Beyond the Binary: An Ecocritical Politics of Gender in Octavia Butler’s Speculative Fiction.

What politics of gender does speculative fiction propose? Alien, human or posthuman bodies unsettle the normative gender binary. I am especially interested in developing an intersectional perspective combining gender and ecological issues; novels including Octavia Butler’s ‘Wild Seed’ or ‘Imago’ not only rethink gender, but are also part of a larger body of work which suggests models for a non-hierarchical and non-binary coexistence of (post)human and non-human life. My symposium paper argues that both dimensions are intrinsically related, suggesting an ecocritical politics of gender that might point to new pathways for inhabiting a vulnerable and toxic planet in times of the climate crisis.

I am interested in how shapeshifting fictional figures, such as Anyanwu in Octavia Butler’s ‘Wild Seed,’ help us to continue to ‘make trouble,’ to echo Donna Haraway, in response to systems of oppression and exploitation. This is certainly not a utopian vision, set as the novel is in a slave-holding world inhabited by spirited yet ultimately always also compromised characters. Yet from this shapeshifting body, utopian impulses emanate, which make the stratifications of power not crumble but certainly quiver and shake. That a subjectivity and body embracing fluidity and constant change make power lose its hold is, perhaps, the most poignant political point of Butler’s thought experiment about loosely gendered bodies. Being process engenders a form of resistance entwined in patterns of negotiation and compromise, but which, being nomad and constantly home-building,  also carves out alternative spaces for living-differently. The agency of resistance, here, is not the power to say no, as Butler’s politics do not follow the binaries of a politics of disagreement. It rather explores the potentials of unbound bodies to negotiate freedom within violently oppressive patriarchal and racist systems. 

So what impulses does Butler’s speculative fiction give to an ecocritical politics of gender? Mainly it is the potential of a nomadic, unfixed, genderfluid and interspecies identity which  is significant here. Resistance to oppressive narratives, sexuality and power structures emerges from a being who is in constant change. This desire of coexistence, for making-with, for interbreeding -with in this visceral and embodied form is by no means a naïve or innocent vision of utopian harmony. Yet however tainted by Anyawu’s temporal association with Doro – though forced – Butler charts horizons of life that do not require any form of essentialism in a fictional world that is brutally stratified by systems of power and oppression. Such fluid, porous identity has little traction with the narrowed understanding of politics as disagreement. It does not just say no. It does, however, chart alternative rhizomatic spaces within the very territories that such power structures – embodied in Doro – had claimed, creating subversive rhizomatic lines of kinship which rechart this very territory form within and are, ultimately untameable because they follow completely different logic to that of power. They are coded differently, untranslatable to a mind like Doro’s trained to interpret the world in terms of hierarchy and clearly defined borderlines. It is their very illegibility to those who seek to chart the world in hierarchical and binary patterns that is their biggest asset and – if you so will – their utopian potential.