- The Dilemmas of Hope and HistoryConcrete Utopianism in Octavia E. Butler's Kindred
Anyone organizing against systems of extra-legal racialized violence will sometimes apprehend, in the course of their struggle, the true depth and strength of the structures they are up against. They might sense an essential immutability in these systems. They might then be overtaken with nausea when a subsequent and long-standing dilemma reveals one of its many faces: if one feels pessimistic about the dawn of racial emancipation, if one lacks faith in a racial time constituted by linear, progressive uplift, how then to imagine hope, resistance, and liberatory praxis? How does one anchor political claims when calls to acknowledge the seeming permanence of racism and other systemic forms of violence simultaneously risk constraining political imagination?1 In what follows, I propose a reading of Kindred—Octavia E. Butler's "grim fantasy" novel about a black woman in the 1970s inexplicably transported to antebellum Maryland—that responds to these questions. Readings of Kindred often tend towards two diametrically opposed interpretations that also correspond to two potential answers to this broader dilemma: The novel supposedly tells either a pessimistic, hopeless tale of historical determinism, wherein the protagonist can only facilitate a violence already fated to happen, or an optimistic narrative of triumphant heroism and autonomy.
In contrast, I read Kindred with and through Ernst Bloch's concept of concrete utopianism. In what follows, I connect the novel and its interlocutors to this idea, which reconceives the relationship between optimism and pessimism, affirmation and negation, and hope and despair. Building on this framework, the remainder of the essay argues that the presence of seemingly antagonistic interpretations of Kindred demonstrates the novel's genius and suggests the presence of something else: concrete utopian movements that confound the [End Page 129] traditional opposition between the text's optimistic and pessimistic movements and thereby speak to the broader relationship between systems of domination, history, and hope. These movements partially emerge in the novel's answer to two "problematics" that it implicitly poses: first, the possibility of political action when time and history seem groundless and induce vertigo, and second, the simultaneous necessity and impossibility of coming to terms with the unrepresentability of slavery's archive of terror. In both instances, Kindred takes constitutive failure as a condition of possibility for a hopeful futurity that exists alongside, rather than in opposes to, pessimism, and so avoids naïve optimism. It figures hope as a source for emancipatory action and not as a demand to "be more hopeful." In doing so, Butler speaks to broader questions about history, domination, and hope in black political thought. The very ambiguity that leads to both pessimistic and optimistic interpretations of the novel also suggests an approach to seemingly opposed pessimistic and optimistic interpretations of racialized time.2
Kindred and Concrete Utopianism
Kindred tells the story of Dana, a black woman and aspiring writer living with her white husband Kevin. Dana's life as a modern, middle-class woman on the cusp of the post-civil rights dream of integration (partially symbolized by her interracial marriage) and upward mobility represents what Bloch calls an abstract utopia. Abstract utopias, akin to traditional understandings of utopia, envision an ideal world unmediated by actually existing social tendencies and possibilities.3 They abstract from ongoing social processes to project a static future. For Bloch, a privatized and transcendent hope, which confines itself either to narrow self-interest or to castles in the sky, sustains abstract utopianism.4 This hope is that of neoliberal false promises, post-racial harmony, and what Lauren Berlant calls "cruel optimism."5
As the novel progresses and Dana encounters her antebellum past, though, much of the comfort of this initial picture gives way. She finds herself transported in time and space from her present, 1976 California, to antebellum Maryland whenever her white slave-holding ancestor, Rufus Weylin, faces death. She is returned when she fears her own imminent death. She goes to the Weylin plantation six times at different stages in Rufus's life, though barely more than a month passes in her present. Each time, except the...