Let’s Face It: An Exploration of the Oankali Aesthetic

During class last week, Dr. McCoy mentioned that she regrettably found herself gendering the ooloi, and therefore eunuch, characters of Dawn. Upon reflection, I found this to be true with my reading as well. But then I considered my other difficulties. Adverse to my belief that I am a loving, nurturing human being that can see past physical appearances, I had genuine troubles visualizing a species without a discernible face or set of typical facial features. While reading, I found myself lingering on a mental image of the Oankali only to realize that my mind had “snuck” a small set of eyes, a nose and a mouth onto the Oankali character—facial features could be seen just barely peeking out from behind the gray tentacles/tendrils characteristic to the species. I started to become frustrated that I could not accept the species as they were written. How hard did it have to be to visualize a species without a face? I tried the normal excuses of “oh, well I’m just not used to the image” or “It’s because I’ve never seen a creature like this before.” These explanations lacked luster when I forced my mind to temporarily remove the hidden facial features in my visual image with little trouble. What I realized was that I became discernibly disturbed with the creature that was left. I did know how to mentally construct the Oankali, but my own fear and discomfort stopped me from consistently creating a mental illustration true to their description. I had, and I suppose I still have, some strange aversion to a faceless creature. So naturally, I began to ask,“why?”

I started to look at the biological and evolutionary value of the human face. Why was it so important to me that this alien species have a face? What I found was an National Geographic article by Virginia Hughes explaining that the human face as we know it has a great influence on how humans interact. The article quotes postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, Berkeley, Michael Sheehan as he describes that the human face serves as a type of recognition for humans and also states that “being cryptic could be harmful.” Hughes takes this to mean that the genetic variability of humans that plays out as facial features is protective and relational because without proper facial differences one could be dangerously misconstrued as someone else by an individual meaning to cause harm. The article concludes with Hughes quoting Barnaby Dixson from the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia as he states that his studies on attraction have found that rare characteristics “have the potential to enhance an individual’s attractiveness relative to their contemporaries.” This positions facial features as a means for recognition, attraction, variability and individuality. Perhaps these were the reasons that my brain so eagerly wanted to put a face to the Onkali. It could help me recognize them, would give them some attractive qualities and would give a basis of individuality and variance for me to cling to.

However, such things are never that simple in an Octavia Butler novel. I knew better. So I started to search in Butler’s interviews for any insight. In Randal Kenan’s interview with Butler, Butler states that “One of the things that I was most embarrassed about in my novel Survivor is my human characters going off to another planet and finding other people they could immediately start having children with […] so I thought if I were going to bring people together from other worlds again, I was at least going to give them trouble” (32-33). There was my proof of Butler’s mutiny! The biological and aesthetic abnormalities that characterized the Oankali were meant to challenge the character and reader alike. Butler had purposefully created barriers. In another interview with H. Jerome Jackson, Butler further expresses that “I like to write about human struggles, people who are clearly needing to do something or be something or reach something, people struggling with each other. I have a kind of slogan to remind myself what I’m to be doing: The chase, the game, the quest, the test”” (45). In my case, I had to change my aesthetic regime just as Lillith had to. I was essentially on a quest to accept the Oankali in their faceless glory.

I still wasn’t quite satisfied with these answers alone though. I knew that there had to be a deeper truth that I was missing. I found this reasoning and logic in Sherryl Vint’s article “Becoming Other: Animals, Kinship, and Butler’s Clays’s Ark”which discusses how humans use the category of “animal” to serve as a comparison to humanness. Vint cites scholar Jacques Derrida when she describes that the word animal is described by Derrida as “a strict boundary between human and ‘all the living things that man does not recognize as his fellows, his neighbors, or his brothers,’ a word that ignores the differences among all creatures within the category of non-human” (281). This idea of the over-arching “other” and what little relevance humans hold for the great diversity within non-human species clicked immediately with the tension I felt for accepting the Oankali. They were “animals.” They were “other.” I had no desire to know their differences or their diversity; I just knew that they were different and that they weren’t human. Vint goes on to make a statement about Butler’s work which states “she continually places her characters in situations that explore the anxieties humans feel when coping with difference and our seemingly inevitable desire to respond to that difference with hierarchy and discrimination” (282). Yet again, here was a deep inner truth that explained my aversion as simply as my human instinct to label and assign power to all that I encountered. But the last thought that truly changed the way I saw my reaction to the Oankali was when thing an idea that Vint cites from Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari who believe that humans gravitate towards “molar identities—fixed in being, able to be grasped as a whole, recognized within the current social formation” as opposed to “molecular identities” which are “always in flux, they are made up of capacities and tendencies and they off the possibility for transforming identity and society precisely because they refuse to follow fixed channels” (287). The definition of the molecular identity seemed to fit very closely with all the the Oankali stood for: change, transformation, mingling and “trade.”

So I suppose the moral of the story is that at first I was really disturbed by the mental image of the Oankali species. But my aversion was more complex than I cared to believe. It seems that it’s a part of the evolutionary need for facial differences, Butler’s carefully thought out traps and the deeper truth of human nature that led to my adverse reaction. I’ve noticed that as I read on I began to accept the Oankali and become somewhat desensitized to their appearance, just as Lillith did. However, upon a deep perusal of my innermost desires I still find that a part of me would like to root against the Oankali—but perhaps that is just a symptom of my human nature that I’ll never fully extinguish.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *