Archive for the ‘Cultural Studies’ Category

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.


Philip K DickThis is the second part of of my essay on Blade Runner (1982) and Asperger’s Syndrome.

In Part 1: Autistic Noir I looked at the parallels between Ridley Scott‘s film and the experience of people on the autistic spectrum, particularly those like myself who have Asperger’s. I gave a summary of some of the common AS traits and looked at how most of these traits, particularly social isolation and flattened affect, are exhibited by almost all of the characters; I also looked at how the common Aspie experience of prejudice is reflected in the experiences of the replicants (androids) and how their supposed lack of empathy is used to legitimate their status as less than human.

Although there are many difference between Blade Runner and the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) on which is based, the test is taken directly from the book. In this section I want to look at how Philip K. Dick’s novel addresses the themes of social isolation and flattened affect also present in the film, and look how Dick anticipates some of the current theorising of Asperger’s as an ”empathy disorder” (with particular reference to the work of Simon Baron-Cohen) – despite being written decades before the condition was recognised.

I also want to place the novel in the context of Dick’s other work of this period – particularly The Man in the High Castle (1962), Clans of the Aphane Moon (1964) and Martian Time-Slip (1964), which showed an increasingly sophisticated interest in different neurotypes. I will examine how Dick himself, as indicated in non-fiction essays like The Android and the Human (1972), shared many of Baron-Cohen’s assumptions about empathy as constitutive of human nature, and I will look at the concept of empathy in some depth; I will also argue that the ambiguities of Dick’s fiction undermines these essentialist assumptions and exposes empathy and it’s associated ”emotional ground tone” as a socially constructed and historically contingent.



This is the first in a series of essays on popular culture and neuroscience. I’m starting with my favourite movie, Blade Runner (1982), and the novel  Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) on which it is based, partly because I have been obsessed with both since I was a teenager, but mostly because I can write about both from inside the condition these texts illustrate: autism, and in particular the autistic spectrum disorder still referred to as Asperger’s syndrome” or “Asperger’s disorder.”

It may sound a surprising claim Blade Runner as an autistic film to anyone used to more literal representations of autistism in films like Rain Man (Barry Levinson, 1988) or Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Stephen Daldry, 2011) but in many ways Blade Runner is the Aspie” [1] film par excellence.

Most films about autism are targeted at non-autistics, reflect the non-autistic values and assumptions, and are ultimately and ultimately designed to meet their emotional needs. Many revolve around finding a cure: in Change of Habit (1969), for instance, Elvis Presley, in his last film role, cures an abandoned autistic girl by hugging het close and telling her she has to learn how to love people.  Sometimes the direction of cure is reversed:  caring for his autistic brother Raymond (Dustin Hoffman) redeems the selfishness of yuppie Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise). Either way the autistic experience is framed within the point of view of the non-autistic. But Blade Runner is different; Blade Runner largely dispenses with the non-autistic point of view.

Blade Runner features no characters explicitly identified as having Asperger’s Syndrome; in fact few of them are even human. When Blade Runner was made Asperger’s was barely recognised in the English speaking world (Lorna Wing translated Hans Asperger‘s work in 1981 when the film was already in production). Yet every character, human or otherwise, displays recognizably autistic spectrum (AS) traits – as I will hopefully demonstrate!

The film also reflects the experience of alienation, social exclusion and prejudice common to aspies; what’s more, the film’s intense auditory and visual style and obsessive attention to surface detail mimics the local precedence bias of autistic perceptual processing and induces an effect of sensory overload aspies are familiar with. It features a diagnostic test that bears an uncanny resemblance to tests used in the assessment of autistic spectrum disorders. But most importantly of all, the major theme is one which is of particularly salience to Aspies; the notion that empathy is constitutive of being human, and that a deficit in this often vaguely defined quality is used the marginalise and discriminate against certain groups by denying them humanity (hence the title of this first part).

And to top it all the film features an actress who was herself diagnosed with Asperger’s. (more…)

Science Fiction: a genre (of literature, film, etc.) in which the setting differs from our own world (e.g. by the invention of new technology, through contact with aliens, by having a different history, etc.), and in which the difference is based on extrapolations made from one or more changes or suppositions; hence, such a genre in which the difference is explained (explicitly or implicitly) in scientific or rational, as opposed to supernatural, terms

—- Jeff Prucher, Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction

The influence of science fiction on our language can’t be overestimated. Many terms and expressions in common usage originated in science fiction, or at least were popularised there. Jeff Prucher’s Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction (2007) is the most detailed account of this influence to date. It defines words coined not only in science fiction literature, film, television and comics, but also within sf criticism and sf fandom. It was published by Oxford University Press and contains an introduction is by Gene Wolfe. It won the Hugo Award for Best Related Book in 2008.

The title alludes to Aldous Huxley‘s dystopian sf novel Brave New World (1932) – itself taken from Shakespeare‘s The Tempest (1610); the term ‘brave new world’ (n. a dystopian society resulting from the faulures of technological or social advancements; a situation resembling such a state of affairs) has entered popular discourse. It is perhaps science fictions greatest achievement that it has created the vocabulary through which we express our deepest fears about the direction in which society may evolve; George Orwell‘s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) alone provides us with ‘Big Brother‘ (n, an all-powerful, all-seeing, authoritarian ruler or government), ‘doublethink‘ (n, simultaneously believing that two contradictory ideas are true) ‘Newspeak‘ (n, the modified form of English created by the government for use in propoganda; in general use, any euphemism or doublespeak, especially as used by a govenment or for propaganda), and ‘thoughtcrime‘ (n, any thought, especially that which is against the government or which is unorthodox, considered as a criminal offense).

The most obvious fields in which science fiction words have entered the mainstream are in space exploration and astronomy. The words ‘spaceship‘ (n, a vehicle designed to be used in outer space) and ‘spacecraft‘ (n, a SPACESHIP) first appeared in John Jacob Astor‘s A Journey in Other Worlds (1894) and Philip Francis Nowlan and Dick CalkinsBuck Rogers, 2430 A.D. (1930) respectively. ‘Spacesuit‘ first appeared in Sci. Wonder Stories in 1929; less glamorously, ‘space-sickness‘ first appears in Hugo Gernsback‘s novel Ralph 124C 41+ (1911). ‘Free fall‘ comes from John W. Campbell Jr‘s Islands of Space (1931).

The word ‘robot‘ (n, [<Czech robota, ”forced labour”]), notably comes from play RUR: Rossum’s Universal Robots (1920); the term ‘robotics‘ (n. the science of designing, building, or using robots; the study of robots.), however, first appeared in Isaac Asimov‘s short story ”Liar!”, part of his Robot Series, which was first published in Astounding Science Fiction (May, 1941) and reprinted in I, Robot (1950). Asimov was not even aware that he was creating a word. ‘Android‘ appears, as does the abbreviation ‘droid‘ from George Lucas‘ Star Wars (1977) but the female equivalent ‘gynoid‘ does not, nor does ‘fembot’.

Several computing terms first appeared in science fiction. ‘Virus‘ (n, a computer programme that is capable of replicating itself and installing these copies onto other computers without the users’ knowledge, and which also performs damaging or irritating actions on the computers. Compare WORM) comes from David Gerrold‘s When HARLIE Was One (1972) while ‘worm‘  (n, a piece of computer software capable of replicating intself and transfering copies between computers, which usually performs damaging actions on those computers. Compare VIRUS) comes from John Brunner‘s The Shockwave Rider (1975).  The term ‘spam‘, of course, comes from a Monty Python sketch rather than sf, and so is outside the scope of this book.

Cyberspace‘ (n, the entirety of the data stored in, and the communication that takes place within, a computer network, conceived of as having the properties of a physical realm; the environment of virtual reality) first appeared in William Gibson‘s cyberpunk short story ”Burning Chrome’‘ (1982) first published in Omni (July 1982) and reprinted in Burning Chrome (coll, 1986). ‘Matrix‘ (n, CYBERSPACE or virtual reality) is correctly attributed to Robert Holmes, writer of the 1976 Doctor Who story ”The Deadly Assassin” – 23 years before Andy and Lana Wachowski‘s The Matrix (1999).

The term ‘cyberpunk‘ (n,  1.a. [cybernetics + punk] subgenre of science fiction that focuses on the effects on society and individuals of advanced computer technology, artificial intelligence, and bionic implants in an increasingly global culture, especially as seen in the struggles of streetwise, disaffected characters) itself was coined by Bruce Bethke in the title of his short story ”Cyberpunk” in Amazing Stories (Nov 1983); it was first used as a term in sf criticism by Gardner Dozios in an editorial in the Washington Post Book World (December 30, 1984). ‘Steampunk‘ (n, [by analogy to CYBERPUNK] a genre of science fiction with a historic setting in the nineteenth century characterized by technologies extrapolated from that era, but which were not invented at that time. Hence steampunker, steampunkish) is dated to a letter written by K.W. Jeter describing his own work, and that of Tim Powers and James Blaylock, printed in Locus (April 1987).

Many useful terms from fandom are defined: ‘fan fiction‘, ‘fanzine‘, ‘filk‘, ‘Mary Sue‘ and ‘slash‘ – but not ‘cosplay

The book can’t hope to be comprehensive but there are notable omissions, the most glaring being ‘atomic bomb’, a term first coined by H.G. Wells in The World Set Free (1914). Also absent is ‘meritocracy‘, a term which first appeared in the sociologist and educationalist Michael Young‘s dystopian satire The Rise of the Meritocracy 1870-2033: An Essay on Education and Equality (1958); this is particularly disappointing as the term has since become naturalized, and it’s satirical origin as a term for a bureaucratic oligarchy is overlooked by those actively promoting it.

Also absent is ‘Vril’, the life-giving force from Edward Bulwer-Lytton‘s gothic utopia The Coming Race (1871).

  • Asimov, Isaac (1941) ”Liar!” in Astounding Science Fiction, May, 1941, reprinted in I, Robot (coll. 1950)
  • Astor, John Jacob (1894) A Journey in Other Worlds
  • Bethke, Bruce (1983) ”Cyberpunk” in Amazing Stories, November 1983
  • Brunner, John (1975) The Shockwave Rider
  • Bulwer-Lytton, Edward (1871) The Coming Race
  • Campbell, John W. Jr (1930) Islands in Space
  • Capek, Karel (1920) RUR: Rossum’s Universal Robots
  • Dozios, Gardner (1984) SF in Eighties in Washington Post Book World, December 30, 1984)
  • Gernsback, Hugo (1911) Ralph 124C 41+
  • Gerrold, David (1972) When HARLIE Was One
  • Gibson, William (1982) ”Burning Chrome” in Omni, July 1982, reprinted in Burning Chrome (coll, 1986) 
  • Holmes, Robert (1976) Doctor Who: The Deadly Assassin
  • Huxley, Aldous (1932) Brave New World
  • (Author’s blog)
  • Jeter, K.W. (1987) Letter printed in Locus, April 1987
  • Nowlan, Philip Francis & Dick Calkins (1930) Buck Rogers, 2430 A.D
  • Orwell, George (1949) Nineteen Eighty-Four
  • Prucher, Jeff (ed. 2009) Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction
  • Wachowski, Andy & Lana (2001) The Matrix: Shooting Script
  • Wells, H.G. (1914) The World Set Free
  • Young, Michael (1958) The Rise of the Meritocracy 1870-2033: An Essay on Education and Equality

”There is me, [Alex], and my three Grrrlz, Petra, Georgia, and Mid, Mid being really mid, which sometimes makes me mad, though I know tisn’t really her fault, [Poor Cow!]”

– Belinda Webb, A Clockwork Apple

A Clockwork Apple (2008) by first-time novelist Belinda Webb is, as both the title and the opening paragraph suggest, a pastiche of by Anthony BurgessA Clockwork Orange (1962).

The novel parallels Burgess’ original quite closely

As with Burgess’ novel the story is told in an invented teen argot

What I did is no different from disaffected groups creating and using their own words – showing an instinctive awareness of trying to create a means of power via a shared private language. Yet it is only powerful and creative if channelled in the right way, and when its rightful place within our political discourse is recognised. The gap between ‘bringing out’ and ‘keeping in’ must be recognised.

– Belinda Webb, ”What does Belinda Webb think?”