Commentary, Part Deux: What Would Ursula K. Le Guin Do?

This post is a continuation of the previous one and its embedded commentary.

It’s also about asking questions, imagination, freedom, and thir limits. Here, the limit is respect for others; for those who are silent and cannot reply; for the dead; and for those wishes they expressed.

So that title is, I’m afraid, completely misleading. From an interview in November 2017 with the LA Review of Bookshttps://lareviewofbooks.org/article/writing-nameless-things-an-interview-with-ursula-k-le-guin/

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So I shall abstain from ventriloquising, reifying, and thus colonising Ursula K. Le Guin.

The following quotes that constitute most of this present post are a compilation of those that returned most frequently on 23 January, via Twitter; home, as you might imagine, to exactly the sorts of people who like Ursula K. Le Guin, just as it is for every other imaginable group or kind, kith and kin, and for some that you might not have imagined (I certainly hadn’t) and a fair few unimaginable ones too.

I’ve made selections from within the compilation (foundation, methodology, and process: critical and creative reading expertise, applied imagination, qualitative analysis, and value judgement) as it was most curious and wondrous to see how many of the quotes were about topics, ideas, and individual words that appear in my university’s Draft Strategic Plan. Its title is “inspire.” Its central focus is on “collaboration, inclusion, and innovation.”

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(Dublin 1917: after the failed 1916 uprising, in the middle of World War I, a quintessential distillation of the colonial-imperialist-military-industrial complex. Via University College Dublin in September 2016.)

But The Plan also makes heavy use of figurative language and imagery from construction and from 19th-century colonialist models of high modernity; the latter as expressed in that era’s simpler evolutionary biology, free market economics, fossil-fuelled industrialisation and mechanisation, competition, and progress. We see words like: growth, driving, fuelling, expand, achieve, bold, strong, advance, firm, capitalize, investment, leverage, mechanisms and metrics, power, empower, powerful, goal, tremendous, ambitious, earn, increase, leadership, accelerated, optimise, mobilization, action, output, implementation, yield, licenses, entrepreneurship, tracking.

As the saying goes, “if you can measure it, you can manage it”.
(https://president3.sites.olt.ubc.ca/files/2018/01/INSPIRE-CURRENT-DRAFT-Jan-12-Senate-submission-1.pdf: p. 42 on the document, p. 43 of the PDF)

Aside from militaristic machismo, it is deeply worrying to some people (like any respectable decent philologist) when narrow abusages of certain words are disguised as standard common usage and imposed in its place and accompanied by the erasure of words’ deeper, broader, older, and otherwise full meaning: this is linguistic invasion, forced imposition, conquest, appropriation, colonisation, and cultural erasure. It means the wanton—often also ignorant and thoughtless—destruction of knowledge that authorities in power declare useless and irrelevant, and silence into marginality, then into meaninglessness and non-existence.

Knowledge being turned into non-knowledge follows a similar path to people being turned into non-persons; for, historically, people of other genders, origins, places and ways of belonging, and races to be dehumanised and “not count”; and, in those same colonialist cultures, for non-human beings to be non-persons, reduced to assets with greater or lesser value as commodities: other living creatures, other sentient beings, and other apparently insentient and unliving parts of our shared environment.

Yet there is good and hope. While there is still a preference for passion, initiative, and personal growth, I was overjoyed to find creative, listenthink, curiosity, ideas; but alas, joy itself is rare. It is there, though, in one example of UBC being “locally integrated and globally connected; [… a] place of community engagement”:

an innovation hub where City staff, students, and community co-create experimental projects to make Vancouver more sustainable, livable and joyful
(p. 34 on document / p. 35 on PDF)

There is even some happiness:

We also recognize the vital importance of strengthening our partnership and engagement with all those living at UBC, contributing to the overall health and happiness of our campuses.
(p. 35 on document / p. 36 on PDF)

The Draft Plan is also about reconciliation, sustainability, and radical systemic change (in our university and beyond). The dread Wild West settler colonialist word stakeholder only appears once (p. 18 on the document = p. 19 of the PDF). This is an improvement on its usual proliferation. That single appearance is, however, a dramatic one at a shockingly ill-chosen moment: just before a territory acknowledgement, framing a statement (p. 19/20) of the “need […] to address embedded colonial habits […] and greater understanding of Indigenous history and peoples, and the legacy of colonization.” Colonisation is the last word of that paragraph. The next paragraph’s opening sentence then boasts of UBC’s “long track record of pioneering practices.” (Emphasis mine.)

There is irony.
There is tragicomic bad timing.
There is indelicacy. Ignorance. Insensitivity.
And then there are limits.

I do hope that some good might come out of this moment of horror, if it can be a teachable moment that enables students to see leaders model competence-based active experiential transformative learning. Perhaps one day we might even have inquiry-based education and evidence-based practice, in the form of an outcome of people thinking about and looking up words before using them.

Some more words.

Partner, community, support, guide, equity, connection, mentor, collective, wellbeing, relationship, enable, mutual, engagement, reciprocal, enrich recur. The document makes frequent use of the prefixes co-, inter-, and trans-. I would like to imagine that these ideas are the brightest stars in this shifting winking constellation (thinking about the university and its future as a night sky; changing focus from fundament to firmament). Change your direction, and you see the potential for working together from our excluded isolated margins, as part of a long continuum of speculative fictioneers and other word-crafters and artists who exercise and share imagination. Now that is how collaboration, innovation, and inclusion could conjoin in a subversive synergetic sustainable confluence that is radical, revolutionary, and world-changing.

Back to our visionary world-changer in her LARB interview:

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May this collection provide wise comment that is based on deep understanding and continuing curiosity, and on respect and responsibility; that knows and sees far in all directions, including multiple past histories of our own world; that sees clear and sharp and far into other worlds and multiple possible futures. In the words of the “Inspire” draft: values, principles, and vision. About education, culture, humanity, sustainable futures, and the centrality of imagination to them and us and our world. From an actual real live visionary who lived not far from here for a very long time, and whose books are in our very own local public and university libraries.

First, then, as in all things: read and listen.

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National Book Awards, November 2014, via https://amp.theguardian.com/books/2014/nov/20/ursula-k-le-guin-national-book-awards-speech?__twitter_impression=true

I’ve left all the next quotes without exact references. May this be an excuse (should you need one, or should you need to think of it in this way) or, perhaps, a reason to reread everything by Ursula K. Le Guin.

Tolle lege, and remember that in many worlds outside the parallel one of Strategic Plans, “either/or” is instead “both-and” and “why not?”: we moved a long time ago from the joyless aut delectare aut prodesse est to prodesse ET delectare (and that innovative revolutionary change to that phrase was, of course, in The Middle Ages).

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“All of us have to learn how to invent our lives, make them up, imagine them. We need to be taught these skills; we need guides to show us how. If we don’t, our lives get made up for us by other people.”

“A library is a focal point, a sacred place to a community; and its sacredness is its accessibility, its publicness. It’s everybody’s place. I remember certain libraries, vividly and joyfully, as MY libraries — elements of the best of my life.”

“Maybe the question should be: Is there a book that didn’t change your life? Reading a book is an experience, and every experience changes your life, a little bit or a lot.” (re. transformative learning, expectations, and outcomes)

“We read books to find out who we are. What other people, real or imaginary, do and think and feel… is an essential guide to our understanding of what we ourselves are and may become.”

“What is an anarchist? One who, choosing, accepts the responsibility of choice.”

“The trouble is that we have a bad habit…of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting. This is the treason of the artist; a refusal to admit the banality of evil and the terrible boredom of pain.”

“There’s a point, around age twenty when you have to choose whether to be like everybody else the rest of your life or to make a virtue of your peculiarities.”

“Like and different are quickening words, brooding and hatching. Better and best are egg sucking words; they leave only the shell.”

“Entertaining them is all well and good, Wray, but does it make them think?”

“It’s a mistake to ask literature to reinforce such structures. Literature tends to crack them. Literature is where we free ourselves.”

“You cannot take what you have not given, and you must give yourself. You cannot buy the Revolution. You cannot make the Revolution. You can only be the Revolution. It is in your spirit, or it is nowhere.”

“We are volcanoes. When we women offer our experience as our truth, as human truth, all the maps change. There are new mountains.” (re. “roadmaps”)

“To make something well is to give yourself to it, to seek wholeness, to follow spirit. To learn to make something well can take your whole life. It’s worth it.” (re. misuse and misunderstanding of the word “passion”)

“Our job now is to make this the day before her revolution.”

“Go on and do your work. Do it well. It is all you can do.”

“The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next.” (re. the hubristic folly of outlining futures and thinking this can or should be presecriptive or visionary; and the overuse of “priorities, purpose, objectives,”)

“I come with empty hands and the desire to unbuild walls.”

“The artist deals with what cannot be said in words. The artist whose medium is fiction does this in words. The novelist says in words what cannot be said in words.”

“Words are events, they do things, change things….”

“A writer who wants to write good stuff needs to read great stuff. If you don’t read widely, or read only writers in fashion at the moment, you’ll have a limited idea of what can be done with the English language.”

“My imagination makes me human and makes me a fool; it gives me all the world, and exiles me from it.”

“You always have to defend the imagination against idiots.”

“Imagination, working at full strength, can shake us out of our fatal, adoring self-absorption, & make us look up & see—with terror or with relief—that the world does not in fact belong to us at all.”

“It is through imagination that we think intelligently about what we’ve done, are doing, and should do.”

“Imagination is not a means of making money. It has no place in the vocabulary of profit making.”

“The exercise of imagination is dangerous to those who profit from the way things are because it has the power to show that the way things are is not permanent, not universal, not necessary.”

“People who deny the existence of dragons are often eaten by dragons. From within.”

And a final longer quotation, an extract from The Language of the Night from within which excerpts are circulating widely:

“I believe that maturity is not an outgrowing but a growing up: than an adult is not a dead child, but a child who has survived. I believe that all the best faculties of a mature human being exist in the child, and that if these faculties are encouraged in youth they will act wisely and well in the adult, but if they are repressed and denied in the child they will stunt and cripple the adult personality. And finally, I believe that one of most deeply human, and humane, of these faculties is the power of imagination: so that it is our pleasant duty, as librarians, or teachers, or parents, or writers, or simply as grownups, to encourage that faculty of imagination in our children, to encourage it to grow freely, to flourish like the green bay tree, by giving it the best, absolutely the the best and purest, nourishment that it can absorb. And never, under any circumstances, to squelch it, or sneer at it, or imply that it is childish, or unmanly, or untrue.

“For fantasy is true, of course. It isn’t factual, but it’s true. Children know that. Adults know it too and that’s precisely why many of them are afraid of fantasy. They know that its truth challenges, even threatens, all that is false, all that is phony, unnecessary, and trivial in the life they have let themselves be forced into living. They are afraid of dragons because they are afraid of freedom.

“So I believe that we should trust our children. Normal children do not confuse reality and fantasy — they confuse them much less often than we adults do (as a certain great fantasist pointed out in a story called ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’). Children know perfectly well that unicorns aren’t real, but they also know that books about unicorns, if they are good books, are true books. All too often, that’s more than Mummy and Daddy know; for, in denying their childhood, the adults have denied half their knowledge, and are left with the sad, sterile little fact: ‘Unicorns aren’t real.’ And that fact is one that never got anyone anywhere (except in the story ‘The Unicorn in the Garden,’ by another great fantasist, in which it is shown that a devotion to the unreality of unicorns may get you straight into the loony bin.) It is by such statements as, ‘Once upon a time there was a dragon,’ or ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit’ — it is by such beautiful non-facts that we fantastic human beings may arrive, in our peculiar fashion, at truth.”

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