“A More Realistic View”

Reimagining Sympoietic Practice in Octavia Butler’s Parables

Extrapolation (2020), 61, (1-2), 151–172.


In this essay, I contend hyperempathy syndrome constitutes a kind of new materialism avant la lettre, prefiguring problems we are perhaps only now in a position to address academically. In other words, if both current scientific and philosophical conceptions of life attest that beings are always already co-constituted by their surroundings, we can no longer rely on a model of subjectivity and personhood that presupposes clear, bounded individuation. Before the popularization of affect theory and new materialism, Octavia E. Butler’s hyperempathy—a condition causing possessors to have an embodied response to visual perception of others’ emotions—provides a speculation on the consequences of the felt, interconnectivity of beings that “sympoiesis” characterizes. Against assumptions that interconnectivity necessarily precipitates more ethical modes of being in the world, Butler challenges static claims about shared substance and experience by providing a more complex depiction of what it means to feel as others do. I argue that Butler’s presentation of hyperempathy demonstrates that sharing experience is not a panacea for human and non-human relations but a restaging of the politics of identification and institutional power on another dimension.

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Author details

Stark, Doug