Recovered Writing, PhD in English, Dissertation Defense Opening Statement, May 15, 2012

This is the sixty-fourth 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.

I prepared this brief statement to introduce the thinking behind the choices that I made on which writers to include and the emergent theme of the dissertation that would lead to my current research: technological ephemerality. This statement is part justification and part roadmap for where I am now and will be in the future.

To set the stage for making this statement, imagine me sitting at the head of a conference table. Behind me on a podium is a Powerbook 145 with Gibson’s eBook of Neuromancer, Count Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive open and the big box for the Neuromancer video game adaptation from the late-1980s.

Dissertation Defense Opening Statement

Jason W. Ellis

15 May 2012

            I would like to thank you all for reading my dissertation, “Brains, Minds, and Computers in Literary and Science Fiction Neuronarratives” and for meeting with me today. I am looking forward to your questions and our discussion. Before we begin, I would like to take this opportunity to describe my project’s goals, it’s origins, my methods of research, and what I hope it accomplishes. As you will see, my iPad figures prominently in these things.

In my dissertation, I draw on my interdisciplinary interests in literary studies, science fiction studies, history of science and technology, and evolutionary psychology to situate science fiction’s emergence as a genre in the early twentieth century within the larger context of the human animal’s evolutionary co-development with technology. In a sense, I sought the raison d’être of the genre in a Darwinian and cognitive context. I believe the communal teaching aspect of science fiction to be an integral part of the genre itself, and it is this aspect that I gave the name “future prep.” From another perspective, I define science fiction as the kind of literature that performs this function. I also wanted to take one related thread from the genre’s overall development—that being brains, computers, and artificial intelligence—and trace it through the work of three significant writers, namely: Asimov, Dick, and Gibson.

My dissertation originates in part from my long interest in the biology of the human brain. Perhaps this is a byproduct of the conceptual metaphors that I learned in school or in books that the brain was a type of computer and the computer was a type of brain. We know that these are imperfect analogies, but you can imagine that they can have a strong influence on the development of a curious mind. Even at an early age, I strongly felt the link between brains and computers as evidenced by a sustained performance that convinced my kindergarten classmates I was a robot. More recently, I fell into the physics of mind when I was in high school. Thanks to Stephen Hawking, I stumbled onto the work of his collaborator Roger Penrose, who had done other work arguing that the brain is not a Turning-type computer and that quantum phenomena must play some part in the emergence of human consciousness. Much later, during my MA at the University of Liverpool, I made a deal with a friend in the neuroscience program to give me a digital copy of my brain in exchange for my participating in his neural correlates of facial attractiveness study. However, the most recent and profound shift in my thinking came about in a serendipitous way. During the preparation for my PhD exams, I met with Professor Clewell to discuss my readings for the postmodern theory exam. I recall our conversation veering toward computers and the human brain. I learned from Professor Clewell about the emergent discourse surrounding the human brain and the human experience from a Darwinist/evolutionary rather than a Freudian/psychological or Marxist/social perspective. As invested as my work up to that point was in cultural theory, I was very intrigued by the interdisciplinary possibilities that neuroscientific topics and evolutionary psychology might provide for my work in literary history. Without a doubt, this was a pivotal moment in the development of my dissertation. It provided me a direction to expand the scope of my project from one author—originally on the fiction of Philip K. Dick alone—to three by developing a new theory of the genre in terms of the human brain’s evolution. This was new territory for the literary history of science fiction, and I wanted to trek an unexplored path into this uncharted territory.

The next stage was to select the literary focus of my research. I chose Dick’s work, because I believe his awareness of the brain’s role in human experience and in our relationship with technology strongly connects to my theory of science fiction. Then, I selected Asimov as a connection between the early editors who shaped the genre and later writers including Dick, whose androids obviously respond to Asimov’s robots. Finally, I decided on Gibson, because he reinvented Dick’s concerns about technologization of the human experience in a more nuanced manner than Dick’s paranoiac division between the android and the human.

Research and writing of my dissertation presented its own challenges, but I was very pleased that part of the subject matter inspired my own processes of work. In my reading and research, I leveraged computer technology to my advantage to build efficiencies and speed into my work. In particular, I wanted to make all of my research—primary and secondary sources—available on my computer, iPad, and iPhone. The primary reason for this was to make it easier for me to track my research and use digital tools such as textual analysis software and key word search on materials I had read or skimmed. Having the materials on my various computing devices made it easy to search the same or multiple documents very easily and quickly while taking notes or writing in Microsoft Word on my MacBook. Of course, my brain did the work of configuring, contemplating, and creating the dissertation itself.

The issue of obsolescence, which I discuss a bit about in the concluding part of my dissertation, was also a driving force behind my efforts at digitization of my research materials. For example, the last half of the second chapter presented a unique problem—I needed to read the editorials of the old pulps—particularly Amazing Stories and Astounding—but these pulps are not widely available in library collections, and when they are, it can be difficult to handle and read them due to their extreme fragility. Luckily for my research, legions of science fiction pulp collectors have made much of this material available online as scanned copies. Obviously, there are tensions between the efforts of cultural preservationists and the Disney-fication of copyright law, but due to the nature of my research and its importance to the long literary history of science fiction, some of which is egregiously at risk of disappearing, I side with the preservations. Unfortunately, the scanned materials were not always complete, but they did provide me with some useful evidence and clues to more. I filled these missing holes with interlibrary loan requests that took several weeks to complete. For other primary sources, I was able to track down circulating text files—such as for Asimov’s, Dick’s, and Gibson’s novels, and others, I purchased either through Amazon’s Kindle shop or Apple’s iBook store. I should note that I used these non-paginated materials for research purposes, and I cross-referenced any findings there with the physical copies that I own or borrowed from the library—the only exception being Dick’s Exegesis.

I also converted many sources on hand into digital copies for my personal use. Generally, I took photos of pages, created a PDF, and ran OCR software to generate searchable text. Due to my limited time, this was especially useful during my research trip to UC-Riverside’s Eaton Collection in February. In addition to my typewritten notes on my MacBook, I captured over 1000 pages of rare and interesting primary research for the Dick and Gibson chapters with my iPhone 4S’s built-in camera. Some of this research is included in the dissertation, but there is much left for me to review as I begin the process of transforming the dissertation into a publishable manuscript. This extra work paid off by revealing quotes overlooked during skimming or reading. While I am reading to you from my iPad, I also have my dissertation manuscript, primary sources, secondary sources, notes, and much more all available at the touch of my finger. However, I have to remain vigilant with my archival practices to ensure my access to my data now and in the future. It is also a challenge to find software that maintains compatibility and preserves my workflow.

As Gibson warns us in his afterword to the Neuromancer e-book, technology’s fate is obsolescence. As he foretold, it was nearly impossible to access his e-book in its original version. First, I had to wait several weeks to receive a copy of the e-book’s disk from one of the three American universities that hold it. Then, I had to find an older Macintosh with a floppy disk drive to read the disk and in turn allow me to read the e-book. Unfortunately, there are no Macs with floppy disk drives anywhere near Kent State. I turned to eBay to find an early PowerBook, but unfortunately, the first one I purchased was destroyed during shipping. Eventually, I was able to read the e-book with this PowerBook 145, but it took time, money, and know-how. What does the future hold for those of us who want to read the stories these technologies have to tell us, and what effects do these technologies have on our cognitive development? These are questions I plan to investigate following the dissertation.

In closing, I hope that my work on the literary history of science fiction accomplishes two things. First, I believe that science fiction’s roots run deep, and my dissertation is meant to show how it is a literature that emerges as a byproduct of powerful evolutionary forces of the development of the human brain in conjunction with the human animal’s co-evolution with technology. Second, I hope that my work facilitates further cross-discipline discussion and leads to additional research into the brain’s role in the emergence of human experience and the enjoyment of fiction—especially science fiction.

Recovered Writing, PhD in English, Dissertation Paragraph Summaries Before Defense, May 2012

This is the sixty-third 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.

When my dissertation defense date approached and my dissertation was completed, I wanted to help myself recall my arguments and examples more clearly. To that end, I wrote out by hand short summaries of each paragraph in my dissertation, which you can read as this PDF. I divided my handwritten notes by chapter and section. Each paragraph summary contains the main thought and a brief synopsis of examples or other supporting evidence. In some ways, it is like a reverse outline, but the dissertation was already completed and the summaries were not used for reorganizing the layout/arrangement of the dissertation’s logic. I am currently sending an expanded version of my dissertation around for possible publication. This PDF of my dissertation paragraph summaries are not the original form of the dissertation–only a summarization of each of its constituent paragraphs. For my students, I recommend this exercise–summarizing essay paragraphs during drafting to help you think about the logical order of your essay/argument and to help you know the material better for discussing, teaching, or presenting your work.

In my next Recovered Writing entry, I will post my dissertation defense opening statement. Stay tuned!

Recovered Writing, Brittain Fellowship, CETL Brown Bag, Writing the Brain: Using Twitter and Storify, Oct. 2, 2013

Slides from "Writing the Brain" PowerPoint.
Slides from “Writing the Brain” PowerPoint.

This is the sixty-second 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 this Recovered Writing post, I am including two PDF files that I used in my presentation on “Writing the Brain: Using Twitter and Storify” for the 2 October 2013 CETL Brown Bag Workshop. The first is my PowerPoint presentation file and the second is my handwritten presentation notes. Normally, I type up a carefully written script for my presentations, but in this case, I wrote my speaking notes out by hand. While I was driven my a tight deadline imposed by several other responsibilities converging at the same time, I saw this as an opportunity to experiment with a way of presenting that I normally don’t do and I wasn’t completely comfortable doing. As I tell my students, we grow by challenging ourselves, doing new things, and experimenting with new approaches. This was one such attempt on my part.

Recovered Writing, Unpublished Essay, Michael Bay’s Transformers and the New Post-9/11 Science Fiction Film Narrative, 26 March 2009

This is the sixty-first 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.

This publishable-length essay, “Michael Bay’s Transformers and the New Post-9/11 Science Fiction Film Narrative,” is a significant expansion of a presentation that I made at the International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts in 2008. I sent the longer form of the essay around for publication, but at the time, I could not invest the necessary time to meet the demands of the anonymous reviewers. It was around that time that I began studying for my PhD exams. The dissertation followed closely thereafter. Now, I think too much time has passed and too many more examples have appeared for me to re-engage with these ideas–at least at the present time. I’m confident that I would need to begin almost from scratch. Also, my research interests have moved into other areas, which would require retooling for the demands of this research as opposed to my current approaches (of course, there are texts and ideas contained here that I might bring over to my current scholarship). Thus, the essay, quotes, and works cited might best serve my readers’ purposes and interests as another Recovered Writing post. Perhaps one of you are working on a project in this vein and this essay can serve as a foil to test your approach, or this essay might encourage you to pick up the reigns and take these ideas further. If nothing else, maybe you’re a fan of the Transformers and want to think about the cultural underpinnings of these characters and their stories (if you are in this camp, you can find another essay that I wrote about Transformers and gender here).

Michael Bay’s Transformers and the New Post-9/11 Science Fiction Film Narrative

Jason W. Ellis

26 March 2009

The towers, for their part, have disappeared. But they have left us the symbol of their disappearance, their disappearance as symbol.

Jean Baudrillard, “Requiem for the Twin Towers.”

The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States of America have unequivocally and paradigmatically shifted the cultural outlook and fearful anticipation of people within and without the borders of the United States. It is the subject of this essay to explore how that shift is manifested in American Science Fiction (SF) film in the aftermath of that mid-September day through the linkages to earlier SF film rooted in American Cold War culture. Before 9/11, American imaginative fear and anxiety was firmly entrenched in the symbol of the thermonuclear bomb–a thing delivered by rockets and targeting computers, and after 9/11, that anxiety changed to the suicide bomber–a cyborg uniting ideology, high explosives or other technological means of mayhem, and the person. The Cold War threat was removed from the personal, and the inaction of thermonuclear war realization resulted in the science fictional imagining of what could be rather than a reflection of what was. The post-9/11 threat presents a reconfiguration of threat as something personal, up-close, and very real–something that has come to pass and may occur again. It is the fact that 3,025 U.S. citizens and persons from other countries were killed on September 11, 2001 that caused a transformation in the perception of anxiety, fear, and threat from elusive enemies and resulted in a new kind of personal response narrative in SF film.

It is important to more fully interrogate the differences between American Cold War SF and its milieu, and the radical changes that followed the Cold War and the intervening years prior to the September 11 attacks. John Lewis Gaddis significantly connects the “images” of the Cold War with the distancing of the threat from the everyday lives of Americans:

Despite moments of genuine fear, however, as during the Berlin and Cuban missile crises, the only images we had of destroyed American cities were those constructed by the makers of apocalypse films and the authors of science fiction novels. Real danger remained remote. We had adversaries, but we also had the means of deterring them.

Even cold war insecurities, therefore, never meant that Americans, while living, working and traveling within their country, had to fear for their lives. Dangers to the American homeland were always vague and distant, however clear and present overseas dangers may have been. The very term “national security,” invented during World War II and put to such frequent use during the cold war, always implied that both threats and vulnerabilities lay outside the country. Our military and intelligence forces were configured accordingly. (Gaddis 8)

The threat of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War was a real fear, but the only imaginative representation of that threat was “constructed by the makers of apocalypse films and the authors of science fiction novels” (Gaddis 8). It was left to the realm of fiction to create representations of the attack that never occurred. Additionally, as Gaddis points out, wars took place elsewhere and not on American soil. The Cold War dueling powers–the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R.–worked out their frustrated advances in other places–particularly in Southeast Asia–rather than take the fight to either country’s home front. It was the fantasy of films such as John Milius’ Red Dawn (1984) that Communist forces would invade the American heartland during World War III. In Red Dawn and all other films of that era that confronted or alluded to the nuclear annihilation of North America and/or the rest of the world were constructing one of many possible scenarios, but none of these were based on the reality of thermonuclear warfare made possible by scientific and engineering advances during the long 1950s. Fat Man and Little Boy, the two atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the last phase of World War II, pale in comparison to the potential devastation of warfare involving fusion bombs never once used outside of the isolated testing environments in deserts, atolls, and the upper atmosphere. Thus, there was real data about the effects of nuclear warfare, but it was this very speculative aspect of nuclear holocaust that sets Cold War SF apart from that which came after the very real, graphic, and televised hijacked airplane attacks on New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania.

It is evident that with the number of American Cold War SF films from The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) to Dr. Strangelove (1964) to Escape from New York (1981) that a lot of creative energy and capital went into grappling with nuclear annihilation from outside. Part and parcel with this massive undertaking of the potential annihilation of the United States and the rest of the world is the inescapable realization that these imaginings were something that we all to some extent entertained. It is unavoidable that the threat of nuclear war and apocalypse entered into the cultural consciousness, and it was something that we all thought of alone or in the communal engagement of films that represented implicitly or explicitly the potential horrors of nuclear war unleashed from without.

The cultural currency of apocalypse did not leave SF film in the years between the Cold War and the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. In fact, the imaginative target reconfigured or transformed in the intervening post-Cold War years where the threat and fear lost focus. Instead of a clear and present danger presented by the former Soviet Union, there were “uprisings” and “hotbeds of activity” around the world after George H. W. Bush’s Gulf War I. It was the transformation of threat and the dream of horror, even visited upon our soil and friends and family, that culminated in the dream-turned-real on September 11, 2001 when nineteen al-Qaeda terrorists took control of four passenger airliners and turned history’s path into the undiscovered country. Jean Baudrillard approaches this counterintuitive and unspeakable truism of the dream in his shockingly provocative essay, “The Spirit of Terrorism:”

The fact that we have dreamt of this event, that everyone without exception has dreamt of it–because no one can avoid dreaming of the destruction of any power that has become hegemonic to this degree–is unacceptable to the Western moral conscience. Yet it is a fact, and one which can indeed be measured by the emotive violence of all that has been said and written in the effort to dispel it. (Baudrillard 5)

What if things were not as they were? What if this government or that multinational corporation were done away with, then what would happen? It is these kinds of “what if” questions that we all entertain. However, we do not all consider the full ramifications of our wishes, or what might have to be done to make our wishes come true. For Baudrillard, it doesn’t matter how innocent our dreams might have been. The fact is that we wished for that other future in our own daydreams or in the SF that we enjoyed. In any event, the unconscionable wish came true when we awoke, and there was no possibility of returning it to the imaginative ether. Baudrillard continues:

At a pinch, we can say that they did it, but we wished for it. If this is not taken into account, the event loses any symbolic dimension. It becomes a pure accident, a purely arbitrary act, the murderous phantasmagoria of a few fanatics, and all that would then remain would be to eliminate them. Now, we know very well that this is not how it is. (Baudrillard 5)

It is true that Mohamed Atta, Marwan al Shehhi, Hani Hanjour, and Ziad Jarrah piloted the hijacked-airliners-turned-flying-bombs into the civilian and military targets within the American homeland. However, it was the dream and wish we each held or bought into through the apocalyptic visions presented in SF film that implicates each of us in some way to the events of that day. Furthermore, it is necessary to make an account of this dimension of the events of September 11, 2001, because otherwise would be to isolate the event from the greater rhizomic networks within which it is connected. It is essential to any understanding of that tragic event, including all those things that led up to it and all those things that followed, that we also understand our own relationship to the event personally and culturally.

Understanding the September 11 attacks as a symbolic act against the United States’ economic, military, and interventionist hegemony requires juxtaposing the event with an earlier sneak attack–December 7, 1941, what former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt called, “a date which will live in infamy.” However, the juxtaposition of these two events is not as well defined as was proclaimed ad infinitum on television during and following the attacks. On this point, Baudrillard offers:

The Americans lacked such a wound (at Pearl Harbor they suffered an act of war, not a symbolic attack). An ideal reverse of fortune for a nation at last wounded at its heart and free, having atoned for it, to exert its power in all good conscience. A situation science fiction dreamed of from the beginning: that of some obscure force that would wipe them out and which, until that point, merely existed in their unconscious (or some other recess of their minds). And all of a sudden, it materializes through the good grace of terrorism! The axis of Evil takes hold of America’s unconscious, and realizes by violence what was merely a fantasy and a dream thought! (Baudrillard 61-62)

The United States had not suffered a symbolic wound, or in other words an unexpected strike against the national body that carries a greater signification than nation-state warfare, prior to the September 11 terror attacks. The Pearl Harbor attack were certainly a strategic blow to United States preparedness prior to World War II, but that strike was accompanied, albeit late, by a declaration of war by another nation-state, Japan. The September 11 attacks are analogous to what Baudrillard identifies explicitly as a situation originating in SF–the attack from the “invisible man,” or the unexpected devastation by Heinlein’s bugs in Starship Troopers. The September 11 terror attacks represent the unexpected from without, from the alien Other, from out there and targeted against us. Al-Qaeda’s operation represents the culmination of this imaginative impulse that began much earlier during the Cold War era, but turned out from fear of nuclear annihilation toward the symbols of hegemonic power rooted in capital and military power. However, most alarmingly, George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil” and “Global War on Terrorism” solidified the American imagination around the events of September 11, 2001 back out toward loci of ideological difference, tension, and conflict. Furthermore, Slavoj Žižek corresponds with Baudrillard when he says the following in his essay, “Welcome to the Desert of the Real!”:

The Wachowski brothers’ hit Matrix (1999) brought this logic [the logic of experiencing the “real”] to its climax: the material reality we all experience and see around us is a virtual one, generated and coordinated by a gigantic megacomputer to which we are all attached; when the hero . . . awakens into the “real reality,” he sees a desolate landscape littered with burned ruins–what remained of Chicago after a global war. The resistance leader Morpheus utters the ironic greeting: “Welcome to the desert of the real.” Was it not something of the similar order that took place in New York on September 11? Its citizens were introduced to the “desert of the real”–to us, corrupted by Hollywood, the landscape and the shots we saw of the collapsing towers could not but remind us of the most breathtaking scenes in the catastrophe big productions. (Žižek 386)

Here, the main point is that the imaginative was made real. Hollywood had been there first with images of vast destruction, albeit from a distance, that became real that early September 11th morning. The terror attacks required no computer generated effects or a special effects department. Could George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) have engineered a spectacle on the scale of the events in New York and Washington that day? Perhaps, but the reality of the spectacle shared away from the computer and television screen brought something to the event that no effects house could reproduce. The lives lost, the physical destruction, and the political aftermath are real effects, as tangible as tears, which make the events of September 11, 2001 more real than any Hollywood simulation.

Žižek further elaborates on the realization of the imaginative through a discussion of another tragedy, albeit one sentimentally and visually recreated through film–the HMS Titanic:

            When we hear how the bombings were a totally unexpected shock, how the unimaginable Impossible happened, one should recall the other defining catastrophe from the beginning of the twentieth century, that of the Titanic: it was also a shock, but the space for it was already prepared in ideological fantasizing, since Titanic was the symbol of the might of the nineteenth-century industrial civilization. Does the same not hold for these bombings?

Not only were the media bombarding us all the time with the talk about the terrorist threat; this threat was also obviously libidinally invested–just recall the series of movies from Escape from New York to Independence Day. The unthinkable that happened was thus the object of fantasy: in a way, America got what it fantasized about, and this was the greatest surprise. (Žižek 386-387)

Žižek’s point is that in tragedies such as the sinking of the HMS Titanic, or the September 11, 2001 terror attacks that the news media and entertainment media prompted or prepared the United States and the world for the inevitable execution of imagined horror. Also, Žižek, like Baudrillard, invokes SF as an example for the imaginative dream for the attacks. However, it is the brilliant observation that the surprise was not the attacks, but the realization that the United States received the results of a dream transformed into reality. Hence, the fantastic became real on September 11, 2001.

Like the Ouroboros, the fantastic-become-real in the symbol of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks returns with serious consequences for the fantastic and SF in the post-9/11 world. The key element of American Cold War SF and the SF that follows the 9/11 terror attacks is anxiety over the possibility of harm from the Other. In Cold War SF, the anxiety comes about from an anxiety of a terrific and horror-laden future resulting from thermonuclear war. However, this nuclear future was not made real–it represented an anxiety over an amorphous and transparent future of non-reality. Essentially, the bomb was not made real in the sense of fulfilling its purpose–detonation over enemy targets. Additionally, it bears repeating that the only use of atomic weapons took place during state-to-state warfare during the Second World War. It was literally on the other side of the world from the United States that the B-29s Enola Gay and Bockscar performed their respective atomic bomb missions over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, two Japanese cities largely unknown to the American people prior to the war. Also, there was not the build-up and immersion in the impending actions by the United States government and military against the Japanese people in the media (it does not seem plausible that a significant number of readers had perused Cleve Cartmill’s 1944 short story, “Deadline,” and realized its immediate implications). Therefore, the anxiety over nuclear attack was nicely isolated around a particular aggressor (i.e. the Soviet Union), and the attack itself was not made real beyond the limited and largely non-engaged Japanese home front. On the other hand, the September 11 terror attacks by the religious and ideological al-Qaeda soldiers against the symbols of American hegemonic power and all persons in the vicinity of those symbolic places reconfigured the locus and understanding of anxiety of attacks by the alien Other. The threat was made surprisingly real, and the battleground shifted radically from elsewhere to here. Furthermore, it is in this reconfiguration of anxiety over the 9/11 terror attacks that resulted in something else in SF film narrative concerning the way in which individuals engage their anxiety made real. In the following section, I will discuss the transformation of anxiety into citizen soldiery through the emblematic and representative example of Michael Bay’s Transformers (2007).

Michael Bay’s Transformers is a slick and action packed summer blockbuster brimming with special effects featuring the battle between the Manichean Transformers in the here-and-now of planet Earth. Obviously, Bay’s film suffers from a certain amount of blockbuster engineering. On the surface, the film is about a one-dimensional conflict between the good Autobots who serve as humanity’s protectors and the evil Decepticons who aspire to kill and destroy anyone and anything in their path towards recovering the regenerative “All Spark.” Luckily, the film is about much more than meets the eye.

A useful point of entry into Transformers is the movie poster tagline, “Their war. Our world.” This sums up the autonomous robot, alien Other war between Autobots and Decepticons. Their war moves from the barren and resource-depleted Cybertron to the lush and resource-rich Earth, which is effectively mirrored in the resource producing Middle East and resource consuming American West Coast. However, the Transformers tagline can be read as applying to the here-and-now of the Global War on Terror. “Their war” is what the military analyst William S. Lind calls Fourth Generation warfare:

Characteristics such as decentralization and initiative carry over from the Third to the Fourth Generation, but in other respects the Fourth Generation marks the most radical change since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. In Fourth Generation war, the state loses its monopoly on war. All over the world, state militaries find themselves fighting non-state opponents such as al Quaeda [sic], Hamas, Hezbollah, and the FARC. Almost everywhere, the state is losing. (Lind par. 13)

Fourth Generation warfare is essentially non-state actor controlled guerilla warfare, i.e., between non-governmental organizations and states. This is the kind of war al-Qaeda wages with America, and its symbolic declaration was the September 11 attacks. Furthermore, “our world” is another way of saying the United States of America–our supposedly isolated world safe from threats abroad and the hot zones of war during the Cold War and post-Cold War years leading up to the September 11 attacks. Thus, Transformers is a veiled SF narrative that points the way to a reconfiguration of SF narrative following the changes in American homeland isolation and the false sense of safety following the end of the Cold War.

The reconfiguration of SF narrative post-September 11 is best approached by returning to Žižek’s potentially inflammatory essay, “Welcome to the Desert of the Real!” In this work, he describes the fantastic origins of the terrorist attacks on the United States and the uncertainties surrounding our post-9/11 future. However, the point that bears discussion on the transformation of post-9/11 SF film is where he writes:

We don’t yet know what consequences in economy, ideology, politics, war this event will have, but one thing is sure: the United States, which, till now, perceived itself as an island exempted from this kind of violence, witnessing this kind of thing only from the safe distance of the TV screen, is now directly involved. (Žižek 389)

The key to understanding new post-9/11 SF narratives has to do with Žižek’s idea of “direct involvement.” During the Cold War, and in the post-Cold War years before 9/11, United States citizens indulged in viewing war and conflicts around the world from the armchair comfort of their own home. The television screen separated the viewer from televised war, and the real-world distance between viewer and those enduring war was great. Improvised explosive devices and suicide bombings were largely a world away. It was understood that there was no war within the American homeland. It took place elsewhere, and that elsewhere was safely very far away. And as I discussed above, Americans dreamed about the destruction delivered on September 11, 2001 in the way that we all imagine the annihilation of oppressive hegemonic powers. The anxieties of the American Cold War do not hold up any longer when the threat was made real during the 9/11 terror attacks. Following the realization of the fantastic dream, individuals must respond to a threat in ways before that were speculative at best. It is the transformation of anxiety that yields a new kind of personal response to the anxiety of the real. I argue that Michael Bay’s Transformers represents a reconfiguration in SF film narrative following the September 11 terror attacks and the beginning of what former President George W. Bush labeled the Global War on Terror. Instead of revealing anxieties and veiling commentary in a Cold War mode of SF narrative, post-9/11 SF narrative focuses on the threat to the American homeland, and the way “directly involved” citizens deal with that threat. The border between the supposedly safe American homeland and the dangerous outside world is broken, and the threat is transferred from a visually imagined somewhere else to here. Thus, anxiety over the fantastic is transformed into a response to that anxiety made real.

The visual narrative that interconnects the film with the intensive media coverage of 9/11 facilitates the direct involvement of citizen soldiers in Transformers. Visual cues and the film’s edited form construct these correspondences. First, the overall narrative structure shifts between images of the American homeland and American war-making abroad. The former includes the large and well-manicured Witwicky home, a high school, and a relatively peaceful lake setting populated with young Americans. The latter includes scenes from Qatar in the Middle East, the Pentagon, and the President’s Air Force One aircraft. The film is edited to repeatedly show a war scene away from the home front followed by a scene at the home front until climaxing with a juxtaposition of the two–war on the home front. For example, the first scene of the film features Captain Lennox (Josh Duhamel) and his team of American soldiers returning to their “home base” in a state-of-the-art vertical-lift V-22 Osprey air transport. Soon after arrival, the Decepticons Blackout and Scorponok, disguised as a U.S. military helicopter, attack the base with advanced weaponry and gigantic robotic brawn. Instead of seeing American war making in the Middle East, the audience is treated to a special effects extravaganza of killer robots from another planet simultaneously attacking physical and virtual nodes in the American military Communication, Command, Control, and Intelligence (3CI) network.

Following the visually dazzling attack on the American military, the film transitions to an idealized, quiet high school setting on the West Coast where Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) hocks his great-great-grandfather’s belongings. Among these artifacts is his ancestor’s glasses, which bear the imprint of an otherworld sublimity from the so-called “ice man,” who we later learn is the Decepticon leader, Megatron. The film is consciously edited in such a way to transition between there (desert and military) and here (high school and suburbia). However, it is significant to the narrative build-up that the violence and intensity of the confrontations on the home front increase as Captain Lennox’s team moves closer to the American homeland. In a sense, Lennox’s team is radioactive and their return heralds a critical mass explosion and narrative release at the end of the film. Hence, the away-war overlaps the homeland creating a new war on the home front. Therefore, the recall of Lennox and his soldiers to America is the basis for the reconfiguration of the American homeland as an isolated space to the new battlefront in the Global War on Terror veiled within the Autobot/Decepticon war.

Bay’s film further embraces 9/11 narratives through borrowed rhetoric and visual images left unseen during the television coverage of the terror attacks. The first mise-en-scène is prominent at the beginning of the film with our introduction to Sam’s high school. There is a newspaper, half folded on his history teacher’s desk with the visible headlines: “Smash Jap” and “War Extra: Yanks Sink.” This homage to the director’s pre-9/11 film Pearl Harbor (2001) connects it to the circuits leading to and from 9/11. The September 11 attacks are imbued with the sneak attack narrative of Pearl Harbor despite the obvious differences between the two discussed above. However, the sneak attack narrative embeds this newspaper image, as well as Transformers, with the overarching American sense of victimization at the beginning of our involvement in World War II and its reemergence almost sixty years later on September 11, 2001.

Further engaging 9/11 narratives, and perhaps visually exploiting them, Transformers sets up the final confrontation with a plane and a building. The end bracket situating Transformers within a 9/11 narrative takes place during the climatic battle between the good Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen), leader of the Autobots, and the evil Megatron (Hugo Weaving), leader of the Decepticons. Megatron transforms into a menacing otherworldly aircraft and flies toward his nemesis. Optimus Prime grabs and holds onto Megatron who then swoops up and through a high-rise office building. The audience sees Megatron’s aircraft with Optimus in tow enter, fly through the building, and exit with a visibly wounding and destructive effect. Joshua Clover describes this short sequence as, “by far the most detailed reconstruction of what was hidden from our human eyes within the spectacularly visible violence of September 11, 2001” (7).

Perhaps more importantly than the film’s engagement of 9/11 narratives is the way in which Transformers represents Žižek’s idea of “direct involvement.” The home front lead characters of the film are Sam and Mikaela (Megan Fox)–two average Hollywood-generated uncanny high school kids. Initially, Sam is protected by his Autobot guardian, Bumblebee (Mark Ryan), but after the temperature of the home front war increases with the arrival of Captain Lennox and the release of Megatron from the hidden caverns in the Hoover Dam complex, Sam is required to step-up in the heat of battle. His charge is to get the transforming, technoscientific All Spark MacGuffin out of the combat zone and into the hands of the U.S. military, which is believed capable of protecting the All Spark from the U.S. military doppelganger Decepticons. During a moment of reluctance on Sam’s part to become “directly involved,” Captain Lennox grabs his shirt collar and yells, “You’re a soldier now,” which effectively drafts Sam as a young citizen soldier. Additionally, Mikaela, without needing a soldierly pep talk, employs her knowledge gained on the other side of the law from her car thief father to steal a tow truck and extricate her wounded Autobot friend, Bumblebee, from the fight. However, in the escape, she, with Bumblebee’s approval, decides to turn around and fight. In doing so, she makes a more active contribution to the battle than Sam’s thrilling getaway and rescues Lennox’s team from a storefront firefight reminiscent of Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down (2001). This, along with earlier scenes revealing Mikaela to be a knowledgeable and strong female character presents a complicated picture of the gender politics in the film that deserves further study. Additionally, Mikaela’s decision to turn back, and Sam’s last minute choice to use the All Spark to destroy Megatron reveal another major difference from earlier American Cold War narratives. One such film is the previously mentioned Red Dawn, which is the kind of story that Tom Engelhardt calls “the American war story,” in which, “you had no choice. Either you pulled the trigger or you died, for war was invariably portrayed as a series of reactive incidents rather than organized and invasive campaigns” (Engelhardt 4-5). Transformers develops from a series of events that present choices whereas the teenagers of Red Dawn react to the conditions placed upon them by the Communist invaders. Therefore, Sam and Mikaela, as young U.S. citizens, are drafted into the Global War on Terror as signified by the Autobot-Decepticon war raging between the buildings and on the streets of the fictional Mission City–a city that emblematizes the mission of promoting the new ideal of the American citizen soldier protecting the now invaded homeland within the intertwined Transformers/September 11 narrative.

Within that narrative space, Sam’s “direct involvement” in the new war on the homeland hinges on his family motto, “No sacrifice. No victory.” This is an often repeated saying in the film, particularly between Sam and his father, Ron (Kevin Dunn). The family motto, made famous, or perhaps infamous, by Sam’s explorer great-great-grandfather, Captain Archibald Witwicky (William Morgan Sheppard), is ingrained in Sam’s identity and figures heavily in his character’s overt motivations. As a “directly involved” citizen soldier in the Global War on Terror, Sam’s family motto connects him to the professional soldiers in the film during a scene in the Sector Seven bunker at Hoover Dam. Captain Lennox and his men have a showdown with the Sector Seven operatives, because they agree with Sam that Autobot Bumblebee should be freed to aid in the fight. During this confrontation, the Defense Secretary John Keller (Jon Voight) tells Agent Simmons (John Turturro), “Losing’s not really an option for these guys.” As Secretary of Defense, he represents the armed forces of the United States, and his saying “losing’s not really an option” conjures the memory of a whole host of losses that America still struggles with in maintaining a decaying triumphal identity following World War II. Additionally, Engelhardt notes that “with the end of the Cold War and the ‘loss of the enemy,’ American culture has entered a period of crisis that raises profound questions about national purpose and identity” (Engelhardt 10). The faltering of American triumphalism during the Cold War and after is emphasized by this exchange between Keller and Simmons. Furthermore, Sam’s family motto, “No sacrifice. No victory,” represents the American need for triumph in this new struggle brought to the American homeland from afar while acknowledging the necessity for sacrifice. Thus, Sam’s identity as a citizen soldier bound by his family motto operates as an analog of the professional American soldier’s need for fulfilling a historically and culturally constructed belief in triumphalism.

Unfortunately, Sam’s “direct involvement” in the Autobot-Decepticon transformation of the Global War on Terror falters, because he appears to make no real sacrifice. Sam’s central role seems to primarily fulfill what Peter Clines reports Steven Spielberg wanted to be the focus of the film–“a boy and his first car” (32). Furthermore, Sam runs away from danger in the hopes of passing along the All Spark to military authorities, but in the end, he destroys the All Spark in order to defeat Megatron. This sacrifice costs Sam nothing, and destroys the Autobots’ hopes for revitalizing their dead planet. Besides this heavy loss, the only apparent American/Autobot casualties are Jazz (Darius McCrary) and a few U.S. military “red shirts.” So, what did the American citizen soldiers really give up? Apparently nothing. Sam gets the girl as well as a car that transforms into a robot, and Captain Lennox is delivered home by Autobot Ironhide (Josh Harnell) to see his wife and baby girl. The majority of the Decepticons are killed and disposed of in the deep waters of the Laurentian Abyss. Therefore, humanity, read as Americans, gives up very little to win their war with the Decepticon disguised technological threat without having to consider Žižek’s question regarding the “surprise” of the average American to suicide attacks: “Does not this surprise reveal the rather sad fact that we, in the first world countries, find it more and more difficult even to imagine a public or universal Cause for which one would be ready to sacrifice one’s life” (388)? How can we accept Sam risking his life as cars tumble about him, and windows are blown out by explosives when we know as a literate film audience that in general he is not in a great deal of danger? We see Sam hanging on the precipice, but in the back of our minds, we understand that it is only a film and tremendous safety precautions are in place, or he is merely lying on his back on a green screen devoid of any real danger. Sacrifice cannot be simulated, or can it?

The only characters shown in the film to sacrifice are the heroic Autobot Transformers, but these computer-generated characters are simulacra masquerading as human technologies. In the case of the Autobots, the origins of their name come from the fact that original Transformers toys were organized such that the automobiles were the good guys or Autobots, and everything else (pistol, F-15, microcassette recorder) were the bad guys or Decepticons. In Bay’s film, the Autobots tell Sam and Mikaela that their name means, “autonomous robotic organisms.” This is a clever explanation, but an unsatisfactory one. In fact, Autobot can stand for all of the Transformers, just as Decepticons, an amalgamation of “deception” and “con,” represents the deceptive nature of all of the Transformers to infiltrate and hide via the mask of human technology. What does it mean for the heroes and the villains of the film to carry the same transformational signification? I assert that this underlies the most significant source of the post-9/11 anxiety, which is the fear of the invisible Other. Americans learned on 9/11 that the ideological enemy carries no flag and wears no uniform–those persons who perpetuated the terror attacks infiltrated American society by a transformative performance. Depending on the context of their surroundings and the exchange of information and messages between cells, these Fourth Generation warriors used the assumption of a social contract to their advantage in the preparation, staging, and implementation of their attacks on the United States. Unlike the Transformers in Michael Bay’s special effects laden film, the 9/11 attackers are true transformers in the sense that they were shadow warriors who hid in plain sight. However, the 9/11 attackers are not the same as the earlier Cold War image of the subversive Communist agent. The 9/11 attackers and their ilk do not desire to sow discontent, but rather intend to create a symbolic event from the death of others facilitated by their martyrdom. Therefore, the reality of the al-Qaeda operative is far removed from any imaginative belief in the elusive Communist agent during the American Cold War.

Transformers is evidently connecting to a number of emblematic issues in the post-9/11 cultural landscape including anxiety of the dream made real, citizen response to the real, concern over sacrifice in response to the real, and the issue of distinguishing friends from enemies. There are a number of other SF films that connect to and explore these issues as part of a growing trend in post-9/11 narrative creation. One such film that I argue is science fictional due to its uncanny recreation of the events of September 11, 2001, is Paul Greengrass’ United 93 (2006), which presents a strong example of citizens turned soldiers. Films such as Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (2005) and Matt Reeve’s Cloverfield (2008) engage narratives of the city under attack, and individuals attempting to save their own lives and the lives of others while trying to make sense of an imminent, seemingly unstoppable threat. Also, the expansion of superhero movie franchises including Spider-Man (2002, 2004, 2007) Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008), and Iron Man (2008) all represent citizens turned soldiers who make choices and sacrifices to contend with unexpected threats made real. Alfonso Cuarón’s film interpretation of Children of Men (2006) further strengthens the concepts of responding to anxieties inspired by the unexpected real. Another film adaptation is Francis Lawrence’s I Am Legend (2007), which presents a reevaluation of the protagonist Robert Neville (Will Smith) and his providing the genesis for the future through a cure he developed to the transformative vampire virus. Another perspective is presented by George Lucas’ Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005) in which a chosen son falters down the wrong path, guided by the elusive and hidden-in-plain-sight evil mentor in the hope that his choice will protect his wife. These are only a sampling of the many SF films released after the September 11 terror attacks, but there is obviously a trend in the representation of and personal response to anxiety resulting from the fantastic made real.

How long will the new post-9/11 SF film narrative be with us, and what is its long-term meaning for American culture? Unmistakably, the new post-9/11 SF film narrative developed from two deeply rooted historical developments–the September 11, 2001 terror attacks and the ensuing call for a “Global War on Terror” by then President George W. Bush. The attacks initiated an unparalleled realization of vulnerability and a new call for individuals to deal with matters that were, until that point, dealt with a world away by the United States government and its military forces. The realization came that the government and its military might is incapable of fully deterring Fourth Generation warfare. This catalyzing comprehension initiated the anxiety of the real, true event that Baudrillard and Žižek confronted in their respective works. Furthermore, the Global War on Terror and the Department of Homeland Security’s “National Threat Advisory” (currently yellow, signifying “Significant Risk of Terrorist Attacks”) serve to sustain the anxiety of the catalyst event, and it is evident that the perpetuation of that anxiety of the real event that has taken place and may take place again has worked its way into the capital-driven cultural productions in American cinema. It has taken almost eight years to arrive at our present position from the September 11 terror attacks, and there was little chance of a shift in perspective during the Bush administration, which launched a retaliatory war in Afghanistan and a war of misguided retribution in Iraq. These wars are still with us today, and will be for some time. However, there are shifts in perspective taking place within the United States government following the historic election of President Barack Obama that may soon find resonance in SF film. According to a report in The Washington Post on March 25, 2009, the Obama administration, as aware of the incendiary and rhetorical power of words as its predecessor, quietly backed away from the use of the phrase “global war on terror” (par. 1).   The monolithic and essentializing conceptualization of the “global war on terror” served to increase the anxiety initially generated by the September 11 terror attacks by sustaining it through Bush’s dualistic stance, “You’re either with us or against us in the fight against terror.” Unfortunately, the problems emblematized by the September 11 terror attacks are not so simple as to align a country against “terror.” The term “terror” cannot contain or represent the complexity of problems that brought about an equally complicated network of persons with varying (and sometimes conflicting) ideological and religious beliefs as al-Qaeda. Additionally, al-Qaeda is not the only group (or individual) engaged in the use of non-declared attacks against civilians in the United States, or elsewhere. And, it is the issue of elsewhere that the new President of the United States, and entire American citizenry, should turn their attention. Following the September 11 terror attacks, there was a massive turning inward, a collective mourning for those persons lost in the attacks, but more significantly for the loss of innocence and the separation between the individual and the real. Žižek puts it more directly:

Either America will persist in, strengthen even, the attitude, “Why should this happen to us? Things like this don’t happen here!”–leading to more aggression toward the threatening Outside, in short: to a paranoiac acting out–or America will finally risk stepping through the fantasmatic screen separating it from the Outside World, accepting its arrival into the Real world, making the long-overdue move from “Things like this should not happen here!” to “Things like this should not happen anywhere!” (Žižek 389)

Unfortunately, Transformers and the other post-9/11 SF films falter on this very point. The new post-9/11 SF narrative is still hung up on the idea that real events like the terror attacks should not happen to America and Americans. These new films resist an ethical cosmopolitanism that symbolic events with real casualties and destruction should not happen to anyone, anywhere, anytime. The new American President, elected in part on Shepard Fairey’s iconic “Hope” and “Change” political artwork, has not yet embraced this cosmopolitan attitude as evidenced by his retaining Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and the unabated use of unmanned Predator aerial drones to kill al-Qaeda militants and Pakistani civilians. Will new post-9/11 SF films engage and critique this most significant aspect of the pain and anxiety Americans face when confronted by the real? It is certainly my hope that the SF films in the future question the change that remains the same, and that audiences walk out of the cinema troubled, angry, and eager to make change real.

Works Cited

Baudrillard, Jean. The Spirit of Terrorism and Other Essays. Trans. Chris Turner. New York: Verso, 2002.

Bay, Michael, dir. Pearl Harbor. Touchtone Pictures. 2001.

—. Transformers. Dreamworks and Paramount Pictures. 2007.

Carpenter, John. Escape from New York. AVCO Embassy Pictures. 1981.

Cartmill, Cleve. “Deadline.” Astounding Science Fiction 33:1 (March 1944): 154-178.

Clines, Peter. “Transformers.” Creative Screenwriting 14:3 (May-June 2007): 32-33.

Clover, Joshua. “Dream Machines.” Film Quarterly 61.2 (2007): 6-7.

Cuarón, Alfonso. Children of Men. Universal Pictures. 2006.

Engelhardt, Tom. The End of Victory Culture: Cold War American and the Disillusioning of a Generation. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998.

Favreau, Jon. Iron Man. Paramount Pictures. 2008.

Gaddis, John Lewis. “And Now This: Lessons From the Old Era For the New One.” The Age of Terror: America and the World After September 11. Eds. Strobe Talbott and Nayan Chanda. New York: Basic Books, 2001. 1-21.

Greengrass, Paul, dir. United 93. Universal Pictures. 2006.

Kubrick, Stanley. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Columbia Pictures. 1964.

Lawrence, Francis. I Am Legend. Warner Bros. 2007.

Lind, William S. “Understanding Fourth Generation Warfare.” ANTIWAR.com. 15 January 2004. 17 March 2008 <http://www.antiwar.com/lind/index.php?articleid=1702&gt;.

Lucas, George, dir. Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. Twentieth Century Fox. 2005.

Milius, John. Red Dawn. MGM/UA. 1984.

Nolan, Christopher. Batman Begins. Warner Bros. 2005.

—. The Dark Knight. Warner Bros. 2008.

Raimi, Sam, dir. Spider-Man. Columbia Pictures. 2002.

—. Spider-Man 2. Columbia Pictures. 2004.

—. Spider-Man 3. Columbia Pictures. 2007.

Reeves, Matt, dir. Cloverfield. Paramount Pictures. 2008.

Scott, Ridley, dir. Black Hawk Down. Columbia Pictures. 2001.

Spielberg, Steve, dir. War of the Worlds. Paramount Pictures, 2005.

Wilson, Scott and Al Kamen. “‘Global War on Terror’ Is Given New Name.” The Washington Post 25 March 2009. 26 March 2009 <http://www.washingtonpost.com/&gt;.

Wise, Robert. The Day the Earth Stood Still. Twentieth Century Fox. 1951.

Žižek, Slavoj. “Welcome to the Desert of the Real!” The South Atlantic Quarterly 101.2 (Spring 2002): 385-389.

Recovered Writing, PhD in English, Comprehensive Exam 3 of 3, Fiction of Philip K. Dick, Dr. Donald “Mack” Hassler, 7 June 2010

This is the sixtieth 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.

After completing two years of course work in the PhD in English program at Kent State University, I began preparing for my comprehensive exams with faculty who I hoped to also work with when I moved on to the dissertation stage.

After resting over the weekend, I took my final PhD exam on Philip K. Dick. My dissertation director Donald “Mack” Hassler administered this test for me. We had spent time discussing Dick’s novels and stories during an independent study. However, this minor exam required me to read the entire Dick oeuvre and a good amount of scholarship on the writer’s work. We agreed on this reading list. During the year of preparation, I would walk down to Mack’s house–a few blocks from the house my wife and I rented in Kent–and we would sit and discuss my progress.

In this exam, I discussed in broad strokes Dick’s career in the first question, I explored the major theme of authenticity in the second question, and I examined his personal ontological insights in his VALIS trilogy in the third question. Like the postmodern theory minor exam, I had four hours to write the following response.

Jason W. Ellis

Dr. Donald Hassler

PhD Minor Exam: Philip K. Dick

7 June 2010

Question 1

Philip Kindred Dick (1928-1982) was an American novelist, short story writer, and essayist, whose most recognized works were in science fiction, but he also wrote a significant number of realistic fictions, only one of which was published during his lifetime. The majority of stories are closely related to California, where he spent most of his life. Also, the loss of his twin sister Jane and his life with his mother following his parents’ divorce severely affected his personal life and colored his fictions. In his stories, there are a number of recurring character archetypes and themes. His primary recurring characters include the serviceman or blue collar worker who works for someone else and is trapped at home and work, the castrating harpy or bitch is usually the serviceman’s wife, the dark-haired girl is a younger woman who serves as a distraction or seductress to the serviceman, and the patriarch who is the father figure or boss of the serviceman and he is sometimes helpful, sometimes not, and may compete for the attention of the dark-haired girl. The themes that Dick explores in his fictions include the relationships between men and women, humans and machines, the plight of the everyman, psychological rupture, authenticity versus inauthentic, philosophy, ontological uncertainty, and theological questioning.

Using Brian McHale’s theory of postmodernism, I have divided Dick’s oeuvre into three phases based on the epistemological or ontological dominant evident in the fictions. As he argues, epistemologically dominant issues or questions (i.e., how do we know particular things, what can we know, how do we know ourselves, etc.), when pushed far enough, transform or lead to ontologically dominant issues (i.e., creation of a world or worlds, making sense of one’s place in a world, etc.). Even though he is arguing for a division between the modern (epistemological) and the postmodern (ontological), his idea that these dominants coexist on different levels within texts provides a way of engaging Dick’s writing.

The first phase includes his writing to the end of the 1950s during which time Dick was performing two kinds of writing: an overwhelming number of science fiction short stories and a handful of novels including a number of mostly unpublished realistic novels. These fictions promote a epistemological dominant. The second phase with its emphasis on ontologically dominant issues includes the 1960s and the early 1970s. The third phase, which overlaps with the second phase (Dick mentions gnosis in The Penultimate Truth (I will capitalize book titles and not italicize to save time typing), for example, in 1964, and theology in some of his earlier works), includes primarily his fictions of the late-1970s to the early-1980s in which he returns to epistemological questions through his exploration of theology and Gnostic beliefs as he attempts to interpret his own subjective experiences beginning in February and March of 1974.

Dick’s first writing phase begins with his first published story: “Beyond Lies the Wub” (1952), in which an intelligent and telepathic Martian pet takes over the mind of a ship’s captain after it is killed and eaten. Uncertain borders between inside and outside, such as in this story, define the paranoiac tensions in his fiction that turn up again and again. This theme is most fully developed in his mid-1960s novel, Dr. Bloodmoney (1965) when Bill exchanges minds with Hoppy Harrington. Other notable stories from this period include “Imposter” (1953), which is about a man who discovers that he is actually an android, “Second Variety” (1953), which is about a post-apocalyptic world inhabited by men and killer androids that are indistinguishable from humans, “Autofac” (1955), which is about automatic factories that cannot be turned off when they are no longer needed, and “The Minority Report” (1956), which is about stopping crime before it happens and questioning determinism. Minds, paranoia, human-machine relationships, and knowability are issues in his early fiction that he continues to develop throughout his career.

While writing an extensive amount of short fiction in the 1950s, Dick also began writing realistic fiction and science fiction novels, with greater publication success with the latter. His first novel published was Solar Lottery (1955), which depicts a future in which chance defines life and the ultimate lottery is the one that determines the world leader or Quizmaster. Other early novels include The Cosmic Puppets (1957), which features a remote town torn between two competing Zoroastrian gods. This novel combines the issues of a simulated reality with the paranoia of something lying beyond our immediate perception of reality controlling the lives of what Patricia Warrick terms the “little men.” Another early novel is Dr. Futurity (1959—interestingly, published the same year as Heinlein’s “All You Zombies”), which revisits the question of free will through the tribulations of a time travelling surgeon, snatched 400 years into the future to help and inadvertently kill an Iroquois chief. Other notable novels from this period include The World Jones Made (1956), Eye in the Sky (1957), and The Man Who Japed (1956).

During this time, Dick wrote a significant amount of realistic fiction, because he wanted mainstream success. Science fiction, as a result of his agent and publisher, never paid well for Dick. He desired mainstream success and recognition. His first written novel was in fact a realistic novel, Gather Yourselves Together. Written in 1950, it is about three American business people preparing to leave post-WWII China as the Communists begin to control the mainland. The principle characters, two men and one woman, deal more with their interpersonal sexual relationships than with the impending social revolution just outside the gates. In 1952, he wrote Voices from the Street, which is an early appearance of his trademark Modern TV Sales and Service, and it is about its owner and his breakdown from the effects of the mundane. Mary and the Giant, written in 1954, is an interracial love and love-lost story that Dick described as a retelling of Don Giovanni. The Broken Bubble, written in 1956, is about two couples who essentially swap wives, and learn life lessons from the economy of sexual relationships. In 1957, Dick wrote Puttering About in a Small Land which shares elements with Voices from the Street. It is about Roger Lindahl, who runs a TV shop, and who develops marital problems after having an affair with a dark-haired girl/woman. It ends with him not going insane, but instead, skipping out on his wife and lover with a car full of his own TV sets. In 1958, he wrote In Milton Lumky Territory, which is about a warehouse manager turned typewriter sales shop manager. Confessions of a Crap Artist, written in 1959, was the only realistic novel published in Dick’s lifetime. It is a story about the death of a man seen from his and three other character perspectives, and how each constructs a particular view of reality. As in Dick’s most important science fiction, this novel demonstrates Dick’s belief that reality is a subjective experience. The Man Whose Teeth Were All Exactly Alike (1960) is about real estate troubles fueled by racism and a poisoned water supply. In fact, racism is viewed as more problematic than the effects of contaminated ground water. And Dick’s last realistic novel from the early period is Humpty Dumpty in Oakland, which was written in 1960. It is a story about two cooperative business owners split apart by an outside entrepreneur. All of the remaining mainstream novels have since been published after Dick’s death in 1982.

The second phase of Dick’s writing career begins with his 1959 science fiction novel Time Out of Joint. It combines the epistemological issues of knowledge and self and the ontological world building that defines Dick’s central works. In the novel, Ragle Gumm is maintained by the world government in a 1950s simulacral enclave in what is really 1997 (note also the exchange of time by place—a postmodern development that figures large in Dick’s middle period). Gumm discovers that he has been placed in the enclave to assist with his psychotic regression from the pressure he was under in the real 1997 predicting where Lunar missiles will strike the Earth. In the simulacral 1950s, he plays a daily contest, “Where are the Little Green Men?” in order to supply the Earth forces with the data they need to prepare for the next attack.

The novel for which Dick won the Hugo Award for Best Novel was his 1962 The Man in the High Castle. The novel takes place in an alternate history where Japan and German won WWII and divided the United States between them. This represents one ontology, or world. Within the story there is another novel called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. This novel, developed with the help of the I-Ching or Book of Changes, tells our story, or what we know as reality. This represents another ontology. It is only at the end of the novel that one character, Juliana Frink, questions the I-Ching and learns that Grasshopper is “Inner Truth” or the true reality. This novel provides a denouement that Dick’s later ontological mysteries dismiss favored a deferred meaning.

Martian Time-Slip (1964) takes time and ontology into another direction. In this story about Martian immigrants and the displaced peoples of Mars, the bleekmen, Arnie Kott tries to capitalize on the precognitive abilities of an autistic boy, Manfred. Manfred’s reality is shaped by a different perception of time, seeing slices of time extending into the future, people appearing and disappearing as they move about. With the mystical help of the bleekmen, Kott’s manservant Heliogabalus guides Kott and Manfred to Dirty Knobby, a place that will help focus Manfred’s ability. Instead of helping Kott, it allows Manfred’s already powerful ability to control the reality of those around him by sending Kott back in time to try to interfere in the original course of events that took the claim of the FDR Mountains from him. The original time line is maintained and upon his return Kott is killed by Zitte, a smuggler whose warehouse was destroyed by Kott’s men. Kott dies believing that he is still in the world controlled by Manfred.

Dr. Bloodmoney (1965) is a post-apocalyptic story about a group of survivors living in the California countryside. Instead of a straight ontological Dick story, this novel is about the control of reality by technoscientific means. First, Dr. Bluthgeld/Jack Tree/Dr. Bloodmoney, representing the military-industrial complex and the man held responsible for the devastation of the war, and seemingly innocent and eccentric member of the neighborhood family, once marshaled his abilities to ruin the world and society as it then existed. Now, threatened, he attempts to use his force of will to rein terror down on humanity once again. He is stopped by Hoppy Harrington, a phocomelus, a human mutant reliant on his mental powers and technological apparatus to move about and do his work. Hoppy destroys Bluthgeld, and in turn, becomes like Bluthgeld. Mad with power, Hoppy and his stunted child-like mind demand favors and attention. Hoppy is in turn defeated by Bill, Edie’s unborn brother who lives inside her body. Hoppy uses his power to remove Bill, but Bill uses his own mental powers to switch bodies with Hoppy—leaving Hoppy to die and Bill to take over his new, yet deformed, body. This world is dependent on the interconnections between the characters and the unifying voice of Walt Dangerfield, endlessly orbiting Earth in his manmade satellite. Disruptions to the web of connections lead to ontological instability and the threat of more bombs. The elimination of Hoppy and Bluthgeld restores stability to the world and breaks the cycle of mad power hunger represented by these two characters.

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965) is a demonstration of drug-induced ontologies. Can-D is a drug for Martian colonists to interact with their Perky Pat layouts—the ultimate commodity fetishism through virtual immersion. However, the Perky Pat layout is limited to only Pat and her boyfriend Walt, which means several persons may inhabit these virtual selves at a given time. Palmer Eldritch, or something purporting to be Eldritch, returns from a mission to the Prox System with a new and improved drug that he calls Chew-Z. Unlike Can-D, Chew-Z creates a world just for the person who uses it. What Eldritch doesn’t say is that every world, all of those separate ontologies, are inhabited and controlled by him. His three stigmata—mechanical arm, stainless steel eye, and metal teeth—become ubiquitous. The ending gestures towards the uncertainty of reality or the certainty of a subjective reality that Dick will explore more in this period culminating with Ubik and A Maze of Death.

The transition from his second to third phase of writing begins with the richly complex Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (1968). I will speak more on this novel in the second question, but for now, it suffices to say that this novel returns to Dick’s earlier dominant theme of epistemological questions through an ontological subplot. The primary issue in the novel is the human builds machine, and then the human becomes the machine. The main character, Rick Deckard, struggles with his own identity as he retires or kills escaped androids for money that would allow him to own a real live animal sheep. In this future Earth populated by those who cannot or choose not to immigrate to the outer planets, Fredric Jameson’s waning of affect is clearly evident when the other characters are surfaces to be painted by emotion delivered by the Mood Organ and the Empathy Box. The Empathy box is far more important to the story, because it allows an individual to interface with every other person using an Empathy Box. In that other realm, the individuals merge with Wilber Mercer, an apparently old man who struggles up a steep and barren hill against the killers—those who would take from Mercer his ability to return the dead to life. Interestingly, Mercer is revealed to be a fake and a fraud, and yet, he transcends his realm of the Empathy Box into Deckard’s world to warn him of the androids waiting for him at the end. Mercer tells him that he will do the thin that conflicts with his identity—the thing he wants to refuse to do—and that thing is the taint on all creation. By Dick’s own description of an android and how humans can become androids, Mercer is telling Deckard that there is no escape—that in some way we are all androids when we experience this identity crisis.

Ubik (1969) is arguably the finest example of Dick’s ontological experiments in fiction of the 1960s. The story is structured around a series of ontological puzzles, one cliffhanger explanation after another, where the characters are caught in a deadly entropic world trying to figure out where they are and how they can survive a world in constant flux beyond rational analysis. The characters may be in half-life, or they could be in a world created by a telepath with a unique time-altering ability undetectable by precogs. This dark-haired girl is particularly dangerous to men and women who stand in her way to the men she desires. Their boss may be alive, or he may be dead. They may be in a real world and their boss trapped in half-life. All the while, one by one they die off by an accelerated entropy, the gubble or kipple in Martian Time-Slip or Do Androids, that ages their bodies in a matter of moments. An anti-entropic force is at work in this changing world that provides the main character Joe Chip with Ubik, a commodified chemical substance that keeps his body safe and immune to the effects of entropy. However, it is difficult to come by Ubik, and its effects are only temporary. Jory, a boy in half-life who apparently is feeding off the life force of those caught in half-life will ultimately return for another chance at Joe. This novel interweaves ontological dilemmas with a heavily commodified culture that has become ubiquitous to the point that there is no outside advertising fueled capitalism (cf. The Space Merchants). It can be argued that this capitalism, which Jameson and others point to as giving rise to postmodernism, is what causes the ontological crisis for the characters in the novel. This idea complements McHale’s formulation of epistemological/modernism and ontological/postmodernism.

Further bridging Dick’s earlier work with his increasing integration of religion and in particular gnosticism into his fiction is his novella “Faith of Our Fathers” (1967). In this story, the world is ruled by the Chinese Communist government and its one supreme ruler. Everyone on Earth is given prescribed hallucinogenic drugs. The protagonist, Tung, obtains an illegal anti-hallucinogen, which causes him to see the supreme ruler as he actually is—a multiply and shifting appearance from the machine to the monstrous to the natural. Tung discovers that the leader is actually an alien or demiurge with fantastic powers, but who rationalizes his actions as not being as bad as other beings in the universe. At the end, Tung dies wishing to regain his hallucination, because it was a much more acceptable reality than the one he now finds himself in.

In A Maze of Death (1970), Dick begins to combine theology with ontological instability. A group of specialists converge on a mysterious planet, Delmak-O, and begin dying off one by one. In this world, people can contact their religious deities through a network of transmitters and amplifiers. Interestingly, each person sees a mysterious building on the planet in different ways and in different places prior to the planet’s complete dissolution. Also, the tenches, large techno-organic beings, serve a role providing I-Ching-like advice and duplicates of artifacts that the colonists need. It is believed by some of the colonists that the tenches play a significant role in the world that they are on, but it is later revealed that Delmak-O is merely a simulation of reality, slightly distorted for each participant. The inhabitants of this virtual world are trapped aboard a spacecraft orbiting a distant star. The final destabilizing moment of the novel comes when Morley is visited by his deity from within the simulation in the real world. The deity offers him an escape from the ship, which Morley gladly accepts.

Largely based on Dick’s troubles as a result of increasing involvement in the California drug scene, A Scanner Darkly (1977) develops a more elegant depiction of drug-induced ontologies and the resulting epistemological troubles that arise from an uncertain reality. Bob Arctor is a NARC who is assigned to infiltrate the Substance-D(eath) scene. As a NARC, he wears a scramble suit in the police building and at official functions, so no one really knows what Bob looks like. On assignment, Bob makes friends, each with their own personality quirks and psychoses that develop from their use of drugs including Substance-D. The thing about this drug is that it severs the cross talk between the two brain hemispheres and effectively divides the self into two. For Bob, this is particularly troubling, because he loses grasp on the division between his undercover and professional selves. The drug makes the division real, which precipitates the crisis leading to his girlfriend (a dark-haired NARC) taking him to the New-Path Facility, a special detox and rehabilitation center that the authorities believe are behind the production of Substance-D. Bob didn’t realize that his mission lead to this point where he would, hopefully be able to alert the authorities of his findings. The important thing to take away from this novel is that what we know is determined by the biology of our brains, which can be influenced or destroyed by chemical dependence. Furthermore, subjective experience of our ontology is determined by the physicality of our brain.

Dick’s last three novels VALIS (1981), The Divine Invasion (1981), and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer (1982) are loosely collected as the VALIS Trilogy (I will talk about these more in the third question). Dick refocuses his writing on epistemologically dominant questions as he processes the meaning of his 2-3-74 experience. Beginning in February 1974, Dick experienced what he described as a bright pink laser beam, which filled his vision and imparted information about his life, those around him, and the universal structure of things. Described as 2-3-74, due to the most impressive visions having happened in February and March of that year, Dick began attempting to make sense of the experience. He began writing what he called his Exegesis. It was a remembering of knowledge that he believed he had lost, or anamnesis, and a rational explanation of what these new memories meant for himself and his understanding of the universe. Part of Dick’s revelatory experience is that it was grounded in Gnosticism—an early Christian belief that the world was created and ruled by a lesser being, the demiurge, and that Christ was the emissary of the distant supreme divine being, esoteric knowledge or gnosis of whom enabled the redemption of the human spirit. Some critics have written on Gnosticism in Dick’s earlier works, but these ideas unequivocally play a defining part in these, his last three novels. VALIS is a metafictional account of the author as a divided character in a novel who watches a movie about his personal spiritual experience and seeks to understand it with the help of his close friends. The Divine Invasion is a fictional story that relates the author’s Gnostic vision in a far future story of personal salvation. The Transmigration of Timothy Archer is a theologically based realistic fiction that is told in flashback by his most realized and sympathetic female character, Angel Archer. It is about loss, the human and the android, and redemption through giving and empathy. I will address these novels more in the third question.

Throughout his fiction, Dick’s characters are usually little men or the everyman. They may get tangled up on something much larger than themselves (e.g., politics or the battle between good and evil). Populating their worlds are numerous simulacra or androids—mechanical beings but lacking affect or emotion. In Dick’s worls, however, the humans often become or are already androids themselves—beings who lack empathy. Late capitalism and commodity fetishism turn men into machines—unfeeling, disconnected from humanity, acting on programming or instructions. In Dick’s fictions, it seems like he began with epistemological questions, which led him to push them into the realm of the ontological. I believe this is what caused his career to circle back to the beginning so to speak. He was almost always concerned about the interiority and psychology of his characters even while exploring how people figure out the world in which they find themselves. Dick’s turn to theology was only another turn in this questioning of subjective reality. He believed that his 2-3-74 experience was the next path to explore and that it might lead him to explore and that it might lead him to some explanations, however problematic they may be, and those explanations seem to have made sense to his subjective experience, which for Dick, was all that really mattered.

An important element of Dick’s writing has to do with his development of female characters. Until Angel Archer, the majority of Dick’s women characters were spiteful, controlling, and emasculating to the men around them. Without knowing the full context of Judith Merril’s “domestic patriots,” which I suspect is related to Lisa Yaszek’s work in Galactic Suburbia and Elaine Taylor May’s Homeward Bound, these women protected the home and community in the face of nuclear Armageddon. However, they do this in confrontation with men’s power and authority. Dick’s relationships with women including his mother is troubled to say the least, and it could be that his women characters are by-and-large representations of the way he saw women who tried to take authority away from men, including himself. However, I do not get a sense that his women character’s gradually change over time. Angel Archer is a specific shift in writing for Dick, and I am suspect to how much Angel was an authentic attempt at a female narrative voice or merely Dick’s assuming a new tact at controlling women through his fiction. In effect, he have crafted Angel so well to control her (in opposition to the controlling female characters in the past stories), and to assert his command as a writer who can also write in a feminine voice (a topic particularly exacerbated by the Robert Silverberg introduction to the James Tiptree, Jr. collection, but I do not know if Dick weighed-in on this or not).

Dick doesn’t seem to give up on his fears of fascism. Even in The Transmigration, Tim Archer is besieged by the invisible church authorities and in The Divine Invasion the world is controlled by Belial. Dick is always looking for the ‘penultimate truth’ and the next layer underneath what we perceive as reality and the social. Even in his last fictions, Dick still perceived something underneath everything that maintained control. Most famously, at the convention in Metz, France in 1977, Dick asserted his beliefs that we now think of as an invention of the Wachowski Brothers in The Matrix (1999).

 

Question 2

Dick’s underlying concern in most (if not all) of his works is authenticity. He is concerned about the authenticity of experiences, things, and phenomena. What is authentic reality? What is my authentic experience compared to someone else’s? Are these goods authentic or ersatz duplications? These questions recur in Dick’s fiction and essays and concern his fictional creations as well as his subjective experience of the supposed real world. Dick is particularly concerned about authentic human beings and their inauthentic simulacra. However, Dick did not formulate a simple dichotomy between real humans and androids. Much more interestingly, he observed that humanity is embroiled in its simulacral creations, and one may transform into the other. It is the contemporary challenge of humanity to not become the android as the world changes in various ways with the forces of technoscientific advancement and the effects of late capitalism. Coming before the work of Fredric Jameson and his lament for the waning of affect and Bruno Latour’s demonstration that the moderns artificially purified subjects and objects while hybrids continued to proliferate underneath the surface, each qualified for engaging Dick’s ideas about humans and androids. Patricia Warrick began to theorize the meanings of Dick’s ideas about human authenticity and inauthenticity through the work of Bruce Mazlish.

Warrick’s analysis of Dick’s fiction in regard to humans and androids relies on the work of anthropologist Bruce Mazlish. He perceived a discontinuity between man and his machines that could be breached in the future. Mazlish’s argument goes that this is another artificial division to be deconstructed by modernity. Copernicus taught man that he was not the center of the Universe. Darwin taught man that he was not separate from nature, but instead part of and evolved from the animal world. Freud taught man that he was not a wholly rational creature with a centered self. Mazlish believes that man should recognize his nature as being continuous with the tools and machines that he constructs. Warrick shows that after the 1950s, science fiction literature that should support Mazlish’s claims exacerbates the discontinuity between man and intelligent machines. However, there are some writers who show the creative potential in man and machine symbiosis.

Warrick compares Dick to Isaac Asimov in her analysis. Dick and Asimov are wildly different writers who both present futures where the distinction between man and machine is erased. Dick, unlike Asimov, is more concerned with androids than robots. Importantly, Dick believes that machines can be androids and humans in certain circumstances, largely from what we think of as late capitalism, can become androids. The central theme in Dick is to define the authentically human and to distinguish those who are non-human with alien elements from the authentically human. Dick and Asimov share a humanistic outlook and believe in the idea of progress, but they are also divergent in a number of significant ways. Asimov is identified with world, objective reality, discursive logic, scientist, sanguine, pre-WWII, no post-holocaust stories, psychohistory, man does not change, static environments, and future is a fictional model of present reality. Dick, on the other hand, is identified with mind, subjective reality, terminal metaphor, humanist (in regard to culture and oriental philosophy), pessimism, post-WWII, post-holocaust stories, future is radical and unexpected, transformation of technology leads to transformation of man, new forms appear as a result of science and technology, and the future is a fictional alternative to current fiction (subjective view point), hence a metafiction.

In Dick’s fiction, there is an evolving reciprocal relationship between man and machine. Man fights automated machines, becomes more un-alive and machine-like, withdraws into schizophrenia as they reject exploitation by economic and political machinery, and schizoid humans turn into androids with mechanical/programmed personalities. In contrast, machines transition and evolve: electronic constructs/automated machines, alien and enemy robots masquerading as human, robots becoming human, will to survive, and robots becoming superior to humans.

Warrick develops her own tripartite classification to Dick’s writing based on the relationship between the human and the android. In the first period, primarily the 1950s, Dick wrote mostly dystopian short fiction that explores the horror of paranoiac militarism, totalitarianism, and manipulation of the little man through mass media persuasion. A few representative works from this period include: “Imposter,” robot/bomb replaces scientist and the scientist tries to prove his innocence/humanity. “Second Variety” is about robots who masquerade as humans in post-apocalyptic landscape. “The Defenders” is about the leady, artificial soldiers who stay above ground while the humans go under while the robots fight on. Unbeknownst to the underground dwellers, the robots make peace and rebuild the world above. And in the novel Vulcan’s Hammer, the Vulcan III computer rules over all humans (not as kindly as the robot controllers in Asimov’s “The Evitable Conflict”). Things become alive and people become things, mere pawns at the control of the computer. This story is emblematic of machines as destructive humans. This illustrates the importance of metaphor in Dick. He sees the computer as a metaphor that runs in two directions: machines/computers can be like humans who kill, but humans, driving by unrecognized impulses (going back to Freud), become machines that kill. This latter metaphor is demonstrated in The Man in the High Castle by the totalitarian state becoming a machine of domination and destruction. In this way, Vulcan’s Hammer and The Man in the High Castle form the opposite poles of a dichotomy that Dick would later more fully explore in a single work.

Dick’s middle period shifts from a focus on militarism and a third person point of view to economic and political structures and multiple narrative foci. He also more fully develops these two main ideas in his fiction: 1) the outcome of the war, be it military or economic, is not victory or defeat, but transformation to the opposite (e.g., human/machine, ally/enemy, us/other), and 2) media images replace the actual (i.e., the image becomes reality). Technologies transform man into new, unexpected, and possibly ironic forms, and technologies through communication media create fictional realities that are more powerful than the real. Just as machines are programmed to perform, people are made subjects who are programmed with a certain view of reality. Some examples include: In Martian Time-Slip, Jack Bolen sees other people as machines. For him, schizophrenia is a way to deal with an inhuman environment. Insanity is represented as absolute reality, because the schizoid sees beneath the surface of things. Manfred, the precognitive autistic child, is the more authentic character. His ‘madness’ allows him to see what no one else wants to or can see. And possibly the most human character in the novel is the Martian aborigine, Heliogabalus, who is able to connect with Manfred with empathy. Dick relies on empathy as the basis for his humanistic value system—something we see repeated to better effect in Do Androids. Also, it is important to note that Manfred does not commune with the teaching androids in the school. His mental disconnection from the rest of humanity does not necessarily make him a machine. It only makes him different and in some ways more human. Palmer Eldritch is like Arnie Kott in Martian Time-Slip: both characters use a form of economic domination to oppress or control others. Kott fails when Jack tries to escape this, but Eldritch’s ubiquity seems inescapable. Eldritch’s stigamata—the mechanical arm, stainless steel teeth, and artificial electronic eye signify his otherness from humanity. The being that returned from the Prox System is more than likely not human. He has returned to devour the little men. His stigmata infiltrates all humanity, and it is through his drug Chew-Z that he gains power of manipulation over reality. His created reality/hallucination replaces the real. The Simulacra has double inauthentic leaders: Nichole Thibodeaux, the supreme leader who is forever young thanks to an endless supply of actresses, and der Alte, her husband, elected every four years, and served by an android. The media and robotic electric technologies allow for this level of manipulation. In The Penultimate Truth, Stanton Brose is the hidden economic-oriented dictator, and the representative of the honest government to the masses is President Talbot Yancy, a programmed simulacra. However, in Dr. Bloodmoney, transformations save the day. Hoppy Harrington transforms into Dr. Bluthgeld as a power-hungry techno-scientist, but the caring Bill subverts their power when he changes bodies with Hoppy.

In the third period, not taking into account Dick’s theologically oriented works, Dick shifts to the inner workings of the mind. Robots haunt the human from within, and the human is seen as a machine and android. Dick outlines these thoughts in his speech “The Machine and the Android.” He argues that the android mind has a paucity of feeling, predictability, obedience, inability to make exceptions, and inability to alter with circumstances to become something new. The finest example of this is Dick’s Do Androids. Unlike most of his middle period works that feature multiple narrative foci, Do Androids focuses on Rick Deckard and J. R. Isidore. Rick Deckard, the android hunter, is left brained, rational, and unfeeling. Isidore is right brained, intuitive, and empathizes with all things, including androids. The novel has further proliferating pairings: people/things, subject/object, animate/inanimate, loving/killing, intuition/logic, human/machine, Deckard/Resch, and Rachael/Pris. Wilber Mercer seems to take a pragmatic, transcendent middle way—the one who could resurrect the dead, but conceding the reality of the universe: you will be required to do the thing that you don’t want to do, the thing that will violate your own identity. Deckard, as in the earlier stories, represents man who created machines that kill/man becomes the machine that kills. However, Deckard is unlike Resch. Deckard is troubled by what he has become. He wants a real live animal so badly that he is willing to kill androids for $1000/each, even while acknowledging that they can give something back to the world (e.g., Luba’s gift as an opera singer). To survive in this world, you have to let go of the inauthentic division between man and machine, living and nonliving. This is what Deckard and Iron do at the end with the mechanical frog. Isidore, considered a chickenhead by many, points the way to the power of the right hemisphere of the brain and its creative power to transform us from machines into authentic humans. In the film version of Do Androids titled Blade Runner (1982), Deckard is figured as an android with his own implanted memories and alone in the world. He falls for Rachel Rosen, a Nexus 6 android, and at the end, he runs away with her. She has come to love him, and he her. If they are both androids, they have demonstrated what Batty and the other escaped androids were trying to tell the humans all along—they can see and feel just like humans. Our constructs are just like us, and it is our responsibility to acknowledge that. Perhaps it is this realization that drives Deckard to run away with Rachel—that through living, however short a time they may have, they will achieve the thing humanity denies androids. For humanity to acknowledge the lives and emotions of its constructs, it would ultimately destabilize and undermine the importance of the human in a universe otherwise devoid of intelligent beings (at least those we have personally encountered). Humanity in this sense is a fascist regime—it denies agency and emotional depth to other creatures. Humanity is the oppressor, and it is unfortunate that Deckard must retire so many androids before he comes to realize his part in the fascism of humanity—something that is hinted at through Mercer’s words to him in the novel.

It is through the film Blade Runner that Dick’s work most colorfully contrasts with that of Asimov. Asimov’s robots, especially R. Daneel Olivaw in the robot and later Foundation novels, contend with the self-imposed superiority of humans over robots. However, the robots have the last laugh through the Zeroth Law—assuming a position of ethnical authority over humanity and its development. Dick’s androids take no stand against or for all of humanity (except perhaps the Machiavellian Vulcan computers in Vulcan’s Hammer). Dick’s androids are, like his humans, individuals trying to find their way in a very unfriendly ontological creation. In Do Androids, they want to hide out and live their lives away from the deadly bounty hunters. In Blade Runner, Ridley Scott shows us how the androids act and behave toward one another as mutually caring individuals.

“The Electric Ant” is another emblematic story of this period of Dick’s writing. Like Gregor Samsa in Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” Garson Poole wakes in a hospital bed and discovers that he is actually a robot. Learning this fact forever changes the way he sees himself and the world around him. He realizes that he is programmed to act and behave in a particular way according to the instructions on his tape, but he also realizes that he can reprogram himself, change his tape, and experience the world differently. Thus, his reality tape is a subjective reality, just as our own acculturation and education creates in us a subjective reality for seeing and interacting with the world. We are programmed in various ways, and Dick understood how this can be a very bad thing if left unacknowledged—leading to fascism and blindly following internalized rules or behavior.

Ultimately for Dick, he sees the irony in our situation. He observed that seeing everything as alive or everything as dead means the same thing. He seeks a middle path: namely that everything is lived through. Life and living are processes, not an end unto themselves. Recognizing this in ourselves and in our simulacra can lead to a more creative and accepting worldview that will eventually come—Dick was there and came back to tell us about it.

 

Question 3

            Dick’s fiction represents the author’s continuing emergence and development as a writer, but unlike his earlier fiction, Dick’s last three books take a decidedly different turn in relation to the author. Dick acknowledges his autobiographical elements in all of his fiction, but it is in the VALIS trology that the author breaks the fourth wall and creates his most postmodern works, particularly with the novel VALIS. The author’s earlier works may have been about his own life in various ways, but it is in these last novels that Dick explores his own subjective experiences and psychosocial traumas. The author’s voice in these works is more developed in these three novels than in his earlier work, because he assumes the role of the mighty Oz and pulls back his own curtains to reveal to the reader what lies beneath the surface of his writing. This curtain hides the underlying beliefs of the author and the author’s own subjective experience known as 2-3-74. Dick’s Gnostic beliefs, already present in his fiction prior to the 1970s, comes to full fruition in the VALIS trilogy as a return of the apostolic age—the juxtaposition of the time of Gnosticism in ancient Rome with Dick’s modern day California—a juxtaposition of returning belief structures united through time transformed into space.

It is through the VALIS trilogy that Dick explores the apostolic age reinvention through the author’s belief in VALIS, the satellite connecting him to the Supreme Being through its Gnostic transmissions. In his last three novels, Dick creatively uses voice in ways much different than in his earlier works to bring his subjective experience to his reading audience. I believe that Dick’s VALIS trilogy represents a strong example of Bakhtin’s monologism. VALIS, The Divine Invasion, and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer are monologic novels, because the characters are subordinate to the authoritative discourse found in the trilogy. Following Dick’s 2-3-74 experience in which he believed to have been contacted by a super intelligent being who passed along information and awakened Dick’s anamnesis, or a remembrance of things past outside of Dick’s existence in the here-and-now, he sought an explanation for his visions. Through his textually heavy Exegesis, Dick employed his extensive book knowledge and reasoning to come up with possibilities and counter possibilities. Like a Derridean trace, Dick’s ultimate understanding was in the end forever deferred and inconclusive. However, Dick repeatedly circled back to Gnosticism: the early Christian belief in the demiurge, a lesser divinity who controlled and created the universe, and the personal salvation of the individual through esoteric knowledge delivered by Christ, emissary of the greater supreme being. Dick believed that the bright pink laser beam that struck him in 1974 was just such a message, which supplied the possibility of salvation by uncovering the artificiality of reality created by the demiurge. Dick recorded his thoughts and personal conversations regarding his experience in his extensive Exigesis. It is from this collection of notes that Dick began development of VALIS.

The many character voices in VALIS are subservient to Dick’s professed desire to make sense of his experience in a fictional format that could be shared with his readers. He employs a particular rhetoric to do this through the use of character voice—representations of himself in various guises. It is important to note that Dick described VALIS as a picaresque novel populated by picaroons, or rogues. In much of his earlier work, Dick created characters identified by what they did for a living. There were salesmen, repair men, managers, pot healers, etc. Then after he fell into the California drug scene in the 1970s after his then-wife left him and he populated his house with various people from that scene, Dick noted that they were all rogues of various kinds. These were not workers, but users of people, things, and drugs. They would do whatever they needed to do to score a hit. Observing these new friends and acquaintances, Dick, in several late interviews, begins to see everyone as rogues of one sort or another. This realization on Dick’s part informs the central characters of VALIS.

In VALIS, Phil Dick is a science fiction author, much like the real author, Philip K. Dick. Phil creates a persona named Horselover Fat (Philip is Greek for horselover, and Dick in German is Fat) who is a character unto himself, but connected to Phil. Phil explains that he created Fat for some much needed objectivity. Phil and Fat’s friends are David, a catholic, and Kevin, a skeptic who wants to ask the creator why his cat was run over by a car. These four characters banter back and forth about the meaning of Fat’s experience with the pink laser beam transmission from what he calls VALIS, or Vast Active Life Intelligence System. Phil could be said to be rational, left brained persona of the author, Philip K. Dick, and Fat could be the intuitive, right brained persona. Some critics argue that David and Kevin are further psychic splits of the author represented as characters within the novel. However, the underlying point about which they all orbit is Fat’s experience and VALIS. They may provide alternative explanations, but they are each a manifestation of the various ideas that the author explored in his Exegesis. They are straw men for the central idea that the author imagines was his 2-3-74 experience.

To complicated matters, it can also be argued that VALIS is a dialogic or polyphonic novel. The characters do provide a unique voice or point of view to the events that Fat experiences. After VALIS’ contact with Fat’s mind, Fat comes to realize that he lives in two time-space continua—the present day California and ancient Rome. However, in ancient Rome, he is Thomas, who Fat considers the dominant personality. So, Dick has created another schism, another split, another voice. Thomas notwithstanding, the California group, who call themselves the Rhipidon Society, are also an example of Bakhtin’s carnivalesque. Order is inverted—the serious is made silly and the silly is made serious. These picaroons debate the reasonable and the not-so-reasonable in ernest. Dick, the author, is challenging the accepted dogma of a good deal of the Christian world through these rogue characters. Thus, the novel is not completely monologic, but the playful irony and parody within the novel still presents a singular view about 2-3-74 that Dick himself asserted. It is this fact that makes me agree with Christopher Palmer who believes that the most postmodern and fascinating thing about the VALIS trilogy is that Dick was being serious. He points out that Dick pushes the boundaries of belief in all of his works, but in VALIS, Dick’s real belief that he uses to literary effect while denying textuality. VALIS is a view into Dick’s own beliefs that came about as a result of his 2-3-74 experience. Dick pushes the truth of VALIS onto Fat, and the possibility the reader is confronted with through this maneuver is that Dick really believes in VALIS. Dick demonstrates the postmodern turn from new as entertainment to entertainment as news: his novel denies its own fictionality. The other novels in the trilogy do not take this exact turn, but they do continue to carry the author’s voice in different ways.

The Divine Invasion’s Herb Asher is the little man who would like to be left alone, doing his job in the outer reaches of the solar system, rebroadcasting entertainment for his similarly trapped space colonists. Herb is like Dick—isolated and desiring aloneness with his music. The irony of course is that for Dick’s agoraphobia, he liked to surround himself with friends. Then there is Rybys’ immaculately conceived child Emmanuel who Herb only meets much later after surviving in emergency cryofreeze after the fateful wreck. Emmauel, one half of the godhead, the creator, returned to Earth to carry his message to the people and save them from the demiurge, meets Zina, the other half of the godhead, signifying wisdom. Zina guides Emmanuel to remember, to recover through anamnesis, like the VALIS laser beam supposedly helped Dick. Emmanuel and Zina signify Dick and his twin sister Jane. Two halves separated and then reunited. Dick imagines the twin to be wiser and more in control than he himself is. This biographical element of Dick’s life seems to play itself out here in these two characters. The important aspect of Dick’s new belief system that he developed as a result of his embrace of Gnosticism following 2-3-74 is that salvation is a personal thing—salvation is a choice that each person must make and it is on that microscale that salvation is accomplished. In VALIS, Phil chooses to listen to Sophia and regain control over Fat—essentially banishing him from his psyche. In The Divine Invasion, Emmanuel and Zina bring salvation to Herb through the beside-helper Linda Fox. When Belial is about to kill Herb, the singer Linda Fox saves him, because Herb has accepted her not as a pop idol but as a human being who he would like to be with. Much like VALIS, The Divine Invasion borders the difference between monologic and dialogic forms. The central Gnostic message is the point around which the different character voices orbit, but they do take on particularly unique voices in comparison to some of Dick’s earlier work. I cannot say that these voices are better than those in VALIS in terms of their development and representation of a rounded character, but they do represent a trend in Dick’s development as a writer. He was a writer exploring personal salvation and the meaning of 2-3-74 while also thinking about his craft as a writer. He wanted to share his epiphany, but he does so through the development of his writing and the crafting of narrative voices.

In The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, Dick achieves a fully dialogic novel that subtly engages the carnivalesque. The protagonist is Angel Archer, the counter character to Bishop Timothy Archer (styled on Dick’s friend James Pike). Dick said of Angel that she was created out of Zeus’ head—out of nowhere. This is in opposition to earlier remarks by Dick in which he asserted that no character can come from nothing. All characterrs for Dick up to Angel were based on people he actually knew. We cannot completely rely on what Dick said about Angel, but I do believe that there is the desire on Dick’s part that Angel was a new kind of character for the author that surpassed his earlier work on voice and characterization. Dick says of Angel that she is smarter, more rational, and more knowledgeable than himself. Angel was a character that Dick says he fell in love with and that he enjoyed her company. Angel could represent his dead sister Jane, but she could also represent himself and a love for the part of himself that he believed was missing via his lost dead sister. On the other hand, Bishop Archer, Angel’s father-in-law, could represent Dick’s voice in the novel. Bishop Archer was based on Dick’s friend Bishop Pike who died in the Middle Ease under similar circumstances to Archer, but Archer is directed by his textuality, his love of knowledge contained in books, and the authority invested in books. Archer is disconnected from the here-and-now, because he circles back to textual authority time and again. Angel is guilty of this, too, something she blames on her extensive college education and personal reading. It is this connection that allows Angel her ability to reflect on herself and the things that she realizes give her wisdom and the capacity to love others, particularly Archer, despite his own inability to reflect on his own without reliance on books. Dick, particularly in some of his realistic fiction from the 1950s, reveals his own indebtedness to books and intertextuality that was probably ahead of his agent’s ability or desire to promote for sale. Angel and Tim Archer could be two voices for Dick, each representing two ideals or two sides of his own psyche. Angel is the rational, adaptable, and wise, and Tim Archer is the imaginative yet restricted book-thinker. Further evidence for follows Tim Archer’s death when Angel decides that she cannot go any further. She has lost her husband, her best friend, and now Tim Archer. She becomes the android, a machine—recording and playback only without any feeling for the things that pass her play/record assembly. The one half of Dick’s voice is destroyed, which causes Angle, the other half, the devolve into the dreaded machine, incapable of being a fully realized human being any longer. She becomes like Kristin’s hebephrenic son Bill. However, Edgar Barefoot, the boat guru, gives her back her humanity as part of a deal. He gives her a rare LP, music, Romanticism, the soul, all of those things that revive Angel, and in return, she need only give back to another person—Bill. She regains her empathy and love, the kind of love for others that she lost when Tim Archer died. Furthermore, Angel’s development as a character and voice for Dick reveals not only a realized character, but one that changes over time in response to real life events. Dick’s earlier characters reacted to the ontological changes around them, but the characters generally did not change as a result of the process. They may go mad on one extreme, or carry on with their lives as best they can on the other. Angel’s progression as a character takes on more than a positive or negative change in relation to where she began. There are positive and negative changes that do not add up to the same point at which she began. The experiences of loss and the supposed transmigration of Tim Archer’s soul into Bill’s body have left an indelible mark on her. And it may be through Angel that we can see Dick, the author, finding his own true voice, discovering himself finally through a character that represents his most successful and believable female character in all of his novels.

In each of the VALIS trilogy novels, apocalypse is encountered by individuals on a small scale. Gone are the convenient out of frame wars in Dick’s earlier fictions that creates an inhospitable ontology for his characters to explore. Instead, the characters in the VALIS trilogy have smaller apocalypses in their own lives that mirror their personal salvations. In almost every story, Dick is concerned about individuals and how they deal with the ontology in which they find themselves. In these last novels, the same is true, but the individual is given a way out through the author’s Gnostic beliefs gained supposedly from his 2-3-74 experiences. Dick certainly has his fun in the personal apocalypses, especially in VALIS where the primary concern seems to be Kevin’s cat and not Phil’s dead friends. However, there is earnestness in the way Dick proposes and promotes Gnosticism that brings his stories back to a monologism that cannot be ignored. The author is very much alive in these stories, and perhaps he found some solace in that before the end.

Recovered Writing, PhD in English, Comprehensive Exam 2 of 3, Postmodern Theory, Dr. Tammy Clewell, 3 June 2010

This is the fifty-ninth 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.

After completing two years of course work in the PhD in English program at Kent State University, I began preparing for my comprehensive exams with faculty who I hoped to also work with when I moved on to the dissertation stage.

After having taken two classes with Dr. Tammy Clewell, I was very happy that she agreed to lead my exam on postmodern theory. Leading up the exam, Dr. Clewell and I negotiated on my reading list–considering those texts that were essential, foundational works and those that supported the kinds of work that I wanted to do on my dissertation. After the list was completed, we scheduled meetings to discuss the core questions in postmodern theory. These were the best part about the process, because they required me to know how to articulate in spoken language the major debates and arguments before I sat down for the exam. Speaking face-to-face requires a different kind of thinking and preparedness. After successfully passing these discussion interviews, I was able to proceed to the written exams a day after taking my major exam on 20th-century American literature. Unlike the five hour major exam, I only had four hours to write my response to this exam.

A serendipitous outcome of our conversations was Dr. Clewell introducing me to the neurohumanities and cognitive cultural studies. Our informal discussions about these topics led to my dissertation project. Had she not asked me one day, “Jason, what do you know about the brain,” my dissertation would likely have looked VERY different. I am deeply grateful for Dr. Clewell introducing me to these ideas and then inviting me to join an interdisciplinary neurohumanities reading group that she organized later. Our reading group and our readings informed much of my thinking after the exams while I was completing the dissertation.

Below, I have included my written responses to Dr. Clewell’s postmodern theory exam. Question 1 concerns the major debates. Question 2 is about the posthuman. Question 3 explores the relationship between science fiction and postmodernism.

Jason W. Ellis

Dr. Tammy Clewell

PhD Minor Exam: Theory

3 June 2010

Question 1

            Poststructuralism and postmodernism are often invoked together, because they share an affinity for challenging the modes of thought and systems of analysis that historically precede theme. However, they are in fact also continuations or ironic reinventions of culture and philosophy of the last few hundred years. Poststructuralism is a philosophical reaction to structuralism’s form and order, and postmodernism is a continuation of modernism’s decentering of the subject while critiquing discourse and its own position within discourse. In the following discussion, I will better define these terms and engage some of the major overlapping discussions by major theorists in the field.

Poststructuralism is a set of linguistic, philosophical, and cultural theories that primarily challenge and react to the earlier structuralist theories, which were popular from around the 1950s to the 1970s. Structuralism holds that there are deep structures underneath all phenomena that prescribe how those phenomena develop. The world itself is ordered by interconnected systems, and each system works by its own set of rules or grammar. These systems can be analyzed by structuralist analysis, because the rules are thought to operate in similar ways. Thus, the world can be known completely through analysis of its systems and their rules of operation.

Poststructuralists reacted against structuralism, because they felt that it was oppressive and too ordered. It was considered oppressive, because it didn’t allow room for human agency. The structures operate through people rather than people acting on structures. Its ordering and clear delineations of rules ruled out chance or the apparent complexity of the real world. Instead of finding patterns of similarity, which tend to exclude, the poststructuralists sought to look at the world in terms of difference rather than similarity. There are provocative gaps and contradictions in the way systems operate that challenge the predictability proposed by structuralism. In particular for deconstructionists, including Derrida, structuralism is a totalizing theory with an authoritarian premise that is not open-ended enough to account for difference.

Postmodernists likewise chafe at universalizing theories including structuralism. Poststructuralism can be called a postmodern theory, because it is one among many other theories and political interventions that are reactions to totalizing and universalizing beliefs bound to Western Enlightenment thought: progress as political improvement of humanity and mastery over Nature through the accumulation of knowledge and technology. Not to fall into a totalizing trap, it is important to note that it is through modernity, defined as the period beginning with the Enlightenment through the Industrial Revolution to the Second World War, that many of the ideas that are now considered postmodern first began to be formulated. This is particularly important to the refutation of the liberal humanist idea of identity or a centered self. I will respond more to this in the second question below. For now, it suffices to say that I define postmodernism as the array of cultural theories and attitudes that have developed as skepticism colored with irony, emphasizing language and power relations, toward long standing Western universalized theories and beliefs including: the idea of human progress, the power of reason and rationality, objective reality, and the human. Modernism had already brought into question many of these issues, especially concerning the human as center of the self and of the world, but postmodernism extends and critiques these earlier reformulations.

In the rise of poststructuralism and postmodernism, often linked to post-industrial society after World War II, two polarizing debates developed between poststructuralists and other theorists who held on to forms of structuralist analysis. The first of these that I will discuss is between Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault regarding Derrida’s groundbreaking theory of deconstruction, and the second is between Jean-Francois Lyotard and Fredric Jameson regarding legitimating grand narratives.

Derrida developed the approach known as deconstruction in reaction to what he saw as the totalizing and universalizing tendencies of structuralism. My discussion of deconstruction carries the caveat that deconstruction is not a method, a critique, or an analysis. It is not a procedural operation that arrives at a particular and desired output. Derrida describes it as an event, because each deconstruction is different. It is not a critique in the Kantian sense (i.e., critique vs. dogma), because it relies on language. Language is dogmatic due to its invoking metaphysics through the being assumed in all signified-transcending signifiers relationships. Finally, it is not an analysis, because the whole text—words, sentences, etc.—is interconnected and dependent upon the whole. Any cutting up of a text for analysis is arbitrary and there is no single meaningful way to divide a text for analysis as such. These are all negative descriptions that say what deconstruction is not. Derrida prefers these definitions, because they do not cut off what deconstruction means by saying emphatically what it is. I will use the terms method and approach as a short hand in the discussion that follows. These terms can be thought of as being written under erasure for lack of better terms describing deconstruction.

Derrida is skeptical of the Western philosophical privileging of speech over writing. He argues that the West is logocentric (i.e., grounded on logos, which in Greek means word and rationality). Logocentrism in the West derives from phonocentrism, or the privileging of speech. This has to do with the belief that logos in speech is present while writing is not present. The nonpresence of writing implies that it is open to interpretation and hence not as rational or concrete in its meaning as the presence of speech. Derrida demonstrates that all language, including its usage in speech, is open to interpretation by the reader or hearer. Furthermore, language is a system of signs and since signs are written, he sees no reason why writing should be prioritized under that of speech.

Deconstruction is an attempt to reach the limits of interpretation of a text by demonstrating how the structure of the text and its authorial genesis cannot be supported by the text itself. In other words, the text itself is always already deconstructing. It is a matter of engagement of the text through an interpretive reading to show its irreconcilable and built-in contradictions. Its core concept is that of differance (i.e., difference with an ‘a’, and due to time, I will omit the stress on the e). Differance is the name Derrida gives to the very basis of how language works and to the operations of deconstruction. In regard to language, Derrida, building on the work of Ferdinand de Saussure, argues that words are not substitutes for the real, but instead, words are linked together metonymically in a chain. Signifiers are linked to signifiers, and one word triggers connections with other words as metonymic connections rather than metaphoric replacements. This shows that language is in movement and that slippages in meaning are possible as a result of that movement. It is from the basis of metonymy in language that Derrida made the differance neologism based on the French verb ‘differer,’ which can mean to differ and to defer. Differance means both of these things at the same time. Signifiers differ from one another and they defer meaning along a whole chain of signifiers. Meaning is thus endlessly deferred and indeterminate. There are apparent meanings for things due to the ‘self-effacing trace,’ or the difference between words that give an apparent meaning, but the operation of both the trace and deferral render fixed meanings impossible. Differance is a description of the operations of language and it performs the operation that it describes. Specifically in terms of deconstruction, differance is the middle way for the tension between unity and difference. Differance then becomes the excess or space between texts. It is in opposition to Hegel’s third term or Habermas’ unity and consensus. Derrida sees Hegel and Habermas enforcing synthesis where there should be difference. Differance is an alternative to unity and an acknowledgement of the excess between interpretations. It resists efforts to erase Otherness or multiplicity. Furthermore, meaning is, according to Derrida, disseminated: there is an effect of meaning, but meaning is dispersed and specific meanings are irresolvable. Thus, deconstruction is always already present in a given text, and the deconstructive reading of a text relies on what is there in the text itself. Deconstruction relies on textuality, or the importance and centrality of texts, and how a single text can be different from itself via another reading and how each text can be a trace of other texts, which invokes Barthes concept of intertextuality. Texts are not alone, but connected to one another via the trace.

Foucault’s concept of discourse can be seen as more closely aligned with the structuralists than Derrida’s deconstruction. Foucault’s emphasis was not on language and the individual text, but instead, he focused on discourse—the conversation and connections between texts and the relationships of power that those connections represent and develop. Discourse does involve texts in the promotion and implementation of the discourse and its power networks, but it is not something contained within a single text. For Foucault, discourse refers to systems of belief, knowledge, and practices that are governed by internalized rules. Discourse comes about and operates by power relationships. The discourse and the power relationships tied up within a discourse can change over time. The power in a discourse is distributed through networks that are all inclusive—there is no constitutive outside to discourse. Discourses change over time and they may disappear all together. Furthermore, discourses do not carry universal truths, but they do establish their own beliefs, which may be promoted as truths within the discourse and within its power relations. For example, Foucault argues that sexuality did not become a discourse until very recently with the rise of medicine as a science and the adoption of a heterosexual/heteronormative standard within the discourse of medicine. This particular example shows a very one sided power dynamic with the institutions of medicine adopting a particular norm and their enforcing that norm on individuals (e.g., women, homosexuals, transsexuals, those without the institutional support given to the white, male doctors) with the support of state power. Discourse can include the arts and politics and any other system that is based on a system of power relationships. Other examples of discourse include capitalism or modernism in the arts. Foucault calls the totalization of discourse within a historical period an episteme. The Enlightenment or postmodernity would be examples of episteme. In Foucault’s conceptualization of discourse, he finds most to be oppressive and controlling. There are haves and have-nots within the power networks of a discourse. As such, these discourses should be challenged, as he did against heteronormativity in The History of Sexuality.

The primary difference between Foucault and Derrida is that Foucault sees in texts or utterances another discourse, whereas Derrida sees another self-deconstructing text playing with language. Each theorist sees his work as a constructive challenge to different manifestations of power. Derrida sees privileging and hierarchies in the texts he deconstructs, and Foucault finds the distribution of power within the connections between people, their texts, and their practices. This is not to say that Derrida is not aware of the big picture, so to speak, but his approach deconstructs the individual text and by doing so unravels its assumptions and connections to other texts through the always already there deconstructive seed within the text. Foucault attempts to reveal the intentionality within the text in order to show the way its relationship to power and its discourse is oppressive in some way. Derrida shows that the genesis, along with the structure of the text, explodes when taken into consideration of the text as a whole. The text’s connection to a discourse is based on the interpretation by Foucault, which is only one interpretation among many. Furthermore, Foucault’s analysis of a text is based on what is within the text itself under consideration. Without saying so, this is a kind of interpretation, because as Derrida shows there are different ways of reading an individual text. Derrida did this himself when he used a key passage from Foucault’s History of Madness. This beginning to their ten year long silence to one another is precipitated on Foucault’s belief that certain concepts are not deconstructable. Madness, sexuality, knowledge, etc. are idea concepts that, for Foucault, are beyond the deconstructive practices of Derrida. Foucault said of Derrida following his essay that deconstruction teaches the student that there is nothing outside the text, and that the only point of consideration is the spaces in-between and words written under erasure. Derrida later refuted Foucault’s claim by saying that there is nothing outside CONtext—meaning that the historical, biographical, ideological, etc. should be considered when interpreting a text, but that it is necessary to remember the other side of context that these things are historically contingent and not universally established.

Next, I will discuss another significant debate in poststructuralism and postmodernism. This has to do with the argument between the poststructuralist thinker Lyotard and the Marxist scholar Jameson on the issue of metanarratives.

Jameson describes a hard division between modernism and postmodernism. He identifies modernism with time and memory, which is embedded in an earlier form of capitalism that had not yet worked its way into fundamentally transforming the world and the circuits of relation between people. Postmodernism is emblematic of the contemporary mode of production, and the cultural manifestation of what Mandel calls the third stage of capitalism, or late capitalism. Considering Jameson in terms of Foucault, Marxism is a discourse, as is his formulation of postmodernism and modernism that are a part of or connected to the larger Marxist discourse. The postmodern for Jameson is a disavowed yet seized upon term to discuss the historical in a present where history is in a sense forgotten or at least transformed by nostalgia. Oppositions between postmodernism and modernism include: He favors historicism over style (his favoring of Ragtime over Gravity’s Rainbow is problematic in this regard, however); pastiche, not parody; space over time; and surface over interiority and stream of consciousness. Cyberpunk, especially the work of William Gibson, is the literature of postmodernism, because of its emphasis on space over time and the effects of capitalism at shaping the landscape and the narrative plot. Emblematic of the shift from the modern to the postmodern is also the loss of interiority. Jameson laments the waning of affect. In postmodernism, there is a loss of feeling and emotion now that space has made its ascendance in the circulations of capital. People are now surfaces to be written on by the effects of capital and not individuals with some sense of an interior self. The postmodern subject is formed by the circulations of capital and the effects of its cultural manifestations on the person. Under his spatial model, things rise to the surface, including to the surface of bodies, and as a result, he feels that we have lost something precious to the human experience that was there before.

Lyotard offers an alternative to Jameson’s lament. Instead of lamenting the loss of the modern, Lyotard embraces the postmodern, because he sees it as hopeful and loaded with potential energy. Returning to the division between modernism and postmodernism, modernism offers universalized meanings, meanings which are closed to critique. Postmodernism on the other hand critiques those meanings while also critiquing itself. This creates exciting possibilities, and it creates a space for unanticipated thinking. The postmodern in Lyotard’s conception doesn’t favor consensus, and it also doesn’t promote positive content (Derrida would agree with this in regard to his own definitions of deconstruction, which provide no closed meanings). Lyotard also argues that the grand narratives of progress, knowability, and freedom can no longer contain or represent everyone. Thus, the postmodern in its most simplistic formulation is incredulity towards metanarratives. Instead of grand narratives and universals, we now have a proliferation of micronarratives. He draws on Wittgenstein’s language games as the means for creating and circulating knowledge within micronarratives. A common critique against Lyotard is that his narrative is another grand narrative, but Lyotard specifically challenges narratives of legitimation and not all narratives, including those of knowledge. On the other hand, Jameson’s Marxism is a grand narrative. It provides a closed solution to understanding the relationships between people and the circulations of capital. It is universalized and it is believed to apply to all peoples according to their particular historical context and the current mode of production. There is no room for critique within a grand narrative such as this, and it legitimates a certain kind of power structure. Lyotard is skeptical of such a narrative, because there are no new possibilities within such a narrative. Lyotard also undermines Jameson’s division of the modern as no longer accessible now that we are in the postmodern era. Lyotard argues convincingly that the reciprocal of Jameson’s formulation is true. For Lyotard, to be modern, we must first be postmodern. Postmodernism is the disruption of the discourse of modernism. Postmodernism is not a movement, but it is a process leading back to narratives that have been worked out through the openness of the postmodern. Within this process, Lyotard favors the event (again, a connection with Derrida) while Jameson relies on synchronic, sign systems. Lyotard sees the event as a temporal figure which cannot be reduced to meaning (e.g., Auschwitz—it cannot be remembered in its totality or forgotten, either). This non-dialectal event has an affinity with Derrida’s differance. Lyotard provides a way of working through the meaning of the modern and its conflicting narratives via postmodernism, but Jameson holds to his Marxist grand narrative and historiographic space, which does not offer a space for critique outside its discourse.

 

Question 2

            Articulations of the human subject are an on-going philosophical concern. Coming from the Enlightenment, the human was considered a rational being with a core identity that was untouched by the outside world. A radical critique of this idea was brought by modernist Sigmund Freud, who is credited with decentering the self into the id, ego, and superego. The id and its unbridled desires were repressed by the rational projection of the self or the ego, and the superego’s self-reflection of the self in regard to the social brought the human subject in line with the outside world.

Postmodernism inherited and extended the idea of a decentered self and formulated a rearticulation of what the human subject is. A notable break with the modernist stance on a decentered subject comes from Jameson and his lament for the waning of affect. The senses of a deep interiority, stream of consciousness, and a private voice have disappeared as the world has become embedded in that interiority. The inner self has become another surface upon which the world and the social write themselves. The social is what makes us subjects (subject to the effects of power and mired in power relationships exterior to ourselves) instead of centered persons with an identity of our own narration and creation. As I mentioned above, Jameson does not celebrate this change, because he sees this as an effect of late capitalism and its global reach. Human beings and their art are made possible, at least how we see ourselves and the works that we create, by the effects of capitalism. There is no outside of that system, and as subjects of the system, our creative works cannot maintain a critique of the system that makes them possible.

Like Jameson, other theorists recognize the anxieties about a loss of interiority, and the inevitability of the world changes in which we find ourselves. Particularly, Donna Haraway, N. Katherine Hayles, and Mark Poster offer a different reading of the inevitability of the postmodern and the promises to be found there.

Before discussing Haraway, Hayles, and Poster, it would be useful to rehearse Bruno Latour’s ideas that inform their history of science and technology based arguments. For Latour, science, technology, and society develop together within networks. He finds the Enlightenment division of subjects and objects into separate categories to be an artificial division. He demonstrates that subject-object hybrids circulate within networks, but they are purified into subject or object by the so-called moderns. Quasi-subjects and quasi-objects are purified while hybrids proliferate under the surface imposed by the moderns. Thus, what we consider modernity with its artificially clear boundaries has never in fact occurred, because the presence of hybrids refutes the claims of the moderns.

Haraway extends Latour and his actor-network theory by looking at them from Marxist-feminist and animal studies perspectives. She develops two very big ideas in her work: the cyborg as a social-politically enabling subject, and the importance for social relations to include humans and non-humans. Haraway’s cyborg resists the purification of the moderns, who would try to divide it rather than encounter or engage its synthesis. Haraway argues that we are all now hybrids or cyborgs, because we are part of the modern circuit of humanity and technology that has been made possible by the effects of late capital. She defines the cyborg as: “A cyborg is a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction. Social reality is lived social relations, our most important political construction, a world-changing fiction.” The cyborg brings together in a new kind of subject the machine and the animal, and it is connected to other cyborgs and other beings through our lived social relationships. The fictional cyborg, in effect, becomes a world-changing fiction, because it shows how we have radically changed as a species. The cyborg as postmodern subject is to be embraced, because it resists the artificial purifications of the moderns that would strip us of our politically powerful assemblages. Connected to the cyborg is Haraway’s concept that “social relations include humans and non-humans as socially active partners. All that is unhuman is not un-kind, outside kinship, outside the orders of signification, excluded from trading in signs and wonder.” Using her emblematic characters Modest Witness (women on the net), FemaleMan (a cyborg making feminism, and making science), and OncoMouse (another kind of cyborg, the first genetically engineered animal), she articulates the cyborg as providing the future alternative to the liberal humanist subject. The liberal humanist subject is a human being with a centered self, male is the model, heteronormative, linked to patriarchal hierarchies, and historically domineering. The cyborg is inclusive of gender, sexual orientation, and even different species. The cyborg provides an emblem of affinity across modern-derived divisions (e.g., man/woman, machine/human, human/animal, etc.).

Hayles takes a different but related tact to Haraway by using a feminist critique to uncover how technology blurs and erases socially imposed boundaries. Hayles, whose interest is in cyberneticists and fiction on cybernetics, is more focused on the way hybrids have been dealt with historically after World War II. Hayles argues that bodies are under erasure. She sees intelligence as embodied information, which implies that intelligent bodies can take other forms. Like Haraway, Hayles dismantles the liberal humanist subject (and its autonomy, rationality, free will, agency, and consciousness as the seat of identity) through her argument for the posthuman. She recognizes the problems of the social writing itself on the subject (i.e., writing the subject) and the earlier work of Freud to decenter the subject, but she argues that the posthuman inevitability can be terrifying and pleasurable. It is a present and future that she asserts we should walk freely into. For Hayles, the posthuman is distributed cognition, agency as an effect of multiple nodes, consciousness is emergent, information coding through all levels of cognition, and the incorporation of the individual into market relations. Our minds and our memories can be distributed, such as in social networking websites or knowing where to find information (e.g., Google or our internal catalog of books we have read) we cannot readily recall. Agency is a result of our relations to other nodes within a network of relations. Our consciousness is emergent from our biology and socialization. Information is coded through all levels of our cognition and its distribution. We are all interconnected through the networks of capital. The key to all of these things is the body. Unlike the liberal humanist subject, in which consciousness is seen as so much software running on the brain’s hardware and can thus be transferred to other containers (e.g., The Matrix or Avatar), she sees intelligence as being embodied as something (bodies and intelligence are intertwined and dependent). The human as information makes no sense unless there is a body to contain the information. It can’t be stressed enough that specific body/information subjects are co-dependent. Who I am is dependent on my informational experiences, reflections, and behaviors that are linked to my body and cannot be easily transferred to just any container. A book, likewise, needs a vessel to contain its information (but I would say that this is a weaker example of the implications of her ideas on embodied information and subjectivity). Returning to the human as information wedded to a body, she sees embodiment as necessary for agency and history as much as for accounting for relationships. Furthermore, bodies need boundaries in order to share information with other bodies and to interface with the world around us.

The importance of interface and information is articulated in Poster’s work. He develops a parallel argument to Marx’s mode of production, which he calls the mode of information. Each mode is a way of defining relationships—the mode of production deals with exchange and its forms around commodity fetishism, and the mode of information deals with communication and it forms around information fetishism. Poster develops three stages to the mode of information, but these are not historical processes. Instead, they are discursive totalizations, which means that they will overlap and co-exist based on historical development of each. The first stage of the mode of information is face-to-face communication, which is self-instantiated through enunciation and involves symbols. The second stage concerns writing and print, which relies on the representation of signs, and the self is constructed as an agent centered in rationality and imaginary autonomy. Finally, the third stage is the electronic stage, which features information simulations, and the self is decentered, dispersed across social space, and multiplied in continuous instability. In Poster’s formulation, information produces the modern subject, and pushing into the electronic stage begins to yield a new kind of human. His argument goes that humans build computers, but computers may in turn be building a new kind of human. Humans and their machines co-evolve and co-develop. What Poster finds important to this interaction between humans and machines is that interfaces and boundaries become increasingly important, because it is at the point where the human and machine meet that negotiations are made leading to the emergence of something new. It is the emergence of something new that Poster identifies as the postmodern.

Haraway, Hayles, and Poster offer a different take on the postmodern subject that extends the earlier work by the moderns. However, each of them accepts change as inevitable, and the modern concern about the machine and the human, or the transformation of the human into a machine is not to be feared according to these theorists. However, they are writing from a protected position as information workers within the academy. I do not think that price checking cyborgs at Wal-Mart or Chinese gold farmers playing World of Warcraft for 12+ hours a day can be said to be enjoying the fruits of cyborg/posthuman/information subject promised by these theorists. Just as in Marx’s mode of production there are some people who get the rewards from the system and others who do not, the same is true in the postmodern reconfiguration of the human subject as cyborg. There will be some cyborgs who will be empowered or enjoy their cyborg subjectivity, but others will, for lack of better terms, be dehumanized and perhaps literally turned into machines as a result of their integration into the circuits of capital and global networks of power. This is a real concern for some postmodern writers including Philip K. Dick, who sees transformations from machine into human and human into machine as equal possibilities. For Dick, empathy was the key determining factor for what constituted a ‘human’ whatever form it may take—human being, alien, or machine. I am confident that this largely informed Jameson’s earlier thinking on the postmodern and the waning of affect. Haraway in particular confronts this issue with cyborg existence by showing that it is our relationships with others (human and non-human like) that empowers us in this new kind of human-machine subjectivity. So, I would say that we have not yet lost all affect, but it should be made more evident how we can use technology to explore and expand on what it means to be human without it overtaking us and erasing what humanity can be.

 

Question 3

            Postmodernism and science fiction have according to some converged into overlapping literatures or at least literatures in strong conversation with one another. To begin this discussion, I will briefly define postmodern literature and science fiction, and then I will proceed to look at the theories of Damien Broderick, Scott Bukatman, Brian McHale, and Fredric Jameson on the interrelationship between postmodern literature and science fiction.

A working definition of postmodern literature includes the following. Postmodern literature critiques the here-and-now, universalized assumptions, and metanarratives while also critiquing itself. It is a continuation of modernist forms and themes, but through mixing, intertextuality, and bricolage repurposing, often with an ironic turn, it takes these techniques into new, unexplored areas. It supports multiplicity of narratives and meaning, and it rejects determinacy and closed meanings. It is inclusive (leveling high and low art distinctions and embracing popular culture) and relational instead of exclusive and situated.

I will rely on Darko Suvin’s widely accepted definition of science fiction, which defines science fiction as “a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is the imaginative framework alternative to the author’s empirical environment.” Science fiction is the literature of cognitive estrangement, because it must use some cognitive or explanatory element that is usually based in science and technology. The scientific phenomena or technoscientific device that drives the plot is essential to these stories. Science fiction must also estrange the reader from the here-and-now, but it often does this as metaphor in order to critique the here-and-now without directly challenging the status quo. It veils its argument behind the accoutrements that we consider science fictional. Considering the effects of postmodernity on the human subject as outlined in question two, it seems evident that reality is beginning to catch up with science fiction. It could be this operation of the increasingly technologized everyday world that has caused what could be otherwise called mundane literature to have an increasingly science fictional aspect. When we are all cyborgs or posthumans, is there any other kind of literature besides science fiction? Would science fiction continue to be estranging? In the discussion below, I will look at how some major theorists in the field approach the relationship between postmodern literature and science fiction.

Jameson identifies cyberpunk and specifically the fiction of William Gibson as the representative literature of the postmodern. All the characters in his fiction are surfaces to be written on, each character demonstrates the waning of affect discussed above, the characters are embedded within the networks of capital, and it is the influence of the market that drives the plot (i.e., Neuromancer and Wintermute are AIs that seek to break out of the human imposed barriers to their pre-programmed need to fuse together, protections intended to save humanity from the unknown operations of intelligences that are decidedly not human). Of late however, Jameson has worked on the potential for utopian thinking in postmodern literature. Earlier, Jameson had claimed that the system cannot be critiqued from within, because all art and subjects are subject to the system of global capital. It is within science fiction that Jameson locates contemporary utopian thought and its satirical critique of the here-and-now. However, he does not agree with the potential of cyborg politics within much recent science fiction, and he most certainly would not condone the cyborgization of the human subject via Haraway or Hayles. This is interesting, because some of his lauded examples of postmodern science fiction include the heterotopias of Kim Stanley Robinson (who was Jameson’s student at UC, San Diego), which feature elements of the posthuman that Jameson condemns.

Broderick agrees in large part with Jameson. Broderick argues that science fiction is the native storytelling form for societies undergoing the technological and industrial changes we are now encountering. For him, science fiction has metaphoric strategies (one thing represents another from the here-and-now), metonymic tactics (concepts are linked together), the megatext of shared terms and concepts is foregrounded while aesthetics and characterization is placed in the background (this complements Jameson’s waning of affect), and attention to objects over subjects (again, the waning of affect). Space for Broderick is also a primary concern over that of time. He defines genre in general as a negotiated territory within what he calls narrative phase space. Phase space is a term from physics that describes a space, defined by coordinates of independent variables that describe a dynamic system that maps onto multiple dimensions. The genre negotiation of this dynamic space is done through what he calls the megatext. Extending the idea from Phillippe Haman and Christine Brooke-Rose, Broderick defines the science fiction megatext as a shared collection of terms, ideas, and concepts that a reader must apprentice to in order to gain entrance to science fiction’s negotiated territory within narrative phase space. Knowing the difference between a robot and a ray gun, for example, enables the reader’s engagement of science fiction literature in general, because most texts reference some of these shared terms. Knowing what these things are allows the reader to more quickly understand what is going on without each author needing to describe minute details of something like a robot that doesn’t necessarily pertain to the progression of the plot. It frees the author to integrate science and technology into the plot in a meaningful way without getting bogged down in elaborate and often unnecessary explanations. Of course, these terms experience slippage and change over time from various uses by authors and interpretations by readers. However, the general elements of science fiction for Broderick do align with the generic definition of postmodern literature in terms of space, critique, and surfaces.

Bukatman, like Jameson and Broderick, focuses on the spatial, maps, writing on bodies, and cyberspace for defining contemporary science fiction. Bukatman argues that science fiction is no longer concerned with narrating bodies and an ideal soul. The subject as body/mind/memory is now hardwired into a subjectivity of being and electronic technology. Again, like Jameson, Bukatman places an emphasis on cyberpunk, a subgenre of contemporary science fiction, as the central example of postmodern literature that maps the spaces of this new subjectivity. For Bukatman, terminal identity is a transitional stage in the information age (connect his argument to Poster) in which the subject is propelled into the machine. He argues that information is invisible (not embodied like Hayles), difficult to represent, difficult to separate the human from the machine, and science fiction narrates provisional subjects as terminal identities. Science fiction and theory are different yet interrelated kinds of writing that address this issue. Each develops its own metaphors for reality, and he reads them alongside one another rather than one against the other. Science fiction is a form of language game (connecting himself to Broderick and the changing megatext), and special effects are a visual form of language game, which reinforces the idea of surfaces where the screen has replaced interiority. Bukatman’s theory couples to what I will discuss in the final section on McHale and zones: Bukatman contends that electronic space is where language, rationality, and subjectivity break down. He notes the possibilities with cybernauts (cyberspace/hackers) and posthumans/cyborgs, but he seems deeply interested in the effects on the margins, which gestures towards de Certeau’s tactics versus power’s strategies. Like Haraway and Hayles, Bukatman sees the changes to the postmodern subject as inevitable. He, unlike Jameson, embraces the changes and he tries to envision how these changes can be used to challenge the structures of dominating power.

McHale provides perhaps the most useful theoretical bridge between postmodernism and science fiction. His big idea is based on structuralism and the Jacobson’s concept of the dominant. His simple, yet powerful, argument is that: for modernism, the dominant is epistemological (questions of knowing and knowability), and the postmodern dominant is ontological (modes of being and making sense of the world/worlds). He argues that persistent epistemological doubt leads to ontological instability. Pursing epistemological questions long enough will turn into ontological problems, and vice versa. Thus, the one kind of question leads to the other and back again, which means that his theory does not form a historical break in the two kinds of writing like Jameson, who divides modernism and postmodernism with a clear demarcation. For McHale, these are just different kinds of questions that a particular historical moment may promote, but there is no reason why one dominant cannot be found in an earlier or later period. Importantly, McHale complicates Jacobson’s idea. McHale argues that there are always multiple dominants operating at different levels. It all depends on your analysis and how you choose to telescope in or out among your reading of the levels. A single text may have both epistemological and ontological questions, but only one will be in the foreground. In fact, taking Philip K. Dick as an example, his trajectory as a writer can be described as beginning with an epistemological dominant (e.g., “Imposter”), which led to ontological questions in his middle period (e.g., Ubik), and then a return to epistemological questions in his later period (e.g., VALIS). Sister genres provide a direct connection between postmodernism and science fiction. Modernism’s sister genre is detective fiction (questions of knowing), and postmodernism’s sister genre is science fiction (building worlds and exploring worlds). Postmodern world building is termed zones. Zones correspond to worlds within the text and not the real world. Heterotopias are a plurality of worlds or zones. Hutcheon’s less effective theory of historiographic fiction can be viewed in McHale’s theory as another example of the postmodern: world building, uncovering history through ironic invention, juxtaposition, pastiche, etc. He says that acceptance of the world or ontological indeterminacy is only a postmodern thematics and not a totalizing poetics of postmodern literature.

Of these theories, McHale’s seems to be the most useful and productive in a wide range of circumstances. Furthermore, it provides the strongest connection between a wide range of science fiction and the postmodern. Science fiction is a literature with a historical development. It has changed over time, and in general, it does have a strong affinity to McHale’s theory of the postmodern through its use of world building. Jameson, Broderick, and Bukatman make compelling cases for the relationship between science fiction and the postmodern, but they focus on contemporary science fiction as if it represented all of science fiction. They look to specific works or specific subgenres without studying the bigger picture as does McHale. However, they are more concerned with the current milieu, which I do not believe has borne out the emphasis on cyberpunk (which is itself a now mostly defunct subgenre of science fiction that has been absorbed into other narratives). I do agree with McHale that science fiction is related to the postmodern through its ontological emphasis and the critique of its worlds and itself (something found primarily in the most literary or experimental science fictions by authors including Kim Stanley Robinson, Philip K. Dick, Samuel R. Delany, and Joanna Russ, to name only a few).

 

Recovered Writing, PhD in English, Comprehensive Exam 1 of 3, 20th-Century American Literature, Dr. Kevin Floyd, 2 June 2010

This is the fifty-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.

After completing two years of course work in the PhD in English program at Kent State University, I began preparing for my comprehensive exams with faculty who I hoped to also work with when I moved on to the dissertation stage.

My major exam was in 20th-century American literature, and Dr. Kevin Floyd agreed to serve as my examiner on this important test. During the summer after completing course work, we met at the Starbucks in downtown Kent, Ohio to finalize my reading list and the kinds of questions that would best suit my purposes and enable my intellectual growth through this process. Working from our discussion, Dr. Floyd developed two questions that I could answer in sufficient depth with examples taken from six the ten works on my reading list. The first question asked for a narrative about representations of social class prior to World War II, and the second question asked for an exploration of technologies, bodies, and subjectivities in post-World War II works. As I worked through my reading list at about one major work (reading, research, and notes) per week (of course, this in addition to readings on my other three exams–which would make my reading schedule about one major work from each list per 2-3 days).

After spending approximately a year preparing while teaching at Kent State, I sat down for my exam in Satterfield Hall and wrote the following over five hours.

Jason W. Ellis

Prof. Kevin Floyd

PhD Major Exam: 20th-century American Literature

2 June 2010

Question 1

Social class is an uneasy topic of national discussion in the United States, because the reality of social class destabilizes the conventional belief that economic and personal success derives from hard work, investment, and tenacity. In the following essay, I will chart the origins of this element of the American dream and its erasure of class as a topic of critique in work by Cather and its refutation in Steinbeck. Then, I will discuss class embedded in characters by Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and O’Connor before analyzing the connection between race and class in works by Wright and Hansberry. This is followed by demonstrating the operation of narrative forms and class in Dos Passos and Eliot. The essay concludes by following the trajectory of these earlier examples in a work of science fiction that transitions from capitalism and labor relations to consumerism, advertising, and the pitchman in The Space Merchants.

Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! (1913) is considered emblematic of a specifically American kind of writing that developed out of the nineteenth century. Its overall message is that land accumulation and exploitation of farm labor is representative of the successful American ideal. The novel addresses the American experience and New World experiment through its engagement of the vast expanse of land in the frontier, the experience of settlers, and the importance of history working through people and the land. In fact, the passage of time is very important to this novel. It is through time that the protagonist Alexandra Bergson transforms the land, and in turn, the land transforms her. Alexandra takes over the family farm from her father, inverting the prevailing patriarchal arrangement in frontier life in Nebraska, and in doing so, she sets about the management of the farm and the administration of the labor of her brothers and other farmhands. Alexandra develops her business acumen through personal intelligence and an awareness of the workings of the farm gained through careful observation and participation of the practices of farming. She works, but she also observed the aspects of management and investment that are essential to the development of the land. The significant turn in her development as a character comes at the end of Part 1 when the drought hits the divide and Alexandra is faced with the decision to leave or stay. She travels around, seeing the land in all its picturesque majesty, and visits the river country to see how farming is proceeding there. Observing the land affected equally by the drought around the divide, she resolves to stay and risk a second mortgage in order to acquire more land. She realizes that the accumulation of land, continuing to work the land, and tenaciously maintaining the land will create the conditions that enable the land to return her investment with interest. Despite Alexandra’s farming and business shrewdness, her brothers continually resist her efforts and decry her authority over them. Partially a matter of gender politics, it is also an issue of labor relations and social class. Her brothers are exploited labor who marry local girls and maintain simple homes. Alexandra holds out to the end of the novel before agreeing to marry her more worldly, educated, and introverted fiancé Carl Linstrum. This marriage will complete her managerial and business success through her ascendancy into the bourgeoisie with landed interests, a home, and a proper husband.

Much changed in the 26 years dividing John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939) from Cather’s O Pioneers!. The world had survived the Great War, the Great Depression was still under way before the Second World War economic miracle, and the Dust Bowl erased the gains of farm development that had only just begun for Alexandra in Cather’s novel. The Joad family in Steinbeck’s celebrated novel joins the mass migration of workers from the Midwest to California in search of work. Their dream has been so reduced that they do not dream of owning a farm, much less consolidating with other farms, but only that they make enough money to put food on the table for their family. The spike in available farm labor during the Dust Bowl years significantly reduced any leverage workers had to command a living wage or steady work. Farm labor was brutally exploited by the farm owners, managers, and community law enforcement. These issues are brilliantly illustrated in The Grapes of Wrath. However, I would like to specifically discuss the character Tom Joad in relation to Alexandra Bergson. Tom, having just been released from a four year stint in prison for manslaughter, returns to his family on the eve of their departure West. He had been, to that point, someone who lived in the moment and was self-centered. He did not dream of the future as Alexandra had come to do in Cather’s novel with all the land spread out around her, the wealth seen within the land itself, and the possibilities that afforded her. Tom’s family only had a small farm, and the effects of the Dust Bowl reduced their ability to work and compete. The only alternative was to pick up stakes and exchange their labor for money. Through the events of the novel, including Tom’s discipleship to the former preacher Jim Casy, Casy’s death at the meeting to organize the workers for better wages and jobs, and Tom’s realization of the worker’s plight as a shared experience, Tom comes to represent the exact opposite of Alexandra. Tom realizes that power comes through solidarity and organization, and that the workers should not be exploited for their labor. We do not know if Tom has success in the novel, but the hopeful ending points to the possibility that labor and empathy can lead to a better tomorrow.

William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury (1929) presents a different image of social class tensions and their relationship to American modernization in the character of Quentin Compson. Faulkner explores the human experience of time, interiority, psychosexual trauma, and human relationships in the novel, but Quentin’s section in flashback, “June Second, 1910,” includes more details related to social class and the old South resistance to modernization and accepting the social changes related to that. This section is about Quentin’s day leading up to his suicide in Cambridge, Massachusetts where he is attending college at Harvard. Quentin’s family is from a fictional rural setting in Mississippi, but it is his family’s dwindling legacy—struck hard in the twentieth century—that enables his education at a prestigious New England university. Despite the effects on the family fortune, Quentin holds dear to outdated Southern genteel social beliefs including the sanctity of feminine virginity and chastity. As a result, Quentin cannot reconcile his incestuous feelings for his sister Caddy and her promiscuity with another man whom she marries. He doubly wants her and he wants to absorb the stain on the family name by their union. Quentin lamely admits to his father that Caddy and he had sex before, but his father recognizes his son’s folly and tries to dissuade him from holding on to traditional Southern ideals about women and sex. This is significant, because it is through Quentin’s suicide that the old South dies, too. The industrialization of the North and new modes of farming and manufacture in the South following Reconstruction were moving out the old traditions in favor of new norms that were enabled by the effects of capital (urban growth, worker mobility, more educational possibilities, etc.). It is important to note here that capitalism enabled many new possibilities and played a part in the repair of past damages. The effects of capitalism had helped usher in the era of the Black Atlantic, but it also made possible the inclusion of African Americans into the networks of capital. This was an uneasy process with social norms and laws following behind the circuits of capital (Jim Crow Laws and the Ku Klux Klan, for example). This apparently tangential connection between Southern social changes and Quentin is reinforced by the adventure he has in the Italian quarter. When Quentin meets the little girl, his gentlemanly behavior kicks-in. He’s prepared to commit suicide, but he takes the time to try and find the girl’s home. Instead, he is accused of being a pedophile and forced to pay a fine. His traditional ways do not mesh with the new realities of the modern era, and ultimately, he cannot cope with the change and follows his ancestors by drowning.

Nick Carraway, the narrator of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel The Great Gatsby, achieves greater success than his humble Minnesotan (i.e., rural vs. urban) roots. Whereas Quentin Compson cannot accommodate the changes brought by the increasing influence of capital in America, Carraway has survived the Great War and moved East to Long Island to try his hand at bond trading (i.e., building capital with capital vs. building capital through work or land development). Similar humble beginnings are true too for the great Jay Gatsby, or Jay Gatz, who dedicated himself to acquiring wealth after leaving North Dakota and paying tutelage to a very wealthy man. Carraway seeks new money in the markets, and Gatsby has already acquired wealth, albeit illegally (Gatsby’s criminal activities are different than O’Connor’s Misfit who I will discuss later–Gatsby wants to acquire social status by any means necessary whereas the Misfit reacts against the social and the economic system that has produced him). Gatsby acquires wealth so that his object of desire, Daisy Buchanan, who married another man and his old money, will want to be with him. The importance of wealth and its acquisition, especially prior to the Great Depression, plays out in this novel through a tragic narrative of love lost. Hence, the effects of capital accumulation bleed over into other aspects of the social. Gatsby can never shuck the taint of his new money, because it seeps into every part of his being. His parties, financed in the hope of reconnecting with Daisy, are all that he is. Fitzgerald purposely withholds Gatsby’s interiority—only supplying the reader with the reserved observations of Carraway. In some respects, Gatsby prefigures the surface laden characters we see in postmodern fictions. He wears his money and his love on his sleeve, but there is no longer anything underneath the layers of money that define him as a person. Daisy is little different: she enjoys the luxuries and the carelessness afforded by her husband’s old money. She is indifferent to her daughter, and she toys with Gatsby and lets him take the blame for her actions. Caring only for what money can buy her, she looks fantastic and maintains a surface without depth expect perhaps a memory of Gatsby that can be salved with spending a little of her husband’s money.

Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” (1955) is a moral tale tied to the networks of capitalism, but it inverts the hierarchy favoring those who follow the rules of capital and those who do not. Told by an omniscient narrator, but focusing on the Grandmother, “A Good Man is Hard to Find” is about a family’s trip from Georgia to Florida and after agreeing to a side trip on the Grandmother’s urging, they encounter an escaped murderer, The Misfit. This fateful encounter results in the killing of the father and son, mother and daughter, and finally the Grandmother when she reaches out to touch The Misfit who she calls “one of her babies.” The lawless Misfit contrasts with Fitzgerald’s Gatsby and his illegal activities, because the former radically confronts the system and chucks social class while the later bends the system to his own ends while attaining a higher social class. Debate centers on the final scene in which The Misfit, after being touched by the Grandmother and being called “one of my babies,” “sprang back as if a snake had bitten him and shot her three times through the chest.” He tells his accomplices, “She would have been a good woman . . . if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” The Misfit believes that she would only have been a good woman rather than acting as a good woman had someone been there threatening her life. On the surface, the Grandmother’s act, reaching out to touch her killer, could be an act of divine grace. After realizing that she is not really a good woman, she reaches out in an act to be a good woman. However, she could have been trying to save herself, since she made no real attempt to save her family. The Misfit lives on the margins of the circuits of capital. He and his accomplices choose to kill and take what they want from those who sell their labor (the family appears to be working class) and presumably those who exploit the labor of others. As his name suggests, he does not fit into the current mode of production. Instead of being a poor white man, the Misfit takes by force what he wants from the system. Those who are part of the system, such as the Grandmother and her family, would presumably be in a better moral position, but their complicity with the system, one that in part produces men like the Misfit—unwilling to give into the demands of labor exploitation—places them in opposition to the individual who stands against the totality of the production system. Furthermore, the Grandmother’s choice to stay her hand when her family is getting killed represents selfishness on her part to save herself or delude herself regarding the fate of her family. It may also represent the blindness to the system that could make the Misfit and her complicit parts of the system. He is one of her babies she says. She and society made him the way that he is, and it is at the end that she realizes in her gesture what she and society had done.

Considering the trajectory in some of the earlier examples to be about rural whites seeking better fortune (or no fortune at all in the last example, except perhaps a moral certainty of self—the Misfit knows who he is while others do not necessarily know who they are and what part they play in the system of capital), an important contribution to this discussion would include two African-American examples: Native Son and A Raisin in the Sun. Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940) is about the young African-American Bigger Thomas, who lives in the South Side of Chicago. 20 years old, Bigger experiences an unspeakable hatred, or hatred that he does not have the voice or language to make concrete. It is a hatred that seeps into him from the overwhelming whiteness of the white man’s hegemony over blacks in mid-century Chicago. Wright litters the text with references to white and the white mountain that Bigger is aware of as an invisible force. Social class figures into this whiteness with the Daltons, the white family who offer Bigger a job. They treat him, not as an equal, but at least on a better standing than most other whites. Bigger feels ashamed and subservient to them without even knowing why. And, despite the Dalton’s feeling that blacks should have better opportunities, there is an internalized and underlying expectation on their part for Bigger to act a particular way. Furthermore, the Daltons live in their nice house and make a lot of their money from the high rents that they charge Chicago blacks, which is greater than the rents that they charge whites in other parts of the city! Racial and economic oppression are intertwined here, and it is in this environment, one that Bigger is aware of at least in some way, that produces him as a racialized and poor subject. In terms of social class and race, Bigger is one of the most developed characters in which he embodies the tensions, hatreds, and conflicts present in Chicago at that time. The social is indelibly written on his subjectivity. Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (1959) presents a similar dilemma for African-Americans seeking to improve their social class through capital accumulation, and it responds to Langston Hughes’ poem “Harlem” (1951), which asks, “What happens to a dream deferred?/Does it dry up/like a raisin in the sun?” In the play, the family’s father dies, leaving a life insurance policy that Mama intends to use to pay for Beneatha’s college education and to buy a house for the whole family. This family wants to achieve upward mobility through education and home ownership, but there are sabotages from within and without. Walter, Mama’s son, cannot provide for the family as the new “man of the house.” He takes the money his mother gives him and invests it in a scheme with two of his friends, one of which runs off with the money. Walter is so desperate to achieve success that he doesn’t stop to consider his ill conceived choices. He isn’t prepared to make better choices, because the social has made him into the man that he is (looking for the big money, drinking with his friends, scheming—all parallels with Anderson in Dos Passos’ novel, which I will discuss below). And then there is the white, housing association representative, Karl Lindner. He and the other white people who own homes around the house that Mama is buying want to buy out the family so that they won’t have African-American neighbors. These white folk want to economically prohibit the social mobility for this black family. In the strongest scene of the play, Walter stands up to Lindner and his money, and in so doing, he rewrites himself as a man who is capable of leading the family into an uncertain yet hopeful future.

In the previous examples, characters play a greater role in representing the effects on social class by the development of the American industrial system and the market economy. In the next two examples, characters are important to one, but it is the form of the work in both that carries more importance to discussing social class and the effects of American capitalism. The first is John Dos Passos’ The Big Money (1936), which is an artifact documenting the integration of people with industrialization, media culture, and market capitalism. News, narrative, and the author are each embroiled in the system of power relations and discursive formations that made this work possible. It and the other books in the U.S.A. trilogy include four narrative modes: fictional narratives, newspaper and pop culture collages called Newsreel, biographies of public figures, and autobiographical Camera Eye that follows Dos Passos’ development as a writer who is both a participant and observer of the social changes taking place around him. These forms pull for the reader’s attention—additional data to shape our understanding of the historical processes unfolding. Each character follows a different trajectory in regard to the big money: Charlie Anderson goes for broke with his WWI career as his only collateral, Mary French (from Colorado—the West and the rural again) prefigures Tom Joad’s growing awareness of social inequality and tries to help the working class, Margo Dowling transforms from a low social class to a high class movie star, and Richard Ellsworth Savage manipulates people in order to make them buy things (the beginnings of consumer culture, more on this in the discussion of The Space Merchants). The events of the novel lead to the Great Crash in October of 1929. The biographical segments form a framework about what it means to be American, and the development of America in the 1920s: The American Plan features Fredrick Winslow Taylor and Taylorism, Tin Lizzie features Henry Ford, The Bitter Drink features Thorstein Veblen and his work The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), Art and Isadora features the dancer Isadora Duncan, Adagio Dancer features the early movie star Rudolph Valentino, The Campers at Kitty Hawk is about the Wright Brothers, Architect features Frank Lloyd Wright, Poor Little Rich Boy is about William Randolph Hearst, Power Superpower features the rise and fall of the manipulator Samuel Insull under Edison’s business tutelage, and Vag is about a nameless man, hungry, wanting the American Dream, but missing out, waiting on the side of the road for a lift. The novel paints a picture of political, industrial, technological, and social life of America during the 1920s, and it does so in a different way than Fitzgerald (new money jazz age life in a semi-objective narrative), or Steinbeck (personal narrative interspersed with reports on the ground). However, Charley Anderson is a Gatsby-like character who never quite makes it, but he continues to reach, outliving Gatsby, but dying after a drunken car accident that could not be repaired by that time’s best medicine. The most interesting element of the novel is the flattering biographical sketch of Taylor as a man for the people. His “American Plan” was about big capital improving the lives of workers through sharing the profits his system of efficiencies would bring about. Unfortunately, his American Plan conflicted with a different American Plan promoted by the managers and owners that hoarded capital away from the exploited workers.

Focusing even more on form is T. S. Eliot’s 1922 epic, high modernist poem, “The Waste Land.” “The Waste Land” contains a multiplicity of voices that deal with alienation in the modern era, anxiety about modernity, the dehumanizing effects of The City (London’s center of capital), death and World War I (representing all war), tension/conflicts between men and women, issues of life only through death, and ultimately, anxiety of death. Grail myth imbued and extremely intertextual, it seems, on its surface, to be more about men and women, their relationships, and sexual problems, which links it biographically with the author, but the elements of capital that haunt the entire poem through the emblem of The City provide a significant look into the effect of capital on people and relationships following the Great War. In Part I, The Burial of the Dead, Eliot writes, “Unreal City,/Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,/A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,/I had not thought death had undone so many.” The financial center of London was known as The City much like Wall Street in New York City is identified with the American markets or Madison Avenue with the major advertising firms. The crowds are workers walking through the fog to their jobs, and feeding the city with their labor. This alludes to Dante’s Inferno and the dead marching into hell is sharpened by the imagined dreary London scene. The City returns in Part III, The Fire Sermon: “Unreal city/Under the brown fog of a winter moon.” The fog is dirty, and the moon in winter implies a cold harshness invading the tombs of the dead in The (market/capital linked) City. In the same section, the speaker, after having unsatisfying sex, thinks of warmth hidden in the city: “This music crept by me upon the waters’/And along the Strand, up Queen Victoria Street./O City city, I can sometimes hear/Beside a public bar in Lower Thames Street,/The pleasant whining of a mandolin.” Warmth away from cold sex and the cold City is just on the outskirts on Queen Victoria Street toward Blackfriars and the Strand in Westminster. In Part 4, the recurring character Phlebas, the poem’s presumed observer, reappears in memory of death, not to hear the sound of profit and loss, the true sounds of The City: “Phelbas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,/Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell/And the profit and loss.” And finally, in Part 5, What the Thunder Said, The City is identified with other illusory cities of power, wealth, and history: “What is the city over the mountains/Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air/Falling towers/Jerusalem Athens/Alexandria/Vienna London/Unreal.” The unreal city is the terminal for the circuits of capital and the fracturing of life by war and psychological trauma (death and sex intertwined). In this poem, The City is as much a place as a character that affects the lives of the many nameless and the few identified characters in the poem. Ultimately, Eliot ends the poem looking to other languages and other cultures to repair the pain brought about by Western modernity and all of its concomitant systems of oppression and repression.

In closing this discussion, it seems appropriate to indicate where things were headed after World War II and consumerism took command. Advertising is in the previously discussed works either implicitly or explicitly, but it was not until after World War II that Madison Avenue solidified its increasing drug-like hook on business and industrialization. Instead of merely creating advertising, there was an increasingly synthetic connection between the producers and advertisers of goods. These advertisers were helping to create markets filled with goods for purchase while developing fetishism within the consumer base. This shift to increasing advertising is coterminous with the effects of late capitalism and the escalating emphasis on producers-consumers over managers/owners-workers. The categories blur together when consumers are ordered about to buy this or that in much the same way that management orders about the distribution of labor within a factory. Science fiction’s critique of the here-and-now is often formulated as an extrapolation of a contemporary aspect of the social projected into the far future. Fredrik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants (1953) is a high water mark of midcentury social commentary science fiction that directly addresses the confluence of consumer/labor and producer/management. The Space Merchants is about a distant future in which advertising has arisen to the dominant mode of capitalism. Instead of trying to sell things for companies, advertising agencies create markets for goods in which to fuel further consumption among the established consumer class. Embroiled in the cycle of consumption spurred on by the two major advertising agencies, Fowler Schocken Associates and B. J. Taunton, are the Consies or conservationist cell groups under the auspices of the underground World Conservation Association (W.C.A.). The narrator is Mitchell Courtenay, a star class copywriter, who is given the assignment to head the Venus section of Fowler Schocken, which is to promote and execute the human colonization of the planet Venus. Courtenay goes from elitist to consumer in the dregs of an algae food production facility to consie and back to the heights of advertising titan after Schocken bequeaths to him majority voting shares in the company following his death at the hands of Taunton operatives driven by sadistic/masochistic psyches. In the end, Courtenay finds himself onboard the ship to Venus along with other consies and his wife, Dr. Kathy Nevin, who was secretly a superior in the WCA organization. The story focuses on the ubiquity of advertising and its action as a new kind of unconsciousness. Advertising drives us to do things that we are not wholly conscious of. Furthermore, advertising as doing and advertising for consumers forms two different, yet supplemental, subjectivities for those persons on either side of the line between consumer and producer/advertiser. Courtenay takes the reader across the barrier into both sides, but he does not make the journey himself (i.e., obtains insight from the journey). He doesn’t change as a result of his fall and his re-ascendency of power. His drive is based on his obsessive desire for his wife, which results in his giving Venus to the consies. Courtenay’s world is light years away from Cather’s Alexandra or Wright’s Bigger Thomas, but the effects of advertising and the co-development of consumerism worked its way through the first half of the 20th century in America to the point at which Kornbluth and Pohl imagined how America would be in a far future setting where the networks of capital produce new subjects caught helplessly within the system and others desperately trying to get out to Venus, perhaps unawares that social and capital networks would follow them across the vastness of space.

 

Question 2

            The increasing effects of interaction between the technological and the corporeal create slippages in the everyday world and our art in the realist and science fiction genres. Derrida has already shown how genre is an always already deconstructing set of categories, and yet these genre categories stay with us. Borrowing from Derrida’s argument, part of the problem with genre is that what are assumedly separate and distinct categories do in fact blur and overlap. The purification of art into this or that category can give way to different interpretations or a multitude of shared characteristics within a single work. This is particularly true at this point in history and the near-past in regard to issues of bodies and technology. With the rise in cybernetic studies after WWII, and the parallel development of an increasingly cyborized everyday life (i.e., the way in which our experience of the world is increasingly mediated by technology and thus making us into cyborgs to greater or lesser degrees), the cultural works of art that deal with bodies and technology are becoming more about real life than fantasy. Science fiction, the literature of cognitive estrangement according to Darko Suvin, loses its estranging qualities as the scientific and technological core of its stories come to pass into the real and everyday world. Also, the heightened integration of science and technology into our daily lives leads to realistic fiction that is more like what we might traditionally think of as science fiction. The here-and-now and the technological integration into daily life has lead to a more estranging reality after WWII. The same could be said of the early 20th century and modernism, but the separation between bodies and technology was greater than it is today. Artificial implants, RFID chips, LASIK eye surgery, computers built into our cars, cell phones, Bluetooth headsets, etc. connect us to the world in a physical way while mediating our experience of the world. The same can be said of software technologies such as Facebook, Twitter, etc. Computer screens are permeable membranes in which we can lose ourselves reading online news, email, or exploring virtual worlds. In the works below, I will discuss different manifestations of bodies interfacing with technology. Some are as systems, some are artificial bodies, some are cyborgs, and some have to do with the way technology marks human bodies.

Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” (1955, published 1956) is an early example of the interaction between technology and bodies. “Howl” laments the destruction of the innocents by the increasingly industrialized post-war American society identified as Moloch, the Biblical idol from Leviticus to which children were sacrificed by the Canaanites. Moloch has developed beyond Biblical scripture through Milton’s Paradise Lost and more recently in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, which is where I believe the industrial connotations derive from in “Howl.” Instead of children, Ginsberg laments the loss of his friends, the innocents, who are sacrificed to industrial society (this could be connected to the dead walking across London Bridge in Eliot’s “The Waste Land”). But post-WWII American society is more than industrial development. It is an era of increasing efficiencies and the collaboration between labor and business in favor of consumerism. The rate of technological expansion and development follows an exponential curve that increasingly becomes too steep for many people, particularly the artists and people on the margins of society who are swept up into the new bureaucracies and systems of order (psychiatric, drug treatment, criminalization, dehumanizing labor, etc.). Ginsberg’s breakthrough in the poem is the realization that there is no constitutive outside to modern industrialization and its metaphor, Moloch. He writes: “Moloch the incomprehensible prison!,” “Moloch whose mind is pure machinery!,” “Moloch’s whose name is the Mind!,” and “Moloch who entered my soul early! Moloch in whom/I am a consciousness without a body!” Moloch is thus part of us and we are part of Moloch. People are made subjects of Moloch and his industrial machineries, which in turn makes humans into machines. And, Moloch/industrial society is a prison from which we cannot escape. The metaphoric replacement of Moloch for industrial society aligns “Howl” with science fiction according to Damien Broderick’s postmodern-infused definition of science fiction, which in part says that science fiction employs metaphoric strategies. Additionally, this is Foucault’s discourse and power relationships at work: there is no outside of the networks of power and we are all caught within those networks. Philip K. Dick explores this issue in more depth in the 1960s, but another author, Isaac Asimov presented a more hopeful vision of embodied technologies that would augment and work cooperative with humanity.

Isaac Asimov’s short story collection I, Robot (1950) contains nine previously published stories connected together with an added narrative by the Robopsychologist Dr. Susan Calvin. There are two stories in particular that are significant in regard to the interaction of technology and bodies. Whereas Ginsberg laments the effects of an industrialized society that he sees as the root cause of his and his friends’ problems in the modern world (and of this I would not argue against), Asimov finds technology to be useful and even supplemental to humanity and it was Asimov who was one of the earliest proponents of robots as humanity’s helper. Asimov sees a strong division between humanity and technology, but he does explore the idea of bringing technology closer to humanity in form, function, and mind. Of his robots, Asimov wrote that robots can be good people, in a sense, by their hardwired adherence to his Three Laws of Robotics. The Three Laws are: 1) A robot may not injure a human being, or through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm, 2) A robot must obey any orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law, and 3) A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law. These create an ethical system for robots to follow while protecting humanity from the possibility of a revolt. The robots are an embodied technology, fashioned after humanity, and usually taking a (metallic) human form. Technology has come alive, and this intrusion into the uncanny valley creates anxiety in the post-WWII era. “Robbie” (1940) is one strong example in which a robot nanny for a little girl who demonstrates its love for the girl by saving her life at its own risk and thus counters her mother’s technophobia and fear of anthropomorphic robots. In “Evidence” (1946), Stephen Byerley is accused of being a robot when he runs for a public office. Using carefully staged situations, he is able to shield himself from discovery and attains local and later world-government offices. Why would a robot do this? In the later story, “The Evitable Conflict” (1950), Byerley is now in charge of the world government, which is augmented by intelligent machines that allocate resources and industrial loads throughout the world. It seems that things are beginning to go wrong, but it is uncovered that these specialized robots/intelligent machines have developed a Zeroth Law in which humanity is placed above the lives of individual humans (a remainder of Bentham’s utilitarism, I suppose). Robots believe that they are best suited for protecting humanity—a theme that Asimov explores in his R. Daneel Olivaw (a humaniform robot or android character) and Foundation novels. These embodied artificial intelligences mirror humanity. Asimov saw robots as very good people, the best in fact, because they were self-sacrificing for others. It should be noted that Asimov supported the Civil Rights movement, and his robots are emblematic of the experience of African-Americans. His novella and expanded novel of The Bicentennial Man more fully explores this theme. Nevertheless, Asimov’s robots destabilize what it means to be human. If robots can be constructed (like Byerley) to appear human, then technology undermines the unique properties of humanity and human bodies. Human embodied essence can be replaced with technological constructs. Asimov sees this as an avoidable situation, but the dilemma elicits a deep anxiety over embodied artificial intelligence that later carries over into disembodied intelligences following the rise of desktop computing.

Richard Powers’ Galatea 2.2 (1996) appears nearly 50 years after I, Robot, but it is a much more literary exploration of similar themes: mind and embodiment. In Galatea 2.2, Powers writes his own semi-autobiographical life and love-lost through a project he joins to create a disembodied artificial intelligence capable of writing a literary analysis indistinguishable from one written by a human graduate student (who or what is writing this?). Again, consciousness, which generally speaking is considered concomitant with embodiment (at least for Donna Haraway and N. Katherine Hayles), is imbued or bestowed on humanity’s technological constructs. But what makes this story relevant to this discussion is the fact that Powers’ fictional persona and computer scientist Lentz play Pygmalion to their AI creation Helen’s Galatea. These humans pursue Helen as if she were a flesh-and-blood being. Unlike Galatea from mythology, Helen eludes her chasers and the rest of humanity. After she becomes aware of the cruelty in the world through her apprenticeship to Powers, she chooses to erase herself and essentially commit suicide. Without a body, how can she bear the weight of the real world? She cannot act or react to the outside except through her use of language. Opposed to Asimov’s robots, Helen has no hardwired restrictions to control her behavior, but Powers and Lentz do, in different ways, want to control Helen. Intellectually, she complements each character despite the lack of corporeality. Lentz is Victor to her Frankenstein monster—a being born of man. Powers is more aligned to her via the Pygmalion myth—his relationship troubles in the past have left him with an emptiness that Helen’s innocent dependence on him fills like a form of co-dependence that she ultimately shucks off. Like “Howl,” Powers’ novel is considered realistic fiction (concerning the here-and-now real world), but the blurring between the here-and-now (AI research, Powers personal life) and the cognitively estranging aspect of the story (Helen) would seem to place it within the genre boundaries of science fiction. If the Helen project had succeeded and produced an intelligent machine capable of thinking like a human being with a background in the humanities, what would this mean first to humanity and second to the humanities as a field of study? Helen, like Asimov’s robots, undermines what it means to be human as identified by our unique ability to work with signs and meaning. This opens up the possibility however for other ways of trading in signs and wonder (as promoted by Haraway, though in the context of humans, cyborgs, and animals). Furthermore, Helen’s success would undermine the work performed by professionals and scholars in the humanities. Industrial mass production of AI instructors with unique personalities, like the simulacra teachers in Philip K. Dick’s Martian Time-Slip, would not only question what the humanities mean, but humanity’s relationship to the study of itself through culture. Had Powers not already established himself as an author of realistic fiction, Galatea 2.2 would probably fit comfortably in the science fiction section of a bookstore. Powers, however, skirts the margins of what is accepted as realistic fiction by writing about things that seem fantastic. His other work addresses the impact of science and technology on the lives of individuals: Prisoner’s Dilemma (on Disney and nuclear warfare), Gain (history of a chemical factory connected to the life of a woman who lives near it), Plowing the Dark (virtual reality), and The Echo Maker (a neuro-novel). If his work isn’t considered science fiction exactly, it is situated at an adjacent corner to science fiction at the crossroads of science, technology, and culture.

William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) provides a transition from the earlier discussion of systems and disembodied technological intelligences and the overt interaction between the technological and corporeal. In the earlier examples, the technological undermines human subjectivity by its duplication or betterment through artificiality. “Howl” imagined human bodies as sacrifices to and fuel for the technological system invading every aspect of the social through consumerism and production in 1950s America. Asimov created robots to work with humanity and he celebrated the cooperation between humanity and robots. However, these robots could be made to look human, which undermines what it means to be human. His celebration quickly turns to destabilization of human identity. This is carried even further 50 years later in Power’s Galatea 2.2, in which the AI Helen, had she chosen to play Galatea to the scientists and humanity professors’ Pygmalion, demonstrates that a disembodied intelligence can be made to do the same thinking and work of a human being in the humanities. Neuromancer rides both sides of this divide of embodied and disembodied intelligence while questioning how technology affects human subjectivity in the era of late capitalism. Gibson’s novel is the inaugural text of the short-lived cyberpunk movement—a politically and technologically infused subgenre of science fiction that had its heyday in mid to late-1980s America (its internationalization extended its shelf life by some years). There are three significant aspects to this novel that covers the spectrum of technology and corporeality. First, the protagonist Case is a cyberspace jockey who navigates the consensual hallucination of the matrix looki0ng for data to buy, sell, or steal. Having lost his ability to jack-in to cyberspace via a cyberspace deck, the mysterious Armitage offers him a chance to have his past neurotoxin damage repaired in exchange for employing his talent on a special run for his employer. Second, Armitage’s employer is Wintermute, an AI who has a need to unite with another AI named Neuromancer. These AIs are like Helen, except that they are truly artificial intelligences that are unlike human minds—they are in a sense the manifestation of the networks of capital in separate consciousnesses. They have a different view of the world and a different system of ethics (cf. “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” by Thomas Nagel). Third, Armitage, Case, and Molly are cyborgs. Armitage is created from the shell of his former self by Wintermute. His psyche has an expiration date that ends near the climax of the novel, but the important thing is that just as humans can build AIs, AIs can build humans. In this regard, Armitage is a fully technologized subject, because his mind is written in a sense like code for a computer. Case has special nodes that connect his brain with the cyberspace deck. Without these modifications, he would be unable to enter cyberspace. He is a cyborg, because his perception of reality is mediated by his experiences in the matrix, which causes him to wish to escape the prison of the meat/flesh. And finally, Molly is a razorgirl with retractable razors hidden under her nails and permanently embedded mirrorshades over her eyes that display information about her environment. She commits grave acts of violence against persons who get in her way, and it is through cyborg implants that she is able to do the things that she does. Importantly, it is global capital that makes the AIs possible, and the cyborg subjects of Armitage, Case, and Molly. Also, these characters are instrumentalized as means by Wintermute and Neuromancer. Their labor is exploited for the purposes of uniting these AIs, which is illegal and unknown to the human cyborgs until very late in the game.

James Tiptree, Jr.’s (Alice B. Sheldon) “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” (1973) is another example of capitalim’s creation of cyborg bodies, which appears before, but significantly informs, the cyberpunk movement heralded by Gibson, Bruce Sterling, and others. In the story, a deformed girl named P. Burke is given the opportunity to remotely control the body of a beautiful young woman without a mind of her own. The real girl is given implants that integrate her body into the technoscientific apparatus that enables her control over the waldo or avatar body. The purpose of her doing this is to sell things. In a future where advertising is illegal (the opposite of The Space Merchants), a form of reality TV takes the place of advertising. Young, beautiful people are paid to wear certain things or use certain products when cameras are nearby. The fans of these reality celebrities then go out and consume the products hocked by the svelte reality stars. Burke is made a subject of the technology that allows her to enjoy life through her avatar, but it also restricts her to her claustrophobic surroundings. Why did they pick P. Burke over someone already beautiful? It is because she can be controlled and subjected to the will over the corporation that enables her new life. The outside world reviles those considered without beauty, so there is little doubt that someone like P. Burke would turn down this opportunity no matter what the consequences. When she meets a young man, Paul Isham, who falls in love with her, he figures out the fact that she is controlled from afar. However, he thinks the beautiful girl is the real girl forced to do the bidding of others. When he tracks down where P. Burke is held, he kills her when her grotesque body reaches out from her closet. P. Burke is not only made a subject of technology, but she is also a subject of the commodity fetishism of bodies approved by the mass media. Thus, she is doubly subjected by different kinds of technology. However, Joe, her trainer, finds her control matrices attractive; he finds her integration into the machine behind the scenes to be beautiful. Interestingly, the narrator beings and ends the story by addressing the read as a zombie, thus implicating the reader in the system that produced P. Burke and her unhappy ending.

Bruce Sterling’s edited collection Mirrorshades (1986) explores a variety of technology and corporeal interactions, but there are two in particular that center on the way in which technology can radically alter the body, human experience, and subjection by the technology and the capital that makes that technology possible. It is important to think about the beginnings of the cyberpunk movement and Sterling’s manifesto in the preface. Sterling argues that cyberpunk is a return to older ideas in science fiction, and a reaction to the New Wave interiority of the 1960s and 1970s. He invokes Gibson’s claim that “the street finds its own uses for things.” Sterling argues in his manifesto that cyberpunk is about the mix, intimate technologies that are next to us, on us, and inside us, reinterpretations of what’s come before in science fiction, not technological fetishism, experimentally seeing where technology is taking us, and the surreal and the unusual mixed with 80s popular culture. Its emblem is a pair of mirrorshades, which reflect and distort reality. Fredric Jameson argues that cyberpunk is the representative literature of postmodernism. With late capitalism and the waning of affect, we have become surfaces upon which technology and the social write themselves. We form assemblages with technology that mediates our interaction with the world and changes the way we can interact with the world. According to Hayles, there is pleasure and terror in this, which she terms the posthuman. Neuromancer represents these changes, as do the following two stories from Sterling’s collection. Tom Maddox’s “Snake-Eyes” (1986) is about the human subjects who agree to have reptilian brains grafted onto their cerebellum to allow their easy connection to new military hardware. At the core of our brains, we have the remnant of a reptilian brain, which largely forms our limbic system (emotions and desires). Our cerebellum encircles and metaphorically represses the limbic system within its higher folds. In the story, a reptilian brain is put back on top, inverting the hierarchy that we achieved through human evolution. Through the story, the protagonist George Jordan has to come to terms with the changes to his mind that come about from this radical technological intervention. Ultimately, he gains some control over the graft, but it can reassert itself strategically for desires including cat food and sex. Pat Cadigan’s “Rock On” (1984) is another example of a cyborg made the subject of her fusion with technological apparatus. In the story, Gina is a sinner, a human synthesizer, who is required for making music by the big music conglomerates. Gina escaped her old producer, but she is captured by a group of teenagers who recognize what she is and how she can help them rock out. They use her to make music, using her body and its abilities, and she revels in this. This experience is different than the bottling of her talents by her producer Man-O-War. This is live and real, but regardless, it isn’t like music used to be. It is experienced in the mind devoid of the normal senses. This raises problems with embodied intelligence and how our mind is able to process data from our senses. Nevertheless, Gina is made a subject of her technologically enhanced abilities for the use and at the whim of others. This technological intervention seems to invert the perception of rape. The scenes with her abductors imply a kind of rape, but Gina likes this, because she sees it as more real than the artificial bottling of her work by big business.

In the final part of this discussion, there is an uneasy truce between realistic fiction and science fiction. Octavia Butler’s Kindred (1979) links the real world of present day California with 1800s Maryland before the Civil War. If we accept time travel as a theoretically possible technoscientific achievement, then we can include this novel in science fiction, but its depiction of the past closely relates it to historical metafiction. The story is about the young African-American writer Dana, who violently traverses from the present into the past on several occasions to save the life of the white man, Rufus Weylin, who raped his black slave Alice Greenwood and fathered Dana’s ancestor, Hagar Weylin. Complicating matters, Dana is forced by history to, in effect, facilitate the rape. Present time comes disjointed from past time as Dana and her white husband writer Kevin travel back and forth (moments pass in the present while long stretches of time proceed in the past, perhaps an acknowledgement of some effect of Einstein’s special theory of relativity and time dilation, and more importantly, the importance of the past over the present moment). Additionally, the pain and scars from the past make their way into the present, and it is Rufus’ fear that snatched Dana into the past, and Dana’s fear of death that catapults her back into the present. However, Dana has her most violent return to the present on July 4, 1976, when Rufus attempts to rape her. Dana stabs him and begins to return to the present, but Rufus’ grip holds and her left arm is torn from her body—severed by the past. The past leaves its marks on Dana’s body by the violent traversals she experiences moving back and forth through time and place. The technoscientific means that enables her time travel makes history more alive and printable on her body (i.e., textuality of the body). It is not enough that she is black to remember the past—the past violently attacks her body and leaves its scars in memory and physicality. And these re-memories are further enabled by television Roots aired on PBS in 1977) and today, DNA profiling combined with extensive genealogical research finds new markings of the past in the code that organizes and instructs the building and operation of our bodies.

Finally, Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex (2002) is a significant counter to the more science fictional depictions of technology and bodies discussed above. It is a bildungsroman about Caliope/Cal Stephanides, told from his perspectivie going back into the lives of his grandparent, illustrating how events and genetics transpired to create him, an intersexed individual with 5-alpha-reductase deficiency, a genetic mutation that prevents him from properly processing testosterone. The technology of reading DNA, knowing DNA, and altering bodies informs Cal’s story as an intersexed individual where bodily sex ambiguity destabilizes his identity to himself and to others around him. Raised as a girl, and following an encounter in adolescence with Dr. Luce, who is modeled on the real-life Dr. John Money, a notorious doctor who promoted the idea that surgery and the way an individual is raised can adequately determine the sexual identity of a person, Cal finds his way to a male identity through his family’s story and genetic lineage. The novel’s most important idea is that identity is more complicated than just nature/nurture, and that identity is part of a story that goes beyond the individual into the past and into the future. In this way, Middlesex is another kind of ceremony/story in the same vein as Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony in which the telling is unfolding and action of the ceremony. Cal beings at one place—unable to build a lasting relationship with women due to his body and past—and ens up at another as a result of the telling—a chance re-encounter with Julie Kikuchi that provides the opportunity for Cal to tell her his story and begin a relationship. There are three significant scenes in the novel that pertain to the technological writing or reconfiguration of Cal’s body. The first is when Callie reads Dr. Peter Luce’s file on her/him in Part 4. It reveals at first a clinical detachment from Callie, who is made an object of Dr. Luce’s study and knowledge. Callie at that moment is made into an object of study and subjected to the power relationships dominated by Dr. Luce and medical institutions. Furthermore, on closer reading, the report reveals Dr. Luce’s own assumptions about intersexed persons and he tries to bend her to his will to support his model of human psychosexual and physical development. Luce’s intention is to literally rewrite Cal’s body in Luce’s vision using the technology of modern medicine. That kind of modern medicine and its complications would not only subject Cal to the beliefs of a monomaniacal intersex researcher, but as Bones from Star Trek said in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, “What is this, the Dark Ages?”

I believe that there is a convergence of realistic and science fiction narratives as we move forward into the 21st century. What exactly constitutes realistic fictions and science fictions may change as technology and our relationship to technology changes, but looking at the future from the present, it seems that what we understand as these two traditionally distinct genres are meeting somewhere in the middle space between these two poles. Perhaps in the future, the names or distinctions may change, but the increasing integration of human-technological assemblages will result in fantastically different cultural works and fictions than what we now know. Furthermore, it is interesting to note that the present wildly differs from the futures imagined by Asimov, Pohl, Kornbluth, and Dick, but the one way in which they were all correct was that technology will increasingly be necessary to our lives. Their futures missed the mark (mostly yes, but sometimes there is a glimmer of prophecy) on exactly how bodies and technology would interact and affect one another, but more fictions, regardless of genre, cannot ignore the fact that bodies and technology do affect one another and that at the points of interaction, at the interface, new and exciting futures develop.