Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Travels in Subjectivity: Post(genomic) Humanism in Ursula K. Leguin's 'Changing Planes.'

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Travels in Subjectivity: Post(genomic) Humanism in Ursula K. Leguin's 'Changing Planes.'

Article excerpt

Travel literature conventionally treats the traveler's hegemonic encounter with difference; In her mock travel narrative Ursula LeGuin imagines how the postmodern traveler in a global, biotechnological age might begin to develop a more cosmopolitan understanding of diversity by means of a radical rethinking of Western preconceptions about ontology, self, and subjectivity.

Ursula K. LeGuin has chided science fiction for its "incredibly regressive and unimaginative" engagement with "The Other" ("American" 97) who figures in the stories of "all those Galactic Empires, taken straight from the British Empire of 1880. All those planets [...] conceived of as warring nation-states, or as colonies to be exploited" (98). She calls for a SF that would break its habit of "alienation" and enable itself to "[think] about the future" (100): "If you deny any affinity with another person or kind of person [...] you have fatally impoverished your own reality. You have, in fact, alienated yourself" (99).

LeGuin has repeatedly treated this theme in her own work, most notably perhaps in The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, in which her characters enact exile and return through interplanetary travel. As Frank Dietz points out, "The figure of the expatriate introduces a dynamic factor into the world of the novels that counter acts dystopian dogmatism and stagnation" (107). Shevek, for instance, transformed from a mere "tourist" into one who would "live, and work, in Paradise, instead of merely looking at it from outside" (Dispossessed 126), attempts to reconcile the two poles of his identity--Anarresti and Urrasti--across the seemingly boundless divide of self and Other. In the end, he recognizes that he occupies the places of both, and even if he does not fully succeed in effecting cultural change in either Urras or Anarres, he does at least, as Dietz puts it, "assert the necessity for cultural diversity" (112). LeGuin's later short story cycle, Changing Planes, is explicitly constructed as a mock travelogue that even more overtly meditates upon the ramifications of such configurations of self and Other; this time, the encounters are cast within a specifically postcolonial context which suggests, finally, that contact with The Other in alien worlds demands an encounter with oneself in a rapidly technologizing postmodern world and entails radical rethinking of Western ontological preconceptions.

Dean Duda has noted that the traveler often is figured as a "subject in exile" whose perception is hegemonic because "the events are shifted from the world into the mind of the character." The traveler "visualizes the fragmented nature" of the world and produces "a travel-writing discourse [...] authorized by the consciousness speaking [...] above all to itself" (80) in an attempt to construct a coherent sense of its own identity by casting Othered natives in foreign locales as foils for its own self-understanding. As Kristi Siegel and Toni B. Wulff put it, throughout modernity "travelers have tended to view other cultures through all-seeing, all-knowing 'imperial eyes' and take a 'monarch-of-all-I-survey stance'." Understanding of oneself comes through the belief that one understands The Other, but always paradigmatically in terms of one's own cultural dominance and according to a spectator theory of knowledge which postulates that "to see it all" is to "know it all" (112).

By contrast, Mary Louise Pratt defines "contact zones" as "social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power, such as colonialism, slavery, or their aftermaths" (34). Contact zones "put [...] identities on the line" because they cause an individual to see "the world described with him or her in it" rather than from outside, interpreting it--"no one [is] excluded, and no one [is] safe" (39). Under contemporary conditions of globalization and postcoloniality that place travelers within the contact zone, modernity's model of the traveler-as-subject is problematized. …

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