Philip K. Dick’s Fantastic, Stigmatic View of Consumption

Originally published in 1965, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (abbreviated here as 3SPE) is Philip K. Dick’s first explicitly theologically-inspired novel. Bridging the Catholic ritual of transubstantiation with a futuristic consumer culture, it offers up a complicated invasion-type plot set in the early twenty-first century. The book centers around industrial/branding/consumption types of concerns, which makes it especially interesting to me as a rich source of consumer culture insights. I’m going to use it as a springboard for thinking about some of the bigger issues in marketing thought and consumer culture theory.

Here is an overview of the plot and themes of the book.

Barney Mayerson is a precog, his industrial job as a precognitive makes him particularly valuable for his employer, Perky Pat Layouts (PPL), a company which produces miniaturized (or “minned”) “layouts.” These layouts (items such as tiny stereo systems, penthouse apartments, and sleek convertibles) are used by desperately unfulfilled, conscripted Martian colonists, farmers of hideously deformed vegetables.

The colonists engage in a collective drug ritual, an all-too-brief intoxication on the illegal drug “Can-D.” During the ritual intoxication they are “translated” into the Barbie-doll-like bodies of Walt (for the men) and Perky Pat (for the ladies). With their stoned bodies lying or sitting in their “hovel” together, they can unite in the world of Perky Pat and Walt, all the guys together in Walt, and the gals in Perky Pat. There, they enjoy “the proxy pleasures of a vanished jet-set Earth, driving Jaguar XXB sports ships over still pristine California beaches and making imaginary love with each other” (Jameson 2005, “Archaeologies of the Future,” p. 347) with their apparently real, but actually transubstantiated bodies. It is a spectacle of mystical proportions, and the colonists treat it as a religion.

Although I’m going to focus more on the ontological insights of Dick’s creative allusions and metaphors, the implications for understandings of consumer culture are also well worth translating. The notion that desperate working class consumers are escaping through consumption has a rich range of class implications. So too does the idea that the ultimate longing is a desire to escape into the idealized and always-perfect past. Riding public transportation in my city, surrounded by people wearing iPods and gazing off at distant billboards and TV screens reminds me of this world where people are escaping through a form of imagined consumption.

Jameson takes this much further in his analysis. He says that this scenario is “a mediation on mass culture, a hypothesis reinforced by Cornel West’s insistence that religion is also very much a form of American mass culture,” and that drugs are also mass culture as well (Archaeologies, page 371).

The Perky Pat and Walt dolls (so resonant of Mattel’s Barbie and Ken) are iconic figures that evoke the relationship between famous celebrities, desire to escape, and the average consumers living together in their “hovels.” The association of “Can-D” to childhood tells us about the infantilizing properties of both drugs and consumption, and through their linkage the book suggests the addictive, potent, and intertwined effects.

Consumption—of things, of images, or drugs–Dick is telling us, has taken on mythic and sacred proportions. More than that, in its ritual aspects including but not limited to its drug use (think Prozac and over-the-counter here, as well as the illicit stuff that with which Dick was intimately familiar), it has transcendent properties. Of course, there is an institutionalization of this sacred escape, as the accessories necessary for it are expensive, exclusively branded, and controlled by PPL company.

The threat in the novel is posed by Palmer Eldritch, a renegade industrialist who recently returned from a ten year expedition to the Prox (Proxima Major) star system and mysteriously crash-landed on Pluto along the way. Eldritch remains in seclusion, but Mayerson’s boss Leo Bulero-owner of PPL and big-time Can-D druglord– has discovered that Eldritch has brought a new drug with him. The new drug, “Chew-Z,” poses a serious threat to Can-D because the drug experience it offers lasts seemingly endlessly. Also, it leaves one with no doubts as to the reality of the hallucinated experience. Unlike Can-D, it doesn’t even require expensive “minned” accessories to seem real.

Sovereign consumers are offered what they want: almost limitless escape that seems real, at a very good price. Eldritch is a sort of Richard Branson type who comes in with a private label-like innovation.

After Bulero follows him to Luna, Eldritch dopes him with Chew-Z, setting off a horrific experience in which the hallucinating Bulero is unsure whether he is actually in “real” reality or in the incredibly lifelike drug-induced reality. In Bulero’s agonizing hallucination, Eldritch is there, a taunting presence who metamorphosizes into different characters and forms, the master of the drug-realm he helped create.

As more people begin to take Chew-Z, experiencing the fake realities it creates, Palmer Eldritch is always there, exercising control in the drug-reality. Finally, everyone (regardless of whether they themselves have imbibed Chew-Z) begins to take on the altered physical appearance of Palmer Eldritch-jutting, stainless steel teeth, a metallic artificial right arm, and horizontally-slotted artificial eyes. These are the three signs-the “stigmata”-of the pervasive hallucinatory reality controlled by Eldritch, which has seemingly extended beyond drug use into the “actual” physical reality. It turns out that this is the form of the invasion, that Eldritch is actually a foreign life form (previously known as “God”) that is reproducing by invading the world of collective human consciousness in this manner.

Thus Dick again unites the realms of popular consumer religion based upon the desire for escape with a corruption of the spirit and an apparent abuse of corporate power. But wait, as the layers are peeled something else happens. Consumers (all consumers now, not just those who have taken the drug) become like their corporate oppressor, they physically transmute into him. The illusionary reality becomes actual reality, just as the images of happy consumers in advertising become in some way realized in consumers’ own lifeworlds.

Yet, by exercising their choice they become under control. This control is religious, it is the same as ancient faiths, for through consumption they have reunited with God. God, here depicted as a “foreign life form” has reintroduced himself through consumption, through the world of “the good life” and for-sale illusions and escape.

These intriguing ideas say a lot about consumer society. What do they say that might enhance our understanding of contemporary marketing, of ontology, of brand management? Kind Reader, you’ll have answers soon.

In the meantime, take your Can-D (you must be ingesting something tonight…), set up your new Perky Pat Layout mins (think of them as fashion, fashion at a distance), and enjoy the translation (turn the channel, stay tuned….

6 Comments

  1. rpwagner June 15, 2007
  2. Robert Kozinets June 15, 2007
  3. rpwagner June 15, 2007
  4. Jeff Podoshen June 15, 2007
  5. rpwagner June 16, 2007
  6. Robert Kozinets June 16, 2007

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