Monday, August 18, 2008

PKD's Obscure 18th Century Philosophical Allusion of the Day

After finding a mysterious strip of paper that reads SOFT-DRINK STAND instead of an actual Soft-Drink Stand in one of Dick's most amazing scenes ever, Time Out of Joint's protagonist Ragle Gumm expresses an interest in studying philosophy, saying to his brother-in-law Vic, "I've read some [philosophy], in my time. I was thinking of Bishop Berkeley. The Idealist. For instance -"

Those of you interested [as I am] in decoding the soft-drink stand scene in TOoJ will be interested to learn that, aside from having the California town of Berkeley (where PKD grew up) named after him, Bishop George Berkeley was a 18th century philosopher/metaphysic who developed a very complex notion of subjective reality, dubbed by him as 'immaterialism' and later termed by others subjective idealism, which contends, in part, that no object exists without someone perceiving it. In other words when a tree falls in the woods and no one's around to hear it, it doesn't make a sound [although that's a simplification since the tree falling in the woods riddle is basically a vocabulary problem that depends on the definition of the word 'sound'].

Since George Berkeley is long dead, and, conveniently now in the public domain, you can read his A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge here. It ain't easy or fun reading, but it is interesting. Once you've ingested it, check out Wikipedia's synopsis. This incredibly poorly focused pair of sentences from Berkeley's treatise seem relevant:

"4. It is indeed an opinion strangely prevailing amongst men, that houses, mountains, rivers, and in a word all sensible objects, have an existence, natural or real, distinct from their being perceived by the understanding. But, with how great an assurance and acquiescence soever this principle may be entertained in the world, yet whoever shall find in his heart to call it in question may, if I mistake not, perceive it to involve a manifest contradiction. For, what are the fore-mentioned objects but the things we perceive by sense? and what do we perceive besides our own ideas or sensations? and is it not plainly repugnant that any one of these, or any combination of them, should exist unperceived?"

Now, add the notion of reification to the above equation and you begin to see labels standing in for reality, because what we perceive is rarely the totality of what we sense, but instead, using language as a kind of shorthand, our minds rely on words to make objects comprehensible. Instead of seeing a silver, four-wheeled, loud, moving, object, we see a car. This is a necessary, albeit reductive, way of perceiving the world. If we become further removed from 'reality' because our nervous systems are overworked and stressed, or because of a mental illness like paranoia, we perceive even less sensory data, and, consequently, are quicker to see things as generalizations, as categories. The word or label is always a reduction of the object it describes, or, as I explain it to my students, "the menu is not the food."

I thought if I wrote this out, I might better understand my thinking on the subject. So much for that idea.

For an interesting summation of exactly how complicated (and influential) the soft-drink stand scene is I suggest you read Patrick Clark's essay The Secret of the Soft-Drink Stand Explained At Last (click here to download the .doc file). But, alas, Clark doesn't explain the Soft-Drink Stand.

Update: Philosophical debate continues in the comments section.


Anonymous said...

It is interesting that you wrote that a paranoiac recieves less sensory information as I read (in one of PKD's essays) that there is evidence to suggest that paranoid people actually percieve more than us, and have some kind of ESP where they can pick up others' criticisms of them. I think Jung described this in a few cases.

Anonymous said...

I like your example of the difference between perceiving the individual elements that make up a car and perceiving the car itself. There are many cultural (and therefore ideological) assumptions that go into perceiving a car. What makes Dick's soft-drink stand so useful is that it takes this shift from distinct functional parts to a holistic soft-drink stand one step further. If the first shift deemphasizes pieces and functions in favor of the cultural meanings and uses of the soft-drink stand, Dick's second shift deemphasizes the actual uses of the stand and looks at the purely ideological slip of paper. Signs are substituted for objects in order to more clearly reveal their ideological construction.

The soft-drink stand becomes for Ragle a cultural fact rather than a site of refreshment. If the stand was a great place to get a drink before, it becomes a signifier for his society's ability to offer drinks on every street corner. The slip of paper is a marker of commodities and pleasurable abundance.

Dick's touch is masterful because the substitution of the slip of paper for the soft-drink stand causes Ragle to simultaneously consider the existence of soft-drink stands (that is, the social facts that provide soft-drink stands) and consider their loss. The soft-drink stand as a pleasure offered by a rich society is suddenly called into question -- which causes Ragle to question society itself. And it is this realization that helps him discover that the material relations of society are not what he thought they were. The real society of the novel's 1990s is much bleaker.

These are important ruptures. I can't help but think of the mortgage crisis in the U.S., in which people's homes are replaced with slips of paper. The wealthy society is revealed as a place where value and abundance were constructed for our pleasure but cannot last, in the same way that Ragle's society is constructed for his pleasure and doesn't last.

Ragle Gumm said...

giospurs, I would love to know what essay that's in. My guess is 'Schizophrenia and the Book of Changes' but I'm away from my reference books. If you have the quote please send it along.

Just a little background: I did a Freudian reading of TOoJ for my masters thesis and am polishing up a chapter for submission.

There are two connected aspects in Freud's conception of paranoia: 1) a withdrawal from reality and 2) megalomania. They are connected because Freud hypothesizes that egomania results from surplus psychic energy (the energy the psyche uses, not psychic hotline 'psychic') normally being expended interacting with the world, being redirected inwards and overly augmenting self-regard until it becomes a debilitating narcissism.

Notice Dick repeatedly mentions Freud in TOoj but never Jung.

Ragle Gumm said...

Your analysis is very complex and reminds me of Barb Morning Child's essay Abstract Concrete The Cosmic Puppets

As you've seen my thesis, I think you know I'm going for a slightly different reading, but yours is insightful and erudite.

And of course the scene admits a multitude of interpretations.

Anonymous said...

I found the quote I was talking about, and it is from Drugs, Hallucinations and the Quest for Reality (1964):
" ...there now appears some validation of extrasensory perceptions -
- and abilities. There is a relationship; as far back as 1900 Freud himself noted
palpable evidence, during free association by his patients, of telepathic ability. (I
really hate to have learned this, having jeered at ESP for years; but Freud's
documentation alone -- and he was an incredibly scrupulous observer -- tends to
strengthen the case for ESP.) And, recently, in absolutely reputable psychiatric
journals, trained M.D. psychiatrists have given us the news that telepathic
perceptions by their patients occur so frequently as to be beyond dispute.
Ehrenwald, published by W. W. Norton, which is reputable, with a foreword by
Gardner Murphy, goes so far as to construct an entire theory of mental illness
based on firsthand observation of his severely disturbed patients that they are
experiencing involuntary telepathic linkage; the paranoids, for example, receive
as sense data the marginal, repressed, unspoken hostile thoughts and feelings of
those around them; he declares that again and again, while passing through
hospital wards, paranoid patients quoted to him word for word hostile thoughts
that he was entertaining toward them -- and, of course, concealing such thoughts,
as we all do, in order to keep our interpersonal relationships functioning. So now,
in my prolix, rambling way, I have gotten to my Big Scoop. Taking Ehrenwald's
utterances at face value (that is, accepting them as true and using them as a
postulate), we are faced with the clear and evident possibility that at least in the
case of paranoids -- or, anyhow, some paranoids -- the "delusions" are not delusions at all, but are, on the contrary, accurate perceptions of an area of
reality that the rest of us cannot (thank the Lord) reach."

I got Jung mixed up with Freud, but otherwise my summary wasn't too inaccurate.

Anonymous said...

Dick's 1964 article is very interesting. This concept of overperception suggests that some people said to have mental illnesses are given access to objects and actions beyond culturally accepted perceptions.

What I like about this idea is that it seems to fit with how Dick conceived of the role of the artist. A work of value is one that allows the reader to see a common thing in a new way -- not just a new way, but an intensely human way. Dick has a way of breaking down culturally-ossified reality in his work, but the process reveals that the pieces are themselves shot through with connections. The discussion in "The Man in the High Castle" about the object made by Frank Frink is a particularly clear statement of this idea that the artistic object works on a human level. I wish I could examine that section now, but I'm not at home. Without stating it in so many words, Dick seems to argue that the artist receives extra-sensory perceptions which lead to new concepts of reality that break down accretions of cultural stuff and reveal the humanity underneath.

Freud and Jung provide useful parallels. Freud's concept of "screen memories" is, I think, the best metaphor for the experiences through which Dick's protagonists go. One thinks one has clear and correct memories of childhood, but these actually cover over other, more meaningful, events. An experience or a dream (or an analytic session) may disrupt these screen memories. Dick's work often shows overperception leading to a similar breakdown of previously held beliefs. Jung's use of the concept of "synchronicity" accomplishes something similar -- and is something that Dick is fascinated by. Seemingly unrelated events are brought together and lead to greater insights about one's surroundings. My favorite example is the suicide that comes early in "Martian Time Slip." This event reverberates throughout the novel and leads to events that exceed the characters' limited perceptions of their surroundings.

David, I think the concept of ego is very interesting here. Might "egomania" be an overperception of the ego that leads to new and profoundly important insights? Rather than an affliction, it might be possible that egomania is crucial. For example, Ragle's recognition that he is responsible for saving people from destruction does more than elevate his importance, it reveals his regard for others (your thesis reminded me that Ragle was kind of in the dumps about being worthless before that).

I'll have to check out "The Cosmic Puppets" and the article you mentioned. By my calculations, there are still 17 Dick novels that I have to read. That seems like a lot, but I have already made my way through 25. If only people would stop assigning me other stuff to read! :)

Anonymous said...

I knew I loved Phil's writings for a reason.

This is the very foundation of the novel I'm writing right now. Except that I've thrown various gods and, um, beer into the mix.

Graham said...

To be absolutely honest, the most outright and reprehensible notion in this bloh post is the notion that Berkely is in some way obscure.

On the contrary, he's amongst the most cited and referenced of all philosophers in contemporary genre fiction. For reasons well captured in a lot of well known narratives about ontology and epistomology.

Not much new hers

Ragle Gumm said...

'Reprehensible'? ....Please.

I think you demonstrate an important point: for you the word 'obscure' is incorrect (apparently so incorrect as to warrant some kind of punishment) because you apparently know a lot about philosophy and are familiar with Berkeley's work.

I, on the other hand, haven't read that much philosophy and, (gulp) had never heard of Berkeley.

We see Berkeley's legacy differently and would use different words to describe his notoriety.

Anonymous said...

There is so much great stuff crammed into this post and its resultant comments.

On a personal note, there is a synchronistic connection to my own real life conversation from yesterday that takes this to a whole new level of freaky for me.

I have yet to read TOoJ, but have a few observations about what was described.

Keep in mind this is heavily weighted with what I believe about reality and our minds... that being said, the scene with the soft drink stand seems to me to be pointing out a pretty complex concept. That our minds are simply creating a simulation of the constructed by taking sensory information (very important), and then translating that information into language. These bits of language we can then compare to what we "know" about reality. My that I mean we can filter out what we don't allow and make necessary changes by applying defense mechanisms, etc. We then use this edited text to construct our simulation from.

The reason this was synchronistic to me, was that the discussion I was having was based on why in my dreams, I might always be in the house I grew up in, rather than my current house. Even though I am now married, my wife and all of our bedroom things are there with us, only we are in my childhood room. Why? Well I decided that it was because of the way we process information (as language), and the way we form beliefs.

Once we are programed with certain informational terms to the point of forming a belief, it tends to stay there. So in my mind "MY HOUSE" was first programed as my childhood house. So when dreaming and constructing that simulation of the world, the language of "MY HOUSE" constructs not the house I own, but my childhood house.

I found that very interesting. Before I end though.. I mentioned the sensory data being just information, and that I thought it was an important distinction.. the reason I say this is important is that we are not actually perceiving the "objects" in question. The sound we hear is not the object, but vibration... The light our eyes perceive (the only thing they perceive), is not the object, but light particles/waves reflected by the object (or given off by it) that hit our eyes and get translated into signals.. but not the object.. etc..

We perceive bits of information about objects, but not the objects themselves. This information seems to be translated into language first, for comparison to see if its allowed, or expected. Can we assume that octagonal red sign with white letters says STOP or do we need to figure out why it says SPOT? hehehe. Heisenberg said "What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.""

Life can be made a whole lot stranger and much more exciting once you realize the world you live in, isn't really out there..

Your beliefs change and you start to allow more into your experience. Logic and language are your world. In my opinion, that's a good part of why philosophy should be a lot more important to us.

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Cliff said...

I like Rene Magritte's (Belgian surrealist painter) in this regard; a lot of his work seems to focus on this very subject: how "real" are things, reification etc. and how closely bound to "perception" is this.

Perhaps his most famous image is that of a pipe, with beneath the sentence "Ceci n'est pas une pipe" ("this is not a pipe"). Interpretation abound, the easiest of which may be "it's just a painting of a pipe, innit?" but some deeper ones are suggested if one looks at his other works, including "words never can capture reality" and "words such as 'pipe' represent categories that are human inventions, fantasies, pure imagination really".

I have been trying, but failed so far, to find this specific painting of his in which various parts of a scene are whited out and some word ("tree", "road", etc.) written in their place.

His series of paintings "the human condition" is also interesting in how it portrays the "real world" vs. our represention/fantasy/creation of that world.

The (dorktastic) book Godel Escher Bach devotes some space to Magritte, drawing parallels to Zen in re: words vs. reality.

There's another book on Magritte I used to own (I can't recall the author's name, just that it was a woman's name like Susan something) which talked about this Zen connection as well.

Berkeley's ideas, in this light, do have strong connections to certain streams in eastern thought (and western, but more buried thought as found in Gnosticism and various occult traditions), e.g. veil of Maya, Zen, and Daoism (if you can name it, it ain't it, if you know it, you can't name it, if you have to ask, you'll never know, etc.).

A more Dickian connection is found in stories like Incident at Owl Creek and (the story of the film) Jacob's Ladder.