Sunday, February 24, 2008

Erik Davis on PKD


Erik Davis, author of Techgnosis, recently reposted "Technomancer," an article he wrote on PKD for the Village Voice in 1989 (when I was ditching class and smoking pot my senior year in high school, still tragically unaware of Philip K Dick's existence). In fact Vintage culled the now-ubikuitous blurb: "Dick was many authors: a poor man's Pynchon, an oracular postmodern, a rich prophet of the changing counterculture" from this very article.

What I'm struck by is the amount of insight and detail in Davis' write up. His column makes every single article in the recent spate of PKD coverage look a like pre-fab, cut and paste job containing only the most superficial of details. Davis shows what's possible when you let someone who knows Dick's irv and who cares about Dick's ideas write about his literary accomplishments.

Davis writes:

"As far back as the ‘50s, Dick saw the dark, paranoid side of McLuhan’s global village. The animism that primitive humankind projected onto Nature was for him reborn in our technological environment, where ominous spiritual forces merged with the instruments of late capitalism. Dick’s machines are black jokes rather than believable imaginings..."

If Gopnik's article in The New Yorker had included even a single sentence with this kind of insight, this level of engagement with Philip K Dick and his ideas, perhaps we might have forgiven him for dragging PKD through the mud a bit. Philip K Dick was passionate about ideas, passionate about his writing, and desperate for readers willing to invest in his speculations and assume the mortality he depicted in his characters. Gopnik, et al, were satisfied with mere summary of Dick's life and work, but something more is needed if you really want to sell people on the worth of PKD's fiction; you need to plumb the depths a bit, come back from the novels with something to show for your effort if you expect others to make the journey.

Davis writes:

"Dick was a narrative trickster, a master mindfucker. He pulled the whodunit inside out: Decoding small meaningful details doesn’t put the picture together so much as rip it apart. By twisting the page-turning groove of pulp into a Möbius strip, Dick attempted to undermine the political, social, technological, and psychic structures of “reality.” He wanted a pulp guerilla ontology that deconstructed everyone’s power trip—Nixon’s, IBM’s, God’s, the author’s."

It's clear to me that many of those pre-fab PKD articles used Davis' write up as a kind of template, a set of talking points they would address in their own articles, but for Davis, PKD isn't merely a notable personality, his books serve as a searchlight for Davis' own explorations of reality or the lack thereof. This crucial difference drives home the power of the Internet, where we can find passionate guides for all of our own searches, rather than the paid, staid, and marketed efforts of "professionals" who cover our obsessions with token interest, and who are, ultimately, mere spectators here.

Read the rest of Davis' article. I promise, you won't be disappointed. The really exciting news is that Erik Davis is currently hard at work on a book-length examination of Dick's life and fiction. Both Jonathan Lethem and I feel that Erik is uniquely positioned to write one of the most important books about PKD ever, and after you read the rest of the article I think you'll agree.

5 comments:

sclr said...

"By twisting the page-turning groove of pulp into a Möbius strip, Dick attempted to undermine the political, social, technological, and psychic structures of “reality.” He wanted a pulp guerilla ontology that deconstructed everyone’s power trip—Nixon’s, IBM’s, God’s, the author’s."

this is the best summation of pkd ideas/books i have ever seen. excellent.

cal said...

Davis shows what's possible when you let someone who knows Dick's irv...

By "irv" do you perhaps mean "oeuvre?"

Davis' article is very well-written and displays a deep knowledge of PKD. I remember reading that piece way back in 1989, showing it to several young writers in my circle. Most of them turned their nose up at the idea of taking a "sci-fi hack" seriously. But one guy whom I'd recently met responded with, "Isn't he the one who put a lot of Gnosticism in his stuff?" The guy was a student of history with a particular interest in Gnosticism. We've been great friends ever since.

Ragle Gumm said...

Cal,
"Irv" is a term Lethem came up with:

"I'd read maybe a dozen of Dick's novels before I encountered the word oeuvre—and maybe forty before I dared use it in a sentence. Dick visited France ("I had the interesting experience of being famous") in 1974 and there possibly heard the word applied to his work. By that time his generous irony had mostly covered over his raw sense of rejection by the literary establishment ("The only non-SF writer who ever treated me with courtesy was Herbert Gold, who I met at a literary party in San Francisco") and he might have enjoyed the use of the word but likely wouldn't have identified much. I'd like to propose an alternative term, irv. We'll speak of Dick's irv."

From You Don't Know Dick

Mr. Hand said...

Davis is a really entertaining prose stylist, if a bit over the top, and a real nice guy, but I'm afraid he misunderstands Dick a bit in spinning him that way. I dig the breathless enthusiasm of heady 80s cyberpunk and the whole "reality breakdown" trip, but it's a cult that PKD never meant to inspire. His religious speculations are of great interest to postmodernists, but they're rooted in christian neoplatonism and especially the phenomenology of Plotinus. Dick was a hardcore philosopher, not simply an analogy to the intellectual interests of the ideal Mondo/Wired subscriber.

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