Saturday, May 25, 2013

On Ursula Le Guin's The Dispossessed, Part 2

However, there have been a number of concerns expressed about the framework that arises out of this dialectical exploration, concerns that ultimately can be linked to the dialectical format that the novel engages in, but take their immediate form in the representation of women, and of social reproductive.  A number of feminist critics have taken Le Guin to task for a lack of engagement with these questions in the novel, most notably by Sarah Lefanu in her text, In The Chinks of the World Machine: Feminism and Science Fiction, but similar arguments can be found in the work of Tom Moylan along with the critical work of Samuel Delany.  Lefanu frames her critiques within the framework of Le Guin’s written works of the time, moving from her early texts and ending with The Dispossessed.  Within this context, she expresses a broad range of concerns, from the lack of women as protagonists in her texts, to a lack of engagement with the questions of domesticity that Lefanu sees as the central focus of the feminist science fictional project.

She notes, “There is a simple anomaly, or contradiction, at the heart of Le Guin’s work.  It features very few women; these are restricted either by biology—Rolery as childbearer in Planet of Exile—or by stereotype—Takver the prop and support in The Dispossessed.  This is not unusual in science fiction; what is odd is that despite it, Ursula Le Guin should have such a feminist following and that she should be so committed to the ‘character’ side of the debate (‘What is science fiction?: scientific ideas explored in fictional form; or character-based fiction with parameters expanded in a scientific/futuristic setting?) rather than the ‘ideas side.

Lefanu begins by simply arguing that Le Guin’s choices in gendered representation reflect rather than challenge many of the conventions of the, at the time, largely male controlled subculture.  She notes that Le Guin has primarily chosen men as her protagonists, and that the women represented in those novels have played largely conventional gendered roles, in the narrative structure if not in their social functions of the novel. Despite Le Guin’s commitment to a science fictional literature that places character development at the forefront of her work, she still slips into the stock roles for women, represented by the support role taken on by Takver, and the childbearing role of Rolery in the earlier novel, Planet of Exile.  For Lefanu, Le Guin’s continuation of these practices is confusing, as is the continued dedicated feminist support for Le Guin’s written work.  However, the question of representation is not the only criticism presented by Lefanu’s engagement with the novel.  She additionally argues, “There is a lot of politics talked in this novel—more than in The Left Hand of Darkness (here at least the question of childcare is discussed) but very little is shown.” (Lefanu 141)  Along with the problem of how women are represented, Lefanu argues that the protocols of social reproduction are not sufficiently dealt with, that we are not given sufficient detail about the practices of raising children, about schooling and other issues.  To make that statement more clear, the novel tells us that these practices occur, in Lefanu’s account, but doesn’t incorporate those practices in the narrative structure of the book.

At an initial glance some of these claims are extremely problematic.  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.  The narrative carefully and consciously undermines a long series of patriarchal assumptions of the society of Urras.  The narrative explicitly interlinks an analysis of gender with the different regimes of power that define each of the societies.  To turn to the beginning of the narrative, again, a conversation between one of the security force of the planet of Anarres and the ship captain from Urras.

 “You mean they’re after this bastard we’re supposed to take?  Are they going to try to stop him, or us?”
The word “bastard,” untranslatable in the foreman’s language, meant nothing to her except some kind of foreign term for her people, but she had never liked the sound of it, or the captain’s tone, or the captain.  “Can you look after you?” she asked briefly.
“Hell, yes.  You just get the rest of this cargo unloaded, quick.  And get this passenger on board.  No mob of Oddies is going to give us any trouble.” He patted the thing he wore on his belt, a metal object like a deformed penis, and looked patronizingly at the unarmed woman.
She gave the phallic object, which she knew was a weapon, a cold glance.” (Le Guin, 3)

The short passage marks off a set of distinct differences between the female security officer from Anarres and the male captain of the transport vessel from Urras.  The text marks those differences through the language systems of the two worlds as well as the behavior of each individual.  We are made aware of the difference within kinship systems by reference to the word, ‘bastard’, which holds on to its conventional meaning on the world of Urras, gesturing towards a set of patriarchal and heteronormative kinship structures that still enforce structures of legitimacy.  While those conventions in kinship structure have completely lost any meaning in the society of Anarres, which has effectively done away with the legal institution of marriage, and no longer depends on the nuclear family as the primary institution for raising, educating, and disciplining children.  The antagonistic dimension of this mutual misunderstanding is marked by the implicit hostility felt by the security officer whenever the term is utilized.  In addition to this linguistic register, the passage marks a series of gendered differences between the two societies marked by the use of weapons.   The description of the weapon as a ‘deformed penis’ and a ‘phallic object’ explicitly links the forms of domination and violence implicit in the ship captain’s use of the weapon with patriarchal power, which is rejected by the security officer, and held in contempt by her, a contempt mirrored by the ship captain because of her rejection of weapons in securing the area.  The captain also takes a role of command within the relationship, a command he takes on due to his ability to deploy violence.

The misogyny of the society of Urras is then mirrored in the early interaction between Shevek and the doctor who cares for him on the ship, and helps him adjust to the changes in environment on the world of Urras.  The two develop a sort of friendship, but the fragility of that friendship is revealed in a moment of misunderstanding around each individual’s perception of women, that arises out of a discussion about the comparative sex/gender systems produced on each of the planets.  When Shevek spells out the structures of equality, the doctor explodes,

Kimoe stared at him, shocked out of politeness.  “But the loss of—of everything feminine—of delicacy—and the loss of masculine self-respect—You can’t pretend, surely, in your work, that women are your equals? In physics, in mathematics, in the intellect?  You can’t pretend to lower yourself constantly to their level?
Shevek sat in the cushioned, comfortable chair and looked around the officers’ lounge.  On the viewscreen the brilliant curve of Urras hung still against the black space, like a blue-green opal.  That lovely sight, and the lounge, had become familiar to Shevek these last days, but now the bright colors, the curvilinear chairs, the hidden lighting, the game tables and television screens and soft carpeting, all of it seemed as alien as it had the first time he saw it.
“I don’t think I pretend very much, Kimoe,” he said.
“Of course, I have known highly intelligent women, women who could think like a man, “ the doctor said, hurriedly, aware that he had been almost shouting—that he had, Shevek thought, been pounding his hands against the locked door and shouting….
Shevek turned the conversation, but he went on thinking about it.  This matter of superiority and inferiority must be a central one in Urrasti social life.  If to respect himself Kimoe had to consider half the human race as inferior to him, how then did women manage to respect themselves—did they consider men inferior?  And how did that all affect their sex lives?  He knew from Odo’s writings that two hundred years ago the main Urrasti sexual institutions had been “marriage,” a partnership authorized and enforced by legal and economic sanctions, and “prostitution,” which seemed merely to be a wider term, copulation in the economic mode.  Odo had condemned them both, and yet Odo had been “married.” And anyhow the institutions might have greatly changed in the two hundred years.  If he was going to live on Urras and with the Urrasti, he had better find out.”  (Le Guin 14)

Despite Le Guin’s aversion to psychoanalysis, it’s difficult not to read this moment as a symptomatic one, one that reveals the unconscious sexist and misogynist structures that still drive the norms of daily life in Urras.  The doctor, who can recognize the limitations in both religious and ethnic bigotry, cannot escape the affects of his general society’s views on women, both in how gender is regulated, and in how those regulatory mechanisms are valued.  His narrative opens with an expression of distress about the abandonment of the formal and informal conventions of heteronormativity, but that distress immediately transforms into a more basic rejection of sexual equality. The reaction to this misogyny by Shevek is equally significant as the comments themselves.  The text notes, “That lovely sight, and the lounge, had become familiar to Shevek these last days, but now the bright colors, the curvilinear chairs, the hidden lighting, the game tables and television screens and soft carpeting, all of it seemed as alien as it had the first time he saw it.”  Just as the doctor, Kimoe’s grounding concepts of himself and the world are challenged by the sexual equality of Anarres, Shevek finds himself estranged from the earlier familiar world of the ship.  This double act of estrangement marks a significant moment of anthropological difference, a difference centered on the structures of sexual difference that in turn construct a whole series of other institutions, ranging from who is capable of intellectual work to how family structures operate.

Additionally, Shevek’s attempt to understand the dispute, explicitly ties the dispute to the more abstract question of systems of domination in general.  As he thinks over the conversation, and perhaps more significantly, the doctor’s intense emotional reaction to the idea of sexual equality, he comes to a very significant set of conclusions.  “Shevek turned the conversation, but he went on thinking about it.  This matter of superiority and inferiority must be a central one in Urrasti social life.”  Through Shevek’s musings, the text very distinctively places the misogyny expressed by the doctor at the grounding for a system built on inequality, built on systems of ‘superiority and inferiority.’  From there, he begins to wonder about how sexual and intimate relations could even exist within such a structure, and how does this shape the views of women in regards to men.  Despite some of the weaknesses later contained in the text, the text contains a significant thread dedicated to undermining and provincializing the prevalent sexism of the text’s present, by presenting an alternative social structure, one that makes the dominant structures of the present look strange, and even exotic.  Moreover, the text continually links the question of sexism to the more abstract category of domination in general.  The impulse to dominate always has a foot in the impulse to dominate women.  The text then presents a set of questions that are taken on by aspects of the rest of the narrative, including questions regarding marriage, prostitution, sexuality and the family structure.

These questions do get significant exploration in the novel, despite Lefanu’s arguments that they are merely discussed.  The narrative begins its exploration of the society of Urras in the privileged space of the public sphere, in its markets and educational institutions, but Shevek also sees the conventions of married life through the enforced personal interactions with colleagues, and his day out with the sister of his colleague, Demaere Oiie, Vea Doem Oiie.  The former occurs as Shevek becomes increasingly dissatisfied with the narrow restrictions put on him by the government of Urras.  In response, Shevek receives an invitation to dine at the home of his colleague, Pae.  The latter experience introduces Shevek to the concept of the division of the public and the private, to the bourgeois conventions of the household, and to the conventions of marriage.  Most notably, the narrative marks the construction of an alternative Pae, one that is not that simply defined by the Machiavellian intricacies of the confluence of academic and state structures found at the university.  On one hand, the comfort of the home reveals a side to Urrasti life within A-Ios that escapes the logic of propertarian bargaining, an aspect of social life based around mutual care and respect, on the other hand, the home produces precisely the kinds of consolation that allow for the structures of domination and exploitation that define Pae’s public commitments to the state and academy to continue.

Shevek’s encounters with Vea Doem Oiie are considerably more ambiguous, and deserve some exploration, as well.  Vea, the wife of a wealthy industrialist, is initially introduced to Shevek at a cocktail party, one of the may initially held to introduce Shevek to the limited registers of A-Ios that the government wanted Shevek to experience.  Within that context, she is only one of many individuals who proposed to meet up with Shevek in the round of parties that defined his early days of life in the institutions of A-Ios.  However, those invitations take on a new meaning to him, as he struggles with his conscience as privileged guest of an authoritarian and brutal government.  “But where could he go?  To someone… to someone, another person.  A human being.  Someone who would give help, not sell it.  Who?  Where?” (Le Guin 169)  Vea is almost chosen at random within the context of his desperation, marked by a set of invitations that stood out from the others for no particular reason, other than the fact that she represented an individual outside the political structures he was trying to escape.  Vea, through her lack of official power seems to be an alternative to the social world of the university, but as their interactions continue, it becomes clear that Vea both benefits and contributes to the structures of prestige and privilege that Shevek is attempting to escape, albeit in a form that also structurally restrains her from engaging in the public life of the society.   The following passage captures this dynamic,

“A phrase Takver used came into his mind as he looked at Vea’s slender feet, decorated with little white shoes on very high heels.  “A body profiteer,” Takver called women who used their sexuality as a weapon in a power struggle with men.  To look at her, Vea was the body profiteer to end them all.  Shoes, clothes, cosmetics, jewels, gestures, everything about her asserted provocation.  She was so elaborately and ostentatiously a female body that she seemed scarcely to be a human being.  She incarnated all the sexuality the Ioti repressed into their dreams, their novels and poetry, their endless paintings of female nudes, their music, their architecture with its curves and domes, their candies, their baths, their mattresses.  She was the woman in the table.” (Le Guin 172)

Vea operates within the society of A-Ios by accepting the categories of gender that drive the society tactically, benefiting from the sexist expectations by utilizing them to her own ends.  She accomplishes this end by effectively transforming herself into a commodity form, equivalent to the forms of art, of architecture, and of furniture that can be found in the upper echelons of the society.  Through that process, she inhabits a gendered performance that separates her from a common ‘human’ experience, one that presumably escapes from the logic of the “power struggle” that defines the logic of value itself, a mechanism that structures and legitimates a regime of almost infinite accumulations.  Her act of self-instrumentalization needs to be understood simultaneously as a reflection of the dominant structures of instrumental reason that define the society, and a utilization of the limited resources offered by a society that can only be understood in patriarchal terms.  The narrative does a good job of representing the first side of that equation, as Vea successfully draws a large quantity of cash out of Shevek’s wallet throughout their day together, spent on food, clothing, and other luxuries.  She similarly benefits from the prestige gathered at the party that she holds in his honor, one in which large sections of the upper echelons of the city attend.  However, the sense of limitations put on Vea is only occasionally gestured towards through offhand remarks, and general sense of disbelief about the radically different social symbolic systems of Anarres.  The passages capture the massive systems of privilege enjoyed within the upper echelons of the nation of A-Ios more than the small violences that come with accepting that system.

To move from questions explicitly focused on domesticity and sexist divisions of society, the narrative also puts a great deal of emphasis on the process of education, a question often elided by feminist theorists of the time, exploring both the educational system of Anarres, as well as the higher educational system in the wealthy world of Urras.  This aspect of the text gets very little critical attention amongst critics, even amongst critics who are attempting to examine the text’s engagement with the processes of social reproduction.  Indeed, the question of pedagogy, a regular concern of classical utopian texts is a relatively unique aspect of Le Guin’s work within the sub-cultural framework of science fiction.  Shevek defines himself in relationship to the academic infrastructure of both Anarres and Urras, engaging with academic structures and intellectual work of both societies.  Indeed, the linkages represent one of the most substantial engagements between the societies, aside from the economic interaction produced by the mines on the colony that both connect it directly to the world of Urras, and provide it a kind of protection due to the continued economic value to the home world.  Within both contexts, Shevek is a teacher, a researcher, and a knowledge worker.  He is productive in both circumstances, while not fitting either system of academic production.  Shevek’s discomfort with both systems produces a useful way of understanding the broad structures of how schooling work as ideological state apparatuses in their contexts.

The education system that Shevek initially goes through on the moon colony of Anarres is defined by both its eventual integration into the systems of social production found on the world, and its commitment to a sort of communicative collectivism.  One of the first descriptions of Shevek’s education captures this dynamic.  Early in the second chapter of the novel, the narrative begins to describe Shevek’s introduction to the broader society of Anarres.  The school is described as a series of rooms used for multiple purposes, depending on the needs of the institution.  Because of the need for the Orchestra to practice, the early childhood class was put into a workshop, with the children sitting on the floor, in an informal and collective setting.  In that passage, Shevek spontaneously develops a version of Zeno’s paradox, gesturing towards his unusual intelligence, but the response to the concept is perhaps more revealing.  As Shevek develops his idea, the director of the classroom interrupts,

“Do you think this is interesting? The director interrupted, speaking to the other children. 
Why can’t it reach the tree” said a girl of ten.
“Because it always has to go half of the way that’s left to go, said Shevek, “and there’s always half of the way left to go—see?”
“Shall we say you aimed the rock badly?” the director said with a tight smile.
“It doesn’t matter how you aim it.  It can’t reach the tree.”
“Who told you this idea?”
“Nobody.  I sort of saw it.  I think I see how the rock actually does—“
“That’s enough.”
Some of the other children had been talking, but they stopped as if struck dumb.  The little boy with the slate stood there in the silence.  He looked frightened, and scowled.
“Speech is sharing—a cooperative art.  You’re not sharing, merely egoizing.”
The thin, vigorous harmonies of the orchestra sounded down the hall.
“You didn’t see that for yourself, it wasn’t spontaneous.  I’ve read something very like it in a book.” (Le Guin 24)

The narrative immediately captures the complex ambiguity of the pedagogical processes within the anarchist colony.  On one hand, the passage gestures towards the collective openness contained in the educational process, an openness that allows the students to express opinions and ask questions without fear of retribution.  The process also operates in a sort of Socratic fashion, allowing the participants to frame the conversation that occurs in the classroom.  All of this is framed in the collectivist communicative framework expressed by the director of the classroom, when he states, “Speech is sharing—a cooperative art.”  However, that statement reveals another side to the collectivist practices of the society, a side that has difficulties with thoughts that exceed the pedagogical expectations of the society, that gesture towards ideas not immediately acceptable within the framework of the ideological horizons of the society.  This aspect of conformity becomes a central focus of the text, as the concept of harmony becomes a way of stultifying new forms of thought and of art.  The sound of the orchestra compounds this concept of harmony, by entering into the narrative precisely at the moment when Shevek’s speech is disrupted by the director.  That conformity is not one that is expressed by the children, who have yet to be fully integrated into the society, but by the adult controlling the classroom, gesturing to the limitations of open conversation and discourse within the educational process, even as we are shown a classroom that is far more open than the classrooms found in our society.

As already noted, the complexities and ambiguities continue as Shevek moves from the elementary school to the spaces of higher education.  The work he engages in allows him certain freedoms and luxury in the society, moving from the dormitories to the privacy of one’s room, but they also isolate him from the society at large, an isolation that at one side gestures towards the forms of conformity that are later confronted in the text, but on the other side, puts Shevek in a position in which he can reject the positive aspects of the collectivist freedom in the society to take on a life that is defined by secrecy, privacy, and privilege.  As previously noted, the conflicts that drive the novel are deeply linked into the forms of knowledge permissible within the society.  If the Anarresti system is marked by its deep commitment to equality, it is also marked by a tendency to enforce a kind of equality of mediocrity by refusing its members the full extent of intellectual inquiry, to produce intellectual or cultural work that isn’t immediately understandable to the majority of the system.  Even more than the act of stultifying talent, the conformity reinforces a coagulating set of institutions that seek to reinforce the structures of the treaty that separates Anarres from Urras.  More than the family, this extensive and highly contested set of ideological state apparatuses play the central role in the social reproduction of the society, and therefore become the prime location of political contestation.  The family becomes a supplemental and voluntary organization compared to this massive structure of human interaction.

On the contrary, the educational system of Urras seems to be free of the ambiguities immediately evident within the system of education of Anarres.  The students and professors are free to explore their intellectual projects without the additional burden of the forms of labor put upon Anarresti students.  The system also facilitates the intellectual work of the researchers and professors within the system, particularly intellectuals who have shown the kind of academic caliber seen in Shevek’s work, work that was acknowledged by the planet in the form of the Seo Oen prize, an official recognition bringing both prestige and financial reward, in recognition of Shevek’s text, The Principles of Simultaneity.  At the same time, the system lacks the political engagement that defines the educational system of Anarres, and primarily exists to reproduce the structures of inequality in that system as the text captures through a description of Shevek’s students,

“They were pleasant boys, with frank and civil manners.  Shevek’s readings in Urrasti history led him to decide that they were, in fact, though the word was seldom used these days, aristocrats.  In feudal times the aristocracy had sent their sons to university, conferring superiority on the institution.  Nowadays it was the other way round: the university conferred superiority on the man.  They told Shevek with pride that the competition for scholarships to Ieu Eun was stiffer every year, proving the essential democracy of the institution.  He said, “You put another lock on the door and call it democracy.”  He liked his polite, intelligent students, but he felt no warmth towards any of them.  They were planning careers as academic or industrial scientists, and what they learned from him was to them a means to that end, success in their careers.  They either had, or denied the importance of, anything else he might have offered them.  (Le Guin 104)

Unlike the Anarresti system, the educational system is designed to reinforce and reproduce the structures of inequality that define it.  The text marks that inequality through the use of the word, ‘aristocrat’, marking the deep commitment to such systems of inequity, despite the dissolution of the formal structures of feudalism.  The term also allows for a critique of the inequalities of capitalism that escape the tainted and therefore dismissible ideological terrain of class analysis.  If the system of education only allowed those with privilege into its doors in the earlier period of feudalism, it now structures the very limited access to the privileged structures of the society, access that is becoming increasingly limited, and defined by competition.  The students, who made it past these barricades, are almost inevitably already part of the very wealthy, or the select few who made it through the arbitrary hurdles to enter those ranks, have no interest in challenging precisely the system that they have so profoundly benefited from.  Education in that context then becomes valued for its instrumentality, its ability to produce access to high paying professional positions, rather than an engagement with knowledge on its own terms, or as a way of challenging previously held assumptions

Additionally, the educational structures of the nation of Urras are defined by the same misogynist structures that define the rest of the society.  Women are systemically marginalized from the institutions, only occasionally playing roles in the pedagogical structures, and almost inevitably in marginal roles.  In this sense, educational system produces a richly gradated structure of hierarchy, both separating the very wealthy from the vast majority of the society who live in abject poverty, and restricting women to limited positions in that hierarchy, regardless of class position.  The latter position reinforces the division between public and private that shores up the instrumental rationality of the workplace by offering the consolation of the home.  In effect, the society of A-Ios directly maps the kinds of structural divisions of public and private, of political and personal that defines bourgeois society in both the United States and the UK from the 19th century onwards.[1]  At the same time, the text only alludes to the effects that this has on the women of the society, through a series of traces found in the depiction of Vea, and through Shevek’s limited interactions with a female student.  Despite those limitations, the narrative makes the reader aware of the deep structures of inequality in the society. 

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.  However, this is not to say that the narrative has its weaknesses, particularly in its tendency to replicate structures of conventional sexuality and family structures, rather than to question them.  To turn to the theoretical framework of the society of Anarres, the philosophy of Odo emphasizes both the voluntary heteronormative sexual contract and the concept of privacy as central tenets of the anarchist society.  The text frames the tenets of Odo’s philosophy in the following terms. 

“An Odonian undertook monogamy just as he might undertake a joint enterprise in production, a ballet or a soap works.  Partnership was a voluntarily constituted federation like any other.  So long as it worked, it worked, and if it didn’t work it stopped being.  It was not an institution but a function.  It had no sanction but that of private conscience. 
This was fully in accord with Odonian social theory.  The validity of the promise, even promise of indefinite term, was deep in the grain of Odo’s thinking; through it might seem that her insistence on freedom to change would indicate the idea of promise or vow, in fact the freedom made the promise meaningful.  A promise is a direction taken, a self-limitation of choice.  As Odo pointed out, if no direction is taken, if one goes nowhere, no change will occur.  One’s freedom to choose and to change will be unused, exactly as if one were in jail, a jail of one’s own building, a maze in which no one way is better than any other.  So Odo came to see the promise, the pledge, the idea of fidelity, as essential in the complexity of freedom.  (Le Guin 197)
Odo’s philosophy simultaneously offers the promise of freedom, while holding on the regulatory mechanism of the monogamous couple, a couple implicitly coded as heterosexual throughout the narrative, despite the problematic introduction of Bedap as a gay man.  Odo’s theoretical framework begins with what might seem like a fairly open premise, sexual relationship need to be built upon the concept of an open ended contract, a contract that can be severed at any point by the parties when it no longer worked.  Additionally, the openness of the contract is dependent on a number of other institutions that reduce and even potentially eliminate the responsibilities of raising children from the nuclear family.  At the same time, the act of entering into a monogamous social contract becomes a defining element of the society, in fact becoming the guarantor of the forms of freedom that the society is meant to facilitate.  For Odo, making such a choice simultaneously constitutes the entrance into the telos of the society, of committing one’s self to the collective project of escaping the meaninglessness that evidently defines the refusal of making such a choice.  The narrative takes this implicit structure further in its censure of Shevek’s mother, Rulag.  Her choice not to commit to the raising of Shevek, of abandoning him to the collective processes of the society and the care of Shevek’s father, Palat continues to be implicitly censured throughout the narrative.  

Delany’s lengthy engagement with the novel brings up a number of substantial issues, particularly focusing on her representations of sexuality, beginning with a number of common sense assumption about how men and women engage, and continues on to examine the problematic representation of the homosexual character, Bedap.  In each case, Delany reveals how the novel slips back into what might be called common sense assumptions about structures of social relations, unthinkingly reflecting the present, rather than exploring its historical contingency, and therefore its political context.  Delany begins this analysis by looking at a small set of adolescent interactions the mark the childhood of Shevek, moments that gesture towards the very ambiguity of the utopian project of Anarres.  His first example is the aversion to girls expressed by Shevek and the other boys of the society.  Through a set of personal experiences, Delany argues that the structure of engagements between boys and girls is deeply shaped by the institutional circumstances that they are formed by, that is, by the implicit and explicit expectations but on those individuals by those institutions.  However, Le Guin, instead of explaining why the ostensibly egalitarian society of Anarres has these antagonistic differences, simply reflects the conventional expectations of her milieu.  In effect, the narrative makes no effort to explain why the gendered conventions of boys ignoring girls or denigrating them continues in the society ostensibly so committed to equality, effectively naturalizing them.

The representation of Bedap, however, becomes one of the central points of reception within Delany’s lengthy engagement with the text, a point that is drawn on by both Tom Moylan and Sarah Lefanu in their critical analyses of the text.  Delany centers on a number of issues in his representation, and in turn in the representation of homosexuality in the novel.  The most immediate issue is Bedap’s isolation in the narrative structures of the novel, representing the only gay character in the novel.  Aside from the brief affair with Shevek, Bedap is never shown to be in any other romantic or sexual relationships, effectively leaving him alone in the world.   Delany also notes each representation of Bedap focuses on a set of bad personal habits, taking the form of fingernail biting and fidgeting.  (Delany The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, 147-151)  However, the more significant moment is the narrative’s ‘didactic’ use of Bedap to establish the intimacy and closeness of the bond between Shevek and his child, the moment that Bedap exits the narrative.  Delany narrows in on a specific moment of the passage, occurring after the moment that Bedap contrasts his “meddling” and lack of formal commitments to any relationship with the strength produced through Shevek’s commitments.  To turn to the text, “Yet he felt that he understood it very clearly, that all his hope was in this understanding, and if he would be saved he must change his life.” (Le Guin, 298)

Delany’s engagement with this last claim is complex and ambiguous.  He begins by showing that the claim could not be understood within political terms, given the pair’s political affinity, nor a simple issue of personal habit, so the remaining issue is Bedap’s homosexuality, which evidently must be changed.  Delany then goes on to distinguish the complexities and ambiguities of what might have been the intentions of Le Guin’s inclusion of the passage in the text from the manner that the text draws on a series of clichéd conventions that produce the effect that rejects Bedap’s sexuality.  Delany goes on to argue, “What Le Guin says does—precisely because one can sense the idea itself mystified in the paragraph that presents it so that no open disagreement is possible.” (Delany 152)  The homophobia is, in effect, contained in the very conventionality of the statement, rather than in political discourse, rendering a political opposition, difficult if not impossible.  He goes on to make a larger argument about the production of science fiction that goes beyond his particular engagement with Le Guin’s text.

But what should be brought home here is far more important than any personal offense: In so conventionalized a discourse as fiction (and science fiction has almost all the conventions of mundane fiction as well as a panoply of its own), we have the choice of saying precisely what we want to say (which requires a massively clear vision and intense analytical energy), or saying what everyone else has said (which is what happens either when vision fades, analysis errs, or energy fails).  There is no middle ground.  The concert of the three—vision, analysis, and energy—a work within the field of a given language is what we recognize as language skill/talent/craft.  But the cliché, at almost any level, always signals one of the three’s failure; the cliché indicates this because language is as structurally stable as it is: indeed, the cliché—at almost any level save the ironic—is the stability of language asserting itself without referent.” (Delany, The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, 153)

The error in Le Guin’s text arises, then, not from the sort of active homophobic project that he identifies in an earlier passage, but with something more insidious, a kind of unthought that he argues constitutes a failure in the craft of fiction.  The craft of fiction contains a kind of critical and destabilizing effect on the object that is engaged with, produced through “the choice of saying precisely what we want to say (which requires a massively clear vision and intense analytical energy)”, rather than, “or saying what everyone else has said.”  To say that the craft of fiction has to say something through its narratives and structures of description that has not been said before does not immediately translate into a radical political project, but it does involve a challenging of the conventions and categories of daily life that has been a central feature of the project of critical theory.    The failure of the project produces a set of clichés that both stabilizes language, and therefore the social structures that structure and are structured by that language. Delany places this argument in distinctively polemical terms, refusing any middle ground between the qualities of good writing that allow for critical investigation, and the sorts of cliché that shore up ideological mystification through the clichés of familiarity.  At best, fictional narratives can partially escape the forms of cliché that shore up the symbolic and ideological systems that shore up any dominant set of social structures, or to put it differently, explore the cracks, gaps and tensions within those structures.

The larger questions of how this shapes the formal writing processes of science fiction as it tries to engage in radical political projects will be taken up later in the text.  What needs to be discussed at this moment is the way that the use of cliché is used to reproduce the expectations of monogamous heteronormativity.  In this case, the passage that produces Delany’s lengthy response is the set of clichéd conventions in the description of Bedap’s exit from the narrative, conventions that ground and legitimate a series of homophobic discourses, and naturalize the ideological structures of the monogamous and heteronormative family.  We might say that the passage implicitly strips the ability of anyone who is not a part of those conventional structures from having a meaningful social role in any society.  As we have previously seen, these observations translate well into the framework of Lee Edelman’s work in No Future, a work that opposes queer sensibility to the reproductive futurity of the child.  However, Delany takes a substantially different tact in his engagement with the passage, gesturing towards the forms of collective childcare that he participates in with a group of other gay men who also have children.  Despite some overlap in the two projects, Delany does not lodge his complaints with the form of the child, even the idealized for that Edelman opposes to the actuality of children, but to the notion that the only way of raising children is through the conventions of monogamous heteronormativity.

Despite its length, Delany’s critical engagement with the text doesn’t fully engage within the problematic dimensions introduced by the text’s heteronormativity.  I want to turn to the novel's representation of the relationship between Shevak and Takver, 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.  A problem compounded by the fact that so many of those institutions become coded as conformist and stultifying as the novel goes along, in opposition to the heterosexual and monogamous bond produced by Shevek and Takver.  We can see this in operation through an early description of their romance, which occurs early in their relationship, and is linked with Shevek's involvement with a small group of dissidents within the anarchist society of Arras.  The relationship, in effect, overwhelms the narrative, pushing its explicitly political dimensions to the background.

"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 Takver shared, and to celebrate and to praise."  (Le Guin 152-153)

Breaking away from the concepts of mutual aid that ostensibly define the society of Anarres, the text informs us that the love of Takver and Shevek "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 are also placed in the background.  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.  The relationship of Shevek and Takver 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.  At the same time, as Sarah Lefanu and Tom Moylan note, the shift from the economy of the public to the intimate space of the private allows for the moment of dialectical synthesis to occur within the narrative structure, a moment that is created by the release of a scientific formula that allows for transformations in space travel, rather than focusing on the potentially far messier terrain of political conflict and transformation.

One can go further by opposing the idealized relationship between the two with the failures on the part of Shevek’s implicit parental figures, first in the form of his mother, Rulag, who refuses to raise him, then in the form of his academic advisor, Sabul, who steals his intellectual work, while stultifying the intellectual innovation contained within it.  Each plays a substantial role in his formation as a subject within the society of Anarres, and each becomes a central figure in the opposition to the political project advocated by Shevek and his friends, a return to open communication with the world of Urras.  The representation of Rulag is perhaps the more problematic of the two characters, presented as the absent mother; Delany turns to this representation as one of the most problematic in the text.  He notes, “Le Guin goes to great lengths to reduce Rulag’s “motherhood” to pure symbol, for as Rulag herself declares, the real relation of mother and son she and Shevek share is practically biological accident.  Le Guin then places her in the position so frequently filled by the Father.” (Delany 153)  Through this process, Le Guin offers a path towards denaturalizing the biological grounding of the Oedipal triangle, and the textual placement of Shevek’s rejection of both figures in a short period, empties out the biological content from the position of authority held by the father.

However, Delany notes that Le Guin does not escape the effects of cliché by attempting to subvert the figure of the father, by placing Rulag in that position, arguing, “There already exists a symbolic category to receive the cold, tradition-bound mother (the Great Bitch Mother, which encompasses both Cinderella’s Wicked Stepmother and Cuckoo’s Nest’s Big Nurse) which informs our reading of all such fictive characters.” (Delany, The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, 153)  If effect, the effort to challenge one particular cliché of narrative structure falls into another cliché, one that is perhaps even more problematically sexist. That interpretation, rather than the one initially suggested is the one that is more readily available to the readership of the narrative, due to the sexist structures that continue to define the ideological horizons of the present.  Delany goes on to argue that the representations of Rulag rarely move beyond presenting her as symbol, noting that the narrative never explains what her role is in the society beyond playing a significant role in a number of engineering projects.  The narrative explains what those projects are or whether she succeeded in completing them or not.  Instead, she is represented as an absent figure, as the cause of Shevek’s isolation.  Through this lack of depth or complexity, the narrative drives the reader precisely to the sexist conventions that it initially attempted to subvert.(Delany 154)

We need to turn to Le Guin’s engagement with the psychoanalytical thinker, Carl Jung to understand her commitment to the monogamous heteronormative couple that not only can be found in the relationship between Shevek and Takver, but also structures much of the philosophic thought of Odo, whose ideas constitute the ideological infrastructure of the society of Anarres. 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.  This issue plays a central role in the contention between Le Guin and Delany in the Khatru debates.  Ursula Le Guin first brings up the topic in response to the question, asking each of the authors if they felt they were capable of representing women.  Le Guin went against the general trend of the responses, which tended to argue that women had a stronger ability to represent men, due to the expectations place on them, to provide emotional labor, and the need for women to understand the reasoning of men due to their subaltern status.  Instead, Le Guin turned to Jung’s theory of the anima and the animus to argue that men and women have the ability to represent each other because all individuals contain a masculine and feminine side of their souls. She argues,

“OK, from here on Jung is my guide, since I must look inward.  Jung suggests that the psyche comes in several sexes, at least two, whatever the individual’s physiological sex and conscious theories concerning it.
Male artists have been aware enough of the essential role in their work of their anima (female element of man’s psyche) that they have recognized and honored it as the Muse, the Creator Spirit in the feminine gender.
The animus (male element of woman’s psyche) is an obscurer figure (Jung shows it all too often as a dogmatic authoritarian, Logos with a pince-nez, though he knew there was more to it than that).  This obscurity is an advantage; there are no sentimental stereotypes (“The Eternal Masculine”?—“Behind every great woman there stands a brave little man?”) to degrade our perception of it.  But because anything said of the animus is new, it tends to be strange and awkward, and tends to be tentative.
In my own experience the Creator Spirit is more masculine than feminine, but on the deeper levels, is both at once.” (Le Guin 10)

Le Guin begins her statement by offering the possibility of the psyche taking the form of “several sexes”, but she quickly shifts to two sexes that evidently make up the Jungian framework.  For Le Guin, the production of art must depend on an engagement with a dialectical other, the contradictory half that makes one whole.  She argues that this aspect of subjectivity has played a substantial role in the way that men understand their artistic production, an understanding that is expressed through the metonymic figure of “the Muse, the Creator Spirit in the feminine gender.”  She goes on to argue that Jung’s conceptualization of the animus is much murkier in its figuration, one that is only hazily understood in simple, stereotypical terms, despite Jung’s recognition of a greater complexity.  That ambiguity offers an incredible opportunity in Le Guin’s eyes, because there are no problematic or ‘sentimental stereotypes’ that get in the way of this form of artistic engagement, an engagement that allows for the sort of synthesis that drives artistic work “on the deeper levels.”  For Le Guin, at least at the individual level, producing that synthesis means engaging with her animus at greater depth, an engagement she hypothesizes as coming out of the conventional limitations produced by sexist gendered conventions.  For her, the masculine focus obscurely gestures towards the need for some sort of balance between the two sides of the soul, one that contains both sides of the soul in synthetic balance.

In response, Delany rejects Le Guin’s framework, pointing out the racism that is explicitly contained in Jung’s analytical framework, and earlier challenging Le Guin’s interpretation of Jung. He argues,
“I find the labels that Jung puts on the various “parts” of it particularly pernicious: The anima is good and evil, and is part of the “male” soul; and men have to come to terms with it to grow up.  The animus is wholly evil and is an unhappily necessary part of your soul—unhappy, because it contains all your aggression (it is what allows you to scream if raped; without “male” animus, presumably, you would just submit without a whimper every time.)  Your creativity must be in your life.  If the animus gets too strong, you may even try to be an artist, or worse, a suffragette.” (Delany, Khatru, 40)

At an immediate level, the rejection of Jung and his acceptance by Le Guin is driven by a difference interpretation.  Le Guin offers a far more generous reading of the basic framework offered by Jung, later pointing out that Delany ignored the other more positive explanations for Jung’s framework, while Delany, operating out a more Lacanian perspective, focuses on the problematic aspects of Jung’s conceptual framework.  Through that engagement, Delany argues that the synthesis that Jung offers does not produce the kind of deeper unity that Le Guin focuses on.  Instead, the synthesis of anima and animus produces a concept two distinctively sexed and gendered subjects, with a distinctively hierarchical structure of value contained in them.  The animus in women allows them to act on one hand, and on the other hand, produces the possibility for the pathological direction of women producing art or even demanding political emancipation.  Just as significantly, Delany marks the deeply racist aspects of Jung’s works, aspects that argue that “the darker races” don’t have a psychology, ejecting a large portion of humanity from the status of full humanity.  Beyond these significant critiques of the ideological framework of Jung’s understanding of the psyche is a critique of the concept of synthetic unity itself.  Delany points to the political effects of such claims of synthesis, claims that implicitly exclude enormous populations of the Earth and legitimate structures of hierarchy in the name of a synthetic unity.  It’s difficult not to link those concerns with the forms of exclusion that facilitate the abstract structures of synthesis that inform Jung’s concept with the very real acts of white supremacy that are embedded in the construction of a post-war labor piece, structures that work to incorporate the new European immigrants into the political structures and patterns of consumption of the Fordist regime of capital, while systemically producing barriers to those same resources for Black workers.

In effect, the desire on the part of Le Guin to represent the moments of synthesis, a desire driven by Le Guin’s mystical and Jungian influences, constantly produces a shift from representations of collectivity to the intimate representation of any number of sets of couples, whether in the form of romances, antagonisms or friendships.  It also continually holds in abeyance the forms of antagonism that drive the plot from the conflicts between the informal institutional power on the moon colony of Anarres and the new forms of collectivity that arise to resist that process, in the name of the same philosophy that the older forms of institution claim as their inspiration, creating an obvious analogy between the conflict between the structures of the old left and the new left, as set up by the analytical work of Immanuel Wallerstein.  Furthermore, it creates the need for the false sense of synthesis displayed at the end of the narrative through Shevek’s act of sharing the information on how to facilitate simultaneous communication, occluding the forms of strife that are rocking the both societies, due to the political organizing occurring on both planets, organizing that expresses cross-boundary structures of antagonism, rather than any form of reconciliation.  The ‘ambiguity’ in Le Guin’s utopia reflects the contradiction between the critical antagonisms that defined the social struggles the narrative attempts to engage with and the neutrality of antagonism that defines the horizon of the utopian form.

[1] For a longer conversation of this please see Nancy Armstrong, Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987)


  1. Sorry about the lengthy delay, but it's here.