On our final day of class, in concluding discussion of Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly (a novel, as the title suggests, involving scanning and surveillance), I introduce Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon and Michel Foucault’s theory of “panopticism,” applying the latter to the architecture of the digital classroom, the Zoom environment in which we’ve worked this past year due to pandemic. After ascent from Plato’s Cave in search of higher states of consciousness (Plato’s text being the one with which the course began), we lay bare the medium of our being-together as a class. I speak as one there in a cell with others. Here we are, I say: “Gallery View.” I call awareness to the Zen saying, “Before enlightenment, carry water, chop wood. After enlightenment, carry water, chop wood.” Through Dick’s title, I then trace us back to 1 Corinthians 13, where Paul stresses the importance of “charity” or love. Without it, he writes, one is but “sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.” In its final moment, then, the course ends thus: with a synthesis of Zen and a kind of gnostic-psychedelic reimagining of agape. One must accept the prison, or at least return to it willingly, despite knowing that one will likely be misunderstood and crucified — but only so as to impart through the medium of one’s being the words “Love one another”: a message of congeniality and goodwill.
The Ramsey Lewis Trio rouse me midafternoon with their “Blues for the Night Owl.” More to my liking, though, is Expansions, a 1975 LP by Lonnie Liston Smith & the Cosmic Echoes.
“Expand your mind…to understand…” sings Lonnie’s brother, flutist Donald Smith, on the album’s opener. This LP and another (Jerry Butler’s The Sagittarius Movement) arrive bearing reference to Sagittarius. “Lady Sagittarius.” Let us thank her, as Smith does, “for her Earthly Guidance.” Here I am, meanwhile, at semester’s end, students and I grappling with Philip K. Dick’s downer dystopia A Scanner Darkly. Chapter 15 is for me the book’s nadir, as the book’s third-person narrator recounts the thoughts of cop character Mike Westaway. Mike manipulates others, justifying these actions by claiming that the people he handles — characters like the book’s protagonist Bob Arctor — are already dead.
Utopias and dystopias promote and project contrary “affects” or (to use Raymond Williams’s term) “structures of feeling.” Reading Philip K. Dick’s drug dystopia A Scanner Darkly, one feels deflated. One would rather get stoned. Stand around in the yard, share a joint and chat about bats, skunks, porcupines, dogs, and gardens with one’s elders. “Bats are interesting,” says a friend’s mother.
I retrieve an object from a stack of documents: a postcard for a show called “Pacts and Invocations: Magic and Ritual in Contemporary Art.” Peering into the depths of the image, I see what lies within. ‘Twas a hard day but we got through it. Word-sounds, hyperobjects. Goin’ round eatin’ nuggets and fries. I feel devastated by a loss borne by someone close, and by all of the various “operations” running around, upon, and through me: vaccines, medicines, doctors, treatments. Sarah recommends RuPaul’s Drag Race as we talk over dinner. Frankie sits beside us drinking milk from a sippy cup. Home afterwards, I receive word of a friend’s talk on Psychoanalysis and Psychedelics. Another friend shares a line from a Gerard Manley Hopkins poem: “Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours.” The line is from “I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day,” one of Hopkins’s so-called “Terrible Sonnets” of the 1880s. I think of the day’s arrivals as fodder for my meeting with my therapist. Doubt and depression weigh upon me when I contemplate my lack of accomplishment. Hopkins’s poem, though, I remind myself, remained unpublished until decades after the poet’s passing. Listening now to the talk by my friend the psychoanalyst, I’m made to think about “resonance,” a concept the friend extracts from Terence McKenna and Erik Davis. The latter defines resonance as “a phenomenon of interpenetration and mutual participation, of the blurring of the boundary between subject and object, something that is much easier to hear than to see.” Hear it I do as I pause the video and make time for Time for the Tams (1965). “Finally,” Nate says, “it is a form of coincidence.” All of which puts me in mind, of course, of Jung’s concept of synchronicity. Other phrases resonate here as well: “uncanny contact.” Nate reads Valis as the story of a psychosis. “Truth serum” administered in the wake of the removal of Dick’s “wisdom” tooth provokes Dick’s realization that reality is an illusion. Dick’s Exegesis, Nate argues, “is a tome of coincidence. […]. Valis, meanwhile, is a novelization of the Exegesis.” Valis allows Dick to split himself in two. He is both Horselover Fat, the subject who experiences, and Phil, the subject who narrates. Dick is also several other characters in the novel: the cynic, the Christian optimist. Each character a facet of the author’s psyche.
Smoking toward dusk I decide to bake — but to no avail. “Bake and bake” remains a dad book waiting to be written. Dad’s busy reading board books. Mom, too. Others seek “productivity hacks.” A Google employee named Kenric Allado-McDowell co-authored a book with an AI — a “language prediction model” called GPT-3. The book, Pharmako-AI, could be wrangled into my course in place of Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly. Dick’s book is a downer, a proto-cyberpunk dystopia, whereas Allado-McDowell’s book contains a piece called “Post-Cyberpunk.” The book models communication and collaboration between human and nonhuman worlds. GPT-3 recommends use of Ayahuasca. The computer tells humanity to take plant medicine. What are we to make of this advice from an emergent AI? The book ventures into territory beyond my purview. GPT-3’s paywalled, and thus operates as the equivalent of an egregore. Not at all an easy thing to trust.
Gnosticism is a theology with which I was already grappling before I’d heard the term — for there was a “gnostic current” in the culture of my youth. One receives gnostic teachings, for instance, in the works of Philip K. Dick, Thomas Pynchon, and Jean Baudrillard. Similar teachings appear in the “edge-of-the-construct” films of the late 1990s — movies like The Matrix and The Truman Show. These works spoke from a period of political paranoia — the Cold War and its immediate aftermath, with widespread fears of conspiracy around the turn of the millennium mixed with anxieties about technological transformations, “New Economy” dot-com bubble newly burst. Computers were suddenly “virtual places” to which many of us migrated for many hours each day. Computers housed places we showed up to for work and play. And of course, all of this seemed interlinked with prior screen cultures like TV and cinema. One spent a lot of one’s time in what Situationist Guy Debord called “The Society of the Spectacle.” It’s not a fun place to be. The Spectacle intervenes in one’s relationship to one’s body. Marxism says all of this is happening within an economy. Workers must unite and seize control of the means of production, wrest them from the clutches of the capitalists. And so I believed — as I do today. But Eric Voegelin reminds us that Marxism is itself a brand of Gnosticism. One can’t escape one’s latin roots.
Songs play in my mind as if echoing down a long corridor or hallway. An auditory memory, some imaginary or half-remembered AM gold, retro in the way of Ariel Pink. Lo-fi, hypnagogic, like a band practice heard from the street. After the sixties, we land in Philip K. Dick’s drug-war dystopia A Scanner Darkly, reading the book’s critique of McDonalds hamburgers while eating McDonalds french fries. Dick’s observations about the spread of capitalist reality appear beside the buy-sell calculations of the book’s drug-addict protagonist, capitalism thus glimpsed and understood as a system that compels us to think and behave like addicts hooked on “product.” It’s a bleak book, its cop characters as stunted and debased as its dopers — the two ultimately the same, in fact, in the case of the protagonist, an undercover narcotics officer who also uses and deals a drug called Substance D.
Worry not: Look outward upon a radiant new environment loaded with hidden Easter eggs. Go out and listen. There is great peace of mind to be had by exhaling and breathing silently along a calm evening walk. I walk in wonder, staring up at chirping birds on lofty branches, a clear cold sky lit for sunset. “Breathe,” I tell myself, “and concentrate mind in the present.” It’s been a tiring past couple of weeks, this conclusion of autumn and entry into winter. To cheer myself, I throw on the Flamin’ Groovies album Teenage Head — but something’s off, the album fails to suit the mood. I fail to find in it the significance suggested by its title, minus that great line at the end of the song from which the album gets its name: “I’m a child of atom bombs / and rotten air and Vietnams; I am you / you are me.”
The band also released a single the following year, an anti-drug song called “Slow Death” — the same phrase used as the nickname for Substance D, the fictional drug in Philip K. Dick’s doper dystopia A Scanner Darkly. I wonder if Dick was a Flamin’ Groovies fan.
The stories we read and tell one another compose us collectively into an intersubjective multiverse linked by each consciousness holding up to the Other its mirror. Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly is a hard novel to end a course on, hard because it contains so many prior horizons of psychedelic-utopian possibility in the uncertainty and despair of its narrative universe. I worry that the book inspires in its readers an excess of aversion to chemical modification of consciousness. The book is too unqualified in its denunciation of drug use; the book’s fictional Substance-D operates allegorically (most vividly via its street name “slow death”) as an emblem, a universal shorthand for every drug — drugs in general. Dick leaves readers without a positive alternative to the “straight” world’s miserly, hypocritical relationship to mental health, where “sanity” equals mind-numbing adherence to pre-established norms, and all are expected to board what Margo Guryan called “The 8:17 Northbound Success Merry-Go-Round.”
I prefer to focus instead on collecting recipes for a cookbook. The cookbook was a great utopian art form of the late 1960s and 1970s, from The Grub Bag and The Tassajara Bread Book to Ant Farm’s INFLATOCOOKBOOK of 1971. To my cookbook I add a recipe for “Vegan Cream of Mushroom and Wild Rice Soup” from the Food 52 website.
“Me with nothing to say, and you in your autumn sweater,” go the words to a song of my late teen years by the New Jersey band Yo La Tengo. I heard it the other day, only to be reminded of it again midafternoon as Sarah and I, bundled in hats and scarves, set out on a brief walk through our neighborhood. By the evening, though, I’m back to re-reading Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly, a book I’m teaching next week. Dick’s dystopian future depicts widespread, near-universal dehumanization as a consequence of prolonged multi-decade domestic drug war. A pair of narcotics officers review horror stories involving consequences of addiction to the novel’s fictional drug Substance D: rapid aging, blown scholarships, a sister raped by her amoral drug-dealing brothers, babies born addicted, spread of STDs. Yet Dick also shows the lack of humanity among the cop side of this nightmarish future. When speaking to each other, Dick writes, these two narcotics officers, Fred and Hank, “neutralize” themselves; they assume “a measured and uninvolved attitude,” repressing feelings of warmth and arousal and cloaking themselves in anonymity. No one is likeable in this future. In order to live in it, one has to be willing to negate the humanity of others. “In this day and age,” says a character named Barris, “with the kind of degenerate society we live in…every person of worth needs a gun at all times” (61). This is a slight exaggeration; on the next page we learn of a character who has never owned a gun. But Dick’s future is one where gun violence is a commonplace (a world, in other words, much like our own). Everyone’s paranoid; everyone’s depressed, depraved, anxious, neurotic, confused. Indeed, to the extent that novels undergo cathexis when written, this one feels strangely anhedonic, borne of a period in Dick’s life of deep psychological crisis. For more on this period, see The Dark Haired Girl, a posthumously released collection of Dick’s letters and journals.