Alterity to the third degree in Fledgling

Something caught my eye whilst reading Pramod Nayar’s article on Posthumanism in Octavia Butler’s Fledgling. A few days ago, we had noticed in our group discussion during Friday’s class that we were having difficulty untangling the multiple ways in which Shori is cast as a hybrid other in the novel, both by humans and Ina alike. However, almost by accident I stumbled upon what seemed to be an appropriate term for what we had been grappling with; Nayar describes what Shori faces as a “double bind of alterity.” On the one hand, Shori is cast as animalistic to humans, the vampire-other, yet what really determines her more immanent otherness is her human-ness or non-Ina-ness with respect to her hybrid biology, her status as a racialized “mongrel.” The double bind is made most explicit in the case of Katherine Dahlman, who murders Shori’s symbiont, Theodora, as a ploy to reveal Shori’s alterity in front of the Council. As Shori describes in the novel:

[Katherine] has imagined that her fellow council members—all Ina, all around her age—would accept what she had done, even if they didn’t like it. She believed I would either lose control and disgrace myself before the Council—possibly by attacking her—or if I didn’t, she could use my apparent lack of feeling to point out how un-Ina I was. She won either way. What did the life of my Theodora matter? (274)


In addition, what was brought up in our group discussion was the question of how to navigate this complex double bind faced by Shori with our own conceptions of alterity, in which dehumanization is linked to racism as a form of constructing difference (and ultimately sameness). What was interesting to note as a group was that typically what is seen in Orientalist discourse and the like is the association of animalistic, bestial characteristics with the formation of the primitive other as a deployment of dehumanization or racism. However, as demonstrated by the aforementioned quote from the novel, in which Shori’s “natural” reaction to the death of her symbiont according to Ina norms would entail a full-fledged (title pun) act of revenge and the murder of her assailant, this display of behavior that the reader would (stereotypically) associate with the dehumanized, animalistic other runs contrary to such a standard. The notion of displaying civility as a means to claim one’s humanity or sameness does not fit the bill in this case. And as we’ve seen in, say, the mainstream media discourse surrounding the “riots” in the wake of the Ferguson ruling and its relationship to the “new” civil rights movement as a whole, this double bind faced by protesters in terms of display and tactics (violence/nonviolence) takes a similar form. It seems again that the protesters lose “either way.”

Despite the fact that Shori’s liminal status remains somewhat disentangled, I want to mention another piece of Nayar’s article on Fledgling, in which he identifies Shori’s unique bio-value as a genetically engineered hybrid to initiate a companion species paradigm that works to blur cross-special boundaries and “end all racisms.” While Nayar’s argument does indeed provide a relevant lens through which to read Shori as the Agamben prototype of “bare life” in the “state of exception,” it does seem that the author produces too much of a utopian discourse in regard to Butler’s novel. Rather, to quote Susanna M. Morris, “Nonetheless, while Butler’s Afrofuturist work underscores a commitment to an equitable vision of society, it does not resort to simply offering up utopias. Butler’s visions of the future are often ambivalent ones that reveal an ongoing struggle for peace and justice. (10)” Indeed, the novel itself does not terminate with the successful establishment of a world where racism would be impossible. Although Shori wins the case before the Council against the Silks, it does not signify an end to the ideologies which produced their crimes. In fact, it is clear from the split decision of the Council that the path towards “the end of all racisms” is certainly still a work in progress. On another note, it is also possible that the instantiation of a companion species ethics that blur lines between human and non-human can also produce unintended consequences. It may be the case that the recognition of sameness across lines of species, such as in the case of pets, comes at the expense of other deployments of dehumanization and may in fact reproduce racist discourses. (For the sake of brevity, found here is the link to the article from which I take this idea.)


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