Saturday, September 11, 2010

Biopower and Sovereign Resistance in Octavia Butler's Xenogenesis Trilogy

       I wrote this for a Women's Studies seminar a while ago.  It was during my obsession with Octavia Butler, and I actually have another, longer essay on The Parable novels, written for Achille Mbembe's Political Theology class.  That work is much more polished than this, and may have publishing value.  This is a work that I am also pleased with, but I would need some revision and expansion to be even considered for that process.  Most notably, I would need to work through the concept of biopolitics more thoroughly, but I also would like to deal with Butler's often disturbing commitment to sociobiology in some more detail.  In addition, I would probably think about the fact that a kind of homophobia is intermixed in the misogyny of the men in the resistance community.  Needless to say, if I worked through this process, the essay would look quite different.  Still, I think that this makes some genuinely interesting claims.  I'm also including some footage of Butler, who is a provocative and interesting speaker, along with a brief live performance of the jazz suite produced by AACM member Nicole Mitchell that was inspired by the novels at the end of the post.

Biopower and Sovereign Resistance in the Xenogenesis Trilogy

      To begin with, the Xenogenesis trilogy is an ambitious set of books, and they make a number of large and serious claims about the construction of the human, the relationship of the human to alterity, race, colonization, etc. There is a way that the scope and ambition that this trilogy and many other science fiction series takes up the ambitious stakes taken up by the political novels of the 19th century. There is a way that I could deal with all of it in a limited space. I want to discuss a small element of that trilogy, the construction of human resistance to the Oankali. I want to read this in relation to the discussion that Foucault takes up in Society Must Be Defended and History of Sexuality, Vol. 1. The very mode of resistance that is used against the Oankali takes up the old modes of sovereignty. This mode of resistance is not only highly inadequate to the biopower that the Oankali invoke, but it also produces its logic through a form of misogyny, and bases its resistance in the domination of women

      In order to get to that question, there needs to be a bit of a detour. I am going to begin with a discussion of the overall plot. Then I am going to move into a discussion of the structure of Oankali society and its operation through the biopolitical. This will move us into a discussion of the resistance. This resistance is created within the preconditions that the Oankali create precisely to resist the return to what they saw as the worst qualities in human society, sovereignty and hierarchy. Both of these traits find their primary expression in the domination of women, and conversely, the fear of domination. The text will end with the ease of which these modes of resistance are circumvented in the end.

      The trilogy begins at the almost complete annihilation of the Earth due to a massive civil war. The remnants of humanity have been rescued by an alien raced called the Oankali, who have also restored the Earth’s environment to a point where it can be reinhabited. They have done this in order to colonize the planet, and to combine themselves with humanity, which they find both dangerous and highly desirable because of the “deadly contradiction” that they see in humanity. This contradiction is stated in the following terms by one of the Oankali. The first trait of that he mentions is intelligence, “the newer of the two characteristics.” The second is hierarchy, the older, more ingrained trait. “When human intelligence served it instead of guiding it, when human intelligence did not even acknowledge it as a problem, but took pride in it or did not even acknowledge it at all… That was like ignoring cancer.”[1]

      The Oankali are extremely attracted to this deadly combination. There are two primary differences between humans and Oankali. The first is the issue of hierarchy as discussed, but the second deals with the question of alterity. Where humans fear difference, the Oankali seek it out. One of the Oankali puts it in these terms, “We’re not hierarchical, you see. We never were. But we are powerfully acquisitive. We acquire new life—seek it, investigate it, manipulate it, sort it, use it. We carry the drive to do this in a minuscule cell within a cell—a tiny organelle within every cell of our bodies.”[2] This desire for the other is both expressed in terms of biology—the other is thought of in terms of traits, genes, etc., and it is also explained in terms of biology, the drive is contained in an organelle that defines every part of the Oankali body.

     This drive to the other is, in fact, a form of “biopolitics of the population” to use Foucault’s term. In The History of Sexuality, Foucault argues that this form of power “focused on the species body, the body imbued with the mechanics of life and serving as the basis of the biological process; propagation, births and mortality, the level of health, life expectancy and longevity… Their supervision was effected through an entire series of interventions and regulatory controls: a biopolitics of the population.”[3] The notion of biopolitics is tied to a highly ambivalent set of political transformations within the modern capitalist world system. On one hand it’s linked to a concern with health, with working conditions, education, and inoculations for disease, on the other hand it is linked to the mass death of total war and the Nazi Holocaust. Simultaneously, nearly every modern social struggle accepts and operates within its logic, from struggles by workers, to feminism, to anti-poverty campaigns.

     This translates neatly into the engagement that the Oankali have with other species. They look to other species in order to make a “trade” to use the terms of the book. What this trade consists of is exchanging what is strongest in the Oankali with what is strongest in the trade species in order to produce something new that is a combination of the two. This is carried out by the figure of the ooloi, the “treasured stranger” who acts as a third sex and intermediary with other species. This figure both carries out the genetic experimentation that decides allows for the Oankali to decide what the new species will look like, creating the space for the intervention on the level of the population. It also carries out this task on the most intimate level, concerning itself with the reproduction of the family, the care of the individuals involved in it, etc.

      The Oankali are a profoundly ambivalent construction. At one time, they are both egalitarian to a utopian level and at the same time they represent colonial extraction in its perfect form. They take up Foucault’s notion of the new form of sovereignty literally, that is the shift from “the right to take life or let live” to an emphasis on cultivating life and letting die.[4] The Oankali take anything that is placed in front of them and either isolate it to the point of death or incorporate it into itself, as an act to enhance both. This process literally consumes the earth as the Oankali constructs continually allude in their inner monologue, but rarely express aloud.

      How would she have reacted if he had told her all he knew—that it was not only the descendents of Humans and Oankali who would eventually travel through space in newly mature ships. It was also much of the substance of Earth. And what was left behind would be less than the corpse of a world. It would be small, cold, and as lifeless as the moon. Maturing Chkahichdahk left nothing useful behind. They had to be worlds in themselves for as long as it took the constructs in each one to mature as a species and find another partner species to trade with.[5]

     This process, which is simultaneously completely colonizing and completely egalitarian, is normally done over an extended period of time, but the contradiction that is contained in humans, evidently doesn’t allow for this. The Oankali must force the process to some extent because of both their fear and their desire.

     "Once it was restored, we knew that we couldn’t carry on a normal trade. We couldn’t let you breed alongside of us, coming to us only when you saw the value of what we offered. Stabilizing a trade that way takes too many generations. We needed to free you—the least dangerous of you anyway. But we couldn’t let your numbers grow. We couldn’t let you begin to become what you were."[6]

      The cause of this is this very old form of sovereignty that continues to haunt human society, the creation of hierarchy through the ability to kill or let live. Butler’s conception of humanity, at least expressed in this book, argues with the transition that Foucault presents. She is arguing that this older form of sovereignty, at least the forms of hierarchy expressed in it, lives in the new forms. For Butler, the biopolitical for humans has a lot more to do with Agamben’s conceptualization of it, not because of the implication of Armageddon, which is of course contained in Foucault. Instead, because it conceptualizes the impetus behind biopower as being defined by the older, more ingrained trait of hierarchy. This can very easily be read as the sovereign’s right to kill, or to create a state of exception as Agamben argues.

     This fear produces the effects that the Oankali most fear. It returns to the old trope of Foucault’s that “where there is power, there is resistance, and yet, or consequently, this resistance is never in a position of exteriority to power.”[7] The Oankali effort to preempt sovereignty then becomes the mode of reinstating it as a mode of resistance. In effect, the Oankali enhance the quality that they most want to avoid. This sentiment is expressed by one of the resisters Tate Marah, “Oankali drove us to become what we are. If they hadn’t tampered with us, we’d have children of our own. We could live in our own ways, and they could live in theirs,”[8]

     Resistance is therefore defined by the quality of sovereignty. It returns to the old Lockean notion that to be free is to control one’s properties, only the property that is primary is no longer one’s labor, but one’s ability to reproduce. This gets expressed by the desire for the human body to operate in a space that is completely autonomous to the Oankali. I want to read the recourse to sovereignty in two valiances, the first is as Foucault discusses an inadequate mode of resistance to structures of disciplinary and biopower that are deployed by the Oankali, but more importantly as a misunderstanding of the aims and desires of the Oankali colonization itself. This will be later linked to a conceptualization of gender that reinforces the notions of domination that are contained in that old Lockean model, but let’s look at the Foucault first to understand the place of sovereignty that plays in so much resistance.

      That is why we now find ourselves in a situation where the only existing and apparently solid recourse we have against the usurpations of disciplinary mechanics and against the rise of a power that is bound up with scientific knowledge is precisely a recourse or a return to a right that is organized around sovereignty, or that is articulated on that old principle. Which means in concrete terms that when we want to make some objection against disciplines and all the knowledge-effects and power-effects that are bound up with them, what do we do in concrete terms? What do we do in real life?… We obviously invoke right, the famous old formal, bourgeois right. And it is in reality the right of sovereignty. And I think that at this point we are in a sort of bottleneck, that we cannot go on working like this forever; having recourse to sovereignty will not enable us to limit the effects of disciplinary power.[9]

     The practical context for Foucault’s remarks, the fact that the only recourse to resistance can be expressed through a discourse of rights, has even more meaning in the context of the novels. After all, the humans have no means to reproduce outside of accepting the terms laid out by the Oankali. They are put in the position of either aiding in the biopolitical project or being allowed to die off. In their response, they express their grievance in terms of a loss of control. This loss of control is also strongly placed within gendered terms. It is worth remembering that most notions of republican popular sovereignty are based on the male citizen’s control over the household. After all, they are generally drawing from the Roman model that operates out of a logic of patriarchy. He can see this in a future resister’s words.

     “They won’t,” Gabriel told her later. He too was free of the drug, finally, but he was handling it better. Kahguyaht, who had been so eager to push Lilith, coerce her, ridicule her, seemed to be infinitely patient with Tate and Gabriel.

     “Look at things from Curt’s point of view,” Gabriel said. “He’s not in control of what his own body does and feels. He’s taken like a woman and…. No, don’t explain!” He held up his hand to stop her from interrupting. “He knows the ooloi aren’t male. He knows all the sex that goes on is in his head. It doesn’t matter! Someone it pushing all his buttons. He can’t let them get away with that.”[10]

     This becomes the primary rhetorical trope for understanding the actions of the actions of the Oankali in taking away the ability to reproduce. This needs to be understood within two contexts, the first is the type of power that is being expressed, and the second is the way that gender gets configured in that understanding of power. Let’s deal with the first problem. Instead of understanding this in the context of biopower, it is understood in the old Roman sense, the power to dominate. This misunderstanding produces the entire structure of the resister villages. They become little fiefdoms that mirror their interpretation of the Oankali that they are trying to resist. This translates into increasing violence between the resister villages as the series goes on. They translate their inability to act violently towards the Oankali into violence upon each other. So just as the Oankali produce the resistance they were avoiding, the human resisters produce the logic they read on the Oankali amongst themselves.

     The structure of logic also operates on the logic of a certain logic of domination based on gender. After all, the power that is taken away is constituted on the basis of male activity and female passivity. This logic is already being arranged on the ship itself. When one of the women, Allison, refuses to operate in the sexual contract that was assumed by the figures that would form the basis of the resisters, they responded with an attempted rape. The leader of the group, Curt, makes this statement, “We pair off!” Curt bellowed, drowning her [Allison] out. “One man, one woman. Nobody has the right to hold out. It just causes trouble.”[11]

     Although Curt’s act of violence in the end of the first novel lead him to be kept on the ship the logic that he sets out in this statement becomes the primarily logic for the resisters’ society. This takes two forms. The first is that women become the most valuable medium of exchange on the planet. The narrative points to this subtly in the initial description of Phoenix City, the prime resistance city. “But Phoenix was also the richest resister village they knew of. It sent people into the hills to salvage metal from prewar sites and had people who knew how to shape the metal. It had more women than any other village because it traded metal for them.”[12] The exchange of women, like the exchange of metal becomes the basis of the society, both are commodities, and operate on the same logic of exchange.

     The other side of this structure is an economy of rape. This occurs at two moments, the first is moment of the raid. The resister society is built upon nomadic groups of resisters who trade and raid depending on the strength of the society. Where women become a commodity through the first form of objectification, rape becomes the form of theft in the raid. The economy of rape also operates when women are on their own. This becomes a sign of abjection. The logic of this is expressed by one of the characters that is captured on her own. “I was on my way to Lo. When I passed their village, they took me from my canoe and raped me and called me stupid names and made me stay in their pigsty village. The men kept me shut up in an animal pen and they raped me. The women spat on me and put dirt or shit in my food because the men raped me.”[13] By being travelling alone, she was out of the contract of sovereignty and therefore was placed into a state of exception, a state that nonetheless allows for everything else to work.

      The eventual negotiation of this conflict takes the form of yet another act of colonization. Those resisters who want to live outside of the influence of the Oankali can go to Mars, the sight of colonization for so many novels. The irony is that the Oankali see this as the most despicable thing that they could do the humans. In explaining what the act would mean to Akin, the construct that argues for the colonization of Mars. “Understand that, Akin; it is a cruelty. You an those who help you will give them the tools to create a civilization that will destroy itself as certainly as the pull of gravity will keep their new world in orbit around the sun.”[14] From their perspective, the self-destructive drive of humanity, the drive that led to the genocidal war, is completely biological. The act of colonization is merely an invitation to replicate what had occurred before.

      The second irony is that this invitation could have only occurred due to the act of miscegenation that was the primary threat that drove the revolt in the first place. The possibility for even the possibility of another existence is completely dependent on the Oankali, just as the existence of humanity was saved by them. Without the Oankali constructs, there was no way that the offer would have ever been made. They could translate the desires of the resister population into terms that were meaningful to the Oankali. They are also the only ones who can produce the conditions for the humans to move to Mars environmentally. The only way for the resistance of the humans could be made productive was precisely by linking the desire for freedom to something other than the desire for sovereignty.

      The results of this venture are left nebulous by the novels. One is never quite sure what happens on Mars. The only reference to this is the frequent reference to the resister population going to Lo to be transported. One is never sure if it produces the third term that Foucault is looking for, “a new right that is both antidisciplinary and emancipated from the principle of sovereignty.”[15] The impression given by the book is that the prospects for this new structure of humanity are fairly bleak. In a sense, the primary accomplishment of the colonization of Mars is that it allows for the goals of the Oankali to be completed more efficiently. Those who are not going to cooperate are placed outside of the Earth. But more significantly, it puts the population in contact with the Oankali once more, allowing for more contact to occur.

      The novel instead finds its ending in another act of seduction, this time on the part of the first human born, ooloi construct, Jodahs. Jodahs and its sibling become the conduit for circumventing the structures of human resistance. They simply become more adept at the act of seduction. The “talent” that the ooloi Nikanj has for humans is expanded and intensified. The interaction that the two have with a resister village at the end of the novel shows the futility of the resisters more than any of its other contradictions.

     The irony is that the village that they entered represented one of the strongholds of the resistance to the Oankali. They built this resistance off of a understanding of the world that was both patriarchal and deeply tied to a religious faith that could be best described as superstitious, reading the Oankali as a form of demon. But this falls apart when the Oankali enter. The structures that they have set up are futile in the face of this form of power that is so alien to their understanding of power.

     The contradiction is expressed in its strongest form with the interaction of Jodahs with one of the village elders.

     “He had been resisting for a century. He had been teaching children that people like me were devils, monsters, that it was better to endure a disfiguring, disabling genetic disorder than to go down from the mountains and find the Oankali.  He lay down on the bed, eager rather than afraid, and when I lay down beside him, he reached out and pulled me to him, probably in the same way he reached out for his human mate when he was especially eager for her.[16]

    With this new form of biopower, the resistance of so many years of superstition and patriarchal logic go out the window. The ooloi are initially taken prisoner, but the possibility of healing and all of the other benefits presented by the Oankali radically shifts the relationship between the population and the Oankali. The novel ends with the community deciding to stay on Earth and setting up a new community with the Oankali. The irony is that the Oankali succeed only at the point when humans are given the choice of free association that was given to the other species engaged.

    The ending is an ambivalent moment despite the great joy that is expressed in its conclusion. There is something disconcerting in it. I don’t mean this as a critique, but instead as a commentary of its uniqueness. Instead of ending in the space of freedom as expressed by the escape from the alien, it finds its moment of freedom both in the embrace of the alien, but also in the production of a freedom that goes through the production of biopower, perhaps to another form, rather than around it through an act of sovereignty. It also puts a great deal of doubt on the possibilities of the human. This is the point where I am perhaps most critical. After all, despite the interesting politics that it contains, there is still a strong degree of a progressive notion of time contained within. While I am not particularly attracted to the image of the fall that is offered by visions of the primitive as a moment of purity before the introduction of technology I am also suspicious of the notion that the narrative is progressive, from hierarchy to intelligence. We are left, perhaps at the same aporitic moment.

[1]Octavia Butler, Dawn (New York: Warner Books, 1987), 37.
[2] Octavia Butler, Dawn (New York: Warner Books, 1987), 39.
[3] Michel Foucault, History of Sexuality, Vol. 1, Trans., Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), 139.
[4] Michel Foucault, History of Sexuality, Vol. 1, Trans., Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), 136.
[5] Octivia Butler, Adulthood Rites (New York: Warner Books, 1988), 119.
[6] Octivia Butler, Adulthood Rites (New York: Warner Books, 1988), 41-42.
[7] Michel Foucault, History of Sexuality, Vol. 1, Trans., Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), 95.
[8] Octivia Butler, Adulthood Rites (New York: Warner Books, 1988), 154.
[9] Michel Foucault, “Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the College de France 1975-1976, trans., David Macey, Ed., Arnold I. Davidson (New York: Picador Books, 2003), 39.
[10] Octavia Butler, Dawn (New York: Warner Books, 1987), 203.
[11] Octavia Butler, Dawn (New York: Warner Books, 1987), 177.
[12] Octivia Butler, Adulthood Rites (New York: Warner Books, 1988), 98.
[13] Octavia Butler, Imago (New York: Warner Books, 1989), 58.
[14] Octavia Butler, Imago (New York: Warner Books, 1989), 233-234.
[15] Michel Foucault, “Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the College de France 1975-1976, trans., David Macey, Ed., Arnold I. Davidson (New York: Picador Books, 2003), 40.
[16] Octavia Butler, Imago (New York: Warner Books, 1989), 195.

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