it’s Palmer Eldritch’s world, we’re just living in it

I’m teaching Philip K Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch right now, and in my introductory comments I mentioned that one of the curious things about this book so full of fear and anxiety is the complete absence of what would have been, at the time of the book’s publication in 1965, the most common source of fear and anxiety: the Cold War, and the possibility that it would erupt into a very hot nuclear one. As Dick imagines the world of 2016, all of that has somehow been resolved or faded into insignificance. What has happened instead is a kind of unspoken and largely unacknowledged collaboration between the United Nations, which seems to be the only government that’s functioning, and what we have recently learned to call surveillance capitalism. It’s the UN that forces people to leave the overcrowded and overheated earth to live at a subsistence level on colonies elsewhere in the solar system, and it’s also the UN that turns a blind eye to the “pushers” who sell to the colonists the drugs they need to make their miserable experience tolerable. Symbiosis. 

When people talk about Dick as a prophetic writer, this is the kind of thing they have in mind: an ability to envision from 1965 not a continuation of that time’s politics but instead a tacit union between the interests of government and the interests of the world’s most powerful corporations.

But Dick takes his anticipations to another level, a level that I am especially interested in. It is of course famously difficult to say exactly what happens in this novel, because the essential question that the major characters have is always: What is actually happening? But at least one major potential timeline, perhaps the most likely timeline, tells a story like this: Palmer Eldritch is a titan of capitalism, in many respects the Jeff Bezos of this world, and he travels to Proxima Centauri on a quest that is ambiguous in character but certainly involves financial motives. Eldritch discovers on Proxima Centauri a substance that the sentient beings of that solar system use in their religious rituals — a substance he thinks he can manufacture and sell and thereby win a victory over the currently dominant corporation called PP Layouts. But on his return from the Proxima system he is — well, perhaps the word is possessed by a sentient creature from some other part of the galaxy. And this creature is at least for a time interested in distributing its consciousness, through the mediation of Palmer Eldritch and the substance he has discovered, into the consciousness of human beings.

I said in an earlier post that I am interested in demonology, and that adds to my fascination with this novel. Because Dick is imagining what might happen if an unprecedentedly powerful union of government and surveillance capitalism is taken over by what might fairly be called a demonic power. Now, you might say that what Dick describes is not a demon, but simply a creature dramatically more powerful than we are and capable of imposing its will upon us. I call that a distinction without a difference. This is, it seems to me, a sort of Foucauldian image a few years ahead of Foucault’s key works on power and domination, a picture of a world in which powers that we may be tempted to call supernatural are disseminated through the existing structures of the neoliberal order. And it doesn’t look pretty.

Of course, this is not the only possible explanation of what is happening in the book. It is certainly possible that there is no alien being possessing Palmer Eldritch; rather, Eldritch himself has, through a combination of economic leverage and biotechnology, assumed equivalent powers. That is, it may be possible for surveillance capitalism to generate its own demons. Whether this is a better or worse fate than the one I previously described I leave as an exercise for the reader.

April 8, 2021

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