Do Androids Scream of Electric SheepThis final part of my essay on Blade Runner and Asperger’s syndrome moves into more speculative areas and draws on linguistics and literary theory to examine how Blade Runner and postmodern texts in general present as autistic.

In “Part 1: Autistic Noir” I described the traits associated with Asperger’s Syndrome (e.g. linguistic and social deficits, a marked lack of affect, and difficulties with cognitive empathy) and showed how each of these traits is presented by the characters in Blade Runner. In “Part 2: The Neurodivergent Worlds of Philip K Dick” I looked at Dick’s original novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) in the context of his other work of that period, his deepening interest in the dramatic and philosophical possibilities presented by different neurotypes, and how his work prefigured the more modern work of autism specialists like Simon Baron-Cohen and Uta Frith.

In this chapter I hope to take the affinity between Blade Runner and Asperger’s further still by exploring the deeper waters of postmodern theory and neuroscience.

The following argument is complex so I’d like to layout the stages in advance.

  • Firstly, I want to argue that Aspies have a preference for metonymy over metaphor, and that the reasons for this can be understood in terms of current research into neuroscience.
  • Secondly, I will argue in favour of Damien Broderick‘s contention in Reading by Starlight: Postmodern Science Fiction (1995) that science fiction is a genre – or mode – which privileges metonymy over metaphor.
  • Thirdly, I will look at the analysis of postmodernism proposed by literary theorist Frederic Jameson in Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991) to propose correspondences between postmodern texts and what I’ll call the Autistic Mode of expression.

Autism & Figures of Speech

Most of this essay is based on a metaphorical relationship between Blade Runner and autism – which is ironic since metaphor is a form of figurative language and autistics are stereotypically  poor at figures of speech. And that’s doubly ironic as we are generally supposed to have difficulty with irony too.

Metaphor and irony are two of the most widely recognised  tropes. Tropes (from the Greek tropos, meaning “turn, direction, way”) can be a word, a phrase, or an image, which substitutes for and represents something other than itself.

Irony (from Ancient Greek eirōneía, meaning dissimulation or “feigned ignorance”) conveys meaning which is radically different from – or even oppositional to – what it appears to say.

Irony may be difficult for an autistic to recognise, partly because – when spoken – it is often conveyed in tone of voice, but also because it depends on the listener recognising the ironic intention behind it. Irony, then, depends largely upon  “Theory of Mind (ToM) – deficits in which (mind-blindedness), as we have already seen, may be the defining characteristic of autistic spectrum disorders.

Metaphor is the substitution of one signifier for another, sometimes for rhetorical effect, but often in order to draw on their similarities to clarify some point.

In The Philosophy of Rhetoric (1937) by I. A. Richards describes a metaphor as having two parts: the tenor and the vehicle. The tenor refers to the subject that we try to understand; the vehicle refers to object who’s attributes are borrowed to highlight or clarify similar attributes in the subject we wish to understand. 

In cognitive linguistics we use the terms target and source for tenor and vehicle and speak in terms of conceptual domains posited in conceptual metaphors: The target refers to the conceptual domain that we try to understand (e.g., love is a journey); the source is the conceptual domain from which we draw metaphorical expressions (e.g., love is a journey).

A conceptual metaphor consists of two conceptual domains, in which one domain is understood in terms of another. A conceptual domain is any coherent organization of experience. Thus, for example, we have coherently organized knowledge about journeys that we rely on in understanding life

—– Zoltán Kövecses, Metaphor: a practical introduction (2002)

In Part 1: Autistic Noir I noted that many autistics (e.g. Temple Grandin in Oliver Sacks’ An Anthropologist on Mars (1995)) or parents of autistic children (David Gerrold in The Martian Child (1995) and Kathy Lette in The Boy Who Fell to Earth (2012)) draw on sf metaphors to articulate their experience. In these, the source domain is the alien or android, and the target domain is the autistic individual and their experiences. Yet despite autistics making use of such metaphors, many autistics still seem to experience difficulty with metaphor in general – and the reason for this is less immediately obvious than for difficulties with irony.

Lonely TreeOne possibility is that metaphor also involves Theory of Mind. In “Part 2: The Neurodivergent Worlds of Philip K Dick” I noted the origin of the word empathy lies in an aesthetic theory promoted by Vernon Lee. The appreciation of a work of art, according to Lee, lies in the projection into that work one’s own feelings and beliefs. This is feeling into the work – for which Lee borrowed the German word Einfühlung from philosopher Robert Vischer – is essentially metaphorical in nature. In his discussion of  Caspar David Friedrich‘s painting  “The Solitary Tree (Der einsame Baum”) Vischer suggests that when we look at that painting we “feel ourselves into it” by imagining our body in the posture of the tree. I think this is a very special case of metaphor, however, and I don’t think it can be generalised to other forms of metaphor. I will propose an alternative explanation shortly when I look at mirror neurons and cross-modal abstraction.

Metonymy and Synecdoche

There are a number of other tropes besides metaphor and irony, and these include metonymy and synecdoche.

Metonymy and is a figure of speech in which a thing or concept is referred to by the name of something closely associated with it e.g. “head” or “brain” for mind or intelligence, or “The White House for the Executive Office of the President of the United States.

Synecdoche (synekdoche, meaning “simultaneous understanding”) can be regarded as subset of metonymy in which a term for a part of something refers to the whole of something, e.g. “Boots on the ground for soldiers, “head” of cattle, or “farm hands” for agricultural labourers.

Metaphor, metonymy and synecdoche are all forms of substitution; but while the first is based on an analogy between source and target domains, in metonymy and synecdoche the substitution is based on contiguity.

The two main areas of the brain associated with language are known as Broca’s area”  (situated on 97% of people in the left posterior inferior frontal gyrus or inferior frontal operculum) and Wernicke’s area” (thought to be located in Brodmann area 22, in the posterior section of the superior temporal gyrus (STG) in approximately 95% of right handed people and 60% of left handed people). Damage or abnormalities in there regions are associated with distinct forms of aphasia, or speech loss.

Expressive aphasia, also known as Broca’s aphasia”, agrammatic aphasia or non-fluent aphasia, is associated with damage to Broca’s area. Expressive aphasics can comprehend spoken language but have difficulty constructing grammatical sentences of their own – hence “agrammatic” or “non-fluent” aphasia. Expressive aphasics are usually conscious of their deficits and can become frustrated as they struggle to communicate.

Broca’s aphasics have difficulty in building up a context. In his 1956 essay, “The Metaphoric and Metonymic Poles”, Roman Jakobson described Broca’s aphasia as a “contiguity disorder”: subjects  can name synonyms and antonyms but not contiguous concepts:  “champagne” and “wine” but not “cork”, “tipsy” or “hangover”. Broca’s aphasics also show an impairment in the comprehension tropes based on contiguity such as metonymy and synecdoche.

Receptive aphasia, also known as Wernicke’s aphasia or fluent aphasia, is associated with damage to Wernicke’s area. Receptive aphasics can speak fluently using grammar, syntax, rate, and intonation, but produce only meaningless gibberish or “word salad. An sf dramatization of receptive aphasia can be seen in the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode Babel (Season One, Episode 5) when the crew is stricken with an engineered virus that mimics the effects of receptive aphasia.

Metaphor is alien to the similarity disorder and metonymy to the contiguity disorder.

—–Roman Jakobson  Two Aspects of Language and Two Types of Aphasic Disturbances

But with metonymy and synecdoche we are talking about contiguous details – and details are something the autistic mind excels at.

Global vs Local Processing

An alternative explanation for difficulties with metaphor may be related to the activity of so-called mirror neurons.

Mirror neurons were first observed in monkeys by neurophysiologists Giacomo Rizzolatti, Giuseppe Di Pellegrino, Luciano Fadiga, Leonardo Fogassi, and Vittorio Gallese at the University of Parma. Certain clusters of brain cells were observed to fire when monkeys performed a particular task (e.g. pulling a lever, grabbing a peanut, putting the peanut inside the mouth, etc.). This wasn’t, of course, surprising – Vernon Mountcastle had made such observations back in the 1950s – but what was surprising is that those same neuron clusters fired when the monkey was watching another monkey perform those actions. These neurons simulate the actions of the neurons in another monkey’s head.

The role of mirror neurons in mimicking behaviour is widely recognised but the way they do this gives us a clue to difficulties with metaphor. What mirror neurons do, according to neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran is map one cognitive field into another, a process Ramachandran calls “cross-modal abstraction”. Cross-modal abstraction allows us to, for instance, identify by touch something we have seen by mapping visual stimuli onto touch.

Metaphor is another form of cross-modal abstraction in that it maps the source domain onto the target domain.

A preference for local over global perception among people with ASDs

Take the following figures, for instance:

Navon-task

These figures are known as a Navon hierarchical letters, and the Navon task is used to measure global and local perception.

Subjects with simultanagnosia (the inability to perceive more than a single object at a time) and similar neurological conditions will have difficulty perceiving the global characteristics of the second figure – that the individual letters make up a large letter “H” – and recognise only the letter “E”s of which it is composed.

This is an indicator of Weak Central Processing – one of the theories proposed to explain autism.

Children with a diagnosis of autism and typically developing children were given two variations of the Navon task (Navon, 1977), which required responding to a target that could appear at the global level, the local level, or both levels… Typically developing children made most errors when the target appeared at the local level whereas children with autism made more errors when the target appeared at the global level in the divided attention task. Both groups of children were quicker to respond to the global target than the local target in the selective attention task. The presence of normal global processing in the children with autism in one task but not in the other is discussed in terms of a deficit in mechanisms that inhibit local information in the absence of overt priming or voluntary selective attention to local information.

—– Plaisted K, Swettenham J, Rees L, (1999) “Children with autism show local precedence in a divided attention task and global precedence in a selective attention task.”

Other research suggests that this bias for local reflects merely a preference for local processing rather than a deficiency in global processing:

It is widely suggested that ASD is characterized by atypical local/global processing, but the published findings are contradictory. In an effort to resolve this question, we tested a large group of children on both a free-choice task and an instructed task using hierarchical local-global stimuli. We find that although children with autism showed a reduced preference to report global properties of a stimulus when given a choice, their ability to process global properties when instructed to do so is unimpaired. These findings support prior claims that people with ASD show a disinclination, not a disability, in global processing, and highlight the broader question of whether other characteristics of autism may also reflect disinclinations rather than disabilities.

—– Kami Koldewyn, Yuhong Jiang, Sarah Weigelt, and Nancy Kanwisher (2013) Global/Local Processing in Autism: Not a Disability but a Disinclination”

Whether the bias for local processing is ultimately one of preference or ability the bias is, nevertheless, real.

The language of autistic persons can be understood by reading their words and writing as one does poetry; further, literary terminology used to analyze poetry can assist us in understanding the verbal and non-verbal utterances of autistic individuals. To understand or interpret an autistic individuals’ language another person must be able to read metonymically, by which I refer to the formulation of metaphor and metonymy in the work of the linguist Roman Jakobson. What seems metonymical and arbitrary to a non-cognitively disabled reader is “metaphorical” and true to an individual with a cognitive disability…

—— Kristina Chew,Fractioned Idiom: Poetry and the Language of Autism

Metaphoric strategies and metonymic tactics

In Reading by Starlight: Postmodern Science Fiction (1995), Damien Broderick defines science fiction as

Sf is that species of storytelling native to a culture undergoing the epistemic changes implicated in the rise and supercession of technical-industrial modes of production, distribution, consumption and disposal. It is marked by (i) metaphoric strategies and metonymic tactics, (ii) the foregrounding of icons and interpretative schemata from a collectively constituted generic ‘mega-text’ and the concomitant de-emphasis of ‘fine writing’ and characterisation, and (iii) certain priorities more often found in scientific and postmodern texts than in literary models: specifically, attention to the object in preference to the subject.

— Damien Broderick, Reading by Starlight: Postmodern Science Fiction, p. 155).

There’s a lot to unpack in this jargon-heavy definition – at first, in fact, it might be mistaken for the word salad symptomatic of the fluent aphasia I described above – but I hope to demonstrate that this definition is key to unravelling science fiction’s appeal to people on the autistic spectrum; indeed, why science fiction as a genre may be regarded as an autistic mode.

What does Broderick mean by metonymic tactics?

On [David] Lodge’s account, the strategy of realism is centrally metonymic. In its attempts to “represent the real world’, realist textuality enacts an epistemological fragmentation and reconstitution. It builds strings of signifiers which themselves are chosen for their contiguity, their actual connectedness, with interacting elements in the socially/linguistically constructed Umwelt or “life-world’. Sf textuality is grounded in a distinctive subjunctivity (a useful borrowing from grammar by Samuel Delany).21 Briefly: “A distinct level of subjunctivity informs all the words in an s-f story at a level that is different from that which informs naturalistic fiction, fantasy, or reportage. [… Heinlein’s] “the door dilated,” is meaningless as naturalistic fiction, and practically meaningless as fantasy’ (Delany1978a, pp. 31, 34). As sf, it confirms, while enacting, the text’s radical “futurity’ or “otherness’. In this special kind of text, metonymy passes first through cascades of suspended lexical paradigms, words regarded as metaphorically equivalent, which are then detached and sent aloft, freed from any last vestige of a supposed everyday direct reference to reality.

—— Damien Broderick, Reading by Starlight (1995, p.56-57)

[Sf’s] outrageous inventions tend to mimic the mimetic, to copy the realistic modes of representation, to link the signifiers it invents or appropriates into syntagmatic strings whose forms perform and formulate new formulae of narrative topology: structures of connection and disconnection which track like paths the trajectories and pathos of sentences until now incapable of utterance

—— Damien Broderick, Reading by Starlight (1995, p.158)

Science fiction is, then, a genre which privileges metonymy over metaphor in creating imaginary worlds which mimic the real world.

The Cultural Neurology of Late Capitalism

Broderick draws upon the work of the Marxist literary theorist Frederic Jameson, author of Marxism and Form (1971), The Political Unconscious (1981) and Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991), probably the definitive work on the subject. Jameson has also published a superb collection of essays on science fiction and utopia, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (2005), which includes some commentary on Philip K. Dick, and Raymond Chandler: The Detections of Totality (2016). Postmodernism and Archaeologies are of particular interest here.

Postmodernism is a dense work but fortunately Damien Broderick has summarised the most salient parts quite succinctly.

Postmodernism is characterised by:

  • “a flatness or depthlessness…—perhaps the supreme formal feature of all the postmodernisms” (p. 60);
  • a waning of affect, or feeling, linked to the (alleged) loss of discrete subjectivity, (p. 61) and
  • the replacement of affect (especially alienated angst) by a peculiar kind of euphoria coupled with a loss of memory (p. 64)
  • the end of personal, unique style and a sense of history itself, and their replacement by pastiche (not parody, but the transcoding of modernist idiolects into jargon, badges and other decorative codes) and nostalgia (pp. 64–5);
  • the fragmentation of artistic texts after the model of schizophrenic écriture, which takes the form especially of collage governed bydifferentiation rather than unification (pp. 71–6);
  • and most of all, the hysterical sublime, a theme developed in Lyotard, in which the ‘other’ of human life surpasses our power to represent it and pitches us into a sort of Gothic rapture (pp. 76 ff.).

— Damien Broderick, Reading by Starlight: Postmodern Science Fiction, p.106)

We already saw in both “Part 1: Autistic Noir” and “Part 2: The Neurodivergent Worlds of Philip K Dick” that Asperger’s is characterised by a flatness” and a “waning of affect” – and a “peculiar kind of euphoria” neatly describes an obsession with “special interests.” 

What I want to argue now is that while mainstream fiction invokes “psychological depth” to interpolate the reader into the lives of the characters – to induce empathy through analogy with their lives – and a distinct authorial style to foster a similar analogous relationship between reader and author, postmodern texts create meaning through contiguity: a “de-emphasis” on characterisation and a preference for “object” over “subject” induces a distancing, or estrangement, from characters who may be little more than cyphers or stereotypes; pastiche and fragmentation similarly undermine the notion of authorship and authorial intent; and in the specific case of science fiction the generic conventions – the “foregrounding of icons and interpretative schemata from a collectively constituted generic “mega-text” are “metonymic tactics” which can achieve “metaphoric strategies” such as creating a film that, without any real psychological depth, can nevertheless represent a neurological disorder more authentically than “naturalistic” films designed to offer psychological insight.

The Postmodern Subject

Although Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a postmodern text it is not without reference to high art”. The novel begins with a quotation from WB Yeats and one of the androids, Luba Luft, is an opera singer. One scene is set at an exhibition of the work of the Expressionist painter, Edvard Munch:

At the opera house Rick Deckard and Phil Resch were informed that the rehearsal had ended. And Miss Luft had left.
——“Did she say where she intended to go?” Phil Resch asked the stagehand, showing his police identification.
——“Over to the museum.” The stagehand studied the ID card. “She said she wanted to take in the exhibit of Edvard Munch that’s there, now. It ends tomorrow.”
——And Luba Luft, Rick thought to himself, ends today.
——As the two of them walked down the sidewalk to the museum, Phil Resch said, “What odds will you give? She’s flown; we won’t find her at the museum.”
——“Maybe,” Rick said.
——They arrived at the museum building, noted on which floor the Munch exhibit could be found, and ascended. Shortly, they wandered amid paintings and woodcuts. Many people had turned out for the exhibit, including a grammar school class; the shrill voice of the teacher penetrated all the rooms comprising the exhibit, and Rick thought, That’s what you’d expect an andy to sound — and look — like. Instead of like Rachael Rosen and Luba Luft. And — the man beside him. Or rather the thing beside him.

——“Did you ever hear of an andy having a pet of any sort?” Phil Resch asked him.
——For some obscure reason he felt the need to be brutally honest; perhaps he had already begun preparing himself for what lay ahead. “In two cases that I know of, andys owned and cared for animals. But it’s rare. From what I’ve been able to learn, it generally fails; the andy is unable to keep the animal alive. Animals require an environment of warmth to flourish. Except for reptiles and insects.”
——“Would a squirrel need that? An atmosphere of love? Because Buffy is doing fine, as sleek as an otter. I groom and comb him every other day.” At an oil painting Phil Resch halted, gazed intently. The painting showed a hairless, oppressed creature with a head like an inverted pear, its hands clapped in horror to its ears, its mouth open in a vast, soundless scream. Twisted ripples of the creature’s torment, echoes of its cry, flooded out into the air surrounding it; the man or woman, whichever it was, had become contained by its own howl. It had covered its ears against its own sound. The creature stood on a bridge and no one else was present; the creature screamed in isolation. Cut off by — or despite — its outcry.
——“He did a woodcut of this,” Rick said, reading the card tacked below the painting.
——“I think,” Phil Resch said, “that this is how an andy must feel.” He traced in the air the convolutions, visible in the picture, of the creature’s cry. “I don’t feel like that, so maybe I’m not an — ” He broke off, as several persons strolled up to inspect the picture.
——“There’s Luba Luft.” Rick pointed and Phil Resch halted his somber introspection and defense; the two of them walked at a measured pace toward her, taking their time as if nothing confronted them; as always it was vital to preserve the atmosphere of the commonplace. Other humans, having no knowledge of the presence of androids among them, had to be protected at all costs — even that of losing the quarry.
——Holding a printed catalogue, Luba Luft, wearing shiny tapered pants and an illuminated gold vestlike top, stood absorbed in the picture before her: a drawing of a young girl, hands clasped together, seated on the edge of a bed, an expression of bewildered wonder and new, groping awe imprinted on the face.
——“Want me to buy it for you?” Rick said to Luba Luft; he stood beside her, holding laxly onto her upper arm, informing her by his loose grip that he knew he had possession of her — he did not have to strain in an effort to detain her. On the other side of her Phil Resch put his hand on her shoulder and Rick saw the bulge of the laser tube. Phil Resch did not intend to take chances, not after the near miss with Inspector Garland.
——“It’s not for sale.”
Luba Luft glanced at him idly, then violently as she recognized him; her eyes faded and the color dimmed from her face, leaving it cadaverous, as if already starting to decay. As if life had in an instant retreated to some point far inside her, leaving the body to its automatic ruin…
——At the end of the corridor near the elevators, a little store-like affair had been set up; it sold prints and art books, and Luba halted there, tarrying. “Listen,” she said to Rick. Some of the colour had returned to her face; once more she looked — at least briefly — alive. “Buy me a reproduction of that picture I was looking at when you found me. The one of the girt sitting on the bed.”
——After a pause Rick said to the clerk, a heavy-jowled, middle-aged woman with netted gray hair, “Do you have a print of Munch’s Puberty?”
——“Only in this book of his collected work,” the clerk said, lifting down a handsome glossy volume. “Twenty-five dollars.”
——“I’ll take it.” He reached for his wallet.
——Phil Resch said, “My departmental budget could never in a million years be stretched — ”
——“My own money,” Rick said; he handed the woman the bills and Luba the book.
——“Now let’s get started down,” he said to her and Phil Resch.
——“It’s very nice of you,” Luba said as they entered the elevator. “There’s something very strange and touching about humans. An android would never have done that.”

—— Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

ScreamMunch’s painting – The Scream (1893) – is also the focus of Frederic Jameson’s discussion of High Modernism and its representation of the human subject:

The waning of affect is, however, perhaps best initially approached by way of the human figure, and it is obvious that what we have said about the commodification of objects holds as strongly for Warhol’s human subjects: stars-like Marilyn Monroe-who are themselves commodified and transformed into their own images. And here too a certain brutal return to the older period of high modernism offers a dramatic shorthand parable of the transformation in question. Edward Munch’s painting The Scream is, of course, a canonical expression of the great modernist thematics of alienation, anomie, solitude, social fragmentation, and isolation, a virtually programmatic emblem of what used to be called the age of anxiety. It will here be read as an embodiment not merely of the expression of that kind of affect but, even more, as a virtual deconstruction of the very aesthetic of expression itself, which seems to have dominated much of what we call high modernism but to have vanished away-for both practical and theoretical reasons-in the world of the postmodern. The very concept of expression presupposes indeed some separation within the subject, and along with that a whole metaphysics of the inside and outside, of the wordless pain within the monad and the moment in which, often cathartically, that “emotion” is then projected out and externalized, as gesture or cry, as desperate communication and the outward dramatization of inward feeling.
——
This is perhaps the moment to say something about contemporary theory, which has, among other things, been committed to the mission of criticizing and discrediting this very hermeneutic model of the inside and the outside and of stigmatizing such models as ideological and metaphysical. But what is today called contemporary theory – or better still, theoretical discourse – is also, I want to argue, itself very precisely a postmodernist phenomenon. It would therefore be inconsistent to defend the truth of its theoretical insights in a situation in which the very concept of “truth” itself is part of the metaphysical baggage which poststructuralism seeks to abandon. What we can at least suggest is that the poststructuralist critique of the hermeneutic, of what I will shortly call the depth model, is useful for us as a very sign)ficant symptom of the very postmodernist culture which is our subject here.
——
Overhastily, we can say that besides the hermeneutic model of inside and outside which Munch’s painting develops, at least four other fundamental depth models have generally been repudiated in contemporary theory: (1) the dialectical one of essence and appearance (along with a whole range of concepts of ideology or false consciousness which tend to accompany it); (2) the Freudian model of latent and manifest, or of repression (which is, of course, the target of Michel Foucault’s programmatic and symptomatic pamphlet La Volonte de sovoir [The history of Sexuality]); (3) the existential model of authenticity and inauthenticity whose heroic or tragic thematics are closely related to that other great opposition between alienation and disalienation, itself equally a casualty of the poststructural or postmodern period; and (4) most recently, the great semiotic opposition between sign)fier and sign)fied, which was itself rapidly unraveled and deconstructed during its brief heyday in the 1960s and 1970s. What replaces these various depth models is for the most part a conception of practices, discourses, and textual play, whose new syntagmatic structures we will examine later on; let it suffice now to observe that here too depth is replaced by surface, or by multiple surfaces (what if often called intertextuality is in that sense no longer a matter of depth).
——
. . .  it shows us that expression requires the category of the individual monad, but it also shows us the heavy price to be paid for that precondition, dramatizing the unhappy paradox that when you constitute your individual subjectivity as a self-sufficient field and a closed realm, you thereby shut yourself off from everything else and condemn yourself to the mindless solitude of the monad, buried alive and condemned to a prison cell without egress. (72)

——Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism; or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (p. 72)

Jameson, like Dick, associates this waning of affect” with schizophrenia:

[T]he schizophrenic is reduced to an experience of pure material signifiers, or, in other words, a series of pure and unrelated presents in time.

——Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism; or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (p. 72)

Jameson, here, is identifying postmodernism with a flattening of affect, but also a more global flattening of the hermeneutics – the methodology of interpretation.

The exposition will take up in turn the following constitutive features of the postmodern: a new depthlessness, which finds its prolongation both in contemporary “theory” and in a whole new culture of the image or the simulacrum; a consequent weakening of historicity, both in our relationship to public History and in the new forms of our private temporality, whose “schizophrenic” structure (following Lacan) will determine new types of syntax or syntagmatic relationships in the more temporal arts; a whole new type of emotional ground tone – what I will call intensities – which can best be grasped by a return to older theories of the sublime; the deep constitutive relationships of all this to a whole new technology, which is itself a figure for a whole new economic world system; and, after a brief account of postmodernist mutations in the lived experience of built space itself, some reflections on the mission of political art in the bewildering new world space of late or multinational capital.

—— Frederic Jameson, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism

Postmoders “Intensities”

Autistic people are thought to be severely impaired in empathising with other people and ‘reading their mind,’ which is captured in the ‘theory of mind’ or ‘mind-blindness’ theory of autism… The proposed deficits in reading other people’s feelings and thoughts and the lack in empathising with other people has been commonly used to explain the impairments in social interactions and communication as well as inappropriate responses in social encounters… We…propose that the autistic person may perceive his surroundings not only as overwhelmingly intense due to hyper-reactivity of primary sensory areas, but also as aversive and highly stressful due to a hyper-reactive amygdala, which also makes quick and powerful fear associations with usually neutral stimuli. The autistic person may well try to cope with the intense and aversive world by avoidance. Thus, impaired social interactions and withdrawal may not be the result of a lack of compassion, incapability to put oneself into some else’s position or lack of emotionality, but quite to the contrary a result of an intensely if not painfully aversively perceived environment.

—— Henry Markram, et al., The Intense World Syndrome – An Alternative Hypothesis for Autism

Stylistically and thematically, Blade Runner has much in common with a series of films that emerged from France at around the same time and which feature a similar obsession with surface detail and an ostentatious lack of psychological depth. These films are rather disparagingly referred to as the Cinéma du look. These films  include Jean-Jacques Beineix’s Diva (1981) and Betty Blue (aka 37°2 le matin (1986); Luc Besson’s post-apocalyptic Le Dernier Combat (1983), the urban thriller Subway (1985), The Big Blue (1988), Nikita (1990); and Leos Carax’s Boy Meets Girl (1984), Mauvais Sang (1986) and Les Amants du Pont-Neuf (1986). All of these films feature protagonists with autistic traits – affectless, barely communicative loners with obsessive interests, usually played by Jean Reno, Denis Lavant or  Christophe Lambert. Le Dernier Combat is perhaps the most extreme example, a war having rendered the entire human race mute. It was this film that critics first accused director Luc Besson of “cinematic autism”. Carax has described the characters played by his recurring leading man, Denis Lavant, as “autistic savants”. Although only Le Dernier Combat and Mauvais Sang are explicitly sf, Diva and Subway owe much to sf iconography and all exhibit a  distinctly cyberpunk sensibility.

Asperger’s and Postmodern Subjectivity

Although set in the future the film deliberately evokes the style and atmosphere of the classic forties film noir: The city in Blade Runner, with its rain-slicked Los Angeles streets, faux-forties fashions, private-eye plot and world-weary narration, derives plenty from noir. This is a dark city of mean streets, moral ambiguities and an air of irresolution. Blade Runner‘s Los Angeles exemplifies the failure of the rational city envisioned by urban planners and science fiction creators, and it also recalls, by implication, the air of masculine crisis that undergirded film noir – witness Deckard’s struggle to retain, or regain, his humanity. If the metropolis in noir was a dystopian purgatory, then in Blade Runner, with its flame-belching towers, it has become and almost literal Inferno

—— Scott Bukatman, Blade Runner (BFI Mdern Classics)

High Modernism had been characterised by an individual style. Jameson gives the example of Edvard Munch‘s famous Expressionist painting The Scream (1893) Postmodernism, on the other hand, is defined by an impersonal style In Reading by Starlight: Postmodern Science Fiction(1995) Damien Broderick summarizes Frederic Jameson’s analysis of postmodernism as:

That Blade Runner contains elements of pastiche is undeniable. Fritz Lang‘s Metropolis () and film noir. Raymond Chandler. Intense World Affectlessness is, of course, symptomatic of the presentation of Asperger’s as well as postmodernism.

Notes
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