Category Archives: Intellectualism

Philip K. Dick, the Imbecile, the Visionary

Here’s the thing about Philip K. Dick: he was an abysmal writer.  Though they are now far less frequent than a few years ago, every Dick “retrospective” begins with some sort of veiled caveat about his writing, which quickly segues into effusive praise of his ideas and style.  Notice Adam Gopnik’s piece in the New Yorker from just over a year ago:

“Of all American writers, none have got the genre-hack-to-hidden-genius treatment quite so fully as Philip K. Dick…Dick has also become for our time what Edgar Allan Poe was for Gilded Age America: the doomed genius who supplies a style of horrors and frissons.”

Notice the turn here.  Though Gopnik later argues the contrary, his very citation of the widespread belief that Dick is a genius underappreciated serves as salt for an argument that must be made, namely although Dick is a horrible writer, he can and must be appreciated for his “form of protest and instant social satire.”  This pusillanimity of argumentative tact is necessary for the argumentative sleight-of-hand that most Dick critics must make in order that his writing is accepted by the public intellect.

This sort of criticism, though helpful in getting Dick’s name around, is wrong-headed and yields an improper reading of the man’s expansive body of work.  If the argument is bought, Dick is treated as high literature, regardless of his poor prose.  This is as stupid a concept as it is wrong-headed, because through Dick’s writing it is self-evident that the ideas his writing elicits are the true mettle of Dick’s literary persona.  The current critical view of Dick is wont to strip away the layers of writing that surround his ideas like so many coatings of paint.  His writing, though bad, is not a foil: it is the essential aspect of a literary philosopher, not a satirist or a social critic.

As a major of philosophy, my perspective on the writer is necessarily skewed towards this reading, but I think it is corroborated by even a cursory review of his books and the underlying ideas they treat.  The New Yorker critic sees in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? a blithe lampooning of American corporatism and the decay of the rule of law.  Blade Runner has in this case served to obscure the book’s actual message by the sheer power of its visual language (this is an important point).  Deckard’s infantile social capacity is mirrored with the social impulse towards mood-modification.  His wife cannot communicate with him on any meaningful level because she is obsessed with her own Cartesian winter, spent modifying her moods and compulsions with high-technology pharmacology.

In Dr. Bloodmoney, a predominant theme of Dick’s writing is taken to its apotheosis: Walter Dangerfield orbits the earth in a satellite, broadcasting classical music to the inhabitants below.  Dr. Bloodmoney or Bruno Bluthgeld or Jack Tree is himself responsible for the nuclear war that has brought the human race to its knees.  This is Descartes’ cogito enlarged to the point of absurdity.  Bloodmoney finds himself vested with the terrible power of being able to cause a nuclear holocaust with his own mind.

Dick critics who see him as a satirist par excellence do him a disservice, mainly because his satire would be ideosyncratic and without any real insights into the human condition after World War II.  Dick is backward-looking, and forward-extrapolating.  He is not trying to poke fun at the consumerism stalking the gates of American culture or of the vapid scientism that challenges the viability of any ideology.

It is a common refrain that the Dickian hero is more likely than not an ‘average joe’, who is just trying to make his way through the world, yet is brought kicking and screaming into unfortunate circumstanes that demand he prove his worth.  This is convenient because the satirical read benefits: Dick is simply portraying the plight of the common man under the encroachments of modern technology.

Dick is portraying a loneliness that is modern above all, and modernity has no space at the table for a satirist.  Why do Dick’s ideas matter so much, then?  Because he stands for the resumption of history after its end; to show that there is a continuity in the crises of humanity.  We wrested the spark of atomic fire from the fennel-seed of intellect.  Our mistakes and slips of mind have ever more potent consequences, but it is by very dint of the seriousness of modern life that Dick finds an even more essential meaning to being human.  His writing isolates this continuity and matches profundity in the human sorteé with ever-greater absurdities in his own outpouring of love, grief, and humor.


The current reads

  • From Dawn to Decadence by Jacques Barzun
  • Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Letham
  • The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker
  • Parmenides by Plato
  • Theogony by Hesiod
  • Tractatus Logic-Philosophicus by Ludwig Wittgenstein

Thoughtful read for today:

In the course of my education I’ve found that I spend most of my time reading the work of dead or aging authors; I think that the English major may be the only opportunity to read modern works, but this is probably the chief reason for not pursuing an English major in the first place.

In any case, in an effort to jump-start my own writing, I’m posting a speech titled “Is Democracy for Export?” by Jacques Barzun, given at the Carnegie Society dinner in 1981 or thereabouts.  Works that are hundreds of years old often carry more pertinence today than they did in their contemporary era (I’ve heard this is the case with Chateaubriand and others).  This speech is brilliant in that it is couched in the terminology of the Cold War yet succeeds in transcending the issues of the time to provide some insightful words about American Democracy’s place in the world.

Is Democracy for Export – PDF

The mid-week read

Gerald Early has written an eloquent and thought-provoking piece in the Chronicle about Barack Obama’s election hopes in the context of American racial history.  He presents the first coherent argument about the end of racism that does not give any thanks to White culture while also unceremoniously dumping the age-old and endlessly-harped-upon Black position as-victim.  I think his most interesting thought is

Many of us black professionals, members of the black elite, keep the embers of our victimization burning for opportunistic reasons: to lev-erage white patronage, to maintain our own sense of identity and tradition. In some respects, this narrative has something of the power in its endurance that original sin does for Christians. In fact, our narrative of victimization is America’s original sin, or what we want to serve as the country’s original sin, which may be why we refuse to give it up.

It’s a piece well worth reading if you are interested in the cultural and political themes that this election draws upon but only seem to get passing reference in the news media.

Sunday Reading…

I’ve become rather lazy with this aspect of my blog: I can’t seem to stop getting my articles from the AL Daily.  In any case, Here’s “The Return of Goodness” by Edward Skidelsky.  Roughly, it’s about how virtue-based ethics have been superceded by extreme individualism and secularism.  It’s an article well worth reading; it has caused no end of debate amongst my friends and teachers about the place of government, community, and values in our society.

Now, I joyously take my leave for–oh joy, oh rapture–Chinese!

You can’t blame the youth…

The title of this post is taken from a Peter Tosh song, in case you were wondering.  Thomas H. Benton has written a two-part piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education (part 1part 2) about the — you probably guessed it — decline and fall of intellectualism in the younger generation.  Spare me your yawns, as I am having trouble keeping my own away.  He seems to have a fondness for bulleted points that summarize his position nicely and make it easy for commentators like me to poke fun at him.  His observations on the younger generation of which I count myself a part characterize them as (and I quote):

Primarily focused on their own emotions — on the primacy of their “feelings” — rather than on analysis supported by evidence.

  • Uncertain what constitutes reliable evidence, thus tending to use the most easily found sources uncritically.
  • Convinced that no opinion is worth more than another: All views are equal.
  • Uncertain about academic honesty and what constitutes plagiarism. (I recently had a student defend herself by claiming that her paper was more than 50 percent original, so she should receive that much credit, at least.)
  • Unable to follow or make a sustained argument.
  • Uncertain about spelling and punctuation (and skeptical that such skills matter).
  • Hostile to anything that is not directly relevant to their career goals, which are vaguely understood.
  • Increasingly interested in the social and athletic above the academic, while “needing” to receive very high grades.
  • Not really embarrassed at their lack of knowledge and skills.
  • Certain that any academic failure is the fault of the professor rather than the student.

Well, lets see here.  Before I venture to even discuss this guy’s argument (if I even do), lets get a little checklist going here.  Argument that the younger generation isn’t carrying the helm of progress forward?  Check.  Argument that the younger generation has been perverted by its new technologies and habits?  Check.  Argument that there is not enough respect for the academics who are tasked with teaching these children the lofty idealism of American academia?  Check.  

So, what in intention started out as an indictment of the internet and American parenting has actually ended up a silly little polemic against American anti-intellectualism.  Now, don’t get me wrong.  I’m not someone who believes that those ‘liberul professors outta be tied up and shot’.  Far from it.  But when an English professor gets after me and my chums for not having enough respect?  Please.  This guy is trying to give me a hard time because I apparently do not have enough respect for all of these enlightenment ideals he holds dear.  His chief concern, I suppose, is that my generation will not have the desire or capability to produce enough GDP to give him a tidy stipend in his twilight years from the social security fund.

Pardon me for speaking for my generation, but if this baby boomer wants to give us shit for our perceived stupidity, he should know that we’re all actually quite resentful of what they have given us:  A world whose environment is almost certainly headed towards catastrophe, a Middle East fundamentally opposed to the idea of the United States, not to mention the ideas we are supposed to stand for.

Forgive me for being unimpressed by the best efforts of this shoddy English professor.  And they can’t seem to stop wondering where America’s perpetually healthy anti-intellectualism comes from!

I am being a little unfair to the guy.  He did finish off his little paper with an argument about how things are not really all that bad and that this is mostly just the older generation’s fear of the younger generation’s new methods.  I’m only unforgiving because this guy is just spewing out the same-old points and counter-points instead of confronting the thing that this article really does point out: his own uselessness.

Weekend reading

Well, I haven’t really been reading much besides some scholarly articles in preparation for my Senior Thesis for my philosophy degree, but I have managed some more time with Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence (featured earlier on my blog) and I happened upon a choice quote today:

“The labels “ancient” and “modern” and the contrast between their ways in art and literature…fired up two factions that divided the world of letters…The moderns won out in the end, carried on by a cultural tide rather than by literary arguments…quick minds pointed out that superior work, greater wisdom–in a word, progress–takes places in all things.

This conclusion was far-reaching. With progress admitted, it follows that man and society are perfectible; and if this is possible, schemes for changing the world should be attended to. By the next century programs of reform began to flow in an endless stream. The western mind had turned from backward-looking to future-making. And when the re-orientation became general, society was kept in paradoxical discomfort: cheerful because working to improve life, and suffering guilty SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS because present conditions are so bad. Also endless war between the bold and the cautious, who ended up forming political parties undervarious names, ultimately shortened to the Left and the Right. These in turn are split into factions by the diversity of hopeful plans, though the ancients and the moderns, who are always with us, now seem to agree that the Christian view of the world as irremediably evil is not absolute. Progress is possible, an admission that points to an ever-wider SECULARISM.”

Put that in your evening coffee.