Monday, February 20, 2012

Psychoanalyzing Lilith's Brood

Biologically speaking, an imago is the final stage of metamorphosis in an insect species. Typically, this stage will be the only stage in which the insect is fully sexually mature, and often the only stage in which it will be able to fly (there are, of course, exceptions). The connection between this definition of the word imago and Butler’s text is obvious and I fight the urge to ignore it entirely. I do find it germane, however, that Butler chooses to use this particular term, one that is typically employed only by entomologists, rather than a term associated with other beings that undergo metamorphosis (amphibians, some fish, Cnidarians (jellyfish), etc.). It is incredibly important to remember (as if we could forget) that this novel is more or less a direct response to sociobiology, which as a study was headed and founded by E. O. Wilson, whom as a professional scientist was first and foremost an entomologist. In naming the concluding novel imago, which apart from its use in psychology (see below), is grounded extensively (and, biologically speaking, exclusively) in the field of entomology, Butler is (again) engaging with Wilson’s claims. Making the comparison between human-Oankali constructs and insects should be alarming – they clearly are much more complex and intelligent than any given insect. This then serves as yet another direct criticism of Wilson’s theories. By making this comparison, Butler, as Lewtonian will do explicitly only several years later, is coaxing out the absurdity of Wilson’s comparisons between insect and human behavior. In fact, it may even be that she is almost parodying his work by ascribing insect-like qualities or deriving sociobiological theories from behavioral or analogical resemblance not to humans but to a life form that, throughout the entire work, have been described as somewhat superior in many ways to humans. Butler is not altogether subtle with these comparisons either: “[Aaor] was last across the gulf, holding on with both feet and all four arms. ‘I make a better insect than you do,’ it told Tomás as it reached the rest of us and safety” (Butler, 696).
Although this de-anthropomorphizing can be very telling of Butler’s difficulties with sociobiology, perhaps the definition of imago that allows for more significant unpacking is the use in psychology. An imago (from the Latin noun imāgō: image), as defined by the Oxford Dictionary’s website is “an unconscious idealized mental image of someone, especially a parent, which influences a person’s behavior” ( A decent, but not entirely relevant, example would be our personal ideas of the individual that we are going to vote for when we find ourselves in the voting booth in presidential (or any) elections. We are acting on an idealized image of the candidate, perpetuated, of course, by their own campaign and the treatment and construction of their image within the media, and this idealized image influences our behavior, if only to the extent of button-pushing/lever-pulling. Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary succinctly defines imago as “an idealized mental image of another person or the self” ( While this definition leaves much to be desired in comparison to Oxford’s, it also includes the concept of self-perception, a concept entirely absent from Oxford’s definition, which seems like a pretty big gaffe to me. For my purposes here, I will transplant this omission into Oxford’s definition from Webster’s otherwise pretty scant entry.
It’s not hard to see how this fits well into Butler’s third novel. One of the ooloi construct’s curiosities is their ability to shape-shift, ostensibly the result of incorporating human oncogenetics into the Oankali body. However, both Aaor and Jodahs are entirely helpless to their shape shifting. Their bodies morph constantly in reaction to their surroundings, without conscious direction or admission. Jodahs becomes a literal imago for those around it: its body changes form to approximate what those around it – either people or environment – prefer to see within it. Jodahs reflects upon this curse after appearing as a woman to a Portuguese man: “What would happen to me when I had two or more mates? Would I be like the sky, constantly changing, clouded, clear, clouded, clear?” (Butler, 598). This idealized image is projected as a real image to those whom idealize it. What happens in turn, is a positive feedback loop of perception; basically, those around Jodahs will see, eventually, what they want to see. This most likely contributes greatly to Jodah’s ability to win over the trust of humans much more quickly than regular Oankali or ooloi.
The ooloi construct was ultimately the biological end result of the human/Oankali interaction. We could easily say that Jodahs is actually an idealized image/imago of both self and other, at least from the perspective of an Oankali. Or we could also argue that it is not. For in fact, ooloi such as Nikanj may have had an imago of what a construct ooloi would be like, how it would act, what its powers would be and how it would fit into the social structure. However, we already know that Nikanj was wrong about how easily Jodahs would be able to shape-shift, as Nikanj seemed under the impression that Jodahs would be able to do it at will. So in fact Jodahs is possibly failing to live up to the expectations of the Oankali, failing to match the imago of construct ooloi. The ooloi constructs are also divorced themselves from both humans and Oankali, when the Oankali seemed to think that they would serve as hybrid. This can lead to an explanation of the end: the ooloi constructs obtain their own seed to plant for a ship. This ostensibly means that they are considered a separate species. The Oankali/Huaman relationship seems to have worked out differently than Oankali ‘trades’ with other species in the past. This can be seen in the existence of the Mars colony and in the construct’s own colony. Therefore the relationship between the two species has truly excelled, or fallen short from (depending on what you are asking) its own Imago.
Butler, Octavia E. Lilith’s Brood. New York City: Grand Central Publishing, 1989


  1. Dean-

    There are many solid ideas in this post. You have a good sense of authority over the concepts you get into, which made this enjoyable to read. In terms of what may help if you choose to revise, I would say that if anything you may have too many good ideas happening in one blog. Basically, I think this could use a bit more focus. You go from proposing that Butler is criticizing Wilson's work, to thoughts on the psychology of presidential elections in the US and how it connects to the idealization of Jodahs, to Jodahs perhaps failing the oolio's expectations. These are all interesting ideas, but if you are set on incorporating them all into one paper, I would suggest solidifying the transitions from each thought. You definitely have started to do so here, but with the limitations of these blog posts I don't think you're entirely successful in creating one cohesive paper. In fact, if someone asked me what this blog is about in ten words or less, I'd have some trouble answering. So, if you decide to separate the sections, I personally found the first passage of this blog (Butler vs. Wilson) to be the most interesting and definitely worthy of an entire paper, although it's obviously completely up to you.

  2. The idea of Imago's use of entymology as parody of Wilson is fun and smart, but requires some kind of evidence. I don't think, though, that we should abandon the possibility of less sarcastic engagement with Wilson. Remember the list of imagined characteristics which a society of *intelligent* insects would have? That's a possible point of connection, which emphasizes the fact that you're writing about Wilson here without worrying about the details of his text (Wilson is easier to parody if we summarize him; his details are more problematic, and it's interesting that even Lewontin falls into the trap of mocking things that Wilson *never actually says*).

    Your discussion of Imago-as-psychological term is stronger than the first one, mostly because your engagement with the text is stronger. You're lost in irrelevant meanderings over flawed dictionary definitions, though; this effort would have been better spent thinking about the roles of parents (Nikanj as idealized parent? Lilith as idealized parent?). Jodahs-as-imago-to-others is awesome, but underdeveloped.

    Alison is right that you're trying to do too much here. While all sections are worthy and have potentially, I'd urge you to consider the last true idea, Jodahs as imago to others, as the central one. It's imaginative, precise, and allows you to do a lot of interesting work (and likely to reinvolve some of the other possible definitions).

    A weak intro and conclusion distract us, and emphasize the fact that there are really several different arguments here, not one.