Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Show and Tell

I’m interested in Butler's portrayal of sight, particularly in Bloodchild and The Evening and the Morning and the Night, in connection with her description of her own “radio imagination.” In both stories, the trauma of characters seeing, particularly seeing their own futures, seems to gesture toward representation problems. Gan has long been prepared for what awaits him with stories, diagrams and drawings, but he does not really understand it until he witnesses Bram Lomas’ horrific birth experience. In The Evening and the Morning and the Night, Lynn does not fully understand DGD until she comes face to face with patients in the ward, and Alan develops a more complicated perspective on Dilg, despite having read copious literature on what to expect, once he actually looks around there. Since seeing is so crucial for to each character's understanding of the world, I’m interested in why Butler often obscures the vision of her own readers. How are we to really understand if we cannot see?

Like Ellen, I initially imagined Lynn as a man (perhaps because I was overcompensating for assuming Gan was a woman until he revealed that he wasn’t). Furthermore, even when physical descriptions were provided, they did not always help me. For example, I could never quite conceptualize what T’Gatoi looked like. Butler provides a meditation, if not an answer, in her description of her own “radio imagination,” casting physical appearance almost as an afterthought in her work. She has never thought first in terms of what her characters looked like. This connection between not seeing and representing comes into play with Naomi Chi’s art. Having gouged out her own eyes, she works as a sculptor, representing what she can feel and, at least in Lynn’s assessment, representing it well – “in a way that seemed impossible for a blind sculptress” (56).

I feel, then, like there are conflicting messages on the need to see. In some ways, in the acts of representation that Butler and Naomi perform, it appears words and imagination are sufficient. Maybe the key is feeling, not necessarily in the tactile sense, although that’s where Naomi’s inspiration comes from. As I said, I couldn’t see the characters, but when they described the awful spectacles that had made them understand the truth far more vividly than words could, I could conjure up a sense of what they saw. Not necessarily an image, but a feeling, an understanding of the disgust of being exposed to the violence of bodily destruction.*

I’m left grappling with Gan and T’Gatoi’s discussion of seeing at the end of Bloodchild. T’Gatoi concludes that “humans should be protected from seeing,” but Gan argues instead for being “shown.” I don’t think Butler's exclusion of physical descriptions is meant to protect her readers. She shows us the truth in other ways, and reveals that vision in terms of feelings can be just as strong as vision in terms of sight. Even Gan couches his argument for showing in terms of the tactile, explaining that all Terrans see of birth is “pain and terror and maybe death” (29). I feel like I’m left struggling to put my understanding of vision in Butler’s world to words, but I guess that’s appropriate.

*Of course, I imagine I couldn’t feel it as strongly as the character could, since my main exposure to such drastic bodily harm still comes in the form of representation, though visual representation. I was impressed that Gan’s description of the birth scene could produce such a visceral reaction in me, but also wondered if I would have shuddered so much if I couldn’t produce some vision in my mind, a mixture of medical TV shows (the documentaries and the fictionalized) and, most recently, the disturbing imagery in Black Swan.


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