Cannibals in Communities

To me, the idea of cannibalism seems to pervade Seed to Harvest—something that makes sense with the general theme of symbiosis which keeps coming back in Butler’s fiction. Multiple forms of cannibalism are created in the constant consumption with which Butler deals. In these uses though, what comes to light is actually how consumption—and the total absorption of another person—is completely tied to community and culture and demonstrates the inherent violence in development and fungiblity of bodies.

The reason I use the term cannibalism and see its implications as important is because of its history. John’s blog “Categorizing and Cannibalizing” brings up the important connection between cannibalism and race. He describes the racist stereotyping of Africans as cannibals and ‘savages,’ and as I read it, he discusses how Butler’s use of cannibalism in Fledgling necessitates a conversation about cultural relativism and what it means to be a person who is ‘othered’ by culture. What I think is so interesting about the stereotypes behind Cannibalism though, is that they are applied to opposing groups in almost paradoxical ways—this is the reason that I think looking at the concept of cannibalism is interesting: because the ways in which it is used contradict each other so much that its actual meaning becomes less important than the situations in which it is used.

The journal article, “White Cannibals, Black Martyrs” by William D. Piersen develops another side of the relationship of cannibalism and the salve trade. He discussed the belief commonly held by Africans that the Whites who abducted them were cannibals—people who had an insatiable need for and utterly consumed other people (a definition which works particularly well in the context of Mind of My Mind) It seems that the thing held constant about how the term cannibal is applied is that it is placed on the other, or as Peirsen puts it, “on distrusted foreign people” (Peirsen, 148). Peirsen talks a lot about suicide during the slave trade saying, “Many others committed suicide under a depressed mental state brought on by a sense of loss and separation exacerbated by the hopelessness of what seemed an increasingly harsh regime of bondage [fear of being eaten]” (Peirsen, 150). The isolation depicted here, taken with the belief held by many of these slaves that they would return to their communities in death, demonstrates even further the way that fear of cannibalism places people into clearly separated groups—something which they each perceive as being done to them by the savage other, and that they each do by labeling that other as such. To push on the implications of cannibalism even more: what is most interesting to me is that while it defines communities (by delineating who is outside them), it is also a process which by definition takes place within a community (same feeding on same, rather than any other type of consumption).

I think that bringing these historical connotations and an understanding of the complicated ways that cannibalism is wrapped up in community to Mind of My Mind is worthwhile. Doro is most often depicted as a cannibal, though he is not the only one involved in such consumption. Anyanwu could also be termed cannibalistic, not only in her attack of Lale but because she must consume things to understand them—and because that understanding is her power, she also derives power from consumption. Rachel drains some sort of strength or life force from her congregations—though she heals them in return and feels guilty about it. And finally, Mary describes how she is able to ‘take’ people: “He was mine. His strength was mine. His body was worthless to me, but the force that animated it was literally my ambrosia—power, sustenance, life itself” (Mind of my Mind, 370).

There is definitely a distinction made between what Doro does and what people like Mary do—Doro says that Mary is not a parasite but a symbiont, and much is made of the fact that she is not actually fully consuming people while Doro must kill for sustained power. Doro says several times that Mary is the ‘complete’ version of him. I’m not convinced of this simple distinction. Maybe I am reading with cannibalism in mind too much, but I do not buy Mary as simply a symbiont since she does actually consume some of her actives in her fight with Doro and just before Doro’s death he realizes, “The Patternists had told him how it felt at first—that feeling of being trapped, of being on a leash. They had lived to get over their feelings. They had lived because Mary had wanted them to live […] how thoroughly their lives were in her hands,” which does not sound like symbiosis to me (MM, 451).

In all these instances of consumption and cannibalism, the issue of community remains. Doro creates a community in order to consume them—which in itself is interesting—and uses this creation of people as a justification for his feeding. Anyanwu, Doro, and the Patternists are all described as being drawn to their people, and as feeling an urge to create communities with them. The Patternists physically must remain close to their community. This leads me to think about two themes which I see Butler’s work returning to again and again: how competition is inherent in development (strongly related to our conversation on gentrification) and how bodies are fungible. Cannibalism relies on both how boundaries between communities are purposely created and how such communities are implicitly governed and connected. It is also an inherently violent process which claims bodies and makes obvious the competition existing in struggles to survive and grow.

Finally, I am intrigued by the fact that the cannibalistic consumption that Butler turns to is focused on both the body and the mind. Doro is particularly focused on the corporeal—he cannot access powers in the mind and is not a telepath, but he takes over bodies. Mary (again described as a more complete Doro, which is perhaps important in this context) is definitely more concerned with minds and when she consumes people she leaves behind bodies. I’m not entirely sure what to do with this distinction but I think it will be important. Certainly, it speaks to Butler’s concern with how people relate to their bodies and how their bodies can be taken from them, but I’m not sure how these different forms of cannibalization might affect our understanding of communities differently. Perhaps, it is merely a dichotomy which fully reflects culture as comprising of bodies and people as well as the memories and thoughts of those people.

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