Dominic Coles, Visual and Sonic Data and Nonhuman Abstraction

Visual and Sonic Data as Contradictory Elements to Non-Human Abstraction

The abstract conception of non-human entities in “Do Androids Dream of

Electric Sheep?” exists in stark contrast to the tangible physical experiences of these

other life forms. Both the sonic and visual worlds of these non-human entities

undercut and contradict our preconceived ideas concerning their makeup, role, and

function in human life. Through silence and song, Dick reformulates our ideas

concerning the reality of android characters. This reformulation of abstract

prejudice after a physical encounter, however, is a process potentially possible

within artistic spheres in the novel. In artistic encounters, physical experiences are

encapsulated by the artwork itself, creating a kind of transferrable empathy to the

non-human entity.

John Cage’s revolutionary act was a recasting of our conception of silence. He

transformed it from a vacuum of activity, the absence of auditory material into a

hive of sonic data, a tangible physical presence. Silence, for Cage, ultimately became

analogous with his idea of noise, writing that: “Wherever we are, what we hear is

mostly noise,” (Silence: Lectures and Writings, Page 1) and continuing that, “There is

no such thing as an empty space or empty time. There is always something… try as

we may to make a silence, we cannot.” For Cage, each instance of silence was in fact

the presence and creation of another distinct sound event and sonic experience.

In “Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?” Philip K. Dick brings the

physicality of Cageian silence to the forefront of the novel’s sonic world. For Dick,

the tangible, physical nature of silence becomes a consequence of the absence of

people, a horrifying alternative to the presence of other human beings. He writes:

“…that awful commercial came on, the one I hate… so for a minute I shut off the

sound. And I heard the building, this building; I heard the—“… “Empty apartments,”

Rick said. Sometimes he heard them at night when he was supposed to be asleep,”

(Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep, Page 5). For Rick, this silence becomes a

reminder of the grating loneliness that defines his continued presence on Earth, a

complete absence of meaningful human contact. The inert physicality of the silence

encountered in Rick’s life, however, is transformed into an alternate life form in

Isidore’s experience, writing:

“Silence. It flashed from the woodwork and the walls; it smote him

with an awful, total power, as if generated by a vast mill. It rose from

the floor, up out of the tattered gray wall-to-wall carpeting. It

unleashed itself from the broken… appliances in the kitchen, the dead

machines… It… emerged from every object within his range of vision,

as if it—the silence—meant to supplant all things tangible… in its own

way, alive. Alive!” (Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? Page 20).

In this moment, silence imposes itself as an alternative to human life, another non-

human entity encountered in the post-World War Terminus landscape.

Isidore and Deckard’s Earth is one defined by a division between humans and

androids, man and machine. In Isidore’s experience of silence, its aspect of vitality

and living presence is grafted onto the imagery of mechanical forms. The silence, in

Isidore’s view, simultaneously alive and yet mechanical in nature, alternately

becomes a stand in for the presence of androids. It is immensely telling that for

Isidore this silence is routinely broken by his television, a machine, and ultimately

by the arrival of Pris Stratton, an android. This experience of silence as equivalent

conceptually to an experience of the mechanical is one way in which human

characters are conditioned with prejudice against androids. Insofar as the ritual

silence becomes a painful daily encounter, the process by which it is grafted onto

non-human life forms conditions human characters to encounter the non-human

with the same hate and revulsion that they would silence. This is why the “relatively

sane” (Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep, Page 17), remaining members of

Earth’s population live, “constellated in urban areas where they could physically see

one another, take heart at their mutual presence, “ (Page 17). The tangible

physicality of human presence, manifesting in both visual and sonic realms abets the

sensations of crippling loneliness and isolation that silence provides.

It is especially surprising then when we encounter Luba Luft, an android who

is also a highly accomplished opera singer. The tangible, physical experience of

Luba’s voice stands in complete contradiction to the abstract process by which

silence is attached to mechanical, non-human forms. Luba’s voice is incredibly

beautiful, as Dick writes: “…Luba Luft sang, and he found himself surprised at the

quality of her voice; it rated with that of the best, even that of notables in his

collection of historic tapes,” (Page 99). This tangible experience of Luba’s sonic

world essentially reformulates Deckard’s view of androids, creating an empathetic

response and a sense of remorse in his need to “retire” her. On encountering the

beauty of Luba’s voice, the abstract conception of silence grafted onto the

mechanical presence of the androids disintegrates, as Deckard says, “I’ve had

enough. She was a wonderful singer. The planet could have used her. This is insane,”

(Page 136).

Dick shows us, however, that physical interactions are not the only means

through which this empathetic turn can be initiated. Interestingly, an art experience

devoid of physicality is enough to create a kind of transferable empathy in which the

emotions experienced on viewing the art object are transferred or assigned to the

non-human entity. When viewing Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” Deckard and

surprisingly Phil Resch transfer the empathy that the painting creates to the

androids. Their own capacity to feel, triggered by this painting, becomes an

experience shared both by androids and humans, as Dick writes:

“The painting showed a hairless, oppressed creature… 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, whoever it

was, had become contained by its own howl. It had covered its ears

against its own sound… ‘I think,’ Phil Resch said, ‘that this is how an

andy must feel,’” (Page 130).

Resch’s reaction to the painting, in which he assigns profound human emotions to

the androids, exemplifies the concept of a transferrable empathy created by an

interaction with an art object. Somehow Resch, a cold, uncaring man, brings himself

on viewing the painting to acknowledge the possibility of pain in a non-human


It is not only Resch, however, for whom the painting becomes a vehicle for

empathy: Deckard too uses the painting as a way in which to assign feeling, emotion,

and pain to Luba. Moments before Luba’s death, Dick writes: “She began to scream;

she lay crouched against the wall of the elevator, screaming. Like the picture, Rick

thought to himself…” (page 134). Deckard’s association between the painting and

Luba grafts the emotional content of the painting onto Luba, creating a situation

wherein the android experiences distinctly human feelings. Deckard’s extreme

remorse in killing Luba is the simultaneous result of his tangible sonic experience

which dispels the association of silence with the mechanical, as well as the result of

the transferable empathy brought about by his experience with the painting.

The level of physicality present in Dick’s description of the painting is

particularly striking given the way in which Deckard’s physical experience of Luba is

what triggers his shift in perception in regards to the androids. The image twists,

ripples, echoes, and floods, and despite the tangible quality of these descriptors the

scream is nonetheless “soundless.” In a way, a work of art has the potential to

simultaneously encapsulate both the physical and the abstract, non-physical

components of a being.

To what extent though is it the artistic experience of Luba that creates this

empathetic turn in Deckard? Despite the power of physicality to complicate and

reformulate abstract preconceptions, perhaps it is the idea of artistic engagement as

a purely human exploit that renders Luba more human-like. The idea that humans

are defined in part by their capacity and desire to create and engage with art is the

basis on which Richard Powers defines and separates humans and machines in

“Galatea 2.2.”

Helen, an artificial neural network, is encouraged and conditioned to develop

much in the way that human brains do, primarily by repeated exposure to works of

music and fiction. Powers writes: “…they used a mass of separate processors to

simulate connected brain cells. They taught communities of these independent,

decision-making units how to modify their own connections. Then they stepped

back and watch their synthetic neurons sort and associate external stimuli,”

(Galatea 2.2, Page 14). This process is conceptually analogous to the act of parenting

wherein a child is repeatedly exposed to external stimuli that he or she will grow to

sort, analyze, and gradually understand.  As Helen advances further, slowly engaging

with the external artistic inputs in more complicated ways, music becomes a

tangible form of human physicality. In her association of musical sounds with

human voices, Helen conceives of musical events as representative of an

intrinsically human object. Essentially for Helen, the human aspect of musical

invention lies in its relation to physicality, as Powers writes:

“She would accept… miked footsteps in the cafeteria or rain quizzing

the office window-pane… Helen wanted organized, rhythmic pitches

of any sort. Sound. She beat to steel drums, to the old Esterhazy

chamber singers, to gazebo brass bands from just off the right-hand

side of ancient photographs, to tin-pan-nambulation, to the tinkling of

a dead child’s music box… Most of all, she craved the human voice,”

(Galatea 2.2, Page 233).

These sounds are all tangible, physical events. We are keenly aware of the manner in

which they are performed and enacted. Whatever the type of sound, we can see the

way in which it was produced: footsteps, rain falling, and the presence of a human

voice all emphasize the physical component of generating a sonic event.

Interestingly, music seems to contain a kind of transferable physicality:

resultant from the fact that these musical sounds are clearly generated by physical

actions, the physicality of the sounds themselves becomes part of the listening

experience. Helen will “beat to steel drums, to the old Esterhazy chamber singers,”

an image of advanced physical capacity that we wouldn’t have previously assigned

to a bodiless network of high-speed circuitry.

The types of sounds that Helen is willing to engage with on a musical basis

are also particularly striking, as well as progressive in a musical-conceptual sense.

On reading this list of sounds I was reminded of Cage’s revolutionary edict on the

nature of noise, sound, and silence discussed earlier in the paper. Cage ultimately

challenged listeners to expand their definition of musical content, making room for

noise and silence in the same way that we would the sounds produced by a designed

instrument. He did this by challenging the idea of a distinction between these three

categories, making them a single entity of potential musical sounds. Helen is willing

to listen to “miked footsteps” and “rain quizzing the office window-pane,” in the

same manner that she would an instrumental sound. Ultimately, this flexibility in

defining sonic events as musical ones is derived from what we noticed early in

Cage’s lectures: the physicality both of noise and silence. If we see silence and noise

in the Cageian sense, as Philip K. Dick did, as being charged with physicality, it is not

surprising that Helen would be able to indulge in sounds as disparate as

instrumental music to rain.

There is a continuous return to physicality as a primary method of dispelling

abstract preconceptions of non-human life. In Ursula Le Guin’s “The Left Hand Of

Darkness,” however, the artistry of mythology and oral storytelling traditions works

against the tangible and the physical experience. Unlike in Dick and Powers, physical

data in sonic or visual forms is not a means of dispelling Genly’s prejudices. Rather,

through engagement with traditional art forms from Winter, we are able to

understand the ways in which these aliens view themselves and track Genly’s

prejudices as they are projected onto the population as a whole.

Much of our unbiased information concerning the nature of alien life on

Winter is supplied by traditional, mythological texts woven through the narrative of

the novel. Through the mythology of Winter we are able to construct an image of the

society as it views itself, distinct from and untainted by Genly’s gendered prejudices.

Genly’s physical interactions with the population of Winter are transformed to fit his

ideas concerning gender roles on Earth. Much of the sonic and visual data Genly

encounters is ambiguously gendered, simultaneously suggesting to him both male

and female organisms, despite our awareness of a single form of gender on Winter.

Thus, physical data is transformed into an unnecessary variable when conveyed by


During a political discussion between Estraven and Genly, Le Guin writes,

“Ignorant, in the Handdara sense: to ignore the abstraction, to hold fast to the thing.

There was in this attitude something feminine, a refusal of the abstract, the ideal, a

submissiveness to the given, which rather displeased me,” (The Left Hand Of

Darkness, Page 213). This moment is particularly striking on multiple levels as it

reveals Genly’s gender prejudices while simultaneously exposing an underlying

irony as he clings to the idea of physicality in terms of Earthly definitions. Genly

criticizes Estraven’s refusal of the abstract, his need “to hold fast to the thing,” to the

physicality of an object. Yet this criticism is equally, if not more applicable to Genly

who is unable to conceive of gender on Winter in terms of the abstract

understanding supplied by the traditional art and mythology he encountered, as

well as the data compiled by previous human envoys to Winter. Genly holds fast to

his sense of physicality which complicates and derails any attempt at a true,

unbiased understanding of life on Winter. In this way, his decision to assign a

feminine gender to Estraven’s behavior is highly ironic in that his criticism of

Estraven entirely describes his own actions. Purely informed by sonic and visual

stimulus, Genly’s view of Estraven is lacking in any abstract thinking.

In the three novels discussed in this paper, we encountered a conceptual

contradiction that exists between abstract preconceptions and the physical tangible

experience of a non-human entity. Physical data primarily acts as a means of

breaking down pre-formulated judgments concerning the nature of non-human

characters. The sonic and visual realms primarily exist in contrast to the initial

concept of the entity itself. As seen in “The Left Hand Of Darkness,” however,

physical differences can cause the received sonic and visual data to be distorted and

transformed, no longer being a reliable source for the formation of ideas. In these

moments where physicality falters and fails, we determined an alternative in the

artistic encounter, primarily in the physicality of an art object as a means of

transferring empathy. For Deckard, it is music and painting that allows him to

consider the androids as he would a human. For Powers, it is sound. Despite the

potential in artistic encounters for dispelling preconceived judgments, Genly is

unable to surmount the conceptual obstacle that is his received physical data.

Ultimately, Genly’s failure suggests that the ideal circumstance for creating this

empathetic turn lies in a balance between physical data as paired with an artistic


But to what extent is this only possible when dealing with a non-human

entity that largely resembles human beings? The androids physically appear human.

Helen, though a computer, was conditioned or raised by humans, and ultimately her

circuit networks were designed to evolve in the manner that human brains do. Thus,

Helen reacts, converses, and thinks as a human would. Perhaps there is an

unbridgeable gap between human and non-human life forms when the physical data

is so completely incompatible with a human’s sense of self. Perhaps Le Guin shows

us that we are willing to extend empathy, through either physical or artistic means,

only when the entity resembles human beings enough that we can convince

ourselves that we are not dealing with a non-human life form, but rather a human


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *