Philip K. Dick is, without a doubt, one of the most interesting writers of the 20th century. His prose is clunky, and dialogue is sometimes dodgy, yet worth traversing through to unearth his often-profound ideas. He seems to be known mostly for the way he treats reality and not without good reason. Every book I have read by PKD has dealt explicitly with reality, often challenging the ‘realness’ of reality, and exploring what it might be like to live in a ‘false reality.’ Interesting topic? Certainly. But so much more than reality can be gleaned from Dick if we read closely.
At first, as I read Martian Time-Slip, I didn’t record anything, expecting to treated to ideas on reality and nothing more. But as the ideas started piling up, I thought my reading would be more fruitful if I noted the ideas or themes found in the novel. My list is as follows: issues with colonialism and indigenous peoples, special needs youth, Althusser’s Ideological State Apparatus and the role of education, industrialization and pollution, corporate politics, overpopulation, the value and use of knowledge, and of course, reality.
Perhaps in the future I’ll offer an explanation of Althusser’s ISA, but at the present I want to explore PKD’s treatment of knowledge and pragmatism. Pragmatism is largely explored through the capitalist character of Arnie Kott. After hearing a man has committed suicide, Kott comments, “One thing, when you hear about suicide, you can be sure the guys knows this: he knows he’s not a useful member of society. That’s the real truth he’s facing about himself, that’s what does it, knowing you’re not important to anybody” (59). This effectively paints a picture that the text is asserting a theory of suicide founded upon pragmatism. However, on the very next page Kott learns that the man was Nortbert Steiner – his black market goods provider. Dick writes, “Good grief, [Kott] got all his goodies from Steiner; he was utterly dependent on the man” (60). The irony is clear: Kott’s theory, that we commit suicide out of a feeling of uselessness becomes seemingly false, as a person who was very useful, specifically to him, chose to end his life. The way this is presented forces the reader to recognize the wrongness of Kott’s assertion. In my reading, the text then shifts, from asserting a sort of pragmatic position regarding suicide, to the exact opposite: to parody those who believe in such a position.
However, such a position is challenged less than fifteen pages later. Being called to a repair a Teaching Machine, Jack Bohlen, the closest character we get to a protagonist, travels to the local school. While walking down the hallways, he stops to listen to the lessons offered by a Teaching Machine his son frequently talks about. The Teaching Machine asserts that rabbits are intelligent because they are resourceful. He continues, “And maybe that helps us see what true smartness is; it isn’t having read a lot of books, knowing long words…its being able to spot what’s to our advantage. It’s got to be useful to be real smartness” (71). Oddly enough, just after this perspective is offered, Bohlen starts fixing another Teaching Machine, which is a clear example of knowledge being put into practical use. With this in mind, the question of use, specifically as it relates to knowledge, becomes a noticeable theme, and unlike Kott’s short monologue on suicide, the novel’s world seems to avoid making any overt comments about such a view. Thus, the question remains: does the text endorse a sort of pragmatic approach to knowledge? – or mock it?
The key to this question, in my estimation, is Arnie Kott. No other character in the book speaks about or manifests the teacher’s comments more than Kott. More than just asserting a position advocating utility, Kott embodies it. Throughout the novel, Kott tries to use information, or knowledge, to gain an advantage and make profit. This is clearly demonstrated in his relationship with the autistic Manfred Steiner. Suspecting Manfred can control time, Kott asks Bohlen to figure of out his mind and spread it out “like a road map” (192). While Bohlen fails, Kott’s indigenous (to Mars) servant Helio, succeeds, and learns to communicate effortlessly with the young Manfred.
This is important because in Kott’s reality as an unoccupied piece of land has risen monumentally in value, but not having the insider information, Kott missed out. However, with the help of Helio, Kott successfully uses Manfred to travel back in time where he promptly invests in the land hoping to take advantage of the opportunity (243). Throughout this endeavor, Kott treats Manfred exclusively as a means to convert his knowledge that a piece of land will become lucrative, into a plan where this knowledge can allow him to be profit, so that the knowledge becomes useful. But how is this position treated by the world Kott lives in?
Ultimately, the past reality Kott thought he had travelled to was in Manfred’s mind alone, so that when Kott woke up from his journey into Manfred’s mind, he remains in the present, meaning he has not invested into the land he wanted to. More than this, when Kott is returned to the present reality he is shot, but in his increasingly delusional mind he believes this reality is still a construction of Manfred’s mind, leading Kott to believe he’ll simply be transported to his “actual” reality if he dies in the present one (252). This turns out to be false, and Arnie Kott dies, but not before becoming so fearful of his delusions that he realizes his investment into the land is unimportant (250). Once dead Bohlen thinks to himself that Kott “brought about his own death” (254). Taken together, the text suggests that Kott’s death was a result of overuse, which suggests that the text is trying to demonstrate the way in which a pragmatic approach to knowledge can be dangerous. This view is ironically cemented by some of Kott’s finals words.
While dying, Kott says to Bohlen, “Something I’ve discovered. This is another of those schizophrenic worlds” (252). At first, I took this statement to be the wild musings of a delusional, dying man. However, the importance of this statement should be recognized due to the impact it has on Bohlen. Jack tells his wife, “Arnie said he wasn’t in a real world; he was in the fantasy of a schizophrenic, and that’s been preying on my mind” (258). This thought is largely ignored by his wife but the point is clear: the realness of the reality that Bohlen, and those around him, has been questioned. And this, I think, reveals the great irony. Arnie Kott, who lived in such a way that made use out of every piece of knowledge he had, gives the knowledge to Bohlen that his reality might be false, which cannot possibly be put to use in any way. Then, against the teachings of both Kott and the Teaching Machine, the reader too, is left with knowledge that cannot be applied, but rather questions, challenges, and most likely unnerves us, as we look around at the reality we find ourselves in.
It this seems most likely that the text is acting as a reminder that pragmatic theories of knowledge can be problematic. The text demonstrated a convincing scenario in which a useful man could kill himself, and the way in which Arnie Kott’s attempt to make knowledge useful was the main reason for his demise. Furthermore, the text demonstrates that such a conception of the use of knowledge is incomplete, for it cannot account for pieces of knowledge that cannot be put into practice, without arguing that unusable knowledge is not knowledge at all. Of course, the question remains: does it really matter what sort of position the text is supporting? Perhaps as long as the text forces us to interact with such ideas, it doesn’t matter. Yet, on the other hand, by engaging in the main themes in a text, and considering how they are treated by the world, and by wading through the irony we will undoubtedly arrive at a better understand of the text…at least I think so. On the other hand you must also consider the way in which the evidence is anec-gubble. Gubble gubble gubble gubble gubble gubble gubble.
Josiah H. Nelson
Dick, Philip K. Martian Time-Slip. NY: Vintage, 1995.