Philip K. Dick: Remembering Firebright
by Tessa B. Dick
CreateSpace, March, 2009 & 2010
228 pages / $15.77 Buy from Amazon
The last thing Philip K. Dick’s work needs is another philosopher’s commentary. After Fredric Jameson’s “synoptic” reading of Dick’s corpus and Laurence A. Rickels’ 400-plus page I Think I Am: Philip K. Dick, it might seem prudent, indeed respectful, to refrain from any further philosophical discussion of PKD. However, after spending some time with Tessa B. Dick’s “memoir” and Janice Lee’s “novel,” I am inclined to discuss a dimension of Dick’s that neither Jameson nor Rickels were able to deal with in their commentaries: namely, the particularly contemporary problem of living without myth. Anthropology tells us that peoples of the past actually believed in their myths; a mythological framework provided by the gods presumably told you how to lead your life and what your ultimate place in the universe was. Now that all of our myths have been more or less discredited by the advent of modernity, how might a viable contemporary myth cope with the disintegrating social edifice and the resulting modern subject who minimally experiences the “death of God”?
We’ll start with a strident way in – that of Daughter’s vision of “the head of a human figure with a terrifying face, full of wrath and threats” appearing to the protagonist “in the sky, on a night when the stars were shining and she stood in prayer and contemplation.” These two elements – the terrifying face of the big Other, and the lost subject in search of meaning and the miraculous – are constants in Philip K. Dick’s biography. In the late seventies, Dick recalled: “There I went, one day [in 1963], walking down the country road to my shack, looking forward to eight hours of writing, in total isolation from all other humans, and I looked up in the sky and saw a face. . . . and it was not a human face; it was a vast visage of perfect evil.” To the psychological impact of such an encounter, Janice Lee supplies a concrete example: “At the sight of it, she feared that her heart would burst into little pieces. Therefore, overcome with terror, she instantly turned her face away and fell to the ground. And that was the reason why her face was not terrible to others.”
The intrusion of the big Other’s face serve one epistemic function. It forces us to revisit a state of the actual world, typically one located in the distant primordial past; paradoxically, this primordial past is inextricably entangled with our autobiographical past. Thus, Philip K. Dick’s origin myths very often includes the search of a dark-haired girl and the perpetual loss of his twin sister Jane, and Janice Lee’s origin myth in Daughter includes a daughter-explorer performing an autopsy on a dead god. Perhaps because man’s pre-conscious pre-history cannot accommodate the full range of experiences and mindsets that people normally carry around in their heads, origin myths demand just such autobiographical idiosyncrasies and hence, in the face of the giant transient face, potentially invite unstable ontologies. This return of the primitive visage goes against the grain of how we normally register things, namely, as possibilities that are grounded and predictable to varying degrees as we move through space and time, responding to external cues: hence the fluidity of our everyday experiences.
For the witness of the extraterrestrial face, this everyday fluidity becomes the source of ontological uncertainty. Consequently, shortly after Dick’s encounter with the face – which he would later fictionalize as Palmer Eldritch – Phil began contemplating the age-old theological question of what God was doing before the creation of the world. In contrast to Schelling’s unfinished Weltalter [“Ages of the World”] where he argues that prior to God being God, God was becoming God out of a pure void, Janice Lee posits that before God became God, she was a dying mother-octopus. To take a salient digression: biologists now recognize that certain of the most primitive forms of life live in the walls of volcanic hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor, where the water is close to or above the boiling point. Not surprisingly Philip K. Dick came to the mythic conclusion that God herself was one of a pair of twins; picture the pale unborn vertebrate floating in a womb of slushy brine in which divine single-celled algae assimilate the carbon dioxide, phosphates, and nutrients that work up from the ocean below. In Philip K. Dick’s own words:
And the advantage of presenting the becoming-God as decaying information on the outer reach of physiological resilience is that the image captures the unthinkable prior failed attempts to establish subsurface microbial ecosystems and ultimately embryonic life on land: Prior to the Beginning, there is in a sense only the failed Beginnings of countless twin abortions. In Lee’s own words:
In a more general sense, the permutation of the “Primordial Daughter-Mother Octopus” as master signifier may seem counterintuitive, given that virtually every hegemonic example thus far – Jesus, Mohammad, Buddha, etc. – has been gendered “masculine” within the terms of ideology. Therefore, to get the most out of Janice Lee’s cosmogony, it is important to bear in mind one of Lacan’s most controversial teachings: the most fundamental contradiction of the Real is sexual difference. On the masculine side of Lacan’s matrix, a master signifier is imposed in order to establish an ideological order; however, this universal order necessarily implies an exception. For example, all Muslims are “submitted” to Allah and find their value only in relation to Allah – except Allah himself who is inherently valuable. On the feminine side, a master signifier can never really be used to impose a totalitarian ideological order, because in the absence of an exception, the order shows itself to be intrinsically incomplete, non-totalized, or non-all.
Here is theologian Adam Kotsko on the topic: “These two logics – the masculine logic of the constitutive exception and the feminine logic of the non-all – are not symmetrical opposites. Instead, the feminine has priority. This is because the feminine reflects the logic of the Real [reality is inherently incomplete – as quantum theory suggests]. . . . The masculine logic of the constitutive exception is secondary, representing what happens when one attempts to establish a smooth, harmonious universal order: the resulting universal is necessarily contradictory or ‘cracked’.” This is why we will never see a viable Church of Philip K. Dick, or for that matter the Church of Janice Lee. In Lacanese: Their work is on the side of the Real, following the logic of the non-all; whereas, Christianity and Islam in its current institutional formations follow the masculine logic of the constitutive exception, faithfully on the side of the non-Real. This is particularly palpable in the case of the monotheistic master signifier – where the contradiction is that of an empty signifier representing an absolute fullness.
Of course, today’s vulgar materialist-subjects might dismiss all this scenario-mongering as sheer fantasy, as science really stands on its own two feet; whatever theological motives may have been operative in the past, each culture has its own solipsistic creation myth, the primary functions of which are to place the tribe that contrived it at the center of the universe. However, this self-understanding of humanity is peculiar to the Abrahamic religions and its humanist apologists. In contrast, had modernity been consistently oriented towards the feminine non-all, as Philip K. Dick’s cosmogony urges, we would not have conferred so much cultural value on national socialism and the pursuit of reality’s physical limits. Moreover, such a literal-mindedness to myth is to entirely miss the point. Precisely because myths are public events experienced by both believers and non-believers, social events and customs of various sorts can be made in the shadow of a myth’s sheer corporeality. Mythmakers, like Janice Lee, trigger a society’s cognitive immune system, so to speak. Here we enter the realm of self-fulfilling and self-defeating prophecies but equally the space for radically revising one’s worldview while still maintaining rationality, the mark of today’s dialectical materialists, like Badiou and Zizek, who view human history as punctuated by a series of mythological interruptions that dissolves and rebuilds the symbolic order.
Maxi Kim is the author of Une Pause, Mille Coups!