Figures of Dune

Artefact, Form, and the Technics of Myth

Jacques Derrida, in his dialogue with historian Elisabeth Roudinesco, argues for “the debt of all theoretical (but also all juridical, ethical and political) positing, to a performative power structured by fiction, by a figural invention.” Frank Herbert, in his science fiction masterwork Dune, uses this performative, inventive force to draw his readers into a mythos of the human being that highlights the very technologies by which we define ourselves as such, technologies which too often lead to violence perpetrated in the name of justice. It is this interface of human, fiction, technology, and myth, which is the subject of my research.1

Much of the narrative of Dune is driven by intrigue, betrayal, and conflict, but at its heart, Dune is a story about people. For Herbert, the text allows him to explore the figural doubling of the human being-as-subject, the reciprocal invention of the personal and political that occurs through the technics of myth. Through one figure in particular—Paul Atreides, the boy who is both heir and messiah—Herbert puts this mythic operation of subjectivity on display.

Though Paul can certainly be read through the trope of “chosen one,” Herbert does not make easy such a reductive reading. He situates Paul within a complex field of intersecting forces, continuously troubling the borders of his protagonist’s identity. Paul’s “self” or “subjectivity” is no organic thing, no originary potentiality made actual, but a complex hybridization or fusion of disparate powers, desires, and narratives that cannot be distilled to an essence. This complexity and ambiguity destabilizes his “chosenness,” revealing the mythic invention that tries to position him as such. Paul’s identity is ever unfolding in a prophetic saying, upsetting the mythic speech that denominates him, that speech which the critic Roland Barthes describes as being “chosen by history.”

It is this mythic choosing that Herbert contests. In Dune, Herbert presents his readers with a myth of myth, a dramatization of the performative power of the form in its structuring and ordering capacity, a capacity which has always already produced the subject as both individual and slave. Herbert exposes the myth, in its technological operation, as an instrument through which time’s momentum is captured and molded to the ends of power, converted into history, which bestows an origin upon the subject. The subject becomes an instrument of power, his actions authorized by the history which presumes to be natural and given. Herbert’s fiction reveals the artifice of this presumption, an artifice that derives its vital energy from the fundamental openness, ambiguity, and contingency of lived experience.

In Dune, Frank Herbert dares his readers to think in new ways about selfhood and authority, to resist the violent logic that uses people as a means to power. Today, with so much hate and conflict corroding our discourse and communities, the prophetic challenge of this book continues to be of the utmost importance.


  1. I stumbled across this piece in my files June 3, 2022. Written for the 3MT competition held at my university in 2017, this is one of my first statements of intent for the project that would become my master’s thesis, “Fiction in the Integrated Circuit,” September 26, 2018, I have often joked with people close to me that my thesis was about Dune and yet I never mention Herbert’s novel in its pages. What I had planned to be only an introduction became the entire work, and if I were to have kept writing and completed the project as planned, it easily would have exceeded 300 pages—something no supervisor would have wanted to read, and certainly not something I could have written if I ever intended to graduate. However, in returning to this abstract five years on, I am struck by the themes that have persisted in my writing—anti-essentialism, contingency, the subject’s place in the cosmos, all of these strands that I continue to weave throughout my studies and writing today. Perhaps one day I will write that book, but I am thankful, for now, not to be bound by such a “terrible purpose.” 

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