Category: Class Work

My future plans for study and growth

scholarHaving just moved to Portland from the midwest, it’s obvious I’m looking to start a new life. Well, a new chapter. I like my life, and most of what’s in it, so I don’t want a new one. Just, improved. Full disclosure, a large part of the “deal” with moving here is so that my wife can find her own new life. I won’t go into detail as that’s her story to tell. But, suffice it to say, much of my role, at least initially here, is to support her in her search and discovery. And I’m happy to do so! But, while I’m looking for that elusive and decent-paying tech job, I do have some of my own goals — some I’m already working on. . . .

As I mentioned in my last post, I’m working on the sequel to Singularity Deferred. And, just moments ago, I finished two intense chapters of it and feel really good about where it’s going. I’m making a decision about its structure that fans of the first novel may find annoying, or really like — we’ll see. Anyway, that’s my main personal goal right now. But, ennui, dissatisfaction, the draw and tease of scholarly subjects, many influences have made me pine for grad school. I miss it. I miss the research, the studying, the reading, the papers, the learning and developing and widening and understanding of things…. I miss it something terrible.

Of course there’s no reason to stop learning and developing! Of course. But since graduating with my Masters, it’s felt like a demarcation, a transition from “scholar” back to working drone, and the old habits and floundering. (Although, like I said, I’m somewhat pleased that I’ve been writing semi-regularly, still!)

Today, it hit me hard. I was reminded of my work in mediated experience in a postmodern world, and the writers I used to research and use, and discovered new books by them… and I felt the need, the absolute need, to continue to study them, model them, and carry on my own scholarship and add to the discourse.

Part of me has been in wait. I’ve known since before I graduated in 2010 (oh my god!) that my next step was to be a PhD from Trent University in Ontario. Their Cultural Studies department is enviable and arguably the best in North America. Either their “culture and tech” or “culture and theory” course of study, I can’t yet decide. But, I figured that’d be something I’d do after our daughter graduated high school, three years from now. Sure, by that time I’d likely be one of the oldest PhD candidates they probably have (I was one of the oldest MA students MSU’s English department had), but I don’t care. I can’t let the unstoppable passage of time and my advancing age prevent me from seeking my goals. After all, how many people take up and climb mountains mid- and post-mid-life? Explore other countries? Take up diving and explore the ocean bottom? Why can’t my graduate degrees be my Mount Everest?

But will Trent happen? Even in three years? I’m in Portland now, and Portland is my home. Sure, I could move to Ontario for 2 to 3 years, then come back. But will I? Sure, if I want it enough, and can afford it….

But then, if I want it enough, why wait until then? Why not start now? Why wait until I enroll in a new school? Do Sherry Turkle or Katherine Hayles or Slavoj Zizek or Hardt and Negri wait to get yet another degree before they research and write their next books?! Of course not! They are scholars, and that’s what it means to be a scholar. You research, study, synthesize, and contribute now, despite where and when you are. Why can’t I do that now?

Soon I will have another mind and body sapping job in order to pay the bills, and I will have to conform and contort my writing and scholarship around that. To do that, I’ll have to give up other distractions: Facebook for the most part, TV and movies, sleep. But it’s not enough, for me, just just proclaim abstinence from distraction, find the latest book on posthuman cultural criticism and read… I need focus, goals, a program and a plan. I need to create my own doctorate program. No, I won’t get more letters I can put after my name from it, but that doesn’t matter. Zizek doesn’t get a new degree for every new topic he researches and then writes a book on. Just as I can’t in good conscience call myself “a writer” unless I’m actually writing, I can’t call myself “a scholar” unless I’m doing the work of scholarship. And I know myself well enough to know I’m unlikely to engage in actual scholarship (and commenting on Facebook articles is not scholarship), unless I have a plan and structure and goalposts.

And so, before work takes up most of my time and energy, I need to get to work creating my own personal PhD program. I feel excited, challenged…happy at the prospect!

…starting and editing a regular literary journal has been a goal of mine for a few years now–I wonder how to incorporate that.

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“Blade Runner’s” 30th anniversary and cartoonists with projection issues

Well, yesterday was the 30th anniversary of the release of “Blade Runner” — the film I have, since I saw it when I was 11, invariably listed as my favorite film of all. Like most people (who weren’t up on the latest literary scifi trends) at that time, circa 1982, I had no experience or knowledge of “cyberpunk.” But the style and themes of “Blade Runner,” despite having had only 11 years of safe, middle-class life experiences to draw upon, etched themselves into my mind and from that moment, converted me from a die-hard Ray Bradbury fan to (although I didn’t yet know it) a die-hard William Gibson fan. After “Blade Runner,” my scifi aesthetic became dark as an alley and bright as neon. I didn’t yet know it, but the seeds of appreciation for the posthuman were planted, the seeds for understanding postmodern capitalism were planted — albeit deeper.

Though, on the surface, what that 11-to-13-year-old me most loved, was most amazed by, was the very, very, un-Star Wars, un-Star Trek view of the polluted and dying megalopolis depicted in the film. A film with the symbol of human progress and science: the flying car, set, unexpectedly, among the decay and nihilism of the cyberpunk world.

Thanks to having my awareness primed by “Blade Runner,” when I did finally come across William Gibson in the fiction pages of OMNI magazine just a couple years later, the short circuit was made and I became. I began to truly understand what it meant to question being human, what it meant to fear the future and question the myth of the bright and glorious future of humanity.

And, over the 30 years, every time I revisit “Blade Runner,” by accumulated life experiences informs my appreciation for the film and those questions and fears even more — and more deeply.

Gareth Branwyn wrote a short essay on BoingBoing.net a few weeks ago, remembering the truly sublime, life-altering experience seeing “Blade Runner” for the first time was for him. He had the life experiences to allow him to have that sublime epiphany in the moment. I had to draw that moment our over three decades into growing awareness punctuated by moments of, “Ooohhh, yyeeaahh….” (Be sure to read that BoingBoing article! Emotional.)

The latest stage of my developing awareness came, funny enough, toward the later years, when I discovered the works of the man whose novel, Do Android Dream of Electric Sheep, inspired the film. Philip K. Dick. There is no “Everything happens for a reason,” but it’s difficult to ignore the feeling that my history with “Blade Runner,” Gibson, cyberpunk, didn’t lead me to where I could encounter PKD prepared to appreciate and understand his work, his themes, his intent, from the first word of his I read.

Naturally, the plot of “Blade Runner” diverges from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep somewhat significantly. But when you examine it, and realize Ridley Scott had to pare a novel down to a two-hour audio-visual version, it really is an excellent, and indeed, faithful translation. And from the script he read and the dailies he saw, PKD thought so as well until he passed away so close to the premiere.

And this is where my assessment appears to diverge greatly from that of cartoonist John Bonner. In his one-page comic, “Comic Crits Classics: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick,” Bonner speculates that PKD would have loved the style of the film (which he did), but would have ultimately been disappointed and even betrayed by the lack of certain thematic elements. Not only is Bonner likely wrong about what PKD would have thought (based on PKD’s own words), but he’s factually wrong about the film not including some of the themes he seems to think it missed.

He has his Philip lamenting the film’s lack of “kibble” (sic) and the “exploration of the android-human dilemma.” In fact, he projects that his idea of Philip would be “heartbroken” at the loss of supposedly nearly everything from the book that didn;t make it into the film. Well, allow me to address Bonner’s errors.

The so-called android-human dilemma is at the very core of the film. In fact, the primary theme of the film centers around the dilemma of androids who are more human than human and yet are considered less-than human by the cold and resentful humans that created them. The entire film asks, “What does it mean to be ‘human’?”

And the kipple? (As it’s properly spelled.) The film is wall-to-wall with it. A couple of years ago I wrote a paper for grad school titled, “The Ubiquitous and Panasonic Kipple: Tracing the Consumption of Death, from Philip K. Dick to Don DeLillo’s White Noise.” As the title suggests, I deal with the concept of kipple a wee bit. From Do Androids, here’s what it is:

“Kipple is useless objects, like junk mail or match folders after you use the last match or gum wrappers or yesterday’s homeopape. When nobody’s around, kipple reproduces itself. For instance, if you go to bed leaving any kipple around your apartment, when you wake up in the next morning there’s twice as much of it. It always gets more and more.”

“I see.” The girl regarded him uncertainly, not knowing whether to believe him. Not sure if he meant it seriously.

“There’s the First Law of Kipple,” he said. “‘Kipple drives our nonkipple.’ Like Gresham’s law about bad money. And in these apartments there’s been nobody there to fight the kipple.”

“So it has taken over completely,” the girl finished. She nodded. “Now I understand.” (57)

In Androids, PKD has to, naturally, explain what kipple is and that the world is filled with it. It’s a novel. Ridley Scott, however, is (despite the heartbreakingly disappointing “Prometheus.”) an expert filmmaker. He doesn’t need to tell you about kipple, he shows you. Every set, every scene of the film is wall-to-wall kipple. The streets, Deckard’s apartment, Sebastian’s apartment, Zhora’s dressing room, everywhere except Tyrell’s conference room is littered with kipple in a claustrophobia-inducing crush. Scott doesn’t have to tell you that the decaying Earth is being weighted down by the cast-off corpses of consumerism — it’s evident in every shot. It seeps into the subliminal awareness of the film like the way kipple seeps into our lives. Scott “gets” it. And that’s probably one reason PKD did indeed love what he saw of the film:

I came to the conclusion that this indeed is not science fiction; it is not fantasy; it is exactly what Harrison said: futurism. The impact of BLADE RUNNER is simply going to be overwhelming, both on the public and on creative people — and, I believe, on science fiction as a field. Since I have been writing and selling science fiction works for thirty years, this is a matter of some importance to me. In all candor I must say that our field has gradually and steadily been deteriorating for the last few years. Nothing that we have done, individually or collectively, matches BLADE RUNNER. This is not escapism; it is super realism, so gritty and detailed and authentic and goddam convincing that, well, after the segment I found my normal present-day “reality” pallid by comparison. What I am saying is that all of you collectively may have created a unique new form of graphic, artistic expression, never before seen. And, I think, BLADE RUNNER is going to revolutionize our conceptions of what science fiction is and, more, canbe.

Let me sum it up this way. Science fiction has slowly and ineluctably settled into a monotonous death: it has become inbred, derivative, stale. Suddenly you people have come in, some of the greatest talents currently in existence, and now we have a new life, a new start. As for my own role in the BLADE RUNNER project, I can only say that I did not know that a work of mine or a set of ideas of mine could be escalated into such stunning dimensions. My life and creative work are justified and completed by BLADE RUNNER. Thank you.

And:

“I saw a segment of Douglas Trumbull’s special effects for Blade Runner on the KNBC-TV news. I recognized it immediately. It was my own interior world. They caught it perfectly.”

Mercerism was an, admittedly, prominent and important aspect of PKD’s novel, but to attempt to include that would require a film twice as long. And from PKD’s appreciation of the script he read:

After I finished reading the screenplay, I got the novel out and looked through it. The two reinforce each other, so that someone who started with the novel would enjoy the movie and someone who started with the movie would enjoy the novel. I was amazed that Peoples could get some of those scenes to work. It taught me things about writing that I didn’t know.”
[…]
“You read the screenplay and then you go to the novel, and it’s like they’re two halves to one meta-artwork, one meta-artifact. It’s just exciting.

…I think PKD was perfectly okay with their not including that half of the book in this film.

So, I have a feeling that Bonner was personally disappointed by what he felt the film missed from one of his favorite books, and decided to project that disappointment into the voice of the author — despite the author’s own well-documented opinions of the film.

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MMOGs: The Avatar of Consumerism

My term paper for ENG 685 (Survey of Modern Cultural Criticism…or something like that…never did learn the full name) was actually completed last May, but I haven’t gotten around to putting it up on the blog until now.

I’m kind of proud of it. It’s not great in that the writing style could still use a lot of work, but I think it’s a solid piece. I’d like to use this as a jumping off point into writing a book on the subject sometime down the road.

Well, here it is, but if you want to read it in an easier on the eyes PDF version, right-click/save-as this link here.

MMOGs: The Avatar of Consumerism

Massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs) continue to draw throngs of players every year with the promise of action, adventure, compelling stories, and untold riches and legendary artifacts that can be your very own. The most popular MMOG at this time, World of Warcraft, has over ten million paying subscribers while millions more are playing dozens of similar competing games (MMOGCHART.com). There is no doubt that, as a cultural product, the MMOG is enjoying a popularity to which few other forms of production can compare (except for perhaps popular music and television). What is perhaps most striking about this form of production is that in addition to being a commodity sold by global media corporations and thus, like all other products and creative projects, comment on the cultural logic — the MMOG is in an unusual position to actually replicate the dominate hegemonic conditions which commodify the participant in active, real-time alternate spaces. Taking a materialist approach to the subject, what follows is an analysis of how the MMOG fits among the contrivances and contradictions of the postmodern culture. But to begin, an examination of how the mystification of commodification relies on the delicate construction of the idea of “the self” will be necessary.

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Writing on track.

I wrote 25 new pages on my novel/thesis this weekend. A huge burst of productivity!
And best of all, it got me past a certain bit of creative block and got me to an area that’s progressing the plot again. And it takes me to the beginning of a character development that the novel really needs.
So now I’m at 29,000 words, of what I estimate to become about 95,000 word novel.

Meanwhile, other projects in the works:
♦ Possible JFA article: sent to my professor/advisor for suggestions before sending it to JFA.
♦ Class final paper mostly done, thanks to the fact it’s based on last year’s ICFA paper. *whew!*
♦ Book review for Extrapolation–way behind. (Weird; book reviews are supposed to be one of the easiest “scholarly” articles to do, and I’m finding it most difficult.)
♦ Will be sending a story out to Realms of Fantasy at lunch today.

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Fanon and its Review from a Postmodern Perspective

Fanon and its Review from a Postmodern Perspective

In the spirit of full disclosure, it must be said that I have not read John Edgar Wideman’s Fanon; so, it will be assumed throughout this essay that what the NPR book reviewer, Maureen Corrigan, has to say about it is accurate for the basis of an analysis of cultural production. From a standpoint that “text is a social space,” this is not altogether inappropriate as one of Roland Barthes’ main contentions is that there is no absolute and empirical meaning behind a text — in contrast to the liberal humanist point of view held up through the 1950s (and continuing today in some corners). In the traditional view, it was believed that a work of literature had only one inherent meaning, one appropriate way to examine and interpret the work. Barthes, on the other hand, promoted the idea that the work itself, its form and its function, is at least as important and valuable of a subject of examination as the text — if not more so.

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The Ubiquitous and Panasonic Kipple…

The Ubiquitous and Panasonic Kipple: Tracing the Consumption of Death, from Philip K. Dick to Don DeLillo’s White Noise

The original title for Don DeLillo’s White Noise (1984) was, but for a legal injunction, supposed to be Panasonic (Hearst), a neologism that roughly translates as “all sound” or “ever present sound.” While “white noise” is certainly an appropriate title for a novel that deals with the ubiquitous infusion and intrusion of consumer culture, death, and sex (inexorably intertwined concepts in western capitalism as well as in the novel), panasonic has the added benefit of also being an “imaginary word” invented by marketers. A word without real origin but seeming to indicate one in its quasi-Latinate morphemes. A word that seems to exude a mystical, hermetic meaning—but in actuality is nothing but a semiotic sign representing a quasi-real entity known as a corporation. Panasonic is a word that is both magical and meaningless—a perfect word for a postmodern novel in which the characters are mortally beset on all sides by the detritus of consumer culture: objects and signs of mediated culture and even sublimated culture where the real no longer even exists amidst the signs that have replaced them. It exemplifies Baudrillard’s hyperreality. Whether the title invokes a persistent sound that carries no signal (white noise) or a cynically manufactured word that has no meaning beyond the ephemeral and subjective (panasonic), DeLillo’s novel could just have easily taken on the name of Ubik: The Prequel for the way it continues the commentary established by Philip K. Dick in the novel Ubik, fifteen years earlier.

Dick’s Ubik (1969) is a novel that straddles the line between modern and postmodern. It presents a narrative that does not adhere itself to strict limitations of time and place, objective reality, or even plot. What it is primarily concerned with is the encroachment of the commodified culture, the decay of the root or primary meaning of the sign, as the development of hyperreality solidifies and the nature of mortality in a society of death denial. Heinrich, the son of White Noise’s main character, Jack Gladney, recognizes the root value of the commodities of their modern culture when he challenges his father to imagine explaining the modern versions of things to people from an ancient past. Everything regresses to basic items, their roots, when you try to explain the modern extrapolations. Heinrich imagines everything comes back to the question of component atoms, basic elements such as light and fire, when you try to explain modern objects to a hypothetical ancient Greek (142-3). In Dick’s Ubik, the main character, Joe Chip, ruminates about the nature of the prime versions of things as everything around him literally regresses into earlier, more basic versions of commodities: “Perhaps this weirdly verified a discarded ancient philosophy, that of Plato’s ideal objects, the universals which, in each class, were real” (132). Dick, through his characters, questions where the real in the commodities are. Both DeLillo and Dick point an unforgiving magnifying glass at the modern, western human nature to attempt to fight death by accumulating objects we assume have innate permanence. We deny our mortality by surrounding ourselves with items that we imbue with the magical ability to provide meaning, filling our Lacanian “Lack” with what should be meaning derived from the “Real,” but instead is just flotsam and jetsam of consumer culture that once separated from the false meaning imposed upon them, become simply society’s debris. Douglas Keesey explores, in his book Don DeLillo, the nature of objects, manufactured and natural, even people, that are replaced by simulacra—distancing us from the original: “If signs of the natural world have come to replace the real thing, so too have media representations of human nature worked to distance us from ourselves” (137). Keesey considers what is leftover of a sign, or simulation of the Real, when the sign is discarded.

This examination of the waste of consumerist culture begins its Dickian life as the same commodities that DeLillo uses as part of the white noise, in Dick’s 1955 short story, “Foster, You’re Dead.” The father (who had refused to fully embrace the capitalist ideology) of the main character, observes:

You know, this game has one real advantage over selling people cars and TV sets. With something like this we have to buy. It isn’t a luxury, something big and flashy to impress the neighbors, something we could do without. If we don’t buy this we die. They always said the way to sell something was to create anxiety in people. Create a sense of insecurity–tell them they smell bad or look funny. But this makes a joke out of deodorant and hair oil. (233)

 

Philip Dick gets to the root of the commodity culture by forcing us to examine the impetus that drives us to accumulate objects. Our very mortality is addressed by consumerism, preyed upon by the marketers and pitchmen, as we are convinced that our very identity, né, our very life, is at risk if we do not buy into the mass consumption—figuratively and literally. Babette, Jack Gladney’s wife in White Noise, realizes this on some level: “’It is all a corporate tie-in,’ Babette said in summary. ‘The sunscreen, the marketing, the fear, the disease. You can’t have one without the other’” (252). Jesse Kavadlo writes in his essay, “Recycling Authority: Don DeLillo’s Waste Management,” “Waste conveys power and aura; as the excess of photographs in the much-discussed ‘Most Photographed Barn’ passage ‘reinforces its aura’, so repeated spending and Jack’s own sense of buying power reinforces his frail feelings of self worth…” (165-6).

But death invariably comes, as the scientist who DeLillo’s Jack intends to kill, comes to understand. The scientist who attempted to create a pill, for eventual purchase of course, that would allow one to forget their fear of death—the supreme analog for this commodity-as-panacea theme: the ultimate, “super piece of engineering” (216), manufactured, packaged, and marketed commodity to fulfill the ultimate human desire of repressing (or eliminating altogether) the ultimate human fear. And following that, “…a greater death. More effective, productwise. This is what the scientists don’t understand, scrubbing their smocks with Woolite. Not that I have anything personal against death from our vantage point high atop Metropolitan County Stadium” (294).

So the product of consumer culture builds and collects, gathers around us. What is so expertly packaged and displayed in garish and eye-catching presentation, (or in ironically plain generic labels), patiently laying in wait on store shelves and dealers’ lots, collects helter-skelter as they are activated from their state of potential fulfillment of desire to discarded remnants of unfulfilled desire, upon purchase. A condition of all things associated with consumerist society made readily observable in the consumption of objects. Dick moves his critique of commodification from the manufacturing of desire and its manipulated (non) fulfillment, to the condition of the debris in his 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. One of the characters, living in an abandoned apartment building surrounded by the objects left behind by people who have emigrated off-world, tries to explain the nature of these cast-off commodities, or kipple:

“Kipple is useless objects, like junk mail or match folders after you use the last match or gum wrappers or yesterday’s homeopape. When nobody’s around, kipple reproduces itself. For instance, if you go to bed leaving any kipple around your apartment, when you wake up in the next morning there’s twice as much of it. It always gets more and more.”

“I see.” The girl regarded him uncertainly, not knowing whether to believe him. Not sure if he meant it seriously.

“There’s the First Law of Kipple,” he said. “‘Kipple drives our nonkipple.’ Like Gresham’s law about bad money. And in these apartments there’s been nobody there to fight the kipple.”

“So it has taken over completely,” the girl finished. She nodded. “Now I understand.” (57)

 

Later in the narrative, the protagonist, Rick Deckard, extrapolates the kipple from simply the remnants of commodities to the entire of human production, if not humanity itself, by ruminating, “This rehearsal will end, the performance will end, the singers will die, eventually the last score of the music will be destroyed in one way or another; finally the name Mozart will vanish and the dust will have won” (86). DeLillo’s Jack Gladney makes this same realization. He discusses with his friend and colleague, Murray, the work of Nazi architect Albert Speer and the Law of Ruins. He explains that Hitler had, despite his range of mental and moral defects, an uncanny appreciation of the temporal nature of things. He understood that despite the best efforts of an individual or even a society, everything eventually crumbles. So Hitler entreated Speer to create Reich structures “that would decay gloriously, impressively, like Roman ruins” (246). Murray’s ending remark in this conversation hints at his understanding that the effort to avoid the ruin, the decay into dust, may be futile when he ironically comments, “In any case, prevention is the thing, isn’t it? I’ve just seen the latest issue ofAmerican Mortician. Quite a shocking picture. The industry is barely adequate to accommodating the vast numbers of dead” (249). Murray later poses the question to Jack: “’That’s what it all comes down to in the end,’ he said. ‘A person spends his entire life saying good-bye to other people. How does he say good-bye to himself?’” (280). In answer, Jack continues his ongoing campaign of throwing away the kipple that he has accumulated throughout his life—discarding everything from crusted paintbrushes and clothes hangers to items that represent his own identity: “diplomas, certificates, awards and citations” (280). Things that are not just commodities but objects that culturally serve as signs of the person, the semiotics of the personhood. Kavadlo describes it as, “The temporary satisfaction from consumption is surpassed by the thrill of disposal; Gladney attempts his own form of existential waste management, discarding the items he had previously used for protection” (166).

During an emergency evacuation, Jack discovers his brief exposure to a toxic waste spill may or may not cause a “premature” death sometime in the next…thirty years (136). His sentence is given to him by an emergency preparedness simulation worker who is disgruntled by the fact this real emergency is not providing the most useful simulation conditions. (In other words, the Real is intruding itself upon the simulacrum where it is unwelcome. The hyperreality is preferred!) While Jack appears unaware of the fact the information he is given about his possible death is no more reliable or specific than a fortune cookie’s message of “You will one day meet your destiny,” his manic disposal of accumulated consumerist rubble and reified identity is an attempt to hold back the death sentence his close encounter with a toxic cloud made him more aware of. Even so, he continues to live in an environment in which his and his family’s vitality and shared, cohesive spirit are fed and nurtured by the hermetic powers of the consumerist media. Babette feels that once-a-week television watching under the auspices of parental figures would demystify and “de-glamorize” the object and the medium (16), although we see throughout the novel that the television appears to move almost of its own accord around the house, from room to room, constantly broadcasting its mystical incantations to buy product, examine the modification of the natural world into new and improved signs and symbols, and to pay attention to your financial well-being. The television in White Noiseis ironically a central character in the Gladney household. It is the means by which daughter Steffie acquires her sleeping vocabulary, such as “Toyota Celica” (148), that sooth Jack like a magical totem. The only time the family really notices Babette is when her light-generated image, the mediated sign that represents Babette and may be more real than Babette herself, is projected to the family through the television. The television is constantly spilling the symbols of kipple into the Gladney house; the family constantly bring it in from the malls and shops. Mark Poster, in his article “Future Advertising: Dick’s Ubik and the Digital Ad” is referring to Dick’s Ubik when he is discussing the power of advertisements, but the same observations apply equally to White Noise: “…commercials are cultural objects, strings of words, images, and sounds. And they are so arranged as to fascinate all who encounter them. They constitute the highest promise of happiness and fulfillment of any experience in capitalist society” (30).

Jack may try to rid himself of the collected objects that are a recursive reminder of material mortality while at the same time serving as a material salve for the fear of death; however, the very sign of commodification has transcended the objects in White Noise and have come to exist without the need of the root item. The reader is shown this in the way the objects of marketing and consumerism permeates the novel, disconnected in any concrete manner. From out of nowhere we are reminded of “Kleenex Softique, Kleenex Softique” (39), “MasterCard, Visa, American Express” (99), “Dristan Ultra, Dristan Ultra” (159), even a passing woman on the street is heard chanting, “A decongestant, an antihistamine, a cough suppressant, a pain reliever” (250). The mystical non-words of commodities take on the feeling of a weight they intrinsically do not have, imbued with meaning that seems to transcend the objects they are supposed to represent. In the book, Muse in the Machine: American Fiction and Mass Publicity, Mark Conroy maintains: “DeLillo is most conscious of how the more elaborate forms of spirituality that preceded consumer culture still inhere, in a degraded and superstitious form, within consumer culture itself” (153). We see the magic of the commodity everywhere—ubiquitous.

Philip K. Dick reveals this is the nature of commodity, of the marketing that serves as the magical rites and processes that transform meaningless sounds into hyperreal signs, or signals, in the novelUbik. Where in White Noise DeLillo ends certain sections and chapters with incantations like:

PLEASE NOTE: In several days, your new automated banking card will arrive in the mail…. WARNING. Do not write down your code. Do not carry your code on your person. REMEMBER. You cannot access your account unless your code is entered properly. Know your code. Reveal your code to no one. Only your code allows you to enter the system. (281)

 

Dick begins each of his chapters of Ubik with almost cliché and panasonic marketing spiels like:

We wanted to give you a shave like no other you ever had. We said, It’s about time a man’s face got a little loving. We said, With Ubik’s self-winding Swiss chromium never-ending blade, the days of scrape-scrape are over. So try Ubik. And be loved. Warning: use only as directed. And with caution. (61)

 

Each chapter begins with similar epigraphs in which the unknown product “Ubik” stands in for various common commodities from coffee to cars, cleaner to bras. Each commercial injected into the narrative reveals the marketer’s objective of creating an anxiety that can only be alleviated by the product being sold—as explained by Dick’s Mr. Foster and DeLillo’s Babette. And each ad/epigraph carries a reminder of the inherent threat the commodity poses with the disclaimer: “Use only as directed,” an admonition DeLillo injects when Jack is on his way to kill Dr. Gray: “Void where prohibited” (289).

In White Noise, DeLillo has the noise of mediated culture come through the television: the advertisements, the cultural wisdom, and the family’s wife and mother at one point. In Ubik, Dick has the corporate patriarch communicate to the main character through various consumerized media, such as matchbook covers—and the television. Where DeLillo’s Babette’s very essence is imagined to enter the house and permeate the family with her radiant image (102-4), Dick’s Glen Runciter is actually dead and literally communing with the protagonist through the same device that disseminates the advertisements and symbols of consumerist culture (124-9). Mark Osteen examines the way in which the television and the media at large serve not only as a material but spiritual medium as well, in his book American Magic and Dread: Don DeLillo’s Dialogue with Culture: they “regale viewers with commercials bearing the gospel of consumerism: that consumption provides therapy for body and soul.” These advertisements, or, “channels of desire,” Osteen contends, “also describes a popular form of New Age spirituality, the practice of ‘channeling,’ in which dead souls… allegedly speak through living humans, or ‘channels’” (166). The device for entertainment that is often used as a means to carry advertising into the home, is the device that mediates, or “channels,” major characters in both novels—creating a deeper confusion of the Real with the symbol for it. Note that in all of Jack Gladney’s purging of kipple from his home, he never considers removing the television as part of the problem, part of the source for the desire to horde as a way of mitigating the fear of death, confusion of identity, and succumbing to manufactured material need. Jack, as a participant in his own commodification (through his career in which he was “shrewed” enough to find a way to sell himself, and then maintain the illusion by creating a false identity for his students and colleagues, and himself, to buy into), and a participant in the ubiquitous consumerist society, spends incredible energy and takes incredible risk to try to free himself from this situation that he must ultimately succumb to. In contrast, note how Jack’s German tutor, the reclusive Howard, gives in to the kipple. Upon each of Jack’s visits, Howard’s boarding room becomes increasingly similar to the abandoned apartments of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. In each instance the waste and furnishings amass until finally Jack says, “I went to one last lesson. The walls and windows were obscured by accumulated objects, which seemed now to be edging toward the middle of the room. The bland-faced man before me closed his eyes and spoke, reciting useful tourist phrases. ‘Where am I?’ ‘Can you help me?’ ‘It is night and I am lost.’ I could hardly bear to sit there” (227). One can easily imagine that if Jack were to return to Howard, he might be discovered to have actually disappeared into the waste of objects, turning to the dust that Rick Deckard foresees as the fate of everyone and everything from Mozart to himself.

One of White Noise’s working titles was The American Book of the Dead (Barrett 186). Just as Panasonic would have been an infinitely appropriate title, so would that fictional addition to the line of ancient Book of the Dead tomes. Howard had a copy of the Egyptian Book of the Dead in his room, and Jack refers to the Tibetan Book of the Dead—the novel White Noise is in many ways a modern equivalent of these religious texts. It provides consumerist chants such as “Coke is it, Coke is it, Coke is it” (51), and “Leaded, unleaded, super unleaded” (189) in semi-non sequitur context to the narration, and describes the manner of persistent dying in the western culture in relation to the stuff we accumulate, whether it is to forget death or with the wish to be able to take it with us like the pharaohs of Egypt. In many ways we share the same belief as these dead cultures in that we believe the things we acquire transcend their physical form, just as we believe we do upon death, and will carry on with in some ethereal consumerist existence. Mark Osteen suggests: “People desire containers that fulfill their spiritual yearnings, and consumer packaging fills the void created by the disappearance of traditional religious icons. Thus…for Jack and many contemporary Americans, consuming attaches persons to the things whose reproducibility betokens immortality” (171). In some subconscious manner we tie our identities to the things we own, expecting them to exist apart from and beyond their reality. Commodity fetishism reverting from a modern ideological abstraction back to an ancient connotation of magical fetishism—the totems that have spiritual and mystical life beyond the physical.

Interestingly, Ubik is acutely associated with the Tibetan Book of the Dead as well. In Dick’s world of Ubik, people can actually exist beyond death in keeping with the beliefs of “waiting places” and reincarnation found in the ancient religious book. More than that, people can communicate with the living thanks to the miracle of modern technology—so long as you have enough money to buy space in a moratorium and can afford the upkeep. Within this limbo, called “half life,” all the trappings and accoutrement of the consumerist society remain. You really can, in a sense, take it with you. Except, as Ubik’s Joe Chip discovers, the assumed persistence of commodities, both mystical and material, can not be relied upon as things regress back to earlier more primitive versions of themselves. Or, in the case of people, revert back to the dust from which they were created: “But this old theory—didn’t Plato think that something survived the decline, something inner not able to decay? The ancient dualism: body separated from the soul…. Maybe so, he thought. To be reborn again, as the Tibetan Book of the Dead says” (132). Does DeLillo’s Jack come to the same realization Joe Chip toys with but in the end fails to accept? That despite the encroaching kipple and its ultimate decay, we are not doomed to be completely swallowed up by it? Jack begins White Noise as part of the culture, so enmeshed in the commodification that he is himself commodified. He recognized the hyperreality of the world around him, but he participates in the evolution of the simulacra to the hyperreal. When faced with the reality of his own death he tries to deny it ridding himself of the debris society convinces us we need to live, but remains a subject of the process. Finally, Jack does learn that death is inescapable—a lesson Joe Chip does not. Laura Barrett observes in her article: “’How the Dead Speak to the Living’: Intertextuality and the Postmodern Sublime in White Noise,” how “the novel’s most powerful mystery, death, supplied the very fabric of Jack’s salvation; his near-death experience allows him to move beyond his paralyzing fear of death” (191).Ubik leaves Joe Chip in a situation in which he is so ultimately beholden to consumerist culture that the ideology of commodification (in the physical form of the product “Ubik”) is his temporarily effective weapon against the manifestation of the ideology of consumption (in the form of the novel’s antagonist), trapped in an existence that is literally all appearance and illusion. Jack, on the other hand, while also still trapped in a world of illusion, has come to realize his place in it and its inescapableness. Joe is left in the constant battle against the encroaching kipple, decay, and death; Jack seems to resign himself to it and simply appreciate the ironic beauty of it.

Works Cited

Barrett, Laura. “’How the Dead Speak to the Living’: Intertextuality and the Postmodern Sublime

in White Noise.” Journal of Modern Literature. 25, no. 2 (winter 2001/2002): 97-113.

Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 213. Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1984-.

184-95.

Conroy, Mark. Muse in the Machine: American Fiction and Mass Publicity. Columbus: Ohio

State UP, 2004.

DeLillo, Don. White Noise. 1984. New York: Penguin Books, 1999.

Dick, Philip K. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. 1968. New York: Del Ray, 1982.

—. “Foster, You’re Dead.” The Philip K. Dick Reader. New York: Citadel Press, 1987.

—. Ubik. 1969. New York: Vintage, 1991.

Hearst, Andrew. “An Annotation of the First Page of White Noise, With Help From Don

DeLillo.” Panopticist: Cultural Surveillance. 22 February, 2005.

<http://www.panopticist.com/archives/44.html>.

Kavadlo, Jesse. “Recycling Authority: Don DeLillo’s Waste Management.” Critique 42, no. 4

(summer 2001): 384-401. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Vol. 213. Detroit:

Gale Research Co., 1984-. 160-70.

Keesey, Douglas. Don DeLillo. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1993.

Osteen, Mark. American Magic and Dread: Don DeLillo’s Dialogue with Culture. Philadelphia:

U of Pennsylvania Press, 2000.

Poster, Mark. “Future Advertising: Dick’s Ubik and the Digital Ad.” Consumption in an Age of

Information. Ed. Sande Cohen and R.L. Rutsky. New York: Berg Publishers, 2005.

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“Only Words”…

“‘Only Words’: ‘Half-Life’ in Philip K. Dick’s Ubik and the Dynamics of Online Role-Playing Environments.”
Paper Presented at the 28th ICFA

I. INTRODUCTION
“Instant Ubik has all the fresh flavor of just-brewed drip coffee. Your husband will say, Christ, Sally, I used to think your coffee was only so-so. But now, wow! Safe when taken as directed.”i
That is one of seventeen different epigraphs that begin each chapter of Philip K. Dick’s novel Ubik. Each of the first sixteen is a satirical comment on the nature of advertising in the consumerist economy, where the mysterious product called “Ubik” stands in for everything from coffee to women’s undergarments, household cleaner to salad dressing. Each one safe when used as directed, of course.

Eric S. Rabkin, in his article “Irrational Expectations; or, How Economics and the Post-Industrial World Failed Philip K. Dick,” makes a point to establish Philip K. Dick as one of the most important and influential authors, in general if not in speculative fiction in particular, working in a post-World War II attempt to examine the metaphysical connections between subjective realities and the so-called “objective reality” which may or may not even exist in Dick’s work.ii Ubik, published in 1969, is one such work which takes a close examination at the nature of subjective realities. It is a novel that describes a world, and a condition of being, that is prescient when you compare it to the alternate realities of massive multi-player online games, or “MMOGs” — a condition that involves a merging and confusion of identities — identities that are defined by, and devalued due to, the commodification of reality.

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