Abstracting the Real :Take Shelter

“To language, then – to language alone – it is that fictitious entities owe their existence; their impossible, yet indispensable existence”. (Bentham, 1843, p.198)

This paper will explore Jeff Nichols 2011 film, Take Shelter with respect to the theme of psychosis. In addition, Lacan’s concept of foreclosure will be brought into proximity with Korzybski’s concept of abstraction. The reasoning for this is as follows, Lacan approaches psychosis on the grounds of the individual encountering life experiences that cannot be reconciled with their existing semantic frameworks, creating gaps in the experience that need to be plugged by being named and identified.The genesis of the psychotic structure is the foreclosure of the “name of the father”, this will be discussed in further detail in the paper.  From Lacan’s perspective, the delusion functions  to stabilise these encounters that are internally destructive and perplexing, by providing shape to the experience. Korzybski’s model of cognition focuses on how the individual abstracts from their experience, how each person creates their own semantic environment on the basis of how they attend to incoming information from their biological interface, and from the inferences they create. Both thinkers acknowledge the destabilising nature of chance or perplexing encounters on the human psyche, in the form of the Real for Lacan, and of the territory for Korzybski. Furthermore, both emphasise the importance of the subjective position, how each individual makes sense of their world through language.


In Jeff Nichols 2011 film, Take Shelter, Curtis LaForche (played by Michael Shannon) encounters recurrent dreams of malevolent storms; hallucinations that violate and disrupt the Imaginary as he grapples to abstract meaning by stabilising a delusion, one that promotes impending eschaton. The gravity of his delusion draws his young family, his employers, colleagues and townspeople into the fold. Curtis is driven by a compulsion to build a storm shelter to protect his family from a perceived volatile and ominous storm. The etymology of the name LaForche derived from LaForce meaning “to build a fortress” is a signifier of particular weight, Curtis will stop at nothing to build his shelter and protect his family from a chaotic and perplexing reality.


Curtis LaForche, his wife Samantha and their young deaf daughter Hannah live in a modest house in rural Ohio. Curtis works as foreman at the Delta Oil corp, inspecting and maintaining wells  in the locality with his colleague and friend Dewart. From early on, there are references of the family’s struggles to defend against the demands of the economic  Other, Samantha attends car boot sales to sell trinkets that she makes for additional income and there are phones calls to insurance companies to secure a cochlear implant for Hannah and to provide her the necessary level of care and schooling. In addition, Curtis and Samantha are also learning how to read sign language to facilitate communication with Hannah. This a peripheral notion that is returned to throughout the film, Curtis is learning to read signs. In Seminar 3, Lacan speaks of the highways of the signifier(Lacan, 1956, p. 232) of the Symbolic, the routes to follow. When the concept of foreclosure is raised, a gap appears in the Symbolic; there are no highways to follow, “what does the road user do?” asks Lacan.


Strom Dream: inchoation

Curtis has been experiencing recurrent dreams of a storm, one of excessive volatility. As he stands in his backyard, his hands and face slowly covered in a rain that has a black, oil like quality, cracks of thunder go unheard by his deaf daughter who continues to play, unaware of the impending storm. As lighting crashes in close proximity to the house, the family dog leashed to the fence becomes increasingly agitated. Three whirlwinds appear and advance towards the house, Curtis grabs his daughter to bring here to safety. The dog breaks from its leash, and runs towards Curtis, he attacks, sinking his teeth into Curtis’ arm. Curtis screams in pain and wakes up. In the  morning following the dream, Curtis stares distantly from the breakfast table rubbing his arm, something of the Real has left its mark,something perplexing. His wife is unsure if he is listening to what she has been saying to him. On his journey to work  he makes a detour to a local hardware store, he begins buying materials to build an outdoor paddock for the dog, the family pet must now be distanced. The dream has announced the inchoation of his delusion. The repeated manifest content is the rain that Curtis later describes as having a “motor oil” quality; throughout the film this signifies the barrier between dream and reality.

Protection – Intervention:

In the two dreams that follow, something of the Real struggles to be represented, to be abstracted. In the second, Curtis and his daughter are driving through the storm, the “motor oil” rain (and Curtis’ has selected this signifier to represent a dream element; Curtis works for Delta Oil) smudges across the windscreen. He loses control of the vehicle. As he checks for his Hannah’s safety, shadowy figures smash the windows of the car and remove his daughter from his grip. Again he awakens struggling for breath. In both of these dreams, there is a similarity in Curtis’s position, he attempts to protect his daughter from some intrusion, and in both cases he loses control of her. On waking from this dream, Curtis now makes plans to fix the disused storm shelter at the back of the house.


In the third and final dream, Curtis descends the stairs of his house to find Hannah at the window, looking at the storm. As the house starts to tremble, Curtis grabs Hannah in an attempt to protect her. In a perplexing move, all the furniture levitates, the house is free falling. Curtis is terrified, struggling to hold on to Hannah as gravity brings everything crashing down. When Curtis awakens this time, he has urinated in the bed; the losing control that was prevalent in his dreams has now crossed over to his waking reality.


Curtis and his young daughter appear in each dream; Curtis’ wife Samantha appears in none of the dreams. The storm, the rain and the Curtis’ failed attempts to protect Hannah are persistent themes presented to the audience.. It is interesting to note that at this juncture, there are no more dream references for Curtis, from here on hallucinations are the vehicles of the delusion. The unconscious within is now radically experienced as the unconscious without, to which Curtis is a witness, a martyr. As Lacan posits in Seminar III, what we observe in psychoses “a truth that isn’t hidden, as it is in the neuroses, but made well and truly explicit and virtually theorised” (Lacan, 1956, p.28).

Family History

Faced with these intruding nightmares, Curtis makes an appointment with the local GP. On their meeting, Curtis confesses to his bed wetting and recent dreams. It is at this point, something from his past is drawn into focus. The GP inquires about Curtis’s mother, who was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia when she was his age (35), and has since been in assisted living. The GP recommends a psychiatrist, Curtis does not follow up on this, the financial imposition is too great to put on his family, instead Curtis visits a counsellor that offers free consultation.


A reluctant Curtis works through his family history with the counsellor. He recalls his experience of his mothers psychosis; as a 10 year old, his mother left him in the carpark and disappeared. The authorities later found her “eating trash out of a dumpster in northern Kentucky”. His father placed his mother in assisted living, Curtis notes that he was raised by his father, who, incidentally “died last year”. Again, this is something of a peripheral element in the film, Curtis being raised by his father, and Curtis now as a young father himself, what is Curtis’ response to the paternal role?

His Mother was absent for a lot of his upbringing (Curtis’ wife, the  mother of his child is notably absent from all of his dreams). On his way to visit his mother to establish if her symptoms were similar to his, he stops at the library, he selects a book called “Understanding mental illness”. Curtis is making attempts to find signification, a way to name and identify his experience. Can the Other can provide the required re-assurance, a guiding map or model he can adopt to define his experience in the form of the visit to the GP, the visit to the library, the visit to the counsellor and finally the visit to his mother? None of these exchanges offer Curtis any stabilisation however, none correspond or can be reconciled to his experience. On entering his mother’s assisted living quarters, Curtis quickly gets to business in establishing if his mother ever encountered “bad dreams”. Her response is lacking, her experience was something of a paranoia, she recounts how she “thought people were watching talking about her”. Curtis terminates the conversation at this point, he can see that this distresses his mother, furthermore this has done nothing to provide him the external validation he was seeking.

Constructing the delusion / Building the shelter:

It is in this period of film that any previous models of Curtis’ experience have become entirely insufficient for him to deal with the dreams, hallucinations and feelings, these encounters with the Real. He must construct a viable semantic environment in the form of constructing a storm shelter, a response, an abstraction of the Real. With the certainty in his new semantic model, he asks Dewart to help him build the shelter. This conviction leads Dewart to agree, but not entirely without his own doubts. In an attempt to build his fortress, Curtis takes on bank loan  privately, his certainty towards his delusion bypasses any risks that the economic  Other may have on the well-being of his young family. His obsessive desire to protect his family in what he authenticates from the Imaginary has the inverse effect for them in the Symbolic. The once stable father, employee and friend is now radically destabilised from these roles. The insurance risk in taking machinery from his workplace to build the shelter leads to his dismissal from his job and to Dewart’s unpaid suspension, terminating their friendship. With no money coming in, and loans to pay for the shelter, Hannah’s cochlear implant and her schooling, Curtis has jeopardised his family’s security. With the intent of protecting them from the apocalyptic vision, he has totally exposed them to Symbolic destitution. The notion of protection is central to the entire delusion, it is this response that is problematic for him. As these actions can no longer go unnoticed, Curtis speaks his truth to his wife, something of the Real is evident, something he can’t explain, a feeling “ Its more than just a dream, its a feeling, something bad is coming,and  I just need you to trust me”.

A Radical Certainty:

In the weeks that follow from his suspension, former colleagues and townspeople are gathered together for a family lunch day, all are aware of Curtis’ recent behaviour, many aware of his mother’s mental illness. Rumours have been spreading and when Curtis’ former friend Dewart aggravates Curtis to breaking point, the formerly reserved Curtis becomes eclipsed by the Other, there is an unwavering equivalence between the map and the territory. What is immediately apparent to the townspeople is the intensity of Curtis’ delusion, it immediately polarises his audience, they may hear his words, but they simply cannot understand the certainty of his declaration. Lacan neatly encapsulates this concept “Reality isn’t at issue for him, certainty is. Even when he expresses himself along the lines of saying that what he experiences is not of the order of reality, this does not affect his certainty that it concerns him. The certainty is radical. The very nature of what he is certain of can quite easily remain completely ambiguous, covering the entire range from malevolence to benevolence. But it means something unshakable for him.” (Lacan, 1956, p.75)

The Storm has Passed:

In the final stage of the movie, a storm siren is signalled. Samantha wakes the family, Curtis leads them to the storm shelter. As they settle down, the full extent of his paranoia is evinced in the items within the shelter, gas masks, canned food supplies, drinking water, and oxygen tanks all signify the preparedness for the impending dread that Curtis fears. Samantha and Hannah are scared, both of the storm without, and Curtis’ behaviour within. As they awaken the following day, Samantha urges Curtis to let them out, to open the shelter, assuring him the storm has passed. A visibly shaken Curtis looks at his daughter and wife, to protect them now means to confront his own fear, to traverse it, a choice that can only be made by modifying his map. He opens the door with extreme apprehension, evidently conflicted between his model of reality and Samantha’s. When he does open the door, he see’s nothing but cloudless blue skies…the storm has passed.


With the Schreber case, Lacan asks, “Which signifier is it that is in abeyance in his inaugural crisis?”(Lacan,1956,p.292) To extend this towards Curtis, we could argue the signifier “protection”. What does it mean to protect for Curtis? What is he protecting against?  Throughout the film we are faced with the dynamic between uncertainty and radical certainty. The  young LaForche family struggles to meet financial demands in an ever uncertain financial climate; televised paranoia informs of financial disasters, natural disasters, terrorism, all uncontrollable, unpredictable looming threats,the  insurance companies are deciding the fate of their daughters hearing implant, the possibility of inheriting a mental illness are all prevalent fears of losing control to something bigger that what Curtis can control. His response to these pressures is to protect, to build a shelter from the intrusive Other. In his dreams, his attempts to protect are intervened upon, intruded upon. Although he finds some redemption in the materialised reality of his delusion, what he faces inside the shelter is himself.

Abstracting the Real:

Alfred Korzybski (1876-1950) was a polish semanticist and author of Science and Sanity: A guide to Non-Aristotelian thought and general semantics (1933). His work largely influenced people like Gregory Bateson, and in my opinion can be best thought of as pre-cursor to Ernst Von Glasersfelds radical constructivism. For Korzybski the terms “abstraction” or the “consciousness of abstracting” were used to highlight the non-verbal, unconscious aspects of human experience and the non-allness, non-identity inherent in our use of language. Korzybski’s import was to develop a model that took account of the science of the early 20th century; non-repeating fluctuations observed at the level of quanta, neurobiological processes at the level of organism and to extend from this a self-reflexive bottom up –top down model of human cognition. He did not deny there was an objective world, but rather there was no way of knowing what that could be in any absolute sense, often stating how “no object exists in isolation” (Korzybski, 1933, p.61).


In short to explain this model, the human nervous system abstracts from the entire realm of comprised experience (non-verbal/ unconscious, neuro-biological, cellular, molecular, atomic, quantum processes) these are lower order abstractions, and what Korzybski refers to as “events”. The higher order abstractions, referred to as “inferences” are judgements, beliefs, predictions, statements, and statements about statements, concerning identification and language, and are informed by lower order abstractions. This process stabilises into what Korzybski calls the “semantic environment”; the meaningful relation to the experience or viability. What he feels to be problematic is how language (in particular aspects of Aristotelian logic) create static pictures of reality, treating dynamic processes as nouns / objects. Furthermore, through this process of abstraction, much of the experience is absent, our nervous systems cannot abstract everything that is actually occurring (for example, our bodies do not detect radio waves, see acetylcholine transmissions,  or perceive atoms without instrumentation…). When we describe an object, we use signifiers, but are unable to identify all the characteristics; objects are constituent of event processes that are beyond our biological interface. Finally to make judgements on these “non-all” abstractions in the form of generalisations, is invalidated by the agent who does not and can not know all the characteristics of the system of which they are constituent. “The number of characteristics which we ascribe by definition to the label is still smaller than the number of characteristics the object has. The label, the importance of which lies in its meaning to us represents a higher level of abstraction from the event and from the object” (Korzybski, 1933, p.387 ).This is the basis of Korzybski’s maxim “the map is not the territory” and “the word is not the thing it represents”. In a practical sense, Korzybski sought promote the idea that the intensional use of language should be questioned and the extensional should be employed where possible, this in a sense was the application of his general semantics, to assist the individual in questioning generalisations and static ideas of themselves and the world around them.

In consideration of Lacan’s foreclosure as a way of conceiving the psychotic structure, to foreclose is to foreclose the name-of-the-father, the phallic signifier, the Symbolic dimension. The inability to triangulate experience exposes the psychotic to the overbearing excesses of the Real and Imaginary registers. The Real “whatever subsists outside the domain of symbolisation”(Lacan, 1966, p) is encountered in all its strangeness.  In consideration of the paternal function, the installation into the Symbolic provides a location where the enigmatic aspects of human experience can be phrased, through and to the Other. From “the meaning of delusion” Seminar III “ One forgets that the dialectical changeability of actions, desires, and values is characteristic of human behaviour and that it makes them pass over to strictly opposite values as a function of a change of direction in the dialogue. The ever present possibility of bringing desire, attachment, or even the most enduring meaning of human activity back into question is such common experience that it’s stupefying to see this dimension forgotten”(Lacan, 1956, p.23). From this perspective, the Name-of-the Father is the installation of a type of foundational map or model, a way of being in a socialised reality, a way of directing questions of the drive and of identity to and through the Other. The pathways of the signifier can lead to culturally shared maps and models, all providing some similarity to that which they represent. With the triangulated positioning inherent of the Symbolic, a distance is occupied that prevents total equivalence between map and territory. In “the highway and the signifier” from Seminar III  Lacan draws focus to highways and minor roads, with respect to signifiers and what is signified “ What happens when we don’t have a highway and we are forced to combine minor paths, more or less separate modes of grouping meaning, with one another when we go from one point to another? To go from this point to that point we shall have a choice of different components of the network, we can take this route, or that route, for various reasons”(Lacan, 1956, p.292)

The encounter with the Real as the unpredictable, perplexing and traumatic chance event is a radically incompatible intrusion to past and existing models. Symbolic frameworks provide the possibility of re-assurance or stabilisation, but never absolute certainty. In the psychoses, the inability to locate or identify with the Symbolic reduces an isolated cartographer to radical certainty in their construction. Thus the higher order abstractions are reported as astonishing or malicious revelations and visions, or as phantasmatic horror, from the Imaginary spectrum of the paranoiac to the metanoiac. The radical certainty of hallucinations and signs can aggregate to completely de-stabilise or annihilate past modelling. To abstract from the Real, is to provide meaning to these encounters, this yields its difficulty in the inability to confer with previous or alternative models. This is to sketch some unchartered aspect of the territory, one that must include its cartographer as witness to the unconscious, but excludes the ability to distinguish between similarity and equivalence. The inability to find a shared outlook can lend itself to a certainty that offers stabilisation in the form of a delusion. Thus the operative certainty in the psychotic is the confusion between orders of abstraction, confusing words with things, map with territory.


“As if we don’t, all of us, all of the time, have visions, as if we are never in the grip of phrases that just pop into our heads, sometimes brilliant, illuminating phrases that orientate us. Obviously, we don’t put them to the same use as the psychotic does” (Lacan, 1956, p.110).



Bentham, J. (1873) The Works of Jeremy Bentham, Edinburgh, William Tait.


Retrieved from: http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/2208


Korzybski, A. (1933) Science and Sanity: An introduction to non –Aristotelian systems and General Semantics, 5th Ed.,New York,  Institute of General Semantics


Lacan, J. (1956) The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: The Psychoses  Book III,  East Sussex, Taylor &  Francis Group


Lacan, J. (1966) Ecrits,  New York, Norton


Nicols, J. (2011) Take Shelter, Los Angeles, Sony Pictures Classics.


VALIS and/or Psychosis

Maps, Models and Subjectivity:

Philip K. Dick (1928-1982) was a luminary in the science fiction genre, an author that traversed ontology, psychiatry, narcotics, metaphysics, futurism, religion and postmodernism. Frequently in his works, both conflicting and competing worldviews are brought into question, and concepts of identity, temporality and reality never stray far from his catalogue of signifiers. In his 1978 work VALIS; a novel that brings into proximity the impossibility of unified meaning in the face of subjectivity, we find PKD as the postmodern man drifting through the infinite mirrors of signification in a text that highlights the narrative of the psychotic experience. The precision to which this is delivered provides remarkable insight into how the delusion functions as a solution, a way to shore up against the intrusiveness of the Real. It also calls us to consider the textuality of VALIS; the fragmentation of Imaginary identity and otherness through the many avatars of PKD’s subjectivity, the persistence of VALIS as the big Other, the authors personal narrative surfacing from signifiers enmeshed within the fluctuating delusion; the unconscious without. In VALIS, both the reader and author are left in endless stun towards the multi-ordinality of the signifier “truth”.

French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (1901-1981) built upon the edifice of Freudian thought; his approach was unique, and combined different fields of interest from schools of philosophy to linguistics over the three decades of his annual seminars. Lacan has developed a reputation for being obscure, in part this is due to his style of writing, however Lacan’s propositions present an erudite framework for modelling the psyche; albeit from a radically different storehouse of thought. In the midst of our current scientific discourses, the landscape of the rational-cognitive paradigm, many are inherently skeptical of approaches that cannot be quantified and categorised as “evidence based”. Meta-data is valuable for marketing, however to attempt to normalise the human experience into categorisations, or worse still present mental states as defects from some societal norm is simply an illusion. As Robert Anton Wilson posits “The normal is that which nobody quite is. If you listen to seemingly dull people very closely, you’ll see that they’re all mad in different and interesting ways, and are merely struggling to hide it” (Wilson, 1981).

For example, consider the following statement from Heinz Von Foerster with respect to second-order cybernetics: “a brain is required to write a theory of a brain. From this follows that a theory of the brain, that has any aspirations for completeness, has to account for the writing of this theory. And even more fascinating, the writer of this theory has to account for her or himself” (Von Foerster, 1991, p.2). What this means is that we do not have an exclusively viable model of the mind, and if we do not have an exclusively viable model of the mind then no single discipline can lay claim to being closer to “the truth” than another. By virtue of our inability to find unanimous agreement, we persist to desire. This is how we create maps, but as semanticist Alfred Korzybski infers, we should not confuse them with the territory. All of our conceptualisations qua abstraction remain entirely constituent of reality itself. It is through language that we carve out our communicative experience, and it is through speech that we occupy a subjective position, and there is nothing guaranteeing the validity if language itself, or as Lacan states “there is no Other of the Other”.

For semanticist Alfred Korzybski (1879-1950), the subject always abstracts from reality; that the model we create of reality is not only constituent of reality, but is also only ever a part of reality, never a definitive totality. The conceptualisations we hold of reality are our maps and models (science, politics, religion, Imaginary-Symbolic etc.) however they are never equivalent to reality; they are only ever part of whatever is actually occurring. In short, for any map to serve its function it must be structurally similar to that which it represents; akin to what Von Glasersfeld refers to as “viability”. From this it follows there is no truth beyond our experience, and experience is always experienced subjectively, thus there is no objective truth; only “truths” relative to each person’s experience. To this we can correlate with Lacan’s concept of the subject’s alienation in language; we are subsumed in the Other as language, our individual and trans-individual frame of reference “It is the whole of reality that is covered by the entire network of language” (Lacan, 1956, p.32). The maps we create qua language are firmly grounded within the unknowable totality of the Real. When Korzybski states “the map is not the territory” he means the maps and models we accentuate are contained within the territory, which is properly unknowable; we do not know what reality is, and the only map or model that is fully equivalent to reality is reality itself. To analyse psychical events such as visionary experiences and/or psychotic breaks is to apply dynamically any of our given paradigmatic models, maps or mythologies. What we are capable of doing in language is tracing our corresponding maps and models (e.g psychoanalytic or cognitivist) on to the reality of the subjects experience in our attempts to reconcile a structural similarity. It should be obvious that no map or model has given a full or completely accurate description; so we apply knowledge dynamically, not dogmatically. This can be understood as follows, in order to know how accurate our models are, we would need to compare them to something that is beyond our nervous systems experience, beyond language; presently there is no model that can do that, therefore all we can do is compare the viability of our given maps and models subjectively. Subjectivity is a crucial notion, to understand that we are all creating our own maps and models from the matrix of language, and that in the cases of psychoses, this subjectivity becomes amplified when contrasted to non-psychotic exchanges, that is, to be spoken from a different position in language.

From the Lacanian perspective (or map) on psychosis, it is the foreclosure of the subjects integration to the socio-linguistic matrix that leaves gaps in experience that are plugged up by the delusion. The Name-of-the-father (nom du pere) is a way of conceptualising the installation to the socio-linguistic realm, a way of being in a socialised reality. Our early experiences of reality are bound to a primary carer, as part of our socialised development we must learn how to wean from this primary carer and become what we might like to think of as “an individual” in the socialised world. For both Freud and Lacan, this process of weaning, adopting identity and becoming a socialised being constitute the Oedipal complex; a crucial stage in each person’s development. The installation into language, the coming to desire, is in Lacan’s line of thought dependent on the introduction of a third point, something beyond the individual and primary carer that introduces the proto-conceptualisation of a social order, introducing a triangulation into the existing dyadic relationship. The ability to desire, to wonder about the comings and goings about the primary carer, to be able to identify or name the comings and goings in this way offers an introduction to a particular and lasting pattern of thought; a way of questioning; which is something neurotics are very good at. To foreclose this dimension of questioning leaves the psychotic (at critical life moments) unable to triangulate their positioning, thus there is something of a regression to the dyadic positioning.

Rather than reducing psychoanalysis to antiquated practice or in opposition to the “evidence based” movement, I would argue we are in need of exploring the reality of the subjective position more than ever, to fully embrace the kaleidoscopic encoding-decoding of the subjective, to which psychoanalysis makes its business. Here, I aim to explore one such extreme of subjectification through the work of SF author Philip K. Dick qua VALIS and his visionary episode. Metonymically relating “visionary experience” with “theophany” and equally with “delusion”; psychically intrusive experiences that require the gaps they create to be filled in, and provide a temporary stability in the unending flux of signification qua subjective map making reality.

(Re)capturing meaning:

From a biographical perspective, PKD’s 1974 visionary experience (or his theophany,“2-3-74” in reference to the most salient period of the ensuing year) was the inchoation of his delusion. Having undergone surgery for wisdom tooth extraction in early 1974, Dick had medication delivered to his door from a local pharmacist. On answering the door to the delivery woman, he was blinded by a “beam of pink light” reflecting from the Ichthys pendant on her neck. As he was handed the medication, he asked her what the symbol represented, to which she advised it was a sign worn by early Christians. The intrusion from the Real (in the form of the blinding light beam) and the attribution to a persistent chain of big Other’s: “God”, “Zebra” “VALIS” etc. led to the commencement of his exegesis; an intimidating 8,000 pages which he continued to document until his death in 1982. Outside of this personal attempt to reconcile these experiences, the smouldering mark of this event is evinced in his later novels, in particular VALIS from 1978. To clarify, the Real is one of Lacan’s registers of the psyche, the other two are the Imaginary and the Symbolic. These are complex to understand and require far greater explanation than what I am about to provide, I will nonetheless give a brief outline. I would highly recommend the interested reader take on Lacan’s Seminars to become better acquainted with his theory. The Imaginary corresponds to the phenomenological, to identity, to meaning and the ego. The Symbolic relates to language, to the socio-linguistic realm (laws, norms, job titles, social roles).The Real “whatever subsists outside the domain of symbolisation”(Lacan, 1966, p.388) is impossible to describe. The chance event that cannot be prepared for is an encounter with the Real precisely because you cannot predict it, you cannot symbolise it. Again, these are extremely limited descriptions, there is far more to them than what I have presented, but they should suffice to assist the uninitiated get to grips with this paper.


VALIS (Vast Active Living Intelligence System) a signifier of incredible weight to the author, can be viewed in part as a solution to his visionary episode. Throughout the novel the lines between Dick the science fiction author (first person narrator) and the protagonist Horselover Fat (Etymology: Philip in Greek being “lover of Horses”, and dich in German, meaning “fat”) become entirely blurred. VALIS is interwoven with excerpts from Dicks exegesis, written from Horselover Fats perspective, and the parallel between the two is evident from the beginning of the novel:

I am Horselover Fat and I am writing this in the third person to gain much-needed objectivity” (Dick, 1978, p 11).

This is particularly salient in relation to the notion of triangulation in the Symbolic. PKD adopts different positions in his relation to VALIS as a dyadic ego, never definitively certain what VALIS (as Other) is or wants, but certain it is something to do with him. Horselover Fat serves as an avatar to which he can project his attempts to capture the experience; all of the novels characters represent different maps and models in Dick’s psychical territory. Lacan posits on the certainty of delusions:

Reality isn’t at issue for him, certainty is. Even when he expresses himself along the lines of saying that what he experiences is not of the order of reality, this does not affect his certainty that it concerns him. The certainty is radical. The very nature of what he is certain of can quite easily remain completely ambiguous, covering the entire range from malevolence to benevolence. But it means something unshakable for him.” (Lacan, 1956, p.75).

VALIS occupies this position exactly, from its responsibility for imposing the “trans-temporal” vistas of Rome 70AD to 1970’s California, to being the Judeo-Christian God, from the Logos of reality ex nihilo to the manifestations of camouflaged intelligence as “Zebra”, the almost Jungian synchronicity of VALIS as the novels pseudo-cinematic experience; PKD/Horselover Fat always maintain the same position when speaking of VALIS, in short, dyadic.

As with his later works and exegesis, VALIS incorporates religion, narcotics, science, postmodernism, ontology, psychoanalysis and mysticism in the expansive matrix of Dick’s subjectivity. The nature of the VALIS delusion, in both its linguistic sophistication and complexity, provide insight into how these experiences are processed in a deeply alienating, syncretistic reality tunnel. His apprehension of the painful and traumatic events that have occurred in his life, the loss of his twin sister at birth, his failed relationships, his addictions to narcotics, his own suicide attempt, his institutionalisation, his persistent anxiety; are all brought into proximity with his interests in ontology, religion, mysticism, psychology, science fiction. In this sense, a solution is culminated with “2-3-74” and the subsequent attempts to (re)capture meaning in his life via VALIS and his exegesis. PKD surfaces with rather astute self-reflections throughout the novel, tracing over his truth in the inescapable gravity of his psychosis: ‘There is no ‘Zebra’, I said. ‘It’s yourself. Don’t you recognize your own self? It’s you and only you, projecting your unanswered wishes out, unfulfilled desires left over after Gloria did herself in. You couldn’t fill the vacuum with reality so you filled it with fantasy; it was psychological compensation for a fruitless, wasted, empty, pain-filled life and I don’t see why you don’t finally fucking give up.” (Dick,1978, p. 245)


VALIS as the persistent big Other:

The visionary intrusion of “2-3-74” set in motion a labyrinthine journey into establishing meaning for the author that continued to his death. From the traumatic to the anodyne, Dick / Horselover Fat attempts to decode his experience throughout the novel whereby “God” undergoes significant revisions. What is consistent throughout these revisions is Dick / Horselover Fat’s relationship to this big Other, he is sure he has been chosen by this divine representation, that something is being communicated to him; he has experienced a theophany. VALIS is part autobiography, a retroactively, unavoidable condensed version of Dick’s exegesis (which in itself is semblant of the sinthome). This is takes place between the overbearing excesses of the Imaginary and Real registers.

 After he had encountered God, Fat developed a love for him which was not normal.  It is not what is usually meant in saying that someone ‘loves God’. With Fat it was an actual hunger. And stranger still, he explained to us that God had injured him and he still yearned for him, like a drunk yearns for booze.  God, he told us, had fired a beam of pink light directly at him, at his head, his eyes; Fat had been temporarily blinded and his head had ached for days.  It was easy, he said, to describe the pink beam of light; it’s exactly what you get as a phosphene after-image when a flashbulb has gone off in your face.  Fat was spiritually haunted by that color.  Sometimes it showed up on a TV screen.  He lived for that light, that one particular color” (Dick,1978, p. 21).

This intrusion of anamnesis renders the vistas of 1970’s California and 70 AD Rome to the exact same point in space-time, captured in the signifier “trans-temporal constancy”. This is part of a larger framework found in another signifier brought into this proximity “the black iron prison” which is a social mechanism that keeps the earth’s populations trapped in deceptive illusion of reality that functions only to control them. The Nixon era is thought to be a continuation of the Roman Empire, which in turn is part of the black iron prison, leading Philip/Horselover Fat to posit that “the empire never ended”. Part of the anamnesis leaves Philip/ Horselover Fat with the ability to speak Koine Greek fluently and delivers him information that his young son is suffering from a life threatening illness so far undiagnosed by doctors. One of the justifications for this is explored as a sophisticated act of mimicry by ultimate reality which is called “Zebra”. This is the Logos, the supra-intelligent reality that is camouflaged so that we are incapable of seeing it: “What if a high form of sentient mimicry existed — such a high form that no human (or few humans) had detected it? What if it could only be detected if it wanted to be detected? Which is to say, not truly detected at all, since under these circumstances it had advanced out of its camouflaged state to disclose itself.  “Disclose” might in this case equal “theophany.” The astonished human being would say, I saw God; whereas in fact he saw only a highly evolved ultra-terrestrial life form, a UTL, or an extra-terrestrial life form (an ETL) which had come here at some time in the past, and perhaps, as Fat conjectured, had slumbered for nearly two thousand years in dormant seed form as living information in the codices at Nag Hammadi, which explained why reports of its existence had broken off abruptly around 70 A.D.””   (Dick, 1978)

The big Other is that which represents a fictional, albeit necessary attachment to our social functioning. It operates by its injunctions, its radical otherness to our Imaginary experience. All this comes down to our integration into social existence, that there is a way we act or perform in given social encounters. This is exemplified by the law tout court; in a given society with its culture, it perceptions, its “way of doing things”, we find aspects of culture are in essence social laws, we conform to them by virtue of our social behaviour. The aspect of injunction is executed in nearly every social exchange. Consider the preparation for job interview, the things that can be said, and the things that should not be said in the interview for the given role. The interviewer occupies a certain position as “le sujet suppose savoir” (a subject supposed to know) an adjudicator of how well we have performed the interview as a social exercise. The interview is a controlled conversation; controlled by the big Other; acting upon both interviewer and interviewee in the roles they play. In a more radical example, consider the lines and names on a map of the world, these are nothing but abstractions; they do not exist beyond language, beyond the symbolic investment we make to them.  Although fictitious, they are necessary for our socio-linguistic functioning, and so we adopt the role of “American” or “Irishman” as declarations to and through the big Other. As Slavoj Zizek notes:

The “big Other’s” inexistence is ultimately equivalent to Its being the symbolic order, the order of symbolic fictions which operate at a level different from direct material causality. (In this sense, the only subject for whom the big Other does exist is the psychotic, the one who attributes to words direct material efficiency.) In short, the “inexistence of the big Other” is strictly correlative to the notion of belief, of symbolic trust, of credence, of taking what other’s say “at their word’s value.”(Zizek, 1997, para.8 )

To the psychotic, the big Other takes on an intense manifestation; the fictional element as described above is foreclosed for the subject, the material essence of the signifier occupies a certainty that results from foreclosure. The paranoiac-conspiracist website par excellence “infowars.com” delivers notions of clandestine governments pulling the strings of world leaders; CIA cover ups of UFO encounters; controlled economic disasters, deliberately self-sabotaging acts of domestic violence to instigate global wars. To Alex Jones, the head of the website, these are the Other(s) of the Other. There is something or someone else behind the facade of socio-linguistic experience; world events cannot be as they seem. In the sheer chaotic novelty of reality, we must occupy a place whereby meaning can fill in the gaps, that we can communicate what it is we are processing-abstracting. The Symbolic dimension for Lacan is precisely the place that we can come to phrase our questions on being, this is a place we can triangulate our experience, we reflect upon our life narratives, we occupy a distance from finding total equivalence between the contents of our mind and external experience. In short, we can understand that our thoughts might just be thoughts and not what is actually occurring.

As fascinating, or bizarre, or terrifying the various incarnations of VALIS as big Other may appear (God, Zebra, Logos etc.), we cannot reach a point where we can say we properly understand it; that is, relate to it in a way that we make it our own. The foreclosure of the socio-linguistic matrix leaves the subject unable to communicate in a mutually agreed social reality. What is important; and important by virtue of the subjects linguistic attachment, is the preservation of the delusion that fills in the gaps in their experience. From the non-psychotic vantage point, a certain distance from the Real is maintained via the name of the father in a way that we do not confuse “Godzilla” as being an actual event. More recently, consider “the Matrix defense” cases, whereby a number of defendants committed murders fully enmeshed in the terrifying delusion of simulism as depicted by the Wachowski brothers The Matrix (1999). In psychosis, the proximity between the real and the imaginary render the subject in a spectrum of paranoiac- to- metanoiac delusions.

To note, we should not confuse our consensus socio-linguistic maps of reality as “true”, but only ever mutually agreed; this agreement provides us a stability to function socially. In other words, we do not possess a “true” objective position ever, hence the reason we never say we can “prove” anything in the sciences; what would we be comparing these proofs to? As linguist Roman Jakobson neatly encapsulates “there must be a certain equivalence between the symbols used by the addresser and those known and interpreted by the addressee. Without such an equivalence the message is fruitless: even when it reaches the receiver it does not affect him” (Jakobson, 1956). We hear the words, we may understand the words, but we do not understand the message. Our inability to adopt these types of experiences as correlative with our own leaves them detached from the Symbolic. This certain equivalence is valid to a point, in so far as we take very educated gambles on what we are saying to each other so that we can be “understood”, however, in the Symbolic we question, our unconscious can be questioned, not taken as being equivalent to the territory.


The impossibility of unified meaning:

Dick as author was erudite, philosophical and inventive, the sheer volume of intellectual nods throughout VALIS from Plato, Freud, Hussey, Pascal to biblical and gnostic ideology etc. reveals the battery of signifiers that were available to him. However, at no point do we come away with a clear message. What we see is someone incapable of arriving at a functional socio-linguistic stability, a point de capiton, Lacan uses this term to denote how signifier and signified can coincide to provide a stabilisation between words and meaning. The religious, metaphysical, post modernistic signifiers of PKD’s psyche are properly unleashed and return qua VALIS. Not only this, but there are signifiers scattered across this expanse that are directed towards deeply traumatic events within Dicks life. He held a life-long captivation with the death of his twin sister at birth, a character that surfaced in many of his novels, and was in no way spared from VALIS and his exegesis: “Entry #32: The changing information which we experience as world is an unfolding narrative. It tells us about the death of a woman. This woman who died long ago, was one of the primordial twins. She was on half of the divine syzygy. The purpose of the narrative is the recollection of her and of her death. The Mind does not wish to forget her.(Dick, 1981,p. 40).

What may seem conceptually foreign to contemporary models of mind, is that Lacan views the fragmentation of psychical being as part of the development of the subject that is in a sense, an unavoidable passage for all of us. Rather than promising a totality, or unified position that we can reach, we should learn how better to embrace our fragmentation, to accept it. All this comes down to a respect of subjectivity vis a vis with the maps and models we use to navigate our experience. And what happens when these maps that are highly integrated networks of signifiers lose their stability; when there is nothing to prop them up, nothing to assure them their value? The disintegration of identity is a concurrent theme in VALIS, Dick projects and resides in a myriad of Imaginary persona’s that assist in his expression of the construction of meaning, at times there are poignant oases of self-reflexivity:

“Back to the cognac bottle. Cognac calms me down. Sometimes, especially when I talk to Fat, I get freaked and need something to calm me. I have the dreadful sense that he is into something real and awfully frightening. Personally, I don’t want to break any new theological or philosophical ground. But, I had to meet Horselover Fat; I had to get to know him and share his harebrained ideas based on his peculiar encounters with God knows what. With ultimate reality, maybe. Whatever it was it was alive and it thought.” (Dick, 1981, p. 133)

Our maps and models are constituent of whatever is actually occurring; the map is always contained within the territory, and the territory is that which is unknowable, presently beyond language. We cannot discuss what is not available to us in language. To understand this, if we were to create a theory of everything, (a unified field theory being the holy grail to many physicists) we would need to capture second order cybernetics within that. Thus, it should be apparent that this mode of thinking is an impossibility,we would have to be able to explain every single event in the entirety of history within that theory, account for every single subjective thought that has and will ever be. The subjective meaning we create qua signifier-signified is a part of a totally unknowable process and not a static definition that will ever be “understood” only mutually agreed. Ultimately VALIS is a novel, albeit one that holds close correspondence to PKD’s exegesis. What is so astonishing is that this mirroring between the role he occupied as author and the visionary experience that consumed his final years were attempts to (re)capture meaning in his life. If anything VALIS provides tremendous insight into the psychotic subject’s relation to language. A subjectivity to be celebrated for its linguistic exuberance.

Listening to the radio one night- he had not been able to sleep for a long time- he heard the radio saying hideous words, which it could not be saying. Beth (his wife) being asleep missed that. So that could have been Fats mind breaking down; by then his psyche was disintegrating at a terrible velocity. Mental illness is not funny.(Dick, 1981, p .47)


Dick, Philip K. (1981) VALIS, Sussex, Orion publishing group

Jakobson, R. (1956) Two Aspects of Language and Two Aspects of Aphasic Disturbances

Retrieved from:


Korzybski, A. (1933) Science and Sanity: An introduction to non –Aristotelian systems and General Semantics, 5th Ed., New York, Institute of General Semantics.

Lacan, J. (1956) The Seminar of Jacques Lacan: The Psychoses Book III, East Sussex, Taylor & Francis Group

Lacan, J. (1966) Ecrits, New York, Norton

Von Foerster, H. (1991) Ethics and Second-Order Cybernetics Retrieved from:


Zizek, S. (1997) The Big Other Doesn’t Exist, Journal of European Psychoanalysis. Retrieved from:



Further Listening: