Thursday, October 20, 2011

quick thoughts on "undermining ontology" in McKee's new PKD article

Gabriel McKee is the author of "Pink Beams of Light from the God in the Gutter." You can read Umberto Rossi's SF Studies review here (scroll down to find it).

His new article on Philip K. Dick is the latest effort by a PKD scholar to briefly summarize Dick's religious experiences in the context of his novels. As in his book (and reminiscent of Umberto Rossi's recent book), McKee emphasizes the "ontological uncertainty" aspect of Dick's novels. I can understand why PKD apologists often try to sell Dick in terms of this uncertainty, but I am worried that this emphasis can be misleading when it comes to Dick's philosophical and religious writings. I am not convinced that "ontological uncertainty" is the main point of Dick's novels either, as McKee seems to imply when he writes that "Dick’s stories serve to undermine the readers’ faith in ontology—he is poking the universe with a pin to see if it pops." This strikes me as a dangerously glib reading. It is certainly the case that Dick narrates an undermining of his character's faith in ontology, but I don't see how we can boil down his entire literary output to such a simple message. Dick wrote as much as he did as a "fictionalizing philosopher," as well as in nonfiction form, because he was obsessed with the problems of epistemology and ontology--not because he felt that he had already solved them. Undermining faith is certainly one of the philosophical moves he employs, but I doubt that Dick would have the following he does if it was the only trick in his book.

McKee proceeds from explaining the nature of Dick's fictionalizing philosophy to Dick's theological writings, applying this reading of ontological uncertainty. Dick's theology according to McKee is fundamentally speculative; he never ends up with a permanent theory. He writes:

"Dick presents all of this as theory, and never as fact—or rather, he presents it as fact, and then promptly pulls the rug out from underneath each explanation. Throughout the Exegesis, Dick declares that, “at last,” he has found the ultimate explanation—but, within a page or two, he second-guesses every eureka. Thus the theology of the Exegesis is speculative: it proposes much but asserts nothing. It is, ultimately, not about the answers, but about the myriad possibilities that the questions themselves imply. It is a theology built on doubt—indeed, it throws the very division of faith and doubt into question."

While I don't disagree that doubt is an important aspect of Dick's philosophizing, I am not sure that we can apply doubt as a key to his theology quite so easily. Something other than doubt motivated Dick to do the work that he did, which consumed the last eight years of his life (and annoyed many jealous fans and critics who wish that he had written more SF novels instead.) My impression from reading Dick's descriptions of his experiences is that he did indeed have no problem endlessly spinning theories, but he was doing theology because of the things that he found difficult to doubt. Sometimes I see Dick as the other side of the R.A. Wilson coin: whereas RAW's put-on method was a largely destructive enterprise in an effort to "wise up the marks," with Dick we see a man obsessed with experiences that cannot be explained away by the usual method of doubt.

See also McKee's ranking of PKD Adaptation from best to worst.

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