CW: Ableism, body horror, oppression
In her introduction to Octavia's Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements (AK Press, 2015), Co-Editor Walidah Imarisha writes, "Whenever we try to envision a world without war, without violence, without prisons, without capitalism, we are engaging in speculative fiction. All organizing is speculative fiction." Imarisha goes on to envision forms of organizing which, like Octavia E. Butler's science fiction writings, can "claim the vast space of possibility … birthing visionary stories." She notes, in a succinct yet expansive passage, the way that Butler's fiction "explored the intersection of identity and imagination, the gray areas of race, class, gender, sexuality, love, militarism, inequality, oppression, resistance, and—most important—hope." #BecauseofOctavia we can see that the resistances imagined in Butler's fiction are complex, poised through and against many hierarchies at once.
This short essay will seek to examine two of Butler's novels in light of their reimagined depiction of what has classically viewed as the "monstrous," reimagined as bodies that resist—materially, interpretively, categorically: her novel with the shapeshifter Anwanyu at its heart, Wild Seed, and her perhaps lesser-known final vampire novel, Fledgling, with the vampire, Shori, as its symbiotic nerve center.
Wild Seed is the story of two powerful beings: Doro, whose people descended from the Kingdom of Kush, Egypt's ancient rival, is a sort of creature compared to the Igbo Ogbanje (og-ban-yay) spirits, and is able to possess and inhabit bodies, leaping from one body to the next, but needing to kill to do so; Anwanyu, a shapeshifter, who can both wound and heal bodies, molding herself into fluid forms and transformations, would rather not kill unless absolutely necessary. The two simultaneously become enemies, allies, and lovers. It's a paradise; it's a warzone. Doro's goal, tied up in genetic engineering, is to gather together those like them, breeding their special abilities via an eugenics program so that his people can take their own form without having to hide. He thus possesses a slave ship of sorts, but one in which the passengers can "freely" travel the decks as the ship travels over a speculative Middle Passage very different from the horrific historical reality. Similarly, in his New York breeding settlement, a measure of "freedom" is given to those who obey him. But in Anwanyu he finds a resistance of a different sort, which he hasn't anticipated: she is "wild seed," or untameable, uncontrollable in her powers of transformation, which makes her dangerous.
Anwanyu says, "'Did you think I could take only one [shape]?' She began molding her malleable body into another shape. 'I took animal shapes to frighten my people when they wanted to kill me,' she said." They'd been suspicious of her longevity, strength, and her healing ability—the mark of a "witch":
'I became a leopard and spat at them. They believed in such things, but they do not like to see them proved. Then I became a sacred python, and no one dared harm me. The python shape brought me luck. We were needing rain then to save the yam crop, and while I was a python, the rains came. The people decided my magic was good and it took them a long time to kill me again.' She was becoming a small, well-muscled man as she spoke.
Doro is both repelled by and attracted to her, and she to him:
Anwanyu had too much power. In spite of Doro's fascination with her, his first inclination was to kill her. He was not in the habit of keeping people alive he could not control absolutely. But if he killed her and took over her body, he would get only one or children from her before he had to take a new body. Her longevity would not help him keep her body alive … but she had too much power. In her dolphin form, and before that, in her leopard form, Doro had discovered that his mind could not find her.
Eventually, she goes fully "wild," no longer able to be controlled as breeding stock.
In some ways, this story of Anwanyu is a Frankenstein story, with Doro as the mad scientist figure bent on reanimation of bodies and construction of new species, but all stories of animalistic transformation share something of the werewolf as well: liminal, malleable, and, in this fluidity of form, resistant.
Butler's late vampire novel, Fledgling, which was planned to be the first of a trilogy, describes other kinds of transformation and resistance by remaking the figure of the classical vampire. The vampires in Butler's novel, the Ina, are overwhelmingly not malevolent, instead feeding on willing humans, called symbionts. Shori, the main character, is a human-vampire hybrid, a dark-skinned Ina who was the result of a genetic experiment to create a vampire resistant to sunlight, and thus can be awake during the day. Though she feeds on symbionts, the relation is more mutualistic. She is hated by the Silks, a group of other vampires, who fear her "impure" hybridity which is seen as "degenerate."
How are monsters and aliens made? How are utopias made? How are dreams and nightmares permitted or encouraged and how do they subvert, both in ideology and in literary tradition more generally? How do those who have the monstrous or the alien imposed upon them in raced and gendered ways remake themselves and these labels? On the flip side, must all utopias or even all dystopias be reductively, narrowly reduced only to a monstrosity that recapitulates capitalism, as some would have it? I think not, and will argue for a more nuanced view, thinking through the monster's role in many critical utopian and critical dystopian stories as a site of radical alterity and of resistance.
Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, arguably the first science fiction novel ever written, is also a horror story that draws from 18th century gothic tradition, is full of "sutures" (literally and figuratively), "becomings," and "unbecomings." The monster, in this case, literally sutured together from the stolen limbs of corpses, is reanimated by the electricity of "animal magnetism," a conceit informed by the scientific (or pseudoscientific) theories of Franz Mesmer in Shelley's era. The monster in the novel, far from the unspeaking creature of the 1936 film or of later film and other popular depictions, is full of speech, sophisticated argument, and self-aware of the causes of his own alienation and exclusion:
Remember that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam; but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed. Everywhere I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded. I was benevolent and good—misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous.
The monster speaks these lines after Victor Frankenstein hurls epithets at him ("fiend," etc.), refusing to confer any form of kindness upon him. This monster is not only a product of material conditions and their accompanying affective-social relations, but has theorized his own oppression, politics, and defense in favor of virtue. There is anarchist political philosophy and thinking underlying the creature's rejoinder as well—of the arguments against state power of William Godwin, Mary Shelley's father, who wrote in Political Justice (1783) of the state's implication in these oppressions, the argument the monster makes about his "fiendishness" as materially and socially produced:
A perverse conduct tends to the production of confusion and violence. A government that employed every species of persecution against those who should desire its reform, and that involved the country over which it presided in war, for the purpose of checking or exterminating sentiments of reason and equality, would do harm, and not good. It might indeed defeat its own purposes; but it would produce resentment and contention. It might excite a revulsion in the public mind against its designs; but this revulsion would be the offspring of irritation, and not of the understanding. Diminish the irritation, and the progress of real knowledge would be more substantial and salutary.
This pairing with persecution as source of "perverse" conduct informs the novel. In one of her prefaces or epigraphs to the novel, Mary Shelley says, "I bid my hideous creation to go forth and prosper," perhaps implicating, with humor, the author in monstrous production and in "unnatural" birth or creation of the female author, an act which was often said at the time to defy the ”natural” place of gender. As a 19-year-old young woman writing the first science fiction novel after at least one near-fatal miscarriage, Mary Shelley's use of the metaphor of a "monstrous" birth or creation may be seen as even more powerful.
So what, then, happened to the monster's voice, which is so effusive in the novel? How should we historicize this erasure? At what point did the loss of voice occur? Butler's Anwanyu is seen as a threat, called witch, a Wild Seed due to her refusal to submit, to stop speaking out against the oppressions that Doro perpetuates. In Black Frankenstein, Elizabeth Young, considering the history and use of black Frankenstein figures throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, argues that the uses of the monstrous in narratives of black Frankenstein figures function to humanize the slave, explain black violence, condemn the slaveowner, and "expose the instability of white power." Countering the argument that mere narratives have no material powers, and asserting that "metaphors matter to culture and thought," she analyzes the ways in which these raced narratives are deployed to reinforce racial and class hierarchy, but even more powerfully to shape and inform anti-racist critiques. She also traces the loss of voice of the monster through different representations:
In Shelley's novel, the monster had no name because his identity had been systematically denied him, and he gave eloquent voice to that denial. As the novel circulated in nineteenth-century theater, however, the creator's name assigned to him displaced the novel's careful exploration of the political consequences of namelessness. He lost his voice.
This erasure is also an "unbecoming" of the kind to which the initial question refers. In fact, in her afterword, Elizabeth Young also examines Glen Ligon's 1998 retrospective "Unbecoming," oilslick paintings on paper which use partially-obscured, darkened or dissolving quotations of Frankenstein's monster in order to "highlight precisely these two notions of unbecoming—erasure and unattractiveness—as [the quotation] moves from a desire for self-expression to the utterance of uncouth sounds.'"
Bodies and "Monstrous Gender"
In "Imitation and Gender Insubordination," Judith Butler argues that heterosexuality is constantly producing spectres which are really attempts to enforce binaries of gender which uphold compulsory heterosexuality (in some ways like Marx's metaphor of the commodity-form embodied by the phantasmatic tables in Capital). She warns, "Reconsider the homophobic charge that queens and butches and femmes are imitations of the heterosexual real," noting that "heterosexuality is always in the process of imitating and approximating its own phantasmatic idealization of itself—and failing." This binary-gendered production of the monstrous "man" and "woman" as categories creates "ontologically consolidated phantasms."
Jack Halberstam's Skin Shows examines horror and the gothic as a technology which is produced. Responding to Carol Clover's pivotal argument in Men, Women and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film—that the male gaze is projective, allowing the identification of the male with the "final girl," the last to be killed in "slasher" movies, in a way that "feminizes" the audience but simultaneously empowers them—Halberstam critiques the binary categories which underlie conventional monster-making but also imagines a queer potential in the reinvention of "monstrous" gender:
Monster-making, I have argued throughout, is a suspect activity because it relies upon and shores up conventional humanist binaries. The technology of monsters when channeled through a dangerous woman with a chain saw becomes a powerful and queer strategy for enabling and activating monstrosity as opposed to stamping it out … While Clover's formulation of the final girl and her function as a channel for the male gaze is compelling, there is a way in which she remains caught in a gender lock. The world of female victims and male monsters remains intact in Clover's reading and only lines of identification or gazes shift focus. What I want to argue is that the final girl, particularly as embodied by Stretch [of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2], represents not boyishness or girlishness but monstrous gender, a gender that splatters, rips at the seams, and then is sutured together as something much messier than male or female.
Similarly, he critiques Linda Williams' formulation, which claims while "the male look expresses conventional fear from that which differs from itself," the female look "shares the male's fear of the monster's freakishness, but also recognizes the sense in which its freakishness is similar to her own difference." He argues that not only is this new gender a "monstrous gender," but a gender which displays a post-humanness.
Mel Y. Chen begins her intersectionally materialist feminist book, Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering and Queer Affect, by "draw[ing] upon recent debates about sexuality, race, environment, and aﬀect to consider how matter that is considered insensate, immobile, deathly, or otherwise 'wrong' animates cultural life in important ways." One might also say that this is the matter of the monster, "monstrous matter," bodies built upon sutured hierarchies and resistances. Chen says,
Animacies interrogates how the fragile division between animate and inanimate—that is, beyond human and animal—is relentlessly produced and policed and maps important political consequences of that distinction. The concept of animacy undergirds much that is pressing and indeed volatile in contemporary culture, from animal rights debates to biosecurity concerns, yet it has gone undertheorized. This book is the first to bring the concept of animacy together with queer of color scholarship, critical animal studies, and disability theory.
As I am writing this I am writing it with a somewhat terrifying symbiotic companion, having gone through my first chemotherapy treatment yesterday. It is the stuff of science fiction and horror: a "remote on-body injector" which, I am told, will deliver an injection of a drug which will counteract the loss of white blood cells, the healing and fighting cells. I feel a little vampiric. Is this device a vampire, or am I the vampire, needing the means to my blood's nourishment after ingesting a substance through my veins which will both wound and heal me? What would Anwanyu think of this device, when she could simply taste of the flesh through her own body and see what was wrong in the tissues of the body, healing that body, or morphing into it, if she chose, a different sort of internal technology? What about Shori the Ina whose powerful venom can also provide mutual support to her symbionts? I think about this as I read Mel Y. Chen's discussion of animacy, which begins with her own experience of "chronic illness—an illness that has aﬀected me not only physically, but spatially, familially, economically, and socially, and set me on a long road of thinking about the marriage of bodies and chemicals." Later Chen speaks of the importance of "An environmental history of toxic objects" that "must minimally register the gendered, laboring, and chronically toxically exposed bodies of globalized capital," noting the ways that these exposures are raced, gendered and classed.
L. Timmel Duchamp argues that Wild Seed provided an alternative, which we might also call a resistance, to the "white bourgeois narrative, premised on the notion of … individualism" that feminist writers had been using as the prototype for their liberation stories. She argues that by not following the "all-or-nothing struggle" depicted in Western fiction, Wild Seed better represented the hard compromises that real women must accept to live in a patriarchal, oppressive society. This too, is a resistance represented by the sutured, malleable, fluid, transformative bodies in Octavia Butler's work—a story of survival and refusal, in which bodies and minds powerfully resist and transform: "So it is better to speak / remembering / we were never meant to survive," as Audre Lorde says.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
JEANINE ONORI WEBB (she/they) is a poet, artist, organizer and a PhD candidate in Literature at UC San Diego. Her research focuses on poetry and poetics in relation to radical politics. Her poetry has been published in many journals, including Lana Turner, ARMED CELL, The Capilano Review, The West Wind Review, The Antioch Review, SPECTRUM, Star*Line, ZYZZYVA, Jupiter 88 and in the collaborative poetry pamphlet Poetry is Not Enough, with two poems forthcoming in Lumen. Her essays have been published on ON Contemporary Practice's .pdf Archive Series, Steve Evans's Attention Span and on The Poetic Labor Project. A feature on her poetry, edited by Perwana Nazif, is forthcoming in Cold Cut Magazine. Some current or forthcoming book projects which feature her work include the San Diego Writers' Anthology A Year In Ink Vol.3 (2010), the Now That's What I Call Poetry Anthology (2016), The Alette in Oakland Reader (Bay Area Public School/Hearts Desire, 2016) and Occupy Poetics (Essay Press, 2015). When she can afford to, she publishes the bilingual, cartonera-style handmade journal, TACOCAT.
Butler, Judith. "Imitation and Gender Insubordination." The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader. New York: Routledge, 1993.
Butler, Octavia E. Fledgling: Novel. 1st ed. New York: Seven Stories, 2005.
Butler, Octavia E. Wild Seed. New York: Grand Central, 2001. Print. Patternist Ser.
Chen, Mel Y. Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2012
Godwin, William. Political Justice. Book 4, Chapter 11. Anarchy Archives, n.d. Web. 01 Aug. 2016.
Halberstam, Judith. Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters. Durham: Duke UP, 1995.
Imarisha, Walidah, Adrienne M. Brown, and Sheree R. Thomas. Octavia's Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements, A.K. Press, 2015.
Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. Frankenstein. New York: Penguin Deluxe Classics, 2007.
Young, Elizabeth. Black Frankenstein: The Making of an American Metaphor. New York: New York UP, 2008.