Monday, June 20, 2011

El Dorado and the Botanical Garden, Part III

Manifest Domesticity and the Home in the Frontier

In which I discuss the place of the home and the domestic within the simultaneously foreign and domestic space of the frontier, make a case for the relevance of Eden and ancient religious narratives in 19th and 21st century America, and publish a post while omitting the source-notes because I spent today with my father and worrying about the GRE.

Amy Kaplan's 1998 article “Manifest Domesticity” outlines the role and reach of the domestic in the American civilizing narrative, with a focus on the ways in which domesticity was at once relegated to the space of the home and imbued with the responsibility for the act of civilization:
On the one hand, domesticity's 'habits of system and order' appear to anchor the home as a stable center in a fluctuating social world with expanding national borders; on the other, domesticity must be spatially and conceptually mobile to travel to the nation's far-flung frontiers... Domesticity inverts [the relationship of foreign and domestic] to create a home by rendering prior inhabitants alien and undomesticated and by implicitly nativizing settlers.
She also draws out in detail a relationship between the role of the mother in the home and the role of the pioneer in the frontier; according to Kaplan, the mother has dominion over the frontier homestead, a dwelling that “'itself is a little world; an ark of civilization amid an ocean of foliage.'” Her responsibility to continue the work of her husband, by defending against the encroachments and invasions of the wild into the ark of the home, whose internal space of order is designed to and must provide reprieve from the chaos and danger of the wild that can exist mere steps from it. Her “domestic empire is at risk of contagion from the very subjects she must domesticate and civilize, her wilderness children and foreign servants, who ultimately infect both the home and the body of the mother.”

In this inevitability of infection and corruption, there exists a clear mirror to the frontiersmen who were rejected in the Atlantic states as having become tainted with savageness. We can understand the abjection of that which has been into the wilderness as providing a real source of anxiety for those within the Edenic narrative, which holds that all mankind had been forcibly ejected into the wilderness. By distancing itself from anything wild, the civilized allowed itself to imagine a reconciliation of an otherwise problematic barrier to recovery; efforts to become civilized, even after this initial encounter with wilderness, and attempts to create an ideal civilization implied the ability and worth of those attempting them, and allowed them to understand their place as being one of enlightenment and potential, in contrast to that which existed in the wild spaces of the world, which had no potential beyond being in service of the civilized.

The story of Eden in the West is one of ancient age and eternal relevance, a tale of mankind’s place in the world that ultimately imbues man with the ability to simulate God’s works, that gives it the power of gods. If we understand ourselves as situated within that tradition, we can see the ways in which it affects us, the ways in which it affects those who are at the helm — of the country, of the company, of the church — and the ways in which these narratives and heritages influence our understanding of how we live, move, think — in a phrase, how we exist — in the world. Our habitus is formed in this narrative history. Our sense of what we can claim as civilized and what we can label wild extends far beyond forests and cities and into modern politics, economics, and social interactions. It is a narrative of inclusion and exclusion, of what belongs and what does not, and those metrics are so intimately interwoven into our existence that we cannot imagine life without them.

In America, the ancient Western narrative met its vastest wilderness, a west-facing, endless expanse of Edenic potential. Behind every tree, around every river-bend, at the peak of any mountain, man could suddenly encounter the cherubim and the flaming sword. There was, of course, an existential threat in this potential, a danger that created in the wilderness a constant unknown, one that held both the threat of extreme violence and the promise of eternal reprieve. It was this narrative that first drove European man westward, into the wild, searching for Paradise.

But he did not find Eden — not among the forests of New England, or past the Appalachians, or past the Mississippi, nor among the Plains, atop the Rockies, in the Pacific Northwest, or in the rivers and rain forests of South America. There was no Garden to be found, and the narrative was forced to conclude that mankind would not find Eden on this Earth.

This recovery narrative met in the Americas something that forced it to adapt to the world as it found it — to itself engage in the processes that it outlines, which occur when civilization and wilderness meet in the liminal, occasionally abject space between them. It is the confluence of this adaptation and the technology created by man to change the world that allows us to understand the genesis of the Edenic recovery/simulation narrative in its current form. Its reckoning with industrialization, with modernity, with Enlightenment ideals, can all be understood as a product of its place within the progressive, civilizing narratives of the West. In understanding the structure of these narratives, we can see the ways in which they manifest in the world, in people's actions and decisions, the influence that they have had in the past, and the ways in which they can be harnessed or discarded in the future.

My interest in this subject was formed (as it must have been) in these various harnessings and discardings of the experience and the narrative (what Richard Slotkin terms the myth) of the 19th century frontier. In other words, I grew up playing cowboys and Indians, watching Toy Story, hearing of the noble and dangerous deeds of the frontiersmen side-by-side with the tales of the valor and bravery of our country's soldiers, being afraid of the night-time woods beyond our neatly trimmed backyard... a typical American boy, if such a thing exists.

Since then, though, what has captured my interest above all else is the particular subject of the military. The Army man and the Marine were my own frontiersmen, heroes of heroic individualism in service to a national good, doing dangerous and dirty and necessary work worthy of my respect and gratitude; "we sleep soundly in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm," as Churchill is said to have said.

This is why I am where I am, as far as I can see, and I believe that these past few weeks, if you've been patient enough to keep up with my long-windedness, should have helped to provide some understanding of that. I hope now to move into less formal and more numerous posts, unbound by the overarching structure of the introductory narrative. The weekly Sunday posts will continue unabated, but I may not be able to articulate the subject of next week's in time for the posting of the current week's.

I'm also considering moving up the posting time to sometime late on Saturday night, with a mind of being available to be read as part of a Sunday reading digest -- a routine in which I recommend everyone indulge, whether with printed newspaper or RSS or Bloglovin' or any other medium you choose. Anyways, we shall see how it all works out.

But now, I believe, I begin to ramble. So, that is all for now. Hope to hear your comments, and thanks for reading!



Since I was in a Father's Day induced rush on this post, I haven't had time to put the footnotes in properly. They'll get here, for anyone who may care, but I don't believe the demand to be particularly pressing.