Tuesday Faulkner: The value of women

It is a well-known fact that the worst victims of the recent exacerbation of the international division of labor are women. They are the true surplus army of labor in the current conjuncture. In their case, patriarchial social relations contribute to their production as the new focus of super-exploitation. [T]o consider the place of sexual reproduction and the family within those social relations should show the pure (or free) “materialist” predication of the subject to be gender-exclusive. — Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Scattered Speculations on the Question of Value”

The women in Faulkner’s Sanctuary are undoubtedly the “worst victims” of the novel’s division of labor, and the unnamed wife of Lee Goodwin, the lumpen bootlegger whose murder trial provides the backdrop for the book’s second half, is certainly the most pitiable of them. Just before Goodwin is sentenced to death, his wife relates to his attorney her history, one that is imbricated with both “patriarchal social relations” and the state’s war economy. During the times that Goodwin is employed in industry, his wife’s sole function is to provide for his reproduction as a worker, but while he serves as a soldier occupying the Philippines and fighting in World War I, she supports herself and provides for their future by working in both a cafe and a munitions plant — the domestic servant and the industrial servant. Or to put it in later iconography, Sally Homemaker and Rosie the Riveter. In service to both the father and the fatherland.

In the meantime, she also barters with a lawyer: she does sexual favors for the lawyer who’s attempting to get Goodwin out of jail. Another layer of exploitation, but still a part of the work– value-creating nexus. Except her status in the value chain is not unambiguous or stable: never completely inside and never completely outside it, she exists always as a potential source of surplus-value and potential agent of reproduction. Subjectively, perhaps it’s less important to identify when she creates value than when she has value. When the factory fires her, the lawyer dumps her, and Goodwin beats her for sleeping with the lawyer, she is no longer of any value, is utterly worthless. But even then she never loses her potential to reenter the process of value creation.

The “freeing” of the subject as super-adequation in labor-power entails an absence of extra-economic coercion. Because a positivist vision can only recognize the latter, that is to say, domination, within post-industrial cultures like the U.S., telecommunication seems to bring nothing but the promise of infinite liberty for the subject. Economic coercion as exploitation is hidden from sight in “the rest of the world.” — Spivak

The violence of Faulkner’s book arises not only from the scenes of rape and murder, which in fact are localized within their appropriate narrative moments, but even more so from the unrelenting, seemingly limitless domination and exploitation the women are subjected to. In her vacillations between having value and not having value, between producing and not producing surplus value, Mrs. Goodwin exemplifies Spivak’s distinction between domination and exploitation. Put in another language, this is also the distinction between formal subsumption and real subsumption. Only with Spivak, who questions the distinction even as she strategically uses it, the epochal transformations usually associated with those terms are nullified. Instead, her “worst victims” continue to live with both regimes.

As do Faulkner’s. Mrs. Goodwin is, in the end, hardly “pitiable.” She is in fact strangely calculating. Her decisions and loyalties — who she decides to sleep with and for what reasons, when she decides to take a job and when to quit it — complicate and confound the forces of domination just as often as they subject her to them. But her subjective position also never congeals enough to form a multitudinous passage into real subsumption. It is, as Spivak might say, too discontinuous for that.


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