“The shock of dysrecognition”: Psychiatry and Psychosis in Philip K. Dick’s Life and Fiction

Reproduced below is a paper that I prepared for ‘World’s Out of Joint: The First International Philip K. Dick Conference’, which took place in Dortmund in late 2012 – and at which I spoke alongside theorists and writers as esteemed as Laurence Rickels, Erik Davis, and PKD specialist Umberto Rossi. I was thrilled to present this paper at the conference in a panel with Erik Davis and James Burton.

I include a few photographs of me speaking at the event throughout the article, below. (Photography credit: Umberto Rossi, 2012)


“The shock of dysrecognition”1:

Toward the identification of a philosophy of psychiatry, psychosis and drugs in the life and writing of Philip K. Dick


I. PKD as a ‘writer on drugs’

Philip K. Dick’s reputation as a “drug-addled nut”2 (as it has so been put by Lawrence Sutin, one of Dick’s biographers)—that is, as a writer who was often under the influence of drugs—sometimes seems to obfuscate Dick’s qualities as a science-fiction writer, and as a biopolitical thinker, concerned with such issues as psychiatry, psychosis, the dangers of drugs and the political ramifications of their regulation, design and control. Given that Dick’s fictional narratives, set in unfamiliar worlds, seem enough in and of themselves to occupy and satisfy the limits of the reader’s imagination, surely, the avid reader might ask, why should Dick’s own personal habits—his use of drugs for instance—be seen as either equally or as more illuminating than the conceptual and narrative material of the science-fiction? This is a valid question, but, nevertheless, the thematics of Dick’s ‘fictionalizing philosophy’3 (the highly imaginative, ironic, ludic, humorous and sometimes moralistic nature of his novels; the warped, distorted, multi-dimensional spaces in which his stories unfold; the frenzied pace at which they progress) suggest that, when we read a Dick novel or story, we are reading a writer who is certainly atypical and different to his peers, both in science-fiction and in literature more generally, in that Dick’s writing seems to invite some curiosity about his life and his about his particular and personal practices and philosophies as a professional writer, drug-user, (and, perhaps, as an amateur epistemologist). Moreover, it is important to make a note of the possibility that Dick’s ‘drug-addled’ reputation is liable to a certain misconstrual in which Dick may be regarded a hedonist and or as a hopeless ‘drug-addict’, although this is not quite so. While Dick was certainly a heavy drug-user, he did not ultimately think about the use, or misuse of drugs in a positive way, and this important development in his thinking coloured the roles that drugs were to play in his fiction—as tropes variously of terror, malevolence and disillusionment— among others, from around 1971 and onward. It may be fair to say that by about 1971 Dick had disavowed the belief—should he have ever truly avowed it—that using illicit drugs offered properly positive benefits to their users; and his concession or ascription to this belief and to the fact that certain drugs could have very damaging effects on the human body is made clear in the Author’s Note of A Scanner Darkly. In any case, it remains true that Dick used many drugs throughout his life, and it is thus necessary, I shall argue, that scholars of Dick’s work must grapple with and attempt to offer some clarity about the influence and effects of these drugs on Dick’s life, philosophy, writing and ideas.

In a way that is in some ways resonant and in other ways discordant with William James’ scepticism about the so-called “medical materialism” that was espoused by the medical men of the 1900s (and under the rubric of which the doctors admonished ‘neurological-determinism’, which sought to explain-away Saint Paul’s ‘road-to-Damascus visions’ simply as a “discharging lesions of the occipital cortex”, or as an epileptic—or ‘temporal-lobe epileptic’—seizure) Dick, throughout his work, seems to wish to bring into focus—sometimes cynically, and sometimes very seriously and prescriptively—the problematic zone in which mystical and visionary, as well as psychopathological and biochemical experiences of the world could be explained by psychiatry and by the mind sciences: that is, as the effects  or symptoms of chemical alterations in the brain. Following his own experiences with and treatment by psychiatrists, Dick’s growing interest in the diagnosis and classification of mental and mood disorderd began to reify, and his novels begin to subtly elaborate on his implicit interest in a psychochemical determinism, which, as a dystopian theme, seems to characterise many of his post-1971 oeuvre in some way or other.

To begin discussing Dick’s relationship with drugs and psychiatry, we should perhaps firstly address a crucial question: namely, why should we examine Dick’s drug use? One reason I propose is that the extent to which the tékhne (or the tékhne latrike4 ) of medicine and of drugs may be seen to facilitate the production of a particular mode of literary or artistic expression a classic type of enquiry in humanities scholarship; just as there are numerous scholarly volumes dedicated to examining the influence of, for example, the printing press5 or the computer6  on certain co-emergent, modes of literary and artistic expression production, we may undertake, by analogy, with a similar theoretical and scholarly legitimacy, an examination of the effects of the emergence of certain drugs, and their use by a writer such as Dick, and the co-emergence of his production of a certain form of his literary writing and expression.7 A second and more specific reason I propose to justify this project is that Dick’s drug-use and his drug philosophy were both specific and original in their manifestations. Speaking in broadly historical terms, Dick’s view of drugs does not quite seem compatible with the camp of psychedelic pseudo-advocates and activists made up of writers such as Ken Kesey or William Burroughs and others of the counter-culture revolution whose historical timeframe was largely subsequent to (and ‘out of joint’ with) Dick’s own timeframe and coming to popularity. Nor can we really say that Dick’s views are properly comparable to expert psychiatrists or psychologists such as Humphry Osmond or R.D. Laing. It is clear that Dick is not conventionally understood as an intellectual or as a philosophical enquirer into psychiatry in the order of Aldous Huxley or William James (although he arguably shares more in common with these writers than the others I have mentioned). Rather, Dick sits in a stranger and more singular place: that of the philosophical fantasist, the (covert) political critic and, perhaps somewhat unexpectedly, the ‘right-hand-man’ of the psychiatric diagnostician, especially in the years following 1971.8 This position makes Dick’s approach to drugs and drug-use particularly fruitful to investigate and to examine because, with Dick, we find a highly imaginative storyteller and drug-user who is at once also an incredibly curious, diligent, and certainly intelligent (although somewhat ‘garage-philosophical’9), student of psychiatric disorder.

Why should we not, then, examine Dick’s drug-use (or rather what should we not do if we do so examine it)? One of the pitfalls in so examining Dick’s drug-use would be to explicitly or implicitly ascribe or attribute Dick’s speculative and fictional imagination simply to his drug-use or to the ‘lines-of-flight’ commenced thereby. Here, one might run the risk of proposing, explicitly or implicitly, a form of psychochemical determinism to explain Dick’s literary, imaginary, and philosophical abilities.10 To deal with this, however, I argue that it is better to read Dick’s engrossed yet ambivalent view of technology—redolent throughout his novels—as also applying to his characterisation of drugs. And while this is an observation we can read into Dick’s fiction, knowing, as we do, that Dick’s drug-use was profound, it may also be regarded as a lesson or teaching that Dick’s ‘fictionalizing-philosophy’ offers to us, which we may well have inducted from his fiction. With specific respect to psychoactive drugs and governmental society, Dick’s novels—similarly but also differently to Huxley’s Brave New World—demonstrate the end-game of population control by psychochemical regulation. However, whereas Huxley’s novel is a chilling and cold vision of government population control, Dick’s ideas, throughout his fiction, are more often cast in more ironic context and with more amusing characters and events, offering a vision of society that is a parody of post-capitalism: that is, a kind of ludic and posthuman critique of that market which signals Dick’s own attention to money and economics as central to the regulation and legitimation and delegitimation of certain kinds of technologies and drug-uses.

Avita Ronnel has eloquently identified the strong link between electronic culture and drug culture in Dick’s novels.11 These cultures are compatible and coextensive in Dick’s fiction precisely because Dick writes about pharmaceuticals and drugs synaesthetically: that is, like technologies (and as The Three Stigmata of Plamer Eldritch12 attests), drugs affect and alter the senses, and can be put to specific uses, both by their users and their creators (or designers). While very much imperfect, certain fictional drugs of Dick’s authorial creation—like Can-D and Chew-Z—and their link with other technologies—with the Perky Pat Layouts, for instance—intuit this sense in which substances are developed as technologies and are used not simply to bring about a set of biochemical reactions, but to enable a spatial and multimodal sensorial engagement with the natural and the technological world(s). In Dick’s novels, as I will elaborate in a moment, such meaningful engagements take place not simply with the world at large or in the minds of drug-users, but specifically as, and in connection with certain digital and mechanical technologies.

While we should avoid overemphasising the role of drugs in Dick’s literary and imaginary ability, then, the reality of Dick’s drug-use, and the reality of those lessons that his use of drugs bestowed on him and his writing, should not altogether be dismissed in considering the scope of the ideas and the nature of their presentation in his fiction. Indeed, not only should the effects of the drugs Dick used (primarily methedrine, but also hallucinogens, speed, and even ‘heroic’ doses of Vitamin C13) be accounted for in terms of their influence on Dick’s understanding of space and time, and his mental activity (and on his sometimes-states of mental disorder); it is worth also considering the way in which drugs are described in Dick’s novels.

While I will only offer a very cursory sketch of my own research approach today, the way in which I have been going about examining Dick’s drug use in my thesis project has involved (i) examining episodes in Dick’s novels in which the subject(s) of drugs and psychosis are explored, and (ii) examining remarks made by Dick in interviews regarding his own drug-use and his illustration of drugs in his work. Within this methodology, my key interests have been (i) the link between drugs, technology and literary production, and (ii) the connection between classical psychotomimetic drugs and amphetamines with psychosis, visual perception, and literary sensibility, and (iii) the broader connections drawn in contemporary studies in psychiatry between psychosis and temporal perception or so-called “mental time travel”, and the ramifications of this theoretical connection for conceptualisations of Dick’s fiction and literary method. Apart from my own work, I also note the variety of methodological frameworks that have developed around examining writers on drugs, as follows.

Derrida’s deconstructive modality in his essay ‘Plato’s Pharmacy’14 (a reading of Plato’s Phaedrus) offers a number of relatively original and influential post-structuralist insights into the question of how writing itself might be linked with a intoxicated or ‘drugged’ phenomenology; and his redeployment of Plato’s term ‘pharmakon’ to describe the double-faced nature of both ‘writing’ a logos and ‘creating’ a pharmacy gestures at the interconnections Derrida wishes to elaborate as between the two regimes or praxes: between ‘doing drugs’ and ‘doing’ (or making) texts.’ In addition, Dale Pendell and Richard Doyle have each written a number of books15 which focus upon the connection between drugs and rhetoric, and these are instructive for work on perceptually-altered or ‘poisoned’ literary engagements with the world. Similarly, Sadie Plant’s Writing On Drugs16 and Marcus Boon’s Roads of Excess17 each offer historical and biographical approaches to the subject of writers and writing on drugs, while David Lenson’s On Drugs offers a literary- ontological approach to, and a phenomenology of the subject who uses—and writes— on drugs, including a brief analysis of A Scanner Darkly.18 Avita Ronnel’s ‘narcoanalysis’19 and Deleuze and Guattari’s ‘pharmacoanalysis’20 each represent original and politically strident methodologies within two rather larger and more philosophical projects on the subject of drugs and writing. Various other essays, including those by Paul Youngquist21 and Anthony Enns22, are also directly relevant to my study of Dick, drugs and mental illness, as well as, respectively, to media studies and science-fiction, and to the capitalist market-economy and the drug war.


II. Dick’s (p)recognition of ‘technical psychosis’

For today, I am interested in conveying one aspect of Dick’s fiction and drugs that I find particularly interesting in light of the scientific—that is, the psychiatric—research on visual and aural experiences of psychosis and their connection with mechanical, technical or technological delusions or psychotic breaks. To begin with, I note the presence in Dick’s fiction—especially in Three Stigmata—of visions of biomechanical prostheses that are augured by (and which are indicative to the user of) the fact that a drug-induced vision or experience is taking, or has taken place. Thus, Leo Bulero, toward the end of Three Stigmata, expresses his uneasiness about the fact that he is seeing, in those around him (including in “women” such as the airplane “stewardess”) resonances or visions of the Palmer Eldritch’s ‘three stigmata’: his robotic hand, his “dead, artificial eyes”, and his steel teeth and jaw. As Bulero hypothesises, these are visions probably based on the ongoing effects of “that one dose” of Chew-Z from which he “never came back”; not a now-permanent psychotic state into he has been plunged by Eldritch and his drug.23 We as readers, however, are not so sure that Bulero’s visions will abate. With this speculative cryptogram—is it the drug itself immortal? Forever psychoactive?—Dick teaches us about the limits of perception and the indistinguishability of reality from psychosis. The denouement of the novel prompts us to ask: what is a psychotic hallucination and how can we be certain that it is not a shared, ‘consensus-reality’ experience perceptible to all? For readers of Dick (as well as for characters in Dick’s worlds) there is “convulsive shock”—as kind of shock Dick once described as the “shock of dysrecognition”—about the fact the world we encounter on drugs, or which is encountered by the doped-up characters in Dick’s novels, is a world that is “conceptually” detached and “dislocated” from that with which are ordinarily familiar.24 As a writer and as a sometimes-experimentalist in altered-states, Dick may have seen his role as an amplifier of the power or electrical current by which a shock of this kind could be produced in his readers.

The anxiety and paranoia Dick illustrates in this part of the text about these moments of indeterminacy—between the real and the hallucinal—may be thought of as stemming from Dick’s own personal paranoia about hallucinogens and psychotomimetic drugs following his experience with LSD in 1974 (more on which anon), but more globally from his epistemological position about psychiatry and the mind (qua his intrinsic ‘biopolitical’ concerns), and his attendant role as, paradoxically, a ‘diagnostic fantasist’: that is, as an author of fantasy fiction which sometimes seems concerned to problematise and express the limitations which beset the clear classification of mental disorders or mental states. The seemingly impossible task of identifying and classifying—far from ‘curing’—mental disorders and mental states—and the way in which drugs seem to reify and compound this impossibility—is at the core of Dick’s apprehensiveness about drugs and psychosis. Similarly, Dick’s fiction often evokes the sense in which he was alert to or dubious of the reducibility of the human subject to a set of symptoms, epiphenomena, physical exams, and clinical diagnostics.

And so, while Dick may be interpreted as maintaining an intellectual position which is compatible with critical psychiatry,25 this critical position is conveyed to us in not so much by the subjects and material of his science-fiction as in the deeply parodic and highly thematised discursive style in which he writes. Dick’s ever-present sardonicism and his recurring critiques of the capitalist market (often qua the pharmaceutical regime and the illicit black-market for street drugs) also elicit a view, as Youngquist notes, that the market-economy shares strange similarities with the licit drug market and with market-deals more generally.26 This may be based on Dick’s more cynical position about humans in a capitalist milieu which, when such societies are characterised in Dick’s novels (as Christopher Palmer has suggested) are peopled by social groups and individuals who are at once highly “Darwinian and Machiavellian”: self-interested, deceitful, malevolent, and deceptive—and this is especially so in the context of drug-use and drug-dependency such as we find in A Scanner Darkly.27

The extent to which Dick’s literary characterisations of disassociation, disillusionment and delusion—almost always presented within a highly technologised society—seem to parallel certain descriptions that, in the last two decades, have emerged within studies in psychiatry about visualisations during psychosis, gives some authority to the assertion that Dick’s narratives about drugs and psychosis conveyed something of what is true or ‘real’ about these experiences. In a study on ‘technical’ or ‘technological’ delusions, for instance, Alfred Kraus notes the oft-reported ‘technical’ and ‘technological’ nature of certain visual and aural hallucinations and experiences during certain episodes of primary and secondary psychosis, and how, for individuals in these states, perceptual experience may be concentrated upon, or reduced to, one or two senses, as well as generative of highly imaginative or “made-up” perceptions about being controlled or influenced by an outside force. As Kraus explains of such patients,

[t]hese are mainly patients with so-called ‘made up’ experiences, experiences of being influenced in their will, their thinking, and their feeling in a positive or negative way, as well as being explored by other technical means [such as by] electric streams, different kinds of rays, like X-rays, laser, short-, medium-, and long-waves, ultra-short waves, UHF- and VHF-rays, infra-red and micro-waves, as well as different kinds of electromagnetic fields (EMF rays), and so on.28

These technical processes are, as Kraus continues,

different from non-technical ‘natural processes’, especially if we see them from the aspect of temporality and spatiality…[they] are mostly monomodal, whether acoustical or tactile, etc., whereas normal perceptions are usually mutlimodal, e.g. what we see we can also touch and smell.29

As episodes that may traverse and fix upon singular and specific human senses, then, the psychotic experience that Kraus describes seems to share some similarities with synaesthesia: the experience in which one sense—hearing, seeing, tasting, for instance—is experienced or understood as another sense-stimulation altogether. In this context, we need only think of Palmer Eldritch’s three stigmata as metonymies or synecdoches for these mechanised and ‘sense-localised’ or ‘monomodal’ aspects of the human sensorium and—more broadly—we may think of each of Eldritch’s three stigmata not simply as significations of certain kinds of experience (the ‘dead eyes’ stand for visual sense, the ‘mechanical jaw’ for taste and speech, and the ‘robotic hand’ for touch), but as reflective of the Bulero’s own hallucination on those senses. Thus, Bulero’s visions may be reflective of sense-localised technical hallucinations which, intriguingly, do not simply take place in those sense organs of the psychotic, but are rather displaced and experienced as visual hallucinations which appear as images conveying the operationality of technical sense-organs in others.

Of course, it is not only in Dick’s fiction and in the psychiatric literature that we encounter descriptions of psychosis as technical or technicised episodes. Studies in medical and nursing journals on intensive care unit (or ‘ICU’) psychosis or delirium—that is, psychotic episodes which take place in the context of these units, usually in respect of an individual undergoing surgery on an operating bed—are studies of a serious psychotic mental disease from which some patients do not recover.30  In these breaks, patients are said to begin to see their doctors as ‘Palmer Eldritch-esque’ controllers of their bodies and their subjective experience, “typically” having “harrowing” hallucinations and “paranoid delusions” in which they are violently attacked, probed, and sexually assaulted by their nurses, doctors, or by other malevolent forces.31

Similarly, Ronell, in The Telephone Book: Technology, Schizophrenia, Electric Speech, describes how the technology of the telephone itself may be associated with the experience of aural hallucinations by schizophrenic individuals and how such delusions became more relatable to psychiatrists as telephones became more prevalent in society. In the sense that Ronnel suggests, it is clear technology and the technicisation of human life thus plays a role in the metaphorical or primary means by which some human subjects experience psychotic episodes. And as Kraus notes, “It is not by chance that people with schizophrenia so often use technical metaphors to explain their schizophrenic experiences. There must be some analogy between the characteristics of technical processes…and the way patients experience their altered psychotic self and world.”32

The possibility of the perception of humans as ‘mechanical’ subjects when under the influence of a drug, moreover, did not begin with Dick’s characterisation of the malevolent, drug-mogul, Palmer Eldritch. As Marcus Boon intriguingly notes, the visualisation of a person as a robot is especially likely to occur upon the administration of nitrous oxide (‘laughing gas’), which, when it is used as an anaesthetic for surgical procedure (as he suggests, describing Theodore Dreiser’s play, Laughing Gas) may lead the individual to experience themselves and others as “merely mechanical puppets, manipulated by external forces.” As Boon continues, “It is the revelation of the mechanical nature of human activity, guided by transcendental forces that is the source of laughing gas’s laughter.”33) Just as Dick explores in Three Stigmata, the revelation that humans are mechanical can be disturbing, and yet also strangely familiar, and even funny. And if it is humorous, it is perhaps because it is so unexpected: we are not machines, but organisms. But with drugs, and with other technics, and with Dick, the distinction, so clear in our everyday minds, between human and machine, becomes untenable in a way that is at once humorous and terrifying, familiar and shocking.


III. The druggy intersections between Dick’s life and fiction

In a very candid 1977 interview with the writer Uwe Anton and Werner Fuchs, Dick offered a typically twisted and dualistic characterisation of his writing. It falls, he claimed, into “two degrees: writing done under the influence of drugs, and writing done when not under the influence of drugs.” As Dick was quick to qualify, however, in the latter case—where he did not take drugs—he would then “write about drugs.”34 Thus, here Dick offers a sense in which drugs are ineluctably tethered to his writerly modality. Offering no clear explanation for his impulsion to write about drugs, Dick instead places his habit into a vertiginous (a)logic of his own economic needs and the insubstantial market demand of writing science-fiction: that is, the logic of the market economy and the market-deal. As Dick explains, he took amphetamines “to write so much”, and he wrote so much because “the pay rates [for writing fiction] were so low.”35 It is perhaps illuminating, then, that Dick uses the word “degrees” to explain the distinction between these two kinds of writing in that “degrees” is itself a technical and mathematical word, gesturing at both the temperature, unit-measurements for his books (and dollars) as well as the arc or angle of the works’ narratives. Taking, according to Boon, Semoxydrine—a central nervous stimulant and sympathomimetic with actions similar to dextroamphatamine—as well as, according to Emmanuel Carrère, up to one thousand tablets of Methedrine–a brand name for prescription methamphetamine—per week, Dick’s amphetamine use was no doubt prolific.36

Notwithstanding their usefulness for his writing, though, by 1971, following Dick’s evaluation and brief institutionalisation at the Hoover pavilion hospital at Stanford, Dick decided that he no longer needed to use these amphetamines to write so prolifically. Unlike his 1977 remarks in which he attributes his decision to give up these stimulants to his becoming financially stable, Dick, in an interview of a year earlier (1976), explains that his decision was based on a medical and biochemical finding whose veracity he would feel was demonstrated to his satisfaction by his subsequent experiments with abstention. Dick concluded that if they had ever been working, then the ‘amphetamines no longer worked.’ As Dick notes of his medical report: “they said I was taking it for a placebo effect of some kind. They couldn’t figure out [how] blood tests showed that the amphetamines never reached my brain. They were baffled for the reason I was taking them [because they were having no actual effect]. So I stopped taking them.”37 While the seriousness of Dick’s admission to the hospital, and the procedure of having a physical exam and a blood test may well have been enough on its own to prompt Dick to decide to ‘kick’ the speed, his comments reflect a certain attitude, held by him, and by the ‘baffled’ physician, which seems to represent his interest in subscribing to the biomedical explanation (or lack thereof), in treating, experimenting and learning about himself diagnostically; a desire to understand himself, from the outside, as the subject of an experiment or even as a curiosity of, or in nature. Dick, of course, was satisfied that the doctors were right in that after he stopped taking the amphetamines, he worked “the same way.” As Dick explained, now without amphetamines:

 I work at breakneck speed, and then I just crash for days. I literally sleep for days afterward, and I go through the entire cycle, and give all the evidence of having been wired all the time I was writing, and then crash afterward, and yet there’s no amphetamines involved whatsoever. And this book I just sold to Bantam I wrote in twelve days.38

Dick’s developing belief that a drug could possibly be ineffectual as a physical compound and that it could—in an important sense—be ‘misread’ or misrecognised by the user as an effective, psychoactive compound, even though  it was effectively a ‘placebo’ drug, in that the compound would not pass the blood-brain barrier and enter the brain—quite probably had a significant influence on his writing of the Three Stigmata. As his first book dealing explicitly with a kind of hallucinogen, the novel dramatizes the idea that the effects of the drug will largely be determined by what is expected of them by the user and by the way in which they used these compounds, even in cases where the drug may have no psychoactive effects whatsoever.

While, as Dick claims, nothing he wrote was written under the influence of psychedelics (as he claims, he “had not even seen psychedelic drugs” before writing Three Stigmata39—his parodic naming of the drugs Can-D and Chew-Z indicates the real sense in which Dick began to elaborate a view of drugs as highly politicised cultural artifacts whose branding, naming, and other related socio-cultural significations could be seen as characteristics of commodities which did not or could not deliver on their marketing and promises as products. Similarly, Dick shows how the influence and success of this branding could be highly determinative of the actually experienced psychoactive effects of these compounds. Thus, as Three Stigmata illustrates, those who eat Can-D play with the Perky Pat Layouts, returning to a ‘candy’-like treat of participating in childsplay, whereas those who ‘choose’ or ‘chew’ Chew-Z are demanding, choosy consumers—so choosy, in fact, that Bob Mayerson, Eldritch’s first customer of Chew-Z, while under the influence of the drug, wishes precisely for the one thing that Eldritch’s immortalising tonic cannot offer: death. In this sense, Three Stigmata elaborates on the theoretical model of hallucinogenic or psychedelic drugs that was developed by Timothy Leary in his well-known structuration of the psychedelic experience: that the experience of these drugs are based on the (mental) ‘set’ of the user and (contextual) ‘setting’ in which they were used. More than this, however, Dick’s allusion to the influence of packaging, sloganeering and (brand-)naming of the drugs as determinative of its effects, registers Dick’s original conceptualisation of hallucinogens as drugs which can take on, and have cross-frequency with the expectations of the user, even when such expectations are unrealistic, or are impossible, biochemically, to be realised. Thus, Three Stigmata is also suggestive of the sense in which psychedelics may generate potentially placebo-like or misread experiences in users for which there may be no biochemical explanation. In this case, the user is potentially psychotic; like Leo Bulero, the user becomes stuck in a bind as they attempt to distinguish between the reality and unreality of their visions and other delusional perceptions.

In typical forward-looking fashion, of course, Dick, in the 1976 interview, would attribute his characterisation of Can-D and Chew-Z to his own possibly precognitive abilities. Thus, Dick’s hypothetical portrait of drug-addled and mentally-intoxicated powerless Leo Bulero in Three Stigmata is explained in Dick’s interview comments not to have been inspired by his new understanding, having abstained from using amphetamines, that drugs can indeed take on the expectations and predispositions of the user, but rather, as evidence of Dick’s previsualisation or precognition of the very real ‘bad trip’ that he was to later experience, in 1974, when using LSD for the first time. This experience, as Dick was later to state, was the trip in which he—notwithstanding his claim to have never written anything on psychedelics—did produce a written work while on a psychedelic (LSD): namely, a single page of writing, primarily in Latin, but with some sanskrit, for which, as Dick lamentably and sardonically quipped, returning to his attitude that drugs are a fuel for his writing and for cashflow, there was “not much [of a] market….”40

Returning to Dick’s heroic use of amphetamines, then, it is interesting to note that in the various 1950s advertisements for Methedrine (a brand of methamphetamine), there is a specific link expressed between the effects of this drug and the ability for psychiatrists who administer the compound “through “intravenous injection”41 to obtain a “spontaneous free flow of speech” from such patients. This relation between language and the ‘flow of speech’ and amphetamines was certainly not lost on Dick, who would humorously dramatise this very relation between methamphetamine and speaking in a narrative exchange between Charles Freck and Jim Barris in A Scanner Darkly.

Thus, in this exchange, which is imagined by Freck as a “put-on” (a prank) between himself and Barris, we are offered a narrativised snapshot of a variety of Dick’s drug-related thematic preoccupations. This spontaneous riffing on the relation between meth, money, social-manipulation and paronomasia (wordplay) serves as an example of Dick’s philosophy about drugs, writing, and the capitalist economy. In the “preview fantasy” offered by Freck of a real conversation that will take place at a later stage, Freck plans the way in which he will go about causally suggesting to Barris that he has bought a “methedrine plant”—employing a contrivance or pun on the word ‘plant’ which is intended to confuse Barris in that it may mean both an organic, natural organism as well as a manufacturing facility for drugs or chemicals. Anticipating that Berris will promptly admonish him for wrongfully thinking that amphetamines—or “Bennys”—are somehow natural organisms and that they ‘grow on trees,’ the dialogues is premised on Freck’s assumption of a ‘dysrecognition’ by Barris of the word ‘plant’:

FRECK: (Casually) I bought a methedrine plant today.

BARRIS: (With a snotty expression on his face) Methedrine is a benny, like speed; it’s crank, it’s crystal, it’s amphetamine, it’s made synthetically in a lab. So it isn’t organic, like pot. There’s no such thing as a methedrine plant like there is a pot plant.

FRECK: (Springing the punch line on him) I mean I inherited forty thousand from an uncle and purchased a plant hidden in this dude’s garage where he makes methedrine. I mean, he’s got a factory there where he manufactures meth. Plant in the sense of—

He couldn’t get it phrased exactly right as he drove, because part of his mind stayed on the vehicles around him and the lights; but he knew when he got to Bob’s house he’d lay it on Barris super good.42

The subtle allusion here to a kind of drug (methamphetamine) that ‘does not grow on trees’ underlines the fact that neither (so the idiom goes) does ‘money grow on trees.’ Thus, the entirety of this exchange—which is only imagined by Barris—has the effect of reinforcing the dynamic of the capitalistic market-deal: a sales excange in which plays-on-words, trickery, and the usually schlocky or hackneyed catchiness of a ‘punch-’ or ‘tag-’ line—as with the advertisements of the 1950s for Methedrine and other drugs—always seeks to memorialise, to market, and to traffic the artefact or the product which is its subject.

Of course, the parodic exchange that follows Freck’s rehearsal—his “preview fantasy” of the “put-on”—serves only to further express the dynamic, unpredictable and, for Dick, the ultimately malevolent or Machiavellian structure of the market deal in the capitalist economy. But rather than ‘taking the bait’ of Freck’s ploy, Barris promptly assumes what was for Freck the seemingly unlikelier meaning of the word “plant.” Thus, believing—sincerely or not—that the ‘meth plant’ to which Freck refers is in fact a meth lab, Barris, somewhat supercilious, then demands more information from the now dithering Freck: “How big a plant?” (128)
Then observing Freck’s discombulated way of speaking, and his general incoherency, Barris offers Freck the following advice: “…if you drop or shoot to much meth you start talking Donald Duck [and] nobody can understand you.” (129) Here, Freck simultaneously becomes the hyperreal voice of the methhead who has done “too much” as well as the character—the nonhuman—that confuses and confounds those around him. He is the cartoon that nobody can understand; an ‘undiagnosable’ (ab)user of drugs, bordering on psychosis. Of course, in the imaginary of Disney, it is not so much the tone or the sound of Donald Duck’s voice as the incomprehensibility as a cartoon who speaks in a kind of reappropriated human English language that perturbs Barris, and which underlines the alterity of the methhead. The language of the over-using or abusing methhead must, like Donald Duck’s voice, be decoded and translated in ways that are regressive, which must be treated (and hence the appropriateness of Donald Duck as a metonymy for the methhead). And yet, as Dick’s choice of Donald Duck as a metonym for the figure of the methhead seems to acknowledge, this figure is also perhaps sometimes amusing, like a cartoon. Accordingly, precisely as the cartoon duck who speaks in the English language is untenable other than in a short sequence of animated fiction, so the methhead who has “done too much” cannot maintain the attention of his audience or his sympathisers for too long, no matter how clever or how prearranged the punch line, the rouse, or the ‘put-on.’ As Barris then acknowledges in a phrase that Dick might well have been expressing to himself, following hid decision to abstain from amphetamines, those who do “too much” run the risk that they will become deluded, and suffer such ailments that “nobody will understand…” them.


I will briefly finish my talk with the point with which I began it, which suggested Dick’s increasing subscription to or adoption of a belief, in his later writing, in what might be called ‘psychochemical determinism.’43 In a conversation Dick has with himself in The Exegesis about psychosis and drugs, for instance—one which concludes, incidentally, with Dick’s identification of his lost twin sister Jane as VALIS (that is, as the ‘Vast Active Living intelligence System’ the concept of which Dick developed in his 1981 novel of the same name)—Dick spends a lot of this conversation attributing his episodes of “mania” and “manic depression” to a certain “chemical toxicity” caused by “lithium” and the water soluble (“ws”) vitamins which he had begun to consume following his Hoover Pavilion (“OCMH”) diagnosis. As Dick writes,


Q:   Why would I seek the experience again if it was repressed contents breaking through? (…)

A:   I was occluded to my own best interests. I liked being high.

Q:   Oh? “high”? Does psychosis equal high?

A:   Mania. I am manic depressive.

Q:   & schizophrenic? One is extraverted & one is introverted. Please clarify.

A:   Mixed or borderline” psychosis.

Q:   No, it was florid schizophrenia with religious coloration. Not satisfactory.

A:   Catatonic excitement, then.

Q:   So the OCMH [Orange County Medical Hospital] diagnosis was incorrect? Not manic depressive?

A:   That is so. Incorrect.

Q:   Why, then, was the onset one in which thought came faster & faster? That is mania.

A:   The lithium would have blocked the mania. I was lithium toxic.

Q:   Then it wasn’t schizophrenia; it was chemical toxicity.

A:   Perhaps. A combination. Plus the orthomolecular ws [water soluble] vitamins.44

It is because of this ongoing tendency in Dick’s writing that readers such as Christopher Palmer have characterised Dick’s writerly mode as ‘diagnostic’ (as well as theological and psychological).45) Moreover, these themes, when not expressed as such a dialogue (or, to be precises, such a monologue) are offered within narratives that are characterised by a sensational zaniness and frivolity—what I have called the ‘ludic’ quality of Dick’s writing—in the context technologised societies in which market capitalism has become overdetermined and exploitative.46 Dick’s foils or prophylaxes against the zaniness of his texts, however, as Palmer has observed, are the theological or metaphysical elements of his works, but also—and more importantly for my project—the psychiatric and psychoanalytic/diagnostic framework within which he writes and thinks and through which Dick offers a range of insights into the development of psychiatry and mental illness. Thus the episteme (or knowledge) on which Dick relies to position his implicit claim for the use of drugs as technics—as a fuel for cashflow or otherwise—may be read as coextensive with his serious interest in, and his deep and ongoing engagement with the psychiatric and mental sciences.47






  1. Philip K. Dick, Beyond Lies The Wub: The collected Stories of Philip K. Dick (Volume 1), Great Britain: Harper Collins, 1987, 10 (preface).
  2. See Sutin, Divine Invasions, New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 1989, 9.
  3. Dick—and it is often quoted—called himself in the Exegesis not a “novelist”, but a “fictionalizing philosopher”; see Philip K. Dick, In Pursuit of Valis: Selections from the Exegesis, ed. Lawrence Sutin (Novato, Calif./Lancaster, Pa.: Underwood-Miller, 1991), 161; Exegesis 075 (1981) (as quoted in Sutin, Divine Invasions, 314).
  4. I employ this term in the sense that the ancient Greeks employed it to refer to medicine as a ‘mechanical art’ (along with music), for example. For a broad discussion of the use of this term by Thomas Kuhn among others, see Robert Araya’s essay: ‘The Outlook of the Tekhne Latrike and the Medical Act to the Third Millennium’, Theoretical Medicine, June: 17(2), 1996, 163-73.
  5. On the effects of the printing press on literature and conciousness, see: Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe (2nd, rev. ed.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005; Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1962.
  6. On the influence of the computer of literary expression and the formation of ‘digital subjects’, see, for instance, N. Katherine Hayles, My Mother Was A Computer: Digital Subjects and Literary Texts, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.
  7. My project thus functions under many of the same restraints identified by Avital Ronell in her exquisite summation of the political and scholarly-political issues that bear upon what she calls the ‘Narcoanalysis’ of literature (in which she describes both an analysis of literature which is itself “compelled” by drugs and an analysis of literature as a kind of drug). See Avital Ronell, Crack Wars: Literature, Addiction, Mania, London: University of Nebraska Press, 1992, passim from 49. My project thus functions under many of the same restraints identified by Avital Ronell in her exquisite summation of the political and scholarly-political issues that bear upon what she calls the ‘Narcoanalysis’ of literature (in which she describes both an analysis of literature which is itself “compelled” by drugs and an analysis of literature as a kind of drug). See Avital Ronell, Crack Wars: Literature, Addiction, Mania, London: University of Nebraska Press, 1992, passim from 49.
  8. As David Lenson points out, Dick’s attitude, as evidenced in the Author’s Note in A Scanner Darkly, had by the time that this book was written (1971) had developed such that Dick now “identifies the drug-users motivation as a wilfull regression to childhood, and an ominous aspect of childhood at that—its ability to recognize danger while in the thrall of play.” David Lenson, On Drugs, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 1995, 85-6.
  9. I borrow this term from Jonathan Lethem who in turn has borrowed it from Erik Davis. See: Philip K. Dick, The Exegesis of Philip K Dick, eds. Pamela Jackson and Jonathan Lethem, New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011, 75.

  10. William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature, 19. I use the term ‘lines of flight’ after Deleuze and Guattari (‘ligne de fuite’) who deployed it to mean a way of  “transforming” multiplicity so as to “flatten all of the multiplicities on a single plane of consistency or exteriority, regardless of their number of dimensions.” See Deleuze and Guattari, 1980. A Thousand Plateaus trans. Brian Massumi, London and New York: Continuum, 2004.
  11. As Ronnell asserts: “If the literature of electronic culture can be located in the works of Phillip K. Dick or William Gibson, in the imaginings of a cyberpunk projection, or a reserve of virtual reality, then it is probable that electronic culture shares a crucial project with drug culture.” Avita Ronnell, Crack Wars, 68.
  12. Henceforth cited as ‘The Three Stigmata’.
  13. For an unrivalled document related to Dick’s drug-use, issue #5 of Perry Kinmann’s Philip K. Dick fanzine, Rouzleweave, presents an exhaustive list of drugs which, according to various of Dick’s biographers, Dick used from the period of 1933 until 1980. Kinman’s hand-written and compendious list offers readers and scholars the opportunity to consider the scope of Dick’s drug-use and to reflect on the piecemeal nature of the biographical scholarship on Dick and drugs. Regarding the availability of this source, correspondence should be addressed to In compiling his list Kinmann relies on the following biographical works on Dick: Lawrence Sutin, Divine Invasions; Gregg Rickman, Philip K. Dick: In His Own Words, California: Fragments West/Valentine Press, 1984; Paul Williams, Only Apparently Real, New York: Arbor House, 1986; Paul Williams (ed.) Philip K. Dick Society Newsletter #13 (photocopied newsletter) California: Philip K. Dick Society, 1987; Gregg Rickman, To the High Castle, Philip K. Dick: A life (1928-1962), Fragments West/The Valentine Press, 1989; D. Scott Apel, Philip K. Dick: The Dream Connection, California: The Permanent Press, 1987.
  14. See Jacques Derrida, ‘Plato’s Pharmacy,’ in Dissemination (trans. by Barbara Johnson), Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1981; Plato, Phaedrus, (trans. by Alexander Nehamas and Paul Woodruff) in Plato: Complete Works, (ed. by John M. Cooper), London: Hackett Publishing Company, 1997.
  15. See Dale Pendell’s ‘Pharmako’ series: Pharmako/Poeia: Plant Powers, Poisons and Herbcraft, California: North Atalnatic Books, 1995; Pharmako/Dynamis: Stimulating Plants, Potions and Herbcraft, California: North Atlantic Books, 2002; and Pharmako/Gnosis: Plant teachers and the Poison Path, California: North Atlantic Books, 2005. See also, for instance, Richard Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy: Sex, Plants and the Evolution of the Noösphere, London: Univesity of Washington Press, 2011.

  16. Sadie Plant, Writing On Drugs, London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1999.
  17. Marcus Boon, The Road of Excess: A History of Writers on Drugs, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002.
  18. David Lenson, On Drugs, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995.
  19. See Avita Ronell, ‘Toward a Narcoanalysis’, (Chapter 2) in Crack Wars, 1992, 47-64.
  20. Gilles Deleuze, A Thousand Plateaus, 248. See also, Anna Powell, ‘Pharmacoanalysis’ (Chapter 2) in Deleuze, Altered States and Film, 54-9 and John Fitzgerald, ‘Pharmacoanalysis: Discourses of hidden drug use,’ (unpublished PhD thesis), Monash University, Melbourne, 2001.
  21. See Paul Youngquist, ‘Score, Scan Schiz: Dick on Drugs,’ Cultural Critique, 44, 2000, 84-110.
  22. See Anthony Enns, ‘Media, Drugs, and Schizphrenia in the Works of Philip K. Dick,’ Science Fiction Studies, 33(1)—‘Technoculture and Science Fiction,’ 2006, 68-88.
  23. Philip K. Dick, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, in Philip K. Dick: Four novels of the 1960s, (ed. Jonathan Letham), United States: The Library of America (Volume 1), 428-9. All subsequent references shall be given in parenthesis and are references to this edition.
  24. See Philip K. Dick, Beyond Lies The Wub: The collected Stories of Philip K. Dick for Dick’s discussion of the definition of science-fiction as generative of this “shock of dysrecognition” (10, preface).
  25. Critical psychiatry has its origin in the 1960s and 1970s as a softer side of the critique of psychiatry that came from within and after the so-called ‘antipsychiatry movement’ of those same decades—a development in the intellectual coteries—spearheaded by such figures as R.D. Laing and Thomas Szasz—about which Dick may or may not have been aware. Dick’s work, however, shares commonalities with the later manifestations of critical psychiatry, even if it only unwittingly expresses the sense of disenfranchisement felt by those in the critical psychiatry circles. As Hopton notes, those who did, and who still identify as critical psychiatrists assert “that the medical model of mental health has led to the marginalization and oppression of service users who resists psychiatry’s diagnostic labels or who do not respond positively to medicalized treatments of their distress.” See John Hopton, ‘The Future of Critical Psychiatry’, Critical Social Policy 86, Volume 26(1), 57-73 (61-2). For a through cultural studies review of the antipsychiatry movement, see Angela Woods, ‘Antipsychiatry: Schizophrenic Experience and the Sublime’ (Chapter 3) in The Sublime Object of Psychiatry: Schizophrenia in Clinical and Cultural Theory, London: Oxford University Press, 2011, 126-144.
  26. See Paul Youngquist, ‘Score, Scan Schiz: Dick on Drugs,’ Cultural Critique, 44, 2000, 84-110.
  27. Christopher Palmer, Philip K. Dick: Exhilaration and Terror of the Postmodern, Liverpool University Press, 2003, 36.
  28. Alfred Kraus, ‘Schizophrenic Delusion and Hallucination as the expression and Consequence of an Alteration of the Existential A Prioris,’ in Man Cheung, Bill Fulford and George graham (eds.),  Reconceiving Schizophrenia, London: Oxford University press, 2006, 102.
  29. Kraus, ‘Schizophrenic Delusion and Hallucination’, 104.
  30. See Tim Wenham et. al., ‘Intensive Care Unit Environment,’ Continuing Education in Anaesthesia, Critical Care and Pain, 9(6), 2009, 178-183; E.W. Ely (et. al.), ‘The Impact of Delirium in the Intensive Care Unit on Hospital Length of Stay,’ Intensive Care Medicine, 27:1, 2001, 892-900.
  31. Cheryl Misak, ‘ICU Psychosis and Patient Autonomy: Some Thoughts from the Inside,’ Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, 30, 2005, 411-430.
  32. Kraus, ‘Schizophrenic Delusion and Hallucination,’ 104-5.
  33. Boon, The Road of Excess, 121. As Boon further notes, Henri Bergson, almost identically, suggested that “the perception of mechanical qualities in human is the source of laughter” (cited in Boon, The Road of Excess, 314, fn. 87.
  34. SF Eye, Number 14, Spring 1996, 37-46 (my emphasis).
  35. SF Eye, Number 14, Spring 1996, 38.
  36. See Boon, The Road of Excess, 206; and Emmanuel Carrère, I am Alive and You Are Dead: A Journey Into the Mind of Philip K. Dick, New York: Picador, 183.
  37. Daniel DePerez, An Interview with Philip K. Dick, Science Fiction Review, No. 19, Vol. 5, no. 3, August 1976, available at, last accessed 28 September 2012.
  38. Daniel DePerez, An Interview with Philip K. Dick, Science Fiction Review.
  39. Daniel DePerez, An Interview with Philip K. Dick, Science Fiction Review. I note Erik Davis’ point—and thank him for it—regarding the falsity of this claim of Dick’s: according to Davis, who I spoke with after delivering this paper, Dick had in fact made an earlier claim to using LSD before writing The Three Stigmata.
  40. Daniel DePerez, An Interview with Philip K. Dick, Science Fiction Review, No. 19, Vol. 5, no. 3, August 1976, available at, last accessed 28 September 2012.
  41. See Nicolas Rasmussen, On Speed: The Many Lives of Amphetamine, New York: New York University Press, 2008, 147-9 (Figure 24).
  42. Philip K. Dick, A Scanner Darkly, New York: Doubleday (First Mariner Books Edition 2011, first published 1977), 127. All subsequent page references are to this edition.
  43. For a discussion of the possible contemporary policy (and biopolitical) ramifications of ‘psychochemical determinism’ for neuroscience and for human knowledge, see Robert H. Blank, Brain Policy: How the Neuroscience will Change Our Live and Our Politics, Washington: Georgetown University Press, 1999, 60-1.
  44. Philip K. Dick, The Exegesis of Philip K Dick Folder 44 (44:63).
  45. Christopher Palmer, Philip K. Dick: Exhilaration and Terror of the Postmodern, 162-3. As Palmer notes, “…among SF writers Dick is also one of the most explicitly diagnostic. When he does not himself classify this or that character as schizophrenic or paranoid or autistic, this or that behaviour as regressive or infantile or insane in some way, he often clearly invites his readers to do so.” (162-3.
  46. For a discussion of Dick’s “zany fantastication” and its relation to Dick’s ‘diagnostication’ and humanism, see Palmer, Philip K. Dick: Exhilaration and Terror of the Postmodern, 162-3.
  47. Beyond his fiction, this engagement was expressed by Dick—perhaps most sincerely—in his 1965 prose essay on schizophrenia and textuality, ‘Schizophrenia and The Book of Changes’, Philip K. Dick Society Newsletter 14 (June 1987): 1-9.

One comment

  1. derrufo says:

    i am thrilled that you are involved in these endeavors… i am a long time fan of pkd material…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *