Recovered Writing, PhD in English, Methods in the Study of Literature, Project 2/5, Postmodernism and Philip K. Dick’s Ubik, October 10, 2008

This is the forty-eighth 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.

If I had to pick one seminar at Kent State University as being the most important to my shifting my thinking and rigor into running gear, it would have to be Professor Tammy Clewell’s Methods in the Study of Literature class. Methods is the introductory class that all PhD students have to take. Each year, a different faculty member teaches this class, and I am glad that the planets aligned for me to take this class from Professor Clewell. My joy for taking this class derives from Professor Clewell’s laser-beam accurate and calmly delivered criticisms. She expected rigor in our work, but she delivered her appraisals and commentary kindly. There was no malace in her demeanor—only the daily expectation of meticulousness, demonstration of preparedness, and application of theory. Her candor about higher education and the challenges of scholarship were eye-opening and appreciated. I was very happy to take another class from Professor Clewell the following year and even more so when she agreed to lead my postmodern theory exam and join my dissertation committee. For all of her efforts teaching, advising, and advocating, I am eternally grateful.

This is the second of five Recovered Writing posts from Professor Clewell’s Methods seminar. Each post is one project from the seminar. They should be considered parts of a semester-long process of entering professional discourse. These are attempts at learning, arguing, and improving. The culmination of this work is the fifth project/post in this subseries—a publishable-length essay, “The Image of Women in Philip K. Dick’s Ubik.”

In this project titled, “Bibliography and Analysis of Critical Trends,” students explored the discourse surrounding an idea or work for further development in the subsequent projects. In my case, I was interested in exploring postmodern theory through a discussion of Philip K. Dick’s Ubik. In this essay, I defined my approach, provided a reading list for my research paper, and discussed its importance in the wider field of postmodern studies and Dick studies. My final project transformed into a very different argument due in large part to Professor Clewell’s in-class questions and commentary after I read the next project (next post) to the class in the form of a conference presentation.

Jason W. Ellis

Professor Tammy Clewell

Methods in the Study of Literature

10 Oct. 2008

Postmodernism and Philip K. Dick’s Ubik

            The postmodern and biomedia critic Eugene Thacker said, “postmoderm is ‘whatever.’” Despite its flippant appearance, “whatever” is at the heart of postmodernism in the twentieth century. Postmodern literature is self-reflexive and intertextual. It may break the fourth wall, and challenge everything including language, culture, societal structures, and norms. Additionally, it provokes the reader to become engaged in the narrative itself, rather than passively accepting the framework advocated by the author. It embraces ambiguity, non-linearity, and continuity. They are disjointed, unstable, and contradictory. Postmodern texts reveal a suspicion of and disbelief in modernity’s grand narratives.

Postmodern study came into its own with Jean-François Lyotard’s 1979 treatise, La condition postmoderne: rapport sur le savoir (The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge), which gives the most highly regarded elucidation of postmodernism. In this work, he defines the postmodern as, “incredulity toward meta-narratives” (Lyotard xxiv). He argues that grand narratives (e.g., narratives of science, morality, or progress) have broken down into nodes dispersed in a network to which we are connected. Therefore, subjectivity arises during discourse and engagement of particular nodes, like the possibilities in a quantum waveform, collapses in the absence of discourse.

Lyotard’s postmodern project has its challengers, most notable among them is Jürgen Habermas, who questions whether the non-meta-narrative of postmodernism is actually a meta-narrative. Habermas’ argument in “Modernity versus Postmodernism,” misses the point that postmodernism is doubt. It’s a skepticism of meta-narratives, and not a wholesale discrediting or absolution of meta-narratives. Additionally, Lyotard regards the postmodern condition as a phase texts must go through prior to becoming modern.

Richard Dawkins, the author of The Selfish Gene (1976) and The God Delusion (2006), attacks postmoderism for it’s ‘whateverness.’ This is understandable, because his thoughts on biology and religion necessitate meta-narratives. However, his paradigmatic shift from focus on the biological organism to the gene as being the driving force of natural selection is a postmodern concept. Instead of a progressive accumulation of scientific knowledge, there are crises and fractures in scientific thought and belief that results in a new framework or worldview.

Furthermore, Noam Chomsky’s views on postmodernism, as noted in a Usenet post in which he wrote, “Since no one has succeeded in showing me what I’m missing, we’re left with the second option: I’m just incapable of understanding. I’m certainly willing to grant that it may be true, though I’m afraid I’ll have to remain suspicious, for what seem good reasons” (par. 12). Chomsky claims not to get postmodernism from Derrida to Lyotard, and he’s willing to concede that he’s “incapable of understanding.” That being said, he “[remains] suspicious” of the claims of postmodern theorists. The fact is that he doesn’t ‘get’ postmodernism, and in this posting, he denounces it, because of his lack of understanding. Needless to say, this is a weak argument on the part of Chomsky, and his misunderstanding is an unvoiced acknowledgement of the postmodern, because of his skepticism.

In regard to Philip K. Dick’s novel, Ubik, there are debates on the theoretical methodologies to engage the text. An early issue of Science Fiction Studies, a long running journal in the field, was devoted to Dick’s works including Ubik. In that issue, Darko Suvin, one of the early theorizers of SF, wrote a Marxist textual analysis of Dick’s works across divisions of his creative career up to that time. Suvin takes issue with earlier papers by Stanislaw Lem, author of Solaris and The Cyberiad, and Peter Fitting, Director of Cinema Studies at the University of Toronto, associate professor of French, and former chair of the Society of Utopian Studies. Fitting performs a postmodern reading of Ubik using Marxist terminology and deconstruction, and Lem’s paper argues critics should defend the novel’s ambiguities and disjointedness rather than prosecute it. Suvin’s response appears torn between the new, amorphousness of Dick’s works, and the old meta-narrative of SF tropes and Marxist power levels and narrative foci. This debate came about only six years after the first publication of Ubik. The discourse surrounding this novel has continued to the present.

Later analysis of Ubik, such as that by Fredric Jameson and Christopher Palmer perform Marxist readings of the text, while Douglas A. Mackey does talk about the commodity aspects of Ubik, he centers his analysis on the dissolutive aspects of the narrative as well as Dick’s conception of reality. Brian McHale makes the case that New Wave SF, which began in the 1960s was a precursor to true dialog between postmodernism and SF, and it’s in the 1970s that, “SF and postmodernist mainstream fiction become one another’s contemporaries, aesthetically as well as chronologically, with each finally beginning to draw on the current phase of the other, rather than on some earlier and now dated phase” (228). He includes Ubik as one work of SF that falls into this latter group of the truly postmodern. Peter Stockwell uses Ubik to illustrate the concept of frame replacement, which is the reversal of integral character attributes (e.g., alive versus dead in this case) in The Poetics of Science Fiction. And, Carl Freedman explores plot structures of SF and the construction of reality through Dick’s works including Ubik in his book, Critical Theory and Science Fiction.

There are a number of academic conferences focused on postmoderism, SF, and Philip K. Dick. In June 2007, the English Division of Nottingham Trent University hosted PKD-Day, a one day symposium about Dick’s works. Each year at Norwescon, The Philip K. Dick Award, a highly regarded SF prize, is given to the best new SF published as a paperback original in the United States. Postmodernism and SF are subjects of entire conferences as well as panels on a number of the larger general ones. The International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, Science Fiction Research Association, and the Society for Literature, Science and the Arts, each have annual conferences that engage these topics. Also, the Modern Language Association’s annual conference includes panels on postmodernism and SF in relationship to a variety of discourses.

Within the discourse encompassing Ubik, there are still many aspects of the novel in need of critical analysis internally as well as externally. What I mean by internally is that there are themes, tropes, and characters in the novel requiring further analysis, and likewise, externally refers to a number of texts produced before and after Ubik that are in dialog with it. Within this space, I will find a niche substantial enough to support my arguments regarding the text in my upcoming paper.


Work in the Field

McLuhan, Marshall. The Medium is the Massage. New York: Random House, 1967.

Kuhn, Thomas S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.

Aldiss, Brian W. “Dick’s Maledictory Web: About and Around Martian Time-Slip.” Science Fiction Studies 2:1 (1975): 42-47.

Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1976.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books, 1979.

Rorty, Richard. Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1979.

Warrick, Patricia S. The Cybernetic Imagination in Science Fiction. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1980.

Habermas, Jürgen. “Modernity Versus Postmodernity.” trans. Seyla Ben-Habib. New German Critique 22 (1981): 3-14.

Lyotard, Jean-François. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

Haraway, Donna. “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s.” Socialist Review 80 (1985): 65-107.

Simons, John L. “The Power of Small Things in Philip K. Dick’s ‘The Man in the High Castle.’” Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature 39:4 (1985): 261-275.

Durham, Scott. “P.K. Dick: From the Death of the Subject to a Theology of Late Capitalism.” Science Fiction Studies 15:2 (1988): 173-186.

Fisher, William. “Of Living Machines and Living-Machines: Blade Runner and the Terminal Genre.” New Literary History 20:1 (1988): 187-198.

Huntington, John. “Philip K. Dick: Authenticity and Insincerity.” Science Fiction Studies 15:2 (1988): 152-160.

Mackey, Douglas A. Philip K. Dick. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co, 1988.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke UP, 1991.

McCaffery, Larry, ed. Storming the Reality Studio: A Casebook of Cyberpunk and Postmodern Science Fiction. Durham: Duke UP, 1991.

Palmer, Christopher. “Postmodernism and the Birth of the Author in Philip K. Dick’s Valis.” Science Fiction Studies 18:3 (1991): 330-342.

Stilling, Roger J. “Mystical Healing: Reading Philip K. Dick’s ‘VALIS’ and ‘The Divine Invasion’ as Metapsychoanalytical Novels.” South Atlantic Review 56:2 (1991): 91-106.

Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. trans. Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994.

Zoreda, Margaret Lee. “Bakhtin, Blobels and Philip Dick.” Journal of Popular Culture 28:3 (1994): 55-61.

Chomsky, Noam. “On Postmodernism.” Usenet, rec.arts.books. 13 November 1995. 20 October 2007 <;.

McNamara, Kevin R. “’Blade Runner’s’ Post-Individual Worldspace.” Contemporary Literature 38:3 (1997): 422-446.

DiTommaso, Lorenzo. “Redemption in Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle.” Science Fiction Studies 26:1 (1999): 91-116.

Lee, Gwen and Doris Elaine Sauter, eds. What If Our World Is Their Heaven?: The Final Conversations of Philip K. Dick. New York: Overlook Press, 2000.

Youngquist, Paul. “Score, Scan, Schiz: Dick on Drugs.” Cultural Critique 44 (2000): 84-110.

Yaszek, Lisa. The Self Wired: Technology and Subjectivity in Contemporary Narrative. New York: Routledge, 2002.

James, Edward and Farah Mendlesohn, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003.

Enns, Anthony. “Media, Drugs, and Schizophrenia in the Works of Philip K. Dick.” Science Fiction Studies 29:1 (2002).

Readings of the Text

Fitting, Peter. “Ubik: The Deconstruction of Bourgeois SF.” Science Fiction Studies 2:1 (1975). 19 October 2007 <;.

Lem, Stanislaw. “Philip K. Dick: A Visionary Among the Charlatans.” Science Fiction Studies 2:1 (1975): 54-67.

Suvin, Darko. “P.K. Dick’s Opus: Artifice as Refuge and World View.” Science Fiction Studies 2:22 (1975): 8-22.

Warrick, Patricia S. Mind in Motion: The Fiction of Philip K. Dick. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois UP, 1987.

McHale, Brian. Constructing Postmodernism. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Bukatman, Scott. Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction. Durham: Duke UP, 1993.

Hoberek, Andrew P. “The ‘Work’ of Science Fiction: Philip K. Dick and Occupational Masculinity in the Post-World War II United States.” Modern Fiction Studies 43.2 (1997): 374-404.

De Cock, Christian, “Of Philip K. Dick, Reflexivity, and Shifting Realities: Organizing (Writing) in Our Post-Industrial Society.” Social Science Research Network (2000). 18 October 2007 <;.

Freedman, Carl. Critical Theory and Science Fiction. Hanover: Wesleyan UP, 2000.

Luckhurst, Roger. “Vicissitudes of the Voice, Speaking Science Fiction.” Speaking Science Fiction: Dialogues and Interpretations. Eds. Andy Sawyer and David Seed. Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 2000.

Stockwell, Peter. The Poetics of Science Fiction. New York: Longman, 2000.

Palmer, Christopher. Philip K. Dick: Exhilaration and Terror of the Postmodern. Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 2003.

Jameson, Fredric. Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. New York: Verso, 2005.


Published by

Jason W. Ellis

I am an Associate 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 direct the B.S. in Professional and Technical Writing Program and coordinate the City Tech Science Fiction Collection, which holds more than 600 linear feet of magazines, anthologies, novels, and research publications.