Saturday, July 23, 2011

PKD's Postmodern Thoughts About Genre

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.

9 comments:

Mr. Hand said...

I don't see how this is an "incredibly postmodernist" idea about genre. It's actually quite obvious, and it can be stated in ordinary language. There's no need to employ post-structuralism or deconstruction to figure out how genre works. And I don't mean to be tendentious, but there's a big difference between claiming that Dick (like Pynchon or Borges) falls into the "postmodern literature" time period, and claiming that Dick was a [card-carrying] "postmodernIST." Didn't Dick get his philosophical and lit-critical training by falling in love with classical and enlightenment figures? Was Hume a postmodernist? I can understand why somebody would want to call his conclusions postmodern, but the problems that bringing in that particular term involve go a lot further than "labels are reductive." I'm fully aware that there are plenty of people who decide what articles get published who don't have a problem with "postmodern literature," as a label, but I really don't see the label as applied to Dick holding up under scrutiny. If there was no defensiveness about this precious label of postmodernism, which I really don't understand the need for, there would be no reason to apply the theory to Dick's books. His issues with objectivity were around a long time before the period of postmodern literature started and they remain with us now that it's over. The reason that I'm belaboring this point is not that I'm anti-pomo (I wouldn't continue spending so much effort researching and writing about postmodernism if that was the case--I think there's plenty of interest although much of it is indeed silly BS) but rather because I think that if postmodernism is properly understood we can understand why it doesn't apply properly to Dick. He came to his conclusions about objectivity etc. based on a classical+enlightenment philosophical training. His heroes were Plato, Kant and Hume, not Jameson, Baudrillard and Lyotard. What we miss when we apply "postmodernism" uncritically to Dick is the profound differences between his approach and the "postmodern" approach. His product may look like "postmodern" literature if you use fuzzy enough categories (labels reduce is part of it), but the "blurring" that he achieved is of a different quality than that of the postmodernists.

I have argued in the FB thread that Dick's quest for humanity is the place where we can see the difference between his literature and that of more-properly postmodernist writers like Pynchon. Dick doesn't see humanism or the human as the enemy as postmodernists do. He wants to rescue and/or redeem the human, while postmodernists want to get rid of it.

Mr. Hand said...

Let me try another way of explaining my problem (I'm not going to claim it as a phildickian reworking but I will be happy to admit a similar flaw of repetitiveness.) One of my biggest issues with this "Dick is a postmodernist" claim is the prioritizing of "postmodern uncertainty" as if it was Dick's main idea. I used to think that Dick was a novelist of "reality breakdown,"
but the more I read and understand what Dick is doing the less enthusiastic I become about this notion of
uncertainty as the ultimate key to reading PKD. His main purpose in writing was neither to persuade his reader to adopt postmodern ideas nor to portray the state of postmodern capitalism. I'm aware that I don't
sound very hip when I say this, but isn't it possible that maybe Dick was a little more subtle than that? Rather than seeing Dick as trying to push a postmodern view in the way Dave eloquently models above, I see Dick as doing something quite different. Of course he's working with the postmodern world that he was thrown into (no need to abandon all the Heidegger jargon) but for different purposes than his truly "postmodern lit"
-erary peers.

Ragle Gumm said...

Ted, I hear ya, man. I see where you're coming from and I agree that Dick's favorite thinkers certainly weren't pomos. I guess when I look at the stuff I think Dick was doing that I consider postmodern (inserting himself as a character in the text, questioning objective truth, exploring the instability of meaning) I see him pursuing some of the same ends as the postmodernists - to suggest that there's more than meets the eye, that perception is trickier and more complex that it at first appears, and that what we think of as stable, even foundational, may have no substance other than that with which we imbue it.

cal godot said...

Didn't Dick get his philosophical and lit-critical training by falling in love with classical and enlightenment figures?

Read point #1 about Modernism. "That movement did however inform PKD's education and early work" - "That movement" being modernism, which in fact informed most postmodernist artists, writers, thinkers, etc. That's why their postmodern.

Was Hume a postmodernist?

Don't be silly. Why are you anti-pomo folks so silly? Silly is a pomo thing. Leave that to us.

I really don't see the label as applied to Dick holding up under scrutiny.

Keep watching.

If there was no defensiveness about this precious label of postmodernism, which I really don't understand the need for, there would be no reason to apply the theory to Dick's books.

Mr. Hand, you strike me as far more "defensive" than any of us pomo contenders. We're making our case, providing our descriptions of postmodernism and why we think they apply to PKD's thinking and his work. I'm trying to understand your objections to this, but find it difficult.

His issues with objectivity were around a long time before the period of postmodern literature started and they remain with us now that it's over.

The period of postmodern literature started around the time World War II ended. PKD was 17 or 18 then. I'm not aware of any evidence he was considering these ideas then, but even if he were it would still place him and his writing squarely within the period.

His heroes were Plato, Kant and Hume, not Jameson, Baudrillard and Lyotard.

Pynchon is clearly a postmodernist - you wouldn't argue that - but his heroes weren't Jameson, Baudriallard, Lyotard. PKD referred to Jameson as "genius" - maybe that doesn't make Fred a PKDian hero, but it's a start.

His product may look like "postmodern" literature if you use fuzzy enough categories

My categories aren't fuzzy; they're quite exact.

Your arguments, however, are very vague and fuzzy, and aren't based in PKD's writing as much as your opinion of what he thought.

Nathaniel Miller said...

NOTHING is a better tool for rhetoric OR a better character reference than Dinosaur Comics.

Lucidus Valentine said...

No, Mr. Gill, I can't believe no one is paying you for this. It's all gold.

Joshua Lind said...

I'm surprised no one in this conversation (here or on Facebook) has pointed out Lyotard's description of postmodernism as an incredulity toward metanarratives. I can't think of a more succinct characterization of Dick's fundamental mode of operation.

I would also argue that Dick's interest in labor and commodification dovetail particularly well with that group of postmodern theorists who also employ a Marxist perspective. Though Dick does not appear to have delved into postmodern thinkers such as Derrida, Baudrillard, or Lyotard, he nonetheless seems to examine what is very obviously a postmodern condition. The strong humanist strain in his work saves him from some of the cold (or frivolously playful) aspects of some of the novelists who emerged from postmodern thought, but he takes as his basis a fundamental uncertainty shared with postmodern thinkers. He offers one way to "construct" after what seems to me a culturally important shared "deconstruction."

(Of course, I could just be touchy because my thesis relies heavily on postmodern thinkers and I'd like to think that it hits on at least some cylinders).

:)

Anonymous said...

As I see it, the big, obvious difference between PKD and the pomo crowd is not his "humanism" but his faith.
People of faith and humanists are alike in some ways if you contrast them to materialists but there's a difference, not just a distinction!
Maybe some of you live too close to California to see it but there's a strong new age streak in much of his work.
Dick seemed to love metanarratives, just not materialist ones. PKD's characters are not intellectuals criticizing consensual reality. They experience an esoteric reality.

The argument according to which "The nature of power and authority are of central concern to postmodern political thinking." is really, really weak.
If modernity to you basically reduces to fascism and bolshevism, yeah. But that's not all there is to modernism! Or are you going to argue that classical anarchists were precursors of postmodernism for instance?
Academics who have been schooled by debates between Marxists would do well to broaden their horizons:
http://libcom.org/history/1919-1950-the-politics-of-surrealism

annak said...

Was Hume a postmodernist?

Don't be silly. Why are you anti-pomo folks so silly? Silly is a pomo thing. Leave that to us.

Sometimes it all just makes a kind of sense :)