Epidemic, Microbes, and Consent in Clay’s Ark

In class on Friday, we primarily spoke about consent; its legal definition, the often obvious, but just-as-often tricky examples of how consent can be overlooked. From the most seemingly-innocuous examples (petting a student’s head in class) to the most intolerably sinister ones, the violation of consent is extremely dangerous. So far in Butler’s works Bloodchild and Clay’s Ark, we have seen almost-exclusively interactions in which consent is overlooked. For whatever purpose it may serve, good or bad, a nonconsensual act carries to the power to irreparably harm its victim, emotionally, psychologically, or, in this case, at the most fundamental part of one’s being.

In Clay’s Ark so far, Butler has provided several examples of nonconsensual interactions. The virus, microbe, or extraterrestrial organism which has been introduced is capable of binding with human cells in a way that changes them. In some ways, the humans are stronger and more perceptive. In others, as Meda points out, the organism is “sexual (498).” It produces a near-undeniable urge in its carrier for physical contact and sex with uninfected humans. Butler delivers us several examples of nonconsensual contact through these contact-based infections. In the past, Eli infect Meda’s entire family without consent, leaving them irreparably changed, and apparently killing some of them. Next, it seems the infected ones have chosen to stay together, infection only select humans in the smallest amount possible to keep themselves alive. In a way, as Eli and Meda tell it, this can be seen as a service to humankind, as it prevents them from uncontrollably raping and infecting everyone they come into contact with, causing an “epidemic” (500). This suggestion further blurs the definition of consent.

Because we get the present story from the point of view of Blake, a victim of this nonconsensual infection, and the past story from the point of view of Eli, the infector, we get to see both sides of the story. Eli knows that every time he touches someone he is dooming them, showing sympathy for his victims and an effort to minimalize his damage (480). From Blake’s perspective we get to see the genuine fear and pain of a victim who is non-consensually kidnapped and infected. Even as no character have, at this point, mentioned being sexually contacted, the irreparable changes of the infected victims serve as a metaphor for the irreparable changes, emotionally, psychologically, occasionally even physically that a rape victim undergoes. In this light, however sympathetic the infectors can be on a page to page basis, they are committing an evil.

The end of the section left me ambivalent. I was passionately rooting for the victims, Blake, Keira and Rane to escape their captors, while simultaneously terrified of the dangers that Meda and Eli warned may happen. The most compelling thing that Butler has done is gotten me to understand the motivations of Eli and his group, committing small evils so that they can prevent a mass apocalypse. Instead of flat, uncompromising villains, Butler has crafted a complicated enemy: one who is at conflict with themselves, but simply needs to commit these violences. The novel’s main villain so far, Eli, has alluded to the fact that he has tried desperately to end his own life, disgusted by what he has done to human beings, though the parasite will simply not let one of its hosts commit such an act (469-70). In real life, it would be simpler to imagine every rapist as a purely evil villain, but occasionally they are complex human beings, who abused their power to irreparably harm an individual. This evil is less comfortable to grapple with, but, understanding the damage they have inflicted, it’s still impossible to sympathize with. I hope that in Clay’s Ark there is possibility of preventing an epidemic without the need for further kidnappings, rapings, or nonconsensual infections, but Butler doesn’t seem to be finished dealing with the scary topic of consent.

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