Friday, January 28, 2011

Alienation and Revolution

Although written in quite different manners and time periods, Octavia Butler and Herbert Marcuse both use their novels as social critiques of contemporary society in the United States. While Marcuse pinpoints the stagnancy in the social atmosphere very forwardly, Butler does the same in her use of a fictional society through the means of her character Lauren. And despite slight differences in definition of this mechanism of social change, Butler and Marcuse both speak of alienation of the revolutionist as a means by which to achieve some sort of solution. It is perhaps due to the simple fact that Parable of the Sower was written more recently that makes Butler’s form of alienation seem more realistic, but it is all the same remarkable that two authors separated by this time gap have offered up such strikingly similar resolutions.

Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man does not by any means present its roots of reform solely on the foundation of alienation of the self (for he speaks namely of the artist), but he uses the disappearance of this once highly separated figure of society to demonstrate the very last stages of assimilation to a “greater good” and the first step that must be taken in order to achieve freedom. The key difference in Marcuse’s view of alienation is that, while a person capable of extracting themselves from the system could potentially cause a disturbance, this is no longer possible because what once rendered them capable of making such criticisms has been stripped of its “subversive force” (Marcuse 61). All works of art once served to demonstrate some truth or fundamental flaw of the society and it was this status as “artist” this solitude that “sustained the individual against and beyond his society” (71). The alienated are a dying breed whose means of separation (their art) have been quantified, simply integrated into the system and thereby no longer serving to “disturb the order of business” (61). In Marcuse’s view of contemporary, technological society one must become alienated to be free but one cannot be alienated because the means by which one may become so are simply a form of sustenance for the system they once worked against.

In Butler’s world, the faith in the capability of the alienated to save society is decidedly more optimistic, primarily because the alienated do exist. It is quite obvious that Lauren retains a strikingly different philosophy than the rest of her community, and perhaps the population at large; rather than being content with the false sense of security rewarded by a makeshift wall, she sees beyond the boundaries of Robledo and what is considered “rational” in her time. But what is important is not that Lauren feels estranged, for there are many characters in the novel that question and doubt the ultimate success of current methods, but rather that she is physically and biologically different. If Lauren can be compared to the artist in Marcuse’s analogy, her hyper-empathy syndrome is the form of art that allows her to pit herself against her society and become the revolutionist that is so desperately needed. While Marcuse may feel the decline of modern society is largely due to technological developments, it seems that Butler places the blame more heavily on greed (in various forms). As art is constantly seeking to become more unique it is of course susceptible to the draws of technology and, therefore, the assimilative “greater good” of modern society. The fact that I have referred to “art” rather than “the artist” is in itself indicative of the fact that art is now simply a commercial product spit out by the system. Because of the nature of Lauren’s condition, she is biologically obligated not to fall prey to the greed that has swallowed her society, which she states after Keith’s death in contemplating, “if hyperempathy syndrome were a more common complain, people couldn’t do such things” as kill for money or supplies (Butler 105).

While a little far-fetched in its exact mechanics, I feel that Butler’s view on alienation is most applicable in the society of 2011. Granted, Butler has the benefit of writing within a more recent time period and Marcuse the highly imaginative and science-fiction directed world of the 1960s working against him, I find his argument of complete disappearance of alienation to be even more unbelievable than Butler’s fictionalized world. Marcuse speaks of a completely assimilated technologically advanced society in which even race is no longer a factor of separation, a society which I feel is unachievable. As long as the human eye is capable of differentiating color and the human mind capable of persuasion and bias (even if it is by a government driven media), race will inevitably be a condition by which society is separated and by which people are extracted from a completely united front. Butler’s novel not only mentions discrimination based on skin color but also by sharers and non-sharers and as long as discriminating and dissimilating factors exist, I believe that people will always be capable of forming subcultures which are equally capable (even in small numbers) of criticizing and fighting against greater societal views.


  1. I liked this a lot. I'm not crazy about the ending, but there are two things that stand out.

    1) You really get Marcuse.
    2) Even better, you ably connect Butler to Marcuse - analyzing Lauren in terms of alien was well conceived and well executed.

    The shift to the role of alienation in our world was a little awkward. To an extent, maybe you didn't have time and space, and that's fine - but if you were going to develop this farther, I'd want to see you say why you have your views on contemporary alienation. The shift to race was even more awkward - I'm not saying that you don't have some productive to say, but that it was hurried, underdeveloped, and overgeneralized.

    Example of why I think that: racial categories are very fluid and ever-shifting, especially in America. Because "race" isn't particularly stable, you need to be a more careful (more detailed?) about asserting its universality, which you do to an extent.


  2. I think you have a very well-written piece here. I really like how you chose alienation as a comparison between Butler and Marcuse. I found Marcuse's argument of alienation through art and literature very interesting when I read that section.

    However, the last paragraph seems awkward for some reason. I don't really understand how you went from alienation to race.

    Also, I understand how you believe that Butler may be more relevant to today's society, but I think Marcuse could be applied as well. Art and literature does not seem to have the same amount of power that it once did since it has become a business and focused on money. Yes, the alienation did not completely disappear, but it did decrease a lot. So, I am curious as to other reasons that you have on why Butler is more relevant.