“No Laughing Matter”: Media, Morality and Resistance in The Man Who Japed

Philip K. Dick’s early novel The Man Who Japed is quite prescient in describing how morality and the media intersect as a tool of power. As the novel opens, we are given some very recognizable Orwellian imagery. Government institutions are abbreviated into newspeak-like slogans. He presents a totalitarian society with a fetish for large government buildings alongside dilapidated housing for the population. Yet, the world is far from the horrors that Orwell described in his dystopia. It still, for instance, remained committed to public space. In the opening chapter Dick writes: “Outside the window of the apartment the—blessed—Morec [Moral Reclamation] spire gleamed in the morning sun. Below it was the Park. The Park and spire comprised the hub of Morec, its omphalos. There, among the lawns and flowers and buses, was the statue of Major Streiter.”[1] Public space remained, but it was reworked the serve the interests of the authorities. This works in many other areas of life in the novel. The major means of maintaining government power was through the enforcement of morality, a private concern transformed into a part of the public square. In the same way, media was reworked to enforce and regular people’s private lives. In other words, in The Man Who Japed, the private life is abolished, not in the interests of an indifferent state committed only to power, but in the interests of the commons.

One place where this is lived in everyday life is in the concept of ownership. People maintain private domiciles, but they are legally extensions of the commons literally extending back into the past. Rather than passing on wealth, families pass along their lease to a part of the commons. While in our world, the squandering of the family heritage is often a sign of economic failure or recklessness, in the Morec society of The Man Who Japed, losing that heritage (literally a piece of the commons set aside for a family’s private use) almost always is the result of a moral failing made public. Enforcement of morality takes place in the commons. Morec (Moral Reclamation) is derived from a form of neo-Calvinism, established after a nuclear war devastated the world. It was based on the idea that a well-functioning society rests on individual morality and that therefore communities had a duty to regulate individual actions. This is commonly done through public hearings called “block meetings.” These meeting read headed by local Parent Citizens Committees, which are always run by women. They take in reports daily from “juveniles,” robots that maintain surveillance but never judge actions. Individuals are forced to confess and explain their moral failings to the community. Punishments vary, but the most extreme is exile from the community. Anyone who losses their lease this way betrays not only their community but their family heritage going back to the beginning of Morec society, as well as depriving the future generations from participation in the community. The result of all of this is a type of passive aggressive state that levels judgment without requiring the hard police presence. The most extreme moral deviants are simply exiled outside of the Morec society all together, sent to live out decadent lives in “the Other World.” We soon learn that The Man Who Japed is not at all Orwellian. The state is closer to a suburban Parent Teachers Association.

The protagonist of the novel, Allen Purcell, works in an agency contracted by the government to produce media messages about Morec. After more than a century since the triumph of Morec, everyone knows its basic outline. Purcell and other creators of media spend much of their time reforming the message to fit new situations. As the novel opens there is a tension about how to understand the frontier. While moving there suggests a rejection of Morec society (why would anyone want to leave Earth), the development of those colony planets is key to Earth’s strategy. Purcell created a “package” (they are much like Internet memes or government propaganda posters) showing the danger of moving too far from Earth. This is rejected by the government because it undermined colonial policies promoting agriculture. As Sue Frost, an agent of Telemedia tells Purcell: “[T]his conflicts with a fundamental. The Committee has put billions of dollars and years of work into outplanet agriculture. We’ve done everything possible to seed domestic plants in the colonies. They’re supposed to supply us with good. People realize it’s a heartbreaking task, with endless disappointments . . . and you’re saying that the outplanet orchards will fail.”[2] It is a fragile balance that accompanies all government messaging.

The important point is that the ideological battle is largely public. One benefit of this is that there seems to be the need for a vibrant public sphere. In some ways, Morec society reflects some of the dreams of anarchists. The state will not be engaged in physical oppression of the people and local communities will regular their own internal affairs, yet people will be united by a common purpose. In practice, however, it strikes the reader as horribly odious, empowering local tyrants. The neighborhood watch is a much worse regulator of our moral behavior than a government bureaucracy, interested only in cultivating messages.

The major plot of the novel followed Allen Purcell as he comes to realize that he has a deep psychological conflict with Morec. He acts this out in day to day resistance such as drinking improperly, visiting Hokkaido (a place with a vibrant black market), and engaging in other behaviors that although not explicitly forbidden place him on the borderline of proper behavior. Dick suggests that Purcell has been playing with this level of resistance for a while before the novel begins. He goes public with this in two major, criminal acts. The first of these is the “japing” of a statue of Major Streiter, removing its head and repositioning it into a compromising pose. The second major public jape was the production of a fraudulent documentary about the Major, suggesting that during the early days of the movement he engaged in cannibalism. What these two acts did was move resistance from the personal to the public. In effect, Purcell hacked a central value of Morec society, its commitment to the public square.

My moving the system of regulation into the public square, Morec society became quite stable. Perhaps this is because of a deep desire among humans for community and solidarity. While the public moral hearings may have become tools of social control, we can image that they began as an effort to restore the community after a nuclear war. It is for this reason that resistance was forced to be public as well. The most direct challenge to the state came from hacking the dominant source of ideological control. For Purcell this meant turning the central symbol of Morec into something laughable. In effect, Purcell brought humor to the founding mythology of the society. When Gretchen Malparto—who was involved in a subplot about revealing Purcell’s subconscious—confronts him about his actions, she says: “[A] sense of humor doesn’t fit in with Morec. Or with us. You’re not a ‘mutant’; you’re a balanced human being. The japery, everything you’ve done. You’re just trying to re-establish a balance in an unbalanced world. And it’s something you can’t even admit to yourself. On the top you believe in Morec. Underneath there’s that blob, that irreducible core, that grins and laughs and plays pranks.”[3] Humor intersects with the public nature of Purcell’s resistance for humor must be public.

In the middle of the novel we are introduced to the Other World. We see here one of the central principles of Morec—the public confessional—inverted. Here people declare their immorality openly and without shame. As within Morec everyone knows of their neighbors sins, but in the Other World it is tolerated, allowed, or celebrated. When he arrives in the Other World, which is designed like a 1950s suburb, Purcell identified the place as far from Morec because he saw a women nude sunbathing. This subtle difference makes all the difference and Purcell is viscerally attracted to the alternative. As Malparto points out, Purcell never really abandons Morec. The Other World is the other side of the Morec coin, but still rooted in the public performance of morality.

We live in a world that resembles Morec in many significant ways. The public confessional is still a major means of guarding public morality. When a politician or celebrity is exposed as an adulterer, the next step almost always involves a public apology, a stoic wife, and a public shamming throughout the media. This prevents the necessary consideration of the changing realities of romantic love and marriage in our liquid world. By returning, from time to time, to the medieval methods we enforce an ancient morality, rather than interrogating it. It also submits our individual moral choices to the decision of the public square. But we also live in an age of japery. Young people are more likely to get their news from The Daily Show or The Colbert Report, and for good reasons. Using humor, these media outlets often provide a sharper and better interpretation than that provided in serious news, if you can see through the “japery” of it. These entertainers are engaged in the same act as Allen Purcell in The Man Who Japed, and both, by providing an alterative narrative manage to hack into the dominate ideology and take advantage of the public nature of our discourse.

 

[1] Philip K. Dick, The Man Who Japed in There Early Novels (London: Gollancz, 2000), 6–7.

[2] Ibid., 12.

[3] Ibid., 101.

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About tashqueedagg

Searching for the radical themes in American literature. American literature for the age of Occupy
This entry was posted in Bureaucracy, Empire, Humanism, Philip K. Dick, Politics, Religion, Sexuality, Urban Issues and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to “No Laughing Matter”: Media, Morality and Resistance in The Man Who Japed

  1. Pingback: Vulcan’s Hammer (1960) | Philip K. Dick Review

  2. Dick was interested in writing about moral but stagnant societies during the earlier years of the first decade of his writing career.As you point out,TMWJ is not about a totallitarian world,and this held true of his output during this period.He was more concerned with the pettiness of individuals trying to maintain order through prudish and restrictive ideals.

    However,following a two year gap when he tried to attempt a mainstream career,in 1958 he wrote “Time Out of Joint”,that showed a change in emphasis.It depicted a more oppressive regime,albeit one that kept the “proles” down through illusionary deception.Having crossed the threshold of the 1960s though,the manner of political scams to keep the common masses down,became even more insidious and increasingly “Orwellian”.

    He obviously became more aware of the evil elements in governments,and this is reflected in the maturing of his writing.By the same reasoning,can perhaps be found why his work also became more concerned with metaphysical themes after the 1950s.

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