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.

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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.

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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, “The Divine Invasion” (1981)

Philip K. Dick’s The Divine Invasion is the second in the loosely joined “VALIS trilogy.”  There three novels reflect Dick’s late life obsession with religious themes., often identified with a gnostic turn in Dick’s writing.  Perhaps this is a consequence of his earlier concerns about the fragmentary nature of reality and time.  If the physical reality is uncertain and dubious, why not turn to the religious or spiritual realm for security.  I do not want to speak of this as a loss, since we do not lose Dick’s earlier works that had much more mature responses to the crisis of late capitalism.  Nevertheless, what Dick is doing in The Divine Invasion and the VALIS trilogy is an essentially different answer to late capitalism to the ones that satisfied him for most of his career.  To make it clear, for most of his career, Dick believed that human solidarity, self-sacrifice, and empathy formed the foundation to the resistance to the liquid world.  By the time of The Divine Invasion Dick is looking for a savior from outside humanity.  In this case, salvation comes from the literal second coming of Christ.  For me this is an unsatisfying turn.  It is also too common.  Millions of people facing liquid modernity have turned away from the Enlightenment, from science, from belief in human progress, from striving for justice, and from community and turned toward religious fundamentalism, new religious movements, New Ageism.  Not often this shift is combined with cynicism, fear, mistrust, and anxiety.  It is not an uncommon response to late capitalism, but one utterly doomed to fail because it does not challenge those in power.  Remember, that in most of Dick’s novels, the fungible reality was not a state of being, but the conscious product of powerful, malevolent forces.  You fight those powers in this world, not in some spiritual realm.

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The plot of The Divine Invasion covers the conception, birth and childhood of Emmanuel, the physical avatar of Yah, the God Yahweh, in exile on another planet, along with much of humanity, who are forced to flee to the colonies or join the military and face certain death.  After a virgin conception, Emmanuel’s mother and step father return to Earth.  They are nearly destroyed by the forces of the government and the mainstream Christian-Islamic-Church.  Emmanuel’s father wakes up ten years after a car wreck to find that his “son” has grown up.  The demon Belial attempts to prevent Emmanuel’s maturity but is defeated by Emmanuel’s friend Zina Pallas (actually a spiritual force in her own right).  Each entity that chooses good in a similar choice between Emmanuel and Belial will be integral in constructing a new world.  “Not as a human figure such as yourself,” he tells his father, “I am not as you see me; I am now shed my human side, that derived from my mother, Rybys.  Zina and I will united in a syzygy which is macrocosmic; we will not have a soma, which is to say, a physical body distinct from the world.  The world will be our body, and our mind will be the world’s mind.  It will also be your mind, Herbert.  And the mind of every other creature that has chosen its yetzer ha-tov, its good spirit.”  The fact that there is some participatory potential is a remnant of Dick’s older belief in the role of choosing goodness, but now it is a choice between Belial and a savior.

The church and state, the joined ruling powers in the world of The Divine Invasion, are as odious as any in the PKD universe.  The Christian-Islamic-Church is utterly corrupt.  As one chapter opens: “Cardinal Fulton Statler Harms, Chief Prelate of the vast organizational network that comprised the Christian-Islamic-Church, could not for the life of him figure our why there wasn’t a sufficient amount of money in his Special Discretionary Fund to cover his mistress’ expenses.” The government attempts to force an abortion to stop the birth of Emmanuel.  These powers seem to be in the pocket of Belial.  As you will recall, in Paradise Lost, Belial worked through the systems of power and advised Lucifer to fight his war against Heaven via the rules of Realpolitik.  This is merely a religious interpretation of claims Dick had already made throughout his work, that the state, capital, and other forms of institutional power are irredeemably corrupted.

At the same time, Dick here is willing to pass much of the good done in the world to the religious forces of good.  Elias, an apparent avatar of Elijah, says: “I was with Graf Egemont in teh Dutch wars of independence, the Thirty Years War. . .  I knew Beethoven. . . We engineered the American Revolution.”  The lesson is clear, there is a divine spark in all great libertarian efforts.  In another place, Zina reminds Belial.  “The strong should protect the weak.  The Torah says so.  It is a basic idea of the Torah; it is the basic to God’s law.  As God protects man, so man should protect the disadvantaged, even down to animals and the nobler tress.”

To sum up, The Divine Invasion takes the question at the heart of all Dick’s work: Where can we locate human solidarity, freedom, happiness, and truth when surrounded by an empire of lies and the institutions that support it?  I am not sure if Dick had abandoned his old faith in humanity by looking for an outside savior.  On this issue, I clearly find his earlier efforts more satisfying.

Philip K. Dick, “The Game-Players of Titan” (1963): The Life of the Ruling Class

The standard hero in a Philip K. Dick novel is a member of an alienated middle or professional class.  Often these people are functionaries or technocrats of state or, more commonly, corporate interests.  They are rarely people who have power in their right, but neither are they from the very bottom.  Yes, there are more working class figures peppered throughout his novels, but by in large we seen society from the educated middle, serving various forces in power.  On the face of it, the characters in The Game-Players of Titan are much more powerful.  They remind us immediately of the capitalist class of the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, playing games with the mortgages, pensions, retirement funds, and bank accounts of the rest of us.  The stakes of these games are high.  They drove millions from their homes and jobs and squandered a generation of national and private wealth.  Yet, from their perspective, they lost little.  Even if they lost a million here or a million there, they still could come home to a children and home well-tended by immigrant workers, dinner parties, nights at the opera, and massive back accounts.  For them the losses were abstract, and fungible.  Their endless wealth ruined any possible perspective they could have on value.  The Game-Players of Titan opens with a game of Bluff.  The stakes of the contest?  Nothing less than the entire city of Berkeley and the identity of his future wife (they also swap wives as a function of the game).  The setting is a stunningly familiar model of the global (late) capitalist class.  Their massive wealth, massive power, complete indifference to the damage they cause, they inability to notice their own psychopathy, and their loose sexual morality predicts the nature of the late capitalist elite.  On this last point, not really mentioned by Dick, we should always recall the high divorce rate among the elite as they condemn the family values of the working poor.  (See Was Bill Cosby Right by Michael Dyson and Yo Mama’s Dysfunctional by Robin Kelley.)

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The Game-Players of Titan is a condemnation of the values, lifestyle, power, and indifference of the ruling class.  Now I should say that most of the Earth is depopulated in the novel, creating the context of low states, but it seems to me that from the perspective of the ruling elite there are not that many people who actually matter.  Their gaze obscures the vast majority of us.  Living in gated communities, moving around cities by helicopters or limousines, attending exclusive parties, and opening night receptions the elite can go through life without an awareness of the very existence of most of us.  Dick uses the science-fiction tool of low fertility and dwindling post-apocalyptic populations to suggest how the “game-players” see us.  If a couple tens of millions of the underclass disappeared, it would barely register within the gated communities.  It may not even affect the cost of labor, a detail they have long ago passed onto middle managers.  So what do we know about these game-players in the novel?  First, they cheat when they can using pre-cogs to gain advantage over others.  Second, they are often massive users of drugs.  Third, they are sexually promiscuous despite having an institutionalized system for wife swapping.  Fourth, they carry on irrational grudges over the ownership of property that they cannot ever dream of getting a handle on (the protagonist’s loss of Berkeley, for instance).  They are delusion, degenerate, and disgusting.

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Our two worlds.  Gated communities and slums.

Our two worlds. Gated communities and slums.

The game players have internalized the values of capitalism, competition, and power in all aspects of life. “But marriage had always been primarily an economic entity, Schilling reflected as he steered his auto-auto up into the early-morning New Mexico sky.  The vugs hadn’t invented that; they had merely intensified an already existing condition.  Marriage had to do with the transmission of property, of lines of inheritance.  And of cooperation in career-lines as well.  All this emerged explicitly in The Game and dominated conditions; The Game merely dealt openly with what had been there implicitly before.”  They have institutionalized liquid relationships while justifying the system with capitalist logic.  This is not to say that they are not correct about the original purpose of marriage, but while most of us still believe in love and commitment and all that stuff, they have already remembered that marriage is simply another business proposition.

The Terran game players are not the only center of power.  The “vugs”, the benevolent overseers of The Game, and essentially the distant rulers of Earth also exist and from time to time interfere in the affairs of the humans.  They play a role of moderating and regulating The Game. Much of the plot of the novel deals with the interactions between the game-players and these “vugs,” including a resistance movement brewing against their rule.  We do not have the equivalent of the “vugs” in our world, and we should probably be thankful for that.  Our resistance to the game-players in our world must from below, from outside of the gated community.  If it comes from above, it promises only more domination.

Philip K. Dick, “A Maze of Death” (1970): Alternative Reality and Freedom

In A Maze of Death, Philip K. Dick tries to show us that an alternative reality can lead to the perception of freedom, if not freedom itself.  In the novel, fourteen lost spaceship residents, establish a collective delusion for cathartic reasons.  This delusion is cathartic, provides some limited illusion of freedom, and wastes their time.  The novel might be compared to The Matrix or eXistenZ with its reliance on an alternative reality.  In eXistenZ, the approach is more playful and the reality is always hidden under another layer of delusion to the point the characters do not know where they are.  A Maze of Death presents us with a reality that is brutal and horrible, fourteen progressively insane members of a lost at space spaceship crew with murderous impulses and no hope of escape.  In The Matrix, of course, the delusion is created as a means of exploitation and social control.  The film-makers believe that reality is preferable to delusion and the struggle for freedom comes from escaping the fantasy.  A Maze of Death show us that opposite.  People find their freedom in the fantasy.  Reality is a prison.  Even if the freedom in the fantasy is sexual excess, murder, or a host of conspiracy theories and paranoid, at least it allows us to live out our passions, rather than confining them?

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A question arises by the time you get to the end of A Maze of Death.  If these fourteen people hate each other so deeply and use stimulated realities to, in part, work out their hostilities against each other, why do they not simply murder each other in reality?  Their mission is lost and they have no hope for salvation.  Perhaps the answer is that in reality, despite their unique circumstances, they are still bound by the rules of society.  Philip K. Dick may be saying that our lives are really akin to these fourteen lost in space.  Any freedom we have is a delusion.  We are bound by social obligations beyond any reason.  We have at best a bottle-up disgust for the other members of our species.  We escape into fantasies (television series, adulterous relationships, myths of the happy family, raising children, irrelevant political battles, cruises to Jamaica that never show us anything of Jamaica beyond the resort) because this is the one way we can escape the horror of our enslavement.  It is a false freedom, of course.  To fight for freedom in the realm of the real would require a revolution.  This is something neither we nor the crew members of ship are capable of.  Whatever optimism Dick had in humanity and our capacity to achieve solidarity (expressed in Now Wait for Last Year) is missing in A Maze of Death.  When one fantasy breaks down, they have no choice but to start another one.  In a sense, the hope lies in there.  Overtime our fantasies lose the ability to sustain our interest so we must at some point face reality, each other, and the chains that bind us.

The theological system collectively created by the participants in the fantasy is not uninteresting.  In this particular version, God exists in four different parts.  It is much like Hinduism, where God is divided into Brahma (the creator), Shiva (the destroyer) and Vishnu (the sustainer).  Here the four aspects of the divine are the Intercessor, the Mentufacturer, the Form Destroyer, and the Walker on Earth (closer perhaps to the Holy Spirit or a Buddhist Bodhisattva).  There is a mechanical system by which people can request help from these different avatars through “prayers,” which are not so different from requests to superiors.  Indeed, the first character we meets treats his prayer just like this, asking for and receiving a transfer to a new location.  In this reality, the truth of the divine is uncontested.  Not only are prayers really answered and direct connections to the divine explicable via natural law, but the Walker on Earth is experienced directly by one of the characters.  Created by the participants through a method of collective will (I am reminded of the Jungian psychology here), this theological design is not far from what people really want from their God.

Another layer of the delusion, is that the characters are given an important task.  Again, this is something that is clearly lacking in reality.  On the ship, they are no different from millions of people in office jobs, teaching jobs, government bureaucracies who know that their work is meaningless.

So in their fantasy, they create an important task, consisted with their skills and training.  Everyone has an important task that is worked into the fantasy.  On the surface, they are sent to begin the settlement of a planet Delmak-O and they all have an important task (a psychologist, a linguist, a computers specialist, a repairman, a custodian, a sexy secretary, etc.).  Conveniently, the mission is never explicitly stated, so they can only know they each have an essential role, they cannot know what that role is.  One of the many fantasies of late capitalism is that we matter, that our job has a purpose, that the world needs us.  Liquid relationships proves that this is not even true of our children.  If we die, there is a step-mother waiting at the bar on the corner – more beautiful, more playful, and with a higher income.

The solution to the dilemma of late capitalism, to the world that we live in, is not more fantasies of freedom.  It is to realize our slavery, our insignificance, our hatreds and our passions.  We should wake up to the chains around us and fight to smash them as described in Lu Xun’s iron house parable.  “Imagine an iron house without windows, absolutely indestructible, with many people fast asleep inside who will soon die of suffocation. But you know since they will die in their sleep, they will not feel the pain of death. Now if you cry aloud to wake a few of the lighter sleepers, making those unfortunate few suffer the agony of irrevocable death, do you think you are doing them a good turn?  But if a few awake, you can’t say there is no hope of destroying the iron house. ”

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Philip K. Dick, “Clans of the Alphane Moon” (1964): We Are All Mentally Ill (2)

One does not need to read as much Philip K. Dick as I have been to realize that he thinks that the trajectory of late capitalism leads the vast majority of us toward mental illness.  This is not necessarily a problem if mental illness is integral to the functioning of the system.  If that is the case, it will be those few of us without personality disorders that will be out of place, confused and incapable of functioning.  In world in which we have the capacity to destroy the entire planet, when we rush headlong into ecological devastation without the least anxiety or change to our everyday life, where wealth expands and inequality expands, and where democracy seems to inexorably expand but none of us feel more free in our daily lives, is clearly insane.  Clans of the Alphane Moon is Philip K. Dick’s attempt to prove to the reader that mental illness is in fact integral to how we organize society.

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Adam Kotsko’s Why We Love Sociopaths: A Guide to Late Capitalist Television seems to argue that we are attracted to sociopathic characters, which are legion in contemporary American television (Walter White, Stringer Bell, Tony Soprano, most of the villains in Spartacus), because we see in them the ability to navigate this bizarre and amoral world in ways that those of us still clinging to social convention lack.  Dick’s use of mental illness in nearly all of his major novels and his common use of psychotherapy as a plot device (Dr. Bloodmoney) suggests that this theme was heavy on his mind.

The protagonist of The Clans of the Alphane Moon, Chuck Rittersdorf, is a CIA agent, but in fact he is a teller of lies.  He is a skilled writer who makes his modest living (made more modest by yet another PKD succubus, his ex-wife Mary Rittersdorf) by writing for simulacra that are sent to communist countries to spread pro-US propaganda.  Posting as average citizens, these robots are quite successful, but they need excellent scripting and programming.  Chuck’s job is to be convincing enough that the targets do not realize they are talking to an instrument of propaganda.  Mary takes a job working on securing the Terran claim to a moon in the Alpane system populated by the descendents of escaped mental patients.  Chuck takes a second job (made possible with the use of stimulants, much like PKD himself who wrote almost a dozen books in the mid-1960s) writing for a comedian Benny Hentman.  Hentman is a supporter of the Alphane claims on the moon.  These developments places Chuck in a prime position to attempt an assassination of his wife.  In fact, their near-death experiences seem to bring them closer together.  The heart of the novel, however, is the clans and their capacity to create a functioning society based on mental illness.  We might say that the denziens of Alpha III M2 are more honest than we are about the requirement of insanity for late capitalism.

There are seven tribes, each with a representative, a typical mental illness (some show signs of more than one category), a settlement, and a function in the society.  Certainly any one of these tribes alone would collapse easily.  But as a group, they actually did quite well before invaded by Earthlings.  We have much to learn about this elegant division of labor.  Some are already pointing this out.  Paul Baibak and Robert Hare argue in Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work that those most capable of rising up the ladder in the amoral world of the postmodern corporation are psychopaths.  Their book provides practical advice to dealing with this cruel reality.  We could extend this to many professions.  Perhaps there is a degree of infantilism required of being a grade school teacher.  Schizophrenia or delusions of grandeur would certainly help if you wanted to be Pope or start a cult.

On Alpha III M2, the manics are called the Manes.  They live in a settlement named after Leonardo da Vinci and are responsible for creating warriors and technological developments (although their efforts are often cut short by their over enthusiasm).  Hebrephrenia (I had to look this one up a few weeks ago- it is disorganized schizophrenia) are the working class and provide some religious inspiration and are called Heebs.  They live in Gandhitown.  The Polys are the the creative class, suffering from polymorphic schizophrenia (what the hell is that?) and live in a town named after Hamlet.  The vanilla schizophrenics are callde Skitzes and live in Joan d’Arc town, living out lives as writers and poets. The ruling class come from the Pares clan, live in Adolfville, and are responsible for defense.  Finally are the Ob-Coms (obsessive-compluslive) and Deps (depression).  Despite mutual distrust and often hatred they seem to make it work.  See, it does not require that one likes another functionary in order to make use of them.  Everyone sees the Heebs are smelly and degenerate, but they provide crucial working class needs.  Of course, we might be repulsed by a obsessive-compulsive’s habits but realize that they make good bureaucrats. Everyone fears the Manes and laughs at the child-like character of the Polys.  It is not a utopia at all.  It is a rather accurate, if exaggerated look at our own division of labor.  In Chapter Seven, Mary hands us this interpretation when providing her own description of the social functions of the various tribes.

This is one of Dick’s most humorous novels.  Chuck moves into a bachelor apartment complex and is helped in by a host of non-Terrans, including the memorable Lord Running Clam – a slime old from Ganymede with psychic powers. The dynamics between the different clans are full of comedic value.   It is novels like that convince me that Hollywood takes PKD way to seriously in their adaptations.

Imagine this guy talking to you.

Imagine this guy talking to you.