Humanism in Octavia Butler’s “Dawn”

In Octavia Butler’s “Dawn,” she uses the Other, to criticize the construct of humanity under Humanism—specifically dealing with the sexualization of the human subject. Butler creates another post-modern world, which she does so well in her other works, to reimagine and challenge Humanism while empowering those who are marginalized under its current ideology—the Other. I believe that Butler tackles modern forms of oppression which stems from questions dealing with sex and gender. In addition, Butler also reimagines a world where the Other includes an expansive range of possibilities and scrutinizes the binary thinking in humans to verify the existence of different understandings of life.

“Dawn” begins with Lilith, an African American woman, waking up frightened in an unfamiliar, barren space. For context, humanity as imploded on Earth with a nuclear war at the climax. The Oankali who has always been observing impartially, finally intervein once they deemed humans to have failed and seek to fix their fatal flaw through gene trading. The consequences lead to the Oankali taking the remaining humans from an uninhabitable Earth onto their ship. Lilith does not know it yet, but she has been asleep for over 200 years and will be chosen by the Oankali to essentially unite their two very different peoples. At first glance, the Oankali and the humans seem to resemble a master/slave relationship due to the nature of which they conduct their business. On one side, the Oankali have all the power by separating each human, choosing what type of information to give, and even having the unchallenged ability to do conduct experiments on their subjects. In comparison, as seen through Lilith, humans are lost and alienated by the Oankali. The Oankali undeniably believe they have saved humanity but the conditions that humans have been placed under look more like captives and prisoners of war. By doing this Butler creates a sense of fear that comes from something unfamiliar and misunderstood.

To understand how Humanism inherently suppresses and marginalizes the human subject in “Dawn”, we have to understand its function and essence—which can be difficult. To begin, a humanist is not a follower of Humanism as compared to a follower of a religion such as Christianity. There are no churches devoted to Humanism or specific daily requirements to uphold. If held to these criteria, Humanism would not be considered a religion. However, it can certainly feel and act like a religion. Stemming from contemporary humanism, definitions have altered. For example, the Oxford Dictionary defines Humanism as, “a doctrine, set of attitudes or way of life centered upon human interest or values”—a generally more known concept. By stripping away notions of human worth and dignity associated with religion, Ehrenfeld paints a more concise picture. He describes the core of humanism as follows: “a supreme faith in human reason—its ability to confront and solve the many problems humans face, its ability to rearrange both the world of nature and the affairs of men and women so that life will prosper” (Ehrenfeld 5).

Ehrenfeld offers another correlate— “faith in the children of pure reason: science and technology” (6). Either way, reasoning is considered the fundamental aspect and the dominating influence to follow in Humanism over everything else.

Dating back to ancient times before even the enlightenment, reason was the driving force for intellectual growth and the primary tool for philosophical thinkers. From Plato and Aristotle to Hobbes and Locke, and Marx to current thinkers, reason and rationality ruled. I believe that Butler is referring to the human ability of reasoning as the form of intelligence that pairs so terribly with hierarchal thinking. Aristotle differentiates humans from animals because we have the capacity to reason and think rationally. In other aspects, physical and biological, we share the same fundamental natures to eat, reproduce, and survive. In “Dawn,” similarities can be seen as the humans are essentially left no choice by the Oankali but to survive at all costs. Once they were alienated from their past, the humans are left only with their intelligence to survive. However, as seen through the male humans, their inherent hierarchal thinking leads to their final failure.

Jdahya tells Lilith, “Either [characteristics] alone would have been useful, would have aided the survival of your species. But together they are lethal” (“Womb”, Ch.5). Butler describes hierarchal thinking as the more “entrenched characteristic.” This begs the question of where we got hierarchal thinking. Humans have always formed societies that have created natural hierarchies intentionally or not. Dunkley asserts that the Humanist doctrine has been upheld by “Cartesian logic” which “maintains a belief in the hermetic separation of mind and body, and human and machine” (4). This Cartesian dualism, “has been co-opted and expanded to impose a dichotomous hierarchy upon the metaphysics of natural sciences” which allowed the “exploitation for the subjugation of the hierarchically underprivileged” (Dunkley, 4).

With these understandings, Butler is arguing that human nature is stagnant and would require unprecedentedly massive events to change human flaws such as the events in “Dawn”. Butler offers a fictional solution where the only way for humans to continue surviving as a species is to accept the Oankali and literally create a new mixed species. Yet it still seems impossible for mankind to change.

One of the main themes of the novel is the idea of Otherness. The Oankali are without a doubt not human but rather “camouflaged by human likeness”(Savage, 53). In part one, “Womb,” Lilith is introduced to an Oankali by the name Jdahya. When they first make contact, Lilith’s terrified reaction resembles a stray dog whos been captured, drugged, and has awakened inside a cage while an extremely unfamiliar “thing” attempts to create a connection. Unsurprisingly, Lilith shows signs of uneasiness and slight disgust; with their tentacle-like appendages,—resembling an octopus or sea slug—hairlessness, and trigender morphology (female/male/Ooloi). She first withheld from getting closer to him because of “his alienness [and] his difference” and felt “herself unable to take one more step towards him”(“Womb” Ch.2).

Jdahya is the first Oankali, who in his own way, helps Lilith to grow accustomed to him by refusing to leave, but also promising that no harm would come to her. After a few days, Lilith grows accustomed to the Oankali appearance and allows him to explain his peoples’ way of life. Luckily, Butler gives the Oankali the ability the speak English, which is one form of familiarity that helped close the distance between them. Once a greater trust is formed, Lilith learns about the current condition of humankind and the catalysts that brought them there. Jdahya tells Lilith, “[humans] have a mismatched pair of genetic characteristics” and “it was only a matter of time before they destroyed [humans]” (“Womb” Ch.5). Butler uses the two characteristics of intelligence and hierarchal thinking working in unison to problematize the idea of the human subjects under Humanism in the novel.

The Oankali’s third “gender”, the Ooloi, is neither male or female and plays an ambiguous role in the binary thinking of the human males. Throughout “Dawn,” the awakened men have struggled to understand and accept the Oankali’s third gender. As a result, they gravitate towards what is familiar to them—the ideology of Humanism. The Ooloi, who play an important role in the men’s sexual activity, also threaten their manhood to its core. The danger imposed onto their ideals of Humanism causes them to see the Ooloi has rival figures. The men are terrified and resent the Ooloi even more when they realize what they are capable of doing with their sensory arms. In many ways, the Oankali sensory arm was created by Butler to represent penises. They are able to become erect or flaccid and described to look like a sea slug by Lilith. This is much more vexing for the men in the novel who find it troublesome for their conceptions of heterosexuality. Secondly, it threatens their ideology where men place themselves at the top of the gendered hierarchy. The men who have always played the role of being the penetrator during sex, feel their masculinity challenged.

During the mating process of the Ooloi, the tentacles can create pleasure by touching any point of the human body, which “transmutes the whole body into a vagina” (Dunkley, 29). The men who actually find pleasure in this still cannot accept this because it goes against the heteronormative “assertion not just of the woman’s penetrability but of the man’s impenetrability, the designation of his body by its seamless, phallic mastery” (Dunkley, 29). This the males to question Joseph’s heterosexuality. Joseph is Lilith’s chosen partner and one of the first to awaken and experience Ooloi sex. Nikanj who has been listening through the ship, tells Lilith, “One has decided he’s something called a faggot and the other dislikes his eyes” (“Nursery”, Ch.7). Joseph is now targeted for showing homosexuality and essentially becomes the Other. Michael Kimmel states that “Women and gay men become the other against which heterosexual men project their identities, against whom they stack the deck so as to compete in a situation in which they always win so that by suppressing them, men can stake a claim for their manhood”(66). Every since their awakening, other males have relied on aggressive behavior to hold onto their sense of sexual identity that the very presence of the Ooloi challenge. Despite acknowledging the pleasure that comes from Ooloi sex, Joseph still shows resentment towards the phallicism of the sensory arms. “Maybe I don’t want you to change me. I don’t really understand what it is you do with those…those tentacles” (“Nursery”, Ch.6), “that thing will never touch me again if I have anything to say about it” (“Nursery”, Ch.9). Again, the Oankali sensory arms expose the vulnerability of human men which highlights the humanist ideology of men being the penetrator.

Lilith, in turn, is also oppressed and shamed by her fellow humans because of her particular position of power which ultimately labels her as a traitor. The relationship she shares with Nikanj definitely shows greater intimacy and acceptance than the rest of the humans do with their Ooloi partners. Gabriel snaps at her saying, “Strip and screw your Nikanj right here for everyone to see, why don’t you. We know you’re their whore! Everyone knows!” (“The Training Floor”, Ch.8). Lilith’s display of real enjoyment and acceptance for Ooloi sex with Nikanj creates the image of betrayal and sexual deviance for the rest of the humans. In addition, the relationship does not align with the humanist ideology of a normal heterosexual partnership—male with female. Lilith’s outright openness for an “unnatural” relationship invokes even greater hostility from already resentful humans. From this Butler creates a social climate where normative sex is seen as only heterosexual and procreative. Without Joseph in the equation, the sex Lilith has with Nikanj is no longer about reproduction but solely about pleasure. This becomes unacceptable for humans who see non-heterosexual sex as shameful.

As evident in this essay, “Dawn” by Octavia Butler paints a clear picture of the fundamental problems of Humanism that are idolized. Butler skillfully criticizes its flawed structure which inherently marginalizes the victims of the human subject and leaves them with nothing but despair or death in the novel. In particular, the subject of the Other, who becomes sexualized and victimized for being different. Furthermore, the humans desperately hold onto their familiar ideology in Humanism and Cartesian dualism which Butler characterizes as the ultimate root flaws—from which develops intelligence and hierarchal thinking.