Tuesday, December 20, 2011


Quotable: Hume on Government

On Consent of the Governed

Nothing appears more surprizing ... than the easiness with which the many are governed by the few; and the implicit submission, with which men resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers. When we enquire by what means this wonder is effected, we shall find, that, as Force is always on the side of the governed, the governors have nothing to support them but opinion. It is therefore, on opinion only that government is founded; and this maxim extends to the most despotic and most military governments, as well as to the most free and most popular.

Power of a Tyrant

No man would have any reason to fear the fury of a tyrant, if he had no authority over any but from fear; since, as a single man, his bodily force can reach but a small way, and all the farther power he possesses must be founded either on our own opinion, or on the presumed opinion of others.

On Power & Property

... where the original constitution allows any share of power, though small, to an order of men, who possess a large share of the property, it is easy for them gradually to stretch their authority, and bring the balance of power to coincide with that of property.

Source: David Hume's "Of the First Principles of Government" (1742).

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Sunday, December 18, 2011


Another PKD Post

This will be a short post. Today, I finished reading The Early Work of Philip K. Dick, Volume Two. I'd like to draw attention to two stories in the collection. "The Last of the Masters" is hailed as Dick's best anarchist story. There's also a thread in the story that ties science and technology to oppression. "Tony and the Beetles" is a brilliant exploration through the characters of children of what it feels like to be colonized and how people from the colonizing class can easily misinterpret attitudes and circumstances.

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Tuesday, December 06, 2011


Mercerism and Faith

Philip K. Dick's work is probably the most consistently metaphysically-oriented in the American science fiction canon. In my last post, I mentioned Mercerism, the dominant religion in Dick's novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Mercer is a Christ-like figure in Mercerism and adherents achieve "fusion" with him via an "empathy box", a device that produces the effect of an altered state of shared consciousness. The androids in Androids are lacking in empathy and hence cannot partake of Mercerism. The nurturing of and sacredness of animal life is an important part of Mercerism, too.

Androids are, thus, double outsiders to Mercerism and they are hostile to it. Three android characters are exultant when the eponymic host of Buster Friendly and His Friendly Friends—whom they know is secretly an android himself—reveals on television that Mercer is a decrepit, washed-up, two-bit, alcoholic actor and "Mercerism is a swindle!". The visual manifestations one experiences when using an empathy box were filmed on "a cheap, Hollywood, commonplace sound stage". But things aren't that simple when it comes to religion, especially not in a Philip K. Dick story.

After the revelatory scene, J. R. Isidore, an adherent of Mercerism and a captive of the three taunting androids, has a mystical experience that seems to begin even before he grips the handles of his empathy box. He is transported to the "tomb world". He calls out to Mercer, who comes to him. What follows is one of the most beautiful and beautifully written allegories of faith I've ever read.
"Is the sky painted?" Isidore asked. "Are there really brush strokes that show up under magnification?"

"Yes," Mercer said.

"I can't see them."

"You're too close," Mercer said. "You have to be a long way off, the way the androids are. They have better perspective."

"Is that why they claim you're a fraud?"

"I am a fraud," Mercer said. "They're sincere; their research is genuine. From their standpoint I am an elderly retired bit player named Al Jarry. All of it, their disclosure, is true. They interviewed me at my home, as they claim; I told them whatever they wanted to know, which was everything."

"Including about the whisky?"

Mercer smiled. "It was true. They did a good job and from their standpoint Buster Friendly's disclosure was convincing. They will have trouble understanding why nothing has changed. Because you're still here and I'm still here." Mercer indicated with a sweep of his hand the barren, rising hillside, the familiar place. "I lifted you from the tomb world just now and I will continue to lift you until you lose interest and want to quit. But you will have to stop searching for me because I will never stop searching for you."

"I didn't like that about the whisky," Isidore said. "That's lowering."

"That's because you're a highly moral person. I'm not. I don't judge, not even myself." Mercer held out a closed hand, palm up. "Before I forget it, I have something of yours here." He opened his fingers. On his hand rested the mutilated spider, but with its snipped-off legs restored.

"Thanks." Isidore accepted the spider. He started to say something further --

An alarm bell clanged.
The spider had been dismembered by the androids. The alarm bell is ringing because Deckard, a bounty hunter, has shown up and will soon dispatch the three androids. Shortly after their demise, Deckard—who hasn't seen Buster Friendly's expose—goes to the northern California wastelands. Deckard is portrayed elsewhere in the book as an unenthusiastic adherent of Mercerism but there, in the "uninhabited desolation" and without an empathy box, he has his own mystical encounter with Mercer. Just before he returns home, he speaks on the phone with his secretary: "They're saying now that Mercer is a fake." Deckard replies, "Mercer isn't a fake ... [u]nless reality is a fake."

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Androids vs Replicants

In the 1982 film Blade Runner, the autonomous humanoid machines that the main character Deckard is tasked with hunting and killing are called "replicants". In the 1968 Philip K. Dick novel that inspired the film, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, they are called "androids". But that's a superficial difference compared to the divergent views of humans and technology in the two works.

Blade Runner has a curiously more positive take on replicants and a dimmer view of humans. In Androids, Deckard is introduced to us in bed asleep with his human wife, Iran, and the novel ends with their troubled relationship improved and Deckard going to asleep in the bedroom with Iran leaving the room to make a phone call on his behalf. In Blade Runner, Deckard has no wife or close human relationships and the film ends with Deckard running off with his love interest, a fugitive replicant named Rachael.

In the book, Rachael and Deckard have sex but for Rachael's part it's an attempt to manipulate Deckard, not out of anything like love. Later, when it's clear that Rachael did not succeed with Deckard, she goes to his home and kills his black Nubian goat. In the dystopian future of Androids, domestic and wild animals are exceedingly rare and expensive. Deckard pays a large down payment and signs a three-year loan contract in order to buy the goat.* Animal ownership is also a sacramental part of the dominant religion of Mercerism, being necessary for "true fusion with Mercer" ( p. 441).** Elsewhere in the book, Pris, an android, notes that animals are "sacred" and "protected by law". Another android, Roy, breaks in and adds "Insects ... are especially sacrosanct" (p. 549). Later, Pris and Roy methodically mutilate and torture a spider to the great distress of the human, J. R. Isidore, who found it. None of this is in the film.

Lack of empathy is a distinguishing feature of androids-replicants in the book and film but this comes across much more strongly in the book. In the film, the empathy deficit is at least partly the result of a human design feature—the replicants have an engineered four-year life span. In the book, the androids, including Rachael, are down-right sadistic but while they too have a four-year life span, it is not deliberate but the result of a technological shortcoming. In one of the final scenes of Blade Runner, the last fugitive replicant to die, Roy demonstrates empathy, saving Deckard's life, and then in his final moments Roy gives a beautiful soliloquy about what will be lost when he passes out of existence. No such scene exists in the book.

*There's an interesting scene in the book when Deckard first comes home with the goat. He asks Iran, "Does this cure your depression? ... It cures mine." (p. 556). Iran replies, "It certainly does cure my depression. Now we can admit to everybody that the sheep's false." Not something Deckard is enthused about: " 'No need to do that,' he said cautiously."

** All page number refer to the version of Androids found in Philip K. Dick: Four Novels of the 1960s (Library of America, 2007).

See also: "Mercerism and Faith"

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Quotable: Cat or Steak

[Character of Anne speaking]: "... let me tell you my cat joke. It's very short and simple. A hostess is giving a dinner party and she's got a lovely five-pound T-bone steak sitting on the sideboard in the kitchen waiting to be cooked while she chats with the guests in the living room--has a few drinks and whatnot. But then she excuses herself to go into the kitchen to cook the steak--and it's gone. And there's the family cat, in the corner, sedately washing it's face."

"The cat got the steak," Barney said.

"Did it? The guests are called in; they argue about it. The steak is gone, all five pounds of it; there sits the cat, looking well-fed and cheerful. 'Weigh the cat,' someone says. They've had a few drinks; it looks like a good idea. So they go into the bathroom and weigh the cat on the scales. It reads exactly five pounds. They all perceive this reading and a guest says, 'Okay, that's it. There's the steak.' They're satisfied that they know what happened, now; they've got empirical proof. Then a qualm comes to one of them and he says, puzzled, 'But where's the cat?' "

" I heard that joke before," Barney said. "And anyhow I don't see it's application."

Anne said, "That joke poses the finest distillation of the problem of ontology ever invented. If you ponder it long enough--"

Source: Philip K. Dick, "The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch" in Philip K. Dick: Four Novels of the 1960s (Library of America, 2007) pp. 418-419.

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Thursday, December 01, 2011


Some Lessons of Maus

I just reread the two volumes of Maus, Art Spiegelman's graphic biography of his father, Vladek. In this post I will talk about some of the less obvious items of interest in the books, meaning things less central to the main theme.

It has long been admitted—by folks such as Benjamin Ginsberg and Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin—that Jews have historically been disproportionately involved in communism. For some Jews this is a source of pride. For others, it is cause for shame or denial. Likewise, the fact that Jews are, in general, wealthier than non-Jews. Both things can simultaneously be true but when someone so indicates that I've noticed that defenders of all things Jewish and the 'politically correct' will frequently pounce on this contrived contradiction.

It therefore caught my attention when Art Spiegelman reveals that his father's fiancée (who would become Art's mother), Anja Zylberberg, was the very embodiment of Jewish communist supporter and rich, capitalist Jew. On page 20* we are told: "The Zylberberg family was very well off - millionaires!" The setting is 1936 Poland. According to Patricia Clavin, author of The Great Depression in Europe, 1929-1939, Poland was one of the three European countries "worst affected" by the Great Depression. Most Poles were hit very hard by the crisis but not the Zylberbergs.

Later, in 1937, it turns out that "Anja was involved in conspirations [sic]!" ( p. 29). She was translating "communist messages" into German and "pass[ing] them on". Warned by a friend that the police are coming, instead of destroying the incriminating documents Anja foists them upon a seamstress, a tenant in the Zylberberg's apartment, who ends up taking the fall and spending upwards of three months in prison.

Another interesting thing are the expressions by Jewish characters of disbelief in the holocaust. Here's an example from page 90:
Art: When did you first hear about Auschwitz?
Vladek: Right away we heard ...
Vladek: Even from there - from that other world - people came back and told us. But we didn't believe.
Art doesn't seem to question the idea that people could go to and return from "that other world" and Vladek doesn't elaborate.

On page 109, the following conversation takes place inside (!) a Jewish internment camp in 1943:
Persis: ... You've all heard the stories about Auschwitz. Horrible unbelievable stories.
Matka Zylberberg (Vladek's mother-in-law): They can't be true!
The Goldhagen thesis suggests that the German people were "Hitler's willing executioners". But even Jews living in Poland, where most of the "death camps" were located, didn't believe the stories, according to Maus. This is consistent with what many Germans have said, too—they didn't know.

There's an exchange on page 171 where Art and his wife, Françoise, talk about how she should be represented. Spiegelman chose to portray Jews as mice, Germans as cats, Poles as pigs, Americans as dogs, Gypsies as moths (and you never see any in the camps), and Swedes are antlered deer. The conversations goes like this:
Art: ... what kind of animal should I make you?
Françoise: Huh? A mouse, of course!
Art: But you're French!
Françoise: Well ... how about the bunny rabbit?
Art: Nah, too sweet and gentle.
Françoise: Hmmph.
Art: I mean the French in general. Let's not forget the centuries of anti-Semitism.
Art: I mean how about the Dreyfus Affair? The Nazi collaborators! The -
Françoise: Okay! But if you're a mouse I ought to be a mouse too. I converted didn't I?
Art: I've got it! Panel one: My father is on his exercycle ...
Art: I tell him I just married a frog ...
Art: Panel two: He falls off his cycle in shock.
Art: So you and I go to a mouse rabbi. He says a few magic words and zap! ...
Art: By the end of the page the frog has turned into a beautiful mouse!
Françoise: Hmph
Françoise: I only converted to make Vladek happy.
There's a lot in this passage. As it turns out, Spiegelman does represent French people as frogs, including the Frenchman who saved his father's life (p. 253). This passage above also tells us that Spiegelman's choice of animals is indicative, in part at least, of what he perceives as a people's national character. It is meaningful, then, that Poles are pigs, etc.

And the "magic words" from the rabbi have real power in Maus, even an insincere conversion transforms Françoise into a mouse, as she is represented throughout the book. Contrast this with the children on page 291—the offspring of a German mother and a Jewish father are hybrid cat-mouse creatures.

Finally, it's interesting how Art's broad-brush charge of French anti-Semitism goes unchallenged by Françoise. Didn't even Jews collaborate with Nazis as Maus attests? And the Dreyfus Affair split French society and resulted in a complete exoneration and reinstatement of Alfred Dreyfus into the French Army.

In closing, I'll turn to the impact on Vladek of his suffering at the hands of the Nazis. Was it a harsh lesson that instilled in him a sense of compassion and a hatred of injustice and violence against all innocent people? Well, not exactly. On page 290, we are treated to a recounting of Vladek's visit to Würzburg in the immediate aftermath of WW II.

Würzburg was subjected to Dresden-style aerial bombardment. Here's one brief description of the devastation: "About 82% of the living space, almost every public building and most of the cultural monuments and churches are destroyed. A total of about 5,000 people - about 3,000 of whom are women and 700 children and adolescents - perish in the inferno."

Here's the exchange on p. 290:
Vladek: We came to one place, Würzburg - what a mess!
Vladek or his traveling companion Shivek: Where can we find water?
German father: Hah! We haven't had any water in three days!
German mother, holding child: The Americans destroyed - sob - everything!
Vladek: Not one building was still standing.
Vladek: We came away happy.
Vladek: Let the Germans have a little what they did to the Jews.
* All page numbers refer to the 1991 Pantheon Books edition of Maus, in which both volumes are bound together.

See also: Poles as Pigs

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