Contract and Octavia Butler

We’re a little late, but this dialogue was originally inspired by the Pateman and Mills reading. We both thought the format was interesting and decided to see if we couldn’t have an interesting conversation of our own on Butler’s work. Enjoy! -Veronica and Brendan

Friday the 13th, 01:12 PM, In Class

Brendan Mahoney: OK so what are we talking about

Veronica Taglia: Well right now we’re in class talking about persons being born into nonconsent

BM: Gee thanks

BM: I mean what are we talking about for this dialogue Dialogue over, everybody go home


Friday the 13th, 08:43 PM

BM: Wait OK I thought of something we might have a dialogue on: Butler’s reading of the social contract. I personally think she misrepresents the agreement we’ve entered into to live as social beings. Almost all of Butler’s characters enter into the different non-human societies when they’re 1) already in possession of a sense of self and 2) generally old enough to give consent if they want. When most of us form our own senses of self, it’s vital to our survival. Our notion of who we are in society is necessary for our conscious thought to develop. It is a fantasy that we have imposed on us but it is a necessary fantasy nonetheless. It’s also imposed on us at a time when we’re incapable of consent regardless of how we feel. I won’t pretend that the ethics are totally clear here, but I doubt anyone would argue that in some other situations where a life-saving procedure is performed on someone incapable of consent (example: performing CPR on an unconscious person) that one should do nothing.

They’re also forced into these communities by people who violate their right to consent. I would argue that the contract determining our real-world identity (while still not something we properly consent to) is administered by ideological systems that we can’t really expect to ask us for consent. While I would generally agree that this process is non-ideal, I think the best case scenario is only a more equitable system. There will still ultimately be a contract that prevailing systems foist upon us.


Tuesday the 17th, 11:43 AM

VT: Well, I totally agree with your point that 1) we rely on the fantasy of choice when conceptualizing our role in society and 2) these fantasies, or illusions, of choice are introduced to us at an early age–long before we are old enough to consent to the society into which we are enculturated. But as you say, the ethics here aren’t totally clear. How do you suggest Butler “misrepresents the contract we’ve entered into to live as social beings?” I would argue she plays off of, extrapolates, re-interprets various forms of social contracts to emphasize the way the contracts we form are rooted in non-consent. (the non-consensual manner in which possible symbionts in Fledgling are sought out based on their vulnerability, for instance, reminds me of the way religious cults prey off of the vulnerable). But are Butler’s demonstrations of non-consent really misrepresented, then, if she’s playing off of fraught social contracts that already exist?


Monday the 23rd, 1:40 PM

BM: I think she misrepresents the amount of self-awareness that we can give at the time we’re placed in these non-consensual situations. There is a clear difference, I think everyone would agree, between Blake on the Ark commune and a newborn baby. The fantasies that I’m describing are far more fundamental than the example that you provided of a religious cult, and are almost always a component of our identities by the time we possess the self-awareness necessary to have a concept of self. There is, therefore, a significant difference in the ethical implications (to me at least, and I’m willing to argue it) between forcing Blake as a conscious adult to conform into the group identity of the Ark commune and forcing a newborn child to see itself a certain way, even if it is a kind of “extrapolation.” Although I can’t speak directly to what Butler imagined to be the prescriptions of her work, this is certainly a misrepresentation of non-consent as a totally unethical genesis in the context of our class discussions. The way that we’re made to look at the origins of our society, I would argue, is far more grim in some ways than its reality (or fantasy, as it were).


Wednesday, Nov 1st, 6:08 PM

VT: Of course there are fundamental differences between enculturated non-consent as a newborn and as an adult being forced into a community–actually, I made that point to validate your claim that our “real world identity is administered by ideological systems we can’t really expect to ask us for [our?] consent.” However, the point still stands that in our present, ‘real’ world, adults are forced to make decisions about belonging and identity that are rooted in non-consent all the time. (Also, I would argue that joining a religious cult is highly fundamental). In class, we’re often asked “what brings people together” but perhaps some added questions worth raising may be, “what’s keeping you there? what’s holding you back?” At any rate, I still see Butler’s demonstrations of non consent as an “extrapolation” of choices people are forced to make on a regular basis. Yes, she roots these choices in terms that are explicitly or implicitly non-consensual, but that’s part of why I appreciate her fiction so much, because it forces me to consider paradigms that are layered and complex. And tangentially, as much as I find her fiction troubling, I don’t see her novels as condoning or advocating the various forms of non-consent she represents (which, I think, is where we differ).


Monday, Nov 6th, 2:31 PM

BM: If I’m hearing you correctly, do we agree that Octavia Butler’s books provide a better model to your suggested questions of “what’s keeping you here? what’s holding you back?” but misses some important elements of the question “what brings people together?” I think (if I understood you correctly) that’s an insightful qualification of my original point.


Monday, Nov 6th, 2:43 PM

VT: (spoken aloud in Sweet Arts) Yeah, that’s perfect.


Monday, Nov 6th, 2:44 PM




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