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political theology, Vol. 17 No.

5, September 2016, 449–464

Post-Racial, Post-Apocalyptic Love:


Octavia Butler as Political Theologian
Vincent Lloyd
Villanova University, Villanova, PA, USA

The African American science fiction writer Octavia Butler (1947–2006) wrote
explicitly about the relationship between religion and politics in her books
Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998). On the surface,
Butler dramatizes the catastrophes that she anticipates will result from an
alignment between American evangelicalism and neoliberalism, including
climate change, mass incarceration, totalitarian politics, and corporate
capture of political institutions. In her pair of novels, Butler proposes New
Age spirituality aligned with community-based, ecology-minded politics as a
necessary response. I argue that Butler’s attempt to make a literary interven-
tion in political theological critique ultimately fails because it grows out of
unacknowledged commitments to the same neoliberal cultural forces that it
ostensibly rejects. This failure is particularly evident when we focus on how
race and love are represented in Butler’s work.

KEYWORDS science fiction, neoliberalism, racism, blackness, secularization

The black science fiction writer Octavia Butler (1947–2006) seems in many ways
distant from the German legal theorist Carl Schmitt (1888–1985). But if Carl
Schmitt offers the paradigm of political theology, Butler can be seen as following
his paradigm. Schmitt’s programmatic statement, Political Theology, has two
famous pillars.1 First, political concepts that seem secular are actually connected
with religious concepts. Second, embracing a different set of religious concepts
would result in a political transformation: it would give traction to new political
concepts and so to new political practices and institutions. Schmitt has a particular
set of new religious concepts in mind: a Counter-Reformation understanding of
God’s sovereignty that would give traction to a political concept of sovereignty
that is authoritative and decisive – just what Schmitt thought was needed to remedy
the flailing, ineffective parliamentary system of Weimar Germany. Parliamentary

1
Schmitt, Political Theology.

© 2016 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group DOI 10.1080/1462317X.2016.1211296
450 VINCENT LLOYD

democracy depends on an immanent concept of the divine developed in the nineteenth


century, Schmitt asserts, even though that provenance is repressed.
Octavia Butler’s pair of Parable novels dramatize Schmitt’s two pillars of political
theological critique. Butler exposes the alignment between fundamentalist Christian-
ity and neoliberalism by telling a story about the future of the United States in which,
a few decades from now, that alignment makes itself explicit.2 Further, Butler offers
an alternative set of religious ideas, what she calls Earthseed, that have political
potential. She tracks the confrontation between Earthseed and fundamentalist
Christianity (what she dramatizes as the Church of Christian America). Although
the plot of her Parables novels is ultimately indecisive – in the end, Earthseed and
Christian America coexist in a pluralist nation – the effect of Butler’s Parables is pol-
itical theological: her readers are taught about how neoliberalism and fundamental-
ist Christianity align and what an alternative might look like.
There are many fascinating elements in Butler’s work, and Butler’s work contains
many political possibilities. My interest here is simply in exploring one approach
that has the potential both to expand conversations within political theology, by
introducing a new voice, and to probe a previously under-studying aspect of
Butler’s fiction. While science fiction novels may be an unexpected site to explore
political theology, philosophy has no monopoly on political theology. Political theol-
ogy at its best is a type of cultural criticism, and cultural criticism is performed by
elites and the marginalized, by philosophers and writers and musicians, by intellec-
tuals and by activists, among others. Political theology, as cultural criticism, can also
go wrong – the glaring example of Carl Schmitt’s Nazi affinities makes this obvious.
On what grounds can political theology gone wrong be judged? This is where the
two strands of discussions about political theology after Schmitt diverge. Christian
theologians take Christian tradition, Scripture, and Revelation as authoritative. On
these grounds, Erik Peterson famously initiated a lineage of dissenters from Schmitt’s
conclusions.3 Secular critics using political theology as a method of cultural criticism
do not have such authority to lean back on. What they do have is the underlying
motivation of critique, namely, to challenge the ideas of the wealthy and powerful
that so often seem natural and unquestionable. Political theology in this second
sense takes the unmasking of religious concepts to be a way of destabilizing the pol-
itical concepts that secure the power of the ruling class, and it takes the positing of
alternative religious concepts as a potentially revolutionary means to imagine the
world radically otherwise. The political ideas of the day must be pulled up by
their roots and new seeds planted: this is the potential proffered by political theol-
ogy. This potential was not realized by Schmitt. The new seeds he wished to plant
were not really new at all but rather allowed for power to again be consolidated
in the hands of the few.4
In this essay, I argue that Butler’s political theology, like Schmitt’s, fails as a form
of cultural criticism. While both Schmitt and Butler persuasively unmask repressed
connections between religious and political concepts, the alternatives offered by
both are not genuinely transformative. Specifically, I aim to show that Butler’s
2
In this Butler is close to Connolly, Capitalism and Christianity, American Style.
3
Peterson, Theological Tractates.
4
Alain Badiou makes this point by suggesting the new National Socialist order was problematically in continuity with
the old order in his Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil.
POST-RACIAL, POST-APOCALYPTIC LOVE 451

Earthseed is deeply invested in the very order it purports to reject. I do not mean this
as a claim about the motivation of Butler’s characters but rather as a claim about the
set of ideas, practices, and more generally worldviews in which they are invested. My
interest is not in offering a theological critique of Earthseed, whatever that would
mean.5 Rather, my interest is in exploring the assumptions implicit in Butler’s narra-
tive. There is, of course, a deep difficulty involved in imagining otherwise, for the
concerns and investments of the present shape our views of possible alternatives.
Our dreams are a way of working through the difficulties and desires of the
present – even our freedom dreams.6 The limitations that I will discuss of Butler’s
political theological project point to the difficulty of separating political theology
as secular cultural criticism from political theology as accountable to a religious tra-
dition. Butler’s failed Parables suggest that the most powerful visions for the future
are those that leverage the return of the repressed (identifying and interrogating
those religious concepts underlying our ostensibly secular political concepts)
instead of entrenching repression through projection (imagining a new set of
religious-political concepts without first interrogating present religious-political lin-
kages and so relying on and further securing those present, unexamined religious-
political linkages).
The limitations of Butler’s political theological vision become most evident in
regard to two important themes in her work: race and love. Butler was the first
black woman writer of science fiction, but race does not figure significantly in her
work with the exception of Kindred, a neo-slave narrative.7 Indeed, the significance
of race in Butler’s writing is most often in its presence but unimportance. There are
many non-white characters, including black protagonists, but their race is treated as
unimportant and mentioned well after readers become acquainted with them. (It is
only halfway through Parable of the Sower that readers learn that the protagonist is
black.8) Butler understands herself to be depicting worlds where race has lost its
undue import, a world quite different from our own. Yet, as many critics of the post-
racial have pointed out, representing racial diversity is not sufficient to overcome
racism. Indeed, representing diversity is closely tied to the interests of the powers
that be, and it conceals deeper, structural racism.9 Race becomes one difference
among others, part of our postmodern world of ever-shifting differences that
allows for the smooth flow of capital. Differences that are stuck, as it were, block
those flows and must be removed (sometimes literally, into the ghetto). This is the
world Butler depicts and, intentionally or not, endorses.
Social theorists have recently pointed out that neoliberalism brings with it
not only an embrace of difference but also an embrace of the extraordinary

5
For a sympathetic theological engagement with Butler’s Parables, see Coleman, Making a Way Out of No Way,
Chapter 5.
6
Note how Robin Kelley presents “freedom dreams” as visions of the future which appealed to him after he was dis-
illusioned with political organizing. Kelley, Freedom Dreams.
7
There are, however, black characters in other Butler novels, and there are conflicts between species that some readers
interpret as metaphors for conflicts among human races.
8
It is not that discussions of ethnicity, culture, and race are entirely absent from the narrative, just that they are not
freighted with the narrative significance that characterizes race in a US context. For example, on p. 23 of Parable of
the Sower, one unenlightened character is said to dislike a Mexican. Yet the significance of this dislike is undercut
because it is framed as irrational given just how assimilated the Mexican was (for example, she went by “Cory”
instead of “Corazon”).
9
See, for example, Ahmed, On Being Included; Bonilla-Silva, Racism without Racists.
452 VINCENT LLOYD

individual.10 Neoliberal ontology consists of a world of individuals “freely” inter-


acting, desiring, choosing, and working, unimpeded by the authority of tradition
or the state. In such a world of atomized individuals, transcendence is not to be
sought in collectives but in the self. Because this self is not fixed by any social iden-
tities, transcendence occurs by engaging with, learning from, and moving beyond
such identities, pushing the limits, becoming ever new. Business schools praise the
worker who is flexible, adaptable, transformative, overflowing her own boundaries.
Television hosts urge the viewer to become an ecstatic consumer, buying products
that make her anew.
Hypothesis: the two sides of neoliberal ontology, a social world of flux and
ecstatic individuals, are reconciled through a secularized theological concept,
namely love. On the one hand, love transforms the self in ecstasy; on the other
hand, love connects the atomized individual with the outside world. But in our neo-
liberal age, in our world of continually shifting differences, this connection with the
outside world cannot be fixed permanently. The linkages of love, too, must be
capable of shifting, must be “networked,” must not be authoritative.11 Love must
be directed outward toward the world diffusely, not directed exclusively at a
single individual even though the word love persists as a marker of transcendence.
Put another way, love must be extolled as world-transcending even as the distinc-
tions between loves – friendship, familial, romantic – collapse and the practices of
love become increasingly worldly. Childbirth becomes medicalized, a hospital pro-
cedure, scheduled for convenience. Childrearing is outsourced to nannies and
daycare centers, elder care to nursing homes. Sex becomes about reciprocating
(exchanging) pleasures. Lovers become “partners.”
The actress Maria Bello offered a particularly clear account of neoliberal love in a
personal essay she published in the New York Times.12 Bello recalls her difficulty
explaining to her son that she stopped loving her husband, then her boyfriend,
and now she loves a woman. “Sometimes you can be friends with someone, and
then it turns romantic, and then you’re friends again,” she tells him. Once, Bello
had believed that she was looking for a “soul mate,” experiencing deep sadness
when a love relationship ended. With her current, female lover, Bello writes how
“it didn’t occur to me … that we could perhaps choose to love each other romanti-
cally” (emphasis added). The new lover is the person “with whom I am most
myself,” Bello asserts. She goes on to describe others who she has loved, some
romantically and some platonically, some friends, some family, some romances.
She loves her son, particularly when he responds to her explanation with the affir-
mation “love is love.” Bello concludes, “Whomever I love, however I love them,
whether they sleep in my bed or not, or whether I do homework with them or
share a child with them, ‘love is love’.” This tautology, so often heard in American
popular culture today, underscores the paradox of neoliberal, secularized love.
Recall how neoliberalism relies on a social ontology of flux and ecstatic individual-
ity. The connotation of the word love here indicates transcendence (hence the

10
Dardot and Laval, The New Way of the World; Boltanski and Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism; Lofton,
Oprah.
11
Such a conception of love is helpfully developed, in dialogue with affect theory, and attributed to black feminist
thought in Nash, “Practicing Love,” 1–24.
12
Bello, “Coming Out as a Modern Family.”
POST-RACIAL, POST-APOCALYPTIC LOVE 453

reduplication), but the denotation of the word is reduced to intimacy broadly con-
strued. It is intimacy that embraces difference and fluidity: love of young and old,
male and female, and (though not specifically mentioned in Bello’s case) black
and white. It is love that is ultimately about me, about becoming more me, using
others on my quest for self. This is no longer love that has any relationship to
love of God, for love of God conforms the self to the image of another, acknowled-
ging the authority of another that might pull me away from myself – not toward a
deeper, atomized self but toward a better, more just, more virtuous self.
My reading of Butler in the pages that follow is a political theological critique of her
work rather than an account of her political theology. I argue that the political concepts
Butler develops implicitly rely on a secularized theological concept: love. My primary
interest is in Butler’s attempt to do political theology, in her Parables, but a brief initial
discussion of her story “Bloodchild” will help to make clear the problems with love
that interest me. Rather than uncovering neoliberalism’s implicit theological commit-
ments, the function of Butler’s work is to advance a purported alternative to neoliber-
alism that is actually based on the same social logic. This connection is revealed by
Butler’s depiction of love and, closely related, her depiction of race. My concern is
only to expose this reliance; I leave it to others to judge whether Butler’s theology of
love is desirable and to consider what alternatives there may be. Yet this work of
exposure is, I argue, the work of criticism: it calls us to bring forth the repressed and
refuse fantasies of the future that function to secure the powers that be in the present.
***

Gan is in love with a giant insect. On a distant planet, humans fleeing disaster on
earth found themselves living on a reservation built by these ten foot long creatures.
What greater difference could love transcend? Indeed, in Octavia Butler’s story “Blood-
child,” this enormous species difference obscures and then, after it is accepted and nor-
malized, underscores the other differences complicating the love between Gan and his
insect lover, T’Gatoi. The latter is a privileged government official, manager of the
reservation for humans. The much larger T’Gatoi is female, Gan is male. T’Gatoi nur-
tures in a motherly way, but ultimately penetrates, and impregnates, Gan. Butler’s
prose is smooth and subtle, slowly and naturally unveiling the world she has
created. (The story, first published in 1984, won science fiction’s most prestigious
award.) She writes of Gan in the first person, and her words, as his, show affection
– show love in the immanent sense of diffuse intimacy while depicting love in the
world-transcending sense, the two sides of secular, neoliberal love. “I lay against
T’Gatoi’s long, velvet underside,” Gan relates (3).13 “She simply came in, climbed
onto one of her special couches, and called me over to keep her warm. It was imposs-
ible to be formal with her while lying against her” (4). As he watches her run, “swim-
ming through the air,” he reflects, “I love watching her move” (9).
“Bloodchild” is framed as a coming of age story, as the opening line announces:
“My last night of childhood began with a visit home” (3). Despite the male hero with
his people in captivity, the plot is not one of difficulties overcome, of battles waged
and won. This is a love story. The opening scene is all affection, something between
the Eucharist and a drug party, with the goods provided by T’Gatoi in the form of
13
Parenthetical references to Butler, Bloodchild and Other Stories.
454 VINCENT LLOYD

eggs, her eggs. Gan and the other children consume the eggs which, Gan reports,
“prolonged life, prolonged vigor” (3). The only one who does not indulge in the
ritualized meal is Lien, Gan’s mother, wise and stubborn from the perspective of
Gan. In her hesitations Lien points to something amiss. T’Gatoi pacifies her by press-
ing upon her an egg; these eggs have calming, mildly intoxicating effects. Through-
out, T’Gatoi cuddles with Gan, enjoys his body heat against her (presumably
cold-blooded) body, curls her many arms around him, expresses concern about
whether he is gaining enough weight. It seems that Lien may simply be jealous:
this large, powerful insect apparently is displacing her as mother. Lien is at first
“unwillingly obedient” to T’Gatoi’s command to drink egg (4). But even she is even-
tually seduced. “‘It’s good,’ she whispered. ‘Sometimes I forget how good it is’” (5).
After this scene of affection, T’Gatoi’s expression of pleasure – the family’s house
is a welcome “refuge” – leads more backstory to be unveiled. T’Gatoi functions as a
mediator between the giant insects and the humans on this planet. The giant insects
desire to exploit the humans even more, but T’Gatoi resists. What this exploitation
consists of remains unclear at this point, but it must involve a mix of money and
love, for we are told that the humans would be “courted, paid, drafted, in some
way made available,” if there were not regulations (5). In an earlier era, human
families were broken up; now, T’Gatoi “oversaw the joining of families” (5). She
uses her role strategically and benevolently, offering humans to needy insects but
also selling them to politically influential insects. This narrative of T’Gatoi’s role
as good-willed, good-hearted mediator in what seems to be a marketplace where
the goods exchanged are human beings is never questioned in the story. Indeed,
this moral ambivalence is one among many that characterize the story as a whole.
The tale is not one of colonizer and colonized, enslaved and slave masters. It is a
story about bonds of affection between specific individuals, where that affection is
complicated though not undermined by the different social locations of the charac-
ters. A cold, faceless market animated by self-interest may be the background, but
the individuals we readers encounter are animated by a spirit of affection. This is
neoliberal love: the cold workings of a marketplace concealed by the warmth of
love in the immanent sense and the potential ecstasy of love in the world-
transcending sense. The latter has yet to appear in the narrative, but it is the
climax the reader anticipates, and that anticipation pulls the narrative forward.
When Gan feels T’Gatoi’s arms curled around him, he feels comfortable, secure.
His mother feels trapped, even as the insect caresses the woman’s gray hair.
T’Gatoi wraps her legs around Lein and then stings her quickly, drawing “only a
single drop of blood,” reports Gan, who adds, “Being stung doesn’t hurt” (6).
The sting acts as a sedative. Lien is calm, but still questions T’Gatoi as to her
motives. “I could not watch you sitting and suffering any longer,” the giant insect
responds (6). She inflicts pain, or at least the signs of suffering, but only to
prevent greater suffering. The world is fallen, alien, but individuals are trying
their best to care for each other. Lien asserts, of her son, “He’s still mine, you
know,” and adds, “Nothing can buy him from me.” We are told, “T’Gatoi
agreed, humoring her” (7). Lien resists not only the egg-drug but also the market
logic that would make her son a commodity to be bought and sold; T’Gatoi persists
in her ambivalence. Both are depicted as affectionate and deeply attached to Gan,
but Lien’s antiquated affection – her love lacking ambivalence, her love motivated
POST-RACIAL, POST-APOCALYPTIC LOVE 455

by blood affinity – has little force in a world of commoditized bodies and lives.
T’Gatoi represents neoliberal love, at once immanent and transcendent but funda-
mentally ambivalent; Lien represents what came before.
The main action of the story consists in Gan learning the secret of adulthood. Love
is not only immanent affection but also world-transcending pain and ecstacy: pen-
etration and childbirth. The reader learns how the giant insects exploit humans:
they use human (male) bodies to carry their young. The process does not kill the
humans, but it takes a heavy toll on them, causing them great pain and dramatically
reducing their lifespan. This, Gan now realizes, is his fate. It is what T’Gatoi intends
for him. After hesitation, after pondering whether he might allow a sibling to be sub-
stituted for himself, after insisting that he is a “partner” in the exchange, Gan finally
agrees to be penetrated, to host T’Gatoi’s eggs in his body. Something like romance
ultimately prevails, and Butler’s prose is, again, sensual: “She flowed around me and
into my bedroom. I found her waiting on the couch we shared” (27). Later, “I
undressed and lay down beside her. I knew what to do, what to expect. I had
been told all my life. I felt the familiar sting, narcotic, mildly pleasant. Then the
blind probing of her ovipositor” (27). Post coitum, T’Gatoi reassures her mate
that all will be fine: “I’ll take care of you” (29). Affection returns, now educated,
now matured. It is immanent love coupled with the transcendent, with the ecstasy
and anticipation of the unspeakable pain of childbirth, all concealing an underlying
embrace of market logic. It is neoliberal love.
Such love trumps all difference in “Bloodchild.” It trumps the differences between
species, so suggestive of race, class, and power. It trumps the differences between
sexes and genders: men can be penetrated and impregnated; men can demand that
they have the right to consent. Men can endure the pains of childbirth, and they
can desire to give birth (in the world of “Bloodchild,” women can also give birth,
both of human and insect offspring). No difference is absolute, and the balance of
power can shift. Gan holds a gun which could kill T’Gatoi – though she is not
afraid, for she knows that affection will triumph over difference. Donna Haraway
takes Octavia Butler’s fiction to illustrate how difference ought to work. “From
the perspective of an ontology based on mutation, metamorphosis, and the diaspora,
restoring an original sacred image can be a bad joke. Origins are precisely that to
which Butler’s people do not have access.”14 For Haraway, the world depicted in
Butler’s fiction is our world – with difference unlimited, origins impossible, and
“the promises and terrors of cyborg embodiments” inescapable.15 Our response
ought to be to reflect on these possibilities, to play in the field of differences
rather than to repress or resist its flows, even if this play brings danger, even if it
does not bring easy salvation. We ought to become “technicians of realizable
futures” (a phrase that might also be found in an entrepreneurship handbook).16
Yet this reading ignores the central role that affection plays in “Bloodchild” and
in Butler’s writing more generally. Difference and affection work together: affection
transcends and relativizes difference; the play of differences is illuminated against the
background of sacralized affection – transcendent love.

14
Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women, 226–7.
15
Ibid., 242.
16
Ibid., 230.
456 VINCENT LLOYD

Octavia Butler refused critics’ attempts to read “Bloodchild” as a story about


slavery. Instead, she described it as a “love story” (30). She does not use the word
love in the story itself, but it is everywhere present in both its neoliberal senses.
One the one hand, love, for Butler, is affection: the sensual, intimate bonds
between Lien and Gan, between Gan and T’Gatoi. This is the love Maria Bello
describes: gradations of affection across genders, across family relationships,
across power relationships. But it is also something more. For Bello, this excess,
this transcendence, was suggested by the ultimate definition of love she offered:
“love is love.” No definition suffices. For Butler in “Bloodchild,” those markers
of transcendence are found in the indescribable experiences of childbirth and
(quasi-)sexual penetration. These break with the diffuse intimacy and affection of
childhood, and coming to terms with them is what allows Gan to achieve adulthood.
He must realize that love is both immanent and transcendent, worldly comfort and
other-worldly ecstasy. Crucially – and this is typical of neoliberal love – the two
remain unintegrated. Just as Bello’s affirmation that “love is love” sat uneasily
with her many descriptions of the varieties of worldly love, Butler’s descriptions
of the other-worldliness of childbirth and penetration are not integrated into the
worldly intimacy she describes (and writes in affected prose). What Butler describes
is not an intensification of intimacy that becomes world-transcending but something
quite different. In childbirth, there is simply horror, “pain and terror and maybe
death”; in penetration, there is only a “puncture” that is “painless, easy.” In other
words, the markers of transcendent love in Butler’s text are orthogonal to the predomi-
nant, worldly idiom of immanent love, yet they give that immanent love its (secular-
ized) sacred significance. There is something more to love than just intimacy and
affection, something that makes it trump other-worldly practices and feelings, some-
thing deeply individual, but that excess can only be marked, not described. In this
way, love transcends all difference: it is at once inescapably individual and diffusely
spread across the world, irrespective of the groups into which creatures may be classed.
Walter Benn Michaels reads Butler as quintessentially post-ideological. Instead of
two groups of humans each with different ideas about how the world ought to be
organized at odds, Butler depicts humans unified against alien others. Benn Michaels
is troubled by the way Butler’s fiction represents a move from a world where ideol-
ogies clash to a clash of civilizations, echoing the post-Soviet, Islamophobic political
moment. Accompanying such a shift is a change from “conflict as difference of
opinion” to “conflict as difference in subject position.”17 This latter political
moment trades in the currency of sameness and difference and, ultimately, of identity
politics. Benn Michaels sees human differences and alien-human differences as actu-
ally trading in the same currency, a currency which is depoliticizing. Currency is
more than a metaphor here, for it is contemporary capitalism that flourishes in an
environment where the flux of sameness and difference, defining identity, displaces
contest over visions of how the economy ought to be organized and how politics
ought to be organized. While Benn Michaels’ argument is generally persuasive, it
misses two crucial elements of Butler’s project. First, it does not address Butler’s
own explicit attempt at thinking through an ideological clash in Parable of the
Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998). In these texts, Butler describes

17
Michaels, “Political Science Fictions,” 654.
POST-RACIAL, POST-APOCALYPTIC LOVE 457

contemporary capitalism pitted against an alternative ideology, just as Benn


Michaels calls for. Second, love plays a central role in these explicitly ideology-
critical works, just as it does in “Bloodchild.” It is on this conception of love, on
this secularized theological concept, that Butler’s problematic politics hinge. When
love separates into immanent and transcendent, where the transcendent has no con-
nection with the world, love ultimately sanctifies the immanent – giving theological
sanction to the world as it is, i.e., to the world arranged by the powers that be.

***

Butler’s career as a science fiction writer took her from mimicking the conventions of
the genre to pushing those conventions, her writing becoming increasingly literary. She
described herself as a feminist. Butler was also the first Black woman to publish a
science fiction novel. Her novels depict strong female protagonists and characters of
many races, with those races usually mentioned only incidentally. Butler describes
her frustration with the state of the world, and particularly of the United States, in
the 1990s as prompting her to imagine what would happen if there is no course correc-
tion.18 In the Parable novels, she depicts global warming, the privatization of nearly all
government functions, small scale nuclear war, the use of wars to advance political
interests, massive outsourcing of labor (including childbearing), the growth of
company-owned towns with private security forces, rapidly widening income inequal-
ity, the return of indentured servitude, and the rise of new, cruel forms of mass incar-
ceration that turn prisoners effectively into slaves, complete with electrocution collars.
Strikingly, race plays a limited role in this unfortunate world of the near future.19 While
there is some residual racism in the future world Butler imagines, there are Blacks
among the wealthy and powerful and there are whites among the homeless and the
prisoners – though most of the time Butler does not mention the race of characters.
The post-racial goes together with the post-apocalyptic in Butler’s imagination.
The implication is that race is not foundational, or necessary, to the structure of
American society. When everything that can go wrong does go wrong, the problems
are first and foremost economic: corporations effectively rule and that causes social
and environmental catastrophes. For Butler, race and capital are no longer linked:
the oppressed, in the post-apocalyptic world that she depicts, are simply the poor.
And the poor are unable to oppose capital. The rich are multicultural: one of the
exemplary corporations filling the space left by the retreating state is a Japanese–
German–Canadian enterprise, KSF: Kagimoto, Stamm, Frampton. In contrast,
Butler’s post-apocalyptic world is not post-religious. Indeed, as their titles suggest,
the ideological struggle depicted in the Parable novels is religious: a (incidentally
black) woman, Lauren Olamina, founds a religion, Earthseed, and a community
that practices it, Acorn. Olamina’s community offers a counterpoint to the fully neo-
liberal state (and has no lingering racism whatsoever). The Church of Christian
America eventually captures the state, its leader elected President. The Church
fully endorses and accelerates the state’s neoliberal economic agenda. Eventually,
Acorn is attacked by Christian America paramilitary forces who none too subtly
18
For Butler’s thoughts on her work, see Conversations with Octavia Butler.
19
Allen suggests that Butler’s point is to show how what once happened to Blacks later happens to all. See “Octavia
Butler’s Parable Novels and the ‘Boomerang’ of African American History,” 1353–65.
458 VINCENT LLOYD

wear large crosses on their shirts and call themselves Crusaders. By focusing on the
accounts of love that she offers in the Parable novels, I want to point to a certain
instability in Butler’s apparently political theological argument – an argument
about the deep connections between fundamentalist Christianity and frightening
totalitarian politics. Where “Bloodchild” was fundamentally a love story, the Para-
bles are political love stories, stories about the possibility for (secularized) love to lay
the foundations for a better political future.
Olamina’s father was a Baptist preacher and professor. Because of the social
turmoil in the near-future world, he could only teach courses online, from his
house in a gated community in southern California. Eventually, the unrest spills
over the community’s gates. The Olamina household is overrun, Olamina’s family
is killed, and she must fend for herself. She hears that things are better in the
Pacific Northwest, and she heads there, facing various dangers along the way and
picking up a multiracial, motley crew of followers, others who have been displaced
and are seeking a better life. In the mountains of northern California, the band of
wanderers decides to settle, to build a community. Olamina has a vision: she will
grow a community with values ostensibly opposite the values of the rest of the
world (i.e., opposed to the logic of the market). She self-publishes Earthseed: The
Books of the Living, a collection of verse that is Earthseed’s scripture; excerpts
from Earthseed form epigraphs to the Parables’ chapters. The community has
weekly meetings where this scripture is read and where community business is
addressed. Instead of preaching there are discussions where rigorous questioning
and critical thought are valued. There are rituals for entering the community and
for dying, and at these rituals, too, Earthseed is read. The community plants and har-
vests food, builds cabins, and members make and sell crafts. Olamina presides over a
school where children are taught the values of Earthseed, encouraged to read
broadly in the community’s library, and formed into critical thinkers. She envisions
the Earthseed vision growing, with new communities sprouting across the country,
none growing too large, so that close relationships between community members
can be maintained.
In short, Earthseed sounds a lot like an American left-liberal vision for the future.
It sounds like a small-scale Portland. The crises to which it responds are the pro-
blems vexing dedicated listeners to public radio. Indeed, this is precisely how
Butler describes conceiving of the project. She is a public radio evangelist, asking
an interviewer (a young Jelani Cobb) in 1994 if he listens and, when he responds
in the negative, telling him that he ought to listen.20 Butler describes her method
in preparing to write Earthseed verses, which was the first writing she did for the
novels: she went through all the sacred books she could get her hands on, she
marked passages she agreed with, and then she synthesized and versified them.
(The title of Butler’s autobiographical essay “Positive Obsession” comes from an
Earthseed verse, and she seems to wholehearted endorse the religion’s tenets.21)
The result is a religion that sounds like New Age 101: God is change. We must
embrace and control change. All religious truths are already evident in the world.
20
Conversations with Octavia Butler, 55. She adds that listening to Pacifica, the harder-left radio network, is also advi-
sable. Something could be made of Butler conflating liberal public radio with hard-left Pacifica.
21
This despite the critical perspective on Earthseed offered by a new character introduced in Parable of the Talents: Ola-
mina’s daughter.
POST-RACIAL, POST-APOCALYPTIC LOVE 459

Life is complicated. Actions are more important than beliefs. And so on. A represen-
tative verse of Earthseed:

Earthseed is adulthood.

It’s trying our wings,

Leaving our mother,

Becoming men and women.

Adulthood is both sweet and sad.

It terrifies.

It empowers.

We are men and women now.

We are Earthseed.

And the Destiny of Earthseed

Is to take root among the stars.22

This last line points to the only somewhat surprising aspect of Earthseed. Olamina
believes that humans need a common project in order to unify them. She determines
this project is sending humans into outer space: it is “the Destiny,” and it was a goal
that Butler herself endorsed. Heaven becomes the heavens, and they are reachable
through human effort. One moment of world-transcending punctuates an otherwise
this-worldly orientation.
Earthseed represents religious pluralism taken to an extreme. Butler literally
chooses the parts of the world’s religions that fit with public radio ideology. Earth-
seed is all the (properly managed, i.e., legible from a secular viewpoint) religions
together in one book, resulting in practices that are one step more secularized
than Unitarianism. When community members die, a tree is planted and someone
reads an Earthseed passage about how the world is always changing. Olamina’s
father was a Baptist preacher, and she is his secularizer.23 So are the novels them-
selves: each with a Biblical parable for a title and a parable quoted in full at the
end of each book but effectively ignored in the novels themselves – or, better, secu-
larized in the novels themselves. This secular religion, Earthseed, is what Butler’s
narrative opposes to neoliberalism. She ultimately puts the Acorn community
members in physical confrontation with the para-state (and para-church) security
forces. In this political theological vision (or, better, vision of secular political theol-
ogy), there is no mention of race. Secularization and post-racialism go hand in hand,

22
Butler, Parable of the Talents, 394.
23
For an extended account of the role of father-figures in these texts, arguing that Olamina reestablishes paternal auth-
ority at Acorn, see Nilges, “‘We Need the Stars’,” 1332–52.
460 VINCENT LLOYD

offering a hint at the limitations of Butler’s political theology when it comes to ques-
tions of racial justice, and perhaps questions of justice more broadly.24
Olamina eventually discovers her brother, Marcus, who she believed had died
back in southern California, rescues him from sex slavery, and brings him to
Acorn. Before his captivity, Marcus had been a preacher, Christian like their
father. At Acorn he tries to preach again. Olamina allows him to preach during
one of the community’s weekly quasi-religious meetings, but she warns him that
he will face critical questions from his listeners. She is confident that he will
wither under such questioning, and that this is a necessary humiliation. The ques-
tioning is, indeed, intense. In frustration, Marcus eventually leaves the community,
joining the burgeoning Christian nationalist movement – the Church of Christian
America. He believes that he can moderate the movement, and he distances
himself from the Church’s practices of burning heretics and placing children of
heathens in Church-run orphanages. Written shortly after Pat Robertson ran for
president and Newt Gingrich proposed the Contract with America, Parable of the
Talents depicts the Christian Americans’ leader being elected president and offering
religious sanction to the neoliberal economic vision of the nation. Christian groups
begin to take on even more of the state’s former roles, running homeless shelters,
soup kitchens, and prisons – creating a pipeline between these, and creating profit.
Central to Olamina’s criticism of Christian Americans is her concern about their
hypocritical view of love. Christian Americans purport to believe in love, but they
run prisons that are effectively concentration camps. They purport to believe in
love, but they sell people into slavery. They purport to believe in love, holy love,
but they rape the women they are supposed to “re-educate” (including Olamina
herself). Marcus purports to preach love, but he does little to help his sister when
she is in need – when the Christian Americans have taken away her daughter. In con-
trast, Earthseed does not talk about love. It talks about living and working together.
Yet love remains the absent center of the religion Olamina invents. Instead of affirm-
ing that God is love, Earthseed claims that God is change and takes this as the heart
of faith.25 This should not be read as a rejection of love but rather love’s inflection,
an attempt to embrace certain connotations of love and not others. The love that
Earthseed commends is the embrace of flux, the refusal of distinctions, the crossing
of boundaries, but also the intimacy of life lived together in diverse community. The
way that “Change,” a secularized theological concept, manifests in practice is caring
for each other despite differences and complications. The love of Earthseed is also
other-worldly: Olamina’s God, discordantly, embraces travel to the stars. (Earthseed
seems to justify this by offering the stars as a paradigm of change: “The stars ignite,/
burn,/age,/cool,/Evolving.”26)
The Christianity of her father and the extreme Christianity of her brother use the
language of love hypocritically, to mask the will to power, whereas Earthseed is

24
For the connections between the secularist management of race and the multiculturalist management of religion, see
Race and Secularism in America, especially the Introduction.
25
At one point, Earthseed positions love as immature, change as mature: “Paradise is one’s own place,/One’s own
people,/One’s own world,/Knowing and known,/Perhaps even/Loving and loved./Yet every child/Is cast from paradise
-/Into growth and destruction,/Into solitude and new community,/Into vast, ongoing/Change.” Butler, Parable of the
Talents, 108.
26
Butler, Parable of the Sower, 225.
POST-RACIAL, POST-APOCALYPTIC LOVE 461

about horizontal community, about building relationships that are intimate but also
flexible. For Earthseed, after all, Change is God. Olamina titles herself “Shaper,” one
who shapes Change. Participation in God means participation in Change, an active
rather than a passive task and one that is undertaken collectively, in community.
Christian Americans privilege order and stability, indeed fetishize it. The love they
commend is traditional, heterosexual, and patriarchal. The intimacy among Earth-
seed members is open to the queer, the non-gender-conforming, and the new. Instead
of love charged with the magnetism of polar opposites attracting, once all supposed
oppositions are recognized as illusory love spreads out across multiple differences,
on gradients of intensity.
This flexible intimacy is how the novels’ main love story, between Olamina and
Bankole, a Black man she meets on her journey north, performs love. When the
two meet, Olamina is in her late teens, Bankole is in his 50s, a year older than Ola-
mina’s father. Olamina is traveling dressed as a man.27 Bankole and Olamina travel,
live, and work together: this is the substance of which their love consists. Bankole is
a doctor, and he cares for the physical health of Acorn; Olamina provides for the
community’s spiritual health. Bankole is preoccupied with worldly concerns. He
wants the couple to leave Acorn and move to a safer location. Olamina demurs:
her commitment is to the community. She cannot leave it. (Even Change requires
commitment.) In a very real sense, Earthseed is her seed, her progeny, her deepest
love. Bankole relents, and they stay. He dies as soon as the community is overrun
by Christian Americans. Their relationship had begun with Earthseed. As
Olamina recounts of their first time alone, “Bankole and I were quiet for a while,
a little shy. I sneaked glances at him and caught him sneaking glances at me.
Then, to my own surprise, I began to talk to him about Earthseed – not preaching,
just talking, testing I guess. I needed to see his reaction. Earthseed is the most impor-
tant thing in my life.”28 Their intimacy seems to consist primarily in spooning in bed
when Olamina has had a rough day at the community garden and Bankole has had a
rough day at the community clinic. In short, they are about the most asexual couple
one could imagine, despite the initial furtiveness hinting at the erotic. If her relation-
ship with Bankole is what Olamina considers love, then Earthseed is the definitive
religion of love – love entirely secularized, or secularism’s love and the love of secu-
larism. It is Maria Bello’s modern family of love: a community living and working
together with varying levels of intimacy, in Butler’s fully secularized case hardly
using the word “love” at all.
What Earthseed attempts to demonstrate is love without hypocrisy, the opposite of
the Church of Christian America. What Earthseed in fact demonstrates is the extent to
which neoliberal logic co-opts apparent opponents of neoliberalism. Earthseed’s (and
the novels’) investment in post-racialism – or more precisely in neoliberal multicultur-
alism – makes this all the more evident.29 People of many colors are present, but those

27
Gender and race clearly are present in the world of the Parables, just as facts about nature are present. The point,
however, is that gender and race are fluid, and Earthseed commends an embrace of this fluidity.
28
Butler, Parable of the Sower, 258. Note how, in line with the logic of neoliberalism, the state recedes while non-state
organizations take on the roles once played by the state – organizations including both the Church of Christian America
and, eventually, Earthseed.
29
“Neoliberal multiculturalism” is helpfully developed in Melamed, Represent and Destroy. While its rhetorical pres-
entation is different than post-racialism, both are techniques for muting the power of racial difference: by excluding dis-
cussion of race (post-racialism) or by discussing race in ways that lack political potency (multiculturalism).
462 VINCENT LLOYD

colors are merely decorative. They come with no history, no community, and no moral
vision. They motivate no desire. The wisdom of many religions is present in Earthseed,
distilled from their Scriptures, but these religions come with no history, no community,
no moral vision. Acorn, the concrete community, is founded ex nihilo. Or, more pre-
cisely, it is founded as the progeny of Olamina (her biological child is lost, taken away,
significantly, by the Christian Americans). Or, even more precisely, Earthseed is Ola-
mina’s brand, her way of marketing herself to the world – a world for which only
markets are legible. Olamina is an entrepreneur, and her start-up is her first and great-
est love. (The narrative eventually reveals that she was actually not looking that hard
for her biological daughter.) By the end of the novels, Olamina has given up marketing
Earthseed to the underclass created by rampant neoliberalism. Instead, she has found
the perfect market for her religion among the upper middle class. She taps their finan-
cial support, builds retreat centers, and spreads the word. Earthseed becomes indistin-
guishable from any other New Age movement, except that it is fully bilingual (Spanish
and English representing US ethnic-linguistic diversity) and fully multiracial. At the
same time that Earthseed embraces diversity, it embraces the Self as ultimate authority,
nearly divine (“All prayers are to Self,” etc.30). The world is composed of varied indi-
viduals, with varied desires, fulfilled by corporations and corporate-shaped spiritual
organizations that, like the tech giants of our day, aspire to conquer the heavens –
yet another role once played by the state. It is important to remember that I am
reading the two Parables together. While the novels do begin with many trials and
tribulations, and with the desiccating state impeding the lives of Earthseed participants,
the narrative arc proceeds through the corporate capture of the state and then to the
stabilization of a world where, under a neoliberal regime, both the Church of Christian
America and Earthseed can flourish, both integrated into that neoliberal cultural logic.
One distinctive feature of Butler’s Parables is their depiction of hyperempathy, a
science fictional disorder from which Olamina and several other characters suffer.
It is described as a result of overuse of a concentration enhancement pill during preg-
nancy, that is, a result of worldly pressures to get more done, faster. Sufferers of
hyperempathy, called “sharers,” feel the pleasure of others and the pain of others
that they witness. In the world of the Parables, there is much pain: bandits who
must be kept away by force, the electrocutions of slaves, the afflictions of the
poor and hungry. When others display pain, Olamina feels the pain. (When her
rapist feels pleasure, she feels his pleasure, too.) Butler depicts her messianic prota-
gonist – her capitalist messiah – as particularly capable of receiving affect, and par-
ticularly talented at managing affect. It can be dangerous, in this dangerous world,
to show weakness, so Olamina must learn to control her own body. As Earthseed
commends, she must shape the Self. This often means turning away when there is
suffering in sight. As secularized Christian narrative, perhaps we are to read
Olamina as having a special capacity for fellow-feeling, for empathy, for secularized
love. Olamina not only builds intimacy with her community through their life
together, she also directly feels their feelings. By managing this capacity she is able
to craft her vision for religious community, her vision for Earthseed. Yet this capacity
is caught up from start to finish in the logic of capital.31 Hyperempathy is created

30
Butler, Parable of the Talents, 294.
31
See Hochschild, The Managed Heart; Illouz, Cold Intimacies.
POST-RACIAL, POST-APOCALYPTIC LOVE 463

out of capital’s acceleration of time – that is why Olamina’s mother abused pills. It
teaches those afflicted by the disorder to turn away from pain, which means, in the
case of Olamina, to turn toward community building – but on a model dictated by
the logic of capital. Moreover, hyperempathy mirrors another pathology depicted in
the Parables: the mis-ordering of the emotions found in slaves whose electrified
collars shock them into performing the emotions desired by their owners. Butler
intends to portray Olamina as paradigmatically free and those enslaved by
out-of-control capitalism as paradigmatically unfree, yet both Olamina and the
slaves must carefully manage their bodies and feelings so as to limit their suffering.
Unintentionally, Butler reveals how the alternative “theology” she advances rests on
the same basis as the neoliberalism she opposes.
***

Kali Tal has proposed reading Butler’s Parables as part of a tradition of “Black
militant near-future fiction” along with such texts as Chester Himes’ Plan B and
George Shuyler’s Black No More.32 But in contrast to these literary reactions to anti-
Blackness through imagined Black power, Butler imagines not Black power but mul-
ticulturalism. My argument has been that this multiculturalism is symptomatic of
the culture of late capitalism that Butler purports to oppose but actually participates
in. This is seen by reading Butler’s Parables on the surface, as religious texts, or as
texts using religion for critique – by reading Butler as a political theologian.
Butler identifies certain secularized religious concepts undergirding contemporary
politics (dramatized as the beliefs of the Church of Christian America), and she
poses an alternative set of religious concepts that she suggests ought to undergird
contemporary politics (Earthseed). Parable of the Sower begins with the protago-
nist’s baptism into the Christian church. The Parables offer a better Christianity,
one that can lead to better forms of community, and they dramatize the connection
between fundamentalist Christianity and capitalism. This better Christianity is
based on better love: love that embraces shifting differences and rejects permanent
commitment and stable identity. In other words, it is based on love in the time of
capital. Butler seems to be offering an alternative set of religious concepts to those
she finds problematic, but ultimately that new set of religious concepts bears a
close relationship with the old set. Indeed, the new set of concepts is itself a secular-
ization of the old set of concepts. Just as the old set of concepts is secularized in con-
temporary politics (as Butler demonstrates), the old set of concepts is secularized in
contemporary culture, in the New Age fragments Butler synthesizes in Earthseed. To
move beyond the first stage of political theology, unearthing the continuing political
relevance of religious concepts, to the second stage, proposing alternative religious
concepts, more care must be taken in attending to the contemporary political land-
scape – not just in terms of state actors and politics as reported on the radio but in
terms of the cultural dynamics that are intricately, intimately tied to those politics.
I do not know what would result, but I suspect that it would involve love that
brings with it commitment, permanence, and authority, love that refuses egotism,
neither embracing the self through careful management nor through self-
transcendence but rather allowing the self to be shaped by engagement with the
32
Tal, “‘That Just Kills Me,’65–91.
464 VINCENT LLOYD

world, and by faith. That would be love animating justice. The worry that this con-
clusion raises, and that I will leave as an open question, is whether the broader
streams of womanist thought in which Octavia Butler is often seen as participating
have the resources to embrace such a love animating justice or whether those
broader streams themselves need a course correction in order to turn away from
an uncomfortable affinity with cultural logics that sustain injustice.

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Notes on contributor
Vincent Lloyd is an Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Villa-
nova University.
Correspondence to: Vincent Lloyd. Email: Vincent.lloyd@villanova.edu
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