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Towards Day 4 (Thurs, 9/11): Walking Away?

Anne Dalke's picture

I. coursekeeping
scanning: page #s? images?
afterthoughts from tuesday (re: mary louise pratt? the chainsaw videos?)

By 5 p.m. Fri, 9/12: second 3-pp. essay is due. We would like to re-consider the encounter in the “contact zone” you described in your short posting on Monday, in light of ONE of the three texts we are discussing this week.  In other words, how does LeGuin's, Butler's OR Pratt’s text alter your understanding of your own experience? OR: in what ways might your experience expand or revise our understanding of one of these texts?

By 5 p.m. Mon, 9/15: second short "webby" post, reflecting on the possibility/usefulness/costs of empathy
(this could look back @ LeGuin and Butler's stories--
one refusing empathy, one insisting on it--
Or it could draw on an experience of your own....)
Report back on the "webbing" from last week--how well did this work? useful/restrictive?
Do we know yet how adequate the categories of response are? Do you want to suggest others?

For class on Tuesday:
please read Minnie Bruce Pratt's 1983 essay, “Identity: Skin, Blood, Heart.”
Prepare in the usual way: mark a spot that has "heat" for you, identify the argument,
and come ready to share how this essay intersects with (argues against? confirms? complicates?) what you know experientially. 
This is an essay that has some qualities of 'story' -we can learn from how she uses her life in relation to ideas...

II. two short stories for today:
Ursula LeGuin's The Ones Who Walk Away from Ormelas.
AND Octavia Butler's Bloodchild.

count off into (4?) groups of 3 (or two of 5/6?):
1/2 to work on Leguin, 1/2 on Butler:
talk first:
what sense did you make of your story? where were you stuck?
what puzzles did it offer you? what point does it seem to make...?
then: work together to create a "tableux" that represents this main idea....

perform them--and then discuss:
what is the relation between these two representations?
how do the stories intersect/argue w/ one another?
imagining the impossibility of empathy? or the necessity of it?

Josh's question: where did they walk away to?  our question was about empathy:  why was it crucial that the people in this town feel this way about the child/why was their reaction necessary to keep the town the 'wonderful' place that Le Guin describes?

"The central idea of this psychomyth, the scapegoat", writes Le Guin, "turns up in Dostoyevsky's Brothers Karamazov, and several people have asked me, rather suspiciously, why I gave the credit to William James. The fact is, I haven't been able to re-read Dostoyevsky, much as I loved him, since I was twenty-five, and I'd simply forgotten he used the idea. But when I met it in James's 'The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life,' it was with a shock of recognition."

The quote from William James is: "[I]f the hypothesis were offered us of a world in which ... millions kept permanently happy on the one simple condition that a certain lost soul on the far-off edge of things should lead a life of lonely torture, . . . [would we not] immediately feel, even though an impulse arose within us to clutch at the happiness so offered, how hideous a thing would be its enjoyment when deliberately accepted as the fruit of such a bargain?"

Le Guin hit upon the name of the town on seeing a road sign for Salem, Oregon, in a car mirror. "[… People ask me] 'Where do you get your ideas from, Ms. Le Guin?' From forgetting Dostoyevsky and reading road signs backwards, naturally. Where else?

Years ago, I picked "Bloodchild" to anchor a session on diversity (and recommended it several years before that, to the deans planning the pluralism workshop for first-year students), because I thought it might be a way of getting us beyond the by-now so-predictable menu of race/class/ethnicity/sexual orientation/religion/physical/mental ability, particularly the difference of race, and most particularly the binary of black-white . . . all of which I hoped would be preparatory to looping back to such matters.

In her commentary on The Left Hand of Darkness, "Is Gender Necessary?" Ursula LeGuin talks about science fiction as a heuristic device, a thought-experiment: "The experiment is performed, the question is asked, in the mind . . . . [Science fiction is] simply a way of thinking. One of the essential functions of science fiction is question-asking: a reversal of habitual ways of thinking, metaphors for what our language has no words for as yet, experiments in imagination."

To me, the subject of Butler's experiment in "Bloodchild" looks something like this: because of our lifelong social conditioning, because of some genetic equipment we/I don't understand very well yet (structures built into the unconscious that incline us to take note of difference, to put others into categories that have an ideal, a norm, AND probably to prefer what is the same, familiar, known...) it's hard for us to see clearly both how USEFUL our differences can be to one another--and how bound up those usefulnesses are with the costs/dangers. I thought that re-figuring this dynamic with two alien species (one of which plants eggs inside the bodies of the others, where they grow into worms, then children, and where the host species is, in return, cared for, given a home) might help us break out of the habitual ways of talking about the costs and value of diversity on THIS planet/this campus...

In her "Afterword" to "Bloodchild," Butler calls it

  • a love story between two very different beings
  • a coming-of-age story in which a boy uses disturbing information to make a decision
  • her "pregnant man" story, in which a man becomes pregnant
    --not out of misplaced competition (to show he can do what women do),
    --not because he was forced, not even out of curiosity, but
    --as an act of love and
  • (most importantly for our purposes) as "a story about paying the rent": "about an isolated colony of human beings on an inhabited, extrasolar world . . . [who] have to make some kind of accomodation with their . . . hosts."

I thought the relevant question here is Butler's asking what WE have that we could "trade for a liveable space on a world not our own?" Or, as the August 15, 2003 Chronicle article, "Ten Questions College Officials Should Ask About Diversity," asks, "When will this be my campus, instead of someone else's campus that is trying to be a welcoming place for me?" What does each of us have to do (what do we have to contribute AND what accommodations do we have to make) to make this planet--that is, this campus--our own home, our liveable space?