C-3PO with Human Biomass

Jeanette Winterson’s early descriptions of the robot varieties that populate her novel provide a fascinating piece of her overall setting. The way she presents the BeatBots and Nifties—that is, in an almsost encyclopedic text format—give her audience the sense that Billy is practically cataloging the flora and fauna of the future. But built into this constructed ecology is a likewise artificial hierarchy—particularly, an anthropocentric one.

The tone Billy adopts in examining the BeatBots and Nifties is an overtly detached one. With regard to the former, she explains that they are “direct descendents of a low-paid State Functionary that used to be called a Traffic Warden” (Winterson 12). Already, there is a sterilized rendition of a human being with a job being indistinguishable from their mechanical counterpart. She reemphasizes this point by saying “these types [of people] were inhuman, and it made more sense to build them than to hire them” (Winterson 12). Indeed, this is highly reminiscent of the attitude inherent to an Industrial Revolution—the replacement of human labor with machine labor, for one pragmatic purpose or another. (It is worth noting that, if I have properly conceived of this, Winterson is analyzing humanity from a pragmatic standpoint—which is a messy, if not the messiest, point that Existentialism can make in a Western philosophical framework.)

The Nifties, similarly, are “annoying little micro-Bots” that “have no personality, and they look like a box on wheels” (Winterson 13). The lack of personality is of particular concern to me, because it contrasts so heavily with the more standard approach to science-fiction robotics I approach this text with. I’m thinking specifically about Star Wars’ C-3PO, whose function as a protocol droid combined with his human (and droid, a la R2-D2) interactions give him a distinct and identifiable personality. In fact, this is precisely what marks the droid as a protagonist, rather than an extraneous character.

Thus, in depriving her robots of humanity and personality, Winterson’s robo-ecology (robocology?) is effectively reinforcing their subordinate status in the narrative, and thus within the narrative’s society. The novel continues on to explore the implications of robotics and the metaphysics involved with the artificial flora and fauna Winterson makes them out to be. When thinking of the little Nifties, ask yourself: would you feel the same kicking it as you would a faithful, albeit indistinguishable, little animal?


Throughout Octavia Butler’s novel Dawn, her protagonist is persistently plagued by anxiety regarding her humanity being altered by the Oankali. This fear manifests itself most prominently when Lilith is faced with her biology is brought up—for example, when Nikanj proposes instilling her brain with knowledge of the Oankali language. This reactive behavior points to Lilith’s conception of her humanity being rooted, perhaps too stubbornly, in her biological dimensions. Yet Nikanj responds with a proposal that alterations in her brain chemistry will not change her identity. This indicates that the Oankali’s more plastic biology allows their sense of self to be more autonomously constructed, rather than biologically destined.

Examining the Oankali from the perspective of Jean-Paul Sartre’s philosophy Existentialism allows us to understand the implications of their genetic liberty. A core component of his book Being and Nothingness is his distinction between “identity” and “facticity”. For Sartre, one’s identity is constituted by the sum total of their actions, and nothing else—not one’s economic status, nor family heritage, nor religious persuasion, nor occupation. Additionally, because one’s identity is divorced from these factors, they cannot be used as an excuse for carrying out any given action—an individual is given full freedom to act in any way to constitute their being.

Conversely, facticity refers to the factual components of one’s life, and over which one has no control: birthplace, family history, and most important for Butler’s purposes, genetic code. While facticity plays a role in determining what practical options one has when faced with a choice, these constraints are likewise incapable of being excuses for choosing one action over another. For Sartre, nothing is capable of overriding innate human freedom of action as a determinant for one’s identity.

Thus, when Nikanj proposes changing Lilith’s brain to help her communicate, its assurance that she “won’t be changed” (Butler 76) is meant to enlighten Lilith with the knowledge that her autonomy determines who she is as a person. She contends that “no part of me is more definitive of who I am than my brain” (Butler 76), but Nikanj is able to demonstrate that the Oankali construct identity through action, rather than their malleable biology—and so can Lilith, being a human imbued with an inescapable free will.

At one point early on in Joanna Russ’s The Female Man, her narrator gives a chapter-length lecture in which she explores the standards of feminine behavior socially imposed on women. Not long into it, the narrator prefaces a hypothetical story regarding the time-travelling Janet’s social success with a strikingly paradoxical phrase, proclaiming “Oh, I made that woman up; you can believe it!” (Russ 30). Of course, the idiomatic meaning of “making someone one” also applies to the double entendre, but the assertion of having an admittedly made-up falsehood being believable points to Russ’s larger goal for the passage: by laying out “the opera scenario” (Russ 30) that is culturally recognizable for her audience, Russ is drawing attention to the artificiality of this expectation—one which, she feels, “governs our lives” (Russ 30).

Russ’s scenario details when “Janet would have gone to a party and at that party she would have met a man” (Russ 30). From here, Janet receives a compliment from the man, and they proceed to go back to his place and she sets her drink aside and swoons seductively, concluding that “I Am In Love With That Man. That Is The Meaning Of My Life” (Russ 30). There are three components to this narrative whose connotations shock me:

First, the passage is written such that sentences and clauses end predictably with the phrase “that man”. The philosophical point this drudges up is, true to my own form, Nietzschean in nature, but suffice it to say that this reactive behavior, always inevitably returning to That Man, is demonstrating the androcentric power structure in place.

Second, the compliment of her eyes she hypothetically receives is noted as “somehow unlike any other compliment she had ever received because it had come from that man” (Russ 30). An extension of the last point I have argued, the superficiality of That Man’s compliment—and, anecdotally, what I know in my culture is an absolutely standard and unoriginal means of complimentary flirting—attains a mysticism about it because of the eminent status of That Man. Indeed, it is disconcerting to think such a mundane phrase can command such overwhelming power to reinforce androcentric control.

Finally, Janet’s swoon as she realizes her “transcendent” affection is worthy of consideration as an alcohol-induced act of submission. Statistically, alcohol is the most widespread drug used to aid rapists, and a drunken swoon can very well act as an indicator of vulnerability. Thus, that this part of the narrator’s idealized social fantasy for Janet is a grotesque indictment of both the androcentric nature of the scenario and alcohol’s role in it.

As a result, when the narrator goes on to describe Janet’s resistance to being culturally trained in a way that this scenario becomes viable, her petulant behavior carries a heroically rebellious flavor. Russ’s grander goal seems to be inverting audience expectation and making the happily-ever-after fantasy something to spurn.

I’m going to spurn the other prompts provided this week, and instead push forward with a parallel of my own. Years ago I had a fabulous class that spent a significant time examining Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and the racial debate surrounding it (as per Chinua Achebe’s rather biting invective against it), and there was one scene in particular that Fowler’s “What I Didn’t See” resembled, possibly to the point of allusion. In much the same way that the narrator’s encounter with the gorillas in the clearing is a realization for her regarding the animals’ humanity, the scene of Heart of Darkness where Marlow describes looking off of the boat and seeing faces in the jungle depicts a similar epiphany.

The epiphany in question is a rather dark one, at that. The language in Conrad’s novella are dark and lush, much like the shadowy nature engulfing his narrator; one could very well capture his imagery in the phrase “abyssal”. Thus, when Marlow gazes out into the jungle and sees native faces emerge from the shadows, the Nietzschean trope of gazing into the abyss, only to have it gaze also into you comes into play. For Marlow, this is the moment in which he sees the emptiness of his own imperialist motives in Africa staring him in the face—and what he sees is the dehumanized visages of the native Africans.

Thus, when Fowler’s narrator feels the gorillas’ gazes carrying “something so human it made me feel like an old woman with no clothes on,” which is an accurate depiction of her as far as physical appearance goes (Larbalestier 351). The reflective abyss that the narrator gazes into here is one that makes her aware of the extent to which the men in her party have dictated her actions. Indeed, it is only after being disrespected, asked to stay back, and accused of being unfit to make the kill that she finds herself standing naked, observing gorillas through her gun. The human gaze that she receives from the gorillas represents the superficiality of the human judgments made against her from the men—the same heteropatriarchal judgments that, ultimately, force Eddie to lead a massacre against the primates. Therefor, when she decides not to shoot, she has transcended the dictating control ingrained in her by her male-dominated environment—precisely the Nietzschean mechanism for overcoming the dominance of others that the gaze of the abyss is supposed to reveal.

The question of whether Butler is addressing race or biology in “The Evening and the Morning and the Night” is more precisely a question of which is the dominating motivator of constructed power hierarchies. Indeed, the identity of DGDs is portrayed as being biologically bound, but this biology also results in what bears a striking resemblance racially motivated behavior from the more dominant group of “healthy” people. Through the interplay between the shifting primary motivator of power, Butler is able to show the convoluted nature of these two correlated, but not necessarily interrelated, concepts.

When Beatrice explains the pheromones DGDs release based on sex-linked genetics, she concludes by telling the narrator that “We are real commodities, you and I” (Larbalestier 282). Her value judgment is directed toward their shared biological trait of being the offspring of “two irresponsible DGDs” and having an advantageous genetic makeup (Larbalestier 282). Because of this, Beatrice’s motivation is necessarily a biological one—using her inborn advantage to help others.

However, the issue of “helping” others evolves beyond biology with Alan’s response. His interrogation regarding the continued existence of “concentration-camp rest homes and hospital wards” recalls what is a quintessentially racial issue (Larbalestier 283). The containment of DGDs based on their identity assumed implicit in their biology is an undeniable example of racial profiling. Furthermore, it draws attention to the dangerous cost associated with constructing such racial definitions—regardless of the supposed utility of their containment, is there a moral lapse in judgment when autonomy is co-opted from an entire group of people in such a manner?

Regardless of the answer, Butler seems to be drawing the audience’s attention to the utter futility of using either. Though Beatrice claims to “offer DGDs a chance to live and do whatever they decide is important to them,” she follows up by adding “What do you have, what can you realistically hope for that’s better than that” and in doing so exposes to ultimately empty application of both biology and race (Larbalestier 285). Indeed, by showing how even a supposedly objective, biological justification for her actions are truly a response to having no better option, Butler is illustrating how biology and race are both concepts used to justify actions with, at their core, no excuse—but no alternative.

I have something of an addendum to tack onto my last post, specifically with regard to the Foucault I brought into my analysis. Another thought occurred to me tonight, regarding Connie’s shift to the G-2 ward. Here there is significant more openness, more visibility:

“Here she would get the small exercise of walking, but she must be careful not to make it obvious she was pacing. That was an offense that would go in her record: patient paces ward. Here there was more to do but also here would be informers, spies.” (Piercy 87)

The last line in particular reminded me of Foucault’s use of Jeremy Bentham‘s Panopticon prison model in his analysis of modern exercises of institutional power (see Discipline and Punish for his text, and Power/Knowledge for his commentary on it). This will make a lot more sense with an accompanying photograph:

Photo by Friman, retrieved from Wikimedia Commons

The idea is that the central tower is able to see each surrounding cell, illuminated by its open outward wall, at any given time. This potential for surveillance is eventually internalized by each individual inmate. It doesn’t matter whether or not a guard is even actively looking at any given time—because the inmate is divorced from the observer, but always potentially within their gaze, the fear becomes permanently instilled, and permanently active.

Foucault used this model to explain how modernized, surveillance-heavy and socially stratified societies take over the supposed gaze of the central tower’s enforcer. Because no one inmate can know if they are currently being watched, they turn their eyes on each other to monitor whether or not others are worthy of drawing attention. This paranoia goes so far as to negate the necessity of having a guard in the tower at all—the constant surveillance of others serves as an effective enough means of control.

Extrapolated, Foucault was examining how social norms become eventually divorced from their origins and are propagated through means of watchful coercion by the inhabitants of a given culture. This returns to the idea of “Things have always been this way,” wherein socially encoded behaviors and standards are taken as implicit and necessary. Piercy, then, is beginning to structure Connie’s atmosphere as such a Panoptic model—and “here would be informers, spies” (Piercy 87).

It seems that the direction the novel takes at this point is putting Connie more face-to-face with the source of her oppression, whereas before she was sedated, weakened, and more divorced from her surroundings. And given that she played by the asylum’s rules in order to get to this level of engagement with the embedded power hierarchies, it’s almost as if her experiences with Luciente have given her a kind of enlightened control over the system surrounding her. It’s almost like a case of the old philosophical trope, “Climbing the ladder only to kick it down from above…”


Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time serves as a powerful invective against many feminist issues, but worthy of specific note is the all-encompassing setting of the insane asylum in which Connie is incarcerated. Being that the book features a strong female protagonist of potentially great psychic ability, the asylum and its effects on Connie illuminate greater issues of power within not only insane asylums in general, but of the psychiatric discipline and its wider social implications as well.

When Luciente appears to Connie inside the asylum, she is surprised to see that Connie is not there willingly. Commenting on the year 2137, Luciente tells her:

“Our madhouses are places where people retreat when they want to go down into themselves—to collapse, carry on, see visions, hear voices of prophecy, bang on the walls, relive infancy—getting in touch with the buried self and the inner mind. We all lose parts of ourselves. We all make choices that go bad…How can another person decide that it is time for me to disintegrate, to reintegrate myself?” (Piercy 58)

This recalls the philosopher Michel Foucault‘s foray into the history of the asylum within his work, Madness and Civilization. His principle argument for how modern institutions operate is by a process of internalization—rather than the repetition of force or violence to coerce the insane (or, in Foucault’s wider and more disconcerting context, social undesirables), modern incarceration seeks to mold patients into a more “normal” pattern of behavior, one more palatable to the public. Constant observation, medication, psychiatric counseling, social separation, and electroconvulsive therapy are all subtle (with the exception of the latter) psychological methods by which asylums are able to gradually able to rewrite an individual patient’s behavior. As the treatments and attitudes espoused by the institution become internalized by the patient, a new overriding concept of what is “normal” also becomes internalized. Thus, tied to Piercy’s novel, Connie’s presence in the asylum is the result of a societal power structure seeking to fit her into the structure’s conception of what is the norm.

The question of what this power structure precisely is remains. That her imprisonment is the result of Geraldo’s violent pimping practices point to what is ultimately heteropatriarchy, and the etymology of words like “hysteria” corroborate this solution. The word itself derives from the Greek word for “uterus”, and from the same root emerge other phrases such as “hysterectomy”. Hysteria is historically a condition associated with women, whereby, according to antiquated theory, the restless uterus physically moves inside the body and interferes with the working of other organs and causing mental disturbances. Furthermore, when I went to Wikipedia to fact-check myself from a years-ago Gender and Philosophy course that covered this important linguistics note, this is the picture that accompanied the article:

Women under Hysteria, by D.M. Bourneville and P. Régnard; from Wikipedia

(from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Hysteria.jpg)

It becomes clear through the historical context surrounding insanity that androcentrism plays an enormous role in what defines “normal” in Piercy’s novel. This is why Luciente’s comment is so profound: in asking “How can another person decide that it is time for me to disintegrate, to reintegrate myself?” Luciente is questioning the ethos of “normality” that underlies Connie’s incarceration and, thus, much of the novel’s plot itself. She instead offers up a somewhat more existential approach, one in which madness is accepted as an inherent—but ultimately transistory—facet of human life…even if Connie is truly insane, can her hallucinations be dismissed as “empty” because they are far beyond the pervasive bounds of being “normal”?
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