Nathaniel Hawthorne, Stories (1843-1844)

“Fight for your hearths? There will be done throughout the land. FIGHT FOR YOUR STOVES! Not I, in faith. If, in such a cause, I strike a blow, it shall be on the invader’s part; and Heaven grant that I may shatter the abomination all the pieces.” (“Fire-Worship,” 848)

New household technology: the stove

New household technology: the stove

Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote his most important stories after he quit his job at the Boston Custom House, married, and moved into the “Old Manse” of Concord. This move drew him into the transcendentalist circles. Freed from work and enjoying domestic bliss (we assume), Hawthorne exploded with creativity. He is still working almost exclusively with short stories and A Scarlett Letter is still five years in the future.

I suspect Hawthorne was happily married from the stories of this era, because only someone who is content can be so openly hostile to the institution. I suspect that those who are the most miserable create stories of happy marriage, either through faking it or through dreaming of an alternative situation. The brutal honesty Hawthorne shows in his writing, I guess, was part of his relationship with Sophia Peabody and made for a happy time of it. In any case, marriage is a strong theme of the stories from the Old Manse period. I would also like to touch on the question of technology, which Hawthorne presents with great ambivalence in these stories. In this way, Hawthorne is taking on two of the pillars of civilization itself.

These stories were mostly written at the "Old Manse," and appeared in this collection in 1852

These stories were mostly written at the “Old Manse,” and appeared in this collection in 1852

This set of stories includes: “The Birth-mark,” “Egotism; or, the Bosom-Serpent,” “The Procession of Life,” “The Celestial Rail-road,” “Buds and Bird-Voices,” “Little Daffydowndilly,” “Fire-Worship,” “The Christmas Banquet,” “A Good Man’s Miracle,” “The Intelligence Office,” and “Earth’s Holocaust.” Almost all of these stories are allegorical, touching on various aspects of human nature. However, they also speak to the social and the trauma of civilization. In this way, I think we can approach an optimistic reading of these tales, suggesting that the human heart is not so fallen as struggling in a fallen world. The fact that so many seem to speak to the inevitable failure of reform movements suggest that much of the darkness in these stories rests on the influence of society.

“The Birth-mark” is a well-known and often anthologized tale about a scientist who marries the beautiful Georginia, who after the marriage becomes obsessed with her one imperfection, a small red mark on her cheek. Like the social reformers of Hawthorne’s time, he simply cannot accept even one corruption from the ideal. He then sets out to apply his scientific knowledge to eradicating that imperfection. He achieves this, but it comes at the cost of Geroginia’s death. “As the last crimson tint of the birth-mark — that sole token of human imperfection — faded from her cheek, the parting breath of the now perfect woman passed into the atmosphere, and her soul, lingering a moment near her husband took its heavenward flight.” (780) One reading of this that I find interesting is about the near sociopathic obsessions within a married couple. As soon as the scientist married, he became obsessed with this singular defect in his wife. At the same time, she becomes so willing to become perfect that she sacrifices her life. Overtime, rather than becoming accustomed to each other, the birthmark drives both deeper into obsession. “Until now, he had not been aware of the tyrannizing influence acquired by one idea over his mind, and of the lengths which he might find in his heart to go, for the sake of giving himself peace.” (767) If we read the story as an allegory for reform movements, the chilling aspect of the story is that human knowledge indeed makes it possible to create a perfection. Georgina, as the subject of Utopian experimentation, is in awe of her husband’s technical and scientific knowledge and surrenders her will to his efforts. At the moment of her death, she praises her husband’s quest for perfection through science, embracing his Prometheanism. “You have aimed loftily! —  you have done nobly! Do not repent, that, with so high and pure a feeling, you have rejected the best that earth could offer.” (780)

This is also what takes place in “Fire-Worship” but with a more open hostility to the destructive side of the technological spirit. Interestingly, the main focus of “Fire-Worship” is the domestic hearth, again connecting marriage and technology as companions in the process of civilization. It opens: “It is a great revolution in social and domestic life — and no less so in the life of the secluded student — this almost universal exchange of the open fire-place for the cheerless and ungenial stove.” (841) It is not an anti-technological message in itself. Fire has a place in the home, but it is the stove that destroys a form of community, a certain vernacular spirit that lived on in the ashes and fireplaces of thousands of homes. “The easy gossip–the merry, yet unambitious jest–the life-long, practical discussion of real matters in a casual way — the soul of truth, which is so often incarnated in a simple fireside word–will disappear from earth. Conversation will contract the air of debate, and all moral intercourse be chilled with fatal frost.” (847) The stove suggests the same type of technological progress condemned in “The Birth-Mark”

Clearly, fire makes a dramatic appearance in “Earth’s Holocaust” as well. In this story, fire takes the form of a massive crucible with the power to cleanse society of its old to prepare the world for a new age. Old music, old knowledge, money, liquor, law, weapons, and clothing all get thrown into the massive bonfire. In previous stories, Hawthorne cast the occasional dispersion on the old and ancient, pointing out the dangers of living permanently in the past and forgetting the child-like spirit of recreation. In “Earth’s Holocaust” it is clear that Hawthorne is reconsidering some of this, seeing some value in the preservation of old knowledge, but his main purpose here is to again warn against putting too much hope in technology (symbolized in the fire) as a solution to our problems. The throwing in of liquor and Hawthorne’s repeated use of “reformer” in the text shows that he was again considering the bold schemes of nineteenth-century social reformers. The conclusion of the story warns that a new age cannot be born without the cleansing of the human heart as well, but I wonder to what degree the human heart exists without the civilization that was tossed into the fire. Here he exposes a (in my view) unfortunate Puritanism, emphasizing the totally fallen human.

In the space I have left, I was to touch on a story that attempt a taxonomy of human civilization. “The Procession of Life” shows unambiguously that the human heart is not singularly evil or good. If anything unites humanity it is Love, but that feeling is constrained by the harsh boundaries between groups. “We have summoned this various multitude — and, to the credit of our nature, it is a large one — on the principle of Love. It is singular, nevertheless, to remark the shyness that exists among many members of the present class, all of whom we might expect to recognize one another by the free-masonry of mutual goodness, and to embrace like brethren, giving God thanks for such various specimens of human excellence. But it is far otherwise. Each sect surrounds its own righteousness with a hedge of thorns.” (803) It is thus our social categories that divide us, not our hearts.

Take what you want from that. I need to run.


H. P. Lovecraft, “Collected Stories” Part 2: The Burden of the Past

In my last post on H.P. Lovecraft, I was beginning an exploration of the nature of Lovecraft’s conservatism, which seems to be based on a fundamental mistrust of the Enlightenment project, particularly its Promethean potentialities. Fear of knowledge, the failure of science, the limitations of the senses and the total inability of humans to explain, describe, or conceive of anything outside of our own local environment is the heart of Lovecraft’s xenophobia. Not only does Lovecraft seem to be wrong about this. Scientists have done a wonderful job describing reality even at the hitherto inconceivable quantum level. Anthropologists work hard understanding different cultures. Everyday historians expand our knowledge of the past. And every child or every revolutionary worth listening to has dreamed up completely different potential futures. Lovecraft’s approach is not only empirically wrong, but it is also cowardly–suggesting an approach to the world as fearful as his trapped and paralyzed characters.


For today, I read three stories (“Pickman’s Model,” “The Colour Out of Space,” “The Dunwich Horror”) and the novella, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. We see much more of this theme of the failure of science throughout these four works.  In The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, the failure is in the ability of psychology to explain a mental illness.  In “The Colour Out of Space” a meteorite, which brought an alien force to a Massachusetts farm is studied by scientists in a lab.  Of course, scientific methodologies fail utterly. “It had acted quite unbelievably in that well-ordered laboratory; doing nothing at all and shewing no occuluded gases when heated on charcoal, being wholly negative in the borax bead, and soon proving itself absolutely non-volatile at any producible temperature, including that of the oxy-hydrogen blowpipe.” (344) It is made of an unknown substance. Scientists think it might be a new element, but in defiance of their experiments, the meteorite dissolves into the air.  Even the colors associated with the meteorite are outside of the normal visible range. As always, it is in ancient books by mad Arabs, like the Necronomicon that have true explanatory power.


I am not suggesting that there are no legitimate critiques of technology and science–or even the Enlightenment project as a whole. On this point, I am probably closest to Murray Bookchin or Kropotkin in desired a human-scaled technology that is serving human interests and at the same time functioning at the human level (avoiding Mumford’s “The Machine”).  Lovecraft is going far from a challenge to misuses of science and technology.  He wants to say that science is incapable of even understanding the totality of the world. A comparison with Philip K. Dick may be apt. Both Lovecraft and Dick were skeptical about technology and both considered the threat of malevolent external forces. While Dick’s threats were clear and explicable (a powerful state, a technological regime, a sociopathtic android, a corporation), Lovecraft’s are unknowable. While Dick’s fears of technological systems led him to argue for human-scaled production and the dignity of work, Lovecraft rejects all knowledge, being skeptical that any craft can aid humans.  Perhaps we can see Dick as gnostic and Lovecraft as agnostic.  While Dick’s approach to the unknown seems to require us to understand and expose it, Lovecraft keeps us huddling in fear. Like the town in “The Colour Out of Space” that ignores the cursed field, we are best off not even trying to explain the horrors of our world.

Another dimension to Lovecraft’s conservatism is the heavy role of the past in shaping our lives.  The artist Pickman, in “Pickman’s Model” has no choice but to paint images of the horrors he sees in his studio. It is not clear why he could not just walk away from the madness-inducing horrors. Other, however, are burdened by family and the past.  Often families have deep connections to the cults that worship the alien gods that make up Lovecraft’s mythos.  A child born into such a family has no more chance of escaping this family history than he does his DNA. Regional and local histories play a similar role.  Now, Lovecraft must have known that this is nonsense. People leave their home towns, their family burdens, and the religion of their parents all of the time. Lovecraft even spent much of the mid-20s (the time these four stories were written) in New York City, living for the first time away from his home region.

This type of generational tyranny is one of the major themes of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward and “The Dunwich Horror,” but it come up in Pickman’s explanation of his art. “You call the Salem witchcraft a delusion, but I’ll wage my four-times-great-grandmother could have told you things. They hanged her on Gallows Hill, with Cotton Mather looking sanctimoniously on.” (200) A page later he explains in pejorative terms how new immigrants cannot understand such things. Only those natives who have the deep roots to the past carry that burden and impotence over their future.  In “The Dunwich Horror” Wilbur Whateley is actually the son of a demon (which explained his precocious development).  Joseph Curwen, from The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, traced his lineage back to the Salem of the witch trials as well, which had no small role in his sacrifices and intellectual curiosities.

As with technology, I do not want to throw history or family out entirely. Free people can certainty find happiness and meaning through participation in their family. Raising children (as Lynd Ward might have said) is a Promethean act.  However, what Lovecraft’s mythos (or the little I have read of it so far) gives us families and regional histories that exist only as inescapable chains.  If someone in the 20th century cannot escape the legacy of the Salem witch trials, it is hard to see how they can live a free life.  Of course, if we lived in a world that follows Lovecraft’s rules we would have little need for such liberty.

What does the contemporary popularity of Lovecraft’s vision tell us about the rampant fatalism of late capitalist culture? Is it working as part of “capitalist realism,” convincing us that there is no alternative to our bleak and insignificant lives?

Philip K. Dick, Conclusion

My series on Philip K. Dick is complete. There are a number of novels I did not touch and of course I discussed the stories only as occasional references. I feel, that there is enough material to begin to map out the major themes.


1. Post-Scarcity, the End of Work, and Inequality. Many of Dick’s science-fiction novels consider the dilemma of work and post-scarcity. The question, how do we come to terms with the inequality caused by the technological destruction of productive work. His novels are populated with what Zygmunt Bauman called “wasted lives,” the excess population of late capitalism.

2. Technology and the Future of Freedom. Dick is largely a technophobe due to the ability of technology to destroy human freedom. Technology often plays a role in distorting our reality, empowering the state, and establishing a surveillance society.

3. The Nature and Function of Corporate and Political Power. In a related theme, through Dick we can consider the changing functions of the state with the decline of the welfare state and nationalism as well as the transformation of the role of corporate power with the decline of manufacturing. As it turn outs, both become more psychopathic.

4. The Crisis of Monogamy and Family. Dick lived this crisis through five marriages. His insistence on marriage is not unfamiliar to many people in the late industrial west and his embrace of serial monogamy is all but universal. Perhaps too many of his novels consider the dilemma of liquid love in a liquid world alongside our desire for stability in an unstable liquid world. As a result we grasp at relationships and make reckless commitments.

5. Insanity and Everyday Life. Dick argues that one consequence of late capitalism is the normalcy of mental illness. How this fits with his definition of humanity as memory and empathy is explored in a few novels.

6. The Rise of Religious Delusion. Like with the question of marriage, this is something Dick explored personally through his exploration of religion in the later 1970s until his death. Religion becomes a means for us to create a firm foundation in a liquid world, but for Dick it went farther and became a source of truth, not merely consolation or security.

7. The Desolation of the Frontier. Dick places the frontier in various locations in the Solar System. Experiencing the end of the frontier in California and noticing the death of the American frontier as a location of rebirth of democracy (Frederick Jackson Turner). Instead, the frontier is a blighted landscape where people eke out miserable existences.

8. A Consumer Dystopia. Instead of an optimistic frontier, Dick gives us a consumer dystopia. Goods are cheap. Even rocket ships to other planets are cheap. People consume drugs, mood-altering chemicals, and sentimental objects from earlier eras to cope with meaningless and directionless lives.

9. Resistance. Dick is a pessimistic writer, but we can find in his works suggestions of optimism through the potential of resistance. Thankfully, in all but a few cases, the troubles that people face are easily identifiable. Even when reality is being manipulated, there is always a manipulator. By exposing the lie, or simply by being good to one another, resistance to the empires of lies and exploitation is possible.


Philip K. Dick does seem to me to be a writer exploring many themes of interest to anarchists, particularly those of us trying to navigate a strategy through late capitalism.  His answers and suggestions may strikes some of us as naive, but his diagnosis of the problem is spot-on.

Thanks to the followers of this series.  I will continue next week with my regular readings of the Library of America, starting with Ambrose Bierce.

Philip K. Dick, “VALIS” (1981)

I suppose on the surface, there is nothing wrong with using fiction to document a deteriorating mental state.  The interesting thing about VALIS is that Dick is exploring his own mental state.  He seems to be aware that he was going around the bend.  Having worked on his Exegesis for a while after his hallucinogenic experiences.  I am not very expert in theology or feel comfortable talking about Dick’s contribution to theology.  Mostly because I am interested in Philip K. Dick’s investigation of late capitalism and liquid modernity, I am hesitant to take on his theological explorations.  I do think that it is true that one response, not fully irrational, to liquid modernity is a turn toward religion, even religious fundamentalism.  To his credit, Dick turns toward the religious without losing some grounding in reason.  VALIS is an attempt at a fairly worldly explanation of his religious turn.  Those attracted to fundamentalism appreciate its solid claims of truth at a time when even science seems full of uncertainty (this is seems to me is a false impression and reflective of many people’s poor knowledge about how science works).


This interview shows Dick discussing some of his late philosophy.  It is worth looking at.

Since it is so autobiographical – even including passages from his exegesis – I am unable to find the value of of VALIS outside of an understanding of Dick himself, in his later years.  It perhaps should be read as a philosophical and religious autobiography.

One question he asks throughout is how can one differentiate between insanity and a religious experience.  Those of us lacking religious experiences tend to assume that those who have them are suffering some sort of mental illness.  Dick, who had spent 20 years writing about changing realities, was acutely aware that his own hallucinations could have had naturalistic explanations.  Even if few of them were grounded in science, all of his fictional delusions were scientifically explicable considering the rules of his fictional universe (a drug, a computer simulation, a fraud created by a governing body).    Take this paragraph: “On the other hand, I am not denying that Fat [PKD] was totally wacked out.  He began to decline with Gloria phoned him and he continued to decline forever and ever.  Unlike Sherri and her cancer, Fat experienced no remission.  Encountering God was not a remission.  But probably it wasn’t a worsening, despite Kevin’s cynical views.  You cannot say that an encounter with God is to mental illness what death is to cancer, the logical outcome of a deteriorating illness process.  The technical term – theological technical term, not psychiatric – is theophany.  A theophany consists of self-disclosure by the divine.  It does not consist of something the percipient does; it consists of something the divine – the God or gods, the high power – does.”

The first half of VALIS looks at Horselover Fat (PKD) and his attempts to understand this theophany, essentially a revelation.  Later, he sees a movie VALIS, (Short for Vast Artificial Living Intelligence System) which, like the novel in a novel of A Man in the High Castle presented an alternative reality that might actually hold the truth to existing reality that is being covered up.  It is not quite clear who is doing the covering up, but the revelations come from a satellite orbiting the Earth, delivering messages to select individuals on Earth.  This is the naturalistic explanation for religious experiences, particularly those of prophets.  It is not an unclever idea and would have made a good short story.  Unfortunately for the reader, we have to shift through an entire novel of theological speculation, soul-searching, and wild claims to get at the point.

The idea is useless to us trying to navigate really existing late capitalism.  God may be aliens, or a satellite, and Jesus may have been getting messages from space.  Even if the truth is known to a few religious personalities, most of us dwell in the liquid world.  There is nothing in the message from space suggesting who is distorting our reality or why or any clue how to escape it, except through the “anamnesia” (end of forgetting).  I see actual enemies in really existing capitalism.  Dick identified real enemies in many of his earlier works: the military, the state, the corporation.  I do not see what we gain by replacing these enemies with an vague and almost universal amnesia.  Furthermore, since the revelations to to so few, we are forced to accept the insights of that handful of philosopher kings, if you will.

Sadly, much of Dick fandom is attracted to the idea of a irresistible delusion or a total conspiracy.


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.”


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.

Philip K. Dick, “Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said” (1974): Class and the Police State

While I do not deny that Philip K. Dick did have his metaphysical turn later in his life, Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said, which was one of his final novels, seems to remain rooted in the questions of power, class antagonism, and state structures.  It is also one of his most familiar dystopias, with a functioning police state, active suppression of dissent, and the total regulation of every aspect of daily life.  The novel is incredibly powerful and in my view his greatest work.  One thing to keep in mind about good dystopias is that characters may be confined, repressed, or otherwise miserable but they can rarely dream of up alternatives.  In Flow My Tears, the resistance is taking place in kibbutz-like communities in college campuses.  The major characters, however, are at least initially totally invested in the power structure.  They are forced to reimagine their investment in the system only after great trauma.  As it turns out, it is the policeman who seems to make the most progress.


Philip K. Dick had a life-long love of John Dowland and mentions his lute music in several novels.  In Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said, Dick reached the ultimate and named the book after one of Dowland’s most famous airs, “Flow My Tears.”

The four sections of the novel are each proceeded with one of the verses of this song.  We should perhaps read the novel with this structure in mind.  Part One begins with:

Flow, my tears, fall from your springs!
Exiled for ever, let me mourn;
Where night’s black bird her sad infamy sings,
There let me live forlorn.

The first part of the novel deals with the main character John Traverner trauma at being ripped out of the world he knew.  He is clearly exiled and thrust into a darkness.  John Traverner is a member of the genetic and economic elite. He hosts a television variety show and is world famous, maintains a massive home, and had several past mistresses.  He is genetically superior to most humans, being a “six” reaching an exceptional intellectual capacity.  He surrounds himself with other “sixes” such as his current lover Hearth Hart.  It is revealed that he reached this celebrity through manipulation and even violence. In the first chapter, the police are his guards.  In this police state that he lives in, the police protect the powerful.  To focus on their power and no longer responsible for respecting the morality of a democratic society, they have decriminalized prostitution and drug use.  After this window into the life of the gated community, Jason is thrust into the underworld.  After being attacked by an ex-lover, he wakes up in a hotel room without any identification.  To make matters worse no one recognizes him, something that is completely foreign to him.  In a world where people without an identity can be sent to forced labor camps to work to death, this put Jason in desperate situation.  He is not only lacking an identity (perhaps a strange feeling for a celebrity) but he is outside of the gated community.  His displacement is immediately felt as a class displacement.  “And that’s important to your image, he said to himself.  What kind of suits you can wear, especially those tucked-inwaist numbers.  I must have fifty of them, he thought.  Or did have.  Where are they now? he asked himself.”  Unable to secure his identify and his class status, he is homeless.  He learns that crime has a different meaning for the economically excluded.  Forced to work with criminals to construct a new identity for himself, he runs into the first of several women who will frame his story, Kathy.  She is a police informer but works at the office constructing fake identifications.  She only turns in people she dislikes.  However, her apparent mental instability only frightens Jason and contributes to his isolation.  In the early phase of the novel, Jason insists that class will save him.  He uses his acting ability and contributes to believe that if he will call Heather he would be saved.  If we bracket the first part, essentially we have the old tale of The Prince and the Pauper, only set in a science-fiction context and questioning a late capitalist police state instead of monarchical privileged.

Part Two begins with:

Down vain lights, shine you no more!
No nights are dark enough for those
That in despair their last fortunes deplore.
Light doth but shame disclose.

Perhaps this is a deepening of the darkness Jason feels, but the major character of the second part of the novel is Felix Buckman, a talented police-general with a shady past and juggling many lies.  He lies to the people he investigates, claiming to be a rare “seven.” He is always working to cover up his incestuous relationship with his twin sister Alys Buckman.  “Light doth but shame disclose” seems to describe Buckman’s situation more than Jason’s.  After being captured by the police, Jason was able to convince the police that he lost his cards and recently had cosmetic surgery.  He flees to Las Vegas where he runs into an old fling.  Being promiscuous, Jason is able to convince her that he was a former lover.  In a rather long conversation, the two of them debate the relationship between love, pain, death and humanity.  The woman, Ruth Gomen seems to be expressing Dick’s own point of view that emotion, sacrifice, and pain are the heart of the human experience.  By avoiding those things through an excessively liquid world, Jason is avoiding grief and therefore his own humanity.  We are tempted by this interpetation – as is Jason from time to time – that his dilemma is merely an extension of the liquid, flexible life he lives.  After this philosophical aside Jason is arrested and taken before Buckman who interrogates him.  We learn much about Buckman’s background and how he rose to power after a second Civil War by helping crush student movements.  But by treating the students with some basic humanity, Buckman’s reputation suffered and he was demoted to “police general” from “police marshal.”  Buckman’s capacity for empathy is striking.  Although an enforcer of a brutal system, he is not quite as aloof as Jason, Heather and other denziens of the gated community.  The enforcers of the system are required to be brutal, of course.  Jason eventually meets up with Alys Buckman, who invites him over to take some mescaline.  His hallucinogenic experience is disabling but for a moment we wonder if we are in the world of “Faith of Our Fathers,” where drugs provide a window into reality.  The earlier assassination attempt may have weaned him off an earlier chemical dependency.  Maybe his entire stardom was a constantly sustained hallucination.

Part Three begins:

Never may my woes be relieved,
Since pity is fled;
And tears and sighs and groans my
weary days
Of all joys have deprived.

This cannot be referring to Jason, so we assume this is Buckman again.  Jason comes off his bad trip to find Alys dead, as a pile of bones.  Soon after this, Jason finds himself recognized once again.  His music is being played and people ask for his signature.  He is no longer in a world where he never existed.  Buckman learns that his sister died after taking a new drug KR-3, which somehow caused Jason’s displacement.  In order to hid his incest – somehow connected to Alys drug use – Buckman accused Jason of the murder leading to a celebrity trial.  Thankfully, we are saved the details of this trial and Jason’s acquittal.  Jason’s story is over.  Dick is much more interested in the development of Buckman’s character.  Unlike Jason who can consume women like any other commodity, Buckman is unable to come to terms with his sister’s death.  Most of the last chapter is devoted to his devastation and his striving for some sort of human connection.

Part Four begins:

Hark! you shadows that in darkness dwell,
Learn to contemn light
Happy, happy they that in hell
Feel not the world’s despite.

The rest of the novel is a short epilogue, which narrates that Jason escaped prosecution, the student movements failed but the police state weakened anyway.  This weakening seems to have something to do with Buckman’s exposure of police conduct.  This leads to his assassination, but he seems to have played a role in undermining the enforcement mechanism of the system.

Clearly, Flow My Tears, the Policeman Says summarizes many of Dicks reoccurring themes: the importance of empathy, the class divide, the nature of liquid modernity, the dilemma of sexual exclusivity in a liquid world, and the drug culture.  This could have been his capstone project, but he went ahead and expanded on some of these very themes in A Scanner Darkly three years later.

Philip K. Dick, “Ubik” (1969): Half-life and Half-Lifers

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? gave us “kipple,” dead, former commodities and the living dead of a devastated Earth, unable to reproduce.  They are much like the people of Children of Men, awaiting an end that comes slowly but inevitably.  Ubik gives us the concept of “half-life.”  People in “half-life” are dead but are placed in a state of suspended animation, which they come out of at certain regular times (like yearly visits to the old-folks home) or when their advice is needed.  The main character, Glen Runciter, for instance, begins the novel with a visit to his dead wife who provides for him useful corporate advice.  Over the course of the novel, it is never clear if the characters are in this state of “half-life” or not.  As in The Maze of Death and Eye in the Sky, it is revealed that everyone is sharing a constructed reality.  In those novels, it was self-created by the participants, a democratic delusion if you will.  In Ubik, the reality is constructed by outside, malevolent forces.  It this way, it is a more accurate description of the world we live in.  We can come right out and interpret Ubik as a reading of the consumer republic, where choice is confined to what is allowed by those that construct reality.  We carry on, in a state of half-life, living only for service.  It is the PKD novel that is thematically closest to The Matrix, since the purpose of the delusion is clear exploitation and the cause is a clearly identifiable external force.  In Ubik, the external force is Jory Miller, another person in half-life, who regularly consumes people to sustain himself.  “Ubik,” which is an ubiquitous (the name is purposeful) product, which functions as a preservative to keep the characters from being consumed by Miller.  While “Ubik” saves (really preserves) the heroes of the tale, the heroes seem to play a role as “Ubik” for Miller.  If we look at it this way, we have a very clear model of the capitalist world.  Jory Miller functions like the capitalist class, of the system but able to master its rules at the expense of the other participants.  He is sustained through the life force of others, but consumer products become a means of sustaining those victims, keeping them together long enough to be fully consumed.  Unfortunately, the interpretation is not quite this easy for two reasons.


Rory Miller did not construct the reality himself.  Unlike the exploiting machines in The Matrix, the simulated reality seems to have an external creator.  When one enters “half-life” they go into it.  That reality is shifting and participants have some say in its form, moving to familiar times and places.  (Here I want to stop and make a side bar point about simulated realities.  Most depictions I have seen of simulated realities are horribly uncreative, and tend to involve people recreating something they know or a time they know.  Why are they not utopias?  I suspect this has much to do with our fundamentally incapacity to imagine true alternatives.  Even when given the freedom to create new worlds, we stay in the old way.  Even in fantasy literature, we find basically capitalist economics at work.  In Dungeons and Dragons good performance is rewarded with advances in rank.  Characters use gold coins to purchase weapons.  How is that fantasy?  It is too familiar.)  Perhaps it is akin to the more democratic delusions of The Maze of Death.  Rory Miller is still, of course, an exploiter.  This is not a serious interpretative problem.  We merely need to acknowledge that most of the exploiters in the world we live in did not create the institutions that they oversee.  In the case of consumer culture, the exploited masses play a role in creating the infrastructure of need that binds all of us to the “normalcy” of capitalism.  It turns out that Rory Miller is no more than the run of the mill, clever and lucky member of the global elite who is slightly better at playing the game than others, but lacking any real claim to creativity.  The ruling elite are vampires, not architects.

Much more difficult to interpret is the role of the commodity “Ubik,” which seems to save people from decay.  It is clearly commoditfied.  Each era that the characters travel through advertizes Ubik.  It famously comes in an spray can.  While it seems to be a part of the odious regimen of the exploiters, it is used by Runciter to help sustain the people, to help them avoid becoming “kipple,” dead, used-up trash.  The lesson here is that the very thing that must fight against our perpetual status of “half-lifers” is a part of the artificial world we exist in.  We do not need to jump to Ubik being God or the universal salvation.  Ubik is whatever we apply in our struggle against total “kipplization.”  It will always take the form of the world we live in, just as any libertory movement must put on the face of late capitalism, use its tools, and necessarily fall into hypocrisy.  Purity is not possible.  In the novel, Ubik had to take the form of the delusion.  In the same way, our means of avoiding the slow death of capital must look to us like a product of late capitalism itself.  (If we want to borrow the theological argument, it is no different than Christ needing to become man.)