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- Category: Feminism
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“All that you touch you change: Utopian Desire and the Concept of Change in Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents”
By Patricia Melzer, Femspec 3.2
This analysis examines two literary narratives by Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998) that elucidate the intersection of three fields in Western thought: the notion of utopia, feminist politics and theory, and feminist science fiction. This intersection is crucial for feminists in that it provides tools for negotiating difference within feminist politics. I lay out the dynamics within Octavia Butler’s feminist utopian/dystopian writing that define her concept of “utopia” as both a utopian desire and a longing to transform. These allow her to theorize about future social relations and inform the strategies for feminist politics that she develops. Feminist debates on difference address the complex ways in which women are positioned in relations to power based on race, class, and sexual difference.
Within these debates, many postmodern feminist theories reject the essentialist notion of “woman” as an identity and instead emphasize the interrelated construction of gender and other social categories, such as race and class. ((1)) Butler’s utopian writing contributes to the deconstruction of difference as the “other” to a stable identity. Here difference is not the opposite component of identity, but becomes a part of the self. While others have discussed Butler’s treatment of difference mainly in terms of her “miscegenation” between species (an approach Donna Haraway introduced in Primate Visions), I explore how difference in her narratives relates to notions of utopia.
At the center of Butler’s utopian desire lies the concept of change that adds an element of process to the feminist discourse on difference. It not only places categories of difference into a historical context, but also connects them with time. This temporal aspect that complicates absolute concepts of identity/subjectivity based on race, class, and gender, I believe, is a valuable contribution to the feminist debate on how to negotiate difference politically and theoretically.
UTOPIA, FEMINIST POLITICS, AND SCIENCE FICTION
The concept of the ideal community – nation, city, and/or village – is central to Western thought, and finds its most direct expression in fiction. Defined by Ernst Bloch as the principle of hope ((2)), the human urge to transform and re-create living environments is the foundation of most politics, including feminist. It constitutes also the most challenging component in feminist theories, in which the discourse on difference has proven U.S. feminist politics to be at times exclusionary in their formulation of women’s interests, goals, and visions. The construction of utopian societies is primarily a re-articulation of power relations, with the interests of various groups in the foreground. When approached from this perspective, utopian formulations convey theoretical developments outside the norms of what we define as “theory,” and create a window into the realm of the utopian imagination’s relationship to politics.
They remind us of the importance in feminist theories to develop utopian impulses. bell hooks’ concept of yearning is one example of utopian desires articulated in feminist theory: “[D]epths of longing, […] a displacement for the longed-for liberation – the freedom to control one’s destiny“ found in “folks across race, class, gender, and sexual practice. […] The shared space and feeling of ‘yearning’ opens up the possibility of common ground where all these differences might meet and engage one another.” (hooks 12-13) Similarly so is Audre Lorde’s feminist re-definition of difference in Sister Outsider: “The future of our earth may depend upon the ability of all women to identify and develop new definitions of power and new patterns of relating across difference” (Lorde 123). Iris Young’s “unoppressive city” of difference, a model that she develops in “The Ideal Community and the Politics of Difference” and that refutes the humanist ideal of sameness that characterizes traditional utopias, serves as an example of a utopian construction within theoretical discourse, and as a strategy for a feminist politics of difference.
Its basic element is diversity, with new cultures, potential interests, and social experiences constantly transforming the environment in which people live. The ultimate goal is not to create unity through assimilation, but “openness to unassimilated otherness” (Young 319). Young criticizes the Western, male “ideal of community” as inherently non-progressive, even if formulated within a “left” political claim expressed in utopian novels and social theory alike. These communities emphasize the notion of a unitary group of transparent selves, with a common identity. Young identifies the structures of the ideal community as based on metaphysics of presence, a desire to “formulate a representation of a whole, a totality” (302), that is unable to tolerate fragmentation and uncertainty; and an inherent opposition of individualism and community that denies difference by defining the individual as a self-sufficient and solid unity.
This “ideal of community” is also non-progressive because it denies difference within and between subjects by demanding a recognition of, and identification with, all members, “making it difficult for people to respect those with whom they don’t identify” (311). These “ideal communities,” says Young, are politically problematic, racist and class chauvinistic, rendering them contrary to inclusive feminist politics. Butler’s fiction mirrors these theories’ concern with feminist politics in that her utopian communities problematize the possibility of an “ideal community” and its vulnerabilities and problems. As a literary genre, utopian writings reflect and participate in the critical discourse on ideal communities, often reproducing the inherently dystopian concept of a homogenous enclosed community.
The theoretical object of these utopian writings is what Bulent Somay terms the “utopian locus” in “Towards an Open-Ended Utopia” (Somay 25). Here the utopian desire (i.e. the principle of hope), is projected into, and is conserved within the boundaries of the imagined ideal: What the utographer did was to verbalize and enclose the utopian horizon of an age, which was in itself non-discursive, infinite, and open-ended. […] The utopian horizon was ‘stabilized’ or finalized, and the final product was presented to the audience. […] The main characteristic of this structure is the imprisonment of the utopian horizon within a closed and ordered utopian locus, whose description is the central narrative element of traditional utopian fiction. (25, 26) Contemporary utopian fiction expands the utopian horizon and explodes the closed and limited space in which the narrative takes place.
The implicit, not explicit, elements constitute the utopian moment of an open-ended utopia, the potential of the expressed utopian desire. It points to the opportunities, without the claim of authority inherent in the one-dimensional utopian ideal that strives for a closed and controlled way of being – similar to the ideal communities Young criticizes. Butler’s narratives reflect the notion of utopia as a potential that needs to be negotiated in its complexity, the people affected by it discuss and sometimes reject it. Butler develops the utopian term dialectically, not absolutely, and always in relation to the dystopian term, or its possibility. The existing tension between the actual narrative and its utopian spaces, and the potential of the utopian horizon (Somay 33) is what is in the center of the narrative, not the perfected ideal itself. Generally, past feminist utopian writings in the U.S. have been inspirational to, and interactive with, feminist politics in their conceptualization of possible feminist futures.
They defy the notion that “Utopia – the vision of the radically better world that our world could potentially be – was declared dead along with the movements for change [of the New Left] that had inscribed it on their banners” (Bammer 1). Instead, they redefine the term, and make the desire for a more just world part of feminist conceptualizations, understanding ‘the utopian’ as an approach toward, a movement beyond set limits into the realm of the not-yet-set” (Bammer 7). Similar to traditional utopian narratives that conceptualize the “ideal of community,” in feminist utopias, the discussion of alternative social models is in the foreground of the texts. At the same time, however, they undermine the artistic and theoretical limitations of traditional utopian novels, thereby problematizing issues like the “ideal nation” and “social equality” (Bartkowski 12). In the 1970s, feminist utopias were extremely popular and their audience extended beyond the science fiction community.
They created a space for what Jean Pfaelzer defined as a feminist “political epistemology,” serving as a “metaphor for potential histories” (283). Their relation to feminist social and political theories is evident: as Frances Bartkowski observes, the peak of feminist literary production and political activity coincided in the mid-1970s (Bartkowski 5).((3)) In feminist utopias from the 1970s, authors such as Marge Piercy, Sally Miller Gearheart, and Ursula Le Guin created imaginative societies where feminist politics were set to work. Their stories reveal that the concept of an utopian community continued to be the most prevalent narrative drive within feminist writing and that the utopian desire remained a vital component of feminist politics: “[T]he act of fantasizing a feminist future – i.e., the genre itself – relocates the source of women’s identity within a women’s community” (Pfaelzer 292). In doing so, these stories depict the problematic elements of alternative (supposedly ideal) social institutions, the development of which is one main aspect in traditional utopian novels. At the same time, as feminist utopian writing increased in the 1970s, these authors’ visions projected more and more into a science fiction narrative framework. Because science fiction is a particular fantastic narrative mode that is rooted in contemporary phenomena, it lends itself to social criticism as do few other genres and is therefore interesting to feminists.
As Scott Bukatman points out, “Given a thematics profoundly engaged with social structures and sexual difference, and potentially heterotopic discursive practices, the relevance of SF to a feminist politics should not be mysterious” (5). This connection between science fiction and feminist inquiries, what Sarah Lefanu describes as the “marriage between feminist politics and science fiction” (5), is what makes utopian writing situated within science fiction narratives so important to a discourse concerned with feminist issues and social power relations. Donna Haraway identifies in “A Cyborg Manifesto” feminist science fiction writers as “our storytellers exploring what it means to be embodied in high-tech worlds.” As “theorists for cyborgs” (Haraway 1990, 216), these authors problematize the formula for identity and the norms for politics that Western discourse prescribes – including traditional utopian discourse.
In Partial Visions, Angelika Bammer examines the relationship of feminist utopias to feminist social politics in the 1970s, with the underlying thesis that it was in literary utopias that the women’s movement explored implications of its political agendas. Today the feminist movement manifests itself differently than from the 1970s; differences between social groups dominate discussions, and the visibility of the movement has declined. Butler’s feminist science fiction narratives of the 1990s express and develop utopianism in the context of changing feminist politics. This speculative fiction further critically examines the “we” problematized in writings by women of color challenging U.S. “hegemonic feminism” (Sandoval). Following the feminist debate that has grown out of milestone publications like Gloria Anzaldua and Cherrie Moraga’s This Bridge Called My Back, bell hooks’ Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism, and Barbara Smith, Patricia Bell Scott, and Gloria Tull’s All the Women are White, All the Blacks are Men, But Some of Us are Brave in the 1980s,((4)) and feminist postcolonial writings in the 1990s, “our” world needs to be revisited and redefined. Difference hereby is the main concern.
Feminist utopias and dystopias provide conceptual tools for expressing utopian desire. In their narratives, the utopian impulse stands in relation to criticisms of monolithic models of ideal communities. They create a realm for optimistic speculation in which the acceptance of difference, not the striving for sameness, is the basis for a utopian society. It is from these utopian imaginations that feminist theories can draw the visions and hope necessary for developing models of feminist interaction. At the same time that difference is a dividing factor in many feminist theories and makes the imagining of a shared future difficult, these narratives of hope reclaim the utopian moment. They redefine a feminist political vision of the future. One of Butler’s contributions to this discourse is her concept of change that lies at the basis of every political interaction. Instead of “freezing” the manifestations of difference within their theoretical conceptualizations (i.e. “gender,” “race,” “class”), she emphasizes the fluid and transforming aspect behind the term. At the same time, she makes these manifestations concrete and turns them into a moment of agency by claiming that they can be “shaped.”
Change and its implications inject a transformative element into the conceptualizations of difference that enables not only a new perception of difference, such as Audre Lorde calls for in Sister Outsider, but that demands a constant redefinition of its categories. It is especially in this respect that Butler’s utopian desire contributes to the feminist discourse on difference. The feminist debate on Butler’s work as utopian in its radical dealings with difference mainly concentrates on her Xenogenesis trilogy. ((5)) My analysis will focus on her two latest novels, Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents. In these novels, Butler’s conception of feminist politics, including grassroots activism, and her theorizing about utopian communities in general is less developed in the metaphorical mode of the Xenogenesis trilogy and its conceptualizations of the “other order of difference” (Haraway 1989, 379).
Instead, Butler’s latest fiction represents a concrete discussion of political strategies combined with the intense desire for change itself. My analysis examines issues within Butler’s imagined futures that are of concern within the feminist debate on feminist utopias. ((6)). Therefore, the question here is how Butler critically re-visits concepts of political strategizing and organizing, community, family, economics, racial and sexual diversity, religion and spirituality (as developed within feminist utopias in the 1970s) within the context of feminist politics.
UTOPIAN DESIRE IN BUTLER’S NARRATIVES
In her work, Butler visualizes inclusive utopian societies that struggle with, and at times celebrate, difference. As Michelle Green states: “Her work implicitly criticizes utopias by women that avoid conflicts stemming from difference and reject challenges and changes from within” (168). The setting is always a problematic one. Often a dystopian framework dominates the narratives, and lays out feminist concerns and critiques of contemporary political and social trends. The connection to feminist politics is less obvious than in the utopian novels of the 1970s; it is more complex and mirrors changing feminist politics. ((7)) The utopian impulse in Butler’s narratives stands in dialectic relation to the dystopian; they are not merely contrasted but constitute each other. This insistence that both terms are relative, not absolute, points to the significance of negotiating difference. The agent of utopia is the individual, but always in the context of a community; the defining factor of that agency is the utopian desire underlying the events in Butler’s stories.
The struggle of power relations is at the center of her writing and informs the manifestations of the utopian desire that run through her narratives. Survival and resistance define this struggle and the identities involved in it. In these narratives, Butler returns to the feminist articulation of social critique through speculative literature that has its tradition in literary utopias and that was so strong in the 1970s. She problematizes social and political issues of feminist concern, and conceptualizes ways to incorporate difference into a utopian future. In Parable of the Sower (henceforth: Sower) and Parable of the Talents (henceforth: Talents)((8)), Butler weaves complex stories of survival, power, and vision in a future time frame between 2024 to 2090. At the center of the narratives is the figure of Lauren Oya Olamina, the founder of the religion Earthseed, and how she strives to realize her vision.
The spiritual component is central in Butler’s conceptualizations – in Sower, Earthseed is developed or “received” by Lauren, in contrast to the increasingly weakened and powerless Christian faith her father preaches, and in Talents it is juxtaposed as a spiritual alternative to a frenzied and destructive Christian fundamentalism modeled after the contemporary Religious Right in the U.S. Sower is structured around the motif of the journey, an important stylistic feature that Butler, significantly, picks up in the last third of Talents. With this, she revives the theme of the journey as the vehicle for utopian desire in Lauren’s travels through an apocalyptic future. ((9)) While Sower develops Earthseed and the concept of an ideal community, Talents revisits this concept critically, examining and revising it. The world Butler describes is disconcertingly constructed after tendencies present in contemporary U.S. society.
The connection of a present society and an imagined future that becomes a central theme within her narratives conveys the self-reflexivity of what Tom Moylan termed ‘critical utopias’: “The critical utopias, then, suggest […] a shift from simple negation to a negation with alternatives. These narratives feature utopian societies related to and in conflict with nonutopian, parent societies” (237). The conditions from which Lauren constructs her vision are dystopian in every sense of the word, representing Butler’s insistence that utopian desire grows dialectically from despair and chaos: based on change, on constant transformation, the relationship between utopian and dystopian elements is of mutual interdependency. Dystopia precedes transformation; it does not exclude utopia, but challenges it into existence. There are two major differences between Sower and Talents that point to Butler’s inherent ambivalence toward a utopian community.
One is a stylistic device: the voice that narrates the story. Both texts use journal entries as their narrative form, yet while in Sower Lauren’s journal is the only reference for the reader, in Talents the voices are multiple: Lauren’s reflections are the most frequent, but her daughter’s entries comment upon them decades later; and her brother’s and husband’s voices challenge her presentation of events in the course of the novel. Even though in Sower Lauren develops her vision in constant exchange with people around her and Earthseed is a discursive (i.e. open) belief system, Lauren’s perspective is the only narrative voice. By multiplying the perspectives on events in Talents, Butler problematizes the concept of a utopian vision that a single individual formulates. Her notion of difference and its inherent changing nature that is part of Butler’s utopian desire becomes apparent in her narrative technique when the estranged daughter’s doubts of the validity of her mother’s vision critique the utopian dream.
The second difference is the changing political strategies that Butler discusses in the novels: in Sower, the utopian idea spreads through the words of one person; the concept is to gather and protect a following within a chaotic environment without the tools of political campaigning. In Talents, her failings to enlarge and strengthen her community during the time of a fascist regime haunt Lauren after Christian fundamentalists capture Earthseed followers and destroy their homes. Once freed, she changes her political tactics. Instead of only trying to win the disempowered for Earthseed, Lauren begins to utilize the power and influence of richer people in spreading her message and gathering people. This narrative exploration of what form of activism has the most potential to achieve social change is crucial when looking at Butler in terms of feminist politics.
The basis for the utopian community that Butler constructs in Sower and further develops in Talents, is Earthseed. The young Lauren in Sower, who later in Talents becomes the mature and powerful leader of her influential sect, develops this religion and life-philosophy. Earthseed transcends the definition of religion as well as philosophy by combining elements of spirituality with political and social issues, echoing religious principles in “Buddhism, existentialism, Sufism” (Sower 239), where it is not the divine presence (God) himself that is the aim of actions. Butler conceptualizes the utopian impulse in her futuristic vision as a religious spirituality that rejects both the patriarchal concept of “God” and the essentialist notion of an “earth mother goddess” (Pearson 58) based in cultural feminism that is often an element within feminist utopias of the 1970s. ((10))
The centrality of religion in Butler’s writings is crucial in the context of feminist utopias: feminist concepts of the future reject most organized religion. ((11)) Earthseed, with its rituals and “shapers” especially in Talents, seems at times contradictory to feminist notions of an anti-hierarchical spirituality situated in the individual, not in the representative of a religion. Unlike other organized religions, though, Earthseed’s long-term goal is not Paradise, but the migration of humankind into outer space: “The Destiny of Earthseed / Is to take root among the stars” (Sower 78). The main message of Earthseed is that God is Change, and that change is constant. Humans, through their actions, shape God. All that you touch
You Change. All that you Change
Changes you. The only lasting truth
Is Change. God
In Sower, Lauren writes of Earthseed from 2024 to 2027, and relates it to the apocalyptic world around her. She travels from Southern California up North, where whole states have been spared the destructive effects of pollution and violence. Destruction, violence, and chaos induced by capitalism dominate the futuristic world that Lauren travels; a state she later refers to in Talents as the “Pox,” which lasts from 2015 through 2030 (Talents 13-14). The chaotic make-up of the Pox develops into a power vacuum that the fascist fundamentalist Christian Right seize under the name “Christian Americans” with Andrew Steele Jarret as their leader.
In Talents, results of the fascist regime are concentration camps, and war with Canada and Alaska. Out of this nightmare – chaos in Sower on the one hand, and organized terror in Talents on the other – Butler creates the vision of a better and just world, based on the belief that each individual has the power to manipulate and change existing conditions. Change is inherent to the world and needs to be seized as a tool of empowerment. God exists to be shaped, and will be shaped, with or without our forethought, with or without our intent. […] There’s hope in understanding the nature of God – not punishing or jealous, but infinitely malleable. […] there’s power in knowing that God can be focused, diverted, shaped by anyone at all. (Sower 24, 202)
UTOPIAN COMMUNITIES AND NARRATIVE DISRUPTION
Butler’s depiction of Earthseed’s political organization is reminiscent of what Russ calls “communal even quasi-tribal” (Russ 73), typical for feminist utopias’ attempts to conceptualize communities where “Order is kept […] not by use of force, but by persuasion” (Pearson 54). In order to be active in shaping inevitable change, the community members meet on a regular basis to exchange ideas, worries and strategies, and to discuss Earthseed verses collected in The Book of the Living. These weekly Gatherings, “discussions,” create a sense of belonging and solidarity and at the same time function as democratic, political decision-making processes. ((12)) Butler emphasizes that the embracing of difference does not only enhance the quality of human interactions, but that it is an act of survival and of necessity if humankind wants to end conditions of hate and violence – a concept that is present in Audre Lorde’s writing as well as in other feminist theories on difference. As Butler writes: Embrace diversity.
Or be divided
By those who see you as prey.
Or be destroyed.
Earthseed, its religion as well as its community, is a moment of resistance and an opportunity for its followers to gain control over their lives. The community with its growing number of members with diverse personal narratives and backgrounds develops a complexity on various levels. It is, from the beginning, an assembly of refugees who are fleeing destruction and oppression, and later, with Acorn as its first settlement, represents shelter for disoriented and abused people that are on the receiving end of patriarchal capitalism’s oppressions. These include girls forced into prostitution by their fathers, a young woman whose homeless mother sold her to a man with several wives, a couple that worked as domestics and had to leave after the woman had been sexually approached by their employer, a physician whose wife had been killed by a group of looting madmen, and corporate slaves that ran away – families and individuals uprooted by the violence erupting from an out-of-control capitalist system.
Earthseed defines itself concretely as an active element of political resistance when Lauren relates it to a crucial aspect in U.S. history: “’So we become the crew of a modern underground railroad,’ I said. Slavery again – even worse than my father thought, or at least sooner” (Sower 268). Butler’s critique of power based in contemporary economic relations in Sower becomes more complex when she portrays slavery in Talents in the context of concentration work camps where political dissidents and other “anti-social” people are kept prisoners. ((13)) Earthseed’s emphasis on economic self-sufficiency through subsistence farming and bartering apparently represents a yearning for a pastoral, pre-technological past. Yet Butler’s utopian vision is more complicated: the rejection of exploitative capitalist values and the promotion of ecologically safe production is not a return to an “ideal community,” but a strategy of survival that in Talents goes horribly wrong when fascists destroy the isolated settlement.
As Madhu Dubey discusses in “Folk and Urban Communities in African-American Women’s Fiction: Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower,” Earthseed is not an arcadian utopia. Butler understands human nature’s needs to be complex and changing, which opposes the predetermined simplicity of “natural” human needs in arcadian utopias. One main difference between the actual and imagined utopian communities of 19th century America and the 1960s Hippie communes that Acorn resembles, and Earthseed is their relationship to technology. In this, Earthseed resembles postindustrial literary ecotopias in that they do not reject technology or yearn for a mythical past, but imagine an ecologically sustainable economic system (Dubey 6). Instead of rejecting any high technology, Lauren actively seeks access to it – it is the key to Earthseed’s Destiny.
Butler weaves controversial notions on technology into her narratives that address crucial elements within feminist utopian writing, such as reproductive technology. Lauren in Talents reflects on the possible effects on society’s perception of reproductive issues when a child is incubated in an artificial womb. Her initial repulsion gives way to a contemplation of existing structures based on economic classes where poor women function as surrogate mothers for affluent couples. Instead of viewing the process as an inevitable threat to women, Butler points to the potential technology holds. She rejects any sentimental notion of a pre-technological world as more desirable: “And, of course, women will be free to do without men completely, since women can provide their own ova. I wonder what this will mean for humanity in the future. Radical change or just one more option among the many?” (Talents 83).
Earthseed promotes the radical notion of artificial incubation and transcends biological differences by making them irrelevant: the shuttles heading for the starship carry “frozen human and animal embryos, plant seeds, tools, equipment, memories, dreams, and hopes” (Talents, 363). With this, Butler takes a radical stance in the feminist debate over reproductive technology. ((14)) Above all, though, Earthseed is “not an organic community unified by collective memory, ethnicity, shared cultural heritage, or attachment to place” (Dubey 6). Its principle is change and its members are from diverse backgrounds. The separate racial and ethnic origins that translate into different cultural and historical memories demand constant negotiation and mediation. As Dubey points out: “The process of finding unity in diversity is necessarily risky and difficult” (6) and is incompatible with the notion of an “ideal community” that rests on homogenous patterns of identity. ((15))
The importance of literacy for individual agency runs through both novels. Education, i.e. research in the sciences, is essential for Earthseed’s long term goal. The apocalyptic setting in Sower and Talents does not only lend Earthseed a distinct character of a New Beginning. It also points to the disintegrating power system within the “technoscience” ((16)) apparatus that is (mis)guided by political interests. The failure of the U.S. Space Program mirrors the power apparatus’ incompetence. Lauren comments on the relationship of technological development and politics: “Secretaries of Astronautics don’t have to know much about science. They have to know about politics” (Sower 1table-of-contents0). Lauren recognizes that a return to a mythic past is paralyzing, not liberating. She insists on technology as a part of any new social order. The re-definition of technology’s role from capitalist investment to a tool of resistance becomes concrete in Talents when in the last part of the book the movement has developed into a powerful sect with the economic and political resources to prepare space flight.
Earthseed uses science and knowledge solely for the purpose of Destiny; there is no research in the name of science itself. Here science and technology, both elements of science fiction, become the basis for survival. Butler re-appropriates the empowering potential of knowledge from the capitalist agenda, and turns technoscience into a symbol of resistance. In terms of sexual politics, Butler’s fiction redefines gender roles and relations in interactions between men and women. There are no inherent duties or rights based on gender, nor are sexist notions carried over from traditional understandings. In Sower, the most prominent form of gender specific experiences is violence against women, especially rape. In a disconcerting fashion, Butler depicts violence against women to be a form of violence that unleashes itself whenever social control fails. Rape is a common encounter for the people traveling North.
Only as a group can the women prevent attacks. Lauren cross-dresses as a man on her journey, and resorts to that tactic when she takes up her travels later in Talents. This narrative device critically points out the social constructions of gender roles in U.S. society, where being recognized as a woman can be life threatening. Lauren is spared the experience in Sower, whereas in Talents fundamentalists who run the concentration camp rape her as part of organized control. Here Butler depicts the sexual violence against women as a weapon of social control by terror regimes – echoing recent manifestations of the institutionalization and broad application of violence against women as part of political control, such as the systematic rapes in Bosnia during the war, and in Argentina during the military regime. Earthseed, in stark contrast to both forms of sexual violence (as a result of social disorder or as a form of social control) does not tolerate any form of oppression of children or any adult.
Therefore, the community would not tolerate gendered violence. ((17)) Heterosexuality is normative in both Sower and Talents, but Butler does not treat this particular form of sexuality as prescriptive. For example, she is critical of Lauren’s brother Marcus’ in Talents, who betrays his sister by keeping her daughter Larkin/Asha without telling her about her origin. He struggles with his homosexuality that his Christian faith forbids him, and Larkin/Asha becomes the only child he can ever have. Butler’s emphasis on the restricting effects of Christianity on its members that seems to construct homosexuality as an acceptable form of sexuality is supported by the betrayal of two lesbian lovers by non-Earthseed people in the concentration camp.
The moment in which Lauren feels sexual desire for a woman at the end of Talents similarly disrupts the rather conservative element of normative heterosexuality that runs through most of Butler’s narratives, ((18)) introducing what Russ calls sexual “permissiveness” (Russ 77). Most feminist utopias, as Green points out, “deal with contemporary problems by defusing the differences that cause conflicts to develop among people” (167). Yet, Butler insists on the acknowledgement of socially constructed difference, such as gender and race difference, on which she bases the strength of her utopian community. Rather than envisioning an “overcoming” of difference (as it is present in liberal discourse of “multiculturalism”), she creates a less-than-perfect world where the potential of negotiating difference in non-oppressive ways constitutes the utopian desire. Indeed, Butler perceives difference as a primary element of survival.
Yet, as progressively as Butler treats the acceptance of difference as a crucial strategy for feminist political movements, and as directly as she problematizes sexism, she does not explicitly address problems of violence based on race in American society. Butler extensively problematizes oppressions based on class and gender differences, as well as on religious/ideological beliefs, such as in the form of rape and forced prostitution and economic slavery. Indirectly, it becomes clear that the winners in this chaos are wealthy white people. In contrast, the inhabitants of Earthseed communities have multiracial backgrounds. Also, Lauren’s personal identity and family history is affirmatively African American. She openly discusses Jarret’s past career in the Ku Klux Klan, and compares the behavior of his Crusaders with Hitler’s SS and the Christian reeducation camps with Nazi concentration camps.
Yet, neither the fact that her daughter is placed in a black upper middle-class Christian family, nor that her brother becomes an influential man in the Church, are put critically into the context of the racist background of the Christian Americans. While women and the poor become victims of mob violence, the lynching of people of color is not mentioned even though the history in American race relations and current racial violence would project such incidents in an chaotic uncontrolled state of society. ((19)) Butler discusses race relations mainly in the diversity-affirming structure of Earthseed that opposes both a white racist, as well as an exclusive African American folk community, and in Lauren’s strong African American identity. ((20)) The imagery of plants and seeds that dominates Earthseed echoes Lauren’s identity and not only emphasizes Earthseed’s anti-capitalist and agricultural identity, but is also suggestive of the affirmative recognition of black women’s experiences in Alice Walker’s “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens” that celebrates African American woman’s unwritten history and creativity. In accordance with this, the central metaphor of Earthseed and its relation to feminist political activism is the seed. It grows from destruction, represents the life-affirming component, and evokes ideas of multiplying.
At the core of the metaphor stands, of course, change. The seed symbolizes the success of the vision, the concept of sowing ideas and growing communities not modeled after a remote, idealized past, but focus on the future. Its main device is writing, the gathering and preserving of knowledge. The gender politics developed within an Earthseed context echo Walker’s concept of “womanist,” “committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female” (xi), which evokes gender relations distinct from radical or cultural feminist notions of separatism. With Lauren’s status as a spiritual leader with an essentially political vision, Butler speaks to a historical pattern of strong spiritual leaders in the African American community – most of whom were/are men, and offers an alternative to contemporary U.S. society. ((21)) Butler’s approach to race issues that at first appear to be in the background of her social critique can be understood as a (narrative) strategy that undermines the binary of white/black that dominates U.S. discourse on race relations.
She explicitly rejects what Tucker Farley names the “white fantasy about earning unity” (243) often present in feminist science fiction, at the same time as Butler resists representation of the black folk community, exclusively defined as African American, as the only empowering form of community. ((22)) Instead, Butler places racial oppression into the complexity of social power relations, such as in terms of economic and ideological oppression. She does not foreground racial oppression in her analysis of social injustice, but undermines the juxtapositions and binaries of racial discourse of self/other by portraying racial diversity as a main component of her utopian vision. The “other” (people of color) is not included within the story of the “self,” but constitutes the perspective of narration. As Robert Crossley explains: “All her fiction stands in quiet resistance to the notion that a black character in a science fiction novel is there for a reason” (xviii).
Butler firmly roots her protagonist within an African American context, yet at the same time she refuses to ideologically ghettoize her characters. Her fiction is too complex to be reduced to a single, exclusive political position. “How a feminist science-fiction character responds to a male-dominated world is one thing; how Butler’s black heroines respond to racist and sexist worlds is quite another” (Salvaggio 1984, 78). ((23)) By insisting on the presence of people of color in her narratives as normal, not exceptional, Butler also implicitly rejects the tokenism that categorizes her work primarily in terms of her identity as African American. ((24)) In both novels, children represent the survival of the community. In Sower the group welcomes and protects them on their travels North.
They embody the future that the adults are trying to create. The interactions of adults and children transcend the definition of the nuclear family, typical of feminist utopias: “The dissolution of the nuclear family and the de-emphasis on the biological link between mother and child leads to a redefinition of the parent-child relationship (Pearson 1977, 56). In Sower, parenting is not related to shared blood (several individual members in the group “adopt” children and every adult is responsible for every child’s well being). Lauren, herself a rather ”un-motherly” figure in the conventional sense in that she rejects the passivity regarding public/political life associated with that role throughout both novels, early on recognizes the growing solidarity between adults that the children’s dependency triggers. She realizes how responsibility for others, children or adults, can give meaning to life and can heal internal wounds: “taking care of other people can be a good cure for nightmares” (Sower 235).
Butler’s use of metaphors and structures that are reminiscent of tribal organization comments on the increasing tendency of contemporary society to alienate its members from each other. In the Earthseed community, the ordering principles are not hierarchies and a division of labor, but mutual respect, responsibility, and, formed by their current surrounding, the security of others. Thus, the sense of belonging, of being taken care of, extends from the children to every member of the community. In Sower, after a woman dies of a gun-wound during an attack, the group embraces her sister in a feeling of protection and solidarity: “In spite of your loss and pain, you aren’t alone. You still have people who care about you and want you to be all right. You still have family” (Sower 277). “Mothering” (i.e. behavior based on qualities associated in the West with women), becomes a fundamental characteristic of an Earthseed community.
Butler’s concept of mothering rejects the white stereotypical ideal of the nurturing, self-sacrificing mother within patriarchal society. Instead, it embodies involvement and commitment to the community at large that in principle is independent of gender. Unlike creators of separatist utopias, and more similar to writers like Marge Piercy, Butler extends the principle of mothering to men and draws them into the responsibility of parenting. In Talents, Butler further explores the question of origin – regarding physical birth as well as ideological belonging – when Lauren loses her daughter to the fascist government who gives away children of dissidents to regime-friendly couples. Larkin/Asha ends up living with her uncle Marcus, who keeps Lauren’s identity as her mother from her.
The girl’s removal from her mother and her origin problematizes issues of identity and biological origin. Larkin/Asha’s alienation from everything her mother stands for, including her rejection of the name she gave her, becomes a symbol for Lauren’s lost chance to pass on her belief to her descendants, and conveys a sense of loneliness that her status as “Mother of All” entails. The kidnapping of Acorn’s children and the loss this poses for the whole community, not just for their immediate families, is critical in understanding the subversive function of Earthseed communities and the threat their principles pose to the system. Here Butler touches on contemporary feminist concerns with families separated through totalitarian regimes in order to undermine the identity and self confidence of groups that disrupt dominant ideologies, such as in Argentina under the fascist regime. ((25))
The undermining of communities by removing their children also takes place under the “protection” of a “democratic” system, such as the placing of Native American children with white families that took place in the U.S. until the 1970s and that still affects tribes today; and the removal of children from their “unfit” mothers by the state today that especially affects women of color who face racism and poverty. ((26)) In Butler’s narratives, children represent the treasure of the community, the foundation of any future and shared identity as a group passed down from generation to generation. They are symbolic for the resistance against assimilation by a dominant group and secure the survival of values and beliefs. Their systematic removal from the community by the system undermines the basis of resistance, and is a tool for raising a regime-friendly generation. Now we are told that our children have been saved from our wickedness.
They’ve been given “good Christian homes.” […] The Crusaders deliberately divided siblings because if they were together, they might support one another in secret heathen practices or beliefs. But if each child was isolated and dropped into a family of good Christian Americans, then each would be changed. Parent pressure, peer pressure, and time would remake them as good Christian Americans. (Talents, 189, 237) ((27)) Butler builds the narrative structure in Talents around two conflicting concepts of leadership: one that encourages hate and homogenous cultural conventions on the one hand, and that which seeks diversity and justice on the other. With Lauren, Butler introduces the concept of a strong, spiritual leader to her feminist future vision. This strongly contrasts with the political leader of the Christian fundamentalists, Jarret, who later disappears from the political scene – a broken and insane man.
Lauren’s function as spiritual leader reflects the discursive and changing nature of Earthseed communities. At the end of Talents, her position has developed into almost mythical status, that of a High Priestess or a Mother to All. Yet evaluating Lauren’s role and decisions, a critical disruption takes place that complicates the binary construction of “good” and “bad” leader as well as the authority of utopian imagination. Her daughter, watching from afar, challengingly questions Lauren’s position as leader. Larkin/Asha defines her mother’s strength as controlling and manipulative, and reflects after her mother’s death on her “damned Earthseed” (Talents 9), accusing Lauren of a hidden hunger for personal power. Larkin/Asha not only doubts the vision of Earthseed itself, but also her mother’s motives for pursuing it. They’ll make a god of her. I think that would please her, if she could know about it. In spite of all her protests and denials, she’s always needed devoted, obedient followers – disciples – who would listen to her and believe everything she told them. And she needed large events to manipulate.
All gods seem to need these things. (Talents 7) Larkin/Asha’s critical perspective that opens the narrative in Talents interrupts the representation of Lauren as impartial leader of a movement at the end of Sower, and negates the utopian vision within the narrative by declaring it empty and artificial. She depicts her mother as a person driven by personal desires who works “hard to seduce people” (Talents 62), adding a ring of falsehood to Lauren’s visionary ambitions. Her daughter accuses Lauren of taking advantage of people’s vulnerability, physically and emotionally, when she “collects” them on her travels or when they come to seek refuge at Acorn by giving them an illusion, born by her mistaking her “fantasy for reality” (Talents 44). The daughter’s voice reflects Butler’s critical discussion of the limits of her own concept of leadership as well as the conflicting loyalties tied to it. I have wanted to love her and to believe that what happened between her and me wasn’t her fault. I’ve wanted that.
But instead, I’ve hated her, feared her, needed her. I’ve never trusted her though, never understood how she could be the way she was – focused, and yet so misguided, there for all the world, but never there for me. I still don’t understand. (Talents 7-8) The narrative significance of Larkin/Asha’s estrangement from her mother surfaces in its contrast to the central role children inhabit in Butler’s writing. As the lost daughter, the ideal foundation of her mother’s vision, Larkin/Asha’s voice disrupts the narrative voice that is intact in Sower. There Lauren’s journal entries become the movement’s history, and constitute a powerful, authentic narration. Lauren’s ability to read and write enables her to formulate her goals and to make them available to her “followers,” most of whom are illiterate at the time they join the community. Her skills place her in a position of mastery, as she metaphorically and actually “shapes” the voices of Earthseed’s people.
Yet, as Dubey points out, this does not result in social hierarchies since “the Earthseed community will erase all social distinctions deriving from literacy by ensuring all its members equal access to education” (10). Accordingly, the title of spiritual educators in Earthseed is not priest or preacher, but shaper. In Sower, the context of an individual’s spiritual journey and endurance that resists chaos and destruction frames the concepts of Earthseed. In Talents, a fragmented and split narration process critically reevaluates these concepts. This disruption takes place not just in regard to the persons speaking, but the positions and beliefs they hold and points to the complexity of utopian imagination when Larkin/Asha criticizes her mother’s authoritarian position as shaper and charges her with manipulating her role to her advantage in the service of Earthseed.
At the end of Talents, Earthseed, now a powerful and influential sect, launches the first shuttles to assemble a starship partly on the Moon and partly in orbit. Unable to go, Lauren is dead at 81 before the shuttle is ready to take on its journey to the stars. Lauren’s final prophetic entries into her journal stand in stark contrast to Larkin/Asha’s dismissal of her “long, narrow story” (Talents 362) as fantastic and irrelevant: “I know what I’ve done. I have not given them heaven, but I’ve helped them to give themselves the heavens. I can’t give them individual immortality, but I’ve helped them to give our species its only chance at immortality” (Talents 362-3).
UTOPIAN DESIRE AND POLITICAL STRATEGIES: CONCEPTS OF AGENCY
Earthseed becomes a metaphor for a political conviction that grows into a movement. Its Destiny (space flight) is the future goal that focuses the desire, while the Earthseed principles create utopian communities in the here and now. Without creating exclusive structures that define normative behavior, morality, and self-perception that theorists like Young criticize in the concept of the traditional “ideal community,” Earthseed provides a shared identity and life experience that are not based in a particular unified racial or cultural background. Above all, it provides for the survival of the human species – a crucial element throughout the two novels where Earthseed develops amidst a dystopian environment. The most powerful aspect from a feminist analysis is the concept of agency that Butler develops: the agent of change – of the utopian desire – is human, the individual in mutual relationship with a nurturing community, a partnership that allows resistance to oppressive structures.
The possibility to redefine fate is not determined by a prayer to an outside power, “God” (i.e. the appeal to a higher authority, may it be the state or other social institutions or a historical determinism), but by the community themselves. Change is the liberating element in Butler’s concept of utopian desire. Change defines Earthseed and becomes its major component, as encapsulated in the phrase “God is Change.” Change elevated in this manner declares “utopia” itself as a process, as something never completed. This is what makes this concept so valuable to the feminist discourse on utopian writing. The utopian locus, the world it conceptualizes, is automatically open and discursive; there is no one perfect community. The changing visions of people with diverse backgrounds and different experiences that need constant adapting and negotiating that constitute Butler’s utopia, echo Young’s unoppressive city. The binding element within this inconsistent utopian space that Butler creates is the shared notion that there is a better world – in what shape and in what form depends on the action of the people involved, and as a concept remains undefined.
Butler constructs change not as a frightening, but as a life-affirming principle, as a hope for a self-destructive, materialistic society immobilized by static social categories. This active force of transformation in Butler’s narratives defines them as open-ended utopias. Here it is the potential and its implications (and its relation to the dystopian environment that generates it) that constitutes the utopian moment and that allows for difference within a community. In addition to the concept of change, Butler creates metaphors of boundary transgression that implicate new ways of conceptualizing difference as part of a feminist subjectivity. Lauren suffers from “hyperempathy syndrome” (Sower 10) that Butler’s characters refer to as “sharing.” This new psycho-physiological disease is caused by the abuse of either parent of the drug Paracetco, a “smart pill,” before the birth of a child, and runs through both novels. A sharer experiences the physical sensations (pain as well as pleasure) of other people.
Their visual and acoustic expressions, such as the sight of a person shot, and cries of pain, transmit the other’s sensations onto the sharer. On their travels, Butler depicts sharing as a vulnerability, and in Talents, within the confines of the concentration camp, sharing is another instrument for torture since it transfers pain from other prisoners as well as pleasure from torturers onto their victims, such as during rape. Since it is next to impossible for a sharer to inflict pain on others without suffering, violence becomes only viable in self-defense. Though Butler introduces the affliction to the reader via the intimate channel of Lauren’s journal entries, the phenomenon develops from a single case into a social disease that increasingly informs personal as well as social interactions.
As a physical mechanism that prohibits the disconnection and alienation from others, sharing represents the painful and pleasurable process of crossing differences and of actually experiencing the other’s world beyond a mere willingness to understand it. Sharing blurs and shifts boundaries and discloses a stable, autonomous identity to be a myth – sharing becomes a symbol against the binary construction of self and other and thus constitutes a crucial metaphor for re-defining social relations in Butler’s narratives, as Lauren’s thoughts convey: But if everyone could feel everyone else’s pain, who would torture? Who would cause anyone unnecessary pain? I’ve never thought of my problem as something that might do some good before, but the way things are, I think it would help. I wish I could give it to people.
Failing that, I wish I could find other people who have it, and live among them. (Sower 105-106) Earthseed’s emphasis on change, the boundary crossings of sharing, and the value of diversity throughout the novels that reject the nostalgic notion of an original perfect past that the Christian fundamentalists are trying to revive (see Talents 23) is reminiscent of a Harawayan cyborg politics. Here the concept of change intersects with that of difference: as an inevitable principle, change can be shaped, thereby releasing difference from static identity/social politics. The metaphor of change as the center of feminist politics and theories adds a temporal aspect to what Trinh Minh-ha in Woman, Native, Other calls the “politics of differentiation” (82). Thus difference is not understood as an absolute, a given, that needs to be re-positioned in relation to identity; nor is it understood to be simply a historical moment created by economic and social relations. Instead, Butler acknowledges that just as identity is not stable, so difference is a shifting constituent.
The metaphor of change re-conceptualizes identity so that it “refers no more to a consistent ‘pattern of sameness’ than to an inconsequential patterns of otherness” (Trinh 95). Otherness, difference, becomes not an element to define oneself against, but an integer aspect of any concept of self, such as with Butler’s metaphor of sharing. This position allows a debate on difference that moves beyond the immobilizing “multiculturalism” that locks difference into an exotic and safely contained other, as well as beyond the static categories of identity politics that do not allow for difference to be articulated outside a defined political agenda. Butler contributes to feminist debates on how to negotiate difference by insisting on its transforming ability and on the inability to define categories of difference and their respective roles in social relations. The power of Butler’s narratives without question lies in the utopian desire and the resulting visions she describes. Yet, at the same time she is critical of the implicit politics of these visions, and the element of faith involved.
Through the different political strategies Lauren employs in her attempts to create Earthseed communities, Butler addresses problems feminist grassroots movements encounter. They give complex insight into the dynamics of the issues involved: In Sower, there is at first no system behind Lauren’s mission. She speaks about Earthseed to the people she meets, and wins over believers in the course of their journey. “She meant to make Earthseed a nationwide movement, but she had no idea how to do this” (Talents 141). Resistance in Sower manifests as pure survival, and oppression emanates from a capitalism gone mad. There is no system from which the group needs to protect itself. Instead, random violence and destruction of individuals terrorize through lack of social structure.
Butler constructs Earthseed as a political metaphor in contrast to the violent rhetoric and actions of the Christian Americans in Talents that echo the contemporary Religious Right’s ideological warfare on unassimilated others. Once the fascist regime takes over in Talents, the form of resistance must change. Oppression becomes systematic, and collaborators with the regime are political/ideological as well as capitalist. Reactionary fundamentalists, “Crusaders,” whose excesses of violence the fascist Right government tolerates, ((28)) destroy and transform Acorn into a Christian re-education camp in Talents and turn Lauren and her people into slaves and prisoners. After the destruction of Acorn and the systematic oppression of Earthseed as a dissident sect, Lauren changes her political strategies.
The vision of many small individual communities as the decentralized, flexible parts of her organization that convert their surroundings in the course of the years, “[she imagined] a Hazelnut, a Pine, a Manzanita, a Sunflower, an Almond…” (Talents 156), makes room for an organized political movement. Earthseed utilizes traditional liberal forms of political strategies including outreach projects, door to door campaigning, city hall events, and speeches at schools and universities, and the publication of Earthseed – the Book of the Living. Lauren initially resists the notion of winning people for her cause by impressing them through rhetoric and tactical reasoning. Later she realizes the strategic necessity to give up her insistence that religious faith precedes membership within the Earthseed community. Her contemplation echoes the concerns of political activists in how to turn their cause into a mass movement: I must create not a dedicated little group of followers, not only a collection of communities as I had once imagined, but a movement.
I must create a new fashion in faith – a fashion that can evolve into a new religion, a new guiding force, that can help humanity to put its great energy, competitiveness, and creativity to work doing the truly vast job of fulfilling the Destiny. (Talents 267) With this comes the realization that a movement needs financial resources and influence in political matters in order to achieve social change. By emphasizing issues they might find interesting, Lauren involves wealthy people who have enough political influence to protect the sect from further harassment from the Christian Americans before the Church eventually loses its power. Through these “supporters” (Talents 348), the movement gains in power and financial strength and eventually is in the position to actively pursue the Destiny.
Butler describes the shift from individual grassroots activism to an organized and strategic movement that includes forming alliances based on certain issues addressed in Earthseed, an important feminist tactic, also as problematic. In Sower, and in the beginning of Talents, Earthseed is a refuge for those the system oppresses, it constitutes a major site of resistance; while in the final part of Talents affluent new members of the movement “rescue” the disempowered, such as when Lauren is able to relocate some members of Acorn and gets them settled in safe environments provided by the supporters. On the one hand, this represents a concept of agency that empowers the disenfranchised through their negotiations with representatives of power, such as the anthropologist Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing argues in In the Realm of the Diamond Queen. A study on Indonesian forest tribes and their means of negotiating with colonial and postcolonial powers, this text similarly examines “the ways in which people actively engage their marginiality by protesting, reinterpreting, and embellishing their exclusion” (Tsing 5).
Lauren’s utilization of resources of people in power, and her persuasion of them to believe in Earthseed in order to empower those at the margin, echoes this concept of a displaced agency. On the other hand, the reader can understand the shift from small to large as a critique of feminist alliances with groups in power that compromise feminist political integrity: what began as a seemingly limitless potential to shape the world surrounding them becomes useless unless utilized within the context of already established power. This introduces the danger of defining and “naming” difference from privileged positions.
The Earthseed community builds itself around notions of equality and fairness, yet the true element of the utopian desire, change, seems limited to those already in power. This raises the question of the “utopian form [that] is already a miscegenation of sorts, a blending of pragmatic local concerns with transcendent idealism” (Green 169). Butler in the end opts for the pragmatic solution within her utopian vision, and with that speaks to concerns within feminist grassroots movements: With whom to ally? What compromises are acceptable, what is not open for negotiation? And above all, she addresses issues of agency and the potential to seize the moment and change the world around us, the promise of “All that you touch, you change.” NOTES
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Visions of Utopia.” Women in Search of Utopia: Mavericks and Mythmakers. Eds. Rohrlich, Ruby & Elaine Hoffman. New York: Schocken Books, 1984. 233-246. Foster, Frances S. “Octavia Butler’s Black Female Future Fiction.” Extrapolation 23 (1982): 37-49. Freibert, Lucy M. “World Views in Utopian Novels by Women.” Journal of Popular Culture 17 (1983): 49-60. Gant-Britton, Lisbeth. “Octavia Butler’s Parable of the sower [sic]: one alternative to a Futureless future.” Women of Other Worlds: Excursions through science fiction and Feminism. Eds. Helen Merrick and Tess Williams. University of Australia Press, 1999. 278-294. Gilroy, Paul. Black Atlantic. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993. Gomez, Jewelle. “Black Women Heroes: Here’s Reality, Where’s the Fiction?” The Black Scholar 17 (1986): 8-13. Govan, Sandra Y. “Connections, Links, and Extended Networks: Patterns in Octavia Butler’s Science Fiction.” Black American Literature Forum 18 (1984): 82-87. Green, Michelle. “There Goes the Neighborhood. Octavia Butler’s Demand for Diversity in Utopias.” Utopian and Science Fiction by Women: Worlds of Difference. Eds. Jane L. Donawerth and Carola A. Kolmerten. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1994. Haraway, Donna. “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s.” 1985. Feminism/Postmodernism. Ed. Linda Nicholson. London and New York: Routledge, 1990. —. Primate Visions: Gender, Race and Nature in the World of Modern Science. New York, London: Routledge, 1989. Higgenbotham, Evelyn Brooks. “African-American Women’s History and the Metalanguage of Race.” Signs 17 (1992): 9table-of-contents14. hooks, bell. Yearning: race, gender, and cultural politics. Boston: South End Press, 1990. Ladd-Taylor, Molly and Lauri Umansky, eds. “Bad” Mothers: The Politics of Blame in Twentieth-Century America. New York: NYU Press, 1998; Lefanu, Sarah. In the Chinks of the World Machine: Feminism and Science Fiction. London: The Women’s Press, 1988. Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider. Freedom, CA: The Crossing Press, 1984. Merrick, Helen and Tess Williams, eds. Women of Other Worlds: Excursions through science fiction and feminism. University of Australia Press, 1999. Miller Gearheart, Sally. “Future Visions: Today’s Politics: Feminist Utopias in Review.” Women in Search of Utopia. Eds. Ruby Rohrlich and Elaine Hoffman Baruch. New York: Schocken Books, 1984. —. The Wanderground: Stories of the Hill Women. Waterfront, Mass.: Persephone Press, 1979. Miller, Jim. “Post-Apocalyptic Hoping: Octavia Butler’s
Dystopian/Utopian Vision.” Science Fiction Studies 25 (1998): 336-360. Moylan, Tom. “Beyond Negation: The Critical Utopias of Ursula K. Le Guin and Samuel R. Delany.” Extrapolation 21 (1980): 236-253. Nicholson, Linda, ed. Feminism/Postmodernism. London New York: Routledge, 1990. Pearson, Carol “Of Time and Revolution: Theories of Social Change in Contemporary Feminist Science Fiction.” Women in Search of Utopia: Mavericks and Mythmakers. Eds. Ruby Rohrlich and Elaine Hoffman Baruch. New York: Schocken Books, 1984. —. “Women’s Fantasies and Feminist Utopias.” Frontiers 2 (1977): 55-61. Pfaelzer, Jean. “The Changing of the Avant Garde: The Feminist Utopia.” Science Fiction Studies 15 (1988): 282-294. Pryse, Majorie and Hortense J. Spillers. Conjuring: Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985. Rohrlich, Ruby & Elaine Hoffman, eds. Women in Search of Utopia: Mavericks and Mythmakers New York: Schocken Books, 1984. Russ, Joanna. “Recent Feminist Utopias.” Future Females: A Critical Anthology. Ed. Marleen S. Barr. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1981. 71-85. Salvaggio, Ruth “Octavia Butler and the Black Science-Fiction Heroine.” Black American Literature Forum 8 (1984). 78-81. —. “Octavia Butler.” Suzy McKee Charnas: Octavia Butler:Joan D. Vinge. Marleen S. Barr, Ruth Salvaggio and Richard Law. Mercer Island, WA. 1986. Sandoval, C. “U.S. Third World Feminism: The Theory and Method of Oppositional Consciousness.” Genders 10 (1991). 1-24. Shinn, Thelma J. “The Wise Witches: Black Women Mentors in the Fiction of Octavia E. Butler.” Conjuring: Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition. Eds. Majorie Pryse and Hortense J. Spillers. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985. 203-215. Somay, Bulent. “Towards an Open-Ended Utopia.” Science Fiction Studies 11 (1984): 25-38. Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. A Critique of Postcolonial Reason: Toward a History of the Vanishing Present. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 1999. Trinh T. Minh-ha. Woman, Native, Other. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989. Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. In the Realm of the Diamond Queen. New Jersey: Princeton, 1993. Walker, Alice. In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose. San Diego: Harcourt Publishers, 1983. Young, Iris Marion. “The Ideal of Community and the Politics of Difference.” Feminism/Postmodernism. Ed. Linda J. Nicholson. New York: Routledge, 1990. 300-323. ENDNOTES ((1)) Examples for works that conceptualize the interrelation of gender identity with race and class, as
well as nationality, include “African American Women’s History and the Metalanguage of Race,” by Evelyn Brook Higgenbotham, Feminism/ Postmodernism, edited by Linda Nicholson, Feminists Theorize the Political, edited by Judith Butler and Joan Scott, A Critique of Postcolonial Reason, by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, and Woman, Native, Other, by Trinh Minh-ha. ((2)) See Ernst Bloch’s study on utopian thought published in 1959, The Principle of Hope. ((3)) The activity of both feminist activists and theorists as writers of feminist utopias, one example being the cultural feminist Sally Miller Gearheart, also reflects the close connection of feminist politics and literary imagination. ((4)) For further discussion see Bammer, p. 160.
((5)) Dawn (1987), Adulthood Rites (1988), and Imago (1989). See for example Michelle Green’s ”There Goes the Neighborhood” and Donna Haraway’s Primate Visions. Articles that examine utopian aspects in Parable of the Sower include Madhu Dubey’s “Folk and Urban Communities in African-American Women’s Fiction,” Lisbeth Gant-Britton’s “Octavia Butler’s Parable of the sower [sic],” and Jim Miller’s “Post-Apocalyptic Hoping.” ((6)) For a discussion of social and political issues as they are conceptualized within feminist utopias, see: Frances Bartkowski, Feminist Utopias, Freibert, Lucy M., “World Views in Utopian Novels by Women,” Sally Miller Gearheart, “Future Visions: Today’s Politics: Feminist Utopias in Review,” Carol Pearson, “Of Time and Revolution: Theories of Social Change in Contemporary Feminist Science Fiction” and “Women’s Fantasies and Feminist Utopias,” and Joanna Russ, “Recent Feminist Utopias.” ((7)) For more information see Bartkowski, 6.
((8)) Both novels are part of a series of which the third book, Parable of the Trickster, is in work. ((9)) The metaphor of the journey inhabits a special role in the discourse on utopia. Bartkowski claims that the realization of the utopian desire in a literary utopia is an inner journey (Bartkowski, 4, 10). Butler works with this by sending her protagonist, the “carrier” of the utopian desire, onto a journey, where she develops and pursues this desire. ((10)) One example is Sally Miller Gearheart’s The Wanderground: Stories of the Hill Women. ((11)) The most prominent and oppressive account of a patriarchal totalitarian regime in feminist science fiction is Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, where also Christian fundamentalists restructure society. Atwood’s narrative is one example for feminists’ rejection of any society based on organized religion. ((12)) “They’re problem-solving sessions, they’re times of planning, healing, learning, creating, times of focusing, and reshaping ourselves” (Talents, 65). The goal is to celebrate people’s own agency (Sower, 197).
This organizing element of Earthseed as religion becomes, unlike in the Christian tradition that is contrasted with Earthseed especially in Talents, not a legitimizing tool for power structures and exclusion, but a means to discursively construct a shared future. ((13)) As a symbol of complete and absolute oppression Butler introduces electronic collars used on the prisoners by their tormentors, “also known as slave collars, dog collars, and choke chains” (Talents 80). With her devastating account of the effects of the collar on people, Butler directly comments on contemporary tendencies of using electronically controlled devices in prisons on inmates, such as the electronic belt. It is the escape from the collars that becomes Butler’s most powerful metaphor in Talents. ((14))
Butler’s perspective on reproductive technology of course echoes the theories Shulamith Firestone formulated over 30 years ago in The Dialectic of Sex (1970), whose radical envisioning of a reproduction “not of woman born” and rejection of motherhood as a liberating institution, also reflected in the utopia in Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), caused controversial reactions within feminist communities. ((15)) Dubey’s article discusses Butler’s novel in the context of African American writing and the urban crisis, and the resulting representation of the rural folk community as “a site where integral black communities can be imaginatively restored” (1). She points out how Butler’s writing on community “complicates influential current accounts of black women’s literary tradition” (2) by employing scientific modes of knowing and textual forms of communication instead of the magical epistemology of “conjuring” or oral tradition that occur in the writing of influential authors like Toni Morrison and Gloria Naylor. ((16))
Donna Haraway coined the term that indicates the commercially-used and socially and ideologically structured practice of science culturally manifested in semiotic systems of representation. Haraway argues that we need to resist technoscience, a complex net of economic, ideological, and political relationships defined by global capitalism, by appropriating its tools as well as its products, which both are embedded within cultural meaning. For a detailed analysis of the collapsing boundaries between nature and culture and the workings of technoscience, see Haraway’s Modest_Witness. ((17)) In opposition to Earthseed’s structures of gender equality and opposition to sexual violence, the Christian Americans are propagating gender relations based in traditional roles of strictly patriarchal Christian societies where women are considered inferior in all respects to men, and are subject to violence and punishment.
Above all, a woman is never allowed to hold a position of spiritual authority, where she might influence and guide a man’s fate. Lauren’s role as the spiritual leader of Earthseed directly challenges the Christian values promoted by fundamentalists not only in her novels, but also in U.S. society today. ((18)) For example the reproductive units in the Xenogenesis-series consist of two males, two females, and one androgynous gender – the terms of heterosexual pleasure define sexuality, never those between the same-sexed parents, despite the “mediating” role of the neutral gender, and reproduction. In Survivor (1978) Butler’s depiction of an alien species and cross-species reproduction do not incorporate any sexual relations outside the heterosexual matrix, either. ((19)) See Davis’ Women, Race and Class for a historical analysis of violence against African Americans in times of economic/political unrest in the U.S.A. ((20))
Lauren’s name already reflects her affirmative identity as African American: Lauren Oya Olamina Bankole, the last two surnames being African names adopted by her father and her husband, respectively, in the 1970s during the Black Power movement. Her African middle name is that of a Nigerian Goddess, and her status of matriarch, as well as Earthseed’s concept of growth and change, defies the notion of a white male God. ((21)) In Chapter 6 of Black Atlantic, Paul Gilroy speaks of African American leaders drawing on the first testament for inspiration in their attempt to gain freedom for their people, from Marcus Garvey to Martin Luther King. Biblical images of the enslaved and chosen people who will be led to a promised land construct analogies between African American leaders and Moses leading his people out of Egypt. Butler’s two novels refer to this tradition with their titles (both are taken from the bible), with the importance spirituality has in Lauren’s future vision, and with the Destiny in Earthseed that pronounces distant planets as the promised land. ((22))
See Dubey’s essay for an extensive discussion of this issue. ((23)) For further discussion on Butler’s black female characters, see Frances S. Foster, “Octavia Butler’s Black Female Future Fiction,“ Jewelle Gomez, “Black Women Heroes: Here’s Reality, Where’s the Fiction?” Ruth Salvaggio, “Octavia Butler,” Thelma J. Shinn, “The Wise Witches: Black Women Mentors in the Fiction of Octavia E. Butler,” and Sandra Y. Govan, “Connection, Links, and Extended Networks: Patterns in Octavia Butler’s Science Fiction.” ((24)) One aspect that does contradict Earthseed’s commitment to accepting and promoting diversity as its norm, is the prohibition of expressing or following other religious systems within the community. What in Sower appears like a quest to persuade others of Earthseed, in Talents is supported by an institutionalized exclusion of other beliefs, i.e. opinions (see Talents 145).
In her attempt to protect her utopian vision, Lauren, as the founder of Earthseed, sanctions the silencing of other believers within the community. Even though Earthseed does not aggressively and never with violence impress their belief system onto others, its politics of protection to remain a united whole gives it an exclusive frame, which stand in ironic contrast to the core of its definition: Change. ((25)) This issue that Butler addresses is the object of Rita Arditti’s impressive book that traces the attempts of women in Argentina to locate the children of their daughters and daughters-in-law that “disappeared;” i.e. were murdered, under the military regime in the 1980s: Searching for Life: The Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo and the Disappeared Children of Argentina. ((26))
For a critical view on social and state sanctions that punish and control “bad” mothers, especially in relation to poverty and racism in the U.S., see the essay compilation “Bad” Mother: The Politics of Blame in Twentieth-Century America. Eds. Molly Ladd-Taylor and Lauri Umansky, and Angela Davis, Chapter 12: “Racism, Birth Control and Reproductive Rights” in Women, Race, and Class. ((27)) Larkin/Asha’s alienation partly derives from the realization that her mother is a mother to all believers in Earthseed, that she would have to share her status as Lauren’s priority with the community. “I wonder what my life would have been like if my mother had found me. […] How long would it have been before she put me aside for Earthseed, her other kid? […] I was her weakness, Earthseed was her strength. No wonder it was her favorite” (Talents 265). ((28)) These self-organized groups that act in the name of Jarret who denies all connection with them, are reminiscent of Hitler’s SS (storm troops) in fascist Germany, and of the Serbian terror troops in the Bosnian and Kosovo war.