Tribalism in Clay’s Ark

While reading Xhercis Méndez’s article “Confronting the Rhetoric of ‘Black on Black Crime’: A Response to Derailing Strategies,” I was struck by what she wrote about how in minority activists’ quests to draw attention to issues in their communities, “communities and injustices become minoritized in their isolation from one another.” This got me thinking about the way that different groups in Butler’s work isolate themselves from each other, to the detriment of all. Ultimately, this brought me back to the questions we started the semester with: “what brings people together” and “what keeps people together?”

The most obvious parallel to our own world in Clay’s Ark was the way in which the gated communities were separated from the sewers. As Kayla noted in her post “On Blake’s Privilege,” this exemplifies our contemporary concept of privilege: Blake was born into a gated community through no effort of his own, and consequently had access to opportunities such as medical school which admitted no one from other situations, such as those in the sewers. Blake describes himself as someone who “meant to take care of his own and do what he could for others, but he had few illusions” (588), showing that he more or less kept the fruits of his efforts and his privilege in his own community and shared them very sparingly. Eli and his family are jubilant to have captured him because he is a doctor and he has the ability to provide medical knowledge and perhaps to learn more about the Clayark disease. However, it never even crosses Blake’s mind as a legitimate course of action that he might stay with them and use his knowledge to help them. Instead he escapes, knowing that he will likely spread the disease and endanger the lives of many people. His inability to look beyond the needs of “his own” paradoxically causes his death and his daughter’s death, as well as the deaths of millions and the eruption of violent chaos for those who survive.

There are many other groups in the novel that problematically assume a tribalistic approach in their interactions with others. The car family, for one, uses their gang power (which could be construed as a form of privilege) to take over a stationmaster’s house and enslave the occupants for sexual exploitation. They could just as easily have admitted these people into their group and allowed them to earn equal gang member status, but because they viewed the stationmasters as other, that was probably never considered.  Much of the violence in Butler’s work seems to be people striking out against the other. The hauler that ran over Blake and crushed him to death probably assumed he was just another sewer slug, and therefore probably a threat. In both of these cases, the parties were unable to overcome their tribalism to come together.

Eli’s family in some ways seems to show the greatest capacity to accept strangers into their tribe, and I think this to some extent informs an answer to the question of what brings people together. In one way, of course, the group comes together out of mutual necessity, because they live in a cruel world in which everyone else is against them. But I think other reasons can be applied to equal effect. Like Doro, Eli in part is driven by a desire for camaraderie, for someone to share with him the joy and labor of being alive, and in particular to share the burden of being host to a disease that strips away some basic characteristics of humanity. Finally, the members of Eli’s family feel that they need each other to keep themselves from going on a rampage and spreading the disease with wild abandon. While one could argue that this is just the creation of a new tribe, another group that will in the future become exclusionary, I would argue that it is not. The members of Eli’s family do not want to exclude anybody; in fact, they are quite eager for extensions of their community. As discussed in class, the Clayark disease can be viewed as a far more democratic group signifier than the inherited telepathic abilities of the Patternists. The tribalism of Eli’s family is not a problem at all because as they appear in the novel they do not want to exclude or demean anyone through exclusion from their group.

While I don’t think Butler is totally condemning the human tendency to form tribes, she is definitely thinking about the myriad problems it causes. Certainly, in Clay’s Ark many of the things that go wrong can be traced back to the characters’ tribalism and disregard for others who don’t possess the privilege of group membership. We refuse to feel connected to others if we think it suits us, and if this tendency goes unrecognized we will soon all be living in a Butlerian post-apocalyptic dystopia.

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