Dienstag, 1. März 2011

Constructing gender with pronouns

Ursula K. Le Guin's novel The Left Hand of Darkness is another interesting example of a science fiction novel that confronts the reader with "difference" and asks him to shift his perspective during the course of the narrative, "seeing" the world finally through other eyes (I use 'he' deliberately here for the generic pronoun, as the novel arguably assumes a masculine point-of-view even while it interrogates notions of gender.)

The inhabitants of Gethen - Winter - are androgynous; they only have distinct sexual characteristics for a few days a month, during "kemmer", when any individual may become either male or female. What interests me here is not their sex, but how this is transmitted to the reader using language, namely, through gendered pronouns.

Le Guin generally uses the masculine pronoun to refer to these people, although she mixes it up sometimes by combining mascuine pronouns with feminine kinship terms or titles, or on rare occasions by switching pronouns (for example, to indicate that an individual has become female during kemmer). One of her short stories, "Winter's King," which is set in the same world, was rewritten to use female pronouns throughout combined with masculine titles.

Le Guin has sometimes been faulted for her decision to use the masculine as a generic pronoun, rather than using an artificial genderless pronoun (either one of her own or extant options such as "s/he" or "sie"), and she herself has taken various positions on the topic, suggesting that she might have made a different decision were she to write the novel now. (See her essays "Is Gender Necessary?", "Is Gender Necessary: Redux" and her afterward to the novel written in 1994). However, I think the use of the masculine pronoun works, and it creates a very different effect than if she had used an invented pronoun which would have emphasized the Gethenians' strangeness. Because the point is not that they are "alien", but rather the extent to which gendered categories are rooted within our thinking and our perception of the world, that we have trouble getting beyond these categories even when they are not useful.

The world is described primarily from the perspective of an outsider, Genly Ai, who is visiting Winter as a sort of diplomat and who constantly projects his notions of gender upon a people for whom this category is scarcely relevant. Genly acts as a mediator for the reader, his use of pronouns is a reminder of his - and our - inability to comprehend the Gethenians for what they are. Until the end, when he comes to see this "unsexed" state as being natural, and ourselves as trapped within a divided, unnatural state. What the book finally offers is a gradual transformation, a way to get a glimpse of a world in which we are not primarily male or female but simply human.

Although this movement seems in some ways to be the opposite of what I was looking at in my previous post, I think the hermeneutic process is ultimately quite similar. In both cases the familiar is made strange -- in Riddley Walker through a deformation of familiar language, in The Left Hand of Darkness through an interpretive dead-end, that is, through a failed attempt to apply familiar categories which results in the need to discard these categories.

And just for the sake of it, I append a bibliography of articles dealing with language and the linguistic construction of gender in The Left Hand of Darkness. I started collecting this list for a term paper (which I ended up not writing) in a linguistics class, so it's limited to topics that seemed relevant to the project at the time -- i.e., I was concerned with language/gender, not sexuality per se, even if these are arguably never completely separate.

Barrow, Craig and Diana. “The Left Hand of Darkness: Feminism for Men.” Mosaic 20.1 (1987).

Cornell, Christine. “The Interpretive Journey in Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness.” Extrapolation 42.4 (2001).

Fayad, M. “Aliens, Androgynes, and Anthropology: Le Guin's Critique of Representation in The Left Hand of Darkness.” Mosaic 30.3 (1997): 59-73.

Myers, V. “Conversational Technique in Ursula Le Guin: A Speech-act Analysis.” Science-Fiction Studies 10 (1983): 306-16.

Pennington, John. “Exorcising Gender: Resisting Readers in Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness.” Extrapolation 41.4 (2000).

Also interesting is the study Pronoun Envy: Literary Uses of Linguistic Gender by Anna Livia (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), in particular the chapter "Epicene Neologisms in English" which contains an extensive discussion of The Left Hand of Darkness along with a number of other science fiction novels.