Endopsychic Genealogy in Dark City

SPRING 2012: V.08 N.01: CAA Conference Edition 2012

Laurence A. Rickels
Academy of Fine Arts, Karlsuhe, Germany.


Magic means, basically, to render one’s reference to outside reality a constitutive part of that reality. In his reading of the Memoirs of Daniel Paul Schreber, Freud identified as endopsychic perception the way the details of delusional systems do more than reflect or illustrate an inside view of the illness itself, but in fact constitute a duplication down to these details of the very theory that would understand the illness in terms of psychic reality. Sometimes psychoanalysis is what it talks about. And that is how it relates to, internalizes or syndicates outside influences and references. In Dark City, Dr. Schreber is the intermediary between human test subjects and the Alien experimenters, who are Nosferatu lookalikes. What lies condensed in this science fiction film is a concise endopsychic genealogy of what is being newly termed Psy Fi, which is explored in Dark City and its intertexts.

Daniel Paul Schreber’s record of his delusions in recovery from psychotic breakdown contained endopsychic perceptions, as Freud underscored, inside views of the functioning of the psychic apparatus given in terms continuous with Freud’s theory. That this systematic exchange between Schreber’s perceptions and the libido theory that would contain them continued as internal both to Freud’s reading of the Schreber case and to the history of this reading introduces and models an approach to psychohistory we might call endopsychic genealogy. Sometimes what psychoanalysis addresses on the outside is already internal to it. This is particularly true of mass media B-culture, which, as the Frankfurt School argued, holds the place of the preconscious.

On the map of science fiction we find endopsychic perception writ large as its legend. According to autobiographical accounts of sojourns in schizophrenia, science fiction and Fantasy are the closest approximations to the two trajectories of delusional system formation whereby the psychotic break can enter a new era of stabilization or recovery. The generic fictions separate over their relationship to the dead and undead. In Fantasy the deposit of loss is redeemable while in secular science fiction the accommodation of the dead, for example as ghosts in the machine, must be secured and re-secured.

That the delusional system in Schreber’s case is so well encapsulated, as Walter Benjamin noted, [1] owes a great deal to the legibility that melancholia introduces, not only in the sense or direction of Benjamin’s reading of Trauerspiel but also in metapsychological fact. For in Freud’s science melancholia was the first borderline disorder, the first opening up of a zone of transferential legibility inside narcissistic illness. The deepest pockets of narcissistic derangement in the Schreber, Ratman and Wolfman cases are rendered accessible through the foreign body or caption of a melancholic narrative.  This legibility is buoyed up by the double economy of the case study narratives: the interminable mourning for the father that Freud puts to rest in the foreground of the three studies is the treatable, diversionary and inoculative version in each case of the crypt tale of an undead sibling that could not be otherwise addressed. That Carl Jung wrote the first psychoanalytic study of schizophrenic language on the basis of his immediately prior investigation of the melancholic identifications carried forward as Spiritualist mediumship is another instance of the constructed legibility that melancholia introduces into the outer limits of severe narcissistic disorder.

The secular deregulation of Christianity fixed on magic as the best use to make of finite existence as one’s own creation. In delusions reminiscent of Fantasy it is magic or omnipotence of thoughts (including its infernal application as technology) that remains subsumed by the redemption value of the ultimate Happy End. In science fiction delusions, as in Schreber’s Memoirs of My Nervous Illness, magic does not prove infernal but enters a secular continuity shot with technology, while the underlying omnipotence is shared with the departed, so-called tested souls in the case of Schreber, whose ghostliness is mediatic in both the technical and occult senses. The ghosts raised by magic preserve a continuity of remembrance in extended finitude, which the Christian death of death would leap beyond. But here we straddle the defense of Christianity that the Devil, as master magician, proffers. The Devil rejects as immortality neurosis the grief that gets in the way of the upgrade of substitution and accepts as clients under contract only candidates free of inhibition, including that of attachment to what’s gone. Once we replace magic with mourning as the modern medium for exploring and repossessing the field religion vacated we can choose, like Hamlet, to identify the occult mediation either as demon sent straight from Hell or as ghostly return of a recently departed loved one.

The Fantasy track reclaims the religious impulse that the psychotic break initially split off from the common bond of belief, which, as Freud argued, alone conventionalizes the psychotic content of religion. In Perceval’s Narrative, for example, the controlling interest the voices take in poor Perceval, but without the double mediation of doubt and belief, the Almighty version of ambivalence, brings on and attends the break. His delusional world order re-admits doubt on the double when the absurdity of the voiced demands becomes manifest. We owe our attention to this work to Gregory Bateson, who saw to its reprinting as test case of the double bind both for the theory of the break and for the therapy unto its stabilization. Once the analyst both accepts the patient’s delusional belief system as the patient’s reality and demands acceptance that the analyst, however, does not worship in this system and can question the directives of its godhead, restoration of the standard of ambivalence in relationship to the Almighty becomes possible once more.

Whether we consult Schreber’s own Memoirs or Perceval’s Narrative, the schizophrenic’s entry upon stability is guaranteed by the new-found ability to resume diplomatic relations with the interpersonal status quo. The new world order is understood, then, to coexist laterally with any number of alternate realities. The recovery Freud assigned to delusional system formation around endopsychic insight harbors the science fiction subgenre of alternate present realities, in which Philip K. Dick was the expert. Alternate reality can be seen, then, as the raising to the power of remembrance of the stabilized psychotic’s compromise with the secular world. Hence Dick opted for science fiction, as the secular track of delusion formation, over and against Fantasy, his original fascination and temptation. In an interview Dick traced the border between these genres: “In fantasy, you never go back to believing there are trolls, unicorns … and so on. But in science fiction, you read it, and it’s not true now but there are things which are not true now which are going to be someday. … It’s like all science fiction occurs in alternate … universes.” [3]

Before we make the jump cut to the post-WWII era of science fiction, we must attend to the premier extension of endopsychic perception into endopsychic genealogy via German science fiction, to which Schreber’s book belonged and for which the look of Metropolis (1926) proved iconic. The era of German science fiction entered upon a phase of realization that coincided with the concise history of Nazi Germany. In the documentary portion of Robert Bramkamp’s 2002 film Test Stand 7, we learn that Fritz Lang’s Woman in Moon (1929) was shown in Nazi Germany only in an expurgated version that deleted the camera pans of the rocket designs, because it was felt they already occupied and revealed the planning stage of the V1 and V2 rockets.  The rockets that then took off bore as mascot insignia reference to Lang’s film, on which, as teenager, Wernher von Braun had also worked as assistant to German’s leading theorist of space travel, Hermann Oberth, who was the film’s technical advisor.

Because Nazi Germany appeared so closely associated with specific science fictions as their realization, after WWII the genre had to begin again from scratch within the new Cold War opposition. More anecdotal than historical an occasional slippage in the positing of a new beginning referred to the denied recent traumatic past. Destination Moon (1950), which was billed while in production to be the premier entry upon the new genre, in fact came in second to Rocketship X-M (1950), which was made rapid fire only to beat the film projected to be the first. In Destination Moon the rocket flight relied on private patriotic sponsorship to get around Soviet-influenced stalling of government support and demonstrated in the close quarters of this space race the benefits of atomic energy. In Rocketship X-M, the trip to outer space, which by accident skips the Moon and reaches Mars instead, encounters on the fourth planet the remains of an ancient civilization extinguished by atomic warfare.  While visiting what amounts to the possible future outcome of civilization on Earth, the crew wears outfits that were in fact borrowed from military firefighters but which resemble WWI uniforms outfitted for gas attack. The crew, like that engaged in outer space travel in Woman in the Moon, consists of four men and one woman. In the rush to beat Destination Moon it was decided not to shoot scenes of the rocket’s take-off and flight. Instead borrowed footage of V2 rockets was incorporated where needed. The collector, who bought and restored Rocketship X-M in the 1970s, had the transitions reshot to replace as throwaway the inserts of V2 rocket flight. Unable to land back on Earth the remaining crew members broadcast, prior to crashing, the account of their journey – the film itself – and thus entrust it, like Hamlet via Horatio, to the recording survivors outside its frame of doom.

In this encrypted exception – in film history to this day Destination Moon is billed as the first American science fiction film – the prehistory of the post-traumatic scheduling of the return in the 1980s of German science fiction as the look of Metropolis in music videos, in the remake of Disney’s Tomorrowland, and in Blade Runner (1982) is given in cross section. Between the WWI soldiers in Outer Space trapped in a nether realm or no man’s land that endured as shell shock and the doubly incorporated and excluded inserts of the first rocket flights on record we enter the realm of realization of German science fiction. The WWI shell shock epidemic led Freud to remap the topography of his theory. Before “The Uncanny” and Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud committed to theorization, in his “Introduction to Psychoanalysis and the War Neuroses,” a splitting of the ego into “Doppelgänger:” in one corner the peace ego, in the other its “parasitical” double, the war ego. [2] That Freud’s analysis of the disorder served as blueprint for a series of applications in German military psychology, ultimately as Nazi psychological warfare and mass psychology, supports the Frankfurt School claim that National Socialism was psychoanalysis in reverse. The divisions of doubles that emerged from the experience-mutating changes brought about by the first total techno war projected a new standard of survival, that of the fit with technologization, a psychic fit now thought best secured through the unbalancing acts of dissociation, the new internal frontier of doubling. This shift in our relations with technology as the onset of gadget love is a WWI legacy that continues to this day as crypto-fetishism, the new-and-improved way to get around loss that toes the borderline between neurosis and psychosis inside psychosis.

The best case study to my mind of crypto-fetishism is the original launching of automatic rocket flight in Nazi Germany. Down to details rocket flight retrofitted the failed attempt to dominate the Earth’s atmosphere to realization of the science fiction Fritz Lang projected in two parts, first as Metropolis, then, immediately after, as Woman in the Moon. The SF prospect of release from the earth’s gravity or grave as takeoff into outer space skipped the downbeat of the loss of the air war while presenting itself as all along the cathected goal of upward mobilization. It allowed the pursuit of a final victory as the dissociated ability both to see and not see the defeat that was already upon Nazi Germany. This double accounting is carried forward to this day in mass culture as the uncanny uncertainty whether the Nazis lost or whether their loss was only the temporary setback of an effort that doesn’t know when to stop winning.

A year before The Matrix (1999) chose Fantasy over science fiction, Dark City (1998) hit the screen, running science fiction into the burial ground of lost worlds. Aliens have abducted a large sampling of mankind to study under the lab and maze conditions of life-or-death experiments. The aliens are fading fast: it is surmised that what the humans call soul (or psyche) has marked them, in contrast, for survival. The intermediary or double agent between the manipulated mediatic human habitat and the control room of the alien experimenters – whose voice over, which is in the beginning, introduces us to the setting of Dark City’s future – is Dr. Daniel Paul Schreber. The aliens or “strangers,” who all look like Murnau’s Nosferatu, just in different sizes, and who float, launching themselves like Nosferatu rising straight up out of his coffin, are marked for extinction. In their dealings with us, they use our dead as vessels. They are distinguished by their powers over reality: they can alter our perceived reality by “tuning” together at midnight. They have the hypnotic power to induce instant sleep in the human subjects, while their tuning reflects their “telepathic energies.” When the humans conk out at midnight the aliens rearrange the city like digital special effects, while Dr. Schreber mixes up “cocktails” from recycled stolen memories to inject into the test subjects. Every time there’s been a tuning, the humans start over from oblivion in new habitats and identities with new memories to match. On occasion someone wakes up ahead of schedule with a few earlier memories still intact. The resulting insight into manipulation and loss becomes the kernel of an inside view diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenia. Suicide seems the only way out.

The protagonist John Murdoch wakes up with a jolt before Schreber can finish the process of injection of a remembered murder of one woman as proxy for his cheating wife – and subsequently fails to fall asleep during tuning – because he is a mutation or missing link, the first human who can also tune. Schreber tells Murdoch’s wife (while posing as his physician) that her husband has suffered a “psychotic break.” The aliens ordered Schreber to find Murdoch because he is their break: if they can imprint him with their collective memories, then he will be one of them – and, one for all, they can tune in the future. In the meantime, to help track Murdoch, one of their own is injected with the essence of their quarry: “I’ve John Murdoch in mind.” The stranger with the Murdoch imprint meets Murdoch’s wife. He and her husband share a great many memories it seems: small world. Contrary to his upbeat discourse on memories, however, she observes that she had always thought that we were instead “haunted” by memories.

That the memories are implanted follows the logic of haunting. Even the murderous violence placed at Murdoch’s door is interpreted by Schreber as psychotic break, the acting out in a state of oblivion of the wound of separation from his wife. When, following the ghost’s lead in rendering the chaotic rot of his environment legible through the melancholic narrative of the recent past, Hamlet feigned psychotic madness or took in its memory implant it was psychopathic violence in Ophelia’s midst that he let go as uncontainable. And yet a narrative of interrupted mourning continued to hold together the relay of violent acts at the border of incomprehensibility. But in the post-WWII setting potentiated by post-traumatic returns of the more complete picture – the double billing of German science fiction and the Holocaust, which also only attained global recognition beginning in the 1980s – the problem of psychopathy could be readdressed.

The overlapping condition of the “psycho,” a pop term coined for the psychological casualty of WWII, foregrounds melancholic psychosis as stopgap understanding in lieu of what otherwise amounts to a failure of interpretation in psychoanalytic hermeneutics. Dark City is a late arrival of the return of German science fiction within post-WWII genre developments. It accordingly includes a few updates within the range of its return. The testing scenario from which Murdoch awoke before the programming could take effect aimed to relocate his psychic agency to a series of psycho murders. The Aliens thus include in their testing of human subjects for their psychic endurance a scenario of psychopathic violence as limit state but within the range of the norm. There is psychosis in the lab environment but as uncontrolled byproduct of glitches in programming. Murdoch is not the first subject to fail to sleep on Alien command during the transition of tuning. But he is the first witness of the lab experimental conditions of his environment not to be psychoticized.

He crosses the border to his exceptional status via the scenario of psychopathic violence in which he doesn’t, however, recognize himself. That the slashing of the victims in the test scenario follows the swirl pattern of Murdoch’s finger print (as emphasized in particular in Frank Lauria’s 1998 novelization, also titled Dark City) seems a compact reference to a shift in the underlying realm of verification in psycho horror cinema from projection of the separation from the mother onto the psycho’s cut of connection/disconnection to the certainty of evidence associated with DNA, which began its rise to dominance in the late 1980s. Following the film therapy whereby the shower scene in Psycho (1960) could be worked through by the 1990s, psychopathic violence reclaimed the foreground no longer veiled by melancholic introjects but now illuminated as infernal verdict and verification. DNA testing in crime scene investigation emerged out of the longstanding attempt to test for paternity. In fact it was the father of incest who first stood revealed as verified certain agent. In 1987, DNA examination of an aborted fetus proved that the father was the young mother’s own father. The Murdoch experiment, which is first framed by the movie marquee advertising The Evil, inscribes upon the serial murder victims the swirl pattern not only of the killer’s finger print but also of the logo of Alien group identity. In this scenario, the aliens use our Dad as vessel.

The Devil Dad, at once the primal father and the pre-Oedipal father, is a figure of early monopolization of sexual difference as penetration, for which the anal theory of birth provides the premier outlet. The certainty of excremental production in contrast to the leap of faith required to admit the reality of reproduction underwrites the Devil’s best offer, finite quality time without interruption or compromise by death or trauma and the paradoxical comfort of a certain deadline.

That Murdoch is immune to this scenario, which the Aliens construct, however wittingly, as Devil’s advocates, underscores that Dark City as science fiction remains on the secular side of the border to Christianity, where Fantasy and Devil fiction reside. As late work the film is open to all the parties to a process of integration based on the synthetic access of digital media. Even its genre, media, or belief-system borders are open to dissociation as integration. The film moves toward two conclusions, therefore, one conforming to crypto-fetishism, the other to Fantasy.

When John can’t find a scar on his person to match what he sees in slides from his childhood, he knows “it’s all lies.” And yet Schreber can only remix pre-existing memories, while the strangers tune in historicist architectural changes derived from memories stolen from their captives. These memories are selected from the two columns of imagined environments that still support a film like Inception (2011): the free imagination chooses either the sets of Metropolis or the James Bond sets of post war science fiction.

But then there’s Shell Beach. Murdoch remembers meeting his wife on the pier there. Though her memories have been changed in the meantime, in the end, without knowing why, she feels compelled to go to the pier, where Murdoch meets her again. Shell Beach is part of the topography no matter how the sets are altered. It’s a special memory for Murdoch, but it’s also a known place on the map everyone seems to recall. Everyone remembers Shell Beach up to a certain point, whereupon everyone then draws a blank. It’s like the arrangement of memory in traumatic amnesia, like the dissociation basic to fetishism. Like Murdoch’s wife said, it’s like haunting. The film ends at Shell Beach, however revalorized, or rather before the new frontier of psychic reality that opened as legacy of WWI between shell shock as internal doubling and rocket flight, which basically gave the hard shell to dissociation.

The very name “Murdoch” stops short of articulating “murder” and sounds out instead the “dock” or pier, the point of return exceeding the abyss of recycling. When it’s time for showdown Murdoch dominates the strangers. Dr. Schreber gave him the assist. He injected Murdoch not with the collective memories of the stranger race, but with a kind of instructions manual that Schreber concocted giving the background and makeup of the experimenting strangers, all one needs to know to combat them. After he has seized the power from the destroyed aliens, Murdoch tunes a body of water to wash up against the borders of the outer-space platform on which the humans have served as test subjects.

The last alien encounter (or the closing contact with the order of projection) is between Murdoch and the stranger who is dying of Murdoch’s imprint. The imprinted stranger says he volunteered, even though the dying was guaranteed, because he wanted to know how it feels. But Murdoch tells him he’ll die never knowing. He was looking in the wrong place: it’s not the brain but rather the heart that is the human mark of distinction. The unreconstructed Metropolis citation captions the completion of the island in outer space, New York or Metropolis, as California. Thus in the span of the screen medium delusion can be looped through Fantasy, though the loopy conclusion, of Dark City as of Metropolis, is the defective cornerstone of its reception. Shell Beach was the outer rim of fetishistic dissociation that allowed the test subjects to remain at the border between neurosis and psychosis inside psychosis. Its realization through tuning attains the height of overskill, like rocket flight taking off from the shell shock conditions of doubling and internalization.

Tuning is not subsumed by the fetishistic topography but belongs to psychotic delusion, which can be applied or realized. Tuning harnesses the psychotic’s ability to enter recovery by projecting new worlds in the place of one lost. But it also contains or administers, like mass media culture at large, psychopathic violence. As in the android test in Dick’s novel and Ridley Scott’s film adaptation, the aim of Alien testing is proof of psychic bonding or empathy. But the byproduct of the testing is discovery of psychopathy, which Dick never names as such but which he deposits inside androids as their fugitive essence. The psychopathology without a name represents the failure of psychoanalytic interpretation. That it is addressed as problem in post-WWII science fiction reflects a shift from pursuit of psychosis as the outer space of colonization for the survival of the species to the prospect of integration of the problem of psychopathic violence in post-war worlds.

In Dark City Murdoch’s victory remains within the range of our best defense, the dissociation that goes by the name Shell Beach, whereby we oscillate over the identification of and with loss. But the turn to the heart steps outside the shell of fetishism and enters manic denial of a depressed state. Like the end of Metropolis this moment of forced resolution is the crisis point that goes unaddressed, the place holder for dangerous instrumentalization or realization. The Alien experiment that tested for the human ability to integrate the problem of psychopathic violence was not entered upon. The avoidance that Murdoch takes to heart is what lies in Dark City’s projected future.


1. Walter Benjamin, “Bücher von Geisteskranken. Aus meiner Sammlung,” in Gesammelte Schriften, ed. Rolf Tiedemann and Hermann Schweppenhäuser, vol. 4 (Frankfurt a/M: Suhrkamp, 1972-1989), 617.
2. Arthur Byron Cover, “Interview with Philip K. Dick,” in Vertex, vol. 1, no. 6 (February 1974), 35.
3. Sigmund Freud, “Introduction to Psychoanalysis and the War Neuroses,” in The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud (The Standard Edition), ed. and trans. James Strachey, vol. 17 (London: Hogarth, 1954), 209.


Laurence A. Rickels is an American literary and media theorist, whose work uses psychoanalysis to critique modern mass media culture. His background is in German philology from Princeton University and he is also a psychotherapist. While his work The Vampire Lectures (University of Minnesota Press, 1999) has a cult following, he is also known for his larger body of work of “unmourning,” a term that became the title of his trilogy: Aberrations of Mourning (1998), The Case of California (2001), and the three volume work Nazi Psychoanalysis (2002). His more recent publications include The Devil Notebooks (2008) and I Think I Am: Philip K. Dick (2010). After 30 years teaching at the University of California at Santa Barbara, Rickels is now at the Academy of Fine Arts, Karlsruhe, where he is a professor of Art and Theory as the successor to Klaus Theweleit. In the summers, Rickels serves as the Sigmund Freud Professor of Media and Philosophy at the European Graduate School (EGS) in Saas-Fee, Switzerland.