Philip K. Dick, “A Scanner Darkly” (1977)

Those of us tuned into popular culture are familiar with David Simon’s critique of the so-called “War on Drugs.”  In brief, he argued through his journalistic writing and the television series The Wire that the War on Drugs targeted the minority underclass and the urban working poor, created dysfunctional police systems, ruined individual lives as well as the urban institutions more and more of us rely on.  The tragedy, Simon points out, is that deindustrialization is making us less necessary to the economy at the same time that the institutions that could defend us became corrupted and criminal.  Like Zygmunt Bauman, he sees a larger number of “wasted lives.”  More and more human kipple, to borrow Philip K. Dick’s term from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.  I mention him, because as important as Simon has become to contemporary social criticism, Philip K. Dick was exploring many of these same themes in the 1977 novel A Scanner Darkly, which is his investigation of the “War on Drugs.”

I do not recall seeing the term used in A Scanner Darkly.  The history of prohibition of drugs and alcohol is old in this country, but the modern war on drugs began sometime in the 1970s with the creation of national drug enforcement agencies and new national laws on drugs that trumped local enforcement (and accommodation) efforts.  If this was in the newspapers and TVs of the 1970s, I do not know.  They certainly were by the 1980s.  As the epilogue to A Scanner Darkly makes clear, Philip K. Dick was deeply affected personally by the counter culture’s use of drugs.  He had largely turned from it, in disgust, by the 1970s.  A Scanner Darkly shows that Dick clearly thought drugs were a horrendous evil.  He goes so far as to make the street name for his new drug “Death.”

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The plot of A Scanner Darkly explores the descent of an undercover drug enforcement agent known to his friends as Bob Arctor.  His use of Substance D (“death”) leads to his inability to properly interpret reality, dividing his consciousness into the police officer and the drug addict.  Eventually he is used up by the system and sent to a rehab clinic, which is actually a cover for the production of Substance D.  The film version of this novel is follows the book quite well (being the only major film adaptation of a PKD work to do this).

One thing we can say right away is that there seem to be three groups at play in the novel.  The first group is the disempowered people scraping by, addicted to drugs, but surviving at the margins of the economy.  This group is represented by Arctor and his friends Barris and Frink and his girlfriend Donna (also an undercover agent it turns out).  Like in later cyberpunk novels, this underclass appears to be quite large.  The second group is the police and the enforcement agencies.  This is the same situation we saw in Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said. The police have resources and powers, but are committed their energies to the destruction of this large underclass of drug addicts.  (Here we see the same critique as David Simon would later make.)  A third group, examined only in the background is the “square” public who support the police state with their taxes and political energy.  They are fearful of the expansion of the drug culture and want to protect their families.  Bob Arctor begins the novel meeting with a group of these paranoid citizens.  As we rarely see them again, we can suspect they live in gated communities and suffer few, if any, of the negative consequences of the war against Substance D.

Individuals in the underclass see their life destroyed.  Arctor (at least his drug addicted side) will live out his life with a fried brain in a rehab clinic.  Frink tries to kill himself.  In the macro sense, it is hard to argue that the police are winnings.  Drugs are easily available on the streets.  The underclass has its own networks and institutions as well.  As with the current war on drugs, it was a war of attrition that rarely brings clear victory.  If it is unwinnable, what is the purpose of fighting the drug culture?  In part it is a media event.  A major bust to put the public at ease and help defend the institutions of the police.  Of course, it is tragic for all of those directly involved, police and users.

Another theme in the novel is the relationship between a surveillance society and paranoia.  This is made most clear with Bob Arctor again, who is paranoid all the time about being watched and it also the watcher.  In fact, all sides in the drug war are paranoid.  The users and dealers are always on guard against police actions, the police need to be careful about the motives of every informer, and the people in the gated communities are fearful that the next knock on the door will be an armed drug addict looking for cash.  Some of this paranoia (maybe all of it) is justified.  In the case of Arctor and his friends, there are police watching them.  The house is bugged.  They are not even capable of purchasing a bicycle without paranoia (of course some of this is the drugs).

We should also note that the affect of Substance D on people is not so unlike the effect liquid modernity has on people.  It splits our mind, divides our attention, causes displacement, a lack of solid grounding, paranoia, odd and irrational behavior.  Substance D users embrace liquid relationships as well.  Many of the themes in Dicks novels from the 1960s emerge again, but in this novel they are expressed as the consequence of the use of a horrible drug.  Sadly, as the fate of Bob Arctor shows, the purpose remains some baseline economic exploitation.  Thinking back to my earlier posts on Dick (this is number 29), I cannot think of any example where a liquid material reality has a purpose other than exploitation.

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4 responses to “Philip K. Dick, “A Scanner Darkly” (1977)

  1. Pingback: Philip K. Dick, “Introduction” | Neither Kings nor Americans

  2. ASD seems to mark the end of an era in Dick’s writing,before the “strange events” of 1974 changed it forever.Not that “Radio Free Albemuth”,written in 1976 and published later,lacked a sanguine and balanced outlook,but even here it’s clear that his “experiences” were taking him on a different route far from his old territory.ASD seems to deal with his old themes in a new way,and still sparkles with his spontaneous character,weird prose and humour,but RFA shows the changes that manifested in Dick’s outlook during the intervening period,with a more clinical account of events unlike anything he had wrote before.

    RFA was sent back to Dick for a rewrite,which it needed,but he then transformed it into a totally different novel that showed a marked deterioration in mind it seemed,”Valis”.Obviously “Horselover Fat” was now writing the books !

    Dick was aware of his alter ego’s madness though,as you know,which he makes clear in “Valis”.However,both ASD and RFA deal with the theme of split personalities and the polar disparity it creates in disassociating the characters from themselves.In ASD,Bob Arctor lives the double life of narc and drug addict and is becoming paranoid about himself due to the diabolical drug Substance D[Death],as the two portions of his brain no longer function together and create a dual identity that doesn’t know who the other is.

    In “Valis”,the split is physical as well as mental,with Fat of course getting to see “God”,not the more sanguine Dick.As in ASD however,the two cause each other desperate angst.The effects are funny as well as terrible though.

    With Bob Arctor’s mind and character sitting on both sides of society and yet neither,resistance is futile.His situation becomes even more hopeless when he is sent to the rehibilitation camps run by the government to produce the drug.It is totally corrupt then,and it seems he can only survive by accepting his situation,and in the final paragraph,he takes a leaf of the plant which is the source of the deadly drug,and is his way I think of embracing his plight.

    Despite the regrets I express,Dick it seemed,felt he had no choice prehaps but to take a pseudo theological turn in his writing,following ASD’s final assault on the drug theme that was integral to some of his earlier stuff.RFA is a case in point,but it’s a pity that the themes couldn’t have been handled in a less self conscious and absorbed manner.

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