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

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

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

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

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

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

Jason W. Ellis

Dr. Tammy Clewell

PhD Minor Exam: Theory

3 June 2010

Question 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Question 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Question 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Recovered Writing, PhD in English, Methods in the Study of Literature, Project 5/5, The Image of Women in Philip K. Dick’s Ubik Publishable Essay, December 10, 2008

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

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

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

With additional feedback from Professor Clewell and seminar members, I continued my research and expanded my conference length paper into this publishable length essay included below. While all five parts should be seen together as a constellation of my progress in the class, this longer essay is the final deliverable of that very formative period in the Kent State PhD program. I shopped it around, but I decided instead to publish it as-is as a part of this seminar series of Recovered Writing on dynamicsubspace.net.

Jason W. Ellis

Professor Tammy Clewell

Methods in the Study of Literature

10 Dec. 2008

The Image of Women in Philip K. Dick’s Ubik

Ubik has generated a significant amount of discussion in the thirty-eight years following its initial publication in 1969. Much of this criticism avoids rigorous examination of gender roles in the text, particularly the roles of women. For example, Brian McHale includes the novel as an emblematic example of New Wave Science Fiction (SF) that represents, “SF and postmodernist mainstream fiction [becoming] 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). Patricia Warrick most lucidly describes the postmodern aspects of Ubik in her textual and biographical analysis of the novel in which she says:

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

Beneath the level of form creating content, most of the discussion involving the novel primarily involves economics and class structures. Darko Suvin argues for an elaborate structure to Dick’s writing periods by studying his, “use of characters as narrative foci and as indicators of upper and lower social classes or power statuses” (par. 2). Fredric Jameson continues the discussion on Ubik with a Marxist analysis, and he notes Dick’s postmodern dissolution of history when he writes, “Consider Dick’s capacity to render history. Consumer society, media society, “the society of the spectacle,” late capitalism–whatever one wants to call his moment–is striking in its loss of a sense of the historical past and of historical futures” (346). However, these analyses stop short of any sustained commentary and critique of gender in the text. Peter Fitting tacitly engages this when he writes, “Ubik is…a deconstruction of the metaphysical ideologies and the metaphysical formal implications of the classical bourgeois novel” (par. 14). His critique of the “metaphysical formal implications of the classical bourgeois novel” has to do with the nature of reality and linear time rather than other aspects of the bourgeois novel replicating and reinforcing accepted gender roles. Christopher Palmer talks about sex and sexuality, but only in terms of male sexual fulfillment. He connects sex to consumer advertising when he writes, “Joe Chip’s quest for sexual pleasure strikes us as grubby in the circumstances of Ubik, and anyway is continually frustrated…The implication seems to be that one can find Ubik–which is simultaneously a deity; the ultimate, shiny, and wonder-working, but insubstantial consumer product; and the promise evanescently behind every consumer product. But sexual satisfaction is not to be had” (57). My question then is for whom is that satisfaction intended? In this reading, the answer seems to be for men, which promotes patriarchic hegemony. Ubik becomes a story for and about men as well as men’s “needs.” Yes, there are women, but they are made subservient to the needs of men and the narrative progression centering on the favored narrators: Joe Chip, and his employer, Glen Runciter. Krista Kasdorf’s recent work brings us one step closer to investigating female subjectivity in Ubik through an analysis of thermodynamic entropy in Dick’s novel and Pamela Zoline’s 1967 feminist SF short story, “The Heat Death of the Universe.” Kasdorf, extending the metaphor of entropy to women, writes, “the young attractive women of Ubik can be combined into one type based on function instead of merely by physical description–they are the Maxwell’s demons of the text, and their usefulness is determined by their willingness to expend energy for men” (39). Despite the intriguing aspects of her argument about the function of women in Ubik, I disagree with her reductionist argument to combine the “young attractive women” into one type. Things are more complicated than that within the text. Instead, I argue that the individual representations of the women in Ubik serves as a more useful model to critique and understand gender roles within the novel and their replication and commentary on the real world–historically or in the here-and-now. Therefore, the question stands: How does Dick (re)present women in Ubik, and what does that representation mean?

To answer this question, Joanna Russ’ significant Second Wave Feminist (2WF) essay from 1974, “The Image of Women in Science Fiction,” serves as an important starting point to engage Ubik and its representation of women. Her essay is published only five years after Ubik, and one year before her own groundbreaking New Wave SF work, The Female Man. In the essay, Russ argues that the majority of SF lacks an imaginative extrapolation of sex, gender, and sexuality. She summarizes her paper by writing:

            The title I chose for this essay was “The Image of Women in Science Fiction.” I hesitated between that and “Women in Science Fiction” but if I had chosen the latter, there would have been very little to say.

There are plenty of images of women in science fiction.

There are hardly any women. (Russ 57)

For Russ, “images of women” lack, “speculation about the personality differences between men and women, about family structure, about sex, in short about gender roles” (54). Instead of imagining gender roles other than those rooted in the past or present, she finds that what’s often generated is, “the American middle class with a little window dressing” (54). However, there are some examples of extrapolation that require biological oddities or reengineering rather than a re-imagining of the interaction between men and women in a future space.

For all the literary experimentation as well as critiques of capitalism and subjective experiential reality in Ubik, women are subjected and subordinated to male hegemony through the reinforcement of “images of women.” I don’t agree with the way the text reinforces these images, but it is essential to uncover and analyze these images as part of a feminist reading. This reading will determine whether these images of women are a reinforcement of male hegemony or a commentary on the feminist struggles during 2WF.

There are several aspects of images of women in Ubik. First, all of the women, save one briefly in chapter five, are subordinated to narration and internal dialog of the favored male protagonists. Without a deeper, psychological voice, the women characters are flattened into images. They lack the depth of their male counterparts. Second, the women are immediately identified by physical appearance and sexual attributes, most notably through the characters Ella Runciter, Pat Conley, and Wendy Wright. And third, the women are literally miscounted in relation to male characters–more on this later.

Ella Runciter, like the other female characters in Ubik, is constructed as a mere image, because she is presented and restrained by the sexualized descriptions of her body and sexual desirability. Her full name, revealed in the penultimate chapter, is Ella Hyde Runciter. She is framed as the perpetually twenty-year-old dead wife of Glen Runciter. Also, her first name, Ella, sounds like a child’s name, possibly derived from Stella, Isabella, or perhaps whimsically, Cinderella. Her maiden name, Hyde, brings up two questions: Is she hiding from the real world in half-life, or does male authority, signified by her husband, hide her away from the world through the masculinized half-life technology provided by the Beloved Brethren Moratorium?

There are two “encounters” with Ella in Ubik, and each is loaded with physical images of the character, revealing her subjection to male hegemony. The first appearance of Ella takes place in chapter two, when Glen visits her at the half-life moratorium to speak with her on dire business matters. She is described as, “upright in her transparent casket, encased in an effluvium of icy mist…with her eyes shut, her hands lifted permanently toward her impassive face. It had been three years since he had seen Ella, and of course she had not changed. She never would, now, at least in the outward physical way” (Dick 11). Ella is described most effectively as Runciter’s “dead wife,” because she is encased in a casket, with her hands posed just-so in relation to her “impassive face.” The casket conceals her “pretty and light-skinned” body, and her closed eyelids cover her “bright and luminous blue” eyes (Dick 12). Additionally, her “impassive face” indicates that she lacks agency on the real world. Runciter chooses when to visit with Ella, without any apparent way for Ella to request or demand an audience with her husband who hasn’t visited her in three years. In terms of her appearance to someone inhabiting the real world, she cannot change “in the outward physical way,” further reinforcing her lack of dynamism, choice, and ultimately, future in the real.

Ella, in the moratorium described above, and in the world of half-life, is a character constantly seen rather than seeing. Dick describes Ella very differently in the next-to-last chapter, when a dying and increasingly sexually frustrated Joe Chip, riding in a cab, spots Ella walking along the sidewalk. The narration illustrates her as a “girl” with a “slow, easy gait,” “window-shopping,” and she’s “a pretty girl, with gay blond pigtails, wearing an unbuttoned sweater over her blouse, a bright red skirt and high-heeled little shoes” (Dick 203). In two sentences she’s described as a “girl,” despite her twenty years, and her body is eroticized by the juxtaposition of “gay blond pigtails,” implying youth, and her adult attire modified by the words: unbuttoned, bright red, and little.

Ella is made more of an objectified image when Chip learns her identity, and exclaims, “You’re the other one…Jory destroying us, you trying to help us. Behind you there’s no one, just as there’s no one behind Jory. I’ve reached the last entities involved” (Dick 206). Chip objectifies her doubly, first as a sexual object with “gay blond pigtails,” and now, as an “entity.” She responds to Chip by saying, “I don’t think of myself as an ‘entity’; I usually think of myself as Ella Runciter,” to which Joe adds, “but it’s true” (Dick 206). Granted, there is a sarcastic element to Ella’s response, but nevertheless, it’s interesting that she “usually [thinks] of [herself] as Ella Runciter,” than knowing and claiming herself as a female subject. Also, her agreeing with Chip, further implicates herself in her own objectification as an “entity” and not a human subject. Instead of a female subject, or a human being, she is reduced to existence as an “entity.” An entity usually refers to a thing, rather than a person. This is an objectified labeling by the favored male narrator enforcing the real world’s male hegemony on Ella within the psychological, dream-like world of half-life, which in a sense, is an even more despicable enterprise considering that her psyche is undermined in addition to her body.

The final aspect of Ella’s creation as an “image” rather than a woman comes when she reveals her plan to Chip about his future in half-life. She tells him, “I have a very selfish, practical reason for assisting you, Mr. Chip; I want you to replace me. I want to have someone whom Glen can ask for advice and assistance, whom he can lean on” (Dick 206). This seemingly innocuous scheme reveals the facsimile nature of Ella’s existence. She pointedly tells Chip that she wants him to replace her. Granted, she’s nearing her point of departure from half-life into rebirth, but the straight-faced manner in which she delivers this plan indicates that her role as provider of Ubik and advice, as well as role as wife, is interchangeable. Her being an interchangeable image or part further serves to objectify her as merely a “cog in the male dominated machine.” Furthermore, no one is suggesting that Chip be swapped out for one of the female characters. Despite her youthful, sexualized entrance on the stage of half-life, her plan for replacement eliminates any other desires whether they are personal fulfillment, sexual, or otherwise. Therefore, she, by this admission of replacement, relinquishes any possibility of human subjectivity and she is laid bare as an “image of women in science fiction.”

Considering Ella as an “image of women in science fiction,” is there the possibility of a redemptive reading of Ubik? Reading Ella as a cyborg as defined by Donna Haraway has the potential for interpreting her image in the novel. Haraway defines a cyborg as, “a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction” (149). Ella is transformed through the technological mediation of her body on cold-pac life support, and the audial technology that facilitates the conversion of her thoughts into voice, and a live speaker’s voice into thought–what Runciter calls, “impediments to natural communication” (Dick 12). She is a “hybrid of machine and organism,” because her life and interaction with the real world is made possible and mediated by technology. Additionally, Ella is repeatedly referred to as a machine in need of “[cranking] up” and Runciter fears she’s “worn out” (Dick 7 and 12). Through her life encased in cold-pac, as her being seen as a body within a casket, she is termed more machine than human. The hybridization of half-life as being between life and death, mirrors Ella’s own hybridity of flesh and machine. Furthermore, Ella’s subjectivity as a cyborg is, in Haraway’s terms, “a matter of fiction and lived experience that changes what counts as women’s experience in the late twentieth century” (149). This reading of the image of women in Ubik reveals something about the acceptance and reinforcement of stereotyped gender roles in culture perpetuated by works of SF.

In the preceding examples, Ella is represented as an image and not a realized subject with her own voice. Connected to her image is the sexual language surrounding her cyborg encapsulation in half-life. Haraway points out that, “far from signaling a walling off of people from other living beings, cyborgs signal disturbingly and pleasurably tight couplings” (152). Nothing could be further from the truth in Ubik. Half-lifers’ intermingle minds and experiences through a shared hallucinatory experience. Unfortunately, this facilitates what the moratorium owner describes as, others “may have gotten into her because of her weakened state. She’s accessible to almost anyone” (Dick 18). The phrases “gotten into her” and “she’s accessible to almost anyone” are sexually laden and imply rape, particularly considering the “getting into her” involved an adolescent boy. Therefore, Ella’s cyborg subjectivity is more of a disturbing bodily nightmare than a political space of “pleasurably tight couplings.”

Another significant image of women in Ubik is the character Wendy Wright. Unlike Ella, Wendy is Runciter’s employee, which places her in a subordinated position in relation to the male corporate head. Additionally, she’s bound to the organization through her wages in order to exist in the future coin-operated world and “tyranny of the homeostatic machine” (Dick 81-82). As an employee, Wendy’s particular inertial ability isn’t described as it is with the majority of the other members of the team, which weakens her position as an active participant in the team’s mission to the moon. Also, her name is significant. Like Ella, Wendy is a childish name, derived from Gwendolyn and reportedly first used as a girl’s name in J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan (1904). Her last name, Wright, is phonetically the same as “right.” This, along with Chip’s desire for Wendy might be what leads him later to say, “You know who I feel like talking to?…Wendy Wright. She’ll know what to do. I value her opinion. Why is that? I wonder. I barely know her” (Dick 90). However, Chip’s not knowing a woman very well is irrelevant to his male patriarchal objectification. She fits into a mold he created in his mind for the ideal woman, and within that role, she’s made to be the image that Chip wants.

Wendy’s objectification by Chip is best illustrated in an important passage in chapter five. In addition, the passage frames Wendy as the token Marilyn Monroe actress/character/persona on Runciter’s team to the moon. The narration presents Wendy in the following way:

As always, when the opportunity arose, Joe took a long, astute look at the girl whom, if he could have managed it, he would have had as his mistress, or, even better, his wife. It did not seem possible that Wendy Wright had been born out of blood and internal organs like other people. In proximity to her he felt himself to be a squat, oily, sweating, uneducated nurt whose stomach rattled and whose breath wheezed. Near her he became aware of the physical mechanisms which kept him alive; within him machinery, pipes and valves and gas-compressors and fan belts had to chug away at a losing task, a labor ultimately doomed. Seeing her face, he discovered that his own consisted of a garish mask; noticing her body made him feel like a low-class windup toy. All her colors possessed a subtle quality, indirectly lit. Her eyes, those green and tumbled stones, looked impassively at everything; he had never seen fear in them, or aversion, or contempt. What she saw she accepted. Generally she seemed calm. But more than that she struck him as being durable, untroubled and cool, not subject to wear, or to fatigue, or to physical illness and decline. Probably she was twenty-five or -six, but he could not imagine her looking younger, and certainly she would never look older. She had too much control over herself and outside reality for that. (Dick 58-59)

In this passage, there is a confluence of order and entropy. Wendy represents order through eternal, idealized femininity. Juxtaposed with Wendy, Joe is made aware, through his desire for this woman he idealizes, that he has a mere mortal body with processes that “had to chug away at a losing task, a labor ultimately doomed.” Part of being a human subject is the fact that death is a part of life. For Joe, Wendy is removed from the reality of death, and therefore, is a mere image, like the nymph or fairy–removed from time, and from a subjective reality of agency. In this way, Wendy’s beauty, as seen through Chip’s gaze, puts her in a casket much like that of Ella Runciter. Ella’s half-life existence removes her from agency in the real world, much like Chip’s objectification of Wendy creates a statue-like immortality. In fact, Wendy is very much described the same way as Ella in that Wendy, “looked impassively at everything.” Chip doesn’t want to join with her in a union of equality, but rather, he saw her as a, “girl whom, if he could have managed it, he would have had as his mistress, or, even better, his wife.” Therefore, Wendy is boxed into an eternal ideal as if she were already encased in cold-pac like Ella Runciter. This aspect of the novel is particularly disturbing in that wives of the choosing of the male protagonists are framed through the glass window of cold-pac and half-life existence. They are refused subjectivity so that they may be acted on explicitly by males, supposedly active in the real world.

Wendy’s image of immortality and unchanging womanhood in the early part of the novel contrasts heavily with her reaction to the explosion on the moon, and her ultimate dissolution as an image/character. During their anti-climatic escape from the moon base, Wendy asks Chip why Pat Conley didn’t use her time traveling ability to obviate the detonation. This interrogation on her part is the one act attributable to her person, but the only result is Pat laughing in her face. Wendy’s powers are negative and therefore, non-active on the world. She has to go to someone else, in this case, another woman, to act on the world. This reinforces Wendy’s powerlessness as a woman in the world of Ubik, and it questions Pat’s motivations and desires, which I will turn to later.

Juxtaposed with Wendy’s image of woman as constructed by Chip is the bodily effects that transform her following the detonation on the moon. Wendy is the first of the team to vocalize the entropic changes taking place on their bodies, which contrasts with Chip’s belief that, “Probably she was twenty-five or -six, but he could not imagine her looking younger, and certainly she would never look older. She had too much control over herself and outside reality for that” (Dick 59). In the face of Chip’s fantasy, Wendy questions and reports, “Did it age us? I feel old. I am old; your package of cigarettes is old; we’re all old, as of today, because of what has happened. This was a day for us like no other” (Dick 75). The ever youthful image of Wendy is shattered by her realization that “I feel old. I am old.” However, Chip doesn’t respond to Wendy’s epiphany, which indicates that he’s unwilling to acknowledge that his position as part of privileged male patriarchy with its benefit of creating desired objects is challenged by a potential female subject.

Wendy’s potential as a female subject is never realized within Ubik. Instead, her death reinforces her image-ness. In the morning after Al Hammond tells Chip that he’ll convince Wendy to sleep with him in his hotel room, Chip awakes to an empty room. Investigating after the moratorium’s owner arrives, they find something in the closet:

On the floor of the closet a huddled heap, dehydrated, almost mummified, lay curled up. Decaying shreds of what seemingly had once been cloth covered most of it, as if it had, by degrees, over a long period of time, retracted into what remained of its garments. Bending, he turned it over. It weighed only a few pounds; at the push of his hand its limbs folded out into thin bony extensions that rustled like paper. Its hair seemed enormously long; wiry and tangled, the black cloud of hair obscured its face. he crouched, not moving, not wanted to see who it was. (Dick 99)

Repeatedly, the body is referred to as “it.” Chip resists identifying the body, because that would connect the “huddled heap” with a flesh and blood person. Eventually, “he stared silently…at the shriveled, heat-darkened little face. And knew who this was. With difficulty he recognized her.

Wendy Wright” (Dick 100). The “shriveled, heat-darkened little face” is the only identifying feature with which to connect this ashen body with the once entropy-evading ideal called Wendy Wright. In some ways, Chip accepts her death as the burning coal of his revenge on the entropic forces acting upon him and the others. Unfortunately, Chip’s attempts at indiscretion with prostitutes in Des Moines eradicates any possibility that he actually cared for Wendy. She’s made into another image of women that can be discarded and forgotten. Thus, Wendy is denied, like Ella, any possibility as a desiring subject by a favored male protagonist. Furthermore, she’s idealized as a desired object, and anything outside those boundaries, obviates her and another form of patriarchy, Jory, devours/burns her alive.

Through Ella Runciter and Wendy Wright, women are constructed images rather than realized human subjects. Ella is encased in cyborg enhancing cold-pac, silent to the real world, and unable to act beyond the veil of glass covering her face. Wendy is a pin-up girl among Runciter’s team of inertials, lusted after by the male protagonist, and unable to live up to the ideal of her constructed image. A third, and much more problematic image in Ubik, is Pat Conley. Pat is a desired object, and not a desiring subject. However, she employs her desirability to manipulate the men that would otherwise control her. In this way, she does attain a certain subjectivity. Yet, whatever gains she makes as a sadistic manipulator of men, she looses in the end when she is devoured like the others by the half-life presence of the fifteen-year-old boy, Jory.

Pat’s image is fashioned early in the novel when a psionic talent scout tells Joe Chip that she’s a “sweet number,” and after his first gaze on her, he thinks to himself, “My god…she’s beautiful” (Dick 21, 24). Then, the narrator describes Pat:

She wore an ersatz canvas workshirt and jeans, heavy boots caked with what appeared to be authentic mud. Her tangle of shiny hair was tied back and knotted with a red bandanna. Her rolled-up sleeves showed tanned, competent arms. At her imitation leather belt she carried a knife, a field-telephone unit and an emergency pack of rations and water. On her bare, dark forearm he made out a tattoo. CAVEAT EMPTOR, it read. (Dick 24-25)

First, it’s interesting that the adjective “ersatz” is employed in relation to Pat. Besides the obvious connection to her fake “canvas workshirt,” it doubly points to her body beneath the shirt. This, combined with her tattoo, “CAVEAT EMPTOR,” implies a warning regarding her being not genuine. Furthermore, her not being genuine suggests a copy or image like quality to her being. This combined with the men’s gaze generating a desired object results in Pat’s being initially constructed as an image of women.

Relying on the previous passage, it’s intriguing that Pat’s image is described in masculine terms. First, her name is androgynous, and it’s only later that the reader sees Pat introduced as “Patricia,” and that’s in an alternative reality created by her in which she’s married to Joe Chip. As “Pat,” she is a masculinized image of women with work clothes, “hair…tied back and knotted with a red bandanna,” “rolled-up sleeves,” “tanned, competent arms,” and her having a tattoo. She evokes the image of Norman Rockwell’s painting, Rosie the Riveter, albeit without the halo. As an image of women, she’s set apart from the other, more feminine female characters in the text, which includes Ella and Wendy. She has a masculine physique and a laborer’s job as a maintenance person on the “subsurface vidphone lines in the Topeka Kibbutz,” where, “Only women can hold jobs involving manual labor” (Dick 25-26). In light of these revelations, she appears to be a female subject from a Jewish collective community that inverts predominant male patriarchal norms from the era of 2WF. Therefore, Pat appears to be a female subject that problematizes male/female roles and challenges male patriarchy.

However, Pat’s challenge to male patriarchy doesn’t remove her status as desired object, because she is never revealed as a desiring subject. If she is shown to be desiring, it’s a desiring of emasculating males (e.g., assuming Chip’s debt, and making up new house rules while essentially performing a striptease in front of him), and taking a sadistic pleasure in observing men in pain (e.g., watching Chip ascend the stairs in Des Moines while entropic forces are breaking down his body and not making any attempt to help him) (Dick 32-34, 170-179). She makes Chip the object of her delight in regards to inflicting pain, or observing pain. For these examples, she inverts the desired object/desiring subject dynamic, albeit only temporarily. Her gains as a desiring subject (i.e., one who desires to invert male patriarchy) are quickly lost when she leaves Chip on the stairs. She’s eventually consumed by Jory, the fifteen-year-old boy who’s actually orchestrating the strange affairs in half-life that Chip and his team are experiencing. Jory tells Chip during their first showdown, “I ate her out in the hall by the elevator.” There’s the literal reading that Jory devoured Pat, but another reading is that he “ate her out” in the sexual sense of cunnilingus. On the one hand, this would imply a male giving a female oral sexual pleasure, but this is made gross and potentially painful considering Jory’s “Gray, shabby teeth,” “grubby tongue,” and “great shovel teeth” (Dick 196, 198). The twist for Pat is that she believes that it was her powers facilitating the entropic deaths of the others as well as the temporal reversion from 1992 to 1939. However, these actions took place on the will of the male boy, and his implied adolescent sexual subjugation of others via his devouring oral fixation. Jory represents a sort of mega-male patriarchy in that all half-lifers represent desired objects for him, the only desiring subject. His status as desiring subject pulls the rug out from beneath Pat’s subjectivity, because the impetus behind her desiring is removed as she herself is consumed by the entropic heat death experienced by the others.

To conclude, it appears that images of women in Ubik just don’t count. This is alarmingly illustrated by a mathematical error in chapter four. It begins with Runciter gazing about his office, and thinking, “And so it went: five females and–he counted–five males. Someone was missing” (Dick 57). Prior to this, four female characters are named in the office: Edie Dorn, Tippy Jackson, Francesca Spanish, and Wendy Wright, as well six males. Also, he only pauses to count the men (albeit incorrectly). Following the passage above, the narration continues, “Ahead of Joe Chip the smoldering, brooding girl, Patricia Conley, entered. That made the eleventh; the group had all appeared” (Dick 57). Pat Conley increases the number of female inertials to five, whereas in the incorrect count, there should be six female inertials. Instead, there is an unacknowledged weighting of inertials towards men. This undocumented mistake or purposeful inclusion begs the question: Do women in Ubik really count? Ella Runciter’s loss of agency as a half-lifer would indicate no. Wendy Wright’s claim as the first of the team to die a lonely, accelerated entropic death further demonstrates this. And, Pat Conley’s false belief of destroying Runciter’s team with the use of her time traveling psionic power also implies the inability of women to act on the strange world of Ubik. Therefore, these images of women lack signification afforded to (male) human subjects caught in the subjective postmodern world Dick (re)creates in Ubik, and reinforces what Russ decried as the “cultural stereotype” of “masculinity equals power and femininity equals powerlessness” (55).

A feminist reading of this text in regard to Russ’ concept of “images of women in Science Fiction” can be problematic. On the one hand, there’s the reading that this novel absolutely objectifies women and does so in particularly demeaning ways. Essentially, they are formulated as nothing more than parts in a male dominated machine, easy to replace, and ready to serve. However, my reading of the text holds that the images of women in Ubik are commentary on Dick’s historical present within New Wave SF and more importantly, 2WF. This is evidenced by his later work, particularly the fully realized female subject, Angel Archer, in his last novel, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer (1982). Ubik, and Dick’s other novels, are deserving of further attention regarding gender roles, and I believe that there is much more to say about the interrelationships of gender and capitalism that, unfortunately, I could not address in the scope of this paper.

Works Cited

Barrie, J.M. Peter Pan and Other Plays. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999.

Dick, Philip K. The Transmigration of Timothy Archer. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1982.

—. Ubik. New York: Doubleday, 1969.

Fitting, Peter. “Ubik: The Deconstruction of Bourgeois SF.” Science Fiction Studies 2:1 (1975). 19 October 2007 <http://www.depauw.edu/sfs/backissues/5/fitting5art.htm&gt;.

Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, 1991. 149-181.

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

Kasdorf, Krista. “Ubiquitous Entropy and Heat Death in Philip K. Dick and Pamela Zoline.” Thesis. Florida Atlantic University, 2006. Proquest/UMI Microform 1435298.

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

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

Rockwell, Norman. Rosie the Riveter. 1943. Private collection. 2 December 2007 <http://www.artchive.com/artchive/R/rockwell/rockwell_rosie.jpg.html&gt;.

Russ, Joanna. “The Image of Women in Science Fiction.” Vertex 1.6 (Feb 1974): 53-57.

—. The Female Man. New York: Bantam Book, 1975.

Suvin, Darko. “P.K. Dick’s Opus: Artifice as Refuge and World View.” Science Fiction Studies 2:22 (1975). 19 October 2007 <http://www.depauw.edu/sfs/backissues/5/suvin5art.htm&gt;.

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

Recovered Writing, PhD in English, Methods in the Study of Literature, Project 4/5, The Image of Women in Philip K. Dick’s Ubik Conference Paper, November 29, 2008

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

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

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

While my third project’s argument was a complete disaster, the feedback that I received on it enabled me to find a better approach supported by a stronger argument and more persuasive evidence in the fourth project. I went through three drafts before arriving at the conference-length paper included below.

Jason W. Ellis

Professor Tammy Clewell

Methods in the Study of Literature

29 Nov. 2008

The Image of Women in Philip K. Dick’s Ubik

Ubik has generated a significant amount of discussion in the thirty-eight years following its initial publication in 1969. Brian McHale includes the novel as an emblematic example of New Wave Science Fiction (SF) that represents, “SF and postmodernist mainstream fiction [becoming] 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). Patricia Warrick most lucidly describes the postmodern aspects of Ubik in her textual and biographical analysis of the novel in which she says:

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

Beneath the level of form creating content, most of the discussion involving the novel primarily involves economics and class structures. Darko Suvin argues for an elaborate structure to Dick’s writing periods by studying his, “use of characters as narrative foci and as indicators of upper and lower social classes or power statuses” (par. 2). Fredric Jameson continues the discussion on Ubik with a Marxist analysis, and he notes Dick’s postmodern dissolution of history when he writes, “Consider Dick’s capacity to render history. Consumer society, media society, “the society of the spectacle,” late capitalism–whatever one wants to call his moment–is striking in its loss of a sense of the historical past and of historical futures” (346). However, these analyses stop short of any sustained commentary and critique of gender in the text. Peter Fitting tacitly engages this when he writes, “Ubik is…a deconstruction of the metaphysical ideologies and the metaphysical formal implications of the classical bourgeois novel” (par. 14). His critique of the “metaphysical formal implications of the classical bourgeois novel” has to do with the nature of reality and linear time rather than other aspects of the bourgeois novel replicating and reinforcing accepted gender roles. Christopher Palmer talks about sex and sexuality, but only in terms of male sexual fulfillment. He connects sex to consumer advertising when he writes, “Joe Chip’s quest for sexual pleasure strikes us as grubby in the circumstances of Ubik, and anyway is continually frustrated…The implication seems to be that one can find Ubik–which is simultaneously a deity; the ultimate, shiny, and wonder-working, but insubstantial consumer product; and the promise evanescently behind every consumer product. But sexual satisfaction is not to be had” (57). My question then is for whom is that satisfaction intended? In this reading, the answer clearly is for men, thus promoting patriarchic hegemony. Ubik becomes a story for and about men as well as men’s “needs.” Yes, there are women, but they are made subservient to the needs of men and the narrative progression centering on the favored narrators: Joe Chip, and his employer, Glen Runciter. Krista Kasdorf’s recent work brings us one step closer to investigating female subjectivity in Ubik through an analysis of thermodynamic entropy in Dick’s novel and Pamela Zoline’s 1967 feminist SF short story, “The Heat Death of the Universe.” Kasdorf, extending the metaphor of entropy to women, writes, “the young attractive women of Ubik can be combined into one type based on function instead of merely by physical description–they are the Maxwell’s demons of the text, and their usefulness is determined by their willingness to expend energy for men” (39). Despite the intriguing aspects of her argument about the function of women in Ubik, I disagree with her reductionist argument to combine the “young attractive women” into one type. Instead, I argue that the individual representations of the women in Ubik serves as a more useful model to critique and understand gender roles within the novel and their replication and commentary on the real world–historically or in the here-and-now. Therefore, the question stands: How does Dick (re)present women in Ubik, and what does that representation mean?

To answer this question, Joanna Russ’ significant Second Wave Feminist essay from 1974, “The Image of Women in Science Fiction,” serves as an important starting point to engage Ubik and its representation of women. Her essay is published only five years after Ubik, and one year before her own groundbreaking New Wave SF work, The Female Man. In the essay, Russ argues that the majority of SF lacks an imaginative extrapolation of sex, gender, and sexuality. She summarizes her paper by writing:

The title I chose for this essay was “The Image of Women in Science Fiction.” I hesitated between that and “Women in Science Fiction” but if I had chosen the latter, there would have been very little to say.

There are plenty of images of women in science fiction.

There are hardly any women. (Russ 57)

For Russ, “images of women” lack, “speculation about the personality differences between men and women, about family structure, about sex, in short about gender roles” (54). Instead of imagining gender roles other than those rooted in the past or present, she finds that what’s often generated is, “the American middle class with a little window dressing” (54). However, there are some examples of extrapolation that require biological oddities or reengineering rather than a re-imagining of the interaction between men and women in a future space.

For all the literary experimentation as well as critiques of capitalism and subjective experiential reality in Ubik, women are subjected and subordinated to male hegemony through the reinforcement of “images of women.” First, all of the women, save one briefly in chapter five, are subordinated to narration and internal dialog of the favored male protagonists. Without a deeper, psychological voice, the women characters are flattened into images. They lack the depth of their male counterparts. Second, the women are immediately identified by physical appearance and sexual attributes, most notably through the character Ella Runciter. And third, the women are literally miscounted in relation to male characters–more on this later.

Ella Runciter, like the other female characters in Ubik, is constructed as a mere image, because she is presented and restrained by the sexualized descriptions of her body and sexual desirability. Her full name, revealed in the penultimate chapter, is Ella Hyde Runciter. She is framed as the perpetually twenty-year-old dead wife of Glen Runciter. Also, her first name, Ella, sounds like a child’s name, possibly derived from Stella, Isabella, or perhaps whimsically, Cinderella. Her maiden name, Hyde, brings up two questions: Is she hiding from the real world in half-life, or does male authority, signified by her husband, hide her away from the world through the masculinized half-life technology provided by the Beloved Brethren Moratorium?

There are two “encounters” with Ella in Ubik, and each is loaded with physical images of the character, revealing her subjection to male hegemony. The first appearance of Ella takes place in chapter two, when Glen visits her at the half-life moratorium to speak with her on dire business matters. She is described as, “upright in her transparent casket, encased in an effluvium of icy mist…with her eyes shut, her hands lifted permanently toward her impassive face. It had been three years since he had seen Ella, and of course she had not changed. She never would, now, at least in the outward physical way” (Dick 11). Ella is described most effectively as Runciter’s “dead wife,” because she is encased in a casket, with her hands posed just-so in relation to her “impassive face.” The casket conceals her “pretty and light-skinned” body, and her closed eyelids cover her “bright and luminous blue” eyes (Dick 12). Additionally, her “impassive face” indicates that she lacks agency on the real world. Runciter chooses when to visit with Ella, without any apparent way for Ella to request or demand an audience with her husband who hasn’t visited her in three years. In terms of her appearance to someone inhabiting the real world, she cannot change “in the outward physical way,” further reinforcing her lack of dynamism, choice, and ultimately, future in the real.

Ella, in the moratorium described above, and in the world of half-life, is a character constantly seen rather than seeing. Dick describes Ella very differently in the next-to-last chapter, when a dying and increasingly sexually frustrated Joe Chip, riding in a cab, spots Ella walking along the sidewalk. The narration illustrates her as a “girl” with a “slow, easy gait,” “window-shopping,” and she’s “a pretty girl, with gay blond pigtails, wearing an unbuttoned sweater over her blouse, a bright red skirt and high-heeled little shoes” (Dick 203). In two sentences she’s described as a “girl,” despite her twenty years, and her body is eroticized by the juxtaposition of “gay blond pigtails,” implying youth, and her adult attire modified by the words: unbuttoned, bright red, and little.

Ella is made more of an objectified image when Chip learns her identity, and exclaims, “You’re the other one…Jory destroying us, you trying to help us. Behind you there’s no one, just as there’s no one behind Jory. I’ve reached the last entities involved” (Dick 206). Chip objectifies her doubly, first as a sexual object with “gay blond pigtails,” and now, as an “entity.” She responds to Chip by saying, “I don’t think of myself as an ‘entity’; I usually think of myself as Ella Runciter,” to which Joe adds, “but it’s true” (Dick 206). Granted, there is a sarcastic element to Ella’s response, but nevertheless, it’s interesting that she “usually [thinks] of [herself] as Ella Runciter,” than absolutely declaring herself as a human subject identified as Ella Runciter. Also, her agreeing with Chip, further implicates herself in her own objectification as an “entity” and not a human subject. Instead of a female subject, or a human being, she is reduced to existence as an “entity.” An entity usually refers to a thing, rather than a person. This is an objectified labeling by the favored male narrator enforcing the real world’s male hegemony on Ella within the psychological, dream-like world of half-life, which in a sense, is an even more despicable enterprise considering that her psyche is undermined in addition to her body.

The final aspect of Ella’s creation as an “image” rather than a woman comes when she reveals her plan to Chip about his future in half-life. She tells him, “I have a very selfish, practical reason for assisting you, Mr. Chip; I want you to replace me. I want to have someone whom Glen can ask for advice and assistance, whom he can lean on” (Dick 206). This seemingly innocuous scheme reveals the facsimile nature of Ella’s existence. She pointedly tells Chip that she wants him to replace her. Granted, she’s nearing her point of departure from half-life into rebirth, but the straight-faced manner in which she delivers this plan indicates that her role as provider of Ubik and advice, as well as role as wife, is interchangeable. Interchangeability implies commodification and objectification. Despite her youthful, sexualized entrance on the stage of half-life, her plan for replacement eliminates any other desires whether they are personal fulfillment, sexual, or otherwise. Therefore, she, by this admission of replacement, relinquishes any possibility of human subjectivity and she is laid bare as an “image of women in science fiction.”

Considering Ella as an “image of women in science fiction,” is there the possibility of a redemptive reading of Ubik? Reading Ella as a cyborg as defined by Donna Haraway has the potential for interpreting her image in the novel. Haraway defines a cyborg as, “a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction” (149). Ella is transformed through the technological mediation of her body on cold-pac life support, and the audial technology that facilitates the conversion of her thoughts into voice, and a live speaker’s voice into thought–what Runciter calls, “impediments to natural communication” (Dick 12). She is a “hybrid of machine and organism,” because her life and interaction with the real world is made possible and mediated by technology. Additionally, Ella is repeatedly referred to as a machine in need of “[cranking] up” and Runciter fears she’s “worn out” (Dick 7 and 12). Through her life encased in cold-pac, as her being seen as a body within a casket, she is termed more machine than human. The hybridization of half-life as being between life and death, mirrors Ella’s own hybridity of flesh and machine. Furthermore, Ella’s subjectivity as a cyborg is, in Haraway’s terms, “a matter of fiction and lived experience that changes what counts as women’s experience in the late twentieth century” (149). It should be noted that Haraway’s Third Wave Feminism affinity politics structured around the idea of the cyborg comes much later historically than the text to which I’m applying it. As such, my reading of the image of women in Ubik reveals something about the acceptance and reinforcement of stereotyped gender roles in culture perpetuated by works of SF.

In the preceding examples, Ella is represented as an image and not a realized subject with her own voice. Connected to her image is the sexual language surrounding her cyborg encapsulation in half-life. Haraway points out that, “far from signaling a walling off of people from other living beings, cyborgs signal disturbingly and pleasurably tight couplings” (152). Nothing could be further from the truth in Ubik. Half-lifers’ intermingle minds and experiences through a shared hallucinatory experience. Unfortunately, this facilitates what the moratorium owner describes as, others “may have gotten into her because of her weakened state. She’s accessible to almost anyone” (Dick 18). The phrases “gotten into her” and “she’s accessible to almost anyone” are sexually laden and imply rape, particularly considering the “getting into her” involved an adolescent boy. Therefore, Ella’s cyborg subjectivity is more of a disturbing bodily nightmare than a political space of “pleasurably tight couplings.”

To conclude, it appears that images of women in Ubik just don’t count. This is alarmingly illustrated by a mathematical error in chapter four. It begins with Runciter gazing about his office, and thinking, “And so it went: five females and–he counted–five males. Someone was missing” (Dick 57). Prior to this, four female characters are named in the office: Edie Dorn, Tippy Jackson, Francesca Spanish, and Wendy Wright, as well six males. Also, he only pauses to count the men (albeit incorrectly). Following the passage above, the narration continues, “Ahead of Joe Chip the smoldering, brooding girl, Patricia Conley, entered. That made the eleventh; the group had all appeared” (Dick 57). Pat Conley increases the number of female inertials to five, whereas in the incorrect count, there should be six female inertials. Instead, there is an unacknowledged weighting of inertials towards men. This undocumented mistake or purposeful inclusion begs the question: Do women in Ubik really count? Ella Runciter’s loss of agency as a half-lifer would indicate no. Wendy Wright’s claim as the first of the team to die a lonely, accelerated entropic death further demonstrates this. And, Pat Conley’s false belief of destroying Runciter’s team with the use of her time traveling psionic power also implies the inability of women to act on the strange world of Ubik. Therefore, these images of women lack signification afforded to (male) human subjects caught in the subjective postmodern world Dick (re)creates in Ubik, and reinforces what Russ decried as the “cultural stereotype” of “masculinity equals power and femininity equals powerlessness” (55).

Works Cited

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

Fitting, Peter. “Ubik: The Deconstruction of Bourgeois SF.” Science Fiction Studies 2:1 (1975). 19 October 2007 <http://www.depauw.edu/sfs/backissues/5/fitting5art.htm&gt;.

Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, 1991. 149-181.

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

Kasdorf, Krista. “Ubiquitous Entropy and Heat Death in Philip K. Dick and Pamela Zoline.” Thesis. Florida Atlantic University, 2006. Proquest/UMI Microform 1435298.

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

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

Russ, Joanna. “The Image of Women in Science Fiction.” Vertex 1.6 (Feb 1974): 53-57.

Suvin, Darko. “P.K. Dick’s Opus: Artifice as Refuge and World View.” Science Fiction Studies 2:22 (1975). 19 October 2007 <http://www.depauw.edu/sfs/backissues/5/suvin5art.htm&gt;.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Jason W. Ellis

Professor Tammy Clewell

Methods in the Study of Literature

8 Nov. 2008

New Wave Deconstruction in Philip K. Dick’s Ubik

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

Fitting, Peter. “Ubik: The Deconstruction of Bourgeois SF.” Science Fiction Studies 2:1 (1975). 19 October 2007 <http://www.depauw.edu/sfs/backissues/5/fitting5art.htm&gt;.

Lem, Stanislaw. “Philip K. Dick: A Visionary Among the Charlatans.” Science Fiction Studies 2:1 (1975). 19 October 2007 <http://www.depauw.edu/sfs/backissues/5/lem5art.htm&gt;.

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

Suvin, Darko. “P.K. Dick’s Opus: Artifice as Refuge and World View.” Science Fiction Studies 2:22 (1975). 19 October 2007 <http://www.depauw.edu/sfs/backissues/5/suvin5art.htm&gt;.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Jason W. Ellis

Dr. Donald M. Hassler

Independent Study

9 December 2008

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

Chaos often breeds life, when order breeds habit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Works Cited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jason W. Ellis

Dr. Donald M. Hassler

Independent Study

28 September 2008

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

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

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

2) How does PKD move beyond parody?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jason W. Ellis

Dr. Donald M. Hassler

Independent Study

17 September 2008

Discussion Notes on Shelley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Electronic Communications, Philip K. Dick, and Belief Systems

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

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

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

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

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

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

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