Wednesday, April 3, 2013

an initial and short posting on Ursula Leguin's The Dispossessed

       I'm going to let myself have a little time before I return to the conversation around the Khatru debates, but I certainly will be returning to those conversations.  However, I want to put down some of my initial thoughts in regards to Ursula Le Guin's novel, The Dispossessed.  I've been rereading the novel to prepare for my final chapter of my dissertation, which is going to deal with that novel, along with Samuel Delany's novel, Trouble on Triton, as responses to the radical feminist provocations produced by critic and theorist Joanna Russ through her essays of the time, and her novel, The Female Man.   Both writers had read early drafts of that novel, and the influence of the novel on both later texts is fairly clear.  Additionally, Delany acknowledges the influence that reading Le Guin's manuscript had on his novel, an influence that can be seen in his extensive critical engagement with the novel, contained at the end of his first book of science fiction criticism, The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, initially released in 1977.  The influence is understandable, given the incredibly richness and complexity of the novel, which is still one of the greatest formal achievements within the subgenre of science fiction.

      I want to take a little time to put down some of my initial thoughts on the novels take on the topics of social reproduction, and the forms of domesticity represented in the novel.  A number of feminist critics have taken Le Guin to task for a lack of engagement with these questions in the novel.  At an initial glance these claims are extremely problematic.  The novel through its observation of Shevak's childhood and education on his own planet, Arras, on one hand, and his observations of the alien world of Urras, on the other hand, produce a deep engagement with the institutions of the home, of the radically different educational approaches of the two societies, and the informal forms of common sense found within each society.  Le Guin uses the radically egalitarian structures of the moon society to question and estrange us from a long series of common sense assumptions about the sex/gender system found on the analog to our society, the wealthy and authoritarian Urras.  (Le Guin's critique of the university is particularly relevant, and is something I probably will return to.)  But when we turn to the particular ways that Le Guin conceives of sexuality, we find something a bit more troubling, and aspect of Le Guin's work that reveals that the feminist critics that I previously mentioned are perhaps more perceptive than is revealed in a cursory glance at the novel.

        I'm inclined to direct folks to Delany's lengthy review of the novel in dealing with it's representation of homosexuality in the figure of Bedap.  Instead, I want to turn to the novel's representation of the relationship between Shevak and Takher, and how the particular mixture of romantic convention and mysticism allows for a reinscription of the heterosexual couple as the central institution of the society, undoing, in many ways, the forms of collective living found in the rest of the novel.  We can see this in operation through an early description of their romance, which occurs early in their relationship, and is linked with Shevak's involvement with a small group of dissidents within the anarchist society of Arras.

      "They would talk, go out for a walk or to the baths, then to dinner at the Institute commons.  after dinner there were meetings, or a concert, or they saw their friends, Bedap and Salas and their circle, Desar and others from the Institute, Desar and others from the Institute, Taker's colleagues and friends.  But the meetings and the friends were peripheral to them.  Neither social nor sociable participation was necessary to them; their partnership was enough, and they could not hide the fact.  It did not seem to offend the others.  Rather the reverse.  Bedap, Salas, Desar, and the rest came to them as thirsty people come to a fountain.  The others were peripheral to them: but they were central to the others.  They did nothing much; they were not more benevolent than other people or more brilliant talkers; and yet their friends loved them, depended on them, and kept bringing them presents--the small offerings that circulated among these people who possessed nothing and everything: a handknit scarf, a bit of granite studded with crimson garnets, a vase hand-thrown at the Potters' Federation workshop, a poem about love, a set of carved wooden buttons, a spiral shell from the Sorruba sea.  They gave the present to Takher, saying "Here, Shev might like this for a paperweight," or to Shevek, saying, "Here, Tak might like this color."  In giving they sought to share in what Shevek and Takher shared, and to celebrate and to praise."  (Le Guin 152-153

      If the text attempts to reimagine forms of childcare, of education, and of the family structure, it remains deeply committed to the centrality of heteronormative romance. Breaking away from the concepts of mutual aid that ostensibly define the society of Arras, the text informs us that the love of Takher and Shevak "was enough, and they could not hide the fact."  The social structures of the society become 'peripheral' to the story, and the political questions that drive the various small dissident groups take the same position.  Indeed those social formations begin to draw sustenance from that bond, rather than the reverse, treating the relationship as a combination of a religious shrine and a perpetual wedding, continuingly granted the couple gifts, and attempting to strengthen the relationship through a peculiar reversal of the description of the exchange of women that Levi-Strauss posits as the central tenet of human civilization.  Rather than reading this as an aberrant moment in Le Guin's text, I want to argue that it directly connects to the Jungian theory of anima and animus that she acknowledges as a central influence on her work at the time.  The relationship of Shevak and Takher takes this position because it reveals the secret essence of the potential of the society as a whole, a kind of social symbiosis that is produced through this heteronormative bond.  Additionally, this notion is reinforced through the repetitive insistence on the notion of sexual privacy contained in the text, a notion that allows for a reinscription of the public and the private, a conservation of the space of the personal without politics, while ostensibly challenging these structures. 

     The question is how to resolve this dimension of the text with extraordinary exploration of the explosive political antagonisms that also define the text.  In a certain sense, we see a tension that might be at the heart of the 'ambiguous' utopia, between the forms of antagonism and multiplicity that form the collective formations of the proletariat and the attempts at recuperation appropriation that define the engines of the changing formations of capitalist appropriation. 

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