Archive | March, 2013

Information Saturation in Delany

28 Mar

While Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand screams for discussion of sexuality in Delany’s universe, the other readings assigned this week cover so much that my blog post could never do the topic justice. Therefore, I’ll discuss information and the influence of GI and the Web on the worlds we encounter in Stars in My Pocket instead.

Besides the obvious prescience in choosing to name the intergalactic information highway the “Web,” Delany describes cultural effects of the information saturation that are eerily familiar as well. Though we don’t call website developers “spiders,” we do share some of the anxiety about sites and services that we entrust with personal information to allow us to monitor or control how that information is used. I’m thinking of namely Facebook and online directories that can give sometimes surprising results when in a moment of curiosity you Google your own name. Even access to your browser history and purchase history are used by sites like Amazon to recommend products. I don’t want to dwell on paranoia because I think both our own culture and the worlds in Stars in My Pocket don’t quite reach that level, but the shoe size of our digital footprint is at least a concern. The Thants’ reaction in the novel to Japril’s presence at the formal dinner illustrates their similar concern. George Thant confronts Marq Dyeth to accuse him of giving information to the Web: “you report our takeover to the Web; we come to confront you and receive your accusation directly—tonight the place is crawling with Web officials!” (315). The Thants deeply resent their information being shared without their consent.

Another similarity between our own web and the General Information or GI that exists on many worlds in Stars in My Pocket is the unreliability or outdated-ness that serves as comic relief for characters in world-to-world travel. When entering the run, Korga assumes they must enter through the vent because he was told this probably by the Web officials orienting him before coming to Velm. Marq says in response, “’The problem with information you get from someone who got it from GI—is that it’s often ten years out of date—if not a hundred’” (224). There is a door right next to the vent added since GI’s last update that humans use to enter the run. Again at the formal dinner at the end of the novel, Egri hands off a dish to Japril to present; GI prescribes an intricate pattern of steps to follow that have since fallen out of style and use, but Marq finds it amusing and lets her continue (291). Plenty of up-to-date information is available on our own web, but every once in a while, as it happens on Velm, a puzzling relic of old information is good for a laugh.

I have to wonder about the significance of Rat Korga’s inability to connect to GI. His Radical Anxiety Termination procedure leaves him permanently neurologically damaged, though with the help of Okk’s rings he is able to live somewhat normally. The only experiences we see of Korga’s outside of his awakening he is with Marq, a sympathetic and understanding human. Being without GI though, would put him at a significant disadvantage in traveling to new worlds, and he would likely be at the mercy of companions to fill him in on local customs, languages, etc. As someone who only recently acquired a smartphone, I can somewhat relate to lacking the portable information hook-up.


Delaney Blog Post

28 Mar

Steve’s blog for class.

Ruin in Perfection

26 Mar


Where to begin?

If a literary work being something other than what it seems (or seeming to be other than what it is?) necessarily categorizes it as a queering influence, then Delany certainly hit the nail on the head with Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand.  I prefer not to be prejudiced before I read something new, so I was about two-thirds of the way through the book before I read so much as the back-cover synopsis.  My copy, the 2004 Wesleyan edition, seems to indicate that the crux rests on the sexual compatibility of the characters Marq and Korga.  My reaction on being thus informed was… is that really how this boils down?

Another third of the novel, and another round of supplementary materials, and  a long reflection lead me to the surprising realization that it is, in fact, how the novel boils down.  It is simply a case of some astute editing that allows that information to be as queering as the subject to which it relates, for it does not lead where it seems it should, either.

The bringing together of two individuals who are a perfect fit for each other seems, on the surface, such a crazily practical solution for the need to provide a crutch for Korga, that it nearly obscures the obscurity of the motivation for the Web in needing to do so much for her.  It is not until the scene of preparation for the formal dinner that a shadow, doubting the wisdom of the Web enters the conversation.  Marq asks Korga what dishes she likes and discovers that while Korga has been educated about customs related to food, about their ingredients and appearance, that the aspect of taste has been overlooked.  As Marq observes, quizzically, the taste “is what food is all about” (284).  On the surface, this might seem self-evident, but it immediately calls to mind the earlier depictions of Korga in her degraded state, as Rat, dining from a nutrient trough.  This creates a dichotomy reflecting on food as a means of subsistence, and food as a sensual pursuit, with Marq and Korga on either side of that divide.  Marq perceives the absence of the information of taste as being lost among superfluities, but, in the scheme of survival, taste must fall within the superfluous category.  The Web, containing such a superabundance of information, must constantly make critical choices over what elements of information pertain to any given situation, and must occasionally overlook what is, in fact, important.

As the epilogue relates, the information overlooked in connecting Marq and Korga is that the essential drive of the human is in seeking utopian instances which encapsulate elements of the realization of perfection.  Providing Marq with actual perfection removes the impetus for that drive, since everything pales against the reality she has known.   The emotional effect on her sense of self, of her identity as the seeker of this unique perfection, is similar to the physical surgery performed on Korga by gamma lasers.

The non-science-fictional complexities of gender

25 Mar

I hope to show a few minutes of this in class. A question to think about: how might our relationship to The Left Hand of Darkness change if we acknowledge that gender is a lot more complicated than Genly Ai tends to think?

The Need for Binary System

25 Mar


Le Guin, as she says in her article “Is Gender Necessary? Redux,” that her novel The Left Hand of Darkness is an experiment of gender. She says that her novel does not give answers, it asks questions. She relates what she did in her novel to the experiments of Einstein to give her novel more sense of a scientific experiment. It really neat to think of her novel that way because first of all it is a science fiction novel and Le Guin defined herself as writer; thus, novels are her laboratory to start her experiments on gender roles.

Le Guin’s question of this experiment is (how people would act when their gender is not defined? How their sexual psychology would be affected? And how the social structure would look like when its inhabitants are gender-neutral?) Although she claims that she does not give answers, only questions; or as she says, “they are questions, not answers; process, not stasis.” It is interesting that she really gave answers in the way they act before, during and after the “kemmer.”

However, my response basically is about the language used in this experiment. She says that her most interesting phrase is “the King was pregnant.” She eliminates the h/she binary system so the reader never knows what the gender of the character is. Although “king” is a masculine, she could have said “queen” the feminist equivalent to the king. But her narrative is challenging the reader, challenging us. We/the readers are not the inhabitants of her fictional world and we do feel something wrong when it comes to give the “king” feminist biological attributes, or at least I do.

This challenging because we, who live in the real world, rose with the idea of the “BINARY SYSTEM.” We differentiate males from females because we need to, we cannot live without having this binary system. It is not necessary to understand the other, either male or female, but to know ourselves. We have to label the other with a gender label so I know to which label I do belong to. It really a powerful text to challenge the idea of gender roles and the sexual psychology; but it creates deeper problems by eliminating them. Ones don’t know themselves without defining the other. And we have this problem with Sov in Coming of Age in Karhide.

To make my point clear of the need for the binary system, I would recall the examples of Herland. In Herland they are all women, no gender at all. However, the readers don’t feel the strangeness or the awkwardness they feel while reading Le Guin’s. For me, that is because Gilman substituted the gender role binary system with another binary system. Even within the Herland community, we know who is who and how they differ from each other because of the different qualities given to the inhabitants. There are teachers, professors, and less, etc. And there is a hierarchy in their social structure because of this binary system. This is what I don’t see in Le Guin’s work.

A Pitfall of La Guin’s Ambisexual World

25 Mar

In The Left Hand of Darkness and “Coming of Age in Karhide,” Ursula Le Guin has wildly experimented with gender and sexuality. Her imagined world is extremely innovative and thought-provoking. Gethen is a planet without gender. Humans who inhabit Gethen are born with neither male nor female identity. Their sexual behavior is strictly controlled, as it is eliminated only to “periods.” It is during those “kemmer” periods that partners physiologically develop either male or female genital organs. Magnificent. Creating a world that is devoid of gender is an enthralling idea. But it is a dangerous one as well.

Although La Guin has managed to deprive people of gender (of course in somer), gender-related features can be ostensibly noticed throughout the novel. It is almost inescapable to think of some characters (Estraven, for example) as males. La Guin contemplates in her essay “Is Gender Necessary?” over the linguistic flaw of the way she has approached the concept of gender in The Left Hand of Darkness. The linguistic part is not everything. The novel, I think, maintains the dual characteristic of gender identification still prevailing today. Maybe we should forgive that if we consider the time the novel was published. I don’t think that by 1969, feminism, as an intellectual thought, has been fully established. Though, years later, when Le Guin wrote the short story, she still kept that dual characteristic of gender. The language has changed. True. So has the perspective. But duality is there.

While considering this problem, we might question the sexual mechanism of the world La Guin has created. I think the idea that one of the partners in kemmer was supposed to develop a physiologically feminine predisposition is but enhancing the dual nature of sexuality La Guin herself is trying to investigate. What is the point, one might ask, of limiting sexual activity to only one fifth or so of the month when, in this very time, one should turn to be male and the other female? Destiny has the upper word, as choice is not granted. That is one crucial aspect of the sexual pattern invented in the novel. The one who turns to be the female conceives and, consequently, is supposed to meet the expectations related to the feminine life of our world. This is a pitfall La Guin’s world seems to fall into. Was it the pragmatic necessity for pregnancy and childbirth that affected La Guin’s treatment of her world? I guess so, though I am not sure.

Link to Brandon’s Post

24 Mar

I know I had signed up to respond to Thursday’s readings, but I figured since I’ll be away from class on Thursday for a conference, that it made more sense to write a response for when I’d be in class.

So Is It About Gender or Not?

24 Mar

Spoiler: I’m not gonna answer my own question, or at least, I’m not setting out to directly answer my question, but knowing my tendencies, I’m likely going to answer it anyway.

But onto the discussion at hand, namely the way gender functions in The Left Hand of Darkness. Part of me desperately wants to avoid talking about this, since the text is so very, very loaded with other stuff to talk about, and I likely would have written about the whole political issues, maybe even something about developing nation states and the commentary about the political machinery and the Other (totally there, by the by), were it not for two things:

1) Lauren’s response, which brought home something I myself had been thinking throughout the text.

2) Le Guin’s writings “Is Gender Necessary?” (certainly sounds like Le Guin anyway) and “Coming of Age in Karhide”.

Let’s start with Le Guin, mostly to make Lauren squirm a bit (I have this delusion that my peers actually care what I have to say about their theories and posts; odd, right?). Barely three pages into the essay, Le Guin directly states “that the real subject of the book is not feminism or sex or gender or anything of the sort”. Which seems to end the discussion before it begins. The author said that it’s not about sex! We can go home people! But interestingly enough, we have access to Le Guin’s later thoughts and revisions, where she states that this very statement is, in point of fact, defensive, and that the text is about gender. It’s also about more than that, and we can’t simplify things too much or we undercut the work. But I’m shelving that for now. Because I can. And because I still wanna talk about Estraven.

Specifically, I want to talk about how very manly Estraven is. I, like Lauren, read Estraven as a man. The whole pronoun thing certainly didn’t help matters, which Le Guin herself acknowledged at a later point. However, there is just something about the way Estraven is portrayed that seems masculine. To be honest, Lauren already said most of what I wanted to say on that, and has even pulled quotes, thus making my lazy self quite satisfied. In point of fact, the relationship between Estraven and Gi is likely, if anything, a queer one. There’s some definite affection there, and the fanboy part of me that loves to ship things together (fan term: Shipping = pairing two characters together romantically, usually in defiance of narrative) puts Estraven and Gi together. Partly because I think that would have been a more interesting story, as Gi would have had to try and figure things out, and part of it comes from how the relationship itself is presented.

But, again, Le Guin has pointed out the difficulties here. The pronoun thing, the presentation, all that good stuff. Again: read Lauren; I’m not reiterating, I’m supporting. Yet if you really want to see these differences highlighted, looking into what feels like the sequel: “Coming of Age in Karhide” feels more definite. For that work presents a Hearth of people; it’s told through the perspective of a native; and things are both complicated and more simple. It’s also super sexy, if you’re into that sort of thing. But within that work, the narrator reminisces about the narrator’s first kemmer, what that entailed and what all resulted because of it. That in itself would be super interesting to read, but the narrator’s family has a tendency to be… female. It is something of a choice and something of a tradition. The various people in that Hearth/clan/brood become female most of the time; they don’t vow kemmering to one another. In other words, they’re matriarchal, nearly to a fault (there seems to be an underlying argument there).

While the narrator, Sov (I think; the names are as confusing as Sci-fi/fantasy names should be), purposefully discusses Le Guin’s own issues with gender, insisting that it’s hard to write in a language that forces sexualized pronouns, she still comes off as, well, a she. She becomes female during her first Kemmer; is pretty well forced into it. She seems to associate more with the female. She does female things, or fulfills traditional female roles. In point of fact, she seems as female as Estraven seems male.

And that’s what makes this comparison so interesting. Le Guin has presumably deleted gender from the equation, yet there is still a definite feeling of gendered roles there. It almost seems to suggest that there is no escape from gender, or at least some form of gender identities. Yet at the same time, they do seem to challenge these roles at some point. The texts seem to demand us to explain why Estraven is male and Sev is female. It draws attention to those constructs and makes very definite statements about them and the relationships portrayed as a result.

So in the end, I guess I am answering my question. It is about gender, but it’s about everything that gender is connected to. It’s about what gender is and how we perceive gender, and how people fulfill or deny certain gender roles. It’s about a lot, and that’s what we’re hoping for in Sci-fi.

Now go read “Coming of Age in Karhide” if you hadn’t. It’ll expose you to the word clitopenis, and you know that alone is worth the time you spent reading it.

Who Are You Calling A Pervert?: Writing Ambisexuality in Le Guin

21 Mar

Through most of The Left Hand of Darkness, I found I had constructed Estraven as a man in my mind, even though it’s made clear relatively early on in the novel (Chapter 7) that Gethenians are ambisexual. In the article, “Is Gender Necessary?: Redux” Le Guin acknowledges the difficulty in choosing to stick with male pronouns and that the choice ultimately influences the conception of Gethenian characters (169-70). I agree that beyond pronoun choices the action is narrated in such a way to reinforce the masculine identity rather than the ambisexual. For example, this excerpt comes near the end of the novel, and is said by King Argaven, a Gethenian and ambisexual himself:

“Estraven would be a good man to pull with, on a crazy trek like that. He was tough as iron. And never lost his temper. I’m sorry he’s dead” (294).

Argaven calls her/him a “man,” values his/her iron-like toughness, and recognizes her/ his restraint when others might be prone to aggression or emotion. This description reinforces Estraven’s maleness as much of the novel does. The moments in the narration that give Estraven and other Gethenians feminine qualities are too few to heavily influence the conception of these characters. Le Guin mentions this in the article as well. This masculine-normativity created by the language of the novel also frames Ai and Estraven’s relationship as a male homosexual one, rather than the intended queer encounter when Estraven enters kemmer. Perhaps conceptualizing an abundance of maleness into Estraven is a result of the hesitance to acknowledge and conceive of ambisexuality. Homosexuality might appear more normal (less queer) than appearing /disappearing genitals and the psychological presence of both sexes, so it becomes the comfortable misreading of the text.

The moment Ai is able to see Estraven as both man and woman, and recognizes that she/he has been denying him/her that reality (248-9), serves as a comparable moment in the mind of the reader. Reading homosexuality into their relationship is denying Estraven’s femaleness. Ai says, “I saw then again, and for good, what I had always been afraid to see, and had pretended not to see in him: that he was a woman as well as a man” (248). Ai’s reluctance was my own as the reader. The invisibility of Estraven’s femaleness, as Wendy Gay Pearson describes in the other article for this week, “passes” for maleness. Estraven’s own words to describe the highly bureaucratic Orgota directly address how fear and cultural conditioning create invisibility: “Fear undoes his mission and my hope, once more. Not fear of the alien, the unearthly, not here. These Orgota have not the wits nor size of spirit to fear what is truly and immensely strange. They cannot even see it. They look at the man from another world and see what? A spy from Karhide, a pervert, an agent…” (159). Just as the Orgota see Genly Ai as something more comfortable, a pervert spy, so had I allowed cultural conditioning to conceal Estraven for most of the novel.

Understanding Gender and Sexuality in Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness

14 Mar

The novel tells a story of Ai and his mission in Gethen. Soon he became a part of their society and is introduces to Gethenians’ peculiar sexual relationships. Gethenians are ambisexual that is they can be men or women (non-gendered). They are sexually inactive but in four days (when they are in kemmer) in the month they choose to become a man or a woman that can be different in each month. Ai is considered sexually active permanently as other humans from his planet, which for the King are “A society of perverts”, “a disgusting” and “monstrously different” human beings.

I want to talk about gender issues that Le Guin has brought up in this SF novel. First of all, the type of language she created and used to support her argument against the universal and dominant understanding of sexuality and specifically the notion of privileged heterosexuality. In that vein, Sedgwick in her critical essay Epistemology of The Closet argued about the cultural way we comprehend the process of sexual specification or species formation and understandings of sexual choice.  A deconstructive strategy needs to be seriously adopted to reject any cultural binary opposition – heterosexuality/homosexuality.  She also discusses how gender formation influences both identity formation and sexual orientation.It is interesting to see how she looks at the definitions of homo/heterosexuality as a modern Western identity and social category.

I believe Le Guin’s work although is not sexuality-centered novel plays a major role in seeing how human beings can be divided regarding their sex, gender and sexuality. Also, I want to emphasize that she gives a gender choice and not force it, which I see it as a feminist thought. Le Guin teaches feminists ideas through the gender tension created by a driven desire to free all men and women from traditional methodology of treating and constructing the concept of gender, and minoritizing and universalizing view of it.

Works Cited

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. “Axiomatic.” Introduction. Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley: University of California, 1990. 1-63. Print.