Freudian Revisionism, Human-Oankali Relationships, and the Role of Stigmergy

In this post, I would like to address the question of Freud’s survival as well as the dynamics of ingroup and outgroup relations in Dawn as they both can be understood as examples of stigmergy. Here is an article from this summer that explores the ways in which Freud makes his way into modern psychology and other fields of study.

 Louis Menand traces the history of Freudian psychoanalysis as it overlaps his own work and pervades literary theory and 20th-century philosophy. His argument that Freud has undergone so much revisionism and appropriation looks a lot like stigmergy. Indeed, I think academia could reflect a wiki-like environment which seeks to build upon traces left by other academics. Similarly, the humans and Oankali function according to stigmergy in Dawn as a mechanism for building a community on board the ship. However, in the case of human-Oankali relations, stigmergy does not always signify a healthy process. As we read in the article on oxytocin and ethnocentrism, oxytocin can be seen leaving traces of its own on in groups and demarcating between groups causing a sort of ethnocentrism. Likewise, Lilith’s resistance to the Oankali snowballs from her personal disturbance to her Awakening of other humans on board the ship.  

In Dawn, Octavia Butler takes Freud and oxytocin on. She does not explicitly bring up Freudian principles or discuss any sort of hormonal effects among characters but characters certainly leave traces which necessitate more actions by more and more agents. This calls to mind the scenes of Awakening (in the chapter “Nursery”) when Lilith selects waves of people to join her in a movement to return to Earth. At first, I framed this as Lilith seeking people to bond with over a common enemy but our discussions of stigmergy in class have refocused my reading on the building of relationships as a mechanism for social progress.

The final jab at Freud is Nikanj’s impregnation of Lilith. Not only is this a departure from the bonding over a common enemy thesis but it is also another example of the building property of stigmergic organization. Butler reveals this story to us as it makes sense to Lilith. In other words, we discover Lilith as a character as Lilith discovers herself. In a sense, stigmergy acts a form that mimics or parallels its content. Thus, these parts of Butler’s texts (as it happens in Fledgling and Clay’s Ark too) are members of a whole that is her style.

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