Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Imagining Difference

I found reading Marcellino and LeGuin’s revised essays on the nature sexuality after our class discussion on Butler quite depressing. Marcellino’s essay “Shadow to Walk: Ursula Le Guin’s Transgressions in Utopia” had a narrow view of sexuality and was violently opposed to new sexual paradigms. In his difficult to parse final paragraph Marcellino writes:

We live in a world where it is not possible to remove difference without genocide, and we cannot overcome oppression by flipping the binary between the oppressed and the oppressors.(212)

This view of gender difference only makes sense if one reads the works of Russ and Gilman literally: to reimagine gendered power-relations we must murder the other. A more interpretive reading might view the texts as erasing the male species through war as a plot device to do away with the category of “maleness.” Instead, Marcellino assumes gendered difference as a fundamental constitution of the human condition. We are told that we cannot “remove difference without genocide.” Perhaps Marcellino’s military background has provoked such dramatic historical example but the civil rights movements have suggested that it is possible to expand our sense of shared humanity beyond a narrow group without genocidal war.

I also take note with Marcellino’s characterization of “separatists” and “countercolonist” approaches. He imagines these texts as primarily about violence against men. But these texts seem most obviously about an ironic inversion meant to point out the types of violence men perpetrate against women such as “raping, conquering and enslaving.” Marcellino describes this texts as oppressive towards men with little commentary on the ways in which novels and histories regularly and unproblematically valorize the conquest of distant others. If Marcellino feels threatened by the works, then they have succeeded in highlighted the persistent state of violence which threatens women under patriarchy.

As noted by Jasmine and Arlyn, Le Guin reifies the very gendered differences she attempts to deconstruct. By attributing aggression to the masculine and collective caring to the feminine Le Guin ends up constructing a world populated by a new species who have independently come to the conclusion that feminine and masculine are not just biological descriptors but moral modalities. This inability to reimagine gendered relations, even in another realm, suggests the very power of our social conditioning. I was particularly struck by Le Guin’s discussion of finding out the essential differences of men and women:

It is hard for us to see clearly what, besides purely physiological form and function, truly differentiates men and women. Are there real differences in temperament, capacity, talent, psychic processes, etc.? If so, what are they? Only comparative ethnology offers, so far, any solid evidence on the matter, and the evidence is incomplete and often contradictory. (10)

Le Guin’s question itself is conditioned by our social realties –why must we suppose there is any difference at all? If I asked someone to compare a quadrilateral with equal sides to a square, I’m sure mathematicians could locate difference. But an objective observer would point out that they are, in fact, exactly the same. Ethnographies might provide conflicting or contradictory evidence because there aren’t any differences. Instead of accepting the possibility of commonalities Le Guin assumes that difference will be confirmed at some as of yet unknown future date.


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