Philip K. Dick and Heidegger

The science fiction writer Philip K. Dick died in March 1982, but has left a legacy behind that would be the envy of most writers (a lot of people think he is still alive and writing). Although the majority of people come to his work through the many movies that have been made from his stories, such as Minority Report, Scanner Darkly and of course Bladerunner, for me it is ultimately his written work that makes the deepest impression.

His last three novels were Valis (1980), The Divine Invasion (1981), and the astounding Transmigration of Timothy Archer (1982), which features his only female protagonist, Angel Archer; the latter is  based on the real-life story of Bishop James Pike, whom PKD knew well.

Philip K. Dick and Bishop James Pike on Dick’s wedding day to Nancy Hackett, July 1966

Dick wrote these as lightly fictionalized accounts of his own life–Valis for example features the sf writer Philip K. Dick and another character, Horselover Fat (which means Philip Dick in Greek and German) who is a kind of projection of PKD’s psychosis (there is a kind of deep humor here that is often missed).

Dick’s themes often touched on authenticity and penetrating to the authentic. As an autodidact and a scholarly dabbler you can explicitly see references in his work to gnosticism, Hebrew kabbalah, Spinoza and so on. One reference I have sometimes wondered about, as I once wrote elsewhere, was whether Dick had read or encountered the work of Heidegger. (Tessa Dick, his former wife, wrote to me several years ago noting that “one of Phil’s favorite topics was Heidegger’s concept of Ereignis, that is, that existence creates or gives birth to space and time. I guess you could say that Phil’s writing focuses on phenomenology.”)

This can now be confirmed. The sixth and final volume of his Letters has at last appeared (the other five appeared nearly 20 years ago but this one was delayed) begins almost immediately with this letter to John B. Ross:

[January 30, 1980]. As I read your letter I thought about the philosophy of Martin Heidegger and wondered if you’d read him.I just read him recently and his ideas made quite an impression on me. It seems as if both you and I have been fighting for what he calls authentic existence,which always involves a crisis as the person becomes aware of the possibility of his own nonexistence. This sets off primal dread but it can lead to authentic existence, finally.

Of course Dick is interpreting Heidegger here through his own understanding and concerns (and he doesn’t say what Heidegger he read; and for all we know it could even be a secondary source), but notice how well it fits with the Dick oeuvre (he even characterises it novelistically, with that turn from inauthentic to authentic in the last act).

What’s more interesting though is that he continues:

I wrote an outline of a new novel last month in which I combined Heidegger with early Hebrew concepts of monotheism–a daring effort on my part since Heidegger was a Nazi and totally rejected the idea of God, and, most of all, the Hebrew deity. The outline ran 80 pages.

What’s important here is not whether or not you agree with Dick’s characterization of Heidegger and the latter’s rejection of God, but rather that Dick was prepared to understand this novel, and his own work, in light of Heidegger. While I have not read that 80-page treatment I’m pretty sure that he was referring to a novel he was then calling Valis Regained (after Milton) which later became the published book The Divine Invasion.

TDI charts the arrival of a small boy Emmanuel (ie., God is with us; Valis had a small girl with the significant name Sophia or knowledge) who for various reasons is the target of a corrupt church here on earth (cf. the much later series  His Dark Materials by Phillip Pullman). Unfortunately Emmanuel suffers from amnesia and some of the book concerns efforts to restore his full memory, or anamnesis (an idea Dick derived from Plato). You can see here perhaps in sketch form some of what might be understood as efforts to reach the authentic if it were written up as an sf novel.

There is much more to the novel than that of course and I shall certainly have to reinterpret these last three novels (actually four, there’s also the posthumous Radio Free Albemuth, which has just been made into a movie). I’m certainly looking forward to reading more of these letters, which cover the last 2 years of his life.


“So Yahoo hired a professional ontologist…”

This article by Clay Shirky is a good encapsulation of the computer/GIScientist understanding of ontology that is rapidly entering geography and especially mapping and GIS:

It is a rich irony that the word “ontology”, which has to do with making clear and explicit statements about entities in a particular domain, has so many conflicting definitions. I’ll offer two general ones.

The main thread of ontology in the philosophical sense is the study of entities and their relations. The question ontology asks is: What kinds of things exist or can exist in the world, and what manner of relations can those things have to each other? Ontology is less concerned with what is than with what is possible.

Shirky is right that ontology has many definitions, though he then confuses this statement by offering only one as the definition: in his words ontology is “essence, “Is-ness.”” Of course, philosophers will recognise this definition, and a classic one at that: objects with properties ie., Arisotelian substance or predicate ontology. This tradition had already been challenged in the 1920s by Martin Heidegger who replaced ontology as “is” with “being” and essence with existence. Today we would see Shirky’s definition of ontology as rather covering the “ontic” rather than the ontological.

Nevertheless, it’s important to get to grips with this kind of ontology-speak, because as the rest of Shirky’s article discusses it is being applied to some really interesting problems, namely how we sort information, and by extension how we access and use information.

One fascinating aspect of this problem has emerged over the course of the development of the more interactive web, or web 2.0, that changes the game from just downloading information (web 1.0) to contributing to it. In geography this is playing out as various forms of participatory geography: volunteered geographic information (VGI), geolocated pictures, tracks and locations, geotagging, and what is sometimes called the semantic web.

The journal I edit, Cartographica, has a special section in its latest issue of how ontologists are approaching the problem of redoing the US National Atlas (or any other large scale mapping project), many of whom draw on this tradition of ontology for their schemas. To me, the most interesting aspect of this are bottom-up categories, which need not be commensurable or static, are deeply meaningful to individuals and yet sharable.

As this fascinating article points out though, the problem of the “universal book” and data organization, access, retrieval and interrelationships long predates the internet. There was for example Paul Otlet:

In 1934, years before Vannevar Bush dreamed of the memex, decades before Ted Nelson coined the term “hypertext,” Paul Otlet envisioned a new kind of scholar’s workstation: a moving desk shaped like a wheel, powered by a network of hinged spokes beneath a series of moving surfaces. The machine would let users search, read and write their way through a vast mechanical database stored on millions of 3×5 index cards.

Having just come back from the National Archives, where information discovery and retrieval are often dodgy at best (print-only finding aids, stapled “cheatsheets” for use by the archivists with different but similar dates lying around on battered ring binders, frank admissions by the staff that the online catalog covers only as small fraction of even the top-level categories–and this for a reasonably popular “record group” the OSS), well, I can certainly relate.

The quote in the post title comes from Shirky’s description of Yahoo’s attempt at classifying the web back in the “earlies.” He goes on to pull this system, which the “professional ontologist” had devised, apart. With a powerful search engine like Google, you don’t need categories just good tagging (metadata).

“Ontology” may (or may not) be good for small technical domains (and even then bottom-up looks more useful) but for getting at lived human existence, it seems hopeless. Here in contrast is Jeremy Wood’s lived map of Warwick campus, which he made by walking it with a GPS and then making a map form the traces:

The Warwick campus, produced through GPS traces by Jeremy Wood. A map traversed at 1:1 scale, the scale of lived human experience.

Philosophers have a lot to contribute to these issues, not just formal philosophers such as Heidegger but (obFoucault) people who talk about archives, genealogy and epistemology, and the production of knowledge.

(Thanks to John Krygier for the Paul Otlet link.)

Heidegger in New York

Center for Humanities, CUNY Graduate Center

Only a God Can Save Us: Martin Heidegger and the Third Reich

Film Screening and Discussion
March 17th 2010, Wednesday, 6:00pm, Proshansky Auditorium

Join us for the American premiere of the documentary Only A God Can Save Us, a critical examination of Martin Heidegger’s thought and actions during the Third Reich. Fifteen years in the making, the film reveals how essential elements of Heidegger’s philosophy led him to become an enthusiastic supporter of Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist revolution. The film also addresses his long post-war silence about the Holocaust and his reluctance to make a public apology. Following the screening we will host a discussion with filmmaker Jeffery Van Davis and Richard Wolin, Distinguished Professor of History, the Graduate Center.

The Ister DVD released

The 2004 documentary The Ister is released on DVD this week.

Daniel Birmbaum:

The film traces the Danube’s full course, from the Black Sea all the way to its source in southern Germany. Part rhapsodic journey replete with moments of great beauty, part tedious educational program rife with digressions on politics and history, it is not the great work of art that would prove Syberberg wrong. But it is certainly an original undertaking: a cinematic collage that turns on Hölderlin’s epic “river hymn,” The Ister (from “Istros,” the ancient Greek term for the Danube), and, more pointedly, on Martin Heidegger’s famous reading of it.

And later:

Perhaps this accounts for the fact that it is not until we reach the Black Forest—real Heidegger country—and Syberberg appears, dressed in white like a latter-day Kurtz, that things get truly exciting. The creator of the magnum opus Hitler: A Film from Germany (1977) dilates on the “new Germany,” which he calls a “weak and friendly” place. Something has been lost, he suggests: The glory of Germany, the most spiritual of nations, is gone; gone is Hölderlin, gone is Heidegger. If you live in this weak, friendly nation, as I do, you’re especially susceptible to artists like Syberberg—artists who open the door to a world we thought no longer existed, a world of myths and heroic poetry. Syberberg’s art has always tapped into these archaic energies, although on the surface it critiques the irrationalism such energies produce when unleashed. His dangerously attractive soliloquy seems a necessary finale, reminding us that The Ister’s true subject is not the physical river but the metaphysical geography that has been evoked by poets and thinkers to devastating and barbaric effect. Although Syberberg is fully aware of this, he can’t help playing with fire. He is a mild and sophisticated man, someone I would love to get to know. Behind him, the forest whispers: “The horror, the horror.”