Surveillance and Counter-Surveillance in Philip K. Dick's A Scanner Darkly

By Rhee, Jennifer | Mosaic (Winnipeg), June 2017 | Go to article overview

Surveillance and Counter-Surveillance in Philip K. Dick's A Scanner Darkly


Rhee, Jennifer, Mosaic (Winnipeg)


This essay traces the deleterious effects of surveillance and conspiracy on the post-war subject in Philip K. Dick's A Scanner Darkly. The novel concludes with a reparative moment of counter-surveillance that restores the deadened protagonist, thus gesturing to counter-surveillance as a means of finding sustenance amidst a world of total surveillance.

In June 2013, details of PRISM, the United States National Security Agency's (NSA) electronic surveillance programme, leaked to the public. For many, PRISM was shocking in both its secrecy and its wide reach, encompassing dominant technological companies including Facebook, Microsoft, and Google. The revelations about the NSA's PRISM program, situated in a moment of widespread corporate tracking and state surveillance, ask us to grapple with both the contours of the contemporary subject of surveillance and questions of "what now?" and "what next?" This essay takes up these questions by turning to Philip K. Dick's 1977 A Scanner Darkly, a novel written in an earlier moment when heightened surveillance and secrecy were intertwined with cultural and political paranoia.

Paranoia is, in many ways, the cultural landscape against which the novel emerged. A Scanner Darkly was written during a time of intense personal and national paranoia, specifically around suspicions of surveillance. In August 1971 Dick, suffering from paranoia, suspected the government of tapping his phone and sneaking into his house to steal documents. Only months later, a massive break-in left his house in chaos. After the break-in, Dick compiled a list of possible suspects, ranging from religious fanatics to military intelligence. Dick also suspected that, without knowing, he himself might have been responsible for the break-in (Sutin 176-84). In 1972, the year that Dick began writing A Scanner Darkly, men with surveillance equipment were caught breaking into and attempting to bug the Democratic National Committee office in the Watergate Hotel. Dick completed the novel in 1975, a year after Richard Nixon resigned from the presidency because of his involvement in the Watergate scandal. Given this context, perhaps it is no surprise that the language of bugs, tapes, and leaks haunts the novel.

Weaving Cold War themes of paranoia, conspiracy, and surveillance into an indictment of drug addiction, Dick's novel narrates the tragic effects of a surveillance society alongside the tragic effects of drug addiction. Replete with grim autobiographical elements and tragic futility, the novel engages both Dick's paranoia and his turn away from once-beloved 1960s countercultural values; (1) in the novel's concluding author's note, Dick expresses his anger at the drug addictions that destroyed so many of his friends during the 60s: "This has been a novel about some people who were punished entirely too much for what they did. [...] The punishment was beyond belief: even when we could see it, we could not believe it" (287). Dick dedicates his love, if not the novel, to his friends who either died or suffered severe illness from drug use. A reflection of both his grief and anger, A Scanner Darkly is, according to Dick, "the most nonfiction novel [I] had ever written" (Warrick 154). It is also, as Peter Fitting aptly describes, "Dick's bleakest novel" (230).

Remarking on Dick's depictions of selfhood as processes of perpetual destabilization, Fredric Jameson describes Dick's works as "a literature of the so-called 'death of the subject,' of an end to individualism so absolute as to call into question the last glimmers of the ego" (347). A Scanner Darkly is no exception; a scathing examination of surveillance, conspiracy, and drug addiction and their effects on the post-war subject, the novel depicts a resolutely non-autonomous subject utterly at the mercy of these powerful forces. This essay traces the deleterious effects of surveillance, drug addiction, and state and capitalist conspiracy on the protagonist, who becomes increasingly alienated from himself, others, and agential activity. …

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