Monday, January 23, 2012

Initial thoughts on Leguin's The Dispossessed

      The criticism of Ursula Leguin’s The Dispossessed has a fairly strange history. On one hand, the novel is recognized for its importance, but on the other hand, it hasn’t garnered a very serious engagement on the part of either Marxist or Feminist critics. Marxist critics such as Frederic Jameson have tended to reference the text without much serious engagement[1]. On the other hand, Feminist critics have read the narrative fairly seriously, but primarily in terms of lack. The narrative lacks women characters, engages with the genre in a far too traditional manner amongst other critiques. Other than the out of print reading by Tom Moylan, critics have not made much effort to engage with the novel at a serious formal level. The current chapter will attempt to make such a reading, examining the question of domesticity, reproductive labor, both in the household and in the public sphere, and gender relations, through the formal apparatus of the book, which, along with Leguin’s other major novels, Left Hand of Darkness, and Always Coming Home, draws on the strategies of estrangement created from a serious engagement with the traditions of travel writing and ethnography, which have always had a strong connection to the utopian tradition.

       Unlike the other two novels, The Dispossessed doesn’t structure its narrative through multiple perspectives, nor does it bring in a discourse of expertise. It operates through a single narrator, who operates as the naïve witness of the new society, which is fairly traditional in utopian narratives. However, rather than moving from the naturalistic setting of the author to the utopian space, the main protagonist, Shevak moves from the utopian society, acting as a traveler in the naturalistic setting of the stand in for Earth, Urras, allowing for him to denaturalize the everyday expectations of the audience. At the same time, the narrative doubles as Shevak critically thinks back on the events that bring him to the Earth. This use of perspective then abandons the notion of the utopian society of Anarres as a static blueprint, and the term ‘ambiguous’ is introduced into the title of the novel, precisely to mark the open constitutive process contained in the utopian society.

      The basic premise behind the novel is that planet Urras looks remarkably like the Earth of the time of its writing. The world is in the midst of a cold war, and this cold war was leading to the kind of low intensity warfare that occurred in Greece, Vietnam, and Korea. Simultaneously, the kind of intellectual repression represented by McCarthyism was still occurring, and there is a strong state influence over the intellectual life of the society. However, there are a number of differences as well. Most notably, there is an awareness of the existence of multiple worlds, and those worlds have Embassies with on the world. In addition, the moon is populated due to an anarchist uprising that ended in stalemate. The truce that was negotiated allowed for the rebels to leave the planet for the moon to set up a colony, and until Shevek’s mission, there had been no contact between the two societies.

      The ostensible purpose of Shevek’s visit is scientific, drawing on the extra resources contained in the universities of the main planet to develop a theory that will allow for faster than light travel. However, because of this, the narrative also explores the family structures of the society, its schools, its forms of protest, etc. In effect, the narrative structure of The Dispossessed shifts the structures of reproductive labor from liminal and private spaces of the domestic to the public and the political. The narrative focuses on precisely the dominant institutions of reproduction in the society, the family and the school. The oscillation between Shevek’s childhood on Anarres and his experience working within the institutions of the dominant society of Urras opens up a crisis of legitimacy, marked by insurrectionary strife in Urras and political organizing against the contradictions within the revolutionary society of Anarres.

[1] There are two notable exceptions to this tendency in the tradition.  Darko Suvin has a serious analysis of Leguin in his Positions and Presuppositions in Science Fiction; however, this does not focus much attention to The Dispossessed.  The second is Tom Moylan’s Demand the Impossible, which I have not gotten my hands on yet.

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