In memory of Ursula Le Guin, this is an essay I wrote some time ago for the collection The New Utopian Politics of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossesed, edited by Laurence Davis and Peter Stillman, and to which Le Guin herself contributed and Afterword. Below is an excerpt. The entire document is here: pages-from-le-guin-bk-as-pub-1
The Alien Comes Home: Getting Past the Twin Planets of Possession and Austerity in Le Guin’s The Dispossessed
The Dispossessed is an “ambiguous Utopia” with an ambiguous title. Its ambiguity hinges around possession as ownership and dispossession as deprivation, on the one hand, and possession as bewitchment and dispossession as liberation on the other. In terms of political philosophy, the novel’s title suggests an engagement with the Marxian themes and theories of commodity fetishism and alienation. In more contemporary terms it suggests a kinship with critical accounts of consumerism from Lefebvre and Debord in the 1960s to Klein’s No Logo and the anticonsumerist movement of today; a critique whose essence is captured in aphoristic form by Fight Club’s Tyler Durden: “The things you own, end up owning you.”
Le Guin’s novel articulates these themes by shuttling back and forth between the novel’s two worlds—the “possessed” Urras and the “dispossessed” Anarres—and weaving a network that both articulates and calls into question the apparent dualisms of possession and dispossession. From Urras the Anarresti appear as impoverished Utopians self-exiled on a barren world, while from the anarchist planet its nonidentical twin appears rich in material resources inequitably distributed and squandered on frivolous display. Critically, the novel’s protagonist,
Shevek, experiences these ambivalences and oppositions not so much through “raw” political philosophy or ideological discourse, but in his material and experiential encounters with objects, architectures, design, and aesthetics—the “glass and steel” buildings of Urras, the “erotic” furniture of the spaceship, the shop windows on the “street of nightmares,” Vea’s clothing, and Takver’s mobiles. This is more than a tangent to the novel’s politics, though; the concern with how objects and architectures are designed, manufactured, distributed, and experienced is a recurrent feature of radical and Utopian thought and social practice.
The English socialist and pioneer of “design reform,” William Morris, drew upon a romanticized interpretation of the medieval period, and the writings of Marx, to develop a critique of nineteenth-century industrialization and the design standards of its products. In response Morris not only produced his own work of Utopian fiction—News from Nowhere—but his own designs for furniture, buildings, wallpaper, and typography as a largely rhetorical counterdiscourse to the practice of the division of labor and the aesthetic aberrations of the Victorian era.
The conditions in the newly formed USSR generated a similar confluence of Utopian thought and radical design practice. In the midst of the political and economic crises of the 1920s, the Bolshevik leadership actively supported the establishment of new design schools operating along avant-garde lines, and within this fertile environment figures such as Moisei Ginzburg and Alexander Rodchenko produced architectures and objects intended not merely to represent the values of a communist Utopia, but to generate the conditions in which it could be actively realized.
Contemporary to the publication of The Dispossessed was the work of 1960s and 1970s radical design groups such as Utopie in France and Superstudio in Italy. These groups were politically informed by a revived reading of the early Marx and the theories of alienation and commodity-fetishism, ideas which had assumed increasing relevance in postwar “consumer society.” Seeking a historical path from this “consumer society,” and acknowledging the culpability of their own profession in its creation, these groups developed Utopian architectural and design projects in which alienation could be transcended through a reshaping of the material world.
This nexus of Utopian thought and critical design practice also encompasses another feature of Le Guin’s novel: the mobilization of science-fiction discourse as radical imagining of future possibility. In Soviet Constructivism, for example, rhetorically “modern” materials—steel, concrete, and plate glass—were employed to suggest transport to the new socialist Utopia of the future and departure from the old feudal and preindustrial world of Tsarist Russia. The geometries of circles, squares, triangles, and helixes into which these materials were formed also suggested a futuristic and cosmic dimension: in Of Two Squares the Constructivist El Lissitzky used prototypically modernist graphic design to narrate the arrival of the “pure” geometry of the square to earth from space and its transformation of the terrestrial world.
Radical design groups of the 1960s and 1970s also recruited the imagery and language of science fiction to their projects. The inflatable structures of the Utopie group suggested some escape from the pull of the Earth’s gravity and the weight of its “materialism,” while the English Archigram and Italian Superstudio groups appropriated science fiction comic imagery and photos of manned space flight in their graphics and manifesto-like publications to promote their futuristic and Utopian connotations. Meanwhile, in France, the Situationists “de-tourned” Barbarella-like comic strips so that its heroes and villains spouted revolutionary critique from their speech bubbles.
So The Dispossessed can be situated in the context of a social, political, and cultural “moment” in which the themes and concerns of alienation, consumerism, and science fiction converged in a critical fashion. In particular, Le Guin’s exploration of the role and place of aesthetics in Utopian discourse, and the possibilities this suggests for transcending the often ascetic and austere positions of these alternatives to consumerism, are worth considering.