Recovered Writing: PhD in English, Independent Study with Mack Hassler, David Foster Wallace, Philip K. Dick, and Transgressive Parody, Sept. 28, 2008

This is the thirty-seventh post in a series that I call, “Recovered Writing.” I am going through my personal archive of undergraduate and graduate school writing, recovering those essays I consider interesting but that I am unlikely to revise for traditional publication, and posting those essays as-is on my blog in the hope of engaging others with these ideas that played a formative role in my development as a scholar and teacher. Because this and the other essays in the Recovered Writing series are posted as-is and edited only for web-readability, I hope that readers will accept them for what they are–undergraduate and graduate school essays conveying varying degrees of argumentation, rigor, idea development, and research. Furthermore, I dislike the idea of these essays languishing in a digital tomb, so I offer them here to excite your curiosity and encourage your conversation.

In 2008, I began my Ph.D. work with Dr. Donald “Mack” Hassler. Ultimately, he directed my dissertation and we became friends.

On the advice of friends in the SFRA and of having read Mack’s first Political Science Fiction collection while at the University of Liverpool, I wanted the opportunity to study at Kent State University and work with him.

This is the second of three artifacts that I produced during my coursework independent study with Mack focused on Philip K. Dick, postmodernism, play, parody, and performance. As an invested SFRA member and its then-publicity director, I was concerned about the chilling effects a troll and his sock-puppets wreaked on our email list at that time. Ultimately, Mack helped me steer the independent study in that direction to theoretically grapple with online discussions in real life (RL).

Jason W. Ellis

Dr. Donald M. Hassler

Independent Study

28 September 2008

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.  Mack 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 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.

I am a professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on 20th/21st-century American culture, science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology.

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Posted in Kent State, Recovered Writing, Science Fiction
Who is Dynamic Subspace?

Dr. Jason W. Ellis shares his interdisciplinary research and pedagogy on DynamicSubspace.net. Its focus includes the exploration of science, technology, and cultural issues through science fiction and neuroscientific approaches. It includes vintage computing, LEGO, and other wonderful things, too.

He is an Assistant Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY (City Tech) where he teaches college writing, technical communication, and science fiction.

He holds a Ph.D. in English from Kent State University, M.A. in Science Fiction Studies from the University of Liverpool, and B.S. in Science, Technology, and Culture from Georgia Tech.

He welcomes questions, comments, and inquiries for collaboration via email at jellis at citytech dot cuny dot edu or Twitter @dynamicsubspace.

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