Saturday, October 25, 2014

Prompts for Butler, Week 1

Prompt 1:  Oankali Values

The Oankali have very different values than we are accustomed to.  One radical example which sticks out to me is from page 34:

"You'll begin again.  We'll put you in areas that are free of radioactivity and history.  You will become something other than you were."

"And you think destroying what was left of our cultures will make us better?"

"No.  Only different."

The Oankali, for instance, have a very different relationship with history than most of us do:  abolishing history, for them, becomes the agent of change, and change as such is perhaps their greatest good (other than life itself).  Compare to that hackneyed favorite of freshman comp students everywhere:  "those who do not understand history are doomed to repeat it."  With the Oankali, Butler often takes the received wisdom to which we are habituated, and inverts it.

One function that the Oankali serve, in other words, is to critique, re-evaluate or invert many of our values and beliefs - to imagine alternatives, many of them extreme.

That was all background.  Here's the actual prompt:  Take one moment from the text where an Oankali offers what you see as an interesting or credible critique/reversal/undermining of our received wisdom, explain how that critique or alternative is presented, and then evaluation from your own point of view (you might make use of Lewontin or Darwin here, but that's strictly optional).  You might argue, for instance, that the imagined Oankali alternative is a kind of vision of the future toward which we should aspire.

Prompt 2:  Butler and the Sociobiologists

Lilith's Brood is heavily influenced by sociobiology (remember those guys Lewontin hates?).  An interesting question is whether Butler believes that sociobiology is fundamentally correct, or whether she is conducting a Lewontin-like attack on it (that attack, if it exists, is only one thread within a complex set of novels, of course), or whether he position is more complex.  That is, she may be neither attacking nor defending sociobiology, but using it in some complex, intermediate way.

There are two parts to this prompt.  First, do some reading on sociobiology.  The best start is to read part of one of E.O. Wilson's books - Sociobiology (hard) or On Human Nature are good possibilities.  Once you have a handle on what sociobiology is, use it to form an argument about Dawn, which expresses your beliefs about how her work relates to sociobiology.

Sociobiologists generally try to understand human nature through our evolutionary history.  Discuss a passage in Dawn which seems to respond directly to that claim.  Cheap examples:  when Lilith frightens Paul Titus with the idea of incest; Lilith's initial response to Jdahya; also, nearly everything that happens after Lilith begins Awakening people.  Sociobiologists claim that certain types of human behavior are more or less hard-wired; these are good examples of those kinds of behavior which would interests sociobiologists.

Focusing on single passages from both texts (the one you researched and Lilith's Brood) argue how and why we should read Butler differently with sociobiology in mind.  We might argue, for instance, that part of what Butler is doing is showing how the consequences of evolution are always with us, or she might be showing the limits of an evolutionary explanation of humanity.

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