Three Uncertain Thoughts, Or, Everything I Know I Learned from Ursula Le Guin

This text was prepared as an invocation for an upcoming RMIT Design + Ethnography + Futures workshop on “uncertainty as an intrinsic part of future-making.” (Links added.)

One.

In her 1969 novel The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K Le Guin writes, “The unknown, […] the unforetold, the unproven, that is what life is based on. Ignorance is the ground of thought. Unproof is the ground of action . . . [T]he only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty; not knowing what comes next.”

If the only certainty is death, then to deny uncertainty is to deny life.

My work (creative? social science?) is vital not in the sense of being necessary or essential, but energetic, lively, uncertain. In a short 2006 piece in Theory, Culture & Society, Scott Lash argues that the classical concept of vitalism has re-emerged in the face of global complexity and uncertainty, manifesting itself in cultural theory that acknowledges that “the notion of life has always favoured an idea of becoming over one of being, of movement over stasis, of action over structure, of flow and flux.”

In my research I take seriously the idea that what I am seeing, doing and making is emergent; I cannot know how — when, where, for whom or why — it will all end. I can only live with, and through, it. This means I do not want to convince others that I am right. (Have you ever noticed that Le Guin’s stories unfailingly explore ethics and morality without dealing in absolutes?)

I only — as if this were a small thing! — invite you to accompany me for a while, and see what we can become together. This is just — as if this too were a small thing! — one way of knowing the world.

Two.

In a 2014 interview for Smithsonian Magazine, Le Guin explains that the future is where “anything at all can be said to happen without fear of contradiction from a native. [It] is a safe, sterile laboratory for trying out ideas in, a means of thinking about reality, a method.”

My work makes things, and explicitly makes things up, in some near or far future. I practice different worlds.

Fictions and futures give me (you? us?) space to move, and be moved. This is the space of utopia, but not an idealist utopia set against a pessimist dystopia. Fictions and futures are literally no-places: real but not actual, and always vital. I feel as though I thrive in these spaces, both grounded and reaching toward the sky, open to the elements, potential.

But here’s something I’ve learned: I can’t make up anything and expect it to work. The stories need to resonate. And that means they need to be internally coherent and consistent, plausible. So I locate others and myself empirically, ethnographically. I look to the hopes and promises that bind us together, to the threats that rip us apart, and I look to the expectations that constrain and orient us along particular, but not certain, paths.

And then I imagine it (me, you, us) otherwise.

Three.

In her 2007 essay “The Critics, the Monsters, and the Fantasists,” Le Guin clarifies “although the green country of fantasy seems to be entirely the invention of human imaginations, it verges on and partakes of actual realms in which humanity is not lord and master, is not central, is not even important.”

My imagination has sought out this vital, “green country of fantasy” by focussing on possible futures for multispecies, more-than-human, agents. But I’ve yet to be successful in my quest to avoid anthropocentrism. (My dragons remain stubbornly human!)

Still: I follow Donna Haraway’s argument, in 2007’s When Species Meet, that “animals enrich our ignorance.” When I look at people and technology and design and everyday life with — and through — animals I am never more uncertain about what they all mean. To take animals (and other nonhumans) seriously forces me to let go of many preconceptions, even when I fail to imagine a plausible alternative.

But perhaps that uncertainty is only appropriate, too.