This project takes as its launching point several claims about power and contemporary subjectivity: first, that the legitimization of authority and power now takes place through biopolitics, a form of power “in which the vital aspects of human life are intervened upon for the purpose of rationalizing regimes of authority over knowledge, the generation of truth discourses about life, and the modes through which individuals construct and interpellate subjectivities between a sense of self and the collective.” And second, Gordon Hull’s assertion that the contemporary neoliberal state has created a new human ontology, the homo economicus— the human reformulated to be “an ‘entrepreneur of oneself,’ [to manage] risks and rewards as productively as possible, [to view] expenditures of resources as investments in expected future returns” in service of the state. According to Hull, the contemporary biopolitical regime seeks to convert its citizens to this subjectivity by allocating freedoms based on the extent to which a person becomes an entrepreneur of his or herself through various biopotenza. Most scholars disagree over the primary biopotenza by which the neoliberal sovereign seeks to convert its subjects to the homo economicus; most scholars agree with Foucault that sexuality is the primary biopotenza, but many scholars argue race is the means by which the sovereign allocates freedoms. According to Hull, the sovereign achieves its vital population through the institution of family. And there are many scholars that argue for other biopotenza entirely.
After spending a semester researching theory and reading African American literature, I believe that memory is the primary dispositive by which the neoliberal state creates a vital population. I think that regimes of authority legitimize certain cultural narratives while rejecting others, hence crafting a communal memory that validates the experiences of some while labeling the experiences of others as “inauthentic.” My essay, then, will map subjection and resistance to this biopotenza in African American literature. In my opinion, resisting biopower is a matter of remobilizing death; that is, using death as a means of reinstituting repressed narratives into the cultural/communal memory. I think a paragraph I wrote earlier this semester may help here:
According to Roach, the neoliberal “bios,” or good life, mobilizes death as life’s limit: in the interest of the sovereign’s growth, the neoliberal regime mobilizes death as the end of being—a formulation of death that advocates for subjects to create “a heaven on earth” via the accumulation of material pleasures (168). If we agree with Roach’s claim that the Neoliberal paradise takes the family as its locus for implementing biopotenza because the family allows for a cycle of neoliberalsim via the passing on of material wealth—as Snead might say, a process of repetition and accumulation disguised as progress and growth in order to repress “the daunting knowledge that the apparently linear upward striving course of human endeavor exists within nature’s ineluctable circularity, and that birth and life end up in death and decay”—we must be prepared to tackle the problematic neoliberal attack on queerness (Roach 168; Snead 147). In the conservative neoliberal conceptualization of death and the family, queerness stands in opposition to the neoliberal cycle in which families pass their wealth on to the next generation. In his book No Future, Lee Edelman argues that this oppositional stance on queerness arises “from reading that [queer] figure literally”—or in other words, the assumption that queer couples are biologically restricted from reproducing (Edelman 2). Hence, in the neoliberal state, queerness is posited as disrupting the growth of the sovereign by inhibiting the passing of one’s wealth to the next generation. While this first seems to ratify Foucault’s claim that sexuality is the primary dispositive of biopower—especially a biopower that configures “bios” as neoliberalism— Edelman argues that queers should embrace this conceptualization of death, as it configures queerness as a form of inescapable social resistance. To this end, resisting the biopolitcal regime is less a matter of breaking the link between identity and truth with regard to sexuality, as Foucault claims, but more a matter of remobilizing death in the neoliberal state.
To map subjection and resitance to biopower through communal memory and remobilizing death, I will explore the novels Fledgling, Apex Hides the Hurt, Cutting Lisa, American Desert, Zone One, (potentially Love), and culminate with The Devil in Silver and Big Machine. Some short stories—specifically Bloodchild—may make it into the essay, but I’m not sure yet. Seven to eight novels is already a lot, so we’ll see what happens.
Beginning with Fledgling, I will examine the process by which Shori’s (loss of) memory affects her ability to obtain a political subjectivity. My writing on Fledgling will be primarily research based as opposed to a close reading—many scholars have written on memory in Fledgling. In this part of the essay, I will argue that while these scholars have made incisive comments about Butler’s examination of memory, they fail to examine Butler’s interest in the interaction between regime of authority and individual subject. Accordingly, I will use Fledgling as one of two primary examples of how memory is used to create a vital population. After examining Fledgling, I will extend my argument—that the state uses memory as a primary biopotenza—to Apex Hides the Hurt. Whereas Fledgling is a science fiction novel and deals with themes like genetics, sexuality and disability, Apex Hides the Hurt is grounded thematically in capitalism and neoliberalism, and is thus the logical next step for my essay. To be clear, Apex Hides the Hurt is a more explicit account of memory as biopotenza in the neoliberal state. I’ve been trying to write about these two novels all semester, but as I read more for my project, the argument I wanted to make changed and I continually needed to rethink what I was writing about these novels. I’ve finally settled on exactly what I’ll be writing about—and I know now how to write about Fledgling and Apex—so I see this semester’s research as coming full circle, and I’m happy about that. Here’s my first paragraph for the section on Fledgling:
Memory as Biopotenza in Fledgling
“There is risk, Gatoi, in dealing with a partner”
Much scholarship on Octavia Butler’s Fledgling attends to the way Shori’s loss of memory creates a critical distance between Shori and the Ina culture, which allows her to bring her own ethical code to Ina life and ethically reconstruct the Ina social hierarchy (Evans 15). Pramod Nayar argues that by being “othered” to Ina by her amnesia, Shori regresses to a state of bare life. In this state of bare life, Shori gains the ability to demonstrate her superior biovalue as a genetically modified Ina, and earn species citizenship as both a human and an Ina through performances of communal memory. Ultimately, gaining multi-species citizenship through performances of memory leads to the creation of a multi-species posthuman in which “structures of legitimized domination” and “oppression” are rejected (696-697). Shari Evans, in her essay “From ‘Hierarchical Behavior’ to Strategic Amnesia: Structures of Memory and Forgetting in Octavia Butler’s Fledgling,” suggests that through Shori’s amnesia, “Butler uses strategies of memory and forgetting to forge a means of ethical survival that makes room for new mediations on power” (238). And Gregory Hampton, in “Lost Memories: Memory as a Process of Identity in the Fiction of Octavia Butler,” argues that “a body without memory is a body not yet conscious of its historical context” (277). Such a body, whose identity is not tied to historical events, must necessarily reinvent itself. This reinvention of the body requires inscribing memory onto the body and “facilitate[s] self-identification and actualization”—a process that does not inherently end discrimination against the body, but grants the body agency over its own identity. These authors have in common the idea that Butler creates structures of memory and forgetting that allow for a new mode of ethical being; however, in my reading of Butler, she is concerned with the risk—the gains and losses—of entering a relationship with a regime of power. Accordingly, one might ask of these critics: what are the gains and losses of carrying one’s history with them at all times? Of allowing one’s memory to forge their identity? And what is the risk of partaking in a system of governance that utilizes memory as a means of determining citizenship—and thus the freedoms a person receives (or is denied)? I believe that these three authors—while none of their arguments about the prospects of memory in creating ethical living are inherently wrong—fail to address the overwhelming power discrepancy undergirding their formulations of memory. I believe that Octavia Butler was less concerned with memory as a personal process of identity and more concerned with what is at stake when a regime of authority utilizes the processes of memory and the formulation of a communal memory as a means of determining how to allocate freedoms to its people. To put it another way, I read Fledgling as Butler’s exploration of memory as biopotenza, that is, as a dispositive of biopower; memory, as I will argue, functions in Fledgling as a means of establishing an Ina vital population and the bios that the Ina hope to achieve.
As I said, my discussion of Apex Hides the Hurt will continue this argument in a context more specific to neolibealism. After Fledgling and Apex Hides the Hurt, I’ll move on to Cutting Lisa and American Desert by Percival Everett. This will be more of a close reading as there isn’t a whole lot of scholarship on these novels, and I plan on using lacanian psychoanalysis to interpret some parts of the novels. As I read them, these novels deal with the repressed memories and what happens when these memories return to us. They also deal a lot with death—especially American Desert, which in a lot of ways is a parody or satire of death itself. Accordingly, these novels serve as a great bridge from Fledgling and Apex to Zone One, a zombie novel that really deals specifically with biopower in the neoliberal regime and how remobilizing death can resist the biopolitical regime.
From here, I might talk about Love as a means of foregrounding ghosts in literature as the return of repressed memory, but ultimately my plan is to spend a substantial amount of writing on The Devil in Silver. I see The Devil in Silver as a novel full of ghostly allusions that accumulate to haunt the reader and change the way the reader interacts with the text. This section will also work with Big Machine; in my reading of The Devil in Silver, I see the novel recalling the “ghost” of Big Machine, and I think this is important to my argument that The Devil in Silver is a novel about how people interact with art. Additionally, I see the novel reinstituting repressed memories dealing with Tupac and others like Amadou Diallo—an unarmed man who was shot 19 times (and fired at 42) after police stopped him for no reason. This section will be heavily based in literary theory, particularly with regard to aesthetics, genre theory, deconstruction, ghost theory, and possibly narratology.