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

Semeiotics

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.

Introduction/Conclusion

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 <http://artchive.com/artchive/M/munch/puberty.jpg.html&gt;.

—.  The Scream.  1893.  National Gallery, Oslo.  12 December 2007 <http://www.ibiblio.org/wm/paint/auth/munch/&gt;.

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

Semeiotics

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

Semeiotics

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: MA in SF Studies, Time and Consciousness Module Final Paper, Artificial Self-Creation in the Science Fiction of Greg Egan, Jan 8, 2007

This is the 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.

During the first semester of the MA in Science Fiction Studies program at the University of Liverpool, I wrote this final essay for the Time and Consciousness module directed by Professor Barry Dainton in the Department of Philosophy. As I recall, Sunshine, Christian, and I had some of our most heated debates in Professor Dainton’s seminar. It was during this time that I first appreciated the writing and ideas of Greg Egan, too.

Jason W. Ellis

Professor Barry Dainton

Consciousness and Time Module

8 January 2007

‘Inducing lasting and profound changes in one’s personality by artificial means is not just foolhardy, it is wrong.’  Assess this claim.

Artificial Self-Creation in the Science Fiction of Greg Egan

Psychologically invested Science Fiction (SF) stories have gained prominence within the genre particularly since the beginning of the SF New Wave in the mid-1960s (Nicholls 865).  One SF theme concerns personality and self-creation through artificial means.  Two recent works by Greg Egan, Diaspora and “Axiomatic,” are of particular interest to the discussion surrounding the transformation of one’s personality, and therefore, self.  His stories encourage the reader to consider whether making permanent changes to one’s personality is reckless, or inspired.  Also, he presents a graying of borders that present an ambiguity between right and wrong.

In these two stories, Egan writes about invested persons with freedom of will who desire to change their outlook or change their will regarding a particular issue or dilemma.  I argue that his characters operate within a Nietzschean framework of the superman to effect personal transformation (moral imperative) or personal dissolution (moral wrong).  Within this argument, right and wrong is determined by following the moral imperative to transform one’s self so that it progresses towards the superman.  There are other considerations such as moral responsibility to self and others that will also be discussed later in the paper.  However, before we can explore this argument, the basis for changing personality needs to be qualified.

Changing one’s personality can take place in one of two ways.  The first is a slow, engaging process of self-creation through work.  This might involve reading, studying, or taking part in psychotherapy.  The second is an artificial process, mediated by technology such as drugs or nanotechnology, to change the mind and/or body in some way to make one’s personality better fit the way that one would like it to be.  Additionally, we all, in some way, change over time depending on our experiences through life.  For example, one may hold anarchist beliefs early in life and later, have conservative beliefs (or vice versa).  These deeply held belief systems have a lot to do with our personality because they form the “rose colored glasses” through which we see and interact with the world.  Drastically altering our personality and beliefs will have the effect of transforming or changing us into “someone else.”

A corollary to the ways in which one can effect transformation deals with the authenticity of the way in which the change is made.  Using American culture as an example, it is considered more authentic to make change through doing things (e.g., personal work and the talking cure) rather than taking an “inauthentic” route such as the use of medicine.  DeGrazia borrows the term “cosmetic psychopharmacology” to describe the use of taking medicines to effect a change in personality or performance when there is no real medical need (36).  However, he points out in regards to a patient taking medicines to achieve a personality transformation that she desires:

That it is “unnatural”–that it works directly on her biochemistry rather than indirectly, as therapy does–simply seems irrelevant:  the shortcut would still be authentic because Marina’s values and self-conception are the basis for the chosen means (38).

Therefore, authenticity is established by the desires of the individual who wants a change in their personality.

There are two philosophical systems regarding self that are applicable to one’s desires and will and the application of that will towards personal transformation.  The first is Harry G. Frankfurt’s concept of freedom of the will, and the second is Frederick Nietzsche’s idea of the Übermensch, or superman.  The former theory has to do with building a conceptual framework about what makes one a ‘person,’ and how the ‘person’ can change through exercise of free will.  The latter concerns a moral imperative to transform the self into something greater than it was before.

Frankfurt’s philosophical conception of a person is essential to discussing artificial transformation of the self.  There are four elements that Frankfurt describes as distinguishing a person from a non-person.  They are first-order desires, second-order desires, second-order volitions, and freedom of the will.

The two types of desires provide an elaboration of lower-order and higher-order desires.  First-order desires “are simply desires to do or not to do one thing or another” (Frankfurt 7).  Humans and other animals share these.  The “essential difference” between humans and other animals are second-order desires, which is a distinction, “found in the structure of a person’s will” (Frankfurt 6).  Second-order desires are those in which one wants to possess a particular desire, or one wants a particular desire to be one’s will (Frankfurt 10).  Therefore, first order desires are those of acting and reacting, whereas second-order desires are based on introspection and a nesting of desires.

From second-order desires, Frankfurt derives that which is “essential to being a person,” second-order volitions (10).  This uniquely human quality, to want a want to be one’s will, is the volition of one’s will.  Thus, it provides a necessary part of what allows a person to think and conceive regarding personal transformation.

The final element that Frankfurt describes that allows personal choice of transformation of the self to take place is “freedom of the will.”  Specifically, one has freedom of the will if, “he is free to will what he wants to will, or to have the will he wants” (Frankfurt 15).  Therefore, one’s awareness of one’s own will and the enacting of changing one’s will to match one’s wants is freedom of the will.

Freedom of the will is an essential element of the discussion about changing one’s personality.  First, a person must have some desire to want to change their personality.  This want to want to change is a second-order desire.  Second, there is the expression of freedom of the will by choosing to make an artificial modification to one’s personality.  By following this line of argument, one exercises their freedom of will by electing to a modification, because it reveals the fact that the person is in fact a ‘person’ with second-order volition as well as freedom of the will.

Continuing on his theory regarding the freedom of the will, Frankfurt questions moral responsibility in relation to having a free will.  He states that “For the assumption that a person is morally responsible for what he has done does not entail that the person was in a position to have whatever will he wanted…This assumption does entail that the person did what he did freely, or that he did it of his own free will” (Frankfurt 19).  Therefore, one does not have to have freedom of the will to be held morally responsible for his/her actions.[1]

Questions regarding freedom of the will and moral responsibility are addressed in the philosophy of Nietzsche and his ideas regarding personal transformation.  He engages the discussion surrounding personal will by developing his moral imperative of self-transformation.

Some argue that Nietzsche is “an ‘instinctualist,’ urging us to act ‘out of instinct’ instead of with reflection and deliberation,” but this isn’t the case at all (Solomon 196).  Solomon points out that Nietzsche, “surely urges us to act in accordance not only with our natures (that is, with our first-order desires born of that nature) but also with second-order, ‘higher’ goals and aspirations” (196).  Therefore, he is aware that we, as individual persons, have base, instinctual needs as well as desires and ambitions above mere instinct, which maps onto Frankfurt’s concept of self-necessitating first-order desires and second-order volitions.

The other essential element of Frankfurt’s theory that we can use to read Nietzsche is that, “we can interpret Nietzsche as holding that we are free and responsible (that is, we have what he refuses to call ‘free will’) insofar as we act not only in accordance with our desires, ‘instincts,’ and character, but also in accordance with our higher-order desires (also derived from our character, presumably)” (Solomon 196).  For Nietzsche, there is an imperative to act “in accordance with our higher-order desires,” because we are persons with free will.  Thus, Nietzsche would hold that it is necessary, when faced with an opportunity that brings one’s “higher-order desires” to fruition that the opportunity be utilized.

Nietzsche first touches on this idea of self-building when he writes, “Active, successful natures act, not according to the dictum ‘know thyself,’ but as if there hovered before them the commandment:  will a self and thou shalt become a self” (232).  “Will a self” is intimately linked to the necessity of following higher-order desires or in Frankfurt’s terms, second-order volitions.  Therefore, Nietzsche would agree that for someone to be a person, to be a self, one must hold a desire to become that person comprised of a particular set of characteristics and personality.

Developing his philosophy further, Nietzsche chooses the symbol of the Übermensch, or superman, as representing the ultimate end of personal transformation.[2]  He writes, “And Zarathustra spoke thus to the people:  I teach you the superman.  Man is something that should be overcome.  What have you done to overcome him?” (237).[3]  This character desires to “overcome” what it is to be human.  It is by second-order volition and freedom of will that humanity can rise above itself to become something greater:  the Übermensch.  Additionally, Nietzsche uses a metaphor of rope to situate humanity in relation to the superman when he writes, “Man is a rope, fastened between animal and superman–a rope over an abyss…What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not a goal; what can be loved in man is that he is a going-across and a down-going” (239).  This reinforces the transformative element of man in moving toward attaining the goal of the superman.  Man is “going-across” the rope, but man is also “down-going” for eventual replacement by the superman.  He is arguing that man must strive toward becoming the superman, but eventually, the superman will supersede and replace humanity.  There is no right or wrong associated with this transition, only that this should be the goal toward which humanity strives.  Also, it is this element of the idea of the superman that strongly supports the argument for artificially changing one’s personality.  Thus, transformation of the self is moving across the rope toward the superman.

SF is a literary space where concepts such as the Übermensch and Frankfurt’s freedom of will and second-order volitions can be demonstrated in a “cognitively estranging” story-scape about artificially changing one’s personality in permanent and drastic ways.  Some questions that these texts raise include:  What are the ways that these changes can be effected?  Are these changes irresponsible?  Are they wrong?

There are two SF works by Greg Egan that strongly engage the issues raised by artificially changing one’s personality.  They are his novel Diaspora and short story, “Axiomatic.”  Diaspora deals with an accepted form of personality change for computer inhabiting sentient beings.  “Axiomatic” is about a man who chooses to alter his personality so that he loses any concern about the well being of others, which facilitates his ability to commit murder and fulfill his need for revenge.

Egan’s Diaspora touches on the issues of personality change through artificial means.  The protagonists in the novel are sentient beings that live within a computer construct known as a polis.  These beings, some based on the minds and memories of humans, have continued to evolve literally as deus ex machina.  They have developed a way of altering personality called an “outlook.”  Egan writes, “Each outlook offered a slightly different package of values and aesthetics, often built up from the ancestral reasons-to-be-cheerful that still lingered to some degree in most citizens’ minds” (Diaspora 50).  However, outlooks “[affect] neural structures,” which means that outlooks can have far reaching changes on the individual with some alterations becoming permanent and drastically effecting the citizen’s personality.

In the first encounter with outlooks, Yatima and Inoshiro employ a temporary outlook in order to more effectively experience an art display.  This is the least harmful example of cosmetically altering one’s personality within these three texts.  After Yatima applies the outlook that Inoshiro gives her, she noticeably realizes that it has effected a great change in her perception.  Egan narrates, “Yatima still felt distinctly modified; the equilibrium had shifted in the tug of war between all the symbols in vis [sic] mind, and the ordinary buzz of consciousness had a slightly different tone to it” (Diaspora 52).  Yatima goes on to say, “I’m still myself.  I think,” and Inoshiro replies, “pity” (Diaspora 52).  Yatima hesitates to activate the outlook, because she is fearful of altering her identity, whereas Inoshiro is a foolhardy individual who is eager to experiment and try new things.  Yatima is cautious and methodical, while Inoshiro rushes in and feels too much.  Their personality differences leads to Inoshiro eventually altering his personality permanently.

Later in the novel, Yatima and Inoshiro attempt to save the remaining humans on the planet by inviting them to be “downloaded” into the polis before a planet-wide gamma ray threat bombards the surface.  Their entreaties are met with derision and revulsion, which causes their mission to fail save for a few dying individuals who are incorporated without their permission.  Inoshiro takes the loss very hard, and he decides, alone, to take on “an old outlook” that “imposed a hermetically sealed package of beliefs about the nature of the self, and the futility of striving” (Diaspora 148).  This outlook differed from their artwork outlook, because “the outlook was universally self-affirming.  Once you ran it, you could not change your mind.  Once you ran it, you could not be talked out of it” (Diaspora 148).  It became a part of Inoshiro and it changed his personality into something very different than it was before.  Yatima comments to herself, “What you are now is not Inoshiro” (Diaspora 148).  To Yatima, Inoshiro had become a different person than her friend who had led her on wild adventures.  Despite Yatima’s protestations, Inoshiro acted with freedom of will, because he expressed his second-order volition to change his personality in such a way that he could cope with the horrors that he witnessed after the gamma ray burst killed many human “fleshers.”  However, as Egan emphatically narrates, “Inoshiro had made vis [sic] choice, destroying vis [sic] old self and creating a new one to follow the ancient meme’s dictates, and no one else had the right to question this, let alone the power to reverse it” (Diaspora 149).  This particular outlook is designed to lock the individual into this outlook/personality forever without the possibility for change.  Inoshiro is effectively reduced to something less than a full person, because he no longer has freedom of will.  The new outlook may allow him to have second-order desires, but he cannot act on anything other than those volitions built into the outlook in which he is locked forever.  Additionally, Inoshiro’s choice would not follow Nietzsche’s idea of transformation towards the superman.  If Inoshiro’s choice had allowed for the possibility for further change or a will to change, then it would satisfy Nietzsche’s moral imperative to work towards becoming more than human.[4]

Egan presents a Nietzschean superman-like character in his short story, “Axiomatic.”  It’s about a widower named Mark Carver who desires to exact revenge on the murderer of his wife, but he is unable to follow through with that revenge, because of his moral compass.  He believes that “revenge was for the morally retarded” and “taking human life was wrong” (“Axiomatic” 97).  His belief that “human consciousness had always seemed to me the most…sacred thing in the universe” is deeply embedded in his psyche in so far that “[he] could no more devalue it than believe that one plus one equaled zero” (“Axiomatic” 97).

Despite the protagonist’s initial morality, he maintains a second-order volition of wanting to have the will to kill the man responsible for his wife’s death.  However, he is held back from executing his plans, because he was “safe in the knowledge that no amount of hatred or grief or desperation would ever be enough to make me act against my nature” (“Axiomatic” 98).  His “nature” is his moral beliefs and his personality.  He realizes that without changing that “nature,” he will be unable to put his will into action.  Clearly, the protagonist has freedom of will according to Frankfurt, because he entertains second-order volitions despite his inability to achieve them within himself.  Therefore, he seeks an artificial means of effecting the change in his personality that would allow him to carry out the execution of his wife’s killer.

Toward that end, the protagonist purchases an “axiomatic implant” that would burrow into his brain and enact the change that he desires.  These implants “were derived from analysis of actual neural structures in real people’s brains, they weren’t based on the expression of the axioms in language.  The spirit, not the letter, of the law would prevail” (“Axiomatic” 98).  Thus, the implant rewires his own neural structures to mimic the neural structures in someone who had once felt the way that he desires to feel.

The implant that the protagonist purchases is intended to allow him to “[hold] the belief that human life was nothing special” (“Axiomatic” 100).  Changes within his brain would only cause him to have this belief for a period of three days, which is based on his choice.  Additionally, he points out that “the next three days would simply reveal how I reacted to that belief, and although the attitude would be hard-wired, the consequences were far from certain” (“Axiomatic” 100).  His free will would be preserved to choose his actions based on the “the attitude…hard-wired.”  Also, the protagonist is correct that “the consequences were far from certain” beyond the scope of his intended mission.

The effect of the axiomatic implant on the protagonist allows him to kill his wife’s murderer, but it also has unintended consequences for his outlook in general and in regard to his memories.  It does allow him to achieve his second-order volition by making his desired will be his own through artificial self-creation.  The protagonist attains transformation of the self, but the ramifications of that transformation are beyond what he initially considered.  Prior to killing his wife’s murderer, he realizes, “it was all so clear now…I understood the absurdity of everything I’d ever felt for Amy–my ‘love’, my ‘grief’.  It had all been a joke.  She was meat, she was nothing.  All the pain of the past five years evaporated; I was drunk with relief” (“Axiomatic” 104).  Just as the axiomatic implant’s operational vector was to make him believe that “life was nothing special,” it blanketed that belief to all forms of life, including those he once believed were most significant to him.  Therefore, it altered a universal axiom within in his mind, but the new belief, which fit his desired personality, also affected his perception of all life, including his former love.

Another element of this unintended consequence concerns the complexity of the change that has taken place in his mind.  The widower considers:

My one mistake was thinking that the insight I gained would simply vanish when the implant cut out.  It hasn’t.  It’s been clouded with doubts and reservations, its been undermined, to some degree, by my whole ridiculous panoply of beliefs and superstitions, but I can still recall the peace it gave me…and I want it back.  Not for three days; for the rest of my life (“Axiomatic” 105).

His “one mistake” indicates that despite his careful planning, his decision to use the axiomatic implant to transform his personality was a foolhardy decision.  Had he been more careful, he might have realized that the complexity involved in self-creation would have produced consequences antithetical or tangential to his desired will.  However, “[he] wants it back,” because “the insight” that he gained is befuddled with his prior moral outlook that was replaced while the implant was operational.  The result could be self-dissolution as described by Frankfurt:

If there is an unresolved conflict among someone’s second-order desires, then he is in danger of having no second-order volition; for unless this conflict is resolved, he has no preference concerning which of his first-order desires is to be his will.  This condition, if it is so severe that it prevents him from identifying himself in a sufficiently decisive way with any of his conflicting first-order desires, destroys him as a person.  For it either tends to paralyze his will and to keep him from acting at all, or it tends to remove him from his will so that his will operates without his participation (Frankfurt 15-16).

The axiomatic implant makes his second-order volition regarding the devaluation of human life a first-order desire, but that desire conflicts with his prior first-order desires regarding the sanctity of human life.  He must resolve the conflict before his personality self-destructs or he is disconnected from control over his will.  However, this in some sense is the case, because he chooses to make the axiom changes permanent only after he realizes the conflicts and the loss of “peace.”  But, the protagonist is engaging in self-creation as evidenced by the last lines of the story:  “Part of me, of course, still finds the prospect of what I am about to do totally repugnant.  No matter.  That won’t last” (“Axiomatic” 105).  The protagonist realizes that he will become the personality centered on his will to act and the act of killing his wife’s murderer.  It was his desire to assume that personality, but like a drug, it pervaded his mind in ways that he did not realize would take place, and as a consequence, brought him other attitudes and feelings that he found pleasurable.  His motivation based on his initial second-order volition is transformed through his new personality to permanently affect his new personality through a new second-order volition.  Therefore, Nietzsche would approve of his self-building through transformation to overcome his human limitations.  In fact, his devaluing of human life makes him inhuman, but does that take him further across the bridge to the side of the superman?

Following Nietzsche’s moral imperative to overcome:  changing one’s personality is not wrong so long as it’s a means, and not an end.  For example, Inoshiro’s foolhardy escapism removes him from any future personal transformation.  He drops out of the progression towards attaining the superman.  On the other hand, the protagonist in “Axiomatic” takes a step toward personal overcoming that does not preclude future transformation.  Nietzsche would commend him on his bold move to radically transform his personality into something “other,” but he would have probably called him a coward had he continued to waffle and not injected himself with the axiomatic implant.  Thus, these two character’s transformations through technologically mediated artificial means are foolhardy, but far from wrong if one assumes the Neitzschean imperative for personal transformation and overcoming.[5]

However, the morality of their actions may be the element that determines right and wrong of personal transformation.  In Diaspora, Inoshiro’s transformation into someone radically different than their original personality as well as lacking any personal drive can be described as suicide.  For Yatima, the “person” she once knew as Inoshiro is dead by his own actions.  Also, there is the figurative dissolution of self when he disappears rather than continue talking with Yatima.  For Inoshiro’s friends, his actions would be morally wrong, because he has not met his moral responsibility to self.  Also, his new “outlook” may remove his freedom of will, but according to Frankfurt, this does not remove Inoshiro from his moral responsibility for his actions to his self.  Additionally, the action of the widower in “Axiomatic” to get revenge on his wife’s murder doesn’t obviate him from responsibility of taking another person’s life.  The widower chooses to take the axiomatic implant that fundamentally alters his moral framework in order to affect his will to kill his wife’s murderer.  His change does not remove his freedom of will, but regardless if it did or not, he is still morally responsible for his actions.  Thus, fundamental transformations of self do not remove one’s moral responsibility for one’s actions despite following Nietzsche’s ideology of overcoming humanity through personal transformation.

Works Cited

DeGrazia, David.  “Prozac, Enhancement, and Self-Creation.”  Hastings Center Report 30.2 (2000):  34-40.

Egan, Greg.  “Axiomatic.”  Axiomatic.  London:  Millennium, 1995.  93-105.

—.  Diaspora.  London:  Gollancz, 2001.

Frankfurt, Harry G.  “Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person.”  The Journal of Philosophy 68.1 (1971):  5-20.

Kelly, James Patrick.  “Mr. Boy.”  Best of the Best Volume 2:  20 Years of the Best Short Science Fiction Novels.   Ed. Gardner Dozois.  New York:  St. Martin’s Press, 2007.  Advance Copy.  261-317.

Kubrick, Stanley.  Dir.  A Clockwork Orange.  Perf. Malcolm McDowell and Patrick Magee.  Warner Brothers, 1971.

Nicholls, Peter.  “New Wave.”  The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.  Eds. John Clute and Peter Nicholls.  New York:  St. Martin’s Griffin, 1995.

Nietzsche, Friedrich.  A Nietzsche Reader.  Trans. R. J. Hollingdale.  London:  Penguin, 2003.

Solomon, Robert C.  Living with Nietzsche:  What the Great “Immoralist” Has to Teach Us.  Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2003.

Swanwick, Michael.  “Griffin’s Egg.”  Best of the Best Volume 2:  20 Years of the Best Short Science Fiction Novels.   Ed. Gardner Dozois.  New York:  St. Martin’s Press, 2007.  Advance Copy.  261-317.


[1] Moral responsibility is important for special cases such as suicide.  A person may choose to have their personality altered so that they can commit suicide when they would not do so without the modification.  This alteration does not obviate the person from their moral responsibility to the self.  There is more on this subject in the section on Diaspora.

[2] It should be noted that “superman” is an imperfect translation of Übermensch.  Literally, Über is translated as “trans-“ or “over.”  Therefore, the term Übermensch is literally translated as trans-man (i.e., someone transcending humanity and becoming something far greater than human) or overman (i.e., someone that is beyond or above what it is to be human).  I adopted the term “superman,” because it is the accepted usage in A Nietzsche Reader.

[3] Zarathustra is not the superman, but he is Nietzsche’s alter ego and proselytizer in his work, Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

[4] The polis citizens have attained a posthuman existence that could be argued as being superman-like, because they have escaped the bounds of physicality.

[5] There are works by other authors that also engage this discussion.  Among them are Michael Swanwick’s “Griffin’s Egg,” which is about a group of people cut off from Earth on a moon base choosing to use nanotechnology to reengineer their minds to face the challenges of the future.  Another story is James Patrick Kelly’s “Mr. Boy.”  It’s about a twenty-five year old who is maintained as a twelve-year-old in both body and mind.  A popular film example is Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, which is about a young criminal who is offered a choice to have his violent tendencies removed through an experimental medical procedure.