Poiesis of Possibility. the Ethnographic Sensibilities of Le Guin

July 20, 2017 | Author: Helena Betancourt | Category: Ethnography, Anthropology, Franz Boas, Narrative, Science Fiction
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BETH BAKER-CRISTALES Department of Anthropology College of Natural and Social Sciences King Hall B3006, California State University 5151 State University Drive Los Angeles, CA 90032 SUMMARY This article explores some of the ways Ursula Le Guin (daughter of famed anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber) uses ethnographic modes of writing and anthropological insights in her works of social science fiction. It is based on a close reading of her fiction and an e-interview with the author. While science fiction may seem a far cry from ethnography, careful attention to the critical functions of Le Guin’s fiction can shed light on some of the underlying assumptions and implications of the ethnographic imagination and writing. As Le Guin herself has observed, anthropologists and novelists share common traits and often find themselves writing about similar things. [fiction, ethnographic imagination, Le Guin, utopia] Ethnography has always been a literary endeavor. For most ethnographers, however, this enterprise has typically been without any formal training in creative writing and often a struggle to craft both serious and engaging texts. Part of the difficulty resides in ethnographic writing being neither fiction nor science, but something-in-between. Most ethnographies remain conventionally “realist”—in that they seek to represent realities existing outside of their text— but as Geertz argues, ethnographies are ultimately “fictions” (1973), that is, invented and inventive texts that can never perfectly capture the worlds they are supposed to describe. Ethnographers often face the dilemma of excess; reality will always surpass the ability to capture it. Our attempts to develop a coherent narrative out of multifarious and often indeterminate experiences, aligns the ethnographic endeavor with real fiction or storytelling. Because so many ways exist for ethnographic stories to be told and, indeed, there are so many stories to be told, ethnographers have to find and develop effective storylines. In contrast, fiction writers completely control the worlds about which they write, and although those worlds mean to say something about the world outside the book, the realities they invent begin and end within the story. I think here of the sadness that I have felt as a reader on finishing a beloved book, the sadness of knowing that the world in the book has come to an end and I can no longer inhabit it. I hardly feel this sense of loss at the end of reading an ethnography—that world (outside the book) continues and the ethnography remains simply a partial and imperfect sketch of it. Despite several decades of scholarship on the rhetoric and epistemology of ethnography, anthropologists continue rather unselfconsciously to spin Anthropology and Humanism, Vol. 37, Issue 1, pp 15–26, ISSN 1559-9167, online ISSN 1548-1409. © 2012 by the American Anthropological Association. All rights reserved. DOI: 10.1111/j.1548-1409.2012.01105.x.

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ethnographic stories following roughly set conventions. Ethnographers continue to write works that seek coherence and closure, whether this is in the form of a humanistic or personal storyline or, more commonly, a tight theoretical resolution of what are presented as vexing or confusing data, or perhaps both. Internal consistency, beginnings and endings, and grounded conclusions all seem to link the fiction of ethnographic storytelling to external realities and the rigors of scientific analysis. While there are some ethnographies that highlight the disjunctures and chaos of social life, or the inability of the ethnographer really to capture the world as it is, most depend on coherence, logic, and closure to hold the work together.1 The “crisis of representation” (Marcus and Fischer 1986) that developed in the 1970s and 1980s led to a brief interval of textual experimentation in ethnographic writing, but the more traditional and realist conventions of the genre endured, though perhaps informed by a critical understanding of the politics of ethnographic rhetoric. Further, while some anthropologists may experiment with poetry, fiction, and playwriting, these works usually clearly distinguish themselves from ethnographic writing and are not accepted as having the same disciplinary importance as traditional realist ethnography. (Like many anthropologists of her time, Zora Neale Hurston’s fiction was not accorded the same respect as her work in folklore [Schmidt 1984], and the reaction among anthropologists to the publication of The Teachings of Don Juan in 1968 [Castaneda 1978] exemplify the strong commitment that most professional anthropologists have to maintaining a clear and impermeable boundary between social science and fiction writing.) At the same time, as anthropology has become more specialized and theoretically informed, ethnographies have become progressively more jargon laden and inaccessible to the general reader. Ethnographies continue to be shaped by literary intuition, but they fail to entice many readers outside of academia and they rarely have any impact on narrative forms and prose outside of anthropology. It is in this context that the work of fiction writer and poet Ursula K. Le Guin is so interesting and, perhaps, important for ethnography. Le Guin is the daughter of American anthropologists Alfred and Theodora Kroeber and was exposed to anthropology at an early age. While she has written historical novels, children’s books, and essays, she writes mostly science fiction. In many of her books, Le Guin uses ethnography as a narrative form, complete with ethnographer, field notes, data, and the rich descriptions of people and places so important to ethnographic writing. More than simply stylistic, Le Guin’s works mark an anthropological sensibility, a concern for understanding why societies and culture take the forms they do and why beings behave as they do. Le Guin’s works score this similarity between fiction and ethnography, which perhaps is not altogether so rare. An Anthropology of the Possible It makes sense that science fiction writers would draw on anthropology in their work; science fiction and social science writing have much in common despite the fact that the former is fiction while the latter is framed as realist and objective reporting. Frederick Jameson suggests that the impulse to disassociate

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myth and fiction from realist and objectivist modes of describing reality and the “dissociation of the private and the public, the subject and the object, the personal and the political” are all characteristics of “the social life of capitalism” (2005:282). In other words, the belief that storytelling and imagination are entirely distinct projects from science and truth-telling is a product of a particular, very circumscribed, social–historical system—modernist capitalism. Anthropology emerged historically around the same time as science fiction, and they arise from a common impulse—the need to imagine difference, which serves as a powerful means of both constructing and critiquing the self. Science fiction scholar Patrick Sharp traces the discursive linkages between Darwinian models of difference, racial ideologies, U.S. imperialism, and the emergent “future war” stories of early science fiction (2007). In the early to mid-1900s, these narratives, scientific and fictive, reflected white fears of apocalyptic cataclysm if racial others were to gain too much power or access to technology. But by the second half of the 20th century, both science fiction writers and anthropologists had begun to plumb the more subversive potential of their respective genres. Instead of constructing the savage other to reaffirm a triumphant narrative of the white Western self, they used a vision of the other to critique conventional understandings of their own societies and of western imperialism. As Jameson notes, science fiction aims not to predict accurately the future, but “to defamiliarize and restructure our experience of our own present, and to do so in specific ways distinct from all other forms of defamiliarization” (2005:286). Anthropology, too, strategically defamiliarizes by juxtaposing the familiar and the unfamiliar—a project aimed to inspire the reader’s social imagination through the construction of difference. Beginning with Franz Boas and his students, anthropologists in the United States very self-consciously held up the other as a mirror for Americans, expecting that the experience of seeing alternate models of humanity might change them. The concept of cultural relativism—of contrasting radically different societies but insisting that they are equally valid possibilities for human sociality—was a radical departure from the 19th-century anthropological models inspired by the work of Darwin. Despite their radical relativism, Boas’s students held to the notion that their descriptions of the other were scientific and objective, failing to see how their own need for otherness generated the other they sought. Le Guin, daughter of a student of Franz Boas, points out just how constructed our depictions of the other are; she literally creates the Other to hold up a mirror to the self. The Anthropologist as Protagonist in Le Guin’s Work In comparing Le Guin’s work with ethnography, it is important to look at the anthropological themes that run through her work and how she uses these to literary ends. The protagonists of several of her books are essentially anthropologists, though she does not often use this term; they are individuals immersed in an unfamiliar society learning its history, social and political organization, expressive culture, and beliefs—what it feels like from the inside. In her first published novel, Rocannon’s World (1966), Le Guin follows Gaverel Rocannon, the “Director of the First Ethnographic Survey,” on an expedition to study the humanoid species on the planet Fomalhaut 2. Enemy

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aliens hiding on the planet attack the research team. Rocannon, the team’s sole survivor, works with the planet’s inhabitants to get a message to the League of All Worlds about the enemy’s rebellious attack. By the end of the book, his message gets through and the enemy is destroyed by the league. Rocannon is, however, left on the planet another eight years—the time it takes for a rescue ship to arrive. He dies before the ship arrives. Before his death, while contemplating his unintended exile, Rocannon says, “Who are my people? I am not what I was. I have changed” (1996:111). Thus, Le Guin uses the odyssey of her protagonist to mirror the experiences of ethnographers: cultural immersion and positive self-transformation. And, in so doing, as in many of her novels, she explores this emotional side of ethnographic fieldwork. In The Dispossessed, originally published in 1974, Le Guin provides another opportunity to explore cultural differences, as well as the experiences of the outsider immersed in a strange society. Though not an ethnographer (like Rocannon), Shevek, the protagonist in The Dispossessed, becomes a cultural interpreter exposing the limits and conceits of two different worlds. The main differences he has to attend to arise from sociopolitical distinctions. Both planets appear flawed, but in different ways. Only by comparison with one another, can the flaws be perceived. Here cultural comparison through literary juxtaposition functions to critique some of the social forms we find in our own lived worlds, but without being overly pedantic or driven by political ideology. An interesting and compelling story and a sort of anthropological thought experiment, The Dispossessed points to the kinds of differences that might arise as societies organize themselves along culturally different economic and political lines. In The Word for the World is Forest, first published in 1976, Captain Raj Lyubov is the anthropologist serving as head of a team of research specialists on World 41: a planet colonized for the harvest of wood to be sent back to earth, now long deforested. The native humanoids (the Athsheans: small and covered in green hair, whom most of the colonists have trouble seeing as human) revolt against their exploitation and loss of their forest home. Captain Lyubov learns their language and comes to understand them as being fully human. He is the only character in the book able to cross the cultural boundaries and to interpret cultural differences sympathetically. His empathy becomes a tool of political liberation when his studies are used to press for an end to earth’s colonization of the planet; the scientist becomes a liberator, even though he dies in the process.2 One of the Athsheans takes the remains of Lyubov’s work to the retreating colonizers, remarking, “Inside this there is Lyubov’s work. . . . He knew more about us than the others do. He learned my language and the Men’s Tongue; we wrote all that down. He understood somewhat how we live and dream. The others do not” (Le Guin 1980:124). In the end, however, cultural differences remain irresolvable, except in the person of the reluctant hero, the anthropologist. In perhaps one of Le Guin’s most famous works, The Left Hand of Darkness, the inhabitants of the planet Gethen have no gender, at least not in the way humans on earth do. People on Gethen are usually ungendered (what the author calls “bisexual”), except during their recurrent mating periods (or Kemmerer) when individuals take on the biological characteristics of either

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males or females, possibly experiencing both roles at different moments in their lifetimes. Genly Ai, originally from earth, is the “First Mobile” to the planet, the first person formally to represent the planetary coalition attempting to recruit the inhabitants of Gethen. Ascribed male, Genly Ai has to transcend not only cultural difference but also biological and gender differences. An emissary from another culture confronting profound misunderstandings and violence, he pursues cross-cultural understanding and reconciliation. Even though the cultural and biological differences he struggles to understand can never really be transcended, by the end of the book, our cultural interlocutor triumphs. Here, perhaps for the first time, Le Guin uses ethnography as an obvious literary modality, interspersing chapters narrated by the main characters in the book with chapters recounting popular stories, myths, sayings, as well as anonymous ethnographic reports written by investigators preceding Genly Ai, replete with footnotes explaining the origins of these texts or the meanings of native terms difficult to translate. These breaks in the narrative allow Le Guin to construct rich portraits of cultural complexity and cultural difference, portraits very anthropological in feel. Interestingly, they do not add up to a holistic description or analysis of Gethen culture—they are fragmentary sketches that complement the main story. Such descriptions could emerge organically within the narrative rather than appear as reports or transcriptions, but these fictional ethnographic reports point to some recurring motifs in Le Guin’s writing. For example, through the interpenetration of narrative and realist reports a cultural richness emerges, suggesting that these invented cultures exist outside of and before the narrative, but more so that culture in general defies the literary conceit of containment, of narrative logic, of beginning and of end. In other words, by using ethnography as a textual model for fiction, Le Guin aims to transcend some of the limitations of fiction—the end of the story. By creating a reality for Gethen, one transcending the stories at the heart of the novel—a reality based on tight ethnographic description and documentation—Le Guin hints that this cultural world existed before the novel and will continue to exist after it. As with many ethnographers, the main characters are driven, either for personal or professional reasons, to try and transcend cultural difference, and even though they can never do so completely, their struggles are inevitably heroic and self-transformative. In Always Coming Home (2000), a postapocalyptic coming-of-age tale set in a northern California of the future, Le Guin again makes use of fictional ethnographic texts. The communities that provide the setting for this story vaguely seem to replicate some Native American cultural practices, or at least what readers might recognize as preindustrial ways of life, now translated to a postindustrial place and time. Much of the story unfolds in the first-person narrative of a girl, first named Owl (later her name changes), whose mother is from the Kesh people and whose father is from the Condor people—two very different cultures. Like the anthropologist, Owl goes back and forth between these two cultures, struggling to understand them and convey this understanding to a reader situated as not belonging to either. Some of her narrative she punctuates with footnotes explaining Kesh words or ideas used in her story, notes written by an invisible ethnographer–editor. In fact, most of the book is not Owl’s narrative but, rather, fictional ethnographic texts about the Kesh

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people and culture, including chapters constituted by Kesh stories and poems, with detailed information about the teller of the tale and the context of its recording or telling. There are maps, illustrations, kinship charts, musical scores, explanations of Kesh writing and naming practices, sketches and descriptions of Kesh dances and musical instruments, and discussions of Kesh metaphors and healing practices—a stunningly inventive catalogue of cultural traits and practices reminiscent of a Boasian ethnography. While these fictional ethnographic texts enhance the main story of Owl’s life, they stand outside of that story as ethnographic ephemera: like the notes and documents anthropologists collect that cannot be made to fit neatly into the main storyline of an ethnography. At several intervals in the book, there are commentaries by “Pandora,” the otherwise anonymous ethnographer; these comments break the fourth wall, revealing the thoughts and self-doubts of the author of both Owl’s narrative and the ethnographic texts. Perhaps fretting over the seemingly fragmented nature of the book, Pandora worries, “Even if the bowl is broken (and the bowl is broken), from the clay and the making and the firing of the pattern, even if the pattern is incomplete (and the pattern is incomplete), let the mind draw its energy. Let the heart complete the pattern” (2001:53). Like a good ethnography, the story can never be complete and the reader is called on to fill in the cracks and make the bowl whole, to draw the connections between language, kinship, dance, and story, to finish the work the ethnographer started. This insistence on fictional realism and open-ended description creates a strong sense of place in Le Guin’s work, another characteristic of ethnography. As in The Left Hand of Darkness, the ethnographic interludes in the text function to give the reader the impression of a rich culture that precedes and survives the particular story in the book, lending it the impression of existing outside the story, of being real. The story itself could not contain all of the significant data, which spills out into chapters that seem to interrupt the flow of the plot, but these ethnographic details emerge as important to our understanding of the story, even though they remain outside of it. The Telling (2000) follows Sutty, a young earth woman who works as an “Observer” for the Ekumen, an interplanetary governing body. They send her to the planet Aka to document the language and literature of the people there. On arriving, Sutty finds that the planet’s government, “the Corporation,” has banned most written documents and religion, effectively destroying literature and traditional verbal arts. The Corporation refers to its citizens as “producerconsumers” and has rationalized almost every aspect of daily life, particularly in the cities. At first, Sutty worries that she will not be able to complete her work, but when she travels to the countryside, she engages with the Akans more deeply, sharing their everyday lives and studying their culture as an anthropologist would. Le Guin writes: Day after day she recorded her notes, observations that stumbled over each other, contradicted, amplified, backtracked, speculated, a wild profusion of information on all sorts of subjects, a jumbled and jigsawed map that for all its complexity represented only a rough sketch of one corner of the vastness she had to explore: a way of thinking and living developed and elaborated over thousands of years by the vast majority of human beings on this world, an enormous interlocking system of

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symbols, metaphors, correspondences, theories, cosmology, cooking, calisthenics, physics, metaphysics, metallurgy, medicine, physiology, psychology, alchemy, chemistry, calligraphy, numerology, herbalism, diet, legend, parable, poetry, history, and story. [2001:91]

Sutty experiences the confusion of “culture shock” and the initial feelings of isolation that many anthropologists encounter on their first and perhaps even subsequent field trips. She follows these with a growing understanding of and identification with the beings studied. Immersing herself in the minutiae of everyday life eventually leads Sutty to her hidden subject—traditional verbal and written literature. Some of the Akans secreted away the texts and created repositories in very isolated places where the Corporation would not find them. Sutty is an ethnographer, and large sections of the book read as ethnography—careful and detailed descriptions of the everyday lives, beliefs, and behaviors of a society foreign to the observer. As the above quote illustrates, these descriptions utilize categories and concepts central to anthropological analysis—cosmology, symbol, legend, etc. In The Telling, anthropology serves as a model for the encounter between different kinds of societies, but ethnography also serves as a literary device for describing those differences in a modality that appears scientific yet compelling precisely because it is in the form of a personal narrative. Le Guin offers a much more whimsical and ironic exploration of the encounter with cultural others in Changing Planes (2003), where a present-day traveler, Sita Dulip, discovers a way of journeying to alternate planes of existence while delayed at an airport enduring a mind-numbing wait for her mechanical plane. Other bored travelers learn of Sita Dulip’s methods and take them up, even writing-up reviews of the accommodations and sights in these planes for other plane-changing explorers. The narrator travels frequently to these alternative planes of existence and, in each, encounters some cultural mystery or biological difference she struggles to understand—a complex language, different mating practices, a culture obsessed with genealogy, a society marked by overwhelming anger. Each plane’s residents have their own customs, economy, mythology, literature, food, art, and so forth; they are cultural worlds described in the categories and language anthropologists normally employ. The sheer number of different planes visited (15), their description in anthropological terms, and the fact that each is experienced as absolutely normal to its inhabitants, have the effect of demonstrating one of the primary insights of cultural anthropology— cultural relativism. And they do so in a fictional setting that does not cause the discomfort some readers may feel in acknowledging cultural relativism in real-life situations. Here the plot unburdens its work of cultural juxtaposition, as the book takes snapshots of cultural differences. In so much of Le Guin’s work, the protagonists are anthropologists-byanother-name. These characters inevitably face the question of how to conceptualize and react to cultural difference and, in the process, exemplify some of the field experiences and model some of the ways anthropologists tend to look at cultural others. In The Telling, Sutty struggles with her reactions to a foreign culture, but then thinks to herself, “Judgmentalism. Wrong to let frustration cloud her thinking and perceptions. Wrong to admit prejudice. Look, listen, notice: observe. That was her job. This wasn’t her world” (2001:9). In The

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Dispossessed, Shevek fails to find what he seeks on any world, “Indeed the longer he lived on Urras, the less real if became to him. It seemed to be slipping out of his grasp—all that vital, magnificent, inexhaustible world that he had seen from the windows of his room, his first day on the world. It slipped out of his awkward, foreign hands, eluded him, and when he looked again he was holding something quite different, something he had not wanted at all, a kind of waste paper, wrappings, rubbish” (2003:130). Despite the difficulties, these encounters transform the traveler or ethnographer, as Genly Ai in The Left Hand of Darkness explains to his Gethenian friend: I thought it was for your sake that I came alone, so obviously alone, so vulnerable, that I could in myself pose no threat, change no balance: not an invasion, but a mere messenger-boy. But there’s more to it than that. Alone, I cannot change your world. But I can be changed by it. Alone, I must listen, as well as speak. Alone, the relationship I finally make, if I make one, is not impersonal and not only political: it is individual, it is personal, it is both more and less than political. Not We and They; not I and It; but I and Thou. [1969:259]

Le Guin suggests that the ultimate product of the cross-cultural encounter is not to change the other, or to fulfill some political promise, or even for the sake of scientific discovery, but the more modest, if more profound, goal of selftransformation—to change one-self. In other words, the elusive utopia in Le Guin’s work is not a particular kind of society or world, but self-transcendence and the ability to understanding the other. My Interview with Ursula Le Guin In July of 2008, I conducted an interview via e-mail with Ursula Le Guin. In this interview, Le Guin addressed the question of science fiction and the ethnographic imagination: Baker-Cristales: Some of your books and stories have what I would call anthropologists in them, such as Rocannon in Rocannon’s World and Sutty in The Telling. Others have characters that, like anthropologists, become immersed in worlds very different from their own, such as in The Dispossessed, The Left Hand of Darkness, and Always Coming Home. Why did you choose to feature anthropologist-like figures in your work? Le Guin: Well, my childhood world was so full of anthropologists that I took them for granted—they were no odder than other grown-ups, and I was used to them. And when I began to have any understanding of what they actually did, the ethnologists particularly, it sounded definitely cool. Go off to Brazil and live two or three years in the jungle with people who’d never seen a flashlight, go off to Baffin Bay and get your toes frozen off, etc. . . . And go, not to conquer, but just to find out. So I had these people on store in my head, as it were, when I started writing novels. And they are a useful kind of person for a novelist to have on store. An ethnologist in a society new to her is in somewhat the same position as we all are as adolescents. We’re foreigners, exiled from childhood. We have to learn the rules of adult society, we have to learn the language, we have to learn what’s going to kill us and who’s going to help us . . . The “stranger in a strange land” is recognizable to most of us as Me, at least to some extent. And so the story of how they get on in the strange land is a story we tend to be immediately interested in. Anyhow, that’s my theory. B-C: In much of your work, you describe the cultural worlds you create much as an anthropologist might—through the philosophy, religion, art, myth, and literature,

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language, gender roles, social organization and economic systems of the beings that inhabit them. Your treatment of gender hierarchies and sexuality as well as the power of language to define our realities is very consistent with the work of contemporary cultural anthropologists. To what degree are these rich social worlds you create influenced by anthropology? What else besides anthropology has contributed to your understanding of cultural difference and social life? Do–did you ever read ethnographies? Do you have any favorites? If so, what are they? LG: This answer will cover both questions 2 and 3. My reading in ethnology and cultural anthropology was always so erratic, and really so insignificant—I probably learned useful things from every anthropological study I read, but exactly what I read or what I learned, over all the decades, would be hard to say. The writers who most influenced me would be (unsurprisingly!) A. L. Kroeber, particularly the Handbook of the Indians of California; Edward Sapir, whose Language I loved as a teen-ager; LéviStrauss, with whom I had fierce and fruitful silent arguments; and finally Clifford Geertz, with whom again I wrangled in my mind, but who gave me such invaluable concepts as “thick description” and “local knowledge.” I said that ethnologists and adolescents are rather alike, now I will say that cultural anthropologists and novelists also have a good deal in common. They are fascinated by and want to understand relationships, and artifacts, and the oddities of religious practice and the uses of language to reveal and conceal. . . . They write about very much the same things. B-C: In Always Coming Home, there are sections of the book that read like straightforward narrative, and there are sections of the book that are descriptive and read more like ethnography. Why did you choose this unique format? What does the ethnographic narrative allow you to do in your work that other forms of prose would not? LG: Realistic fiction doesn’t usually have to provide a lot of description to the reader. You can say “It was the Sixties, in San Francisco,” and your reader will already have some more or less accurate and vivid information about hippies, the Haight, etc. in mind. You don’t have to tell them everything. Imaginative fiction can’t do that (unless it uses a stock venue—the Space Ship, the Vaguely Medieval Kingdom, etc.). It has to describe everything. You are creating a secondary world for your reader, as Tolkien put it. But you can’t just do an infodump (as it is impolitely described in sciencefiction writing workshops)—the information the reader needs has to be part of the story, imparted without the reader being clearly aware of it. Good fantasists and SF writers are masters of this sneaky technique. With the utopia, the problem is at its most intense. The utopian writer really wants the reader to know, see, understand the society—can’t leave vast areas vague, enlisting the reader’s own imagination to fill them in, as most fantasists and SF writers can do. The description of the society is the main point of the utopian novel. So, one way or another, you are going to end up with infodumps. Given my ancestral familiarity, as it were, with anthropology, it came natural to me to present these passages of information in Always Coming Home somewhat as an anthropologist might do. Actually, I call Pandora, the “authorial” voice in that book, my alter ego, an archaeologist, because she is digging up the “future” (i.e., an imagined society) as archaeologists dig up the past. She is getting to know, learning about, conversing with people who do not exist—as archaeologists do. B-C: Your father passed before the publication of your first novel, Rocannon’s World. What do you think he would have thought of how your writing engages with anthropology? LG: I have no idea! But I like to think it would have amused him. He had a real appetite for literary fantasy. He read Dunsany and Eddison and other fantasists, and liked H. G. Wells’s Scientific Romances. (Therefore of course I grew up with those books.) B-C: Do you have any other observations on the relationship between fiction (and/or science fiction) and ethnography? LG: I think what I got from living in my father’s household and intellectual milieu was—I don’t know how to put it—the sense that nothing and no one is irremediably

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foreign—alien—Other. We do things this way, but next door they do things this other way, and in the next street they do them in a completely different way—and all this is entertaining, interesting, instructive, and not in the least frightening. I was spared the huge burden of xenophobia, and the curse of cultural parochialism. And paradoxically, I believe that’s what freed me to be a regional writer, which in many ways I am. I may pretend to be writing about other worlds, but my roots are obviously and profoundly in the West Coast. If you don’t have to rush around spraying the boundaries of your territory all the time, you can live in peace in the “center of the world.” You can have local knowledge. This is a very roundabout answer to your question, but my point is, I think the strongest fiction comes from people who truly inhabit their world and know where its moral center is.

Ethnographic Fictions and Fictional Ethnographies It is clear from her interview and from her own work that Le Guin employs fictional ethnographic narratives and juxtaposition as first a tactic of “othering” and finally as a sort of anthropological thought experiment—what sorts of possibilities are there for human existence, thought, and social ordering? These textual strategies in her fiction highlight some of the more hidden functions of ethnography—cultural critique and the utopian imagination. Cultural critique, in both the case of ethnography and in Le Guin’s fiction, is a critical assessment of the world as it is thought to be, a rejection of what is. The other side of this cultural critique is utopia, a dreaming for what could or should be. With the critique, utopia is implied, though it may not be consciously or systematically developed. As Michel-Rolph Trouillot points out, utopian writing began to diverge from realist accounts of the world early in the 16th century, but the two are necessarily linked—what he calls the “savage-utopia correspondence” (2003:19). The fate of utopian thought declined in anthropology with the end of the modernist grand theories that encompassed both critique and remedy (Marxism, cultural evolutionism, cultural materialism, etc.). But the cultural critique that still drives so much of ethnography constitutes a sort of truncated utopian thought, even if the utopia implied is only a more profound recognition of cultural multiplicity. The tenacious ethnocentrism of the West drives the ethnographic enterprise—ethnography insists that we look about us to discover that difference really does exist.3 This ethnocentrism also inspires Le Guin’s fictional ethnographic imagination. In anthropology, there is a deep discomfort with utopia; it is too close to social engineering and grand theory for the post-modern anthropologist and not quite scientific enough for the more positivists among us. Utopian thought is therefore sublimated in contemporary ethnography—while it is suggested by the persistence of cultural critique, for most anthropologists it is far too conjectural and political for a more explicit role in ethnography. Like most anthropologists, Le Guin does not seem altogether comfortable with utopia; she presents us with the dream of utopia, but utopia itself is never quite achieved. She creates places where things are better because they are different, but these utopias are never perfect because they are always marked by violence and misunderstanding that need to be transcended by the cultural hero, the anthropologist or his/her equivalent. In that sense, they may be antiutopias, or what Trouillot calls “the specificity of otherness” (2003:27)—a construction of

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otherness that resists universalism—“There is no Other, but multitudes of others who are all others for different reasons, in spite of totalizing narratives, including that of capital” (2003:27). In the end, the real utopia in Le Guin’s work is not a people, place, or social system, but the act of self-transcendence and cross-cultural understanding, a process that is never complete nor perhaps fully possible. Perhaps a truly utopian anthropology is not possible, but I suggest that an anthropology that recognizes the unspoken role of utopian thought in ethnography would not be afraid to dream and to imagine forms of sociality that realize the full potential of human possibility, nor would it be timid about pointing out how most of the real world fails to do this. Notes 1. An interesting example of an ethnography that resists this temptation is Susan Bibler Coutin’s Nations of Emigrants (2007), which highlights the complex social fictions that give the feeling of coherence to social worlds that are conflicted and shifting, and where participants, like the ethnographer, are sometimes unable to make sense of what happens around them. 2. In her own estimation, the book is more clearly polemical than most of Le Guin’s work (see the author’s introduction to the book) and was inspired, in part, by her disgust with the U.S. invasion of Vietnam. 3. For contemporary evidence of this deep-seated ethnocentrism, one only has to look at the current vilification of Islam, the xenophobia and scapegoating of immigrants, or the rise of Christian fundamentalism. Ethnocentrism created anthropology (the first musings of the cultural evolutionists) and continues to drive it, if only in the form of resistance to ethnocentrism.

References Cited Castaneda, Carlos 1978 The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge. NY: Penguin Books. Coutin, Susan Bibler 2007 Nations of Emigrants: Shifting Boundaries of Citizenship in El Salvador and the United States. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. Geertz, Clifford 1973 The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic. Jameson, Fredric 2005 Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. New York: Verso. Le Guin, Ursula K. 1966 Rocannon’s World. New York: Ace. 1969 The Left Hand of Darkness. New York: Ace. 1980[1976] The Word for World is Forest. London: Panther. 1996 Worlds of Exile and Illusion. New York: Orb. 2000 Always Coming Home. Berkeley: University of California Press. 2001[2000] The Telling. New York: Ace. 2003[1974] The Dispossessed. New York: Perennial Classics. 2003 Changing Planes. New York: Ace. Marcus, George, and Michael Fischer 1986 Anthropology as Cultural Critique: An Experimental Moment in the Human Sciences. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Schmidt, Nancy 1984 Ethnographic Fiction: Anthropology’s Hidden Literary Style. Anthropology and Humanism Quarterly 9(4):11–14.

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Sharp, Patrick 2007 Savage Perils: Racial Frontiers and Nuclear Apocalypse in American Culture. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. Trouillot, Michel-Rolph 2003 Anthropology and the Savage Slot: The Poetics and Politics of Otherness. In Global Transformations: Anthropology and the Modern World. Pp. 7–28. New York: Palgrave.

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