Identities and differences: 
Philip K. Dick through popular culture

Aleksandar BOŠKOVIĆ

We can be heroes,
just for one day.
David Bowie, Heroes (1979)
One of the most fascinating aspects of Philip K. Dick’s work is the way he built characters as imperfect, human (or even “more human than human”…). His obsession with darker sides of technology resonated with (always all-too-present) technophobia, but also made his works very marketable and presentable for the film industry – short stories such as “Minority Report” (most recently converted into a film), “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” (Total Recall, 1990), “Second Variety” (Screamers, 1995), “Impostor” (the film is from 2001), and novels like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Blade Runner, 1982) and Confessions of a Crap Artist (Confessions d’un Barjo, 1995) – to mention only the finished works (several others are in the making right now) – have made him one of the most popular contemporary writers. The fact that he has been dead for over 20 years does not hinder this fame.

But there is more than just a fame involved here: somehow, what Dick wrote four or three decades ago strikes a resounding chord with the audiences worldwide. The main issue that I find in his works is the issue of identities – something that exploded onto the world news with the political and cultural events in the last two decades.

What is it that makes the current fascination with identities transcend the borders of disciplines and enter even in the everyday talk? Social, cultural, religious, professional, national and transnational, ethnic, migrant, gendered, sexual, global and local, political – identities pop up whether one looks for them or not. They determine how we perceive people – for example, “the African” – a person mired by poverty and political crises, probably on the verge of starvation, “the woman” – someone delicate and subtle, always in need of protection and incapable of thinking (let alone doing!) anything questionable, etc. Stereotypes exist and people conform to them, whether we like it or not. In thinking beyond stereotypes one still takes a stereotype as her/his starting point.

Identity could be loosely defined as that how we see ourselves and how the others see us. Both sides are not necessarily part of the same coin, but this is part of the game. That is why some authors prefer to discuss group identities[1] – picking up more pieces seems to make for a better (whatever that might mean) and a more coherent puzzle. But groups are made of individuals, after all, and the possibilities to ascertain that individuals conform to what they are supposed to be or look like.

Identity is becoming an anthropological key concept, the one that fits well into the image of the troublesome 1990s and into the new century and millennium – in that sense, “identity” is today for social scientists, anthropologists and cultural critics what “evolution” was at the turn of the century, “function” in the 1930s, “structure” in the 1960s and “interpretation” in the 1970s. It combines well with the premodern/modern/postmodern debate (have we ever been postmodern? Latour claims – with good reason – that we have not even been “modern”!), into the gender controversies (how many genders are there?, who determines and how?), psychoanalytic controversies (Lacanian  l’objet petit a – always inexplicably missing), split ethnicities and shared loyalties (are you a European? or French, English, German, etc.?). We have made our toy. Let’s play with it.

Controversies (“dynamisms”) are present whenever one tries to approach (or even describe) an “identity”. “Hindu or Muslim”, “Black or White” – questions tend to simplify the overall scheme and to make it more intelligible for researchers. Sometimes, however, the answers are hard to give, like in the anecdote of an English gentleman who, asked whether he wanted coffee or tea, replied: “Yes, please.” “Hindu or Muslim?” – “Yes, please.”

It is not always easy to draw boundaries – numerous examples can be given with reference to the bloody dissolution of the former Yugoslavia. While it could be argued that we are all not raised in some kind of an “abstract humanity,” the situation gets more and more complicated in multi-ethnic, multi-lingual and multi-cultural environments...

This is where Dick’s characters get in, this is where they fill an empty space left by the sheer speed of the development (of media, culture, technology, and even more of our thinking about them). The issue of difference is of prime importance here – especially in the format of books/stories converted into films. That is why visually Blade Runner (the film) comes out as much more forceful on the issue of (racial) difference than the book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?.[2] The book is concerned with the “Blade Runner”, Rick Deckard, and his attempts to make sense of his life. In the cruel, cold world where he hunts down the androids, he gradually loses what humanity he thought he had. Deckard is an android, intelligent machine, just as the ones he was hunting down and “retiring.” What does it mean to be human? Is it just resigning to one’s destiny? Or is it more than that – fighting, struggling, suffering, striving for always something more, something just beyond? The book opens possibilities for several readings, but it this in this very area of possibilities that the answers should be sought. Being human is about possibilities, about choices. Once we make them, we have to live with the consequences.

There is something to be said, of course, about Dick’s very sceptical view of technology. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, one of the key distinction (human vs. non-human) is based on the technologically designed test supposed to single out androids. Of course, technology can be wrong (as demonstrated in the “Minority Report”), and in more spectacular cases, it can be employed to create powerful illusions, used by the government. The latter is the case of the hero of the novel Time Out of Joint – when unexpectedly returning to the backyard of his house, he finds out that the object (the garden bench) that was there a minute ago has disappeared, and in its place there is just a piece of paper with the word “bench.” So what is one to make of the technologically-loaded beginning of the third millennium?

The answer lies in the exploration of the possibilities, accepting responsibilities for the choices made, and  in trying to cope with the shifting identities. Or, put it in another way: “Human or non-human?” – “Yes, please.” 

  1. For example, Anthony P. Cohen (ed.), Signifying Identities, Routledge, London, 2000. 
  2. The book is loaded with philosophical references. For a comparative reading of the film and the book, see Jovan Ilic, “Do Existentialists Dream of Electric Sheep?”, The Belgrade Circle Journal Nos. 3-4/96 and 1-2/97, pp. 699-717, Belgrade, 2001. On the reading of the film on the issues of difference, see Stephen Neale, “Issues of Difference: Alien and Blade Runner” in James Donald (ed.), Fantasy and the Cinema, pp. 213-223, BFI, London, 1989. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was first published in 1968. I have a copy reprinted by Bantham Books, New York, 1996.