Posts Tagged ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’

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Class 8: Walking away…?

March 25, 2021

Guest speaker Glenn Loughran aka Feilimy joined the class to lead the discussion on the short story which you were asked to read in preparation. Here is his summary.

view of the classroom through the windows.
Feilimy introduces Ursula K Le Guin’s story ‘The Ones Who Walked Away from Omelas’.

The session began with brief introductions in the class, focusing on the different disciplines that participants are working through. After this Ursula Le Guin’s text ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas‘ (1973) was introduced and contextualised. Emphasis and discussion were given over to the form of the story which is ‘allegorical’.  As Walter Benjamin has suggested, the allegory is a particular kind of literary trope that often emerges at times of crisis or political unrest. This is because the form of the allegory (part for whole) enables a reduction of complexity, making crisis more manageable and visible. A key allegorical trope is the figure of the Island because it represents a fragment of the whole. It is often understood is a microcosm of the world. These reflections then fed into a discussion about the text, the narrator of the text and importantly, how the narrator constructs the image of Utopia, with the reader. Incrementally, the narrator of the text asks the reader to contribute to the image of Utopia, ‘if they are unsatisfied with the one being described’. All in the class agreed that this is a strategic device to include the reader in the narrative, to make them co-constructors and potentially, co-conspirators. From this analysis, there was brief reflection on the conceptual nature of this strategy, commonly understood as ‘breaking the fourth wall’, which was developed by theatre practitioners in the early 20th Century, such as Bertolt Brecht. As the students proceeded through the text the discussion turned toward the moral dilemma at the heart of the text, its ideological presuppositions and the redemptive quandary that defines the ending of the story. This led to a very vocal and heated debate around the idea of a social contract vs individual agency. Some students pointed out how the allegorical nature of the story enabled it to be used as a tool to understand geopolitical structures of oppression. Interestingly this also led to analogies drawing out the relationship between cheap technological apparatuses and platforms being used in the class and the alienated labour that produced them, touching also on fast fashion and Virtual Reality. After this a very novel suggestion was made, which highlighted the relationship between the natural environment and modernity, suggesting that the environment could be understood as the oppressed child, subject to the hedonistic society of industrial progress. Some participants in the class could not comprehend lack of action or intervention into the situation by the citizens of Omelas, while others contemplated the possibilities that might emerge from walking away. As always, there was very little agreement on the dilemmas presented in the text and that is as it should be. Its aim is to foster debate, discussion, and imagination which it certainly did in the session.

John rejoined the class towards the end to thank Feilimy and remind you that the next class will be in three weeks, following the Easter break.

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Class 8: Walking away…?

November 26, 2020

Map of the island, Utopia.

Illustration for the 1516 first edition of Thomas More’s Utopia.

Talking about Ursula K Le Guin’s short story The One’s Who Walk Away From Omelas always brings some surprises and new ways of looking at the world and ourselves. We began, as usual, by considering the context and the time in which the story was written, the US in the early 1970s: The Vietnam war is in full flight; the Civil Rights movement remains active with demonstrations and race riots; the Watergate Crisis leads to Nixon’s resignation; terrorist activity in pursuit of political goals emerges around the world; the cold war between the US and Soviet Union is raging quietly; the oil crisis leads to severe shortages of petrol in the West; flower power and the hippie lifestyle were presented as idealistic anti-violence alternatives to post-war society norms. In sum, the apparently idyllic sixties were over and a new realisation around the challenges of global society was about to dawn on the Western world.

The opening of Le Guin’s story is clearly drawn from the hippie movement and festivals such as Woodstock in 1969. The Eden-like city of Omelas and its surrounding hinterland is presented as a form of Utopia. However, our contemporary familiarity with perfect places in fiction (since Thomas More’s publication of Utopia in 1516) has led to it becoming a trope – we are immediately suspicious: alert to the revelation of a flaw in this seeming idyll.

The form of the story is also interesting to explore more deeply. While clearly allegorical the narrative is open to many interpretations. Is it describing contemporary society? Perhaps it is a retelling of the Adam and Eve mythology? Maybe the fundamental paradox of the human condition is at the heart of the story? Le Guin shifts the perspective of the narrative from third person to first person throughout. She also ‘breaks the fourth wall’ by addressing the reader directly on several occasions; disrupting the illusion by suggesting that the story might become more believable through the introduction of the dark twist:

Do you believe? Do you accept the festival, the city, the joy? No? Then let me describe one more thing.

The story also has some bold philosophical propositions weaved into the text. It is never clear if they are held by Le Guin herself, or merely the narrator… just as it is never clear what the relationship between author and narrator might be. Is Le Guin proposing fundamental truths about human nature and society?

Happiness is based on a just discrimination of what is necessary, what is neither necessary nor destructive, and what is destructive.

Her fiction was influenced by cultural anthology, feminism and Eastern spiritual philosophy and explored gender and sexuality (The Left Hand of Darkness, 1969), political systems (The Dispossessed, 1974) and moral development. The final twist in this story presents a stark moral dilemma which Le Guin characterises in the decision of some citizens to walk away from the land of plenty.

We wondered if we were presented with the choice would be stay or go. Would our complacency and moral ambiguity lead us to accept the justifications for keeping the child in the cellar or would we have the courage to walk away? It is interesting to note that the option of remaining in Omelas and seeking change seems to be ruled out in the story but, does that mean it is ruled out for us in our lives?

Ultimately, it may be that the purpose of the story is to have us consider our own personal responsibilities as members of the human race.

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Class 8: Walking Away…?

March 26, 2020

The Ones Who Walked Away from Omelas generated a fascinating discussion.

John sent an email to all students during the week with a survey about your ability to connect to Brightspace and Second Life. All but three replied that you have access although it might be less reliable or slower than usual. Of the three that didn’t reply two turned up in class. So, it seems that we can continue with our meetings as normal, although I will keep an eye on things to ensure everyone remains able to engage.

Glenn Loughran (aka feilimy) joined us this week to lead the discussion on the short story The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas by Ursula K Le Guin. It soon transpired that Glenn’s voice connection was not working well so we reverted to text chat for the class. Although somewhat slower than voice it was possible to have a lively and engaging debate. At least everyone had read the story in preparation for the class!

Glenn started by talking about the ways in which a text can be read and suggested that a methodology he is trying with difficult texts at present is to read first for the overall sense and then read again with this knowledge in place for a deeper understanding and to make more sense of the content. He then asked for some reaction to the set text on the surface level. What is your impression of the text? It was written in 1974. What kinds of event or images does that era raise for you? After getting through the inevitable Austin Powers replies (!) and the fact that the 1970s was ancient history, for everyone except Sitearm and me, some connections emerged: the Vietnam war; peace protests; aftermath of the bombs; hippies; the freedom movement; draftees; and Watergate.

Dr Glenn Loughran (aka feilimy) adjusted to the lack of voice with admirable agility.

Glenn noted that this is a science-fiction story but it is important to know when it was written to be able to draw out the associations between the story and the reality of the time, including the politics and ideas around utopia. He then asked: What kind of society is described in the first half of the story? Responses included: happy society; something too perfect, a picturesque holiday city; a very happy community; city by the sea, like San Francisco; kids playing and people dancing; hippies. Glenn suggested there is another name for this in Greek literature and wondered did anyone know what it is? You replied, the sense of community; the Garden of Eden. And Spooky said Utopia.

Glenn explained that in 1516 Thomas More wrote the first Utopia. He coined the word utopia from the Greek ou-topos meaning no place or nowhere. But this was a pun – the almost identical Greek work eu-topos means a good place. So at the very heart of the word is a vital question: can a perfect world ever be realised? Sitearm referenced Erewhon by Samuel Butler, a nineteenth century English novel that also addresses the question of Utopia.

Glenn asked if the short-story presented a utopian ideal? You replied that it didn’t to which Glenn asked why not? The answers you gave included: humans aren’t perfect; everyone’s ideas of perfection are different; because of the child; the kid in the basement; just because only one person is suffering doesn’t make it better. Then Glenn asked if everyone else in Omelas was happy? and when you all said no he asked why not? People who see the child leave the city because they are so horrified; they are horrified by the illusion of a perfect world; the other kids feel bad for the kid; they don’t know about the kid until they are older.

Glenn wondered who the child is and why it is there? You suggested he is suffering for all their happiness; he or she is someone who did not have a chance. At that Glenn asked if the child is a he? You ansered: no; it is not clear; we don’t know; rachel said it’s not known; and when glenn asked why you think that is? the response was that the child is symbolic. Of what? The society; the child is a reminder to society that even a supposed utopia isn’t perfect, it’s not what it seems; third world countries; they suffer for first world countries.

Glenn suggested that it is an allegorical story – a story that stands in for the geo-politics of the world, at a time when the Vietnam war and the hippy movement dominated popular culture. It also represents a set of moral dilemmas, can you describe some? What is the dilemma here? You suggested that even if people tried to help the child it won’t make much of a difference, similar to the way we give aid to third world countries which does not amount to much at the end of the day due to corruption.

Glenn asked if it might be possible that like Omelas our freedoms and technologies are dependent on the oppressed nations and peoples? Are we facing a similar dilemma to the people of Omelas if we buy and use technologies made under oppressive conditions? If we know they are made under such conditions what do we do, how do we react? You replied that we wait; we don’t buy; we try to support groups that are against oppression; we are conscious of what big brands are doing behind the scenes.

Again Glenn asks… Should we accept it like the citizens of Omelas do? Did the ones who walked away do the right thing? Where do you think they went?

zach said they did the right thing in leaving because it’s wrong for one person to suffer for other people’s happiness. Auaki suggested that if the story is continuing maybe we are the citizens of Omelas. Crimson argued that it is not right to stand for oppression.

Glenn: But what does walking away do to help the situation?

You are not supporting the people who are doing this. It removes you from the situation, all it takes is one person to walk away for others to follow. Auaki suggested that it makes it worse and Glenn asked how does it make it worse? and what did the author say? Crimson replied that she said they go to a darker place. And Glenn added:

‘The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist.’ And taking a risk is always about jumping into the unknown. It is scary but… it’s necessary.

How does this relate to our situation? he asked.

And with that final question Glenn informed us that his battery was dying and he would leave us with that to ponder!

John thanked you all for bearing with the class tonight. I appreciate everyone’s patience. Broadband speeds have been slowing because of the heavy usage as most of the population watches Netflix! but, when this module began there was no voice in SL and we conducted all classes in chat text. This does make things a little slower but, we can still have a good discussion – as evidenced by our class this evening. Well done for adapting so readily! Particular thanks to Glenn for adapting to the shortcomings of technology with style!
John also apologised for not having posted the summary of last week’s class yet but, explained that it has been overwhelming trying to deal with the closing of the University. The summary is almost ready and will be posted tomorrow.

Next week is the last class before the two week Easter break. We will look the Team Project so make sure to come along in good time.

Addendum (added on 2nd April 2020)

As we gathered for Class 9 the following week John asked for your takeaway from the discussion about The Ones Who Walked Away from Omelas. After some consideration it was proposed that the theme of the discussion was responsibility. As we become full citizens of our society we need to think about our personal responsibility, our responsibility to our community and our professional responsibility. There are no absolutes here. We each have to give consideration to this aspect of life and, much like the citizens of Omelas who are aware of the suffering of the child, we are aware of the realities of our world, whether we like to acknowledge it or not. The question is, do we choose to ignore these realities or accept our role in creating and sustaining them. Becoming aware of our personal and professional responsibilities, and the importance of contributing to the betterment of society is an essential requirement of each and every citizen.

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Class 8: Walking away…?

November 21, 2019

Guest speaker Glenn Loughran (aka Feilimy) led the discussion about Ursula K Le Guin’s short story The Ones Who Walked Away From Omelas in this week’s class. Due to travel commitments John was not able to attend so there is no summary but you can read about the discussion last semester for some insight into the topics that emerged.

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Class 9: Walking away…?

April 11, 2019

Unfortunately, the low attendance at class continues this week.

Glenn Loughran joined us today in the guise of Feilimy. John didn’t recognise his avatar and ejected him from the classroom when he first arrived! But we soon settled down, identified those who could use voice and those who, like robadamson travelling on a bus and using the less-than-reliable-wifi signal, would be relying solely on text chat. John introduced Glenn, course chair for the BA Visual Art delivered in Sherkin Island, and attending today from Ecuador, where he is delivering a course, presenting papers at conferences and working on a collaborative research project looking at the idea of islands with Universidad de las Artes. As there was one student whose voice was not working at all John said he would provide a text chat commentary this week.

Glenn suggested that the discussion begin with your ideas about the text and to start off looking at the first half of the story. What is it about? What kind of society does it present?

The responses suggested it was a perfect place, a utopian community, it didn’t have kings or leaders – all are equal, without hierarchy where everyone is happy. Glenn referred to the origin of the Utopian concept from Thomas More’s novel published in 1516. He asked who you think the narrator might be? What is the narrator’s relationship with the community? It was agreed that the narrator’s is an external voice providing, in the first half, a positive yet clinical and objective description. The community is in harmony with nature and has no need or desire for anything but the simplest technology.

Then Glenn asked us to think about the second part of the story. It seems to describe a democracy rather than a utopia: a democracy that is built on the suffering of a child in order to provide happiness and comfort to the rest of the community. Your response was unequivocal: the place now seemed unfair, more dystopian than utopian and reminded you of our world; its wealth reliant on the suffering of the innocent, often children; the rich exploiting the poor. It reminded you of class conflict, racial inequality, exploitation of the developing world by the developed.

Glenn spoke of an island he visited in Ecuador this week and showed us some photos. In the last 15 years rising sea levels are beginning to have a noticeable impact. Buildings are being washed out to sea and the island is slowly disappearing. It is a real example of climate change. The tragedy for those in the region is the inaction of the rest of the world. The idea that we in the West have the opportunity to watch this happening so that we can confirm climate change as a reality before deciding to do something about it is described in Wishful sinking: Disappearing island, climate refugees and cosmopolitan experimentation.

The sinking island off the coast of Ecuador visited by Glenn.

Buildings are being washed out to sea.

A bridge to somewhere…?

Returning to our short story Glenn asked if it is the right thing to do, to walk away from Omelas? Your answers included: yes, because living at the expense of others is not right; reforming the society would disrupt its utopian nature; the community’s happiness must be sacrificed for the good of the suffering child; this is a philosophical question rather than a real one; we have a duty to take part in this discussion and question our privileges.

We concluded by suggesting that the text challenges us to face up to what we actually know and to consider an ethical response. It is about deciding on a course of action for our own lives – knowing that the right thing to do may be difficult. We also considered the story in the context of SL and virtual worlds in general. Do they offer an escape from an unpleasant reality? There are many movies, such as Ready Player One, that support this notion. But, what does it take to maintain a virtual world and can it ever be a replacement for RL? How does our visit to Virtual Ability Island inform our thinking in that space?

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