Oral Presentation Session
Reviewed by: Society for Cultural Anthropology
Of interest to: Practicing and Applied Anthropologists, Teachers of Anthropology in Community Colleges, Students, Those Involved in Mentoring Activities
Primary Theme: Ethics
Secondary Theme: Identity and Equity
American novelist Ursula Kroeber Le Guin (1929-2018) was a wonderful ambassador for the discipline of Anthropology. As the daughter of Alfred L. Kroeber, she grew up around anthropologists and people whose cultures they studied. Although Le Guin herself was not an ethnographer, her literary work was informed by the best traditions of a four-field approach based on mutual respect and understanding. For her, those moral imperatives were not disciplinary abstractions, but provocations to examine histories of colonization and dispossession, and imagine alternate worlds in which human dignity and cultural resilience were not only possible, but normal. This panel takes as its inspiration the life and work of Ursula Kroeber Le Guin as the catalyst for examining themes of resistance, resilience, and adaptation, both in the global system, and in our own disciplinary practice.
We see Le Guin as a model for humanistic and engaged anthropology, because she brought anthropological approaches and ethical principles into her writing. With her speculative fiction, she entered into truly provocative debates about race, culture, gender, sexuality, capitalism, ecology, and social justice. A fundamental aspect of her work was that it extolled the virtues of engagement with everyday lives, and with indigenous and feminine visions of being-in-the-world. Le Guin is celebrated for pushing the boundaries of science fiction fantasy with quasi-ethnographic sensibilities that challenged the ethnocentric, androcentric and anthropocentric assumptions of the genre for over fifty years. She was named a Grand Master of Science Fiction, and became one of the very rare speculative fiction writers to be a recipient of the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. She has influenced many significant writers, and has arguably had as much impact in bringing core anthropological insights into the public sphere as any academic of her generation. We seek to situate and recognize her legacy at the interdisciplinary margins of our intellectual history, and nurture the possibilities embodied in her vision of alternate futures.
We also see Le Guin as a model for anthropological writing animated by emancipatory practices of listening and oral tradition. These papers critically explore her work in relation to contemporary contexts, with guarded optimism for change toward social justice. Story titles include descriptors such as “dispossession”, “darkness”, “illusion”, and “exile” suggesting comparison to the conditions of uncertainty and vulnerability we know today. In 2014, Le Guin spoke of the importance of writers as “people who can remember freedom”. She said, “I think hard times are coming, when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies, to other ways of being. And even imagine some real grounds for hope”. As the politics of hope has given way to a climate of divisiveness, intolerance and suspicion, this admonition to remember freedom is a form of resistance and a grounds for speaking truth to power, which also assures the relevance of anthropology in ethical and respectful futures for all peoples.