Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Toasters, Bladerunner and Schizophrenia: PKD & Gnostic Agnosticism

By Mr. VI

Do you know who you are, and can you honestly say your awareness encompasses the whole of the biomechanical system which is you-as an organism? May you be aware of the functioning of each organ; the pulsing of the heart, the filtering of the liver and kidneys, or the electrical crackle in your own brain?

Do you sing the body electric?

They say it's bad to ask questions of your audience. It's disruptive; breaks the flow, tears at the weave and begins to fray the threads by which they draw themselves into your narrative. But what better way to examine, to dig underneath the skin?

We're all skin-jobs.

That's the derogatory term for Replicants in Ridley Scott's seminal film Bladerunner, just as 'Toaster' is used for Cylons in Battlestar:Galactica.

Actually, this whole post was inspired by Edward James Olmos live-tweeting Bladerunner the other Sunday:
@edwardjolmos: #movienighttweet it all came from this film... BSG skinjobs... replicants.... thus toasters...

Behind both epithets lies the notion of falsity, of facsimile. In both narratives, we are presented with the notion that there are those who look like us, but are not like us. In Bladerunner, we are left with Deckard's humanity as an ambiguous question, while in BS:G the hybridization and shift into flesh leaves us with the possibility that the markers of 'humanity' are perhaps not so clear-cut as we would like to believe.

Bladerunner uses a test known as the Voight-Kampff to test empathetic responses -and if those responses are off, 'retirement' is not far away. The film itself is an adaptation of Philip K. Dick's novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, and it's no secret that I'm a total and utter Dick-head.

In fact, anyone with an interest in philosophy, storytelling, myth and SF should be one too. Just look at the following:

'I am a fictionalizing philosopher, not a novelist; my novel & story-writing ability is employed as a means to formulate my perception. The core of my writing is not art but truth. Thus what I tell is the truth, yet I can do nothing to alleviate it, either by deed or explanation.

Yet this seems somehow to help a certain kind of sensitive troubled person, for whom I speak. I think I understand the common ingredient in those whom my writing helps: they cannot or will not blunt their own intimations about the irrational, mysterious nature of reality, &, for them, my corpus is one long ratiocination regarding this inexplicable reality, an integration & presentation, analysis & response & personal history.' - Philip K. Dick

In 1974, Dick had a series of mystical experiences which influenced his writing from then on, exploring his own version of Gnosticism. For us, it's the Gnostic view combined with schizophrenia that's interesting.

In 'Schizophrenia and The Book of Changes' he writes:

What distinguishes schizophrenic existence from that which the rest of us like to imagine we enjoy is the element of time. The schizophrenic is having it all now, whether he wants it or not; the whole can of film has descended on him, whereas we watch it progress frame by frame.

This, combined with the Gnostic idea that the world is a creation of the demiurge, which presupposes itself as sole Creator, can may be seen in a rather strange light: that 'reality' as we know it is defined by mediated perception.

It's our perception which ascribes the notion of 'real' or 'false' to a thing, and our perception is a direct, inextricable product of our sensory organs. The flesh, the body, is the only reality we know, and indeed can know.



In the words of Roy Batty, leader of the Replicants:


“I've done questionable things […] Nothing the god of biomechanics wouldn't let you into Heaven for.”

Whereas the Gnostics sought to escape the creation of the demiurge, seeking a 'true' reality, the slogan of the Replicant manufacturer 'More Human Than Human' seems eerily prescient. Despite our scientific knowledge, the mechanics of existence still elude us.

To be sure, analysis and the scientific method have provided us with an understanding of the parts of the body, of the reality-factory which is us. We can piece together the frames in an attempt to gain some sense of the plot, but the totality of the film escapes us.

Who knows what plot-twists are concealed? What pieces of foreshadowing are we focusing on as-themselves, rather than as part of the whole narrative?

So much is carried out behind the scenes of our awareness, it's as if we're watching a rough-cut. Our idea of humanness is based upon what we perceive as human, what we perceive of ourselves in others; this is the empathic echo – the Voight-Kampff.

And yet, as the New Scientist points out, nothing is as it seems, and our memories are subject to flux. We have memory 'implants' as much as the Replicants do; we're not all biologists or genetic engineers, but we still manufacture our pasts and create futures – we're some kind of genus of strange factories.

Perception even defines the 'now':

You're reading the screen, experiencing these words, dimly aware of noises around you or in the other room, but weren't experiencing them until the words led you to consider the place you currently occupy, in greater detail, were you?

Imagine what it would be like if the moments of your perception began to blur; if the frames start beginning to bleed and an oozing tide of imagery and sensation slams into you like a tsunami and you're drowning in reality itself?

Sweeping you away, uprooting fundamentals, slamming you through things that were seemingly solid; walls of skin and bone pierced by the world, sending you backward to swallow that initial cry of birth.

The trauma of your world expelling you; from timeless darkness with its endless heartbeat rhythms, into the absence of blood-heat as the chill settles around you, with light stabbing your eyes like shards of frosted, jagged glass; myriad new sensations as lungs take in their first breath.

In time, most of us wall that experience away; we either forget or attempt to parse overloads, so that they become still images.

Welcome to the world, to the first Outside.

We splice together the frames, or leave whole chunks on the cutting room floor, because otherwise we'd still be screaming.

Like mad people.

Overperception then; the realm of the supposedly insane. Perception is the realm of the sane, a limitation, a demarcation; without the separation and division, it all becomes nonsensical. There must be an inside and outside.

So they say.

The alternative terrified the Gnostics, and still terrifies the majority of people. That the dividing is a bulwark from terror is easily seen; the notion of order is one of contour and boundary. The idea that we are all Inside – that there is no escape from everything – inmates in our own Black Iron Prison, can and does inspire paranoia and fear.

Yet, that's the hard Agnostic Gnosticism of it. We're never able to know beyond our senses. Perception is merely modulation of sensory data. If we stick to frame-by-frame, acting out of fear, it means the film ends. So:

We can't even tell if we're Replicants. Can't trust our memories, or our assumptions, or our senses. All we have is now, this moment, and even that is being filtered by our imagined pasts and futures.

I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I've watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in the rain. Time to die.” - Roy Batty

Isn't that extraordinarily fun?

Be seeing you.


Pre-order a copy of The Immanence of Myth, published by Weaponized in July 2011.(Or sign up to be notified of its release on Amazon.com)

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