ON MULTIPLICITY AND RECIPROCITY
To oppose something is to maintain it. (Ursula K. Le Guin 153)
The self is the One who is not dominated . . . the other is the one who holds the future. . . . To be One is to be autonomous, to be powerful, to be God; but to be One is an illusion. . . . Yet to be other is to be multiple, without clear boundary, frayed, insubstantial. (Donna J. Haraway 177)
In the previous chapter I explained the need for feminists to assert those qualities that deem them inferior to man in order to reverse the system of binary oppositions that leads to their oppression. I provided through works of literature examples of characters whose existence on the margins of dominant culture enabled them to utilize their Otherness in order to secure their success. I saw in this reversal a phase by which the oppressed can re-inscribe positive connotations to those feminine attributes that lead to their oppression on the accounts of their being less favorable than their masculine counterparts. Thus Robin, Grace and Tayo were each able to resist the negative implications of their irrationality and to use it to retain their freedom.
In this chapter I will suggest that this mere reversal should not be an end in and of itself but should be supplemented by this third phase in which both sides of the binary are to be valued and incorporated in the struggle to end the oppression of women and all Others. I explain the limitations set by restricting our position to that outlined in chapter two and the necessity of moving beyond a mere reversal of the system of binary oppositions in order not to fall prey to incorporating this same system against which the opening quote by Le Guin warns us.
Elevating one binary over the next works temporarily in order to give rise to the subdued elements that shape women. So irrationality, madness, intuition, etc., are descriptions assigned to women and implanted with negative connotations, thus causing the category woman to take on negative implications. But when women succeed in portraying the positive meanings of these descriptions they succeed in giving a positive meaning to the category woman. So Djuna Barnes demonstrates that Robin’s closeness to nature enabled her to escape society’s forced inscriptions of her as mother and wife, Margaret Atwood demonstrates that Grace’s alleged insanity can indeed be a favorable thing when it allows Grace to reduce her prison sentence, and Leslie Marmon Silko demonstrates that Tayo’s reluctance to believe in the rational world and his connections with the mythical world of his people helped him overcome the effects of war.
We should not, however, remain fixed in this newly constructed hierarchy, but seek forever to displace it. Trinh T. Minh-ha argues for this point when she writes:
A woman’s room, despite its new seductive paneling, can become a prison as soon as it takes on the appearance of a lady’s room (masculine notion of femininity) or a female’s room (male’s alter ego). The danger in going “the woman’s way” is precisely that we may stop midway and limit ourselves to a series of reactions instead of walking on, we are content with opposing woman(‘s emotion) to man(‘s abstraction), personal experience and anecdote to impersonal invention and theory. (29)
Women’s intuition, for example, may be devalued in a scientific, patriarchal world, leading them to denounce it. But to reverse this valuation by claiming women’s intuition as the more valuable term would only mean forcing women to denounce their non-intuitive, or scientific abilities.
Reversal of the hierarchal binary is a necessary step, but it is a step that needs to be constantly re-worked so that it is not allowed to freeze in one position. Referring to the binary system as the 1/0 code that defines Man with presence and Woman with lack Ariel Salleh reminds us:
The trouble is that powerful codes like the 1/0 code become embedded in language and trap people’s thinking in a seemingly changeless reality. By contrast, if we reason dialectically, we can open out the multiple potentials contained in our condition. . . . To argue dialectically is like unwinding a chain that has become twisted over time. The first move in deconstructing an ideology is reversal, bringing into view the suppressed potentials of de-valued Others. But the recursive moment is never complete, because as we move out with it, new historical forces come into play around us. (37-38)
Thus reversing the 1/0 code works well as a beginning, but we must pay attention not to allow this reversal to become itself “embedded in language” leading to its perception as a “changeless reality.”
Earlier in this dissertation I’ve explained the dangers inflicted by these “changeless realties” or by the idea of fixed definitions. In some feminists’ insistence on defining who they are and what their experiences are they might incorporate those same patriarchal views that result in their subjugation. In defining what constitutes women’s experience, feminists might draw a line that excludes those whose experiences differ from theirs, constructing their own binary oppositions between those experiences that count as women’s and those that do not. Haraway echoes Toni Morrison when she argues that the term feminism itself becomes problematic when it becomes fixed:
It has become difficult to name one’s feminism by a single adjective—or even to insist in every circumstance upon the noun. Consciousness of exclusion through naming is acute. Identities seem contradictory, partial, and strategic. . . . There is nothing about being ‘female’ that naturally binds women. . . . Gender, race, or class consciousness is an achievement forced on us by the terrible historical experience of the contradictory social realities of patriarchy, colonialism, and capitalism. (155)
To shift away from the limitations of incorporating the binary system that subjugates women, attention has to be paid to the variety of factors that constitute women’s lives. If defining results in closing doors against those who do not conform with our definitions then we need to move away from such definitions and try to find a way of explaining woman’s identity that does not limit it to a set of characteristics and attributes which result inevitably in constructing fixed identities and closing doors.
By looking into what constitutes identities we are alert to the multiple factors that shape this identity. One’s identity is not limited to one’s gender, race, class, etc., but is rather constructed by a network of these and other factors. Identity is not fixed, and thus our analysis of it should not be fixed. By a mere reversal of the system of binaries we will force this newly found identity into its own rigid position, not allowing it to change or accept change, and not seeing that there are other factors to it that are just as constitutive of making this identity. We must aim at analyzing identities as a complex formation that escapes the binary system of representation.
Just as the oppressive forces that subjugate women are multiple, the forces that shape women’s identities are also multiple. Michel Foucault reminds us that power forces are multiple (92); therefore, we have to insist on asserting that identity itself is multiple, which enables us therefore to resist those power relations from the multiple positions from which they are exerted. This is what Drucilla K. Barker argues against when she writes,
although they may be no essential quality—biological, social, or cultural—that women share, one that binds them together in common cause, this realization does not preclude the establishment of historical, contingent, and variable connections. Moreover, the rejection of fixed, essential qualities is necessary in order to theorize adequately the multiplicity of relations of oppression. (85)
To be able to resist these oppressive power relations we have to insist on seeing our own identities as constitutive of many forces.
Nancy Fraser and Linda J. Nicholson explain how our identities come to be constructed in this multiple way since what holds society together is a multiplicity of structures and not a unified system, adding that:
the social bond is a weave of crisscrossing threads of discursive practices, no single one of which runs continuously throughout the whole. Individuals are the nodes or posts where such practices intersect, and so, they participate in many practices simultaneously. It follows that social identities are complex and heterogeneous. (24)
And since our identities are “complex and heterogeneous,” it also follows that any theory we might envision needs to be also complex and heterogeneous.
In our attempt to formulate our feminist theories we have to remember always that they are indeed theories and not just one theory. Any unified feminist theory will necessarily be a contradiction to the feminist struggle, if by unified we mean bearing one definition and existing through one practice. Jane Flax explains:
Any feminist standpoint will necessarily be partial. Thinking about women may illuminate some aspects of a society that have been previously suppressed within the dominant view. But none of us can speak for “women” because no such person exists except within a specific set of (already gendered) relations—to “man” and to many concrete and different women. (56)
Since women’s identities are multiple, any theory that seeks to liberate women should itself be multiple, allowing women to find places within these multiple factors from which to practice this theory. Therefore, the second phase of my dissertation, which sees the need to reverse the system of binary oppositions, is one such place where women can fight their oppression, but it is not the only place for a feminist struggle to exist. Reversing the binary is a phase that still believes in the existence of this binary, if only temporarily, and if only for the sake of disrupting it.
Instead of the binary system that is used by Western metaphysics to describe the world, I introduce the view suggested by feminists that sees multiplicity in the place of binaries and reciprocity in the place of hierarchy. I will present two arguments that question this system of binary oppositions. The first one will be Donna Haraway’s theory of situated knowledges which posits that since our positions are shifting, and since what we have is always situated knowledges, we cannot exist completely on either side of the binary but are rather multiple in our positions. The second argument is that presented by ecofeminists such as Ariel Salleh who argue that the proof to the fictionality of the binary system is found in nature and it is through our interaction with nature that we can escape the limitations of the system.
To demonstrate these theories I will be referring to three different works of fiction that depict the advantages of multiplicity and reciprocity. I use Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness as an example of a feminist science fiction which looks at western dualities and at the restrictions imposed by a system that insists on viewing opposition always in place of difference. Gerald Vizenor’s Dead Voices is used to portray a Native American system of thought that through the character of the trickster shows its refusal to accept the division between human and nature. Manuel Puig’s novel Kiss of the Spider Woman is a work that defies the fixed definitions and rigid borders of the dual system of thought as it presents, in form as well as in content, a critique of a system that can only tolerate sameness and that sees difference only as opposition. That the three works vary in their style and focus only goes to enhance this phase that argues for a view in which multiple and reciprocal frameworks are encouraged and one that sees strength in difference.
Haraway writes, “I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess,” finding in the cyborg a better image for feminists to associate with than that of the goddess (181). The image of the goddess requires elevating those attributes of women that were unvalued and making these the better values. Yet this position still works with a unitary definition of women, while the image of the cyborg allows a multiplicity within femininity.1 This multiplicity in one’s identity is what enables one to possess a multiplicity of points of view, or what comes to be termed as “situated knowledges” in Haraway’s writing.
A multiple identity is one that is constructed by a variety of factors, none of which weighs totally in this construction, and none of which offer a complete structure for which this identity comes to be formed. Thus for example, my gender influences how my identity is formed but it is neither the only decisive factor, nor is it a concrete and fixed factor that escapes the influence of other factors such as race, class, etc. At times my gendered identity clashes with my racial one and it is through these clashes that identity is further developed and formed, resulting in what Lacan calls the split subject or what R. D. Laing calls the schizoid.
Yet this splitting of the subject is not to be viewed negatively but is rather a beneficial split that enables one to exist on many playing fields and to maneuver between these fields. That identity is split suggests that it is not fixed in one place and that it does not perceive things from this one place. Haraway explains the benefits of the split subject in the following lines:
The split and contradictory self is the one who can interrogate positionings and be accountable. . . . Splitting, not being, is the privileged image for feminist epistemologies of scientific knowledge. . . . The knowing self is partial in all its guises, never finished, whole, simply there and original; it is always constructed and stitched together imperfectly, and therefore able to join with another, to see together without claiming to be another. Here is the promise of objectivity: a scientific knower seeks the subject position not of identity, but of objectivity; that is, partial connection. (193)
A multiple or split subjectivity does not offer the humanist notion of objective knowledge, an objectivity that has been proven to be false, but rather a situated knowledge that realizes its own subjectivity, and its own partiality. Knowledge, as a result, becomes even more inclusive, and more aware than its humanist counterpart because it realizes its own situated-ness.
Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness is a work of science fiction about Genly Ai’s mission to convince the people of Winter/Gethen, a planet of androgens, to enter the League that constitutes Earth and other planets. Similar to Earth in many ways, Winter differs slightly in its inhabitants who are both male and female, or neither male nor female, according to whether you define sex by presence or by lack. One critic, Mona Fayad, defines them with presence, finding in presence a more favorable trait than lack:
the androgynes are characterized by neither masculine nor feminine traits, but by both at the same time (unless in kemmer). Their identity is defined, therefore, by the constant presence of both, rather than by the absence of one trait or the other. (69)
But by elevating presence above lack, Fayad seems to forget one of the main arguments of the novel: that it is the intertwined unity of lack and presence that makes people. It is not a matter of either presence or lack, but rather of presence and lack, of the unity of the two. Presence is not valued in the novel any more than lack is devalued.
As a male representative from a planet in which sexual difference all but figures in every aspect of life, Genly finds it difficult to regard the Gethenians as sex-less, but insists throughout his telling of his mission—and the story here is told from Genly’s perspective some time after the events actually happened—on attributing masculine and/or feminine characteristics to the Gethenians:
Though I had been nearly two years on Winter I was still far from being able to see the people of the planet through their own eyes. I tried to, but my efforts took the form of self-consciously seeing a Gethenian first as a man, then as a woman, forcing him into those categories so irrelevant to his nature and so essential to my own. (12)
Like the critic Fayad, Genly, in the beginning, finds some difficulty in seeing the inhabitants as both male and female, finding in this separation an essential quality for his assessment of people. He fails to see the existence of both male and female in the Gethenians, just like Fayad fails to see presence and lack as both constitutive of their identity.
After all, the Gethenian’s thought-system is governed by the Handdara, a religion-like belief whose main goal is “to weave dualities together into unities” (Willis 40). Similarly, Genly reminds us that the Ekumen (the name of the unity that makes Earth and the other planets) is defined by this weaving together of dualities. “It is an attempt,” Genly says, “to reunify the mystical and the political, and as such is of course mostly a failure; but its failure has done more good for humanity so far than the successes of its predecessors” (137). Thus the Ekumen, similar here to the Handdara, is based on providing unities between dualities, hence the unity between mystical and political, and between failure and success.
“Consider,” the novel tells us:
There is no division of humanity into strong and weak halves, protective/protected, dominant/submissive, owner/chattel, active/passive. In fact the whole tendency to dualism that pervades human thinking may be found to be lessened, or changed, on Winter. (94)
Sexual dualities are non-existent in Winter because the people are not divided into two sexes, but are rather the unity of two sexes. This unity of dualities is evident throughout the novel in the constant reference to the intersection of light into darkness, and darkness into light:
The structural interdependence of darkness and light also goes beyond the novel’s title. Even the nation linked with one depends on having a bit of the other. The Karhidish Foretellers go into a state of darkness during their ritual, but the spokesman is bathed in light when he speaks their answer. Conversely, the illuminated public life of Orgoreyn relies for its existence on the country’s
gloomy secret side, the prison camp. (Peel 455)
It is the unity of darkness and light, and their interdependence, that marks the politics that Le Guin presents in her novel.
Genly himself is made aware, through his interaction with Estraven, of the advantages of perceiving Estraven not as man or woman, but rather as both. It is only, finally, through this realization that Estraven is both man and woman that Genly is able to appreciate the difference that exists between him and Estraven after insisting through the course of the novel on seeing only their similarities. “But it was from the difference between us,” Genly explains, “not from the affinities and likenesses, but from the difference, that that love came: and it was itself the bridge, the only bridge, across what divided us” (248-49). Through her presentation of the androgynes as constituted by both masculine and feminine attributes, Le Guin alerts us to the masculine and feminine attributes that constitute humans. In the introduction to the novel, she defends her use of the androgynes as such:
Yes, indeed the people in it are androgynous, but that doesn’t mean that I’m predicting that in a millennium or so we will all be androgynous, or announcing that I think we damned well ought to be androgynous. I’m merely observing in the peculiar, devious, and thought-experimental manner proper to science fiction, that if you look at us at certain odd times of day in certain weathers, we already are. I am not predicting, or prescribing. I am describing. I am describing certain aspects of psychological reality in the novelists’ way, which is by inventing elaborately circumstantial lies. (n. p.)
To assist him in his life on this new planet, Genly is provided with a sort of cultural attaché who can guide him into the events that happen around him. Genly’s narration, therefore, is shaped by the information given him by Estraven. Not only that, but the whole novel is made up of chapters that are told by a variety of people, Gethenians and others. As early as the first pages of the novel, Genly reminds us of this multiplicity of voices that tell us the story:
The story is not all mine, nor told by me alone. Indeed I am not sure whose story it is; you can judge better. But it is all one, and if at moments the facts seem to alter with an altered voice, why then you can choose the fact you like best; yet none of them are false, and it is all one story. (2)
Here is an awareness of the existence of multiple knowledges and multiple points of view. That there is more than one version of the story does not mean that only one version has to be right, only that who tells the story influences how the story is told.
Through Estraven, Le Guin demonstrates the benefits of Haraway’s situated knowledges when she presents him, and most other Gethenians, as holders of partial truths. As readers of the novel, we are alert to Estraven’s partial knowledge and to the possibilities that this partial knowledge open up for him:
Estraven is one of the few Gethenians who are not only physically androgynous but also imaginatively androgynous; he has “woven together” the supposedly masculine traits—activity, knowledge, and reason—with supposedly feminine counterpart—passivity, ignorance, and intuition. (Willis 40)
Estraven’s escape from Karhide after being declared a traitor, and his life in Orgota, an enemy state, are enabled by this partiality of his knowledge. And later on it is this partiality that assisted him in smuggling Genly out of the Orgotan prison, across the snowy mountains, and back to the safety of Karhide.
When after presenting his plan for Genly, Estraven is asked whether he is sure of their ability to cross the Ice Estraven merely answers, “I think that we might make it” (202). And throughout the journey when Genly wonders aloud about their time and about whether or not they will be able to make it to their destination as planned, Estraven responds, “With luck we shall make it, and without luck we shall not,” never claiming to be sure of their eventual success in their journey, nor of his doubt as to this success (257). It is Estraven’s ability to forego this needed certainty—needed by Genly, an Earthling—and to accept the uncertainty of their mission that enables him as well as Genly to overcome the frustrations that face them in their crossing of the Ice.
Le Guin also populates this novel with a variety of other characters whose ignorance and partial knowledge makes them a more favorable character than the rest of the Gethenians. She introduces us to the Foretellers, whose knowledge comes from their partial knowledge. Not only do these Foretellers insist on giving partial answers to those seeking their advice, but they also elevate this partiality of knowledge by claiming ignorance as a higher state to be achieved by a few only, and a state that enables its holder to have better visions. When Genly claims that he is “exceedingly ignorant” as to certain aspects of Foretelling, his listener, a practicing Foreteller, is amused by this blunt claim to ignorance, saying “I’ve lived here three years, but haven’t yet acquired enough ignorance to be worth mentioning” (56), reminding Genly that ignorance is a higher state reached by only a few of the Foretellers. It is the Foretellers’ ignorance that enables them to have a mind open enough to accept the knowledge that they foretell. Thus when Genly meets Faxe, the weaver, he is instantly aware of Faxe’s ability to “listen” to Genly’s mind speech, a form of communication not yet developed by Gethenians, but one to which Faxe was very receptive because of this openness enabled by his ignorance, which in its own turn enabled him to be a good listener (68).
The actual session in which these Foretellers practice this activity is one which necessitates the presence of people with partial knowledges, or, to use the term used in this novel, people who are partially ignorant.
“The unknown,” said Faxe’s soft voice in the forest, “the unforetold, the unproven, that is what life is based on. Ignorance is the ground of thought. Unproof is the ground of action. . . . The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next.” (71)
Thus, these sessions are organized in a way that includes at least one schizophrenic (63), returning us again to Haraway’s proclamation that “the split and contradictory self is the one who can interrogate positionings and be accountable,” and that “splitting, not being, is the privileged image for feminist epistemologies of scientific knowledge” (193).
To present the ecofeminist argument for reciprocity I need to explain the Gaia hypothesis. The Gaia hypothesis that was developed by Lovelock in the 1960s is an important one for ecofeminist theorists as it alerted the scientific world to Earth’s role as a determinant in its development.2 Nature, perceived as a passive front on which Man produces multiple positive, and negative effects, was posited as an organism with agency. Marcia Bjornerud summarizes the main findings of this hypothesis in the following lines:
(1) Gaia illustrates that life is a planetary-scale phenomenon that cannot exist sparsely (because organisms must be abundant enough to be able to regulate their environment); and (2) Gaia suggests that Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection should be enlarged to acknowledge (a) that organisms actively modify their surroundings rather than merely adapt to them and (b) that symbiosis (mutually beneficial cooperation between individuals of different species), not just competition, has shaped the course of evolution. (90)
Not only does this hypothesis give agency to a formerly passive organism, but it also provides evidence of the existence of reciprocity within nature, a reciprocity that denounces rivalry (demonstrated in the division of binary oppositions) as the only operation that promotes advancement.
As elements of nature become described as reciprocal, there exists a tolerance between the previously thought of binary oppositions as these oppositions learn that they are co-dependent. With this co-dependence comes a tolerance for the difference found in the Other and a tolerance for diversity and difference in all elements around us.
Ecofeminism demonstrates nature’s refusal to conform to Western inscription that sees duality in everything. As nature refuses to conform to this imposed inscription it had no chance but to be seen as a devalued Other who has to be put in its proper place (Salleh 36). And as a devalued Other, it became equated with the category woman. As a result “nature, being female, was to be dominated by men of science who would wrest her secrets from her, violently if necessary” (Bjornerud 103).
To avoid this trap set by Western metaphysics, then, we have to find ways of describing the world in terms other than those dualistic, hierarchal ones that are forced on those self-appointed sole representatives of knowledge. We need a non-hierarchal description of the world and the lives that exist on it in order not to be forced into the dangers that result from the dual system of thought. We need a “mythos and verbal imagery that can emphasize and promote such cultural equality between women and men, planet and people, and that recognize differences without hierarchically valuating them” (Murphy, Literature 69).
Nature provides us with this “imagery” because it refuses to conform to this dual system of representation. Nature provides us with examples of the non-binary, and non-hierarchal division that exists between human and animal, and between animate creatures and inanimate earth:
Perhaps the world resists being reduced to mere resource because it is—not mother/matter/mutter—but coyote, a figure for the always problematic, always potent tie of meaning and bodies. . . . Perhaps our hopes for accountability, for politics, for ecofeminism, turn on revisioning the world as coding trickster with whom we must learn to converse. (Haraway 201)
And as we learn to “converse” with the world, we also learn to disregard the belief that separates us from this world and that sees this separation as an elevation of our own beings above other beings on earth.
Ecofeminism constantly finds itself in a position by which it refers to traditional cultures as possessors of a different way of interacting with the world, a way that enables us to reject this system of dualities because it does not play a role in those culture’s interaction with nature:
In traditional, indigenous cultures, such as those of the first nations, or Native American peoples, of North America, we find that other beings are treated not as alien Other to the autonomous, individual self but as relatives in a web of kinship. . . . Rather than self and other, then, it would be more accurate to speak of we and another. Such a notion of another is consistent with the ecofeminist ideas of healthy biological diversity and life as an interconnected web, as a heterarchy rather than a hierarchy. (Murphy, “Ecofeminism” 51)
In Dead Voices Gerald Vizenor writes about the tolerance for diversity that is enabled by paying attention to Native American cultures as he presents a character whose life is formed by her ability, through a game she plays, to exist as many things, human, animal, and inanimate.
In Dead Voices, Bagese, the old woman who plays this wanaki game, introduces her listener, our narrator, to her stories while playing this game with a recurring warning not to publish her stories in written words because these words are dead voices that lost their link with nature:
She was a bear and teased me in mirrors as she did the children, and at the same time she said that tribal stories must be told not recorded, told to listeners but not readers, and she insisted that stories be heard through the ear not the eye. She was very determined about the ear in spite of the obvious inconsistencies. (6)
And I would argue that it is because of these inconsistencies that Bagese preferred told stories, returning us again to the idea of partial knowledge being more receptive and open for external knowledges.
Haraway’s situated knowledge alerts us to the partiality of our knowledges. Because they are situated, these knowledges exist only from a certain place or time and are thus partial to that place and time. But this partiality does not necessitate a loss. The partiality of our knowledges allows us to be considerate of other people’s knowledges and to find a type of connection between our different types of knowledges. Haraway argues for this partiality in the following lines:
We seek not the knowledges ruled by phallogocentrism, . . . but those rules by partial sight and limited voice. We do not seek partiality for its own sake, but for the sake of the connections and unexpected openings situated knowledge makes possible. . . . The science question in feminism is about objectivity as positioned rationality. Its images are not . . . the view from above, but the joining of partial views and halting voices into a collective subject position, . . . i.e., of views from somewhere. (196)
The partiality of our knowledge, and our awareness of this partiality, alert us to the impossibility of having the humanist view from everywhere, but, even more importantly, to the advantages of having views from somewhere. And it is no doubt that Bagese’s insistence on telling, rather than recording these stories, is for the purpose of allowing the different tellers to interject their own stories within these stories, thus allowing for a multiplicity of foci when relating these stories.
Haraway’s assertion here mirrors that of Nancy C. M. Hartsock when she argues that partial knowledges give us a “cognitive edge” because “as liminal subjects who experience to varying degrees the injustices of the social structures that define us, we can disenchant our fellow systemic subjects” (49).
Regardless of Bagese’s warnings, the narrator of Dead Voices chooses nevertheless to publish these stories a few years after Bagese disappears. But this choice does not run opposite to the teachings given to him by Bagese herself. Although she warned him against writing these stories and recording them in “dead voices,” she also impelled him to “imagine in [his] own way the stories she had told [him]” (7). Writing these stories and publishing them is thus his way of imagining them. The inconsistency that exists in the oral tradition, and that makes different explanations possible, is taken further to allow the reader to have his own explanation of how the stories are to be told:
The figure of the bear on the copper dish would have been silent if we had not published the stories she remembered and told to me. . . . Bagese, these published stories are the same as the wanaki pictures and the stones that you placed in your apartment to remember the earth, the traces of birds and animals near the lake. I am with you in the mirror, and hold a stone in my pocket, the stone you left for me on the table, to remember your stories. We must go on. (143-44, emphasis added)
That the narrator chose to use the pronoun “we” demonstrates that his story telling is his way of prolonging this connection between human and non-human that Bagese tried to affect by her wanaki game. The uncertainty of the meanings of Bagese’s words are what enabled these stories, then, to be published.
That the trickster is an essential part of these stories demonstrates how it is important to have these partial and multiple knowledges:
Notorious border crossers, tricksters tend to elicit interpretive presumption and the possibility for misunderstanding. Trickster texts, therefore, position readers in relation to the difference or the text by confronting readers with their own potential for misunderstanding even while compelling participation in the act of creating meaning from shifting texts. (Monsma 84)
The trickster allows readers as well as writers to present an existence of a variety of meanings for that person, or thing, being a trickster. It defies definitions and limitations because it escapes being defined. Thus tricksters are occasionally manipulated by writers and placed “on the borders between cultures and occasionally combine trickster traits from different oral cultures” (Monsma 84).
The wanaki game that Bagese plays is an exemplification of a method by which all element of nature interact by sharing one body. The game is played by picking a card from a deck of seven cards, each representing a different picture of a bear, flea, squirrel, mantis, crow, beaver, and finally trickster, that card which allows its player to choose his or her own image. The narrator tells us:
She [Bagese] had lived in a wanaki game since she moved to the city. Every morning she selects one of the seven cards and concentrates on the picture of the bird, animal, insect, or wild chance of the trickster. She explained that the players must use the plural pronoun we to share in the stories and become the creatures on the cards. (17)
And throughout the chapters in which Bagese tells her stories as she played this game, she uses this pronoun we when she talks about what she did.
Within these stories in which Bagese becomes an embodiment of the pictures on the cards, we are alert to the possibilities enabled by this game, a game that allows its player to play different parts everyday, and to carry that played part with her into her other parts. Thus Bagese’s change into a flea helped her, for example, when she changed into the mantis. Another flea reminds her to remember her life as a flea in order to help them escape the scientist’s lab:
Mikado was right, our stories of the fleas never ended with the turn of the cards. We were bears, squirrels, fleas, and more. He told us meditation stories and soon our mantis body seemed to rise and move in the cage. We could still hear his voice, but he was at a great distance. (84)
And so Bagese changes back into a flea then into a bear and succeeds in releasing the other mantis from the lab.
As Haraway suggests we view our identities as multiple in order to be able to effectively carry out the feminist struggles from the many angles which they need to be exerted, ecofeminists suggest that we should understand the reciprocal nature of the world in order to project this reciprocity onto our feminist struggle against the oppression of women and Others. The multiplicity of Bagese’s acquired identities enabled her to realize the fictionality of dividing the world in terms of binary oppositions since this opposition forces a fixed positioning of each binary and thus the fixed definition of this binary. That the binary division of the world is a fiction has been proven through many analyses ranging from historical, to scientific, to philosophical ones. And as Bagese refuses to remain fixed in one identity, she asserts her refusal also to participate in this binary division of the world.
As human and animal join together in Bagese’s body, stones and trees also find their ways of being represented not as inanimate objects without agency but as parts of the elements that make nature and that do so by their own will and not by the will of the human. The story of the beginning of creation is a clear example of the agency Vizenor gives to his inanimate characters as he tells of the stone that was killed by its brother and that, as a cure for human’s split from nature, has created this wanaki game:
Stone created a game that remembers him in stories. To end the game his brother would have to end the world, and he would never do that because he would be too bored and lonesome. Stone became a bear in his own trickster meditation. The wanaki game is his war with loneliness and with human separations from the natural world. (29)
And like the stone, the tree and the river also become characters in a work that refuses to force a separation between elements that unite to make the world.
Haraway favors situated knowledges because they allow their holders to shift their positions with the changing forces of the world. Bagese begins her life by being “born without a last name,” and thus escapes being defined (8). But the fact that she chooses to assume a surname later on further demonstrates her ability to shift positions. And as these positions shift, the dogma that forces the Western splitting of binaries ceases to exist because one side of the binary can easily change to occupy the other side soon enough. The object and subject of knowledge become interchangeable when the subject of knowledge realizes that its existence on this side of the subject/object binary is only temporary. This is what Haraway means when she claims that
Situated knowledges require that the object of knowledge be pictured as an actor and agent, not a screen or a ground or a recourse, never finally as slave to the master that closes off the dialectic in his unique agency and authorship of ‘objective’ knowledge. (198)
The dialectic that exists between the subject and the object of knowledge remain forever open for change, change by which the subject can become an object and the object a subject.
That the stories, and Bagese’s dwellings are in the city, also forces the readers away from the forced split between nature and culture. The mantis benefit from their life in the city as we see them finding their plentiful meal of fleas in the truck whose driver leaves it unattended on a weekly basis enabling these mantis to eat the fleas that populate the fruit boxes in the truck. The reciprocal nature of this operation is all but obvious to the reader. As the mantis gain a bountiful meal from the truck driver’s load, they also rid the truck driver of the fleas in his stock:
Hundreds of mantis left their best poses in the garden to catch the black flies that sucked the heart of papaya, mango, oranges, lemons, and pears on the back of the fruit truck. The mantis prayed over the fruit and devoured thousands of flies. We wondered if the driver stopped only to shed the flies? (77)
The reader’s attention to the details of city life forces the reader away from the split s/he would be inclined to make between culture, exemplified in the city, and nature. Like the split that is forced between human and animal, Vizenor reminds us to disregard the split between culture and nature as he presents the wildlife in the city—stereotypically regarded as barren and sterile.
Similar attention to the limitations of forcing a split between dualities and opposing these dualities to each other is seen in Manuel Puig’s Kiss of the Spider Woman. Valentin and Molina are prison inmates who learn, through sharing a prison cell, how to tolerate their differences, and how these differences help them survive the prison. Laura Rice-Sayre explains:
In the midst of these cultural narratives, which embody the law of the father inscribed in the two prisoners, Molina and Valentin carry off a mental jailbreak. They move from the exchange of competitive and mutually exclusive points of view to a dialogue that, through a slow and painful uncovering of socially constructed bias and repression, reveals the valuable differences of perspective each brings to their relation. Finally, they develop a bond based on the power of each to contribute to their community and to resist the coercive authority of the structures of dominance that have imprisoned them. (248)
Molina, a sexual offender, learns that gender roles can be restrictive, and that politics induces these roles, and, similarly, Valentin learns that sexual repression is one side of the political war he’s waging against his enemies.
As the prisoners share the cell, Molina begins to tell Valentin stories of movies he has seen. Through these movies, the two prisoners become aware of the limitations of restricting their definitions of things to either sexual or political paradigms. While Molina teaches Valentin to appreciate the social factors in his movies, Valentin teaches Molina to be aware of their political dogma. These stories become the tools by which these two prisoners can survive their imprisonment. Haraway’s use of the figure cyborg illuminates this point:
Cyborg writing is about the power to survive not on the basis of original innocence, but on the basis of seizing the tools to mark the world that marked them as other.
The tools are often stories, retold stories, versions that reverse and displace the hierarchical dualism of naturalized identities. In retelling origin stories, cyborg authors subvert the central myths of origin of Western culture. (175)
These retold stories are the stories of the movies that Molina chooses to tell Valentin. “Through the interpretation and analysis of the B-movie plots,” Rice-Sayre explains, “the prisoners begin to explore both the failures of the existing gender system and the possibility for a more liberating human community.” (252)
This awareness of the influences of sexual, social, and political forces on the world Valentin and Molina inhabit comes as a result of the working together of the differences between the two characters. Instead of seeing their differences as hindrances to their communication, a perception they had at the start of the novel, Valentin and Molina begin to appreciate the advantages of being different. Just as Molina begins to have an appreciation for the political struggle that Valentin undergoes, Valentin also realizes:
that sexual liberation and political freedom depend on two modes of action: the identification and dismantling of domination and the creation, in its place, of a community based on a respect for difference rather than on coercion and alterity. (Rice-Sayre 256)
As Vizenor made us aware of the benefits of working together the differences between human and non-human, and Le Guin alerted us to the advantages of appreciating the difference in others for the benefits it bring us, Puig demonstrates, through his two seemingly opposite characters, the necessity of seeing this difference as an enhancement to both these characters.
The three novels discussed here demonstrate that the binary opposition is a Western construct created so as to enhance certain purposes of the Western world that justify its domination of other cultures and nations. Hartsock explains the means by which this system of binary oppositions was “institutionalized in fact as well as in thought” when she lists the following activities:
the Atlantic slave trade, the development of plantation agriculture in the New World, the introduction of markets and private property in Africa, the colonization of large parts of Asia, Latin American, and Africa, and the introduction of European forms of patriarchal and masculinist power. (42)
And these practices have led to the creation of a number of dualisms that in their own terms have added to the legitimacy of these same practices.
For similar purposes, a division was created between mind and body that saw the body as an element with no agency:
the mind-body dualism characteristic of Cartesian rationality is a culturally specific construction. It is an integral part of a scientific worldview that regards the body and the natural world as machines, devoid of cognition and creativity, rather than as living organism. (Barker 86)
Thus abstract theory became more noteworthy than actual experiences, and science began to mean abstraction as opposed to empiricism, with a false belief that all the world can be explained in terms of this theoretical, scientific paradigm:
Beginning at about the time of Newton, scientific explanations became synonymous with mechanistic explanations. The hermetic tradition of “natural magic,” which celebrated the power and complexity intrinsic to the material world, and which had thrived during the Middle Ages, became increasingly threatening to the Church. By 1600, hermeticism was equated with witchcraft and was punishable by death. Yet before this, science and hermeticism coexisted peacefully. . . . As the practice of medicine became increasingly mechanistic, the knowledge and skills of traditional midwives and healers—though derived from generations of empirical data—were rejected as superstitious and unscientific. (Bjornerud 95)
Since the dual system necessitates that the world exists in a binary opposition, and that only one side of this binary can be valuable, mechanical science became the only type of science whose findings were considered substantial. Any other type of science, or knowledge, became immediately known as superstitions created by the unworthy Other.
When Puig inserts certain “scientific” endnotes within the pages of his novel, he is intentionally alerting us to the thin line that exists between abstract theory and lived experience through his mixing of fiction and non-fiction. As the scientific information provided in the endnotes clash with the fictional information we get from reading the novel, we are cautioned against accepting one source of information while rejecting the other.
To further support this hierarchical value of mechanical science and the holders of this science, the category Other was created in order to describe all whose beliefs and knowledges, or whose “science,” differ from mainstream Western science:
Duality, inequality, and domination were established in the name of universality and progress; ironically, power relations were institutionalized in and through a mode of thinking that denied any connections between knowledge and power or between the construction of subjectivity and power. The philosophical and historical creation of devalued Others was the necessary precondition, then, for the creation of the transcendent, rational subject who can persuade himself that he exists outside time and place and power relations. (Hartsock 42)
To create the universal subject who knows everything and whose knowledge is appropriate for all, its binary opposite, the Other, had to be created, without whom this universal subject ceases to exist. Le Guin, Vizenor, and Puig call our attention to these constructed dualities as they enable us to appreciate the multiplicity of our identities and the reciprocity of what comes to be defines, under Western perception, as opposites.
As this “Other” was created, it became necessary to insure that it maintains this Otherness through acts by which the “Other” is continuously devalued:
certain dualisms have been persistent in Western traditions; they have all been systemic to the logics and practices of domination of women, people of colour, nature, workers, animals—in short, domination of all constituted as other, whose task is to mirror the self. (Haraway 177)
Thus the universal subject insisted on an on-going process of devaluation by which it reserves for itself the top-ranking position in the self-created hierarchy, and continues for as long as it is allowed, to keep the “Other” in its limited place by a process of domination and subjugation.
Therefore our insistence on asserting our multiple natures and reciprocal interaction with nature—as one example of an Other—enable us to escape this process of “Othering” as we refuse to conform to it. When we refuse to be defined as a fixed identity we escape our position as Others, a position that necessitates fixed definitions of what Other means. Genly Ai was finally able to escape being seen by the Gethenians as a stranger when he succeeded in seeing his difference from Estraven as not constitutive of an opposition. Bagese’s existence on the multiple levels of animal and human enabled her to move between these identities and in the same way the narrator was able to publish her stories when he was able to see the multiple factors that “define” her stories. Molina and Valentin both learned to oppose the system of Othering when they learned to appreciate each other’s differences, again, without relegating this difference to an opposite position. As these characters were empowered by their ability to appreciate differences outside the realm of oppositions, so we can be empowered when we refuse to see opposition always in place of difference.
1. Haraway argues that the cyborg as a “hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction,” can serve as “an ironic political myth faithful to feminism, socialism, and materialism.” (149) She also finds that associating with the Cyborg means that women can include science in the formation of our identity, thus reconstructing the boundaries of daily life to include the scientific (180-81).
2. Regardless of the disadvantages set by “sex-typing a gender free entity” such as nature (Murphy, Literature 67), and the dangers of inscribing to nature a female name, the hypothesis itself is an important one in providing a better understanding of nature’s agency and in thus giving agency to a category that was denoted as “Other.” Suffice it to say that the resistance found in the scientific field to this hypothesis is enough proof of its ability to disrupt this field, much in the same way that Irigaray’s Spéculum de l’autre femme which found its own resistance in the Lacanian schools enables women to disrupt patriarchy. To reiterate Toril Moi, “any text that annoys the Fathers to such an extent must be deserving of feminist support and applause” (127).