Consent, Compromise, and Libidinal Drives

While reading some posts from the beginning of the semester I found Hannah’s post, “Issues of Consent and Pedophilia in Fledgling.” I think Hannah’s post is important to revisit at this time, partly because we will be returning to Fledgling at the end of the semester, but also because of how many “issues with consent” are in the Xenogenesis novels. With regard to these issues of consent, I’m especially interested in Butler’s use of libido as a “drive” that  constantly affects people and their decisions, and how we as readers make sense of libidinal drives in Butler’s work.  With this said, many of the consensual conflicts in Butler’s fiction are not issues of sexual consent. In this post, I want to examine Butler’s discourse of consent—both sexual consent and other issues of consent—within the context of Clay’s Ark, and then move to Xenogenesis to discuss similar issues, ultimately to examine our shortcomings as both readers and humans when discussing consent and the right-to-live in the new Oankali universe.

To begin, I’d like to examine Freud’s definitions of “libido,” and “drive.” Freud defines libido as “the energy, regarded as a quantitative magnitude … of those instincts which have to do with all that may be comprised under the word ‘love,’” and a drive as an “innate and biological urge that seeks satisfaction in objects.” Thus, a “libidinal drive” is an innate and biological urge for sexual satisfaction. Butler frequently problematizes our notions of libidinal drives in her fiction by creating characters, or rather, entire species that reinforce that these drives are not only innate, but also a necessity. Specifically, she creates species who feel a biological imperative to reproduce, to continue their species, to put procreation at the forefront of their society.

In Clay’s Ark, as Eli approaches Meda’s house and he stands outside of a women’s bedroom, “his body demanded that he go to the woman. He understood the drive…he knew that if he let himself be drawn to the woman, he would rape her” (Seed to Harvest 469). Establishing the idea of “reproductive futurity”—a term used to describe a state in which the goal of society is to reproduce their species—Butler foregrounds a dilemma in which Eli’s libido is amplified by a medium that can be considered both intrinsic and extrinsic: the Clayark disease is a foreign body, but also has become a part of Eli’s biology and ontology. Yet, to ignore this issue of consent because Eli’s biological drive to reproduce has been altered would be to justify the Clayark culture as a culture based on non-consensual actions, and to deny Clayarks the right to reproduce would be to deny them the right to live.

According to a recent post on the feminist wire, “Profiting from Rape: Sexual Violence and Capitalism,” justifying a culture of non-consensual actions isn’t exactly space alien to our world. Documenting “sexualized violence and the objectification of female bodies [that] underpins the fabric of mainstream society,” the blog post details the ways in which “women working in sweatshops, mines, and other sites of neo-liberal capitalist exploitation suffer egregious acts of sexual violence on a daily basis,” ultimately declaring that “we fail to name the political and economic agendas of powerful states and corporations which support or exacerbate these conflicts as an aspect of rape culture.” Kelly Rose Pflug-Back, the author of the post, contends that people often think that our neoliberal “state can save us from [rape] through punishing and incarcerating dangerous men,” but “this narrow viewpoint, however, paints over the fact that the state and the prison system themselves are not only perpetrators of rape culture; they are master architects of it.”

While I am not allegorizing the Clayark disease and its amplification of libidinal drives to our capitalist culture, I do reiterate that the Clayark culture of non-consensual sex is not space alien. What Pflug-Back unpacks in her post is similar to the way Butler amplifies her character’s libidinal drives: rape culture has been so ingrained into our society—so much that it is tied to our economic system—that certain sites of capitalist exploitation create a space where rape is commonplace and even acceptable. Thus, capitalism creates spaces where one’s libido is not meant to be controlled, is not meant to be repressed. Similar to the way Butler asks readers to question issues of consent when she amplifies libidinal drives, to accept that these spaces of rape are simply a part of capitalism that cannot be changed is to insist that a person either cannot, or should not have to, control their libido.

Butler continues her discourse of consent and libidinal drives in Clays Ark when Eli and Meda have sex for the first time. Meda’s increased libido from the disease recalls issues with alcohol and consent; while Meda appears to be sexually interested in Eli before her libido is increased by the Clayark disease, one cannot accept this as an excuse for the blatant lack of enthusiastic consent from Meda as Eli pulls her to the ground to have sex with her. Butler sets a trap for readers when she writes that “It was not just the passion or physical pain that caused [Meda] to scratch and tear at his body with her nails” (Seed to Harvest 518). By stating that neither character could resist because of the Clayark disease, Butler invites readers to stumble over the obvious issues of consent in this interaction. On the one hand, people with the Clayark disease truly don’t have the autonomy to resist, and taking away their ability to have sex would deny them the right to live, but to accept the disease as a viable excuse for a lack of consent is to entertain the notion that a person cannot say no to sex after they have already said yes: Eli believes it would be rape if he had sex with the woman whose window he stands outside of when he first reaches Meda’s house, yet he believes that since Meda has already shown a sexual interest in him, he is not raping Meda by not asking for her consent again. Eli frames his question of consent as a one-time ordeal and implies that a woman cannot change her mind after she has given consent.

Butler explores these issues of libidinal drives and consent more thoroughly in Lilith’s Brood; libidinal drives in the Oankali don’t necessarily refer to a sexual drive per se, but rather their drive to trade genes and create a more perfect body than their previous form. Their life depends on a reproductive futurity where the form of the next generation is fetishized, and many Oankali claim that the drive to trade genes is so powerful that they cannot resist it. Many issues of consent that readers are forced to face while reading the Oankali narrative are not issues of sexual consent; however, Butler grounds consensual conflicts and issues with a species’ right to live in the novel within issues of sexual consent.

Butler begins the novel with obvious conflicts of medical autonomy and bodily consent when Lilith wakes up with a scar from being operated on while in suspended animation. Later on, the Oankali allow Paul Titus to try to rape Lilith, and Lilith is impregnated by Nikanj without her knowledge. Yet, I believe Butler uses these consensual conflicts partly as a way to trap readers: with perhaps the excision of Lilith’s tumor, these conflicts are very obviously impermissible problems regarding sexual consent. Thus, Butler sets up readers to view Oankali disregard for sexual consent as an Oankali social/cultural norm. The Oankali themselves reinforce this belief in the particularly troubling sexual encounter between Joseph and Nikanj. Nikanj believes that its extra-human abilities of perception allow it to know that Joseph would actually enjoy being sexually stimulated by it. After Nikanj tells Joseph that he has a choice, and Joseph reiterates that he indeed said no but Nikanj ignored him, Nikanj replies “Your body said one thing. Your words said another,” and when Joseph asks to be let go, Nikanj tells him, “Be grateful, Joe. I’m not going to let go of you” (Lilith’s Brood 190). Nikanj’s blatant disregard for consent and its dependency on Joseph’s “body language” was incredibly disturbing to me as I read this section, and for a while I could not view Nikanj as the sympathetic character I viewed it as earlier in the novel; however, I think part of this scene is a trap that Butler answers for us later on.

. In my group’s discussion on Wednesday, we debated the “Oankali experience;” we determined that the Oankali sense of identity depends on creating new forms and molding an identity out of both the new form, and the system of constantly creating new forms. Citing the Oankali’s inability to physically visit or see their home planet and their original (or even past) form(s), our group determined that not only Oankali identity, but the entire Oankali way of life must be forged out of their constant “trade” of genetic material. Yet, there was some pushback to this idea in that to justify their non-consensual genetic trade as a necessary source of their identity is to justify a culture based on non-consensual actions (similar to my argument earlier about the Clayark disease). BUT, this pushback is incredibly problematic in itself, especially because of our class discussion on Friday. Nobody—neither humans, nor Oankali—consented to their situation, to their life, to their bodies, to their biology, to their libidinal drives that cannot go unsatisfied, and denying the Oankali the right to trade genes thereby denies their race the right to live.

When we took our break in class today, Nikita and I discussed how we felt like “horrible readers and horrible humans” for ignoring the Oankali right to live for the past few weeks, and furthermore, ignoring this issue in the other Butler novels. I think the reason so many people succumb to the mistake of ignoring the Oankali’s right to live is because as humans, it is much easier for us to identify with humans being “exploited” in the novel. But this is not a justification of our failure. I think, however—and this is not a justification either—that Butler anticipates our failure and indeed uses it as a trap to teach us a lesson. Neither humans nor Oankali gave consent to the way they are forced to live their lives, however, in order to survive, both species require something from the other: the Oankali require human genes, and the humans require the Oankali’s effort to revitalize the earth. Neither can survive without the other. Thus, Butler foregrounds compromise as the only way that two different peoples can coexist on a shared planet. While most of our class, myself included, focused on the Oankali disregard for consent—partly from the issues of sexual consent earlier in the novel—we embodied the same mindset of many resisters by failing to see that in exchange for human genes, the Oankali are giving humans the opportunity to live. In exchange for Lilith’s cooperation with socializing awakened humans, Lilith received super-human abilities to help her handle both the resistant humans, and to survive a treacherous new life on earth. In exchange for operating on Lilith, she received the ability to live without cancer. Throughout the entire series, the Oankali act as a species who understand that compromise is the only way to avoid the genocidal logic of claiming that the Oankali way of life is unacceptable because it relies on “nonconsensual” gene trading.

I think the idea of compromise between different peoples is most readily applicable to unequal structures of power regarding race, gender, and socioeconomic status, and Dr. McCoy has demonstrated to our class just how vital compromise is to avoid unequal/exploitative structures of power even in a college classroom by her eagerness to make a fair compromise when our class must discuss a conflict (demonstrated our compromise made on Wednesday). When considering high school, it’s easy to see how teachers who insist to their students that “you’re on my time now,” and that “the bell doesn’t dismiss you—I do,” or make any other statement that reflects a sense of power, reinforces unequal structures of power that students will be forced to consider later in life. I believe that understanding how compromise functions in situations like this is key to destabilizing unfair structures of power in much greater issues of race, gender, and socioeconomic status, among other issues of people being discriminated against because of unfair structures of power—and giving a concerted effort to make equitable compromises is something that we as humans need to work on if we want to see a more non-discriminatory future where nobody is denied the right to live.



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