9A Monist Proposal

An essay extrapolating Ursula Le Guin’s utopia/distopia philosophy into modern social structures.


The science fiction novel The Dispossessed, by Ursula Le Guin, outlines an alternate universe populated by societies foreign to those on Earth; yet, despite its fictional nature, the universe in The Dispossessed is very much grounded in reality. Urras and Anarres, the two worlds in the novel, host several distinctly similar societies, which, with different results, prescribe a dynamic, homogenous group identity founded on a set of particular, valued attributes. Le Guin writes The Dispossessed under the assertion that the political task of the individual is to criticize the workings of institutions, particularly those that present themselves to be independent, neutral organizations – a world where continuous social evaluation and improvement occur would be a utopic one. Similar to how scientists propose theories in attempts to make sense of the world they live in, Le Guin uses fundamental theories of physics as metaphors for the structures at play in societies. By analyzing the different forces at work in societies, specific structures can be highlighted as barriers to change and others as indicators of the impossibility of utopia. The law of conservation of mass and energy and the concept of inertia are lenses to expose the rigidity of cultural structures; Shevek’s personal General Temporal Theory operates as a potential foil to such inelasticity.

One particular physics concept prevalent in The Dispossessed is the law of the conservation of mass and energy. Stating that matter and energy cannot be destroyed in a universe, the law posits that nothing can truly be novel since everything is an amalgamation of what existed previously – the creation of the future, therefore, is nothing more than a distinct combination of aspects of the past. The nature of change mirrors that of conservation: change is a conjugation of the past. At the beginning of the novel’s timeline, Shevek considers Anarres to be a utopia; by understanding Urras as the ruins from which Anarres was built, the similarities between the two worlds become apparent. Shevek reaches a conclusion that, due to its attachment to what it tried to escape, the utopia on Anarres is an ambiguous one.

Despite being founded on an entirely new planet, Anarres is ultimately tied to its original history with Urras. Anarres was erected on the foundational value of individual agency and is, for the most part, realized in the ethics of Anarresti’s anarcho-syndicate society. The method in which its governing logic developed raises concerns about Anarres’s declaration as a new utopian society – Odo aimed to oppose the structures on Urras. The causal association between the past on Urras and the Odonian ethics that established Anarres emphasizes the pervasiveness of structures. Such is the shortcoming of a linear model of time: change is restricted to be a response to aspects of the past. The relativity of the future and the past is one of the main inhibitors of change.

Language is an additional barrier of change as it constructs an enclosed method in which individuals think. From a linguistic perspective, the differences in the grammar of the dialects on Urras and Anarres are extensions of the value structure of each. Analyzing the use of prepositions in the two dialects of Urras and Anarres, it becomes apparent that language is more than merely a method of communicating. The central difference between the two dialects is that the language of Pravic from Anarres removes the grammar for designating ownership. Shevek points out that such a move was necessary to ensure the effective implementation of the usufruct underpinnings of Odonian society. A-Io’s language, Iotic, conversely gives singular personal pronouns precedent. Ultimately, the value structure embodied in languages diffuses into its speakers. While Pravic “frees” the Odonians from the adherence to private property that Iotic suffers, it also restricts them in terms of mental processing. The modern example of gender pronouns reinforces how speakers of a language are bound by the scope of vocabulary and grammar their tongue enables. If one cannot process a concept within the confines of their language, the idea fails to materialize. The difficulty for individuals to generate ideas that are outside of their existing language structure inhibits the creation of new logics and influences its speakers’ perspective.

Change is dependent upon the identification of issues; the ability of language to manipulate appearances is another social factor that obstructs potential critique. A scarcity of resources on Anarres eventually leads to the creation of the Product and Coordination Distribution (PDC), a computer that dictates the allocation of labor and natural resources. Albeit more docile, the emergence of the PDC in an anarchist society can be seen as a remnant of corporate governance from Urras. In order for a society existentially in opposition to oppressive organizations to accept the PCD, the language used in the discourse of labor must furnish an air of voluntarity, coercing individuals to accept their part. Individuals consequently acquire a disillusioned impression of égalité, which excuses the presence of the PCD. Implemented by using the same term to explain “play” and “work,” the removal of linguistic distinction results in the disassociation of the concepts – Anarresti work is seen as enjoyable rather than suppressive. Their language controls the minds of society and the propensity to; political inertia enables maintenance of structural stagnation.

Social systems are existentially vulnerable structures that seek to bolster their power and rigidity. The capitalism found in A-Io can only function if participants adopt its tenets of profit; thus, its institutions exploit their ability to regulate knowledge as a method for controlling the world view held by its participants. In The Dispossessed, knowledge is depicted in two different lights: a commodity and a process. The former is the case with Urras; exercising their power, the government in A-Io molds education in Confucian terms to limit ideas that would threaten its reign. Imperial China’s adoration with Confucianism reached a peak where social status was assigned according to how well one exhibited mastery of Confucian principles. Knowledge creation died as rote internalization of the Master’s teachings became one’s social responsibility. The education system in A-Io predicates that students are blank “molds” to be filled by “enlightened” teachers. Young generations ultimately become experts in practicing the logic of the dominant institutions; schools are reduced to a locus of institutional control. Shevek’s astonishment with the Urrasti’s blindness towards their imprisonment by capitalist logic highlights how effective strategic arrangements of pedagogy are at preventing change; it becomes apparent that complete change is difficult to achieve when one seeks to advance a future of society without thoroughly criticizing all forms of the political that exercise their power within the current society.

The malleability of existing structures directly correlates to the level of permeance institutions have in society; institutional power can be modeled resembling momentum. The concept of knowledge as a derivative creates a class struggle where those who procure knowledge have higher social valuations. The Urrasti education system perpetuates said class divide; government-assigned teachings legitimize the superiority of the privileged and justify the mistreatment of the “other” under the guise of helping them. Anarres’s teaching structure operates under the assumption that teachers and students are equals that both parties can learn from the other. Shevek’s early intellectual growth can be attributed to the Anarresti freeform concept of learning; however, he unavoidably hits a wall – even with lax education systems, the vehicle that mobilizes discourse is ultimately constricting. As the values of institutions in power are adopted, social responsibility morphs to conform; the premise that societies’ goal is to ensure the freedom of the individual is reversed.

Although conservation, language and institutional momentum limit agency for change, possibly the most significant suppressor is the discourse of social responsibility. As certain institutions gain influence and power, they inherit the ability to judge social discourse: actions are then labeled as either “acceptable” or “unacceptable” in relation to the governing logic of the organization. The social pressure to conform with the dominant logic creates a schism that splits freedom and social responsibility; the internal conflict of which is more important leads to a debate of allegiance and morals. On Urras, social solidarity is forcibly achieved through the threat of punishment and alienation. Shevek experiences the consequence of failing to conform when the Urrasti military violently end his, something he states would never happen on Anarres. A notable episode in the novel accentuates the conflicts that emerge amongst freedom and social responsibility: Shevek learns about a train driver whose shipment of food was ambushed by a mob of famished villagers – in order for the driver to complete his route, he kills several villagers. Even without a formal mode of punishment like the prisons of Urras, the logic of the PDC introduces a binding sense of duty that trumps individual autonomy. Le Guin reaches the verdict that change and the synergy of freedom and social responsibility are linked.

The concept of complementarity establishes the supremacy in combining two different concepts rather than keeping them separate. Le Guin crafts Shevek to use the complementarity as a potential solution to societies oppressed by dominant institutions; the coexistence of freedom and social responsibility lies in contracts. He claims,

To break a promise is to deny the reality of the past; therefore it is to deny the hope of a real future. If time and reason are functions of each other, if we are creatures of time, then we had better know it, and try to make the best of it. To act responsibly.

Contracts are, by definition, outlined with the fundamental acknowledgment of expiry. The connection Shevek draws between time and promises is the foundation for his General Temporal Theory. The General Temporal Theory that Shevek finalizes is noteworthy in the sense that it is unifying and all-encompassing: the belief that all time is the combination of sequential linearity and simultaneous ambiguity makes “cause and effect [mix] together.” Once time is understood as boundless, teleology no longer mires progress.

Forming new methods of logic combat the restrictions of governing dynamics – Shevek’s General Temporal Theory does precisely that. With the cultural superstructures of power limiting the accessibility of social critique, the theory opens new possibilities in how actions are perceived. With the pretext of complementarity, what Shevek describes as a “constant revolution” is achievable. As one can bridge the space between freedom and social responsibility, there arises a monist relationship in which exercising freedom is a social responsibility just as much as social responsibility performs freedom. The symbiotic relationship draws the utility of the concept that existence precedes essence: individuals must create their worth in the world. In that sense, the Urrasti belief that students are blank canvasses is valid; at birth, one is presented with a medium in which they are responsible for imprinting their purpose.

The claim The Dispossessed introduces regarding the requirements for a society to be utopic is reflected in the attitude Shevek holds on the language of Pravic: “speech is sharing – a cooperative art.” Presented with institutional structures that inhibit change, the method to counter such a force is to rewrite the nature of its existence. With the complementarity of freedom and social responsibility driving collective personal and political activism, a fluid perspective on existence enables sustainable change to take place. Le Guin’s monist ideology proposes that the oneness of the universe releases the potential for a state of continuous insurgency; the complementarities of freedom and social responsibility and sequence and simultaneous attack the fundamentally time-bound concepts of conservation and momentum that inhibit change in systems.
(Works Cited)

Analytical Essay / 2019
Written for Professor Robert Wosnitzer, Commerce and Culture