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 “” 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: