Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Panoptic Personas: A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick

I've been a Philip K. Dick fan for a long time.  I even wrote a chapter for Philip K. Dick and Philosophy: Do Androids Have Kindred Spirits?!  But somehow I had never read A Scanner Darkly.  This is odd because it's one of his more famous titles, although I did see (and enjoy) the Linklater movie several years ago.

Maybe it's because I've never been much of a drug person (I'm weird enough as it is) or maybe it's because I've never experienced paranoia about police surveillance, but this always sounded to me like the least interesting of Dick's A-list novels.

I was wrong.  I wish I had read this sooner.  A Scanner Darkly is, of course, a novel about drug culture and paranoia, but it's also a heart-breaking (and occasionally humorous) meditation on meaning, love, friendship, ethics, power, personal identity, and epistemology.

It combines the subtle humor and epistemological themes of Dick's earlier novels with the literary experimentation and emotional depth of his later novels.  It also generally lacks the bizarre religious themes of VALIS and The Exegesis, which is a brand of Dickian weirdness I've never warmed to, maybe because I worry it's a result more of his mental illness than his literary genius.

If you're reading this, you probably already know the central thread of the novel (drug addict Bob Arctor is being surveilled by... himself), but the plot goes beyond that.  Some people complain that not all that much actually happens, which is true in the sense that there's not much action, but the episodic and somewhat disconnected nature of the narrative is a brilliant method of getting inside (and simultaneously outside) the experience of a drug addict/narc/rehab patient.

I could say more about the plot, writing, and autobiographical aspects of the novel, but other reviews have already done so (see here, here, here, and here).  Let me move on to the philosophical bits.

The Philosophy Report

Since the regular "Philosophy Report" section of my book reviews is a play on Dick's story "The Minority Report" (and the movie based on it), I'm especially excited to include this section for this review, which is somehow the first review of a Philip K. Dick book on this blog.  While Dick's deepest themes are always epistemological (What is real?  What is illusion?  Can we tell the difference?) and those themes are present here, I'd like to focus on two issues more specific to A Scanner Darkly: the war on drugs and issues of personal identity.

(Similar issues, and many others, are taken up in Philip K. Dick and Philosophy.  See especially Richard Feist's chapter, "Just Who and How Many Do You Think You Are?" and Travis Patterson's "Lonely Wolves."  My own essay in that volume, "Hollywood Doesn't Know Dick," deals with skepticism and determinism in Dick's stories and movies based on them.)

Panopticism and The War on Drugs

Dick wrote A Scanner Darkly after his experience befriending young people in the California drug culture of the early 1970's.  It's obvious that this was a deeply personal and emotional novel for him.  His postscript says, "This has been a novel about some people who were punished entirely too much for what they did."

Dick is not fond of easy answers.  He's no apologist for drug use, but neither does he condone the excessive legal penalties and police tactics of the war on drugs, which was just getting going in the 1970's.

In reading the novel I was continually reminded of Michel Foucault's concept of panopticism, based on an 18th century prison model that allowed a single guard to monitor a prison from a tower in the center.  Foucault argues that Western societies since the 18th century have encouraged surveillance of citizens by government and other entities, but - far more insidiously - citizens have been encouraged to monitor themselves, their thoughts, actions, beliefs, and so forth.

A Scanner Darkly takes panopticism to a more literal place with the character of Bob Arctor who, in the guise of a police officer, Fred, is surveilling himself.  This all occurs with Dick's uncanny, quirky sense of humor, which Linklater's film is one of the few to capture at all (as much as I love Blade Runner, its dreary sober-mindedness totally lacks the humor of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?).

Delving further into panopticism, the police officer has to wear a suit that obscures his identity from everyone else to guarantee his anonymity and (allegedly) to keep the police honest.  This anonymous exercise of power is central to panopticism: if you never know who's watching or when someone's watching, you start to keep yourself in line.  Foucault focused on prisons, but his point was that panopticism has infused modern Western culture, a point that, with all due respect to Foucault, I think Dick's novel makes more effectively (if anything because he does so without the obscure style of 20th century French postmodernism).

The effects of panopticism are real (but of course with Dick we always have to keep in mind that reality is more questionable than we think!).  In the United States we have over two million people in prison, the largest prison population of any country in the world (we're #1!).  At least 40% are in prison on drug related charges, and there are well-known racial and economic disparities as well.

Dick wasn't saying that drugs are without risk.  The novel is a eulogy for his friends who were victims of their drug use (he also includes himself in a list of victims).  But is the war on drugs worth it?  Is it a reasonable response to the threat?  Or is the cure worse than the disease?  How should we, as citizens and private individuals, think about drugs?  Although Dick wrote this novel about 40 years ago, it's more relevant today than ever.

Who is Bob Arctor? Who are you?

But who is Bob Arctor, anyway?  Is he Bob?  A cop named Fred?  Or a rehab patient named Bruce?  While his identity issues are brought about by the effects of the drug, Substance D, and the pressures of panopticism, Arctor is also coming face to face with the kinds of philosophical issues that have been discussed by Buddhist philosophers for over 2,000 years (I have discussed them several times on the blog as well).

Who are you?  You're you, of course, but what does that mean?  What is it that makes you the same person you were, say, ten years ago?  Memories?  But couldn't those be altered (as in Dick's "We Can Remember It for You Wholesale," the inspiration for Total Recall)?  Do you really remember everything you do?  What about the gaps?  Are you a body?  A soul?  A brain?  A feeling?  A personality?  An idea?

As Buddhists have been saying for thousands of years, you aren't any one of those things.   Neither are you those things collectively.  Rather, a "person" is a collection of non-person things like thoughts, feelings, bodily states, perceptions, etc. that are arranged in a certain way.  That arrangement itself is merely an idea, an ultimately false concept.  Really there is no "you," there's just a causal chain of momentary occurrences that we conventionally designate as a person for the sake of convenience.  This idea is often called Buddhist Reductionism, and there are arguments in favor of this view going back to the earliest Buddhist texts.

My favorite analogy is a cake (mmmm.... cake....).  Just as a cake can't be reduced to the flour, sugar, oil, etc., so can a person not be reduced to any one thing.  Cakes and people are rather the result of complex causal processes, although people aren't really even "things" at all.

So Buddhist philosophers would read about Bob Arctor with less shock than most of us.  Is he really Bob, Fred, or Bruce?  He's not any of them ultimately.  There are merely causal streams of events that we - the reader, the characters - call those names for various reasons, but none of those reasons relies on an ultimately real identity.

The deeper point of A Scanner Darkly, which is perhaps equal parts terrifying and liberating depending on how you look at it, is that none of our identities are ultimately any more real or stable than Bob/Fred/Bruce.  You are you as long as most of us find it useful to keep calling you you.  The political point resurfaces here, too.  Without any essential, enduring entity to dictate our identities, who we are is itself far more malleable by nefarious political elements than we would like to believe - whoever we are!  Perhaps we are panoptic personas.

Rating: 93/100

See also my review on Goodreads.

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