What Do Humans Dream Of?
In a setting where the world appears to be ending it’s kind of silly to think that anyone would be spending nearly all of their income on pets. This is the premise of Rick Deckard’s life in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? If we look at this situation through Marcuse’s idea of true and false needs, brought up in chapter one of One Dimensional Man, we can get a better understanding of Deckard’s obsession with having a pet to call his own and the repression associated with doing such. However, labeling a need as true or false is not always so black and white.
Marcuse describes a false need as one that is “superimposed upon the individual by particular social interests in his repression: the needs which perpetuate toil, aggressiveness, misery, and injustice”(Marcuse, Chapter One). He does not give a definition for true needs, but alludes to the fact that true needs do not perpetuate such feelings but do the opposite.
Thinking of today’s society, especially since we live in what is somewhat considered a free market, I have to wonder how much of our needs are monetarily driven. We are consumers, we buy things to feel fulfilled, it is part of our culture as Americans. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? exemplifies how the need for something can drive us to extreme measures. Rick Deckard, the main character of the novel is a bounty hunter, “retiring” androids so that he can make a living. However living in the post World War Terminus era, where everything including the people is being consumed by radioactive dust, leaves much of humanity dead or fleeing to Mars. There is little competition on Earth for means of survival (not including androids in this particular thought), meaning many of the vital components of life, such as housing, are drastically less expensive than in today’s world.
Even in this post apocalyptic setting, there is still a great deal of commercialism, partially driven by Mercerism, and in turn pressure to buy what could be considered luxury items to portray status and to make consumers happier. In the novel, the main consumer good is animals. In fact, Mercer advocates the keeping of animals because having empathy for an animal is a main part of being a human being.
In the most simple terms a false need is one that is not necessary for survival, but one that is desired for happiness or fulfillment. The desire to own an animal could be considered a false need. Thinking of Deckard’s character in the novel, we see from the very first chapter that he is tormented by the fact that he does not own a real animal, but instead owns an electric replica of a sheep.
Deckard’s ersatz animal spawns jealousy toward his neighbor that owns a horse. At first this envy seems to be driven by societal pressure to own an animal, but Deckard has a thought that indicates this desire runs deeper than a status item would ordinarily provide. “It’s a premium job. And I’ve put as much time and attention into caring for it as I did when it was real. But--” (Dick, 10) His neighbor finishes his sentence saying “it’s not the same.”
It is evident throughout the novel that Deckard has some opposition to using the empathy box. One explanation could be because he does not feel that he can really “fuse” with Mercer effectively because his sheep is fake, therefore devoid of the capability of feeling empathy for Deckard. If we think of true and false needs in this particular context, it becomes a little more difficult to diagnose Deckard’s desire to own an animal as strictly a true or false need. Mercerism is almost the religion of the post World War Terminus era, and how do you diagnose a religion? Is religion a tool to feel that humanity is not lost? And in this way, how can we say that animals, a very important part of Mercerism, are not included in these feelings of hope, something that is arguably very vital for the survival of humanity.
Marcerism is not the first religion to put animals on a pedestal. Think of the Ancient Egyptians. Cats were regarded as a sacred animal because of their protective skills, primarily killing vermin (which sometimes included poisonous snakes). The Ancient Egyptians were one of the first if not the first society to domesticate cats and give them a place in their own homes. According to Pitt River’s Museum, cats became associated with gods like Bastat, a god linked to childbearing and fertility. Mummified cats were considered a great offer to certain gods.
Although a completely different situation and context, it is easy to see that animals can play an important role and society and cannot simply be written off as a false need. However, it is also hard to argue that owning animals, especially in Deckard’s situation, can be strictly classified as a true need.
Many times throughout the novel, Deckard directly translates his salary to that of which he can spend on a new animal. “I could get lucky in my work again. As I did two years ago when I managed to bag four andy’s in one month” (11). An andy is equivalent to a thousand dollars, and throughout the novel Deckard uses andy’s themselves to indicate salary. Retiring five andy’s means he can afford a horse, a little morbid isn’t it?
Throughout the novel, Deckard indicates his dissatisfaction with his job. In a way, his job represses him as he needs to kill for it. Andy’s are only detectable as being an andy through a bone marrow test, indicating that they are very close, at least anatomically, to humans. In the description of their “retirement” Deckard often uses words like “brain box” instead of head (91), probably to make his job more palatable. While Deckard stays on earth because he has his job, and therefore a sense of purpose, his job is also something that causes him much grief in the sense that he is killing something that looks like a human.
In fact, Deckard becomes unsure that he can continue working as a bounty hunter as the novel progresses. Thinking of the situation with Luba Luft and bounty hunter, Phil Resch, we come back to the idea of empathy. The reciprocity of empathy is vital for both human-human relationships and human-animal relationships. Androids are a threat because they are devoid of empathy, and because of this, could ruin humanity.
The scene that takes place in the museum with these three characters is a complex one. Resch and Deckard find Luft in front of a painting called “Puberty,” which is interesting considering Luft herself never experienced puberty. Luft swiftly admits to being an android, and while doing so, accused Resch of being no more human than she is (130).
Deckard finds himself in an unusual position. He can’t imagine being a bounty hunter in the manner that Resch is a bounty hunter. He can’t be that devoid of feeling to do what Resch has done. Resch does not just kill for the money, but the pleasure associated with it. “But to retire it, because it’s needling you--” (132). Deckard has to constantly convince himself it is okay to kill. Resch does not.
While Deckard’s negative feelings toward Resch are growing stronger, his empathy towards Luft is also growing stronger. A complex situation that Deckard himself does not know how to classify. While Resch is human like Deckard, his harsh demeanor comes off as more cold and robotic than Luft, the actual android in the situation.
Empathy towards an android. This could change the entire dynamic that Deckard has with his career, his reason to stay on Earth. If Deckard is unable to maintain his job as a bounty hunter, and in turn be unable to afford an animal, would it be so bad? Would it mean that Deckard is free?
Considering the end of the novel, it is hard to put a finger on what liberation means for Rick Deckard. He is considered the best bounty hunter to ever live, and does not appear to want to give up his job. He is content in owning an electric toad. Even things with his wife, Iran, appear to be running more smoothly. If we considered owning animals to be a false a need, then it could be argued that after all that has happened, Deckard could quit his job and be liberated of the responsibility of killing androids to pay for pets. But even in what seems like content, Deckard does not quit his job. Is Deckard’s job a true need? Is it something that he needs to feel fulfillment? Does he want to be liberated from killing androids?
Sometimes things are obvious, but in most cases, at least in this novel, ambiguity reigns. The idea of repression, especially when framed by Marcuse’s true and false needs is about as clear trying to identify a Nexus-6 without a bone marrow sample.
Dick, Philip. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? New York: Ballatine Books, 1968. Print.
Douglas, Ollie. "Pitt Rivers Museum - Animals and Belief – Ancient Egypt." Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford. University of Oxford. Web. 11 Feb. 2012.
Marcuse, Herbert. "Introduction, Chapter 1." One-dimensional Man. Boston: Beacon, 1964.