Octavia Butler's Chiastic Cannibalistics (1). (Essays on Octavia Butler). By Utopian Studies

Octavia Butler's Chiastic Cannibalistics (1). (Essays on Octavia Butler).

By Utopian Studies

  • Release Date: 2003-01-01
  • Genre: Religion & Spirituality

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OCTAVIA BUTLER'S MAJOR NOVELS address situated, embodied intelligence in the modern and postmodern world, illustrating the response of a contemporary black woman writer to her world, and resisting orthodoxies, including those of feminism and anti-racism. Critical attention on Butler has explicated her approaches to difference or otherness, her particular focus on race and gender in particular, and her reimagination of women's cultural and narrative roles. Still, two largely unexplored features of Butler's narratives could shed additional light on her representational strategies and the positions her characters take in the world: cannibalism and rhetoric. In this essay, I suggest that the tropes of cannibalism in Butler's major fiction present a fruitful path for approaching the issue of difference central to her work. Critical silence on the presence of tropes of cannibalism in Butler's work is striking because of its prominence and narrative significance in her major fiction; my simple aim is to open the door to further exploration. (2) To that end, I argue here that cannibalism as literal threat or metaphor presents a striking example of Butler's engagement with mind-body problems already delineated by critics, that these tropes will eventually be properly situated within a fuller consideration of Butler's engagement with the traditional or classical dichotomies represented by Philosophy and/vs. Rhetoric, especially in her valorization of contingency and fluidity over stasis or finality, (3) and finally, that the cannibalism in Butler's novels is an unexplored example of the "range of textual influences" that "expands the dystopian form" identified by Tom Moylan as a feature of Butler's narratives (Scraps 223), in this case, the literature of discovery and exploration in the Americas. Butler's particular use of cannibalism links it with the central concerns of rhetorical theory--an awareness of and interaction with otherness--in her work. Contemporary rhetorical theory focuses as well on "the elaboration of ambiguity" and "the primacy of shifting queries, multiple viewpoints" (Covino, Art 2-3). It is "concern[ed with] nothing less than the foundations of knowledge and ideology in discourse" (Bizzell and Herzberg 1202), which occurs in the meaning-making activities between two (or more) embodied, language-bound entities. Awareness of embodied otherness, often expressed through the metaphor of the alien or through the literal otherness of race, is central to Butler's work. It is part of her concern with inside/outside and other dichotomies that ground her representations of embodied human intelligence and its interactions with what is outside the body. Accordingly, in Xenogenesis, the Oankali and humans are figured as texts to be read and interpreted--or to be taken literally, depending on whether you are Oankali or human--and even replicated as other texts can be (40-2; 94-5; 570). In the Patternist series, the mutant Doro lives off the bodies and psychic energy of others by first introjecting his consciousness into the literal physical body of the other--"at once, Doro was housed with her in her body" (Mind of My Mind 212)--and then by consuming its life energy (Wild Seed 106, 178; Mind of My Mind 3), and the alien-organism symbiotic Clayarks threaten to "eat Patternists" to "show, symbolically, how they someday intended to consume the whole race of Patternists" (Patternmaster 76). In the Earthseed series, the central metaphor is Lauren Olamina's painful psychological condition: empathy that literally disables her through perception of another's bodily pain or pleasure, a mind-phantom with literal bodily expression. In the context of Butler's concern with binaries and embodiedness the persistent trope of cannibalism--a violent transgression of bodily boundaries--and her use of what scholars would call a rhetorical worldview--i.e., one deeply concerned with otherness and contingency (Fish, "Rhetoric")--can be powerful keys to