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Authentic Science, Authentic Brands: Big Stigmata & the Four Ps

I’ve been on a bit of a Philip K. Dick (or PKD) kick of late. PKD has had a profound impact on Hollywood. Ridley Scott’s 1982 classic Blade Runner was the first adaptation of a PKD book (based on Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?). A core mystery driving the book and film was the authentic nature of human being, whether we could tell nearly perfect androids with implanted memories from actual human beings.

The 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger action blockbuster Total Recall was based on a short story called We Can Remember it for You Wholesale, and it was also based on a search for authentic identity: is Douglas Quaid, the film’s protagonist, truly a hero and liberator, or is he merely a bored construction worker hallucinating this as part of an implanted hero fantasy he purchased from Rekall? Steven Spielberg’s “Minority Report,” (a 2002 film) also has a what-is-real tension to it.

Much of the ontological tension of The Matrix is very reminiscent of a Dick novel. Richard Linklater’s amazing, digitally rotoscoped film Waking Life could also be taken as an homage to Philip Dick, and he followed it up with a surprisingly fresh, star-studded, and faithful version of Dick’s “A Scanner Darkly.” Each of them features the uneasy interplay between one version of what is real and another.
Clearly, there a fascination with the topic of ontology in many Philip K. Dick novels. It’s there in UBIK, in Do Androids Dream, in Total Recall, in Valis, and it’s certainly there in the novel I wrote about in my last blog entry: The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (3SPE). That novel is obsessive in its portrayal of characters delving into explanations of reality, constantly asking themselves the question ‘What is reality?’. In 3SPE, the incredibly realistic hallucinations of “Chew-Z” are confused with “real” reality, and universal contact is made with Palmer Eldritch.

Let’s explore one aspect of this philosophy, the way that reality is embedded in language. In 3SPE, the power of words to kill is graphically illustrated by the weapon sewn into Leo Bulero’s tongue: a “self-guiding, high-velocity poison dart” (p.54-5). This image illustrates Dick’s assertion that words have the power to strongly affect reality. They are therefore taken to be reality. Yet Dick tells us that, although language seems to be real, there are still realities that lie beyond words and language. As he has said elsewhere, reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.

In the unreal Chew-Z world, each person creates their own reality. “What you supply is the logos” (3SPE, p.88). The word is King here. Although it seems that we “enter a genuine new universe” (3SPE, p.89), and even though “the seeming validity” of the reality has been “demonstrated” (3SPE, p.94), eventually Palmer Eldritch, the master of the Chew-Z realm confesses that “It’s not real, of course. That’s the truth. . . . it’s an hallucination” (3SPE, p.204). Yet despite this fact, we are trapped in our own mutually-reinforcing, self-perpetuating, self-fulfilling hallucinations.

“Once you get into one” of the self-created fantasy worlds “you can’t quite scramble back out; it stays with you. . . . It’s a one-way gate” (3SPE, p.185).

There is a solipsism and a narcissism to these characters and their events, and it looks a bit familiar. They are trapped in a reality that is internally consistent and seem real, but has not external vantage point, apparently. The delusions are taken to be the reality, when reality actually exists outside of them. We, and Dick’s characters, are like the men in Plato’s cave, chained and bound, unable to see anything except for “the shadows which the fire casts on the wall of the cave in front of them.” We live in a horrid darkness, “a pit in which we twist and cringe like worms in a paper bag” (3SPE, p.48), everything is blurred, and alternates presented themselves in a chaos of profusion (3SPE, p.57). In daily reality, things are unpleasant. In the escape, they turn unpleasant.
Translation (another language-oriented term) takes place collectively using Can-D and the Perky Pat layouts. Once colonists are translated into the fake “minned” reality of Perky Pat, they forget their past existence and are completely convinced by the reality of the irreal world (see 3SPE, p.46). But this is a shared experience. Worse, Chew-Z provides an individualistic experience. You are alone and your hallucination is so convincing that you cannot distinguish it from reality. Prior to his experience, Barney Mayerson debates the reality of the Can-D drug experience with someone who has never experienced the drug:

“It’s experienced as real; that’s all I know.”

“So are dreams.”

“But this is stronger,” he pointed out. “Clearer. And it’s done in-” He had started to say communion. “In company with others who really go along. So it can’t be entirely an illusion. Dreams are private; that’s the reason we identify them as illusion.” (3SPE, p.126)

After becoming lost in his Chew-Z illusion, Mayerson is terrified to find that he is “isolated”; “the communal world is gone” (3SPE, p.179). This is the great lie of the language-created reality, and its danger. We believe, through our intensely detailed and complex spinning of language games, that it describes a reality. But once the consesnsus world disappears, we realize that all that remains is the language. It might have only a loose correspondence to a reality, or might not even correspond at all. Yet because we have been collectively convinced, this was all the assurance we needed.

The language-illusion’s has the power to trap us. But we still have the ability to find a way out. Just as in Plato’s (1974) cave, all of reality may be a projection, but there are still intimations of a sun-like “light” that “underlies the play of phenomena we call ‘reality'” (3SPE, p.106). A reality that is somehow beyond our collective language games.

This might even be a contact with some aspect of ourselves, as in the miniaturized note which Sam Regan leaves himself when he translates into Walt. It says “THIS IS AN ILLUSION. YOU ARE SAM REGAN, A COLONIST ON MARS. MAKE USE OF YOUR TIME OF TRANSLATION, BUDDY BOY” (p.43-4).

Beyond this basic physical reality, there are signs of an underlying and pre-existent reality.
Reality becomes clearer when we transcend mere words and appearances. As in the medieval doctrine of transubstantiation, the mere outward appearance, the apparent randomness of it all or accident, can be overcome by the substance, the true essence. Words, likes Chew-Z experiences, can only manufacture “surface changes.” Palmer Eldritch may “make things appear the way he wants, but that doesn’t mean they are” that way (3SPE, p.195). Beyond words, there is something underlying, and “latent” which remains true to essence, real. To see beyond this fake world is an act of “seeing into absolute reality. The essence beyond mere appearance” (p.219) that cannot be touched by the false reality (p.229).

“The problem, then, is that if subjective worlds are experienced too differently, there occurs a breakdown of communication . . . and there is the real illness” (Dick 1985, page 3).

In the breakdown of communication, social scientists cannot communicate with one another. Each becomes trapped in their own language game which may describe accurately some aspect of reality, but has become mistaken for reality. The science become insular and insulated from other realities—a word game, a glass bead game. Incomprehensible. Irrelevant. Overextended. Or downright wrong. In the world of business, brand managers can not understand the reality of their consumers. The brand’s meaning becomes inauthentic.

The conclusion to 3SPE is, of course, inconclusive. Just as we don’t know at the end of Total Recall whether Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character is truly a revolutionary hero, or just a construction worker hallucinating that he is a revolutionary hero, we don’t know whether Eldritch is God, another hallucination, or a Perky Pat brand extension.

Realities are bounded and separate, seeming to be distinct and dichotomous. The world is either this, or it is that. But when we look closer they are permeable, they leak into one another. The colonists reality translate into Perky Pat layouts, which become real for the moment, but Palmer Eldritch’s reality leaks into the layouts, and that reality leaks into the colonists world as they exhibit the stigmata. There is a post-postmodernism, a sense that one is falling into an ontological hole with nothing to hang onto. Bounded realities leak one into the other in a seemingly endless loop. At the very end of 3SPE, after swearing to keep fighting Palmer Eldritch, the fully-stigmatized Leo Bulero very significantly forgets his own name (p.230).

Although it is still far from the mainstream, at its boundaries the marketing field seems to have dichotomizing into polarities. From a philosophy of science perspective, the debate has been drawn in lines which seem very clear. On one side the relativists-subjectivists-constructivists- interpretivists. On the other are the objectivists-scientific realists-positivists. The two find each other almost beyond disdain. How utterly obvious that the world should be seen this way. How utterly juvenile to have to explain to these people that this is the way reality works.

It might be worth considering this movement between realities in marketing science as a juxtaposition of Philip Dick’s “two-source cosmogony.” As such, we can imagine Paul Anderson and Shelby Hunt as polar “twins” similar to Can-D and Chew-Z, or Leo Bulero and Palmer Eldritch, representatives of extremes, spinning in opposite directions. From their dialectic interaction is created the pluriform intellectual field that we scholars both build and also inhabit. The functionality of marketing’s dichotomy is clear. In its interaction it creates the many combinations and variations we can explore and learn from. As long as the poles remain in contact with one another, it is a productive polarity. But as they move away from each other, there is a hardening of the gaze, a tendency to reinforce the locked-in worldview, to seal the gaps with language games which Dick warns us are consensual hallucinations blocking us from extending our notions of reality.

There is danger in the dichotomy. Both sides construct elaborate mazes of argumentation, in which we may become trapped and unable to see our way out. Where there is a breakdown of communication there is a breakdown of reality. The dichotomies are not the way things “really” are, they only appear that way. It is important to remember that the neat categories are actually not so neat at all.

Kurt Gödel proved that no system of thought can proceed without some foundational assumptions. Philip Dick notes that “to the early philosophers there was no distinction between philosophy and religion” (Dick 1985: p.22). Faith in “science” and philosophy of science are interconnected, as evidenced by the personal, emotional overtones present in much of this Marketing Science debate.

This passion shows the fundamental(ist) nature of the argument, and speaks to its insolubility at the level of debated dichotomies.What is really real? What is authentic marketing? What is authentic living? What makes a brand authentic?

In exploring this topic, we find a story about reality and the search for it that I believe is paralleled not only in the philosophy of science concerns for the field of marketing that I wrote about in my last blog entry, but also in consumers’ and marketers’ popular concern—many would say obsession—with authenticity.

Marketing academics have been debating how we can know what we know, how epistemology depends upon a particular ontological vantage point, what is really real.

We find a parallel quest in the world of consumers, who are looking for authenticity. I again turn to Dick, who once wrote that trash held the clue to some higher, ultimate reality. Specifically, he said that “The symbols of the divine show up in our world initially at the trash stratum.” These mystical forces break into our mundane everyday world through the level of our junk, our throwaway consumer goods, our overlooked consumption.

Dick was very concerned with the way that “spurious realities are manufactured by the media, by governments, by big corporations, by religious groups, political groups. We are bombarded with pseudorealities manufactured by very sophisticated people using very sophisticated electronic mechanisms.” He was very concerned with the world in which authenticity had become another commodity, or more accurately another ingredient, to be marketed.

Irrepressible and prolific marketing writer Seth Godin wrote that “If you can fake authenticity, the rest will take care of itself.” The field of marketing is rife with this level of ironic deception and cynicism. Consumers seeks out authentic brands whose existence they seriously suspect. Nothing seems genuine or sincere, yet everything claims that it is; the consumer suspects there is no real there there, but desperately wants there to be. The quest has theological, postmodern, and existential overtones and very pragmatic brand management ramifications.

There are no originals left. So The Daily Show’s self-conscious mockery can, for a time, be accepted as more authentic than oh-so-serious actual newscasts (which are actually the bigger fakes). So Sprite’s successful self-referential campaigns of the early 1990s could, for a time, cook up successful marketing by poking fun at the artificiality of marketing itself. So Pabst Blue Ribbon’s lack of marketing could, for a time, become the key to its word-ouf-mouth emergence as authentic.

But now we have guidelines for authentic marketing built upon a paradigm often called “Emotional Branding.” We have learned that successful, authentic brands have:

  • Connections to a larger source of meaning, a major social purpose (like Tom’s of Maine, or Ben & Jerry’s)
  • A strong, often marginal point of view, a sense of conviction (like Martha Stewart or, I guess, Paris Hilton)
  • Integrity and honesty (unlike Wal-Mart’s recent fake blog flogs; but perhaps like Wal-Mart’s latest environmental initiatives)
  • Geographical ties to a particular place (even if they are fictional fabrications, as they are with Bailey’s Irish Cream, or Haagen Dasz ice cream)
  • Ties to a particular person or personality (think Richard Branson or Steve Jobs)
  • Oftentimes, authenticity is manufactured, made to order, conceptually engineered to make particular consumers feel a sense or resonance. As marketers, we want to make sure the consensual hallucination is effective, and that it takes. We root our brands to the demographically favorable concept, dissociate them from the psychographically distasteful. But somehow the “objective” “realities” outside keep on leaking in.

    The novels and other writings of Philip K. Dick have much to say about these matters.

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