Friday, May 24, 2013

On Le Guin's The Dispossessed, Pt. 1

Turning to the texts, Le Guin’s novel, The Dispossessed, is probably the most significant of the texts discussed within the larger project, at least from the perspective of its enduring popularity, and its reintroduction of the utopian form to the critical registers of science fiction. Le Guin’s text came out in 1974, only six years after the publication of her Hugo award winning novel, Left Hand of Darkness and a decade after her Hainish Trilogy, all of which draw on the same universe. The works combine to produce what can only be called a loose and hazy milieu, while avoiding coagulating into any particular narrative arc. The connections between the texts become even more difficult to hold together due to the radical shifts that occur in Le Guin’s writing style, as she moved away from the sorts of science fantasy contained in the early novels of the Hainish Trilogy to what could aptly called a more orthodox science fiction contained in her narratives, The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, both of which begin to consciously think through a set of anthropological and ethnographic lenses that are drawn from Le Guin’s academic and family past. Those later texts gained great popular and critical appeal from both the science fiction subculture along with the broader general public. Within this context, both novels won both major awards within the science fiction community, the Hugo and the Nebula award for best science fiction novels of the year.

The novel through its observation of Shevek'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. The novel begins in successive chapters with Shevek’s departure from the moon, and with his earliest educational experiences, and continues to use his developmental process as a way of structuring the novel. The novel begins with his self-appointed exile from the moon, an act taken to continue his intellectual work of producing a unified theory of physics, while contributing to a political project that is dedicated to challenging the slowly coagulating structures of political authority developing on the ostensibly anarchist moon colony. From there, the novel continues to oscillate between the experiences Shevek has on the rich but authoritarian nation of A-Ios on Urras, and his upbringing and coming to age on the anarchist moon colony, Anarres. Through that process, the narrative allows for the reader to engage with the social, political, and economic dynamics of each society, both estranging the reader from the naturalized expectations of the wealthy, consumerist society of A-Ios, which uncannily reflects aspects of post-war life in the United States and presenting an anarchist utopia that contains its own troubling contradictions and social dynamics.

Through that process, the novel self-consciously explores the political terrain of both worlds, through the eyes of Shevak, the doubly estranged subject, viewing the world of Urras from the perspective of an individual brought up in the anarchist context of Anarres, and implicitly viewing his upbringing and political trajectory through the alienated experiences of living within the confines of Urras. Through this process, the text allows for a critical examination of both worlds on the part of the reader, who is continually put in the position of relating the contradictions of Anarres with the forms of brutality, exploitation, and violence that are found on the home world of Urras. The oscillation between Anarres and Urras is used to reveal their interconnectedness, a connection occluded by the literal and figurate walls built between the two societies, a fact gestured towards by the initial lines of the novel,

     “There was a wall. It did not look important. It was built of uncut rocks roughly mortared. An adult could look right over it, and even a child could climb it. When it crossed the roadway, instead of having a gate it degenerated into mere geometry, a line, an idea of boundary. But the idea was real. It was important. For seven generations there had been nothing in the world more important than that wall.
     Like all walls it was ambiguous, two-faced. What was inside it and what was outside it depended upon which side of it you were on.” (Le Guin 1)

The narrative opens by constructing a boundary, one that operates almost in an exclusively symbolic economy, separating two societies from each other. From the beginning we are made aware that the boundary has very little physical ability to stop any interaction between the two societies. After all, the narrative notes, “An adult could look right over it, and even a child could climb it.” Instead, the border constructed a pair of antagonistic, yet mutually constitutive societies, producing what might be understood to operate as a dialectic totality, despite the existence of other societies. Carl Freedman in his short analysis of the text in his 2000 engagement with the genre, Critical Theory and Science Fiction, places the dialectical method at the center of his text, arguing,

“The text’s dialectical interrogation of its own project and ideology sounds almost incomparable depths of complexity and earned self-confidence in its own political standpoint. The effect is immensely to strengthen, not to weaken, the cognitive integrity of the novel’s utopian (in both the generic and Blochian senses) impulse.” (Freedman 129)

Freedman argues that the novel’s connection of the two worlds as a dialectical and antagonistic totality is the device that allows for the “almost incomparable depths of complexity and earned self-confidence in its own political standpoint.” Le Guin captures the ways that the dynamics and expectations of each society allow for a greater understanding of the other one. To turn briefly back to the symbolic structure of the wall that opens the novel, we can see a structure that simultaneously creates a system of social isolation, while facilitating a series of economic relations that can only exist with the ideological cover of the wall. The two societies can only exist in relation to one another, and yet the wall provides the cover that each exists in isolation. Freedman goes on to argue that the superiority of the society Anarres resides precisely in its ability to embrace the kinds of dialectical structures that define the antagonistic totality, to begin to see the contradictions that are developing through its developing informal bureaucracy, but the wall shapes that journey. In effect, Shevek’s journey becomes a way of challenging the lie of the wall, of exposing the structures that link the two societies in an effort to create a kind of reconciliation between the two, but in classically dialectical fashion, the journey must travel through those contradictions, exploring the full implications of their contradictions, and pushing those contradictions to their breaking point. At the same time, the narrative captures the dimension of the dialectical form that is not acknowledged by Freedman, which is the ways that the classical dialectical method puts as much emphasis on the concept of synthesis and mediation, a dimension that equally defines the text through its sexual politics.

The wall then constructs a series of political and subjective positions through its division, a division that allows for an externalization of the conflicts of each society, placing the reasoning for the internal problems, antagonisms, contradictions on the other, as marked by Sabul’s refusal to make the public Anarres aware of the scientific innovations of Urras in order to control that information, and the ways that discourses about Anarres and the sate socialism of Thu, allow for the government of A-Ios to suppress the poor and downtrodden on their own planet. The double constitution of insides and outsides enabled by the function of the wall, also allows for the disavowal of each side to consider the ways that their social structures are only understandable through the analysis of the antagonistic totality of relations. Beneath the illusion of isolation, the two societies continue to have intellectual and economic ties, ties that can be disavowed through the symbolic reality of the wall.

As the narrative of the novel develops, those contradictions accumulate, reflecting and implicitly commenting on one another. Within the narrative on Anarres, the reader is made aware of the contradictions between the expressed anarchist ideology of the society, and the sorts of political authority that had arisen because of the immense scarcity of the world. The crisis comes to a head as Shevek begins to recognize the tensions between the ideals of the philosophy of Odo, and the forms of self-interest that motivate his teacher, Sabul, who attempts to monopolize the scientific institutions of the moon, by monopolizing the contact with the planet Urras, and therefore keep their scientific innovations to himself. Shevek is first introduced to the notions of privacy and implicitly, private property as he begins to work with the directory of the Sabul. Additionally, through that process, he is also introduced into the privileges that come with that form. Entering into the educational establishment for the first time under Sabul’s wings, entering late at night into the new location, “he made a quick detour by the Institute to see if there was some spare food for a drop-in. He found that his name had already been put on the regular list.” (Le Guin 83) After consuming the mildly luxuriant meal, containing the additional luxury of a dessert, Shevek turned to the dormitory to discover ‘a long corridor of shut doors in the domicile,’ a system radically different than the open dormitory system that he had previously lived under, constituting the first time in his life that he had a room of his own.

However, Shevek quickly learns that these small privileges have a cost in both social and intellectual terms. Sabul immediately begins to attempt to keep him out of classes that might operate within alternative scientific frameworks, arguing, “Don’t waste time. You’re far beyond the old woman in Sequency theory, and the other ideas she spouts are trash.” (Le Guin 84) As he begins to learn the Iotic language of the world of Urras, Sabul quickly tells him to keep the discoveries that he gains in secrecy, arguing when Shevek questions the practice,

“Sabul got up again and came close to him. “Listen. You’re now a member of the Central Institute of Sciences, a Physics syndic, working with me, Sabul. You follow that? Privilege is responsibility. Correct?” “I’m to acquire knowledge which I’m not to share,” Shevek said after a brief pause, stating the sentence as it were a proposition in logic.
“If you found a pack of explosive caps in the street would you ‘share’ them with every kid that went by? Those books are explosives. Now do you follow me?”
“Yes.” (Le Guin 85)

Through this brief interaction, Shevek is introduced to a number of concepts of authority, both personal and institutional that had been previously foreign to him. On one level, the act of secrecy is authorized at an institutional level, by his membership in the ‘Central Institute of Sciences, a Physics syndic.” He has an obligation to that body, to the rules that it constructs, and to its projects. But that institutional loyalty is undergirded by a second and more significant loyalty, which is to Sabul in the form of a personal authority, underwritten by Sabul’s implicit act of physical intimidation through his proximity to Shevek. That dimension of personal authority is doubly enforced by Sabul’s linkage of the responsibility to the syndic with Shevek’s personal working relationship to Sabul. Those set of personal and institutional structures of authority and commitment are cemented through the construction of a layer of what Sabul explicitly calls ‘privilege,’ that distinguishes the members of the organization and the general public. That privilege is defined by the access to knowledge on the part of the members of the collective, and perhaps more significantly, contact with the world of Urras. Sabul defends this privilege by arguing that it is linked to a responsibility to protect the citizenry of Anarres from the potential dangers of that knowledge. Through that argument, Sabul structures a kind of informal hierarchical authority between members of the syndic, and those outside the syndic, who are marked as children. In effect, the whole edifice of the ‘responsibility’ to the society of Anarres itself is grounded in an analogy of personal authority, that of parental control and responsibility to one’s children.

Shevek is able to counter the influence of Sabul through his continued engagement with the academic work of Gvarab, the old woman who was denigrated by Sabul. At an immediate level, Gvarab lacks any of the immediate intellectual appeal presented by Sabul, with his combination of access to knowledge and access to material resources. Her lectures are often muddled and confusing, and marked by the effects of her age. At the same time, her work is driven by a desire to share, rather than hoard knowledge, a desire that creates a connection between her and Shevek.

“Gvarab was old enough that she often wandered and maundered. Attendance at her lectures was small and uneven. She soon picked out the boy with big ears as her one constant auditor. She began to lecture for him. The light, steady intelligent eyes met hers, steadied her, woke her, she flashed to brilliance, regained the vision lost. She soared, and the other students in the room looked up confused or startled, even scared if they had the wits to be scared. Gvarab saw a much larger universe than most people were capable of seeing. And it made them blink. The light-eyed boy watched her steadily. In his face she saw her joy. What she offered, what she had offered for a whole lifetime, what no one had ever shared with her, he took, he shared. He was her brother, across the gulf of fifty years, and her redemption. (Le Guin 88)

The bond between Gvarab and Shevek is produced through the act of sharing, sharing knowledge, and sharing an understanding of the universe that is evidently only accessible to a small group of people. Despite the elitist implications of the text, the bond between the two is produced not only because of the kind of profound intelligence held by both figures, but because of the desire to share the knowledge produced through that intelligence. The joy and perhaps even the love of knowledge are then created by an open constitutive pedagogical practice, a practice that is defined by engagement, exchange, and even intimacy. However, the dimension of intimacy, albeit of a non-romantic form, also begins to point to some of the limitations of the text, which continually gestures towards open, collective, and joyful forms of subjectivity, but only manages to ‘show’ those forms of engagement, to draw on the language of Sarah Lefanu, within moments of romantic couples, of individual bonds between teachers and students, and occasionally between strangers. We might turn to earlier science fictional texts to understand this critical tension in Le Guin’s desire to imagine radical new forms of collectivity, and her inability to represent those forms within the confines of the descriptive processes of her narratives. That tradition, whether in the form of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, the Dune novels of Frank Herbert or A.E. Van Vogt’s Slan, construct the exceptionality of their protagonists against the dull conformity of the societies they are a part of, a tendency in the text despite its effort at capturing the processes of an utopian society, albeit in ambiguous form.

However, despite having an escape valve in the form of an alternative pedagogical model, Sabul effectively cuts off Shevek from the majority of the collective processes within the broader society, an even the Institute, itself. He loses contact with the flow and processes of daily life, despite his continued engagement in the work processes of the Institute and the periodical expectations of tedious labor that are inescapable within the society. Just as significantly, Shevek begins to accept the structures of privacy, secrecy, and propriety that are set up by Sabul, an acceptance that he recognizes through his negotiations with Sabul, that allow him to follow certain lines of intellectual inquiry in exchange for giving Sabul credit for his intellectual work. He notes after the bargain, “So they had bargained, he and Sabul, bargained like profiteers. It had not been a battle, but a sale. You give me this and I’ll give you that. Refuse me and I’ll refuse you. Sold? Sold.” (Le Guin 95) After this realization, he becomes deathly ill, and is cared for by his estranged mother, who offers to return to his life an offer that is refused by Shevek. He is only broken out of this isolated life by the death of his other teacher, x, and the return of his childhood friend, Bedap. Only at that point does the full extent of the damage done to Shevek become clear. The issues that Shevek formulates in personal, or even spiritual terms in his youth, and in his conceptualization of his differences with Sabul and the institute, are returned to by Bedap, reformulated to expose political contradictions within the society. He argues that forms of customary authority and conformity to those customs have become a kind of informal governing system, in effect thwarting the processes of evolutionary transformation that are crucial to the kind of anarchism implicit in Odo’s thoughts. He argues,

“Solidarity, yes! Even on Urras, where food falls out of the trees, even there Odo said that human solidarity is our one hope. But we’ve betrayed that hope. We’ve let cooperation become obedience. On Urras they have government by the minority. Here we have government by the majority. But it is government! The social conscience isn’t a living thing any more, but a machine, a power machine controlled by bureaucrats.” (Le Guin 135)

Bedap’s speech effectively maps out the terrain of struggle that governs the narrative structure of the book, the tension between the possibility of forms of solidarity, or mutual aid contained in the social interactions of the society, and by implication, contained in human interactions, and the multiplicity of forms of domination that are continually practiced within those same societies, constituting a sort of opposite pole of human activity. Shevek begins to actively collaborate with the group of dissidents, helping to form an alternative collective designed to challenge the established structures of the existing educational system. That struggle eventually creates the conditions for Shevek to be sent to the home planet in order to reestablish some sort of formal relations with the world, most notably the nation of A-Ios, who already had substantial informal academic and economic relations with the moon colony. Through that process, the members of the collective mean to challenge those informal relations, relations that mirror the kind of propertarian bargaining structures that Sabul uses to relate to Shevek. In addition to the open communications to the world of Urras, the group set up a printing syndic in order to publish work that had been informally excluded from the increasingly formal structures, material banned either for its unorthodox scientific methods, its satirical content, or for the unusual structures of musical harmonics.

Shevek’s experiences on Urras then play a central role in both allowing for a critical reflection back on the social structures of Anarres, creating a number of contrasts between the two governing systems, and more startlingly, allowing for recognition of their similarities. The most evident example is the relationship between Sabul, who shapes his world in response to the intrigues of the academic structures, holding those structures in contempt even as he reproduces the most exploitative aspects of that system, as he systemically raids and plagiarizes that work. The text’s exploration of the personalities of the various academic figures on A-Ios, each with their own investment in structures of authority allow for the reader to recognize similarities between their positions, which are linked to the authoritarian system of A-Ios, and that of Sabul, who plays a similar role in the coagulating structures of bureaucracy on Anarres. In a similar vein, the two societies secretly collaborate in a series of mining activities that fuel the economy of A-Ios and most likely, contributed to the war effort against the anti-colonial efforts within the nation of Benbili. However, the parallels don’t simply operate at the level of larger political structures; they also can be found in the day to day life of the societies. Despite the fact that Shevek is quite often at a loss as to the meaning of social interactions on A-Ios, or is dismayed when he does understand him, there are moments that he sees parallels in the two worlds. As Carl Freedman notes, “For example, once when Shevek is at dinner during his visit to Urras, he observes his hostess chastising her young son for a breach of manners, and thinks how such reprimands (as in the case of his own daughter) sound alike in all tongues: “Sadik! Don’t egoize! The tone was precisely the same” (119; emphasis in original). Yet if the tone is similar, the content, of course, is not.” (Freedman 117) Freedman goes on to argue that Shevek’s sensitivity to the parallels represents a commitment to anti-authoritarianism that is difficult to imagine for us, picking up the structures of authority that often simply define the attempt to raise children to behave in a respectful manner. At an immediate level, Freedman is correct to reject the immediate parallel between the structures of domination found on Urras with the simple attempts to survive on Anarres, but at another level, the demand for manners contains the seeds of the impulse to dominate, a central concern of the text.

We can see in this dimension a sort of tension that can only be understood through the structures of political struggle that are all too often relegated to the background of the text. Rather than offering the solace of a neutral moment of synthesis, the dialectical structure in these two poles of social conduct is entirely negative. The capacity and the desire to dominate are just as intrinsic an aspect of humanity as the forms of horizontal mutual aid, the former might constitute the ‘unreality’ of Urras with its combination of luxury and authority, but it also exists in the pores of Anarres, a continuing potential threat. That threat is fully exposed in the final chapter from the perspective of Anarres, the chapter that fully spells out Shevek’s reasons for leaving the planet to continue his work on Urras. A crisis is produced through a proposal from the newly constructed Syndicate of Initiative, the dissident project headed by Bedap and Shevak, to open communications with the world of Urras, and potentially begin face to face contact with individuals from that world. Specifically, the rebels from Benbili align themselves with the anarchism of Odo and look to engage with Anarres on the basis of “brotherhood.” In response, the critics of the new Syndicate see the potential allies as only a threat, as necessarily false Odonians, as propertarians and archists. Additionally, they attempt to paint the Syndicate as ‘archist’ critics of the status quo of Anarres.

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