Philip K. Dick (1928 – 1982) is mainly known for a certain kind of high-concept, countercultural science-fiction, full of drug use, paranoia, and metaphysical “big questions”. But what struck me in going on a PKD jag lately was not only the focus on commodities in Dick’s fiction, but the focus on what Marx called “the fetishism” of commodities, the products of human labour.
Marx’s concept of fetishism had a long history, but his immediate influence was Ludwig Feuerbach, who viewed religion as, in Marx’s words, a realm in which “the products of the human brain appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own, which enter into relations both with each other and with the human race” (Capital, Penguin Classics, p. 165). Human ideas, fears, hopes, emotions, become embodied in external things, which then appear to human beings as objects separate from human beings, which exist in the world and enter into relations with us. The process of fetishization, then, is similar to what Lukacs and others have called “reification”, in which a nexus of human relationships is mistaken for an objective fact, the classic example of which is the commodity itself.
In the first chapter of Capital, in which he analyzes in great detail the nature and characteristics of the commodity, Marx justifies this analysis by exposing the “mystery” of the commodity, the way in which the actual nature of commodities is hidden from the very people whose lives are daily confronted with the world as ‘an immense collection of commodities’ (p. 125). The section in which Marx sums up his analysis and described commodity fetishism deserves to be quoted at length:
The mysterious character of the commodity-form consists therefore simple in the fact that the commodity reflects the social characteristics of men’s own labour as objective characteristics of the products of labour themselves, as the socio-natural properties of these things. Hence it also reflects the social relation of the producers to the sum total of labour as a social relation between objects, a relation which exists apart from and outside the producers. Through this substitution, the products of labour become commodities, sensuous things which are at the same time suprasensible or social. […] [T]he commodity-form and the value-relation of the products of labour within which it appears, have absolutely no connection with the physical nature of the commodity and the material relations arising out of this. It is nothing but the definite social relation between men themselves which assumes here, for them, the fantastic form of a relation between things. (p. 164-165).
We are unable to see and recognize the truth about commodities by endowing them with properties and powers apart from their nature as products of labour, by mistaken their nature as products of our labour for something independent of us. In reading many PKD novels in a short period I was struck not only by how his worlds are so completely dominated by commodities, but how the paranoia and “unreality” of Dick’s fiction is so often expressed through an exposure or breakdown of the fetishism of commodities, a realization of the commodity as product of human relationships, an unmasking of the domination we human beings have willingly placed ourselves in. The commodity is the representation of that domination, but it hides the fact that we are dominated by ourselves, by the very relations that the commodity mystifies.
From the very beginning, in The Man in the High Castle, commodities play a huge role in Dick’s world-building. In a San Francisco governed by the Japanese, victorious after World War Two, American artefacts have enormous value, and a black-market in knock-offs thrives. Dick interrogates the nature of these commodities, asks what is inside the commodity that makes it valuable (in this, mirroring Marx’s intense interest in the nature of the commodity in Capital):
“Don’t you feel it?” he kidded her. “The historicity?”
She said, “What is ‘historicity’?”
“When a thing has history in it. Listen. One of those two Zippo lighters was in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s pocket when he was assassinated. And one wasn’t. One has historicity, a hell of a lot of it. As much as any object ever had. And one has nothing. Can you feel it?” He nudged her. “You can’t. You can’t tell which is which. There’s no ‘mystical plasmic presence,’ no ‘aura’ around it.” (The Man in the High Castle, in Four Novels of the 1960s, Library of America, p. 57).
Despite their differing views of the nature of value (Dick’s “historicity” vs. Marx’s labour theory), both Marx and Dick understand that the value or significance of a commodity is not inherent within it, but is imbued in it by us. It’s value is in the human relationship that intersect with it. Commodities are dizzyingly abundant in The Man in the High Castle, as in other PKD novels, whether the commodity is a collection of miniature sets and figures (The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch), records and ID-cards (Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said), androids (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep) or drugs (most of the novels, including A Scanner Darkly). Commodities are mountain of physicality, an impersonal force that weighs on all of Dick’s characters, as indeed it weighs on all of us who live under capitalism.
Much could be written on the idea of “drugs as commodity” in Dick, but I want to turn to perhaps the most sustained interrogation of commodities and fetishism in Dick’s novels: the fabulous Ubik in the novel of the same name. One is initially struck by the chapter epigraphs, each one proclaiming the virtues of the same wonderful product in the style of advertising copy. From chapter one:
Friends, this is clean-up time and we’re discounting all our silent, electric Ubiks by this much money. Yes, we’re throwing away the bluebook. And remember, every Ubik on our lot has been used only as directed. (Ubik, Library of America, p. 611).
The reader would be forgiven for assuming Ubik to be a kind of vehicle. But as the chapters go on, the precise nature of Ubik becomes increasingly less clear. From chapters two and three:
The best way to ask for beer is to sing out for Ubik. Made from select hops, choice water, slow-aged for perfect flavour, Ubik is the nation’s number-one choice in beer. Made only in Cleveland. (p. 618).
Instant Ubik has all the fresh flavour of just-brewed drip coffee. Your husband will say, Christ, Sally, I used to think your coffee was only so-so. But now, wow! Safe when taken as directed. (p. 625).
Ubik itself does not enter the plot of the novel until chapter 10. Until then, we are presented with something – clearly a commodity – whose nature does not reside in what it does. The value of Ubik is independent of it’s use; in Marx’s terms Ubik’s “use-value” is immaterial. By the time Ubik is finally presented to the reader as a plot element, the cast of characters are in the midst of a nightmarish reality that seems to be killing them through some kind of time-effect. Ubik comes on the scene with a promise to reconstitute a decaying reality: “One invisible puff-puff whisk of economically priced Ubik banished compulsive obsessive fears that the entire world is turning into clotted milk, worn-out tape recorders and obsolete iron-cage elevators…” Belief in Ubik – in the form of an aerosol – literally keeps the world together. It turns out (spoilers ahead!) that the characters are comatose, locked into a mental network, while their bodies are kept alive following a massive explosion. As their bodies die and their minds fade, the world itself dissolves, and it is only Ubik that holds the final dissolution at bay. But Ubik has no nature of its own, the aerosol form is merely the accident of the minds locked in the network (it could, in fact, take on any of the forms of the commodity, as evidenced by the chapter headings). Ubik is nothing but the manifestation of a group of people’s belief in the unity and stability of the world. In this sense, Ubik not only provides a perfect illustration of commodity fetishism, but of the psychological truth of historical materialism itself. It is the system of commodity production itself that determines, creates, and preserves our consciousness and, like Ubik, like all commodities in PKD, it is our blindness to the truth of the mystery known as “the commodity” that provides the limit to what can be understood as real.
These are just a few thoughts I had on reading PKD last summer and autumn. I think there’s plenty of scope for digging more into the nature of commodities in Dick’s fiction, but that’s probably enough for now.