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The Unshadow

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 By Tuesday Smillie

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Reflecting Light into The Unshadow is a multimedia body of artwork. With these works I mine the successes and failures of Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic feminist novel, The Left Hand of Darkness and track her subsequent political evolution. Ultimately, Reflecting Light into The Unshadow celebrates Le Guin’s brave use of imagination and her earnest attempt to evoke new, undetermined ways of being.  

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 The Left Hand of Darkness and a handful of related texts provided a foundation for Reflecting Light into The Unshadow. They provide us with a record of Le Guin’s political evolution, specifically regarding her thinking around gender and identity. The practices documented in these writings also offer valuable strategies to contemporary artists and activists. My hope is that Le Guin’s work and Reflecting Light into The Unshadow will be accessed as a resource, emboldening our struggles for a just society.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 The Left Hand of Darkness is a science fiction novel published in 1969. The story takes on the planet Gethen, which is in the midst of an ice age. Gethen has a humanoid population, which consists almost exclusively of androgynous people. Periodically, Gethenians go into heat, a stage called kemmer. Once in kemmer they develop distinctly gendered sexual organs and attributes based on their interactions and flirtations.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 As a trans-woman, reading The Left Hand of Darkness felt like a gift. I was delighted to fall into this world of malleable gender: a world with no societal gender roles; a world where bodies are inherently gender-fluid. With Reflecting Light into The Unshadow, I claim The Left Hand of Darkness as a proto-trans-feminist text.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Le Guin’s courageous use of imagination is deeply inspiring. In the 1975 introduction to the novel, Le Guin refers to the book as a “thought experiment,” stating: “I eliminated gender to find out what was left. What ever was left would be, presumably, simply human.” Le Guin uses imagination as a radical practice: she is writing her way into another world.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 TRANS-FEMINIST CRITIQUE

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Despite this radical gesture, there are a number of elements in The Left Hand of Darkness that I find problematic as a trans-feminist.

  • 10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0
  • Le Guin uses male pronouns throughout the novel to identify androgynous characters.
  • Le Guin places strict limitations on how bodies can exist in this world. When entering kemmer, individuals only develop gendered characteristics within an either/or, male/female gendered binary. There is not a spectrum of gendered attributes and these characteristics cannot be interchanged. This regimentation reinforces societal norms found on Earth that claim only two scientifically identifiable sexes exist.
  • When entering kemmer, individuals only develop gendered attributes in heterosexual pairings. Despite the queerness of Gethenian biology, Le Guin preemptively excludes any homosexual exchanges.
  • The two distinct governing bodies we see on Gethen are a monarchy and a bureaucracy: governments very familiar to us here on Earth. Le Guin does suggest a communal social structure on the level of neighborhoods and villages, but the overarching societal institutions remain hierarchically entrenched. Arguably, a non-gendered society would have developed unique governing entities.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 The Left Hand of Darkness was first published in 1969, in the midst of second wave feminism in the United States. This nests Le Guin’s writing in a specific cultural context. Despite Le Guin’s conception of the novel as an investigation of gendered social structures, which could be considered a feminist endeavor, second wave feminists critiqued the novel in the early 1970s.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 SECOND WAVE FEMINIST CRITIQUE

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 Of the four critiques I highlighted, I share two with the second wavers. These are Le Guin’s exclusive use of male pronouns and the familiar structuring of societal institutions.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 In 1976, Le Guin responded to the critiques second wave feminists and others had leveled against The Left Hand of Darkness with the critical essay “Is Gender Necessary?” With this essay, Le Guin staunchly defends the choices she made.

  • 16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0
  • Le Guin attempts to distances herself from the politicized nature of The Left Hand of Darkness and the critiques, insisting that she “was not a theoretician, a political thinker or activist, or a sociologist. I was and am a fiction writer.”[1]
  • Le Guin asserts that “he” is the singular gender-neutral pronoun in English, painfully adding: “I utterly refuse to mangle English by inventing a pronoun for “he/she.”[2]

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 There is an interesting contrast here, given that Le Guin literally creates universes out of thin air, but could not imagine creating a singular, gender-neutral pronoun.

  • 18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0
  • Le Guin does not address the question of biological binaries or heteronormativity. Neither of these points had been raised in the criticism of her work at the time.
  • Le Guin does concede that she could have been more creative with the structures of government she created on Gethen.

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 To a socially engaged, contemporary trans-feminist artist, “Is Gender Necessary?” is a deeply disappointing document, but not an entirely surprising one.

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 In 1988, twelve years later, Le Guin returned to this essay, updating her opinions. You can see in the image above that “Is Gender Necessary? Redux” has a very visually pleasing bifurcated two-column format. The original text from ‘76 runs in the column on the left, while Le Guin’s extensive interjected commentary has its own column on the right.

  • 21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0
  • Le Guin does not directly comment on her attempt to distance herself from the politicized dialog surrounding The Left Hand of Darkness, but in the essay as a whole she owns and honors the political significance of the novel.
  • Le Guin concedes that new, singular, gender-neutral pronouns are needed in English. She goes on to note that they/them/their was the gender-neutral singular in the English language prior to the 16th But in 1988 it is still hard for Le Guin to imagine embracing a new singular, gender-neutral pronoun, at least in print.
  • Le Guin does not address her enforcement of biological binary. Arguably this critique still had not been sufficiently raised.
  • Le Guin does apologetically acknowledge that she locked Gethenians into heterosexuality. She states that this was based on a “naively pragmatic view of sex” and asserts that homosexual activities would have obviously transpired and that without a rigidly gendered society, homosexuality would be culturally accepted.[3]

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 I find this last shift in political perspective particularly significant. There had been substantial shifts in the visibility and public dialog around gays and lesbians in the United States between ‘69, ‘76, and ‘88, but the critique of a biologically enforced heterosexuality on Gethen had not formally been raised. Le Guin’s shift demonstrates that she is not exclusively engaged in an insular dialog with her writing as the nucleus. Le Guin is critically engaging her writing as her worldview expands and shifts.

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 In 1995, Le Guin published the short story “Coming of Age in Karhide,” which also takes place on Gethen. With this story, Le Guin implemented a number of her conclusions from “Redux.” She does not use an invented pronoun, but rather manages to avoid pronouns almost entirely for Gethenians who are not in kemmer, by identifying characters by name and by familial or social relation. “Coming of Age in Karhide” also presents a model of extended family, communal living and communal childrearing that is common on Gethen in the absence of the nuclear family as a societal norm. Le Guin also provides her readers a window into the kemmer-house, which does indeed include queer sexual exchanges.

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 “Coming of Age in Karhide,” does not address all of the questions or concerns I have discussed, but it displays a clear attempt at redress.

26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 This string of texts traces a rich, detailed trajectory of Le Guin’s evolving thinking around gender and identity. The texts also reflect larger shifts in feminist thinking and broader cultural changes in the U.S. I am invested in the narrative of this trajectory because it shows how deeply-held beliefs can and do evolve.

The Left Hand of Darkness, 1969
2016
Watercolor on paper 10” x 6 1/4”
The Left Hand of Darkness, 1983
2013
Watercolor on paper
9” x 6 1/4”

27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 I began Reflecting Light into The Unshadow with a series of watercolor drawings depicting different editions of The Left Hand of Darkness. With these drawings, I am thinking about the many readers who have held these books and the physical intimacy between the book and the hand. I am thinking about each individual’s personal relationship to the text and how our interpretations are rooted in our unique experiences navigating the world.

The Left Hand of Darkness, 1972
2013
Watercolor on paper
                         9 1/4” x 6 1/4”                     
 The Left Hand of Darkness, 2010
2015
Watercolor, gouache on paper
10 1/8” x 6 ½”

The titles of these drawings include the publication date for the specific edition I am rendering. By including these dates, I am highlighting how the significance of the text has evolved over time, as the cultural and political context shifts.

29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0 Toward the end of The Left Hand of Darkness, there is a compelling passage describing the novel’s main characters’ (Ai and Estraven) perilous attempt to cross the Gobrin Glacier. Extreme circumstances have forced them into this situation and neither is certain they will survive.

Overnight the weather thickened somewhat. All brightness was gone, leaving nothing. We stepped out of the tent onto nothing. Sledge and tent were there, Estraven stood beside me, but neither he nor I cast any shadow. There was dull light all around, everywhere. When we walked on the crisp snow no shadow showed the footprint. We left no track… We should have been making good time. But we kept slowing down, groping our way across the totally unobstructed plain, and it took a strong effort of will to speed up to a normal pace. Every slight variation in the surface came as a jolt – as in climbing stairs, the unexpected stair or the expected but absent stair – for we could not see it ahead: there was no shadow to show it.

Gobrin Glacier, 2014
Collage, watercolor, ink on paper
Two panels at 7” x 15 1/2”

31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 0 This description of a frustrated attempt to move forward toward a shared future goal is compelling and familiar. It resonates with collective efforts to build a shared politic and movements to restructure power. We push forward not knowing how we get there or where our foot’s next step will land. We are so steeped in the familiar violence of our present socio-political circumstance that it can be hard to envision or understand what our end goal tangibly looks like. But we try with each step and sometimes we hit the unexpected stair and sometimes we miss and sometimes we use male pronouns for a planet full of beautiful androgynons and get called out by our peers. But we keep trying, because we are hungry for a just world.

                
Not knowing where our foot will land, 2016
Series of 4 prints, 22 1/2 x 10 1/2” each
Print on paper, plexiglass plate, lead type

32 Leave a comment on paragraph 32 0 I made the series of prints Not knowing where our foot will land to explore this question of how we attempt to build something new, while being firmly embedded in our current circumstance. How do we envision a just society when all the societal structures around us are built on power imbalance?

Where our foot will land, (detail) 2016
Print 3 in series of 4, 22 ½ x 10 ½”
Print on paper, plexiglass plate, lead type

33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 0 The text for the third print in the series reads:

Compare the torrent and the glacier.
Both get where they are going.”
A Slow and Arduous Progression, 2016
11 1/4 x 14 1/4”
Print on paper, polymer plate, watercolor

34 Leave a comment on paragraph 34 0 The print A Slow and Arduous Progression returns to the essay “Is Gender Necessary? Redux” to highlight the process of redress that Le Guin undertook and to celebrate the bravery of making this process public. We have Le Guin’s original essay from ‘76, her updated notes from ’88, and my notes as marginalia. I want this work to convey the fluidity of the conversation and to explicitly interject a contemporary trans-feminist’s voice.

35 Leave a comment on paragraph 35 0 My notes are not all congratulatory; there are still issues to be addressed and critiques to be raised. But the willingness to engage in this process and to do so publicly is significant. I see “Redux” as a viable strategy for cultural creatives and critiques alike.

How That World Could Be, 2016
10 1/2 x 18”
Print on paper, plexiglass plate, lead type

36 Leave a comment on paragraph 36 0 How That World Could Be explicitly ties my larger body of work, Reflecting Light into The Unshadow, to a politicized practice of world building. This broadside reads: “To build another world, we must first be brave enough to imagine how that world could be.”

Profound Mistakes (in progress), 2016
Print on paper, plexiglass plate, lead type

37 Leave a comment on paragraph 37 0 The broadside Profound Mistakes reads, “We will make profound mistakes. The critical question is how we proceed as our failures become clear.”

38 Leave a comment on paragraph 38 0 We don’t get to absolve ourselves of responsibility for our mistakes. We don’t get to shrug when we are called out for enacting oppressive, violent behavior. The accountability that Le Guin models in “Redux” is powerful because she directly addresses her actions. World building is a collective process. We get to hold each other in this process and we need be accountable to each other.

Sometimes, 2016
49” x 108”
Textile

39 Leave a comment on paragraph 39 0 Reflecting Light into The Unshadow is a visual dialogue with a specific historical text. It is also an open call to artists and activists to consider the radical potency of public failure.

40 Leave a comment on paragraph 40 0 The textile work Sometimes measures 10’ across and reads “WE FUCK UP, sometimes.” It is a contemplatively hand-stitched wall hanging interwoven with street protest urgency. My concern is that a fear of making profound political mistakes can be paralyzing to artists and activists striving to mold and re/build our world. We are going to make mistakes. By looking to Le Guin’s work as a model, we find that the radical act is how we proceed as our failure become clear.

41 Leave a comment on paragraph 41 0 End Notes:

42 Leave a comment on paragraph 42 0 [1] Ursula K. Le Guin, “Is Gender Necessary? Redux” in The Language of the Night, (New York: HarperPerennial), 156.

43 Leave a comment on paragraph 43 0 [2] Ibid. 169.

44 Leave a comment on paragraph 44 0 [3] Ibid. 169

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Source: http://adareview.fembotcollective.org/ada-issue-12/the-unshadow/