David Foster Wallace, Philip K. Dick, and Transgressive Parody

Mack Hassler set with an interesting task this week after the unfortunate death of David Foster Wallace. He asked me to consider two questions:

1) Is PKD like Wallace in respect to the concept of “transgressive parody,” which Patrick Novotny defines in his chapter to Hassler and Wilcox’s Political Science Fiction (1997) titled, “No Future!  Cyberpunk, Industrial Music, and the Aesthetics of Postmodern Disintegration,” as, “Parody in the postmodernist aesthetic is the transgression of aesthetic and representational norms” (100).

2) How does PKD move beyond parody?

In response to the first query, Philip K. Dick operates in a similar fashion to David Foster Wallace in terms of transgressive parody.  Both authors use their medium of choice, SF for Dick and the non-fiction essay for Wallace (unfortunately, I have not yet read his fiction including Infinite Jest), as the means for their transgressive parody.  Dick parodies the streamlined and perfect futures of Clarke and Asimov through the introduction of kibble, entropy, and the disintegration of reality–a theme that Novotny elaborates in his study of cyberpunk and postmodernism, and Dick obviously is a predecessor of the cyberpunk authors and enjoyed the potential of postmodern play.  On the other hand, Wallace apes the professional essay format and bends it to his own ends through the use of play (there’s that word again), such as through his hyper-footnoting (the best parts of many of his essays are in the footnotes, and his footnotes have footnotes), and his employment of catechresis, or taking the story or argument from one context and applying it elsewhere–much in the vein of Derrida.  Dick and Wallace parody the norms of the writing that they are doing, but they transgress those norms for their own ends rather than making a comic attack on the parodied norms.  The way to think about it is that they take the postmodern sensibility of “whatever” to heart.  They appropriate the norms of the fields in which they work and reshape them, not to make a direct satire of what’s come before, rather to create something new of their own design for their own creative endeavors.  Dick brings the entropic breakdown of the real world and the inner, psychic world to SF, which had largely ignored that important aspect of reality.  Wallace brings a truly reflective mind and sensibility of open curiosity to apparently mundane and boring writing assignments–he grasps those boring moments as a place to begin thinking about more important matters that are, on the surface, only tangentially connected.

PKD moves beyond parody by using his works as a means of exploration of issues of self, identity, and subjectivity in an increasingly complex world.  On the surface, many of his works parody the cornerstones of the post-pulp era of SF.  For example, Ubik parodies aspects of SF such as space opera, but it does so only on the surface.  This isn’t Dick’s real target.  Instead, he uses the novel as a means to critique the nature of reality and the forces of entropy–two issues largely disregarded in SF until the New Wave.  Another example would be Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  In that novel, Dick parts ways with Asimov and gives his androids a real soul and a sense of self-preservation.  However, he isn’t parodying Asimov’s R. Daneel Olivaw, but instead, he’s appropriating an element of the SF mega-text for his own purposes, which is to work through his own questions about reality, soul, and memory.  

Published by Jason W Ellis

I am an Assistant Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology. Also, I coordinate the City Tech Science Fiction Collection, which holds more than 600 linear feet of magazines, anthologies, novels, and research publications.

6 thoughts on “David Foster Wallace, Philip K. Dick, and Transgressive Parody

  1. SF and non-fiction essays aren’t media, Jason. SF is a genre or style. Non-fiction is a category; essay is a format within that category. A medium is strictly a communications delivery device. For example, telephone and television are media. Language and smoke signals are media. Diskettes and CDs are media. Clay and paint are media. Film and paper are media. Etc.

    Second, parody is always transgressive; that’s its defining objective. Without transgression, parody would simply be mimicry or comedy. Therefore, the phrase “transgressive parody” is redundant, which is probably why the Novotny quote Mark provided doesn’t use it.

    And please remind Mark that a chapter is never to a book. A chapter is in a book, or sometimes of or from a book, but never to it.

    Literature is language, and language is logic. When illogical usage indicates that a speaker doesn’t grok the language system, we have to question the speaker’s grasp of literature, as well.

    Toward that end, let me point out that although both Dick and DFW rely on parody as a rhetorical mode, and although both authors incorporate what can be described as postmodern perspectives and techniques, I don’t recall either author attempting to transgress the aesthetic and representational norms Novotny refers to. Parody and postmodernism you’ll find, as you mentioned. But parody in the postmodern aesthetic? In other words, postmodern parody, per se? No.

  2. I like this article, notwithstanding Anna’s criticism of your British usage.

    You do show some insight into PKD’s work, but I do wish that you would pay some attentoin to his criticism of mass marketing and mass merchandising.

    ~~ Tessa Dick

  3. Hey Anna,

    I hardly have to defend my shooting from the hip blogging to you, but I will indulge your haute grok of language.

    My choice of the word medium was a shorthand for the type of work that each author does. It can be “an agency or means of doing something,” as well as a “substantial” or material substance to which you refer. In this case, SF and non-fiction are the respective means that Dick and Wallace employ for their forms of critique.

    Their critiques are delivered with the postmodern formulation of transgressive parody rather than parody. For a more elaborate explanation of transgressive parody, read Novotny’s essay, or go to his source, Linda Hutcheon’s A Theory of Parody: The Teachings of Twentieth-Century Art Forms (1985). I would have thought a dictioneer such as yourself would have referenced a dictionary in regard to parody, which is defined as “the imitation of style…with deliberate exaggeration for comic effect.” Dick and Wallace are not going for “funny haha” in their respective parodic engagement of the styles in which they work. That’s what makes theirs, and postmodern, parody transgressive.

    As far as the grammar is concerned, I’m sure that most folks who read my blog can understand the content regardless of inconsequential grammatical errors contained in a blog post. The questions are, of course, my rephrasing of Mack’s questions. And yes, if this were a paper submitted to a journal, I would have carefully considered all aspects of my writing including grammar. But, for a snivelling grammarian to attack my ideas, because of slight grammatical oversights, is beyond my threshold of comprehension.

    Yes, Anna–Dick and Wallace do transgress the aesthetic and representational norms of the SF and non-fiction essay writing. Need I spell it out? Actually, I did in my post that you apparently were incapable of reading, because you’re stuck in surface reading mode. Disengage the grammar check, and throw out the clutch on your American Heritage Dictionary, and take a moment to read what I wrote instead of the way that I wrote it.


  4. Hi Tessa,

    Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting! Yeah, there’s much to be said about consumerism in Dick’s works, including the two works that I cite–Ubik and Do Androids Dream. I’ve written a short paper on Ubik that I might present next year, after some revision, but it has to do more with what Joanna Russ calls “the image of women in SF” than consumerism. However, I can see how that aspect could be connected to my argument in a longer treatment. Unfortunately, between professional work, teaching, and having a life, there’s never enough time to cover all the bases on a single blog post.

    I’ve heard about PKD’s The Owl in Daylight, but I didn’t know that part of it was available. From the description on the amazon page linked from your website, it sounds like there’s something there that I should consider in my Ubik paper.



  5. “Literature is language, and language is logic.”

    But language is not always logical, and so on….

    Anna, following the progression you set up, I think what you mean to say is “Literature is language, and language is grammar.” But nevertheless the proposition is a solecism.

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