Dune’s Not a White Savior Narrative. But It’s Complicated.
Do you think Dune is a white savior narrative*? Well, you’re wrong.
To accept that interpretation is to re-inscribe an account of the novel promulgated by adolescent white boys since the first of Frank Herbert’s Dune books came out in the 1960s.
* [For an explanation of how I define a white savior narrative, see “Coda III: Defining the Savior Narrative & the Problem of Fremen Agency.”]
The Authorial Intent to Critique the Savior
In a 1969 interview, Herbert directly situated Dune as a critique of T.E. Lawrence and other instances of “western exploitation” of “the avatar power”:
We’ve [“western man”] set out our missionaries to do our dirty work for us, and then come along behind them with the certain belief that we are right in anything that we do, because God has told us so — God and the person of the avatar.
Here, Herbert was not responding to later critiques of the novel(s). He was talking about the book only a few years after its release, when public opinion had yet to take full form. He was in fact responding to the famed science fiction editor John Campbell (a proponent of the hero’s journey in Golden Age SF). The context of this portion of the interview is Herbert’s suggestion that Campbell rejected the sequel to Dune, Dune Messiah, because Campbell held to a “western” notion of the myth of individual triumph, as opposed to stories of broader social, collective movements.
Herbert’s comments — and, as I’ll show below, their bearing out in the text of Dune as well as its sequels — suggest many readers of Dune (and perhaps not its sequels, although these elements are in the first book, too) misread it, perhaps not realizing how intertextual and meta Herbert considered it (intentionally, he said, it’s “high camp,” a send-up of the hero’s journey). I recall enjoying the sequel more than Dune itself, in part because it was tighter and more thrilling — but also because it was darker, recasting Dune in a new light (although not one divorced from what was suggested in the first book).
Here are some choice quotes from the interview:
The Critique of the Savior within the Text
Herbert’s statements bear out in a reading of the text.
“Mahdi” is not an indigenous Fremen term but one the Bene Gesserit (BG) installed in order to manipulate the Fremen and Arrakis. Their objective is literally called the “missionaria protectiva.” Moreover, the “jihad” in the novels is not “purely” indigenous to the Fremen but also a reference to the BG/Harkonnen imperialist bloodline — it’s (arguably white, or at very least western) imperialism.
An Aside on “Jihad”:
Many have noted the recent trailer for the 2020 Dune film swapped “crusade” for “jihad.” I recall “crusade” (or language alluding to Christian missionary violence) being in the books, in addition to the more prominent use of jihad. I think the reason for the switch in the trailer is that “jihad” would be confusing to a modern audience. But I’m really hoping that they stick with “jihad” in the film, because that confusion, in my view, can be productive and interesting. The use of this word in the novels has aged well, as I see it, and becomes more subversive when read today, as I understand it.
What many readers (including myself when I first read it as a teen) lose sight of is that the jihad which Paul fears in Dune is the jihad of imperialism (and not exactly the subaltern, although tied to co-option of the subaltern) — a war spurred by the “race memory/consciousness” of the [spoiler!] Harkonnen bloodline in Paul and Alia, and to the Bene Gesserit’s “missionaria protectiva” (basically a Christian missionary project to plant the mahdi myth among Fremen in order indirectly control Arrakis). So jihad in Dune is (a particular form of) Christian missionary imperialism, exploitation, and appropriation, as I understand it. Which reads, to me at least, as wildly subversive for today’s popular discourse.
I should also add that I say this, with great personal investment, as an author whose book (Technologies of the Self: https://www.brainmillpress.com/books/technologies-of-the-self/) is narrated by a protagonist named “Jihad” with the specific authorial purpose (among others) of disturbing (white liberal/brown skins-white masks) audiences.
In conclusion, if they don’t use “jihad” and other Islamic and MENA references in the film I will go Jacurutu on their asses.
… And Back to the Critique of the Savior within the Text:
In Dune Messiah, Paul sees himself as an imperial tyrant, and so do many of the Fremen. He even describes himself as an exponentially worse version of Genghis Khan or Hitler.
It’s true that because the series is centrally about imperialist manipulation of indigenous resistance, Fremen agency thus appears downplayed, especially due to narrative focus on the Atreides and BG. I mostly agree here — but even then, I read the focus on leaders as critical, not hagiographical. It’s notable that, as mentioned above, Herbert saw the series as about communities, not individuals. He believes that it’s not that “power corrupts absolutely” but rather it “attracts the corruptible”: Jesus, Muhammad, American presidents, no matter how “pure,” were also bound by larger power structures, their legacies and goals disconnected from or co-opted by fragmented communities. In this way he plays pretty explicitly on shi’ism, among many other elements of Christian and Jewish histories.
Herbert’s focus on structure versus agency in history (he considered becoming a historian) and on the manipulation of the Fremen make them seem agency-less, but what makes the text of the story so interesting is how hard it is for imperialists to maintain power. There are always resistances or unexpected consequences from the environment or the Fremen, or other imperialists. (It’s well known that, as quoted elsewhere in this essay, Dune is about ecology as the “science of understanding consequences” and about the consequences of violence.)
I think there’s room to say Herbert is perhaps too sympathetic to Paul and his other so-called saviors, in that they understand they (and especially Paul more than the BG) are succumbing to a power structure/the jihad and (for Paul at least) want to avoid it but can’t. Herbert’s idea of power as “attracting the corruptible” can be read as an apologia for good-hearted leaders overtaken by the mob (although it’s way more complicated, and Paul can be read as motivated more by vengeance than saving; see below sections). So there is a problematic thread here. But it’s not exactly that Paul is a white savior.
NOTE: I’ve added a section below this essay on how I define a white savior narrative and the problem of Fremen agency, “Coda III: Defining the Savior Narrative & the Problem of Fremen Agency.”
Fremen and Resource Scarcity: “Noble Savages,” the “Tragedy of the Commons”
Critics also say the Fremen are portrayed as romanticized and/or primitive barbarians, typical orientalist fare. In my view, this is partly true. But it’s also a lot more complicated. It’s telling that Herbert said he identified most with Stilgar — the major Fremen protagonist (after Chani, who’s mixed).
In an interview with David Lynch about the film, Herbert detailed his proposal for restructuring American democracy to make it more “grassroots,” connected to local communities (dashes of libertarianism there, which might earn some pause). In that discussion, the interviewer refers to Fremen as “primitive.” Herbert interrupts to call them “quite sophisticated.” He then lays out how his local American governance would allow even “some damn housewife,” as a bureaucrat skeptically told Herbert in response to Herbert’s proposal, to work through complex policy decisions that those in power (like that bureaucrat) would think her unable to understand.
Here are quotes from the interview:
The interview’s transcript: http://w.jacurutu.com/viewtopic.php?f=21&t=1043&start=100 , and audio: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lq1x6vYGASY
An Aside on Imperialism and Foreign Policy in that Lynch/Herbert Interview:
I want to pause and highlight, in that interview, Herbert’s comments on imperial and military power vis a vis the messiah complex:
I think this is why great power centers such as the Kremlin, the Pentagon, Quai d’Orsay, Sandhurst become essentially cesspools really, because they get so many people there who want power for the sake of power, and it’s my estimation of it that a high percentage of these people are certifiable. You get real nuts. This is why you get people for example going to Guyana and drinking Kool-Aid because the errors of the leader are amplified by the number who follow without question. That was the beginning. I wanted to do a messiah story that explored this.
HERBERT: As a member of the collegium of the World Without War Council I have bowed out of active participation, although not out of belief in that kind of work. I think that we can’t address this problem of war unless we address our own bureaucratic tendencies. Our tendencies to create a structure, such as the World Without War Council, which then becomes much more interested in maintaining its own form, its own identity, the ongoing need for its services, rather than to create an organization of form which puts itself out of business.
INTERVIEWER: How does this dedication to peace manifest itself in your writing?
HERBERT: Showing people some alternatives. Showing them the consequences of violence. Displaying alternative forms. Showing them how the old patterns repeat themselves.
On this point, I recall, in one of the first scenes upon the Atreides’s arrival on Arrakis, a jab at Leto’s propaganda techniques aimed at mollifying the Fremen. Peak Cold War stuff, like American use of propaganda and media to control and persuade people in decolonized or decolonizing “developing nations” amidst the US-Soviet ideological, political, economic, and military competition.
Indeed, there’s a lot to be said about Herbert’s Global Cold War context: his approach to empire, bureaucracy versus grassroots, the idea of “rule of law,” structuralism versus agency, economics/stockpiling/resource scarcity/20th c commons (see below), legal anthropology, and the idea of history itself.
…And Back to the Fremen: Noble Savages and Commons:
It’s notable that the Fremen descend from Zensunnis, people of an esteemed faith, many of whom were scholars and poets in the Dune universe. They were persecuted by imperialism and slavery in the past, including by the BG — which is how they got to Arrakis.
In the novels, the Fremen develop many technologies and social practices to adapt to Arrakis: stillsuits, ecological projects, uses of Little Makers and sandtrout. The language around these projects in the text of Dune is, as I read it, an explicit rejection of the ideology surrounding Garrett Hardin’s “tragedy of the commons” or the Club of Rome’s The Limits to Growth. See especially Stilgar’s dialogue in the dinner scene in “Book 1” of Dune, but one might argue the Fremen are thinking along these lines in other parts of the book and especially in the sequels. Herbert might not have been thinking of Hardin/Club of Rome specifically, particularly given Hardin’s classic essay and the Club of Rome’s report came out after he published Dune; but those ideas reflected an ideology that was endemic to the midcentury Cold War moment, especially in the United States, although it also has a longer history, most sharply in Anglo-American, European, or “western” law, politics, and economics of the early modern period and perhaps before.
Hardin said the solution to the problem of global resource scarcity was either total privatization (parceling out of resources) or total state management (administrative regulation). But in practice his solution was eugenics — he might be thought of as the “OG” Thanos. He saw the “masses” in India, for instance, and argued that Americans and Europeans should not provide aid to the “developing world” because this would lead to overpopulation and “free riders.” (A good critique of Hardin by Surabhi Ranganathan here, but there’re are a lot out there: https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/Global-Commons-Ranganathan/609bc88be33ba1f7fea0ba5ad4d2da595a522a37).
In Dune (especially that dinner scene with Stilgar’s dialogue, but again elsewhere in the book and series), the text of the story exhibits an extreme distaste for this Hardinian brand of dismissal of the masses in the face of so-called resource scarcity. The scarcity of resources, the text suggests, is labile, not fixed and easily controllable — and the masses, the collective, ought not be dismissed when one considers how to manage resources and societies that live with and among those resources.
In Dune, imperialists think resources are scarce or fixed, only controllable with law or politics, not technology or social practice. The Fremen insist they aren’t: They disagree with the Hardinian assertion that there are only political, not technological, solutions to the commons.
It’s true that Liet-Kynes, the imperial judge and ecologist, introduced some of the terraforming ecological projects in Dune. But the Fremen have their own ecological practices. And in the sequels, the Fremen and others come to reject Kynes/Paul’s ecological modernization project.
It’s telling that, in the first 1969 interview above, where Herbert critiques “western man’s” arrogance in thinking he can control nature and people, that Herbert calls Kynes the prototypical “western man in my original construction of the book, sees all these things happening to him as mechanical things.”
It’s also telling here that Herbert dedicates Dune as follows:
To the people whose labors go beyond ideas into the realm of ‘real materials’- to the dry-land ecologists, wherever they may be, in whatever time they work, this effort at prediction is dedicated in humility and admiration.
The Dialectics of Moral and Ethical Law
There’s a possibility of a deeper orientalism where Herbert distinguishes between “moral versus ethical law” or “law versus religion.” These are stilted terms and laden with orientalist connotations. But there’s more to mine here. Basically what Herbert means to do is consider law that’s a direct response to the necessity of social or environmental conditions of “survival” (or to religious or mystical elements not reducible to rational terms), versus law that requires some more abstract level of rational thinking.
I think of this in terms of the distinction some Islamic scholars make between taqlid (“unthinking imitation”) and ijtihad (“pure/independent reasoning”)— although I know that, in Islamic thought, my rough translations are arguably orientalist (lots of academic work on this; see, e.g., http://marcmanley.com/media/pdfs/Jackson%20-%20Legal%20Scaffolding.pdf), and that this can be a false binary, the relationship being more porous or dialectical — which is precisely the complex relationship in the Dune series between what Herbert calls moral versus ethical law.
The best example of the morality/ethics relationship in the text of Dune is Paul’s decision at end of the novel to reject the Fremen moral law of killing a tribe leader to succeed him; he refuses to kill Stilgar (the current leader) in order to succeed him, and instead advocates for reform of the Fremen system — ethics over morals. What’s interesting is that in Dune Messiah, Paul becomes disillusioned with what one might call his modernization project to reform the Fremen in this way (through ethical law, reason), while Stilgar, the Fremen, becomes more obsessed with ethical law, enacting bureaucratic orders that’ve lost their moral value, caught up in abstractions and disconnected rational thinking. And Dune Messiah ends where Paul accepts a moral law: Instead of choosing to live as a blind man among his people, he chooses to walk off into the desert (following the Fremen custom that blind men must dispose of themselves in this way). I’m not going to justify the ableism here. But the interesting point is the dialectical, complex back and forth between moral and ethical law. It’s not a simple, orientalist binary as I read the text, although there are tinges of it.
In light of these themes, one might restate Dune’s central question as an exploration of the “gate of ijtihad” (whose closure, continually opened state, or nonexistence/oversimplification has been the subject of much orientalist declensionism and postcolonial critique in studies of Islamic thought) as, really, a multidimensional dialectical atemporal portal. It’s very complicated, interwoven, shifting. As it was in history.
(FYI: The ijtihad/taqlid reading is my bespoke filter for understanding the morals/ethics dialectic in my head. I don’t think Herbert was directly thinking of this, although maybe he was, given his close knowledge of Islamic thought. For example, in other contexts, he seems to reference Islamic theological critiques of natural law; just look up “bi-la kaifa” and CTRL-F “time,” “natural law,” or “future” in Dune Messiah. Regardless, I merely want to clarify that the ijtihad/taqlid references here are mainly for my own ease of self-explanation than as a reading from the text or of the intent of the author.).
I read Herbert’s approach to morals/ethics as very much in line with Hannah Arendt’s lament throughout her work (among many others’, especially among postcolonial scholars; I’m thinking specifically of Cheikh Hamidou Kane’s Ambiguous Adventure, but there is a lot to cite on this) of the rise of unchecked rationality and the loss of a sense of morality under the political and colonial conditions of modernity.
It’s also interesting that Herbert described the morals/ethics tension as not only an overarching theme of the series but also of Paul’s own internal conflict as a character. This gets at my reading — of the text — around Paul’s choice of moral/ethical law in the first two books. This suggests the morals/ethics tension, which could be read as endorsing an orientalist dichotomy of west/non-west, civilized/primitive, doesn’t really map onto those binaries in the books.
I want to emphasize that Herbert doesn’t dismiss moral law as primitive or rudimentary but takes it seriously — he takes religion seriously. In the above interviews he describes Jesus and Muhammad as great reformers whose legacies corrupted or complicated their reception. Further, his dedication’s reference to ecologists’ “real materials” over abstract “ideas” seems to be a clear call-out to a skepticism toward a rosy-eyed embrace of ethical law.
See also this passage from the Lynch interview:
Remember, before writing Dune I was the speech writer for a United States senator with two offices in Washington D.C. I’ve been right on the inside of the apple. So I know what’s going on back there. I am a political animal. And I really never left journalism. I’m writing about the current scene. The metaphors were there. Writing about the political ecology, the religious ecology, the social ecology and the physical ecology of our world. And I think you do not separate any one part of this from the other. You don’t separate mind and body and understand the human being and therefore you don’t separate any of these elements and understated what’s going on in our world. We fondly say that in the United States we separate church and state. That’s an asinine statement. There is nothing more emotional than religion. Nothing more emotionally demanding than religion because it is the promise of survival. You can’t take that out of politics. You get heated emotions aroused. I am a political animal and that’s what I am writing about. I am writing about the economic ecology, the politics of all of these things that influence our lives.
NOTE: For further discussion on the question of Fremen agency, I’ve added a section below this essay, “Coda III: Defining the Savior Narrative & the Problem of Fremen Agency.”
Critics also say Herbert directly ripped off one or another culture or orientalist book (like Lanch’s, among others: https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/the-secret-history-of-dune/). I think this is partly true. But, as is stated in the first 1969 interview above, he actually says he read “over 200 books” to write the series. So I don’t think one can pin him to any one influence or say he directly ripped off particular ones. He’s stated that he drew from Middle Eastern/Arab, Central Asian, Kalahari, and Native American histories, and from Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. His approach was syncretic, not singular — a “pastiche” (as @evanchill recently put it to me). He seems to have been inspired by his (undergraduate?) study of comparative religions (in addition to his political speech writing and journalist days).
I did a Q&A thread on the syncretism on Twitter — lots of great responses throughout the thread, with links to many well-known podcasts, links, and articles on Herbert’s many apparent influences or echoes, especially but not only Islamic and MENA:
The following is the most comprehensive list of Arabic, Islamic, Jewish, Buddhist, and Christian terminology in Dune, mostly focusing on Islamic/MENA elements, which are predominant. But it’s not exhaustive, mainly focusing on the first book: https://baheyeldin.com/literature/arabic-and-islamic-themes-in-frank-herberts-dune.html . More her: https://www.reddit.com/r/dune/comments/ec1f2w/80_arabicislamic_words_in_dune/ . There are others online, on reddit, etc. — links included in the above Tweet Q&A.
For instance, the fanatics in Dune Messiah, the Qizarates, whose story shares elements of shi’i history, also seem to be named after Coptic/Greek Christian terms, as @ArabicSalama , the Arabic translator of Dune, points out:
(Check out his AMA here: https://www.reddit.com/r/dune/comments/cvla0z/im_the_translator_of_the_arabic_version_ama/ and his Arabic translation here: https://www.amazon.com/%E2%80%AB%D9%83%D8%AB%D9%8A%D8%A8%E2%80%AC-Arabic-%D9%81%D8%B1%D8%A7%D9%86%D9%83-%D9%87%D9%8A%D8%B1%D8%A8%D8%B1%D8%AA-ebook/dp/B07KJKW4WY/ .)
Similarly, Fremen terminology is predominantly Islamic and MENA (more so than BG or any of the Houses or other imperialists/outsiders), as shown in the baheyeldin link on terminology above, but there are terms and thematic elements (not in the terminology) that also align with Buddhist, Jewish, and Christian elements. Consider, in this regard, the possible Indonesian influences:
In short, there are no one direct analogies/influence s— that’s what makes Dune so fascinating.
Nonetheless, see @AnaDunee’s interesting thread arguing Fremen are most likely from North Africa and noting some possible Islamic and MENA references in the Villeneuve trailer:
I personally think the origins are more syncretic, but this is open to debate, and there are some fascinating finds in that thread. This response is on point:
One possible way to think about Islamic and MENA terms being everywhere in the Dune universe but most prominent among the Fremen is to think of the history of Islam and (post)colonialism today: Much of the modern world draws from and/or appropriates developments that came out of the history of Islam and MENA in science/technology/medicine, philosophy, law, and more — but there are still distinct Muslim populations in the world, not to mention those and others in MENA, who are often subjects of (post)colonial exploitation (exploitation which sometimes employs or builds upon those historical developments influenced by or appropriating Islamic and MENA history; the unexpected consequences of ideas or practices reused or altered over centuries). This modern phenomenon is arguably sort of like Islamic and MENA terms being all over the Dune universe but popping up with unique intensity among the colonized Fremen… I’m not totally convinced that what I’ve just outlined is a good read (of modernity, or of the books). But it’s just a thought.
It’s worth noting that Herbert’s syncretism deconstructs what might be thought of as a distinct or “essential” “west” or “non-west.” In other words, he’s challenging the homogeneity by which orientalists have understood these categories. (I talk a bit more about this issue below in “Coda III: Defining the Savior Narrative & the Problem of Fremen Agency.”)
With all that said, I think what’s disturbing here is Herbert’s pulling from these histories with little to no acknowledgement of the historians he drew on or the societies he was inspired by. It’s basically knowledge appropriation. No credit given where it’s due.
(On the other hand, it’s possible that Herbert wanted readers to have to puzzle through the syncretism themselves. Or that he just kept sloppy notes or didn’t remember everything well. He says in the 1969 interview: “Well, ecology, as somebody said…and I use this…I don’t recall…I’d like to contribute this, but I don’t recall where I encountered it … I did read over two hundred books as background for this novel … somebody said that ecology is the science of understanding consequences” [my emphasis]. Still, not a great excuse.)
A related element on the influences: The seemingly subaltern Islamic and MENA terms in Dune don’t always map directly onto the Fremen. Jihad and mahdi as I mentioned have imperialist and missionary connotations (which to me speaks greatly of the real history of psychological colonization, black or brown skins/white masks, see, e.g. https://academic.oup.com/ahr/article-abstract/108/3/710/22464?redirectedFrom=fulltext OR https://hss.sas.upenn.edu/sites/default/files/Marwa%C2%A0Elshakry%20-%202010%20-%20When%20Science%20Became%20Western%20Historiographical%20Ref.pdf), and many of the names and terms belonging to the corporate and imperialist actors have Islamic or MENA roots (among other influences). So while the Fremen are especially coded as Islamic-ish (-ate?! paging Marshall Hodgson and Shahab Ahmed!), it’s not a direct analogy.
Several (especially @TMPComposer) have rightly pointed out the BG not being purely Christian or Islamic:
This is partly true, in my view. My reading is probably my attempt to see the book in a certain way, as most of us do. Nonetheless, the prevalence of Islamic and MENA terms among the Fremen is ratcheted up so high compared to the BG terms that the Christian reading I don’t think is a stretch. The fact that Herbert wanted to critique “western man” lends credence to BG/other imperialists being coded as white or Christian in some way (but I agree again that it’s not so simple given Islamic/Jewish/Buddhist and MENA terms even among colonizers). (Also, to be clear: My mentions of Christianity with respect to imperialism are to a particular form of it, not Christianity as such.)
If anything, a downfall of Herbert’s pastiche/syncretic approach is that many societies and faiths that were particular to specific times and places have been universalized or assumed to be interchangeable or analogous. Still, it’s also more complicated than that — any analogous or inspired story (science fiction or otherwise) is going to have to deal with the interchangeability/analogy (qiyas!) problem in some way. But it’s worth pausing and mulling over this issue.
In an addendum to this essay, I offer a few reflections on Denis Villeneuve’s Dune adaptation in light of his filmography, especially his Incendies, which plays usefully, perhaps like Dune, with the power of imaginary or analogous spaces between fiction and reality in order to address histories of trauma and violence in profound ways not possible with a straight depiction of what’s considered “reality” as such. On that “reality” point: Barring casting, the two Dune miniseries, especially the first one, sometimes took the Islamic and MENA analogies too literally (e.g. there’s a scene in the first miniseries where the adhaan is heard faintly in the background). In my view, this literalism made the miniseries appear more orientalist than the book was and diminished its power.
It’s notable that while spice in Dune is often compared to oil, it wasn’t the only analogy on Herbert’s mind. He once suggested in an interview from the 1970s or 80s (perhaps after the interviewer asked about oil) that it was accurate to say his story could be used to understand oil conflicts of the 1970s/80s (since those events occurred after he wrote the first books). He was drawing on very particular histories, but speaking to general themes about imperialism and resources — thus providing a frame that nicely matched mid/late 20th century oil politics. (This interview is somewhere on YouTube but I haven’t been able to find it; if someone does, please comment or message me!)
That said, Herbert did directly consider spice as an analogy for oil (thanks @ArabicSalama for this link, https://web.archive.org/web/20080616111957/http://www.dunenovels.com/news/genesis.html ):
It is demonstrable that power structures tend to attract people who want power for the sake of power and that a significant proportion of such people are imbalanced-in a word, insane.
That was the beginning. Heroes are painful, superheroes are a catastrophe. The mistakes of superheroes involve too many of us in disaster.
It is the systems themselves that I see as dangerous Systematic is a deadly word. Systems originate with human creators, with people who employ them. Systems take over and grind on and on. They are like a flood tide that picks up everything in its path. How do they originate?
All of this encapsulates the stuff of high drama, of entertainment-and I’m in the entertainment business first. It’s all right to include a pot of message, but that’s not the key ingredient of wide readership. Yes, there are analogs in Dune of today’s events-corruption and bribery in the highest places, whole police forces lost to organized crime, regulatory agencies taken over by the people they are supposed to regulate. The scarce water of Dune is an exact analog of oil scarcity. CHOAM is OPEC.
But Herbert clarifies oil was not the only analogy on his mind, going on to say:
But that was only the beginning.
While this concept was still fresh in my mind, I went to Florence, Oregon, to write a magazine article about a US Department of Agriculture project there. The USDA was seeking ways to control coastal (and other) sand dunes. I had already written several pieces about ecological matters, but my superhero concept filled me with a concern that ecology might be the next banner for demagogues and would-be-heroes, for the power seekers and others ready to find an adrenaline high in the launching of a new crusade.
I’ve written a bit about Dune as an imaginary/real space, in conversation with my book Technologies of the Self, in an essay, “Why science fiction matters to life in the postcolony,” at Media Diversified (although I no longer agree with all of my characterizations of Dune there): https://mediadiversified.org/2015/11/05/why-science-fiction-matters-to-life-in-the-post-colony/ .
These wrinkles make Dune more fascinating and subversive than a straight-up “white savior” narrative (despite many other problematic elements, which I’ve only suggested in this very long thread!).
I think these wrinkles would also complicate the racial casting of the film adaptations. I tend to agree the Houses/outsiders should be coded white and the Fremen POC, especially MENA. But I can also see that it’s a complicated question, because Herbert — perhaps more so in the text than in explicit statements about “intent” in his interviews (although he calls out his syncretism in interviews, too, see the “200 books” quote and the block quote above: “I’m writing about the current scene. The metaphors were there.”)— wasn’t so bald in the directness of the analogies.
I don’t have a straight answer on the casting issue, but I do agree with many others that not casting any MENA actors is a disgrace to the new film (as well as the prior adaptations). I complained about this way back in 2018 when the film was announced:
NOTE: I have added a “Coda” below this essay, “On Race in Dune,” responding to some comments about race in my analysis of Dune.
Who Is the Author? Intent versus Text: Seizing the Dunescourse from Below
My reading of the text, and Herbert’s statements, brings out the perennial question of intent versus text. Critics have suggested Hebert’s intent is less valuable because of the effect of Dune as a text.
Above, I have tried to supplement all my comments on Herbert’s interviews with actual substance from the text. While I’ve written above that Dune Messiah is crucial to my reading, it’s worth noting that all these elements are detectable within the text of Dune itself, the first novel in the series. These elements are especially found in Kynes’s death scene, in Paul and Jessica’s spice visions, and in the anxieties throughout about the coming “jihad.” It’s all there in the text of Dune. The “missionaria protectiva” idea is laid out most explicitly and clearly — and repeatedly — throughout the text of Dune, especially in Jessica’s internal monologues (perhaps more so than in Dune Messiah). There’s room for critical readings of the text, which this essay is trying to open space for, but few critics who claim the story is a white savior narrative have actually addressed these elements within the text of the novel. If a book is judged not simply on its text but also on a reading that doesn’t engage fully with aspects of the text that are difficult to fit into that judgment’s interpretation, then the text loses meaning in and of itself. Perhaps there’s a valid critique of Dune as white savior narrative (which I’m open to; but as I’ve highlighted that’s not the only or most significant way in which Dune can be thought of as problematic). But most of the critiques I have encountered seem to discursively have required not accounting for particular blatant elements of the text itself.
As a kid, I did read the first book more heroically, but I also felt something else going on that wasn’t that at all. The sequel felt like a satisfaction of something from the first novel, a continuance of a theme, not an overturning.
One hypothesis is that the reason the white savior narrative has dominated the mainstream reading of the text is that this is how white boys have read it. I’m not going to opine on the far smarter academic discourses on the nature of the author, but, in the context of the discourse (“dunescourse”? “sietchposting”? https://twitter.com/GameResTrez/status/1304399622341832704?s=20) around Dune, the question of the “effect” of the text depends on who is being effected by the text and who is performing the actions that have the effects. Whose interpretation do “we” (whoever is reading this essay and engaging in it sincerely) choose to prioritize as a definitive one?
This is purely anecdotal, but almost every Muslim I’ve met in person who has read Dune is a huge fan, and it impacted their lives positively just on representation alone. In these conversations with fellow Muslims, even if they thought of it as a white savior story, they were reticent to dismiss it entirely because it is so detailed and specific with its Islamic and MENA references, because it took religion seriously and wasn’t secular, and because, in our experience of the text, we never sat comfortably dismissing it as merely another savior narrative. There was something familiar and layered that we couldn’t quite place, even if we hadn’t grasped all of the themes at a young age. (The following discussion by Muslims and scholars in Islamic studies gets at this feeling, although I have some quibbles on parts of it: https://player.fm/series/imaginary-worlds-2300997/the-book-of-dune .) Some POC, especially Muslims and MENA, might read it differently than the white boys.
Omar Khafagy’s response to my original Twitter thread (which this essay collates, revises, and adds to; see “Credits” below) gets at the significance of Dune, despite its problems, to Muslim and MENA nerds. His response expresses much of what those who flatly admonish Dune as a white savior narrative are missing and erasing by foreclosing complicated talk about the novel and its sequels. Omar is not alone. His experiences mirror mine and so many Muslim and MENA nerds I met who grew up with Dune while engaging with Edward Said’s Orientalism (if you click the embedded Tweets below, he has more great thoughts in each of his two threads):
We don’t need white saviors to save us from the white savior narrative!
Several years ago, my essay “The Failure of Post-9/11 Science Fiction” in The New York Review of Science Fiction addressed Dune. I no longer agree with all of my arguments or my characterizations of the novel — but the core argument with respect to the eponymous failures still hold today. Notably, I critiqued the novel The Mirage, by Matt Ruff (author of Lovecraft Country), alongside William Gibson’s notion of 9/11 as a “nodal point” of history, positing work like Ruff’s as a post-9/11 decline from the problematic but more complicated approach of Herbert’s Dune: https://www.academia.edu/26694983/The_Failure_of_Post_9_11_Science_Fiction . (I wrote a follow-up post on the anthology In the Shadow of the Towers: https://engspurdishabic.wordpress.com/2015/09/14/revisiting-speculative-fiction-in-a-post-911-world/ ).
For my part, when I encountered Herbert’s interviews, I didn’t feel that I’d been accosted by an intent alien to my experience of the text. It was more like something “clicked” with me.
Maybe the basic reading of the book (“basic” meant in both senses of the term!) has dominated due to a particular form of secular or Christian whiteness that has become a vocal and dominant element of science fiction and literary fandom than it is about the text itself. In that sense, maybe Herbert’s legacy, like that of his characters in Dune, has been overcome by the intransigencies of history’s power structures.
In other words, to say that the effect of the text discounts Herbert’s intent is to erase and strip agency from many Muslim and MENA readers who saw it differently. It’s to permit and re-inscribe the white boy reading. It matters which readers are prioritized in the question of how the text has been interpreted. Again, whose reading of the text do “we” want to re-inscribe, subvert, or elevate? “We” ought to seize the dunescourse from below and reject a particular domination over the interpretation of the text, not succumb to it.
To be clear, I don’t intend to discredit other Muslim, MENA, POC readers’ more negative readings of the text as incorrect — or to suggest that other negative, affective, experiential reactions to reading Dune, regardless of the text, are invalid. Rather, I want to open up discussion that includes multiple readings and experiences. A definitive dismissal of Dune as a white savior narrative forecloses those possibilities. A refusal of that dismissal opens them.
And with all that said, @jochmann offers an important insight to keep in mind:
NOTE: I have added a second “Coda” at the end of this essay, “Engaging the Critique of the Savior within the Text of Dune,” which further addresses and responds to questions about how to engage with the text of Dune (not the interviews or the text of the sequels) as a critique or not of the savior. My take is there are passages that don’t necessarily foreclose but certainly complicate a simple claim that it’s a straightforward white savior narrative.
What makes Dune work so well is that it requires much from of its readers, that the analogies are not direct. To just call it a white savior narrative misses a lot. It’s a lost opportunity to engage with some intriguing ideas — and to think more carefully about, and interrogate with greater force, deeper forms of orientalism and othering.
Part of the problem around talk of Dune is an analytic conflation of orientalism and white savior narratives. All (or at least most) white savior narratives are orientalist, but not all orientalist narratives (like Herbert’s) are white savior narratives. There’s a relationship. But they are also slightly different forms with slightly different problems.
Let’s be clear: This essay is not an apologetic. I fear that the essay and the Twitter thread from which it spawned, due to the latter’s unexpected popularity, will be appropriated by white boys to man/whitesplain their apologetics…. The structure overtakes. Is it inevitable? DISENGAGE… DISENGAGE!!
Rather, this essay is an attempt to open up more profound and intriguing conversations about the nature of orientalism/othering and literature. The essay explores my reading of the text ( in conjunction with interviews) —there can be other, differing ones. The point is to open the discourse (dunescourse!) beyond the white savior talk.
What I love about the generously positive response to the abovementioned Twitter thread is how many folks are excitedly revisiting their worldviews (of the book, of their perspective/childhood, etc.) and eager to (re)engage in deeper dialogue anew. (But that’s not to say material conditions don’t matter!)
My impression is most people (myself included) read the books (or maybe only the first one) as a teen. It went over their head. And now some years or decades later they’re claiming it’s straightforwardly orientalist based on a sketchy memory of an adolescent reading of a really complicated story.
For what it’s worth, as a Dominican Pakistani Muslim kid, reading the Dune books was life-changing. It was the first time I’d encountered a major speculative work that took Islam and colonialism seriously, that wasn’t straightforwardly orientalist. Even then, although much of its complexity went over my head, I had the sense of its many, syncretic layers that suggested to me it wasn’t like the orientalist BS I was used to. And when I encountered Dune Messiah I was taken aback, even as a kid, by its shi’i allusions and by its far darker themes — because I sensed that this wasn’t your average hero’s journey. Paul was the bad guy, the imperialist, the modernizer. I recall the experience as perhaps my first encounter with the kind of protagonist-critical storytelling that’s often affiliated today with the likes of Fight Club and Watchmen (works which have also suffered misreadings, notwithstanding their other problems, of course, and notwithstanding the perennial dilemma of the efficacy of stories critical of their narrators or protagonists — a dilemma central to the text/intent question around Dune):
To just call Dune an orientalist white savior narrative re-inscribes white boys’ teenage reading of the novel — a reading that never really aligned with Herbert’s intentions or even with an adult reading of the text, or even with many MENA and Muslim teenagers’ readings of it, despite the story’s problems. To me, the lack of Muslim and MENA casting in any of the Dune films is atrocious because it not only ignores Herbert’s influences (Islam/MENA being the most prominent of many) but also rejects the novels’ profound significance to a whole generation (or more) of Muslim and MENA nerds.
I will add that my thoughts are not novel. Here are only a few who’ve already said something like this, and more eloquently (although I have some very respectful quibbles and differences of opinion): @use_theforce_em : https://www.tor.com/2019/03/06/why-its-important-to-consider-whether-dune-is-a-white-savior-narrative/ … another by @use_theforce_em , https://www.tor.com/2017/04/18/david-lynchs-dune-is-what-you-get-when-you-build-a-science-fictional-world-with-no-interest-in-science-fiction/ … and: https://imperialglobalexeter.com/2018/06/26/going-native-with-dunes-paul-atreides/
Dune is not perfect. To move beyond it, stories about and by POC and Muslims need material support and engagement. An important part of seizing the dunescourse is to recognize that the best way to beat the white boys is to support POC stories.
In that vein, I’ll ride the big Maker here and say: If you want to support POC and Muslim literature, no better place to start than my own, Technologies of the Self: a Dominican Pakistani Muslim’s subverted hero’s journey, with time-travelling space demons and sandworm metaphors: https://www.brainmillpress.com/books/technologies-of-the-self/
As the Fremen say, bi-la kaifa!
Addendum: The Villeneuve Adaptation
Some critics have laid into Denis Villeneuve’s adaptation. As stated above, I am concerned about casting, and about the switch from “jihad” to “crusade” (which might not be so in the full film). I’m also concerned about the film’s conlanger’s seeming dismissal of or reticence to embrace the Arabic and Islamic terms (see https://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/gnhs6x/keidmil_my_name_is_david_j_peterson_and_im_the/fr9yb6y/). I tweeted a bit about this in the following thread (click for more):
Nonetheless, I hold out hope for the adaptation. I enjoyed the trailer. Throughout his filmography, Villeneuve has been highly skeptical of hero’s journeys.
Most people look to Blade Runner 2049 to consider how he’ll do Dune but I disagree. 2049 has the critique of the hero’s journey embedded into its arc, and its final twist might be a premonition of how Villeneuve could approach the undoing of Paul’s messiah status in the Dune films. But the real Villeneuve works to check out when considering how he’ll adapt Dune are Enemy (a critique of misogyny and the persistence of power structures internally within the self) and, most especially, Incendies.
Villeneuve has blatantly said his making of Incendies was inspired partly by Dune. The film, and the play it’s based on, is also about MENA and colonialism/violence. Villeneuve has stated that he filmed it as a critique of the western gaze — which sounds a lot like Herbert. The Dune trailer’s use of Pink Floyd’s Eclipse (a nod to plans for Pink Floyd to do music for Jodorowky’s Dune) is smart , especially the lyrics, which are suggestive of a darker story underlying the seemingly heroic crescendo.
This use of music with unsettling undertones aligns with Villeneuve’s similar use of Radiohead to create uncertainty in his films, see Prisoners and Incendies. In Incendies, Radiohead was explicitly used to destabilize the western gaze by contrast to shots of sandy hills (which Villeneuve said were inspired by Dune):
Claudia Kotte wrote a brilliant essay on Incendies’s critique of the western gaze, engagement with orientalism, and purposeful creation of a sense of dislocation in diasporic, exilic, and traumatic generational history: Claudia Kotte, “Zero Degrees of Separation: Post-Exilic Return in Denis Villeneuve’s Incendies,” in Cinematic Homecomings (2015) (sadly the essay is blocked for nonacademics — oh, the knowledge economy!). In Incendies, Villeneuve maintained the original play’s choice to make the setting an imaginary middle eastern location in order to explore dislocations and analogies around real violence and trauma. That sounds a lot like what Herbert was doing with Dune: https://nowtoronto.com/denis-is-on-fire . Choice quotes here:
Moreover, it’s worth noting that Villeneuve says he read all the books. He compared Paul to Michael Corleone, as pointed out below. This suggests he’s tuned into the critique of the hero’s journey.
Coda I: On Race in Dune
A few have responded to the Twitter thread or this essay to say that I mischaracterized Herbert’s non-Fremen as white and Fremen as POC. That’s not what I’m saying. Read carefully, please.
CTRL-F’ing “white” in my essay =/= reading. My discussion of “white boys” is with respect to who is reading and interpreting the book(s), controlling the narrative of how it/they are discussed. I’m not necessarily talking about the racial or ethnic makeup of the characters.
As I stated above, Herbert was clearly syncretic. For instance, elements thought of as “non-western” or indigenous are present among seemingly western or imperialist actors. Imperial and subaltern terms in “our real world” don’t neatly map onto actual imperialists or subalterns in-world (within the books).
But his aim to critique “western man” and imperialism, alongside the amplified Islamic/MENA (and other “non-western”/indigenous) terms with respect to the Fremen (despite such terms’ presence throughout the Dune universe), makes disclaiming the role of race as complicated as claiming it.
“Western” is not necessarily white. But saying it isn’t requires analytical work. (I tend to follow anthropologist Talal Asad’s suggestion, in his Introduction to Genealogies of Religion [pp 18–19], that “the west” has a particular power as a concept with discursive ties to race, imperialism, capitalism, etc.)
Herbert’s exploration of “race consciousness” with respect to the Harkonnen/Atreides bloodline and BG eugenics — and with respect to the Fremen’s origins (seemingly from North Africa, although, as I showed above, it’s complicated) — invokes mixing over long periods, at the same time as it suggests some forms of racial or ethnic preservation.
He’s obviously analogizing to 20th c (and prior historical) events. And he also seems to have worked out ways to make the analogies fit in-world (successfully or not is another question). “The west,” indigeneity/subalternity, and race are entangled in this muddy dynamic between analogies and in-world elements. It’s unclear to what degree he carefully or systematically thought through this dynamic.
In other words, I don’t think there’s a straight answer here. But saying “It’s not about race/white saviors at all because Paul isn’t white and the Fremen aren’t POC!” is too easy. That’s the point. It’s complicated. Herbert created what I called above a syncretic imaginary space. And he probably had ideas about race, likely problematic on several fronts, which factored into how he created that space, regardless of his conscious attempts to construct mixed or fixed racial identities among the characters.
None of this changes the fact that white boys have read Dune and/or its sequels in a certain way — often via particular (not universal) kinds of secularism or Christianity (I’m thinking of Kambiz GhaneaBassiri’s “conflation of race, religion, and progress” in A History of Islam in America).
Coda II: Engaging the Critique of the Savior within the Text of Dune
Arguably my take on Dune relies on the sequels and/or on Herbert’s authorial intent via interviews. As I noted in the above section entitled “Who Is the Author?”, I discuss the text of Dune itself throughout this essay and the Twitter thread upon which it’s based.
But let’s elaborate.
I’m going to quote the grad school seminar platitude, often invoked when a participant speaks on a reading without engaging in specifics: “OK, and what about the text?”
I’ve found it especially telling that many responded to my original Twitter thread with something along the lines of, “Oh, obviously Dune is a critique of the savior!” Several of these responses even took issue with my take for overemphasizing the sequels, arguing the critique of the savior was clearly found within the first book.
The question of how “clear” the critique is in the first book is up for grabs. But it’s there, and the textual elements pointing toward it are hard to cast smoothly aside.
As I’ve said above, multiple readings are possible. I’m open to critiques of Dune as a white savior narrative. But few of such critiques actually engage with the text. Their conclusions often seem to require reading around elements of the text that don’t easily fit with the reading given in those critiques.
If a text can be judged without regard for what’s in the text, what’s the point of the text? (I’m not trying to make a blanket statement on this oft-opined question — just talking about the dunescourse specifically).
Here are only a few of those textual elements, from Dune (not the sequels):
Kynes calls out Duke Leto’s Harkonnen-like propaganda schemes to mollify the Fremen:
All the mentions of the “missionaria protectiva” with respect to the BG and creation of the “mahdi” myth:
The final scene of Act 1 (SPOILERS) —perhaps the most important and revealing part of the textual elements here with respect to the critique of the savior. Paul realizes he’s going to fulfill the BG mahdi myth and pursue imperial conquest on behalf of his Harkonnen bloodline:
He remained silent, thinking like the seed he was, thinking with the race consciousness he had first experienced as terrible purpose. He found that he no longer could hate the Bene Gesserit or the Emperor or even the Harkonnens. They were all caught up in the need of their race to renew its scattered inheritance, to cross and mingle and infuse their bloodlines in a great new pooling of genes. And the race knew only one sure way for this — the ancient way, the tried and certain way that rolled over everything in its path: jihad.
Surely, I cannot choose that way, he thought.
But he saw again in his mind’s eye the shrine of his father’s skull and the violence with the green and black banner waving in its midst.
Other mentions of the coming “jihad”:
There’s room to say these passages can be read as advocating imperialism. But it’s a claim that requires interpretive work, as much as my alternate reading might seem to require it. That claim is not necessarily “wrong” (so long as we’re discounting intent). But it can’t be made straightforwardly. It requires grappling with the text of Dune (not the sequels, not the interviews).
The sequels are more pronounced in the critique of the savior. But these passages (which are not exhaustive, by the way; they’re only a sampling of what’s there) are here in the text of Dune, the first book. Explaining them away is possible (I mean that genuinely), but it requires readerly effort.
None of this is to say intent/context/intertextuality can’t matter, as I say above in “Who Is the Author?” In fact, as I quote above, Herbert himself stated “I am a political animal. And I really never left journalism. I’m writing about the current scene. The metaphors were there.” He seemed to want people to think intertextually about the analogies.
Lastly, I’ll remark that, as an author myself, I know I personally would like my work to be both engaged with directly (the text) and also understood with respect to context (mine or others’).
Coda III: Defining the Savior Narrative & the Problem of Fremen Agency
Some responses to my Twitter thread or this essay say it’s still a white savior narrative because there’s no Fremen agency. I don’t necessarily disagree. I alluded to this problem above (see end of “The Critique of the Savior within the Text” and “Fremen and Resource Scarcity”).
But, as I wrote above, “it’s complicated.” Let’s dive deeper.
There are two issues to parse here: (1) How is “white savior narrative” defined? (2) How is the relationship between agency and structure understood in a theory of power/resistance?
(1) I define white savior narrative as: White/imperialist outsider enters indigenous group and saves the people from some predicament. The author of the narrative depicts this act as genuine saving (the people actually benefit, and the intervention/appropriation is portrayed as good).
I don’t see that happening in Dune. If one takes the premise that Fremen are POC (or at least indigenous) and Paul is white (or at least imperialist) (as I discussed above, it’s not really clear this is a good premise regarding the question of race in the first place), then it’s evident (from both Herbert’s intent and the text, as I’ve shown throughout this essay) that Herbert (A) didn’t think Paul benefited the Fremen and (B) depicted the whole series of events as terrible.
One can take the long view and say the Golden Path and The Scattering are the ultimate “saving.” But it’s not obvious that Herbert embraced those results, especially given the costs to the Fremen and the violence continuing even after The Scattering. Maybe he did. In my view, it’s up to debate among readers. This argument is also complicated by fact that Leto II is half-Fremen and pursues this future by rejecting his father.
If you’re saying Dune’s a white savior narrative because, while you agree with most of the above (i.e. you agree Herbert intended the story as a critique of the savior and that even the text on its own displays this critique), it’s nonetheless the case, in your view, that the Fremen don’t have agency, even within the critical narrative… then you and I do not have major disagreements. I just don’t think that’s a white savior narrative, because no one is actually getting saved. It’s a semantic, not substantive, difference.
This bring us to (2) the question of Fremen agency. I see this as a separate question from that of whether Dune is a white savior narrative. As I allude to throughout this essay, this question is not clear-cut. I honestly think this is a space for readerly debate, not flat declarations.
One of Herbert’s aims was to explore the intransigencies of control — how difficult it is to wield control, those “unexpected consequences.” The BG’s mythology-planting and eugenics are attempts at indirect control. But plans go wrong along the way, requiring improvisation.
In my view, Herbert was struggling with the role of structuralism in history. He had a sense of there always being some underlying power structure with which individuals — imperialists and otherwise — grappled.
It reminds me of the anthropologist Talal Asad’s attentive studies of power. In his Introduction to Genealogies of Religion, he lays out how even agency itself (how it’s practiced or told/understood) can be constructed discursively through power relations. Similarly, the scholars Timothy Mitchell and Lila Abu-Lughod (who actually studies the Bedouins on which the Fremen are allegedly based) critique academics who fetishize agency and elide broader power structures. Rajyashri Goody has written a useful review of the agency/power question from a postcolonial perspective, summarizing Mitchell and Abu-Lughod’s arguments, in the essay “Resistance as a Diagnostic of Power”: http://www.rajyashrigoody.com/page-of .
I see Herbert as exploring these dynamics, although certainly not from the perspective of subaltern or postcolonial studies — but dealing with parallel questions about the complex interplay between agency and structure, resistance and power. For him, power is improvisational, not top-down — much as Asad, Mitchell, and Abu-Lughod imagine it. The BG tactics are precisely in this vein. Here’s a relevant exchange from the 1969 interview:
WM: Bene Gesserit. The…their whole mystique and so on is relatively unexplained. Why do they want the Kwisatz Haderach in the first place? You see, is relatively, at the time…
FH: The name of the game is power.
WM: Yes, and they want power. That…that explains it to a certain extent but…
FH: They want power in a specific way. You know, I’ve always been amazed by the statement or by the label of psychological warfare. There can be no such thing as psychological warfare…if you develop a psychological weapon sufficiently that it is destructive to any potential enemy, it will destroy you with the enemy…it’s a two-edged sword without a handle, and if you grab it hard enough to wield it, you’re going to…
WM: It’s self destructive.
WM: So we could have a variation of the Lord Acton notion: power corrupts both the user and the receiver of the power, both absolutely…
FH: Right. Acton saw it.
WM: How interesting. I hadn’t thought of the…who power corrupts…
FH: Now the Bene Gesserit see this. You see how they keep themselves in the background.
WM: Yes, that’s true.
FH: They want a user of power they can control.
WM: I see…with safety to them.
FH: That’s right. It’s a safety device, you see, and I say this in several ways, not in this way, not in this blatant, you know, way, but implying it with all of its permutations, because there’s much more to this. We could go on for several hours discussing this aspect of it.
We also see that the Fremen don’t readily accept manipulation: They pursue their own ecological projects, bristle at the mahdi myth (especially after the first book), and so on. But it’s also true that in other ways they appear as unthinking followers. That said, the character development around Stilgar (and arguably Paul’s children, as they are mixed) complicate that.
Again, I’m not saying the agency question is clearly one way or another (the Fremen as agency-less or not). It’s just complicated. Maybe because Herbert wanted it that way. Maybe because he didn’t quite know what he was doing and was thinking through these questions along the way.
Even if the Fremen are entirely “agency-less,” “tragedy” is a dramatic mode that does not necessarily demean its protagonists.David Scott’s Conscripts of Modernity builds on Asad to critique notions of agency through a reading of CLR James’s The Black Jacobins (on the Haitian Revolution). (I don’t fully endorse Scott’s take, but worth considering in this conversation.)
The Fremen are conceived in such detail, with so many specific references to Islam and MENA, Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, Native Americans, and more (see “Cultural Appropriation?”), that it’s hard to cast them off as merely unimportant masses. There’s a reason so many Muslim readers have appreciated Herbert’s portrayal of them, despite the orientalist elements and tinges of noble savagery.
Personally, the feeling I had from reading the books was of the sheer difficulty of wielding imperial control. Imperialism is messy. People always fight back. I thought of the many struggles/failures to control Afghanistan. One might think of Vietnam (for which Herbert opposed US intervention).
Herbert’s series is in some ways an extended study of counterrevolution, and, reading Dune today, the idea of implanted missionary ideas seems so true to my own reading of postcolonial history: Notions of “religion” and “science” in Islam (as Asad details), as much as of “jihad” itself, have come out of colonial, often missionary, encounters and continue to be internalized by Muslims as part an idea of “the tradition.” I linked above (in “Cultural Appropriation?”) to only a few essays on those topics: https://academic.oup.com/ahr/article-abstract/108/3/710/22464?redirectedFrom=fulltext OR https://hss.sas.upenn.edu/sites/default/files/Marwa%C2%A0Elshakry%20-%202010%20-%20When%20Science%20Became%20Western%20Historiographical%20Ref.pdf .
The themes are classic Fanonian stuff: black/brown skins, white masks — psychological colonization. Real talk: So many Muslim POC are internally colonized. It’s a thing. I doubt Herbert was reading Fanon, but complex dynamics between coercion/persuasion and internal/external colonization were clearly on his mind. In the 1969 interview, as quoted above, he called BG efforts “psychological warfare.”
He arguably focuses the narrative on imperialists (barring Stilgar and maybe Leto II), but the narrative is not “hagiographical,” as I wrote above. To some degree, he’s writing about imperialism (critically) more than attempting to “recover” some “essential” indigenous experience — in fact, through his syncretism, he’s complicating how the “west” or “non-west” are understood as “essential” categories in the first place (which, as I pointed out in “Cultural Appropriation?”, could be read as a critique of the homogeneity by which orientalists understand these categories as natural or essential). He’s showing how indigenous actors become conscripted and participate in imperial projects. It’s not a simple, top-down, hierarchical form of power at work but something more true to how histories of imperialism actually went down: a complex set of interactions between and among imperial and subaltern actors.
At any rate, his focus on telling the story mostly (although not always; I’m not even sure this is an accurate characterization) from the imperialists’ perspective could be a bad thing, re-inscribing power through a narrative lens, albeit critical. But it also offers an interesting study of imperial power. In my view, this is up for debate.
In sum: I agree there are problems with Herbert’s approach to Fremen agency in the books. But, as I’ve been saying, it’s complicated. Casting off the books as dismissing indigenous agency altogether forecloses deeper conversations… which are just perfect for the Internet, right!?
This essay is adapted from the following Twitter thread of mine, alongside several others, and in conversation with the overwhelmingly generous, thoughtful, and engaging responses to that thread:
I am incredibly grateful to @evanchill for encouraging me (or, rather, prodding the bear and scheming as the BG do!) to Tweet and to write this up as a single essay — and to the members of our Dune book club.