Saturday, March 5, 2011

Self, gender, and society: LeGuin through the lens of cultural psychology

Though I very much respect and admire Ursula LeGuin's discussions of gender and the other in The Left Hand of Darkness, I couldn't help but view her notions of interdependency on a cultural spectrum. In fact, my thesis research is heavily rooted in the psychological theory that two major pathways of cultural development exist: individualism and collectivism. The former is exemplified by independence and the assertion of self, while the latter emphasizes interdependence and connectivity. This is reflected by LeGuin's comparison of society on Winter with society in China, as it is generally accepted that Oriental cultures tend to exhibit a preference for collectivism.

Our understanding of a work of human intellect (e.g. literature) is integrally tied to our understanding of the human psyche. Sigmund Freud opened up many discussions of the subconscious, driving the appearance of the id/ego/superego terminology in literary critique. Already in this course, we've experienced two works (written about 70 years apart) that explicitly mention psychologists: Well's Time Machine and LhoD (a psychologist is present during the storytelling in the former, while Genly mentions how mindspeak has refined psychology as a practice in the latter). This emphasizes the importance of the discipline to the genre of science fiction, which cannot be understated; as LeGuin might put it, the goal of such “thought-experiments” is more “descriptive” of the current human condition than “predictive” of how it will be in the future. How, then, can we understand LeGuin's notions of gender and society in light of recent developments in cultural psychology?

LeGuin draws some clear divisions in LhoD, a necessity in any discussion of dualism. The line between male and female is explicitly acted out and also explicitly mused upon. The human narrators in the story are quite preoccupied with characterizing a particular Gethenian's action by gender; one moment Estraven displays masculine resolve, while the next, his mannerisms appear motherly. In addition, certain qualities are associated with traditional notions of gender. Marcellino invokes Russ' idea that the countries in LhoD represent gendered forms of government: Karhide as the communal and female, while Orgoreyn represents the oppressive and masculine. Both, however, operate on somewhat Marxist principles, reflecting the collectivism inherent in interdependency. Are we, then, to interpret the female as collectivistic, or the ambisexual (with all its Taoist, yin-yang undertones) as collectivistic?

At the time that LhoD was written, LeGuin was likely unversed in the collectivistic versus individualistic dichotomy. Her gender associations are certainly supported by empirical research: studies have shown that male children tend to be competition or game-oriented during socialization, while female children are more relationally competitive. This seems to reflect the different styles (genders) of government proposed by Russ, but LeGuin complicates it with notions of ambisexuality. For example, the lack of persistent sexual energy in everyday life is thought to push society towards personal vendetta and intrigue instead of war and domination. One might view this as a result of feminine government, but LeGuin seems to suggest that Winter is simply more feminine (without being exclusively so) than our traditional notions of dominion. In addition, collectivism does not necessarily remove the desire for war, nor does it associate with a particular gender (in fact, one might conceptualize both individualism and collectivism as the products of largely patriarchal societies).

The underlying, anthropological foundations of the individualistic versus collectivistic dichotomy looks at the relationship between the self and society. In the Left Hand of Darkenss, Ursula LeGuin attempts to break down this relationship by exploring many dichotomies, including the pervasive and complicated dualism of gender. Though I cannot deny its identity or importance as a work of feminist science fiction, I am impressed and intrigued by how LeGuin's discussions of gender forces one to look at the self and soceity as well.


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