Zoom In: Parable of the Sower

Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower is a powerful science fiction novel that imagines a post-apocalyptic future and the hope for a new home and community, situating this narrative in the context of climate change and environmental degradation. As Rebecca Evans notes below, students tend to respond well to the novel and it rewards use in a variety of classes and critical conversations. The reflections shared by Evans, Moritz Ingwersen, and Davy Knittle below illustrate just a few of the ways that the book can be taught.

Situating Parable of the Sower
By Rebecca Evans

Rebecca Evans is an assistant professor of English at Southwestern University, where she researches and teaches American literature and culture, environmental humanities and environmental justice, and speculative fiction and film. Her scholarship has appeared in forums including American Literature, ASAP/Journal, Science Fiction Studies, Resilience, An Ecotopian Lexicon, and The Cambridge History of Science Fiction. She is the senior liaison of the American Studies Association’s Environmental Justice Caucus, the sustainability officer for ASLE, and a member of the executive committee of the Modern Language Association’s Science and Literature forum.

Parable of the Sower is a deceptively simple book to teach. It requires little introduction or framing in order to engage student interest and comprehension: in my experience teaching Butler’s novel at a range of institutions, undergraduates devour it eagerly. (Indeed, nearly every time I assign Butler’s fiction, I’m peppered with emails from students – some English majors, some not – describing themselves staying up all night to read ahead with an immersive delight they haven’t experienced since younger encounters with YA novels.) This engagement is due in part, of course, to the virtuosity of Butler’s prose and narrative structure. Parable knows exactly how long to linger in its early establishments of Lauren Olamina’s daily life in Robledo, exactly when to introduce and ramp up the mounting tension of the threats that loom just outside the gates, exactly when to launch the precipitating event that pushes Lauren into her northward journey; meanwhile, the diary entry conceit doles the story out in perfectly sized anticipation-generating doses.

Yet another aspect of Parable’s appeal to our students is, I think, that the world Butler foresaw in the 1990s is much more familiar and much less jarring to students today than it may have been to their professors when they first encountered the book. Parable opens a mere two years from the moment in which I write this essay, and Lauren is only slightly younger than traditional undergraduate students. Like Lauren, and unlike many of us even a microgeneration older, our students grew up under the shadow of political, economic, and environmental unrest – the period that Butler’s characters call “The Pox.” As Olamina’s husband Bankole tells us in the sequel, the Pox was caused by a “refusal to deal with” “coinciding climatic, economic, and sociological crises” (Talents 14) and, contra the in-world claim that the Pox has lasted for about fifteen years, “has been a much longer torment”: “It began well before 2015, perhaps even before the turn of the millennium,” Bankole says; “It has not ended” (Talents 13). Today’s college students were born within the temporal range Butler identifies for the Pox, and they share with Lauren a frustration with older generations’ nostalgia for pre-Pox life, their allegiance to a prior moment in which climate change and neoliberal deregulation and privatization run amok had not yet fully unraveled the illusion of (always partial, always violent) American stability. For them, the world has always been apocalyptic; by and large, I find, their goal is neither to return to a prelapsarian state they never experienced firsthand, nor to cling to any available scraps of capitalist comforts, but rather to find new ways to go on living.

Parable of the Sower, in other words, speaks directly to our students in terms of content as well as style and form. But, as I began by suggesting, even if students are eager to read this text and to recognize their own experience in Olamina’s story, I find that teaching this novel effectively actually requires a great deal of careful scaffolding. Like so much of Butler’s work, though Parable often appears effortless and offers a captivating reading experience, it also challenges instructors to guide students through the immense complexity of the many overlapping and interdisciplinary discourses that it engages, reflects, and refracts. For the profound challenge – and the profound pleasure – in teaching Parable, as I see it, is not so much to select the single context most relevant to the immediate pedagogical situation, but rather to help students begin to identify how Butler’s work refuses simple categorization by weaving multiple interventions into a single text.

One way, for instance, in which I have found it particularly effective to situate Parable of the Sower is through a longer history of utopian and dystopian imaginaries. Here, Tom Moylan’s framework of the broad historical arc from classical utopia to classical dystopia (both articulated around the state) to critical utopia (attentive to the fractures and failures of mid-twentieth-century ideals, to processes as well as effects of social transformation, and to the articulation of difference within utopia) and then to critical dystopia (which maintains a “utopian horizon” within a specifically neoliberal dystopian setting emphasizing the erosion rather than the overreach of the state) proves especially helpful. Students tend to be broadly familiar with classical utopias and dystopias from high school courses and popular culture more generally, and Ursula K. Le Guin’s (very) short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” provides an extraordinarily efficient concretization of the critical utopia. Prepared with this foundation, students are able to map Parable of the Sower historically as well as theoretically. This often opens fairly organically into an investigation of the particular neoliberal moment in which Butler’s critical dystopia emerged: situating, for instance, the political figureheads in Parable as uncannily prescient foreshadowings of Trump (a familiar and immediate access point for students) but also as carefully crafted descendants of Reagan, who was (as her journals and interviews indicate) a crucial figure for Butler’s political theory.

This situation of Butler within both literary histories of utopia/dystopia and cultural responses to neoliberalism, though, would be impoverished without attention to environmental thought: for it is against this dystopian/neoliberal backdrop, as Shelley Streeby chronicles in Imagining the Future of Climate Change, that Butler’s representation of climate crisis through the slow violence of deregulation and state inaction comes into relief. And yet, as Kevin Modestino argues in a recent Resilience article, while “[t]here is a tendency in Butler criticism to see the environmental crisis imagined in the Parables as entirely a response to the neoliberal turn of the 1970s and 1980s and its exacerbation of the climate crisis in California,” the novel must also be situated within “longer trajectories of African American environmental experience and thought” to understand in full the complexities and ambivalences of its environmental interventions.

From utopia to neoliberalism to contemporary environmentalism to long histories of Black literary, political, and philosophical engagements with environmental thought – and I could go on! So while the rich diversity and range of the discourses the novel engages means that Parable slots easily into classes on a number of topics, from African American literature to environmental humanities to science fiction, the work of teaching Parable lies not in making the text resonate for students in any one context, but rather in slowing down to guide them through the ways in which Butler brilliantly tracks the intersections and interconnections among these contexts and conversations. Students may (and I speak from experience) gladly read the text overnight, but the novel deserves and will easily fill several weeks. Deceptively simple indeed.

The Life That Perceives Itself Changing: Parable of the Sower and the Transformative Pedagogy of Cyborg Ethics
By Moritz Ingwersen

Moritz Ingwersen is Professor of North American Literature and Future Studies at TU Dresden, Germany, where he coordinates the interdisciplinary research project “Transformative Place-Making for Uncertain Futures” affiliated with the TU Dresden Center for Disruption and Societal Change (TUDiSC).

Picture the environmental humanities classroom as a space of fostering a cyborg ethics, by which I mean the transformative learning experiences that emerge from the recognition of oneself as a site of “transgressed boundaries, potent fusions, and dangerous possibilities” (Haraway 1991, 154). As part of what could be considered a posthumanist pedagogy, I propose anchoring such a teaching moment not in the technocultural (and frequently techno-ableist) imaginary of human-machine hybrids but in an estrangement – or explication – of the aesthetic relations among subjects and their environments. Especially in places where the multi-scalar disruptions of the climate crisis continue to elude immediate, embodied perception and the necessity of a radical transformation of ways of living, knowing, sensing, and acting still remains an abstract, rather than concrete, obligation, the task of self-reflexively recognizing oneself as plugged in to the flows and forces of the material world is crucial. In contrast to a reactionary cyborg politics that calls for a compensation of vulnerability and the reinforcement of the self against environmental contingency through a panoply of shells, exoskeletons, walls, and technological fixes, an ecological cyborg ethics begins by recognizing and normalizing the ways in which human subjectivity is always already plural, ambiguous, relational, leaky, porous, transitional, and environmental. This is the world of Donna Haraway’s “sympoeisis” (2016) and Stacy Alaimo’s “trans-corporeality” (2010). It is also the world of Rob Nixon’s “slow violence” (2011) and Timothy Morton’s “dark ecology” (2016). Environmental consciousness building means distilling ecotopian possibilities from the confrontation with pain, precarity, exposure, structural injustice, and uncertainty.

Against this backdrop, I suggest teaching Octavia Butler’s The Parable of the Sower as essentially a primer for transformative education that fosters “disruptive capacity building” (Wals 2022), “response-ability” (Haraway 2016), and “conscientization” (Freire 1998). If refracted through the lens of a cyborg ethics, the novel offers a compelling literalization of Alaimo’s conception of “exposure as insurgent vulnerability” (Alaimo 2016) in that it translates the embodied experience of world-openness (Lauren Olamina’s hyperempathy) into a program for ecotopian futurity and collective empowerment. Teaching The Parable of the Sower as a mediation on the ecologically inflected cyborg invites a return to the transformative ethics of cybernetics, a conceptual framework originally engaged with the study of circular feedback mechanisms in biological and social systems. Beyond the reductionist trope of human-machine hybrids, the history of cybernetics carries much broader epistemological implications that, I suggest, are exceptionally useful in contextualizing the insights of the environmental humanities and for unfolding the pedagogical potential of Butler’s novel. At the core of The Parable of the Sower we find an articulation of the cybernetic organism par excellence:

We are Earthseed
The life that perceives itself
(Butler 126)

Lauren Olamina advocates for a self-reflexive, collective subject position of radical contingency. “The life that perceives itself / Changing” introduces the idea of an observer who is somatically embedded in the system she observes, a subject in flux whose ongoing transformation and relation to her environment is both object and modifier of perception.

Contained in these three lines from Lauren Olamina’s Earthseed manifesto we can identify the baseline of a reformulation of cybernetics first introduced by Heinz von Förster in the 1970s that has become known as “second-order cybernetics” or “neocybernetics” (see Clarke and Hansen 2009). While first-order cybernetics is concerned with self-regulating systems that respond to environmental forces according to fix rules and unambiguous goals, second-order cybernetics is interested in systems whose parameters of perception and behaviour change with every interaction, i.e., systems that observe themselves changing. Whereas the former “requires that the properties of the observer be left out of any descriptions of [her] observations” the latter proceeds from the premise that “whenever I act, I’m changing myself and the universe as well” (von Förster 293). Discarding the position of an external observer and recognizing oneself as a participant and interdependent actor in a continuum of subject-environment relations is key for self-reflexive and transgressive education for change. Developed in dialogue and resonance with the work of early trailblazers of the environmental humanities, from Gregory Bateson, Humberto Maturana, Francesco Varela, and Michel Serres to Lynn Margulis and Donna Haraway, second-order cybernetics entails an epistemological shift that for von Förster leads to a series of pedagogical appeals that distinctly resonate with Lauren Olamina’s articulation of Earthseed: “The ethical imperative: Act always so as to increase the number of choices;” “The aesthetical imperative: If you desire to see, learn how to act;” and “the therapeutic imperative: If you want to be yourself, Change!” (303). In the absence of an independent reference frame, every action not only changes the world but also the embodied perspective and belief system from which it originates: “All that you touch, / You change. / All that you Change; / Changes you” (Butler 3). What an apt description of ecological embeddedness and the realization that self and environment are not separate but mutually constitutive (also see Evans 2019).

It is perhaps telling that Lauren Olamina’s words “I don’t claim that everything changes in every way, but everything changes in some way” (Butler 218) echo in Haraway’s insistence that “[n]othing is connected to everything, everything is connected to something” (2016, 31). Second-order cybernetics is fundamentally akin to the idea of situated knowledges, of a “knowing self [that] is partial in all its guises, never finished, whole, simply there and original, [but] always constructed and stitched together imperfectly, and therefore able to join with another, to see together without claiming to be another” (Haraway 1991, 193). Following von Förster, the futures thus activated are not a function of teleological mechanisms (the subject of first-order cybernetics) but of the genuine exercise of responsibility and choice in the face of complexity, interdependence, indeterminacy, partiality, disruption, and hope.

Close Reading for Policy and Program Recommendations
By Davy Knittle

Davy Knittle (he/they) is an HMEI/Princeton Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Architecture, Urbanism, and the Environment at Princeton University. His research and teaching interests focus on the environmental humanities, queer and trans studies, and urban studies. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in journals and edited collections including ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, Feminist Formations, and Planning Perspectives.

In Fall 2021, I taught the first semester of a two-course introduction to the English major at The College of New Jersey, a roughly 7,000-student public university in Ewing, New Jersey. The course I taught, “Cultures and Canons,” is designed to introduce English majors to how literary texts manage questions of race and power and how approaches to the teaching of literature have changed over time. Course instructors of “Cultures and Canons” can design the focus of their sections. My sections addressed questions of immigration, migration, and mobility in U.S. literature. We troubled the category of US literature through novels of transnational migration, including Julia Alvarez’s How the García Girls Lost Their Accents and Dinaw Mengestu’s How to Read the Air, and we attended to the depiction of the Great Migration in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. We read poetry by Oglala Lakota poet Layli Long Soldier and Muscogee poet Joy Harjo, both of whose work critiques the United States as settler colonial category. We concluded these conversations with Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower and a discussion of climate migration in the novel, alongside portions of Abrahm Lustgarten’s series of New York Times articles on climate migration.

Because we read Parable of the Sower in an introductory course, I wanted students to practice how to find and analyze literary evidence in the novel. To accomplish this goal, I assigned students to track one of six themes: housing and shelter; food, cooking, and foraging; resource scarcity, climate, and environment; security, surveillance, and protection; religious beliefs and texts, and migration and displacement. Before we began the novel, students selected their theme at random by drawing a slip of paper with a theme written on it from a large mailing envelope. Students spent part of each class on the novel in a group composed of the students who were also tracking their selected theme. On our last day with the novel, I shared with students a few minutes of the episode of the NPR podcast Throughline entitled “Octavia Butler: Visionary Fiction.” This episode draws audio from interviews with Butler, including her description of her novels as cautionary tales. As Butler explains, “These novels are not prophetic. These novels are cautionary tales. These novels are, if we are not careful, you know, if we carry on as we have been, this is what we might wind up with.” Thinking with Parable of the Sower as a cautionary tale, I asked students to develop a set of government policy and program recommendations or mutual aid programs in their tracking groups, using a passage from the novel to address the harm that they novel cautions against as it relates to the theme their group tracked.

Students in the group that tracked housing and shelter revisited the passage in which Jill and Allie Gilchrist describe escaping their alcoholic and abusive father by burning their childhood home (page 255 – these page numbers reference the 2019 Grand Central Publishing edition of the novel). In response to this passage, this group suggested that housing policy needs to consider addiction services and proposals for collective housing.

Students tracking food, cooking, and foraging attended to Zahra’s methods for managing hunger, as well as the practice of making bread out of acorn meal with which Lauren, the novel’s protagonist, had grown up (179-180). Since Lauren focuses on changing the eating cultures in which she participates through education about local edible plants, students proposed place-specific mutual aid education programs on foraging and eating foraged foods.

The resource scarcity, climate, and environment group also focused on an education recommendation. Revisiting a passage in which people migrating north on the highway are drawn to a burning house in the hopes of finding salvageable possessions (227-229), students focused on a recommendation for a fire safety education program (not unlike programs currently run by the California Fire Prevention Organization) that would be accompanied by water conservation programs to encourage residents to think about fire and water as part of a single system.

Students thinking about security, surveillance, and protection had in common with the housing and shelter group a focus on disability services and access to medical care. These students also recommended mobile public housing that would move with climate migrants. This group focused on a passage on pages 263-264 in which Bankole and Lauren describe their former neighborhoods and think about what made those neighborhoods valuable to them.

Students tracking religious beliefs and texts focused on the Earthseed verse on page 214 to consider how religious practice might extend some of the goals of supporting life chances that the other groups discussed. This group struggled with whether the framework of “policy and program recommendations” was relevant to them, but students in several sections who tracked this category had engaging conversations about what they believe the role of the state should be in facilitating community building and emotional resilience, and whether these kinds of goals can or should be the domain of the state.

Students in the migration and displacement group focused on a long passage from page 240 to page 244 in which Lauren and her cohort stop to resupply in Salinas, California. Students in this group focused their recommendations on how to best support climate migrants. They focused on housing and resettlement programs and on education programs that included emergency preparedness and strategies for collective organizing. Students in one class considered a mutual aid program that would train and supply residents at particular risk of climate emergency to assemble emergency packs like the one that Lauren makes.

In addition to the specific recommendations suggested by each group, this exercise led to generative conversations as a class about how speculative literature can inform both individual people’s daily lives and the way that state-sponsored and mutual aid programs facilitate daily life. Our conversation about policy and program recommendations developed from Parable of the Sower allowed students in “Cultures and Canons” to practice finding textual evidence and to apply that evidence to some of the large-scale questions that will shape their adult lives.