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Octavia Butler and Shame as Contagion

YouTube video is available.

*Spoiler Alert for Parable of the Sowers. Content warning: war, anti-Black racism, slavery, and white supremacist violence. Mention of sexual violence, murder, theft, and other forms of violence including financial and economic. *


In what is one of Octavia Butler’s more prophetic novels, Parable of the Sower, the main character Lauren Olamina provides an example of what happens when feminists that identify as a multiplicity step into a feminist terrain that is in it's own way a multiplicity.

Published in 1993 the plot takes place in the future, California of 2024 to be exact. In the span of three years, Lauren’s dystopian life unfolds in a deteriorating America set on social, economic, and political ruin. The President-elect is a regressive Christian and white-supremacist dictator demagogue. He sets slavery in motion, bringing about the resurgence of the enslavement of Black and Brown people and the exploitation of their labor. As the socio-political climate worsens, the nation spirals into over-inflation, poverty, and increasing violence.

An intuitive visionary and community organizer, Lauren’s determination is put to the test after her community is overtaken by arsonists, thieves, drug dealers, and gang members. Her younger brother is brutally murdered, and her father who disappears is presumed dead. Neighbors are stolen from, and seniors and children alike are raped and murdered. Eventually, her whole community and life as she knew it, are completely uprooted. Taken away by looters and pyromaniacs hungry for power, fire, and whatever they can salvage. With only two familiar faces left to turn to, a white boy her senior named Harold ‘Harry’ Balter, and Zahra Moss, a Black former street-involved mother who watched her baby thrown into and perish in flames, Lauren is tasked with leading a group of strangers from the Los Angeles region where she was born and raised to Northern California (or Oregon, or Alaska, or even Canada). Anywhere she can search for safer living conditions, a cheaper standard of living, and employment.

Other than Harry and Zahra, the group consists of the Douglas’ a mixed-race family of three; Travis, Natividad, and their baby Domingo; Taylor Franklin Bankole, a fifty-seven-year-old Black African American who Lauren later marries; sisters Allison “Allie” and Jillian “Jill” Gilchrist, “two medium-size, brown-haired white women in their twenties”; Justin Rohr, a three-year-old orphan; a mixed race family of two, Emery Tanaka Solis and her nine-year-old daughter Tori, escaped Black slaves both living with hyper empathy; and another family of two, Grayson Mora, “a Black Latino” and his daughter Doe, both runaway slaves also living with hyper empathy.

The group faces numerous challenges on its journey. Many of which threaten to destabilize their solidarity with one another. One such threat is Lauren’s ability to feel and share emotions with others.

A Black, disabled, working-class woman, Lauren lives with a condition called hyper-empathy syndrome, otherwise known as “sharing”. Her disability causes her to share pain and pleasure with others, humans and non-humans alike. But as she explains, “I’m supposed to share pleasure and pain, but there isn’t much pleasure around these days” (Butler, 1993:12; emphasis in original).

Lauren experiences every pain, injury, gunshot wound, and bleeding that occurs in others as if she herself were on the receiving end. In one scene she explains, “I saw it die. I felt it die. I bit my tongue as the pain I knew it must feel became my pain. One more step and I would fall and lie in the dirt, helpless against the pain” (44-45). These are the words of a tortured Lauren as she passes by a wild dog that has just been shot to death but is yet to die. She assesses, “I felt the impact of the bullet as a hard, solid blow-something beyond pain. I went a little numb” (45). Later, as her group battles a group of intruders, she herself is shot and wounded. She describes, “I tried to remember whether I’d been shot. I had no sense of my own body. I hurt, but I couldn’t have said where-or even whether the pain was mine or someone else’s. The pain was intense, yet defuse somehow. I felt… disembodied. I died with someone. I died with someone else” (297). I share this to bring our attention to affect theory and shame research. We can consider contagion as what is responsible for Lauren’s affected state.

What is Contagion?

Contagion is an affective unfolding often well beyond our control or comprehension. Think of when you yawn when someone else yawns. It is a process that uncovers the collectives’ ability to share, feel, and be moved or influenced by one another. Often unknowingly and spontaneously, pointing to emotions as falling under the spectrum of affect. As Lauren states, “I couldn’t help seeing-collecting-some of their general misery” (11, emphasis added).

This unrepresentable and involuntary "acted-upon-ness" that happens “places affect at every level of matter” (Clough, 2010: 201). It blurs the boundaries of living and non-living, biological and physical (Clough, 2010: 201). As professor of sociology and women studies Patricia T. Clough (2010) asserts, “The natural and the cultural begin to fade” (210). Or rather, they bleed into one another. As indecipherable as Lauren’s sharing. Translating as painful sensations and felt impressions that appear to be her mirroring others.

At any given moment, her interior reflects the exterior. Her person a projection of the collective. Her emotions a hologram of others’ affective state. Her affective-ness an interpretation of their emotional wellbeing (or lack thereof). Shame too works in this way, if even the pain of being in shame. It functions as an enmeshment of contagious energies circulating the environment. Colliding with the mind-body, giving the impression of being one with shame, sometimes causing bodily responses that read as pain (see Ahmed, 2015).

Contagion disables Lauren’s ability to decipher between what is hers and what belongs to another. An indication that the affective nature of emotions is not personal, internal, nor even located solely in the individual mind-body per se. Although emotions can seep into the mind-body (Sara Ahmed disagrees with this sentiment), there are no clear boundaries between one’s body and the environment. Or emotions outside and inside the body (Ahmed, 2015).

Sara Ahmed (2015) draws from Judith Butler to suggest that emotions do not adhere to rigid boundaries. They do not decipher between edges in any real sense that dictates where and how they flow. They cannot consciously (or non-consciously) establish a difference between the subject, signs, the environment, or where one’s skin or external periphery begins. Even if emotions are not in the mind-body per se, there are instances where the mind-body reads them as such. An illusion that shatters the binary of inside/outside. In this regard, emotions are shared communally and are contagious. And while this may be true, Sara Ahmed’s work explicitly suggests that emotions do not accumulate on all bodies in the same way, or with the same intensity and frequency.

I'll end it there.

Until next time, in solidarity.

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