My progress through Umberto's book has slowed a bit as I prepare to take the family to Kauai on vacation later this week. Nevertheless, like any good book, it's got me thinking. Additionally, we've created a new closed group of Dick-heads on Facebook and I've been spending a lot of time there. This time-suck is primarily to account for the recent dearth of posts.
Now, ladies and gentlemen, I will take something I have been thinking about from Umberto's book and relate it to a discussion from said Facebook group. Can you believe nobody is paying me for this?
It all started when, like the Trotskities and Lenninites at Berkeley, the Pomos and Anti-Pomos got into it. By this I mean that the folks who think Dick was basically a postmodern writer (pomos) disagreed with those who perceive postmodernism as a kind of academic chicanery, smoke and mirrors, pretentious bullshit (Anti-Pomos). As I have previously noted, postmodernism is a nebulous streak in an impossible sky, a loose collection of (sometimes contradictory) ideas that can hardly be seen to form a cohesive ideology, or worse, can be seen as giving rise to any number of ideologies, each more ridiculous than the last. Google can only offer that postmodernism is "A late 20th-century style in the arts, architecture, and criticism that represents a departure from modernism." Hardly edifying, is it?
So it's sort of an endless series of straw men: "Postmodernists believe in nothing!" "radical cultural relativism, non-judgmentalism, and a postmodern conviction that there are no moral norms or truths worth defending." "Dogs and cats living together..."
So, in an attempt to move the conversation forward, our good pal Cal came up with a few criteria for Postmodernism:
1. Historically, he occurs long after the decline of Modernism as a significant influence in literature. That movement did however inform PKD's education and early work. His publication timeline clearly places him in the postmodern period.
2. Postmodernism tends to blend elements of various genres kept separate by modernism. The eradication of critical divisions such as "high" and "low" art are a central feature of postmodernism. In his tightrope walk between 'serious" and "pulp" literature, PKD exemplifies a common tension of postmodernism.
3. The question of objective truth is a central concern of postmodernist thinking; the question of objective reality is a central concern in much of PKD's work.
4. The nature of power and authority are of central concern to postmodern political thinking. The relationship of the individual to the authoritarian power structures of society is the central focus of more than one PKD novel.
These are four very good reasons why PKD should be considered a postmodern writer *(keeping in mind that any adjective we throw in front of writer is by nature reductive and can only go so far in explaining anything).
Umberto's book breaks new ground in the way that it examines criteria number two, about the mixed genres. Part of Dick's genre mash stems from his frustrated ambitions as a mainstream writer, his pursuit of two parallel careers: a desire to make high-art, literature of significant merit, and to make a living as a science fiction writer. Notice the ideological holdovers from Modernism - especially the notions of high and low art - that Dick transcends, partly because his twin ambitions contaminated one another, and partly because those distinctions didn't matter as much any more. Just look at how he blurred the line between science fiction and fantasy with an early work like The Cosmic Puppets! Umberto's got a great quote where PKD espouses an incredibly postmodern view of the very idea of Genre, suggesting the divisions are not external, depending on the content of the narratives, but that instead the distinction is internal and subjective to each individual depending on their world view:
"... to separate science fiction from fantasy... is impossible to do... Take Psionics; take mutants as we find in Ted Sturgeon's wonderful MORE THAN HUMAN. If the reader believes that such mutants could exist, then he will view Sturgeon's novel as science fiction. If, however, he believes that such mutants are, like wizards and dragons, not possible, nor will ever be possible, then he is reading a fantasy novel."
Here Dick is questioning how genre operates, and his conclusion is not that the distinction between fantasy and SF is made based on authority, or even on the contents of the story. Dick recognizes that two readers reading the same book with different belief sets will be reading, essentially, two different books. The text provides no real stable linchpin which makes identical the experience of the text for different people. That's postmodern in that it lays bare the lack of objective truth, the impossibility of knowing what is objectively real.
Now I know I won't convince the Anti-Pomos here. I could simply be choosing to define postmodernism as a kind of genre-mash then merely supporting that one simple idea, rather than the ideology. But I am convinced that examining PKD through the lenses offered up in Cal's summary of postmodernism can pay off big time.
If you're interested in joining the Facebook group, you'll have to find me in that world.