November 3, 2015
This paper, presented at The Ohio State University English Graduate Organization’s second annual conference on October 31, 2015, is an edited-down version of a paper written for a graduate seminar on science fiction and literary theory, and is also a slightly different version of the paper I actually gave, which was shorter by about two pages.
Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (1974), about an anarchist utopia and the struggle of an anarchist to find his place in that utopia and in the capitalist society he visits, is considered a masterpiece of science fiction (SF). It is a foundational text of the feminist SF movement, central to the “New Wave” of socially conscious SF that emerged in the mid-1960s, and is a landmark of late-20th century anarchist writing. For most of its critical history The Dispossessed has stood in contrast to Le Guin’s earlier novel, The Left Hand of Darkness (LHD), an anthropological SF novel about a world populated by an androgynous humanoid species. If, as Le Guin opined, the vast majority of critics of LHD “insisted upon talking only about its ‘gender problems,’” the opposite has been true about criticism of The Dispossessed. Its critics are overwhelmingly preoccupied with the anarcho-syndicalist dimensions of the novel’s utopian politics, to the point of overlooking, even minimalizing what I claim is the radicalness of the novel’s gender politics. At the heart of the novel is a tension between the commodification of sexuality (and therefore the oppressive structuration of gender) in capitalist societies and the supposed openness of sex and gender roles under anarchism. Perhaps the most disturbing moment in the novel, and the least explored in critical literature, is an instance of sexual violence perpetrated by an anarchist visiting a capitalist nation, against a wealthy woman whose flirtations are said by at least one critic to “mislead” the assailant. This paper brings sexual violence to the fore of the novel, shows its relation to the novel’s larger discussion about the imbrication of sex and gender roles with political and economic structures, and questions the shocking quietude of SF criticism in regard to this moment of violence. Moreover, I place Le Guin in the context of developing feminist consciousness about rape, sexual violence, and women’s oppression in the early and mid-1970s, and in the process reclaim Le Guin’s often maligned radicalism.
Sexual Violence in Le Guin’s The Dispossessed: Toward an Interpretation
Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (TD, 1974), about an anarchist utopia and the struggle of an anarchist to find his place in that utopia as well as in the capitalist society he visits, is considered a masterpiece of science fiction (SF). It is a foundational text of the feminist SF movement, central to the “New Wave” of socially conscious SF that emerged in the mid-1960s, and is a landmark of late-20th century anarchist writing. For most of its critical history TD has stood in contrast to Le Guin’s earlier novel, The Left Hand of Darkness (LHD, 1969), about a world populated by an androgynous humanoid species. If, as Le Guin opined, the vast majority of the LHD‘s critics “insisted upon talking only about its ‘gender problems,’” the opposite has been true about criticism of TD. Its critics are overwhelmingly preoccupied with the anarcho-syndicalist dimensions of the novel’s utopian politics, to the point of overlooking, even minimalizing what I claim is the radicalness of the novel’s gender politics. At the heart of the novel is a tension between the commodification of sexuality and the oppressive structuration of gender in capitalist societies, on one hand, and the supposed openness of sex and gender roles under anarchism, on the other. Perhaps the most disturbing moment in the novel, and the least explored in critical literature, is an instance of sexual violence perpetrated by the protagonist anarchist visiting a capitalist nation, against a wealthy woman whose flirtations are said by at least one critic to “mislead” the assailant. This paper brings sexual violence to the fore of the novel, shows its relation to the novel’s larger discussion about the imbrication of sex and gender roles with political and economic structures, and questions the shocking quietude of SF criticism in regard to this moment of violence. Moreover, though less prominently in this presentation, I place Le Guin in the context of developing feminist consciousness about rape, sexual violence, and women’s oppression in the early and mid-1970s, and in the process reclaim Le Guin’s often maligned radicalism.
Like much of Le Guin’s fiction, TD is a reworking of a traditional genre, in this case the utopia, though here she subverts the traditional narrative of utopia by seeding it with ambiguities, by recognizing that utopia is not a finished product but a permanent, ongoing revolution. In TD, rather than imagine her utopian society as having eliminated prejudices toward women arising from perceived social or biological difference, “Le Guin makes particular efforts to portray [the illusion of, rather than the fact of,] a non-sexist utopia” (Moylan 1986, 99). In service of my argument, I establish the concept of “commodifiable erotics”—that is, the erotic as a theme in the novel dependent on the commodification, exchangeability, and materiality of sex. Through the lens of the commodifiable erotics it is possible to see in TD a claim that the revolutionary changes of political and economic systems are not wholly adequate to the solving of a gender hierarchy. Read this way, at the political center of TD is the novel’s most disturbing scene, an act of sexual violence perpetrated by an anarchist purportedly beyond such actions.
The novel’s primary narrative is devoted to contrasting the anarcho-syndicalist society of the desert moon Anarres, with the lush, “earthly” nations of the neighboring planet Urras, primarily represented by a country uncannily similar to the United States, though as in other of her contemporary novels a “socialist” nation is also present.[i] Described in its original subtitle as an “ambiguous utopia,” TD presents these differences through the eyes of the male protagonist Shevek, an Anarresti physicist whose lifestory is told in chapters that alternate throughout the novel with chapters devoted to his exploration of, and exploitation by, the Urrasti political elite. In a preface to a related short story, Le Guin describes Anarresti society as (quote) “anarchism. Not the bomb-in-the-pocket stuff, which is terrorism…not the social-Darwinist economic ‘libertarianism’ of the far right; but anarchism, as prefigured in early Taoist thought, and expounded by Shelley and Kropotkin, Goldman and Goodman. Anarchism’s principle target is the authoritarian state” (Le Guin 1975b, 232). As the novel progresses, we discover that regardless of its attempts to dissolve hierarchies, Anarresti society has allowed power to inhere in its central governing body, and that the bureaucratic forces of social coercion used to mediate individual action have in fact stifled the individual’s ability to do act in any way against social norms.[ii] Anarres, while potentially utopian, is in many ways ambiguously so. Still, Anarresti anarchism is the radical opposition to Urrasti capitalism.
On Anarres, unlike on Urras and in Le Guin’s 1970s, labor is divided on a volunteer basis and selected by choice, free of gender restrictions; children are given gender-neutral names; the burden of child care is universal; monogamous relationships are not legally binding, since marriage as an institution does not exist; individuals’ sexual habits are their choice; sexual crimes are extremely rare; and female characters regularly defy sexist norms: Shevek’s partner, for example, has greater success than he in her chosen vocation, while his mother maintains a lofty position in the Anarresti bureaucracy while eschewing the nurturing mother subject position. Le Guin’s anarchist utopia proposes itself, in many ways, as an ideal solution to the problems of capitalism as a system that inscribes female bodies with objectifiable economic worth on account of the reproductive and sexual labor they might provide.[iii] However, by contrasting brief ethnographic glimpses of Anarresti social life with Shevek’s interactions on Urras–again, through a structure of chapters that switch back and forth from one location to the other–Le Guin exposes uncomfortable similarities between her ambiguous utopia and the capitalist present, and in doing so Le Guin theorizes the pervasive, perhaps insurmountable role of gender-sex power differentials across human societies, linking their abolition not with the destruction of propertarian systems of ownership and individuality. But rather, Le Guin asserts that although transformations in economic and political systems may reduce or alter the forms which sexism takes, such transformations are not the solution to a problem that pervades wherever cultural (gendered), economic (labor division), or biological (reproductive) sex-linked differences emerge.
Read this way, TD reveals the quotidian of what utopian scholar Thomas Moylan calls a “phallocratic-capitalist system” to be utterly grotesque (1986, 119). By following Shevek’s journey the reader experiences propertarian Urras as an exercise in overindulgence, luxury, and extravagance. For Shevek and the anarchist Anarresti, extravagance is figured as excremental and equated with shit, and also, curiously, made erotic. Upon visiting the equivalent of a strip mall Shevek comments that everything for sale was “either useless to begin with or ornamented so as to disguise its use; acres of luxuries, acres of excrement” (TD 132, emphases mine). Urras’s botanical life and meteorological phenomena are also presented as luxurious—descriptors like “extravagant,” “excess,” “excrement,” “lavish,” and “thriftless” repeat themselves countlessly (e.g. 100, 195). Shevek establishes a dialogic model of extravagance, excrement, and the erotic early in the novel, linking eroticism and lavishness together through the most utilitarian Urrasti objects: “The design of the furniture in the officers’ lounge, the smooth plastic curves into which stubborn wood and steel had been forced, the smoothness and delicacy of surfaces and textures: were these not also faintly, pervasively erotic?” Confronted with Urrasti material culture in this pivotal scene “he felt a women in every table top” (19). As Shevek’s exploration of Urras continues, he discovers that the erotic manifests covertly in “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” (213). In confronting the quotidian of Urrasti life, Shevek learns that the erotic inheres in commodities, be they a showerhead, table, poem—even the sexualized female body.
By holding out the erotic as a central concern of capitalist cultural and material production, Le Guin argues that Urrasti and by default our own gender hierarchy is imbricated with a lack of sexual freedom. Le Guin offers up Anarres as an alternative to the simultaneous primacy and repression of sex; in her ambiguous utopia sex(uality) is fettered only by the demand that copulation be private, and in fact copulation is the “principal referent” for privacy on a world where privatization is otherwise “not functional,” “excess, waste” (110). If, as elsewhere, Le Guin establishes a textual logic of excess as erotic and of the erotic as a commodification of sexuality, then Anarresti sex, for which it is “desirable” (111) and socially expected to take place behind closed doors, and which is therefore privatized, is necessarily erotic and ownable.
The formal logic of a commodifiable erotics conflating sex-the-act as private, of privacy as excess, of excess as erotic, and consequently of the private and the erotic as possessable, pervades the novel. Le Guin’s deployment of the commodifiable erotics so visible on Urras, yet also infesting Anarresti society as well, is a means to challenge the proposition that a change in economic or political systems will unequivocally shatter sexism and its oppression of women—or, considering the troubling position of the novel’s sole homosexual character, of heteropatriarchy more generally. The commodifiable erotics that pervade Urras and Anarres is an ideology that views human bodily sexual difference as intricately linked to systems of power and inequality. In its internal logic, then, TD presents a sexual economy that transcends economic and political modes of organization, and that is linked for better or worse to a determinate view of gender. But in doing so, TD recognizes the limitations of economic and political revolutions to address the power differentials that inhere where female and male bodies are inscribed with different roles on account of their biological sex. Such a critique extends to a variety of gendered activities, not the least of which is the targeted act of sexual violence and coercion. At this point, I want to offer a reading of one of TD’s most powerful, and most disturbing, scenes—that of Shevek’s attempt to copulate with Vea—since it offers the clearest indication of the problematic ambiguities of gender and sex in Le Guin’s anarchist society.
Thus far we’ve seen that according to Le Guin’s textual logic, which I have for lack of a better term called commodifiable erotics, sex is figured as a possessable, ownable thing, something which can be gifted or had or exchanged among persons—in essence, it is a commodity of the body. It is true that between Urras and Anarres there is a quantitative difference in the prevalence of sexism,[iv] differences that accumulate to a greater extent on Urras no doubt because of the structural distinctions between what Lyotard calls the libidinal pulsions of capitalism and other economic modes (Lyotard 1993). In other words, Anarres and Urras inhabit separate points on “the atlas of libidinal cartography,” such that the extent to which the libidinal economy (of imbuing the body with value based on desire) is tied to economic modes of production (here, anarcho-syndicalism vs. capitalism) varies greatly. Nonetheless, Anarresti society is not without libidinal desire, and not without a libidinal economy. At the very least, that sexism exists on Anarres means that when confronted with the over-extravagance, the hypersexualization of women and the feminine in Urrasti culture, it is wholly possible for Shevek to be interpellated into the libidinal economy that is necessarily imbricated with Urras’s capitalist economy.
Halfway through his stay on Urras, Shevek visits a colleague’s family. There, Shevek meets a woman, Vea, who is at once fascinated with the famous foreign physicist and who comes to think of Shevek instantly as a “real man” (TD 196). Vea is described as with equal fascination by Shevek as “quite attractive,” and it is telling of what’s to come the he cannot seem to stop looking at her breasts, in all of their “innocent whiteness,” their embodiment of curve and smoothness (196). When thinking of her, Shevek’s descriptions recall his first encounter with Urrasti material culture: “She’s like the beds here: soft” (196). Vea and Shevek are entranced by one another, despite Vea’s seeming ignorance of Shevek’s Anarresti life or of Shevek’s supposed disgust at her extravagance. Several days later Shevek visits Vea in her home city. Sitting together in a park after shopping and dining with her, Shevek recalls a phrase his partner Takver used to describe “women who used their sexuality as a weapon in a power struggle with men.” In Shevek’s mind, Vea is this woman, a “body profiteer” (212-213). As he sizes Vea up, Shevek has the distinct feeling that
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 [Urrasti] repressed into their [material goods and art] (213).
In her exacerbation of Urrasti sexualization, Vea seems less a human to Shevek and more an object, one of desire and sex incarnate.[v] In his continued reflection on Vea’s affect, Shevek even questions whether she is prostitute (217) though he concludes that she is too rich for such an occupation.
After an exhausting day, the two return to Vea’s apartment, where a party is prepared and Shevek is shown off to a crowd of guests who look on him with fascination. Shevek ends up in a heated argument with onlookers about anarchy and his homeworld, and in a drunken outburst condemns all of the Urrasti for not seeing the prison that is their lives under capitalism. In the aftermath Vea retreats with Shevek to a private room, where she offers him a kiss for his performance. Shevek’s response is intense and immediate, his kisses roaming her mouth, throat, and breasts, causing Vea to feign resistance while giggling (229). But as her feints turn to insistence, Shevek pays “no attention,” and instead guides her to a bed, where he attempts drunkenly to unfasten his trousers and her clothing. “Now, stop,” she protests, saying that she cannot risk getting pregnant, that partygoers will notice their absence, that he should wait for a more opportune time for them to consummate their flirtations (230). But Shevek is unyielding:
Frightened at last by his blind urgency, his force, [Vea] pushed at him as hard as she could, her hands against his chest. He took a step backward, confused by her sudden high tone of fear and her struggle; but he could not stop, her resistance excited him further. He gripped her to him and his semen spurted out against the white silk of her dress.
“Let me go! Let me go!” she was repeating in the same high whisper. He let her go. He stood dazed. He fumbled at his trousers trying to close them. “I am—sorry—I thought you wanted—” (230, emphases mine).
The scene concludes as Shevek blunders out of the room back into the party and vomits on a platter of food.
This scene is without a doubt the most disturbing moment—and one of the most difficult to parse—in the novel. For Le Guin and second wave feminists, rape and sexual violence were quickly becoming one of the major concerns of the women’s liberation movement, especially after 1975 when Susan Brownmiller’s Against Our Will established the concept of “rape culture” and argued against the blaming of victims. Though Brownmiller’s controversial book was published well after TD, Le Guin’s presentation of Vea’s assault is written with sensitivity to the victim, with disgust toward the assailant. Use of the word “force” to describe his manner, of the phrases “he could not stop” and “her resistance excited him further” are meant to position Shevek as the perpetrator of a sexualized crime, Vea’s resistance to which is arousing and brings him to climax.
Shevek’s involvement with Vea represents the culmination of Le Guin’s textual logic of a commodifiable erotics, as Vea is quite literally objectified by Shevek, her body taken rather than given. Prostitute or not, Shevek nonetheless sees Vea as a sexual commodity. Shevek, the physicist genius, tender partner to Takver, caring father, and devout revolutionary, becomes the perpetrator of an act not unknown on Anarres but utterly condemned alongside murder as the ultimate transgression against the social organism (TD 245).[vi] Vea’s assault operates as the antithesis to a moment of utopian possibility, that is, as a moment of dystopian horror. Through this scene and the commodifiable erotics that undergirds male-female interaction in her anarchist society, Le Guin posits the need for a revolution that can address gender-sex hierarchies. By simultaneously instantiating a utopia and deconstructing it with ambiguities, and by embracing the dystopian in order to exacerbate the failures of revolutions to fully and equally address social problems, especially those faced by women, Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed radically avows a feminist standpoint and serves as a call to action for revolutionaries everywhere: in her own words, “society, properly conceived, [is] a revolution, a permanent one, an ongoing process.”[vii]
[i] Similarly, in LHD, the two nations/countries are a socialist and a capitalist one.
[ii] See Moylan’s discussion on 97-99, where he develops the idea that “the moral, cultural, legal systems—the ideological apparatus—[of Anarresti society] are based on the decentralized economy but primarily on the social conscience” (1986, 98).
[iii] It should be noted that, while Le Guin’s target here is the capitalism of a “propertarian” nation that is uncannily familiar, she is nonetheless disenchanted with the communist vision of the Soviet Union. There are corrupt “socialist” nations in both TD and LHD, and in the latter the socialist state is portrayed as a greater evil than the feudal, early capitalist Karhide.
[iv] Taking a purely numerical approach, the number of “sexist” moments in the novel would fall overwhelmingly in the Anarres chapters; however, reading the social aspects of the two societies, it is evident that this is a purposive move by Le Guin, since Urras is meant to be perceived as the wholly more egregious society where gender equality is concerned.
[v] It should be noted that a scene ensues in which Vea argues that, on account of Urrasti women’s sexualization and the adoration of women’s femininity by men, it is the men—and not the women—who are inferior (214). This reads like an anti-feminist argument du jour, the internalization of patriarchy such that the woman finds in her oppression a boundless power over her oppressors. This is, I believe, a purposeful attempt by Le Guin to point out the belief among many women in her historical present, in the era of women’s liberation, that women need no revolution, no liberation, because they are not in fact oppressed.
[vi] Note that, for whatever reason, purposeful or coincidental, this is explained in the Anarres chapter directly following Vea’s rape—separated by some 15 pages from the incident.
[vii] TD 176.