-accumulation and crisis: "Business changed to meet the upheavals that business instigated" and hence there is "no reason why the corporation ... could not go on self-propagating forever" (180). (2) Hooked up to the chemicals that give both life and death, Laura occupies the crux of this giant, accelerating feedback loop between people and corporations, in which, according to Gain, the relationship between humans and the natural world becomes increasingly mediated by business. (3) This is a change without the "progress" or development promised by the ideological narratives of "salve and salvation," as the system doesn't escape the basic contradiction described above. Thus, "He that hath clean hands," the person who has used Clare cleaning products religiously, will not "grow stronger and stronger"; instead she is "desiccated," "exhausted," and "wiped out" (295) by cancer. Meanwhile, the one with "dirty" hands--the corporation, guilty of polluting and other offenses--has indeed grown "stronger and stronger," transforming from a small soap company to a multinational, multi-conglomerate, literally "covering the earth."
But the irony of Clare's slogan lies not only in its misrepresentation of the reality, but also in its unintended truth. Having "clean hands" also invokes being free of responsibility, and the very definition of a "Corporation"--at least in Ambrose Bierce's Devil's Dictionary, quoted in the novel--is "an ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility" (159). The ones who can wash their hands of responsibility--not the stakeholder but the corporate person, externalizing social cost to make a profit, and the shareholder, enriched by these actions but only on the hook for the price of his or her share--shall indeed "grow stronger and stronger." In this sense, the corporation is itself a kind of biotechnology, extending the scope and duration of a businessperson's life-project but also churning out unnecessarily shortened lives. Thanks to incorporation, "Business now far outstripped the single life's span" (154).
In Gain, then, the ideological narratives of "salve and salvation" conceal contradiction and change-without-development; in so doing, they also conceal their own ideological function. The novel itself, in contrast, works to expose this function. In scenes like Laura's visit to the chemo clinic, it suggests that by internalizing such narratives of "progress,"--thinking them at the same moment, in this scene, that she literally internalizes Clare chemicals--consumers like Laura help Clare reproduce itself. And here the reproduction of a single corporation is metonymy for the reproduction of an entire system. This is the essence of Gain's political intervention: to represent how misperception of these patterns has been the motor of capitalism's counterproductive trajectory, and, because every "contradiction" implies the possibility of resolution, to point to how more clearsighted perception can be the motor of real "progress," not this change-you-can't-believe-in.
The end of business
Though so far I've focused on Powers's ironic juxtaposition of imagery, such juxtaposition also informs the structure of the novel as a whole. The critique of ideology I've described suggests two "storylines," one whose structure can be described as "evolutionary," the other as "novelistic." Articulating these two implied stories helps clarify the formal differences between Gain's main narratives.
On one hand, there is the actual history of the Clare corporation, whose reproduction shares the same structure, if not the same blind mechanisms, as the reproduction of a species. By virtue of both conscious innovation and blind luck, the company continually adapts to its environment, the market, and thus has continued to survive; it is continually "adaptive," in the biological sense of remaining suited to reproduce, even as it shapes its very environment, as in the case of Laura Bodey. This reciprocal trajectory--"species" (corporation) and "environment" (market) figures the "evolution" of capitalism itself: each time Clare's old methods of accumulation are exhausted, we see it turn to new modes, "lifting the whole entrepreneurial cycle to ever-higher playing fields" (339).
This evolutionary narrative could be said to be "meaningless," in the same sense that evolution, in its strict biological definition, can be described as meaningless: there is no "meaning" to survival beyond survival itself. If a corporation or a species lives or dies, it means only that a corporation or species lives or dies: "the end of business was to outlast the needs it satisfied" (157)--that is, the end of business is to keep doing business. This is different, of course, from how we typically understand the events of a "plot," which has meaning precisely because is fashioned to do some sort of narrative work. A "plot" is, as I've already implied, a good description of those life-structuring beliefs about the system, according to which the system is moving in a progressive trajectory. Such narratives impute a "meaning" beyond the mere fact of survival: what has happened ought to or had to happen.
Accordingly, the history of Clare is made to seem "formlesss" in its contrast with the other narrative, whose implied genre is, as Powers puts it, "'80s domestic fiction" ("Last"), the minimalist "portrait of alienation" ("Making" 306). The formless "anti-narrative" quality of the Clare narrative suggests a lack of aesthetic unity, relative to the "novelistic" quality of Laura's story. This difference invites the impression that, unlike that of Laura's story, the form of Clare's history has been dictated by history itself--that is, by circumstances other than the designs of an author. I should hasten to add, however, that the "formed" quality of Laura's narrative is visible only when viewed in relation to the other narrative. There is nothing in the story itself that draws attention to its constructedness, no explicit frame-breaking gestures such as--as in Powers's Generosity (2009)--a narrator's commenting on the relationship between the novelistic narrative and evolutionary development.
What makes the Clare sections of Gain seem formless is, first of all, their excessive repetitiveness. (4) We read a historical narrative constituted by a constant stream of business- and life-saving innovation, economic booms, economic crises, and destruction of fife--and insistences that this time, business has gotten closer to its ultimate goal, "to beat death" (350): "In light of "Adam's expiring curse ... it seemed that life's weight might lift a little before this generation passed away" (68); "The game was as good as solved" (180);"Prosperity no longer meant inevitable subsequent shutdowns" (288); "Soon death itself would be brought into the process, made to occur at the optimal transfer points" (290); "Life would be at nothing's mercy" (324);"Mankind had all but won" (329).
This repetitiveness renders these assertions ironic, but it also seems to suggest that Powers is simply putting in "everything that happened" to Clare. His choice about where to begin and end the story of his corporate "person" adds to this impression. Although the novel begins with an account of how Clare came to Lacewood in the 1880s, as part of a brief opening exposition about the town itself, the rest of the history proceeds chronologically, from when Jephthah Clare comes to America in 1802 until the turn of the millennium. In other words, the history of the American company that began as "J. Clare's Sons" begins with J. Clare arriving in America and ends when history catches up to the present. Such inclusivity violates Aristotle's belief that the good poet "does not put into his poem everything that happened" to his subject, since "an indefinitely large number of things happens to one person, in some of which there is no unity" (97).The implication is that something other than narrative unity dictates what to include and what not to.
In contrast, instead of repetition, and instead of the repeated failure to recognize the contradiction leading to this repetition, Laura's story is structured in part by the growing awareness of its main character, a dawning recognition of how much both her mind and body have been shaped by corporations. This development culminates in Laura's epiphanic realization not only of what (probably) caused her cancer, but also that the influence of corporations on her life extends much deeper, making the ambiguity about the cause of the cancer irrelevant. Her story, moreover, is framed in a way that suggests an internal, organic logic governs when it begins and ends. It begins roughly with the start of her conflicts--her struggle with cancer and her struggle for self-awareness--and ends when she has lost the first struggle and, with her realization about the influence of corporations, achieved some measure of victory in the second. In other words, as Aristotle might put it, her story is narrated to suggest "a whole ... that which has a beginning, middle, and a conclusion" (96).
Finally, where Clare's history relies overwhelmingly on what we might call, following Jesse Matz, the narrative speed of "summary" (66), Laura's story is much more frequently (and, for novels, typically) comprised by the narrative speed of "scene." In a scene, as Matz describes it, the time narrated equals time of narration, and concerns "events" like dialogue and the movements of consciousness, which happen at the "speed" of language itself (Matz 66). In the Clare narrative, as Paul Maliszewski points out, there is very little dialogue and not much time spent dwelling in individual consciousness (169). The result of making a corporation the main character is that we have "focalized information," a term Powers uses in his critical essay on systems novels, instead of focalized consciousness, the traditional vehicle of narrative conventions like "character development" and "dramatic interest" ("Making" 307).
So, while Powers avoids "contriving a dramatic confrontation" between "the personal and the corporate," he does make strategic use of the traditional contrivances of dramatic unity. This implied opposition between these sites of "form" and "formlessness" isn't presented as a postmodern critique of "grand narrative," however. Noting that "those who believe in the postmodern break would find ludicrous the notion that we're part of any project at all," Powers dismisses that position as "our current malaise: not to believe that we belong to anything larger than ourselves" ("Last"). Instead, opposing form to formlessness points toward how, though the "evolution" of business lacks the narrative form we ascribe to it, we must nonetheless ascribe such a form because: "we all live our lives as a tale that is told." Precisely because "we belong to [something] larger than ourselves," in the sense of institutional structures that must be constantly renewed by succeeding generations, the future offers the possibility of new stories and new structures. Noting a scene in Gain where he quotes Churchill--"We construct our buildings, and thereafter, they construct us" (260)--Powers suggests that "the politics of my writing hover around this idea that yes, we have constructed our buildings, but no, they don't have to construct us" ("Last").
Does Powers's account of "the politics" of his writing accord with his actual treatment of the political, especially in terms of what that treatment assumes and what it forecloses? In the context of a historical novel, addressing such a question means taking a closer look at how the novel posits history itself. In Gain, this means returning, once again, to the "Riverton Mansion," home of the "Lacewood Historical Society" (50).
History, politics, and the manufactured world
As she struggles through rooms filled with Clare memorabilia, Laura Bodey observes that:
each glass showcase gets a little older than the last. The Me Decade reverts to the Summer of Love, which fades back into the Golden Era.... After three or four cases, she realizes she has entered the loop backwards. But she's in too deep to leave and start again from the beginning. (294)
This "backwards" encounter with history suggests, quite simply, a failure to think historically, a failure to understand how past turns into present. This failure to think historically is a function of the particular way Laura encounters history, an approach Powers figures in terms of spatial positioning: she's "in too deep," lacking the "aerial view" (89) afforded to the reader. Where she can see only the bits of commercial propaganda produced by Clare, represented by the collage-like stream of texts dividing the two narratives, we see not only this propaganda stream but also the contradictions it obscures. Laura's failure is thus a failure to start "from the beginning," to examine the basic structures and processes that have led to this ever-intensifying feedback "loop" between consumers and corporations. Laura's touring the museum in reverse, then, underscores the novel's main political and aesthetic thrust: to encounter history through a collection of ideological narratives is to "enter the loop backwards," as it means trying to understand dynamic processes through texts whose systemic function is, in part, to hide these processes.
Never quite achieving the vantage afforded to the reader, Laura has access only to decontextualized bits of cliched historical imagery--"the Me Decade reverts to the Summer of Love, which fades back into the Golden Era"--experiencing what Fredric Jameson characterizes as the postmodern "disappearance of the historical referent.... A new and original historical situation in which we are condemned to seek History by way of our own pop images and simulacra of that history, which itself remains forever out of reach" (25). (5) Attempting to depict the processes, not just the products, of global capital, Gain can be read as an attempt to relocate "the historical referent," to recontextualize and reanimate the "pop images and simulacra" (320) of corporate culture. But to truly think historically about capitalism is to think politically--and vice versa--and the political is precisely what Powers's text forecloses.
The simplest way this is true is that, as one interviewer points out, "An absence in this book--and throughout most of the other ones--is that politics and politicians don't really walk across the stage" ("Industrial").There is in Gain no discursively equivalent "politician" mediating between "the person" and "the corporation-as-person," and opposition or alternatives to capitalism also barely appear. But the disavowal of the political goes deeper than that. When Powers does attempt to depict politics as such, and when he does acknowledge the presence of other political systems, it becomes clear that human conflict itself, the very substance of the political, is largely absent from his text.
Here, for instance, is the core of Powers's description of the great political and economic struggles of the Depression and New Deal era:
By the fall of 1932, Lacewood was as radicalized as a conservative farm town would ever get. Folks who would have not stooped to slip bread and water under Debs's prison bars lined up to vote for Norman Thomas. And the revolution would have prevailed, society would have transformed itself at last, had not Roosevelt come along and stolen the best lumber out from underneath the militant Socialists and turned it into mainstream party planks. First, the President brought back booze, that distraction beyond value. Then, almost instantly, he went on a shark hunt. Two successive, sweeping securities acts lowered the boom on all the clever riggers of the big money. It was time, Roosevelt declared, for business to play by the rules and remember the original purpose of doing business. What that purpose was, neither Roosevelt nor anyone else ever ventured to recall. (308)
This is political history as "pop image." What's more important, however, is that it is political history as a stream of inert facts, bits of data forming recognizable patterns. The pattern is signified in the ironic final line: here is yet another misrecognition of business's fundamental purposelessness. Rather than finding a way to dramatize the human conflicts at work during this period, showing how these major events emerge out of individual struggles, mediated by class--an approach that emphasizes both the contingency of these events and the continued relevance of these struggles--Powers represents the Depression and New Deal as simply the working out of a systemic tendency, which we perceive from a position of ironic remove. This depoliticizing abstraction has the perverse effect of naturalizing the metastasization of corporate capitalism, as if it really did happen like evolution. In this way, the text clashes with Powers's suggestion that what "we have constructed" doesn't have to "construct us," implying that corporations and their contradictions will always be with us. Ultimately, this conclusion must be drawn from Gain because there is nothing in the formal logic of the text to signal that the system is the product of choices between contested alternatives.
Not all of the novel's historical content is so radically compressed, of course, but even its more developed moments are structured like information to be processed. One way to articulate what's missing from Gain is to note the absence of what Lukacs calls the "mediocre hero," a figure by which the historical novelist can dramatize that "society" is not simply "uninterrupted self-reproduction, as something stagnant; society also stands amid the current of history. Here the new opposes itself hostilely to the old" (Historical 39). Because, for instance, such a hero "sides passionately with neither of the warring camps in the great crises of his time" (37), he or she "can become involved alternately with the leaders of each of the opposing parties" and "these leaders can be portrayed not merely as social and historical forces but men in human relationships" ("Narrate" 141). By means of the mediocre hero, then, the writer can move beyond mere "description of important historical events," toward "a moving human drama in which we get to know the typical agents of great historical conflict as human beings," positing history as "the arena for human ambitions, a stage or battlefield for men's struggles with each other" (135).
No such sense of "hostility" and historical dynamism animates Gain. There are no "mediocre heroes," in either the historical or present-day narrative, precisely because there are no "opposing parties," no "warring camps" with which Laura or any other character can side. (6) Modern history is not posited as a "battlefield for men's struggles with each other," not as a series of conflicts between classes, alternate political systems, political parties, modes of production, or even different stages in a mode of production. Rather, history in Gain appears as an unfolding conflict between the public interest and the working of the system, expressed as dramas of pattern recognition and misrecognition.
In the characters of Benjamin Clare (a scientist) and Samuel Clare (a religious Adventist), Powers does attempt to depict alternatives to the business-for-business's sake approach modeled by the third brother, Resolve Clare. But the value systems represented by these two reluctant businessmen don't emerge in the novel as real political alternatives or threats to capitalism, and they are ultimately subjected to the imperatives of the corporation. Again, though, the key point concerns not whether Powers finally offers political alternatives, but rather how he represents these dalliances with other ways of being. Like Laura Bodey's, the stories of Benjamin and Samuel are stories of ideological blindness and estranging insight; indeed, Powers frames these stories in a way that suggests they are the same story.
Here, for example, is the great, transformative moment in Samuel's life, a transformation that plays out in a little over three pages. After his devout wife, Dorcas, reads a William Miller tract predicting "the world would end at the stroke of midnight, October 22, 1844" (81), Samuel settles his "earthly accounts" (82) and sells off his "worldly property," including his share of the Clare company, which he signs over to his brother Resolve. Samuel and Dorcas don "ascension gowns" and head to the highest point in the house to wait for "worlds last midnight." Their disappointed return to earth segues directly--without the typical commercial break--into Laura's return from her first chemo visit:
In the early hours of October 23, Samuel and Dorcas Clare, Elizabeth, Mary, and baby Douglas descended from the upper rooms of their house, still stubbornly theirs. They walked back through the obstinately undissolved foyer, emptied at last of the waking nightmare of deliverance. And they looked out, like returned Crusoes, upon the manufactured world. They send Laura home. Except it isn't home anymore ... All this space: it's never been anything more than an obligation to fill it. And the filler, all her carefully coordinated furniture: so cozy a nest once. Now lifeless twigs, the rotted rigging of a ship in a vacuum bottle. She must have been mad. Had some crazed idea that the house would be her safe haven. Would always take care of her. She's spent years taking care of it, keeping up her end of the deal. But now, at the first called debt, the house gets ready to renege. (83-84)
In one sense, these two experiences are polar opposites. Laura expected her house to be "her safe haven," to "always take care of her," while Samuel expected his house to "dissolve" during "deliverance." Laura expected that the prosperity wrought by business innovation would be the means of her salvation, while to Samuel, prosperity is merely prefigured, not produced, by economic development: "The turning of fat to soap, of labor to cash, of wilderness to rail-served settlements merely predicted in miniature Miller's final transformation. All added value was God's" (82).
The underlying structures of these two experiences, however, are quite similar. In both, "deliverance" transforms into abandonment, into the feeling of being stranded in one's own home. The narrative in both stages a confrontation with the meaninglessness of the "manufactured world"--the world as made by, and whose only meaning is to serve, business--that "reneges" on its "debt" and is "emptied at last of the waking nightmare of deliverance." Moreover, the allusion to Robinson Crusoe in the Clare scene is elaborated in Laura's: the means of deliverance, a ship, turns out to be a mere simulacrum, "the rotted rigging of a ship in a vacuum bottle." Later, as her days are disrupted by the effects of the chemo and her alienation deepens, this elaboration is made more explicit: "Her life. Her life, Laura keeps telling herself. But the thing feels like nothing she's ever visited. She's back in some alien England, after years shipwrecked on a coral shoal that shows up on no one's map" (119).
The crucial point is that both of these narratives are structured by revelation, or failed revelation, not conflicts with other characters. The tension between "American religion" and "American business" does not play out, for instance, in tension between Samuel and Resolve, and there is no brotherly conflict either before or after Samuel's leave-taking: "After the world stubbornly refused to end, Resolve welcomed Samuel back into the business. Never again on equal footing, of course" (103).This may signify a decline in the status of spiritual justifications for American business, but the unequal footing never translates into any kind of fraternal discord. Similarly, Samuel's supper-time disagreements with Dorcas--"man and wife grappling with the terms of their existence" (80)--are predicated on a fundamental agreement about the need to serve God.
Just as there are no intractable conflicts within these narratives, least of all conflicts between characters from different classes or positions in the mode of production, there are also no real conflicts between the characters in one narrative and the characters in the other. The parallel established between Samuel and Laura--the suggestion that they've both expected capitalism to do something it cannot do, whether to prologue or provide "deliverance"--suggests that both the shareholder and the stakeholder have the same basic interests, and that both have simply made the same mistake about how to achieve it, a mistake the reader is put in the position to observe. This narrative act disavows the conflicts intrinsic to different class positions, or between the shareholder enriched by corporate actions and the stakeholder negatively affected by it.
Indeed, this conflict remains disavowed even though Samuel rejoins the company, denies what he recognized about business, and, having outlived Resolve, is the brother who decides that Clare should incorporate--and thus it is he, as much as any other character, who can be said to be responsible for Laura Bodey's death. Yet Powers maintains the parallel, as Samuel defends his decision to incorporate with words that echo Laura's desire for a home that "would always take care of her": "Business," Samuel declares, "of rights ought to be our ancestral home, stately and permanent, upon whose paneled halls hung the portraits of all those whose hands had raised the beams and sped the plow" (158).
Thus, when "Samuel and Dorcas returned to commerces fold chastened but unrepentant Adventists" (103), it reveals something about their characters, but also something about the premises of the novel. When Samuel muses, "Visitation was merely delayed. All mankind became stakeholders in Creation's impending completion," it suggests that he has turned his back on his revelation about the "manufactured world" but also underscores how in Gain "all mankind became stakeholders." In this gesture, Powers figures a world with no fundamental disagreements about the ends of social life, and thus with no fundamental disagreements about the role of government, a world that is ostensibly "post-historical" and "post-political." According to the logic of Gain, government is to concern itself with what, according to Foucault, liberal governmentality has always been concerned with: the "biological existence of a population" (137).
Nongovernmental politics and economic government
Articulating Gains premises in this way helps situate the novel in its most immediate political context, the anti-corporate, anti-globalization movements that flourished during the late 1990s. In his analysis of such "nongovernmental" movements, Michel Feher suggests that, despite vast differences, "what specifically concerns nongovernmental activists is not who governs--who is in charge, for whose benefit, and to what alleged end--but how government is exercised" (14). Governmental performance by the state--or by corporate executives, "given to claiming that their management optimizes the prosperity of stakeholders"--is judged in terms of the biopolitical function of power, a mode of legitimation "useful for nongovernmental activists," who are able to hold such officials accountable in the name of whether their measures "contribute to the welfare of the governed" (16). That this same premise is shared by those in positions of power and those who seek to hold them accountable also highlights the (ostensibly) "post-ideological" quality of this type of politics. No longer contesting "who governs" means no longer contesting which type of government should be "in charge," which ideology should prevail. This means, in effect, no longer contesting whether preserving liberal capitalism is the best "end" and no longer questioning whether it "contributes to the welfare of the governed."
In its approach to representing politics and history, Gain shares these same post-ideological commitments. It not only posits a universally shared end, the general "welfare," but also represents the formal structure of the political in the same way as does nongovernmental politics. The latter's aspiration to be political but "nongovernmental" projects a certain vision of the relationship between the state and civil society. Specifically, it posits separate-but-interconnected zones. There is a zone for "political" involvement, where nongovernmental actors should advocate for their interests, and a separate zone for the "institutions of government," tasked with coordinating these interests in order to maximize "the welfare of the governed." Implicitly, nongovernmental actors should not pursue their interests into the realm of the state, and the state can and should stand "outside" this realm of interests, somehow free of its conflicts. This is why nongovernmental actors believe they can "be involved in politics without aspiring to govern" as, again, Feher observes, and why they eschew the goal of traditional party politics, to "be governed by the best leaders."
These refusals, and the taking for granted the "institutions of government," also imply that civil society can and must be coordinated, rather than being marked by either intractable conflict or inevitable harmony. In Gain, the zone of private interests is represented by the contents of the two main narratives, and the zone of government is to be filled by the reader, standing outside the realm of private interests, observing the inefficient relationship between the human and the corporate, and finding some way to solve this inefficiency--though Gain does indicate how to do so, aiming instead "to suggest a political vision without declaring a simplistic resolution to the enormous questions raised by the ascendance of the corporation" (Powers "Last").
Feher observes that "the 1990s were arguably the golden years--or at least the boom decade--of nongovernmental politics" (24) in part because of nongovernmental politics' compatibility with neoliberalism. (7) But this compatibility, as I've suggested, reflects a shared acceptance of a particular mode of government, the same as that articulated by Gain. In this mode, what Stephen Engelmann calls "economic government," the state "serves neither the people nor a ruler but instead an economy" (2); it is predicated on coordinating private interests in the name of maximizing the "public interest," a move that depends on "a logic of commensurability" that Engelmann calls "monistic interest" (3): "What first looks like a plurality of interests grounded in present experience and relations is always a prospective singularity" (51). Both the commensurability of interests and the expectations that define these interests must be constructed "in a system that governs by coordinating the self-government of its members" (3).
This act of coordination is the role of governing institutions, which are to approach lawmaking like "landscaping" (58):
Order must be constructed according to the "junction-of-interests prescribing principle." This principle demands that one be given the interest to do what contributes to the aggregate interest, and to not do what diminishes it. Whatever their pedigree, those interests that are not optimal in light of this principle must be changed; mechanisms must be deployed so that doing what is in the aggregate interest is in one's own interest. Laws and their attendant penalties and rewards are simply motives provided by the legislator who, since every motive has its corresponding interest, constructs interests. (54)
In this system, interests must be constructed because not everyone has '"a clear view'" (67), a lack of foresight that necessitates roles for both "direct" and "indirect" legislation, the latter of which is "the function of the moralist or 'deontologist.'" As Engelmann explains, "the landscape is always better known by some--for example, deontologists--than by others, and their role is to sketch out the landscape's prospects and explain to different people how they fit in." (8) Gain is designed to serve this explanatory function: to "sketch out the landscape's prospects" and thus shape readers who self-govern with the same "clear view"--the "aerial view" (89)--of their interests. As in economic government, in Gain these interests are made commensurable with the singular "public interest," the balance of what is best for all "stakeholders" in a global economy of gains and losses.
Engelmann clarifies that while neoliberalism is a form of economic government, economic government is not necessarily neoliberal. For instance, "whereas Bentham's conception of the value sought by economic government, utility, is a notoriously open one," utility for neoliberals "is strictly defined in terms of preferences" (146), meaning that "the expansion of the empire of choice is almost by definition good ... a great candidate for increasing efficiency and aggregate utility" (146-47). One could raise a similar caveat about Gain: it has the same formal logic as economic government, but that doesn't mean it is thereby "neoliberal." As I've suggested, in Gain the unthinking "expansion of the empire of choice"--in the form of an endless stream of marvelous new biotechnology--isn't "a great candidate for increasing efficiency and aggregate utility," but, rather, is precisely the problem.
In a 1998 New York Times op-ed piece, published just five months after Gain, Powers makes his critique of neoliberalism explicit. Written partially in response to "the ban on Federal financing of fetal tissue research," which "effectively signs over all such research to corporations," the essay suggests that "the ultimate power to manipulate all biological processes ... lies increasingly in private hands." Market logic is driving the commercial life-sciences in the direction of "ever more exotic biological techniques," Powers writes, but:
The health benefits deriving from stem cell research are likely to be arcane and expensive and nowhere near as consequential to world health as, say, the application of existing cheap, low-tech treatments for malnutrition and infant diarrhea. Even in our own country, simple prevention could save more lives more cheaply than the most futuristic technologies ever would. ("Life")
Moreover, "exotic" experiments conducted by profit-seeking scientists can be legal yet still have "long-term social consequences" that "alter the basic terms of existence beyond our ability to live them."
Powers concludes that "we will need stronger instruments of reflection than what markets provide" in order to put biotechnology to its "proper use." Resisting neoliberalism, he nonetheless calls for economic government, a government whose role is not to maintain rights, extend equality, or express sovereign will, but to save and preserve "life" itself, with an interest in "world health" that implicitly cuts across lines of national sovereignty. In Powers's essay, such a government is held accountable in the name of whether it has the "wisdom" to make the most efficient use of what life science can do.
This op-ed clarifies the intervention made by Gain and helps us understand what's at stake in the novel's final lines, where the historical narrative catches up with the advent of "the ultimate power to manipulate all biological processes." In a brief denouement, we see Tim Bodey--son of Laura, who has died of the cancer--grow up, go to MIT, and join an "interdisciplinary research team" that develops a computer algorithm "that would take any amino acid sequence and predict exactly how it would fold up" (355):
In such a vat, people might create molecules to do anything. The team found itself staring at a universal chemical assembly plant at the level of the human cell. Together with a score of other machines just then coming into existence, their program promised to make anything the damaged cell called out for. And no one needed to name the first cure that would roll of their production line. It was then that Timothy Bodey mentioned a healthy bit of capital he had tucked away, untouched since childhood. [His portion of the settlement money from Clare.] The sum had been compounding forever, waiting for a chance to revenge its earning. The figure was now huge, a considerable bankroll. And softly, Tim suggested that it might be time for the little group of them to incorporate.
As I've noted, we've heard this kind of triumphal rhetoric many times before--"the game was as good as solved" (180), "Life would be at nothing's mercy" (324), etc. and the description of Tim's computer program also echoes the language used to describe the product, production facilities (the "vat," the "production line"), and promise of that more primitive form of biotechnology, soap. (9) Indeed, the rapid move from innovation to the decision "to incorporate" reads like a compressed retelling of Clare's rationalization of the process of soap-making and its decision, in 1867, to incorporate.
As all this repetition ironizes the triumphal rhetoric, we easily complete the pattern in our minds. What will happen next is what has happened before: this new, finance-driven technology will create surplus life, but, "Janus-faced" (46,355) it will also produce a surplus of early death. As the novel insists, the very point of "incorporation" is to externalize risk, to profit by not paying the true costs of production, including the loss of life caused by production "byproducts." In this sense, the novel's conclusion dramatizes what Powers argues for explicitly in his op-ed piece, the need for policies which do not effectively sign over "the ultimate power to manipulate all biological processes" to corporations.
But, even if we accept Powers's intervention on its own terms--as an effort to substitute one form of liberal governmentality for another--there is something missing from this critique: we know what should happen, roughly speaking, but not why it doesn't. The novel doesn't address why, for instance, corporate-driven research is so crucial to neoliberal policy, or illuminate the connection between biotechnology and the political efforts of a certain class in a certain country--the financial class in the US--to reestablish its dominance. (10) My point is not that Powers should have depicted all these developments in order to explain why Timothy Bodey feels his best (or only) option is "to incorporate"--that would be to confuse, again, "the totality with a mere 'sum of facts'" (Lukacs, "Reportage" 74). Instead, my point is simply that without a formal acknowledgment of such political struggles, there can be no explanation, in the structural and historical sense, for this scenario.
Aristotle. "Poetics." The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B.
Leitch, et. al. New York: Norton, 2001. 90-116.
Cooper, Melinda. Life as Surplus: Biotechnology and Capitalism in the Neoliberal Era. Seattle: U of Washington P, 2008.
Engelmann, Stephen G. Imagining Interest in Political Thought: Origins of Economic Rationality. Durham: Duke UP, 2003.
Feher, Michel. "The Governed in Politics." Nongovernmental Politics. Ed. Feher. New York: Zone Books, 2007. 12-23.
Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality: An Introduction. Vol. 1. New York: Vintage Books, 1990.
Harvey, David. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005.
Heise, Ursula K. "Toxins, Drugs, and Global Systems: Risk and Narrative in the Contemporary Novel." American Literature 74.4 (2002): 748-78.
Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. 1991. Durham: Duke UP, 2001.
LeClair, Tom. The Art of Excess: Mastery in Contemporary American Fiction. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1989.
Lukacs, Georg. The Historical Novel. Trans. Hannah and Stanley Mitchell. Lincoln: U. of Nebraska P. 1983.
--. "Narrate or Describe?" Writer and Critic, and Other Essays. Ed. and trans. Arthur Kahn. London: Merlin Press, 1978. 110-48.
--."Reportage or Portrayal?" Essays on Realism. Ed. Rodney Livingstone. Trans. David Fernbach. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1983. 45-75.
Maliszewski, Paul. "The Business of Gain." Intersections: Essays on Richard Powers. Ed. Stephen J. Burn and Peter Dempsey. Champaign: Dalkey Archive, 2008. 162-86.
Matz, Jesse. The Modern Novel: A Short Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004.
Mirowski, Philip. "Postface: Defining Neoliberalism." The Road from Mont Pelerin: The Making of the Neoliberal Thought Collective. Ed. Philip Mirowski and Dieter Plehwe. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2009. 417-56.
Powers, Richard. Gain. New York: Picador, 1998.
--. Generosity: An Enhancement New York: Farrar, 2009.
--."The Last Generalist: An Interview with Richard Powers." Jeffrey Williams. Cultural Logic. 2.2 (1999). 1 October 2009.
--. "Life by Design: Too Many Breakthroughs." New York Times. 19 November 1998: A32.
--. "Making the Rounds." Intersections: Essays on Richard Powers. Ed. Stephen J. Burn and Peter Dempsey. Champaign: Dalkey Archive, 2008. 305-10.
--."Richard Powers: Industrial Evolution." Interview by Michael-Tortorello. Rain Taxi. 3.2 (1998). 1 October 2009.
Robbins, Bruce. "Homework: Richard Powers, Walt Whitman, and the Poetry of the Commodity." Ariel 34.1 (2005): 77-91.
Wright, Erik Olin. Class Counts. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000.
(1.) Ursula K. Heise, for instance, reads Gain--along with Don DeLillo's White Noise--as a narrative of a newly emerging risk society, in which "new kinds of risks will create new kinds of social structure characteristic of different forms of modernity" (753). Bruce Robbins reads the novel as a meditation on "how the nations of the world might join together in some other way than via the profits of the American multinationals, and what we might do with each other, and for each other, if we could" (90). As I suggest above, however, Powers's re-envisioning of "the political" goes even further than these readings allow. Articulating what this vision reveals and conceals helps clarify what is truly distinct about both this text and this "post-political," "post-historical" period in political history; doing so also helps us recognize that such critics' own paradigms--in these cases, "risk theory" and transnational "cosmopolitanism"--also tend to downplay the ideological and economic divisions at the heart of global capitalism.
(2.) The best, most concise example of this order at work in Gain is the depiction of the relationship between industry and "nature" itself. The novel suggests that industry's destruction of the American pastoral--"the Indian's Arcadia" (117)--creates a market for simulations of it, which, like Clare's "Native Balm" soap, will also be produced by industry (118): "Live as the natives once did, and those shocks"--the shocks produced by the "age of steam"--"might disappear." Much later, the desire for a home garden, another simulacrum, creates a market for Clare's chemical herbicide, which intervenes in the growth cycle of the plants, leading to surplus life for those plants, but also intervenes in the life cycle of the human using it; this leads to surplus "life" for the corporation, in the form of a new market for the anti-cancer drug, taxol. Although "Bristol-Myers Squibb" makes the drug--as it does in real life-"Clare sells them cheap materials" (151).
(3.) In some sense the corporation both eliminates and appropriates the position of the mother. After Laura Bodey dies, her daughter, Ellen, is also stricken with ovarian cancer, and Powers concludes Ellen's story this way: "The only thing Ellen really wanted was to have kids. She and Tom tried for years: concentrations, harvesting, implanting, in vitro. Nothing worked for them. But because the doctors were perpetually in there looking, they saw her ovarian trouble early, and gained her many years" (354).The implication is that the source of life is no longer the mother but business (it "harvests," "implants," and "gained her many years"), which is also the dealer of death (the chemicals that give her ovarian trouble that likely make her "gain" of "many years" a net loss).
(4.) The use of such "excess" to draw attention to systemic patterns is central to Tom LeClair's definition of the "systems novel," a critical term Powers embraces. See LeClair's The Art of Excess and Powers's "Making the Rounds."
(5.) For Jameson and Powers, this lost sense of history seems to be a more authentic experience of the present than the unthinking embrace of the narratives of progress. In Gain, the narratives of the characters who come the closest to achieving the perspective of the reader--Laura and her ex-husband Don--culminate in experiences of disorientation caused by a loss of a sense of "inside" and "outside," the same reason, according to Jameson, why postmodern art can longer "think historically" (ix). Laura's epiphany about the power of corporations, for instance, is also a sublime experience, the raw power of an unbeatable system that blurs all boundaries between cause and effect, life and business: "It makes no difference whether this business gave her cancer. They have given her everything else. Taken her life and molded it every way imaginable, plus six degrees beyond imagining" (320).
Jameson, of course, called for work that provided temporal and spatial "cognitive mapping" (54)--which he saw as "a code word for 'class consciousness'" (418). As I suggest, Gain doesn't offer such consciousness; it too fails to "think historically."
(6.) This absence might seem plausible as a representation of how political reality appears at the present, when real alternatives to capitalism are harder to imagine, and when more and more workers are actual "shareholders," and thus occupy what Erik Olin Wright calls "contradictory class positions," able to "appropriate part of the social surplus" (18). But here again it seems appropriate to judge the text in terms of Lukacs's requirements for the social novel: it must "indicate pervasive features that show clearly, and in a palpable and concrete fashion, the connection to the essential and driving forces," rather than limiting itself to how "combinations of individual features appear in empirical reality" ("Reportage" 52).
(7.) Feher reads this compatibility in strategic terms, suggesting that NGOs thrived because they offered a way of checking the injustices of the free market without constituting or calling for greater state intervention, and thus were able to withstand critiques, by both right and left, that the state "was governing too much" (19).
(8.) Engelmann locates these views in the political philosophy of Jeremy Bentham, a key influence in his genealogy of economic government.
(9.) For example, both products function as "Janus-faced" (46, 355) intermediaries who are able to "mesh" with two different materials: the "transforming algorithm that worked in two directions" is able to mesh with "the raw source and finished product" (355), while soap is "an interlocutor that managed to coax mutually hostile materials"--water and grime--"onto speaking terms" (46).
(10.) For an analysis of these connections, see Melinda Cooper.
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|Author:||Brooks, Ryan M.|
|Publication:||Twentieth Century Literature|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2013|
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