Quarantine Literature: Philip K. Dick

Image: Germana Monte-Mós (Jornal de Resenhas)


Review of science fiction work by the American writer

Philip K. Dick is known as a outsider of enormous talent in the field of science fiction. Its originality is underlined, among other things, by the way in which it has renewed the panoply of characters and plots of classic science fiction. In the traditional modality of the genre, novels, short stories and soap operas are populated by spaceships, extraterrestrial beings, robots, colonies from other planets, post-apocalyptic scenarios, etc.

These ingredients are dispensed with or underused by Dick, in favor of a crucial question: what is the genuine core of the human condition? The subject is obviously not new in literature, psychology or philosophy. Dick's novelty is the almost insane lucidity with which he explores the interrogation.

To illustrate his ontological obsessions, he provokes, from the outset, a cognitive estrangement in the reader, shifting subjective functions from their usual organic supports to unusual inorganic supports. The characters in his stories assume the most bizarre appearances, in order to make us distinguish the fundamental from the accessory, in terms of subjectivation or humanization, as he prefers. The oddities or monstrosities of its creatures, however, never arise from the bellies of misshapen, cruel, or murderous green things. The disturbing is always a commonplace predicate elevated, illegitimately, to the condition of quintessential representative of our humanity. This is his great thesis.

Unlike Freud's familiar uncanny, for example, for Dick the uncanny is not the unknown that surfaces with the return of the repressed. The strange, the disturbing, is always a partial expression of the subject taken as being the totality of subjective life. From an epistemic point of view, therefore, the correlate of estrangement is the deception that consists of hypostatizing a given psychic manifestation, believing that, in this way, we can easily understand what we do not understand or control the uncontrollable.

cheeky doors

One example is the theoretical idealization of cognitive ability as a metaphor or metonym for the complexity of the “subject function”. To illustrate this misconception, Dick invented characters who are inanimate objects with a logically irrefutable way of thinking. Some of them are insolent doors that threaten to report individuals to the police if they don't insert coins into their metal slots, a condition for them to let them out, as required by law. The repressive doors act without any consideration for the reasons that lead the miserable character to want to escape from his house, without having the coins required by them [1].

In addition to similar contraptions, Dick has created driverless taxis, which, automatically spurred on by a passenger's whining, trigger their rationally impeccable advice systems, with no regard for the fact that the advisee does not want such help. He also created elevators, loudspeakers and all sorts of gadgets that interfere with the characters' troubled daily lives with similar purposes. Finally, he invented a briefcase-computer-psychoanalyst, which in an irritatingly affable and stereotyped tone of voice, repeats the same therapeutic formulas to clients with similar symptoms.

His intention is to show that the logical coherence of subjective artifacts, instead of an intellectual virtue, becomes reasoning madness, as it is dissociated from the simple human ability to know when to make an exception. Seen from another angle, following rules, in a rationally correct way, becomes an aberration, if such an activity does not adjust to the uniqueness of the individuals or situations to which it is applied. The logical-cognitive apparatus, isolated from other dimensions of human conduct, becomes a ridiculous, malevolent or crazy caricature of what a subject could be.

In other examples, what is discussed is not the fetish of split logic of emotion, but of action. In this case, the characters are human beings who are ignorant of the cause and nature of their states of consciousness or who possess paranormal conscious cognitive gifts. In both examples, Dick shows that just as the complete ignorance of what we are, the relative omniscience of what we can be also incapacitates us to define the profile of a true subject.

For example, telepaths and précogs, whose precognitive gifts allow them to know the entire past and the future, end up unable to act because action loses its meaning. If the future becomes present, it disappears as a particular dimension of time, since the future is nothing more than the intention to carry out certain actions, which become superfluous when everything is made present.

claustrophobic nightmare

It can be observed, therefore, that in the case of wise objects, but devoid of emotion, and in the case of intellectually gifted beings, but deprived of freedom of action, the omnipotent dream of predicting the unpredictable becomes a claustrophobic and demonic nightmare. Left to themselves, logic and cognition are paralyzed in the repetition of the same. Cognition without emotion and without openness to new actions is just a fossil of what once was the movement of the subject's life.

Finally, the last group of Dick's experimental creatures is the androids. Here, the author illustrates the role of memory in a hypothetical subject deprived of history, that is, of a relational past with an emotionally relevant other. Androids are machines that are unaware of their own mechanical nature, as they have been implanted with the memory of a human being.

The android's memory, therefore, does not reflect the "history" of its existence. It is an unassimilable graft to the rest of his life, since, beforehand, he had the links cut with emotion and with action. By deliberation of its manufacturers, the android cannot use the mechanically recalled mnesic traces to guide its behavior in the face of the interpellation of the other. The only commandment he follows is the utilitarian principle of survival.

Result: because he has never been able to identify with the mental acts of emotionally significant others, the android is incapable of feeling what Dick calls empathy, that is, of recognizing in the other someone identical to himself. For this reason, the other, for the android, is just a neutral object that works as a trigger for his action devices and never as a source of doubts regarding moral decisions. Stripped of the tacit knowledge that the other is a similarity, alterity becomes a mere difference in form and function, and not a source of affective disquiet.

Dick, with the figure of the android, states that it is not enough to understand the material functioning of memory to see the entrails of the subject. It is also necessary to bear in mind that human memory is always the memory of the relationship with another. In other works, this awareness is taken to the paroxysm of theoretical refinement and anguish, as in the novel the double man (Rocco), in English, Scanner Darkly [2].

The substratum of the subject

the double man deals with the experience of Fred, a police officer in charge of arresting drug users and dealers. In the exercise of his function, Fred receives a “mixer suit”, a technological device that, when worn, allows the wearer to assume the physical appearance of any other person. The policeman, in the course of the investigation, ends up discovering, changing his identity, that he himself is suspected of using illicit drugs, and finds himself in the paradoxical position of persecutor and persecuted. Fred's identity duplicity is the motto for Dick to expose the narrowness of scientific explanations about the substratum of the subject.

In a long passage of the text, the policeman is taken to the presence of two psychologists who explain to him the origin of the feeling of a broken identity. Their cerebral hemispheres, both say, function autonomously. For this reason, each one sends an image of the subject and the world that, instead of tuning in, compete with each other. Fred is astonished and begins to ask for more and more details about the disorder that affects him. The questions are interspersed with peaks of astonishment and seem to stumble all the time over an enigma that cannot be deciphered.

So, after hearing from the psychologist that a hemisphere of his brain perceives the world as if it were reflected in a mirror, Fred thinks perplexed: “So, I've been seeing myself the other way around. Maybe after I see both shapes at once, correctly and inverted, I'll be the first person in history to see both flipped and unflipped simultaneously and get a glimpse of what it's going to be like when it's correct. Although I also have the other one, the normal one. And what's what? What is inverted and what is not?”[3].

inverted form

Fred is reluctant to accept the explanation received. If, he asks, the cerebral hemispheres normally function in a complementary way and by cross-inversion, what, in the organism, could decide what would be the true underlying reality of the semblant mediated by neural action? Would the perception of true reality, and not its neurophysiological appearance, require a metafunction independent of the cross-mediation of the two hemispheres? But in which anatomical or metaphysical place would this metafunction be based?

Even more. If cerebral architecture demands that we see ourselves indirectly and inverted as in mirrors, what other architecture or what other architect makes us want to see beyond the limits of what we can know? Why, he insists, even though we know that direct access to the reality of what we are is impossible, do we persist in imagining that such access is conceivable? That means that the thinkable is not identical to knowable? But if so, who or what gives rise to a type of thought that cannot be translated into knowledge?

Dick assumes the role of the naive mouth, forcing science to keep silent about what it cannot talk about. In his view, wanting to make the subject function positive means leading to a question that cannot be answered empirically. With his literary rhetoric, he shows that the subject emerges precisely in the theoretical place in which its existence and functioning can no longer be cognitively founded or justified. This place is where the question of the genuine and the false, the inverted and the non-inverted, the real and the semblant, could only be unraveled by an agent who was not committed to the immanent conditions of knowledge.

Put another way, the subject function emerges where our partial explanations get stuck. Where there is subject there is no quality and where there is quality there is only subjectivity. The subject function in Dick converts the limitations indicated by epistemic transcendence into the power of ontological transcendence. The deficit becomes a surplus. It is in the fractures of immanence that the subject emerges as a question about himself, unanswerable by scientific knowledge. Transcendence is what remains of the human being's dissatisfaction with what he suffers or knows about himself, that is, with what remains of the interpellation of the other to his immanent properties.

Not by chance, Dick cuts off the aforementioned conversation with an apparently gratuitous and arbitrary remark from Fred: “How cold it is in that subterranean vault. Of course it's cold, she's so deep." Then he adds: “I have to get away from this shit. I've seen people go through this. My God, he thought, and closed his eyes.

In search of the lost foundation, the subject bumps into the abode of his transcendence, a cold and deep vault. We can fear it and close our eyes to it, or we can continue to talk about it with our eyes wide open. Dick's policeman chose the first option; he the second. Every second his decision.

*Jurandir Freire Costa is a professor at the Institute of Social Medicine at the State University of Rio de Janeiro (UERJ). Author, among other books, of The vestige and the aura (Garamond).

Originally published on Journal of Reviews no. 4, August 2009.


[1] To consult Dick's works in which the aforementioned characters appear, see: Costa, Jurandir Freire, “Bergson dans le monde de Philip K. Dick”, in Henri Bergson: receptions, Cahiers critiques de philosophie, nº 7, Paris, Hermann éditeurs & Paris VIII, Philosophie, 2009. p. 133-152

[2] Dick. Philip. K., double man, Rocco.

[3]. Ibid., p. 240.

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