The Mattering of Black Lives: Octavia Butler’s Hyperempathy and the Promise of the New Materialisms


Diana Leong
University of Utah

Black lives matter and black lives matter and black lives matter. This homographic reading of the most salient political statement of recent years speaks to the torsions of blackness, matter, and life that have come to define our contemporary era. In “Unbearable Blackness,” Jared Sexton (2015) argues with regard to the triangulation of these concerns that anti-black fantasies “do not render blacks, like so much of the planet, subject to death in an economy of disposability; rather, they subject blacks to ‘the interminable time of meaningless, impersonal dying’” (p.168). In the wake of recent grand jury decisions not to prosecute the murders of Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, and Michael Brown, to name only the most widely publicized cases, Sexton’s claims register most strongly in the state’s refusal to allow these deaths to die. They are caught instead in a biopolitical apparatus that suspends racial blackness between a life unrecognized as such and an illegible form of death that can never pass into reason. Against this timeless, spectral dying, we can read the declaration that “Black Lives Matter” as a call to return racial blackness to a form that matters, to a form, in other words, that is matter. On this score, I ask: how do black life and death become matter, and what is at stake in the demand that they should assume such form? Octavia Butler’s Afrofuturist novels Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998) dramatize these questions through protagonist Lauren Olamina and her condition of hyperempathy. In this article, I explore hyperempathy as a speculative embodiment of “pornotroping” (Spillers, 2003) to understand how racial blackness structures current theorizations of matter.

Questions about the proper scale, scope, and character of matter have assumed a renewed sense of urgency given the emergence of the Anthropocene, a distinct geological epoch in which human activity has become so influential as to alter fundamental aspects of the Earth System. While ecologist Eugene Stoermer and Nobel Prize-winning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen introduced the current definition of the term in the 1980s, we have since witnessed a growing scientific consensus about the rigor of the concept. A recent article published in the journal Science by the Anthropocene Working Group (2016) provides the latest example of this support, demonstrating that fluctuations in the content and pace of sediment deposits and extinction rates are anthropogenically driven. However, the very nomenclature of the “Anthropocene” has been subject to critique from within the humanities for allowing an abstract notion of the “Anthropos” to anchor an implicit philosophy of history. Daniel Hartley (2015), for instance, comments in a recent issue of the UK-based magazine Salvage, “Inherent to the Anthropocene discourse is a conception of historical causality which is purely mechanical: a one-on-one billiard ball model of technological invention and historical effect, which is simply inadequate to explain actual social and relational modes of historical causation” (para. 4). Hartley takes special issue with the presumed origins of the Anthropocene, which many geologists date to the industrial and nuclear revolutions. This determination, he suggests, interprets the environmental impact of technology as the “net effect” of an undifferentiated “human” activity (Waters et. al., 2016, p. 139). In order to assert a causal link between technological development and ecological catastrophe, any consideration of the roles race, class, and gender have played in engineering our historical present must be obscured.1 The benefits and consequences of technological development and environmental disaster, after all, are rarely if ever distributed symmetrically among and within human populations. “It is not all people that are indicted by the onset of the Anthropocene,” writes Nicholas Mirzoeff (forthcoming 2016), “but a specific set: colonial settlers, enslavers, and would-be imperialists” (pp. 19-20).

At the same time, this remodeling of human history and ecological philosophy is not unique to geologists. Indeed, the Anthropocene’s scientific definition may have become matters of debate only recently, but its constitutive concerns—global warming, genetic technology, biodiversity loss, environmental racism—have thrown our prevailing concepts of nature and culture into crisis well before the epoch’s formal identification. At stake is not only the fate of homo sapiens as a species, but also the basic composition of a world yet to come. The challenges of analyzing the effects of non-human systems (e.g., weather patterns or ocean currents) and actors (e.g., viruses or pesticides) while attending to the uneven distribution of environmental risks and resources have generated a range of philosophical responses. For example, publications like Dipesh Chakrabarty’s (2009), “The Climate of History,” Elizabeth Kolbert’s (2014) The Sixth Extinction, and Roy Scranton’s (2015) Learning to Die in the Anthropocene recommend a universal or existential “species thinking” necessary for grasping the complexities of climate change. Other responses, like Jane Bennett’s (2010) Vibrant Matter and Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s (2015) Stone, interrogate fantasies of human mastery as a way of reckoning with the power of non-human agents. Over the last decade, one particular variety of response has acquired critical purchase within the academic left: the new materialisms.

As part of what Richard Grusin (2015) has named “the nonhuman turn” in contemporary thought, the new materialisms join affect theory, critical animal studies, and object-oriented ontology in calling for enhanced attention to matter and materiality. The popularity of this approach, evidenced by a growing number of monographs, special journal issues, and anthologies, appears grounded in the need to develop strategies of coexistence attuned to the Anthropocene’s political and ecological crises.2 How, for example, should we understand agency and embodiment in light of recent developments in biotechnology and the increasingly unpredictable behavior of non-human objects? The promise of the new materialisms thus inheres in the notion that a focus on materiality can offer us more comprehensive and efficacious ways to respond to these developments. As Diana Coole and Samantha Frost (2010) write in their introduction to the New Materialisms anthology, “What is at stake here is nothing less than a challenge to some of the most basic assumptions that have underpinned the modern world, including its normative sense of the human and its beliefs about human agency, but also regarding its material practices such as the ways we labor on, exploit, and interact with nature” (p. 4). There is much to recommend an intensified engagement with matter, not least of which is Coole and Frost’s proposal that such engagements can disrupt our “normative sense of the human” and of “human agency.”

Given this professed interest in dismantling human exceptionalism, it is curious then that, as Zakiyyah Jackson (2015) and other critical race scholars point out, the new materialisms have systematically “[ignored] praxes of humanity and critiques produced by black people, particularly those praxes which are irreverent to the normative production of ‘the human’ or illegible from within the terms of its logic” (p. 216).3 Black thought has long challenged the enforced description of Africans and their descendants as non-human objects of science, as specimens for study and experimentation, as commodities for market exchange, as things. In fact, from at least the 16th century onward, black bodies provided crucial raw material for the development of natural history, the natural sciences, and the life philosophies in Enlightenment thought.4 Both geology and biology, for example, pursued notions of species and evolution that preserved early racial taxonomies; the techniques of observation and interpretation used to analyze geological activity were the same as those employed by the racial science of phrenology. Mirzoeff (forthcoming 2016) leverages this history to argue that “the very concept of observable breaks between geological eras in general and the definition of the Anthropocene in particular is inextricably intermingled with the belief in distinct races of humanity” (p. 2). His claim that the concept of the Anthropocene reproduces race-making technologies gestures to the historical fact that the human as such has emerged through the exclusion and extermination of black bodies.

Proscribed from the realm of the human, black intellectuals have had to think within and through the categories of the non-human and the inhuman to pursue new ways of being in the world. Philosophical questions about the vitality and agency of the human, the animal, and the object are therefore longstanding in the fields of Black studies. Alexander Weheliye (2015) observes in Habeas Viscus that across Sylvia Wynter’s oeuvre, “it is the human—or different genres of the human—that materializes as the object of knowledge in the conceptual mirror of black studies” (p. 21). The scholarly work of Hortense Spillers (2003) and Fred Moten (2003), and the Afrofuturist contributions of Nalo Hopkinson (1998; 2000) and Nnedi Okorafor (2010), similarly confront the “most basic assumptions that have underpinned the modern world,” including our notions of history, temporality, and modern science.5 And yet, as it is with the Anthropocene’s implied philosophy of history, much of the scholarship produced under the banner of the new materialisms tends to reduce race to a crude “identity politics” or to endorse a model of difference-without-race.6 This reduction and disavowal of race, I contend, is something of a structural necessity for the new materialisms.

In what follows, I trace the general theoretical principles of the new materialisms to a dissatisfaction with the linguistic and cultural paradigms of post-structuralism. I then demonstrate how this dissatisfaction enables an ethics of relation or affect that further legitimizes the reduction and dismissal of race. However, as a close reading of Butler’s Parable duology reveals, one of the primary figures of the new materialisms—the material body—is defined by and through disavowed social fantasies about black female flesh that are linked to the global legacies of modern slavery. My examination of the critical responses to Butler’s novels further suggests that such fantasies are necessary to secure a libidinal investment in the ethical potential of materiality. I argue, thus, against a misrecognition of black female flesh as a resource against the violence of hierarchical differences, rather than the site of their active production. Finally, I turn to a reading of Butler’s Parable duology as an allegory about the dangers of proceeding in the Anthropocene without a robust analysis of the formation of racial blackness. Because a proper survey of new materialist literature is beyond the scope of this article, the comments below should be taken as entry points for probing the (absent) place of racial blackness in theories about matter.7

The promise of the new materialisms

The new materialisms are drawn from a long genealogy of philosophical materialism, in which Spinoza, Nietzsche, Bergson, Marx, and Deleuze are cited as major touchstones. In recognition of this legacy, Coole and Frost (2010) assert that the interventions loosely gathered by the term “new materialisms” are better “categorized as renewed materialisms,” with the qualifier “new” acknowledging the “unprecedented” ecological, biological, and technological conditions under which we currently live and labor (p. 4, italics in original). Although their specific objects of analysis are appropriately diverse, the new materialisms collectively insist on a post-humanist matter that is lively, self-directed, agential, creative, and always in the process of becoming. In this regard, matter is better thought of as materialization, or the process by which complex phenomena are temporarily and contingently stabilized to varying degrees. The ontological shift entailed here is towards a philosophical monism, inspired most notably by the work of Deleuze. Following Spinoza and Bergson, Deleuze (1994) develops a notion of the virtual as a generative field of difference, or a “plane of immanence,” where “all the varieties of differential relations and all the distributions of singular points [coexist] in diverse orders ‘perplicated’ in one another” (p. 206). These differences are then formatted into distinct phenomena or entities by processes of actualization that “[bring] the object back into relation with the field of differential relations in which it can always be dissolved and become actualized otherwise, as something else, by being linked through other differential relations to other particles” (Cheah, 2010, pp. 85-86). While not all new materialist theories cleave to a strictly Deleuzian philosophy, there is general agreement that the dynamic interactions among objects, bodies, and phenomena turn us away from the Anthropocene’s “billiard ball model” of causality, and more significantly, away from some of post-structuralism’s critical trends.

According to the new materialisms, the linguistic and cultural turns of the last half century have resulted in both an intellectual and a political poverty. Specifically, social constructivism (Coole & Frost, 2010) and cultural representationalism (Barad, 2007) have overdetermined matter to the extent that it appears as a passive product made meaningful only through cultural and discursive practice. Coole and Frost (2010) even write of a theoretical “exhaustion,” claiming that they “share the feeling current among many researchers that the dominant constructivist orientation to social analysis is inadequate for thinking about matter, materiality, and politics in ways that do justice to the contemporary context of biopolitics and global political economy” (p. 6). Somewhere and sometime during the rise of the Anthropocene, cultural theory, broadly conceived, lost its explanatory power. This assessment of inadequacy repeats across much of the recent new materialist scholarship, condensing the cultural turn into a discursive reductionism that rebuffs the empirical for the ideal, or the material for the symbolic. Elizabeth Grosz’s (2004) The Nick of Time opens with a telling “reminder to social, political, and cultural theorists, particularly those interested in feminism, antiracism, and questions of the politics of globalization, that they have forgotten a crucial dimension of research…not just the body, but that which makes it possible and which limits its actions: the precarious, accidental, contingent, expedient, striving, dynamic status of life in a messy, complicated, resistant, brute world of materiality” (p. 2). Social, political, and cultural theory, in other words, have overlooked the material conditions of life that render the body available for inscription and enculturation in the first instance. So too in the recently published Gut Feminism does Elizabeth Wilson (2015) rebuke “social constructionism” for “[tending] not to be very curious about the details of empirical claims in genetics, neurophysiology, evolutionary biology, pharmacology or biochemistry” (p. 3). Her ensuing conclusion is that focusing on how social structures produce and discipline bodies comes at the expense of recognizing the ways bodies radically alter and organize social structures themselves. It appears that cultural theory harbors an “allergy to ‘the real’” that dissuades “critical inquirers from the more empirical kinds of investigation that material processes and structures require” (Coole & Frost, 2010, p. 6). However, the very aspects that would make matter more “real” than language or culture are the same aspects that restrict its ethical potential and facilitate a conceptual rejection of race.

In line with their post-humanist agenda, the new materialisms evoke matter and materiality as existing in excess of human subjectivity and its attendant domains. Mechanistic theories of causality hold that objects are composed of inert matter acted upon by external forces, which presumes that an object’s potential or possible capabilities are already present and fixed in some initial moment of creation. But, as the new materialisms emphasize, the virtual field of differential relations is immanent to matter in such a way that it is impossible to anticipate all of the effects a material configuration may have, or the organizational forms it may take. This ability to act independently of the subject’s will and desire is variously construed as “impersonal and preindividual forces,” an alterity that “comes from outside the capability or power of the subject” (Cheah, 2010, p. 80, 89), “degrees of indetermination” that represent the “‘true principle of life’” (Grosz, 2010, p. 149), and a “powerful reminder…that life will always exceed our knowledge and control” (Bennett, 2010, p.14). Differences in terminology aside, the new materialisms are united by an understanding of materiality as a spectral, impersonal force with material effects, one that escapes reason and disrupts systems of meaning, including modernist binaries like mind/body, culture/nature, and inside/outside (Dolphijn & van der Tuin, 2012). The latter aspect is key because, while matter can frustrate representation, its “excessive” properties do not mean that it exists “outside” of the subject. Rather, matter and materiality are “real” because they actively produce reality in unpredictable ways (Cheah, 2010).

It is here that the ethical impetus of the new materialist project is located. If we accept our embeddedness in mutually transformative, non-human networks, the ground of ethics shifts accordingly. First, a responsibility to an externalized other gives way to an accountability for the many relations that constitute becoming. And second, ethics are no longer reducible to the decisions or actions of individuals that are initiated by a properly historical judgment. In Rosi Braidotti’s (2010) terms, “Accepting the impossibility of mutual recognition and replacing it with one of mutual specification and mutual codependence is what is at stake in postsecular affirmative ethics” (p. 214). I find nothing immediately problematic with an ethics that aspires to keep pace with advancements in science, philosophy, and technology. What I find troublesome is how our acquiescence to these ethics is solicited.

New materialist ethics necessarily manifest as affective encounters that operate best on micropolitical scales. Because materiality is figured as an impersonal force of the real, it runs the risk of becoming a transcendental signified that merely replaces language or culture as an organizing principle. Doing so would severely diminish its import as an inducement to a posthumanist ethics. To circumvent the “tension between universalistic theory and specific mode of inquiry,” chance, contingency, and creativity in micro-level encounters are prioritized over more obstinate assemblages that congeal at the global or macro-levels (Zhan, 2016, p. 26). Further, as the nucleus of the new materialisms, the embodied subject or material body compels an ethics that unfolds on a parallel plane, meaning between and within bodies. “This implies,” Rosi Braidotti (2010) proposes, “approaching the world through affectivity and not cognition: as singularity, force, movement, through assemblages or webs of interconnections with all that lives,” and “accepting the impossibility of mutual recognition and replacing it with one of mutual specification and mutual codependence” (p. 214).

In the quotation above, Braidotti invokes an ethics of relation, in which sensation and perception comprise the “zone of [ethical] effectivity,” and attunement and affirmation take precedence over social transformation (Tumino, 2011, p. 555). Because material inter- and intra-actions are preconscious and multisensorial, ethical practice is based not on the ability to evaluate right from wrong, but on a commitment to feeling right. We can observe this adjustment in appeals to “an ongoing responsiveness to…entanglement” ((Barad, 2007, p. 394), “a heightened sensitivity to the agency of assemblages” (Bennett, 2010b), a “wakefulness” to the “feel [of] what makes us laugh, lament, and curse” (Orlie, 2007, p. 127) and an “experience of the vitality of being” (Connolly, 2010, pp. 196-197). As a consequence, the experiences of living under conditions of crisis are fetishized at the expense of addressing the causes of these conditions themselves. The imperative to “[live] with the open wound...through a sort of depersonalization of the event” (Braidotti, 2010, p. 213), for example, not only depoliticizes the claims of historically oppressed communities, but also flattens distinctions between traumas inflicted through happenstance and persistent intergenerational harm. How else could one, as Braidotti does, list as equivalent examples: those who survived the Holocaust, Frida Kahlo’s deadly tram ride, and missing the train to the World Trade Center on September 11th (p. 214)?

The limits of a new materialist ethics appear most forcefully, then, as we attempt to move from an embodied “responsiveness” to the dislocation of structures. When patterns of materialization are addressed, it is generally as the amalgamation of “perpetual circuits of exchange, feedback, and reentry” that thereby “[inflect] the shape of political experience” (Connolly, 2010, pp. 190-191). On the one hand, there is nothing innately objectionable about attributing the creation and transformation of political structures to any number of quotidian, embodied experiences. This is in fact common in political theory and historiography.8 On the other hand, it becomes more difficult to reconcile the effects of chance, unpredictability, and indeterminacy with the endurance and repetition of something like antiblack violence.9 The new materialisms are therefore at pains to clarify why the structures of global antiblackness continue to function as if “neither time nor history, nor historiography and its topics, show movement, as the human subject is ‘murdered’ over and over again by the passions of a bloodless and anonymous archaism, showing itself in endless disguise” (Spillers, 2003, p. 208). Interpreting and describing our entanglements with non-human, materialist forces are not enough to account for, much less dislodge attachments to, social categories and representational arrangements. By this I mean that becoming more aware of material forces will not inevitably reduce the weight of discursive or psychic formations. It could even obstruct change by making forms of affect and sensation newly available for inscription. As Timothy Morton (2007) states, when “contact becomes content,” perceptions of difference collapse into identity (p. 37). Granted, these complications are not unique to the new materialisms as changes in scale almost always require a re-calibration of ethics. The point is, however, that the framing of the new materialisms as inherently more ethical generates, and is generated by, a disavowal or misreading of race as a stagnant analytical framework. 

As I submit above, since at least the Enlightenment period intellectual genealogies have maintained an almost overwhelming racial homogeneity. Critical theories produced by non-white scholars may have increased in terms of production or representation, but these are consistently marked as minority perspectives that have little to do with universal or ontological questions.10 Hence, black bodies especially are rendered objects for theoretical development, rather than subjects of universal philosophy. Coole and Frost (2010) continue this trend, revealing that even as “feminists and class theorists have often insisted upon” the importance of material bodies and environments, the authors remain “[concerned] that such material dimensions have recently been marginalized by fashionable constructivist approaches and identity politics” (p. 19). The latter, they continue, “had a good deal to say about the body and its imbrication in relationships of power, but we are not convinced that they pay sufficient attention to the material efficacy of bodies or have the theoretical resources to do so” (ibid.). Such a statement is heavy with longstanding racial charges of intellectual primitivism and parochialism. The unfortunate request to be “convinced” of identity politics’ intellectual merit effectively seals an historically white critical theory as the standard for authoritative knowledge production.11 One must also wonder about the referents for these insufficiently materialist identity politics, given that the New Materialisms anthology fails to cite even one example that might be taken as representative of a larger trend.

Even if Coole and Frost employ “identity politics” as a shorthand for idealist approaches to subjectivity, their statement betrays both a misunderstanding of studies of “identity,” and a symptomatic desire to abandon race. To be clear, Coole and Frost never openly reduce “identity politics” to racial identity. But in many if not most of new materialisms’ founding texts, race receives only casual mention alongside the “other so-called axes of social difference” like sex, gender, and class, and often to specify a concept that has been “paralyzed by [a] ‘binary’ take on dualism” (Dolphijn & van der Tuin, 2012, p. 88, 143), or to name potential beneficiaries of one’s theorization (Barad, 2007; Grosz, 2004). We could perhaps attribute this treatment of race to an obdurate politics of attention (Ahmed, 2008) that determines which issues receive consideration.12 Nonetheless, to ascertain if and how the new materialisms might furnish us with a timelier ethics, we must first ask what purpose the omission of race serves.

The Movement for Black Lives has forcefully reminded us that black bodies have historically provided the standards against which the human subject and non-human objects are measured. This is to say that the “rupture in the quality of being” inaugurated by modern racial slavery is not limited to black lives (Brand, 2001, p. 29). Black critical theorists repeatedly insist on the world-historical scale of this rupture, tracking how it conditions our thinking about humans and matter, and the movements of this thought itself. What this means for our current discussion is that “the question of race’s reality has and continues to bear directly on hierarchies of knowledge pertaining to the nature of reality itself” (Jackson, 2015, p. 216), or on what Dionne Brand (2001) calls our “cognitive schema” (p. 29). As a conceptual orientation or method of “way-finding,” the prevailing cognitive schema articulates a libidinal economy of antiblackness to the history of ideas, ensuring, as Spillers (2003) maintains, that “dominant symbolic activity, the ruling episteme that releases the dynamics of naming and valuation, remains grounded in the originating metaphors of captivity and mutilation;” “sticks and bricks might break our bones, but words will most certainly kill us” (pp. 208-209). By inverting a childhood rejoinder about the supposedly limited reach of the symbolic, Spillers lays out a provocative proposal: the metaphors of slavery are immanent to the force of the material. Although “‘race’ alone bears no inherent meaning, even though it reifies in personality,” it “gains its power from what it signifies by point, in what it allows to come to meaning” (Spillers, 2003, p. 380). Black lives matter, and blackness enlivens matter. It is possible, then, that the elaboration of thought, the conditions of its enunciation and reception, are always part of a racial praxis, even when those “personalities” that absorb the reification of race are most absent. This is a paradigmatic example of the prevailing cognitive schema at work. Antiblackness conditions the force of materiality by determining the logic of both its actualization and its theoretical manifestations. These functions become clearer when we turn our attention to Octavia Butler’s Parable duology.

Parables for our time

The Parable novels are set in a dystopian America, produced by a fifteen-year period of “coinciding climactic, economic, and sociological crises” known collectively as “The Pox” (Butler, 1998, p. 8). Amid the ongoing economic and political collapse of the U.S. and its de facto elimination of social services, protagonist Lauren Olamina lives with her family in the Southern California gated community of Robledo, which is Spanish for “Oakwood.” The community’s walls offer an illusion of security to the semi-professional, non-white residents, and despite the increasing violence just outside, they refuse to consider alternatives. Angered by this inability to acknowledge the permanence of change, Lauren devises a line of flight in the form of a political theology she names “Earthseed.” She becomes the titular “Sower” of the first novel, guided by Earthseed’s central principle that “God is Change.” After the eventual massacre of the people of Robledo, Lauren travels to Northern California with fellow itinerants she recruits along the way. Parable of the Sower closes with their founding of the town of Acorn—a name that transforms a community once mature and moribund like a “sturdy old oak” into a community committed to Earthseed’s doctrine of adaptability, self-sufficiency, and education. While both novels are narrated through Lauren’s journal entries, Parable of the Talents includes contributions from Lauren’s daughter, Asha, and Lauren’s husband, Bankole. Talents picks up five years after the events of Sower and details the imprisonment and dispersal of the Acorn community by a fundamentalist Christian sect. In the second half of Talents, Lauren sets out to find a missing Asha while attempting to rebuild the Earthseed movement. The narrative culminates with the departure of the world’s first interstellar spaceships, sponsored by the now powerful network of Earthseed acolytes.

What makes the novels imminently relevant to our discussion is that the apocalypse-inducing “Pox” begins in 2015. While Lauren’s narration commences in 2024, the overlaps between the diegetic and extradiegetic levels endorse a reading of the novels as cautionary tales for the Anthropocene of our present. To be sure, the eponymous “parables” of the titles refer to the New Testament’s instructional stories, and there is a great deal in Butler’s novels deserving of our caution. All of the Anthropocene’s most troubling possibilities, however farfetched, are realized by 2024. The rapidly warming climate decimates crops and creates monster storms, displacing millions of people and exacerbating the spread of hunger, poverty, and disease. As U.S. citizens attempt to flee to Alaska, “The Last Frontier” eventually secedes from the union to form a Northern Bloc with Russia and Canada. By 2033, warfare has broken out. As Butler makes clear, these events were set in motion prior to the onset of the Pox and considerably before 2015. This warp of time and history situates the novels in the future perfect by foregrounding the priority of blackness, figured here through Lauren’s recounting as an eternal condition of being “prior” that returns to the present as a not-yet realized future.13 Blackness, which will have been there, is the specter that haunts the Anthropocene and its possible futures.

What I find intriguing is that this haunting appears most strongly in the scholarly reception of the novels. There is much to say about the novels’ methods, including their retrofitting of the slave narrative, and about their themes, like the ideological functions of technology, the privatization of natural resources, and the constitution of community. But one theme in particular that receives consistent attention among critics deals explicitly with the question of the human body itself. Lauren is hyperempathic, an “organic delusional syndrome” that obliges her to share other people’s pain and pleasure (Butler, 1993, p. 11). This heightened sensitivity is visually-activated; in her own words, “I feel what I see others feeling or what I believe they feel” (Butler, 1993, p. 12). Despite being entirely imaginary, Lauren’s ability to “share” renders her dangerously vulnerable to the violence that permeates both novels. Speaking to Bankole, she laments, “Self-defense shouldn’t have to be an agony or a killing or both. I can be crippled by the pain of a wounded person. I’m a very good shot because I’ve never felt that I could afford to just wound someone…. The worst of it is, if you got hurt, I might not be able to help you. I might be crippled by your injury—by your pain, I mean—as you are” (Butler, 1993, p. 278). As a consequence, Lauren’s social interactions are governed by a kind of strategic calculus; the “Golden Rule” enacted not just at the level of bodies, but essentially between them.

For many critics, hyperempathy encourages more ethical approaches to difference by releasing the body from its historically fixed positions. Variously described as the “right medicine for our present ‘compassion fatigue’” (Miller, 1998, p. 357), “the living embodiment of the subversion of difference” (Stillman, 2003, p. 29), and “a crucial metaphor for re-defining social relations,” hyperempathy seems to bear an almost utopian ethical potential (Melzer, 2002, p. 13). In this regard, hyperempathy accomplishes what E.P. Thompson identifies as the pedagogical function of utopia, or “the education of desire” (qtd. in Wegner, 2007, p. 17). The scholarly reception of the Parable duology therefore announces that a radical break with our attachments to the body is not only possible, but also desirable. We are now firmly within the scope of the post- and non-human turns. The body hailed in the Parable duology is precisely the body theorized in the new materialisms. For instance, Coole and Frost (2010) define bodies as “open series of capacities or potencies that emerge hazardously and ambiguously within a multitude of organic and social processes,” indicating that the materiality of the body exceeds whatever provisionally coherent and stable form it may take (p. 10). The material body is a temporary, albeit stubborn, configuration of a deeper flow of difference. To illustrate, after experiencing several incidents of sharing pain, Lauren notes: “I had no sense of my own body. I hurt, but I couldn’t have said where—or even whether the pain was mine or someone else’s. The pain was intense, yet [diffuse] somehow. I felt…disembodied” (Butler. 1993, p. 297). Lauren’s inability to distinguish between her pain and “someone else’s” prevents her from locating her body in space and time, demonstrating that the body’s inhabitation of “an Umwelt that remains ambiguous, indeterminate, and resonant with an expressive Significance…affects the body's perception of spatial relations” (Coole, 2010, p. 104). This loss of proprioception, or the ability to make immediate “sense of” her body, suggests not only that bodies can act and respond prior to rational cognition, but also that the body is a non-deterministic form produced through and traversed by the “open series of capacities or potencies” foregrounded in Coole and Frost’s definition.

Hyperempathy also shares with new materialist philosophies a capacity to disturb the social and political hierarchies that regulate our encounters with difference. As critic Jerry Phillips (2002) agrees, “in a hyperempathetic world, the other would cease to exist as the ontological antithesis of the self, but would instead become a real aspect of oneself” (p. 306). For one, hyperempathy is not limited to connections between human bodies. Before the destruction of Robledo, Lauren and a group from the community venture beyond the walls to hunt for her brother. After her father shoots a feral dog, Lauren realizes that it is still alive: “I saw its bloody wounds as it twisted. I bit my tongue as the pain I knew it must feel became my pain…. With my right hand, I drew the Smith & Wesson, aimed, and shot the beautiful dog through its head…. I walked, then rode in a daze, still not quite free of the dog I had killed” (Butler, 1993, pp. 45-46). For Lauren, the dog’s death lingers, as the ethical ramifications of violence are translated into an exchange of affect between bodies. Her killing of the dog is as much an act of mercy for it as it is for her, which seems to confirm Braidotti’s (2010) supposition that “affectivity in fact is what activates an embodied subject, empowering him or her to interact with others….it follows that a subject can think/understand/do/become no more than what he or she can take or sustain within his or her embodied, spatiotemporal coordinates” (p. 210). That one of these bodies is coded as non-human or animal has little effect on its ability to act as a causal force. Without a doubt, differences exist between Lauren and the dog; but at the level of the materialist body, these differences do not cohere into social categories.

Additionally, Lauren’s experiences with difference resolve into a central tenet of Earthseed: “Embrace diversity/Unite—/Or be divided,/robbed,/ruled,/killed/By those who see you as prey./Embrace diversity/Or be destroyed” (Butler, 1993, p. 196). The implied choice is between two perspectives on difference: The first—diversity—views difference as the foundation for collective empowerment, while in the second, difference continues to scaffold a social hierarchy in which some people emerge as prey. The events of the Pox have created an economy of survival, where “people are expected to fear and hate everyone but their own kind” (p. 36). In defiance of this view, Lauren saves, and then invites, a young family to join her group, commenting, “We’re natural allies—the mixed couple and the mixed group” (p. 208). Hyperempathy demonstrates that like the walls around Robledo, the limitations of difference, and the social and political hierarchies that sustain them, are provisional. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, literary critics tend to minimize the significance of Lauren’s racial blackness.

Patricia Melzer’s (2002) evaluation of the Parable novels is representative of a common reading strategy that positions Butler as a science fiction writer who is black, rather than as a black woman who writes science fiction. She states:
Butler's approach to race issues that at first appear to be in the background of her social critique can be understood as a (narrative) strategy that undermines the binary of white/black that dominates U.S. discourse on race relations…By insisting on the presence of people of color in her narratives as normal, not exceptional, Butler also implicitly rejects the tokenism that categorizes her work primarily in terms of her identity as African American. (p. 10)
As it is within the new materialisms, “race,” which is really a placeholder for “the binary of white/black,” is dissolved into a vague “tokenism” that is itself a stand-in for “identity politics.” This may seem peculiar, given that Butler’s work regularly employs narrative strategies and themes consistent with black literature and experience (e.g. Kindred, the Lilith’s Brood trilogy, and Fledgling). After the publication of her Patternist series in the early 1980’s, she was hailed as a welcome corrective to science fiction’s largely white, colonial, and patriarchal overtones. But for her part, Butler (2001) has expressed in interviews that “it is a writer's duty to write about human differences, all human differences, and help make them acceptable” (qtd. in Mehaffy and Keating, p. 46). Gregory Hampton (2010) draws out the implications of this undertaking, declaring that “Butler’s fiction is successful largely because it produces narratives that are easily comparable to African American experiences but also because it considers the perspective of a universal marginalized body” (p. 69). If we follow the lead of critics like Meltzer, or the new materialist refusal of “identity politics,” the “universal marginalized body” manifests as a body suspended in a static nexus of identity and representation, which is to say that all bodies, to varying degrees and at different times, are marginalized bodies. What we lose in this rush from the particular to the universal is any consideration of how the material-semiotic history of race governs, from the outset, what can and cannot be made legible as a universal.

What Lauren’s hyperempathy elucidates is that in order to free difference and the body from its humanist constraints, we must attend to one particular difference to which the human and the body are bound, namely, racial blackness. This may seem paradoxical when we consider that new materialist scholarship almost uniformly rejects any consideration of race in its return to the body. But entrapping race in “identity politics” (i.e. the new materialisms), or the “white/black binary” (i.e. literary criticism of the novels), is more correctly a disavowal that untethers the non-, in-, and post-human from their historically proper site of production. Or more precisely, disavowing the associations between the non-/in-/post-human and racial blackness defends interactions with the former against the ontological and conceptual provocations of the latter. For Melzer (2002) to write that hyperempathy yields a “shared identity and life experience that [is] not based in a particular unified racial or cultural background” (p. 12), or for Jerry Phillips (2002) to declare that Butler “employs a race-transcendent communalist ethics” (p. 307), the material and hyperempathic body must be free of race.

An anxiety that race might follow the body, however sublimated or symptomatic, is well founded, given how Butler remarks that hyperempaths make good slaves. After learning of her brother’s horrific death, Lauren asks, “if everyone could feel everyone else’s pain, who would torture? Who would cause unnecessary pain? I’ve never thought of my problem as something that might do some good before, but the way things are, I think it would help” (p. 115). However, in a 2001 interview with NPR, Octavia Butler explicitly argues that “the threat of shared pain wouldn't necessarily make people behave better toward one another.” The return of a renewed slavery in the novels makes this clear as company “bosses” or “drivers” pay extra for workers with hyperempathy syndrome. Moreover, in the novels, hyperempathy syndrome is induced in utero via maternal abuse of Paracetco, a drug originally designed to impede the degeneration of brain functions caused by Alzheimer’s disease. Paracetco increased the energy and intellectual capabilities of non-afflicted users and so became the stimulant of choice for those in the working and middle classes like Lauren’s mother. Also evoking the antebellum law of partus sequitur ventrem that mandated children follow the condition of their mother, the children of hyperempaths can inherit the condition even if they are several generations removed from the original drug use (Butler, 1993/1998). Despite these connections to antebellum slavery, hyperempathy is not racially exclusive. And yet, the relationships between hyperempathy and a slavery of the future are telling insofar as they bring the specter of blackness back to the fore. In black women like Lauren, hyperempathy recalls the process by which black bodies are violently revealed as flesh, or what Hortense Spillers terms pornotroping, or the sexually violent and spectacular reduction of the captive body to flesh.

In her seminal essay, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Spillers (2003) presents a concept of flesh as the material-semiotic inheritance of Africans in the diaspora, and of black women specifically. She “make[s] a distinction in this case between ‘body’ and ‘flesh’ and impose[s] that distinction as the central one between captive and liberated subject-positions...before the ‘body’ there is the ‘flesh,’ that zero degree of social conceptualization that does not escape concealment under the brush of discourse, or the reflexes of iconography” (p.206). Unlike the socially legible and historically-given “body,” the material conditions of captive and ungendered “flesh” cannot be altered by either the symbolic—“the brush of discourse”—or the imaginary—“the reflexes of iconography.” Flesh instead serves as a structuring dynamic for the coherence of both registers, and as such, must be eternally reproduced. This repetition-without-a-difference may appear through “various symbolic substitutions,” but in effect, these substitutions “repeat the initiating moments” that mark the captive body as flesh (p. 207).

As a scene of negation, black flesh is also available for pornotroping as a first order process of racialization, where “race is constituted by a repeated sadistic white pleasure in black female suffering” (Nash, 2014, p. 52). During their incarceration, Acorn community members are fitted with electronic devices called “slave collars” that deliver painful shocks or “lashes” to the nervous system. After she is collared, Lauren discovers that her hyperempathy subjects her to both the pain of her fellow captives and the pornotropic pleasure of her captors; she writes, “there are a few men…who lash until they have orgasms. Our screams and convulsions and pleas and sobs are what these men need to feel sexually satisfied. I know of three who seem to need to lash someone to get sexual pleasure. Most often, they lash a woman, then rape her” (Butler, 1998, p. 233). In these scenes, the relationships between consent, pleasure, and sentiment collapse as Lauren is forced to reenact the crisis of will and desire that characterize the female slave’s existence.14

While all hyperempaths, regardless of race, would experience a similar crisis under these conditions, black women are assured neither a restoration of their will and desire nor a discernible “end” to the crisis. Lauren needs neither the condition of hyperempathy nor the slave collar to bear the “marks of the cultural text” of slavery (Spillers, 2003, p. 207). Despite the episodic nature of hyperempathy, black women’s fleshly existence remains a structural vulnerability to violence, a condition that is also a “grammar”—an unconscious system of rules—that marks black women as the “zero degree of social conceptualization” (Spillers, 2003, p. 206). As such, black female flesh is the quintessentially productive site of modernity’s symbolic order, where the value and meaning of our conceptual categories are both challenged or renewed. Lauren performs this function in the novels, as her unavoidable reductions to flesh guide Earthseed’s development into a global movement. In this context, Lauren’s black life, or the blackness of her life, matters, but only in its ambivalent capacity to make all lives matter.

The Movement for Black Lives

The approach to life promoted under Earthseed’s banner responds to our desires for new modes of existence appropriate for the Anthropocene. For Lauren, embracing change enables notions of self and community capable of navigating complex socioeconomic forces and their differential embodiment. In Earthseed, “god is a process or a combination of processes, not an entity. It is not conscious at all…. God can be directed, focused, speeded, slowed, shaped. All things change, but all things need not change in all ways” (Butler, 1998, p. 46). Moreover, change is not driven simply or only by the dialectics of historical progress. The chapters in both Sower and Talents open with epigraphs from Earthseed’s doctrinal text, The Book of the Living. Modeled after the aphoristic style of the Tao, these epigraphs acknowledge the potential of political, economic, and social structures to affect and be affected by all matter: “We have lived before/We will live again/We will be silk,/Stone,/Mind,/Star,/We will be scattered,/Gathered,/ Molded,/Probed./We will live,/And we will serve Life” (Butler, 1998, p. 60). The confluence of silk, stone, mind, and star rejects the idea that the active properties of “life” are confined to the human or organic, constituting what Weheliye calls a “radically different political imaginary,” where “suffering appears as utopian erudition” that “[summons] forms of human emancipation that can be imagined but not (yet) described” (Butler, 1998, pp. 126-127). The destiny of Earthseed to “take root amongst the stars” is precisely this imagined yet indescribable emancipation (Butler, 1998, p. 46). Once the starships leave Earth at the end of Talents, humanity becomes Earth-seed, open to possibilities that we cannot predict or control as we spread to worlds unknown.

Visions like these suggest, among other things, that oppressive conditions do not exhaust the variabilities of life, and that the transvaluation of the organic body and human being can encourage comprehensive ethical bearings. Then again, perceiving hyperempathy and Earthseed as means to “liberate...assemblages of life, thought, and politics from the tradition of the oppressed” requires us to detach pornotroping from the sexually violent production of racial difference (Weheliye, 2014, p. 137). The celebrated material body thus betrays a desire to harness the radical potential of black flesh without paying the social and historical costs of being black. In the new materialist formulation, pornotroping is revised as a radical interruption in the order of things, one that produces a material body without race.

Certainly, in black women’s “absence from a subject position,” Spillers does locate the potential for a sui generis naming that claims the “insurgent ground” outside of “dominant symbolic activity” (p. 229). The difficulty here is that the monstrous female “with the potential to ‘name’” emerges out of the specific histories of black women (Spillers, 2003, p. 209). This is not to say that a capacity for life does not exist in other conditions of oppression, or that pornotroping is a structural totality from which nothing escapes. However, in order to confront effectively the consequences of the Anthropocene, we first need to reckon with our political and libidinal investments in black flesh. This would require us to address how the entanglements of blackness, matter, and the human make only certain forms of matter both legible and desirable. To be clear, my objective is not to reject wholesale the new materialisms. Their attempts to offer a broader theorization of matter and being are appropriate and necessary for our techno-scientific age. Indeed, a planetary crisis requires a more expansive philosophy. What I am suggesting instead is that challenges to human exceptionalism should proceed through a critique of race, or we risk reorganizing old privileges (“All Lives”) under new standards of being (“Matter”).


1 Nicholas Mirzoeff notes in his forthcoming essay, “It’s Not the Anthropocene, It’s the White Supremacy Scene, or the Geological Color Line,” that a recent publication by geologists locates the origins of the Anthropocene in the arrival of Europeans to America. While this preliminary acknowledgement of the large scale impact of colonialism and slavery is hopeful, any discourse on the Anthropocene should also be accompanied by “a politics that challenges [the racial and humanist] hierarchy” often implied by its philosophy of history (Mirzoeff, forthcoming 2016, p. 22).   

2 In addition to the works referenced in this article, see also Alaimo and Heckman (2008), Barrett and Bolt (2012), Benson-Allott (2015), Bryant (2011), Clough and Halley (2007), Connolly (2013), Hinton and van der Tuin (2014), Luciano and Chen (2015), Morton (2013), and Shaviro (2014).

3 See also Jones (2011), Luciano and Chen (2015), McMillan (2015b), and Mirzoeff (forthcoming 2016).

4 For an overview of how African and African American bodies have informed scientific thought from the Enlightenment onward, see Curran (2013), Jackson and Weidman (2004), and Wynter (2013).

5 Other noteworthy examples include Fanon (2000), Gordon (2000), Hartman (1997), Jones (2004), Keeling (2005), and Wilderson (2011).

6 Clearly, not all critical engagements with matter participate in the reduction and/or disavowal of race. Many feminist, postcolonial, and critical race studies scholars insist that studies of matter and materiality must occur through an interrogation of race. Noteworthy examples include Uri McMillian’s (2015a) Embodied Avatars, Rachel Lee’s (2014) The Exquisite Corpse of Asian America, Mel Chen’s (2012) Animacies, Stacy Alaimo’s (2010) Bodily Natures, and Donna Haraway’s foundational texts Primate Visions (1989) and Simians, Cyborgs, and Women (1991).

7 My decision to draw heavily on two of the more recent new materialist anthologies, New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics, and New Materialism: Interviews and Cartographies, is guided by the fact that both anthologies feature contributions from some of the most notable figures in the materialist or non-human turns. As such, these analogies provide a representative selection of current new materialist scholarship while indexing its more common themes.

8 Coole and Frost cite Althusser, Foucault, and some strains of neo-Marxism and ethnography as examples of similar approaches (pp. 20-36). Intriguingly, Ian Buchanan (2015) points out that they can also yield observations so “obvious” that “one does not even need a concept to make this claim. This is history in the mode of one damn thing after another” (p. 388).

9 To her credit, in an interview with Peter Gratton for his blog, “Philosophy in a Time of Error,” Jane Bennett (2010b) admits that she needs to “focus more carefully” on how assemblages assume the characteristics of repetition, duration, and stability; she writes, “I want to get better at discerning the topography of Becoming, better at theorizing the ‘structural’ quality of agentic assemblages. For the question of ‘structure’—or maybe that is the wrong word, and the phrase you suggest below is better, i.e., ‘linkages’ between and within ‘open relations’—does seem to fall in the shadow of the alluring image of an ever-free becoming…Inside a process of unending change, bodies and forces with duration are somehow emitted or excreted. But how?” (qtd. in “Vibrant Matters”). While this is a hopeful development, I maintain that our scholarly activity is intimately shaped by the legacies of transatlantic slavery. Going forward, then, the new materialisms must consider how blackness informs their major concepts or they risk reproducing the kind of race-thinking that holds these legacies in place. 

10 While mapping black studies’ tireless examination of the human and its others, Alexander Weheliye (2014) observes that there exists an equally long tradition “in which theoretical formulations by white European thinkers are granted a conceptual carte blanche, while those uttered from the purview of minority discourse that speak to the same questions are almost exclusively relegated to the jurisdiction of ethnographic locality” (p. 6).

11 The Combahee River Collective Statement (1982), penned by the black feminists of the Combahee River Collective, is widely credited with introducing the term “identity politics.” Their assertion that modes of political organizing are intimately connected to the social groups with which we identify not only laid the groundwork for later theories of intersectionality, but also offered much-needed interventions into feminism, Marxism, and sexuality studies.

12 Sara Ahmed (2008) argues that a politics of attention have dictated the new materialisms’ “founding gestures” by allowing for a reading of feminist scholarship as fundamentally anti-biology. Her position paper, “Imaginary Prohibitions: Some Preliminary Remarks on the Founding Gestures of the ‘New Materialism,” provoked responses from Noela Davis (2009) and Iris van der Tuin (2008), the latter of which comments more extensively on the debate in her co-edited collection of interview and essays, New Materialism: Interviews and Cartographies. What Ahmed’s paper tracks is a pattern of disappointment with feminism’s purported anti-biologism that stretches back to the early 90’s. However, driving this disappointment is an assumption that feminist scholars should “know better,” particularly because a set of theories historically concerned with the body can and should be at the forefront of materialist innovations. While this does not seem like a ringing endorsement, the fact that new materialists claim (white) feminism as their generative field suggests that these feminisms have access to the “theoretical resources” to re-conceptualize the role of matter in embodiment (Coole & Frost, 2010, p. 19). Or, at least those feminisms in which “material dimensions” have not yet “been marginalized by fashionable constructivist approaches and identity politics” (Coole & Frost, 2010, p. 19). Read with Coole and Frost’s critique of “identity politics” as theoretically impoverished, it is clear that (white) feminism is granted an intellectual complexity that “identity politics” are not.

13 This understanding of the “future perfect” derives from what I identify as a central tenet of Afrofuturism, a literary and aesthetic movement that remixes fantasy, technoscience, and non-Western cosmologies to reconfigure the past, present, and future through the multifocal lens of the African diaspora. In his 1994 essay, “Black to the Future,” journalist and cultural critic Mark Dery writes that “African Americans are, in a very real sense, the descendants of alien abductees. They inhabit a sci-fi nightmare in which unseen but no less impassable force fields of intolerance frustrate their movements; official histories undo what has been done to them; and technology; be it branding, forced sterilization, the Tuskegee experiment, or Tasers, is too often brought to bear upon black bodies” (p. 8). Dery’s description of African Americans as descendants of alien abductees recasts modern racial slavery as a series of otherworldly encounters. This formulation also suggests that the proper time and place for the narrative of “first contact” is in the arrival of European slave ships on African soil well before the Columbian misadventure. Whereas science fiction might depict alien encounters and space travel within a racially homogenous future, Africans of the diaspora will have already been there.

14 See Hartman (1997), especially Chapter 3, “Seduction and the Ruses of Power.”


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Diana Leong is an Assistant Professor of English and Environmental Humanities at the University of Utah. Her research interests include environmental justice, contemporary African american literature and culture, and science and technology studies. Her current book project theorizes the slave ship as a set of ecological relations that persist beyond the formal abolition of the transatlantic slave trade.

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.28968/cftt.v2i2.100.g204


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