Octavia Butler and the Object of Shame as Contagion
Updated: Feb 15
*Spoiler Alert for Parable of the Sowers. Content warning: war, anti-Black racism and slavery, 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 its 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 labour. 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. Neighbours are stolen from, and seniors and children alike are raped and murdered. Eventually, her whole community and life as she knew it, is 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 hyperempathy; and another family of two, Grayson Mora, “a Black Latino” and his daughter Doe, both runaway slaves also living with hyperempathy[i].
The group face numerous challenges on their 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 hyperempathy 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 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[ii]. 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[iii]. 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[iv]. 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[v]. 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.
Internalized shame permeates through Lauren’s mind-body, which coupled with shame circulating at home, invites more shame to her once she ventures outside. Collective shame in the environment become objects that find their way to her, and in excess. Shame in this context is understood through Sara Ahmed’s (2003; 2004; 2008; 2015) analysis. As objects moving and flowing through what Ahmed identifies as an affective economy, which generates socio-political discourse and produces social hierarchies (see also, Stearns, 2017). This is one way in which shame is made sense of and conceptualized in the literature. As objects. Here, the object of shame slides over and avoids some bodies, while sticking onto and accumulating on others.
In, Affective Economies, Ahmed (2004) contrasts white British nationalists with Black and Brown asylum seekers, noting that the latter are bodies who primarily accumulate fear. It is important to note that these Black and Brown migrants do not acquire more fear because of any inherent flaw on their part. Rather, it is how they are marked and perceived as threats to the nation state and whiteness and white people that make them subjects to be feared[vi]. Resulting in more fear being projected in their direction.
Excess fear that already circulates in the environment makes Black and Brown asylum seekers and immigrants (Black and Brown people in general) vulnerable to more fear. As is the case with Lauren Olamina and pain, which is the same with shame. Because she catches feelings at an intensity and already accumulates these objects at a rapid rate, her hyperempathy makes her susceptible to even more. The excess accumulation already in and around her attracts other like objects of the same kind to her. Her person becomes a sort of magnet to these objects.
As a young poor Black disabled gender fluid woman, where and how Lauren is situated socio-politically and economically is of importance to how she accumulates excess pain (Ahmed, 2004). With the exception of her biological mother, the only other characters in Parable of the Sower with hyperempathy syndrome are runaway slaves who all escaped owners that had exploited their disability, citing their ability to share as a contributing factor to their productivity and docility, and in turn, their exploitation.
As Lauren poignantly identified about the slave owners, “They have no power to improve their lives, but they have the power to make others even more miserable. And the only way to prove to yourself that you have power is to use it” (143). And use it they do, or rather, they abuse it.
In the novel, hyper-empathic slaves were profitable for the very reason that their condition made them more obedient. Stating the obvious Lauren shares, “If everyone could feel everyone else’s pain, who would torture? Who would cause anyone unnecessary pain?” (115). If being beaten and whipped caused intense pain, and if bearing witness to others in pain limited your capacity to function, which in turn risked you receiving additional punishment, then logic would have it that you would avoid yourself and others getting out of line at any cost so as to not feel pain. (Whew, that was a lot. And on purpose).
You would do as you were told and influence others to do the same. Knowing this, pain was weaponized by the slave masters to assert disciplinary power and maintain social order and control over hyperempathetic slaves (see also, Foucault, 1977; Ahmed, 2015). This is another way that shame functions. As a weapon, as a disciplinary tool, and to maintain order and social control. Shame is no joke. Make no mistake, it is political.
Just as nineteenth century European criminals were put on a scaffold and publicly shamed and executed as an example and warning to the rest of society to not disobey authorities in Foucault’s (1977) Discipline and Punish, we can surmise that public shaming functioned similarly in this context. And particularly well (if not better) with hyperempathic Black slaves already sensitive to the touch of pain and the shame associated with it. In this regard, hyperempathy in Black African American slaves and their ability to feel was mined and exploited, not just their labour. As Lauren examines, “Sharing is a weakness, a shameful secret. A person who knows what I am can hurt me, betray me, disable me with little effort. I can do okay as long as other people don’t know about me” (178;12). In this way, being outed as a sharer was dangerous. It meant being linked with vulnerability, which only increased the risk of receiving more violence[vii].
This connection between Black hyperempathic slaves and Lauren, and the accumulation of pain (and shame) is important. They are not unlike Ahmed’s (2004) assessment of Brown and Black asylum seekers who tend to accumulate fear. Their social location as marginalized and oppressed people of low social ranking work to keep them accumulating more negative objects such as fear and shame. As Ahmed (2004) argues, constructing immigrants and asylum seekers as individuals to be feared draws more fear toward them, which in turn favours white nationalists who exploit this fear and moral panic with the hopes of keeping Black and Brown citizens, immigrants, migrants, refugees and asylum seekers out of what they perceive to be “their country”. Similarly, white slave masters used pain (and the shame and fear of it) to keep Black slaves from usurping power and rebelling. In this regard, this chapter considers some of the various ways we weaponize shame. It asks where we capitalize off shame and use it as a disciplinary tool to assert power and control. Suggesting that shame, (like fear, pain, and power), consists of different representations that lend to differing expressions of the same emotion. More on this to come.
On this anniversary of Breonna Taylor's murder at the hands of Louisville, Kentucky police officers, may we remember just how political emotions are. That they are not as benevolent as our oppressors would like us to believe. That emotions like shame and fear are not soft, or feminine, weak or neutral. A Black woman was constructed by the white imagination as a body to be feared, her life was taken for that delusion. So many Black and Brown bodies die as a result to stereotypes that frame us as objects (not subjects or humans) to be feared. Shame too operates in this way. Never forget. Rest in peace Breonna.
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Until next time, in solidarity.
Photo Cred: Dorothy Attakora-Gyan
Image Description: A Black and white photo. It is of the back of a building located in Ottawa, near the University of Ottawa campus and next to the Rideau Mall. Stairs can be seen leading up the wall which is filled with windows and doors. To the side of the building on the right, a stop sign can be seen. Like contagious shame, one window begets more windows. Stairs result in hierarchies. Asking for us to stop and pause, and re-asses how shame is getting in our way.
Notes [i] See Octavia Butler, pages 210; 230; 233; 251; 254; 287 [ii] Although with affect, not all control is ever completely relinquished (Chamberlain, 2017). Rather, each variable shapes the other, all components continuously becoming. [iii] Scholars such as Lawrence Grossberg, Melissa Gregg (2010a; 2010b), and Gregory Seigworth (2010) remind us that emotions are not the same as affect, but instead responses and by-products of affect. While I do not disagree, I am nonetheless fascinated by the need to constantly disentangle the two in ways that inevitably reads as a gendering of emotions, the very thing we feminists find problematic. I am curious about why affect is not held with the same level of contempt and suspicion as emotions. Affect is often framed in masculine ways. As complex and machinic (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987; Gregg, 2010; Gregg and Seigworth, 2010). Emotions are made a sort of childlike response to being affected. A reaction to something grander (Gregg, 2010; Gregg and Seigworth, 2010). Affect becomes the adult in relation to emotions, while emotions are articulated as juvenile in their incapacity to be controlled, and unintelligent in their unconsciousness and reactionary nature (Gregg, 2010; Gregg and Seigworth 2010). That is how the separation of the two gets reproduced in ways that mark emotions as lower and less intelligent. In this equation, emotions are marked as feminine, while affect masculine. What we find is a privileging of the masculine. Something that we as feminists denounce, take issue with, and question. [iv] See Ahmed, 2003; 2004; 2015 [v] See Rajiva, 2014; Massumi, 2015; Ahmed, 2015; Biddle, 1997 [vi] Ahmed, 2004, 2014; Hall, 1997a; hooks, 1992; Lorde, 1984; Freire, 2009; Foucault, 1997 [vii] As Lauren notes about another character named Mora, the only male she had ever met with hyperempathy, “He did a lot to keep people away from him-keep them from knowing too much about him, keep them from seeing what he was feeling, or that he was feeling anything-a male sharer, desperate to hide his terrible vulnerability” (324).