So I’m not really sure where to start. When the semester began, I had only been familiar with Octavia Butler’s “Bloodchild” from when we read it last spring in African American Literature, as well as Parable of the Sower, which I had read on my own. I don’t think I had many expectations so much as desires when I came into the class, the majority of which were tied to my first experience reading Bloodchild in the context of the African American literary tradition, then having that context turns upside down by Butler’s afterword, prompting a discussion about categorization and assumptions regarding black artistic and cultural production and the ongoing fight against its compartmentalization. Similarly, when I learned early on that we would not be reading Butler’s Kindred, her most widely read book that does deal explicitly with chattel slavery, I took it to mean that we would continue this process, that we would try to expand our conception of Butler as an artist and confront her work in all its plenitude. And I was looking forward to it.
However, as the semester wore on, I found myself stumbling backward, remaining beholden to certain interpretive frameworks—the postcolonial, the feminist, the critical race, and so on—as I worked through Butler’s texts, which in retrospect undoubtedly hampered my ability to be more profoundly affected by the novels themselves, including but not limited to their “sexiness” (as Butler describes herself in one of her interviews) that I so often would try to sublimate. Moreover, since, as scholar Megan Obourn points out in her “Disabled Futures” article, Octavia Butler constructs narratives “without fully socially intelligible models” (134), it is often easy to avoid confronting the intensity (and complexity) of Butler’s fiction directly by putting on the shades of a recognizable theoretical lens, letting your eyes relax so to speak and allowing for a less troubling read.
But poorly worded ocular metaphors aside, my first instance of pigeonholing Butler occurred after having read Susanne Morris’ article on Butler’s Fledgling, in which she places Butler in the larger cultural project of “Afrofuturist feminism.” I must have taken this label and said to myself, “okay, I get it, so that’s what she’s doing, that’s what she is,” and figuratively stamped it on the cover of every one of Butler’s novels that we would read from then on. While this would come to a head at the end of our time spent engaging with Lilith’s Brood, (and I will discuss this moment a bit later on), I think now I can appreciate the expansiveness of Afrofuturism in regard to Butler’s speculative fiction in terms of its potentialities rather than see it only as a means to categorize. For example, I felt as though a lot of what we read in our African American literature class dealt with confronting the histories and afterlife of slavery and the Atlantic slave trade, a past that is replete with loss, trauma and the violence of the known and unknown, irretrievable and unsalvageable. Yet while the past is often closed off and unavailable to us for recuperation, what makes Afrofuturism so appealing is that it gestures toward radical futures filled with openness to alternative possibilities. Indeed, as Saidiya Hartman notes, “The necessity of trying to represent what we cannot, rather than leading to pessimism or despair must be embraced as the impossibility that conditions our knowledge of the past and animates our desire for a liberated future” (“Venus in Two Acts” 13). Further, the overabundance of absence that Saidiya Hartman must confront in the archive of the African diaspora finds its counterpoint in what Suzanne-Lori Parks calls the “black as the center of the universe,” (if I may paraphrase), a necessary presence that is at the heart of Afrofuturism’s telos.
However, while Butler does often gesture towards what Shelley Streeby calls a “utopian horizon” in her work, I think one of the most challenging aspects of her novels is her refusal to realize, if anticipate, these utopian futurities. From Lauren Olamina’s “Earthseed” community in Parable of the Sower to the societies formed by humans and Oankali in Lilith’s Brood, the process of establishing and maintaining a functional community built around mutuality and necessary interdependence is always an ongoing and unfinished project, never here but always “coming,” and never fully outside certain apparatuses of power, such as racism or sexism, that regulate our relationships. It is this idea of never being “outside” that helped me work through one of the most difficult moments I faced during this semester.
Even though I’ve written on this before, I insist that it bears repeating. In essence, I was forced to confront in full force what I thought I had been keen to avoid all semester long. During our final discussion on Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy, Dr. McCoy expressed something between shock, anger, and disappointment in our persistent failure as readers to consider the lives of the Oankali (or any of the hybrid construct species) as of equal value to that of the humans. I can’t describe how mad I was at myself after that. No matter how familiar I thought I had been with any number of theoretical models with which to gauge Butler’s work, I still managed to commit a discursive violence in my reading of Butler, having denigrated the right to live of an entire species. I, myself, felt complicit in everything I thought I wasn’t, which produced a prolonged feeling of dejection and resignation to the fact that this kind of thing now seemed inescapable.
Yet in retrospect, I think this type of affect I experienced was predicated on my own assumption that there existed some endpoint, something decidedly “post,” a moment or instance at which I would finally achieve the satori of being able to read without committing unintentional violence against anyone (humans and nonhumans) at all. I think the moment of transition came when I realized this to be some sort of fallacy, that I would never reach this “horizon” of un-interpellated subjectivity. At this moment, borrowing the syntax of Saidiya Hartman, I was truly affected by the fact that “the arrangements of power” that have produced me as a subject occluded “the very object” I sought to “rescue” (“Venus” 14). It has since spurred me toward embracing what Slavoj Žižek calls the practice of an “enthusiastic resignation,” in which “the ‘resignation’ itself, that is, the experience of a certain impossibility, which incites enthusiasm” (qtd. in Hartman 14). It is this impossibility—this recognition of the fact that I will never be able to step “outside” of my positionality to interpret Butler’s fictional worlds (or the actual one in which I live) free of any number of tunnel visions—that now animates me as a scholar and reader and human as I go forward.
Also, in terms of practice, I think it all goes back to that original framing question given to us at the start of the semester: what brings and keeps people together? Given Butler’s insistence upon issues of interdependence and negotiation as part of what constitutes any community, I think that by keeping this question in mind throughout the semester it has allowed me to think through things that I had never previously questioned. More specifically, for me, it was the issue of “disability” that I had never previously given critical attention until it was spurred by our discussions of Lilith’s Brood. In a way, I’m pleasantly surprised that “crip theory” is making its way into my methodological tool belt, for I never had realized how consequent certain social constructions of “disabled” could be. And now in a strange turn of events, I find myself watching Daredevil on Netflix unable to remove the lens of critical disability theory, constantly attentive to how the main character’s blindness affects societal conceptions of autonomy and dependence as he navigates Marvel’s fictional world. Similarly, to put it generally, as this semester draws to a close, I must say that Octavia Butler’s emphasis on the need to recognize and make visible the ways in which we are all necessarily dependent on each other, to other humans, species, nature and technology, in the formation of our selves and the preservation of our worlds, may in fact be the most significant thing I can take away from Butler’s fiction, something I can internalize and try to practice as long as I can.