In 1978, the science fiction author Philip K. Dick wrote and failed to deliver a guest lecture to a class of creative writing students entitled “How to Build a Universe that Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later.” Despite the instructional tone of its title, the lecture gave very little practical advice on the matter. Instead, Dick offered a series of meditations on the concepts and tools of his own trade: language and narrative. Through the manipulation of these tools the state perpetuates a culture of docile consumer capitalism, an ideology of power that teaches children to conform to the arbitrary will of the archetypal police officer—Robert Blake’s Baretta to a 1970s American television audience. Behind this are hidden the motivating MacGuffins of Dick’s writing life, reality and the “authentic humanity.”
Teasing out of real-world history a narrative as fantastical as that of any of his heady science fiction novels, Dick confessed to the audience that he believed he was a secret Christian in historic Roman-occupied Syria, and that the last 2000 years or so of human history were a Satanic illusion designed to try to lead the faithful away from their faith. He also gave an abbreviated account of the gnostic revelations of 1973 later rendered into fictional form in the novel VALIS.
Dick admitted that if he had confessed these beliefs to a psychiatrist, he would likely be committed on the spot. And yet, at least privately, he persisted in this conviction for the rest of his life. His ongoing relationship with the pink laser from outer space that was God would be chronicled in his lengthy Exegesis until his death from a stroke in 1985.
On the topic of the ultimate question, which according to Dick motivated all of his mature writing, of what is real and what is false, he wrote the following:
Maybe each human being lives in a unique world, a private world, a world different from those inhabited and experienced by all other humans[.] … If reality differs from person to person, can we speak of reality singular, or shouldn’t we really be talking about plural realities? And if there are plural realities, are some more true (more real) than others? What about the world of a schizophrenic? Maybe it’s as real as our world. Maybe we cannot say that we are in touch with reality and he is not, but should instead say, His reality is so different from ours that he can’t explain his to us, and we can’t explain ours to him.
I distinctly remember my mother uttering similar words to me over and over as I grew up. Perhaps the most durably incisive lesson she ever taught me is that everybody lives in her own head. If Dick and my mother are right, then that means that there are at least as many worlds as there are people–and, perhaps, organisms in general. There is no singular reality. There must be many realities, each one the subjective experience of an individual.
What then to say about What Has Really Happened? Is there no way of developing accurate accounts of real series of events? Does empiricism dissolve into a disorganized mass of subjectivities without any tangible facts left unchallenged? Dick’s skepticism about our capacity to know reality does not, perhaps surprisingly, conduce to this sort of postmodern apocalypse of meaning. Dick’s work is instead a panoramic view of different possible worlds, each of them as troubled and as subject to physical and intellectual tyranny as our own. Even in the darkly dystopic world of The Man in the High Castle, fractious Nazi and Japanese bureaucracies wield as little power over the inner lives and private worlds of their American captives as the Nixon administration did over the counterculture.
Yet if objective facts cannot be settled or inscribed, something just as useful, perhaps even more so, can be established; namely, a negotiated consensus between subjective realities. Maybe the schizophrenic cannot communicate the idiosyncrasies of his reality to anyone else–Tagomi, trade minister of the Japanese Pacific States in The Man in the High Castle, is appropriately rendered mute after his vision of a world following an Allied victory. But perhaps we can all negotiate a compromise, a set of assumptions about the “real” state of things that serves as a basis for common thought, communication, ethics, and action. Different groups can negotiate different consensuses, different simulated objectivities which can then be further negotiated among each other in what cliché knows as the marketplace of ideas.
As genre author Philip Purser-Hallard half-pejoratively puts it, “for someone so fascinated by the nature of reality, Dick was none too adept at distinguishing it from the contents of his own head.”
Through this process of negotiation, we can easily see that what is being negotiated at any point is not just what is, but what was and has been. After all, Dick does not just make a claim that he is in hiding as a Christian, but that all of the events most people understand to have happened since the death of Christ did not actually happen, that they are an illusion. Dick is not just making a claim about his present state. He makes a claim about history, and in doing so, shows history to be a negotiated consensus–the contents of our collective heads. Yet any individual may (like Dick) choose to revise or reject this consensus and its ramifications.
History as an Objectivity
What does it mean that history is a negotiated consensus of reality, one of which we are a part and to which we cannot help but react? One clear implication is that the term “history” encompasses not only a set of physical facts about the past, but also our own moral interpretations of the dynamic state of the world. The statement, “Africans were kidnapped and forced to work to grow commodity goods for the American economy” is a statement of physical reality, because it describes the physical movement of bodies over the surface of the globe, as well as the physical results of their labor. But it is also an ethical statement; by using the terms “kidnapping” and “forced”, we indicate that this state of affairs is deemed an ought not, over against the ought of individual liberty for all people.
Similarly, the statement “Slavery ended in 1865” is also an ethical one; it defines slavery narrowly, and elides the enduring systems of coercion and brutality that have persisted well after the formal institution of chattel slavery was legally abolished. Sharecropping, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration are all political systems that have preserved many of the coercive and brutal aspects of chattel slavery, even as they are recognized by distinct names that discursively distance them from chattel slavery. By saying that “slavery ended”, we Americans choose to absolve ourselves of the coercion that exists well after the Emancipation Proclamation, including into the present day.
History is tangible because it is ethical, not the other way around. When we make statements about history, we are choosing a moral stance that is always relevant to how we live our lives in the present moment. To say that slavery has ended is implicitly to say that mass incarceration is not a historical continuation of American slavery, although it shares with its predecessor the use of unfree human beings for the production of commodities, including the harvesting of cotton. When we choose to ignore this historical connection, we are cosigning a very real and physical system of coercion and forced labor that persists in our modern world.
This historical disjunction is, in part, why the battle to remove statues of Confederate leaders in Charlottesville and throughout the US is so heated, and so important. On one side stands a coalition of people who understand that Charlottesville’s (and the nation’s) history of white supremacy is continuous with the era of legal chattel slavery, and that publicly memorializing those figures who explicitly chose to fight to preserve slavery’s most brutal and overt form is to assert that the victims of that historical form of slavery didn’t matter. More bluntly and immediately, it is to say that their descendants, and the suffering they experience as part of this same continuous history, don’t matter either. Such memorials assert that those people who suffer coercion deserve to have their lived experiences written out of history, and therefore ignored completely. It is impossible to stress enough that disavowing the lived experiences of the victims of coercion is to support and buttress those systems of coercion. In this way the other side of this battle asserts, explicitly and otherwise, that such people are subhuman and deserve to be the victims of the violence done to them.
The ethics of those defending the place of the statues in public space has had obvious, tangible impacts in the recent past. The activist and artist Deandre Harris was beaten by a group of white supremacists during the Unite the Right rally. The activist Heather Heyer was murdered during the same rally, and 19 others were injured by a man driving his car directly into a crowd of counter-protestors. A local woman, who did not take part in the counter-protest, was attacked by a white supremacist, and is now facing serious financial hardship. All of this occurred in a context of the ongoing massacre of black and brown people by indiscriminate police killing and white supremacist terrorism.
The Imposition of Objectivity
This violence is not just the result motivated by the ethical reality – the history – that these Klansmen and fascists have chosen to defend. It is also a crucial means by which that reality is upheld and perpetuated. An objectivity can – and should – be negotiated between all of its inhabitants. But an objectivity can also be imposed through coercion and manipulation. If you can make it so that another person must live with the consequences of an objectivity you choose, regardless of consent, then you exercise a form of control over his body more total than any physical chains.
This is why, as legend tells, when asked what he would do if given one day as Emperor, Confucius responded that he would, “rectify the names.” What is meant is that he would alter the language to encode only the meanings suited to the needs of the state, so that the only concepts that could be communicated would be those amenable to power. By restricting what meanings people could communicate, Confucius would set the terms of negotiation. He would effectively restrict the range of realities that could be established as a consensus, circumscribing reality in a way amenable to the interests of the ruler.
Another way to control communication between individuals is the use of technology as a means of producing and delivering communication in such quantities as to flood the perception of an individual. Here, Dick is illustrative again:
Sometimes when I watch my eleven-year-old daughter watch TV, I wonder what she is being taught. The problem of miscuing; consider that. A TV program produced for adults is viewed by a small child. Half of what is said and done in the TV drama is probably misunderstood by the child. Maybe it’s all misunderstood. And the thing is, Just how authentic is the information anyhow, even if the child correctly understood it? What is the relationship between the average TV situation comedy to reality? What about the cop shows? Cars are continually swerving out of control, crashing, and catching fire. The police are always good and they always win. Do not ignore that point: The police always win. What a lesson that is. You should not fight authority, and even if you do, you will lose. The message here is, Be passive. And — cooperate. If Officer Baretta asks you for information, give it to him, because Officer Baretta is a good man and to be trusted. He loves you, and you should love him.
So I ask, in my writing, What is real? Because unceasingly we are bombarded with pseudo-realities manufactured by very sophisticated people using very sophisticated electronic mechanisms. I do not distrust their motives; I distrust their power. They have a lot of it. And it is an astonishing power: that of creating whole universes, universes of the mind.
Dick elucidates here that communications technologies are not just a means for us to make sounds at one another. These technologies serve as a sort of tangible scaffolding that produces and reproduces a specific ethical and physical reality, trust in the police – in power – being just one obvious facet of the reality constructed by American power. The state and its institutional affiliates can affect an intimate control of reality by bombarding the citizenry with program after program taking for granted and reinforcing this imposed objectivity. This is exactly what we find whenever we check our programming guides and notice the ubiquity of police procedurals, 24-hour news programs, rom-coms, war movies, and courtroom dramas, as well as the countless Hollywood films telling stories of white men in various tragic and heroic scenarios.
It is important to stress that individual technologies, like the Internet or the camera, do not necessarily change the meanings being communicated on their own, but that they support the ubiquity of particular messages because these technologies are built, and they build. They automate communication and all human engagement not merely by implementing self-referential sub-routines. They automate such communications by making certain meanings easier to convey, encounter, and understand, thereby accomplishing, in part, what Confucius meant when he said he wished to “rectify the names”.
Social media is an illustrative and obvious example of this phenomenon. When you encounter a post on Facebook, you have a range of possible ways to respond, which include commenting at length in your own words, or ignoring the post entirely. But the easiest response, by far, is to use one of a half-dozen “reactions”: like, love, laugh, cry, anger, shock. The vast majority of people will respond using only these “reactions” because that is what Facebook makes it convenient to do. Facebook encourages you to flatten all human emotion to one of these six responses, to bin whatever emotions you feel into one such response, or into passivity (ignoring the post entirely). The complex emotions involved in rage, validation, vulnerability, anxiety, excitement, joy, etc, are reduced to categories that are easily compiled into statistics.
Television, as Dick describes it, is another powerful technology for structuring communication, largely in ways that are amenable to power. This is mainly because television is, almost entirely, uni-directional. You may choose to watch something, or you may choose not to. But at no point during the broadcast of most TV programs can you participate in the creation of the art, and you certainly cannot speak to the creators or producers. They (those that transmit the communications) can say whatever they want to you. You may accept or reject the communication, but you may, in no way whatsoever, complicate the message by meaningfully responding with your own.
Both Facebook and television broadcasting require massive, heavily organized infrastructures to maintain and operate, employing many thousands of personnel at dozens of institutions and centers of power. Fully recognizing that individuals in this vast cohort almost never work towards common goals, and that genuine, coordinated conspiracy (and therefore, accountability) is rendered impossible by the diffusion of responsibility throughout the relevant bureaucracies, think for a second about the power that is being exercised upon the consumer of the message. With Facebook, your emotions are clipped, discretized to the point where the vast range of thought and emotion a human can express is made minuscule; the user is encouraged to participate in the negotiation of objectivity in a pitifully small range of ways. With TV, the viewer cannot even respond at all. They have no power at all to contest the message; the viewer cannot (directly) participate in negotiation, and if they can, they must do so on extremely uneven terms, through asymmetric avenues (such as critical writing).
Technology is built for obvious reasons; it requires investment of time, manpower, and resources to physically construct and maintain. But it builds for the reasons mentioned above; it defines particular channels of communication that impose their own forms and rules around that communication, thereby restricting, never expanding, the range of meanings that can be conveyed, and the means the participants in communication have to negotiate the terms of their reality.
Violence as Reality, Reality as Violence
There is another crucial means by which objectivity can be imposed: violence. If three individuals try to negotiate the terms of their reality, and one cannot accept the terms accepted by the other two, the two can enforce their shared objectivity on the third by hurting the third until he gives up his resistance, or until he dies. In some cases, the violence in question can become “gratuitous”, or a constituent part of the reality being imposed. It is exactly this case that is illustrated by the events in Charlottesville.
As I said before, on one side of the clash surrounding statues of Confederate leaders (a clash that has expanded to include statues of slaveowners like Thomas Jefferson) stands a coalition seeking to let suffering speak. The other side, in pursuit of the suppression of the former, has resorted to violence up to and including murder, because the former side has totally and utterly rejected a reality that enshrines the veneration of slavers and slave catchers. The only way to enforce a reality that suffers such utter rejection is to exclude those that reject it from participation in the negotiations. When they insist on being heard, they must be forced out. When they cannot be forced out, they must be killed.
It is important to note that the history, the reality, that these Nazis are defending is a history of violence, and a violent history. Most of the Confederate statues in question were not erected by Southern states in the wake of the Confederate defeat. They were erected during subsequent waves of revivalist racist terror, specifically to terrorize black people by venerating the age of slavery. Not only is this reality one that has included violence against the marginalized, the reality is fundamentally built on the violence against the marginalized, to the point where the perpetuation – the conveyance – of this reality, is, itself, a weapon against the marginalized.
I would like to propose, here, a few ethical practices that I believe challenge power in its efforts, automatic and deliberate, to impose reality at the expense of the lived subjectivities of all people, and especially the marginalized. I believe that these practices are useful, perhaps essential, in validating the experiences of the marginalized, and in freeing ourselves from the collective gaslighting that necessarily accompanies any attempts by power to assert itself over the lives of its subjects.
The first is a simple point; distrust power. Power seeks to perpetuate itself by any means necessary. It seeks subjugation first, as a precondition for all ethical concerns. Power seeks to convey a history – to determine a reality – that makes its perpetuation inevitable, regardless of human consequence. When power – such as the infrastructure of Facebook, TV networks, and movie studios, or individuals acting as agents of the state (bureaucrats, law enforcement, legislators, technocrats) – provides an explanation of events, disregard it entirely. Power’s only goal is to make you believe its existence is inevitable and necessary; therefore, all communication performed by power is bullshit, irrelevant to the nature of reality.
A related principle is that you should resist the desire to seek a total explanation of events for the sake of “knowing what happened.” It is better to believe nothing at all than to believe an explanation for which you have little or no evidence or primary source as support. The desire to totally explain events, even without evidence or primary sources, leads to unsubstantiated conspiracy theories that cater to prejudice and paranoia, such as the thinly veiled anti-Semitic fever dreams of British conspiracy theorist David Icke. Commensurately, it may lead you to accept convenient explanations provided by power; the desire leads you to accept bullshit merely to plug a gap in knowledge, necessarily making you vulnerable to the trademark gaslighting of the state.
The third principle is to believe people when they tell you they are suffering, and to take seriously their explanations of events in their immediate surroundings and lives. This principle can be referred to in a number of ways: prophecy, folk history, “letting suffering speak,” primary sourcing. All of these prioritize the realities described by people as they live through those realities. For example, if villages full of people tell you that their lives have gotten drastically unhealthier after toxic chemicals were dumped on their land and in their water, you should take seriously the likelihood that the chemicals are the problem, whether or not hegemonic institutions, such as universities, regulatory agencies, and corporate research departments, have released an exhaustive study of the issue.
The final principle is a consequence – or a special case, perhaps – of the third; believe yourself when you notice your own emotions, and when you perceive events in your surroundings. Trust your instincts with regard to your own emotions. Your emotions are your own, they are intuitive, they are reactive; do not allow anybody to tell you how you feel, or how you should feel, whether they are close to you or not. Similarly, do not allow other people to tell you what happened to you if you do not think their explanation comports with your own perception. Trust your instincts. No matter how close and insightful the person may be, your subjectivity is internal to you, and unknowable to them.
The Ends and Beginnings of Histories
These principles, at first, second, and third glance, seem maddeningly vague. In many ways, they are. They form, in sum, an intuitive ethical practice that is predicated on basic respect for agency and personal sovereignty, and a recognition of the failings of hegemonic history, by which I mean the practice of asserting that there is one “true” objective reality that can be perceived, and that all deviation in human perception represents a corrupted version of this baseline. This latter ethic enables whatever individual or group has the most concrete power to define this objective baseline to their own whims, and force others to treat that as the baseline. He who can direct the most physical violence, or maintain the technical infrastructure to flood the world with the most noise, can define objective truth however he wishes, and call anybody who disagrees with him a liar. The only way to preclude such domination, which is par for the course in our world, is to reject the enabling ideal of a singular, concrete, objective reality, and instead to recognize and affirm, as Dick called them, “plural realities”.
But this is not a straightforward, concrete practice. I feel that it is better that it is not, so that the prescription allows for a plurality of interpretations that can cater to the innumerable subjectivities of the people (you and I) who will be practicing such an ethic. It is not easy and straightforward. Nor have I addressed all of the potential consequences of this argument, such as the repercussions for notions of agency, the punitive ethos, the use of violence, or the nature of sensuality and physical human connection. Fleshing out these principles into a full ethos of human life is the work of a lifetime.
I hope what I have done here is validating to at least some of you. If anybody is reading this who has been in an abusive relationship and has been made to doubt the veracity of their own emotions, I hope this is validating. If anybody is reading this who has warned of the danger an industrial enterprise will do to your community, and been ignored, I hope this is validating. If anybody is reading this who has been diagnosed with a mental illness, and felt a deep fracture between your perception of the world and the perceptions of those around you, and been made to feel that this is a sign of pathological brokenness on your part, I hope this is validating. You are not delusional. You are not irrelevant. You are not broken. You are human, and you deserve to be heard. I can only hope this helps.