Herland and Community Building

13 Feb

The notion of community building seems to be a key motivator in throughout Herland. Initially in the creation and maintenance of Herland and later as they strive to become a “bi-sexual” race again. For the inhabitants of Herland, the focus and purpose for their social organization is “the children” (975). Individual identity becomes invested in a collective consciousness as the members of this social structure recognize that “The children in this country are the one center and focus of all our thoughts. Every step of our advance is always considered in its effect on them−on the race. You see, we are MOTHERS” (975). A collective identity is asserted through the claiming of a self- and other- identity of motherhood. Such identification allows individual identities to be subsumed and reinforced within a communal consciousness. Such collectivity is addressed again by the male characters later in the text. Van ponders “‘We’ and ‘we’ and ‘we’−it was so hard to get her to be personal” (1811). The establishment of a society which consists of individuals who all (with very few exceptions) share at least one major life experience (beyond (their own) birth and death) creates a community which clouds the sense of the sense. The disruption of individuality results in the creation of a communal self−whether or not this is ‘truly’ utopian is controversial.

Backboarding  the text with the information that Weinbaum supplies, Gilman’s utopia becomes laden with racial, social, and gender politics. Weinbaum’s analysis concludes “Herland inaugurates a nationality without heterosexuality that remains just as emphatically genealogical in its foundations and as racialized in its self-conception as the nation−the United States−that it seeks to improve upon” (105). The community that Herland creates reuses the systems (particularly of Othering via omission) to establish its utopia. In doing so, the collective self becomes a universal that only particular types of individuals can inhabit−namely women (according to Weinbaum middle to upper class white women). In turn, however, universals have hardly ever truly been applicable to a whole community, so perhaps what Gilman’s texts does is reflect the ways that society’s construct solidarity.

Two salient issues came out of Gilman’s work for me on this note. One is how communities and the establishment of them works throughout science fiction in general. The second was more influenced by Weinbaum’s work with Gilman’s text and considering some of the historical implications that such an analysis has. Do or will ‘utopian’ communities always be one-sided? Can a utopia that adequately represents and engages all races, genders, and classes actually be established? Is it possible to envision a utopia that isn’t in some way premised on the social injustices which inform one’s world?

Reflecting on the constructions of communities within science fiction in general a few examples come to mind. Bellamy’s work, Looking Backward, displays an already established community. Schuyler’s Black No More portrays a community in transition. Two more contemporary, although slightly tangential works, War of the Worlds and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, also play with notions of community, establishment, and removal in interesting ways. A couple factors all of these texts have in common (along with Gilman’s work) is that they are work to subvert or reexamine the social conditions of the character’s contemporary world. However, even in doing so, they all engage or neglect to conclude with a ‘satisfactory’ existence for all social members. For example, Bellamy’s piece still possesses ingrained hierarchies despite its lack of capital, Schuyler’s society engages racism in an alternate way, Wells’ and Adams’ pieces essentially return to pre-apocalyptic communities. To me, then, the important work that science fiction seems to be doing by engaging utopian tropes might be social analysis as much as it is alternative social construction.

The second inquiry which arose concerns the reporting of actual genocides and massacres particularly ones which are politically or socially motivated. Weinbaum’s work with Gilman’s text emphasizes the importance of recognizing what is actually present within a particular text as well as what is not engaged (and the significance of contextualization). An extension of Weinbaum’s research (at least for me) is to analyze the way that communities are represented and portrayed via fiction, non-fiction, and mass media. Some implications might be to consider the depictions and narrations of events such as the Holocaust, the Rwandan, Sudan, and Darfur genocides, as well as colonial interactions (Indian, African, Native American, etc.). The analysis of communities which science fiction seems to do could be useful in examining some of these events to better reflect on the politics which informed them and the notions of collective consciousness which might have motivated such (heinous) acts. Furthermore, analyzing pieces such as Gilman’s which are premised on politics which remain (largely) ‘absent’ from her piece, insinuates the way that propaganda, fiction, and media might be manipulated to create particular perspectives. Those perspectives, in turn, might advance biased political agendas without explicitly engaging social justice problematics.

One Response to “Herland and Community Building”

  1. Dr Lothian February 14, 2013 at 10:22 pm #

    Your questions about inclusivity and utopian tropes here are great ones, and they’ll come up a lot in our future reading of speculative fiction that doesn’t fit into the genre of utopia in the way that Gilman’s writing does. You might also find it interesting to read With Her in Ourland, where Gilman actually puts Ellador and the Herlandia sensibility into the context of current events (including the First World War) in the early twentieth century.

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