Recovered Writing, PhD in English, Methods in the Study of Literature, Project 3/5, New Wave Deconstruction in Philip K. Dick’s Ubik, November 8, 2008

This is the forty-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.

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

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

In this project, “Drafting a Relevant Argument,” we created the kernel of our argument for a conference paper (Project 4) and a longer publishable essay (Project 5). I had great ambition for this short paper, but I realized later—thanks to feedback from Professor Clewell and others in the seminar—that my approach to deconstruction was completely off base. This feedback was immensely useful to my thinking and reconceptualization of my argument in the projects 4 (conference paper) and 5 (publishable essay).

Jason W. Ellis

Professor Tammy Clewell

Methods in the Study of Literature

8 Nov. 2008

New Wave Deconstruction in Philip K. Dick’s Ubik

Philip K. Dick’s 1969 novel, Ubik, is the quintessential New Wave Science Fiction (SF) novel, because the author challenges accepted social frameworks, questions individualized versus universal experiences of the world, and draws on the soft sciences such as psychology and parapsychology. This work, originally written in 1966, was produced during a time of experimentation by a number of SF authors including J.G. Ballard, Harlan Ellison, and Ursula K. Le Guin. Douglas Mackey describes it as “a landmark in Dick’s development,” and, “not only is it generally considered to be one of his best novels, it marks the first distinct appearance of the transcendental element in his work” (92). The “transcendental element” is the substance of the title, Ubik. As its name suggests, Ubik is ubiquitous, and it signifies a great many things including, among others: soap, beer, coffee, and a transcendent god.

The permutations of Ubik are initially eluded to as epigraphs to each chapter. These increasingly bizarre advertisements and warnings about the potential and danger of Ubik combine with the disjointedness of the narrative. The reader is unable to pin down a meaning for Ubik, in the same way that the narrative following the explosion on the moon that supposedly kills Runciter, but spares Joe Chip, lead technician, and ten anti-psi inertials (persons having the ability to nullify psionic abilities such as pre-cognition and mind reading). The counter-intuitive regression of time in the narrative, and the transformation of modern artifacts to their Platonic essences (e.g., coins transform from a present date to an earlier one, or a La Salle turns into an older Ford Model A) creates problems for character and reader alike. Darko Suvin claims in an early essay on the novel that, “there is a serious loss of narrative control in Ubik” (par. 23). I disagree with Suvin’s argument, because what he views as its “loss” is actually a positive gain. The SF author and critic, Stanislaw Lem, asserts that, “I think, however, that the critic should not be the prosecutor of a book but its defender, though one not allowed to lie: he may only present the work in the most favorable light” (par. 18). This paper’s “favorable light” begins with the work of Peter Fitting, who writes, “Ubik is not only a deconstruction of the metaphysical ideologies and the metaphysical formal implications of the classical bourgeois novel, but also of what (in Solaris) Lem has described as the anthropomorphic presuppositions of science and of SF” (par. 14). Fitting claims that Ubik deconstructs the bourgeois novel and its commonsense worldview by, “breaking through the psychological and perceptual confines imposed on us by capitalism” (par. 16). Dick breaks through by introducing both psychological as well as metaphysical conundrums into the text that challenge not only his character’s perception of reality, but also that of the reader. However, Fitting’s argument is based deconstruction as a metaphor analogous to the fragmentation in the narrative following the explosion on the moon.

This paper goes farther than previous criticism in an exploration of its often cited non-meaning. In fact, Ubik’s meaning derives from its postmodern aspects including narrative fragmentation and deconstruction (in the Derridian sense) of commonly held beliefs. I argue that binary opposites and the deferment of meaning throughout the text generates what may be called a meditation on the nature of reality and the dissolution of objectivity.

It’s necessary to briefly describe the story before continuing the analysis. The narrative develops following the afore mentioned sneak attack on the moon by a group of industrial espionage psis perpetrated on Runciter and his group of anti-psis. The inertials escape for Earth with Runciter in cold-pac, but Joe Chip, the favored narrator, soon notices that entropy threatens the survivors’ existences. Chip and the surviving inertials discuss various theories about what’s happening, but they never fully discover the reason or mechanism for the entropic regression taking place around them and to them in the form of an accelerated death. The strange things taking place to Chip and the others is explicitly described in the text, but the overall form of the narrative into episodes of failed discovery reveals a continual deferment of meaning and resolution. In fact, many of the long running debates over the novel concerns interpretations of what actually happens and what the ending, or more accurately non-ending, actually means.

The meaning of Ubik first arrives in the ubiquity of binary opposites, which include life/death, order/entropy, heat/cold, and positive/negative. First, life and death are integral elements of the progression of the story. In the opening pages of the novel, Runciter responds to an imminent crisis by saying, “I’ll consult my dead wife” (Dick 4). He isn’t going to use a Ouiji board by candlelight. Instead, he flies to Herbert Schoenheit von Vogelsand’s Beloved Brethern Moratorium in Switzerland. Moratoriums are places where the dead still live with the help of cold-pac, or cryogenic storage in a state of half-life. Technology is utilized to keep the half-lifer from going over the brink of death, and facilitate two-way vocal communication between the half-lifer and the outside world. Life is clearly favored over death, and Dick employs half-life as a mediator between the two. In doing so, half-life breaks down the binary categories of life and death by providing a third alternative where there was none before.

Parallel to the life/death binary is order/entropy. Life is aligned with order, and death is connected to entropy or disorder. Both in the universe and in Ubik, entropy is an encroaching threat. This begins on the moon following the explosion. On board their fleeing spaceship, Joe pulls out a cigarette from his pocket and finds it, “dry and stale, [it] broke apart as he tried to hold it between his fingers. Strange, he thought” (Dick 75). This manifestation of entropy has to do with the breakdown of organic matter. A further example of this is the foreshadowing of death on the same page when Wendy Wright tells Joe and Al Hammond, “I feel old. I am old; your package of cigarettes is old; we’re all old, as of today, because of what has happened. This was a day for us like no other” (Dick 75). In the following chapters, the progression of age is something affectively felt, and shown dramatically when individuals including Wendy succumb to entropy and wind up as, “a huddled heap, dehydrated, almost mummified” (Dick 99). After the loss of most of his compatriots, Joe Chip begins to feel the onslaught of entropy. In the regressed past of 1939, the narrator says of Chip, “He perceived himself in one mode only: that of an object subjected to the pressure of weight. One quality, one attribute. And one experience. Inertia” (Dick 173).   The inertial weight that Chip experiences is the rapid advance of age as part of the strange phenomena overtaking the survivors. Near death, Chip is saved by the once believed-to-be-dead Runciter armed with a spray can of Ubik. The cloud of Ubik restores Chip in body and mind, but it raises more questions for Chip and leads to him discounting earlier theories about what’s going on. Ultimately, Chip is told by Runciter that Chip and the others died on the moon, and that they are now in half-life. Runciter is alive in the outside world, and communicating with Chip. Therefore, the things that Chip sees are simulations of the mind within half-life, but they are not generated exclusively by him.

There are other forces at work within half-life, and they are Jory, a teenager in half-life that feeds off the psyche of other half-lifers, and Ella Runciter, Runciter’s dead wife. Jory and his two other personalities, Matt and Bill, created the regressive world that Chip and the others find themselves in following the explosion. In many ways, this process of simulation and devouring is a game for Jory. Ella Hyde Runciter on the other hand is one of many other half-lifers who resist Jory’s voracious appetite, which resulted in the development of Ubik within the world of half-life. This aspect of the novel combined with the mysterious Ubik substance is where Dick introduces the “transcendent element.” It’s not necessary to muddle in the metaphysical aspects of reincarnation that Dick alludes to, but it’s poignant that there is another layering of binary opposites. Ella connects to order, and Jory represents entropy. She’s clearly positive for helping Chip, and she’s a “pretty girl, with gay, blond pigtails, wearing an unbuttoned sweater over her blouse, a bright red skirt and high-heeled little shoes” (203). Jory on the other hand is negative, selfish, and wicked. Also, he’s described as, “an adolescent boy, mawkishly slender, with irregular black-button eyes beneath tangled brows,” and having “shabby teeth,” and, “a grubby tongue” (Dick 195-196). Chip believes that after having met Ella and Jory that’s he pulled back the curtain of his half-life menagerie. He says, “You’re the other one…Jory destroying us, you trying to help us. Behind you there’s no one, just as there’s no one behind Jory. I’ve reached the last entities involved” (Dick 206). However, this isn’t the case, and the deconstruction is revealed. In the final chapter, Runciter tells Chip good-bye and walks away from Chip’s cold-pac casket. When he tries to tip the attendant, he discovers that his money has transformed into coins with Joe Chip’s face, just as Joe Chip’s money had Runciter’s face, and the last line of the novel is, “This was just the beginning” (Dick 216). The author’s deliberate problematization of narrative resolution complicates where the end actually lies. Clearly, Jory and Ella are not the final “entities involved,” and Dick gives the reader a clue with the final epigraph at the beginning of that chapter. He writes:

I am Ubik. Before the universe was, I am. I made the suns. I made the worlds. I created the lives and the places they inhabit; I move them here, I put them there. They go as I say, they do as I tell them. I am the word and my name is never spoken, the which no one knows. I am called Ubik, but that is not my name. I am. I shall always be (Dick 215).

Ubik is described as an all encompassing order. It is, as its name suggests, ubiquity–appearing in all places. Therefore, Ubik flattens the binary opposites of Ella-order and Jory-entropy, because each are a part of its greater whole.

However, this cannot be full solution to the novel. Dick is playing with the nature of the mind and the ability of the mind to create reality. Also, the general consensus is that the actions taking place in the novel are taking place in half-life. They may involve different individuals as a sort of mass hallucination, or the events may be within the mind of one individual working out a rationalization for their existence following the explosion on the moon. In this light, the final epigraph is more telling about the nature of reality that Dick is questioning within the novel. Through imagination, we each have the ability to be god within our own mind. Jory creates a world for Chip and the Runciter inertials, but so can any one of them create a world and act on it through will alone. Dick even touches on this when Jory regresses Ubik to a pre-spray can state. Chip, “poured whatever energy he had left onto the container. It did not change” (Dick 209). Even though he could not directly transform the regressed container of Ubik to its modern form, his will ricocheted off in another direction bringing a television commercial spokeswoman from the future with a fresh can of Ubik. Thus, Chip acts on his environment, much as the god-like Ubik does in the last chapter’s epigraph.

Dick draws on the binary opposites of life/death, order/entropy, and internal/external to create a meditation on the nature of reality. As Patricia Warrick has pointed out, Dick said in speeches and essays that, “the material for the novel came primarily from a series of dreams” (145). However, she goes on make a beautiful analysis of the novel that fits into the deconstructive overall whole of the novel. She writes:

The power of Ubik…lies in Dick’s perfect yoking of content and form. He is writing of entropy, of a time when things fall apart, when death begins to eat at social structures and at the individuals who live in society, and he uses a form that is itself decayed and nearly worn out. He writes of the struggle between order and entropy, and the form becomes the content (146).

This final aspect of the novel creates an additional layer connecting the binary opposites of order and entropy with form and content. Form is an ordering of the text, and the content has that form imposed on it. In this case, the content pushes back against the form. The content’s uncertainty manifests itself in the form. It’s a straight story in the sense that the book proceeds from one chapter to the next, each preceded by an epigraph, but within the form is the dual forces of time. Objective time going forward, and a subjective time enforcing regression to older essences opposing it.

Ubik is a novel that challenges objective, privileged frameworks by revealing how subjective mind world building and interaction is an uncertain enterprise. The novel’s ending is ambiguous as well as amorphous, because the author leaves little clues as to its resolution. Meaning is deferred ad infinitum, because the thesis contained in Ubik promotes uncertainty as the fabric of reality due to the subjective nature of the mind. In fact, Warrick, who performs a biographical analysis of Ubik in relation to Dick’s life, claims Dick doesn’t know the answers to the many questions his text raises. However, she writes, “He can speculate, as he does in the novel, but here he refuses to provide an answer for anyone else. Each man must make the intuitive leap to his own answer” (Warrick 144). This is the general idea of the final chapter that the reader must engage the text on a level beyond content. It’s a philosophical puzzle, perhaps without a definitive answer, but one worthy of and even necessitating consideration. Ubik requires the reader to consider the implications of these puzzles, and to work them out in his or her own mind–the place of literal and imaginative world building.

Works Cited

Dick, Philip K. Ubik. New York: Doubleday, 1969.

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

Lem, Stanislaw. “Philip K. Dick: A Visionary Among the Charlatans.” Science Fiction Studies 2:1 (1975). 19 October 2007 <;.

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

Suvin, Darko. “P.K. Dick’s Opus: Artifice as Refuge and World View.” Science Fiction Studies 2:22 (1975). 19 October 2007 <;.

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


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

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

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

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

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

Jason W. Ellis

Professor Tammy Clewell

Methods in the Study of Literature

10 Oct. 2008

Postmodernism and Philip K. Dick’s Ubik

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Work in the Field

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Readings of the Text

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Recovered Writing, PhD in English, Methods in the Study of Literature, Project 1/5, Literary Area and Reading List, September 25, 2008

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

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

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

In the first project, each student defined his or her specialization and created a reading list. Since this was at the beginning of my tenure at Kent State as a PhD student, my concentrations and reading list changed over time. However, it was incredibly useful to set a draft of this important framework down in writing at this point of my academic career.


Jason W. Ellis

Professor Tammy Clewell

Methods in the Study of Literature

25 Sept. 2008

Project #1: Literary Area and Reading List

I am declaring twentieth-century American literature as the focus of my doctoral study at Kent State University. American literature produced during the past century is mapped onto a variety of movements and genres that serve as guides rather than absolute categories, because many authors inhabit more than one category and they are organic structures connected in many ways by multiple networks of history, technology, and culture. Significant movements include Modernism (Pound and Williams), the Harlem Renaissance (Wright and Hurston), the Lost Generation (Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Pound, and Dos Passos), the Futurians (Asimov, Pohl, Kornbluth, and Merril), the Beat Generation (Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs), New Journalism (Capote, Wolfe, and Thompson), New Wave Science Fiction (Dick, Ellison, and Delany), and Postmodernism (Pynchon, Reed, Vonnegut, and Gibson).

Within this network of literature, I make the best connection with Postmodernism and post-World War II Science Fiction including New Wave. New Wave began as a British SF movement with Michael Moorcock taking over the editorship position at New Worlds magazine in 1964. Noteworthy British New Wavers include Moorcock, Brian Aldiss, and J.G. Ballard. What’s important about New Wave is that it is the point at which SF matures. It is characterized by literary experimentation, incorporation of the soft sciences (e.g., psychology), breaking accepted social norms, and focusing on characters. In America, the movement’s touchstone is Harlan Ellison’s 1964 edited collection, Dangerous Visions. It included works by Philip K. Dick and Samuel R. Delany among many other SF authors from both sides of the pond. Other major American New Wave authors include Ursula K. Le Guin, Joanna Russ, and Roger Zelazny. My interest in Postmodernism comes from the fact that it co-evolves with New Wave and the two movements share many similar themes and concerns such as post-capitalism and challenges to the individual.

I choose Philip K. Dick’s 1969 SF novel, Ubik, for the subject of a paper exploring the significance of this work in relation to a dialog with other works such as Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) and Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions (1973). The novel is about Joe Chip, a man with psychic blocking powers employed by a company that hires out such persons to protect corporate interests. Following an ambush on assignment, Chip is put into “half-life,” or cryonic storage, because his injuries are too severe for immediate repair. While in half-life, he is threatened by a predatory psychic also in half-life and the only protection is a ubiquitous commercial product called “Ubik.” Dick questions the nature of reality and the individual’s connection to reality through consumerism in Ubik. Additionally, he destabilizes the nature of reality for his characters as well as the reader.

This work, originally considered mere genre fiction, should be reexamined with greater seriousness. The author’s other works are in continuous print and there is greater recognition of his work thanks to the many filmic interpretations including Blade Runner (1982), Total Recall (1990), Minority Report (2002), and A Scanner Darkly (2006), as well as the recent Library of America publication of Philip K. Dick: Four Novels of the 1960s (2007), which includes Ubik. Also, other SF authors have gained increased attention in recent years such as the inclusion of Ursula K. Le Guin in The Norton Anthology of American Literature: Volume E: Literature since 1945.   Therefore, Ubik deserves increased consideration and further analysis in order to situate it within the larger framework of literary texts and culture in which it is situated.

Twentieth-Century American Literature Reading List

Chopin, Kate. The Awakening (1899).

London, Jack. The Call of the Wild (1903).

Sinclair, Upton. The Jungle (1906).

Cather, Willa. O Pioneers! (1913).

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. Herland (1915).

Frost, Robert. Mountain Interval (1916).

Sandburg, Carl. Chicago Poems (1916).

Millay, Edna St. Vincent. “Renascence” (1917).

Anderson, Sherwood. Winesburgh, Ohio (1919).

Millay, Edna St. Vincent. A Few Figs From Thistles (1920).

Cummings, E. E. Tulips and Chimneys (1923).

William, Carlos Williams. Spring and All (1923).

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby (1925).

Stein, Gertrude. The Making of Americans (1925).

Hemingway, Ernest. The Sun Also Rises (1926).

Wilder, Thornton. The Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927).

Faulkner, William. The Sound and the Fury (1929).

Hemingway, Ernest. A Farewell to Arms (1929).

Faulkner, William. As I Lay Dying (1930).

Buck, Pearl S. The Good Earth (1931).

Stein, Gertrude. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933).

Faulkner, William. Absalom, Absalom! (1936).

Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937).

Steinbeck, John. Of Mice and Men (1937).

Dos Passos, John. U.S.A. (1938).

Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath (1939).

Hemingway, Ernest. For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940).

Wright, Richard. Native Son (1940).

Welty, Eudora. A Curtain of Green: And Other Stories (1941).

Smith, Betty. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943).

Hersey, John. Hiroshima (1946).

Lowell, Robert. Lord Weary’s Castle (1946).

Warren, Robert Penn. All the King’s Men (1946).

Williams, Tennessee. A Streetcar Named Desire (1947).

Mailer, Norman. The Naked and the Dead (1948).

Merril, Judith. “That Only a Mother” (1948).

Pound, Ezra. The Pisan Cantos (1948).

Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman (1949).

Asimov, Isaac. I, Robot (1950).

Salinger, J.D. The Catcher in the Rye (1951).

Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man (1952).

Hemingway, Ernest. The Old Man and the Sea (1952).

O’Connor, Flannery. Wise Blood (1952).

Steinbeck, John. East of Eden (1952).

Vonnegut, Jr., Kurt. Player Piano (1952).

Kornbluth, Cyril M. and Fredrick Pohl. The Space Merchants (1953).

O’Connor, Flannery. A Good Man Is Hard to Find (1955).

Ginsberg, Allen. Howl and Other Poems (1956).

Kerouac, Jack. On the Road (1957).

Burroughs, William S. Naked Lunch (1959).

Heller, Joseph. Catch-22 (1961).

Dick, Philip K. The Man in the High Castle (1962).

Kesey, Ken. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962).

Plath, Sylvia. The Bell Jar (1963).

Bellow, Saul. Herzog (1964).

Hemingway, Ernest. A Moveable Feast (1964).

Dick, Philip K. The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965).

Ellison, Harlan. “’Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” (1965).

O’Connor, Flannery. Everything That Rises Must Converge (1965).

Capote, Truman. In Cold Blood (1966).

Pynchon, Thomas. The Crying of Lot 49 (1966).

Sexton, Anne. Live or Die (1966).

Ellison, Harlan. “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” (1967).

Dick, Philip K. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (1968).

Wolfe, Tom. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968).

Dick, Philip K. Ubik (1969).

Le Guin, Ursula K. The Left Hand of Darkness (1969).

Vonnegut, Jr., Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five (1969).

Warren, Robert Penn. Audubon (1969).

Thompson, Hunter S. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream (1971).

Levin, Ira. The Stepford Wives (1972).

Reed, Ishmael. Mumbo Jumbo (1972).

Pynchon, Thomas. Gravity’s Rainbow (1973).

Vonnegut, Jr., Kurt. Breakfast of Champions (1973).

Le Guin, Ursula K. The Dispossessed (1974).

Delany, Samuel R. Dhalgren (1975).

Silko, Leslie Marmon. Ceremony (1977).

Wolfe, Tom. The Right Stuff (1979).

Toole, John Kennedy. A Confederacy of Dunces (1980).

Walker, Alice. The Color Purple (1982).

Mamet, David. Glengarry Glen Ross (1984).

Gibson, William. Neuromancer (1984).

DeLillo, Don. White Noise (1985).

Morrison, Toni. Beloved (1987).

Stephenson, Neal. Snow Crash (1992).

Powers, Richard. Galatea 2.2 (1995).

Palahniuk, Chuck. Fight Club (1996).

Roth, Philip. American Pastoral (1997).

Recovered Writing: PhD in English, Semeiotics Final Paper, Deconstructing the Human/Machine Hierarchy in the Works of Asimov and Dick, Fall 2007

This is the thirty-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.

As I wrote in my last Recovered Writing post here, I consider myself very fortunate to have taken Dr. Gene Pendleton’s ENG 75057 Semeiotics course. This is in part due to his acumen as a teacher with grit, and also, in part due to his philosophy background, which I believe enriched our seminar.

In this Recovered Writing post, I am including my final paper in Dr. Pendleton’s class. After discussing some ideas and my previous work on Isaac Asimov and Cold War doppelgangers, he suggested that I bring in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? This paper helped me rethink some of my previous work in a totally new light.

Jason W. Ellis

Dr. Gene Pendleton


Fall 2007

Deconstructing the Human/Machine Hierarchy in the Works of Asimov and Dick

            The fiction of Isaac Asimov and Philip K. Dick are often evoked in critical discourse to describe the rise of autonomous technology during the American Cold War (1945-1990).  The embodiment of the increasing complex systems of Command, Control, Communications, Computers, and Intelligence (C4I) is featured in the Science Fiction (SF) image of the android.  An android is a synthetic being that to all outward appearance and behavior is human.  The internal construction of such a being may be mechanical or organic, but in either case, an android is a constructed object, rarely afforded subjectivity, despite the possibility that androids are self-aware, have subjective experience of the world, and in some cases, emotional responses.

Androids, or human-like robots are a recurring theme in SF works.  By writing SF stories featuring androids and robots, SF authors directly engage the discussion surrounding autonomous technologies and the overarching networks that technology is situated within.   These artificial beings are the embodiment of autonomous technology and they double for humanity because they are constructed in our image.  Because androids are generally capable of making their own decisions, they challenge the authority of human mastery over technological artifice.  Additionally, androids challenge what it means to be human in a world populated by the real and the artificial.  If someone acts human and looks human why is there any reason to question the validity of that person’s humanity?  The answer is that:  the existence of human-like robots makes the very concept of humanity suspect.  Thus, androids are a representation of autonomous technology that elicits anxiety over the loss of human control over technology.

Asimov constructs a utopic world around his robot and android creations in his collected Robot novels:  I, Robot (1950), The Caves of Steel (1954), The Naked Sun (1957), and The Robots of Dawn (1983).  Unlike the majority of pulp SF robots that destroy humanity, Asimov, along with his friend and editor, John W. Campbell, Jr., devised a system of laws that govern his robots.  However, Dick writes a bleaker picture into his dystopia, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968).  Dick’s androids have no such system to protect humanity from its synthetic doppelganger, and as a result, present an unleashed monstrous threat to humanity by their very existence.  As such, the works of these two authors heavily contrast with one another when juxtaposed.  Despite the apparent contradiction between the projects of these two authors, the representations of humanity and androids in their works follow a similar trajectory and promote a similar thesis:  humanity is better than machines.  This is a gross over-simplification that I will address in more depth in this paper, but at the root of this discussion is the fact that works by these authors promote these hierarchies:  human/machine, organic/synthetic, origin/derivative, soul/soulless, and presence/absence.  These hierarchies are deeply embedded within the Cold War and Cold War culture, but they continue to appear into the present through the on-going Terminator films and the Wachowski Brother’s Matrix series.  Where do these hierarchies come from?  Why are they perpetuated within SF, particularly those involving autonomous technologies such as androids?

Returning to Asimov and Dick’s works, there is a significant approach to uncovering and exploring these binary opposed hierarchies within the texts.  Jacques Derrida’s “processless” process of deconstruction provides for a reading of hierarchies within texts that obviates other variables of influence.  Derrida argues, “There is nothing outside the text” (Of Grammatology 158).  This statement means more than Derrida’s supposed logocentrism.  It completes Barthes’ claims that the author is dead, but it extends much further to the way in which we each cognize, understand, and respond to a given text.  It involves the way textual information and our responses to texts are laid down in the mind, even extending to the level of engrams, or the physical trace of memory in the brain.

Jacques Derrida’s attack on the metaphysics of presence and challenge to supplementarity and culturally created hierarchies are significant tools for the evaluation of the human/android hierarchy in the works of Asimov and Dick.  Finding différance and slippages underlying the concepts out of which the hierarchies are constructed is one step toward deconstruction.  Furthermore, I challenge the supposed supplements of humanity–technology, machines, and androids.  Each of these aspects of the androids and the hierarchies of human/android in the texts discussed below are unstable and open for debate.  After considering these texts, the human/machine hierarchy is a binary opposite of the base level, which is important to the application of deconstruction according to Derrida:

Henceforth, in order better to mark this interval…it has been necessary to analyze, to set to work, within the text of the history of philosophy, as well as within the so-called literary text…certain marks…that by analogy…I have called undecidables, that is, unites of simulacrum, “false” verbal properties (nominal or semantic) that can no longer be included within philosophical (binary) opposition, but which, however, inhabit philosophical opposition, resisting and disorganizing it, without ever constituting a third term…It is a question of re-marking a nerve, a fold, an angle that interrupts totalization:  in a certain place, a place of well-determined form, no series of semantic valences can any longer be closed or reassembled.  Not that it opens onto an inexhaustible wealth of meaning or the transcendence of semantic excess.  (Positions 42-43).

The results of this reading will present a particular view of these hierarchies deconstructed, but the work accomplished here adds to the discussion rather than provides a singular truth hidden and transcendent behind the human/android hierarchy.  Additionally, meanings are deferred, and hard answers aren’t always forthcoming.  However, this analysis begins a process of further discovery and potential for understanding.  The analysis will incorporate, “différance,” which is “neither a word nor a concept,” and, “With its a, differance more properly refers to what in classical language would be called the origin or production of differences and the differences between differences, the play [jeu] of differences” (“Différance” 279).  Studying différance through “the play of differences” is integral to deconstructing hierarchies.  It’s word play, and a play on the alleged natural hierarchies embedded in texts.  Also, Derrida writes, “The concept of play [jeu] remains beyond this opposition; on the eve and aftermath of philosophy, it designates the unity of chance and necessity in an endless calculus” (“Différance” 282).  The word play employed does not enter into the binary opposition under study, and it affords “chance and necessity in an endless calculus.”  Therefore, play is an on-going process that may bring up unexpected results, and it continually rises toward the asymptote on the edge of potential understanding.

Toward that goal, but not end, I employ a deconstructionist reading of the human/android narratives of two central Cold War SF authors:  Asimov and Dick.  The noir and detective fiction aspects of the novels further connect them within the cultural milieu in which they were originally published.  The first phase of the paper specifically addresses and undressed the human/machine hierarchies in Asimov’s Olivaw-Baley novels that feature human and android detective working a variety of hard-boiled cases.  The second phase concerns the human/android pairings in Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Do Androids Dream).  In this novel, hierarchies are continually turned on end between human/machine, man/woman, and hunter/prey.  Throughout the paper, and culminating in the conclusion, I upturn these hierarchies in attempting to better understand the solutions to these problems:  What is the origin of the human/machine hierarchy?  Why is the human/machine hierarchy predominantly forwarded through the fictional concept of the android?  And, finally, what other concepts or ideas are bound up with these hierarchies and the traces associated with the texts that build them?

Deconstructing Asimov’s Detective Buddies and Human/Android Hierarchy

Isaac Asimov’s R. Daneel Olivaw-Elijah Baley novels create and reinforce the supposedly natural human-machine hierarchy.  These novels, The Caves of Steel, The Naked Sun, and The Robots of Dawn, span from the first phase to the final phase of the Cold War.  They incorporate the author’s own expertise as a scientist along with contemporary developments in cybernetics widely publicized by Norbert Weiner in Cybernetics:  Or the Control and Communication of the Animal and the Machine (1948) and The Human Use of Human Beings (1950).

The Olivaw-Baley novels comprise a utopic vision of human-machine interaction in a far future founded on the human/machine hierarchy.  Baley grows to like his new partner through the trilogy of novels, ultimately defending him from those persons opposed to androids.  Underlying their relationship of human detective to android detective is the fact that Asmovian robots contain The Three Laws of Robotics, which problematizes Olivaw’s status as an android subject with a voice and agency to act and make its own choices.  This aspect is integral to an understanding of the human/machine hierarchy at play in these stories.

The novels take place in a far future where humans have colonized a significant portion of the galaxy.  Although the robots are instrumental in the process of colonization, humans remain fiercely divided on whether or not robots should exist at all.  Given that Asimov himself was very much in favor of the promising new technologies of his day (e.g., automation in manufacturing and computers), it is not surprising that he picks the robots in his novels to be utopic in nature.  His robots are the embodiment of these new technologies.  In order to make his robots “perfect people,” he constructed his robots with the Three Laws of Robotics that he first made explicit in his short story, “Runaround:”

(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 the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

(3) A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws. (I, Robot 44-45)

The Three Laws provided each robot with an ethical system that must be obeyed because it is hardwired into its positronic brain.  Therefore, Asmovian robots represent the best of what humans can be, but at the same time they reveal what we are not.

R. Daneel Olivaw’s artificiality is revealed to the humans he works with, and this knowledge places Daneel automatically at the “back of the bus” and subservient to human wishes as delegated by the Three Laws.  He/It is what Asimov termed a “humaniform” robot.  Daneel has the appearance of a human from one of the fifty Spacer worlds (i.e., worlds originally populated by Earth people during a period of expansion in our future).  Daneel’s partner is Elijah Baley, a detective from Earth.  In The Caves of Steel, Baley describes Daneel as appearing “completely human” (83).  He later says:

The Spacers in those pictures had been, generally speaking, like those that were occasionally featured in the bookfilms:  tall, red-headed, grave, coldly handsome.  Like R. Daneel Olivaw, for instance (The Caves of Steel 94).

Baley even suggests that Daneel is secretly Dr. Sarton, the Spacer found dead in The Caves of Steel.  However, this is not the case.  Daneel was modeled after Dr. Sarton’s appearance.  This revelation prompts Daneel to reveal what lies beneath.  In Dr. Han Fastolfe’s office:

R. Daneel pinched the ball of his right middle finger with the thumb and forefinger of his left hand…just as the fabric of the sleeve had fallen in two when the diagmagnetic field of its seam had been interrupted, so now the arm itself fell in two…There, under a thin layer of fleshlike material, was the dull blue gray of stainless steel rods, cords, and joints.  (The Caves of Steel 111)

As Baley passes out from the shock, the fact that the “R.,” which stands for “Robot,” in front of Daneel’s name is in fact deserved!

R. Daneel Olivaw is paired as a binary opposite broadly with humanity.  He/It, along with his robot kin, mirror humanity–opposites in a mirror looking back, disconcertingly similar, and evoking the uncanny.  When a character becomes aware of Daneel’s true being it destabilizes that character’s understanding of the difference between robot and human.  Most of Asimov’s robots are very metal and very plastic.  They are the epitome of synthetic.  Daneel’s construction sets him apart from the apparent synthetic robots because he appears human.  Elijah Baley first greets Daneel at Spacetown thinking that he is a Spacer, a human who lives on a planet other than Earth.  Later Baley says to his superior, Commissioner Julius Enderby, “You might have warned me that he looked completely human” and he goes on to say “I’d never seen a robot like that and you had.  I didn’t even know such things were possible” (The Caves of Steel 83).  Elijah and most other humans are not aware that a human form robot was a possibility.  Although Elijah comes to terms with Daneel, other characters desire to destroy humaniform robots.  Elijah’s wife is secretly a member of the Medievalists, a group that wants to do away with all robots, including Daneel.  Commissioner Enderby, also a Medievalist, murders Dr. Sarton, not because he wants to kill Sarton, but because he mistakes him for Daneel.

The more intimate binary opposition takes place between R. Daneel Olivaw and his human partner, Elijah Baley.  Before Elijah meets Daneel, he is confident in his own abilities as a detective.  After he partners with Daneel, however, he begins to call into question his own abilities and talents.  Robots are meant to be superior to humans and Elijah extends this to his own profession that is now being intruded on by an android.  Baley is narrating at the beginning of The Caves of Steel:

            The trouble was, of course, that he was not the plain-clothes man of popular myth.  He was not incapable of surprise, imperturbable of appearance, infinite of adaptability, and lightning of mental grasp.  He had never supposed he was, but he had never regretted the lack before.

What made him regret it was that, to all appearances, R. Daneel Olivaw was that very myth, embodied.

He had to be.  He was a robot.  (The Caves of Steel 26-27)

This anxiety is one of the motivating factors behind The Robots of Dawn, when Elijah is brought in to investigate the murder of a humaniform robot like Daneel.  If Elijah fails, he will loose his job and be declassified.  The fear of declassification is dire to Elijah because he had seen his own father declassified when he was a child.  Therefore, the existence of humaniform robots subverts human superiority over humanity’s synthetic constructs.

R. Daneel Olivaw’s doppelganger pairing with the human Elijah Baley causes real concern for those persons directly threatened (i.e., ego and job prospects, not bodily) by robotic superiority.  However, the Olivaw-Baley novels, “illustrate Asimov’s faith that man and machine can form a harmonious relationship” (Warrick 61).  These novels promote a utopic vision of human-machine cooperation.  Therefore, the hierarchy of human/machine that Asimov is responding to is inverted within the texts.

That being said, Asimov’s human/machine hierarchy contains a built-in flaw for a full inversion–the Three Laws of Robotics.  R. Daneel Olivaw, with his/its human appearance, for all intents and purposes appears to want to work along side humanity.  He/It appears to form a bond of friendship with his human partner, Baley.  He/It appears to make conscious decisions to protect Baley and other humans.  This appearance of intent comes from the imposition of the Three Laws.  They are built-in, integrated, and non-removable.  Robots and androids are constructed rather than develop, so they come preloaded with those laws as well as experiences necessary for the fulfillment of their respective jobs (e.g., an android detective will have a different set of experiences/knowledge built-in than a garbage collecting robot).  Asimov’s robots and androids can have no original sin, and they cannot make choices outside the bounds of their hardwired programming.  Humanity’s imposition of these laws re-asserts the human/machine hierarchy within the texts.  Thus, utopia can be achieved in Asimov’s fictional world through the artificially constructed superiority of humans over machines by subjecting them to an existence of slavery to humanity’s laws for robots.

The Asmovian robot/android is a supplement to humanity, thus creating/reinforcing the assumed natural human/machine hierarchy.  They fulfill menial tasks as well as specialized jobs for which automated/autonomous labor is required/requested.  Humans build them, and the positronic brain of Asimov’s robots/androids is a human creation that approximates human thought in the anthropomorphized machine.  Furthermore, the positronic brain is a linguistic engine producing logical thought for the android.  Troubleshooting robots and androids is done both mechanically (i.e., employing spanners, wires, readouts, etc.) as well as with the talking-cure transplanted to diagnose the android (i.e., the field of robopsychology–the image of Susan Calvin comes to mind).  The law, superego, or symbolic order comes from the Three Laws of Robotics hardwired into the positronic brain.  The deux ex machina is a replication of human linguistic systems of signs–a semeiotics for anthropomorphized, embodied machines.

Apparently, R. Daneel Olivaw and the other androids/robots are derived from humanity.  Humans came first, and then the robots.  But, does that necessarily make androids supplemental to humans?  Androids behave and perform themselves as human.  They are more accomplished physically–faster, stronger, and incapable of experiencing fatigue.  Additionally, Asmovian robots and androids are more intelligent and capable of learning much more than humans, due to their potentially longer lifespan.  Why, then, are androids considered supplemental to humans when they are superior in many ways?  Deconstructing the human/machine hierarchy in Asimov’s stories is relatively easy considering the occasional critical displeasure over the simplicity of his works.  That aside, his novels represent the human/machine hierarchy in a way that reinforces its appearance elsewhere in pulp SF and SF film of the era, but it destabilizes the hierarchy in the way Asimov constructs his robots.  Their connections to humanity are paramount to an analysis of the human/machine hierarchy in these works, and it’s telling that Asimov resisted the “killer robot” image by giving his creation a conscience.  Unfortunately, that conscience makes the android subservient to humanity and therefore obviates its own subjectivity in favor of the supposedly superior human.

Deconstructing Do Androids Dream Human/Android and Hunter/Prey Hierarchies

Dick’s novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Do Androids Dream) is a significant novel from the New Wave era of SF that arguably began with Michael Moorcock’s editorship of New Worlds in 1964, and is characterized by literary experimentation, emphasis on the “soft” sciences (e.g., psychology, sociology, psionics, and philosophy), and more adult themes including sex, sexuality, and illicit drugs.[1]  Dick’s work engages these New Wave and postmodern themes in his works, and diverges from the straight story of Asimov into new, unexplored territory.

Do Androids Dream was originally published in 1968 when the Cold War was entering its second phase of escalated tensions between East and West over Southeast Asia.  The military-industrial complex was sending armaments, materiel, and men to a far off space to hold back the so-called “domino effect.”  It was released in the same year that President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1968.  Whereas Asimov was probably directly influenced by Norbert Weiner’s early writings on cybernetics, Dick was probably aware of Weiner’s later work:  God & Golem, Inc.:  A Comment on Certain Points Where Cybernetics Impinges on Religion (1966).  Weiner’s metaphysics of cybernetics is apparent in Do Androids Dream as well as many of Dick’s middle and later works, which deal more explicitly with metaphysical questions of self, identity, existence, and religious experience.  Dick and Asimov’s works are under the surface allegories about racial divide in America following World War II, but Dick problematizes the differences between android and human along the lines of psychology and metaphysical questions of existence and religion.  However, in both cases, the overarching thesis of the human/machine hierarchy is unavoidable and reinforced through the texts.

Do Androids Dream approaches the presupposed human/machine hierarchy from a more metaphysical trajectory than Asimov’s Olivaw-Baley novels.  The story takes place in San Francisco in the year 2021 following a devastating nuclear war that prompts the majority of the surviving population to emigrate to Mars.  However, the proverbial “40 acres and a mule” is provided by governments to sweeten and entice migration to another world.  The mule in Do Androids Dream is the android.  It is billed as a worker and companion–constructed to the needs/wants of the human settler.  These androids are produced by a number of companies, and they are continually improved upon.  These androids, or by the derogatory term, andys, are part flesh and part machine.  If they are caught escaping their enforced servitude/slavery, they are “retired” (i.e., killed) by a human bounty hunter.  Locating escaped androids is problematic, because they appear and behave human.  Also, the corporations building them, such as the Rosen Corporation, continually strive to build more human-like androids, culminating with the latest design, the Nexus-6.  The only methods of detection are 1) reflex response, 2) the Voigt-Kampff Empathy Test, and 3) a bone marrow analysis.  All but the physically invasive test is potentially suspect because of biological and psychological variation in humans.

Again, why are humans supposedly superior to androids?  Humanity builds androids.  They are a commodity.  They are slave labor with a definite lifespan built-in due to technological limitations.  Humans are the masters and androids are the slaves.  For a slave to challenge the authority of the master, the android incurs the harshest penalty–death.  Furthermore, androids display what’s called a “flattening of affect” (Dick 37).  They don’t “actually” feel emotions–they can only approximate an appropriate human-inspired response.  For this reason, they are not believed to have a soul and cannot under go fusion with the religious figure of Mercer through the technological mediation of the Empathy Box.  But what about schizophrenics with a similar “flattening of affect?”  His superior warns Deckard about this possibility:

The Leningrad psychiatrists…think that a small class of human beings could not pass the Voigt-Kampff scale.  If you tested them in line with police work, you’d assess them as humanoid robots.  You’d be wrong, but by then they’d be dead.  (Dick 38).

Similarly, these humans shouldn’t be able to worship with other humans.  Mercerism is supposedly cut off for these individuals.  This aspect of the schizophrenics isn’t addressed in Do Androids Dream, but Deckard responds to his superior’s concerns:

They’d be in institutions…They couldn’t conceivably function in the outside world; they certainly couldn’t go undetected as advanced psychotics–unless of course their breakdown had come recently and suddenly and no one had gotten around to noticing.  But that can’t happen.  (Dick 38)

So, these individuals with a “flattening of affect,” or no appropriate emotional response to a given situation, “couldn’t conceivably function in the outside world” according to Deckard.  However, the six androids he hunts integrate into daily life, hold jobs in some cases, and live their lives as best they can while looking over their shoulder for a bounty hunter on their trail.  Certainly not all schizophrenics can go unnoticed, but going by the DSM IV-TR criteria, it seems clear that someone could maintain a modicum of self-sufficient life without getting the men in white coats chasing after them.  This indicates one aspect of the human/android hierarchy that breaks down under scrutiny.  Thus, experiencing emotion and affect are not necessarily something inherently human, and there’s no underlying machineness that dictates that they cannot experience emotion.

Let’s consider the human/machine hierarchy inverted in Do Androids Dream.  Again, like Asimov’s robots, the androids of Do Androids Dream are unique and talented.  For example, Luba Luft, an android, becomes a public opera singer that Deckard later regrets retiring.  He thinks to himself after the act, “I don’t get it, how can a talent like that be a liability to our society?  But it wasn’t the talent, he told himself; it was she herself” (Dick 137).  She is a recognized singer, and Deckard enjoys hearing her sing during rehearsal.  Yet, he and another bounty hunter kill her, because “it was she herself,” an android.  Human superiority over the android slave marks the android for subjection or destruction depending on the android’s choice to comply or rebel.  Rebellion raises the hierarchy of predator/prey, bounty hunter/android.  This new hierarchy is inverted during the last standoff between Deckard and the remaining three androids:  Pris Stratton, Irmgard Baty, and Roy Baty.  Pris makes the move to attack Deckard, using her similar appearance to Rachael Rosen to her advantage.

Another example of android hierarchical inversion has to do with Roy and Irmgard Baty.  They are married androids, and when they are cornered Roy tries to draw Deckard away from his wife.  Deckard kills her first, and Roy lets out a scream of rage before his own death.  Who’s to say that that Roy and Irmgard didn’t feel?  Who’s to say that they really feel something (e.g., sadness, happiness, joy, etc.)?  The humans in the story have less feeling than some of the androids.  For example, Rick and Iran Deckard have a Penfield Mood Organ, a technological device that alters their moods.  In many ways, it’s debatable if they could be married without the artificial stimulation of the mood organ.  Phil Resch also addresses the “feelings” of androids, while under suspicion of being an android.  While tracking Luba Luft in an art gallery, he stops in front of a painting:

At an oil painting Phil Resch halted, gazed intently.  The painting showed a hairless, oppressed creature with a head like an inverted pear, its hands clapped in horror to its ears, its mouth open in a vast, soundless scream.  Twisted ripples of the creature’s torment, echoes of its cry, flooded out into the air surrounding it; the man or woman, whichever it was, had become contained by its own howl.  It had covered its ears against its own sound.  The creature stood on a bridge and no one else was present; the creature screamed in isolation.  Cut off by–or despite–its outcry


“I think,” Phil Resch said, “that this is how an andy must feel.”  He traced in the air the convolutions, visible in the picture, of the creature’s cry.  “I don’t feel like that, so maybe I’m not an–”  He broke off as several persons strolled up to inspect the picture.  (Dick 130-131).

Edvard Munch’s Scream (1893) is emblematic of being overwhelmed, and acting out against an oppressive or repressive force.  Also, it serves to signify the emotional experience of androids in the novel.  What’s peculiar about this passage is that it’s a human bounty hunter, perhaps questioning his own identity at this point, but nevertheless indicating that androids are capable of feeling.  That feeling is one of the most oppressive and heavy expressionist paintings.  Another reading is that Resch is projecting his own stress and panic onto his prey.  In either case, the suggestion is made, which is disturbing considering Resch’s later cold-blooded killing of Luba Luft.  However, before that act, Deckard makes a token gesture of kindness toward Luba Luft.  After apprehending her with Resch’s help, she asks Deckard to buy her a print of the painting she was looking at.  After a pause, Deckard buys a book with the print of Munch’s Puberty (1895) inside for her, knowing that she will have to be “retired.”  She tells Deckard, “It’s very nice of you…There’s something very strange and touching about humans.  An android would never have done that” (Dick 133).  Deckard’s act is one of compassion, even for the condemned android in his possession.  Resch’s lack of affect toward androids is reinforced by his admission that he would never made such a gesture.  However, he would do something even more dehumanizing, but from his perspective, it isn’t such an act because it doesn’t involve another human.  Humans with artificial emotions, and androids with arguably emotional responses of love and self-preservation serve to deconstruct the assumed human/machine hierarchy in Do Androids Dream.

The idea that humans can be attracted to androids, and the destabilization of human subjectivity by androids further complicates the human/machine hierarchy.  Deckard’s human subjectivity is challenged during the episode at the fake Mission Street Police Station.  There, he’s surrounded and considered an android by a swarm of police officers.  However, these cops are actually androids, pretending to be police officers in a fake police station–a safe-house of sorts for wayward androids.  Again, the hierarchy is inverted.  Then, Deckard escapes with the help of Phil Resch, who Deckard is told by a then retired android that Resch is one of them.  During the process of revelation, the destabilization of human subjectivity passes from Deckard to Resch.  Resch begins to doubt he’s human.  His lack of affect toward killing androids seems to reinforce this view, because androids supposedly don’t care for one another (yet evidence in the story that contradicts that assumption).  However, things are turned around once again when Resch is diagnostically determined to be human by Deckard’s Voigt-Kampff Test.  He merely lacks any affect toward androids–something that Deckard begins to experience toward female androids including Luba Luft and Rachael Rosen.  This double inversion results in Deckard questioning his own abnormal affective response:

And he felt instinctively that he was right.  Empathy toward an artificial construct?  he asked himself.  Something that only pretends to be alive?  But Luba Luft had seemed genuinely alive; it had not worn the aspect of a simulation.  (Dick 141).

One shouldn’t be attracted to androids, because they aren’t human, they aren’t real.  However, Luba Luft “had seemed genuinely alive,” and didn’t seem like a “simulation.”  This is moving into the realm of Jean Baudrillard and his theorization of simulacra and simulation, but it’s an important digression for this discussion.  In Deckard’s postmodern world, the android is a simulacra–a copy without an original, and an image that, “has no relation to any reality whatsoever” (Baudrillard 6).  As mentioned before, her/its embodiment as an artificial life form is the only register for her destruction.  That signification is a cultural construct just as considering slaves in the Old South as inhuman and not deserving of Constitutional protection was a cultural practice upheld in the hierarchies:  white/black, master/slave, free/captive.

Next, the human/android hierarchy and its analogous master/slave hierarchy are coupled with gender and sex hierarchies.  It’s Resch’s cold-hearted suggestion to Deckard that prompts his next move–to sleep with a female android before killing it.  Soon, Deckard has sex with Rachael Rosen, the Rosen Corporation’s in-house Nexus-6 model android, but his narrated descriptions of her seems like an attempt to put it off as a possibility.  He tries to resist a desire he clearly has for her/it.  This is made clearer in this example:

Rachael’s proportions, he noticed once again, were odd; with her heavy mass of dark hair, her head seemed large, and because of her diminutive breasts, her body assumed a lank, almost childlike stance.  But her great eyes, with their elaborate lashes, could only be those of a grown woman; there the resemblance to adolescence ended.  Rachael rested very slightly on the fore-part of her feet, and her arms, as they hung, bent at the joint:  the stance, he reflected, of a wary hunter of perhaps the Cro-Magnon persuasion.  The race of tall hunters, he said to himself.  No excess flesh, a flat belly, small behind and smaller bosom–Rachael had been modeled on the Celtic type of build, anachronistic and attractive.  Below the brief shorts her legs, slender, and a neutral, nonsexual quality, not much rounded off in nubile curves.  The total impression was good, however.  Although definitely that of a girl, not a woman.  Except for the restless, shrewd eyes.  (Dick 187).

“Childlike” is woven together with “grown woman.”  “Cro-Magnon” is juxtaposed with “Celtic type of build.”  Her girlish “flat belly, small behind and smaller bosom,” gives Deckard an overall “good” impression.  Physically she’s described like a lanky teenage girl, but it’s her eyes that make her/it a woman to Deckard.  Her/Its eyes connect Deckard to her/its soul, the Nexus-6 control unit, and the artificially created brain impregnated with simulacral memories.  Nevertheless, the human/machine, male/female, hunter/prey hierarchy gets inverted.  Rachael’s arousal provokes her to take charge of Deckard’s attempt to get out of having sex with her.  She demands, “Goddamn it, get into bed,” and he does (Dick 195).

Do Androids Dream illustrates the culturally contrived hierarchy of human/machine, master/slave, and dominant/submissive.  However, in each case, these hierarchies of binary opposites can be inverted through an analysis of the text in order to arrive at the beginning of understanding regarding these hierarchies.  Deconstruction of these hierarchies opens things up for further discussion involving how these hierarchies are presented in SF as well as how they come to be culturally instituted and replicated in works of fiction.


Asimov’s detective fiction SF and Dick’s noir bounty hunters inhabit and promote Cold War human/machine hierarchies.  Asimov’s utopia of humanity and androids coexisting is undercut by the android’s loss of agency due to the Three Laws of Robotics.  Dick’s dystopian San Francisco provides a different set of possibilities where androids seem more human than human.  Certainly, Asimov’s work came first, but to say that Dick’s work is supplemental would be an error.  There are shared ideas, themes, and terminology in these works.[2]  Each SF work, sentence, and word carries with it traces of meaning, and no one particular word is privileged over another.  One idea is not privileged over another.  More importantly, the hierarchies present in these works mean something, but they cannot be assumed to be right, true, and natural.  The continuous process of deconstruction must be applied in order to open up these works and their embedded hierarchies for further analysis and understanding.  However, that understanding is not an end point any more than deconstruction is a process of reading.  It’s a way of thinking that leads to new avenues and ways of thinking, which is important to any cultural work including SF.  Deconstruction is only the beginning.

As a beginning, what’s next?   Cold War human/machine hierarchies are reinforced in a variety of media including the critical works that shouldn’t have preexisting assumptions about the works in question.  The traces of meaning connected to “human” and “machine” and the relation between the two needs further development.  How is that hierarchy presented in other works by Asimov and Dick, and are there other connections between these two significant SF authors related to this hierarchy?  How do hierarchies play out between SF authors and the associated literary movements a particular author is associated with?  These and many other questions deserve further critical attention through an open-ended deconstructionist lens.  This won’t yield further hard facts, but it will lead to more compelling questions.  And that is where the play begins again.



Works Cited

Asimov, Isaac.  The Caves of Steel.  New York:  Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1954.

—.  I, Robot.  New York:  Gnome Press, 1950.

—.  The Naked Sun.  New York:  Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1957.

—.  The Robots of Dawn.  New York:  Doubleday, 1983.

Baudrillard, Jean.  Simulacra and Simulation.  Trans.  Shelia Glaser.  Ann Arbor:  University of Michigan Press, 1994.

Broderick, Damien.  Reading by Starlight:  Postmodern Science Fiction.  London:  Routledge, 1995.

Derrida, Jacques.  “Différance.”  Trans.  David B. Allison.  Literary Theory:  An Anthology.  2nd Edition.  Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan.  Malden, MA:  Blackwell Publishing, 2004:  279-299.

—.  Of Grammatology.  Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak.  Baltimore:  John Hopkins UP, 1976.

—.  Positions.  Trans. Alan Bass.  Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1981.

Dick, Philip K.  Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  New York:  Doubleday, 1968.

Munch, Edvard.  Puberty.  1895.  National Gallery, Oslo.  12 December 2007 <;.

—.  The Scream.  1893.  National Gallery, Oslo.  12 December 2007 <;.

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

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

Wiener, Norbert.  Cybernetics:  Or the Control and Communication in the Animal and Machine.  Cambridge:  MIT Press, 1948.

—.  God & Golem, Inc.:  A Comment on Certain Points Where Cybernetics Impinges on Religion.  Cambridge:  MIT Press, 1966.

—.  The Human Use of Human Beings.  Boston:  Houghton Mifflin, 1950.

[1] Brian McHale makes the case that New Wave SF, which began in the 1960s was a precursor to true dialog between postmodernism and SF, and it’s in the 1970s that, “SF and postmodernist mainstream fiction become one another’s contemporaries, aesthetically as well as chronologically, with each finally beginning to draw on the current phase of the other, rather than on some earlier and now dated phase” (228).

[2] Damien Broderick explores this idea more fully in his book, Reading by Starlight:  Postmodern Science Fiction (1995).  In that work, he extends Christine Brooke-Rose’s idea of the fantasy megastory to SF, and calls that shared collection of terminology the mega-text of SF.

Recovered Writing: PhD in English, Semeiotics Midterm and Final Exam Responses, Fall 2007

This is the thirty-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.

At Kent State University, I am glad that I took Dr. Gene Pendleton’s Semeiotics seminar (ENG 75057). Dr. Pendleton is a formidable professor who consistently amazed me (and I believe the class as a whole) with the depth and breadth of his philosophical knowledge and the effortless way he would explain, chart, and diagram each semeiotic lecture. If Dr. Pendleton was a philosophical locomotive, we students were his freight cars. Each class would begin with a powerful lurch as he would begin lecture. It was in the morning and the material was difficult. He would start out in a low gear and drag us all along for the ride until the momentum of each of our lumbering weight added to his increasing momentum. Occasionally, we would encounter screetching brakes and perilous squeals on too sharp turns, but the train would make the next station safely with Dr. Pendleton’s locomotive in the lead. I admire his mastery of the material and ability to explain it in a number of ways until everyone has a modicum of understanding. Through my on-going development as a scholar and teacher, I hope to emulate those qualities he demonstrates in my own classes.

This Recovered Writing post includes my midterm and final exam written responses on all matters semeiotic. Imagine them bleeding red and you’ll get an idea of what the marked versions resembled. Looking back at these documents remind me that it was all part of a greater process of personal and intellectual development.

Jason W. Ellis

Dr. Gene Pendleton


October 18, 2007

First Exam

1.         Discuss the semiotic approach of Saussure by defining and integrating the following terms:  differential network; signifier/signified; arbitrary; diachronic/synchronic; langue/parole.  Why is Saussure’s notion of the sign considered binary?

Saussure went off in his own direction in developing a theory of a system of signs.  The basis of his theory in studying language (langage) is that it is a differential network.  This means that language is based on a system of relationships like the relationships between places on a map.  Additionally, meaning is derived from the relationship between things, and no meaning is possible for something alone and unconnected to the overall network of relationships.  For Saussure, the relational system of signs states that meaning is derived from the relationships between other signs in the language.  This is in opposition to the substantive view of signs in that there is something stable about words pointing to one thing, and that words have meaning in their own right.  Essentially, this means that something about itself that gives meaning.  Saussure challenges this through proposing that signs are arbitrary in nature.  This means that there is nothing about a cow (i.e., the cowness) that means it should be and always called ‘cow.’  What about other languages?  What about multiple names pointing to the same thing?  These questions point to the arbitrariness of signs.  Returning to his concept of the differential network of signs, it’s important to note that differential means difference.  Therefore, Saussure says that language is learned through opposition.  This is the idea of binary opposition (e.g., dogs and non-dogs are binary opposites).  Binary opposition allows for multiple ways of dividing up the world around us, and the way in which we divide up the world is based on our language framework.  Unlike Peirce’s use of a triadic relationship of signs, Saussure develops a dyadic relationship of signs.  His notion of the sign is constructed from two parts:  the signifier and the signified.  These two elements are directly connected in the way that they can be analogous called two sides of a piece of paper and therefore, inseparable.  The signifier is the sign-vehicle.  This is the word, mark, or representation that points to the signified.  The signified is the concept or idea of the sound image.  Saussure develops this theory in order to study language.  However, instead of studying it diachronically or through time, he approaches the study of language synchronically or as a slice of time.  He brackets language in order to study its structures at a moment of time rather than as a historical development.  In his study of langage, he divides it into two elements that are interdependent:  langue and parole.  Langue is the abstract language system.  It’s a system of language, set of social conventions, and independent of parole but in a relationship with parole.  parole is the act of speaking.  It is the concrete instances of speech rather than the abstract structure of speech.  Parole depends on the individual will and it therefore, volunteeristic.  Connected to parole is the idea of conversational implicature.  This is the set of limitations and conversational directions that one should follow if you want to communication.  This comes from langue.  Additionally, we learn langue or socially inculcated rules when we are learning language.  Then, we perform those rules through parole.

2.         Explain Austin’s theory of the speech-act.  Include a discussion of performatives in your response.  What is the descriptive fallacy?

Austin’s theory of the speech-act is in opposition to the descriptive fallacy, which states that the primary reason for language is to describe the world.  He doesn’t believe this to be the primary purpose of language.  Instead, he says that there is an aspect of language that’s performative.  For example, if you say, “I promise,” you are performing an act to do what it is that you promised to do rather than merely describing something.  These performatives or illocutionary acts are doing two things:  saying something and performing the action.  It’s based on working out rather than truth or falsity.  Austin’s terms for this are:  a successfully completed or performed illocutionary act is considered happy or felicitious while an unsuccessfully compoleted or performed illocutionary act is unhappy or infelicitous.  Also, performatives depend on appropriate circumstances based on context and convention.  For example, you have to have done something wrong to actually apologize for it.  A locutionary act is a speect-act that is merely descriptive rather than performing an action via the speech-act itself.  In addition to locutionary and illocutionary acts there is a third:  perlocationary acts.  This is essentially the effects or results of the locutionary act.  This act stresses the effect on the hearer or receiver of the speech-act.

3.         Why is Bakhtin considered a proponent of dialogism?  How is his view opposed to standard behavioristic accounts of communication?  What is polyphony?  Heteroglossia?  What are centripetal and centrifugal forces?  What is the significance of “carnival” in Bakhtin’s thought?

Bakhtin developed his literary theory around the idea of dialogism, which is the idea that all language including works of literature are dialogic in nature.  This means that each utterance or work of literature is in dialog with that which has come before, and in expectation of things to be said in the future.  Furthermore, dialogism is founded on the ideas that meaning is interactive and significance is also interactive.  Dialogism is at the heart of the notions of text, self, and culture.  Therefore, language and culture are not created in vacuum, but in the continuous interchange or dialog between everyone.  It follows that no utterance is solely self-determined, and it’s an attack on monology, or one sided ‘conversations.”  Instead of the voice coming from top-down (e.g., Stalinism), all voices are intermingled and reliant upon one another for meaning.  Another way of looking at this, is that Bakhtin and his circle promoted a polysemic approach to signs through dialogism.  This means that certain signs have multiple meanings (e.g., run as a verb and a noun).  He developed the concept of polyphony in literature along with the idea of heteroglossia, which comes into play in his study of the modernist novel.  Heteroglossia is the presence of multiple voices in a given text.  An example of this would be Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.  The voices of the brothers operate in opposition to one another along lines of contra and pro, which results in dramatic tension and moves the narrative forward.  There are different voices including that of the author’s in a given text.  Heteroglossia can be said to be a model for the polyphony of voices in dialogic language and culture.

Connected to the concepts of monophony and polyphony are the ideas of centripetal and centrifugal.  Centripetal means a pulling to center or pro-authoritarian ideas, and centrifugal means a pushing away from the center or anti-authoritarian ideas.  Bakhtin’s dialogism is clearly centrifugal, because it implies a breakdown of norms and a reversal of roles.  Role reversal is important to Bakhtin through the idea of carnival.  During carnival, as in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, roles are reversed.  Characters that emphasize this are the rogue, fool, and clown.  These characters each challenge authority and represent centrifugal ideas.  Carnival and subversive characters such as the clown attempt to subvert language through parody.  This subversion is a reorienting from within.  Reorienting from within the text takes place through deconstruction.  Essentially, something within the text itself must lend to its own deconstruction.  An example of this is Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground.  The voice given to the main character seems like parody, but it turns the reader against the author’s intentions for the text.  Once an utterance or text is released into the world, it takes on a life of its own, and the author no longer has control over the interpretation or understood meaning by those reading the text.

4.         Jakobson promotes a theory of semiotic significance involving selection and combination.  Relate these to the following:  paradigmatic/syntagmatic; metaphor/metonymy; equivalence.  How are these oppositions related to aphasiac disorders as noted by Jakobson?

Jakobson applies Saussure’s theory of linguistics to a theory of poetics.  In doing so, he draws on Saussure’s use of Cartesian planes to illustrate his ideas of selection and combination as perpendicular concepts that result in language and culture.  The vertical axis involves concepts that are based on association by substitution and works by association of resemblance.  Therefore, paradigmatic and metaphor are mapped on this axis.  Paradigmatic elements involve the building blocks such as phonemes, words, and sentences.  These are the elements from which selection is made.  Metaphor illustrates the idea of substitution, because metaphor is the substitution of one thing for another.  For example, in the verse, “My love is like/a red, red rose,” the word ‘like’ facilitates the substitution of ‘red, red rose’ for ‘love.”  Conversely, syntagmatic and metonymy are plotted along the horitzontal axis.  These are side-by-side associations.  They are related as being part of something else, or in relation to something else.  They are linear in the sense that they are strung together.  Therefore, syntagmatic is the combination of the paradigmatic elements to form words, sentences, etc.  It is the syntactic structure and organization of separate elements to construct meaning through combination and selection.  For Jakobson, this polarity is the foundation of language.  With polarity comes the idea of equivalence.  Messages (i.e., utterances) are combinations made of selected parts, and the select appropriately, one needs a code.  A code acts as the determinant of what to select and how to combine the selections into something meaningful.  A broad example of code is the English language, and a narrow example of code is contract law.  Applied to poetics, equivalence is achieved through selection and combination.  For example, in describing the motion of a jet fighter, an equivalence can be made with birds:  The F-16 soars/screams/swoops/etc.  Furthermore, this opposition works in realms beyond language, and may apply to any symbolic process or any system of signs.  All of this is built on the combination of these two modes.

Jakobson drew on his studies of aphasia to establish these as integral to speech operations and comprehension in humans.  Aphasia is the inability to produce or understand language due to injury sustained to the speech centers in the human brain.  The two types of aphasia that Jakobson was interested in were semantic disorders and syntactic disorders.  A semantic disorder is a vertical axis disorder and therefore, affects one’s ability to properly choose words.  For example, one may ask for a fork, but really want a knife.  They are associated together as silverware, but are not true substitutions.  Syntactic disorders involve the inability to combine words in the proper way.  For example, this disorder might be exhibited by someone who says, “My hovercraft is full of eels.”  Okay, so that’s actually an example of a semantic disorder.  A syntactic disorder example would be to say, “Run like to go for an I.”

5.         Explain the Peircean notion of the tripartite nature of the sign.  What is the significance of icon, index and symbol in Peirce’s tenfold classification of signs?  What are the different types of interpretant?

For Peirce, signs are composed of three elements.  The first is the sign/representamen/sign-vehicle (I’ll use the latter term).  The sign-vehicle is the mark or symbol that carries meaning for someone receiving the sign-vehicle.  The second is the interpretant, which is the effect of the sign-vehicle on one who receives and comprehends the sign-vehicle.  The third element of the tripartite nature of the sign is the object.  The object is the ‘thing’ about which the sign-vehicle represents.  This can be anything from a physical object such as a chair or a concept like ‘university.’

The sign-vehicle relates to its object by means of three types of relationships.  The first is icon.  An iconic relationship is one of resemblance or shared qualities between the sign-vehicle and object.  An example of this would be a picture or photograph.  The second type of relationship is index.  An indexical relationship is a dyadic relationship based on causality or force.  This means that the relationship involves two things and the connection is causal or one-to-one.  For example, one thing, action, or force results in something else occurring (i.e., causality).  A concrete example of an indexical relationship is finding someone else’s footprints on a deserted island.  You know they aren’t your footprints, therefore they were made by someone else.  The symbol is the third type of relationship.  This involves conventional relationships, which is the basis for the way language is setup in such a way that ‘cow’ stands for the animal.  An example of this is the fish or ichthys symbol standing for alpha and omega, fisher of men, and Christ.

Peirce developed three types of interpretant.  The first is the immediate interpretant, which is what is usually referred to as the sign’s meaning, and is always there embedded in the sign.  The second is the dynamical interpretant, which is the sign’s effect over time within the limits of one’s lifetime.  The third is the final interpretant.  This is an ideal, teleogical final goal/end/purpose of the sign.  Essentially, this is the actualized potential of the sign at the end of time.  The final interpretant is a scientific standpoint in the sense that this is actualized when all the data are in and the goal or end of the semeiotic process is realized.

6.         What are some of the hallmarks of Russian Formalism?  Are there any similarities to Structuralism?  What is emphasis laid on the notion of ‘making strange?’

Russian Formalism is a reaction to the symbolistic work generated in Russian during the early part of the twentieth-century.  Symbolism involves the atmospheric, moody, subjective, and emotional works from that time, and it is not a formal approach to analysis.  How should this work be evaluated?  Without Formalism, it’s criticism will be like the literature that’s being critiqued.  The Formalists (including Viktor Shklovsky, Boris Eichenbaum, and Roman Jakobson and the OPOJAZ in St. Petersburg and the Linguistic Circle in Moscow) set out to build a scientific approach to criticism.  This involves downplaying the content and deriving aesthetic significance from the form rather than the content.  Also, the text must be divorced from external contexts such as history, author, politics, etc.  For the Formalists, everything for analysis is on the page.  It becomes a verbal icon and the author loses any right to say what it means.  The internal (as in the text) is promoted and the external (everything outside the text) is disparaged.

OPOJAZ (Society for the Study of Poetic Language) began with symbolism, but developed into a reaction against it.  Subjectivity and vague philosophy are discarded in an attempt to arrive at a scientific method for literary and art criticism.  This is a direct challenge to the earlier forces of symbolism and Romanticism, which promoted the doing away with rules and supporting the idea that the imagination was a cognitive enterprise where one could get in touch with truth with one’s unique genius.  The Formalists accept the autonomy of art (art and literature is divorced from externals), and the application of critique that looks at how it’s produced, not what it’s about.  In order to study literature, the first order of business was to define what is a work of art/literature.  This developed into a definition of literariness.  Literariness is not found in the author, but in the text itself, and the use of language must distinguish it from other uses of language.  Shklovsky said that literariness is determined by the text’s ability to “make strange.”  This means that the reader cannot simply look through it.  The language has to be made strange in such a way to make it opaque so that the reader has to pay attention to the words and not the underlying meaning or story. “Making strange” is the disturbance of the linguistic framework in order to change your worldview.  This is a reaction against language in the everyday sense, and it’s readily more apparent in poetry than in prose.  This concept goes hand in hand with modernism, which began in the late nineteenth-century.  During that literary era, literature becomes more self-referential.

Shklovsky’s poetics of fiction shares some similarities with Saussure and Structuralism, but his work wasn’t directly influenced by Saussure.  Shklovsky plots the poem onto the paradigmatic and the novel to syntagmatic, because the passage of time is the central concern of the novel.  Furthermore, Shklovsky separates the prose-plot from the prose-storyHe says that the plot is made strange.  There is something about the plot that distinguishes it from a progression of events (i.e., there are no heroes in a mere history–study happens).  The defamiliarization of events destabilizes the syntagmatic quality of novels and gives the text meaning beyond the story.  For this analysis, he draws on Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, which is often pointed to as originating many modern narrative techniques such self-reflexivity and intertextuality.


Jason W. Ellis

Dr. Gene Pendleton


December 6, 2007

Final Exam

1.         Discuss Lacan’s notion of the “mirror stage.”  Relate it to the notion of the unified self as an ideal.  Distinguish the imaginary order from the symbolic.  Why does Lacan claim that the unconscious is structured like a language?  Include a discussion of metaphor and metonymy in your response.

Lacan’s concept of the mirror stage, or imaginary stage (meaning image, not imagination) is a developmental stage that takes place between six to eighteen months, and it’s dominated by the image.  What that means is that during that period, the child first sees itself in the mirror.  This does not mean that the child recognizes itself in the image reflected by the surface of the mirror, rather that it raises in the child an awareness of the other, something outside of itself.  The child seeing the reflection derives a certain joy from the event.  More importantly, seeing itself in the mirror anticipates the child as autonomous and in control of its actions and behavior.  The image provides the child a reflection of an integrated whole, which contrasts with the baby’s spastic behavior resulting from a lack of coordination and a fragmentation of functions.  Essentially, the child regards its body, as best a baby can, as bits and pieces rather than an interconnected whole.  Furthermore, the baby can’t distinguish or separate itself from the world.  There is no sense of other prior to the mirror stage.  The baby’s image in the mirror is an idealized, unified self.  The child’s identification with images during this stage seems to be an ideal on our part.  Another term for this is imaginary mastery, or mastery of the image.  Imaginary mastery leads to biological mastery through development, but any future relationship with the real world will have to take in account imaginary mastery.  We are fundamentally an alien nation at the root of our self.  There’s a gap that can’t be breached, and we can’t ever be fully integrated.  We project a self that is integrated, but it’s ideal that we cannot attain.  This leads to an illusion of autonomy, or control over ourselves through rationality rather than giving into desires.  We are a fragmented self, but we believe ourselves to be integrated.

The sense of self comes from identifying with images of others.  During the mirror stage, we identify with the nurturer/entity taking care of us.  We aren’t doing anything for it, but it is doing things for us (e.g., feeding, cleaning, caring for, etc.).  This leads us to desire things, because others (e.g., the nurturer) desire them (e.g., apparently, us).  Thus, we, as babies, are wrapped up in that other person’s desires, and we want to be the object of that person’s desires.  This leads to a de-centering of desire.  This means that our biological needs are projected on others that we want to want us rather on ourselves.

Following the mirror stage is the Oedipal stage.  Lacan replaces Freud’s penis with the idea of the phallus.  The phallus is the symbol of the object of the mother’s desire.  The child will want to be the object of the mother’s desire.  Consequently, the desire of the nurturer is integral to all this for Lacan.  The sexual is downplayed in this dynamic, and it’s true for boys as well as girls.  During the early years of development, the child figures out what the mother wants in order to become the phallus object.  However, along comes the father and he brings in the symbolic order through law via language.  This socialization on the part of the father for the child is accomplished through language.  Furthermore, language was there before the child exists, and it represents the other.  The father thwarts the child’s Oedipal aspirations to be the object of the mother’s desire by the introduction of language in the years 5-6.  The child must be dominated by language (i.e., law), and the male/father represents this for the child.  Once the child recognizes that it can’t be the every desire of the mother, and accepts the father and the father’s law, then the child achieves an acceptance of castration and no longer wants to be the object of the mother’s desire.

Lacan argues that the unconscious is structured like a language, because it operates on selection and combination, condensation and displacement, and it comes into being in relation to language.  In his analysis of signs, he found that slippages occur between the signified and the signifier whereby the signifier takes on greater significance than the signified (e.g., the urinary separation of men’s/women’s bathrooms–the sign on the door–signifier–takes on greater meaning than the door–signified).  In psychoanalysis, meanings are to be found between signifiers (i.e., the concept lies between the gaps of signifiers).  In this sense, metonymy is a relationship that’s associative, not metaphorical, a chain.  For example, the baby takes the place of the phallus for the mother.  Metaphor is condensation or substitution of one thing for another.  Lacan saw the disruptions or gaps as what we really are.  As a psychoanalyst, you look for pauses (gaps), and at the metaphors in what people say and follow the chain (metonymy) of signifiers back to the suppressed desire or instinct.  Therefore, unlike the Freudian unconscious that’s there from the beginning, the Lacanian unconscious is produced by language, thus it’s structured like a language.


2.         Explain Barthes’s employment of the notion of connotation.  How is it reflected in his distinguishing of levels of signs?  Use the example of the soldier saluting the French flag in your discussion.  How does Barthes make use of the fashion industry to explicate his structuralist approach to semiotics?

Barthes borrows concepts from Hjelmslev to arrive at his own notion of connotation.  The idea comes from metalanguage and object languages.  You use one language to talk about another language.  This involves two elements:  expression and content.  Expression is the thing said, and the content is the meaning behind the expression.  For Hjelmslev, signs exist at the intersection of the expression plane and the content plane.  Connotation is seeing the expression plane as a language in itself.  The connotator is one element of the expression plane seen as itself.

What he develops is a second order signifier system.  This means that it takes one system to say something about the other.  In his formulation the first order system is the denotative.  This is the actual image taken as an image without reading anything into it imaginatively, ideologically, or otherwise.  The second order system is the connotative.  This is the meaning behind the image.  On the connotative level, the image must be read in a certain way, or the image promotes a particular reading for a particular group of people.  For example, in the example of the photo of the black French soldier saluting.  On the denotative level, the photo is simply that:  a photo a black French soldier saluting.  However, on the connotative level, there are additional meanings that are meant to promote ideology and myth.  Signification in Barthes system is a little complicated, but decipherable.  On the denotative level, the denotative sign is made of a signifier/signified.  The signifier is the picture, and the signified is the thing that the picture is of.  On the connotative level, the denotative sign is the signifier, and the signified are the values, ideology, myth, etc. that try to persuade people that the ideological aspect is natural in the denotative sign.  Thus, the dominative elite promotes their ideology through seemingly “natural” images.  In this example, the photo implies allegiance by France’s colonized subjects, and it promotes French imperialism as good, because it produces loyal colonized subjects.

The dominant bourgeois ideology is promoted through the second order system of connotation.  Through images, people consume myths as factual and not merely semeiological.  However, it should be noted that not all of this is intentional or propaganda.  Other things contribute to connotative messages associated with images that may not be the intent of the producer.

Producers of these images need people to get it and comprehend it.  To make sure that they do, they employ images and words.  Barthes uses the fashion industry as an example of this.  In fashion magazines, there are many images of the fashions, but there are also brand names, brand logos, or brand symbols in the image or on the clothing advertised.  These images can be read with semeiology, which is a meta-language, a language for talking about other languages.  It’s metalinguistic to say these pictures are content that I’m talking about on the denotative and connotative levels of the second order signifier system.  However, Barthes goes beyond this by showing that metalanguage itself can be employed in higher levels.  For example, a third level might be to look at the rhetoric involved in the image and words.  This means, talking about them as an expression of rhetoric.  In this way, the picture can be semeiologically studied in a variety of ways.  You can look at the rhetoric involved and question its persuasive qualities.  The image means something, which would pertain to ideology.  Then you can turn to the object, the signified, and say something about it and what is being expressed and how.  A semeiologist may expand or contract these levels of analysis.

Barthes takes his analysis of fashion to explicate his structuralist approach to semeiotics.  Before, commutation of phonemes or the changing of sounds in words was used to reveal significance.  If making a substitution changed the meaning of the word, then it was significant.  If not, there is no significance.  Barthes extends this to patterns and colors in clothing.  He substituted different patterns or color schemes to determine significance.  Thus, he applies structural linguistics to non-linguistic things like fashion and arrives at a vestimentary code or a code of vestments (clothing).  In this elaboration by Barthes, the denotative is “are you in fashion or not?”  The connotative is something else:  myth on social effects and myths associated with fashion are systems of connotation.  This also includes rhetorical and persuasive connotations.  However, Barthes is accused of logocentrism (the word is central/dominant), because he emphasizes written fashion and commentary on fashion.


3.         Distinguish between Kristeva’s notions of the semiotic and the symbolic.  In what sense is this distinction employed to place aspects of the biological in the symbolic order?  How do the ideas of the chora and the chorion function in the previously mentioned distinction?  In what sense is Kristeva in line with other postmodernists in promoting a denial of the Cartesian ego/self?

Kristeva wants to distinguish between the semeiotic and the symbolic.  She does this through looking at poetry.  She believes that the body leaves an imprint on the work through sensation.  The body impacts language.  One must read off this bodily impact in language, read off the physical influence.  She finds there’s a particular dynamism to the bodily impact on language.  Language is supposed to be dynamic, but what allows it to renew itself?  Clearly, creativity is at the root of cultural change.  Creativity causes language and culture to have that dynamic.  However, she doesn’t agree with Lacan’s notion of the symbolic (i.e., “name of the father” ushers us into language, child made aware of its non-omnipotence through the symbolic order, the symbolic order and language create the unconscious).  She argues for a pre-verbal semeiotic stage.  She draws on avant-garde poetic language to show that you find the imprint of the preverbal semeiotic stage embedded in it.  The preverbal semeiotic stage takes place in the child’s infancy, prior to the inculcation of language–before the father stands between the mother and child.  How does this pre-oedipal stage occur?  There must be energy and drives identified with the id.  Considering avant-garde poetry, it demonstrates a turning your back on traditional poetic form.  If you look at the semeiotic, it’s made apparent through subversion of traditional way doing things.  There must be a source of energy to bring this about.  Thus, creativity is a new way of looking at things, a subversion of the old.  This is an almost physical influence on language.  The body, through the preverbal semeiotic stage, leaves an imprint on language in this way.

Kristeva doesn’t contradict Lacan in regard to the preverbal semeiotic stage, but she de-emphasizes the symbolic.  You have to get back to the body in order to locate the bodily origins of the subject.  The root of this lies in the memory traces, mnemonic traces, or corporeal memory of the symbolic separation of mother and child and the immediacy between mother and child.  Corporeal memory went on before the symbolic mediation.  The semeiotic for Kristeva is the memory before the symbolic erupts into language, and it’s remembered through the poet’s use of creative language.  This only applies to poetry that’s considered subversive, such as T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.

Kristeva takes the terms chora and the chorion from Plato’s Timaeus, which is a cosmology or story about how the world was made and its large-scale structure.  Plato distinguishes between what we call Platonic forms or ideals (abstractions), which represent stability, permanence, triangleness, and the real world (concrete), which is corporeal, spatial, and includes individuals.  In the story, the Demiurge uses the Platonic forms to enforce form on chaos.  This allows an agent to come up to the chaos to impose form on the chaos.  For Plato, the chora is the space in which these forms are imposed on chaos to form things.  For Kristeva, she’s also looking at biology where the chora is both the image and technical term from embryology that is the bodily site of the fetus.  Whereas for Plato, the chora is the receptacle, a nurse, almost a mother.  It’s the receptacle of becoming.  It should be noted that being is the Platonic forms, and becoming is the concrete and individuals.  Returning to Kristeva, the fetus signals the mother through a sort of semeiotic process.  The chorion, or the membrane enclosing the fetus in the womb is a symbolic form where the fetus ends and the mother begins.  However, there’s more going on that simply separation.  Kristeva recognizes that something is going on in respect to language.  In this sense, the concrete is couched in terms of bones, hormones, etc., and the symbolic is mothering and separation.  Furthermore, when a woman becomes pregnant, her body is prevented from menstruating after receiving hormone signals.  Somehow the embryo signals the mother to stop menstruating or it will die.  Thus, the chorion defines the semeiotic space of the other, because it separates fetus and mother, and it allows communication/signaling.  Also, it’s important to remember that a linguistic sign is used in the absence of the object.  In this case, the object is there, but it’s still the other.  There is no distinction between reality and the other.  Through this, the mother’s body becomes a semeiotized body.  The mother’s body acts as the means of mediation between the fetus and the semeiotic order.  The fetus has no control over what’s happening, but it can signal, but that’s all.  Activity, developments, and acting on the fetus are negativity.  The fetus is being generated, but negated (i.e., other things acting on me).  Additionally, the chora is the space where the speaking subject is being formed, and that is a theoretical space as well as a real space.

Kristeva takes an anti-reductionist approach to the ego.  Looking back to Edmund Husserl, there’s an opposition between the natural standpoint (e.g., there’s a tree) and the world as perceived or imagined (e.g., the tree presented to consciousness).  The way the world is presented to consciousness means that you have to bracket the natural standpoint.  Everything about the real world is mediated through consciousness.  Thus, you posit the tree in your mind, but in what sense?  Essentially, you’re saying, “I’m committed to the tree in a certain way.”  Kristeva then takes the idea of the thetic from Husserl.  If you posit something, it has being in its own right.  The thetic for Kristeva requires a break in the signifying process.  You make it part of your awareness–that thing is something that I consciously think of and recognize as independent of myself.  You have to adopt an attitude toward something.  The pre-sentience uttering of children is already thetic.  When a child sees and animal and says, “woof woof,” the child recognizes the dog, cat, etc. as being something separate from itself.  Attribution is going on even at this elementary level.  Whereas we can say, “I’m grouping these together under a common rubric,” a child can’t, but they do it nonetheless with metonymy.  Association, shared qualities, or attributes are all primal associations made on the part of the child.  This isn’t yet the symbolic stage, so the child is drawing on the semeiotic unconscious to lump things together metonymically.

4.         What does Derrida mean by “deconstruction”?  Why does he attack what he considers to be the “metaphysics of presence”?  What is his notion of the logic of the supplement?  How is it employed in his deconstruction of Austin’s approach to speech acts?  Why does he object to Saussure’s phonocentric structuralism?

Derrida, drawing on Hegel’s idea of overcoming differentiation through a method of synthesis, plays with the idea of overcoming differentiation.  In Western thought, there’s generally a hierarchy where some things are favored over others.  Derrida shows that these hierarchies can be broken down, that every hierarchy can be inverted.  He does this by showing how one thing is no better than another, not that you can replace one thing with another.  This is the basic idea behind Derridian deconstruction.

The fundamental hierarchy in Western thought is presence (dominance)/absence (derivative).  For Derrida, one can show absence as fundamental and presence as derivative.  This comes from the orthodox logic of the primary/origins and derivative/supplementary.  There are things that seem necessary, and those that don’t.  For example, ornament is something we think of as supplementary.  Derrida picks on the derivative/supplementary.  He picks on the throw away remark, the footnote to show that what’s going on isn’t what’s really going on.  He shows that what’s supplementary can dominate what came first.  He attacks the logic of the supplement.

Derrida is influenced by Nietzsche’s genealogy of morals.  Nietzsche argued that morality came about for humans through an extended process of breeding that resulted with an animal (human) with the right to make promises.  What this means is that over time humans develop a conscience by sharing a remembered past of pain and torture that resulted from doing what they wanted and not keeping promises (Nietzsche believed in acquired/inherited traits–definitely not a Darwinian).  Eventually a human animal is produced that has a conscience and feels bad when it doesn’t keep a promise.  This produced humans that are predictable, and morality gives us something beautiful:  civilization.  The way Derrida is influenced by this is that you can’t assume the origins are primary with respect to hierarchies.

Derrida attacks the hierarchy of metaphysics of presence and absence.  The metaphysics of presence has to do with speech, which is considered primary to much of linguistic semeiotics, and absence or writing is considered derivative.  The idea of supremacy of the metaphysics of presence has to do with the fact that if someone’s speaking, they are present with the listener.  The speaker can be questioned, and asked to make things clear about what’s been said.  Absence or writing comes after speech, and is disjointed from the author.  Once something is written down, it’s divorced from the author, and the reader may misunderstand or misinterpret the intentions of the author.  Therefore, it’s considered supplementary or derivative to speech, because it follows speech in development and it’s open to misunderstanding.  However, Derrida shows that speech is just as prone as writing to misunderstanding or misinterpretation.  Whatever someone says, we each have a particular framework in which we take what’s been said and that may color or effect the way we understand what someone else says (e.g., two people on a news program arguing past one another, because they can’t understand the other person’s viewpoint no matter how much is said to clarify each position, or a boyfriend saying something meant as a compliment to a girlfriend, but the girlfriend interprets that as an insult).  The assumption is that speech is clear or can be clarified, but that’s not the case.  When you say something, you’re sending out this idea in your head through language.  However, Derrida doesn’t go along with the Cartesian ego and the immediate relation with yourself.  There can’t be an immediate relation with the self, because there are always mediators (e.g., language).  For Derrida, you don’t know what you mean until you say it.

Derrida believes in a free play of signifiers.  Signifiers are not fixed to specific signifieds, but to various signifieds (think:  Pierce’s interpretants).  You never get to the outside–there’s always another signifier.  This results in a constant deferral of meaning (i.e., to put off meaning for ever through an infinite chain of signifiers).  You can’t pin meaning down even though we’re dominated by the metaphysics of presence.  Writing can discover meaning of words after the act of writing, but there’s no transcendent signified.  There’s nothing outside language that can give it meaning.

Derrida approaches the breaking down of hierarchies through binary oppositions.  This draws on binary logic (i.e., true or false, no other options, but we do think outside this).  Within the binary opposite, the hierarchy can be inverted.  The habituation that engenders in us the acceptance of a particular hierarchy can be overcome by imaging something constantly deceiving us.  If we actively think about this over a given amount of time, we can overcome these hierarchies.  Through this, we can overcome the culturally created hierarchies we’ve been led to believe as natural and not constructions.

Derrida shows how hierarchies aren’t necessary by inverting binary opposites, and one case in which he does this is with J. L. Austin’s approach to speech acts.  Austin talks about performatives being the basis of language by developing the idea of the descriptive fallacy (i.e., language’s primary purpose is to describe the world and everything else is derivative).  Derrida attacks Austin’s own attack on hierarchies by showing that Austin is creating a new hierarchy.  He sites the example of signatures.  These are a kind of performative in that your signature is a performance, an acceptance of something.  However, these are felicitous, because a child can’t sign a contract.  Austin submits to the hierarchy that he’s attacking.

Derrida objects to Saussure’s phonocentric structuralism, because phonocentrism privileges speech over other communication (another hierarchy).  Writing and speaking is emblematic of absence (sounds bad) and presence (sound good).  Derrida introduces a new concept to writing whereas the old concept was opposed to speech (i.e., you can’t write temporally and it represents absence).  This is called gram or différance.  Self-references aren’t possible.  In itself, it has no significance, its significant in relation to other things.  When something is put down in writing, it carries with it a trace of other things.  This trace contains the elements of a chain or system–all elements of the language.  The text carries the whole structure of the system.  None of them are either completely absent or present.  The gram is the most general concept of semiotics for Derrida.  It is the play of differences.  The play of differences is dynamic and ever changing.  It’s not in a static system as it was for the structuralists.  Poststructuralists object to the static dimension of structuralism.  So for Derrida and the poststructuralists, the signified and signifier are constantly slipping past one another, and there’s nothing outside language producing this slippage, which stands against the Cartesian ego and the idea of the fountainhead.  The effect of différance is that the psyche is the result, but not the cause.  We are what we are within a network and the past is present through absence.  Drawing on Heidegger, we are a projection into the future, with no terminus of meaning in sight.

5.         What does Eco mean by a code?  What types of codes were emphasized in lecture?  How does the “watergate” example show Eco’s concern with the distinction between mere communication and signification early in his career?  Why is this distinction grounds for considering him a humanist?

For Eco, a code is used for communicational purposes.  It can be true of false, and it can encompass different kinds of communication including language.  In class, there were three types of codes emphasized.  They are digital code, analog code, and processual code.  Digital code is based on absolute difference with no overland (e.g., it’s either a 1 or a 0).  Analog code is organic and is based on gradual approximation (e.g., color or early analog computers used for making comparisons based on sound waves or electrical impedance).  Processural codes are rules that structure relationships.  This includes discursive relationships (if and then) and correlational relationships (if and only if).

In addition to codes there are s-codes, or institutional codes.  An s-code is a system with a structuring syntax.  One example would be numbers, because s-codes are either right or wrong.  You can’t lie with them.  When one goes to a code, then you can find true/false statements.  Furthermore, if the capacity for deception is there, we have moved beyond the s-code into a code such as language.

Eco’s “Watergate Model” reveals a distinction between signification and communication.  In the example, an engineer downstream from a watershed between two mountains has an apparatus in place that alerts him when the watershed reaches a particular point of saturation, which is called the “danger level.”  Different kinds of information can be communicated to the engineer through this system such as how much water is above or below the danger level, what is the rate of change, and of course, is the water level greater or less than the danger level.  The apparatus is a buoy connected to a transmitter that sends a signal through a wire or channel downstream to the engineer’s receiver.  The signal received is translated through the receiver to indicate the information described above.  The problem with the system is that the channel is receptive to noise, which may result in incorrect messages from the receiver.  Therefore, the system should be complicated such that the signal sent is a more complex code that supplies redundancy essentially for error correction purposes and to obviate the influence of noise in the channel.  Now, the engineer in this system matters.  There are four things he’s considering under the code this system is based on.  Those are:  1) signals carried through the channel, 2) his/her own ideas about how to act/appropriate action based on the information presented by the receiver, 3) possible behavioral responses on the part of the engineer, and 4) a rule connecting elements from the three previous aspects of this system.  Eco considers the first three aspects of this system as s-codes, which are systems or structures that operate independently of the overall system.  The fourth aspect, or rule aspect, is a code, because of its correlative function to unify the three different aspects of the system.  The engineer brings about the correlation of the first three aspects into the code.  This example illustrates how Eco may be considered a humanist, because he shows how the engineer, the human element is necessary to turn communication into signification.  The code aspect of the system came about through the engineer’s presence, thought, and action.  The code is a semeiotic system, and that’s present only through the conditional placement of the rational human agent.


Recovered Writing: PhD in English, African-American Literature Theme Analyses of The Black Atlantic, Cosmopolitanism, and Olaudah Equiano (and Others), Spring 2009

This is the thirty-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.

Dr. Babacar M’Baye is one of the most generous professors at Kent State University that I had the pleasure to learn from and work with. In the spring of 2009, I took his 76104 African-American Literature seminar. On the first day, we discussed the overview of the course and its assignments including the first of the five theme analyses included below. Based on my reading and thinking about the topics of this first analysis on Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic and Olaudah Equiano’s autobiography, I asked Dr. M’Baye if I could meet with him after class to discuss an idea for my final paper. He enthusiastically agreed, and we ended up talking for several hours that afternoon. When I thought that I was taking up too much of his time and tried to disenage, Dr. M’Baye offered up another idea, thread, or proposal that kept the conversation rolling solidly forward. The fruits of that and other conversations led to an early form of my essay, “Engineering a Cosmopolitan Future: Race, Nation, and World of Warcraft,” which was included in The Postnational Fantasy, my co-edited book with Masood Raja and Swaralipi Nandi. The seed of an idea contained in this theme analysis led to my larger work and a greater opportunity to work with my friends and colleagues. I have Dr. M’Baye to thank for that.

To help us focus our thinking and encourage seminar discussion, Dr. M’Baye gave us the opportunity to write five brief analyses during the semester. We had the freedom to explore these based on our scholarly interests and research. The first analysis is on “The Black Atlantic, Cosmopolitanism, and Olaudah Equiano,” the second is on “Becoming Free in the Stories of Olaudah Equiano and Mary Prince,” the third is on “W.E.B. Du Bois, Carol Swain, and African-American Duality” (something I wrote on tangentially before here and here), the fourth is on “Sociology of Master and Slave Relationships,” and finally, the fifth is on “African-American Writing, the Tabula Rasa, and Inverting the Hierarchy.” Due to their brevity, I believe that much more could be said on each topic. In retrospect, I would reconsider how to approach and explain some of my arguments. As with the previous Recovered Writing posts, these are presented as-is.

Jason W. Ellis

Thematic Analysis 1–The Black Atlantic, Cosmopolitanism, and Olaudah Equiano

Paul Gilroy argues in The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (1993) that:

The specificity of the modern political and cultural formation I want to call the black Atlantic can be defined, on one level, through this desire to transcend both the structures of the nation state and the constraints of ethnicity and national particularity. These desires are relevant to understanding political organising [sic] and cultural criticism. They have always sat uneasily alongside the strategic choices forced on black movements and individuals embedded in national political cultures and nation states in America, the Caribbean, and Europe. (19)

His theory of the black Atlantic breaks down the traditional historical barriers raised to encapsulate national and geographic narratives. Instead, Gilroy qualifies his theory as, harkening back to Deleuze and Guattari, “the rhizomorphic, fractal structure of the transcultural, international formation I call the black Atlantic” (4). The black Atlantic is the cross-pollination, transplantation, and circulation of language and culture that ignores historic and legal ideas of national and ethnic boundaries. It is a hybridization of cultures and languages that was a part of the cybernetic feedback loop of modernity. The black Atlantic formed and was formed by modernity–they are inextricably linked through, using Gilroy’s image, “the ship,” which “immediately [focuses] attention on the middle passage, on the various projects for redemptive return to an African homeland, on the circulation of ideas and activists as well as the movement of key cultural and political artifacts: tracts, books, gramophone records, and choirs” (4). It is the movement of people and ideas that lends Gilroy’s theory to a cosmopolitan reading in all of the disputed meanings of that word–morally, economically, culturally, and politically. Without naming it as such, Gilroy’s theory is cosmopolitan in nature, because it is based on a transcendence of boundaries and a sharing of ideas conveyed by individuals and their creative works.

Olaudah Equiano represents a cosmopolitan figure within Gilroy’s black Atlantic theoretical framework via his autobiography, The Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789). Equiano, a trained and well-regarded seaman, traveled the world aboard ships as a slave and later an emancipated freeman. On one level, the black Atlantic, as a network of relationships and movement of people and ideas, made Equiano a hybrid in part of African descent with a particular ethnic and cultural past. Also, there are significant moments of signifyin’ in his autobiography evidenced by his veiled sarcasms and dealing with the white hegemonic world in the eighteenth century. Another part of his hybrid identity is his Englishness. He understands how to use the English language as a tool, and he recognizes English ways aboard ship and in personal relationships. Furthermore, the isolated world of the ship presents another set of codes that Equiano mastered in order to negotiate his way in a world diametrically opposed to his personhood as a free and cosmopolitan individual who enjoyed encountering other cultures in his far travels abroad. Furthermore, he makes compelling arguments for opening trade between England and Africa instead of relegating Africa as a place for colonial rapaciousness. Equiano sought to engage his world as a cosmopolitan rather than take from it following the anti-cosmopolitan post-Enlightenment European model. And what is most intriguing about his narrative is that the anthropological study of his homeland is not the only cultural observations taking place. As a cosmopolitan, he observes, critiques, and incorporates that which he feels will improve his person as a citizen of the world.


Jason W. Ellis

Thematic Analysis 2–Becoming Free in the Stories of Olaudah Equiano and Mary Prince

The Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789) is as fascinating a story as it is a groundbreaking work for African American Literature. It is interesting how Equiano weaves together the harrowing tales of his life as a slave and later as a black skinned freeman in the eighteenth century. Some forty years later, The History of Mary Prince (1831) relates the oral narrative of Mary Prince as a person born into slavery on the island of Bermuda. Her travails and the descriptive power of her story clashes with that of Equiano, which probably gestures toward the rhetorical purposes underlying the publication of these stories. Setting aside issues of argumentative purpose, these two early slave narratives are united in the process of freedom. Each narrative relates a different trajectory for the emergence of freedom, or the best facsimile thereof at that time, for these two people of African descent. Equiano’s liberty is secured through capitalist exchange and the purchase of self from the European master. Prince attempts to purchase her freedom, but it is ultimately a matter of travel and law that secures her freedom. What do these different achievements of freedom during the long Slave Trade Era have to say about the nature of personal liberty and agency for those persons grossly deprived of it?

Equiano eventually purchases his freedom from his then master, Robert King. Recalling his day of emancipation, Equiano writes, “When I got to the office and acquainted the Register with my errand, he congratulated me on the occasion, and told me he would draw up my manumission for half-price, which was a guinea. . . .Accordingly he signed the manumission that day; so that, before night, I who had been a slave in the morning, trembling at the will of another, was become my own master, and completely free” (Equiano 144). There were two exchanges of capital in Equiano’s attaining freedom. First, he had to pay King for himself, and then he had to pay the Register for drafting his manumission papers. With these things done, and the manumission papers signed by King, Equiano’s status from slave to freeman shifts as from morning to evening; within the space of a day, he “becomes” free, but there is nothing about his person that has changed. What has changed is the quasi-legitimate status as a freeman. I use the modifier “quasi,” because we learn through the remainder of the narrative that having manumission papers were not absolutely respected by “free” whites.

Mary Prince’s freedom was achieved by her reversing the Middle Passage with her master and mistress to London, England where she “knew that [she] was free” (282). Even though England was the largest slave holding country in the world at that time, there was legislation in place to prevent the holding of slaves within England (and this was extended to other British territories in the subsequent Slavery Abolition Acts). However, it meant little for Prince to be free in England with no means of support, shelter, or employment. Her owners used this to their advantage to keep her under their control until two to three months after her arrival in England, until their threats to “thrust [her] out” (282) pushed her to leave of her own accord. Unfortunately, she could not, with the legal assistance of others, convince her owners to buy her freedom and return home a free woman. Thus, Prince was a free woman within England, but that freedom would dissolve immediately if she returned to the West Indies. Hence, her freedom, though enforced by law within the British Isles, was tenuous without the exchange of capital that made Equiano’s liberty a reality. However, the individualized freedoms of Equiano and Prince are something short of the freedom enjoyed by the hegemonic Europeans of that era. Prince desired manumission papers like those Equiano secured from his master, but as we see from Equiano’s narrative, the freedom afforded by such papers are not always worth the paper that the words of freedom are written on.


Jason W. Ellis

Thematic Analysis 3 — W.E.B. Du Bois, Carol Swain, and African-American Duality

In The Souls of Black Folk (1903), W.E.B. Du Bois wrote:

            After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world, –a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world.  It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.  One ever feels his twoness, –an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder (214-215).

In this passage, Du Bois is laying out his theory of African-American duality.  When he published the collection that this passage is contained in, the use of the word “Negro” to denote persons of African descent did not semantically illustrate the duality Du Bois addresses.  However, the hyphenated identity of African-American came into widespread use during the 1980s, and it encapsulates graphically, on the page and in the mind, the “twoness” that Du Bois describes.

Even though Du Bois published this work over a hundred years ago, the reality of African-American hybrid identity in the United States is an ongoing pragmatic fact.  The continuity of African-American marginalization from the antebellum era to the present pressures African-Americans to negotiate and maneuver their identity with the white hegemony (government, capital, and social sphere).

Du Bois goes on to write:

            The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife,–this longing to attain self-consciousness, manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self.  In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost.  He would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa.  He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world.  He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed or spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face (215).

Du Bois does not desire to dissolve “American Negro” identity, but he desires the freedom to be both without the threat of racist retaliation.  In this passage, he makes a profound observation that white American and African America have knowledges and cultures that can be shared.  This is one of the main arguments for open borders for immigration, because the cross pollination of cultures leads to the synthesis new things that were not possible within the isolated cultures.  As forced immigrants, African-Americans bring their own experiences and heritages from Africa and from their experiences as slaves that can enrich the American experience as a whole.

Dr. Carol Swain, professor of Political Science and Law at Vanderbilt University, recently presented at the Kent State library on the topic, “Immigration, Identity Politics, and the Decline of America: A Challenge for President Obama.”  Her presentation, particularly considering Dr. Swain being African-American, flies in the face of Du Bois’ argument for the maintenance of what we now call African-American identity.  Her presentation was primarily about the problems she sees with immigration in the United States, but at the end, she swung things around to identity politics in general.  She sees America as being a homogenous population with a shared sense of what it is to be American.  She acknowledged that it is a divisive issue between white and racial/ethnic diversity, but she considers assimilation “a good word” (however, she didn’t exactly say what standard folks should assimilate into).  She stated that, “we need to see ourselves as Americans,” and “we need to give up some of that [racial/ethnic] identity and have one identity.”  Interestingly, early in her talk she said, “black men running the two major parties doesn’t solve the race problem.”  So, it seems that she acknowledges that there is a “race problem,” but I cannot agree with her solution taking the United States back to isolationist politics and the farce of the “melting pot.”  Invoking nationalism and a call for national identity in a world of increasing globalization and cosmopolitan movement is an unacceptable retreat into a national tortoise shell.  Dr. Swain’s position is one that will further erode the pragmatic position of the United States within the world body politic, and her desire for the erasure of identities in favor of an essentialized national identity is tantamount to an erasure of history.


Jason W. Ellis

Thematic Analysis 4 – Sociology of Master and Slave Relationships

Henrietta Jacobs/Linda Brent wrote in this significant passage from her Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861):

If you want to be fully convinced of the abominations of slavery, go on a southern plantation, and call yourself a negro trader.  Then there will be no concealment; and you will see and hear things that will seem to you impossible among human beings with immortal souls. (499)

She is referring to the “concealment” of the horrors perpetuated on black slaves by white masters on Southern plantations.  Each plantation was largely isolated from the others by the breadth of arable and unusable land.  It is the isolation of the plantation from public view, and the policing of slaves by the slave owner that perpetuated a system that Jacobs calls “a curse to the whites as well as to the blacks” (498).  The curse of slavery is something that is also recounted in other slave narratives.  One such example is found in The Life of Frederick Douglass where he writes, “I saw more clearly than ever the brutalizing effects of slavery upon both slave and slaveholder” (373).  Another example comes from The History of Mary Prince (1831) where she relates, “They were not all bad, I dare say, but slavery hardens white people’s hearts towards the blacks” (258).  Jacobs goes on to call it “the demon Slavery” (532).  These passages report on the effects wrought on slave and master, and they reveal a historical progression of the effect of master-slave relations since the time of the earliest slave narratives.  Slavery, as an institution or system, initiates a set of power relationships in which the slave is subjugated to the will of the master.  But, where does the brutality enacted by masters on slaves come from?

The recent expose of the interrogation tactics at Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq is a recent reminder of the dehumanizing atrocities that one human can inflict on another.  Antebellum slaves were in a similar situation to those Abu Ghraib prisoners, or prisoners anywhere, because they were held captive in a panopticon-like prison that extended across the entire Southeast of the United States.  The South was like a prison containing smaller plantation prisons, and these isolated feifdoms, plantation owners took on the role of guards and their slaves were prisoners.

The master/guard and slave/prisoner relationship was explored in a controversial experiment known as the Stanford Prison Experiment.  Held in 1971, the Standford Prison Experiment randomly assigned a group of 24 male college student volunteers to be either guards or prisoners for an extended role-play within an artificially constructed jail.  During the early stages of the experiment, certain behaviors began to be exhibited on both sides of the guard/prisoner divide.  Prisoners lost solidarity, began to identify with their prisoner number rather than their own name, and would accept their meted punishments.  The guards, with no other beginning difference than the volunteer prisoners, became abusive, controlling, and manipulative–they took charge of the prison and assumed complete control over the lives of the prisoners.  Zimbardo, as the lead researcher, assumed the role of the prison’s warden, and he admits that even he found himself slipping into the situation as if it were real and not simulated.  Obviously, there is something powerful at work in a situation when some people exercise full authority over others.

The atrocities that occurred during the slave era reveal something deeply embedded in the psychology of human beings that was later illuminated in the Stanford Prison Experiment.  There is something about the situation, the institution of slavery itself, which warps the possibility of an equal relationship between persons.  This is not an apology, but it is a perspective deserving further discussion in a historical context.


Jason W. Ellis

Thematic Analysis 5 – African-American Writing, the Tabula Rasa, and Inverting the Heirarchy

In the slave narratives of Olaudah Equiano, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Jacobs, and the later writings of W.E.B. Du Bois, there is the repeated engagement of the enlightenment concept of the tabula rasa, or blank slate.  The idea of the tabula rasa refers to the theory that each person is born without knowledge or culture, and it is through education and acculturation that one learns to be a particular type of person.  The ideal is to enrich the tabula rasa so that one’s intellect blossoms.  However, the ideal professed for slaves was to debase their intellectual potential, because enrichment of the mind would result in slaves who would not wish to remain slaves.

An important European representation of the tabula rasa is in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818).  Victor Frankenstein’s Monster is not created with knowledge or experience.  Instead, he learns, as a child learns, and eventually is able to speak and read thanks to observing a family from his careful hiding space next to a cottage (reminiscent of Harriet Jacob’s hiding place).   However, he serendipitously learns about his creator, of who he demands to create him a mate.  Following Victor’s decision to destroy the female creature, the Monster says, “Slave, I before reasoned with you, but you have proved yourself unworthy of my condescension.  Remember that I have power; you believe yourself miserable, but I can make you so wretched that the light of day will be hateful to you.  You are my creator, but I am your master; obey!” (172, Penguin Classics edition).  The Monster’s education and mastery of his own circumstance results in his deconstructing the creator/created and master/slave hierarchy between Victor and himself.  This possibility was the fear of the Anglo-European masters.

In The Life of Olaudah Equiano (1814, four years before Frankenstein), his freedom comes about through, in part, education.   He writes, “I thought now of nothing but being freed, and working for myself, and thereby getting money to enable me to get a good education.  For I always had a great desire to be able at least to read and write; and while I was on shipboard I had endeavoured to improve myself in both” (95).  His education is part of what enables him to obtain his freedom and lead a very cosmopolitan lifestyle as a seaman.

In The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845), Douglass relates how an early mistress taught him how to read and write, but quickly stopped after his master scolded her and Douglass.  His master said, “A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master–to do as he is told to do.  Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world . . . if you teach that nigger . . . how to read, there would be no keeping him.  It would forever unfit him to be a slave. . . . It would make him discontented and unhappy (364).  For Douglass’ master, education and the filling of the tabula rasa would “spoil” a slave, and make him “unfit” to be a slave.  Again, Douglas’ master exhibits the fear that education and the subsequent consciousness raising inverts the hierarchy of master/slave, which leads to trouble for the Anglo-European master.

Harriet Jacobs writes in her Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) of her first mistress who taught her how to read and write at early age:  “While I was with her, she taught me to read and spell; and for this privilege, which so rarely falls to the lot of a slave, I bless her memory” (449).  It is this early education that facilitated her beginning “the war of my life” (460).

Du Bois’ experience as an educated African-American in the early twentieth-century reveals the frustration he felt being unable to affect change through his many schemes.  But, his story of the two “Johns” in The Souls of Black Folk (1903), reveals the violent reaction of a frustrated awareness that fatalistically mirrors the final confrontation of Victor and the Monster.

Recovered Writing: The Project So Far

This is the twenty-fifth 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 is a post written in the present about my Recovered Writing project after twenty-four posts. Normal Recovered Writing posts will resume on Wednesday.

In this first phase of my Recovered Writing project, which I began with this post and collected all of the posts on this page, I focused on writing from my years as an undergraduate and masters student. I published 24 posts, of which 16 are undergraduate writing and 8 are masters writing. I did not publish them in any particular order, because it took time to find some files and properly attribute them to specific classes and dates. I wanted to move ahead with the project without imposing an order up front. With that said, I did try to balance the interestingness of the posts instead of posting what I thought were the very best or most likely read essays all at the very beginning of the project.

As I have been finding, formatting, and posting my writing for the Recovered Writing project, I have been struck by how much of the writing seems completely foreign to me. For some of the writing, even some of the writing that I feel is very important to my personal development, I feel only the faintest recall of having written it. For other essays, I have no memory of having written those words. The writing in all cases seem familiar to me as indicative of my continuously evolving style, but the ideas, arguments, and research in many cases are forgotten in the depths of my memory. I need to do more reading about memory and the brain to determine if I should or should not be worried about this. Nevertheless, it is fascinating and somewhat alarming to me that so much writing that I would have spent a considerable amount of time writing have lost the thread of connection to my memory.

Since I began the Recovered Writing project, I have noticed that my daily readership has increased slightly with occasional spikes. However, the spikes were always regarding older writing (like my “On Deep-throat in Aliens vs. Predator: Requium post,” various tech posts such as this one about installing Linux on MacBook Pro retina, and Lego posts such as this one on the vintage Launch Command set). The Recovered Writing posts have not led any readers to engage with me directly, but it is my hope that readers are taking away something from the posts or citing my words in their own research. As Google indexes my writing, perhaps it will lead to more readers finding their way to my words.

The biggest questions that I had about the Recovered Writing project are unanswerable: What effect would publicly posting this writing on my blog or elsewhere have had on my academic and professional development had I done this in real time? Would I have received and responded to feedback by readers of my writing, and what effect might this engaged interaction have had on my thinking, research foci, and professionalization?

In today’s more open world of public or semi-public writing, I think that sharing writing is an essential and necessary part of one’s development. Instead of simply working in one’s monk’s cell and occasionally venturing out to lecture about your thinking, writing, sharing, talking (in its many forms), interacting, collaborating, remixing, transforming, and all-around escaping the cell to be a contributing part of a social world is an essential part of professional practice and development.

Of course, not everyone thinks this way, but I believe that the trend is in that direction and finding ways to make interaction fulfill your research and pedagogical interests while energizing those of others without also unnecessarily distracting us from our work should be something we all aspire to do. For many kinds of writing, research, and pedagogy, we should be lowering barriers to sharing our research, evaluating different kinds of writing on their arguments/evidence despite where they appear, and working better together online. We are the street and we should be finding our own use for these tools, words, and ideas.

In the next phase of my Recovered Writing project, I will continue posting some undergraduate writing that remains in my personal archive while transitioning to conference presentations and PhD writing. After I complete posting these things, I will begin connecting the dots chronologically and thematically. I will build these lists on the Recovered Writing project main page. I want to complete all posting before doing this.

Another element of this phase of the project will be to perform textual analysis over my writing. I am interested in the way my writing and research have changed over time, and I believe that visually exploring these things will help me reflect on my writing over the past and improve my writing for the future.

I want to encourage others to perform their own Recovered Writing projects. A Recovered Writing project can be small or large. It can focus on everything or trends. It can be whatever you want to make it, but it should recover your writing and communications from the prison of our personal digital archives. Let your writing, ideas, and arguments see the light of LCD screens and the eyes of readers who you otherwise never would have had, met, or interacted.

Benton’s “Dodging the Anvil” and Reinventing What You Can Do With an English PhD

Thomas H. Benton (pen name for William Pannapacker) wrote a real gem on The Chronicle’s website on January 4, 2010 titled, “Dodging the Anvil” (i.e., the anvil of doom already and always falling on the poor head of Wily E. Coyote). The article is about the continuing horror of humanities graduate students to find gainful employment within the academy. He writes:

Even with some cyclic ups and downs, following the U.S. economy, the academic job market has been in a depression since the early 1970s, and—just as we were beginning to accept that things were not going to improve—we are now confronted with an even more desperate situation for the humanities job seeker. If we regard the Modern Language Associations Job Information List as representative of the humanities, then we are seeing the most rapid decline in advertised positions since the MLA started keeping records, 34 years ago “MLA Newsletter,” Winter 2009. Last year, at the beginning of the recession, the number of positions advertised in English declined by 24.4 percent; this year it is down by an additional 40 percent. Last year foreign-language positions were down 27 percent; this year they are down by an additional 52 percent.

via Dodging the Anvil – Advice – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

This was a year and a half ago, and I suspect that things are as bad or worse now. Benton works through the difficulties of getting a job, and he also offers a few suggestions about how to obtain a job despite the mess that things are in now. However, the suggestions that he makes are obvious–be the best from the best school and have the best luck–something that he readily admits. Things are just that bad right now.

Benton does wonder at the end of the piece about the possibilities of finding employment outside of the academy. He thinks that it might be high-time for humanities PhDs to re-invent themselves for a variety of jobs. This is something that I have already had some experience with a graduate of Georgia Tech with the mystifying, “B.S. in Science, Technology, in Culture.” It was certainly a rigorous and preparatory program, but I had to devise my own ways to tell others about what I did there and how it prepared me for the programs that I applied for afterwards.

Now, it might be necessary for many of us to consider how we might do a similar thing with English Literature PhDs in order to work at many different kinds of jobs. I believe that this will be extremely difficult in its own right, because many employers will be afraid of hiring someone with such a high terminal degree for a job that on the surface does not need someone with that kind of training. It might come down to other work that PhD holders have done (e.g., blogging, non-academic writing, internships, tangible self-employment that demonstrates other skills, etc.).

Personally, I am still in this game for the long haul to be a professor, but the terrible job reports are keeping me painfully aware of the necessity of having a plan b, c, d, . . . etc.

I Have Officially Passed All Three PhD Exams

I received “a very very strong pass” on my third and final PhD exam! Even though I’ve been waiting to hear about the results of that exam, I have been formulating my dissertation topic. I picked up three bags of books from the library yesterday, and I hiked another bag back home today. I’m skimming ideas to see where I can find a space to drive my first piton.