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.


Wikileaks and secret intelligence on Afghanistan

The massive release by Wikileaks of 90,000 pages of classified material on the war in Afghanistan has once again raised the question not only of how that war is prosecuted–and the details fill in a picture that will need an equally massive effort of discussion–but also of the way in which governments routinely classify and restrict intelligence to cover up mistakes and prevent information from circulating that would cast them in a bad light. Rather than for protecting security as is often proclaimed.

Wikileaks has now had two critical releases of information this year–the collateral murder video which I discussed on a panel on geographers’ role in forming foreign policy at the AAG meetings in Washington DC in April–and this newest release which they made available to the New York Times, Der Spiegel and the Guardian a few weeks early on the grounds that they wouldn’t discuss it until today.

Glenn Greenwald has a typically trenchant analysis of the situation here. I’ve been reading Greenwald’s blog for nearly five years now, since he came on the scene with commentary about the famous piece in the New York Times about warrantless wiretapping in late 2005, and he is simply compulsory reading on government intelligence, war, and the shape of democracy:

Whatever else is true, WikiLeaks has yet again proven itself to be one of the most valuable and important organizations in the world.  Just as was true for the video of the Apache helicopter attack in Baghdad, there is no valid justification for having kept most of these documents a secret.  But that’s what our National Security State does reflexively:  it hides itself behind an essentially absolute wall of secrecy to ensure that the citizenry remains largely ignorant of what it is really doing.  WikiLeaks is one of the few entities successfully blowing holes in at least parts of that wall, enabling modest glimpses into what The Washington Post spent last week describing as Top Secret America.  The war on WikiLeaks — which was already in full swing, including, strangely, from some who claim a commitment to transparency — will only intensify now.  Anyone who believes that the Government abuses its secrecy powers in order to keep the citizenry in the dark and manipulate public opinion — and who, at this point, doesn’t believe that? — should be squarely on the side of the greater transparency which Wikileaks and its sources, sometimes single-handedly, are providing.

Despite the distractions you’ll hear this week–that the material contains nothing new, that it only covers through December 2009 (the Pentagon Papers were three years out of date when they were released but still highly relevant), Greenwald’s point must be kept front and center: how does secret intelligence (knowledge if you prefer) and its correlates such as surveillance and “security” get used by government to pursue its own ends? This is if you like a version of the old question of power/knowledge (see my Foucault book co-author Stuart Elden commenting on Wikileaks here).

New York Univ. professor of journalism Jay Rosen has some critical discussion here. He says Wikileaks is the world’s first stateless news organization. Who are the Jay Rosen’s and Glenn Greenwald’s of geography I wonder. Certainly Trevor Paglen comes to mind–see his op ed here which examines how Obama is continuing Bush-era programs of secrecy and surveillance. Derek Gregory. There are a number of political geographers as well. Who else?

“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.)

OSS and Arthur Robinson

Nice memo by Arthur Robinson, who was Chief of the Map Division in the Research and Analysis (R&A) branch of the OSS during WWII. Usually he signed himself by his full name but I like this one because he used his nickname, Robbie, by which he was well known in later life.

Foucault, archives and the OSS

Foucault wrote on the archives and worked in them extensively. It’s true that there is something different about doing archival work. For one thing, archives vary considerably in such mundane matters as their policies and access, and more importantly how they have arranged and categorised their material. I’ve been working the last three days in the National Archives in Maryland, commonly known as Archives II. (Archives I is downtown but most research materials are actually not located there.)

Fortunately NARA (as it is known) is a fantastic resource. Being a federal institution security is very obvious. This is my fourth trip here and security has increased (I was last here in 2007 to work on the American Commission to Negotiate Peace, Record Group 256). Of course there is the ordinary security to get in the front door (x-rays, armed guards) that can seem overkill to a foreign visitor but there’s also security of the materials. Since my last visit they seem to have added floor walkers; employees who help/monitor you as you work. Here’s the procedure.

After you get your researcher card (like a driving license with your photo embedded in it) you must secure your bag, pens, outerwear (NARA reserves the right to determine if an article of clothing is outerwear” –no arguments at the guard station here that your Euro-jumper draped over your shoulders is not outwear!) and so on downstairs in the locker rooms. Then you may proceed to the guard station to enter the archives. This is all once you’ve made it into the building by the way–not always possible (a guy was turned away and there was a call in to the supervisor because he had something they wouldn’t let him bring in–not sure what it was).

There are separate doors for employees and researchers, as we’re called. NARA is “national archives and records administration” and the building is named after Steny Hoyer (D-MD). No papers or books can be taken in unless each sheet of paper is stamped and the book stamped also (on the second page or inside back cover). Don’t take library books in! For each piece of equipment you must have an equipment sheet which lists the item and its serial number. This is a pain but turns out to benefit you in that they do check these against each other as you leave and actually ask you to read off the last four digits of the serial number from the camera or whatever. This means you can leave equipment on the research floor at the desk without worrying too much about theft. A potential thief could easly nick ione of those little digital cameras but wouldn’t be able to easily get it out.

Cameras are allowed, as are tripods, and even flatbed portable scanners (no automatic feeds, even if disabled). All equipment must be checked as follows. If you are going to use a camera (I had one of those little $300 cameras which actually take good quality pictures and saves a ton on photocopying fees) you must take your materials to the main info desk on the research floor (imagine a huge room with 2-story high ceiling and one side almost completely glassed; no dungeon like dark rooms here but light and airy) and they will issue a special piece of paper which a little piece of scotch tape attached. You take this back to your desk and affix it to the arm-swing lamp over your desk. It can’t be affixed anywhere else (I had mine on the desk in plain site but not on the lamp and a floor walker told me off). You must do this every day, and you can’t use the one from the day before because the paper colors change.

If your materials were ever restricted, confidential, or secret but have been declassified you must also get a tiny piece of paper, maybe 1X3cm with a special code on it. This must be in ALL the pictures you take and I saw researchers doggedly placing it on every page before taking a pic. However, I spotted a loophole and had my piece of paper just below the file, which allowed me to turn the pages faster (the point here is to photograph everything and sort it out later. your time is limited–I had 2.5 days and you must acquire as much material as possible. This is the first rule of archival work that I learned from the great Geoffrey Martin who did biographies of Bowman and has by his own account visited 103 different archives in 25+ countries). You don’t want to have to come back and the photocopying (or now camera work) is way less expensive than hotels, air tickets and your time.

NARA is great in that they do actually allow you to take pictures/photocopies and even scanners. Yale for example doesn’t and you must request any copying to be done by staff–from which they benefit in two ways. First you have to pay them, but more importantly since they take the photo they own the copyright (even on material long since itself out of copyright). This is because you get the image and the image is copyrighted. At NARA you hold the copyright on the image, though of course you may still be responsible for copyright permissions if the material is in copyright. But here again NARA has government stuff and US government stuff is not copyrighted.

Researchers visit NARA from all over. I met or heard Koreans, Japanese, Germans, Brits, Californians and Southerners. One of the people I shared a desk with was researching Chiang kai-Shek and had looked a the records already (I think in Taiwan) and was now looking at the American version. Thius is a result of course of so much overseas adventuring by the Americans. Also tons of people come in looking for lists of people who served on so and so ship in the war. A typical example was an older couple, but I also heard a young woman asking after the same kind of material who had been sent there by her father on spec.

She was told it was better to do some homework before coming and that’s true (though if you know some basic facts like record group and what they hold that might be enough). NARA has a online record group locator, ARC, which is OK but doesn’t hold a candle to actually being there and consulting the detailed finding aids which break out the material. I was researching the precursor of the CIA known as the OSS which operated during WWII and had a special map division headed by Arthur Robinson, and who later made his name as a leading American cartographer. Robinson trained about 15 Phds at Madison who in turn trained further generation. There’s a nice “family tree” of his influence in Cartographic Perspectives about 5 years ago which has over a 100 names on it.

Not much is known about his work for the OSS, though those who know “Robbie” well know that he worked for them (I even found a newspaper clipping from Madison about his arrival there as a new prof that mentioned it). But I’d say for the most part nobody knows what he did. The OSS only declassified its personnel files two years ago though other files have long been available. Some portions of it are still classified (and people who went into the CIA are not available).

There is also a small collection of cartographic material, though nothing as extensive as RG256. I got some good scans. Annoying–they now have not only a color photocopier since my last visit but a color scanner at 600dpi. It costs $3.50 a foot.

I’m collecting material for a chapter I’m writing with Trevor Barnes. He’s doing Ed Ackerman, another well-known geographer whose wartime activity is less than well known. Trevor gave a very interesting talk on some of this material last year in Germany where we first met and agreed to work together. It’s a book edited by Scott Kirsch and Colin Flint on reconstructing conflict.

New Italian website

I’ve had a nice note from Daniele Lorenzini about a new Italian Foucault website at Materiali Foucaultiani. The site is available in French, Italian and English. They also want to start a new journal. Here is part of their manifesto:

More precisely, we wish to build up a framework to investigate and to highlight the essential link between the Foucaultian “boîte à outils” and the search of a sense to give to our actualité. To this purpose we shall firstly outline a cartography of the receptions and applications of the concepts elaborated by Foucault, to show that his “boîte à outils” is still fundamental if we want to put into question our present and take a clear stand in front of the issues emerging from our actualité. Then, we have to explore the ensemble of appropriations and interpretations which has made Foucault’s theory a “travelling theory”, i.e. a perspective of analysis and, at the same time, a critical posture capable of crossing disciplinary limits, sifting archives different from those opened by Foucault himself, and offering tools and materials to reflect soundly on events belonging to our multi-spatial and multi-temporal global present. In short, the aim of our project is to broaden the spectrum of problematizations proposed by Foucault, using the instruments provided by his work. For instance, it is an undeniable fact that in the postcolonial or gender studies the Foucault legacy has generated several theoretical and political evolutions that it is now impossible to put aside – even when the Foucaultian method has been forced or adopted only partially.

It looks interesting and I wish them well.

Two new books from Blackwell

First is Foucault and Philosophy which is already out, edited by Chris Falzon and Timothy O’Leary (2010).

Second is a Blackwell “Companion” to Foucault, which Falzon will edit with O’Leary and Jana Sawicki.

The Companion books tend to be hefty and significant books (I’m familiar with the ones for Heidegger and Political Geography) and it’s good to see one being devoted to Foucault.