Science Fiction Studies

#109 = Volume 36, Part 3 = November 2009

Samuel Gerald Collins

Fiddling with Le Guin: Making New Connections with Science Fiction’s Anthropologist

Carl Freedman. Conversations with Ursula K. Le Guin. Literary Conversations. Jackson, MI: UP of Mississippi, 2008. xxiv + 182 pp. $50 pbk.

Sylvia Kelso, ed. Ursula K. Le Guin. Paradoxa 21 (2008). 313 pp. $24 pbk.

Ursula K. Le Guin is not an anthropologist. There, I said it. Whenever I write anything about anthropology and science fiction, I invariably get comments like “Why don’t you write more about Le Guin? Her father was Alfred Kroeber, you know.” Mind you, I do not find this upsetting. I have always loved reading Le Guin—her fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. The Language of the Night (1979) was my first semi-scholarly book acquisition when I was around 11; my first publication included a discussion of gender and language in The Left Hand of Darkness (1969). But I have never really considered her an anthropologist. And, finally, I have proof—her own musings on this and countless other subjects in a priceless collection of interviews held between 1980 and 2006, collected and edited by Carl Freedman for Mississippi’s Literary Conversations series. There she confesses that she did not really read her father’s work until much later in life (as preparation for Always Coming Home [1985]) and that, as she says, “my entire formal training in this area amounts to one physical anthropology class” (101).     

But, of course, there is more to Le Guin’s anthropology than that. What Freedman describes as Le Guin’s penchant for challenging the “interviewer’s assumptions” (ix) means that her answers demand that we situate her work in the shifting constellations of discourse that it engages. There are no easy reductions of her work to convenient labels such as “feminist” or “ecological,” and these interviews represent nothing less than Le Guin’s efforts to complicate the tableau vivant to which she is sometimes reduced in popular accounts and anthologies.

The second collection—a special issue of Paradoxa on Le Guin—picks up on this theme, with its varied contributors stretching Le Guin into new critical territory, including feminist-informed posthumanism (Kasi Jackson), terrorism (Marleen S. Barr), superstring theory (Beth Snowberger), and subaltern deconstructions of the frontier (Traci Thomas-Card).            

Each of these collections can be seen as versions of what Sylvia Kelso calls scaling “Mt. Le Guin” (Kelso 11): i.e., each takes on Le Guin’s vast corpus, together with the massive secondary literature that has accompanied it. It is, after all (and nowhere so obvious as in SFS), not too much to suggest that Le Guin has been one animus for sf criticism itself. Kelso divides this mountain into three faces: a “Taoist” face, a “feminist” face (“most frequently traversed”), and a somewhat less explored “utopian” face (9-10).            

Given Le Guin’s inclination toward cycles of travel and return (what Le Guin herself self-effacingly calls the “Le Guin plot” [Freedman 16]), the metaphor of the mountain seems entirely appropriate, although the regular revelation of new “faces” strains the metaphor, as does Le Guin’s continued use of the cycle. An active volcano? A burgeoning mountain on the edge of a tectonic uplift.           

Instead of spatial metaphors, I would suggest one drawn from anthropology—that of kinship and genealogy. At one time, anthropologists considered kinship—the classification of relationships, the tracing of lineage—to be at the core of human culture. Thought to exist in the liminal zone between nature and culture, rules of kinship were supposed to use social and cultural forms to regulate, mobilize, and make sense of biological reproduction. In fact, if we go back to Kroeber’s enormous Handbook of Indians of California (1925), we can see, besides detailed notes on languages, myth, and religion, a surfeit of kinship—kinship terminologies, notes on totems, kinship-based taboos and avoidances. These were the data upon which Kroeber’s contemporaries built anthropological science, with kinship forming the foundation for its universalist pretensions. In the decades following Kroeber’s work, however, kinship gradually lost its status as the philosopher’s stone of anthropology, and the idea that kinship represented the basis of culture seemed increasingly jejune, an artifact of our own assumptions about the family. Are people “naturally” related? Can kinship nomenclature be translated across cultures? Do these terms even have stable meanings within the boundaries of our own culture? Over the same period, nature became rather less natural—always already Hegelian second nature. Following World War II, genetic material has been rendered more and more fungible, less tied to specific species and phylogenies (in the case of GMO and transgenic organisms). More and more, nature and culture swap positions across constellations of power and knowledge.            

Despite these challenges to kinship, genealogical thinking is still widely deployed in anthropology to establish theoretical kinship—so and so taught so and so, who went on to found her own segmentary lineage of theory. The intellectual histories anthropologists tell themselves are self-consciously patterned on these nineteenth-century understandings of kinship and descent, nature and culture. Given Le Guin’s parentage, it is not particularly surprising that many of her interlocutors in Conversations attempt to interpret her work in the idiom of family and inheritance, to which Le Guin is the skeptical gadfly, negotiating with what amounts to a Mendelian hermeneutics. The Paradoxa collection elaborates on this, mounting a kind of transgenic interpretation of Le Guin’s work in relation to contemporary theorizing.

Le Guin and Patrilineality. The general assumption is that Le Guin’s anthropological predilections come from her father’s work. But what these critics mean is a kind of anthropology credited to students of Franz Boas, the pioneering anthropologist who founded the first anthropology department in the US (at Columbia), and whose students included Alfred Kroeber, Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, and Zora Neale Hurston. This includes what we now term “anthropological holism”—the idea that culture should be studied as a bounded, homogenous, “shared” understanding, that “man” is, after Ruth Benedict, “a little creature of his culture” (Benedict 2-3). And because culture was conceptualized as an integrated and bounded object, each could act as a “laboratory” for human variation (Benedict 17). This was the kind of anthropology ascribed to Le Guin by Fredric Jameson in his 1975 essay, in which “world reduction” meant to “provide something like an experimental variation on our empirical universe” (269). This kind of anthropology is a direct inheritor of a “lost worlds” narrative in which an intrepid explorer discovers a hermetically sealed culture “lost in time.” Certainly the pioneering anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski (1961) had something like H. Rider Haggard in mind when he asked his readers to “imagine yourself suddenly set down surrounded by all your gear, alone on a tropical beach close to a native village, while the launch or dinghy which has brought you sails away out of sight” (4).            

How similar is this to Ged’s journey through Earthsea or Genly Ai’s to Gethen? In the Paradoxa collection, Vera Benczik suggests the centrality of the trope, pointing out that “Le Guin’s work uses the physical journey to react to its ‘territories’ of difference” (75). Indeed, the metaphor of the transformative journey to territories temporally and spatially removed from “civilization” (however defined) would seem to locate Le Guin firmly within this procrustean anthropological tradition.            

Yet despite her often repeated claim that “My father did the real thing; I make it up” (Freedman 55), it seems unlikely that Le Guin really sees herself as the sf version of an anthropologist, at least not in the sense of an anthropology of the 1940’s—that heir to lost-world mythologies and pastoral evocations of small societies. For example, even though Jameson places her in the William Morris tradition, Le Guin insists that her work is closer to urban complexity than to the pastoral idyll. As she tells Wickes and Westling, “A city is where all dangers come together for human beings, where everything happens to human beings. I use ‘city’ in a fairly metaphorical sense. A city is where culture comes together and flowers. A pueblo is a city” (Freedman 18).            

Le Guin resists easy identification with her anthropological parentage. Barrow and Barrow (1991) analyze the Earthsea cycle in light of Kroeber’s publications on Northwest-coast Indians, but Le Guin explains that she never read her father’s work until she started to sketch the background for Always Coming Home (1985). She tells Escudié, “I didn’t read my father’s work until I was quite a grown woman, and already had found my own way as a writer, so I don’t think his writings really influenced me that much” (Freedman 134-35). Indeed, in his contribution to Paradoxa, Robert Erlich (149) turns to Kroeber for a discussion of subsistence and civilization, but without, I think, demonstrating that Le Guin drew on that particular text.            

Mythology, too—running like a golden thread through Le Guin’s work—is often credited to her parents, in this case, both Alfred and Theodora (who also collected Native American myths in The Inland Whale [1963]). But, again she reminds Escudié:

My father’s work with myths and legends was with the Yurok and Karuk and Mojave Indians of California, very different people; their myths are very different. I was not influenced by those directly because I read them late in life. They are totally different from our literary tradition and it would be very hard to work them in stories. (Freedman 134)

She even bristles at the idea that she is a “mythopoetic writer” (Freedman 134), suggesting that “myth” is (after Durkheim) a social fact, not something that can be created ex nihilo in an author’s mind. “So do we write myth at all? Or is the word really misapplied to novels and the kinds of stories we tell?” (Freedman 135).            

Nevertheless, despite her disavowals, she acknowledges an anthropological influence. She tells Broughton that “I have this advantage of not being ethnocentric, of not being culture bound.... The world came as a shock when I realized everyone wasn’t an anthropologist or an Indian and wasn’t interested in facts and artifacts and the structure of society” (Freedman 54). But her “anthropology” is atmospheric and proximal rather than a conscious program: “I grew up amongst anthropologists, Indians, refugees from Nazi Germany, crazy ethnologists” (Freedman 6). This is not an anthropology per se, but a more stochastic anthropological muse, one that ultimately gestures to another kind of anthropology altogether.            

By all accounts, the young Le Guin was surrounded by west coast intellectuals and expatriates of all kinds. Really, her parents (and her father in particular) were some of the last representatives of a kind of nineteenth-century intellectual that no longer exists—the restless polymath. While Kroeber had certainly specialized, he never lost his interest in literature (his undergraduate major), nor in psychology (his minor). According to Le Guin, he was also an “orthodox Freudian” lay analyst (Freedman 14). Actually, many of Franz Boas’s students dabbled in psychoanalysis, wrote poetry, patronized the arts, and weighed in on politics. In fact, Kroeber developed as an anthropologist when disciplinarity was not yet entrenched, and when anthropology regularly included multiple discourses that have now been carefully separated.    

It was this kind of anthropology that Le Guin seems to have inherited—not a patrimony of assumptions about culture, religion, mythology, and gender but a style of restless engagement with knowledge and science. At the very least, this describes an open-ended process—less of an inheritance than a transgenic accretion. As Le Guin says of working on The Word for World is Forest (1976), “It’s fiddle, fiddle, fiddle, trying to get all the pieces together” (Freedman 41).

Rhizomatic Le Guin. At some point in the 1980s, Lévi-Strauss’s celebrated “bricoleur” (literally a kind of jack-of-all-trades handyman) became a better metaphor for the anthropologist than that of the scientist. This was not only because of the theoretical eclecticism of the field, but also because of the shift in methodological emphasis from the apprehension of cultural “wholes” to tracing the emergent connections between and among different parts of life, technologies, institutions, and practices. This is anthropology-as-assemblage rather than anthropology-as-genealogy, with one’s intellectual forbears construed as affinities, some elected, some not, and all possessing the potential to spontaneously combine with each other to form new meanings. Kelso’s special issue of Paradoxa explores such a recombinant “anthropology.”            

In her contribution to Paradoxa, Keating conceptualizes this as an “archipelagic aesthetic,” where the job of interpretation involves articulating submerged connections between disparate, separate territories. For Keating, this means, for example, expounding upon the Yijing in The Lathe of Heaven (1971), even though, as she admits, “No epigraphs, after all, come from the Yijing” and that “Lathe’s title derives from the Zhuangzi,” and that, finally, no one else has considered the Yijing as a foundational text in Le Guin’s work (91).  Nevertheless, Keating argues that we must consider the Yijing relevant since it underlies both the Zhuangzi and the Daosejing. Keating’s archipelagic approach proves popular with other contributions as well, all of which take Le Guin to variously submerged places off the map of her own fiction.            

Several of the essays explore personal appropriations of Le Guin. For Warren Rochelle, for example, The Dispossessed (1974) becomes both animus and obstacle to his own writing: “I wish I had written The Dispossessed. And when I have sat down to write, I can feel its weight—and the weight of Le Guin’s fiction in general—in my own words and my ideas” (Kelso 298). But others take Le Guin to more distant territories indeed. Beth Snowberger’s Paradoxa essay considers The Dispossessed in light of superstring theory, a TOE (Theory of Everything) to which Le Guin (metaphorically) alludes in her efforts to reconcile utopian possibility and lived reality, individual and society, theory and practice. And the chronological problems do not bother her. As Snowberger argues, “It is a mark of her imaginative power” that The Dispossessed came out in 1974, while superstring theory is most associated with theoretical breakthroughs in the 1980s (Kelso 56).            

Le Guin is represented as similarly ahead of the curve in theorizing about human-animal biosocialities. In her “Schrödinger’s Cat” (orig. 1974) and other stories collected in Buffalo Gals (1987), Le Guin probes the borders between the human and other animals, critiquing the limits of dualistic thinking that pits animal and human against each other and also the confusion of collapsing one into the other, ethology into ethnology. Kasi Jackson suggests that

To reclaim what has been lost, Le Guin encourages us to think about the “habitual ways” human knowledge systems, including scientific and feminist accounts, construct the animal. She complicates animal models in ways consistent with feminist critiques of science and with the animal behavior scientist’s goal of understanding of/ appreciation for/ communication with animals. (Kelso 207)

Similarly, Le Guin is said to anticipate masculinity studies in Linda Wright’s essay (Kelso 169). Traci Card’s contribution, on the other hand, sees postcolonial deconstructions of frontier mythology in Le Guin’s short story “Sur” (1982), in which South American women discover the South Pole well before Scott’s hyper-masculinist expedition.            

All these contributions underscore Le Guin’s often repeated point that “utopia is process rather than progress” (Freedman 140). That is, rather than sketch a place outside space and time in the sense of More’s utopia, Le Guin’s “playful utopia” is all about subversive alternatives: heterotopias. The “spiral structure” (Freedman 139) of Le Guin’s plots exemplifies this process, where the goal is the journey to engage difference and to explore emancipatory possibility, to shake the reader “from the lazy, timorous habit of thinking that the way we live now is the only way people can live” (Freedman 138).            

There is, then, an alternative to Le Guin’s “lineage”—not only her intellectual relationship to her parents, but to all of the other intellectual “kin” with which she is grouped—second-wave feminism, utopian politics, science fiction, and fantasy. Analyses of “households” have long been an important corrective to an over-reliance on abstract ideals of kinship, descent, and family—the members of a household may be variously related or unrelated, its size and constitution may shift over time, and the relationships between members may also change. Studying households takes anthropologists into the complexity of everyday life, including countless kinds of relatedness and resource-sharing. What ends up in one’s house is less the product of some absolute calculus of genealogy than an admixture of choice, necessity, and serendipity.

Dwelling in the House of Le Guin. Many of the interviews in Freedman’s collection take place in Le Guin’s Portland home, where she has lived for decades. But it is her childhood home in Berkeley that is the focus of her remarkable contribution to the Paradoxa collection. Designed by Bernard Maybeck, an enthusiastic student of William Morris, the house embodies her approach to literature, where, she writes, “aesthetic meaning was not a final declaration made by the architect, but the result of an ongoing dialogue between builder and dwellers. In its inhabitation a house’s beauty would be active and fulfilled” (124). That is, the utopian promise in Maybeck’s architecture lay in its capacity to enjoin inhabitants in an ongoing dialogue on the good life, rather than, pace Corbusier, to structure habitus. That is, Le Guin’s household is one where the intellectual process takes precedence over the intellectual patrimony and, instead of being reducible to single themes or affiliations, Le Guin’s work is itself a process of continuous revelation—there are still plenty of secret rooms, nooks, and crannies in that house (136).            

That also describes Le Guin’s anthropology more accurately than any fealty to Alfred (or Theodora) Kroeber’s writings. It is not a mistake, I think, that one of her endearing memories from her childhood seems to have been the many people who visited her home—all the scholars from around the world, the various informants with whom Kroeber worked: an anthropology of increasingly reticulate connections between people and ideas. As she remarks in a 1980 interview with Anne Mellor:

The best family friend was an Indian who came to stay with us for six weeks every summer. He was just a member of the family. I actually thought I was related to Juan. You know how kids are, they take all of this for granted. Obviously, something seeped through, a kind of cultural relativism, a kind of nobody really has the word but everybody’s word is worth listening to. (Freedman 6)

Whether those words are Le Guin’s or another’s is, in this sense, immaterial: all somehow connect together in the house of Le Guin. And in the end, what these two collections describe is less of a kinship chart of Le Guin than a household, a continuously emerging foment of ideas, both from Le Guin herself and from the many scholars interpreting her work.

Barrow, Craig, and Diana Barrow. “Le Guin’s Earthsea.” Extrapolation 32.1 (1991): 20-44.
Benedict, Ruth. Patterns of Culture. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1934.
Jameson, Fredric. “World Reduction in Le Guin.” Archaeologies of the Future. New York: Verso, 2005. 267-80.
Malinowski, Bronislaw. Argonauts of the Western Pacific. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1961.
Strathern, Marilyn. “Emergent Relations.” Scientific Authorship. Ed. Mario Biagioli and Peter Galison. New York: Routledge, 2002. 165-94.

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