I think my last post responded to a column on Erik Davis' website Techgnosis (though originally it was published elsewhere). As I think I mentioned, I'm a big fan of his writing and his work because I haver such a confluence of interest with his topics.
For instance, this recent post that deals with Blade Runner, Slavoj Zizek, and SF literature. As potent a melange as a beet, cherve, and dandelion-green salad!
But let me add the vinegarette, if I might be so bold: Davis draws attention to the uncanny realization of the replicant in Blade Runner. He quotes Zizek, discoursing on the film:
"Let us recall how, in Blade Runner, Rachel silently starts to cry when Deckard proves to her that she is a replicant. The silent grief over the loss of her “humanity,” the infinite longing to be or to become human again, although she knows it will never happen; or, conversely, the eternal gnawing doubt over whether I am truly human or just an android—it is these very undecided, intermediate states which make me human." [Davis' emphasis]
Yes, this is indeed the post-modern aesthetic that makes such movies and stories so popular in this modern age. "I thought I/it was... but in reality, it was..." The horror, the tragedy! Our ideas explode into flame on the jagged, gothic spikes on reality. The matrix has us all, and we constantly struggle (uselessly) against its modern power that even gets into our minds, (bodies) man!
And self-described Hegelians like Zizek try to argue that it is this liminal zone, this uncanniness, that is the very reality of consciousness, or humanity. And non-self-described Hegelians do as well. (Whether they are Hegelians or not...) Most of the critical thinkers of the last century draw our attention towards some sort of liminality, some borderline, or sublime transference between two states that is used as a point of pivot for their theory. And they are not wrong to do so; this is a very new concept for theory. Many philosophies rigorously distinguish between the this/that, and totally ignore the and/or point. It is a new point on the dialectic: the point of transfer that unites the entire equation...
Or is it? I will can the rhetorics; no it is more of the same. It doesn't really matter how uncanny it is, or that it is "shaky" as opposed to the ur-ground of older philosophers. What it is really looking for, is a new point of authenticity.
Authenticity. I said it again. This is word that I use for it, harvested from the translations of Heidegger that I have read. Heidegger is a great example of this search for authenticity for several reasons. One: despite the very historically-important dualities that he disregards and deconstructs, the authentic vs. the inauthentic is a constant parallel to which he returns. Two: although he all but explicit states that there is no qualitative preference for authenticity of inauthenticity, you can read, very loudly, that he is striving for the authentic. Authentic being, authentic metaphysics, and authentic society. This last item brings us to point three: he accepted Nazism. Now, I would not put his work in the "Fascist" section of the library, nor would I say that it should be read as a causal vector towards Fascism. However, it can't be ignored that brilliant and groundbreaking as he was, he was swayed to desert his colleagues, fellow humans, and even lover in favor of the volk, with such horrific general consequences of which we are all very aware.
Oh, and lastly, "authentic" is a word that is pretty easily accessible to those who haven't read Heidegger. Which, for some reason, seems to be a category that includes almost everyone. It meaning is not so nuanced: there are different ways of doing to same thing. You can win by striving hard according to the rules, or you can win by cheating. One is authentic. Why? Because it wouldn't be a race if it didn't have a start point and an end point, and a prescribed course between the two.
Human race, Aryan race, 100-meter dash... all the same? No, of course not. But all have "authentic ways of being" what they are. This is what Humanism is. A relatively recent development, it takes a collection of moral axioms and cultural standards culled from over the last 5,000 years or so, and binds them all together in one agnostic, ill-defined package called "humanity". For example, if there is a genocide or other tragedy somewhere, you must declare outrage at the fact of suffering, but not necessarily do anything. Competition is fine, as long as there is a general belief in the "fairness" of this competition. Monogamy, for some reason, is really sweet. Love is also great, as long as you submit sacrifices of lust on the altar from time to time, because courtly love is like, way creepy. This is what it means to be human, authentically, circa 2008.
Of course, this is not a monoculture. We have plenty of counter-authenticities. Being ironic in the face of other's suffering is cool. Opting out of competition is also really chill. And generally thwarting monogamy to be "in love with lust" is really current. Especially if you post about it on your blog. You can also post about Zizek on your blog: case in point, myself.
And this is what Zizek is doing; he is defining a post-modern, self-described Hegelian, sub-Lacanian, authentic humanity. Which is: a totally un-humanity, where we are constantly disturbed that in this crazy, year-of-our-internet we don't know where the human begins and the iPhone ends. This isn't a humanity of commandments, or of morals, or that you can write about in a book. Oh, wait, Zizek has written it in a book! How many books has he sold lately?
And it is a very attractive idea to the humans who are constantly stunned by what "they" thought up next, or what's on the internet now, or what's new and different. What if we did wake up and discover we were all robots? Oh well, that's just these times that we live in. My entire reality is rewritten via Wikipedia every night, and broadcast on YouTube every morning.
No! This isn't humanity, or authentic anything! It's channel surfing; it's hyperlinking; it's trivia night at the local hipster bar! The problem is, the authenticity itself is false. It is a wild goose chase, a constant search for what is real, or even, ironically unreal, in and among these shifting sands of modern... what? Irreality? Unreality? Falsehood? Machinery?
This is what PKD is getting at in his books: you can't bet on anything to be what you think it is, not ever--whether it be robots disguised as humans, humans disguised as robots, or humans who think it is cool to be a robot. All his main characters are stumbling through worlds of bizarre, uncanny occurrences. But, these are not worlds of quick-sand reality, where the bait-and-slip is so, so post-modern. SF is always already the questioning of reality. What if we could fly to the moon? What if the Germans won WWII? These are concepts that fuck with reality. PKD's character's do not have reality because their events occur in worlds that are already twice unreal--they are fiction, and speculative fiction that is meant to be different then reality. The characters trip through worlds of sensation and harshly cut-together events, and the only reality is the sense that the phenomena creates at the moment. Any search for meaning in a more meta-sense is doomed to break itself off in a fiendish circle of double, triple, and quadruple ironies that expose the fascination with such metaphorical curiosities as the fashion circus that it is. Sometimes the characters find an ending, and sometimes they don't. There is no reality, and yet, it is as real as anything ever is, anyway. Take Man in the High Castle. This speculative concept of an alternate history: what is the conclusion? The conclusion is, this world is made up, invented by an author. Germans win, germans lose, there was a war, people die after living their lives, those who survive now live in some sort of post-war world. Of course, everything in contingent on what does happen. But what is the end result of reality? Nothing. Except itself. No historical is more authentic than another, and in fact, no reality may be more authentic. If one day we wake up to find it was all a sham, guess what? We still have to go to bed that night and wake up again the next morning. What if this town is the battle ground between chaos and order? What if I'll die tomorrow? What if I'm already dead? What if none of these statements are true? It's not nihilism. Nihilism is the constant, fleeting search for meaning that ends with us dying, having found nothing more than when we started, but only flitting from eternal truth to eternal truth, to the death of eternal truths, to the birth of tangential truths only found in gritty (and cyber-punk, if possible) liminal spaces.
The movie of Blade Runner can be interpreted either way, depending on what is important to the viewer. Is authentic humanity important to you? Then waking up as a non-human would be a huge problem, and one where you could philosophically find your real, true humanity (and sell books about it). Or is simply living important, as it seems to be to Decker? If you can't tell the difference between your authentic humanity and your replicated humanity, why worry?
"Too bad she won't live... but then again, who does?"
The Nexus-6 who dies after rambling on about C-beams glittering through space (an excellent scene, by the way) is dealing with problems of existence, not of humanity. What is it like, to die? Well, he's actually lucky because he has discovered, from the boiler-plate on his spine, that he has a maker, and can go to his address. And when he fails to put off the issue of life/death into the future for you, you can kill him, and maybe feel a little better. Most of us don't have the option, and instead we can only muse about such problems of existence in SF novels or on blogs.
But what if I woke up tomorrow, and discovered that I wasn't going to die? Well, I suppose it would be a little weird at first. I would probably have to find something else to blog about. But is my toast going to taste different without the sword of Damocles hanging over my head? Maybe, if you are a humanist and thought that this relationship between you and your end colored your entire life with meaning. Or, if you a self-described Hegelian, and your conception of reality was based upon a flip-flopping from one plateau of the dialectic to the next, given gravity by that huge authentic signifier forever floating out above your head somewhere. But if you were a realist, and understood all meaning to be as uniquely real as it is transient, then perhaps you merely grin and see if you could get a date with that hot replicant-receptionist. It's not buddhist. It's simply real. I always thought it was funny how, despite the existential, speculatively-mind-warping time-space crises that PKD's characters live through, they never seem to miss an opportunity to sleep with a woman or imbibe a mind-altering substance.
So, when that pharmacist shows up at your door with an energy beam that reminds you that the Empire Never Ended, just smile, take the bag of painkillers, and see if you can pimp it into a SF trilogy. Thanks, and goodnight.
ps. One technical note, that I thought of after finishing the post. If the replicant is truely undergoing a universally human, existential experience upon the realization that one is actually a synthetic human, rather than a wetware version, then it follows that the ability to have an existential experience such as this is actually a synthesized experience. Then it is not a "truly human" problem, and the Nexus corp. only engineered it as a truly synthetic experience. There is no way to say how a true human would respond to the discovery that they are synthetic, because a true human could never, truthfully, discover such a thing. However, the fictional tale of someone very-much-not-quite-unlike a human finding out this truth could evoke a lingering doubt in true humans, who would then philosophize on the idea despite it's purely speculative nature. And, perhaps this is the actual meaning of existentialism--the pondering of realities that are like our current reality yet outside of the reality of experience (e.g. "hell is other people", yet who has written the book about what the opposing heaven is like?). After all, part of the interest in what happens after we die is that there is no one around to give us a review. What are the limits of experience if there is no way to experience them?
But anyway, I think this conundrum brings up a much more interesting question re: Blade Runner. Why the hell did the Nexus corp. invent a machine that would have an existential experience? Was it a philosophical experiment, under which they created a machine in their own image, that had questions about life, the universe, and everything that they themselves had? Or was it a programming bug that developed while they were trying to create a machine with conscious-like artificial memories (the key being, the memories linger but fade, and can be recalled in a not-quite conscious way, giving rise to an understanding with a limited scope of consciousness, that would invariably question what lay outside such a consciousness)? Or was it more purposefully? Frankly, that's a pretty good fail safe. You're memory machine breaks down, and realizes that its a fake (in other words, that limited consciousness now sees more than it was supposed to). So, just like Windows, it phones home the fatal error! The machine travels across the solar system with no desire greater than wishing to meet its maker. Master, I have fatal exception E845FG1, (error code: theorization of the limited totality of consciousness) please fix me!
Predictions for 2012
5 years ago