Philip K. Dick and the Living Image

This post isn’t going to be nearly as dramatic as the title would have you believe, but I do have some things to say about Philip K. Dick and the essay titled “What Do Pictures Want?” from W.J.T. Mitchell’s book of the same name.

The essay itself is about the desires of images. Mitchell takes a stance that I am partial to: what are the repercussions for thinking about images as objects in their own right instead of mere representations or depictions of authorial intent? Mitchell is “aware that it involves a subjectivizing of images,” though I am two steps ahead of him in my stance; I’m willing to side with the OOOers and suggest a flat ontology instead of turning pictures into subjects. However, Mitchell pays lip service to ontological questions and quickly skips to an Lacanian understanding of desire in order to explain his theory of desiring images (though I am confused why Deleuze isn’t mentioned anywhere in the essay other than a footnote about minoritarian struggle).

I’m getting to Philip K. Dick, I promise.

In discussing the alterity of the image and how that creates a fixed struggle for power that constitutes desire, Mitchell writes

The paintings’ desire, in short, is to change places with the beholder, to transfix or paralyze the beholder, turning him or her into an image for the gaze of the picture in what might be called ‘the Medusa effect’.” (36)

This doesn’t quite sit right with me. It might be that I have been thinking about John Dewey all weekend (courtesy of Alex Myers), but I don’t think that makes any sense. It might be my internal resistance to Lacan, but I don’t believe Mitchell is correct when he writes that what images want is “manifested as a lack.”

I don’t think the aesthetic moment is one of paralysis. A picture, or any other art object, actively mobilizes the viewer by causing an aesthetic moment followed by a reaction. This reaction can be laughter or joy or terror or horror. Even if the reaction is paralytic in its nature it is still generative; it still fosters an additive stacking of affect on the viewer.

So I take a turn from Mitchell: the aesthetic moment isn’t a lack; it is a colonization. It is a movement of the work of art into the mind of the viewer (is it too risky to mention experience-taking?). What a picture wants is not to mesmerize and hold, to turn to stone, but instead to force the viewer to carry the work inside of her head all day long. If the process goes as planned, that carrying creates an act, a new work of art, a piece of carpentry, a speech, or any number of other things.

The image infects, burrows, pupates, and emerges like a butterfly from its host.

In The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Philip K. Dick wrote about a non-understandable space entity that did much the same thing to cybernetic spaceman Palmer Eldritch. The plot revolves around Eldritch’s return from deep space and the introduction of a translocating drug called Chew-Z into the general populace. When taken, Chew-Z seems to dislocate the user in time and space, often allowing her or him to live the life of fictional, marketed characters. A central debate early in the novel is about the nature of those translocations–does the user hallucinate living in a Dream House with the Barbie-esque, or is there a literal change going on, an ontological shift that is achieved for a mere few minutes?

Like most Dick novels, this is meditated on at length. Late in the novel, two characters have this exchange:

“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 its gone. And there’s the family’s cat, in the corner, sedately washing its 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 one 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 its application.”

Anne said, “The joke poses the finest distillation of the problem of ontology ever invented. If you ponder it long enough–”

“Hell,” he said angrily, “it’s five pounds of cat; its nonsense–there’s no steak if the scale shows five pounds.”

“Remember the wine and the wafer,” Anne said quietly. (217-18)

The ontological question is about the nature of is and what it means for something to be a distinct being in the substance that makes up reality. The last twenty pages of the novel read like a horror story–the characters realize that they have been colonized by the being that appears to be Palmer Eldritch; many people are beginning to show signs of the three cybernetic stigmata of the title.

Maybe the damn organism was like a protoplasm; it had to ingest and grow–instinctively it spread out farther and farther. Until it’s destroyed at the source, Leo thought. (227)

So the turn I take from Mitchell is the Dickian one: the work of art, the image, is a protoplasm instead of a Medusa. Amorphous, it seeks to implant itself; it needs living children, it needs thoughts birthed in its wake. Obviously, art creates its own children–the very concept of a genealogical understanding of art means that procreation occurred. The fact that the trash response to lots of contemporary art is “Well, I could have done that!” solidifies my point–art is getting better at creating children. It is getting better at laying experiential eggs.

But I maintain the agreement that art objects are objects in their own right, that they are alive, and that we might never understand them fully. Opaque, we view them; they view us.

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2 Responses to Philip K. Dick and the Living Image

  1. Black Steve says:

    Art is xenomorphic?

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