Voigt-Kampff: Germanicity and Empathy in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Voigt-Kampff, the sinister test designed to detect the schizophenic ‘flattening of affect’ (33) of android psychopathy in Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?[i] (1968), is an extension of Alan Turing’s 1950 test of human-machine equivalence. Its purpose is to draw and cull the uncanny androids by exposing their lack of empathy for living creatures, particularly the rare, exotic and endangered animals of Dick’s post-nuclear San Francisco. Dick’s choice of the name Voigt-Kampff is a construct of humour noir and symptomatic of the neurotic Germanicity[ii] that surfaces regularly in Dick’s fiction, particularly when high culture is evoked: the Germanic Voigt-Kampff is an ironic compound derived from an antiquated usage for ‘farm steward/landowner’ or manager, and ‘struggle/fight’. Voigt also puns ‘Vogt’ in the sense of ‘overseer/bailiff’. It’s a classic Dick joke which refers to the jurisdiction and trials of the novel’s shepherd and bounty hunter Rick Deckard, owner of the eponymous electric sheep, ‘a black-faced Suffolk ewe’ (37). Deckard is also a pun on the Germanic ‘Dekker’, a name common among farmers, indicating one who makes thatched roofing or enclosures. Deckard’s electric sheep is kept on the roof of his apartment building.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep
, establishing a posthuman equivalence of animal, human, androids and ‘electric sheep’ in all their forms is about the cryptic journey from Mein Kampf to Voigt-Kampff, the encroach of fascist and totalitarian modes, and eugenics. Establishing that equivalence–the underlining ambivalence of the novel–is vital to Dick’s quasi-pastoral anti-fascist discourse. The animal reference is ironic, as is the description of Voigt-Kampff being developed from the earlier Voigt Empathy Test ‘devised by the Pavlov Institute in the Soviet Union’ (26). Implicit in the struggle of Deckard, as both shepherd of his domesticated electric sheep and bounty hunter of the escaped Nexus-6 androids, is that this is also a literature of holocaust and confinement where the decolonized Earth and the colonized Mars are binary nightmares. Following Karel Čapek’s 1921 play R.U.R.[iii] sustained colonialism/colonization is dependent upon an avant-garde of androids.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a narrative of reflective barriers and traps, of decoys, and collapsing subjectivities. The novel opens with Deckard and his wife Iran arguing over the settings of their Penfield mood organs, prosthetic devices that will confine and dictate their dispositions throughout the day. The machine is a Penfield mood organ – Pen / Field. Considered properly, both Voigt-Kampff applied to the androids and Penfield applied to humans, ironically erase human/animal-android boundaries as Dick contemplates a more posthuman sympathy. Every character in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? suffers some flattening of affect, and this threatens the effectiveness of the Voigt-Kampff test, instigates crises of identity, doubt, suspicions of schizophrenia, psychopathy, and disturbing sympathy.[iv] Like perverse animal forms, the androids are penned and killed inside the confines of Deckard’s car, inside a claustrophobic elevator, within an office, a stairwell, and the final kippelized apartment.

–James Reich, June, 2017 (revised from 2014)


[i] Philip K. Dick. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? London: Gollancz, 2001.

[ii] For more on the ‘Germanicity’ present in Dick’s fiction, see Laurence A. Rickels. I Think I Am: Philip K. Dick. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2010.

[iii] Karel Čapek. R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). Trans. Claudia Novack. London: Penguin, 2004.

[iv] For the humans in the novel, the discriminating and reassuring feature of humanist empathy, ironically achievable only through mechanical interface – fusion with the Sisyphus-like entity Wilbur Mercer[iv] – is revealed by Mercer’s absurdist pop culture anti-type, the android Buster Friendly, to be a metaphysical ‘swindle’ (179). In another layer of ironic impersonation, Mercer, and the cult of Mercerism–described by the androids as susceptible to exploitation by any ‘would-be Hitler’–is revealed to be less a metaphysical being than a pataphysical being in the alcoholic form of B-movie actor Al Jarry – Dick’s reference is to Alfred Jarry, whose 1902 novel The Supermale is one of the urtexts of android/posthuman literature. See: Alfred Jarry. The Supermale. Trans. Ralph Gladstone and Barbara Wright. Cambridge: Exact Change, 1999.

Cite this:
Reich, James S. “Voigt-Kampff: Germanicity and Empathy in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” Outsider Academy. 25 June, 2017. Web. [Date Month Year Accessed].


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