Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Hierarchy and Anarchy

Emma Sullivan
Seminar in Composition
Dr. Adam Johns
29 October 2014        
Hierarchy and Anarchy
What is a common ground between government, social class, age, and even gender? Several similarities could be argued however; they are undeniably all ways in which humans establish hierarchies. And these are just some of the most formal and universal examples of our tendency as a race to rank. We use ranks in school, in the workplace, and in businesses or corporations; with the boss or CEO sitting above all others, and a chain of employees following behind—their rankings lying within power and pay. In fact, orders as simple as these are so prominent, it is difficult to imagine a world without them. These hierarchies are exactly what the Oankali criticize about human beings, and are a fundamental difference between the two races. Jdhaya best explains these discrepancies as he attempts describe the Oankali to Lilith, “We’re not hierarchical, you see. We never were. But we are powerfully acquisitive. We acquire new life—seek it, investigate it, manipulate it, sort it, use it,” (Butler 41).
            It may at first seem inconceivable to not have any sense of hierarchy in a society, perhaps even impossible. It seems as though many of us live our lives with the intentions of moving up somewhere in some way. Whether it be going from the lower to middle social class, or obtaining tangible power through government office, being at bottom of any literal or metaphorical pyramid is strongly undesirable. Yet, how then do the Oankali view it as being so unnatural? The answer to this lies within the acquisitive nature Jdhaya explains. By attempting to acquire new life (the human race) and essentially master it (the seeking, investigating, manipulating, sorting, and use Jdhaya describes), as an entire race rather than as an individual the Oankali live in a way that inhibits hierarchy. This involves a horizontal division of labor and power rather than a vertical one, in which some would hold certain powers over others. For example, the Oankali are divided by “gender” (male, female, or it), as well as by ship, neither having more power necessarily over the other.
            The way the Oankali run their society is similar to the notion put forth by our idealistic system of checks in balances, designed so that each branch or realm of government may never hold more power over another. Yet, this system somehow seems to fail us, due to the fact that although we’ve made effort to eliminate hierarchy in one realm, it still remains in all others. This singular effort is far outweighed by the power struggles intertwined within it and around it. So, perhaps this repeated failure is reason to believe that the Oankali way is one we should aspire towards as a world. A more tangible explanation of this involves looking back at conflicts, which have nearly destroyed various societies and even the world as a whole—power struggles in early American history involving dominance and government, as well as all too recent world wars, and current international conflicts. Now take these examples and imagine them in a new light-- one in which, for example each country has its own duty to the planet and human race. Some may be responsible for resources, while others for research, implementing findings, etc. These divisions, of course, would have to be on larger global scales, as well as more localized levels in order to be fully effective as the Oankali have divisions within families as well as within ships. However, this example as a whole is a generalized reflection of how an Oankali-style society would be implemented here on Earth, and potentially work to prevent conflict and push humans towards the acquisition of knowledge, as it does the Oankali.
Of course, with further reading of the text there may be evidence enough to criticize a general lack or hierarchy, or on the contrary more evidence that this system is worth aspiring towards. In the context of the story, hierarchy seems to be the precise reason that the human race has fallen apart, and the Oankali realize this. They provide a contrast to that lifestyle, and in turn seem to want to implement this on the remnants of our unsuccessful society, as expressed by Jdahya’s explanation of the Oankali’s plans, “Your hierarchical tendencies will be modified and if we learn to regenerate limbs and reshape our bodies, we’ll share those abilities with you. That’s part of the trade,” (Butler 42). Whether this prospect ends up helping or hurting our kind remains to be seen, however, it is certainly a worthwhile idea and insight to our received wisdom.

Works Cited

Butler, Octavia E. Lilith's Brood. New York: Aspect/Warner, 2000. Print.


  1. Your paper is well-written and I liked it as a whole. I think that it may have benefited from a stronger argument in the introduction, or at least an argument that was more clearly stated. It feels like your paper is a discussion of hierarchy, which isn't bad, but it stops at discussion and seems to have trouble getting into the realm of making the argument and supporting it.Is hierarchy desirable or not? And how does this hierarchical structure help and hinder both humans and Oankali? In a revision it would probably be easier to delve deeper and answer these questions since you would have more room for the paper, so definitely consider this for a revision.

  2. You use some semicolons where you should use commas - normally semicolons separate independent clauses, which isn’t what your’e doing. I’d like your introduction better with a thesis. You are going right to a great topic, absolutely, but what are you doing with it? Your second paragraph has a nice take on the Oankali (people don’t often bother to think about what their acquisitiveness means, but you do a good job of that), but still lacks a clear approach of your own.

    Here’s a big question: is the argument in favor of a horizontal division of labor Butler’s argument, or your argument following in Butler’s wake? Either way (and at some point you need to *respond* to Butler if you’re interested in her ideas, even if you’re reluctant to side with them), you need to think about the details of how a more horizontally configured society operates.

    Which leads us to the other issue here. You’re not really substantively engaged with details of the text, at least not yet. What you should be doing (and in all fairness to your approach here, it’s hard with just the first half of the Dawn - it’ll easier of the next couple weeks) is asking which parts of the novel show a horizontal society in operation, and then respond to *that*.

    So what I’m looking for, as usual, is a more focused and individual argument. But in this case the outlines of the argument are already reasonably clear - you’re somewhat hobbled by the fact that the book hasn’t gotten around to all of the relevant details yet.


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