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The Dick Bubble

Yesterday I gave a talk at an all-day symposium, “Philip K. Dick in the OC: Virtually Real, Really Virtual,” the opening segment of the 2016 Acacia Conference on Dick. I had been looking forward to it greatly, and there were a good many informative moments, such as a talk by UC Riverside’s Lisa Raphals on Dick’s use of Asian characters and tropes, which mainly focused on his use of the I Ching. My own paper drew on my background in techno-arts and forgery studies to look at the relationship between art, techne, and authenticity in the writings of Dick and William Gibson.

I thought I’d post about it here because in several respects it was unlike any symposium I have ever participated in. Overall, it was a strangely airless event in which few references were made to anything outside of what I came to think of as the Dick Bubble. Apart from my own talk, only one other addressed more recent writers or events—an interesting joint talk by UC Riverside’s Sherryl Vint and UC Irvine’s Jonathan Alexander on post-9/11 allusions in the TV version of The Man in the High Castle. I connect this restricted field of discussion with the fact that there was almost no direct criticism of Dick’s writing apart from Lisa Raphals, who brought up the superficiality with which Dick sometimes referred to Asia, and brief references by Sherryl Vint and myself to issues with Dick’s depiction of women. (At one point I touched on the link between female puberty and violence in Luba Luft’s murder in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and someone approached to me afterwards about this precise section of my paper—but only to ask why I had left out an extremely minor detail.) I am no specialist in science fiction, and I found myself wondering where were the science fiction scholars who could have upped the critical-historical-theoretical ante on Dick’s writing? Perhaps they’re attending the next phase of the Acacia Conference, taking place today at Cal State Fullerton; at least I hope so.

The whole event had a distinct aura of hagiography, which may have been partly due to the number of people present who had known and liked Dick—at least four by my count, and probably more. During the post-talk Q&A sessions, commenters often opened with some variation of “Phil Dick once said to me…”—and these tangential remarks left little space for substantive dialogue. The only women science fiction writers I can recall being mentioned during the entire day— James Tiptree, Jr., and Ursula Le Guin—were brought up in some context having to do with how they knew Dick rather than anything they wrote. It was as if science fiction as a field ended in 1982 with Dick’s death.

Just as troubling in a different way was the panel during which one of Dick’s former wives, Tessa Dick, and one of his former lovers, Grania Davis, shared friendly reminiscences about life with Philip Dick. Their remarks were fairly disjointed, and for the most part they steered away from discussing the writing itself, instead detailing patterns of daily life and sharing anodyne anecdotes. I could sense no real interest in the women themselves—both of whom are writers in their own right and have already published plenty of Dick reminiscences elsewhere. It was hard not to conclude that they were present as living databases that might, with luck, spew forth a hitherto unknown nugget of Dick lore that could be embedded in somebody’s thesis on Agoraphobic Constructions: Habitat in the Writing of Philip K. Dick (or whatever). At one point it was suggested that to reduce audience confusion over all the insider name dropping, a chronological list of Dick’s five wives be written on the whiteboard above Tessa Dick and Grania Davis—and that this would be a terrific photo op. Later someone reminded the audience that the two women would be speaking again today at Cal State Fullerton, saying: “I’m sure they haven’t used up all their gossip.”

So: if you’re a male academic/writer and knew Dick, you’re an authority on his life and work; while if you’re a woman who knew Dick, you’re a gossip?

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Opening the black box in consumer culture

Consumer culture maintains an inculcated ignorance of manufacturing and an alienated discomfort with the products that populate our lives. Our conception of manufacturing lingers in a capitalist mythology of the industrial revolution. This vision is irreconcilable with the modes of production familiar to information and service workers. At a time when self-imposed ecological disaster and increasingly apparent social inequities demand a revolution in our relationship to “stuff,” we are left without the means to understand contemporary object-making. So, we turn to science-fiction and futurism—imagining utopias resulting from technological innovation—to envision new relationships to the material world. But do these images and rhetoric make up more than futurist utopian fantasies? Do they drive development of the future technologies and paradigms of production? I’m beginning to see it this way.

Furthermore, I’m finding that in researching tools for mass-customization, even Star Trek, hokey as it is, is a real touchpoint for tech developers. Here’s how some of them imagine the ideal person-product relationship. It appears on command, no materials-acquisition needed, as a result of a massive sub-servient computer. Hmm.