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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?

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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.

http://www.pixelscholars.org/brandongalm/2013/03/24/week-7ish-response-to-the-left-hand-of-darkness/

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.

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.

What makes Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness Science Fiction?

11 Mar

                The debate over exactly what science fiction is as a genre is of high concern to many of the authors writing in the ’60s, ’70s, and beyond. The critical conversation deliberating the definition of science fiction is and has been conducted by fans, authors, and critics. In “1945: The Technocultural Conjuncture,” Lockhurst explains “SF as a genre that provides a very particular cultural commentary on the new post-war dispensation in America and Britain” (81). Later in “From Atomjocks to Cultural Critique: American SF, 1939-1959,” Lockhurst continues tracing the development of science fiction. He questions “How is it possible to assess the realism, the versimilitude of the representation of nuclear war, when nuclear war has not taken place and could not take place without destroying the possibility of representation?” (101). Framed by his discussion of science fiction as cultural commentary, Lockhurst’s later question emphasizes the connection between cultural realities and the imagination. So cultural connection is an important characteristic of science fiction.

However, there is more to science fiction than cultural relation. As Larbalestier points out in “The Women Men Don’t See,” the links to reality are cultural as well as scientific. She looks to the problems within the field of science fiction explaining, “This split between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ science has its equivalence in ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ science fiction. ‘Hard’ science fiction is frequently portrayed as ‘real’ science fiction because it is more ‘scientific’ than ‘soft’ science fiction. ‘Hard’ science fiction is predominantly mapped on to the male, and ‘soft’ sf, on to the female” (148). While Larbalestier is engaging gender (and queer) concerns in the development of her argument I would contend that the discrepancy she is pointing out has larger and much more foundational implications. Larbalestier’s argument outlining the traditionally perceived inferior position of ‘soft’ sf harkens back to Le Guin’s earlier work in analyzing the construction and relegation of science fiction as a genre in American Literature. Le Guin explains that the hierarchy regarding the ‘creative’ explorations of ‘soft’ sf are a result of “[…] something that goes very deep in the American character: a moral disapproval of fantasy, a disapproval so intense, and often so aggressive, that I cannot help but see it as arising, fundamentally, from fear” (39). While Le Guin’s analysis still invokes gender arguments, she returns questions of science fiction as a genre to Lockhurst’s issues of cultural relation and scientific basis. Science fiction seems to lie somewhere in the balance of these arguments then. It is based in reality and particular cultural interactions is infected by the imagination. The text is simultaneously defamiliarized by the imagination and ‘re’acquaints its audience with his/her world. So if science fiction works in and through such a complicated textual/worldly interactions, how does Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness support and challenge such a definition.

Many of the same qualities that qualify Le Guin’s work as ‘science fiction’ relate to an interrogation of humanity, which I would argue is a much more crucial element of Le Guin’s fiction. Considering the framework she provides of Estraven’s background and the focus on intimacy among many of the characters, I would argue that part of the work The Left Hand of Darkness does is suggest a reconsideration of humanity and how it works. A couple of the ‘hard’-er or more common science fiction elements in her piece are Ai and his space ship as alien (232), the episode of extra-normal strength/altered state of existence of Estraven (192), and Ai’s timejumping (222). These potentially scientific plot events introduce notions of humanity and Otherness. They engage feats which science could potentially induce or explain, but have not yet been accomplished (to the public’s knowledge). However, more importantly all of these events point to introductions of concerns with humanity as the motivations of Ai and Estraven surface. Ai has chosen to come to “this world” to accomplish what might be considered humane goals (182). Estraven assumes “doethe” to save Ai and perhaps his (Estraven’s) own humanity (132).

The results of these Other-ed and alternate experiences of ‘reality’ initiate broader social questions and concerns in the text, particularly concerns with intimacy (socially and sexually) as well as the non-transparency of language. These notions relate to the construction and manifestation of humanity. Gender is one of the important social spaces Le Guin challenges and imaginatively reinvents. Biologically gender still exists in terms of reproduction. For Ai, his society is still gendered, but in Estraven’s world it is observed that Ai’s pictures of women “looked like pregnant Gethenians, but with larger breasts […] Are they like a different species?” Ai responds “No.Yes. No, of course not, not really. But the difference is important.” (234) Ai goes on to discuss the many ways gender affects the lives of individuals in his society. While gender is not genetically manipulated it is critiqued within generic conventions of science fiction while simultaneously being erased, reinforced, explained, and manipulated.

Le Guin analyzes language and its relation to humanity within her storyline. Ai reflects after being recognized and denied the status of anonymous prisoner that “I was named, know, recognized; I existed” (111). Contrasting this semi-prisoner moment with a later one illustrates the significance of Ai’s thoughts, “It is a terrible thing, this kindness that human beings do not lose. Terrible, because when we are finally naked in the dark and cold, it is all we have […] Kindness there was and endurance, but in silence, always in silence” (170). Where initially humanity seems to require epistemologically knowable Others, later humanity seems to become a universal essential condition. The switch language undergoes from a confirmation of existence to an unnecessary social construct plays with notions of civilization, knowledge, and power.

So I seem to have navigated away from my original question of how Le Guin’s text engages the genre of science fiction. But really I haven’t. Language is the medium stories are told within. Stories are grounded through reference points of reality manipulated by the imagination. Le Guin’s work uses both potentially ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ science in her work. What I would consider to be more important, however, is the baring of humanity that her characters conduct. An activity which becomes even more important considering that neither of them is really human (they are either beings who experience kemmer or are an alien to the society the reader is launched into). Humanity, or its contentious definition, then seems to become an important concept explored through and by texts which fall into the genre of science fiction.

*I didn’t do a works cited since all works I used are either on the syllabus or the website, but can provide one if requested.