Thursday, January 26, 2012

Blog 3, Prompt 1

There is a huge emphasis on "empathy" in the world of Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? The pseudo-religion of Mercerism, which has become the dominant form of spiritual belief in 2021, places extreme importance on fostering and constantly expressing this "empathy." But we can see, very early on, that the way empathy is practiced in this dystopia is somehow false, almost pornographic. It is found through Penfield mood organs, which articifically instill emotions in the user, and "empathy boxes" which somehow create a virtual reality experience in which the user undergoes the birth-and-death cycle of Mercer himself, experiencing all his pains and joys firsthand. It is also expressed in the constant, consumerist obsession with owning more and better animals, which operate as a kind of status symbol, proof that the owner of the animal possesses great enough empathy to sacrifice time, money, and effort in caring for the animal.

This desire to foster and express a shallow "empathy" in order to gain social status is a clear example of what Marcuse, in The One-Dimensional Man, calls "false needs." He defines false needs as "those which are superimposed upon the individual by particular social interests in his
repression: the needs which perpetuate toil, aggressiveness, misery, and
injustice." The false need to constantly express the outer signs of empathy keeps the members of Dick's society, first, working endlessly in order to afford new and better animals, and to maintain the ones they have. Second, contrary to the genuine emotion of empathy which the false empathy of Mercerism serves to replace, it actually instills aggressiveness by increasing the population's disdain for androids and schizophrenic "specials" who are incapable of expressing this kind of conspicuous empathy, due to their own biology or lack therof. Third, and most insidiously, it keeps the government's program of eugenics - the labeling, sterilization, and binding to Earth of specials - unquestioned. It does this through Mercerism's proud claims to include even specials into its fold, quieting any rebellious attitudes they might have by instilling in them a feeling of gratitude for being able to follow Mercer's messianic journey through their empathy boxes. This is made clear when Isidore accidentally reveals himself as a special to Pris:

"But an empathy box," he said, stammering in his excitement, "is the most personal possession you have! It's an extension of your body, it's the way you touch other humans, it's the way you stop being alone. [...] Mercer even lets people like me--" [...] "I'm not very special, only moderately. Not like some you see. But that's what Mercer doesn't care about." (p.64)
The average person on Earth in 2021 has such a deteriorated inner life that interacting with the empathy box seems more genuine an expression of empathy than actually interacting with other human beings. Rather than actually encouraging understanding and devotion toward the people around them, this pornographic experience of empathy turns people completely inward. And this turning inward accomplishes exactly the goal Marcuse gives to false needs: "to arrest the development of the ability (his own and others) to recognize the disease of the whole and grasp the chances of curing the disease. " There is no resistance in the world of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep because there is no genuine connection between other human beings which might allow people to actually compare and understand their mutual inner lives and thus identify the source of their own turmoil.

Marcuse describes "false needs" as having "a societal content and function which are determined by external powers over which the individual has no control." This is absolutely true for the world Dick has created in his novel. The characters are bombarded, constantly, with media imploring them to move offworld, to practice Mercerism, and to care for animals. Buster Friendly's comedy program, which broadcasts 46 hours of content per day including both its radio and television broadcasts, is obviously not made by a real human being. Besides his impossible level of productivity, his recurring guests seem to have no other lives except to return to his program again and again. Mr. Sloat, the owner of the electric animal repair company, speculates on pagen 74 that this is possible because Buster Friendly is a superior lifeform from another galaxy. The more likely answer, of course, is that Buster Friendly is simply a name used by several actors (or androids) who produce the show under government direction (the government being the last remaining producer of media on Earth) for the purpose of instilling the mass of listeners with false needs via advertising and ideologically biased content.

Dick's book, therefore, takes Marcuse's vision of a world dominated by false needs to an absurd extreme through science-fiction technology, and presents to us some of the clear dangers of allowing our emotions and our inner desires to be governed entirely by external, mechanized forces.


Scott Sauter said...

Hey RJ,

I would recommend that you spend some time either revising or cutting the first paragraph. It seems a almost unneeded as your audience have all read the Dick novel, and the paragraph goes to great lengths to summarize its setting. Why no fill the space left with a couple well placed Marcuse quotes that further demonstrate your argument? The addition would greatly add to the effectiveness of the essay by helping the reader remember key elements of Marcuse's lengthy and dense book.

Ben Fellows said...

Hey RJ,

I agree with Scott where he says that there is a slight surplus of summarizing throughout your paper.
Also, when you refer to schizophrenic specials, I think what you mean is "Schizoid". Both are pretty similar in meaning, but I believe Schizoid is more applicable and less confusing.

You have what I believe is a very strong third paragraph, however I think your second paragraph could use some strengthening. You mention parts from from Marcuse and the Dick novel, however maybe you could tie the two together a little better.


Adam said...

I also agree that there's a tendency to summarization throughout, although more at the beginning than at the end.. I don't agree, though, that the beginning is wholly unnecessary - I think that the briefly stated idea that the empathy box is pornographic is actually important, but greatly underdeveloped.

I think you're basically making an analogy which claims that "the empathy box is to empathy as pornography is to sex," but that this society has forgotten or erased any understanding that there is a difference - which is where true and false needs, etc. come in.

I think this is a good and important insight, but that the actual argument which would be based around it isn't yet here (which is where soem of the summarization comes in).

Which is not to say that I think that the 2nd and 3rd paragraphs don't have a lot of good material, because they do - I just think that material needs to be further developed into a focused argument. As it currently reads, it's somewhat scattered.