MLA CFP Paper Proposal, Octavia Butler

I threw this proposal together in response to a CFP for an MLA panel. It’s for a paper I haven’t yet written, but have been looking for an excuse to write. Feedback would be greatly appreciated! 


Dangerous Visions: Science Fiction’s Countercultures

Special Session

Papers explore Rob Latham’s assertion that “Science fiction has always had a close relationship with countercultural movements,” emphasis on New Wave (1960s/1970s). 300-word abstracts and brief bios. by 10 March 2016; Sean A. Guynes (


This paper situates Octavia Butler’s 1987 novel Dawn, the first in her Xenogenesis trilogy, within a genealogy of countercultural pedagogy, alongside figures like Paulo Freire, bell hooks, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Toni Cade Bambara, and June Jordan. During the late 1960s and throughout the remainder of the twentieth century, these radical artists, authors, and educators sought to address conditions of economic, social, and political inequality. In particular, they imagined pedagogical relationships as ways of threatening the status quo by challenging its differential power relations and neo/liberal politics of endangerment.

Like the works of these thinkers, Butler’s novel is preoccupied with the question of how education can materialize social justice, and catalyze social interruption, rather than reproduction. While the novel takes place miles away from an Earth that has nearly been destroyed, on a spacecraft reminiscent of Atlantic slave ships, it is intimately engaged with political questions of how resources get distributed along racial and gendered axes, and how we might rethink the question of the political through embodied frameworks of pleasure, precarity, and violence. In particular, I focus on the pedagogical relationship between the protagonist, Lilith Iyapo, and the Oankali creature assigned to train her as a new mother of the human race. By analyzing how the novel stages political questions of “being with,” I argue that it can be read as an allegory of queer pedagogy: of learning, in José Muñoz’s words, “to desire differently, to desire more, to desire better.” At a moment in which it seems ever less possible to imagine beyond the confines of neo/liberal racial capitalism, I illustrate how Dawn might help us think about the project of building more just and pleasurable worlds in liminal spaces.


  • I think it looks great! You may want to consider bringing in Samuel R. Delany, as he lies in a similar intersection of race and queer identity. Looking forward to reading the paper!
  • Thanks, Patrick. Delany is one of those people I am *constantly* thinking about, and so sometimes forget to deliberately include. Excited to see how his work ends up informing the project.
  • Erin Glass says:
    love this abstract & am very much looking forward to reading the paper! it’s been a long time since i’ve read the xenogenesis trilogy, but i remember being fascinated by the very uneasy pedagogical relationships depicted. for me, butler’s genius was in her ability to show how pedagogy can never entirely distinguish itself from oppression for uneasy power relationships are relentlessly at play. like “life” in jurassic park, oppression “always finds a way,” or as freire notes, it travels from oppressor to oppressed through internalization and adoption of the oppressor’s worldview. reminds me also of adrienne rich’s line “this is the oppressor’s language / yet I need it to talk to you” in “The Burning of Paper Instead of Children.” what i found so important about xenogenesis is its exploration of the possibility of a movement towards liberation within these extremely discouraging conditions. just some thoughts, and not very well thought out at that! thanks for sharing!
  • Thanks, @eringlass! I’m looking forward to thinking more about how the trilogy theorizes complicity–or maybe it’s messiness, or entanglement–as a condition of more ethical pedagogical relationships. I have “The Burning of Paper Instead of Children” in my dissertation! Talk about a “social paper” (a social poem?) woven together with the words of students. I found the original documents that contained the source material for the poem in her archive, in a document on pedagogy authored by Mina Shaugnessey. That’s some serious collaborative writing.
  • Danica, I’m super-late to the game here (like years late!), but just saw this comment for some reason now, when logging into the Commons. So sorry to have not provided feedback on the proposal, but the paper sounds fascinating. Did it ever get written and, if so, are you willing to share it? [& hi to all … hope you are doing well!]

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