Thursday, December 13, 2012

A R.L. Reading of Philip K. Dick

It occurred to me that it might help to provide a radical literalist reading of some works in order to better get at what and how this works as a philosophical lens or mode of thinking.  To begin with I have chosen one of my favorite science fiction authors (of which there are many), Philip K. Dick.  I think that he works particularly well for the discussion because he dealt with many of the themes that David Foster Wallace was concerned with (reality and humanity namely), and his writing is familiar to most in that so many of his stories and novels have been made into movies.

So, before I advance any further, I will warn readers that there my be some spoilers in the following post, so be aware of this if you feel that you want to read P.K.D. without having anything ruined.  I will say though that it might be impossible to ‘spoil’ Dick’s works, which hold up to multiple readings and interpretations and are just such a cool and weird experience that explaining them is akin to explaining the Grand Canyon or anything spectacular in nature that really just ‘has to be seen.’

It might be best to start with Dick’s essay “How to Build a Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later” in that this essay deals with how Dick thinks of reality.  I think that this is cogent in that ‘reality’ and honesty and the literal are somehow all related.  Dick begins the essay by saying, “the two basic topics which fascinate me are ‘What is reality?’ and ‘What constitutes the authentic human being?’ (2).  Dick was concerned with authenticity and truth, both of which for him were part of what constitutes reality. 

The idea of reality in the singular was incredibly complicated for Dick, and a concept he didn’t seem to believe in at all.  First he talks about what might be going on in a dog’s head, a dog’s version of reality and that this reality is certainly different for the dog than it is for him, which leads him to believe that his reality is different from other humans.  This leads him to wonder, “If reality differs from person to person, can we speak of reality in the singular, or shouldn’t we really be talking about plural realities?” (2).  Dick is saying that reality is nothing more than a rational (or irrational as the case may be) construct made by individual human minds.  Sure, there might be what is called a ‘consensus view of reality’, that which most humans agree is real – most often what the senses can verify – but what of those things that lie beyond the senses?  Dick postulates this as a rather slap-dash definition for reality: “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away” (3).  This is nice as it goes.  I am fine with reality and belief existing separately, but this then makes me wonder if ‘belief’ is real?  This then leads me to wonder if belief is part of our inner intellectual and emotional makeup and if in turn that is capital R ‘real’?  I believe so, and I think Dick does as well, and it is this that I think radical literalism is getting at.  Belief and reality are separate, but belief is real all the same.

Discussing the concept of reality is tough, but I think it is at the heart of radical literalism.  Reality is subjective in so many ways.  Dick writes, “as soon as you begin to ask what is ultimately real, you right away begin talking nonsense” (5).  I think there is a lot of truth in this statement.  The real is formed in many ways inside of us.  We can all agree that the desk we sit at is real, or the person whom we hug at night is real, but is there a consensus on what love is or how it operates in this same real world?  It isn’t the empirical that we question or get at when we talk of the real, it is the amorphous and the intangible that we most often poke at and prod.

Dick further complicates the idea of reality by separating it from the idea of truth.  He sees reality as something that can be manipulated, “The basic tool for the manipulation of reality is the manipulation of words.  If you control the meaning of words, you can control the people who must use the words” (7).  Again, I have talked about in my blog post “Radical Literalism Succinctly Defined (Sort of)” that words themselves are metaphoric or symbolic representations of actual items, thoughts, ideas, concepts etc.  Dick is suggesting that these symbols can also be tools of manipulation and that not only do they represent reality, they can create reality.  He goes on to say, “But another way to control the minds of people is to control their perceptions.  If you can get them to see the world as you do, they will think as you do.  Comprehension follows perception” (7).  Now we have words as reality creation and reality creation as perception creation all of which serves to control.  Dick has literalized the world of words in that words now have the direct and nearly tangible power to control one’s reality.

From this we can extrapolate that Dick viewed writing as a way to make tangible and therefore literalize his own thoughts and therefore his own reality, which in turn augments the reality of his readers.

It might help to think of Dick’s writing in terms of feedback loops.  Negative feedback loops look to maintain homeostasis, or an even equilibrium, which then causes a pendulum swing as systems attempt to find balance towards a central set point.  For Dick this oscillation might be produced by one simple question: “what is reality?” (2), with ‘reality’ operating as the set point or spot at which equilibrium is attained.  What Dick does that is interesting, though, is not to attempt to create, or portray a negative feedback loop, but instead to create works that employ positive feedback loops, which add amplification away from the target or set point. He says, “Our memories are spurious, like our memories of dreams; the blanks are filled in retrospectively.”  He does not trust memories, which, it might be argued, are one of the prime builders of reality (especially in non-fiction writing).  He goes on to say that not only are memories filled in, but also that they are “falsified”, which means, “We have participated unknowingly in the creation of a spurious reality, and then we have obligingly fed it to ourselves.  We have colluded in our own doom”, which then makes us, “victims of [our] own product” (7).  This is a negative feedback loop in that we, as humans, have a set point for what it is we conceive to be reality, and we then doctor or “fill in” out past, our memories, to suit that notion, which then takes us closer to the set point. Normally we, as humans and readers, tend to try and get closer to reality.  So, taking reality as the set point, a positive feedback loop, such as those Dick builds in his texts, would tend to swing or oscillate further and further away from this.  This is why Dick’s stories tend to feel less and less real as they go on. 

It seemed that for Dick it was easier to get at notions of reality by looking closely at the unreal via positive feedback loops. Dick says that, “I like to build universes which do fall apart” (4) so, again, we can see that he was working with positive feedback loops in that he wanted his stories to progress further from the set point of reality.  The implication here being that he starts his stories with moments or in places recognizable enough to readers to feel real, and then he goes about tearing these places apart in order to question reality – Dick is questioning what is real by taking a close look at what we normally think of as clearly unreal. 

In the short story “I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon”, Dick creates a character named Victor Kemmings who is in a “homeostatic device” which is showing a “malfunction” (455). What Dick does with this is to create a situation in which it is not the physical condition of Victor that is in trouble, but it is his consciousness that is in danger.  The danger is that he will be “conscious for ten years”, which means that the ship’s computer will have to “feed” Victor “sensory stimulation” (456). There has been a disassembly where the body and consciousness are now separate.  So what Dick does here is to literalize the concept or idea that the mind and body can exist separately.  Instead of intellectualizing the concept, Dick literally pulls Victor’s mind out of his body and places it in the control of his ship’s onboard computer’s matrix.

In A Scanner Darkly a drug called Substance D operates to literally disassemble user’s identities as well. In the book Fred, the story’s protagonist, finds that he needs to reassure himself of his identity as his drug use continues, “When you get down to it, I’m Arctor” (168).  He goes on to lament, “I’m slushed; my brain is slushed” (168).  Fred here is starting confuse his own identity with his undercover persona, that of Arctor.  Substance D has created a rift in Fred and he is starting to come apart.  Later, during an examination by psychologists, Fred/Arctor is told that his brain is sending “two signals that interfere with each other by carrying conflicting information” (208).  The psychologists go on to say, “bilateral function is not mere duplication; both percept systems monitor and process incoming data differently…one tells you one thing, the other another” (210).  The suggestion here is that both Arctor and Fred are becoming real; the split is becoming literal and not just perceived (or mis-perceived).  Fred’s/Arctor’s brain is split in two, and each half encapsulates a personality, each of which inform, spy upon, and question the other.  The psychologists say of this, “It is as if one hemisphere of your brain is perceiving the world as reflected in a mirror.  Through a mirror.  See? So left becomes right, and all that that implies” (212). It is at this point that he receives a final moniker: Bruce.  This new persona (Bruce) is the result of a complete disassembly of the original Fred persona.  Not only has the original persona come apart, but also now Bruce, the nearly catatonic leftover personality, has no sense of reality any more.  Bruce is the result of two competing realities both of which contradict the other resulting in a deep sense that nothing is real.  Dick is talking about the dangers of drugs, which have the ability to change the ways in which people construct reality and the ways people perceive the world.  He does this by literalizing the split in personality, by literalizing disconnection and disassembly.

While many of Dick’s stories and novels employ a positive feedback loop-like structure to get at notions of reality, Dick seemed to fear that in society these problems operated more like a recursive feedback loop, which is to say that drugs and technology feed into the ways humans behave, which in turn feeds back into the ways that people manufacture both drugs and technology, all of which is like a snake eating its own tale.  Dick says of all the detrimental recursive loop-like aspect of technology that,
the problem is a real one, not a mere intellectual game.  Because today we live in a society in which spurious realities are manufactured by the media, by governments, by big corporations, by religious groups, political groups – and the electronic hardware exists by which to deliver these pseudo-worlds right into the heads of the reader, the viewer, the listener (3).
He sees reality as something that can be ‘manufactured’ and his concern is that individuals, or maybe even humans as a whole, are not the one’s doing the manufacturing, but instead that reality is being determined by outside forces, whether those forces are corporate, the media, or other. 


Science fiction is a great vehicle for the radically literal.  It allows for the creation of landscapes and ‘realities’ that recontextualize reader’s senses.  Science fiction writers aren’t relegated to talking about alienation as a concept, they can simply plant an alien (from another world or system) into our world; in other words, they can create a literal alien.  This is essentially the plotline of The Man Who Fell to Earth and Starman and a host of others.


  1. I love this post, Leon! What a great connection--the link to science fiction, which does radically literalize a world view or, in many cases, a concern.

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