Posts Tagged ‘darko suvin’
The following post is an essay on the novel The Dispossessed by Ursula K. LeGuin. First, I would like to strongly advise anyone who has not read the novel to do so immediately as its profundity has no bounds. This book will both disturb and enliven you in ways you are not prepared for. Also, if you have not read the novel, I advise you to save this essay until you have done so. There are several spoilers ahead, and although the work does not rely heavily on plot, any part I might unknowingly have in taking away from an individuals first experience with The Dispossessed would be, for me, unforgivable.
Now let us begin.
Although calling Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Dispossessed a didactic work would be severely limiting to the form of the novel, the heart of the book is based in ethics, yet the ethics put forth by the novel are not socio-moral ethics. In fact, they are based specifically on the individual and his/her ability to remain open to difference. Shevek is such an individual. He leaves his home planet in order to enlighten the “other,” thus becoming isolated between the conflicting social ideologies of Anarres and Urras. It is within such isolation that Shevek is capable of coming in contact with difference himself, while simultaneously allowing the reader to experience the other, thus The Dispossessed is a novel in which LeGuin perpetually wrestles with what Darko Suvin claims to be the core of the science fiction text: “the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment” (7-8). Just when the reader becomes comfortable with a set of new social standards, LeGuin rips the ground out from under them, allowing the reader to see even an alien world with new eyes. The novel shows that social law will always solidify into a problematic ideology and that only within what Michael Pinksy in Future Present calls an individual’s “ethical event horizon” can Shevek remain ultimately free of ideological walls.
In his critical work Future Present, Michael Pinksy proposes an alternative law of ethics driven by “A ‘Law of Chance’” (Pinsky 185). Contrary to the belief that proof of a chaotic universe would destroy human ethics, Pinsky claims that a new ethical understanding remains essential, claiming, “We exist already in the world, and any understanding of ourselves must go hand-in-hand with an understanding of ethics and our relationship to others” (183). Pinsky feels law and ideology come because an imposition of meaning via “technology enforces a particular notion of the future, placing law above critique and at the upper limit of legitimacy” (184). Because of humanity’s ability to retain memory, the “future reflects a certain enfolding order which we call Progress. This progress is goal oriented, obsessed with the production of meaning within a closed system” (184). A goal-oriented society thus becomes a society in which ideology becomes deified as truth. Conversely, a law of chance can allow for an “encounter between the field of probability (Other or Otherness)” (186). Such an encounter “destabilizes the ordered Self. The Self reproduces itself through fusion with alterity: a self-becoming-other” (187), allowing, for a moment, an individual’s understanding of the infinite (all possibilities). Pinsky concludes by stating, “Ethics is the recognition of the prior Other and the accounting for the possibility of chance with regard to anticipation. It is an acting for the future and for the other that arrives from the future” (188). Thus Pinsky posits that the ethics of the science fictional text should be one in which the individual constantly acts for the future while retaining its current understanding of the past.
Pinsky’s argument eerily reflects the individual ethical journey of Shevek throughout The Dispossessed vis-à-vis LeGuin’s tactical placement of moments of estrangement with regard to Shevek as well as the reader. From the beginning of the novel, the reader learns that Shevek’s goal is to teach openness to plurality for he states, “I will go to Abbenay and unbuild walls” (8). When Shevek first meets Dr. Kimoe, the Urresti doctor’s ideology comes into conflict with Shevek’s openness. Shevek learns that the captain of the Mindful is “used to looking on all foreigners as inferior,” thus he ponders about the “curious matter of superiority” (14-15). He asserts that the Urrasti “often used the word ‘higher’ as a synonym for ‘better’ in their writings, where an Anarresti would use ‘more central.’ But what did being higher have to do with being foreign? It was one puzzle among hundreds” (15). The Urrasti ideology suddenly seems all too familiar to the reader, for it parallels our own in many ways. By gaining access to Shevek’s reasoning on the matter of ideological hierarchy, the reader becomes aware of the absurdity of hierarchal ideology. Likewise, Shevek’s response to Dr. Kimoe’s question, “Is it true, Dr. Shevek, that women in your society are treated exactly like men” (16) is unnervingly logical, for Shevek simply states, “men maybe work faster—the big ones—but the women work longer…. Often I have wished I was as tough as a woman, ” showing misogyny as equally absurd, as well as showing Shevek’s openness to possibly changing gender if given the chance. Thus for the first portion of the novel, the reader experiences the Other (Shevek), allowing them to be reborn through “fusion with alterity: a self-becoming-other” (187).
Although the rhetoric used is a bit metaphysical it quite accurately describes the experience of newness in which the individual is eternally changed after such a confrontation. By seeing Shevek’s openness of thought, the reader begins to think outside of the box, as it were. For the reader, his home world of Anarres becomes the future, a possible utopia, while Urras comes to represent past/present ideologies. While speaking with Dr. Kimoe, Shevek contemplates the concept of cost “the way a paleontologist looks at a fossil, the fossil that date a whole stratum” (LeGuin 13). The reader does not yet know of the social issues arising in Anarres, thus such imagery furthers the reader’s idea of Urras as Past and Anarres as Future. Shevek, however, is on an inverse trajectory. For him, Anarres is home and Urras is the future for his studies, yet to remain open to alterity in his future, he must remember his past promises to himself: “Before then, even; long before, in the Dust, in the years of famine and despair, when he had promised himself that he would never act again but by his own free choice. And following that promise he had brought himself here: to this moment without time, this place without an earth, this little room, this prison” (8). Thus Shevek and the reader have parallel experiences of estrangement, striving for the future while retaining their pasts as a foundation.
To the reader, Anarres seems like a truly obtainable utopia once he/she begins to be tapped into its alternative ideology. Through the retention of memory, the future idea of Anarres “reflects a certain enfolding order, which we call Progress. This Progress is goal oriented, obsessed with the production of meaning within a closed system” (Pinsky 184). The reader remembers their past (Urras) and it’s over emphasis on individual indulgence and self centered ideology. When Anarres enters the equation, the reader suddenly sees it as an obtainable goal and begins to work toward achieving it, but once meaning is produced solely within a “closed system,” even one in which society is put before the individual, ideology begins to harden and become less malleable. The readers new goal oriented drive toward Anarres will eventually turn into a new ideology if left unchecked. LeGuin remains cognizant of such an issue, for she begins to shift estrangement from Urras to the newly familiar Anarres. As the reader becomes more familiar with Anarres he/she begins to see that it has created a rigid ideology.
Hardening of ideological structures within Anarres springs from centralization and emphasis on the social organism’s response to outside variables. When Shevek is in the transport, on his way to meet Sabul, he looks out at the arid landscape of Anarres. The narrator then deviates and explains, “Decentralization had been an essential element in Odo’s plans for the society she did not live to see founded… Her plans, however had been based on the generous ground of Urras” (95). Due to limited resources centralism begins to leak into Odonian social philosophy in order to provide for others in times of trouble. Shevek often notes how Abbenay has much more than most other cities. Also to adapt to the arid environment of Anarres, an extreme pragmatism slowly entered into Anarresti social ideology. Linguistically there is no separation between “work” or “play” (92) and all efforts begin to be driven toward the greater good rather than individual freedom.
As a child, when Shevek begins to have free thought about the issue of the rock and the tree, his peers begin to debate with him. Their individual minds become stimulated, yet the teacher swiftly silences them. The debating children “stopped as if struck dumb” and the teacher reprimands Shevek by saying, “Speech is sharing—a cooperative art. You’re not sharing, merely egoizing” (29). Such an extreme emphasis on the entirety of the social organism via pragmatism, rather than a balance between individuals and the society eventually leads to a well-hidden social ideology. In Anarres, a government does not attempt to stamp out revolution; rather the social ideologies that be try to “crush [revolution] by ignoring them. By refusing to think, refusing to change” (165). Shevek has figured out “that the social conscience completely dominates the individual conscience, instead of striking a balance with it” (330). Odo originally thought that a balance must exist between the “‘cellular function,’ the analogic term for the individual’s individuality” and the overall protection of the social organism (LeGuin 333). The centralization of Anarres in Abbenay and the over emphasis on pragmatism ruptures the balance between the individual and the social organism. Eventually there exists “a kind of rigidity: this is the way it was done, this is the way it is done, this is the way it has to be done” (329). In a world where the individual cannot sway a hardened social ideology, new possibilities cannot exist, thus the understanding of the past hardships has created social (not governmental) laws within Anarres, “placing law above critique and at the upper limit of legitimacy” (Pinsky 184).
The social laws of Anarres not only stifle the importance of individual work but also the voice of the individual. Learning centers are “all pragmatic… No distinction was drawn between the arts and the crafts… Painting and sculpture served largely as elements of architecture and town planning. As for the arts of words, poetry and storytelling tended to be ephemeral, to be linked with song and dancing; only the theater stood wholly alone, and only the theater was ever called ‘the Art’” (157). Such a link between craft and art begins to create a society that stifles individuality and expression. Pravic remains limited in its expressive abilities. There are no “proprietary idioms for the sexual act,” leaving out quite a large variable in sexual relationships. Furthermore, Shevek usually curses in Iotic since Pravic is severely limited in its expletives (all of which refer to a ideological disgust for excremental behavior). Even more telling is the rigidity of poetry within the culture and language of Anarres, for the narrator states, “The Odonian’s first efforts to make their new language… into poetry, were stiff, ungainly, moving” (96). Although the poetry is “moving” it is clearly not as expressive as other languages, and although these are the “first efforts,” little emphasis is given to poetry, painting, or music in the present culture of Anarres.
The negative effects of sacrificing individual expression and art for pragmatism are externalized through the character of Tirin. An individual at heart, “Tir’s a born artist. Not a craftsman—a creator. An inventor-destroyer, the kind whose got to turn everything upside down and inside out. A satirist, a man who praises through rage” (LeGuin 328). Even in Shevek’s earliest memories, Tirin has exerted his cellular function by questioning the powers that be through individual expression, yet he has since been crushed under social ideology. As children, Tir and Shevek sit on the hilltop and look up to Urras. After debating why knowledge of Urras is kept from them, Tir states, “In a sick organism, even a healthy cell is doomed.” The scene is sadly foreboding, for Tirin’s “brothers, drove him insane in punishment for his first free act:” his play. At the time, however, Shevek retorts, “Oh you can prove anything using the analogy, and you know it” (43). Shevek’s reply is an ironic one. Here he criticizes Tir for using analogy, the title of Odo’s work containing the core of her philosophy, which emphasizes the balance between individual thought and the social organism. LeGuin’s novel itself is an analogy relating Shevek’s struggle to our own. The novel parallels Tirin’s play, while simultaneously, Shevek’s struggle for alterity parallels our own; however, the analogy takes on a dual nature. Although the novel is itself a work of individual expression calling for alterity, the meta commentary reminds the reader that the novel itself is a construction that could eventually be turned into an ideology. The scene stands as a climactic epiphany for both Shevek and the reader. Where originally Shevek and the reader were on inverse trajectories (Anarres as past for Shevek versus future for the reader) here the two have had a “fusion with alterity: a self-becoming-other,” (Pinsky 187) at the same time. The reader has now become estranged even from Anarres and, at the same moment, so has Shevek. Both the reader and Shevek thus experience existence outside of any ideological structure together.
By now, both the reader and Shevek have been estranged from both their past and their future. Both are “clearly aware of only one thing, [their] total isolation” (6) between two distinct ideologies. Shevek has not only been estranged from Anarres as seen through his past memories, but he soon becomes disillusioned with Urras. After the bloody protests on Urras, Shevek takes sanctuary at the Terran embassy. Here he meets with the Ambassador from Terra and raves against the propertarian beliefs of Urras:
There is no way to act rightly, with a clear heart, on Urras. There is nothing you can do that profit does not enter into, and fear of loss, and the wish for power. You cannot say good morning without knowing which of you is ‘superior’ to the other, or trying to prove it. You cannot act like a brother to other people, you must manipulate them, or command them, or obey them, or trick them… There is no freedom. (346-347)
Although Shevek is right in his observation that social injustices destroy freedom on Urras, the Ambassador reminds him of the freedom found in hope, stating, “I know it’s full of evils, full of human injustice, greed, folly, waste. But it is also full of good, of beauty, vitality, achievement. It is what a world should be! It is alive, tremendously alive—alive, despite all its evils, with hope” (347). Here LeGuin has reintroduced a new Other in the form of one whose world “is a ruin” (347) meant to parallel Earth. Once again the reader becomes estranged. By introducing an alternative future for the reader’s home planet, LeGuin has tied hope for a future heavily to individual “achievement” and the liveliness not found in the pragmatic culture of Anarres. With his new realization of alterity in tow, Shevek returns to his world bringing Ketho with him and subsequently giving Ketho the gift of alterity.
The rhetorical choice of the word “gift” is not without intention. Pinsky claims, “Through decision, a world is both possible and real” and “decidability… occurs as a sort of passing-between that exceeds both the frame of Being (home) and the frame of There is (khora)” (188-189). He then calls such a passing-between a “gift” which “operates as both a presencing (marking itself as the very point of disruption in the accidental collision of Being and Other) and an absensing (erasing itself as it exceeds the production of meaning by which being assimilates information into its enclosure of the Same)… The gift is the very possibility of a future that can be anticipated, but will always contain the unexpected” (189).
To break Pinsky down into more understandable terms, the gift is the ability for individual decision in a world of infinite possibilities, which should not be confused with the decision itself. It is merely the gift of infinite possibilities while simultaneously being the gift of decision itself. Infinity would be of little use without the ability for the cognitive individual to make a decision. Much like Shevek, for the gift to have meaning, it must be countered with the past experience of finite existence. It is within the collision with alterity that the gift may be experienced both by a sentient being which is physically present, while also taking such a being outside of itself in the form of an “absensing.” The gift then sounds like quite another term for hope or a striving for the future, a hope with emphasis on the alterative and newness and the ability for the individual to stand outside their own frame of reference. Only by understanding his past and striving for a future can Shevek experience the gift.
Such a perception of both cause-and-effect existence and infinite alternative interestingly parallels Shevek’s Simultaneity Theory. When speaking at Vea’s party, Shevek explains the distinction between the two seemingly contradictory theories of time: “Time has two aspects. There is the arrow, the running river, without which there is no change, no progress, or direction, or creation. And there is the circle or the cycle, without which there is chaos, meaningless succession of instants, a world without clocks or seasons or promises” (LeGuin 223). Simultaneity Theory thus proposes that time does not exist as one of the two but both. The time we experience is a time of succession, which “is not considered as a physically objective phenomenon, but as a subjective one” (221). Shevek feels that it is entirely possible to comprehend both forms of time, and as it would seem, so does LeGuin. Using dual timelines, a tension between chapters dedicated to Shevek’s past and chapters dedicated to his present, mixed with moments of cognitive estrangement allow both Shevek and the reader to experience the gift.
In Shevek’s own words, “You cannot have anything… unless you accept with it the past and the future” (349).
In precise moments of estrangement, such as when the reader learns of Anarres’ non possessive culture or when Shevek learns that Anarres has become an ideology, the reader becomes instantly aware of the existence of alternative possibility through the retained memory of past experience. He/she is momentarily present within the fixed flow of time while simultaneously taken out of time with the understanding of all possibility just as “when the mystic makes the reconnection of his reason and his unconscious, he sees all becoming as one being, and understands the eternal return” (222). Although it is never possible to prove an authors intention, it seems that LeGuin is cognizant of her novel paralleling Shevek’s alternative views of time. As Shevek explains Simultaneity Theory at the party, he uses the metaphor of a book: “The books is all there, all at once, between its covers. But if you want to read the story and understand it, you must begin with the first page, and go forward, always in order. So the universe would be a very great book, and we would be very small readers” (221). Just as before, when LeGuin references an analogies ability to “prove anything,” she draws further attention to the construction of the novel, both presenting it as the possibility for new experience and the possibility for a new rigid ideology. Ironically, she has given a linear story in a non-linear fashion, yet to give it any meaning the reader must read it from start to finish.
LeGuin’s constant meta-references to language draw heavy attention to the construct of her own novel. Shevek constantly struggles with language throughout the work, having to learn Iotic to publish his physics. At the novel’s close Shevek reveals that he has created the ansible, “a device that will permit communication without any time interval between two points in space” (344). Keng is gleeful to learn of the invention, saying, “at last we can talk together.” Shevek’s bitterly replies, “An what will you say?… I must explain to you why I have come to you, and why I came to this world also. I came fore the idea. For the sake of the idea… On Anarres, you see, we have cut ourselves off. We don’t talk with other people… But the ideas in my head aren’t the only ones important to me. My society is also an idea.” (345). The idea here is the idea of something new or as Pinsky puts it, “the very possibility of a future that can be anticipated, but will always contain the unexpected” (189).
The universe is given the gift in the form of interstellar communication, yet the ansible is not an instant gateway to utopia. Shevek tells the ambassador, “We cannot come to you. We can only wait for you to come to us” (350). He does not say “your people” or “your society.” He says “you,” emphasizing that only within the sentient individual can the Pinskian concept of the gift reside. The effect of Shevek’s gift remains ambiguous. We do not know if the ansible ushers in a new universe of peace and understanding (one has their doubts). We simply know that language gives others hope, the hope for something new and better. When Shevek dreams about the perfect language of numbers he sees “the primal number, that was both unity and plurality… There was no wall in the shadows and he knew that he had come back, that he was home” (34). Although Shevek “could not reattain [the dream] either by longing for it or by the act of will” he nonetheless experienced it for an instant just as one experiences the gift upon coming in contact with the Other.
Shevek constantly retains his individual spirit by remaining open to difference and stepping outside both social and personal ideological walls. The narrator freely states, “The social conscience, the opinion of others, was the most powerful moral force motivating the behavior of most Anarresti, but it was a little less powerful in [Shevek] than in most of them” (113). He remains an anomaly among his peers, and thus becomes the battleground on which the social, political, and philosophical probings of The Dispossessed take place. Through contact with Shevek, the reader becomes aligned with him and begins to understand his openness to alterity. Throughout the novel, social organisms always solidify into fixed ideology, even Anarres, “for though only the society could give security and stability, only the individual, the person, had the power of moral choice—the power of change, the essential function of life” (333). When LeGuin states, “At the heart of [the novel] you will not find an idea, or an inspirational message, or even a stone axe, but something much frailer and obscurer and more complex: a person,” (“Science Fiction…” 26) she reminds the reader that broader questions of the social organism remain important, but cannot function without an openness of the individual mind.
LeGuin, Ursula K. The Dispossessed. New York: HarperCollins, 1974. Print
—. “Science Fiction and Mrs. Brown.” Science Fiction at Large. Ed. Peter Nicholls. New York: Harper & Row, 1976. 15-33. Print.
Pinsky, Michael. Future Present: Ethics And/As Science Fiction. Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2003. Print.
Suvin, Darko. Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre. New Haven: Yale UP, 1979. Print.
Written by robertuthomason
January 19, 2010 at 7:20 pm
Tagged with analogy, anarchism, Anarres, author, character, darko suvin, Dispossessed, epic, fantasy, future present, ideology, LeGuin, Metamorphoses of Science Fiction, michael pinsky, novel, Odo, Science fiction, Shevek, space, spaceship, story, Urras, Ursula K