Category: McCoy 431 Fall 2017

Cooperatives and Butler’s Communities (part 1)

The Rochdale principles are a set of guidelines on how to operate a cooperative. They date back to 1844 when they were first drafted and enacted by the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers in Rochdale, England. They are as follows:

 

Voluntary and open membership

Anti-discrimination

Motivations and rewards

Democratic member control

Member economic participation

Autonomy and independence

Education, training and information

Cooperation among cooperatives

Concern for community

 

The Genesee Valley Co-op, located on 23 North Street in Geneseo, has a poster in the kitchen with these principles printed on it. The GVC is currently enjoying its fifth year of operations as a housing cooperative providing students with low rent, in-house meals and community engagement.

 

The Co-op is where I have lived for the past year, and I’ve had friends living here for every year before that. I am interested in talking about how this version of community-idealization might mirror or diverge from the smaller, isolated, intentionally-designed communities found in Butler’s fiction.

 

Off the bat I see one principal similarity between cooperative communities and the communities in Butler’s fiction: Both are communities working in cooperation with one another to accomplish something. In a housing cooperative like the GVC, we are a community of nine people working in cooperation with each other to have house dinners four nights a week, to keep the house clean and low-cost, to be sustainable, to do good community work, etc. I guess I’m trying to suggest that that exchange between members is not that different than the cooperation that happens in the Ina communities in Fledgling or the colony in Clay’s Ark, or the human separatist communities in Lilith’s Brood.

 

In all of these cases members of the communities take pains not to draw any attention to where they are.[text ref]  In Fledgling, the Ina have used their non-human advantages to create secret spaces for themselves outside the world’s human societies. This is done both out of survival and intention – it allows them a background from which to conceal their existence and conduct their business. Additionally, the smaller community of Shori, her symbionts and anyone else close to her also has to remain secretive because they are being hunted by an unknown and deadly force throughout the first half of the book.

 

In Clay’s Arc, the colony members are all connected by the alien virus they share. Because of the impossible-to-ignore urges that the virus forces on its host, the spread of the virus would spell certain doom for humankind at large. Because of this, the colony is designed as a means to suppress the spread of the virus by any means necessary. [text ref]

 

In Lilith’s Brood, once humans have been reintroduced to Earth from the Oankali ship, they are presented with an ultimatum: Either take part in the re-habitation of the planet via Human-Oankali mating, or live as humans free of the Oankali but without the ability to create human children of their own. The Oankali do not apply any force (beyond the inherent force of their superior capabilities which make them vastly superior to humans) in the execution of this ultimatum. The Humans who do not partake are sentenced to un-humanly long lives with no future, so to speak. Still, enough humans choose this route as to form entire communities where they have the illusion of freedom from the Oankali and the new reality they’ve settled humanity with. [text ref]

 

In all these cases, the communities need something from the larger world that they are also hiding from. In Fledgling, the Ina need new human partners to feed off of. In Clay’s Arc, the infected cannot resist the virus’ urges entirely, meaning they infect new people in as close to a controlled method as they possibly can. In Lilith’s Brood, the separatist humans are desperate for children, which lends them to the delusions that the Oankali or the humans who mate with them have wholly human children that can be stolen and adopted by the separatists. [text ref]

As for the GVC, we instead try to make ourselves very visible because, not unlike Butler’s communities, what we need from the larger community is new members. This diverges interestingly from another consistent source of tension in the communities in Butler’s fiction: that these communities would not grow if prospective members knew what they were getting into before they entered.

In Fledgling, the first human that Shori makes a partner of is completely, utterly unaware of the ways this Ina will change his life, and render him unable to ever resist or leave. The rest of the book’s evidence surrounding Ina finding human mates suggests that there is no getting around the fact that human partners are selected and made unable to resist before they are ever able to fully comprehend their being stuck.

In Clay’s arc, the virus-granted abilities of increased strength, sensory perception, agility, etc. might initially sound appealing to mere humans, but these gains come at the cost of self-control. The virus demands of its host that it is spread, and this manifests in something like a blinding lust, a sort of carnal hunger that does not make time for human conventions of decency such as respect for consent.

This convention is hinted at again in Bloodchild, where Gan is ignorant to the true nature of his family’s relationship to T’Gatoi until by chance he witnesses an older by without a Tlic, and comes to understand that he too was being set up to carry Tlic eggs and engage in this violent, bloody birth.

The only work in Butler’s Fiction that we’ve read which breaks from this convention is Lilith’s Brood. In this case, the Oankali do everything in their power to both inform and brace humans for their new reality before even allowing themselves to be seen. Even this is only a slight break of the earlier convention, because the Oankali tell their truth over an extended period of time, centuries, so that there is no out-rightly intended falsehood told about the circumstances. Still, human’s fill in their own rationalizations as they come to understand their new reality, which makes them believe they’re being lied to by omission when in (the Oankali’s) reality they’re being spoon-fed truths at a pace which will not overwhelm or incapacitate them.

So, all this goes to establish that the communities in butler’s fiction share certain traits with human cooperatives. Namely: intentional community, cooperation as means to an end. Butler’s communities and cooperatives diverge in one key aspect, being the coercive control, manipulation or limiting of information by the smaller community which the larger community and prospective members are powerless against.

It is worthwhile to mention that coops and socially-progressive agendas generally stack their information foreword because, perhaps like a virus trying to take control of an entire organism, the belief is that good ideas which help the most people are or ought to be contagious ideas, or maybe a reality with people that information accessibility is not enough, and perhaps Butler’s fiction partially demonstrates how certain things change, certain opinions matter more or less before or after experience has been had. Perhaps this suggests that there is a value to experience which can supersede judgments we make with information before the experience is had? If this suggestion makes readers uncomfortable, it’s likely because  the way we equate knowledge with autonomy. Does this position create a division between knowledge gained via information versus that gained via experience? 

A Brief Guide to the Many Traps of Octavia Butler’s Fiction

The students of ENGL 431/Octavia Butler and Social Ties have requested that I post their collaborative statement that they conceptualized and crafted independently of the instructor. Click here for a version with live links.

ENGL 431 Final

by Sandy Brahaspat, Sabrina Bramwell, Kevin Burke, Sandra Ching, Gabby Cicio, Elana Evenden, Devin Flaherty, Emma Gears, Denis Hartnett, Jonathan Kalman, Clio Lieberman, Jennifer Liriano, Linda Luder, Brendan Mahoney, Sean McAneny, Catherine McCormick, Steven Minurka, Nolan Parker, McKenna Parzych, Raina Salvatore, Samantha Stern, Emily Sterns, Katelyn Sullivan, Veronica Taglia, Elizabeth Verrastro, Davina Ward, Sarah Werth, and Sarah Westbay

 

Finally Coming to Terms with My Vampire-Fandom in Butler’s Fiction

Funny enough, after reading Octavia Butler’s Lilith’s Brood Trilogy, I became disappointed in myself. My reading of Butler’s “Fledgling” is different from any of the other texts we have read in class.  I really don’t want to say it’s because of the vampires, but I think it is… Vampire culture has been heavily discussed in class and through blog posts. Maybe “Fledgling” didn’t take me on such a ride compared Butler’s other texts because vampire culture has Read more

The Posts I Meant To Write

As we had our last day of class today I thought I’d take the time to write a bit about all the blog posts I wanted to write, but never did. I wanted to make all the points that were floating in my head during class. To talk about the subjects that we covered and to make sure my voice is heard before the semester runs out. I had this grand plan to describe them all and to make this last post easy. Unfortunately, I just don’t think it’s possible to write that post anymore. It’s just not what I wanna talk about.

So instead, here is how this class changed me, and a part of this will probably make it into my self reflection, so sorry Dr. McCoy if this repeats, but I feel it needs to be said. I came into this semester fundamentally changed from who I was at the end of last semester. Changed because of personal life things that I won’t include just because they may make people uncomfortable. But nevertheless, I was having a tough time readjusting back to campus life, and schoolwork was really hard for me. It still has been I’ve had a lot of issues with responsibly getting stuff done, and until recently I had come to believe I was a failure and this semester had just been a waste. That’s all been changing though as we’re coming to the end. And kinda like what Dr. McCoy said in class today this project has given me hope. Given me hope that I can get back to being a normal, functioning, student.

What we did is really incredible when you stop and think about it, between our entire class we made a cohesive, intelligent piece of writing in only one page. That’s arguably the best project I’ve ever done on those grounds alone. It’s given me some real hope for the future of our world and our republic. Because if we are the future, than the future is very bright indeed.

Personally, for me, walking out of class today was very bittersweet. Yes I love being pretty much done with one of my classes, but also this class really helped me both find my stability and rediscover my creativeness. I hope one day to have an experience like this again. I think everyone needs an experience like this so that they can be helped and grow into a stronger person. I didn’t come into this class expecting to walk out with an epiphany, but here I am a changed man. If I could impart one lesson onto whoever ends up reading this, it’s this: when things get bad, and they almost certainly will, be damaged, be hurt, and know that the things that will help you always come from the most unexpected places.

28 English Majors and A One Page Paper

Our final project for the Octavia Butler course was to create a one paged “something” that would be completed collectively by the entire class. When I first learned about the nature of this assignment, my initial reaction was one of panic. I could not imagine 28 individuals working together to create something. I feared that the process would not go smoothly and that not everyone’s efforts would be sufficiently included. I pondered how much simpler the assignment would be if each of us had to create a one page paper on our own. Working creatively can be difficult as an individual, but the ideas of many individuals in one space would certainly be a challenge.

After speaking with other individuals in the class, I learned that many of us had similar apprehensions regarding this one-paged collaborative paper. This knowledge was comforting to me because I was happy to learn that my anxieties were not unique. As a class, we knew going into this project that communication would be a crucial component to our success.

I was very impressed with the democratic ways in which decisions for this project were made. Initially, I feared that the majority of this assignment would be taken over by 3-4 outgoing individuals. But to my surprise, every decision made regarding this project was agreed upon by everyone. That being said, Google polls became our best friend in the beginning stages of this project. People would share ideas with the group that would then be voted on before we moved forward. This way, everyone’s opinions could be heard, and decisions would be made with everyone’s opinions considered.

The structure of the project was only the first obstacle. Once we decided on creating a “How to Guide” for dealing with the traps in Octavia Butler’s fiction, we had to struggle with our next task: making it only one page in length. As english majors, we all have the capability to expand on this topic for well over one page. Making a succinct point among 28 individuals became a very difficult and sometimes daunting obstacle.

This task became a little easier when we began to brainstorm specific traps that Octavia Butler sets up for us. We all shouted out ideas that were written on the whiteboard for us all to see. As a class, we narrowed these traps down to three main issues we all deal with in her fiction. By narrowing our focus, it allowed for us to channel our energy and creativity to specific sections of her fiction. It also created an opportunity for the class to divide amongst ourselves into three smaller groups that focused on one topic. By doing this, we were more easily able to express our thoughts in detail to our group members.  

After collaborating within our groups, we came together as a class to discuss what we came up with. We thought of ways to edit each group’s work in ways that would strengthen our project as well as make each of the three parts work together as a whole. I was very impressed with the manner in which my classmates offered constructive criticism to their peers. It was clear that everyone was taking into account that if their ideas were cut from the project, that it wasn’t anything personal. Everyone was very mature about making decisions that would be best for the project, even if this included massive amounts of tweaking and critiquing.

The experience of creating a one page piece with the efforts of 28 individuals was quite eye opening. Completing this project was certainly challenging at times, but the group’s effort to communicate well and ability to be inclusive to everyone, helped us to accomplish something that we are all proud of. It is quite amazing that 28 individuals were able to have a part of a project that is only one page in length. Each person in the class helped to improve the “How to guide” even further. By having so many sets of eyes working on this project, it incorporated all of our interpretations of how we felt about Octavia Butler’s Fiction and the course as a whole.

 

This section part of this blog post is a reflection of my experience with our project after it was presented to Dr. McCoy:  

 

Before Dr. McCoy entered the room, we all sat and discussed the most efficient way to present it to her. We decided that if each of us read a line from our project it would continue to reinforce the nature of us all coming together. As Dr. McCoy entered the room, she sat in the center of all of us in a circle and we began to read aloud our project. By her emotional and positive response to our project, I felt relieved but also not surprised. I feel immensely proud of everyone in our class for several reasons. We were able to share our ideas in a way where all of us were heard and all of our opinions were considered. We talked about how the nature of this project was challenging for us, but also elaborated on how that was a good thing. All of us struggled with certain themes in Butler’s fiction but were also able to efficiently deal with these struggles to help create strong conceptual points in our project.

Next, in our discussion of why we felt we deserved an A on the project, it reminded me of how far we have come as a group. At the start of this project, all of us were well aware that we were pressed for time and that we needed to work efficiently and diligently to be able to produce a project with the level of quality that we all aimed for. Although we worked under time constraints, we still managed to discuss thoroughly the important structural and contextual aspects of this project. In my opinion, it was quite commendable how we were able to reach a consensus on these issues in a timely manner as well as moving forward when everyone felt comfortable. Our system of democracy that we created among the 28 of us also helped tremendously in ensuring fairness and equal representation of ideas. Also, the fact that we were able to effectively break up into smaller groups to discuss specific ideas pertaining to the text in the project, more of our voices could be heard. It is often easier to speak up, especially for shy individuals, in smaller groups. One of the most prominent reasons why I was so impressed with our class is that we were able to disagree and discuss ideas in a polite manner. Often when someone critiques another individual’s idea, it can come off as harsh or demeaning. Everyone in the class was not only open to criticism, but fair and kind with the criticisms that they offered. We all accepted critiques because we had a mutual understanding that we needed to do what was best for the project as a whole.

Of course, it was exceptionally flattering when Dr. McCoy expressed her gratitude to us for creating this project. Speaking for everyone in the class, I can say that we are all extremely proud of the work we put into this project. Throughout its creation, we always kept in mind a concept that we learned in the course: language will always fail us. I felt that as a group, we did an excellent job in keeping this obstacle in mind, as well as intelligently choosing our words and presenting our ideas carefully so that we did not find ourselves trapped.

The Grand Finale

Today is the day. The last day of our class time. And the day we present our final project. I am thoroughly excited, but in a similar fashion to Jennifer and Devin’s posts, I too have found the meaning of dangers with working with a partner. My struggles align with issues that Devin has discussed, in the instance that I did have trouble speaking up in front of a classroom full of such thoughtful and intelligent individuals. Being intimidated was most likely my biggest downfall. There were several moments in the group discussion where I would bite my tongue before speaking in fear of my ideas appearing to be useless. There were also several moments where I would bite my tongue just in pure fear of speaking in front of a large group, almost a stage-fright-like sensation.  Read more

When We Know What It Is Not, We Can Search For What It Is

When I read Liz’s last post, I found myself really glad that she brought up the idea of slavery again (thanks Liz!). I remember finding it very interesting (for lack of a better term because I did not know what to make of it at the time) when we read the Afterword of “Bloodchild” and discovered Butler’s assertions that she was not writing about slavery. I had not interpreted this particular short story as one about slavery, but I was intrigued by Butler’s choice to very explicitly say that it was not one. Why did she feel this was necessary?

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