The Other and Failing Human Nature

June 10, 2019 by Essay Writer

Octavia Butler’s novel Dawn shows the collapse of a definite, individualized “human nature” through the coercive, hegemonic actions of an alien “other” known as the Oankali. Human identity in its present form does not survive the entire book, but instead goes through multiple genetic and behavioral transformations. These changes are the product of Oankali intervention, which involves coercion, manipulation, starvation, observation and the administration of behavior-modifying drugs, all of which hearken back to Michel Foucault’s concept of the “normalizing” carceral society. The constant watch and control of the Oankali causes physical, mental, and emotional changes in their human captives. The Oankali’s actions are covertly oppressive and do not always serve the humans’ best interests, which creates an unreconciled ambiguity regarding their alignment as benefactors. Butler uses the ambiguity to force the reader to question the Oankali’s motives and true nature. Are the Oankali truly symbiotic or are they parasitic? In contrast, the human characters of the novel react xenophobically to the Oankali and their fellow humans who have had contact with them. Curt, Tate, Leah and many others immediately despise and attack the Oankali and Lilith, viewing them as the “others” and as a source of fear. Also, Butler’s use of diction like “them, they, monsters, and aliens” contribute to the ethnic demonization of the Oankali merely for being different, which draws from Edward Said’s theory of Orientalism. The humans’ fear of the “other” leads them to irrational behavior: violence and homicide, most notably Joseph’s murder by Curt. “Human nature” is portrayed more and more negatively as each violent, discriminatory scene progresses, giving little credit to humanity as a sustainable species. Butler uses the juxtaposition of the Oankali’s surveillance and normalizing process with the humans’ ethnocentrism to suggest that neither group is preferable to the other. Humans and the Oankali both need to adapt to create a non-hegemonic, non-ethnocentric median species.The Oankali utilize manipulation and coercive tactics to normalize, transform and gain control of the humans in Dawn. Starvation appears early in the novel, as the Oankali withhold food from the captives as a means of opening communication and gaining information. “She outwaited them in stolid silence. Outwaited Oankali! She had starved herself almost to death when they stopped feeding her to coerce her cooperation” (Dawn, 119). This technique portrays the Oankali as domineering and torturous, as opposed to enlightened. Starvation was also used by Petruccio in Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew as a method of taming Katherine, yet not for their mutual benefit. The action of starvation is an exertion of Foucault’s Biopower concept because the Oankali subjectify and gain increased control over the humans to a point of behavioral change. For Foucault, bodies are subjected to punitive/corrective actions that lead to normalization, or in the case of Dawn, the cooperation of the humans with the Oankali. Normalization ultimately disposes of human nature and produces “bodies that [are] both docile and capable” (Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 1637). Creating compliance in their human captives appears to be the Oankali’s concern, resulting in a close parallel to prison guards, as opposed to beings engaged in a symbiotic relationship. The humans are also continually drugged by the Oankali as means of securing information, which creates very apparent docility and removes their regular emotions and reactions. “Finally, they had drugged her, gotten the information they wanted, and, after a period of letting her regain weight and strength, they had put her back to sleep” (Dawn, 119). Again the Oankali are changing the behavior of their captives, removing their basic humanity, and changing them without their consent. These are the actions of a corrective or normalizing system, not a mutually beneficial one. The Oankali also employ panopticism, another Foucaultian concept, as a way of observing and correcting the behavior of the humans. Lilith experiences surveillance early in the novel, as Jdhaya observes her, and it creates the same paranoia in her that Foucault notes in prison inmates. “It would be like going to sleep knowing there was a rattlesnake in her room, knowing she could wake up and find it in her bed” (Dawn, 19). Constant examination by the Oankali changes Lilith’s behavior and causes her unnecessary distress. Their surveillance allows the Oankali insight into the human’s lives and knowledge of their every action. Also, this allows the Oankali to interfere with the humans without being physically present, which affects the humans’ behavior and sustains their fear. “I don’t know that we’re watched every minute, but know, when we’re Awake, yes, I’m sure they’re watching” (Dawn, 134). Again, this appears more like Foucault’s carceral system than a befriending tactic. The Oankali have constant awareness of the humans, which places them in a position of power, an oppressive force, rather than a position of equality. Butler reaffirms the sinister side of the Oankali by making them panoptic in form as well. Their bodies are covered with tentacles that are all sensory organs and permit the Oankali to see, hear, smell, touch and taste everything around them at all times. They are quintessential Foucaultian carceral figures in action and form, and Butler makes their flaws clear to show their imperfections as a species. Butler contrasts the Oankali’s coercive, oppressive behavior with the irrational, ethnocentric behavior of the humans as they confront the Oankali and each other. The humans make reference to the Oankali as “them” and “they” frequently in the novel. They immediately categorize the Oankali as the ethnic “other”, and attribute their own fears and weaknesses to the strangers. “She had not known what held her back before. Now she was certain it was his alienness, his difference, his literal unearthliness” (Dawn, 11). Lilith’s fear early in the book is entirely based on the Oankali ethnic/species difference. Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism is marked by fear of the ethnic/racial “other” by a group without legitimate reason. This idea of “othering” permeates Dawn especially in the dissident human characters Curt and Leah. After being Awakened, Leah immediately attacks Lilith, which is an attack on an African American by a Caucasian. “[S]he was suddenly staggered by Leah’s weight as the woman leaped onto her back and began strangling her” (Dawn, 137). Butler uses this reaction to highlight the ridiculous human fear of ethnic others even within the same species. Leah attacks Lilith because she is racially “other”, which demonstrates a prime flaw in human nature that should not be promoted. This fault in humanity occurs most violently in the murder of Joseph by Curt. In this case, the East specifically, as in Said’s theory, is attacked, as Curt murders Joseph, who is of Asian descent. The murder occurs because of Curt’s fear of the Oankali’s differences and his perception of them within Joseph. “He had fought for you. But his injuries healed. Curt saw the flesh healing. He believed Joe wasn’t human” (Dawn, 223). Despite the adaptation the Oankali made to Joseph, Curt murders him because of his difference, because he resembles the “other” and has Oankali characteristics. Violence against the Oankali exemplifies human against “other”, but all the human against human attacks also victimize “others.” Joseph and Lilith are both racial minorities that are violently attacked by Caucasian characters, which asserts the irrational human fear of Said’s “other.” Butler displays ethnocentrism as the defining negative attribute in human nature that requires change, and disallows the continuation of “human nature.”Ultimately, Octavia Butler presents in Dawn two contrasting groups of characters with two very negative faults. The Oankali, though scientific, appear coercive, oppressive and panoptic. Their actions carry connotations of Foucault’s nightmare carceral society, in which human nature collapses under a system of ordered, “normalized” behaviors and disciplines. They use starvation and constant surveillance to control the fears and conducts of the human captives. Butler shows this as their defining flaw, and hints that they are not the perfect race they claim to be. Also, by highlighting their genetic manipulation and impregnation of Lilith at the end of the novel, Butler develops the covert changes the Oankali make to the humans without concern for her consent. The evils of the Oankali are juxtaposed with the ethnocentrism of the humans, who kill, maim, and fear all instances of difference in the novel. The fear extends from anxiety about the Oankali to hate of minority characters such as Lilith and Joseph. Humanity in Dawn has a propensity for “othering” and fearing the other immediately, a concept from Said’s Orientalism. For Butler, ethnocentrism is the defect in humanity that keeps it from reaching perfection. Due to these two extreme faults, Dawn shows that neither human nor Oankali is a preferable species. Butler leaves hope in Lilith’s offspring, which will be a combination of both groups, as a solution and possible beginning to a perfect species. The human race is not worth preserving in its present state, but neither are the Oankali. Dawn ends with desire for a median species that will not coerce, control, hate or Orientalize.

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