"No.": The Narrative Theorizing of Embodied Agency in Octavia Butler's Kindred

Article excerpt

"He has to leave me enough control of my own life to make living look better to me than killing and dying" (246). This sentence uttered by Dana, the main protagonist of Octavia Butler's novel Kindred (1979), goes to the heart of the text's plot and narrative project. It addresses the central struggle between Dana and her white, slave-holding ancestor, and it explicitly names what is at stake in this conflict: survival itself. More importantly, it identifies what Dana is struggling for, what the complex relationship revolves around, and what she identifies as the sine qua non of life being preferable to death and/or killing. Kindred centers on a young African American woman's attempts to free herself from slavery as she fiercely struggles for agency, for "control of my own life."

A number of scholars have noted the importance of themes like independence and autonomy in Butler's writings, and within the range of Kindred readings there are several which--in their emphasis on such issues as power, subjectivity, racial or gendered oppression, or memory--mention the term "agency" explicitly or touch upon related concepts such as self-efficacy or self-definition. (2) However, no analysis of Kindred has made agency its central analytical tool. I propose that such a reading holds significant interpretive potential for Kindred as it can connect notions of corporeality, power, subjectivity, and resistance and is particularly productive in relation to the multiple jeopardy which Dana faces as a black woman. (3)

A reading of Kindred with this focus provides an in-depth analysis of the way in which the text uses the body as its central trope in narrating the protagonist's struggle for agency, and it is capable of adding significant insights to the large corpus of Kindred readings. Building on existing scholarship, my analysis traces a corporeal narration of agency from the text's fantastic device of time travel, which constitutes the central infringement of Dana's agency, through the crucial power struggle between its two main characters, around which the plot is structured, to the ways in which the text employs the mutilation of bodies as a metaphor for the influence of the past on agency in the present.

My main contention is that Kindred chooses to narrate agency in a number of corporeal ways and thus performs its central concern, the inclusion of the body in any conceptualization of the self, on a textual level:4 The novel constructs the process which first violates Dana's agency as corporeal in and of itself, and it makes the decision to tell the story of Dana's struggle to regain her agency as a struggle to reestablish control over her body. Furthermore, Kindred engages with African American literary traditions of using bodily mutilation to symbolize the destructive influence of a violent past on the present. Thus, a reading of this narrative of agency's intense focus on the body uncovers a specific conception of agency, one not reduced to Enlightenment limitations of agency to free will and the realm of rationality. Kindred insists on the embodiment of agency and subjectivity, choosing to closely reference and to complicate African American literary traditions of narrating and negotiating issues of agency, subjectivity, and the body from a postmodern perspective.

I. Theorizing Agency

This study conceptualizes agency as an individual's capability to reach a decision about him- or herself and implement it. This ability is significantly expressed in agential acts, i.e. acts which address and problematize agency as such. Agential acts are intended to achieve a higher level of agency, explicitly to express, defend, or expand agency, to come to terms with being in the power of somebody or something, and to express a choice between several options, particularly in a situation of oppression or determination. Thus constructed, agency is not simple voluntarism, a vague notion of doing what one wants, but rather an ability realized in a specific cultural and historical context and within a dialectic of enablement and constraint. …