In the apocalyptic worlds of Wild Seed by Octavia Butler* and American Desert by Percival Everett, “disability” is an inherently different designation from that of late 2oth-21st century American society. Both of these novels imply that a new type of person will inherit the Earth: In Wild Seed, that “type” is humans with extraordinary abilities, and in American Desert, it is a headless man who is incredibly resistant against physical destruction. Both of these novels explore the value in a body, and therefore each relate to the question of whether a body can lack value in these societies. In Wild Seed, Doro and Anyanwu, the most powerful and long-lived people known, create new definitions of ability and disability in part because they cultivate and breed a group which has abilities they favor. In American Desert, Ted’s mere existence ontologically challenges disability in his universe, as it reverses the association of closeness to death with powerlessness and liveliness with power. Despite Ted’s revolutionary potential, he ultimately decides to die rather than continue unliving in such a distinct way. While his existence fundamentally creates a problem for ableist society, I believe that he resolves it himself. What I am wondering, through my exploration of these texts which challenge Western notions of disability, is at what point do these challenges become revolutionary? What backing would these new ideas need in order to overcome the katechon of ableist social structures?
In 21st century America, we define disability socially and physically. It is easy to think of examples of how being physically disabled can impact someone’s life. For example, someone who has nerve damage in their hands might struggle to write or type, two skills which are often mandatory in office jobs and in schools. This particular problem can be mitigated through a tool such as voice-to-text technology, which has become more accessible during this century. However, accommodation technology is not always widely available, either due to to its non-existence or how expensive it is to produce. People in America often live with chronic pain and barriers to various environments. Therefore, it is prudent to claim that disability takes a physical toll on disabled people at the moment.
The American/Western concept of “health” is not only defined by this physical toll, but on an individual’s appearance. People can outwardly show traits which can make others view them as disabled, regardless of their actual medical needs. Rather than being accommodated in public, many visibly disabled people are treated very poorly. People in wheelchairs, for example, are quire visibly disabled. Strangers who might be well-intentioned often push people in wheelchairs in order to help them move. Sometimes, people may exploit the fact that someone is in a wheelchair and physically or sexually assault them. Visibly disabled people can also face barriers to employment, bullying, and other forms of discrimination. This hatred goes beyond these public displays. Instead, hatred of disabled people is deeply rooted in “Western” countries such as America, Canada, and Germany to the point where the right of disabled people to live is often disputed. A common response to the existence of visibly disabled people is that of eugenics. Eugenics is when a society rejects the existence of disabled people, and anyone who is physically considered to be “undesirable”. Eugenics can look like the Nazi party massacring disabled people, but eugenics can take other forms. Notably, eugenics is often perpetuated through reproductive control. In Canada, Indigenous people are still sometimes forcibly sterilized. In the 1900s, the U.S. Supreme court permitted forced sterilization of disabled people in the case Buck v. Bell. Sperm banks generally require that their donors be above 5’8, “intelligent,” and in good physical health. It is therefore clear to me that health is an important marker of class within “Western” society, and that the definition of disability is inherently tied to what the ruling class values in a person.
While the society which Doro is breeding into existence in Wild Seed does not specifically value health, it also does not engage in efforts to accommodate physically and visibly disabled people. This lack of accommodations seems to stem from apathy rather than antipathy. Doro breeds people because he feels “utterly alone, forever alone” in his abilities and immortality (372). He wants people to match him in both aspects. There are people in the world with some abilities, but none which match his own. In collecting and breeding them, their abilities can evolve and grow in strength. It is easy to assume that this system might create a society in which there is an easily identifiable caste system based on one’s adherence to Doro’s standards. However, Doro does not care much about the people in his colonies, save for their ability to birth long-lived people with extraordinary abilities, such as the ability to see into another’s mind. While the people with abilities, his breeders, are prized by Doro, they are only necessary for producing the next generation. After they have served their function of reproducing, or even during this process, should Doro choose to inhabit their body, they are often killed. The breeders are quite vulnerable to Doro, as he finds that he takes the “greatest pleasure” from consuming people with abilities (370). Indeed, there are no groups which I can think of that are more likely to be culled, as Doro claims that “age, race, sex, physical appearance, and except in extreme cases, health, did not affect his enjoyment of victims” (370). This lack of care, while being eugenicist in the sense that Doro is creating a society which might eventually breed out powerless people, largely lacks the forms of ableism which are present in Western societies today. Doro states that many of his children have “hideous bodies,” whereas Anyanwu’s children are all “beautiful” (294). This passage is vague about the exact definition of “hideous” and “beautiful.” I take Doro’s apathy toward disability, combined with Anyanwu’s assertion from early in the novel that her children have no “‘forbidden things’ wrong with them,” a category which includes “almost any deformity,” to mean that Doro’s children are visibly disabled, and Anyanwu’s are not. Doro does not seek to cause harm to his disabled children in particular, nor does he attempt to breed out the disabled bodies he produces.
Even so, Doro’s society is absolutely not a place where people are cared for or accommodated. Doro does not care about the physical toll of the abilities he forces onto others. He pays close attention to Nweke, his daughter, as he believes that her mind-reading abilities will make her his “next Anyanwu,” a woman who will better than Anyanwu in her compliance and, possibly, in the strength of her abilities (374). However, Nweke never replaces Anyanwu; the agony of her transition to power causes her to become so violent that Isaac has to kill her. Doro is disappointed by this death. However, his disappointment is not because he is sad that Nweke has been crushed, an agonizing death, but because she had been “all Doro had hoped for and more” and is now lost to him (392). This lack of accommodations becomes particularly problematic because of Anyanwu, who does care about her children not being disabled. Anyanwu’s reproductive system is fundamentally ableist, as she is able to “look inside herself and control or alter what she saw there,” (111), an ability which she uses to ends such as finding a medicine to help Isaac’s heart (396). Additionally, she considers incest, a practice which often leads to physical illnesses and deformities, to be an “abomination” (262). While none of these pieces of evidence individually prove that Anyanwu’s children are “perfect” because she makes them that way, the control she wields over her body combined with her beliefs leads me to believe that this is the case. Anyanwu’s village is also not separate from the world; people arrive to it, and it is eventually connected to Doro’s seed villages. The juxtaposition between the disabled people from elsewhere and Anyanwu’s children is stark. Anyanwu’s beliefs about society do not have a larger impact than Doro’s, but she has an opinion on the matter while Doro remains apathetic. She is extremely powerful through her extraordinary abilities and eventual leadership positions. Additionally, she is the primary “healer” wherever she goes, and so the changes she makes to a person’s body are seen as positive ones. Her opinions therefore have social consequences. Consequently, I think that the social model of disability is present within the society which Anyanwu and Doro are building. Components of the disabled identity are changing as people are bred to have these abilities, but the category of “disabled person” remains distinct within this new world.
In Percival Everett’s American Desert, however, the world of ability and disability is sent into a crisis when Ted rises from his coffin, head stitched on. He is able to see memories with clarity. He does not feel pain. He can be shot and not be impacted at all (191). He has even had his personality changed in death, becoming more empathetic and at peace with his circumstances. All of these are traits we would associate with ability, not disability. Disabled people can experience, depending on their disability, memory loss, physical pain, and/or a lack of empathy. Therefore, Ted’s death has technically made him closer to ability. This is, in the language of Santana Kaplan’s Notes Toward (Inhabiting) the Black Messianic in Afro-Pessimism’s Apocalyptic Thought, an impossibility within our grammar. This text outlines the concept of Afro-Pessimism in terms of messianism. Kaplan posits that Blackness is “ontological death,” a of unbeing which allows the world of whiteness to spring forward into existence (73). Although I do not think that I could, or should, attempt to replace the “Blackness” in Black messianism with disability, I believe that disability also inhabits a social position of non-being. Disability is associated with death in the context of American social Darwinism; the “weaker,” or disabled, party will be beaten by the abled party, and the consequence for being beaten in social Darwinism is the inevitable unbecoming which is death. However, this idea is reversed in Ted’s body, as he indeed has transcended the life which is the ephemeral ticket of able-bodied people into their idea of supremacy. The fact that his death leads to his new, stronger form reminds me of how Kaplan describes Afropessimism. They specifically cite the philosopher Žižek, who stated in The Puppet and the Dwarf that “We are one with God only when God is no longer one with Himself, but abandons Himself, ‘internalizes’ the radical distance which separates us from Him. … [O]nly when I experience the infinite pain of separation from God do I share an experience with God Himself” (91). What Kaplan derives from Žižek’s words is that the messianic action of emptying the self of life, of giving oneself to death, makes death a path to becoming like God. Kaplan continues in their analysis, going on to claim that lynching is a reiteration of the death which came from chattel slavery, and that Afropessimists must “reconceive the messianic subtracted from the narratology of redemption” (76). I believe that this idea is fundamental to an understanding of disability within American Desert. Ted is not redeemed through death, and neither is his society. In life, he cheated on his wife; in death, she still cannot fully forgive him (209). His death does not redefine disability to anyone, himself included: when he sees the cloned Jesus Christs with their physical and cognitive disabilities, he feels moved by the “mere fact” that one of them (Jesus #19) offers to him “a response of sorts” (207). In feeling so moved, Ted is both demonstrating his assumption that the Jesuses would not be able to respond to him, and is moving beyond this assumption by feeling emotionally moved by this other undead man. The past consists of these forms of denial of justice. Ted’s life-in-death gives him the hypothetical opportunity to create a more just society by burying these ideas of what it means to be a living person. He does not have to return to his life with Gloria; if he so chooses, he can associate with Avery and the Jesuses. Clancy asks Ted to “imagine an army of men like you,” and I can, just not for the government’s sake (167). In taking up arms against the world, Ted, Avery, and whatever Jesuses he could create could render the association between disability and death incoherent through an unfathomable bloodbath, and then through a recreation of the dead.
Of course, this idea is unfathomable for Ted, which is why he never falls in with any of the zealots he encounters. He is incredibly powerful, but he would never commit to the “apocalyptic laying hold of gratuitous violence in the name of gratuitous messianic freedom” (82). Ted is not a revolutionary, and even if he were, there is no one following him. He consequently comes home to his family, but it is too late, as they have rejected him. Gloria feels anger toward him for returning from the dead when his family would have been better off without him. Without Ted, she could meet a better romantic partner, and the children would not have to be haunted by the existential problems which Ted’s unlife raises for them. She is correct: Ted cannot return to his family. In doing so, he devotes himself to the fantasy of living a redeemed life as a dead man in a fundamentally ableist society. Because he has not rejected the unjust world in which he died, he will never be able to find his place in life. Additionally, Ted is afraid of his revolutionary potential, claiming that “the idea that he could not be hurt became a terrifying thought” (259). He goes on to state that he now correctly fears power. Of course, he is the power that he fears, as he does not need to fear death, the fundamental threat of American society. The only way to resolve this tension between Dead Ted and a society which cannot bear his resurrection is for him to leave forever, and so he does. While Ted’s unlife is threatening, his final death returns the world to its former, life-conforming state. His family will get to feel that he is at peace, and move on with their lives without him. Therefore, American Desert appears to be a challenge to ableist patterns, but its real moral focus is with the individual family which Ted attempts to live with after he has already changed in a way which they cannot handle on top of his previous wrongs.
While both Wild Seed and American Desert address disability in incredibly complex ways, neither of them feature a society which outright rejects ableism. I would not expect either of them to. Both of these texts follow individuals, if powerful individuals, and the struggle against the ideals which have been ingrained into them is incredible. Additionally, while Doro and Anyanwu have the resources, time, family support, and ability to reconstruct society, Ted does not have access to the power structures they have built. Even though he might have outlived everyone except for Jesus #19, there was no actual possibility of him facilitating a revolution beyond the realm of philosophy. To me, these texts enrich the revolutionary premises which surround these characters, because they engage with the social complexity of being disabled during apocalyptic changes. My thinkING about how both Wild Seed and American Desert do not portray an apocalypse of ability enables me to wonder further about the compartmentalization within the apocalypses which are portrayed within these novels. Is an apocalypse apocalyptic if it does not entail the destruction of all social constructions?