Octavia Butler’s “Amnesty” follows post-abductee Noah in her attempts to bridge the two diverse populations (humans and the aliens referred to as “Communities”) in their challenge to decide whether or not they can cooperatively and symbiotically co-exist. In Noah’s descriptions of her experiences with the Communities she reveals the similarities shared in both humans and the Communities, as well as the severe activities sometimes exhibited by each society. Because of the gap that exists between the two societies’ ability to understand each other Noah has been, in a sense, ‘othered’ by her placement in the middle; she finds herself unable to be fully accepted by her own kind, though she is also unable (in the time of her narration) to be fully accepted by the foreigners to Earth, a fact that she seems to have come to terms with and must, seemingly for the sake of human-kind, convince others to peacefully pursue as well, or at least have them (her own people) understand.
One of the key features of Butler’s story is to highlight the broad characteristics that constitute the idea of human-ness, and to question whether our understanding of what it is to be human will change, or whether it can change, in the face of the necessity to collaborate with foreign existences. The character Rune Johnsen suggests this is unlikely when he says “it feels wrong. I suppose that’s because we’ve been displaced again from the center of the universe. […] in myth and even in science, we’ve kept putting ourselves in the center, and then being evicted” (Butler 157). His observation more broadly questions whether or not the majority of humans have the means to consent to an existence that is perceived so dissimilar from our own; the human leaders in “Amnesty” try to wipe out the foreign Communities and in general it seems that many people wish to be rid of the foreigners, while the Communities display the opposite in their endeavors to understand humans. Part of conventional human ideology before the arrival of the Communities was that humans could pretend that other intelligent life did not exist (as shown by Noah in her agreement with Rune on page 158), but their arrival clearly disputes that idea. The means of re-adjusting human ideology is where Jacques Lacan’s theory of the mirror-stage finds some correlation. Lacan’s theory of the mirror stage in Écrits proposes that the mirror stage is the early phase of development when a subject becomes conscious of their self as an individual, and that during this time the subject is dependent on unconsciously internalizing the image of an ‘other’ to define itself. The recognition of the other creates in the subject the idea of the imago, or an image of a person which the subject has realized is more than the sum of its parts; for example, while others may look at a Community and think of it as a single plant-like unit, Noah can see a Community as an entity that is created by and consisting of much more than its overall plant-like appearance. Lacan theorized that the imago is a type of Gestalt, “an exteriority in which this form is certainly more constituent than constituted” (2), and Butler’s Communities are a very literal example of this in that the Communities’ individual forms of consciousness constitute part of the whole rather than the whole entity itself, just as a human is much more than an image of a human. Lacan’s separate other entity that the developing human identifies is already understood to exist in the upper-case Other, the word that Lacan uses to define the reality that a developing subject cannot yet fully understand without assimilating themself to the means, rules, and language that constitutes that society; he wrote that the cognition of an imago “is to establish a relation between an organism and its reality” and that “This moment in which the mirror-stage comes to an end inaugurates […] the dialectic that will henceforth link the I to socially elaborated situations” (4-5). Once a subject has been integrated into the Other, the characteristics of that reality will begin to define the subject and that subject’s reality. In applying this to Butler’s story it seems that Noah represents that lower-cased other that humans must consider in order to bridge the gap that currently exists between the two conflicting societies, since recognizing her position as advantageous would begin in others “the transformation that takes place in the subject when he assumes an image” (Lacan 2).While it may seem condescending to portray adult humans as developing babies here, in a sense the humans are much like infants in the face of the new reality presented by the foreigners; Noah is the adult and leading force of the meeting she is called to, and by recognizing her as the other people may be able to use her as an example to futher their own development and ease their way into the new Other (of life with aliens). Without her and other similar translators there seems to be no mirror-stage for the human race; like Lacan’s explanation of the subject being dependent on the other as a guide to the reality surrounding them, Butler’s characters are dependent on following and conforming to Noah’s example as translator. Without adapting to Noah’s cohabitive way of life with the Communities, the supposed outcome, as Noah reveals near the end of the story in her sharing of the secret about the returned and missing missiles, is that humans would become extinct by their resistances towards the Communities, in a similar way as a person separate from the established rules and language of an accepted social order would be socially defunct. Even Noah’s name suggests that she is the ideal other that humanity must learn to conform to, being that her name represents the biblical hope for humanity when they find themselves in deep waters. The hardest thing for the members of the meeting in “Amnesty” to consent to is whether connecting the two communities is the right decision for humanity, whether they too should approach that middle ground between the two societies, and at some moments it is unclear whether or not everyone can consent to such an amalgamation. Although Noah makes a good argument for and is a clear example supporting that decision, the fear of the differences observed between them and the Communities secludes them from realizing the possibility; it is from such people that Noah is secluded and made ‘othered’, much in the same way people of colonized societies may be for associating with persons believed to be their antagonists. It is interesting that the Communities, as described by Noah, better fit the definition of being humane than the humans she encounters after her release from the Mojave Bubble; the Communities demonstrate their capacity for performing some unpleasant experiments on people upon their arrival to Earth, but once they had realized harm was being done much of the damaging experimentation was reduced, while the human interrogators that capture Noah show her less consideration than the Communities. The Communities are, from Noah’s perspective, noticeably similar to humans; they are both intelligent, have a language, use tools, show curiosity, compassion, the means to evolve in a new environment and are comprised of beings that create communities, and like humans the individuals have the availability to move between communities, so despite their physiological differences they seem to be just the same as humans, but more quickly accepting of cooperation. By creating beings in this manner Butler seems to be questioning whether humans are, by their own definition, less human that the alien trespassers, and whether Noah as an example can help provide improvement in this area. Can Noah alter human social order, and will others be receptive? Looking at Noah as the exemplar other that humans can internalize and develop towards suggests that an alteration of self-identification is possible, and that such an alteration would lead to less hostile co-habitation, but approaching the Other requires a responsibility that not all the members of the meeting express an appreciation for. Like Derek Attridge suggests in “Reading and Responding” the reader, or in this case a character from Butler’s story, must be willing to be open to alternative Others in order to reach, understand, and internalize them. As is suggested in “Amnesty,” to ignore the Other limits human potential and to remain apart from such advancement of the self and socialization with the Communities could be precarious; without the imago that Noah is identified as there would be no mediator for humans to use as an example to work towards. To obtain the same form of security that Noah has managed requires the others to analyze and very possibly alter their accepted ideology in place of the new.
Attridge, Derek. The Singularity of Literature. New York: Routledge, 2004. 79-131. Print. Butler, Octavia. Bloodchild. 2nd. New York: Seven Stories, 2005. Print. Lacan, Jacques. “The mirror stage as formative of the function of the I as revealed in psychoanalytic experience” Écrits. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York, 1977. Print.