The empathic response

Philip K. Dick sets up empathy as a primary theme of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? As we learn through Rick Deckard, an automatic empathic response is the stark difference between humans and androids. But, unlike his predilection for exposition, Dick does not hit readers over the head with a straightforward presentation of empathy versus apathy. Rather, the author creates a highly nuanced argument when consulting the question (and presence) of empathy in both humans and androids. I guess this is what struck me as the best part of the novel — the layers that surround this question.

Most pivotal is the fact that Dick infuses doubt into his novel. That is, empathy is not a black-and-white thing. Almost like the concept of time, it is a natural occurrence that has been warped and moored into a rigid social construct.

First, I think it’s interesting that empathy is demanded and standardized in the setting of the novel. Empathy is seen not as a natural and bonding response but rather as a mandatory one. For the humans who remain on Earth, empathy is used to determine that one is normal; a lack of empathy is seen not as odd but suspect. This holds true in today’s society, as sociopaths are outcasts regarded with suspicion and fear. But Dick takes the idea one step farther by virtually forcing all humans within his universe to constantly prove their empathic response. Doing so could either tarnish it or render it disingenuous — essentially taking away its inherent value as an automatic response.

This is further reflected in the fact that empathy is warped into a status symbol in the form of owning and caring for animals. Deckard’s ennui stems partly from the fact that he does not have a pet to care for; his lack of a real animal diminishes his social status and also opens himself and his wife up to the suspicion of their neighbors. Yet the use of empathy as a status symbol is reflected in the fact that owning a pet is a huge financial burden. There is a scarcity of animals on Earth, and even commonplace creatures like goats cost an exorbitant sum. The Androids universe is one in which humans must literally pay a price in order to prove their empathic response.

The systematic usage of empathy is still further underscored by the fact that Deckard and the other bounty hunters use the Voigt-Kampff test to identify androids. It’s almost a manipulation of the emotion to meet human need. The test operates as a Turing Test variation, but it departs from Turing’s original in the fact that it tests the how of the response. There’s also an irony to the fact that a successful test discerns a lack of empathy in androids — the tool bounty hunters need to “retire” the machines with zero sense of empathy or even guilt.

So what happens when, like Phil Resch, a human displays an android-like lack of empathy? Personally, I totally fell for the plot twist in which Dick leads the reader on for 10 pages or so into thinking that Resch was an andy. When Deckard tells Garland that “‘you androids … don’t exactly cover for each other in times of stress,”‘ it almost feels like a foreshadow to Resch’s total lack of empathy — especially in the midst of android retirement. The fact that Resch is able to delay his empathic response (or dismiss it entirely) makes him akin to an android, even after the test proves his humanity. Dick spends a good part of a pivotal scene building this case up, only to sharply dismiss it. Thus, empathy is not a straightforward case of haves and have-nots.

“‘I think you’re right; it would seem we lack a specific talent you humans possess,'” Garland tells Deckard. ‘”I believe it’s called empathy.'” Here’s a direct contradiction to a subtle distinction Dick set up earlier. Deckard tells us that, though delayed, androids still experience and exhibit some form of an empathic response. Pris contradicts Deckard’s theory of ‘every android for himself’ when she pines for the companionship of her “best friends.” Yet Garland presents an opposing point of view: an android himself, he asserts that his kind does not feel any form of empathy. Irmgard reinforces this when she notes that “emotional acceptance” is a foreign concept to androids yet vital to humans like Isidore.

There are exceptions to every rule, and Dick seems to encourage us to spend the better part of the novel second-guessing, like Deckard, this supposedly stark distinction.

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5 Responses to The empathic response

  1. h0p3d1am0nd says:

    I like the fact that you state both sides of the spectrum–empathy and apathy–but don’t get caught up in that dichotomy. I agree with you in that Dick wants us to second guess “this supposedly stark distinction.”

    I think the gray area between the two opposites and the tangling of them is really interesting. Like you, I fell for the idea that Resch is an android because he shows so little empathy in his bounty hunting job. However, he does spend a good amount of time talking about his pet, saying, “I love the squirrel, Deckard” (128). This is supposed to prove that he’s empathetic and thus, human.

    On that topic, I spent a long time baffled by the emphasis put on owning a live animal. I can’t say I completely understand it. As you stated, though, Deckard’s society is so reliant on tests of human/android and empathic/not empathetic that this owning an animal thing makes sense. It’s just one more test to show empathy.

    I guess I’d never thought about owning an animal in that light because it’s such a common thing in today’s world. Today, there are nice owners, and there are mean owners–there are all sorts, in fact. So assuming that owning an animal makes one empathetic feels strange to me. However, because the animals in Deckard’s world are so visibly on display and because the price of being a bad owner could mean death, I suppose it makes sense that everyone is a good owner. I’m not sure if that shows empathy per say–perhaps, like in Resch’s case, it proves awareness of the system and an ability to act empathetically in order to survive. This concept seems performative and Darwinian, like a peacock with its feathers.

  2. Intriguing post.
    I’m really interested, like you, in the figure of Phil Resch, and the way in which Phillip K. Dick is always confounding reader expectations. He leads you to think that Rachel is human, to then reveal she may be an android, to suggest that she is human again, and so on. “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” is disconcerting and disorienting because the labels of “human” and “android” blur so frequently, and Dick allows the reader to settle in for long passages, which are ultimately up-ended.
    phil resch

    ut Dick takes the idea one step farther by virtually forcing all humans within his universe to constantly prove their empathic response. Doing so could either tarnish it or render it disingenuous — essentially taking away its inherent value as an automatic response.

  3. Please disregard the above…The post automatically went through before I was finished and I can’t figure out how to delete it or edit it, so I’ll just repost below:

    Intriguing post.
    I’m really interested, like you, in the figure of Phil Resch, and the way in which Phillip K. Dick is always confounding reader expectations. He leads you to think that Rachel is human, to then reveal she may be an android, to suggest that she is human again, and so on. “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” is disconcerting and disorienting because the labels of “human” and “android” blur so frequently, and Dick allows the reader to settle in for long passages, which are ultimately up-ended.
    I was also really struck by the words “automatic response”– In reading the novel, I was struck by the frequent recurrence of Dick describing the actions of humans as “automatic.” The word “automatic” is very close to the word “automaton,” and automatic responses makes the reader think, perhaps, of ways in which the humans of the novel come off machine-like. In the beginning of the novel, the “automatic response” is contrasted to the mood box, in its artificiality– The “automatic,” or the instinctual, is what is perceptibly human. And yet, as we have said in lecture, many or all of the human characters in the novel are robot-like–They are beings attached to technology, almost to the extent that Kurzweil describes it in his essay “The Law of Accelerating Returns.” Perhaps this is an illustration of Kurzweil’s concept of the superhuman, merging with his technology. But actually, I think his use of the language of the “automatic” is probably more complex and problematic than this.

  4. teithabess says:

    hop3d1am0nd, you got me thinking about owning animals in today’s society and Dick’s. While we have many pet owners and many pets, we haven’t been traumatized as a society by a nuclear war that wiped out the majority of the world’s animals. I would like to know how long it took for Mercerism to develop, and what people’s attachment to animals was like before it spread. For though, in the time “Androids” is set, owning animals has certainly evolved into a status/normality symbol fueling capitalism, there’s an undercurrent of nostalgia for a time when these animals could roam free (the sheep, horse, and goat in particular exemplifying pastoral nostalgia, harking back to a world in which farming was possible). We also can’t forget that animals mean different things for different people. For example, I found Resch’s insistence on his love for his squirrel touching because it made me picture him as a man who lived alone, with only the rodent to keep him company. Considering the themes of loneliness and human isolation of the book, I argue that especially before Mercerism took hold, people in Dick’s world used animals as one more shield between them and the desolation of their reality, and that sentiment at least somewhat survived into the book’s time period.

  5. kristy0715 says:

    I think it’s really interesting because there seems to be so much lack of humanity in the society, that so much emphasis is placed on the worthiness and ethical treatment of animals. There almost seems to be no divide between the humanity displayed by animals and in humans. Throughout the book, Dick doesn’t really explain what the guidelines are that sets apart androids from humans. He only mentions their bodily compositions and their reactions to the Voigt-Kampff test. This is seen when he administers the test on Rachael Rosen, by observing her reactions to questions with cruelty based on animals. It isn’t until she describes the owl as “it” that Rick realizes she is an android. To put it into perspective, interestingly, if the Voigt-Kampff test were to be administered onto us, we would probably be all retired. Because in present day, besides domestic animals (only when we know the sex), we refer to animals as “it”, rather than a designated sex. And the part I found was interesting was question regarding the cheating husband with a sexy lady on a fur rug. Present day, most of us would focus the attention on the fact the husband has a photo of a bare lady. However, Rick focuses attention to Rachael’s reaction to the rug, rather than the husband’s action. It is interesting because by listing out the questions to the test, Dick shows how far society has deviated from present day. Also, he makes the audience so confused due to the vagueness in description and guidelines that the readers don’t know what exactly sets apart the groups. Because of this, it is hard to sympathize with either group because they do not know who to empathize with. In a way, due to this lack of decision on the part of the readers- does this not make us all android-like too since we are impartial and emotionless when it comes to reading this bok?

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