A Disturbing Thing about Dick

Published in 'Doubtiful - dans les plis du réel',
University of Rennes 2004

In 1982 the writer Philip K Dick died from a massive stroke just a few weeks before the film "Blade Runner" - based on his novel 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep' and directed by Ridley Scott - opened across America to luke-warm reviews and small audiences. He had seen a pre-screening of the movie and, although disappointed that Anne Margaret wasn't in it, he was impressed by what he saw. It seemed however that his attitude wasn't going to be widely shared by the viewing public. 'Bladerunner' was showing all the signs of being just another ordinary movie doing very ordinary business. And were it not for the growing market for films in the new format of the domestic Video Cassette Recorder, the title could well have sunk into obscurity. But instead, with this technology which for the first time allowed people to easily review a film, to slow it down and to repeat sections at will and so explore crannies and intersections and get to savour the twists and conundrums, Blade-Runner gained a word-of-mouth cult audience: An audience that was young and hip and rich enough to have this new machine, and which had cultural influence. In time came to be seen as one of the defining movies of its period: one of those pictures that expresses a new way of thinking about the world and slips from popular culture into the academy then moves again into other cultural arenas such as fashion or music and so reinscribes the world.

The movies' fascination with ideas of the fake and the simulacrum coincided with the concerns of what we can lazily but usefully label as 'post-modernity' and it was this correspondence that made the movie so important. It did seem to embody the Baudriallardian universe and it described a world 'the defining boundary of which is the electronic signal' (David Foster Wallace). This electronic, electric world is the one which most of Dicks fictions, (certainly those considered classics) define and occupy.

Dick had had it pretty hard as a writer. Other science fiction writers like Arthur C Clarke and Asimov had broken through to the big-time in terms of readership, fame and finances, but with his tense, paranoid stories he found it hard to make money. It's owing to this difficulty that he wrote so much - 44 novels and 121 short stories (30 of these in 1953 alone) - just to keep himself and his family off the breadline. To fuel this remarkable rate production he developed a pretty hard-core drug habit, mostly amphetamines, but including other types as well as well as an early foray into the yet to be defined field of 'smart-drugs', when he tried to find a combination of water-soluable vitamins that would synchronise the electrical activity of the two halves of his brain. The chemicals he used to keep him writing also fed into the stories an electric buzz of hallucination and weird linkages. Hapless repair men, lonely truck drivers or timid bureaucrats - his archetypal lead characters - come to the realisation that their world, their identity and/or their memory, is not as it seems but is instead some sort of forgery and construction: and that in fact they are shaped by technology, schizophrenia, conspiracies, drugs, telepaths, or space aliens appearing as twelve inch high bowler-hatted japanese businessmen. Or any combination of the above. The tales have at their core questions of perception, reality and ideas of gnosis, and they worry at the lines of demarcation between man and the machine and blurrings between the two. They are worlds of corporate domination and ubiquitious electronic media. I remember reading them when I was a teenager on a school outing and they seemed not really science fiction in as much as this was no shiny future with thrusting machines, but something far shabbier, more alternative, and dark. Funny. A problematic world where no thing and no idea remains fixed for very long at all. The texts didn't seem to be part of a 'mainstream' future in the way that Robert Heinlein's were, but were instead rather subversive and fugitive, something maybe that only 'we' knew about. Something hidden.

Between the time of my first readings in the seventies and my writing this, now, in a century after the one in which Dick set the majority of his stories, something peculiar has happened to Phillip K Dick. He may not be well known but he's certainly no longer just a schoolboy or counterculture cult. He sold the short story 'Paycheck in 1953 to a pulp magazine for $200. Three years ago the same story was sold by his estate for just under $2,000,000 as the basis for a Johnny Woo movie that came out over last Christmas. Another short story "We Can Remember You Wholesale" became the Schwarznegger vehicle "Total Recall" which was one of the biggest films of 1990, grossing $118 million in the USA alone.

Dick has also given Hollywood "Minority Report", "Screamers", and "Imposter", and at the moment his novel 'Time Out of Joint' has been optioned by Warner Brothers, 'A Scanner Darkly' is in development as well as his story "King of the Elves" at Disney, "The Short Happy Life of the Brown Oxford" at Miramax, as are 'Radio Free Albemuth,' 'Valis', and "Flow my Tears The Policeman Said". Only Steven King has had greater reach than this. In addition his influence and concerns can be easily felt and identified in recent films such as "The Matrix" (one and two) "eXistenZ", "Vanilla Sky", even "The Truman Show".

In 1978 he wrote "We live in a society in which spurious realities are manufactured by the media, by governments, by big corporations, by religious groups, political groups. I ask in my writing 'what is real?' Because increasingly we are bombarded by pseudo-realities manufactured by very sophisticated electronic mechanisms. I do not distrust their motives. I distrust their power. It is an astonishing power: that of creating whole universes, universes of the mind. I ought to know. I do the same thing" ("How to build a Universe that doesn't fall apart two days later" )

What he wasn't to know was that his stories and novels are, in the end, being bought and made into entertainment by mega-corporations which reach deep into the economic and military structures of our society, and which use those determining technologies - the computer, the digital, the virtual - which fundamentally shape our world and the way that which we experience it. We can guess however that perhaps he wouldn't have been too surprised at this irony There is a certain compelling and strange logic in his paranoid outsider fictions becoming mainstream entertainment, and in the powerful influence they now exert on the construction of a 'mainstream' view of how a culture sees and represents itself to itself. His stories of slippages in reality have slowly become one of the central ways that we describe our reality, and these descriptions are being made by the very commercial and technological complexes he feared, having at their disposal technologies as powerful as any he ever imagined.

In late summer 2001 I was writing the essay for the catalogue of the 2002 Sydney Biennale, which I was curating. The exhibition was called '(The World May Be) Fantastic' and it was focussing on artists and practices using 'fictions, narratives, invented methadologies hypotheses, subjective belief systems modellings fakes and experiments as a means to make works". The essay was titled "Grasshopper Worlds" and the titled referenced an episode in the P.K. Dick novel, "The Man in the High Castle". This describes events in a world in which the Axis powers won World War two. In constructing this imagined world Philip K Dick had frequent recourse to the I-Ching to determine particular outcomes. In the novel that is partially shaped by the I-Ching there is a character called Abendsen. He too is writing a novel, called 'The Grasshopper Lies Heavy', which is imagining an alternative world in which the Axis powers lost the war. To write this she is using the I-Ching to determine certain outcomes. The history that Abesdsen and the book of divination is generating is pretty much like the one that Philip K Dick and you and I move through, but with certain significant deviations. For instance it contains a President Tugwell, who follows on from Eisenhower. It seemed to me that there were interesting parallels between the slippery histories identites and constructed realities that Dick had explored in his writing and the different strategies and approaches that some contemporary artists were using.

These approaches, I wrote, help "make our world mutable and contingent, developing hallicinatory, slippery and various". The essay went on to describe ways that these alternative or hypothetical modellings of the 'real' are becoming of increasing interest owing to specific developments in the cultural environment, many of which flow on directly from the collapse of the Eastern block. With this collapse, the hegemony of global capital gets to feel inescapable and alternatives which would previously have been seen as 'political' and of agency in the everyday get to seem unanchored, hallucinatory, as there was now no concrete "other" to pull them into the real world. The defining mantra from men in sharp suits is that the structures of late capitalism are inevitable, almost a natural force. This seemingly effortless spread of the global market and its ideologies has driven us inwards, to imagine possible differences and resistances. A sort of revolution in the head.

All this is amplified, in many different ways, by new technologies. These are fundamentally problematising our ability to identify exactly what is 'real'. They also provide a matrix for electronic relations and locations which generate alternative (albeit fragmented and atomised) social groupings each with their own specific interests and constructions of reality .Identity, in an electronic universe, becomes fluxing and elective, a thing which, in certain circumstances you pretty much choose, becoming maybe an African politician trying to transfer money from his land by e-mail, or a role-player in chat rooms: Fiction becomes momentarily actual. In turn, information becomes ordered by echo and resemblance, ‘Google World’ is one of promiscuous relationships linkages and structures that have more in common that medieval and occult world views than it does the ordered indexes of Enlightenment taxonomy. For artists, the taking up of the possibilities of alternative narratives and constructions also seems to offer the possibility of a re-engagement with narrativity and subject matter that the arguments of post-modern theory have problematised to the point of impossibility. Its as if you're saying 'ok, you're right, the grand narrative is no longer possible, meaning is merely power...but lets pretend that the nineteenth century novel and the authoratorial voice is possible......" Generally artists have increasingly developed strategies to allow a re-embrace of the narrative, the literary, the discursive, the fabulistic are in common use and are approaches that the high priests of modernism formalism, and minimalism would have hated as they run directly counter to the desire for an increasingly reductive essence for the 'work' where it is in the process of become more and more itself. A contemporary artist shaped by the electronic world has as strong a relationship with narratives as did a Renaissance painter of Tobias and the Angel or the Assumption: although now the stories maybe those of the social and cultural exchanges in 'relational' aesthetics, or the ontological narratives of Carsten Holler and the philosophical and perceptual paradoxes of Gilles Barbier and Leandro Erlich or the paranoid linkages of conspiracy theory. And by engaging with these narrativities, and hypothesied realities and elective identities the artist are engaging with the very matter of the world(s) that surround(s) us. The fictions and the use of fictions becomes, defacto, political.

In "Grasshopper Worlds" such approaches were described as essentially reactive: they were primarily a response to, or a critique of, stimuli and events around us. Even though the text was written in the weeks after 9/11 and the emergence of Al-Quaida into our everyday conversation it was reflecting a world-view still largely uninflected by these events. What is fascinating now is how from the contemporaneous position of 'Doubtiful' (2004) we can now look back and see an almost viral spreading of subjectivities. It's as if stories are eating the globe. Different indexes and orderings are generating exclusive narratives which are in turn being translated into political action. There is a return of the supernatural which would have seemed unlikely in most of the futures imagined in the recent past (apart from the wilder post-atomic return to caveman scenarios that is).

It still seems unlikely that the most notable response to the world of modernity that one would anticipate would contained by the 'defining boundary of the electronic signal' should be expressed in terms of revealed religion and theocratic and chiliastic world views. Certainly there had been little in the writings that constitute western post-modern critical or philosophical or political projection that had foreseen such a possibility: they seemed to be proposing instead an increasing vortex of (electronic) simulation where there is no certainty at all; rather than a clash of fundamentalisms. Supernatural ideologies were not widely proposed as providing the basis of political action in a post-marxist world. However, the science fiction writer who had helped describe and imagine the electronic-corporate-universe in his life and writing had given us an augury, and an example, of such superstitious revivals, enabled by the technological and electronic universe itself, where the flux and shift of the electronic spaces and their destabilizing and generative natures that has generated a context that has allowed new growth of subjective, paranoid, faith-based, modellings of the universe and its workings.

In February and March 1974, Dick experienced a series of visual and auditory hallucinations where he believed that he was being hit by an information-rich beam of pink light transmitted directly from space into into his consciousness. He afterwards referred to this climactic event as 2/3/74 and for the rest of his life it dominated his thoughts and writings. His view on the events changed over time and he variously concluded that the pink beam was from God, that it was from a parallel universe - the phrase 'Portuguese States of America' was scrambled up somewhere in the information blasted into his head - that it was from the Rosicrucians or the Russians working with an alien Satellite. Ultimately he called it V.A.L.I.S. - the Vast Alien Living Intelligence System. It plunged him into a world shaped by living Judeo-Christian Gods as well a mysterious feminine principle. He thought variously that he was psychically linked to a Christian imprisoned by the Roman Empire; that the Roman Empire had never disappeared and that we were all in The Black Iron Prison; and that he was in fact himself a Christian in a cell and who, locked up there, was hallucinating contemporary California.

No matter how hip-ly or intelligently articulated, this is a chthonic world of Gods and spirits and represents a return to what can be described as a form of fundamentalism even if it is not fundamentalism as technically understood in the sense of a belief in the literal truth of everything in the Bible. But we do have divinely revealed truth and an interventionist God, and we can see in his writing an overt embrace of new values after with this miraculous visitation. 2/3/74 comes just before the writing of the most unpleasant short stories in his canon, "The Pre-persons" which is a creepy misogynistic anti-abortion tract. We have definitely moved into a different order of universe than those proposed in 'The Man in the High Castle" or 'The Grasshopper lies Heavy".

We too are surrounded by all sorts of unexpected returns including supernatural systems and other narratives from pre-modernity. Some of these are the teleologies espoused by the Fundamentalist Islamic sects - the Wahhabists, the Deobandi, the Taliban - who constitute the most obvious current opposition to the hegemony of western constructions of modernity. No matter how these groups and their actions can be understood or articulated in political and economic terms - a reaction to the loss of power, to the onslaught of other values entrenched in a colonial economic systems - they are also mystical systems centered on canonical law, supernatural belief and miraculously revealed truth. There are symmetries to these in the West. Both the politicians who formed the primary alliance to fight the recent war against the secular Baathist dictatorship in Iraq - Bush and Blair - are self-proclaimed believers in a supernatural entity responsible for everything around us, who may or may not be locked in a primeval struggle with another being, and who is able to see into their minds and with an active interest in their actions and willing to offer guidance. And if we look at recent surveys of what the population of the only remaining super-power believes in, we are presented with a quite an extra-ordinary picture. In a poll taken in the USA for Rupert Murdoch's Fox news in 2003 we learn the following: 92% questioned believed in the existence of God,. 85% in Heaven. 82% believed in miracles.. Another earlier survey in 2000 had 84% of the correspondents believing the miracles 'are happening today'. 79% believed that the miracles described in the bible took place, 63% knew some-body who had experienced one and an extraordinary 48% believed that they themselves have witnessed a miracle. To believe in miracles, is to believe in a suspension of cause and effect and to embrace instead the being of an active interventionist god and this means that you are living in a totally different universe to the one inhabited by person who doesn't believe in these things. You may be getting the same stimuli, watching the same new broadcasts, but they are being seen in different worlds with different rules and histories. In another Fox news survey in 1999 15% of respondees in the US believed in the theory of Evolution as described by Darwin to be true, and 50% held that the Biblical account was largely right and that God had been the creator. Just under half of those who believed this said that mankind had been created by God in his own image in the last 10,000 years. Perhaps reacting to this constant harassment by pollsters, 5 times as many questioned claimed to believe in Biblical Prophecy rather than political polling.

Again, Dick seems to be describing this landscape.

The resurgence in supernatural belief systems has a profound affect on the mechanics of 'opposition', and on the ways that it can be explored or expressed. These belief systems that justify action against the hegemony of Western capital are far less porous or osmotic than the previous positions that provided a intellectual base for previous 'revolutionary' action. There is a quantative difference in the processes required to travel from the position of a bourgoise western intellectual (which is the default position of the western contemporary artist) to being a revolutionary Marxist or Maoist, and the intellectual transformations required to travel from the default position to embracing revolutionary Islam. It is not an impossible journey, but it is a far more difficult one. For the first time there are few underlying histories and narratives between the positions, no linkages in the histories of the Enlightenment thought and the traditions of Secular Rationality that would have provided a conduit say between a sixties radical and Pol Pot. The newly emerged critics of modernity, these agents of alternative systems and the enactors of revealed truths do not invite 'our' participation. We are on another side of a boundary. This changes the relationship between the critical artist and the revolutionary considerably from when Jean Luc Godard declared his support for the revolution. No longer is it possible to maintain the easy real-politique of progressive thought: that 'my enemies enemy is my friend'. Francis Wheen - Karl Marx's biographer wrote recently "The Cambridge University historian Christopher Andrew has calculated that in the 1960's there was not a single religious or cult-based terrorist group anywhere, and as recently as 1980 only two of the world's 64 known terrorist groups were religious Since then however Shi'a extremists alone have been responsible for more than a quarter of the deaths from terrorism."

Neils Boehr introduced the concept of 'Complementary' descriptions into experimental physics. this refers to the way that something may be understood by one model or another model, but the two descriptions cannot co-exist: the most famous example is perhaps of light, which can be described in terms of waves or of particles. But not both. Something similar seems to happen with the worldviews that define and support the possibilities for the contemporary artist as currently constituted and those that enable the contemporary revolutionary. This obviously is going to shape and inflect the positions and mechanisms of criticality and the ways that we make things uncertain and question.. Approaches that for so long has been seen as primarily a discourse with the core narratives of the European Enlightenment tradition - now to engage in new ways and with new events and structures. This is not an easy task for anyone.

The disturbing thing about the story of Phillip K Dick is how two seemingly 'complementary' world views - one generative critical, playful, uncertain, paranoid, anti-authoritarian, mischievous, the other reflecting received belief systems, faith-based, irrational, supernatural and mystical, sequed almost seamlessly one into another after the events of 2/3/74. It's as if he dislocations and approaches that had made pre 2/3 Dick possible also made the environment that allowed - or encouraged - the emergence of the supernatural other. With all that implies. He shifted from doubting and started believing, but in a way that seems almost antithetical to his previous positions. There's a sort of warning there as certainly we can find parallels in the way that some approaches and positions embraced by the doubt of the intellectual in post-modernity has opened possibilities for denials of history and from there has allowed fictions of certainty. And these certainties are destructive. It seems important that artists should right now be even fuller of doubt about even more things than before, and that it is necessary to find even more new ways of doubting things, and turn the focus our doubt onto things that we didn't think that we needed to doubt before.

Richard Grayson 2004