The Simulacra

226460I’ve had a bit of extended travel time on planes and trains over the last couple of weeks. A situation that’s very conducive to leisure reading, at least for me. I’ve finished off a few books already during this European vacation, the latest of which is Philip k.Dick’s 1964 novel The Simulacra. By no means amongst Dick’s best novels, it’s still an accurate representation of the direction our society is heading: puppet leaders controlled by cartel monopolies that use technology to engineer a tiered system of social control. It falls down a bit regarding the various plot threads and  characterizations that never truly work together to create a compelling universe. But that didn’t stop me from enjoying it, the joy of reading Dick is not the quest for accurate predictions and representations of what life will be like in the future. Rather, it’s the alternative framing of what that future could have looked like from the vantage point of 1964. A genre of possibility like Science Fiction is necessarily rooted within its particular moment, perhaps more than any other.

Anyway, here are a few gems from The Simulacra I noted while reading. And while I said I wasn’t reading Dick for predictions, it’s hard not to comment on a couple of those prescient moments—a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin….

When Pharmaceuticals Rule the World

Pills_Money_459x30111A.G. Chemie is a powerful pharmaceutical cartel in this novel, one of the two most powerful corporate entities running the country—the other is simulacra manufacturer Karp und Söhne Werke. Early on in the novel (page 6 in the Vintage edition) this corporate cartel is selling the world on the fact that drug-therapy, not psychological counseling, remains the only solution to the ubiquitous mental health issues. And it has just sponsored a law to prohibit all psychological counseling in the USEA (United States of Europe and America). Here’s a bit from the novel on this:

The powerful German cartel [A.G. Chemie] had sold the world on the notion of drug-therapy for mental illness; there was a fotune to be made, there. And by corollary, psychoanalysts were quacks, on a par with orgone box and health food healers.

This future scenario seems all too present. Psychoanalysis hasn’t been outlawed de jure,  it’s just been made increasingly more difficult for much of the general population to get access to. Insurance companies in the U.S. see psychiatric counseling at the hourly rate of a medical doctor (or counsellor with an equivalent credential) as cost prohibitive. And the tale of the tape is apparent: “the percentage of outpatient mental health visits that involve only medication and no psychotherapy jumped from 44 percent to 57 percent between 1998 and 2007.”  Almost two out of three mental health patients are being treated with drugs alone! And a majority of those who are getting psychotherapy receive it from a counsellor (often a social worker) trained in the basics of Cogntive Behavoiral Therapy. A world sold on the notion of drug-therapy for mental illness, indeed, Philip Kindred Dick!

The Future of Spam

commercial-flyDick is all about the details, and one that stuck with me in The Simulacra was the description of the Nitz: invasive, fly-like commercials that invade people’s space.

Something sizzled to the right of him. A commercial, made by Theodorus Nitz, the worst house of all, had attached itself to his car.

“Get off,” he warned it. But the commercial, well-adhered, began to crawl, buffeted by the wind, toward the door and the entrance crack. It would soon have squeezed in and would be haranguing him in the cranky, garbagey fashion of the Nitz advertisements.

He could, as it came through the crack, kill it. It was alive, terribly mortal: the ad agencies, like nature, squandered hordes of them.

The commercial, flysized, began to buzz out its message as soon as it managed to force entry. “Say! Haven’t you sometimes said to yourself, I’ll bet other people in restaurants can see me! And you’re puzzled as to what to do about this serious, baffling problem of being conspicuous, especially-”

Chic crushed it with his foot. (41)

Given what we already know the virtual possibilities of spam, I think its easy to imagine its physical instantiation in the form of a fly becoming a reality shortly. Actually, looks like there’s a German who has already figured it out.


suburban-family.jpgA running together of the phrase “the family next door,” famnexdo is a simulated family that were created to make the move to the suburbs in the 1960s Mars in 2041 that much easier for space prospecting families.

…at the far end, taking up most of the available space, he saw four simulacra seated in silence, a group: one in adult male form, its female mate and two children. This was a major item of the firm’s catalog; this was a famnexdo…

A man, when he emigrated, could buy neighbors, buy the simulated presence of life, the sound and motion of human activity – or at least its mechanical near-substitute – to bolster his morale in the new environment of unfamiliar stimuli and perhaps, god forbid, no stimuli at all… The famdexdo were actually not next door at all, they were part of their owner’s entourage. Communication with them was in essence a circular dialogue with oneself; the famdexdo, if they were functioning properly, picked up the covert hopes and dreams of the settler and detailed them back in an articulated fashion. Therapeutically, this was helpful, although from a cultural standpoint it was a trifle sterile. (55-56)

An excellent example of Dick’s sense of play in this novel, a commentary on the sterile cultural reality that would be a result of the mass exodus from the U.S. cities to the suburbs during the 1960s.

The Vision & Videodrome

Image of The VisionTowards the end of the novel Richard Kongrosian, a musician with telekinetic powers, turns his “psi” powers against the agents of the state trying to oppress him. During the culminating scene of the novel Kongrosian realizes his powers are far more vast than simply playing the piano without touching the keys. Akin to Marvel superhero Vision  (who was introduced in 1968, four years afte this novel was published), Kongrosian realizes he can physically become part of the objects all around him. Here’s a bit from this realization wherein Kongrosian literally absorbs objects with his body:

Kongrosian said, ‘I sent them away. They made it even more difficult for me. Look — see that desk? I’m now part of it and it’s part of me! Watch and I’ll show you.’ He scrutinized the desk intently, his mouth working. And, on the desk, a vase of pale roses lifted, moved through the air towards Kongrosian. The vase, as they watched, passed into Kongrosian’s chest and disappeared. ‘It’s inside me now,’ he quavered. ‘I absorbed it. Now it’s me. And — ‘ He gestured at the desk. ‘I’m it!’ (194)

Not only does he absorb the inanimate objects, but his physical flesh can become part of them. The corporeal description of which immediately reminded me of David Cronenberg’s 1984 film Videodrome:

In the spot where the vase had been Nicole saw, forming into density and mass and colour, a complicated tangle of interwoven organic matter, smooth red tubes and what appeared to be portions of an endocrine system. A section, she realized, of Kongrosian’s internal anatomy. Perhaps, she thought, his spleen and circulatory configurations that maintained it. The organ, whatever it was, regularly pulsed; it was alive and active. How elaborate it is, she thought; she could not take her eyes from it… (194)

There is even a scene wherein the state official Pembroke, who is behind the governmental coup unfolding in this scene, turns his gun on Kongrosian in an attempt to stop him, which results in a scene even more resonant of Videodrome.

‘Listen, Kongrosian,’ Pembroke said harshly. He turned the gun towards the psychokinetic concert pianist. ‘What do you mean by sending the TV crew out of here? … You go and tell them to come back.’ He gestured at Kongrosian with the gun. ‘Or get a White House employee who —‘

He broke off. The gun had left his hand.

‘Help me!’ Kongrosian howled. ‘It’s becoming me and I have to be it!’

The gun vanished into Kongrosian’s body.

In Pembroke’s hand a spongy, pink mass of lung-tissue appeared; instantly he dropped it and at once Kongrosian shrieked with pain.


Scene from David Cronenberg’s Videodrome

The physicality of Kongrosian becoming part of the gun, literally ingesting it in this scene, is parallels happens to Max Renn at the end of Videodrome. Add to that the moment wherein Pembroke is holding Kongrosian’s “spongy, pink” lung in his hand was the clincher in connecting the themes of bodily mutations that define Cronenberg’s work with Dick’s climax of The Simulacra. I love this far-fetched connections!

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5 Responses to The Simulacra

  1. Paul says:

    As an interesting coincidence, Asimov’s 1964 predictions for 2014 came through my Twitter stream a few minutes after your post:
    The famnexdo makes me think of personalization, filter bubbles and echo chambers – algorithms that determine what we want to hear, giving us familiar stimuli – but the result can polarizing as much as sterile.

  2. Reverend says:

    Happy New Year, Paul! I got you a present in Italy 🙂

    As for famnexdo, the thing I like about them (at least in the Dickean universe) is that they are always on the verge of sentience. There is no simple echo chamber or simple polarization, a sense of humanity imperfect enclosures pervades. They are always explodable—and what creeps in or escapes is a sense of compassion and humanity that serves to challenge the techno-solutionism. For all his techno-paranoia, Dick was saw art and humanity in everything—especially technology.

  3. Hey, Jim!

    What a great collection of connections you’ve shared here. I especially enjoyed watching the Fly-ad video. I was intrigued at the number of folks shown who were amused by the concept — the negative effects of two individual pests temporarily canceling one another to provide an ironic amusement in the initial instance. I bet that would wear off pretty quickly. And what a great personification of spam. The short, limited lifespan of the housefly and its seemingly self-perpetuating cycle (given the appropriate uncared-for lack of cleanliness that is the Internet/Advertising Industry) makes for a perfect parallel with an unsentient viral spam campaign. A delivery vector that spreads annoying, useless gibberish.

    I’ve got to sign off now and contact Akismet with my designs for a new partnership — thinking of an biotech upgrade for old-fashion fly-paper.

    BTW, I’m pretty sure that the Famnexdo was just the logical upsell, one or two aisles over from theelectric sheep

  4. Reverend says:

    Hey Andrew,

    Happy New Year! The spy idea was crazy, I actually found that video and image from a the site here. That site is, in it’s own way, a kind of advertising/spam site—but I actually found it pretty useful when writing this post. I could find the quotes from the novel and not have to retype them (avoiding that many more typos on the bava 🙂 ).

    As for Akismet, I just hit the 2 million spam mark on bavatuesdays, that far more page views that this site has gotten over the last 8 years. Amazing to think just how much more rpevalenet spam is than people when it comes to a blog like bavatuesdays. In some ways, there is something about spam that is both horrific and reassuring. Horrific that if we didn’t have something like Akismet this blog would be impossible to maintain—who could manage sifting through millions of spam? And Akismet seems like a thin veil of protection at times.

    On the other hand, my first comments on the bava were spammers, and before I knew better they actually encouraged me to keep writing because I thought they were actual people. The famnexdo commenters 🙂 In fact, I would love to have a Nitz like comment bot for my students early on that bots a few comments for them early and often in the semester, that would make a huge difference 🙂 Also, spammers are the ones who created the FeedWordPress plugin we use for ds106—there is a thin line between spam and us, kinda like the sheep in aisle 9!

  5. Famnexdo reminds me of course of Jean Baudrillard’s idea of the simulacrum — the “copy of the thing that does not exist” which I believe was inspired by Dick. Both Dick and Baudrillard have this fascination with symbols pointing to such complex chains of symbols that they no longer connect to any external reality. Famnexdo is a simulation of a family that copies, in some sense, the attitudes of a “real” family; but in turn its reactions shape the real family, which slowly becomes a reflection of a copy. Eventually the distinction between the real and the copy disappears. There is no real and there is no copy, just symbols pointing to symbols.

    I think a lot about the simulacrum with music. The New Pornographers are a great example of a band which sounds very retro, and when you first listen to them you interpret them as a throwback As you start to think about it though, you start asking — a throwback to what? There’s nothing like the New Pornographers in the spots in the 50s or 60s or 70s you’d expect to find it (in the 80s we could perhaps point to the obscure band Game Theory as precedent, but that was a “retro” play then as well).

    So what is this then? It’s a copy not of music, but rather a copy of an anachronistic memory of music. It’s a copy of a past changed by the present. We hear the 1964 Beatles through the lens of Outkasts “Hey Ya” whether we like it or not. And that newly created sound of the Beatles then reaches forward again to influence new copies.

    But I guess my point is that we’re at a juncture where the idea that there is/was a real Beatles is naive. We want to use historical order to prove that the Beatles influenced OutKkst and not the other way around, but it’s fruitless, because in the present it all exists at once. It’s that hauntology idea — we think that the past haunts the present, and it does, but it’s certainly equally true that the present haunts the past.

    This comment got far off track, but maybe bringing it back is that in a world of pure symbolic relation, history and space lose their primacy in determining the order of things. There’s no grounded reality to cling to, and no way of saying that Andre 3000 didn’t inspire “She Loves You” or that the desk and I are separate things. The densely interwoven web of symbolic relation swallows any concept of cause and effect, original and copy, etc. We become fundamentally ungrounded, overwhelmed by chains of cultural symbols turning back upon themselves….

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