Saturday, March 5, 2011

Body Language and Body Knowledge

In the interview with Octavia Butler, Mehaffy mentions that for Butler, “the body is the central communicator. Spoken or written language is frequently insufficient for communication,” (p. 59) reflecting the importance of the body as a “discursive entity” in Butler’s works. “Speech Sounds” takes this idea one step further, as Butler imagines a society in which people lose the ability to speak, read and write, and spoken and written language becomes entirely ineffective as means of connecting. Yet communication happens nevertheless: intimidation attempts, accusations of promiscuity and sexual propositions all happen through gestures and body language. This is certainly in line with Butler’s view that even when the spoken and written word are inadequate, “the flesh knows” (p. 59) how to get the message across. Similarly, because Gan and T’Gatoi never verbally discuss their relationship until near the end of the story, our understanding of the relationship between Gan and T’Gatoi comes primarily through their physical interactions, as evidenced by Gan’s willingness to lie against T’Gatoi’s “long, velvet underside” (p. 3), and how he finds it comfortable being caged by T’Gatoi’s limbs, whereas the rest of his family dislikes it. Again, this reflects the importance of the body as a central communicator in Butler’s works.

Closely related to this last idea is the point raised in the interview regarding sociobiology. Specifically, Butler suggests that “body-knowledge could possibly de-hierarchize, or maybe re-hierarchize, social and political relations” (p. 59), and that if correctly applied, sociobiology might potentially decrease gender inequality. This idea is present in “The Evening and the Morning and the Night” as well, where the DGD carriers form an ostracized population, and are treated as mental patients in government-run wards, with no attempt made to find a way to control their self-mutilating impulses. By contrast, DGD patients in Dilg, the retreat run by Beatrice, are able to “channel their energies… to create” (p. 51), due to Beatrice’s understanding of how to use the pheromones she secretes to subdue her charges’ violent tendencies. Thus her scientific understanding of the Duryea-Gode disease enables Beatrices to help her patients become more productive members of society, reflecting Butler’s point that correctly applied, sociobiology can be used to address social inequalities and differences.

Interestingly enough, by depicting Lynn and Beatrice as the pheromone-secreting “queen-bees”, Butler appears to be engaging in a mild form of countercolonial feminist utopia, in that the strong female protagonist Lynn is depicted as having the ability to influence the thoughts of Alan, her male partner, and Beatrice is able to do the same to those under her charge at the DGD home. While Lynn’s influence certainly extends to females as well, it is telling that we see the effects manifested on Alan alone, as none of Lynn’s other housemates are mentioned in the story, and that Alan’s response to finding out that he is being influenced by the pheromone is that of outrage (“I won’t be a puppet. I won’t be controlled… by a goddamn smell!”). Supposedly, Alan is angry because he does not want to be influenced to stay and work at Dilg for the rest of his life, but could the real reason for his anger be something baser than that, such as his humiliation at finding out that Lynn was the dominant partner in their relationship all along, instead of him?


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