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  • Xenopolitics
  • Matthew A. Taylor (bio) and Priscilla Wald (bio)

Lilith Iyapo wakes up after a very long sleep—more than two centuries—to discover she had developed cancer and been cured. The alien creatures who cured her, moreover, have altered her genetically, fixing the underlying mutation that predisposed her to cancer. That's the least of her revelations, actually, since the alien species did much more than cure Lilith. They rescued remnants of humanity and Earth from annihilation following an apocalyptic nuclear war. For their part, the Oankali find themselves ineluctably drawn to these self-destructive beings they have saved from certain death. And they consider cancer to be one of humanity's great "talents," a gift to the Oankali, since it helps them perfect their healing abilities.

The sentiment is not returned. For Lilith and most of her species, the cure, the genetic alterations, even the rescue comes at too great a cost. The Oankali, they learn, are gene traders; they travel through the cosmos bringing their gifts to the alien beings they encounter, but they insist on breeding with them, making them evolve into something unrecognizable. Radical ecologists and vegetarians existing symbiotically with their environment, the Oankali view these changes as necessary for healthy life, but the humans experience them as tantamount to extinction, a dangerous loss of humanity rather than an evolutionary advance. Where the Oankali define life as inherently dynamic, mutable, and relational, the humans imagine it as stable, conservative, and fixed in discrete bodies.

The clash over these interpretations of life propels Octavia Butler's Dawn, the first novel in a trilogy she published in the last three years of the 1980s, just prior to the founding of the Human Genome Project, and against the backdrop of the emergence of biotechnology as a multibillion-dollar industry. Biotech formed the backdrop as well of Michel Foucault's discussion, a decade earlier, of biopower and biopolitics; the influence is evident, for example, in his reference to humanity's imminent capacity "not only to manage life but to make it proliferate, to create living matter, to build the monster, and, ultimately, to build viruses that cannot be controlled and that are universally destructive."1 Viewing these attempts to harness evolution as the culmination of biopower, Foucault imagines their ultimate termination of life as we know it. [End Page 895]

Dawn registers more ambivalence about the prospects of biopower. Consummate biotechnicians and biopoliticians, the Oankali have all but perfected the management of life—in part because such management is a natural expression of their being, a lifestyle rather than a business. They have no politics, law, economy, or culture independent of life's own immanent processes. The novel complicates this perspective, however, by insisting on the irresolvable tension between the human and Oankali norms of life; neither endorsing nor dismissing, the narrative allows their opposition to illuminate the simultaneous inevitability and impossibility of life-based governance. If the Oankali speak in the voice of the biopolitical state, it is unclear to what extent it is the voice of tyranny, of liberty, of social welfare, or simply of evolutionary process, and whether they offer utopian promise or eugenic, even genocidal, peril. The humans' bioconservativism, by contrast, could represent either a principled adherence to the "natural" or a social Darwinist, laissez-faire commitment to letting life realize its own imperatives.2 Two definitions of life, two ways of life, no answers or resolutions. Which group truly speaks in the name of life? Dawn refuses to say. Instead, the novel offers what Foucault arguably doesn't: insight into not only the manipulation of life as a form of power but also the idea of life as a mythos—hence into the appeal as well as the danger of biopower.

"Life" emerges, for Foucault, at the turn of the nineteenth century when biology broke from natural history's mere observation and classification of living things in order to explore "life itself": the principle, force, or essence animating—and transcending—everything alive.3 Increasingly, the living came to be seen as merely imperfect, epiphenomenal manifestations of life-as-such, which tended to create not only a distinction but also an opposition between what lives...


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pp. 895-902
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