Through The Peeping Class: ‘A Scanner Darkly’ in The NSA Epoch

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. – 1 Corinthians 13:12

Warning: If you have not read A Scanner Darkly, there may be spoilers.

Niccolò Machiavelli in The Prince captures the out-of-body experience of the nation-state. The Chief of State reads instructions as he examines herself endoscopically. Deftly, she routes lubricant coated tubes through secreted passages behind the backs of his trusted stewards and quaking riffraff. All the time, he knows not of the eternal eye atop the pyramid, and the Eye of Providence disembodied, never conscious of her transgressions.

The all-seeing eye of God is premonishment. The State knows man’s thoughts and deeds.  A Scanner Darkly, Phillip K. Dick’s portrait of addiction to intrusion is the image one sees when coherent light shines through the Wiki Leaks hologram. What emerges from the mixture of unintelligible pixelated three-dimensional information compressed onto a warped surface is an Orange Sunshine dream.

The Addiction

Set in Orange County SoCal in the then future 1994, PKD pictures, from his 1968 venue, a destiny of dependency not much different than today, or any day since bubbling heroin first met needle and bulb. The drug in question is Substance D, known colloquially as Slow Death. Robert Arctor / Special Agent Fred is / are the protagonist(s). The confusion is intentional. It is, in fact, the point. Fred is Arctor’s alias in his job as a drug enforcement officer for the Orange County Sherriff. When in the field he acts the part of a user and ends up an addict.

Slow Death is to the mind what the Inquisition was to torso and pelvis. Application of an increasing drug dosage induces tension in the corpus callosum slowly alienating the two hemispheres of the brain. As the communication amid the moieties of the cerebrum turns from laminar to turbulent, clear to murky, from on until the drug shorts the switch.

Fred and Robert Arctor forget the other. At least, they forget their collective identity. About halfway into the sixth chapter Agent Fred begins to question if he is Robert Arctor, even which Robert Arctor he might be, forgetting the obvious fact that there is but one Arctor and that he is it.

Fred, as part of his dis-identification, wears a Scramble suit. At the office, a micro computerized full-body Union suit, it serves to distance personalities from the business. At a display rate of one image per nanosecond, it shimmers with billions of perceptions.

After a fashion, every addict, every freak wears a scramble suit, too. They’re a placental add-on. A no charge parental gift sowed by alcoholic progenitors. The doper gets all the weird looks but only responds with dumbass expressions. Luckily, wearing Mom’s natal gift, no one notices. Anybody to everybody. People pleasers one and all.

The mistaken self-identification by Agent Fred worsens leading to his demise and Arctors banishment to New-Path for extended drug treatment in a rural labor camp. The farm, his discarnate calaboose, the place his mind aims when his Haj begins. When Slow Death first contacts corpuscle and enters Robert Arctor’s brain.

The Pusher

Drug operations are a Byzantine affair. Junkies are held hostage in the selfsame fashion that Byzantium kept foreign royalty on its soil to assure certain behaviors by their monarchs. The American police state bears great resemblance to both. Both it and Byzantium bear the imprimatur of regnal authority.

America, like all societies consigning their liberty to an auction in exchange for security, began a long walk down a rickety plank during the early twentieth century. Black CHAMBER and Project Shamrock (not all that lucky) began a slide away from privacy that predates the dystopias that PKD so often detailed.

The projects listed above, children of the World Wars are now the flowers of Americans swallowing electronic placebos – Windows, Mac OS, iOS and Android all are subject to NSA backdoors. Americans willingly accept much on faith and act nonplussed when things go wrong.

Philip K. Dick, George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Anthony Burgess, Robert Heinlein, Samuel Delany, Cory Doctorow, L. Neil Smith, Neal Stephenson, and Ray Bradbury (there are many more names in Science Fiction) all have important things to say about freedom and human rights from different points of view. Here, however, A Scanner Darkly is essential in the way it displays the human addiction to intrusion by others. There seems to be some imperative built into the race, a need to have others look at us.

Scanner portrays this necessity as Substance D and the NSA as New-Path. In effect, it is the American way-of-life that generates both the need for Electronia (adulterated by the NSA) and the NSA to use Electronia against its citizens. Where Eisenhower spoke of the military-industrial complex, Dick writes of the electronics-surveillance complex. Eisenhower spoke at the beginning of the Cold War, Dick near its end. The war beginning when PKD wrote was the war on privacy – the war between humans and the State.

The war is currently a silent war. Most people are too busy with other things, new gadgets, new movies, new diversions. The hypnosis of happy lights inures them to the pain. As addictive and deathly as Slow Death itself. America sits and waits for the future while the NSA rifles through their sock drawers.

At least in Scanner, there was humor, dark, sad humor yes, but the inspiration that can motivate. Some dystopias of the early Cold War were dismal and depressive. Sales devices for Librium, Jack Daniels, and fallout shelters. Dick, on the other hand, while brimming our eyes with cleansing tears can open them to vistas that see past the evil. The polemic is always in Dick’s words. It just doesn’t sound like shouting. In fact, it often seems reverent.

The Layman

At the top of the post is verse 12 of First Corinthians Thirteen of the King James Version of the Holy Bible. It was the version most people Dick’s age (born in 1928), and mine (born 1953) knew if exposed to a bible at all. This verse has little religion without context but says much about the novel.

St. Paul writes of a “seeing through a [mirror,] darkly… In other words, seeing a pale reflection. In Arctor’s case, the quote from chapter six relates his concerns about the holo-scan.

In St. Paul’s case, a darkened mirror allows face to face confrontation but only in part. He seems to say that a mirror reveals you the way you see yourself but not the who of you. In other words, you may recognize the animal in the reflection but its behavior will never be predictable. For those who believe in a higher power often find that others see them differently and as much as they might like, they often must admit they have no right to know what others think about them.

Arctor is without certainty. He happily admits he hated his former life if indeed there was a previous life. As the end of the story nears, his family life becomes as twisted as cream stirred in a cup of cloudy tea. He wonders if he sees clearly or through a murk (darkly).

It’s a novel that can be hilarious when Jim Barris tries to show Charles Freck how to make cocaine from suntan lotion. Of course, junkies would believe this. I might have believed this if I were desperate enough. It can be morose as well. When Arctor reviews holo-scan tapes of an evening in bed with a junkie named Connie. His perception morphs her during the event into Donna Hawthorne and then back to Connie. When Fred reviews the tapes he sees Connie dissolve into Donna and back into Connie. Mutually Assured Destruction offered up by Substance-D.

“What does a scanner see? he [Arctor] asked himself. I mean, really see? Into the head? Down into the heart? Does a passive infrared scanner like they used to use or a cube-type holo-scanner like they use these days, the latest thing, see into me— into us— clearly or darkly? I hope it does, he thought, see clearly, because I can’t any longer these days see into myself. I see only murk. Murk outside; murk inside. I hope, for everyone’s sake, the scanners do better. Because, he thought, if the scanner sees only darkly, the way I myself do, then we are cursed, cursed again and like we have been continually, and we’ll wind up dead this way, knowing very little and getting that little fragment wrong too.”

The importance of this passage relates, along with the Corinthians verse, to Fred’s diagnosis resulting from the battery of tests leading to his ultimate banishment to the farm with the mountain view. St. Paul’s description of a mirror points to an object that allows us all to see us the only way we ever truly recognize ourselves. A pattern based on a bilaterally symmetric reversed image of the way we are perceived by others. To follow the maxim, “To thine own self  be true,” one must see through other eyes. Fred, though, in a theocentric lethargy assumes the Pauline mirror requires an infinitely deep reflection. This image, written in 1968, is reminiscent of Paycheck, Dick’s 1962 story of an engineer who assists in the development of a lens that can bend light to follow the curvature of the universe thus seeing into the future. (Yeah, stupid by today’s understanding of the nature of reality and causation.)

Fred fears that his brain dysfunction can never be trusted to decode his face in a manner of his own understanding. He’s screwed.

Interestingly, after this passage, Arctor recites some poetry in German, Faust by Goethe. The passage applies not to Arctor directly, but to Charles Freck whose attempted suicide follows the passage. Poor Freck. Purchases the artifacts for his tomb only to take hallucinogenics in quantity rather than an overdose of barbiturates. Instead of death, he suffers a rambling reading by a thousand-eyed alien of a list of every sin he ever committed intentionally and otherwise. Being that he and the alien have moved to a “transcendent realm,” his sins will be read “ceaselessly, in shifts, throughout eternity. The list…never end[s].” Freck’s next thought: Know your dealer.

Personal Note

I was born in Burbank, Cali in 1953 and hung out in Glendale during the late 60’s for High School. At USC as an Engineering major and studying economics (mostly the Austrians), knew the pols and their toadies in Orange County. Early 70’s the OC was flat, Orange, and aromatic. The Big Three: Disneyland, Knott’s Berry Farm, and the Japanese Deer Farm (“Where Bambi Goes, Nothing Grows,” if you happen to remember Hudson and Landry) were the points of interest. All that was left was cruising, drugging, tripping, and hanging at the malls waiting for Animal House, Alien, Solaris (a Lem showpiece), Rancho Deluxe or A Boy and His Dog. But considering the state of mind of guys like Arctor, the movie of choice would have been Dark Star. I certainly enjoyed a spaceship where the crew was doped up! Floating while weightless – a meta high.

Phil Dick was an addict. He still would be, were he alive. He wouldn’t be using, but he’d be an addict. I am an addict, too. In a way, in every way except one, I still am. I just don’t use drugs or alcohol anymore to alter my mood. I am just never particularly unhappy anymore. I have no use for it. But I and every other addict who is clean and sober will always remember their addiction. We can never afford to say we are cured.

Read A Scanner Darkly while listening to the Audible voice over. Get the whole shebang from Amazon, and it coordinates with the text. Just don’t stop at the end. Keep reading through the afterword. It is the real personal story from Phil.

Mark E Deardorff

Copyright 2017 by Mark E. Deardorff. All Rights Reserved.