The Disintegrating Chronotope of Philip K. Dick (1928-82)

The Disintegrating Chronotope of Philip K. Dick (1928 – 1982)

Part One


‘Artists are replicants who have found the secret of their obsolescence’ – Brian Massumi ‘The Simulacrum According to Deleuze and Guattari’ (1987)

The term replicant here is a reference from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), the name he gave to the androids in his film version of Philip K Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (1968). The plot of Dick’s novel revolves around a number of highly ‘evolved’ robots who are seeking to have the date of their in-built obsolescence postponed indefinitely. It is the blade runner’s job to hunt down and prematurely terminate the rebellious androids. Although Blade Runner lacks much of the narrative content and philosophical themes of Dick’s original novel, the film brought Dick the mainstream popular attention he had sought throughout his 25 years of science fiction writing. Sadly, in characteristically tragic-comic fashion, he did not live long enough to enjoy the its success.

The broader context for this lecture are the themes of historical and temporal consciousness we have been exploring in relation to the shift from modern to postmodern thought, aesthetics and cultural theory, and in particular the ‘materialist’ conception of history addressed by Benjamin in the ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ and throughout Illuminations.

I intend to explore some of the characteristic reality shifts and anomalous temporal structures of Dick’s fiction in light of Benjamin’s discussion of the changes being brought about in our ‘apperceptual apparatuses’ by the invention of cinema and other technical means of cultural-aesthetic production. Dick’s work will be used to illuminate Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of the ‘chronotope’, the time-space relations which reputedly cohere in literary and artistic forms. I will also address the archeological metaphor of mind proposed by Sigmund Freud in Civilization and its Discontents (1930) in order to explore the psycho-geographical imagination associated with psychoanalysis.

Benjamin discussed the aesthetic products of modern art movements like Futurism, Dada and Surrealism as ‘premonitions’ of the future effects of film on mass consciousness. Meanwhile revolutionary social movements, he argued, explode ‘the [traditional] continuum of history’ and introduce calendars which mark the commencement of a ‘new’ historical time. In a particularly Dick-like analogy Benjamin claimed that ‘The initial day of the calendar serves as a historical time-lapse camera’ (Thesis XV).

In Dick’s fictions the confusion between human and machine devolves on to the apparatuses of memory and perception. As he explains in his essay  ‘The Android and the Human’ (1972), his futurological vision often imagines the world from the perspective of a machine which has mistakenly assumed itself to be a natural occurring organism. Both authors raise fundamental questions about how the human subject thinks itself in relation to the technology it uses, and with which it attempts to understand and transform the world.

As Frederic Jameson argued in Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991), Dick’s literature points towards the historico-temporal conundrums that characterise life and consciousness in postmodern societies. It is a condition which has frequently been described as schizophrenic. As we have seen, in the interests of a progressive Marxist orientation, Jameson was keen to hold on to a totalising and uni-linear conception of history in the face of the non-linear, de-historicizing, rhizomatic tendencies of postmodern thought. Jameson draws on Jacques Lacan’s account of the paranoiac foundations of knowledge to explore the breakdown of temporo-spatial relations revealed in language disorders. As we will see, such breakdowns – in which time is experienced in a trans-temporal, mystical and anachronistic way – are characteristic of the psychological crises of Dick’s central protagonists. It is during such ‘psychotic episodes’ that his characters are able to see through time and have precognitions of what will come to pass. It is no surprise then that a recurrent theme in Dick’s fictions involves the similarity between machines and schizophrenics epitomised by the paranoid android coming to terms with its synthetic ‘nature’.

The other clear theoretical parallel between Benjamin and Philip K Dick’s work concerns the demise of authenticity experienced in relation to psycho-social changes brought about by technological modernity. But whereas Benjamin’s focus was on the changing quality and value of the traditional art object, Dick extended this loss of authenticity to the human subject itself.

The emergence of cybernetics, the study of control and communication in animals and machines, in the 1950’s was to have a profound influence on contemporary understandings of human-machine relations. Around the same time the discovery of DNA suggested futurological possibilities for the genetic engineering of organisms from a base-cellular level. Both developments contributed to new understandings of traditional distinctions between living and dead matter, information and knowledge, organism and mechanism, inaugurating what Jean Baudrillard has called the era of the code. Baudrillard popularised some of the leitmotif concepts of postmodern cultural theory in the 1980’s (e.g. hyperreality, implosion, seduction, simulation, transparency). Philip K Dick’s science-fiction visions of a world populated by androids, perfect copies of humans but lacking some essential quality, directly influenced Baudrillard’s formulation of the three orders of simulacra (see his ‘Simulacra and Science Fiction’).

The general questions raised by this lecture are:

  • Does living in a ‘post-historical’ situation mean we now live multiple histories simultaneously?
  • How are we to understand the traditional unity of the subjective ego from the perspective of the coincidence of multiple historical subjectivities?
  • How are new forms of technology and communication implicated in this transformation?                                                                                                                          
  • Is the historical consciousness so necessary for revolutionary and progressive social transformation (according to the Hegelian-Marxist tradition) bound by Reason to a present and concrete conception of social reality? Or can consciousness exceed the limits of present time and ‘resonate’ with a (be)coming future?
  • Why is the future less historically and materially thinkable than the past?
  • And, following the thought and practices of William Burroughs, could it be that the Historical Reality Studios were stormed too soon?

The Chronotope

Let us begin with three definitions of the term:

i) A unit of analysis for studying texts according to the ratio and nature of temporal and spatial categories . . . An optic for reading texts as x-rays of the forces at work in the culture system from which they spring. (Bahktin)

ii) In the literary artistic chronotope, spatial and temporal indicators are fused into one carefully thought-out, concrete whole. Time, as it were thickens, takes on flesh, becomes artistically visible; likewise space becomes charged and responsive to the movements of time, plot and history. (Bahktin)

iii) A fictional setting where historically specific relations of power become visible and certain stories can ‘take place’. (Clifford)

In The Communist Manifesto (1848) Marx and Engels famously described the transformation of lived experience under the expansive logic of global capitalism and commodification as follows:

Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life and his relations with his kind.

A hundred years later the French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss described his experience of New York’s metropolitan multiculturalism as follows:

New York (and this is the source of its charm and its peculiar fascination) was then a city where anything seemed possible. Like the urban fabric, the social and cultural fabric was riddled with holes. All you had to do was pick one and slip through it if, like Alice, you wanted to get to the other side of the looking glass and find words so enchanting that they seemed unreal. (quoted by Clifford in ‘A Chronotope for Collecting’, The Predicament of Culture (1988))

Levi-Strauss, along with several of his Surrealist colleagues (André Breton, André Masson, Yves Tanguy, Matta, Max Ernst), was a refugee in New York during WWII. All were avid collectors of pre-Columbian, Indian, Japanese and Oceanic artefacts, which they saw as neglected works of art (in the modern, western sense of the word). Although for Levi-Strauss New York was an anthropologist’s dream, he saw in the surreal juxtaposition of ancient, modern, western and non-western cultures something ‘entropic’: a vision of a world being lost, the demise of the pure, undiluted and authentic cultures that had been the traditional object of ethnography/anthropology. In light of this entropic vision of cultural disintegration Levi-Strauss playfully described himself at the time as an ‘entropologist’.

Inspired by the Russian linguist Roman Jakobson’s lectures on sound and meaning, Levi-Strauss developed structural anthropology while in New York: an attempt to reduce the chaotic diversity of social forms to an underlying and elementary order of social relations based on those assumed to underpin language. In the New York public library where he drafted The Elementary Structures of Kinship (1949), he observed a native American man, dressed in buckskin and feathers, writing with a Parker pen, an image that appeared to him as a sign of something that was on the verge of being lost forever. Like the holes he perceived in the social fabric, the image made him feel like he was travelling backwards in time. Clifford’s article questions why Levi-Strauss was unable to see the feathered Indian with the Parker pen as a portent of the renewal and revitalization of Native American culture, rather than as a sign of its inevitable demise? How is this pessimism conditioned by the idealisation of authenticity which has characterised European culture and collecting throughout the modern era?

Philip K. Dick’s novel The Man in the High Castle (1962) addresses similar cultural questions. Set in an alternative post WWII world, in which Germany and Japan are the victorious powers now occupying and controlling North America, the novel explores the transformation of cultural authenticity in this alternative future. The central character Frank Frink is a craftsman who makes cheap imitations of American artefacts for wealthy Japanese collectors. Dick’s historical reversal of post WWII power relations in North America illuminates the predicament of dominated culture groups in the real world whose representative artefacts are valued as authentic by the same dominant culture which is directly implicated in the destruction of the communities from which they derive. It also offers an interesting commentary on the legacy of Pop art, the appropriation of tribal art by modern artists and Dick’s personal struggle to reconcile the dismissive reception of popular science-fiction literature with the traditions of high literary culture.

Cultural Memory and the Freudian Imagination

In Civilization and its Discontents, a rather pessimistic work written in the wake of WW1, Sigmund Freud attempted to describe the architecture of the mind and the nature of memory with reference to the archeological history of Rome. I will quote the section at length to show the elaborate use Freud makes of historical, geographical and biological metaphors, all of which fail to adequately represent an image of time in the mind.

Having overcome the error of thinking that our frequent forgetfulness amounts to the destruction of the trace left by memory and therefore to an act of annihilation, we now tend towards the opposite presumption – that, in mental life, nothing that has once taken shape can be lost, that everything is somehow preserved and can be retrieved under the right circumstances – for instance, through a sufficiently long regression. As an example let us take the development of the Eternal City. Historians tell us that in the earliest times Rome was Roma Quadrata, an enclosed settlement on the Palatine Hill. The next phase was the Septimontium, a union of settlements on separate hills. After this it was the city bounded by the Servian Wall, and still later, after the vicissitudes of the republican and the early imperial age, the city that the emperor Aurelian enclosed within his walls. We will not pursue the further transformations undergone by the city, but we cannot help wondering what traces of these early stages can still be found by a modern visitor to Rome – whom we will credit with the best historical and topographical knowledge…Now, let us make the fantastic assumption that Rome is not a place where people live, but a psychical entity with a similarly long, rich past, in which nothing that ever took shape has passed away, and in which all previous phases of development exist beside the most recent…If we wish to represent a historical sequence in spatial terms, we can do so only by juxtaposition in space, for the same space cannot accommodate two different things…it’s sole justification is to show how far we are from being able to illustrate the peculiarities of mental life by visual means…

Why did we choose to compare the past of the city with the psychical past? Even where the life of the psyche is concerned, the assumption that everything past survives is valid only if the mind has remained intact and its fabric has not suffered from trauma or inflammation. However, destructive factors that might be compared with such causes of disease, are not absent from the history of any city, even if it has a less turbulent past than Rome or, like London, hardly ever been ravaged by an enemy. Even the most peaceful urban development entails the demolition and replacement of buildings, and so for this reason no city can properly be compared with a psychical organism.

We readily yield to this objection and, foregoing any striking contrast, turn to a more closely related object of comparison, the animal or human body. But here too we find the same phenomena. The earlier phases of development are not preserved at all, having been absorbed into the later ones, for which they supplied the material. The embryo cannot be discovered in the adult…The fact remains that the retention of all the previous stages, together with the final shape, is possible only in the mind, and that we are not in a position to illustrate this phenomenon by any parallel.

We will return to this description later. For the time being let us hold in mind this attempt to imagine mental life in terms of archaeological analogies, as this will a have bearing upon that which follows.

War Torn City on the Web

Bullet-scarred outdoor cinema at the Palace of Culture in the Karte Char district of Kabul – Photograph by Simon Norfolk

I am using Simon Norfolk’s photographs to illustrate a number of related points. The first has to do with the internet, and the way it is affecting knowledge processes and information processing. I arrived at these images by chance, as it were, following a search for ‘chronotope’ in my web-browser. Although this is not the place to enter this issue in depth, I want to note in passing the spatialization and connectivity of information in the mind and its relation to that on the web. Both systems are in a process of mutual and reciprocal evolutionary development. As the net is modelled on the mind, so the mind understands itself more clearly through interaction with that particular technological extension. The human-machine interface is one of cognitive integration at the level of information processing, storage and retrieval. How is the mapping of information in the brain related to maps of information in the mind and in the networked information systems of contemporary media? 

The second point to make about these images is their uncanny similarity to those described in Dick’s novel Martian Time-Slip, which I will discuss shortly. It raises issues about the peculiar nature of coincidence, traditionally associated in psychoanalytic terms with schizophrenia, paranoia and the uncanny. What effect will the increasing amounts of technologically mediated information, available through more diverse technological channels, have on the diagnostic categories of psychology and the theories which underpin them? And how will the new media networks shape those diagnostic categories in the future?

Finally I want to use these images to insist on the ‘reality’ of historical facts in the face of the crisis of authenticity described by Benjamin and Dick. I do this in order to suggest a cautionary approach to the simulationist tendencies in postmodern theory, particularly those associated with Baudrillard. I would however like to draw attention to the parallels between fantastical and dystopian visions of futurological science fiction such as Dick’s and aspects of the ‘global’ historical reality that we are currently living through [at the time of writing this lecture, 2009, the United States war in Afghanistan had been going on for eight years. The war, which continues, is now recognised as the longest running war in US history] .

Martian Time-Slip (1964)

Bullet-scarred apartment building and shops in the Karte Char district of Kabul – Photograph by Simon Norfolk

‘Knowledge can now be seen as something the organism builds up in the attempt to order the amorphous flow of experience by establishing repeatable experiences and relatively reliable relations between them. The possibilities of constructing such an order are determined and perpetually constrained by the preceding steps in the construction. This means that the “real” world manifests itself exclusively there where our constructions break down’ – Paul Wazlawick, The Invented Reality – How Do We Know What We Believe We Know? (1984)

Jack Bohlen, the central character in Dick’s novel Martian Time-Slip, is an electrical repairman who migrated to Mars there after a schizophrenic episode on earth. Mars is in the slow process of colonisation after a war against indigenous natives, the Bleekmen. The planet is controlled by UN (Soviet, American and Chinese) forces. Different religious, political and ethnic groups have set up makeshift enclaves there. Arnie Kott, the tyrannical, water-worker’s union leader and unapologetic racist, has set up the most functionally successful community on Mars.

The story centres on a UN plan to build a new community in the desolate and inhospitable Franklin D Roosevelt Mountains. Jack’s father is planning to invest his earthly fortunes in this real-estate development and takes his first trip to Mars to visit the location. In the Jewish enclave of New Jerusalem, children damaged before birth by radiation, who suffer from autism/schizophrenia, are kept in Camp BG. Rumours have begun to circulate in the community that these children are to be ‘put to sleep’ because they are giving Mars a bad public image for prospective and much needed colonists.

Dr. Glaub, the resident psychiatrist in Camp BG., has a theory that the ‘anomalous’ children experience time at a vastly different rate to our own. To them, the world takes place in extreme slow motion (Jalal Toufic suggests something similar regarding to the living dead in film. See ‘(Vampires)’ on the reading list). Dr. Glaub proposes the construction of a technical device which could externalise their audio-visual experiences, alter their speed, and enable communication between themselves and the outside world. Arnie Kott, who has learned about the project to develop new communities in the Franklin D Roosevelt mountains, hits on the idea of using one of the anomalous children to look into the future to see how profitable an investment would be. Having contacted Dr Glaub to ascertain what he knows about the parapsychological aspects of mental illness, Jack is employed to create the device that will enable Manfred, the chosen child, to communicate the future to Arnie Kott.

It is a standard device of modern literature to shift between different personal points of view, but in Dick’s novels these shifts interfere not only with the reality pictures of the other characters (see, in particular, Ubik), but also of their readers. The secure chronotope of individual and realist narration disintegrates through Dick’s schizophrenic literary mindset. In Martian Time-Slip Jack Bohlen narrates the story of the breakdown that brought him to Mars. The narration begins as Jack repairs a ‘Teaching Machine’ at a local public school. Teaching machines are automated schoolteacher robots with the names and knowledges of famous historical personages and character types (like Aristotle, Winston Churchill etc). As he begins the repair the Kindly Dad machine he is reminded of the events on earth that precipitated his emigration to Mars. There is a pattern in Dick’s fictional accounts of psychotic episodes which coincides with those which took place in his own life. Troubled with money and marital worries Jack/Phil is called in to be disciplined by a boss on whom his livelihood and future escape plans depend. During the encounter Jack looses all sense of what is going on. As the boss speaks he sees him as a synthetic, translucent mechanical construct enacting a pre-determined program-script. Jack assumes at this moment that he is in fact seeing into the future. But if this is true then the difference between being psychotic and precognitive amount to the same thing.

It is clear that for Dick the practice of futurological science fiction writing was intimately associated with mental disintegration. At this point in the narrative – as in Total Recall (or ‘We can Remember it for you Wholesale’, the short story on which the film was based) when the central character Quade, played in the film by the future governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger, has a seizure during the Recall process – there is a time-space cut back to Jack who is repairing Kindly Dad. We are no longer sure if we are in the delusional mind-space of an hallucinating psychotic or the diegetic time-space of the linear narrative. Later in the novel Jack takes Manfred to the Roosevelt mountains with his father. There, Manfred makes a drawing in the sand of the building that will stand there in the future. The building is derelict, broken down. Arcadia has devolved into a slum with desperate faces staring from lonely windows. Above the main door is written AM WEB: ‘Alle Menschen Werden Brüder’, the slogan of the co-operative housing movement on earth whose apartment building Jack had once lived in.

It was this image of a ruined housing complex that corresponded with the Simon Norfolk’s photograph of a bullet-scarred apartment building in Kabul. Norfolk has described his ‘Chronotopia’ exhibition as ‘Museum of the Archeology of War’. Although the two images are from very different cultural and historical contexts they coincide through the theme (and Google search term) of the ‘chronotope’. The former image has significance for the latter in terms of the colonial forces which are shaping Mars’ architectural futures. How is the future of Afghanistan being determined by the imperial vision of the USA? Whose history is being written here? The latter representation of contemporary reality in Afghanistan raises questions about the different ‘times’ in which we live, how history is inscribed in both geographical, psychological and technological space and the different histories that coincide through media and warfare. What can it mean, in this context, for a representative of the most powerful and technologically advanced nation in the world to reputedly propose bombing another country ‘back to the stone-age’ (Richard Armitage, then US deputy secretary of state, was claimed to have said this about Pakistan in the immediate aftermath of then 911 attacks)? What kind of global, historical and philosophical perspectives support the use of the most advanced technology to send a culture backwards in historical time?


Mikhail Bahktin The Dialogical Imagination: Four Essays (1982)

Walter Benjamin Illuminations (1968)

Marshall Berman All that’s Solid Melts in Air (1982)

James Clifford  The Predicament of Culture (1988)

Philip K Dick Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (1968), Martian Time-Slip (1964), The Man in the High Castle (1962) and The Android and the Human (1972)

Sigmund Freud Civilisation and its Discontents (1930)

Frederic Jameson  Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism’ (1991)

Toufic, Jalal (Vampires): An Uneasy Essay on the Living Dead in Film (1993/2003)

Karl Marx and Frederich Engels The Communist Manifesto (1848)

Paul Wazlawick The Invented Reality – How Do We Know What We Believe We Know?’ (1984)


Photographs of Afghanistan by Simon Norfolk from the series Afghanistan: Chronotopia (2001-2)


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