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.

Kommentare:

Sierra hat gesagt…

I don't really know a lot of science fiction, but I belive what it should ultimatly show is not so much how life is outside the "human box", but rather, how we are unable to go outside that box. Little diferences in fisiology, such as being sexless, would have not only inmense impact in culture, but more so, that impact would be unpredictible, making it imposible to have real contact with any alien form of life, i. e., to translate language. The pronoun problem would probably be just the tip of the iceberg facing an alien form of life.

It astonishes me how easy it is, in the little science fiction I have read, for humans to contact aliens. It goes smoothly...!

One exception made: Fiasco, by Lem. Humans make contact, but are unable to bring it to a satisfactory conclution. Yet, still, no atempt is made to explain how it is possible to translate alien language, and the fiasco the title of the novel refers to is not so much about cultural diferences (in fact, the alien civilization is just like the cold war Earth) as it is a problem of game theory.

But I do agree with this post: science fiction is a great oportunity to explore the way language works. A key factor, it should be.

Brenda hat gesagt…

I agree with you that the issue of interspecies communication (and language in general) doesn't usually get enough attention in science fiction novels; it seems to me that, should humans ever encounter extraterrestrial life, the language barrier may quite possibly turn out to be insurmountable. Le Guin gets around this problem a little bit in her novels because the peoples of all the various worlds have a common ancestry, they're all basically "human" in spite of minor physiological differences.

Actually what I was interested in here was not so much the world as such (issues of alien biology & communication would be part of this) but how the language Le Guin uses to portray the world affects the way we experience it. That is, language considered not world-internally, but at a meta-level, the level of narrative construction. The question of how the story mediates a particular form of experience, I guess.

The Gethenians would have their own non-gendered pronoun system, of course, so the pronoun issues which color the reader's perceptions aren't relevant the same way for the characters within the story. But the pronouns are good for getting at a particular cognitive problem -- our tendency to categorize things so much that it actually prevents us from seeing anything else.

Lem is supposed to be very good -- I have the impression he's interested in science fiction as a way of exploring philosophical ideas much the way Le Guin does -- but I'm afraid I haven't gotten around to reading any of his books yet.

Sierra hat gesagt…

"should humans ever encounter extraterrestrial life, the language barrier may quite possibly turn out to be insurmountable."

Quite my point. As Wittgenstein points out, imagening a language is imagining a form/way of life; so a form/way of life that we can't imagine in all it's complexity would, hence, also have a language we can't imagine. I have taken quite an interest on this lately and am thinking of even writing some science ficion myself. But this is only to point out the way we see the world, as you say, our language is determinant in the way we experience things, and showing diferences shows the true esence of things.

Fiasco is a fascinating novel. I picked it up by chance and was very satisfied. Specially the matter of AI is marvelously treated —first time I agree with someone on that—, and it involves a lot of Game Theory, wich is also fantastic. And, also, the prose is not that bad for what I have seen is usual in the gendre. I recomend you read it, if you have a liking for ScF.

By the way, sorry for my spelling. I don't get to write much in English, so it get's rusty.

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