Science Fiction Studies
#105 = Volume 35, Part 2 = July 2008
Graham J. Murphy
Considering Her Ways: In(ter)secting Matriarchal Utopias
One of post/humanism’s key motifs is the transgression of taxonomic boundaries. In Representations of the Post/Human (2002), Elaine Graham argues that advanced technologies “promise to engender a future in which the boundaries between humanity, technology and nature will be ever more malleable” (3) and that a reliance on “definitive notions of human nature” only serves to maintain a conservative humanist valuation that separates “human from non-human, nature from culture, organism from machine” (35). The discourse of species figures prominently in what Graham calls modernity’s ontological hygiene by separating “human” from “non-human,” that is, from “animal.”1 Putting pressure on the term “animal” is productive in theorizing the “human” or “post/human.” Cary Wolfe aptly demonstrates in Animal Rites (2003) that the “animal” carries out complex roles in relation to the “human.” At least since Plato and the Old Testament, Wolfe writes, the “animal” has “always been especially, frightfully nearby, always lying in wait at the very heart of the constitutive disavowals and self-constructing narratives enacted by that fantasy figure called ‘the human’” (6). Elizabeth Grosz concurs: animals “continue to haunt man’s imagination” because they “provide models and formulae by which he comes to represent his own desires, needs and excitements” (278). As the burgeoning field of animal studies repeatedly demonstrates, the long-standing intimacies of “human” and “animal” suggest that any ontological separation between them is fractious, perhaps even illusory, and ultimately serves a humanist conservatism. Our growing acceptance of these intimacies with nonhuman animals, intimacies Wolfe considers “infrahuman ... as part of us, of us” (17; emphasis in original), has prompted Donna J. Haraway to claim that “nothing really convincingly settles the separation of human and animal” (152).
A post/human ontological breach of the taxonomies of “human” and “animal”—an upending of humanism’s discourse of species—may appear seductive and compelling, but anxieties (and resistance) abound. Grosz explains that “the melting” or slow “dripping apart” of corporeal boundaries and categories “that bind a subject to its body” imperil them “in a way that alarms and horrifies, and, at the same time, entices to the highest possible degree” (292). This complex anxiety of alarm and enticement is particularly pronounced with a specific subset of “animal”: the “insect.” Charlotte Sleigh provides a relevant summary of “insect” taxonomic symbolism: “Insects are all wrong. There is a good case for regarding them as zoology’s Other, the definitive organisms of différance. We humans have skeletons; they keep their hard parts on the outside and their squishy bits in the middle. We humans celebrate intelligence as our defining features; they form almost equally complex societies by instinct” (281). “Insect” difference, then, is often used to recapitulate a discourse of species to commonly demonize this specific subset of the “animal” as “vectors for disease and psychosis (not to mention straightforward pestiferousness)” (Brown, “Introduction” x).
Insects need not be imaged solely as creatures of monstrous anxiety and “pestiferousness.” Science fiction provides ways of thinking positively around insect difference: one might look at the beneficial alien gestalt hive mentality of Theodore Sturgeon’s To Marry Medusa (known alternately as The Cosmic Rape, 1958) or Verity’s enabling Apoidean lineage as an insect-cyborg hybrid in Kathleen Ann Goonan’s Queen City Jazz (1994). And yet such positive instances are greatly outnumbered. A quick scan of sf—from print fiction to Hollywood’s largely unimaginative sci-fi—reveals the pervasiveness of the “monstrous” or “pestiferous” insect stereotype: the ants of H.G. Wells’s “Empire of the Ants” (1905) threaten British Imperialism and, along with the ant-like Selenites in The First Men in the Moon (1901), stage Wells’s critique of Empire. An enslaved and wholly mechanized humanity is likened to bees trapped in a beehive in E.M. Forster’s dystopia “The Machine Stops” (1909); humanity engages in an interstellar war against alien bugs in both Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (1959) and Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game (1985), and the nesting patterns of monstrous arthropod aliens threaten a human colony in James Tiptree, Jr.’s “On the Last Afternoon” (1972). The Tessier-Ashpool clan’s inbred perversities in William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) are symbolized by the wasp hive that haunts Case’s dreams; Captain-Doctor Simon Afriel is slowly absorbed into the insectoid Nest of Bruce Sterling’s “Swarm” (1982); insectoid Lambertians threaten the simulated Copies of Greg Egan’s Permutation City (1994). The Borg, ruled by its Queen Bee, is the unadulterated nemesis of Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets; and bug films feature giant ants (Them , Empire of the Ants ), gargantuan praying mantises (Deadly Mantis ), mutant cockroaches (Damnation Alley ; Mimic ), gigantic grasshoppers (Beginning of the End ), the acid-spewing insectoid alien of Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), Seth Brundle’s transformation into Brundlefly in David Cronenburg’s The Fly (1986), or the cockroach-like Bug antagonist of the comic Men in Black (1997).2
The dis-ease that insects breed is particularly evident in (patriarchal) responses to matriarchal utopias. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland (1915), for example, is a utopia where the law-of-the-(straight)-father is an anomaly.3 Gilman’s Herland “was the perfect forum for illustrating Gilman’s idealized vision of a world reformed ... [and] how much better the rest of the world could be if it, too, were free of the gender biases that preclude women from reaching their full potential” (Knight xii). Tellingly, part of this idealized reformation involves re-interpreting the “insect” against the grain of cultural, literary, historical, and media traditions, a (re)reading contra the discourse of species that is echoed in such later utopias as Frank Herbert’s Hellstrom’s Hive (1973), James Tiptree, Jr.’s “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” (1976), and Stephen Baxter’s Coalescent (2004). All four narratives herald a reimagining of “insect”—as post/human, as infrahuman, “part of us, of us” (Wolfe 17; emphasis in original)—that queers heteronormative gender codes and the discourse of species to posit alternative social communities as ways of thinking about the post/human through subjectivity, gender, even species. These four matriarchal utopias ground subjectivity in becoming-insect and involution. They are queer articulations that breach modernity’s taxonomic boundaries and “make possible a future in which society is radically restructured in order to invalidate fixed identities and deconstruct the Cartesian binarisms which automatically value white over black, male over female and straight over gay” (Pearson 157)—as well as speciesist human over animal.
“Ideal” Commonwealths. Male (and some female) travelers typically suffer from the dis-ease wrought by matriarchal utopias. In Herland and “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” three male travelers struggle to understand a (her)land where male and masculine are anachronisms. Gilman’s Terry O. Nicholson, Jeff Margrave, and Vandyck (Van) Jennings “discover” Herland, a country they patrimonially name. It is a utopian civilization that “had had no wars ... no kings, and no priests, and no aristocracies. They were sisters, and as they grew, they grew together—not by competition, but by united action” (61). Gilman critiques the relationship between “patriarchy” and “civilization” from the outset: to Van, Herland “looked like any other country—a civilized one, I mean” (12), and he concludes “this is a civilized country! ... There must be men’”(13; emphasis in original). Jeff admires Herland’s “perfect road” and Terry sneers, “No men, eh?” (20). Even after they are captured Terry believes they will be “hailed as deliverers, I think” (28), clearly betraying his belief that the absence of males is a gender-specific tragedy that still afflicts Herland’s women.
Unlike Gilman’s adventurous explorers, Tiptree’s Dr. Orren Lorimer, Major Norman Davis (Dave), and Captain Bernhard (Bud) Geirr encounter the far-future matriarchy of “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” entirely by accident. Lost in space following the failure of their circumsolar mission, the astronauts are rescued by women aboard the Escondita, the Gloria,and Luna Central. They learn that they are lost in time and have been flung forward to a post-apocalyptic Earth, whose absence of men is not immediately apparent. Men may be extinct, but they are hardly missed: women have successfully adapted and built a queer matriarchy that thrives on reproductive cloning and a social network that completely overhauls gender codes.
In these two stories, the males have differing reactions to their respective matriarchies. In Herland, Jeff appreciates and eventually embraces Herland. Van strives to maintain critical objectivity, but he too converts to a country where “everything was beauty, order, perfect cleanness, and the pleasantest sense of home over it all” (21). Terry, the sexist alpha male, is less adaptable and grows increasingly antagonistic in this parthenogenetic society. He laments the loss of feminine nature and proclaims, “the whole thing’s deuced unnatural.... And an unnatural condition’s sure to have unnatural results” (82).
Dave preaches against matriarchal unnaturalness in “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?,” justifying patriarchal reassertion as his Christian duty because these women are “lost children” who “have forgotten He who made them” (212). Dave sees himself as God the Father’s missionary: “I shall lead Thine erring daughters out of the darkness. I shall be a stern but merciful father to them in Thy name. Help me to teach the children Thy holy law and train them in the fear of Thy righteous wrath. Let the women learn in silence and all subjection; Timothy two eleven. They shall have sons to rule over them and glorify Thy name” (212). Alpha-male Bud shares god-worship fantasies, although his holy father is decidedly bawdy. Facing a cold death in outer space, what Bud really wants to know when he hears his female rescuer’s voice over the comm “is what the chick looks like.... Can I help you into your space suit, miss? Hey, miss, pull that in, psst-psst-psst!” (172). Upon Lorimer’s revelation that all the men are extinct, Bud is less than horrified. The women will “spread out for miles begging for it,” he fantasizes. “Clawing each other for it. All for me, King Buddy” (209). Culinary and sexual delicacies feed his appetite and the unnaturalness of this matriarchal future becomes an aphrodisiac: “King, I’ll be their god.... They’ll make statues of me, my cock a mile high, all over.... His majesty’s sacred balls. They’ll worship it” (209). Dave and Bud succumb to the excesses of patriarchal dominance as they gorge themselves—feeding Dave’s spiritual hunger, and Bud’s sexual appetite—on the heteronormative relics of a dead past. Even despite Lorimer’s attempts to maintain critical objectivity, he is unable ultimately to discard gender codes; like his fellow astronauts, he “cannot take the next radical step and deconstruct his own position, cannot betray his privileged identity, cannot make a new alliance with the hosts” (Moylan 23).
The matriarchal utopias of Herbert’s Hellstrom’s Hive and Baxter’s Coalescent are equally intolerant of heteronormative masculinity. Both novelsfeature parallel narratives that eventually converge around underground queer utopias. In Hellstrom’s Hive, inspired by Walon Green and Ed Spiegel’s pseudo-documentary The Hellstrom Chronicle (1971), Nils Hellstrom’s underground utopia is a refuge from the crisis-laden dystopian surface-world caught in the iron grip of the Agency—the back cover of the Bantam edition establishes the setting as “Police State, U.S.A.” The narrative threads include government investigations and eventual invasion of the underground utopia, Nils Hellstrom’s diary entries, the Council’s recorded minutes, the Manual that governs social interactions, and the public edicts from Trova Hellstrom, the deceased founder and (brood)mother of this utopia. Social roles are not enforced according to heteronormative ideals but according to strict internal regulation that services the needs of the community. In his diary entries, Hellstrom writes of the vats, massive cauldrons responsible for nourishment and bodily disintegration and the source of the “markers that maintain our awareness of mutual identity” (18). Hellstrom believes that “in the perfect society, there is neither emotion nor mercy; precious space cannot be wasted on those who have outlived their usefulness” (56). As troubling as these controls may sound, they are not patriarchal in nature, nor does Nils Hellstrom sit at utopia’s apex: he has inherited the rules necessary for utopia’s survival from (brood)mother Trova Hellstrom, and he is anxious to divest himself of a power that is “a constant mistrust” (71) lest he be tempted to abuse it.
Stephen Baxter’s Coalescent, the first entry in his Destiny’s Children series, is set chiefly in two chronological periods4 and depicts another matriarchal underground utopia. Modern-day Rome is the contemporary setting: George Poole searches for Rosa, a sister he never knew existed, while investigating the secretive Puissant Order of Holy Mary Queen of Virgins. He is aided by the conspiracy-minded Peter McLachlan, a member of the Slan(t)ers, an online organization that trades theories on the origins of the Kuiper anomaly, a strange artifact located in the Kuiper Belt. George’s investigations also lead him and Peter to Lucia, a fifteen year-old girl and member of the Order who is distraught when she begins menstruating, an anomaly for the Order’s women. Lucia is exposed to deeper levels of the Order’s mystery, while simultaneously falling in love with Daniel Stannard, a seventeen-year-old American who does not understand how Lucia can get pregnant and give birth in only three months. Ancient Britain is the parallel temporal setting. A pseudo-bildungsoman follows Regina’s growth from a seven year-old girl to an adult woman. As she lives through the collapse of the Roman Empire in the Third Century, Regina develops independence and realizes that women need to protect themselves from a phallocentric world lest they be continually exploited, victimized, and abused by men. They must construct and sustain an alternative to the patriarchal world, a community that George encounters in the contemporary timeline as the Puissant Order of Holy Mary Queen of Virgins.
As with most utopias, the Order’s underground community, nicknamed the Crypt, is rigidly stratified for its survival. For example, Regina concedes that rationing births “kept the numbers down, and ensured that the blood was not diluted, that the family bonds stayed as tight as possible” (347; emphasis in original). She is also fully aware that space is at a premium, so “only a handful of women were encouraged to have children at any one time.... They should stay childless through the use of contraceptives, or abstinence—or best of all by simply delaying their menarche through the mysterious workings of their bodies” (347). The Order slowly emerges over several centuries as a familial haven for women. After a reunification with her long-absent mother, Regina learns that the Order actively resists patriarchal (religious) authority: the “Virgins were a relic of Rome’s earliest days” and stem from the attendance of Numa Pompilius’s acolytes “to the sacred flame of Vesta, goddess of hearth and fireside” (301). This Order, newly re-organized around the Holy Mother and symbolized by “two fish, like the old Christian symbol, but face to face, mouth to mouth, like sisters sharing a secret” (329), had “found a way to survive” Rome’s decline and Christianity’s ascension, and they “still serve a god, still dedicate the purity of our young to her service. But she is a different god” (301-302).
To ensure the Order’s ongoing viability, Regina is keenly aware that “though no individual human was immortal, there was no reason why the Order should not live forever. But to do that it had to shake off its reliance on people” (331), notably a patriarchal surface world. The Order’s slogans—Sisters matter more than daughters, Listen to your sisters, and Ignorance is Strength—echo those familiar from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949): Big Brother is Watching You, War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, and Ignorance is Strength. Yet the Order is clearly no dystopian Oceania. Their slogans foster the Order’s self-sufficiency, allowing “no leader to fall, no traitor to betray us.... The Order must sustain its own existence. Let no one question. Let no one know more than she needs to perform her tasks. That way, if one fails, another can replace her, and the Order will go on. The Order, emerging from us all, will prevail” (359; emphasis in original). In his tour of the utopian community Regina envisioned centuries earlier, George learns from Rosa that self-sufficiency has been successful: there is “no control center. No bridge on this great underground submarine” (405) and “nobody seemed to be shouting, arguing, barging past anybody else; everybody was busy, but nobody was rushing or stressed out.... And this place, for all its unfamiliarity and surface strangeness, was at heart a deep well of calm” (404; 405).
This matriarchal Order is as unconcerned with filiation and patrilineal descent as Gilman’s, Tiptree’s, and Herbert’s utopias. Although some men do reside in the Crypt as either neuters or homosexuals, they are statistically insignificant (and largely absent from the narrative). Baxter’s matriarchy has little interest in excessive male contact. Men are essential “for making babies” but ultimately “peripheral to the Order, which is built around relationships among females” (477). Not surprisingly, Baxter’s male characters find this matriarchal utopian Crypt deeply unsettling. For example, in the distant past, Ambrosius confesses to Regina that he is discomforted by the low ceilings, dense air, the pheromones, and the “sameness. Everywhere I look I see the same corridors, the chambers, the decorations—even the same faces, it seems.... I feel buried in this pit of yours—turned around, dizzy. It isn’t meant for me!” (338; emphasis in original). Ambrosius is perfectly correct, and Regina responds sharply, “It isn’t meant for you” (338). In the later period, Peter MacLachlan mirrors Ambrosius: he is equally disturbed by this matriarchal community, and even builds a Semtex-H bomb, infiltrates the Crypt, and detonates it, killing himself, and bringing the walls of the Crypt crashing down, although it is clear that the matriarchal Order is far from exterminated.
Peter MacLachlan’s anxiety, even fear, of the Order’s Crypt leads him to demonize it by invoking the pestiferous discourse of species, comparing it to an ant colony. “An ant colony isn’t a dictatorship, or a communist utopia,” he tells George. “It is a family” (472; emphasis in original). Ironically, Regina would have been pleased at Peter’s analogy, since the ant colony is her central inspiration. Regina knows the Crypt’s operating principles and logistics should sustain the Order “just as once the great systems of taxation and spending, of law and class, had sustained the [Roman] Empire itself far beyond the life of any one person” (331). Her reference to the Roman Empire is key: in an earlier conversation with her father, Aetius, Regina likens the Roman Empire to “an anthill [that] organizes itself without anybody telling it what to do. And even when one ant dies another takes her place—even the queen” (89).5 Peter sees the Crypt exactly as intended. This post/human community challenges heteronormative, taxonomic, and speciesist designations of “human” because it links the Roman Empire (human) and anthills (insect) while at the same time it “doesn’t have much to do with traditional human morality” (472). In fact, Peter acknowledges that it “isn’t a human community, George, the way we’ve always understood it. The Order is a hive. A human hive—perhaps the first of its kind” (478; emphasis in original).
Matriarchal utopias likened (chiefly by patriarchal visitors) to hives or anthills or colonies are common to all four of these texts. For Gilman’s Terry, there is an essential “wrongness” about Herland, which he identifies by commenting that “women cannot cooperate—it’s against nature” (68). Jeff replies, “‘Go to the ant, thou sluggard—and learn something.... Don’t they cooperate pretty well? You can’t beat it. This place is just like an enormous anthill—you know an anthill is nothing but a nursery. And how about bees? Don’t they manage to cooperate and love one another?” (68).6 Terry is unwilling to budge: “Life is a struggle,” he argues. “If there is no struggle, there is no life—that’s all.” Jeff once again draws on insects: “Ants don’t raise their myriads by a struggle, do they? Or the bees?” (100). Tiptree’s Lorimer also defaults to an insect analogy. The women remind him of “ants, he thinks. They twiddle their antennae together every time they meet. Where did you go, what did you do? Twiddle-twiddle. How to [sic] you feel? Oh, I feel this, I feel that, blah blah twiddle-twiddle” (193; emphasis in original). The insect analogy is nowhere more evident than in Hellstrom’s Hive, where “what the insects have and what we are copying is a society formed in such a way that its workers toil together to create the illusive Utopia—the perfect society” (70). Janvert, an Agency man, is akin to Peter MacLachlan and a synecdoche of the Agency and Police State, U.S.A.: he is simply unable to process this community as anything other than monstrosity or aberration: “They lived here the way insects lived. How did insects live? They did things no human wanted to do—some things no human could do. They had drones and workers—and a queen and—they ate to live. They ate things that the human stomach would reject if the human consciousness didn’t reject it first” (279-80; emphasis in original).
Hives and anthills are particularly evocative images of utopia. “Beginning perhaps with Virgil’s Georgics,” Eric C. Brown writes, “bees, ants and other social insects have been the poetic models for ideal, organized communities, clockwork colonies of perfect governance and efficiency” (“Insects” 21). They have been models, in fact, “for human colonization, especially in the New World” (“Introduction” xiv) or, in these utopian cases, new worlds. Yet the insect-ification of these utopian commonwealths is steeped in patriarchal anxiety. Stephen R. Kellert’s five motivational factors for the human dislike and fear of arthropods contextualizes this anxiety:
These are the same critiques often leveled against utopias in general: simply substitute utopia for invertebrate. Utopias are founded on different ecological, spatial, and temporal survival strategies that are cognitively Other to “normal” human social codes; a persistent communalism challenges the dominance (and relevance) of liberal humanism’s focus on individual identity and selfhood. Communalism appears monstrous to utopia’s visitors, who typically carry liberal humanist heteronormative codes; and mindlessness and an absence of feeling are common knee-jerk judgments of the utopian social order. Finally, these societies challenge the dominant social order because they exhibit a radical autonomy from the mainstream.
Interestingly, the men all succumb to arthropodal coding, divested of power and reduced to pseudo-drones servicing the needs of the hive (or anthill). In “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?,” the women orchestrate a sexual encounter (one that quickly turns to rape) to secure Bud’s sperm and diversify their genetic bank. In Hellstrom’s Hive, Fancy seduces Peruge, an Agency man, and his eighteen orgasms are harvested to increase and diversify genetic variability. In other words, Peruge is simply a biological mechanism and in the post-coital conversation Fancy shows no fancy for him. She simply enacts the Manual’s teachings on sexuality, where “the act of procreation must occur as simply, as naturally, and as obliviously as eating” and serve “only the demands of survival” (258). Fancy holds no stock in heteronormative codes or romantic idealization, and this infuriates Peruge (moments before he succumbs to Fancy’s poison), because she is not playing the role of woman: “The night with Fancy had distorted his perceptions of many things, including his idea of woman. The uninhibited little cunt” (188). Similarly, the men in Coalescent who visit the Crypt are “just sperm machines” (477; emphasis in original). Even in Herland, the males are tolerated solely to “re-establish a bi-sexual state for our people,” and women are instructed to “catch [men] if possible; tame and train them if necessary” (88). The males’ social function within the broader hive matriarchy is resoundingly non-patriarchal and resolutely queer in its complete overhaul of the power that typically accompanies masculinist gender coding. Willingly or not, they all eventually serve the matriarchal hive.
Swarms and Becoming-Insect. These matriarchal insect utopias thus challenge ontological and taxonomic boundaries and coalesce to become sites of radical becomings. Deleuze and Guattari explain becoming in A Thousand Plateaus (1987) as “a kind of order or apparent progression ... [S]tarting from the forms one has, the subject one is, the organs one has, or the functions one fulfills, becoming is to extract particles between which one establishes the relations of movement and rest, speed and slowness that are closest to what one is becoming, and through which one becomes” (272). Becoming is then the
The men in these stories are typically unable to accept becoming-insect with its multiplicities, metamorphoses, and alternative figurations of “woman” that redefine (and ultimately discard) modernity’s heteronormative and phallocentric codes. “The central presence of a female, ant-queen-like figure,” Charlotte Sleigh writes, “reveals how the mechanization or antification of society was viewed as a process of feminization. Correlatively, the all-female ant society was seen as the image of everything that Western males feared about modernity” (292-93). Synonymous with rewriting gender codes, utopia’s becoming-insect also violates Western modernity’s ontological and taxonomic separation of the “animal”—and notably that Other of animal studies, the “insect” —and the “human,” a loosening of the discourse of species in conjunction with upending heteronormative and phallocentric cultural identities and practices. Becoming-insect in these utopias articulates multiplicities and taxonomic hybridities that liberate “their imagery from conventional female figuration.... Put simply, we can imagine seeing the world from a perspective unknown to us, and not a single perspective ‘so much as a collection or swarm’” (Johnson 147).
Becoming-insect is an intriguing intersection for utopian configurations, notably non-heteronormative subjectivities, because of the insect’s multiplicity and indeterminancy, a life cycle that “continually affirm(s) the possibilities of radical difference” (Shaviro 48). The perceived monstrosity of Hellstrom’s hive, for example, challenges everything the Agency has come to identify as “human,” perhaps not surprisingly, since “monstrosity indicates the end of clear delineations, a chaotic mixing and miscegenation of categories that in the process of confusion indicates that their ordering is far from inevitable” (Graham 54). Nils Hellstrom, however, clearly articulates the post/human possibilities of becoming-insect: the hive is “a cocoon from which a new human will emerge” because “the insect is born with the ability to actually improve upon his body. When the insect reaches the limits of its capability, he miraculously transforms into an entirely new being” (113). As the Hive Manual makes clear, “we are for the first time in the long history of life on this planet, designing our own future” (Herbert 289). These designs include the genetic manipulation and artificial insemination familiar to post/humanism and methods of participatory evolution that facilitate the multiplicities of becoming-insect, a new utopian subjectivity also echoed in Gilman, Tiptree, and Baxter.
The patriarchal resistance to becoming-insect subjectivities hailing from hive matriarchies is comparable to the dynamic of molar and molecular identities. Molar identities are “fixed in being, able to be grasped as a whole, recognized within the current social formation” and molecular identities are “always in flux, they are made up of capacities and tendencies, and they offer the possibility for transforming identity and society precisely because they refuse to follow fixed channels” (Vint 287). Hives embody the productive and constitutive tension between molarity and molecularity:7 as Cristopher Hollingsworth observes in Poetics of the Hive, the hive is a “structure that courts antithesis, but it is also a process—one that tends toward its own resolution, namely, the incorporation of the individual into the whole [read: molar].... [Yet] by its very nature the Hive cannot be entirely subject to its container’s purposes [read: molecular]” (11). Both Gilman’s and Tiptree’s matriarchies allude to this molar-molecular dynamic; parthenogenetic or cloned women willingly service their matriarchal hives but are not subsumed to the level of automatons or drones, as is common in the “bug” imagery that predominates popular culture.
Hellstrom’s Hive explicitly stages the molar-molecular dynamic in swarming, although swarming is at first a concern because “the Hive will begin to feel swarming pressures when it passes a population of sixty thousand [and] without some protections ... we cannot permit such a swarming to occur” (Herbert 59). The reasons for preventing a molar-like swarm are quite practical—Police State, USA. poses a dangerous threat: “For all of the ingenuity provided us by our specialist, we are helpless before the combined might of the Outside, whose killing machines would crush us” (59). At the end of the novel, amidst a shaky truce, the Agency is counseled that it should mount “a massive research program aimed at the destruction of what is coming to be called in official circles ‘the Hellstrom horror’” (312). Yet, this offensive may be futile, for “they were going to swarm before long and there was nothing the Outsiders could do to prevent that swarming. Swarm would follow swarm thereafter and the wild ones would be assimilated and pushed back into smaller and smaller portions of the planet they shared now with tomorrow’s humans” (311).
Coalescent also explicitly stages a molar-molecular dynamic of swarming. Peter describes the Order’s hive as one “based on what biologists call ‘eusociality’ — eu like in utopia, meaning ‘perfect’” (Baxter 472). Emergence is the engine of eusociality that arises “from simple rules, applied at a low level [read: molecular] ... with feedback to amplify the effects ... large scale structures can emerge [read: molar]. It’s called self-organized criticality” (468).8 George recognizes the molecularity of eusocial swarming all around him: he sees cars maneuvering crowded streets as drivers “go for it: they swarm ... a mass of individuals relying on the unwritten rules of the mob to get them through” (3). Dismissed schoolchildren “erupt into the piazza” and effectively “swarm; there’s really no other word for it” (3-4). In the “swarming crowds, the thoughtless order of the mob, the cold grasp of ancient families ... [he] see[s] visions of the Coalescents everywhere [he] look[s]” (4). Finally, he realizes that he works for a “smallish software development company called Hyf — a bit of Anglo-Saxon that is apparently the root of hive, for we were all supposed to be busy busy bees” (41; emphasis in original).
Eusociality and swarming are then expressions of the molar-molecular dynamic. Molecularity seeks to break molarity’s dominance and establish new hives, unpredictable hives, alternate multiplicities, new becomings. Becoming-insect swarming in Herbert and Baxter expresses the hive’s involution that is common to all four utopias: becoming, in its multiplicity, “is always of a different order than filiation.... Becoming is involutionary, involution is creative” (Deleuze and Guattari 238). Feedback amplification on the molecular level births molar structures while, conversely, out of those molar structures comes molecular swarming, a creative involution, the multiplicities of new hives, new subjectivities.
As utopian thought-experiments, however, none of the becoming-insect utopian hives are offered as ultimate solutions to heteronormative socio-politico-cultural complications. Utopia’s origins in “eu” (good) + “topos” (place) and “ou” (no) + “topos” (place) make it clear: utopias are not blueprints intended to be literalized or applied in some top-down, molar fashion.9 These utopias do undergo transition and development as they negotiate internal and external pressures and tensions. They render social alternatives as dynamic spaces that highlight “the connections between the textual and the social, the private and the public, the personal and political that the utopias could facilitate” (Moylan 82). Similarly, as a principle of proximity and not emulation, becomings-insect are “basically of another power, since their reality resides not in an [insect] one imitates or to which one corresponds but in themselves, in that which suddenly sweeps us up and makes us become—a proximity, an indiscernibility that extracts a shared element from the animal” (Deleuze and Guattari 279; emphasis in original). Becoming-insect’s radical alterity is not about literally becoming an insect, nor are the utopian hives of Gilman, Tiptree, Herbert, and Baxter blueprints to be architecturally emulated. Rather, becoming-insect and hive matriarchies are thought-experiments in eusociality and emergence, molecular subjectivities and social formations based on proximities, and social multiplicities that embody the social dreaming that is utopianism. These utopian hives (hope to) foster a comparative analysis between fictional spaces and real-world places because the utopia en masse still has its “place in furthering the process of ideological critique, consciousness-raising, and social dreaming/planning that necessarily informs the practice of those who are politically committed to producing a social reality better than, and beyond, the one that currently oppresses and destroys humanity and nature” (Moylan 82). The strength of these becoming-insect utopias is their shared proximity with the real world, not their verisimilitude.
The radical alterities of becoming-insect in the utopian hives of Herland, “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?,” Hellstrom’s Hive, and Coalescent contest taxonomic norms and species boundaries: human and animal, male and female, straight and queer, Self and Other: all coalesce. Becoming-insect can shift the pestiferous Other from a “signifier of fear and revulsion to one that registers a positive, preferred, collective hope for a better future, one not attainable by a society of lonely singletons” (Moylan 19). I see these authors as daring to dream the impossible through utopia to articulate a socio-politico-cultural hope of different (but certainly not unproblematic) gender configurations, new forms of becoming that revision the “embodied subject [as] a term in a process of intersecting forces (affects) and spatiotemporal variables (connections)” (Braidotti 114). As imaginative and politically oriented thought-experiments, they encourage the reader to become and contemplate, even foster, (eu)sociality, perhaps even to swarm taxonomic boundaries. Just maybe, in the convergence of thought-experiments, real-world inspiration, self-organized criticality, and ontological and species violation, new emergences and gender involution can coalesce and (re)configure the near-future in(ter)sections of the post/human subject to reveal “‘us’ to be very different creatures from who we thought ‘we’ were” (Wolfe 17).
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