Recovered Writing: PhD in English, Independent Study with Mack Hassler, Literary Characters, Online Persona, and Science Fiction Scholars: A Polemic, Dec. 9, 2008

This is the thirty-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.

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

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

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

Jason W. Ellis

Dr. Donald M. Hassler

Independent Study

9 December 2008

Literary Characters, Online Persona, and Science Fiction Scholars:  A Polemic

Chaos often breeds life, when order breeds habit.

–Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams (1918)

This essay’s objects of study include the community of Science Fiction (SF) scholars, of which I am a member, as well as our practices of online communication and discussion.  In September 2008, the normal intermittent conversation on the email list of a long established, professional organization of SF scholars was disrupted, or derailed, which might be a better description, by the controversial, inflammatory, or perhaps unexpected emails of two list participants with different originating email address–one a dues paying member of the organization, and the other a non-paying email-only list member.  However, these two seemingly separate persons are in fact two online personas or characters created and operated by the same individual.  The real world person responsible for these personas is clearly playing with character and online identity engineering.  For the two personas, he constructs identity and narrative of self through verbal wit and word play that has its antecedents in literature, or what I call Pulp Media. This online, or New Media, practitioner of online persona engineering largely caught the SF scholar community woefully unprepared to meet his persona on the page, or rather on the screen. Instead of engaging the personas within cyberspace on the email discussion list, which often carries conversations about marginalized identities and the alien Other, many list participants chose to react against the list personas. Why did these scholars, arguably some of the most engaged persons dealing with issues of Otherness, attempt to expel, rather than embrace, the Othered personas?  Can SF scholarship overcome a privileging of literary texts, and expand their work to the realm of daily practices and the real world of science fictional technologies (i.e., the Internet) that facilitates their professional work?  Or, is SF scholarship divorced from the present through its overemphasis on the future or alternate worlds imagined in its traditional objects of study?

I approach these questions first through a discussion of literary character and persona.  Then, I employ psychology as a bridge between literary character and online identity or persona. In this paper, I argue that character in Pulp Media is replicated in New Media with the recognizable exception being the proliferation of persona narrative construction online, which results in the necessity of reflective revision of our practices in cyberspace, including our supposedly isolated forums of discussion.

The online personas on the SF email list are indicative of the doubleness of character in literature.  Obviously, writing the self and creating doubles of character in literature have a long history in literature.  The touchstone work is Saint Augustine’s Confessions (397-398 AD), in which he attempted to reflect on his life, memory, and self.  However, he realized that memory and self change over time and his record of self in the Confessions can be best thought of as a representation of self as recorded through the lens of memory.  Other forms of doubleness take on a more fictional aspect such as that in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), and her characters: Victor the creator, and his created Monster.  However, the Monster also doubles humanity, because he falls in love, or desires companionship of a female mate.  Even though he is called the Monster, he is in fact very much human–one that is isolated, alone, and ostracized as the Other.  A more emphatic and explicit form of doubling takes place in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886).  The title’s namesakes equate to one person with a schizoid personality–a person split into different, and even competing identities. Though, as different as Hyde is from Jekyll, there still remains the underlying core of humanity and human identification. Still much later works, such as Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), continue to feature doubled characters.  In this case, the Replicants, android workers of the future, double humanity, and it is the ambiguously human characters who doubt their own humanity and fear the possibility of being the Other.  In these examples, there is a crisis of identity, because the division of self obviously destabilizes what is assumed to be a unified identity or sense of self.

These crises exist in written form as literature and as words written by persons, each with a unique mind, and literature forms a corpus of evidence for the mind and its machinery.  Therefore, the early developments in the scientific study of self and identity came to rely on this evidence.  Sigmund Freud relied on classical literature (e.g., Oedipus Rex), and his love of British literature (e.g., Shakespeare’s Hamlet) to develop his theories of self and pathologies of mental illness.  The significance here being that there is an interconnection between Freud’s work on the mind and the pathology of mind, and literature. Freud’s theory of self established that our mind, and its underlying workings, is divided between the surface conscious mind–ego, and the subsurface unconscious mind–the superego and the id. Despite this division of mind, normal persons supposedly present an integrated sense of self or identity to the world. Further developments in the pathology of a unified public self was made by Eugen Bleuler, who extends Freud’s work with his categorization and naming of the schizophrenias, which included the now distinct pathology known as dissociative identity disorder, or the explicit division of self into distinct personas.  Following this work, violations of the unity of self in daily life are perceived to be indicative of disease or illness, and necessitating treatment or institutionalization. However, this phenomenon is presented in literature both before and after Freud and Bleuler’s work. Doubleness of character, doppelgangers, and literary personas in literature are high literary markers, and there is a profusion of such literary/psychological devices in literature following the wider popularization of psychoanalysis.  I do not mean to say that one necessarily follows from the other, but instead, there is an ever presence of human minds creating literature, which obviously leaves psychological traces embedded in the work. However, there must be a conscious as well as unconscious injection of these themes into literary works, particularly following the increase in awareness of mental disorders and key psychological concepts.  With that being said, doubleness pervades literature, and there is a recursive operation at play following the dispersal of the Freudian theory of mind.

This pervasion is clearly evident in the doubleness inherent to the New Media, which derives in part from its literary and pathological precedents, but it also has to do with the material conditions of plugging one’s self into the network.  William Gibson, hovering over his Hermes 2000 typewriter, envisioned the physical jacking into cyberspace, a neologism of his creation that has since stuck, in his 1984 novel Neuromancer. There is a separation between the meat (i.e., body) and mind.  The meat confines the potential of self unleashed within the “consensual hallucination” within the computer network.  This is made more visually real a decade and a half later in the Wachowski Brother’s film, The Matrix (1999), when the human characters jack-in to the computer world they leave their weak bodies behind in Baudrillard’s “desert of the real,” and become the Übermensch within cyberspace.  The characters, including Case in Neuromancer, Neo in the Matrix, and Hiro Protagonist in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (1992), each invent spectacular online identities with special powers and abilities that contrast, more or less, with the material reality of their bodily identity.  Is this not true of many persons of imagination that enjoy SF, comics, and video games as a way to leave, or at least ignore, the confines of material reality and explore the potential and promise of the undiscovered country of the imagination with their doubled selves?

One such imaginative space, perhaps with the most potential for invention, is the Internet and its New Media technologies.  New Media has made possible a proliferation in the engineering of self and creation of persona–a doubling that occurs purposefully as well as incidentally.  Playing with character was largely confined to print, and it was not allowed in real life due to the pathology of a split identity.  The New Media proliferation of self and character experimentation has resulted in new possibilities as well as problems.  The possibilities include trying out new attitudes and beliefs in the relative protection of cyberspace, which is one of the themes of Greg Egan’s novel Diaspora (1998), albeit with digital beings that switch mental perspectives, which we might conceive as being central to identity. Another New Media possibility is the making connections and linking into new circuits and communities within the sprawling network.  This empowers the building of self through community and interaction that might otherwise be a challenge (e.g., geographically or demographically), or danger (e.g., a transgendered person talking with other transgendered persons in a community with groups openly violent to such persons).  Additionally, some persons create multiple online identities or characters as protection or to remove prejudice within online communities (e.g., a girl pretends to be a guy to avoid harassment, or a college-aged woman uses only her first initial and last name on email correspondence to avoid gender bias).  In contrast to these possibilities is the central problem and holdover from the real world–the assumption of a unified sense of self.  Even within cyberspace where doubling is essential to any interaction with the network, there remains the awareness of illness when there is a violation by others of an appearance of unity of self. There may be a sense of betrayal when the ruse, if you want to use that word, is uncovered. Other ways of responding to such a situation of online persona creation is deception.  There is the assumption of dealing with an individual behind the online persona or avatar, and that this is a one-to-one ratio. When one person has a chorus of voices, characters, or personas, this may lead to the feeling that there is deception–that one is hoodwinked.  However, the fact remains that New Media enables and in some cases, such as Blizzard’s massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) World of Warcraft, encourages such multiple persona creation.  The technological assemblages of the Internet and New Media is built on multiplicity, copy-and-paste, and the passage of bits unencumbered by the realities of the persons corresponding with those bits of data. Nevertheless, there still exists for many the knee-jerk reaction of our real world conditioning that a violation takes place when the assumption of unified identity is breached, even in such an environment as cyberspace.

The reaction of many of the participants, myself included, on the SF scholar email list strongly indicates that old habits die hard. Evidence for this comes from the fact that list participants overwhelmingly reacted against these Othered personas rather than engaging the play and internal logic of the two characters. There were exceptions, but it would probably have required a unanimous positive response to avert the ensuing chaos on the list.  Some of the not-so-positive responses to the personas, but more so the person behind the personas after the performance was uncovered, included calling him a “worthless clown” and “troll,” who pursues “juvenile antics.”  However, the following responses are more indicative of the interrelation of psychology to persons:  “kook,” “disturbed little creature,” “needs psychological help,” “loonie,” and “he is clearly undergoing some sort of emotional meltdown.” The online persona creator is no longer a human, but a “creature,” suffering an “emotional meltdown,” and “in need of help.”  Psychology, the science of self that originally derived its models from literature, comes full circle when brought to bear on an individual who exercises literary practices of character and persona creation in a New Media email list.  However, these same scholars whose slings and arrows amount to popular expressions of Freud would not consider Shelley or Dick “kooks.” Also, their scholarly engagement of Shelley and Dick’s characters and literary personas would be probative and deductive rather than invective.  It would be an embrace rather than a reaction or rejection of these practices of character and persona creation.

In this spirit of embracing the Other, one list participant offered, “There may be ‘irrational exuberance’ but exuberance can be used productively.” Another sage called the emails “great fun” and a kind of “cyberhockey” with words flying around like so many pucks. Perhaps the person behind the email list personas took the postmodern to heart, and not in his studies but in his practices as an academic.  I contend that these personas are forms of “transgressive parody,” or what Patrick Novotny describes as:

Parody in the postmodernist aesthetic is the transgression of aesthetic and representational norms. The postmodernist parody of aesthetic representation has been frequently carried to an extreme of self-negation, the playful celebration of the fragmentation and decomposition of the subject. With the collapse of the modern aesthetic tradition and the “implosion of metanarratives,” postmodernist discourse transgresses and disrupts the received assurances of traditional aesthetic forms and problematizes the boundaries and limits of representation. (100)

Novotny’s work reveals that postmodern parody is much more than comic imitation.  Instead, the email list online personas transgress the norms of the list and academic discourse in order to challenge and potentially break down the metanarratives of SF scholarship in order to arrive at something new. In a sense, the chaos incited by the email personas, as Henry Adams wrote in a different context, “often breeds life” (249).  It seems evident that the person behind the personas self-negates through the creation of such elaborate online identities, but perhaps a recursion takes place in which the self-negated subject of the personas’ operator then in turn takes on these new and engineered identities.  The ways in which the personas disrupted the email list and the normal list conversations sent ripples through the list community.  I cannot peer into the mind of the personas’ operator and see his intentions for his acts of transgressive parody, but it is obvious from the list conversations and this paper, as something created as a result of the events on the email list, that the email list personas’ transgressions and disruptions have resulted in a change of course into uncharted territories.

In our first trespass into these new areas, we should collectively reflect on what it is we do as SF scholars supposedly concerned about the plight of the alien Other.  The email list personas came from within our own member ranks, but the unexpectedness of the transgressive parody, something assumed to be relegated to the realm of literature, took center stage while many list members gawked at the intrusions from the (assumed) margins.  In this spectacular example, the persona creator, who pushes the boundaries and possibilities of New Media and community norms, is the outsider on the SF discussion list, because he is using New Media technologies in ways that many list members are unaccustomed to, or unwilling to acknowledge as constructive or at least inventive. We each write our identities online in a variety of ways, which are not far removed, and in fact overlap each of our email list personas.  Some of these include:  our professional websites display our professional histories and curriculum vitae; we post copious amounts of data on identity profiles on Facebook and MySpace; we blog about our personal and professional lives; we use Twitter and email to communicate and bounce ideas off one another; and we join virtual guilds and fight for honor in World of Warcraft.  The examples are too long to be fully listed here, but it is obvious that we construct identities online whether we intend to or not.  The mere act of communication builds some sense of identity in our own minds through our action to communicate and in the minds of our audience by what we have said.  Cyberspace and the New Media facilitate the writing of ourselves–in whatever way that we may choose to do so–and the creation of persona or personas in the digital domain. We must resist our assumptions, including the outmoded sense of a unified self, and make our best effort to connect with new technologies and the possibilities that they engender, especially when they are so interrelated with our own practices and SF objects of study. It is time for us to agree to bridge our professional practices to the seemingly far shore of our daily practices as human beings.


Works Cited

Adams, Henry.  The Education of Henry Adams:  An Autobiography. Cambridge, MA: Riverside Press, 1918.

Novotny, Patrick.  “No Future! Cyberpunk, Industrial Music, and the Aesthetics of Postmodern Disintegration.”  Political Science Fiction.  Eds. Donald M. Hassler and Clyde Wilcox.  Columbia, SC:  University of South Carolina Press, 1997.  99-123.

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

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

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

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

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

Jason W. Ellis

Dr. Donald M. Hassler

Independent Study

28 September 2008

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

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

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

2) How does PKD move beyond parody?

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

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

Recovered Writing: PhD in English, Independent Study with Mack Hassler, On Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “The Necessity of Atheism,” Sept. 17, 2008

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

In 2008, I began my Ph.D. work with Dr. Donald “Mack” Hassler. Ultimately, he directed my dissertation to its successful completion. Through this process, we became colleagues and friends.

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

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

Jason W. Ellis

Dr. Donald M. Hassler

Independent Study

17 September 2008

Discussion Notes on Shelley

Shelley, Percy Bysshe.  “The Necessity of Atheism.” Romantic Period Writings 1798-1832:  An Anthology. Eds. Zachary Leader and Ian Haywood. New York:  Routledge, 1998.  77-79.

NB:  Shelley and his friend, T.J. Hogg, were kicked out of Oxford for publishing this (69).

He begins his proof by examining belief.  Mind/active and perception/passive.  The mind is active in investigating that which is perceived in order to clarify, but the mind cannot disbelief that which it perceives to be true. What Shelley calls, “the strength of belief,” is determined by, in order of highest to lowest importance, our senses, our experience (reason), and the experience of others. And it from these things that belief in a Deity derives.

Working through these three strengths, he admits that if the Deity appears to someone via the senses, then that person must belief the Deity exists.  However, he employs what is best described as Occam’s Razor to seek the simpler explanation for the cause and effect of the creation of the universe or one’s own birth rather than the more complicated idea of a Deity. Finally, he establishes that we cannot trust other’s belief in a Deity that, “commanded that he should be believed, he proposed the highest rewards for faith, eternal punishments for disbelief” (79).  Belief for Shelley must be voluntary and established by the perception of an individual’s senses.

He closes the essay by reprimanding those who would punish disbelievers, because one must and should only belief what they experience via the senses.  Furthermore, one has no choice but to believe this way without the influence of external pressure.  And, any person with a reflective mind will admit that there has been no proof for the existence of a Deity.

Shelley, Percy Bysshe.  “Extract from A Refutation of Deism: In a Dialog.” Romantic Period Writings 1798-1832:  An Anthology. Eds. Zachary Leader and Ian Haywood. New York:  Routledge, 1998.  80-81.

In this extract, Shelley is questioning the prevailing social order, maintained by the monarchy and church, and its requirement for what he calls a “supernatural intelligence” (80). Also, he considers the conflict between order and disorder in that system, and the supposed requirement for a “power” that supports order, and another, malignant, that supports disorder (80).

In a thought experiment, he questions if order might have a penchant for evil, and disorder a hint at good.  Why do these divisions necessarily remain diametrically opposed? He answers that order and disorder are constructions that we map onto our understanding of the world and our relationship to it (80). Therefore, what is good for us is heavenly ordained and that which is ill for us is the work of Satan.

He points out that order and disorder cannot be universal, because the criteria for those things are as varied and colored as the different people whose “opinions and feelings” create those criteria (80).

The most powerful passage in this extract is when he establishes that good and evil are relative, not only in effect, but more importantly in the relationship between people and their perception of the external world. It is human attribution of good or evil to objects and events external to the perceiver rather than an extrinsic or universal attribution of those descriptions.

And, connecting this extract to the previous, he concludes that one cannot reason the existence of a Deity, because what is believed to have divine motivation in the external world are really judgments and opinions of people mapped onto the events observed.

Electronic Communications, Philip K. Dick, and Belief Systems

What would Philip K. Dick do with a blog?  How might he have revolutionized the way we engage and think about belief and our perception of reality had he had a less restrictive method of communicating with fans and passers-by alike?

I use my blog as a means of connecting with people personally as well as professionally.  Originally intended as a personal blog about my travels abroad in the UK, it changed over time along with my own professional transformation into a PhD student and active participant in professional organizations.  It allowed me to hone my writing ability through additional practice, and it facilitated feedback from those persons who happened to by blog by the almighty digital deity, Google.  Also, it is a self-promotion of sorts, not unlike those by SF authors such as Cory Doctorow or John Scalzi, but it represents my life and work as a professional academic who critically thinks about the relationship between science, technology, and culture.  It’s more than a calling card–it’s a bulletin board that I organize and run that facilitates a communal response to my observations and thoughts.

Philip K. Dick would undoubtedly have had a different kind of blog than Doctorow, Scalzi, or I.  In his work, he questions the nature of reality and the human mind’s ability to perceive and react to the external world.  He realized, like Percy Bysshe Shelley, that our relationship to the external world is made possible by our senses and the interpretation of that sensory data by our mind. Thus, the supposed external world is actually a simulation that is ever present in our mind.  Dick questions, problematizes, and critiques our relationship to the external world in his myriad works, but it’s the latter works that specifically deal with perception and the questions of belief that Shelley raised in the early 18th century.

Shelley argued that the only ways in which one may believe in a Deity is directly through our senses, reason, and the experience of others. He quickly dispenses with the last two as being unequivocally insufficient for proof in God. However, the first, direct sensory perception is the only sure way to prove that God exists, for the individual. It is here that Dick steps into the picture one and three-quarter centuries later.

In his last works exploratory works, VALIS and the Exegesis, Dick describes his own direct sensory perception of a Deity, or more accurately, a Gnostic revelatory experience.  In these works, which would have been the pinnacle of blog writing had he had a digital outlet for communicating his experiences, he describes on the page what he remembers of the experiences of 2-4-74 as well as his reasoning through those experiences.  Dick follows what Shelley described two centuries before as the mind actively clarifying the sensory perception.  And as a reflective person, Dick offered many interpretations and counter-interpretations for his sensory experience in order to find his own way of understanding the experience. From the extended process of reasoning, Dick arrived at his own set of beliefs surrounding the experience, but he conceded that they were his experiences, and despite sharing them, one must arrive at that kind of belief on their own.  Additionally, he envisioned a future with less organized religion and more personal belief based on individualized experiences. In this sense, Dick is taking Shelley to task by establishing his own beliefs in a Deity.

I wonder what Dick would have concluded had he explored these ideas online through blogging.  According to Sutin’s biography of Dick, Divine Invasions, Dick corresponded with friends and colleagues, but “he was blue because it seemed there was no one to talk with about the ideas that mattered to him” (273). Those ideas were those that he recorded as his verbose self-dialog in the Exegesis.  However, interpersonal communication with friends is a somewhat different dynamic than the largely anonymous online communication (hence the recent flame war initiated by the new SFRA troll). Would an online community foster or impede Dick’s personal exploration of his unique sensory experiences? In addition to the voluminous writing that he was doing at that time regarding his experience, an online forum would necessitate a certain level of response and tailoring subsequent material to his readership.  Perhaps this would have enhanced or altered his reasoning based on the suggestions and theories of others.  However, as Shelley pointed out, we cannot wholly trust the reports of others in our own interpretation of sensory experiences.  I’m confident that Dick would have been aware of this, but it would certainly have had some influence, however insignificant but subtle, on his own thinking.

There are certainly issues today with online communication and the dissemination of ideologies and systems of belief.  I have heard anecdotally that online systems of communication assist individuals in finding or establishing smaller groups that share similar beliefs. Hence, Republicans find other Republicans, and Science Fiction fans find other Science Fiction fans. However, there’s certainly a cross pollination where, for example, Republicans find their way to the Science Fiction fan enclaves and either comment positively or negatively on something a SF fan has said, and vice versa.  It’s these interactions between borders that I find interesting, because a synthesis at best or a culture war at worst is taking place at these imaginary or invisible dividing lines.  Shelley and Dick would probably have found themselves on the same side, looking across the border at the unreflective infidels, and they would most assuredly have “guest blogged” on each other’s site.

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: Handwritten Notes from 1st International Philip K. Dick Conference Dortmund, Nov 15-18, 2012

Conference group photo from PKD Dortmund Conference.
Conference group photo from PKD Dortmund Conference.

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

In this Recovered Writing post, I am bringing my analog writing into the digital realm of cyberspace by scanning the pages of my notebook from the First International Philip K. Dick Conference, Dortmund into a PDF. Instead of copy-and-pasting my writing as I have done on my previous Recovered Writing posts, this one has be downloaded as a PDF below.

In addition to my record of all of the sessions and keynote speeches, you can observe my degrading handwriting (I’m so far removed from my days as a draftsman-in-training or as a high school student receiving commendations for his penmanship), trouble with spelling jargon and names, and rough sketches of Laurence Rickels’ theatrically performative keynote presentation.

I was so busy during the last bit of 2012 and all of 2013 that I never returned to collect my thoughts from the Dortmund conference in a blog post. This wasn’t because I thought it wasn’t important. In fact, it was tremendously important and enlightening to me. In my 2012 retrospective post, I wrote, “November 15-18: I attended the first international Philip K. Dick conference at UT-Dortmund in Dortmund, Germany. I delivered a heavily revised version of my SFRA 2012 paper, “Philip K. Dick as Pioneer of the Brain Revolution.” The conference was a fantastic experience. I promise to write more about this in a separate post. In the meantime, you can see my pictures from Germany here.” Unfortunately, the demands of teaching, research, and job hunting took precedence over my desire to “write more about [the conference] in a separate post.” It will have to suffice for now to post these notes for any and all who have the time and ability to decipher my scribblings. If you are so inclined, good luck!

You may download my notes from the First International Philip K. Dick Conference, Dortmund here: ellis-jason-pkd-dortmund-notes.pdf.

Science Fiction, LMC3214: Concluding New Wave SF with Philip K. Dick and Star Trek’s “The City on the Edge of Forever”

In today’s class, I lectured on Philip K. Dick’s life (2-3-74) and work (characteristics: ontological, epistemological, entropy, empathy, religion, and the “little man”) to conclude my discussion of New Wave writers began in the last class. Then, I lectured on Star Trek and used Harlan Ellison’s “The City on the Edge of Forever” as a bridge between the New Wave and popular, mainstream SF.

Tomorrow, we will begin our unit on Feminist SF and we will discuss readings by Pamela Zoline, Joanna Russ, and James Tiptree, Jr. (Alice B. Sheldon).

Paul Williams, Former Literary Executor of Philip K. Dick’s estate, Has Passed Away

Philip K. Dick, Christopher Dick, and Paul Williams. Photo from Boo-Hooray Gallery
Philip K. Dick, Christopher Dick, and Paul Williams. Photo from Boo-Hooray Gallery

I just learned via Mark Bould on Facebook that Paul Williams, author of the famous Rolling Stones article on Dick–available online here, the first literary executor of Philip K. Dick’s estate and recognized music critic, has passed away.  An official announcement is on his wife Cindy Lee Berryhill’s blog here, the Philip K. Dick Fan Site has remarks and collected news links here, and the Total Dick-Head blog has a remembrance here.

Unfortunately, I never met Williams in person. However, I came to know him, like his friend Phil Dick, through his writing and interviews.

Last year, I was very fortunate to win a R. D. Mullen Fellowship to research in the University of California at Riverside’s Library and its Eaton Collection of Science Fiction. During my two weeks trip, I read through every PKD Society Newsletter–Paul William’s famous fanzine for the Philip K. Dick Society–and listened to his recorded interview with Dick on cassette tape (that the undergraduate archives helper attempted to put into a front loading VHS player before I stopped her and showed her how to put it in the Hi-Fi at the bottom of the media cart).

In William’s writing and interviews, I found him to have an easy-going confidence and the kind of enthusiasm that does not have to be ecstatic. He shared his views, but he recognized the multiplicity of Dickian readings and perspectives. Also, Williams was unafraid to include material that put Dick in the best or worst light. The PKD Society Newsletter was a space where all things Dick could be discussed and shared.

Like watching a TV series on DVD, sitting down to experience the PKD Newsletter in a sitting over several days was like experiencing his promotion of Phil Dick’s work and life in fast forward. My experience is one of the times that I wish that I were older and in the right place to have know about the Newsletter and subscribed at the beginning. What a difference it would have made to read the Newsletter and possibly write letters to Williams as the Dickian scene began to grow and connect many people together.

Nevertheless, I am happy for what I have–to have read and enjoyed the work Williams put into the PKDS Newsletter and his executorship of the Dick literary estate before Dick’s family asserted their control over the estate–something that Williams writes only briefly about in the Newsletter but in such a muted tone compared to his other writing.

I send my condolences to Williams’ family and friends. He did very good work in his life and that is, at least in my opinion, one of the best things that we can all strive to do. It is my sincerest hope to carry on Williams’ work and love of Dick’s fiction in my teaching and publications.