Ursula Le Guin & social anthropology

In The Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin (1929-2018) introduces the concept of shifgrethor and that was my introduction to the wonderful, wonderful and rich world of Le Guin’s social anthropology. Shifgrethor is ‘prestige, face, place, the pride-relationship, the untranslatable and all important principle of social authority in Karhide and all civilisations of Gethen’. I suppose, crudely, this is what we use the word ‘honour’ for, but our term is so impoverished, so sterile that the ways in which shifgrethor, modulates and accentuates whilst also facilitating and constraining every interaction, every utterance, is incomprehensible to us. But yet we do understand, to some degree, notions of social hierarchy and layering, the distancing use of language and the aversion of eye gaze to signal surrender or submission.

Then there is the Kemmer, the Gethen version of oestrus, a physiological change unknown to humans. It is an extraordinary physiological concept that has implications for social and sexual behaviour thereby showing, by analogy, how our physiology is directly related to our social and sexual behaviours. In Gethen, gender and potency are not attained in isolation.

A Gethenian in first-phase kemmer, if kept alone or with others not in kemmer, remains incapable of coitus. Yet the sexual impulse is tremendously strong in this phase, controlling the entire personality, subjecting all other drives to its imperative. When the individual finds a partner in kemmer, hormonal secretion is further stimulated (most importantly by touch – secretion? Scent?) until in one partner either a male or female hormonal dominance is established. The genitals engorge or shrink accordingly, foreplay intensifies, and the partner triggered by the change, takes on the other sexual role […]

In this world, sex is determined only temporarily during the kemmer-period and the period lasts 2-5 days. In the event that the individual was in the female role and became pregnant, the individual remains female during pregnancy and lactation, the breasts enlarge and the pelvic girdle widens. On cessation of lactation, the individual re-enters somer and becomes a perfect andrgyne. No physiological habit is established, and this means that the mother of several children can also be the father of several more. The consequence of this is that gender roles as we know them are unknown in Gethen, and ideas of fidelity and monogamy are rare.

In Coming of Age in Karhide, Le Guin further develops the social anthropology that is consequent on the radically different sexual physiology of the Gethenians. It is a story about the first kemmer in a young person, and the experience is described as follows:

I was sick. My back ached all the time. My head ached and got dizzy and heavy. Something I could not locate anywhere, some part of my soul, hurt with a keen, desolate, ceaseless pain. I was afraid of myself: of my tears, my rage, my sickness, my clumsy body. It did not feel like my bodyt, like me. It felt like something else, am ill-fitting garment, a smelly, heavy overcoat that belonged to some old person, some dead person. It wasn’t mine, it wasn’t me […] Anybody could smell me. I smelled sour, strong, like blood, like raw pelts of animals. My clitopenis was swollen hugely and stuck out from between my labia, and then shrank nearly to nothing, so that it hurt to piss. My labia itched and reddened as with loathsome insect-bites. Deep in my belly something moved, some monstrous growth. I was utterly ashamed. I was dying.

This is a description of such power that makes patent for us the effects of the transformation of the human body from childhood to puberty. Le Guin’s gift is to draw this out by exemplifying it in an alien culture, so that we can see the transformation in its enormity and significance. A process that in the human takes years is telescoped into a few days. And now that we are devoid of rituals of initiation into adulthood, everyone must struggle alone to find meaning and transcendence in what is momentous but ultimately social.

The young Gethenian says:

I felt the familiar reassurance of being part of something immensely older and larger than myself., even if it was new and strange to me. I must entrust myself, even if it was strange and new to me. I must entrust myself to it and be what it made me. At the same time I was intensely alert. All my sense were extraordinarily keen, as they had been all morning. I was aware of everything, the beautiful colour of the walls, the lightness and vigour of my steps as I walked, the texture of the wood under my bare feet, the sound and meaning of the ritual words […]

In Le Guin, there is always a nuanced exploration of the contributions of physiology to social anthropology. In City of Illusions, she explores what it would mean for relationships if telepathic communication was the norm. The influence of this on truth telling and on the nature of sexual relationships, and so on. In The Word for World is Forest, she examines the role of touch in communication:

Touch was a main channel of communication among forest people. Among Terrans touch is always likely to imply threat, aggression, and so for them there is nothing between the formal handshake and the sexual caress. All that blank was filled by the Athsheans with varied customs of touch. Caress as signal and reassurance was as essential to them as it is to mother and child or to lover and lover; but its significance was social, not maternal and sexual. It is part of their language. It was therefore patterned, codified, yet infinitely modifiable. “They’re always pawing each other,” some of the colonists sneered, unable to see in these touch-exchanges anything but their own eroticism which, forced to concentrate itself exclusively on sex and then repressed and frustrated, invades and poisons every sensual pleasure, every human response […]

To read Le Guin is to understudy the infinite possibilities of culture, the degree to which what we know and share with others is itself a prison that structures and limits our understanding. Le Guin, in her imaginary world encourages us to, at least ,ponder the magnificent possibilities of culture so that we can see beyond the conventions that we take for truth and certainty. It is a liberating literature of the highest level.

Photos by Jan Oyebode

2 thoughts on “Ursula Le Guin & social anthropology

  1. I have never read the novels of Ursula LeGuin, but I am very familiar with the work of her father, the anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber who was my late cousin’s doctoral supervisor. He studied threatened cultures and she created cultures beyond anything her father could have imagined.

    1. Yes, she relied on both parents- her fathers social anthropology and I think her mother was a linguist. You should dip into her writing if you can. She’s wonderful.

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