Academic journal article Intertexts

Becoming American: Evolution and Performance in Edith Wharton's the Custom of the Country

Academic journal article Intertexts

Becoming American: Evolution and Performance in Edith Wharton's the Custom of the Country

Article excerpt

American cellular biologist Lynn Margulis and science journalist Dorion Sagan's view of life processes is underlined by their comment in What is Life?, "Life on Earth is more like a verb. It repairs, maintains, recreates, and outdoes itself" (22). This idea is pitched at a somewhat different, but related, level by Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, who write, "[W]e are constituted in language in a continuous becoming that we bring forth with others" (234-35). What relates the biological creation of life to the discursive production of identity is the concept of autopoiesis that Margulis and Sagan borrow from Maturana and Varela. Defined by Margulis and Sagan as "life's continuous production of itself" (23), autopoiesis suggests that life can be regarded as not a state of being, but rather of becoming. The image of life as becoming is indeed powerful, for Margulis and Sagan's deployment of autopoiesis challenges the traditional portrayal of Darwinian evolution as supporting a competitive individualism. That autopoietic systems, moreover, defer any notion of a discrete self-identity connects them to Judith Butler's argument in Bodies That Matter that performativity constitutes subject formation, where no self exists before or beyond performance.

This connection between Margulis and Sagan and Butler is significant, I propose, because it allows us better to understand how the social materialization of performance in the United States in the early twentieth century becomes informed by a shift from natural to cultural readings of evolution. Anticipating Margulis and Sagan's critique of competitive individualism, Edith Wharton's 1913 novel, The Custom of the Country, suggests that economic, social, and political changes challenge the validity of natural selection. And rather than endorsing a biologically determined identity, Wharton elaborates a self-destabilizing narrative of performance that mimics a nation always in a state of becoming, which discloses anxieties about national citizenship and belonging. (1) In what follows, I first offer a theoretical analysis of the connections between evolution and performance, before discussing how, in The Custom of the Country, Wharton's understanding of debates among evolutionary theorists, such as Charles Darwin, Herbert Spencer, and Alfred Russel Wallace, shapes her investigation of how social environments shape performative identities. (2)

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Margulis and Sagan's rereading of evolution emphasizes Darwin's idea that life forms are interconnected. In What is Life?, they refer to the final passage of the Origin of Species, where Darwin describes life as "an entangled bank," containing a multitude of "elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner" (Origin 489). From here, Margulis and Sagan propose that "individuality, always in flux, is relative" (110). And if life is so entangled, then the belief in a competitive struggle is undermined, or at least, complicated. They comment that living beings "are no more inherently bloodthirsty, competitive, and carnivorous than they are peaceful, cooperative, and languid" (192). That natural conditions in no way demand that competitive individualism take prime place in the discourse of evolution supports their proposal to rethink the neo-Darwinist approach to natural selection. Evolution occurs, they posit, chiefly through the acquisition and exchange of genomes by organisms in symbiotic, not competitive, relationships. Their embrace of British geo-chemist James Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis, which depicts the Earth's biosphere as a single, self-regulating system, radically expands the perspective from which interlocking symbiotic relationships are viewed. They write, "Gaia is symbiosis seen from space" (156). Thus natural selection is transformed: "Evolution is no mechanical law but a complex of processes, sensitive and symbiogenetic, in part resulting from the choices and actions of evolving organic beings themselves. …

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