Thursday, January 25, 2007

Julie Choi: "Women of Character and the Domestication of Virtue"

From Men's VirtĂș to Woman's Virtue
(Image from Wikipedia)

I recently helped edit an issue of the journal Feminist Studies in English Literature (Volume 14, Number 2, Winter 2006) put out by The Korean Association for Feminist Studies in English Literature.

I had to read every line of every article very carefully, proofreading on every level -- from the mechanics of punctuation to logic of coherence -- and I learned a lot from writings that, on the whole, were of high scholarly quality.

The article "Women of Character and the Domestication of Virtue: Clarissa and the Blues," by Julie Choi (Ewha Womans University), cites Michael McKeon, The Secret History of Domesticity, to note a very interesting development in modern thinking about the distinction between public and private:

[The] conception of truly private property was to create a different model of the division between public and private than in the Greek idea of the polis vs. oikos or the Roman res publica. In the ancient sense, the notion of "private" had to do with privation, a realm of "things pertaining to the obscure material necessities of the household -- to women, children, and slaves -- a realm of under-theorized social practice that was properly hidden from public view"[1]. The modern notion of private was to take on a new dimension. The modern "private" confuses because it contains both our common ideas of public as in public sphere, which encompasses political economy (an extended notion of oikos), as well as the new more meagerly defined domestic sphere, which is the household separated from its economic role. (pages 6-7)
This block quote from Choi makes McKeon's book sound rather interesting, for I've long been vaguely puzzled about our modern conception of the private, though without knowing that the concept was largely a modern one. It had struck me as odd that "private" can refer to the realm of the home, in contrast to the public, business world, but also to the economic realm of that very public business world, which presupposes "private" property. Choi's use of McKeon implies that "private" with reference to the realm of the home is a concept that goes back to antiquity, whereas "private" with reference to the realm of business is a modern development.

I wonder if this is entirely the case, however, for the ancient household would often include a family-owned-and-run business to provide for those "obscure material necessities of the household," and 'employed' in this 'private' realm were the family's "women, children, and slaves." There was, even in antiquity, a public aspect to this, for the products of that 'private' sphere ended up in the 'public' market.

I know these things because I've had to teach about them in my Western Civilization courses at Korea University ... which, of course, I won't be teaching anymore ... sigh.

Anyway, Choi's article is interesting, and not only for its engagement with the issue of public/private but also for some of its remarks about the blind spots of modern feminism:
The importance of female religiosity, especially in the form of Evangelicalism, deserves greater attention for a fuller understanding of early feminism. Too many recent feminists have embarrassedly averted their eyes from the "unenlightened" enthusiasm of one such as Pamela[2] who could claim that her soul was as worthy as that of a princess because she was a faithful daughter of God. Such religious fervor contributed not only to greater class confidence, but gender confidence as evinced in the figure of Clarissa[3]. (page 15)
Of course, one might rehabilitate this sort of feminism for merely instrumental reasons, but Choi offers respect to the early religious feminists, whether of the real-life Bluestocking[4] ones or the fictional ones that appear in the works of Samuel Richardson:
It is the argument of this paper that the mid-century "rise" of the female initiated by Samuel Richardson's fictional heroines Pamela and Clarissa and his Bluestocking friends was not merely about refinement of male passions into softness and civility but rather a co-opting of the public values upheld by a more ancient civic humanism that sublated the citizen's virtĂș into the domestic woman's Virtue. In a curious paradox, the domestic, closeted off from the market place of political economy -- the new "private" sphere -- was to subsume values that were once reserved for the male, martial landowner, incorruptible because disinterested in "private" matters. (page 8)

A curious paradox indeed, and a new twist on the late 60s feminist adage, popularized by Carol Hanisch, that "The Personal is Political" -- if we take this to mean that the private is public.

Anyway, Choi's article whets my appetite for more reading along these lines ... but I'll probably never find the time. For those of you, however, with more time in your private lives, if this sort of thing interests you, then get a copy of Choi's article, go to McKeon's book, or return to the original, 18th-century novels that brought these things to life.

[1] From page 179 of Michael McKeon's The Secret History of Domesticity: Public, Private, and the Division of Knowledge (Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 2005).

[2] The main character from Pamela: Or Virtue Rewarded, by Samuel Richardson.

[3] The main character from Clarissa: Or the History of a Young Lady, by Samuel Richardson.

[4] "The term 'Bluestocking' refers to a discretion and modesty in consumption, blue worsted stockings serving as contrast to luxurious silk stockings worn by the devotees of extravagant style and consumption" (page 15).

UPDATE: For some peculiar reason, this entry posted on Thursday, January 25, 2007. In fact, I posted it on Friday, January 26, 2007. I have no idea why it posted on the wrong date. Odd. I post at least once per day, without fail, so I hereby inform all readers that this entry was actually posted on Friday, January 26, 2007. This has been a public-service announcement by Gypsy Scholar.


At 7:03 AM, Blogger Dave said...

I believe the concept of the "private" business occupying public space, and performing certain functions for the general public, is a relatively recent one. I would tie this to the idea of the corporation, whether privately or publicly owned, that utilizes assets owned by more than one particular household. Wouldn't the history of such corporations be less than 400 years old?

On the other hand, what is probably much older is the idea of the private landowner, lord, or shiriff who expands his household or business until it becomes virtually a public entity unto itself, or until he becomes the de facto ruler of a region.

At 7:20 AM, Blogger A.H. said...

Clarissa...not a patch on Fielding, I'd want to argue. Have you read the new translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by Simon Armitage? Very well done, with a poet's ear. As good as Heaney on Beowulf!

At 2:32 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Dave, I don't have a handle on this bifurcation of "private" yet, but there may actually be more strands that my sense of bifurcation suspects.

Corporations are one thing -- and defined as 'persons' in legal terms -- but other forms of business ventures have been around rather longer. I wish that I knew more about the history of economics so that I'd understand more of this stuff.

My bit about ancient businesses run as private affairs that nevertheless had a public face in the marketplace was intended to query the distinction made in the article (and in McKeon's book, I guess) between "private" and "public" in antiquity.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 2:34 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Eshuneutics, I'm embarrassed to admit that I've not read Richardson (so why am I admitting it?).

As for the Armitage translation, I wasn't even aware of its existence. I'll have to find a copy.

Jeffery Hodges

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