Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Prompt #4: Dick and Marcuse

In the prologue of Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man, Marcuse makes a particularly interesting argument, claiming that modern technological society, which demands rationality, is in fact irrational. He then goes on to note that “...The distinction between true and false consciousness…still is meaningful…Men must come to see it and to find their way from false to true consciousness, from their immediate to their real interest. They can do so only if they live in need of changing their way of life, of denying the positive, of refusing. It is precisely this need which the established society manages to repress to the degree to which it is capable of ‘delivering the goods’ on an increasingly large scale, and using the scientific conquest of nature for the scientific conquest of man”(Marcuse, Introduction). The statement explains a considerable portion of Phillip K. Dick’s San Francisco in his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?; specifically, the nature of man’s relationship with technology.

Throughout the entire novel, animals are a recurring motif, with real animals being significantly more valued than their mechanical counterparts. Deckard notes how “…The electric animal…could be considered…a vastly inferior robot. Or conversely, the android could be regarded as a highly developed, evolved version of the ersatz animal. Both viewpoints repelled him”(Dick, 40). He views the living as having a kind of having a kind of quality that the “nonliving”, even when otherwise identical, does not have, reflecting the meaningfulness Marcuse claims with regard to living and nonliving consciousnesses. Deckard views the nonliving consciousness as lacking this quality, which leads to his complete and utter contempt for androids and providing him with a reason to hunt them down and terminate them. “…an escaped humanoid robot, which had killed its master…which had no regard for animals…epitomized the killers”(30).

The aforementioned quality that the novel explicitly states in its distinguishing between human and android is empathy. The Voigt-Kampff test relies on this important factor, as empathy, which is strictly in the domain of the living consciousness Marcuse describes, prevents androids from experiencing the same kind emotion a human being feels when increasingly-scarce animals are being placed in harmful situations. Empathy is both a natural and a human quality, like all other emotional experiences. Or so it seems.

Even if it may be explicitly “human”, Dick makes it absolutely clear within the first pages of his novel that emotions have become increasingly more artificial with the invention of the mood organ, which allows an individual to control feelings with the pressing of three buttons. Iran, Deckard’s wife notes at one point how she “…was in a 382 mood”, but “…how unhealthy it was, sensing the absence of life…and not reacting…that used to be considered a sign of mental illness; they called it ‘absence of appropriate affect.’ So [she] left the TV sound off…and [she] experimented. And [she] finally found a setting for despair”(3). The Penfield mood organ serves two purposes for Iran: it allows her to experience emotions at any point in time for any reason and acts as a coping mechanism to help remind her of normal human emotions that have been lost or damaged due to desensitization created by a post-apocalyptic society. She represents the “bridging of the gap” between human and android emotions, disproving any distinction in feelings between the true and false consciousness that Marcuse’s treatise describes as unproven.

Marcuse’s concept of irrationality in an increasingly-more-technological world becomes obvious when considering that humans created androids after an act of man, nuclear war, devastated the world and destroyed most of nature. They responded to the realization that technology can be powerful beyond the limits of human control by creating technology that could easily threaten the entire dominance of the human species. Then once governments realized that the new technology, androids, could pose this extreme danger, they ordered bounty hunters like Rick Deckard to hunt down the consequences of their failures. The complete and utter inability for humanity to learn from its mistakes casts extreme doubt on the idea of mankind as a rational species and heavily supports the notion that the more man is exposed to technology, the more he seeks to conquer nature, with disastrous results ensuing.

Marcuse’s ideas of real and false consciousness and humanity’s irrational relationship with technology can be applied to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? in many ways. And in these ways the novel reflects the most important parts of this increasingly-important relationship as time goes on.


Adam said...

What's good here? This is an able and relatively compact unpacking of some of the ways in which we might productively relate Marcuse and PKD. You do a fine job with both irrational rationalism and with false consciousness, more so with the former than the latter - your discussion of false consciousness, while able, perhaps should ideally include some discussion of what Deckard's "true" consciousness is, or ought to be (one might argue that Iran or Isidore are much closer to articulating a true consciousness - although there's also a lot of relevant material at the end).

The thing I most question here is the decision to tackle both true/false consciousness and rational irrationalism. You do rather well with both, but think of what you could have done if you'd focused on one - dug into true as well as false consciousness, or done more, perhaps to relate rational irrationalism to our own world (in other words - yes, we can see Marcuse as articulating PKD's idea, or vice versa, and that's good - but what, in turn, should that mean to us?).

In other words, I think if you'd focused on one topic rather than two, you could have done much more to begin drawing conclusions, which ideally should be your goal.

Amy Friedenberger said...

I think you did a good job at looking at two different aspects, but I think if you choose to revise this essay, you might consider focusing on just one. That way, you can either go in depth with the false consciousness or in depth with the irrational rationality. Because right now they're a little broad for both.

So overall, nice job at discussing two different topics, but I would suggest choosing the one that you find most enticing to expand upon for a revision.