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Entering the Posthuman Collective in Philip K. Dick's "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?"

Jill Galvan
Science Fiction Studies
Vol. 24, No. 3 (Nov., 1997), pp. 413-429
Published by: SF-TH Inc
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4240644
Page Count: 17
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Entering the Posthuman Collective in Philip K. Dick's "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?"
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Abstract

As staged in Dick's novel, the android inaugurates a crisis of subjectivity. What does it mean to be human in an era wherein human conjoins with machine, biology with technology, nature with manufacture?-Clearly, it is a question confronted by Rick Deckard, protagonist bounty hunter of the twenty-first-century cyborg. Rick's ability to empathize with other creatures-the defining aspect of humanity, according to the juridical system that employs him-leads him to an ethical conundrum: he begins to empathize with the android, the very creature he has been consigned to exterminate. Far from reassuring him of his existential privilege as human, then, Rick's empathy underscores the speciousness of that hierarchy. It throws into relief the contrived ontological imbalance between self and other, human and android. My paper explores this failure of empathy to secure Rick's prerogative of human selfhood. Extrapolating from ideas expressed in Francisco J. Varela, Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch's The Embodied Mind, I argue that Rick's new respect for android lives stems not from the ethic of empathy promulgated in the narrative's Mercerist theology, but from another, more authentic form of empathy, one that dramatically challenges traditional notions of existence. This version of empathy (or "compassion," as The Embodied Mind names it) is sensed by one who conceives his self as, in fact, a non-self-as a being that amounts to no more than a sequence of embodied experiences. Such a being does not (as Rick has been told to do) insulate himself from external depreciations, but rather perceives himself in an existential continuity with the other that materially shares his world. It is this eventual understanding that provokes Rick's empathy for the android, one of the many technologies with which he resides in a state of mutual determination. Indeed, human subjectivity, as the novel posits it, has always already been infringed upon by these technologies-the television and the empathy box most notably. This fact is hyperbolized in the human community's dependency upon them, a dependency that I explicate in terms of Scott Bukatman's discussion of "image addiction." In effect, Rick's experience of this broad technological landscape awakens him to his basic planetary contingency-to the cooperative materialization of human and machine in the posthuman collective.

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