An ecofeminist and utopian perspective on The Word For World Is Forest

Detail of The Word for World is Forest cover art showing night sky through trees
Detail from The Word for World Is Forest cover art showing a night sky through trees

My presentation from the The Word for World is Forest symposium is now available online! Find it on YouTube, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, anchor.fm, PlayerFM and more. Wherever you get your podcasts, as they say.

The title of the presentation is ‘The Word For World Is Forest as Ecofeminist and Utopian Text’. It was recorded live in October 2022 during a one day symposium organised by The Anarres Project.

The symposium was a celebration of the 50 year anniversary of the publication of Ursula Le Guin’s novella The Word for World is Forest. Its particular aim was to consider how the novella might continue to inform social justice movements today.

My argument centres around how the structure of The Word for World is Forest is inconsistent with the ecofeminist ideas within the text. I suggest the lesson to draw from this is we need to consider the structure as well as the content of our thoughts around social justice, along with that of whatever media we use to convey our ideas. This is something I think Le Guin goes on to do in later essays and novels, particularly Always Coming Home.*

*I’ve written a separate essay on Always Coming Home, which you can find here.

“Academic-wise, I do literary criticism”

I haven’t watched the video back yet, because cringe. But I saw the first two minutes and it’s a beaut. Hear me explain that my area ‘academic-wise’ is something called “lit-er-ary crit-i-cism”? In my defence it was a multi-disciplinary symposium. Also, I don’t know whether I’m even in academia or not at this stage. I also do the classic thing of not being able to get my slides to work. But again, forgive me, for this was my first time presenting over Zoom.

I believe the presentation gets better as I get into the swing of it so do stick with it if you can bear it. If not, I’m going to be writing it up into something respectable soon so you could always hang on and wait for that. (Possible publication date could be before the end of 2023? Who knows.)

Videos of the other presentations at the symposium should be appearing soon so be sure to subscribe to The Annares Project on YouTube to catch them all.

The Word for World is Forest symposium

The Word for World is Forest symposium image of woman holding space helment in the forest
Photo Credit: Maksim Isotomin, Unsplash

This morning brought news I have had a proposal accepted to present at an online symposium dedicated to Ursula K. Le Guin’s novella The Word for World is Forest.

The symposium is being organised by The Anarres Project for Alternative Futures on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the publication of Forest.

Their intention is that, rather than being strictly academic, discussions should foreground “how the tale might help us develop strategies for mutual aid and community organizing against injustice today”.

I certainly have thoughts on that so of course I stuck in a proposal. Now it’s been accepted it’s the usual ‘wtf did past me do, what did I promise?’ moment of realising I have a presentation to write.

Last time I wrote a paper I trialled a ‘devised theatre’ style approach that I’m thinking of employing again. This involves quite a lot of talking to myself: improvising to start off with then refining it down to what I really want to say. This was no easier than sitting down with pen and paper/laptop but I enjoyed how when it came to presenting I was able to do so without notes.

As for what I’m going to talk about, this, incidentally, is what past me promised:

My presentation will consider the lessons The Word for World is Forest offers for environmental and social justice movements as both an ecofeminist text and a utopian one. I suggest it is utopian to the extent it presents a critique of contemporary society while also suggesting the possibility of other ways of being that would be more perfect than our own.

The ecofeminist themes of the novel are evident in the characterisation of the Terran leader Captain Davidson who in his sexism, racism, colonialism, speciesism and general disregard for nature single-handedly demonstrates how various types of exploitation can be connected and how the masculinist, master figure can be the architect of ecological destruction.

But while the text highlights the dangers of such a dualistic worldview, which separates man/woman, self/other, man/nature and considers the former of each pair superior, it does not escape dualistic logic within its own structure. It is impossible to escape the binary form of the text, which opposes the ‘good’ Athsheans and the ‘bad’ Terrans.

I will discuss the necessity of escaping binary thought (which incidentally I believe Le Guin achieves in later works) in order to:

– Avoid essentialism, where we attempt to flip the hierarchy instead of flattening it and continue to assume that women and ‘others’ (effectively anyone not a white male) are intrinsically connected to ‘nature’

– Avoid eco-authoritarianism, where we perpetuate the logic of mastery over others by attempting to wrest control in order to impose environmental ways of being

– Avoid colonial logic, where we fantasise about colonising either a place or time (i.e. the future) according to our own ideals, no matter how well-meant

The symposium will be held online on 14 October 2022.