- Kemmer and Farfetching – Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness
It is the dream of much English language Feminist Science Fiction to imagine an alternately gendered world separated in space and time. In works like Herland (Charlotte Perkins Gilman) and The Female Man (Joanna Russ), this manifests in future and parallel worlds where everyone is a woman. This can also manifest in the development of a queer gender system. This is the case of Anne Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, where the female pronoun is used in English as the gender neutral (I’ll get back to this), Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (where the pronoun “per” is used, for “person”), and Ursula Le Guins’ Left Hand of Darkness, which imagines a world of bodies, the “Gethenians” all gendered in the same way (although the pronoun used is “he”). Once a month during the period of “kemmer”, two Gethenians may develop a hormonal reaction in which they tend more male or female, and this is how reproductive sexual difference is engendered. But no individual is predetermined to tend toward one gender or another. Anyone can be a mother, anyone can be a father, depending on what happens to them on any given “time of the month”. And outside of kemmer, the Gethenians of the planet Winter are the “same”, so to speak.
The deconstruction of complementary binaries is one of the theoretical-philosophical memes that drives Le Guin’s fiction. The lack of gendered binaries creates a structurally, radically different world from ours: “The structure of their societies, the management of their industry, agriculture, commerce, the size of their settlements, the subjects of their stories, everything is shaped to fit the somer-kemmer cycle.”; “There is no division of humanity into strong and weak halves, protective/protected, dominant/submissive, owner/chattel, active/passive. In fact the whole tendency to dualism that pervades human thinking may be found to be lessened, or changed, on Winter.” (49)
I could write an entire paper solely on Le Guin’s very rich ficto-philosophy (and I probably will someday), but for the sake of simplicity, I’ll focus on one concept, that of “farfetching”, as it is the practice I would like to adopt in this paper. The origins of the Gethenians are unknown, how such a nature-culture came to be. One theory put forth by our narrator, a “bisexual” male ambassador from the Hainish Ecumen, is that they are the result of an ancient and forgotten “experiment” carried out by (who else?) the Hainish themselves. “Farfetching” is another “invention” of the Hainish, and it is “the intuitive perception of a moral entity [that] tends to find expression not in rational symbols, but in metaphor.” (74) I read in Le Guin’s work a critique of binary Reason, which codes for, for example, the opposition between literality and figurality, as well as the opposition between woman and man. Reason tends to see metaphor as that which hides or dissimulates clarity, truth and a rhetorically scientifically valid world (i.e. that one must adopt the rhetoric of science, as though it were not a rhetoric at all, to prove a claim on reality). The history of Reason also tends to pit mind against body, where mind is gendered as male and body as female (Butler). These two oppositions are structurally allied—and post-structurally deconstructed—in Le Guin’s work.
Part of this deconstruction, I’d like to argue, happens methodologically and performatively in the very use of fiction as a theoretical-philosophical tool. Farfetching is indeed a way of interpreting shared reality for the Gethenians, no less and no more valid than “Reason” (the French word for sanity). And it deconstructs the binary opposing literality and figurality—which in Eric Cheyfitz’s work on colonial rhetoric for example, has been connected historically to the distinction between “proper” and “foreign”. In Farfetching, metaphor codes for thought, performatively, rather than being the cover or the theater of a transcendent clarity or truth. And this way of thinking happens, quite appropriately, through the creation of a world, characters and a story—such as in this round-about fan fiction of Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle, in which I have cast myself as an ambassador of the Ecumen:
In this talk then I will deploy the theoretical method of Farfetching to upturn the binary “couple” of theory and literature. Instead of using theory to read literature, I will read literature as theory, in order to address some problems I find both in what we mean with the word “theory” and what we mean with the word “literature.”
- Ancillary Justice – Anne Leckie
A couple of months ago, I attended a conference given by one of the senior members of my department at the University of Montpellier, on trauma and vulnerability. He spoke on the genealogy of works on trauma, and how the subject came to be construed as dependent, fragile and vulnerable rather than independent and autonomous.
I was maybe a bit tired or hungover as I listened to this talk, for I heard it as I would a piece of music, rather than a string of information bytes. And in this melodic hearing, a strong low beat, a rhythmic pedal tone soared out over the other instruments of his talk in concert. “Le sujet, un sujet, du sujet….”
This “sujet”, “le sujet” tolled in me like a bell in a church tower, the rhythmic clicking of a machine. Le sujet, le sujet, le sujet. I wanted to say, “et la sujet?” of course there is no female subject in French. You could say “la sujette” but “sujette” is an adjective, and can only exist in correlation, and means, to be exposed, by constitution, to certain affections, to feeling certain states. In French there’s “le sujet” and “la femme.” And it occurred to me—and this is one of the problems I hear in the word “theory”—that you cannot say “the subject”. That means absolutely nothing. There is no “the subject”. “Le sujet” de qui? Whose subject? Whose subjectivity? Whose right to call themselves subject?
The Raddchai is the name of the gender neutral society created by Anne Leckie, who uses as I mentioned in my introduction, the “she” as gender neutral pronoun throughout the three books of the Space Opera triptych. A way of writing in an English translation of Raddchai (a word that means both citizen and civilized: “le sujet”).
The main character in Anne Leckie’s Ancillary Justice is an ancillary named Breq—although that was not her original name. Breq’s first first name was Justice of Toren, and she is one segment of a great war ship, a troop carrier of the Raddchai empire, an AI, named Justice of Toren. AI ships in Leckie’s work are not disembodied but are many times embodied, throughout all the parts of the vessel they are housed in, and in many ancillary bodies that may rove about in any direction. A Justice literally has eyes and ears everywhere.
An ancillary is a product, a descendent of great violence, just as the Raddchai empire is an empire of great violence, far surpassing the Romans, the British, and the Americans—combined. As the Raddchai conquered a culture-planet, they would sometimes collect a great many bodies, and delete their consciousness. Le sujet destroyed, but the ruumis intact. These bodies could then be installed with implants and used as ancillaries to a ship. Utterly and permanently connected to all other parts of itself. No less and no more than the ship itself.
But Breq is special because she is no longer connected to her ship (I can’t explain why without giving away spoilers). In the first book of the series, the reader is witness to a conversation between Breq and a doctor who has determined Breq’s true identity (ok, well, sorry—it’s almost impossible to talk about fiction without giving away some spoilers). The doctor proposes to “cure” Breq.
“Your sense of who you are has a neurological basis. One small change and you don’t believe you exist anymore. But you’re still there. I think you’re still there.” Says the doctor.
And later: “I can bring you back.”
The doctor is talking about bringing back “le sujet”. The “original” conciousness ascribed to Breq before she became Justice of Toren. Breq responds:
“You can kill me, you mean. You can destroy my sense of self and replace it with the one you approve of.” Breq is Justic of Toren, even though her body has returned to the singularity of what the history of Reason might take to be the simple representation of “the” subject. Breq is still Justice of Toren, still has many many bodies. They just happen to be gone.
In Leckie’s work, the construction of “the subject” becomes a widely various interplay and layering of subjects. These subjects are never neither totally self-coherent, nor diversely unique. The theoretical apparatus of “one consciousness many bodies” turns out to be an insanely productive one. Her rending of the binary division between mind and body opens a massive in-between space that allows for this relationship to be seen as a series of creative negotiations. Without hopefully giving too much away, Leckie asks:
- What happens when different segments of one “subjectivity” are separated from each other, and cannot communicate with one another. Are they “one” or “many”? Are they “themselves” or “themself”? (Herself.)
- What happens when different segments of one subjectivity do not agree with one another, entering into conflict with themself. Again, the play comes at the tension between “herself” (mind) and “herselves” (bodies). We see the determinant article “the”, for “the subject” (“LE sujet”) is totally impossible here.
- And what happens when singular humans pretend to be an ancillary, speaking for an AI through the body of a “singular” human subjectivity? How is that human’s “subject”—as the voice speaking from a body—constructed?
- Orogeny: nodes and silver threads — NK Jemisin’s Broken Earth Series
As Patricia Mirabile remarked in her talk on Feminist Science Fiction at the ENS on May 3, 2017, one of the recurring themes of Feminist Science fiction is “magic.” The node-word “magic” can of course embody many different meanings, and the common thread attaching these meanings together is woven through its function and aspiration rather than its meaning itself. “Magic”, as Mirabile observed, is a code word for resistance to Science Dogma. In other words, that the right to define the “real” is lynched to the hegemony of masculine “scientific” empiricism. And that the poetics of this empiricism are those of calculation and control, of bringing all diverging voices back to the master word of Science—a word that among other things, allowed for the fluid transition between Enlightenment and Neo-Liberal capitalism. As a sexist ex-friend once said when I tried to challenge this singular dominion in his rhetoric, unrelentingly dismissive of other logics (or “magics” as we might choose to call them): “Your computer works, doesn’t it?” Yes, of course. But this is not the only thing that matters.
This is why I prefer the use of the word “magic” to the word “logic”. In some psychoanalytic theory, magic can take the form of an oscillation between literality and figurality like what we saw in Le Guin’s “Farfetching”. Magic “performs in a literal sense something that only has meaning in a figurative sense”. This has been associated to animistic thinking (where representations are “really” what they are) and likewise to mimetic behavior in animals and quote “primitive” peoples. When Jesus is really in the cracker so to speak.
I read in this oscillation between literality and figurality a connection to what Haraway calls the “material-semiotic generative node” (Promises of Monsters), meaning—like Farfetching—that bodies are both literal and figurative, just as metaphors are bodies and minds. Metaphors, as material, invent meaning. Just as this meaning invents the metaphor. This is not cause and effect, this is a knot: a “node.” The way in which a body is at once the very real material fleshy body, the body I make reference to when I say the word “body”, or corps or ruumis, and also the text, language as body, as metaphorically coded as body. Like when we say “the body of the text” or the “material of the signifier” or “corpus”. All of these dimensions work together, in a time knot (none preceding another), magically and animistically, to engender what some of us agree upon as the Real.
Magic can do many things then. In The Broken Earth Trilogy (of which the third book doesn’t come out until August—I can’t wait!), an orogene—a human being with magic like powers—can move mountains with their mind (or rather, their body), turn flesh to ice or stone. Magical thinking may indeed find an ally in post-anthropocentric thinking that ascribes consciousness to objects. In other words, that there may be much less difference between rocks and humans than we think there is—both because rocks are more like humans than we think they are (as conscious, kinetic, symbolic, historical beings), and also because humans are much more like rocks than we think we are—shaped by historical and environmental strata, determined by where we are molding.
The Stillness—the post-apocalyptic panacea of The Broken Earth series is covered with a “node network” of enslaved orogenes, locked in towers and chained in chairs, who work to quell the earthquakes that threaten to destroy the Stillness and bring about a “season”: shifts in the environment that make it nearly impossible for humans to survive. “Nodes” in Jemisin are distinctly power encoded and the use of orogeny is dictated by a powerful system of domination within which orogenes are prosecuted and exploited, seen as “non-humans.” There is a powerful connection to the memory of slavery in America here, which can be heard for example in the word “rogga”, the informal slur used for an orogene. This word in some mouths is reappropriated, to de-tu(r)n(e) and take back power.
“Node” however means knot, and like any knot it is made of two or more strands that are difficult to identify at first, that tangle together, code for both identity and paradox (I would argue that identity is a paradox, and without paradox there is no identity, there is only the blind “neutral” but this is not the context for me to go deeper into this argument).
Orogeny codes along two different ideological axes: science and magic. The scientific approach explains orogeny as heat and energy distribution—or this is how it is taught at the Fulcrum, the Stillness’s version of the Ecole Normale Supérieure. Science here again is used as an ideological tool for control. I certainly do not think this is the only possible use for science. The most powerful orogenes combine science and magic.
The magical approach explains orogeny as a network of silver threads connecting all phenomena. Silver threads making “knots”. This way of thinking about orogeny is repressed by the Fulcrum, for it would allow the orogenes to become too powerful. They would no longer be able to be controlled. It is only untrained orogenes who have access to this way, and resistance finally comes in the hybrid collaboration between the two methods. And, as we are talking about Feminist Science Fiction here, this collaboration comes about—how else?— through the powerful bonding of women, what Heta Rundgren has called the “entr’elles”.
“A web of silver threads interlacing the land, permeating rock and even the magma just underneath, strung like jewels between forests and fossilized corals and pools of oil.” (The Obelisk Gate, 361)
“Obvious now that there was once a sea here, and a glacier before that, and more. Obvious, too, are the knots of light and fire that comprise the life of the region, scattered through the forest.” (The Obelisk Gate, 365)
“The way of the world isn’t the strong devouring the weak, but the weak deceiving and poisoning and whispering in the ears of the strong until they become weak, too. Then it’s all broken hands and silver threads woven like ropes, and a mother who move the earth to destroy their enemies but cannot save one little boy.
(Girl.)” (The Obelisk Gate, 385)
- “The Ease” – Octavie Butler’s Kindred
Nodes and knots then, are the nexi of magical thinking, of the oscillation between literal and figural, between “real” and “unreal”, although of course the connotation of these words varies massively according to the community at stake. They are also coded for by power, meaning they can be used as instruments as control, just as they can be de-tu(r)ned and used as instruments for resistance, revolt. We might think here of the contrast between the networks of “Fraternity” and the “Entr’elles”.
But before we get too Manichean, there is one more concept that I would like to touch upon: Octavia Butler’s concept of “ease” from her work Kindred. If humans are like rocks, we are shaped by slow ecological forces that condition the very shape of our being, and of how we fit in with other rocks.
An eerie portent of how this evolution plays out in Kindred is offered to readers early in the book as Edana witnesses a group of children playing at a make believe slave auction. She remarks:
“The ease seemed so frightening…. The ease. Us, the children…. I never realized how easily people could be trained to accept slavery.”
I started this paper talking about Feminist Science Fiction—but I’m invoking now an ideological allyship that exists in Butler’s work (as well as Jemisin and others) between Feminist Science Fiction and Afrofuturism, or the reimagining of alternate histories in the future or in this case, in time travel.
Kindred is about memory, the silver threads of memory that connect us to what Spivak would call “ancestral debt.” The main character of Kindred, Edana Franklin, is called back in time to pre Civil-War era Maryland, against her strongest efforts of will. The past is made present to her over and over again, despite her every attempt to refuse and resist it. To the point where her own body—the node of her being—is shaped by it, as we learn in the first few pages that her arm has been crushed and severed in the passages between time.
Over the course of Kindred, Edana is called back several times, and each time has to endure ever greater violence and injustice as she as a black woman in slave era American South. And as she is called back each time, the reader undergoes with her a slow evolution, from play acting to becoming and to being, a slave. In a few short months she becomes a part of this world where ownership, humiliation, rape, sale and brutality of fellow human beings becomes part of what—to cite Heta Rundgren again, calls the “normâle”, the violences coded into our daily acceptances of Reality to such an extent that they hide in plain sight. This process of unreserved acceptance of and blindness to the most unbelievable kinds of violence, this becoming, the not-so-slow evolution of the human-rock into something truly “frightening”, is what Butler refers to as “the Ease.”
- Metaforika Meso (Mode of Transport) – Lily Robert-Foley
I have of course but scratched the surface of the mind-blowing richness of theoretical tools available in works of Feminist Science Fiction, and this work is on-going. I’d like now to present my own project of Science-Fictocritical research, in the indiscipline of Translation Studies.
Translations Studies is unique in that it links together and traverses all scholarly domains. Perhaps a bit like Gender Studies in that way (although I don’t think we need Translation Studies departments like we need Gender Studies departments… perhaps Translation Studies nodes. Translation Master’s programs for example, I believe should consist in a constellation of courses from other disciplines, combined with workshops with professional translators. But I’m off topic again.)
This transversal positioning of an indiscipline—in-between disciplines—codes for strange bedfellows (bedlasses?), both in product and in process. It is this process of course that I have been focusing on today. As I mentioned in the introduction, I hoped to identify some problems I hear in the words “Literature” and “Theory” through this process. We often unwittingly reproduce dominant/dominated hierarchies in our own methods. In this case I’m talking about the one by which we assume a theory—in the sense of “assume” as both to “assume” a mask and to “assume” a presupposition—and apply that Theory onto “Literature.” As though the “truth” of Literature can only be validated in reference to recognized (all too often white, male) theorists.
What I have tried to do in this paper is to invert this dynamic, and use “Literature” to read “Theory.” Specifically in what follows, I would like to use these notions to read Translation Theory, which is my area of expertise, or so the Institution says.
But what so often happens when we think about something with the great privilege of the leisure to throw out all our ideas if we think they’re not quite right, I realized there is also a problem with this word “Literature”— or more specifically “Littérature” in my specific ecology (as a Translation Professor in a French University). Following recent events of which I cannot yet speak openly, I have come to think of the category of “Littérature” as consistently reinforcing the normâle: the blindness and reproduction of systemic, hegemonic forms of violence, and as such as not really a very useful term at all anymore. Instead, perhaps this
category of Littérature could be thought of in terms of strategies, tools or even nodes, for example what I’m calling for now “Prosodical Play” and “Tale-Crafting”, which enable us to think beyond the very problematic Eurocentric category of Littérature, specifically where Littérature is a construed as a written form.
Likewise, Prosodical Play and Tale-Crafting certainly extend to the practice of theory. It is high time we stop dissimulating, and “assume” this, in the French sense, as “own” it (be at “ease” with it). I’m always working on ways to incorporate both Prosodical Play and Tale Crafting into my own (theoretical) work.
And so, the metaforika meso is the name of a 3D printer sent into space after the terrestrial apocalypse, onto whose hard drive 300,000 privileged human souls have been uploaded. The tale begins with first printing. A nameless translator. (She will be named in chapter two, when the second body is printed), discovers her new body, and a neon yellow-green undulating planet floating outside the viewing screen, which the Meso informs her is inhabited with “intelligent” life.
As instructed, our translator sends out, in chronological order, the bibliography of known messages sent to extra-terrestrials from the planet Earth, beginning with the Morse message and ending with a manifesto of deep learning algorithms. After days alone, waiting for the second body to slowly print, out of desperation, she hits the transmission button and says, « Hello! Is anybody out there! ». After a few moments, she receives a response:
As far as the translation of untranslatable extra-terrestrial message is concerned, I’m most interested in mimesis and oraliture, as forms of performative magical meaning making. In other words, that by speaking to others, we perform the world with our bodies, we make it. There is no sense behind the senses, except that these senses are coded with ideologies of power and domination. In other words, the way we choose to translate is directly related to our processes of “Ease.”
Which is why neither I—nor my fictional translator avatar—can translate this message alone. So here I ask for your help. What does this message “mean” (how does it mean)?
 “Yet you cannot think of a Gethenian as « it. » They are not neuters. They are potentials, or integrals. Lacking the Karhidish « human pronoun » used for persons in somer, I must say « he, » for the same reasons as we used the masculine pronoun in referring to a transcendent god: it is less defined, less specific, than the neuter or the feminine. But the very use of the pronoun in my thoughts leads me continually to forget that the Karhider I am with is not a man, but a manwoman.” (49)
 Abraham and Torok cited in Anna Gibbs, “Writing and the Flesh of Others”, Australian Feminist Studies, Vol 18, No 42. 2003, p. 314.
 Heta Rundgren, Vers une théorie du roman postnormâle, Féminisme, réalisme et conflit sexuel chez Doris Lessing, Märta Tikkanen, Stieg Larsson et Virginie Despentes. Thèse soutenue à University Paris 8 and the University of Helsinki. http://www.theses.fr/s114720