Science Fiction Studies

#98 = Volume 33, Part 1 = March 2006

Anthony Enns

Media, Drugs, and Schizophrenia in the Works of Philip K. Dick

Philip K. Dick’s novels and short stories seem ideally suited to postmodern technoculture theories. Following Fredric Jameson’s famous argument that postmodernism represents the cultural logic of late capitalism, critics such as Carl Freedman and Scott Durham have persuasively argued that the prevalence of paranoia and schizophrenia in Dick’s works illustrates the impact of capitalism on the human subject. For Freedman, Dick’s novels depict paranoia as a natural response to the processes of commodification:

“If we are economically constituted as capitalists and workers who must buy and sell human labor that is commodified into labor-power, then we are physically constituted as paranoid subjects who must seek to interpret the signification of the objects—commodities—which define us and which, in a quasi-living manner, mystify the way that they and we are defined” (18).

Freedman follows Marx in defining commodity fetishism as a force that instills life into inanimate objects by endowing them with the vitality of human relations; the paranoia that this process generates becomes a necessary condition of postmodernity. Durham adds that capitalism also commodifies human beings by threatening the boundaries between the self and the environment, and Dick’s works frequently stage this postmodern “death of the subject” through the theme of schizophrenia.            

More recent critics, such as N. Katherine Hayles and Jill Galvan, have extended this approach by incorporating elements of contemporary cyberculture and posthumanist studies. Hayles suggests that paranoid schizophrenics and androids become interchangeable in Dick’s works because they are both figures of hybridity that “are associated with unstable boundaries between self and world” (160). At the same time that the humans in Dick’s narratives are often dehumanized by schizophrenia, Hayles points out that the androids are also frequently humanized; “the android serves as an ambiguous term that simultaneously incorporates the liberal subject into the machine and challenges its construction in the flesh” (170). Jill Galvin similarly concludes that Dick’s works “question the traditional self-other dyad, which affirms a persistent human mastery over the mechanical landscape”; Dick “envisions a community of the posthuman, in which human and machine commiserate and comaterialize, vitally shaping one another’s existence” (414; emphasis in original). By linking technology with the collapse of the liberal humanist tradition, Dick’s fiction invites critical readings that strongly support postmodern technoculture theories.

In order to make these theories fit, however, critics tend to privilege Dick’s novels from the 1960s over his late “theological” writings, which are often given only cursory attention. Hayles concludes her analysis of cybernetic systems in Dick’s work by mentioning that Dick’s last three novels “are among the best of his fiction” (189), and his Exegesis—a lengthy theological tract that he wrote near the end of his life—represents “[h]is most ambitious attempt at system creation” (189); yet she adds that “his fiction of the mid-sixties tends toward a different kind of affirmation, one that I find more appealing” (190). Hayles focuses on Dick’s mid-sixties novels because they illustrate “humans who are at their best when they show tolerance and affection for the creatures, biological and mechanical, with whom they share the planet” (191), while in his late writings Dick seems to be trapped within his own solipsistic, hallucinatory world. Durham similarly mentions that VALIS (1981) represents perhaps the ultimate depiction of the late-capitalist “death of the subject,” yet he adds that this novel can no longer be considered a work of fiction because “the dissolving subject’s experience, once conveyed only within the alienating frame of SF, can no longer tear itself away from the world” (184). In other words, Dick’s theological novels suggest that the unstable boundaries between the self and the environment depicted in his earlier novels have infected the author’s own personal life, ratifying “the subject’s intensive death” while simultaneously proclaiming “the destruction of a genre” (184). Subsequent critics, such as Christopher Palmer, argue that Dick’s theological novels represent a clear break from postmodernism, because they introduce a level of “ethical seriousness” that contradicts the “postmodernist sense of the textuality of meaning” (339). By transgressing the realm of art, rejecting the use of irony, and collapsing the critical distance that was present in his previous work, Dick’s late writings seem to resist any application of the postmodern technoculture theories that his earlier works support.                

Using the work of contemporary German media theorists Friedrich Kittler and Wolfgang Hagen, however, this essay will argue that the inherent connections between media technologies and altered states of consciousness in Dick’s novels and short stories actually represent a direct continuity between his early work and his late theological writings. By conceiving of consciousness as thoroughly extended into and penetrated by the electric media environment, for example, Dick frequently represents media technologies as “discourse networks,” or technological systems of inscription that establish “the framework within which something like ‘meaning,’ indeed, something like ‘man,’ becomes possible” (Wellbery xii). Kittler identifies the processes of consciousness with the operation of new media technologies: “Freud’s principle that consciousness and memory are mutually exclusive formulates” the “media logic” of the phonograph, an instrument that also served as a model for brain mapping (Gramophone 89). Dick’s works similarly address the conflation of media technologies and psychic states by incorporating material from Wilder Penfield’s research in cortical stimulation of the brain. Kittler also argues that “[m]adness is cinematographic” (159), because film “uncovers unconscious processes of the central nervous system” (161). Dick similarly combines the time-based theories of schizophrenia developed by existential psychotherapists, such as Ludwig Binswanger and Eugene Minkowski with the “time axis manipulation” enabled by film in order to describe unconscious processes as cinematographic effects. Wolfgang Hagen argues that media technologies are linked to schizophrenic hallucinations and trance states, as they illustrate “a linguistic structure articulated by the unconscious” (113; my translation). Dick’s late writings similarly represent the experience of the electric media environment as a process of pattern recognition or noise filtering, and they even outline a quasi-mystical theory of the collective unconscious as a product of information technologies. Consciousness becomes, in John Johnston’s words, “a secondary effect, the result of a machinic interplay between a perceptual apparatus, a recording device, and a symbolic system” (215), and this notion of consciousness as a medial interface offers new and potentially fruitful ways of reading the boundary problems in Dick’s fiction.

The Psychic Apparatus: Media Technologies and Brain Mapping. Much of the existing scholarship on Dick’s representation of media technologies has focused on their role in state surveillance. In her reading of Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, for example, Galvan argues that “technology often acts in Dick’s novel as the long arm of the government, furtively breaching the bounds between public and private” and “dramatically rupturing the human collective” (418). The totalitarian uses of technology are illustrated in many of Dick’s mid-1960s novels, most notably The Simulacra and The Penultimate Truth (both 1964), yet Galvan adds that “the fault lies not with a totalitarian essence in the media itself” but rather with “the authoritarian forces who bring the image to life” (422). She thus concludes that Dick would “disagree with Baudrillard, as with Marshall McLuhan before him: the medium is not the message; it simply provides a venue—in itself neutral—for the affirmation of political power” (422; emphasis in original). Scott Bukatman similarly suggests that although “Dick may evidence a profound suspicion of technology ... [i]t is less technology per se than the mythifying uses to which it is directed by the forces of an instrumental reason that serve as the targets of Dick’s satire” (53). This argument is supported by a speech of 1972 (“The Android and the Human”) in which Dick says that:

[S]tate tyranny ... utilizes technology as its instrument.... Like all machines, these universal transmitters, recording devices, heat-pattern discriminators, don’t in themselves care who they’re used by or against.... Before the absolute power of the absolute state of tomorrow can achieve its victory it may find such things as: When the police show up at your door to arrest you for thinking unapproved thoughts, a scanning sensor that you’ve bought and built into your door discriminates the intruders from customary friends and alerts you to your peril. (196-197)

Although Dick never explicitly advocated the kind of media interactivity promoted by Bertolt Brecht and Raymond Williams, he nevertheless believed that media technologies could potentially be manipulated and redirected against totalitarian regimes, an argument that more closely resembles William S. Burroughs’ famous “Electronic Revolution” (see Burroughs 174-203).                

Yet the notion of technology as an instrumental tool seems to contradict the main point of Dick’s speech, which is that our technologies “are becoming alive, or at least quasi-alive, and in ways specifically and fundamentally analogous to ourselves” (183). Dick’s criticism of state surveillance would appear to be equally motivated by an understanding of technology itself as a force that raises fundamental questions about the very nature of being. Dick also suggests that “we—the so-called humans—are becoming, and may to a great extent always have been, inanimate in the sense that we are led, directed by built-in tropisms” (187; emphasis in original). Dick’s conviction that humans may be more like machines was partly inspired by Wilder Penfield’s experiments in the electrical stimulation of the cortex. Anthony Wolk points out that Dick was familiar with several of Penfield’s publications from 1959, such as Speech and Brain Mechanisms (with Lamar Roberts) and “The Interpretive Cortex,” as specific references to these works appear in several of his novels (109). Penfield began experimenting on patients who had suffered epileptic seizures in order to identify the parts of the brain that should be excised, yet he was surprised to discover that electrical stimulation often triggered “psychical states” in the form of memories, dreams, and hallucinations. He describes a 16-year-old woman who

complained of seizures that were ushered in by hearing a song, a lullaby her mother had often sung to her.... At operation when the posterior portion of the superior convolution of the right temporal lobe was stimulated she gave a little exclamation. Then after the electrode had been withdrawn she said, “I had a dream. I wasn’t here.” After talking with her for a little while the electrode was reapplied at the same point without her knowledge. She broke off suddenly and said, “I hear people coming in.” Then she added “I hear music now, a funny little piece.” The electrode was kept in place and she became more talkative, saying that the music she was hearing was something she had heard on the radio. It was the same song her mother had sung. After an interval the same point was stimulated, again without warning her. She said, “another dream. People coming in—.” In this case we had succeeded in electrical reproduction of the hallucination drawn from her past experience which had, for years, introduced her epileptic seizures. (Excitable Cortex 21-22)

Penfield had discovered that unconscious memories were stored in specific locations in the brain, and that they could be recalled when these spots were electrically stimulated.                

Penfield frequently acknowledged the similarities between brains and media technologies, and he compared the interpretive cortex to a “wire recorder, or a strip of cinematographic film with sound track” (“Interpretive Cortex” 1719; see also Penfield and Roberts 53). This was further emphasized by the fact that many of his patients recalled scenes from movies or recorded music. Penfield describes another woman who

heard an orchestra playing an air while the electrode was held in place. The music stopped when the electrode was removed. It came again when the electrode was reapplied. On request she hummed the tune, while the electrode was held in place, accompanying the orchestra. It was a popular song. Over and over again, restimulation at the same spot produced the same song. The music seemed always to begin at the same place and to progress at the normally expected tempo. All efforts to mislead her failed. She believed that a gramaphone [sic] was being turned on in the operating room on each occasion. (“Interpretive Cortex” 1720)

The brain functioned as a gramophone record, replaying the same piece of music whenever the electrode stimulated the same spot. Further experiments revealed that this phenomenon was quite common, and subjects repeatedly claimed that the music they heard resembled gramophone recordings or songs heard over the radio. In a 1963 study, Penfield and Perot concluded: “We were surprised at the number of times electrical stimulation has caused the patient to hear music.... Sometimes it was an orchestra, at other times voices singing, or a piano playing or a choir. Several times it was said to be a radio theme song” (673-75). They also noted several cases in which electrical stimulation activated visual hallucinations that recalled images seen in films. One twelve-year-old boy, for example, “would see a robber, or a man with a gun, moving toward him,” and this man was apparently “someone he had seen in the movies” (615).

Dick cites these experiments in the opening chapter of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? where a “merry little surge of electricity” from his “Penfield mood organ” ensures that Rick Deckard wakes up at the right time and in the right frame of mind (351). The central issue of the novel is highlighted when Rick’s wife Iran criticizes the device as “unhealthy” and associates it with “mental illness” because it produces an “absence of appropriate affect” (352). Louis Rosen, the narrator of Dick’s 1972 novel We Can Build You, also discusses cortical stimulation experiments, as a similar mood organ has made his own electronic organ company obsolete:

What had undone us was the extensive brain-mapping of the mid 1960s and the depth-electrode techniques of Penfield and Jacobson and Olds, especially their discoveries about the mid-brain. The hypothalamus is where the emotions lie, and in developing and marketing our electronic organ we had not taken the hypothalamus into account. The Rosen factory never got in on the transmission of selective-frequency short range shock, which stimulates very specific cells of the mid-brain, and we certainly failed from the start to see how easy—and important—it would be to turn the circuit switches into a keyboard of eighty-eight black and whites. (6)

In both of these novels, therefore, Dick extends Penfield’s description of the brain as a device for storing acoustic information by imagining an electrical sound technology capable of activating psychical states. Rosen’s electronic organ ultimately fails because he is unable to predict this link between acoustic frequencies and neural impulses, and at the beginning of the novel he still maintains that the two phenomena are separate:

“I’ve dabbled at the keys of a Hammersmith Mood Organ, and I enjoy it. But there’s nothing creative about it. True, you can hit on new configurations of brain stimulation, and hence produce entirely new emotions in your head which would never otherwise show up there.... But that’s not music. That’s escape. Who wants it?” (6-7)

This statement clearly echoes Iran’s criticism of the “Penfield mood organ” in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, yet Rosen’s distinction between music and cortical stimulation becomes more problematic when his psychiatrist prescribes a drug that also stimulates a particular section of the brain:

“Hubrizine stimulates the anterior portion of the spetal region of the brain. Stimulation in that area, Mr. Rosen, will bring about greater alertness, plus cheerfulness and a belief that events will work out all right on their own. It compares to this setting on the Hammersmith Mood Organ.” ... I read the setting critically. By God, when translated into notes it was close to the opening of the Beethoven Sixteenth Quartet. What a vindication for enthusiasts of the Beethoven Third Period, I said to myself. Just looked at, the stop-setting numbers made me feel better. (52)

Rosen even asks his psychiatrist if he has “a drug whose setting in terms of the Mood Organ corresponds to portions of the Choral Movement of the Beethoven Ninth” (53). Acoustic signals, cortical stimulation, and pharmaceuticals thus ultimately become equivalent means of accessing stored memories.

The media logic of the consciousness/memory divide is also illustrated in Dick’s 1968 short story “The Electric Ant,” in which Garson Poole discovers he is a robot and begins to experiment with his internal circuitry. Although Penfield’s experiments are not explicitly referred to in this story, the same terminology is employed when Poole describes his “reality-supply construct” as a tape deck that transmits “sense stimuli” to his “central neurological system” (229). By editing this “reality tape,” Poole experiences a series of hallucinations that resemble those reported by Penfield’s patients:

In the center of the room appeared a flock of green and black ducks. They quacked excitedly, rose from the floor, fluttered against the ceiling in a dithering mass of feathers and wings and frantic in their vast urge, their instinct, to get away.... Now something else appeared. A park bench with an elderly, tattered man seated on it, reading a torn, bent newspaper. He looked up, dimly made out Poole, smiled briefly at him with badly made dentures, and then returned to his folded-back newspaper. (237)

Poole becomes obsessed with the idea of maximizing his sensory stimuli: “Think of the possibilities, if our brains could handle twenty images at once; think of the amount of knowledge which could be stored during a given period” (233). He also describes the process of storing visual information in media-technological terms by comparing this experience to the act of watching all the television channels at once: “What would it have looked like ... if this TV set projected all channels onto the cathode ray screen at the same time? Could we have distinguished anything, in the mixture?” (233; emphasis in original). This comparison clearly illustrates consciousness as a medial interface, and by allowing Poole to introduce new data into his circuitry, the story effectively dramatizes Rosen’s claim that experiments in cortical stimulation could potentially create “new configurations.”                

The problem these technologies present is not that they transform humans into machines but rather that memory itself becomes a closed circuit in which consciousness is trapped. This is vividly depicted in Dick’s 1980 short story “I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon,” in which a breakdown in Victor Kemmings’s cryonic suspension system leaves him partially awake during a ten-year spaceflight and the ship’s computer is forced to feed him sensory stimulation in the form of his own memories in order to prevent his mind from deteriorating. The computer’s ability to access Kemmings’s “buried memories” (361) replicates Penfield’s experiments in cortical stimulation, and this is made even more explicit when the computer attempts to “intensify the signal” and “amp up the charge” (363). When it inadvertently reactivates “underlying anxieties” and “subliminal insecurities” lying “dormant” in Kemmings’ unconscious, however, brain mapping no longer preserves his sanity but begins to threaten it (363). After repeating the same scenarios countless times, in which anxieties from his childhood continue to resurface, Kemmings notes that “I have spent more time in my own unconscious mind than any other human in history,” a process he describes as “[w]orse than early twentieth-century psychoanalysis” (371). The computer also describes Kemmings’s growing insanity as an “entropic factor” (365) that results in the gradual collapse of his virtual environment: buildings decay, possessions disintegrate, and he suffers from a steadily growing “weariness ... a weighing-down sensation” (369). This closed circuit eventually results in psychosis, as Kemmings continues to live within the solipsistic universe of his own recycled memories after the ship has completed its journey. “I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon” thus illustrates consciousness and memory as an interface between a perceptual apparatus and a recording device, and it describes schizophrenia as a problem of time and entropy.

Time Axis Manipulation: Temporal Distortions of Consciousness. The relationship among schizophrenia, media technologies, and time is a recurring theme in Dick’s fiction, and it is often discussed in terms of entropy. In Dick’s 1982 novel The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, for example, Dick incorporates Claude E. Shannon and Warren Weaver’s concept of “information entropy” into Angel Archer’s description of Bill Lundborg’s schizophrenia:

Bill ... had no future. Someone with hebephrenia has dealt himself out of the game of process, growth and time; he simply recycles his own nutty thoughts forever, enjoying them even though, like transmitted information, they degenerate. They become, finally, noise. And the signal that is intellect fades out. Bill would know this, having planned at one time to become a computer programmer; he would be familiar with Shannon’s information theories. (239-240)

Like Kemmings, therefore, Bill is trapped within a closed circuit, constantly recycling his own internal thoughts, which are gradually decaying like “transmitted information.” Yet the notion that endless repetition produces signal decay actually contradicts Shannon and Weaver’s definition of “information entropy”:

The quantity which uniquely meets the natural requirements that one sets up for “information” turns out to be exactly that which is known in thermodynamics as entropy. It is expressed in terms of the various probabilities involved—those of getting to certain stages in the process of forming messages, and the probabilities that, when in those stages, certain symbols be chosen next.... In the physical sciences, the entropy associated with a situation is a measure of the degree of randomness, or of “shuffledness” if you will, in the situation; and the tendency of physical systems to become less and less organized, to become more and more perfectly shuffled, is so basic that ... it is primarily this tendency which gives time its arrow—which would reveal to us, for example, whether a movie of the physical world is being run forward or backward. (12)

A closed loop, in which the same signals are replayed over and over again, would thus represent the opposite of entropy, as random elements would be eliminated and no new information would enter the circuit. Even Angel’s claim that Bill “had no future,” as he had “dealt himself out of the game of ... time,” seems to contradict Shannon and Weaver’s notion of entropy as the very direction of time itself.                

Rather than suggesting that Dick misunderstood or misapplied the concept of entropy in communication systems to schizophrenic states, I would argue that Dick effectively formulated his own theory of schizophrenia as a medial condition by combining Shannon and Weaver’s model with elements of existential psychotherapy. Dick was particularly drawn to the existentialists because they attempted to understand how their patients saw the world. In an interview in 1974, for example, Dick praised the Swiss psychologist Ludwig Binswanger for employing this method in his case study of a patient named Ellen West:

[Binswanger] tried to figure out where her head was.... I don’t think in any book I’ve ever written, or any book I’ve ever read, that there was that much difference of a point of view.... By the time he had discerned how she saw the world, it was as totally different a universe from ours as if she was on another planet in another solar system. (qtd in Rickman 205)

In his introduction to Existence, a collection of essays on existential psychotherapy, Rollo May explains that what set the existentialist school apart from other psychological approaches was their focus on incorporating philosophical understandings of the concept of being. According to this view, the boundaries between the individual and the environment were blurred and the notion of the individual as having a fixed, stable identity was rejected. A human being is constantly changing, is constantly in a process of becoming, and therefore time and entropy are crucial for understanding the patient’s overall world-view. May notes, for example, that “the most profound human experiences, such as anxiety, depression, and joy, occur more in the dimension of time than in space” (65), and he cites one of Eugene Minkowski’s case studies, in which a schizophrenic patient “could not relate to time and ... each day was a separate island with no past and no future, the patient remaining unable to feel any hope or sense of continuity with the morrow” (66).

Binswanger’s study builds on this idea by describing entropy not as an inevitable product of forward-moving time, but rather as the result of stasis and the inability to move into the future. Binswanger notes, for example, that Ellen West’s schizophrenia was the result of a desire to “stop time” (299), which was vividly illustrated in her hallucinatory “tomb-world”: “The condensing, consolidating, straightening of the shadow (developing into the vegetative rotting and inescapable encirclement until it becomes the wall of the tomb), is an expression of the growing dominance of the past over this existence, of the supremacy of the already-been in the whereabouts of hell and the inescapable movement back-to-it” (305). Like Kemmings, therefore, Ellen West was trapped in an ever-present past, which resulted in mental deterioration that she perceived as the entropic decay of her environment. Such narratives as “I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon” and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer integrate Penfield’s work on cortical stimulation with Binswanger’s concept of the “tomb-world” in order to articulate a new version of information theory, in which noise and entropy are the result of stasis and repetition rather than change and transition.                

The concept of a “tomb-world” appears in many of Dick’s works, such as his 1964 novel Martian Time-Slip, where the connections between schizophrenia, media technologies, and time are even more pronounced. In this novel, the psychiatrist Dr. Milton Glaub details a theory of autism (which he considers an early form of schizophrenia) that adds a media-technological spin to the time-distortion theories described by Binswanger and Minkowski:

There is a new theory about autism ... from Berghölzlei, in Switzerland.... It assumes a derangement in the sense of time in the autistic individual, so that the environment around him is so accelerated that he cannot cope with it, in fact, he is unable to perceive it properly, precisely as we would be if we faced a speeded-up television program, so that objects whizzed by so fast as to be invisible, and sound was a gobbledegook.... Now, this new theory would place the autistic child in a closed chamber, where he faced a screen on which filmed sequences were projected slow down.... Both sound and video slowed, at last so slow that you and I would not be able to perceive motion or comprehend the sounds as human speech. (41)

Dick outlined a similar theory in his 1965 essay “Schizophrenia and The Book of Changes”: “What distinguishes schizophrenic existence from that which the rest of us like to imagine we enjoy is the element of time. The schizophrenic is having it all now, whether he wants it or not; the whole can of film has descended on him, whereas we watch it progress frame by frame” (176). Dick adds that this distorted perception of time is essentially the same as Ellen West’s “tomb-world,” as “the schizophrenic is engulfed in an endless now” (176). In other words, schizophrenia occurs when the perceptual apparatus fails to process information in real time, and the ability of film to manipulate the speed and direction of time—which Kittler refers to as “time-axis-manipulation” (“Media and Drugs” 164)—allows schizophrenics to compensate for this deficiency. By combining Binswanger and Minkowski’s theories of temporal perception with the notion that film reproduces psychological and perceptual functions, Dick’s description of schizophrenia reveals the media logic underlying existential psychotherapy, and it once again illustrates consciousness as an interface between a perceptual apparatus and a recording device.                

Later in the novel, Jack Bohlen similarly describes new sound technologies designed to communicate with autistic children:

We take a tape recording, done at fifteen inches per second, and run it off for Manfred at three and three-fourths inches per second. A single word, such as “tree.” And at the same time we flash up a picture of a tree and the word beneath it, a still.... Then what Manfred says is recorded at three and three-fourths inches per second, and for our listening we speed it up and replay at fifteen. (115)

The acoustic hallucinations described by Daniel Paul Schreber in his 1903 book Memoirs of My Nervous Illness were similarly slowed down: “The degree of slowing down can hardly be imagined by anyone who has not personally experienced these speech manifestations as I have. A ‘but of course’ spoken like ‘b-u-u-u-t o-o-o-f c-ou-ou-ou-r-s-e’ … lasts perhaps 30 to 60 seconds each time before it completely comes out” (163; my translation). This delay represents the same time-axis manipulation performed by the tape recorder, which leads Mark Roberts to suggest that Schreber’s hallucinations illustrate the connections between sound technologies and schizophrenic hearing: “The voices ... are not really voices in the sense of human speech at all, but are, rather, the tonal equivalents of spoken words; or, one might suggest, analogous to the way prerecorded sounds are experienced by the listener—not human, but the mechanical tonal equivalent of human speech” (34). Hagen adds that these sounds not only represent “a language structure articulated by the unconscious” (113; my translation), but they also resemble the language of electric media technologies, as “the medial effect of electricity is that first signifier (arbitrary and transmissible in Saussure’s sense) that does not act already eo ipso in language (in the sum of geographically and temporally distributed ‘langues’) but rather in ‘langage’” (112; my translation). In other words, the linguistic structure of the noise generated in acoustic hallucinations mirrors the temporal distortions that sound technologies introduce into speech.  

In his discussion of the drug “Oneirine” in Thomas Pynchon’s 1973 novel Gravity’s Rainbow, Kittler points out that drugs and media technologies essentially produce the same delirious effects by enabling “time-modulation” (“Media and Drugs” 168). Drugs also enable time-axis-manipulation in Dick’s novels, and this ability to modify the perception of time often makes them therapeutically useful. In his 1966 novel Now Wait For Last Year, for example, the time-travel drug JJ-180 serves the same function as the media technologies in Martian Time-Slip. The very title of the novel emphasizes the schizophrenic state of temporal stasis, which is explained when Gino Molinari discusses Eric Sweetscent’s aversion to the future: “[Y]ou’ve got only one tiny life and that lies ahead of you, not sideways or back.... Are you waiting for last year to come by again or something?” (203). This statement echoes the accusations made earlier in the novel by Eric’s wife Kathy: “[Y]ou resist life.... Some childish, unconscious part of you won’t enter human society” (52). Eric is lacking not only a future, but also a past, which is revealed early in the novel when he reflects on the value of recorded memory:

Humans have always striven to retain the past.... Without it we have no continuity; we have only the moment. And, deprived of the past, the moment—the present—has little meaning, if any. Maybe ... that’s my problem with Kathy. I can’t remember our combined past: can’t recall the days when we voluntarily lived with each other ... now it’s become an involuntary arrangement, derived God knows how from the past. (33-34)

Eric suffers from the same delusion as Minkowski’s patient, who was “unable to feel any hope or sense of continuity” and for whom “each day was a separate island with no past and no future” (May 66). By allowing him to move backwards and forwards in time, however, JJ-180 effectively liberates him from this static percept-system. With the help of the drug he is able to experience various possible futures, for example, in which he either stays with his wife or leaves her. His ultimate decision to stay at the end of the novel thus becomes a conscious choice to embrace one particular future, which allows him to break out of his previous entropic state.                

The temporal distortions caused by drugs are also capable of producing schizophrenia, which is clearly illustrated in the 1964 novel The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. In contrast to Willy Denkmal’s E-Therapy treatments at Eichenwald clinic in Germany, in which electrical stimulation is employed to expand the “cortex area” (47) and generate “[h]ighly organized cephalic activity” (51), Palmer Eldritch’s drug Chew-Z offers its users “eternal life” in the form of virtually limitless time dilation (60). Eldritch explains: “When we return to our former bodies ... you’ll find that no time has passed. We could stay here fifty years and it’d be the same; we’d emerge back ... and find everything unchanged, and anyone watching us would see no lapse of consciousness” (61; emphasis in original). This time dilation is associated with schizophrenia because it creates the experience of an endless now, which prevents the user from moving forward in time. Dick reports that a similar time dilation occurred during his own experiments with LSD, when a single night seemed to last thousands of years. Dick discusses this experience in his essay “Schizophrenia and The Book of Changes,” in which he argues that “events can take place outside of time,” and that “LSD has made this discovery available to everyone ...not just the schizophrenic” (177). The notion that Chew-Z traps users in a “solipsistic” world (65), endlessly replaying their own unconscious memories, is also illustrated by Barney Mayerson’s repeated attempts to reconnect with his first wife Emily, as Eldritch himself points out: “Mayerson, you’re using your time badly. You’re doing nothing but repeating the past” (Three Stigmata 116). Like the faulty cryonic suspension system in “I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon,” therefore, Chew-Z also creates a closed circuit in which time does not move forward and the user is forced to repeat past experiences endlessly.                

The notion that drugs affect the user’s perception of time is taken even further in Dick’s 1977 novel A Scanner Darkly, where the experience of taking the drug Substance D is once again described as the transformation of consciousness into a media technology. Junkies wake up, for example,

like a machine cranked from position A to position B. “It—must—be—day,” the junkie says, or anyhow the tape in his head says. Plays him his instructions, the mind of a junkie being like the music you hear on a clock radio ... sometimes sounds pretty, but it is only there to make you do something. The music from the clock radio is to wake you up; the music from the junkie is to get you to become a means for him to obtain more junk.... Every junkie, he thought, is a recording. (759)

In other words, junkies are media technologies. Like the “Penfield mood organ” in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? or Garson Poole’s “reality-supply construct” in “The Electric Ant,” the mind of a junkie is programmed with “tapes” that condition his perception and behavior. And, like Chew-Z, Substance D also freezes the user in the present, which Bob Arctor describes as the experience of an “endless nothing” (Scanner 788). This disorientation results in an impaired sense of time, which becomes particularly evident during a bathroom break:

Filling a Dixie cup with water, he dropped all ten tabs. He wished he had brought more tabs with him. Well, he thought, I can drop a few more when I get through work, when I get back home. Looking at his watch, he tried to compute how long that would be. His mind felt fuzzy; how the hell long will it be? he asked himself, wondering what had become of his time sense.... I can’t tell what time it is at all any more. (788)

The use of Substance D leads to schizophrenia, as this sense of time dilation takes the form of an endless tape loop. When placed in the New-Path rehabilitation center, Arctor (who is now called Bruce) even begins to function as a recording device, repeating whatever he hears:

“Mountains, Bruce, mountains,” the manager said.
“Mountains, Bruce, mountains,” Bruce said, and gazed.
“Echolalia, Bruce, echolalia,” the manager said.
“Echolalia, Bruce—” (838)

Schizophrenia is also linked to entropy in this novel, as junkies are described as vampires (759) or corpses (826) who live in a perpetual state of death and decay. Dick thus repeatedly associates the delirious effects of schizophrenic and drug-induced hallucinations with media technologies, through their mutual ability to alter the speed and direction of time.

Dissolution of the Subject: Split-Brain Phenomena, Telepathy, and the Noosphere. Schizophrenia, drugs, and media technologies also threaten the concept of the self. In A Scanner Darkly Arctor’s split identity as Bob (a drug addict), Fred (the narcotics officer watching Bob), and Bruce (a rehab patient) parallels the division of the subject introduced by sound and optical recording devices. This parallel is made particularly clear when Arctor describes the experience of watching surveillance footage of himself: “They say you never recognize your own voice when you first hear it played back on tape. And when you see yourself on video tape, or like this, in a 3-D hologram, you don’t recognize yourself visually either. You imagined you were a tall fat man with black hair, and instead you’re a tiny thin woman with no hair at all” (742). Arctor’s experience supports Kittler’s claim that “films anatomize the imaginary picture of the body that endows humans ... with a borrowed I” (Gramophone 150). By undermining Lacan’s mirror stage, in other words, optical media reveal that the concepts of “the inner self, the individual ... were only the effects of an illusion, neutralized through the hallucination of reading and widespread literacy” (151). This confusion of identity is further emphasized by Arctor’s “scramble suit,” which constantly changes his exterior appearance. The suit contains a memory bank that “held up to a million and a half physiognomic fraction-representations of various people: men and women, children, with every variant encoded and then projected outward in all directions equally onto a superthin shroudlike membrane large enough to fit around an average human” (664). Arctor adds that this suit was originally inspired by a drug-induced hallucination, in which the inventor “watched thousands of Picasso paintings replace one another at flash-cut speed” (663). The suit thus embodies the similarities between visual hallucinations and film technology, both of which threaten the autonomy and integrity of the individual subject.                

The hallucination that inspired the “scramble suit” was based on a vision Dick himself experienced while experimenting with large doses of water-soluble vitamins: “One night I found myself flooded with colored graphics which resembled the nonobjective paintings of Kandinsky and Klee, thousands of them one after the other, so fast as to resemble ‘flash cut’ use in movie work” (Letters 142). This experiment was an attempt to stimulate both hemispheres of his brain simultaneously, which was based on the research on split-brain phenomena he had conducted in preparation for writing A Scanner Darkly. He was particularly interested in the work of Robert E. Ornstein at Stanford University, who claimed that the brain contains two separate minds. Dick outlined Ornstein’s work in his 1976 essay “Man, Android, and Machine”:

From Ornstein’s work it would appear that ... we have two entirely separate brains, rather than one brain divided into two bilaterally equal hemispheres.... [E]ach brain works its own unique way (the left is like a digital computer; the right much like an analogue computer, working by comparing patterns). Processing the identical information, each may arrive at a totally different result—whereupon, since our personality is constructed in our left brain, if the right brain finds something vital that we to its left remain unaware of, it must communicate during sleep, during the dream; hence the Dreamer who communicates to us so urgently in the night is located neurologically, evidently, in our right brain, which is the not-I. (220-21)

Dick thus describes the difference between consciousness and the unconscious as the gap between digital and analog technologies, and he even speculates that “our ‘unconscious’ is not an unconscious at all but another consciousness, with which we have a tenuous relationship” (220). This notion of dual personalities existing within the same brain, which function as independent communication networks modeled on information technologies, was clearly the basis for Arctor’s split subjectivity in A Scanner Darkly.                

The idea that schizophrenia, drugs, and media technologies could reveal or even produce a confluence of minds is a theme that recurs throughout Dick’s work. In The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch the drug Can-D enables a collective experience in which the users’ minds “fuse” and their individual identities are exchanged for a composite identity or “new unity” (17). Like Substance D, therefore, Can-D also fragments the users’ sense of self, yet the novel’s judgment of this drug is much more ambiguous. While “sensualists” like Sam Regan believe it is simply an escapist fantasy that allows users to “gain something ... to which we’re not normally entitled” (29-30), “spiritualists” conceive of the “miracle of translation” as a “near-sacred moment” of communion (26) that “provides a reason for living” (17). It is thus the collective aspect of this experience that creates the possibility for empathy and prevents the hallucinatory world from degenerating into a closed, entropic circuit.                

The ambiguous nature of Can-D reflects conflicting attitudes towards television during the 1960s. The use of “Perky Pat layouts,” for example, illustrates the role that product placement plays in the colonists’ drug culture, just as television programming was designed primarily to serve advertisers, yet the inherently communal and even spiritual element of television was also praised by media theorists such as Marshall McLuhan, who claimed that television was “above all, an extension of the sense of touch, which involves maximal interplay of all the senses” (290). Unlike a film, whose viewer is “more disposed to be a passive consumer of actions,” McLuhan argues that “the TV image demands participation and involvement in depth of the whole being” (291), and it therefore encourages “over-all consideration of human unity” by “instantly interrelating every human experience” (310-311). The hallucinations inspired by Can-D similarly engage all of the users’ senses, and rather than acting as passive consumers, they become active players in the narratives that unfold; indeed, they gradually become so involved in their mutually shared experiences that they lose all sense of self until the hallucinations wear off.                

This idea is elaborated in Dick’s discussion of the television religion known as “Mercerism,” which first appears in his 1964 short story “The Little Black Box.” In this story, Mercerism is described in much the same way that Rosen describes the “Hammersmith Mood Organ” in We Can Build You: just as Rosen makes a distinction between music and cortical stimulation as creative/escapist (a distinction he later dismisses), Joan Hiashi describes Mercerism as a genuine form of experience in contrast to the escapist kinds that have saturated society: “If we only could suffer, she thought. That’s what we lack, any real experience of suffering, because we can escape anything” (“Little Black” 20). The authentic nature of suffering in Mercerism is emphasized by the fact that it is not only inscribed in the flesh (when Mercer is injured, the participant’s body receives the same injury), but it is also a communal experience. Like the hallucinations produced by Can-D, Mercerism represents a consensus reality that engages all of the participants’ senses, and empathy is the key to its spiritual appeal: “[T]he communion, the participation that is behind all religion.... Religion binds men together in a sharing, corporate body” (23). Like film, therefore, Mercerism is a media technology that reveals that the concept of the self is an illusion, and it replicates the experience of losing oneself that is already implicit in the consciousness/memory divide. The emphasis it places on suffering also illustrates McLuhan’s claim that the electric media environment transforms the world into a “global village,” in which people “live in a clutch of spontaneous synesthesia, painfully aware of the triumphs and wounds of one another” (McLuhan and Powers 95). The collective nature of this suffering allows Dick’s protagonists to break out of the solipsistic universes depicted in many of his other narratives.                

The notion that Mercerists represent a spiritual and potentially subversive community is complicated in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which introduces a certain ambiguity as to whether these mediated experiences actually represent escapist fantasies that have been sanctioned or even developed by the government in order to ensure that the population remains passive. As Buster Friendly points out: “Ask yourselves what it is that Mercerism does. Well, if we’re to believe its many practitioners, the experience fuses ... men and women throughout the Sol System into a single entity. But an entity which is manageable by the so-called telepathic voice of ‘Mercer.’ Mark that. An ambitious politically minded would-be Hitler could—” (Do Androids 473-474). This claim seems to blur McLuhan’s distinction between the film viewer as passive consumer and the television viewer as involved participant, yet it is ultimately dismissed by the end of the novel, when Mercer rescues J.R. Isidore from the “tomb world” he collapses into after Pris kills the spider (476-77). Mercer’s “time reversal faculty,” which also recalls the “time axis manipulation” enabled by media technologies, is thus once again associated with the existential psychiatrists’ time-based concept of being. By reversing the direction of time, halting the process of entropy, and raising the dead, Mercer enables his followers to break out of the stasis of schizophrenia and experience being as the process of growth and becoming. Indeed, throughout this novel Dick appears to be far less interested in the issue of media control and appropriation than he is in the role that media technologies play in the experience of being itself. This is perhaps most clearly illustrated in Deckard’s quasi-mystical experience on the hillside in the penultimate chapter, when he fuses with Mercer without the aid of an empathy box. This telepathic fusion represents a merging of consciousness and media technologies, as Deckard’s percept-system provides direct access to Mercer’s transmissions, and it is a logical extension of Mercerism itself, which was always already an essentially telepathic experience.                

Dick first discussed his interest in telepathy in his 1964 essay “Drugs, Hallucinations, and the Quest for Reality,” in which he argues that hallucinations represent authentic phenomena that other people are simply unable to perceive:

“[E]xternal reality” consists of a subjective framework by the percept system ... but how do unwanted, even frightening, and certainly not commonly shared “hallucinations” creep in? Up until the last three or four years it would have been generally agreed that these invasions ... originate in the person, at some level of the neurological structure, but ... research, especially with hallucinatory drugs, points to the probability, whether we like it or not, that, as in the case of Jan Ehrenwald’s paranoids, the percept system of the organism is overperceiving.... [T]he overpercep­tion emanates from outside the organism; the percept system of the organism is perceiving what is actually there, and it should not be doing so, because to do so is to make the cognitive process impossible, however real the entities perceived are. The problem actually seems to be that rather than “seeing what isn’t there” the organism is seeing what is there—but no one else does. (172-73; emphasis in original)

In his 1947 book Telepathy and Medical Psychology, Jan Ehrenwald similarly concluded that schizophrenic hallucinations represent the telepathic reception of “hetero-psychic material,” or other people’s thoughts (141). He even speculated that telepathic sensitivity might cause schizophrenia, as these hallucinations

may culminate in a state of delirium or confusion, followed by a break-down and disintegration of the personality. At this stage the boundaries of the self are abolished…. Seen from the angle of the telepathy hypothesis this state marks the end of the patient’s struggle to maintain his personality against the impact of hetero-psychic influences. (147)

Ehrenwald’s description of telepathic schizophrenia clearly recalls the “psycho-kineticist” Richard Kongrosian in Dick’s 1964 novel The Simulacra, who is unable to distinguish between himself and his environment. At the same time his body absorbs the objects around him, such as a desk, a vase, and a gun, his internal organs begin to manifest outside of his skin:

In the spot where the vase had been, Nicole saw, forming into a density and mass and color, a complicated tangle of interwoven organic matter, smooth red tubes and what appeared to be portions of an endocrine system.... The organ, whatever it was, regularly pulsed; it was alive and active.... “I’m turning inside out!” Kongrosian wailed. “Pretty soon if this keeps up I’m going to have to envelop the entire universe and everything in it, and the only thing that’ll be outside me will be my internal organs and then most likely I’ll die!” (202; emphasis in original)

Kongrosian’s disintegration represents a mirror image of Mercerist communion, as both phenomena effectively implode the boundaries between the self and the environment.

Despite the fact that telepathy represented a threat to the integrity of the subject, Dick experimented with water-soluble vitamins in order to boost his psychic activity: “I had read about which vitamins in megadoses can improve neural firing and produce vastly increased brain efficiency” (Letters 141). Like Garson Poole in “The Electric Ant,” therefore, Dick wanted to increase the amount of information his brain could process, and he was particularly interested in the information that people typically perceive as noise: “I tried again and again to exclude the ordinary external electrical fields that we customarily tune into: man-made fields, which we consider ‘signal,’ and at the same time I tried to directly transduce what we usually think of as ‘noise,’ in particular weak natural electrical fields” (Letters 142-43). Dick reported that he was able not only to increase his “neural efficiency” but also to receive information from a “Cosmic Teletype Operator,” who transmitted “information in the form of print-outs: words and sentences, letters and names and numbers—sometimes whole pages, sometimes in the form of writing paper and holographic writing, sometimes, oddly, in the form of a baby’s cereal box on which all sorts of quite meaningful information was written and typed” (Letters 143). He claimed that he was tapping into a “broadcast” that “radiates out in all directions and some people tune in, some do not,” yet he sometimes failed “to transduce properly (error at the receiving end) or else there is a lapse of accurate transmission (as if the teletype operator has his fingers on the wrong line of keys, etc.),” which produced texts like the following:

Mr. Arensky
Mrs. Aramcheck
Sadasa Ulna
P-13 (Letters 145)

This list of names, words, and numbers represents a prime example of Shannon and Weaver’s concept of “information entropy,” as the randomness and unpredictability of the message is so great that it gradually devolves into noise. Yet Dick compared the teletype operator to the mysterious force described in his 1969 novel Ubik: “Ubik talks to us from the future, from the end state to which everything is moving; thus Ubik is not here—which is to say now—but will be, and what we get is information about and from Ubik, as we receive TV or radio signals from transmitters located in other spaces in this time continuum” (Letters 144). Like “Ubik,” therefore, Dick saw this cosmic transmitter as fundamentally anti-entropic because it not only liberated him from his own unconscious feedback loops, but was also primarily future-oriented. Dick even speculated that the novel Ubik may have been unconsciously “written through” him by the teletype operator in order to explain the nature of these transmissions (Letters 144).                

This theory is outlined in greater detail in “Man, Android, and Machine,” which describes the teletype operator as Jung’s collective unconscious:

[T]his collective brain entity, consisting of literally billions of “stations,” which transmit and receive, would form a vast network of communication.... This is the noosphere ... a layer in our earth’s atmosphere composed of holographic and informational projections ... the sources of which are our manifold right brains. This constitutes a vast Mind. (221-22)

The concept of the “noosphere” is taken from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s 1959 book The Phenomenon of Man, in which he argues that human minds will gradually evolve into a collective form of consciousness that will cover the entire planet. Reviewers of the book noted that “Teilhard’s radial, spiritual, or psychic energy may be equated to ‘information’ or ‘information content’ in the sense that has been made reasonably precise by modern communications engineers” (Medawar 103), yet Dick takes this comparison even further by suggesting that the noosphere will also derive its power from communications technologies:

[T]he noosphere contained thought patterns in the form of very weak energy until we developed radio transmissions; whereupon the energy level of the noosphere went out of bounds and assumed a life of its own. It no longer served as a mere passive repository of human information ... but, due to the incredible surge of charge from our electronic signals and the information-rich material therein, we have given it power to cross a vast threshold.... Information has, then, become alive, with a collective mind of its own independent of our brains. (“Man” 224)

Dick thus conceives of the collective unconscious as a media technology capable of storing and generating information, like a tape recorder creating its own symphonies or a library writing its own books (224). Like Mercerism, therefore, communication with the noosphere is a spiritual, communal, and full-sensory experience, and because it can be performed without any hardware, it also resembles Deckard’s telepathic fusion with Mercer in the penultimate chapter of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?               

These theories play a significant role in the narrative of VALIS, which represents perhaps the ultimate convergence of Dick’s interests in media technologies, cortical stimulation, drugs, schizophrenia, and telepathy. The narrative is a loosely-disguised account of his communications from the noosphere, and the narrator describes the effects of these transmissions on his brain (in the third person) using Penfield’s terminology: “Sites of his brain were being selectively stimulated by tight energy beams emanating from far off, perhaps millions of miles away. These selective brain-site stimulations generated in his head the impression—for him—that he was in fact seeing and hearing words, pictures, figures of people, printed pages” (24). He receives these transmissions in the form of “pink light,” which he describes as a “phosphene after-image” that sometimes appears “on a TV screen” (20).                

This process of information reception and pattern recognition is reenacted within the narrative when Phil and his friends watch the film VALIS, which they describe as a vehicle for “information transfer” (144). The film’s soundtrack consists of “Synchronicity Music,” which is composed of “computer-created random sounds” (139), and Phil speculates that the “subliminal material” in the film is “encoded” in this “random music” (144). Because “ninety percent of the details are designed to go by ... your conscious mind” and “register in your unconscious,” Phil and his friends express a desire “to study the film frame by frame” (146). The problem of information overload is thus described in much the same way that Dick previously described schizophrenia: “The schizophrenic is having it all now, whether he wants it or not; the whole can of film has descended on him” (“Schizophrenia” 176). Milton Glaub, the psychiatrist in Martian Time-Slip, similarly claims that the schizophrenic “is unable to perceive properly, precisely as we would be if we faced a speeded-up television program” (41). In order to sift through the mass of subliminal material contained in the film, Kevin claims that “you’d have to take a fucking magnifying glass and go over stills from the flick, single-frame stills. One by one by one by one” (149). This statement also recalls Glaub’s proposed experiment to place an autistic child in a “closed chamber, where he faced a screen on which filmed sequences were projected slow down” (41).                

In other words, the film VALIS disorients the viewer’s perception of time in the same way that schizophrenia does, and this is emphasized when Kevin adds that “we’re getting retinal lag” (VALIS 149). The parallels between the process of recognizing patterns in the film and the process of interpreting messages from VALIS are also emphasized when Phil points out that this “retinal lag” is a result of “[p]hosphene activity ...[i]n the retinas of the audience” (149), which implies that the film radiates the same “pink light” that VALIS is transmitting directly into his brain. VALIS thus repeatedly represents consciousness as the interplay between a perceptual apparatus and a recording device, yet it carries this concept to another level by conceiving of the recording device itself as a means of tapping directly into the unconscious. Media technologies not only promise to extend cognitive functioning and increase neural efficiency, but they also provide spiritual experiences that dissolve the boundaries of the self.                

VALIS appropriately ends with Phil sitting in front of his television set, deciphering subliminal messages in commercials and waiting for further divine revelations (228). Phil’s obsession with pattern recognition appears to illustrate Kittler’s definition of paranoia as recognition itself: “When the symbolic of signs, numbers and letters exercises control over so-called realities, the securing of traces becomes the first obligation of the paranoid” (“Media and Drugs” 162). Dick’s notion of schizophrenia, however, was entirely different. Rather than representing a static, closed circuit, the transmissions from the noosphere provide a constant stream of information from outside the subject, which seems to embody the process of growth and becoming that the existential psychotherapists describe as the very nature of being. Dick’s personal revelatory experiences are thus fundamentally different from Kemmings’s “tomb world” in “I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon” or the world of the doomed crew in A Maze of Death (1970), who are trapped in a computer simulation where they endlessly recycle their own anxieties and hostilities. Instead, his quasi-mystical experiences more closely resemble Poole’s desire, in “The Electric Ant,” to receive, process, and store ever greater quantities of information. Hagen thus offers perhaps the most useful approach to understanding the importance of media technologies in Dick’s work, as his attempts to discern patterns in noise repeatedly illustrate the notion that the “language of media” represents “a linguistic structure articulated by the unconscious” (113; my translation). The element in Dick’s early fiction that remains consistent throughout his late theological writings is his desire to tap into this language.

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