The Purpose of Society

In class on Wednesday we judged characters in Octavia Butler’s novel, Wild Seed for being immoral, inhumane, coercive, hypocritical, stubborn, self-righteous, and generally exhibiting extremely disturbing behavior. In reading Mark Bittman’s recent column in The New York Times entitled “What is the purpose of society?” I immediately began drawing comparisons between the characters we were judging in Butler’s fiction and Americans in terms of how they live in and interact with their respective living environments. Bittman puts forth this argument in his article:

Shouldn’t adequate shelter, clothing, food and health care be universal? Isn’t everyone owed a society that works toward guaranteeing the well-being of its citizens? Shouldn’t we prioritize avoiding self-destruction? Plenty of Democrats, even those who think of themselves as progressive, would not answer yes to those questions. Some would answer, “Don’t be naïve, that’s impossible,” and others would say, “All we need to provide is equal opportunity for all and let the market sort it out.” (To which I’d reply, “Talk about naïve!”) I’m fine with disagreement, but I’m not fine with standard public questions like “How do we create a better climate for business so it can provide more jobs?” Consider what this implies about the purpose of people, to say nothing about the meaning of life. The business of America should not be business, but well-being.

What is interesting is the potential correlation between Doro and business here. In Wild Seed Doro is all-powerful and as we mentioned in class often apathetic towards human life. He makes the rules and decides what ones purpose is, ones purpose often being death so as to serve his own physiological needs. It could also be said that the powerful position business holds in our society allows for it to dismiss the well-being of other humans in order to capitalize on the circumstance and further its own objectives. As Bittman argues in reference to the current configuration of our society, “increasingly, it’s corporations…that are determining how the world works.” Doro, of course, has no choice in whether or not he kills, yet he chooses to construct himself as a god-like figure with the role of providing and caring for his people who look to him as God, similar to the ways in which business conceives itself as essential to the functioning of our society (in terms of job creation, for example). Upon appraising Bittman’s ideas in connection to Wild Seed, I found myself questioning whether all Americans also have something to say about their position, as the characters in Butler’s fiction do.

A few classes ago, Dr. McCoy asked us to consider what keeps people from imagining ways of being and organizing in the world that are different from ones that already exist. Butler certainly seems to be grappling with this concept in her writing, as resistance to new or different ways of living and systems of belief is exhibited from characters in both Fledgling and Wild Seed. For instance, in contemplating the morality and normality of incest, Anyanwu cannot evade a sense of repulsion and comes to see that “she was more a captive of her people’s beliefs than she realized” (62). Yet, in spite of her resistance, Anyanwu does eventually come to be influenced by Doro. Later, she acknowledges that in forcing her to submit to him, “Doro had reshaped her” (179). She forms new habits even though she is conscious of the fact that “habits were difficult to break.” John Locke would likely say that she is consenting to Doro’s behavior and to existing under his rule simply by allowing herself to be pulled into his system of living. And perhaps this idea of tacit consent is why imagining entirely new ways of being and organizing proves so difficult. Even when the current purpose of our society is flawed for not providing for the well-being of all citizens and for allowing a structure that benefits only a few and ignores or exploits the rest, those “consenting” only tacitly, are not the ones who possess the autonomy or power to recreate such a system (i.e. Doro’s breeders).

Bittman says that a national consensus must be come to before change is possible. Citing the ruin catalyzed by the United States’ faulty agricultural system, he says, “…if we had a national agreement that food is not just a commodity, a way to make money, but instead a way to nourish people and the planet and a means to safeguard our future, we could begin to reconfigure the system for that purpose. More generally, if we agreed that human well-being was a priority, creating more jobs would not ring so hollow.” There’s no doubt that Bittman’s logic rings true in considering the case of the United States, but it also seems to work in Wild Seed. At the end of Wild Seed, Doro and Anyanwu (who’s priority seems to be the well-being of her people) still haven’t discovered an imperfect system. Doro does not totally alter his behavior, however, he tries harder to accommodate Anyanwu’s needs and desires. It’s said that “Anyanwu could not have all she wanted, and Doro could no longer have all that he had once considered his by right” (252). They compromise, with Anyanwu accepting Doro for who he is and Doro expanding the purpose of his breeders and his role as protector by promising to no longer senselessly murder them after they’ve served his use. Acknowledging the complexity of total reconstruction for the fact that not all Americans agree on what issues are important, Bittman goes on to back up the ending of Wild Seed as a realistic scenario, stipulating, “Sadly, even if we did agree, complex systems are not subject to clever fixes. Rather, changes often have unexpected results…so change necessarily remains incremental.” Although Butler’s novel is incredibly fantastical, it is certain that she is inventing structures on paper based on observations made in the real world, and the creatures she crafts in her fiction (and their motivations) and the environment in which they find themselves living might not be so alien as they initially seem.

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