Octavia Butler’s five selected stories all illuminate the tautological co-construction of ableism and the idea of the human. How the idea of the human is defined is always about what s/he is able to do, with the non-human others existing in opposition to human as someone/something who/which is unable to do. Those behaviors that are universally defined as what human beings are able to do are highlighted as the evolved nature of human. The behaviors that human beings are unable to do or can be done by both human and non-human beings are, on the other hand, being neglected, ignored, or hidden. Here are some examples. For Rene Descartes, as I have mentioned in the first lecture note, the Man is the only being who can think, as Descartes concluded in his famous claim, “I think therefore I am.” The ability to think is a mark of the human. For Immanuel Kant, the Man is the only being who can use the instrumental Reason to perceive the world. The non-human beings are unable to do the same because they are not given by the God such an ability and are just mechanically moved by the Natural Law or by Man’s instrumental Reason. For Frantz Fanon and Cassius (from “Sorry to Bother You”), the overrepresented modern Man differentiates himself from the colonized with the idea of language. That’s why Fanon and Cassius had to mimic the “authentic way” of “human speaking” in order to transform themselves into real human beings.
We can make an interesting connection between the mimicry of language with the communication disability in Butler’s “Speech Sound.” From the ableist modern Man’s point of view, the characters in “Speech Sound” are disabled in communication. The ableist standards of what abilities make us communicable, which are reading and speaking abilities in this story, caused trauma, jealousy, violence, aloofness, and the detachment of humanity. However, speaking languages and reading texts have been a very long time two major traits that the modern men highlighted to make themselves superior to others. With this anthropocentric highlight, we gradually forgot or become insensitive to the fact that communication is actually an assemblage of interactions between the human communicators and the materials surrounding them. We prioritize the narrowly-defined visuality and the way of making voices to downgrade the importance of listening, tangibility, smelling, eye contact, and many other body and material movements involved. What if we read “Speech Sound” not only as an apocalyptic speculation of the end of human communication but also a reflection of how we define the idea of communication in reality? Isn’t the sense of illness in this story already a critical reflection of how we exclude and horrify the disabled people – mute, blind, reading disorder, and so on – in our daily life?
The sense of illness as a disability is also represented in “The Evening and the Morning and the Night.” The social exclusion of the diseased not only as someone unhealthy but as someone not qualified to be human is an important aspect this story shows. What’s more, the social exclusion is being presented from the diseased’s perspective. They are seeing the world and themselves from a subhuman stance. They know how healthy human see them and they sometimes internalize such a human gaze. We can further complicate the idea of the suicidal tendency in this story. On one hand, the suicidal tendency strongly ties to the disease, which seems purely genetic and cannot be controlled by the human reason. On the other hand, the cure of such a tendency lies in the idea of scientific control operated in a kind of human lab. The relation between body, mind, and science is weirdly hierarchized with dilemmas that cannot be easily solved.
While both created the speculative cross-species encounter, “Amnesty” and “Bloodchild” play with the idea of ability similarly. They tell us that some types of ability can cause trouble. In “Amnesty,” the ability to communicate with another species and translate that species’ language into human beings’ is a mark of a human traitor. The story is inspired by the reality during the Cold War era, the time of terror that anyone can be a spy. The subjectivity of a translator in such an era is severely reduced and erased. A translator could only be a tool of one or another without his or her sense of self. The ability in “Bloodchild” is heavily biological: the ability to give birth. This ability, which was biologically exclusive for the female bodies in our reality, is now assigned to male bodies as well. The purpose of giving birth is now designed not to be for a species’ own continuity but for another’s as well as for saving a person’s loved ones. The story is not so much a blatant feminist revenge of making men readers feel how it is to be reduced to a reproductive organ, but a deep reflection of the possibility of love that breaks the gender boundary that has been set in the name of biological difference. If the gender boundary is in complicit with the biased definition of human in our real life, the speculative reproducing ability of male bodies can lead to alternative humanity.
The last story, “The Book of Martha,” assigns a woman of color God’s ability. Ironically, instead of paying full attention to her newly-given omnipotent status, Martha is highly insecure about her power and God’s physiognomy and body appearance. Her social existence has been very far away from how she imagines God. Let’s recall the secularization in Wynter’s article. If the human is created by God with His own shape, can we still say that Martha is a human? With the experience of being dehumanized in the human society, what aspects would she take into consideration to make a decision to the humankind
In the last two weeks, we started investigating “what does it mean to be human” by looking at the living experiences of those people that are categorized by the social norms as less human, subhuman, or the “missing link” between human/culture and animal/nature. These dehumanized beings (re)presented by Frantz Fanon, Sylvia Wynter, Chris and other black folks (in “Get Out”), and Cash and his people-of-color underclass comrades (in “Sorry to Bother You”) are pushed into a liminal space of the society by different forces that share the same, or at least similar, logic. As this logic has been carefully historicized by many ethical and responsible thinkers (, including all of us here), this logic has been called in many names: coloniality, neocolonization, racial capitalism, fascism, color line, racialization, the sociogenic dependency and inferiority complex, so on and so forth. People that are being sociogenically (in Fanon’s term) segregated and categorized by the social norms fell into this liminal space that provides them with a good opportunity to empathize, understand, and eventually make coalitions with each other. This liminal space is represented by the basement of underclass telemarketers (in “Sorry to Bother You”), the mesmerized status (in “Get Out”), the in-betweenness of mimicry that kills a person’s self (in Black Skin, White Masks), and the ontological and biological dyselected space-time (in Wynter’s article). Science fiction as a literary and cinematic genre is powerful in using speculative methods to extend our imagination about what science and technology can do to access this liminal space. As this liminal space is usually hidden by the positive discourse of how human beings and science are co-prosperous and co-evolved, science fiction trains our vision on “human” and “science” to be more flexible, creative, and critical.
This week, we will practice our speculating ability by adding one more element: gender. It does not mean that “gender” is conceptually separable from other dehumanizing social categorizations such as “race.” On the contrary, they are intermeshed. They came into form with the same history, but they are made separable in discourse and became very hard to deal with. By “adding one more element” I mean we are now uncovering how dehumanization really works in complexity and the fact that dehumanization is for a long time being simplified in our analysis as if the gender issue is merely additional.
Many women-of-color thinkers such as Kimberley Crenshaw discovered that they are made invisible by both feminists and black civil right/black lives movements. In the mainstream feminisms, it seems that there is no race issue. “Women” is claimed to be a universal conceptapplicable to every society and community. “Woman” defined by the modern social norm, instead of being a useful tool to analyze the dehumanized societies and communities, became a disciplining, colonial tool that describes the relationality and sociality in those societies and communities in an inaccurate and ahistorical way and erases other possible understandings of human relation. Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?”, voiced out from the liminal space, helps us to see this disciplining and erasing power of “gender.”
Truth’s speech took place in 1851, the moment that both white women and black men were both fighting for their civil rights. (***I tentative uses “she” as the pronoun for Truth, but it is obviously problematic and debatable.) Truth told people the truth that she had never been categorized as a “woman.” Instead of being reduced to a reproductive machine that reproduces a modern Man’s bloodline and capital and being confined in the private/domestic space as feminine and cultured human being, she does heavy-duty work in different fields. However, she was not considered as a human being in the public sphere like a working-class man either, because she was biologically fixed as an animalistic being that was not entitled to be properly paid. Another aspect that was not revealed as much in her speech but is definitely noteworthy is that while having no gender in front of modern men and women, many Black women have to be submissive, feminine, and hyper-sexualized in front their Black male counterpart. According to many “scientific researches” such as the Moynihan Report, the black communities (and extensible to the black civilization) cannot “evolve” or “prosper” because the modern gender system that frames the “correct” social division and power relation is not enough applied and operated. Thus, it was Black women’s duty to learn how to be proper women for their own good. The question “Ain’t I a Woman?” was a cry deep inside Truth’s mind. She was disoriented by the social norms that categorized her into a “female,” which is not yet (or never will be) a woman because she is not yet (or never will be) fully human. Nonetheless, she clearly knew that she was not graspable by the social norms. She was more than the norms. Just like Frantz Fanon, she was calling for a new way to understand humanity.
Truth’s simple, demonstrative speech makes us reflect upon not just what we see, but how we see. If we do not change the way we see the world, we cannot change the game. “Intersectionality” as a method is Kimberley Crenshaw’s influential experiment to change the game. She points out that when we intersect “gender” and “race,” two modern social analytical categories in front of the law, we can see nothing in the intersected area. The intersected area is the zone of nothingness. It is not that we are adding on “gender” and “race” together to make ourselves able to see those people like Sojourner Truth, but rather we discover the fact that we are unable to see them. To the people like Truth, “gender” and “race” are never separable. To assume that these two categorial tools are separable is to deny those people’s existence.
Man / Woman (Human)
Male / Female (Non-human)
I hope Truth’s speech and Crenshaw’s article are helpful for you to think with the characters in Octavia Butler’s short stories. Apparently, many of them cannot be comprehended if we do not have the vision of intersectionality and the differentiation between man, woman, male, and female. How do we understand the ability of pregnancy, a translator, people of communication disability, a diseased, and a god-like figure with the vision of intersectionality? Octavia Butler tells us: use your imagination.
1. Read the following five selected stories from Octavia Butler’s Bloodchild and Other Stories: “Bloodchild”, “The Evening and the Morning and the Night”, “Speech Sounds”, “Amnesty”, “The Book of Martha.” Delete “Crossover.”
2. Read Sojourner Truth’s speech, “Ain’t I a Woman?”
3. Read Kimberley Crenshaw’s social analysis, “Mapping the Margins.