“All that you touch you change: Utopian Desire and the Concept of Change in Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents”
By Patricia Melzer, Femspec 3.2
This analysis examines two literary narratives by Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998) that elucidate the intersection of three fields in Western thought: the notion of utopia, feminist politics and theory, and feminist science fiction. This intersection is crucial for feminists in that it provides tools for negotiating difference within feminist politics. I lay out the dynamics within Octavia Butler’s feminist utopian/dystopian writing that define her concept of “utopia” as both a utopian desire and a longing to transform. These allow her to theorize about future social relations and inform the strategies for feminist politics that she develops. Feminist debates on difference address the complex ways in which women are positioned in relations to power based on race, class, and sexual difference. Within these debates, many postmodern feminist theories reject the essentialist notion of “woman” as an identity and instead emphasize the interrelated construction of gender and other social categories, such as race and class. ((1)) Butler’s utopian writing contributes to the deconstruction of difference as the “other” to a stable identity. Here difference is not the opposite component of identity, but becomes a part of the self. While others have discussed Butler’s treatment of difference mainly in terms of her “miscegenation” between species (an approach Donna Haraway introduced in Primate Visions), I explore how difference in her narratives relates to notions of utopia. At the center of Butler’s utopian desire lies the concept of change that adds an element of process to the feminist discourse on difference. It not only places categories of difference into a historical context, but also connects them with time. This temporal aspect that complicates absolute concepts of identity/subjectivity based on race, class, and gender, I believe, is a valuable contribution to the feminist debate on how to negotiate difference politically and theoretically. UTOPIA, FEMINIST POLITICS, AND SCIENCE FICTION
The concept of the ideal community - nation, city, and/or village - is central to Western thought, and finds its most direct expression in fiction. Defined by Ernst Bloch as the principle of hope ((2)), the human urge to transform and re-create living environments is the foundation of most politics, including feminist. It constitutes also the most challenging component in feminist theories, in which the discourse on difference has proven U.S. feminist politics to be at times exclusionary in their formulation of women’s interests, goals, and visions. The construction of utopian societies is primarily a re-articulation of power relations, with the interests of various groups in the foreground. When approached from this perspective, utopian formulations convey theoretical developments outside the norms of what we define as “theory,” and create a window into the realm of the utopian imagination’s relationship to politics. They remind us of the importance in feminist theories to develop utopian impulses. bell hooks’ concept of yearning is one example of utopian desires articulated in feminist theory: “[D]epths of longing, [...] a displacement for the longed-for liberation - the freedom to control one’s destiny“ found in “folks across race, class, gender, and sexual practice. [...] The shared space and feeling of ‘yearning’ opens up the possibility of common ground where all these differences might meet and engage one another.” (hooks 12-13) Similarly so is Audre Lorde’s feminist re-definition of difference in Sister Outsider: “The future of our earth may depend upon the ability of all women to identify and develop new definitions of power and new patterns of relating across difference” (Lorde 123). Iris Young’s “unoppressive city”...
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