The Oankali, Biopower, and The Cooperative New School

Octavia Butler gives a face to biopower, makes it real in the hideous form of the Oankali. Biopower is a concept created by French philosopher Michel Foucault. It means the power to "make live" as opposed to the power to kill, which existed among the powerful in previous epochs. The Oankali have this power to make live - to use biological technologies intertwined with knowledge to make humans better, to improve our capacities and abilities. But, this exists within a society of control. A society of control which controls the production of life as opposed to a disciplinary society controls through killing and the threat of death. It controls birth, life, genetics, knowledge, and most of all bodies and subjectivity. Thus, like Foucault, Butler's relationship to power is one of profound ambivalence, that though the human species is being improved by this biopower, human beings are still not free. The image of the cyborg is the image of resistance to this biopower in the work of Donna Haraway. The cyborg is the improved human created by biopower and biopolitics, but instead of being ensnared within the net of the Oankali, the cyborg simulates these biopolitics and this biopower independently of the Oankali. Instead of being improved by biopower, or the society of control by others, cyborgs use biopolitics to improve and control ourselves. Haraway calls this simulation of biopower. The eight faculty-owners of The Cooperative New School for Urban Studies and Environmental Justice are the humans trapped on the Oankali ship, a ship that in my view represents Earth. We are just awakening to our own power, fighting and arguing, supporting and loving, we are trying to find our way free, to a place where we simulate independently the biopower of the Oankali. We must use the improvements that biopower provides, but we must move alternatively and in a direction away from the Oankali. We must use to subjectivities and bodies created by biopower, by the Oankali to wrest our own subjectivites and bodies from them. Ultimately, we must teach ourselves, or as Octavia Butler says, we must "learn and run." We are past the destruction of the planet, living in a post-apocalyptic scifi dystopia. We have been reawakened to our potential by biopower, by the Oankali, but we must steadfastly move to our own independent biopolitics. We must become the multitude, the cyborg, and Butler's lost humans who return to Earth to rebuild in the rubble of the capitalocene. Butler's Lilith's Brood trilogy seems to me all to real - a world in which production happens everywhere and every aspect of our being is controlled through manufactured subjectivities. As many revolutionaries have noted and as many activist organizations have struggled with, the path forward is anything but clear - power is so ubiquitous, so all-encompassing. But, I will reiterate what Butler said that resonates with me so powerfully. We must learn and run.