Great Time: From Blade Runner to Bakhtin

Pollard, R., 2012. Great Time: From Blade Runner to Bakhtin. Reformulation, Summer, pp.32-34.


Since it was released in 1982, Ridley Scott’s post-modern future noir science fiction thriller, Blade Runner, has become an iconic film that is as thrilling and disturbing to watch now, as it was thirty years ago. Loosely based on Philip K Dick’s novel  ‘Do Androids dream of Electric sheep?’ the setting for Blade Runner is Los Angeles in 2019; a devastated post nuclear world where most life forms are extinct and a decaying, polluted city where the remaining people, who haven’t emigrated to off world colonies are suffering from radiation, live in perpetually dark, over crowded rubbish strewn streets soaked with acid rain. 

Dick uses the dystopian futures he imagines to question what it means to be human and the relationship between intra-subjective reality and inter-subjective reality; themes that also concerned Bakhtin. Bakhtin and Dick, come from diverse backgrounds; respectively pre-revolutionary Russia and the Soviet Union and California during the counterculture of the fifties and sixties but both lived in, and witnessed from different perspectives, the bipolar world of the Soviet Union and the United States, the excitement of the ‘space race’ and the terrors of the cold war and the nuclear ‘arms race’.   As the reluctant ‘Blade Runner’, Richard Dekker’s job is to search out and kill escaped androids, masquerading as humans, because of their alleged plot to destroy humanity. But first he has to find out who they are. He attempts to establish who is an android, by administering a psychological test designed to detect minute physiological empathic responses, supposedly only found in humans, only to find that the first test identifies as an android a woman who apparently has no idea she is not human as she has memories of a human childhood. A possible inference from the opening scenes of the film is that empathy and a narrative memory are two defining qualities of human individuals that set them apart from other creatures.  But as the action unfolds Dekker’s morally dubious task enters even murkier territory as the differences between human and android becomes more ambiguous and the viewer is forced to question whether Dekker himself is human or even whether he thinks he is.  Whilst we do not doubt that people who, for whatever reasons, are lacking in empathy or have an impaired memory are nevertheless fully human, it is trickier to pronounce about the ethical status of man made ‘creatures’ endowed with human sensibilities. This may sound like a hypothetical issue but with the rapid advances in robotics, artificial intelligence and genetic engineering, the existence in the near future of such creatures with a will and even sensibilities independent of those that created them, like Dick’s androids, is not so far fetched(1). However, the androids indistinguishable from humans that populate Dick’s science fiction can also be understood as a metaphor for the ways in which the powerful have throughout history ‘dehumanized’ those they oppress, exploit and kill in order to justify doing so.

Bakhtin (1990) defined the human individual’s ethical status not in terms of their psychological/physiological characteristics but in terms of how they are materially situated in space and time. This means that rather than focusing on qualities people supposedly have in common with other people as constituting the ethical criteria for being treated as a human being, Bakhtin foregrounds the characteristics and perceptions that are unique to each person: unique because, regardless of any of the qualities they may or may not share with other individuals, each individual’s embodied experience and the perceptions that arise from that experience is unique to them. The guarantee of individual originality is the sole embodied occupation of particular co-ordinates of space and time.  An ethics based on difference and therefore on complexity and variability rather than predetermined and often self-serving criteria has to be democratic and inclusive. The radical implications of Bakhtin’s criteria are that nobody can claim to know what anyone else’s experience is or devalue the perceptions based on that experience.

This is not, however, a platform for solipsism(2)  or the psychic isolation of Dick’s fictional ‘heroes’ but the bedrock of human intersubjectivity, interdependency and moral responsibility.  It is because of their differences that people both need other people and are, in turn, needed by others. As we can only know our own experience from the confines of our own bodies we are dependant on the perceptions of others to enable us to comprehend the bigger picture. There are ethical implications consequent upon the uniqueness of each individual: - as each person’s experience and point of view is unique to them and as each act like each word is unique and unrepeatable, these cannot be governed or justified by appealing to either transcendent ideology or norms, rules or theories.

This localised and situation specific ethics calls for what Beasley-Murray (2007), has referred to as Bakhtin’s ethics of a non-categorical imperative(3)  (p84) or what Richard Holloway (1999) refers to as ethical jazz.  So the  ‘Blade Runner’ who has few moral qualms about killing androids who fail his empathy test, is faced with a particular moral conundrum when it comes to how to respond to ‘androids’ unaware they are not human because they have been implanted with a false memory and value their own life as much as any human being does, or how to respond to human beings devoid of empathy and compassion.  The uniqueness of our position means, as Holquist (2009) observed, that we have an ontologically imposed responsibility for the evaluation of what we perceive and, by implication, the actions that follow from that. Put more simply, we have a moral duty to ‘break the rules’ when our evaluation of the specifics of a particular situation demand that we do so but are nevertheless still fully accountable for whatever actions we take or fail to take.

In Dick’s stories, reality is never what it seems – paranoia rules and there is no dependable other to offer an outside perspective that enhances one’s own perception of reality.  While Bakhtin allowed for multiple realities based on differences of experience and perception, these were ultimately, even if contradictory or conflicting, part of a whole landscape of meaning that, if the individual opened themselves up to it, was educative and on the side of life. In Dick’s fiction, there is no development or expansion of meaning instead there is only rupture as one meaning brutally overthrows another. Dick’s world is a profoundly lonely one where individuals are absorbed in their own perception of reality, which is merely a projection of their own unconscious. If there is an inter-subjective dimension, it is the subjugation of the perceptions of the weak by the perceptions of those who are stronger through authoritarian hierarchies as represented by the state or religion or even psychotherapy.(4) There is no mutual coming together of two consciousnesses in which both enhance and expand the perceptions of the other. There is no presumption of the equality granted by ‘outsideness’. Outsideness was the term Bakhtin (1990) used to denote the position everybody has in relation to everybody else that allows us all to have a ‘surplus of vision’ i.e. to see what the other person cannot see and, of course, for the other to see what we cannot see.

Great Time

Another theme of Blade Runner is that of entropy: the inevitability of increasing disorder over time according to the Second Law of Thermodynamics. This is a world where flying cars, humanoid robots and enormously rich and powerful ‘corporations’ coexist with squalor and dereliction, not so different from the extremes of wealth and material deprivation found in many world cities today.  Nevertheless the inevitability of increasing disorder is perhaps hard for many of us to fully grasp having lived in an era where the belief in progress and that things will always get better has, until recently, been a great collective delusion, at least in the so called advanced economies. In this way Blade Runner points us in the direction of what JB Priestly called Time with a capital T and Bakhtin called Great Time:  A sense of Time stretching out over history prior to and beyond the parochial concerns of our own lives.

Priestly, a founding member of CND, expressed his incomprehension at the apathy of many of his contemporaries to ‘the bomb’ and dismay at how they were manipulated by advertising into prioritising sex and family life and the patterns of consumption associated with these activities above all else:

Men and women have been making love and raising families for thousands and thousands of years; there is nothing new in this; what is new is the disturbingly empty space around these objects and activities of value. And this really empty space is really empty Time. It goes on and on, simply towards a future that these very people refuse to consider, but it cannot go in and in toward the hidden springs and fountains of life. Unrefreshed by these springs, trapped in a barren concept of Time, these family men (sic) cannot even summon enough energy and purpose to sweep away the lunatics who threaten their children with Doomsday (1964, p180).

Similarly many of us today are apparently indifferent to the imminent threat of more environmental catastrophes due to climate change and depleted natural resources, if we don’t give up our rampant pursuit of material wealth, as well as the concurrent threats to human welfare posed by massive global and national economic and social inequalities and warfare. In CAT terms this could be seen as an avoidant coping procedure in that the more frightening the future appears to be, the more we behave and consume as if tomorrow will take care of itself. Most of us live out our lives in ‘small time’, not concerned enough with what happens in the world beyond our own immediate social surroundings and lifespan.

Bakhtin had an abiding concern with time (Shepherd, 2006).  From a dialogical perspective, meaning, unlike the material world, does not move towards disintegration and disorder, but endures and evolves in the apparently infinite process of dialogical interaction over time.

Bakhtin interviewed in 1971 said

I have a term: great time. Now in great time nothing ever loses its significance. Homer and Aeschylus and Sophocles, and Socrates, and all the ancient writers and thinkers remain in great time. Dostoevskii too is in great time. And it is in this sense that I consider that nothing dies but everything is renewed. With every new step forward our previous steps acquire a new additional meaning (cited in Shepherd, 2006).
In it there is memory that does not have borders, memory that descends and disappears into the pre-human depths of matter and inorganic life, the experience of the life of worlds and atoms. And for this memory the history of each human individual begins along time before the awakening of his consciousness………. In this great experience everything is alive, everything speaks, this experience is essentially and profoundly dialogic
  (Bakhtin,  ‘On matters of Self-Consciousness and Self- Evaluation, 1943-6, not previously translated into English cited in Shepherd, 2006)(5)   

Language evolves over time and creative activity that survives and thrives beyond the time that it is written does so, Bakhtin implies, because it draws on the treasure house of images from the past. One could broaden this to suggest that if we live in the present without acknowledging and appreciating how we have been affected by the past, then we will be unable to recognise how the way we live now will affect the future.  Dick wrote in one of his novels:  If you or I ever accepted moral responsibility for what we did in our lifetime ---we’d drop dead or go mad.(6)  Dick did go ‘mad’, having what appears to have been a psychotic breakdown that he writes about vividly in a later autobiographical/fiction novel VALIS(7). The ‘surplus of vision’ or meaning we have access to from the outside perspective of others, including the imagined perspective of future generations can be overwhelming - too much meaning can be unbearable and the meaning the other offers us may not always be what we want to hear. As one of the characters in VALIS observes, reality is what doesn’t go away when you stop believing in it. This is the tightrope we tread not only with our patients but with ourselves – too much meaning, too much reality can drive us mad but too little and we fail to lift our heads out of the sand and address our individual and collective avoidant procedures as well as what Bakhtin called our answerability to future generations.

Rachel Pollard is a CAT psychotherapist in private practice in London.

References

Bakhtin, M. M. (1990), Author and hero in aesthetic activity: in Art and answerability, early philosophical essays ( V. Liapunov, trans.) In V. Liapunov & M. Holquist (eds.), Austin, University of Texas Press.
Beasely-Murray, T. (2007), Mikhail Bakhtin and Walter Benjamin, Experience and Form, London, Palgrave.
Dick, P.K. (1968) Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? London, Orion Books.
Holloway, R. (1999). Godless morality, keeping religion out of ethics, London, Canongate.
Holquist, M. (2009) Integration of the self in dialogism, presentation at the International CAT conference, Bath.
Priestley, J. B. (1964) Man & Time, London, Aldous Books
Shepherd, S. (2006), A Feeling for History? Bakhtin and the problem of ‘Great Time’ Seer, 81(1) January 2006, 22-30 (available on line at www. repository.keele.ac.uk:8080/.../)

Footnotes

1. A robot with a head modeled on that of the deceased Philip K Dick and able to converse in a manner that resembled his own speech
astounded his daughter in 2005 (Duffy, D.  2011, Losing the Head of Philip K Dick: A Bizarre but True Tale of Androids, Kill Switches and
Left Luggage, Oneworld).
Digital technology is now used in various medical procedures to enhance or replace physiological functions so that the borders between
the corporeal and the technological are becoming increasingly blurred.
2. The idea that nothing can be certain to exist outside one’s own mind, particularly the existence of other minds.
3. This imperative, distinct from Kant’s moral imperative, is rooted in the event of being and hence it is non-categorical, since it is not interested in universally applicable laws but in specific situations (Beasley-Murray, 2007, p67)
4. Interview with Philip K Dick in 1979 on YouTube
5. This is part of a much longer and moving passage cited by Shepherd (2006) from which it is possible to infer some of Bakhtin’s ideas about ‘great time’ and ‘small time’
6. ‘Now wait for last year’ (1966)
7. Acronym for Vast Living Intelligence System. VALIS, P. K. Dick (1981)

Full Reference

Pollard, R., 2012. Great Time: From Blade Runner to Bakhtin. Reformulation, Summer, pp.32-34.

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