I’m reading Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Dispossessed and am fascinated by the portrait of the three societies in the novel. An interesting side note is that my copy of the book doesn’t have the subtitle (An Ambiguous Utopia) on the cover. In fact, I only realized it had a subtitle when I looked for a link to put into this post. The subtitle only appears on the cover page inside the book in my copy. Not sure what to make of that.
I’m only about halfway through the book but there are so many interesting bits to the novel that I think are representations of our lives today, even though LeGuin wrote the novel in 1974. The protagonist is Shevek, a native of Anarres, a planet colonized by revolutionaries who live by the principles of anarcho-syndicalism which views workers’ self-management as the means for achieving freedom. For much of the novel, Shevek is visiting the planet Urras, which has two rival superpowers. One is a hyper-capitalist state and the other is a socialist state ruled by an authoritarian. While on Urras, Shevek takes a teaching position in the hyper-capitalist part of the planet. LeGuin is masterful at showing the ways in which the political philosophies of the various characters’ native states play out in their behavior and ways of thinking about the world.
In particular, the following passage about Shevek’s teaching jumped out at me:
He was appalled by the examination system, when it was explained to him: he could not imagine a greater deterrent to the natural wish to learn than this pattern of cramming in information and disgorging it at demand. At first he refused to give any tests or grades, but this upset the University administrators so badly that, not wishing to be discourteous to his hosts, he gave in. He asked his students to write a paper on any problems in physics that interested them , and told them that he would them all the highest mark, so that the bureaucrats would have something to write on their forms and lists. To his surprise a good many students came to him to complain. They wanted him to set the problems, to ask the right questions; they did not want to think about questions, but to write down the answers they had learned. And some of them objected strongly to his giving everyone the same mark. How could the diligent students be distinguished from the dull ones? What was the good in working hard? If no competitive distinctions were to be made, one might as well do nothing.
“Well, of course,” Shevek said, troubled, “If you do not want to the work, you should not do it.” (pp 127-8 in the Harper Voyager edition)
I don’t have any profound thoughts about this other than to recommend the novel. It’s so interesting that the novel points out the many ways in which capitalism has infiltrated every aspect of our own society and to think about how things might be different.
I am currently Professor of Digital Media at Plymouth State University in Plymouth, NH. I am also the current Coordinator of General Education at the University. I am interested in game studies, digital literacies, open pedagogies, and generally how technology impacts our culture.