The Man in the High Castle

The “hook” of Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle is the alternative rendering of the pre- and posthistory of World War II, with Germany and Japan winning the war and occupying nearly the entire world. But what’s striking about this imagining is how little it differs from the postwar actuality. The geopolitical arrangements in the novel nearly reproduce the cold war situation: the great powers — in this case Germany and Japan — act as the two poles, with subservient regions under occupation and control, areas nominally separate but under the direct influence of the poles, and, finally, what can be called zones of indiscernibility, which are not really autonomous but where neither power exercises control freely.

Even though most of the book’s action takes place in California, a region of total Japanese administration, and hinges on geopolitical maneuvering from the German pole, for Dick it’s the zone of indiscernibility that’s decisive, in that it offers both the possibility of subversion and the elements for fortification. The novel’s ambiguous and underdetermined denouement occurs in the area called by the makers of the map below a “buffer zone”; that is, a territory not dominated by either power but where both can operate and from which they can borrow when necessary. It’s from the buffer zone that the Man in the High Castle writes his novel that imagines a different political reality — i.e., one in which Germany and Japan actually lost the war — a creation that is as unthinkable to the citizens in the dominated zones as it is dangerous to the primary governments. But the buffer zone also recognizes and freely trades in both the Japanese and German forms of money, just as it seems to seamlessly import and export products from controlled territories; the zone of indiscernibility is a release valve and a source of surplus value.

Geopolitical differences, then, are recognized in the novel, but the largely unspoken-of backdrop for these machinations, the universal substance, is the commodity. It’s no exaggeration to say that the book completely revolves around commodities, their production, circulation, and distribution. Commodities are quite literally the social bond that tie the characters together: the novel’s various products provide how they meet, what they talk about, and through which they obtain something like subjective wholeness; they also disrupt, block, and complicate all these relations. Commodities — the characters’ (in)ability to buy or sell them, their authenticity or artificiality — are also responsible for all sorts affective states: euphoria, hallucination, or dysphoria are the inevitable results of encounters with commodities. And Dick wants us to take these effects quite literally: after Mr. Tagomi puts into his mouth a piece of silver that is one of the novel’s pivotal objects, the piece causes a hallucination in which he imagines among, other things, that someone has built the Embarcadero Freeway, a (real world) hideous testament to the demands of capitalist circulation.

And it’s here that Dick’s fictionalized cold war is more real than the real cold war: by minimizing the “political” conflicts between the two powers — and the conflicts between Germany and Japan are generally localized — he clarifies the economic commonality between liberal capitalism and state socialism; in a word, the market and the production of commodities. Contra postwar narratives that depicted an intractable contradiction between Western capitalism and Eastern socialism, Dick ditches cold war dualism to present a world in which everyone is working for capitalism.

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