Volume 12, Number 2 (July 2015)
Author: Syedhamed Tayebi
I first approached David Foster Wallace as a literature student in awe of his versatile writing style, rhetorical skill, and seemingly unbound knowledge that takes the reader through a whirlwind of related trivia. His dense, precise, and cerebral prose is alluring and difficult. Sentences may run up to a page and it is quite a feat to find the gist, at times impossible during the first read. He belongs to the group of authors who want to capture the totality of culture in their works; an enterprise he achieved in Infinite Jest (1996). Wallace’s first book, a co-authorship, was Signifying Rappers: Rap and Race in the Urban Present (1990), which he wrote on the then-emerging genre. Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity (2003) is a history of mathematics and the concept of infinity that shows a different side of Wallace, a philosophy major with an interest in math and logic that has also permeated into his fiction.
Oblivion Stories is Wallace’s last collection of short stories and is the object of study in this thesis. It covers a vast territory in 329 pages. Chronologically, it starts in the Paleolithic age and ends with a story set in 2001. The collection consists of eight stories originally published in various venues between 1998 and 2004 and were finally compiled under Oblivion Stories (2004). They vary in length and style. The opening story, “Mister Squishy”, is about a test-market focus group at an advertising firm and its facilitator Terry Schmidt. The story gives a glimpse into the machinery of modern advertising industry and the facilitator’s scheme to poison random consumers. “The Soul is Not a Smithy” is the second story. It starts by recounting memories of a traumatic school day, when a substitute teacher has a mental break-down. The story culminates in the shooting of the teacher by police in the presence of four students, the narrator included. In another plot thread, the narrator tells the tale of his father’s boring employment life and his childhood nightmares about adult working life. The third story, “Incarnations of Burned Children”, is a thematic and stylistic departure from the previous ones. It takes place outside a town and away from the hustle and bustle of any metropolis. This is the only story that does not provide any time reference, as it could have happened any time in any small town in order to show cosmic indifference in face of unjustifiable and random human suffering. In a tour de force of raw human trauma, Wallace captures the few moments before the death of a child, after a pot of boiling water overturns on him.
The fourth story is “Another Pioneer”. It takes a great leap back in time to a Paleolithic village and chronicles the events around the rise of an oracle child. Initially, he brings new technologies to the village yet ends up interrogating the primitive beliefs of his tribe. The story ends with the pioneer child burned at his dais and the return of the tribe to jungle. The fifth story, “Good Old Neon”, returns to contemporary America, set in 1991. It won the O. Henry Prize in 2002 and portrays the life-long struggles of a hyperconscious protagonist, Neal, and his ultimate suicide. “Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature” questions superficial judgment based on appearances. A mother and son’s faces, one by a failed cosmetic surgery and the other by nature, invite fear and disgust in passengers on a bus ride. The penultimate story, “Oblivion”, is about the marital struggle of a couple. The man is accused of snoring, which he strongly denies. It documents the hallucinations of the insomniac husband and a reality that shatters to smithereens in a dramatic ending. “The Suffering Channel” is the closing story of the collection. It is an implausible tale of a man whose bowel movements produce works of art. The protagonist journalist, Skip Atwater, wants to write an article on the artist for Style magazine. By the end of the story, the artist is also going to appear on a live reality TV show to create his pieces, while his wife is describing the suffering that such a gift has induced throughout his life to the viewers of the Suffering Channel.
9-11 terrorist attacks lurk at the margins of “The Suffering Channel”; however, death, suicide, and mass murder appear in other stories, except the titular “Oblivion” that foregrounds the dichotomy of real/imaginary. Such binaries are a subject of study in the works of Baudrillard, who belongs to the French post-structuralist tradition. In the first chapter, a concise introduction of this movement would be given and Barthes’ theory on authorship would shed light on the logic behind the application of Baudrillard’s theory to Oblivion Stories. Baudrillard bases his theories on the symbolic exchange in primitive societies, which gives him the tool to deconstruct basic binaries of life/death and real/non-real. In the symbolic order, the instances of birth and death are integrated into a continuous social form of exchange. This social form would be extrapolated from “Another Pioneer”; meanwhile, the post-structuralist approach would be used to see the imposition of grand narratives in the text. With the introduction of new forms of social life, death gains a new significance as passage to an afterlife. Baudrillard uses the Foucauldian framework to study the concept of death as a source of “discrimination” and this gives an alternative insight into our reading of death in Oblivion Stories. Baudrillard’s opinions on death and the invention of “eternity” in religions and its contemporary form will help reexamine “Good Old Neon”, “Incarnations of Burned Children” and “The Soul is Not a Smithy”.
Jean Baudrillard proposes the orders of signs and representation, instead of “commodity”, as the underlying current of history. Based on the Saussurean thought, he ascribes the ultimate disjunction to the relation of signifier/signified in our current state of pure simulation. He calls this state the “hyperreal”, where signs only exchange among each other and are not related to any reality. This new understanding of “liberated” signs offers a deeper glance at “Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature”. Baudrillard’s theoretical framework of hyperreality helps investigate consumer society and corporate culture in Oblivion Stories. In this light, an investigation of the concept of “need” and the progressive disappearance of “labor” in a hyperreal world gives a fundamentally distinct import to the characters actions and reactions in the face of their conditions in their fictitious world. Throughout Wallace’s collection, a few passing allusions are made to Baudrillard’s theoretical concepts, the most obvious one being the claim of “terrain=map” in “Mister Squishy”. As a bright student of philosophy, Wallace must have been familiar with theories and works of Baudrillard.
Baudrillard’s analysis of archaic societies, death, semiotics, consumption and simulation prove to be powerful tools in reinstating the reality of Oblivion Stories by foregrounding the silences and pointing to fissures and gaps of the text. This would mean that certain events, passages, and inter-relations would be highlighted. However, a vigorous effort has been made to keep those passages in the larger panorama and context of the story collection to avoid misprision of Wallace.
Barthes proclamation of the “Death of the Author” gives free reign to reader as the text is liberated from the confines of “intentionality”. Thus, this study is in no ways a debate with the intentions of the “author” nor the contemporary understanding and critique of the text (It might be even fair to argue that the absences pointed in this thesis may very well have been intentions of the author). The goal is to reconfigure the stories and the unnoticed interrelations among them, to take Oblivion Stories as a momentary articulation in culture and look at it from a novel vantage point, an experience that constitutes what might be aptly phrased as “reinstating reality”. In this process, the conscious logic of the text and its contemporary criticism are brought forward to help illuminate the alternative understanding that Baudrillard affords us. Bringing the critical toolbox of Baudrillard to the world of Wallace creates a collision of perspectives and proves an intriguing dialogue that I wish to capture in this thesis.
1. “Death of the Author”
Glyn Williams states, “The essential feature of structuralism resides in Saussure’s emphasis on structural linguistics” (Williams 33). In Course in General Linguistics (1916), Saussure emphasized the random relation of any linguistic signifier to its signified and heralded a new era in linguistics, which later shook the foundations of knowledge. Meaning is constructed merely by relations to other terms (signifiers), and it is humans who attribute meanings to terms in a system which only consists of internal differences: “I mean that it is unmotivated, i.e. arbitrary in that it actually has no natural connection with the signified” (De Saussure 69). Saussure’s emphatic declaration of the “arbitrariness of language” and its internal “referentiality” would have far-reaching consequences in social sciences and humanities. He foreshadowed that “[n]o longer can language be identified with a contract pure and simple, and it is precisely from this viewpoint that the linguistic sign is a particularly interesting object of study; for language furnishes the best proof that a law accepted by a community is a thing that is tolerated and not a rule to which all freely consent” (De Saussure 71).
His concepts of langue and parole were widely used in the structuralist movement. Parole is a distinct language item, which can only be deciphered if we are already in possession of the overarching language knowledge, the langue. The langue consists of “the set of linguistic habits which allow an individual to understand and be understood” (De Saussure 19). Structuralists use the same paradigms for a systematic approach to other domains and look for similar underlying structures. Early Barthes (his structuralist phase) analyses contemporary sports, designs and fashion. He interprets different behaviors, items, and accessories as part of a network of interrelations where their significance is the result of “their place in an overall structure, and the structure is of greater significance than the individual item” (Berry 47).
The move to post-structuralism is in fact a faithful adherence to fundamentals of Saussurean thought and structuralism; namely doubting the same grand narratives and structures (Berry 61). The very structures that structuralists looked for are suspected to be mere constructions in their own right. The web of language is thus our only reality: “Language is allowing and confining. It allows the subject to state and thereby to recognize her/his desires and imaginary experiences, but these can only be expressed and recognized in terms of the concepts and words already in language” (Williams 60). The social is merely of a linguistic texture and post-structuralists underline the impossibility of setting the social and linguistic apart. Foucault “shares with Nietzsche the claim that all knowledge and perception is a matter of perspective, a perspective which can be changed, thereby changing the conception and knowledge” (Williams 81). Therefore, prevalent forms and systems of knowledge and thought that have been handed down by previous generations have to be unpacked in favor of new and emerging forms of knowledge.
Barthes is a crucial figure as he “bridges the gap between structuralism and poststructuralism” (Cuddon 691). The leap is illustrated in his essay “Death of the Author” (1967), where he questions the conception of authorship as a historically recent idea. Post-structuralism questions the notion of subjectivity. Subject’s self-conception of her/his identity and the world is shaped merely by language and the social; it is “being constituted rather than pre-given” (Williams 85). According to Barthes, the author is “the result of capitalist ideology, which has accorded the greatest importance to the author’s ‘person’. The author still rules in manuals of literary history, in biographies of writers, in magazine interviews . . . [T]he image of literature to be found in contemporary culture is tyrannically centered on the author, his person, his history, his tastes, his passions” (Barthes 143).
The critical work around David Foster Wallace and Oblivion Stories (2004) is usually shaped by Wallace’s “single-entendre” ideals and convictions. His encyclopedic Infinite Jest with its digressions, convoluted plot, complex language, and an epic 96 pages of endnotes lauds the simple steps of AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) that helps its characters recover from addiction. Wallace had published his manifesto in a 1993 essay titled “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction”. Its last paragraph illustrates a quintessentially romantic vision of rebellion and sincerity:
The next real literary “rebels” in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of “anti-rebels,” born oglers who dare to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse single-entendre values. Who treat old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naive, anachronistic.
He demands for a return to the Locke-an eyes (“born oglers”) for sensations. He knows well enough that with the advent of modernism and postmodernism in literature and philosophy, this has become an idiosyncratic ideal and warns the rebels about this quaint attitude:
The new rebels might be the ones willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the “How banal.” Accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Credulity. Willingness to be suckered by a world of lurkers and starers who fear gaze and ridicule above imprisonment without law. Who knows. Today’s most engaged young fiction does seem like some kind of line’s end’s end. I guess that means we all get to draw our own conclusions. (Wallace, E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction)
In his fiction, he attempts to deconstruct man’s social anxieties and sometimes offers solutions. In an interview with Larry McCaffery, published in Review of Contemporary Fiction he affirms:
In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still lives and glow despite the times’ darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it. (Wallace, An Interview with David Foster Wallace 131)
His interviews and essays discuss and portray boredom, loneliness, and natural self-centeredness in a quest to find solutions to these problems. The difficulties of real human communication are present in both his fiction and non-fiction. In “The Suffering Channel”, the motto of the Brazilian-owned Suffering Channel is the Portuguese phrase, “A consciência é o pesadelo da natureza”, meaning consciousness is the nature’s nightmare (Wallace, Oblivion Stories [Oblivion] 328). Greg Carlisle’s Nature’s Nightmare: Analyzing David Foster Wallace’s Oblivion (2013) starts its analysis of “The Suffering Channel” with the above-mentioned phrase and argues that “to be conscious of ourselves as vulnerable creatures induces suffering, but we are conscious creatures by nature; and therefore (borrowing Buddhist phrasing) all life is suffering” (Carlisle).
In summary, criticism around Wallace’s oeuvre is mostly a search for what he talked about in a commencement speech he delivered at Kenyon College (2005), now famously known as This is Water, which contains the barebones of his authorial mission to remedy the modern malaise. The speech starts with the proposition that man’s “hard-wired default setting . . . is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self”. He mentions that an academic education may exacerbate this tendency to further plunge into self-consciousness “instead of simply paying attention to what is going on right in front of me [us]”. For Wallace, the ultimate outcome of an academic education should be overcoming a solipsistic view of the world. Near the end of the speech, he makes the case for a spiritual or religious belief, because “pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive”. He speaks of “small act of bureaucratic kindness” and closes the speech with a final recapitulation of the ways to avoid self-consciousness by caring “about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day” (Wallace, Transcription of the 2005 Kenyon Commencement Address). The lines are reminiscent of Romantics and especially Wordsworth’s musings in “Tintern Abbey”, where he recollects his debt to the beauteous sight of the abbey that has given him “sensation sweet” in “hours [of] weariness”. In the second stanza, Wordsworth declares that certain acts also create the same effect in his soul, such as men’s “little, nameless, unremembered, acts / Of kindness and of love” (Wordsworth 1432).
Wallace’s has become a gatekeeper to his oeuvre and readers tend to see his texts through the same glasses that were given to them upon entry. However, Baudrillard’s methodology is post-structuralist model and following this method, the present reading of Oblivion Stories would consequently doubt and revisit Wallace’s strongly pronounced ideas in favor of, at least here, a radically different angle that Baudrillard provides. Barthes welcomes the end of the reign of the author: “To give a text an author, is to impose a limit on that text, to furnish it with a final signified, to close the writing” (Barthes 147). An effort would be made to go beyond the conscious text in Oblivion Stories, despite the fact that it is driven by strong opinions, and to look for silences and “fault-lines” (Berry 73). Freeing literary criticism from authorial intention would allow for a multivalent play with the text and leaves open the possibility of a more radical perspectival understanding of the text as the intersection of agglomerated discourses. Barthes grants the text the status of “a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centers of culture” (Barthes 146). This allows the freedom to move beyond the vestiges of individuality, which is an integral part of the capitalist conception of human, where a product is the finality of production, and a story is the sum of the author’s sentiments (Barthes 143). In this light, critics read Wallace’s treatment of boredom, depression, and banality of everyday life as his personal quest to find meaning, and the fact of his depression and subsequent suicide in 2008 enforces this. The end of Barthes essay purports that the death of the author welcomes the birth of the reader. The high priests of commentary along with the author have to be dethroned in favor of the liberation of “unmotivated” signs (De Saussure 69) – regardless of how fastidiously Wallace planted them – and novel perspectives.
2. Resolution of Dyads
The symbolic is neither a concept, an agency, a category, nor a ‘structure’, but an act of exchange and a social relation which puts an end to the real, which resolves the real, and, at the same time, put an end to the opposition between the real and the imaginary. (Jean Baudrillard [JB], Symolic Exchange and Death [SED] 133)
“Oblivion”, the eponymous story, starts with the narrator Randal setting the scene while caught in a thunderstorm on the Raritan Golf course. His 76-year-old stepfather-in-law, Dr. Sipe, “a career Medical executive for Prudential Insurance, Inc.”, accompanies him. (Oblivion 194). Dr. Sipe had worked in “‘Demographic Medicine’, which involved his evidently not ever once, during his entire career, physically touching a patient” (Oblivion 211). They go to the Club’s 19th Hole Room to shelter from the storm. Randall describes his mental state as one of “disorientation and, in a manner of speaking, distorted or ‘altered’ sensory perception” (Oblivion 191). These sensory “tsunamis” are the result of extreme sleep deprivation, which has led to synesthetic bouts where “colors seemed suddenly to brighten uncontrollably and become over-saturant, the visual environment appeared to faintly pulse or throb, and individual objects appeared, paradoxically, both to recede and become far-away” (Oblivion 191). The lack of sleep is the result of his alleged snores and his wife’s sudden and loud complains which have robbed him of sleep recently: “She steadfastly avows . . . that my putative ‘snoring’ is a waking reality instead of her own dream. And in the dark of our bedroom, when she suddenly wakes and cries out in such a way that I am myself jolted up-right, with adrenaline coursing through my system” (Oblivion 200-1). He is certain that he is wide-awake and fully conscious at those moments. Randall mentions the issue to Dr. Sipe, hoping that he can talk to his step-daughter to encourage her to ask for medical assistance, but he shrugs off the mere mention of the snoring problem with his famous “ hand gesture ideally designed to make its recipient feel like an otiose moron or bore” (Oblivion 192). The men are not on good terms with each other as Dr. Sipe looks down on him and makes no secret of his condescension. Sipe “always regards me as a bit of a bore and\or ninny, someone at once obtrusive and irrelevant, the human equivalent of a house fly or pinched nerve” (Oblivion 211), he complains. Randall had married Hope sixteen years ago after both had come out of other marriages, Hope with an infant daughter, called Audrey. He is not comfortable around Audrey and her friends with their maturing bodies, always affecting an air of nonchalance and directing his stare away. Hope thinks that this is a sign of his sexual desperation and innate hypocrisy. Randall’s insomniac nights cause many daytime nightmarish reveries that strike fear deep in his heart. Memories and nightmares keep resurfacing in his mind while sitting at the golf course’s vestibule. The recent troubles appear in the stream of his troubled conscious as he suddenly remembers that once while driving he had a strange, static, hallucinatory tableau or mental ‘shot,’ ‘scene’ Fata morgana or ‘vision’ of a public telephone in an airport or commuter rail terminal’s linear row or ‘bank’ of public phones, ringing. Travelers are hurrying laterally past the row of phones, some bearing or pulling ‘carry on’ luggage or other personal possessions, walking or hurrying past while the telephone, which remains at the center of the view of the scene or tableau, rings on and one, persistently, but is unanswered. (Oblivion 194)
This eerie scene also triggers the smell of saffron in his mind, which has sexual associations for him. Dr. Sipe brings out one of his signature Cuban cigars to light and Randall suggests that he should at least postpone his smoking to a later hour in the day due to his age. Sipe brusquely retorts that he had not asked for his opinion. Randall once suggests that Hope should seek professional help. The suggestion does go down well with Hope who accuses him of “being ‘in denial’”. After a while, Randall gives up and moves to Audrey’s now-empty room upon renewed accusations of snoring, sleeping among “all of the frilled pastels, saffron joss and boxed detritus of out Audrey’s recent adolescence” (Oblivion 202). However, he would stay awake waiting for Hope to accuse him again in her sleep to prove that she is merely dreaming. Insomnia takes its toll on his health as he gets less and less sleep every passing day. He thinks the whole “fiasco” is Hope’s unconscious response to having her only child moving away to an out-of-State university. On the other hand, he suspects the reason many of their friends’ daughters were sent to such schools must be that “the mere physical sight of them became for their mothers a living rebuke” (Oblivion 219). He confides to the reader that he still loves and desires Hope despite her growing “lupine or predatory aspect” and he is fully aware that at this point of time “Hope had already de facto or practically speaking unsexed, an, as the saying goes withered vine or bloom” (Oblivion 218). Hope also comes out with the same accusations one morning following a night of Randal’s snores. She say that they are not “on the same ‘wave length’ enough anymore to make our [their] marriage anything more than a sexless sham, especially now that Audrey was no longer at home to ‘preoccupy’ me[him]“ (Oblivion 225).
Randall consults an “‘Ear, Nose and Throat specialists, who then subsequently examined my [his] nasal passages . . . and pronounced that he saw no evidence of anything unusual or out of the ordinary” (Oblivion 204). Once he tells Hope of the result, he is accused of secrecy and that he had feared he might have been in fault and culpable the whole time. Insomnia and exhaustion have affected his nerves to a degree that in the club’s vestibule “Audrey Bogoen’s [a waitress and a family friend] once fresh, voluptuous and innocent face seemed to tremble or shudder on the edge of exploding into abstract shards” (Oblivion 207). Randall wants to solve the issue, so he goes to a family therapist and tells the therapist that his very presence there shows that at least he wants to find a solution while Hope must be taking a hot bath now, “fortifying her position and preparing for another endless roundup of the conflict whenever she next dreams” (Oblivion 209). Such statements make the councilor wonder if the real issue may be his wife’s “fairness”. A short snippet at the therapist gains a surreally uncanny touch. Randall is explaining, in a matter-of-fact way, the issue to the marriage councilor and declares while “trying to shave in the mirror, my [his] visage will appear to have an extra eye in the center of my [his] forehead”. Despite these momentary slips, he thinks he never loses his mind. Even in such moments, he still can tell if he is “hallucinating slightly due to chronic sleep deprivation compensated by discord and chronic distress” (Oblivion 212).
A third person is accompanying them at the golf course. Jack Vivien is the Director of Employee Assistance Programs for Advanced Data Capture where Randall works. Vivien suggests that Randall should get professional help from the well-known Edmund R. and Meredith R. Darling Memorial Sleep Clinic. Like other stories in this collection, Randall’s description of the sleep clinic and its staff are punctilious and take up lengthy passages. The somnologist suggests that they sleep at the clinic once a week for four to six weeks. They would be closely monitored and recorded. The result of their stays at the clinic shows that among the five or six times that Hope had told him he was snoring, Randall was technically asleep although he remembers clearly that he was not asleep. To their greater surprise, the brain waves results also confirm that “not merely myself [Randall] but Hope, as well, had herself evidently also been verifiably or empirically asleep during the recorded time periods when she allegedly ‘heard’ my [Randall’s] ‘snoring’”. At the sleep clinic, Randall experiences a “sensuous mnemonic tableau” (Oblivion 230) where he is teaching driving to Audrey, remembering “her yearly Christmas saffron bath gel’s scent, the noisome sound of her breathing and shapes of her leg” (Oblivion 231). He fancies going to her dormitory to reveal his lewd and lascivious fantasies to her. In the meantime, he imagines that one of the clinic staff is mouthing the word “suicide” to him. The test results verify that both of them were in deep stages of sleep “that, yes, technically speaking, my [his] wife’s accusations as to ‘snoring,’ while based on (in his[somnologist] terms) ‘interior, dreamed experience’ as opposed to ‘exterior sensory input,’ nonetheless were, in a Medical or scientific sense, ‘technically’ correct” (Oblivion 233). Suddenly, Randall “either saw, hallucinated, ‘imagined’ as the forbidding technician and Latin Executive [of the sleep clinic] began to peel their respective faces off in a ‘top down’ fashion or manner, beginning at each temple and pulling downwards with sharp, emphatic, peeling or ‘tugging’ motions” (Oblivion 234).
Having already been reading that Randall experiences nightmarish tableaux during his waking hours, we might imagine that the scene is one of his usual nightmares. Immediately, a short hallucinatory dialogue of 140 words follows. If the reader counts the lines after Randal calls Hope’s name, she/he learns that Hope had dreamt this disproportionately lengthy dream sequence and suddenly awakens hallucinating:
. . .
HOPE. Having the worst dream.
RANDAL. . . . I was afraid I might hurt you if I prodded or shook you any harder. I couldn’t seem to rouse you.
. . .
RANDAL. I was beginning to really worry. Hope, this cannot go on. When are you going to make the appointment?
HOPE. Wait — am I even married?
. . .
RANDAL. You are my wife.
HOPE. None of this is real. (Oblivion 237)
Randal was not a troubled man; it is Hope that emerges as the troubled partner. The ending gives a surreal jolt to the reader as we step into the reality of their situation. In a 2004 review of Oblivion Stories, Wyatt Mason wrote in London Review of Books that he was struck by this trick at the end, commending David Foster Wallace for writing Oblivion Stories, being “the most interesting and serious and accomplished shorter fiction published in the past decade”. After all, in the final dialogue he has “sealed his gates, but, as I hope to have made clear, he’s left the keys for us to find” (Mason).
I would suggest the key is somewhere else; it is in the sheer force of imaginary/real dichotomy. This is more than a literary trick on the reader. This binary has far-reaching significance for our understanding of the world The fact that this story should lend its name to the book is taken into account and I will use it as a window to enter the short story collection. The path to a resolution of such dyadic pairs is not to take one as the universal and privileged (Real) nor is to engage in popular deconstructionism, which aims to show that the preferred term is not necessarily in a privileged position. These binaries have to be deconstructed by other notions that cannot be explained with either side of the dyad. Lane asserts, “Metaphysical arguments must contain blind spots or ‘aporias’ where certain excluded binaries cannot be seen or accounted for by those same arguments” (56). For Baudrillard, it is the “symbolic” that ends oppositions such as real/imaginary and conscious/unconscious; a “phantasm drawn up by psychoanalysis” (JB, SED 133), which is masterfully captured in this story. The symbolic is going to be extrapolated from “Another Pioneer”. By the end of this chapter, we will see how a theory of “symbolic” undermines the world of “Oblivion”.
“Another Pioneer” is a parodic treatment of a mythic child prodigy. The text does not hide its effort to see the primitive society through a contemporary lens; for instance, it uses present-day informatics lingo (G.I.G.O., binary paradigm, Boolean paradigm, etc.) to a humorous service. This story is embedded in a frame whose narrator informs us that the story was overheard, Medias res of a longer conversation by “an acquaintance of a close friend who said he himself overheard this exemplum” between two unknown passengers in his front seat during a transatlantic United Airlines flight (Oblivion 117). The text exhibits the techniques of storytelling by dividing its own sequence into a dramatic structure of three acts by pointing to protasis, catastasis, and catastrophe. It admits to lack of context for the overheard parable, “meaning there was no enframing context or deictic antecedent as such surrounding the archetypal narrative” (Wallace, Oblivion 117-8). We are not promised an untampered tale as “at certain points it became unclear what was part of the cycle’s narrative Ding an sich and what were the passenger’s own editorial interpolations and commentary”; moreover, the original flying narratee was suspected of being “cognitively challenged” (Wallace, Oblivion 118). The mythic parallels of the story are echoed by narrative commentaries which guide the reader through the story, e.g.: “the mythopoeic narrative’s very structure itself moves from initial unity to epitatic trinity to reconciliation and unity again in the falling action” (Oblivion 130). We read the story thrice removed from the original airborne overhearer. The text reminds the reader that it is not the original story and that it had undergone changes like any other myth. In a Barthes-ian gesture, the framing admits that the nested tale “appeared to come . . . out of nowhere” due to the circumstances around its narration (Oblivion 118). The text tries to distance itself from the original tale, or perhaps “showing rather than telling” that all myths are as constructed and reconstructed as this one. It is not only the frame structure that complicates the story, but also different versions of certain events are recounted.
The frame narration acknowledges, “The modern everydayness of the narrative circumstances made its archetypal parallels even more remarkable” (Oblivion 119). The admission of the archetypal nature of the story would allow for an approach from the same perspective. In the aforementioned quotation and the story’s larger context, “archetype” has no psychological connotation but rather implies at typical fabulous events that are recounted in mythic accounts of primitive people written by explorers, anthropologists, or ethnologists.
In the framed parable, a child is born into a Stone Age village. At the early age of three, he can answer every question the villagers put to him. He is said to know everything about the trees and grains they use for making tools and food. His brilliance extends to non-material issues as he shows great sagacity and judgment in resolving all conflicts and his “answers to these sorts of questions were without fail so ingeniously apposite and simple and comprehensive and fair that all sides felt justly treated” (Oblivion 121). The preternatural child is compared to geniuses who rise in every culture from time to time and bring about change and is granted a privileged status as people line up every “29.518 synodic days . . . with their respective questions”. In the beginning, he mechanically answers questions and brings a revolution to the village whose prior mode of livelihood was hunting-and-gathering. Before his ascension to this high office, the Paleolithic tribesmen “made their own clothes and lean-tos and spears and gathered all and only their own family’s food . . . and so forth there was evidently nothing like actual barter or trade until the advent of this child” (Wallace, Oblivion 122).
In The Mirror of Production (1973), Baudrillard throws light on “economic anthropology”’s attempts to “account for societies without history, writing, or relations of production (one wonders with horror how they could exist without them)” (70) – he rhetorically parenthesizes. The story gives the primitive tribe all these “functions” through the agency of the oracular child. He revolutionizes their lives during his decade-long office and teaches principles of wheel, alphabet, and written grammar. The text predicates on the inevitability of grand narratives of progress as the expected culmination of every society when it characterizes the changes as “metastatic evolution that would normally have taken thousands of years and countless Paleolithic generations to attain” (Oblivion 124).
Around the age of eleven, the child undergoes a fundamental change. The story gives three various (with sub-variants) and long accounts for this change; however, they all share the subsequent “psychic withdrawal” which he undergoes (Oblivion 130). Upon waking from this state, it soon becomes apparent that the child has gone through a “ghastly transformation” (Oblivion 135). He does not exercise his office as before and starts extemporizing about related important issues. He no longer answers questions like “a crude human computer” (Oblivion 131), but tries to engage with people in “heuristic exchanges or dialogues”. Upon inquiry into the practice of female circumcision, “the answer would apparently be something quite off the point or even offensive such as, ‘Have you asked your daughter’s mother what she thinks?’ or, ‘What might one suppose to be the equivalent of a clitoridectomy for willful sons?’” (Oblivion 132). The child asks the tribesmen if “in the absence of any normative cultural requirement” (Oblivion 133), they would continue to worship angry pantheistic gods in place of helpful and amiable ones. The story imposes contemporary intellectual templates on the primitive tribe, striving to find “sense” in a world of “non-sense”. The child’s modern-day arguments continue agonizing them as they are questioned over their long-held beliefs. The tribesmen go into such pain and anguish that they end up curling up in their huts with fever “as their primitive CPUs tried frantically to reconfigure themselves” (Oblivion 134). The child wonders why he must be stationed on a plinth “if all he’s going to be asked are the sort of dull, small, banal, quotidian, irrelevant questions that these squat hirsute tiny-eared villagers line up under a blazing Third World sun all day with offerings in order to pose . . . when they haven’t the slightest idea what they even really need” (Oblivion 135). With the persistence of his progressively humanistic attitude, the tribe decides to leave the precocious (yet anachronistically ) child in the village, abandon their newly developed water system and “centrally heated shelters”, burn it down and return to their prior life in jungle, “such was their fear of what they decided the child had grown to become” (Oblivion 139). The allegorical dialogue between the “Western analytical mind” – who had divided the story into a “One-into-Three-into-One dramatic structure” (Oblivion 130) – and the pre-modern tribe breaks down.
The last scene of the story is of paramount importance and helps us redress the argument. “As the soldiers throw their burning javelins to the village center, the hindmost of these warriors, looking back as they ran, claimed to have seen the motionless boy still seated, surrounded by glassy daylight flames” (Oblivion 140). The text does not account for his immobility, and we have to ask why he consents to giving up his life to blazing flames. This is a fissure opening up a new vista for interpretation.
Considering the high status of the child, we may consider him a sacrificed leader who “gives his death, return it in exchange, and marks it with the feast” (JB, SED 139). In discussions around the issues of sacrifice (and initiation rites), one must note that for us death is a physical matter that can be studied objectively, and so is birth. However, for primitives, these are chaotic natural events, part of the “unreconciled, unexpiated, sorcerous and hostile forces that prowl around them”. The story also affirms that the entire universe and their village were almost indistinguishable in the tribe’s Paleolithic mind. “They have never ‘naturalized’ death. They know that death (like the body, like the natural event) is a social relation, that its definition is social” (JB, SED 131). They bring death into their social relations by acts of initiation where the brutal rupture of death passes into a social exchange where it can be given and received. “At the same time, the opposition between birth and death disappear. Initiation is the crucial moment, the social nexus, the darkroom where birth and death stop being the terms of life and twist into one another again; not towards some mystical fusion, but in this instance to turn the initiate into a social being” (JB, SED 132). Not only death and life are not opposed, but they become terms of the articulations of a social exchange that proceeds with extreme exchanges of gifts and counter-gifts, which strengthens the social life and death loses its sense of “finality” of life.
New “developments” are introduced to the primitive village through the agency of the incarnated oracle child. He starts his mission with an alphabet and written grammar “which allowed for more sophisticated divisions of labor and a crude economic system of trade in various goods and services” (Oblivion 124). A post-structuralist critique demands a more in-depth look for latent ideologies. The text sees the primitive tribe from the point of view of the capital. Descriptions and musings connote the absence of production and surplus for pecuniary motives as a basis for trading. In short, the effort of the text to create a story around the tribe is bound with the imposition of contemporary worldviews on them.
The child receives gifts of food and is granted a privileged status. His social status, domination and power grow day after day, but nothing can free him from the unavoidable reciprocity of “symbolic exchange”; an exchange which fortified the foundations of the social relationships in primitive societies. Baudrillard affirms, “[a]lluding to primitive societies is undoubtedly dangerous” (JB, For a Critique of Political Economy of Sign [FCPES] 30); however, the story has taken up this task to tell the tale of this “primitive [the term is used 19 times in the story] village” (Oblivion 123) , hence it would be a basis for this study. The symbolic exchange of gift is neither gratuitous nor one-sided, but a challenge, only to be reciprocated. The child-king is unbalancing this equilibrium by accumulation. It is then that “properly symbolic relation is dead and power makes an appearance” (JB, SED 48).
In the symbolic order, “obligation and reciprocity are insurmountable. None can withdraw from it”, or they lose face (JB, SED 134). The child must know this; otherwise, we cannot reason for his consent to death by fire, which is left unexplained in the text. In such a way, his “murder aims to keep what threatened to accumulate and become fixed on the king’s person (status, wealth, women and power) within the flow of exchanges, within the group’s reciprocal movements” (JB, SED 138). One should avoid confusing the conditions of this form of exchange with our understanding of exchange that entails use-value or exchange-value. The village did not have an economy based on exchange/use-value before the child. The only exchange was of “certain food stuffs [which] were sometimes shared at equinoctial religious festivals and so forth there was evidently nothing like actual barter or trade until the advent of this child”. The scheme to compensate the child – which himself had advised the exarchs to put in place – prefigures trade in the modern sense: “As exempla of this sort of mythopoeic cycle so often go, this arrangement is represented as the origin of something like modern trade in the villagers’ culture” (Oblivion 122). This is the first time in the village that exchange loses its symbolic sense as the act of giving does not lead to accumulation of power on the part of the “giver”, but the “receiver” (the child, and any king or leader who will be sacrificed form time to time). Marcel Mauss’s The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies (1950 in French)studies the archaic practices of primitive tribes and Baudrillard grounds his theories on Mauss’s findings. In the symbolic order, domination and power were gained by the ability to exercise excessive consumption, which was practiced during feasts called Potlatch: “Essentially usurious and extravagant, it is above all a struggle among nobles to determine their position in the hierarchy to the ultimate benefit, if they are successful, of their own clans. This antagonistic type of total prestation we propose to call the ‘potlatch’” (Mauss 4). In these ceremonies, those who distributed gifts more prodigally would gain symbolic power as opposed to our conception, where power is gained by “accumulation”.
In the symbolic exchange of gifts, an object becomes the object of exchange merely for this reason and no other, “the object is not an object. It has, properly speaking, neither use value nor (economic) exchange value. The object given has symbolic exchange value. . . Provided it is given, it can fully signify the relation” (JB, FCPES 64,66). The symbolic exchange of gift also takes a linguistic dimension for Baudrillard. The gift becomes one, only because of the reciprocal relation it sparks between the giver and the receiver and is therefore all that our signs (with their signifier/signified) are void of. We have moved from symbolic to semiotic. For Baudrillard, ambivalence is the only challenge to the “false transparency of sign”, which we claim to. (JB, FCPES 150). The symbolic object crystallizes the duality of the relationship through its inherent reciprocity, which integrates and causes social relations. It is “the concrete manifestation of a total relationship (ambivalent and total because it is ambivalent) of desire” (JB, FCPES 65). This imbues the arbitrary object with singularity. The symbolic gift helps us see how Baudrillard is thinking at the edges of post-structuralism. His conception of symbolic goes beyond the signifier/signified division, and its ambivalence escapes pinpointing it: “The symbolic, whose virtuality of meaning is so subversive of the sign, cannot, for this very reason, be named except by allusion, by infraction (effraction). For signification, which names everything in terms of itself, can only speak the language of values and of positivity of the sign” (JB, FCPES 161). This is a hindrance to readers of Baudrillard as he announces that language is unable to provide a clear-cut definition of the symbolic whose nature is incompatible with the division of signifier/signified, which is inherent to language and sign system.
Mauss made extensive anthropological and ethnographical studies of archaic cultures and believed the symbolic exchange was the order of these societies (Mauss 5). Potlatch is antagonist to our idea of exchange and economy because of a fundamental reversal: In potlatch, the act of giving leads to gaining power, prestige, and social hierarchization. The story says, “There was evidently nothing like actual barter or trade until the advent of this child”. However, Mauss has shown that the symbolic was the basis of the primitive society where everything was exchanged. These endless antagonistic exchanges could have led to the hierarchization that had given rise to a caste of “village’s shamans” and “exarchs” who were powerful enough to take the child from his family to raise him to “an unprecedented legal status” (Oblivion 122).
The early explorers saw in primitive societies a world which made no sense to them when they observed, “the Siane of New Guinea, enriched through contact with Europeans, squandered everything in feasts” (JB, FCPES 80). The text tells us that only food was shared during the Paleolithic tribe’s religious festivals, but for primitives “the exchange is not exclusively goods and wealth, real and personal property, and things of economic value. They exchange rather courtesies, entertainment, ritual, military assistance, women, children, dances and feasts” (Mauss 3). In summary, the social (life) is built around and by the symbolic exchange.
What all cultures share is hierarchy, and it is the symbolic exchange of gifts that still haunts all our hierarchies and class inequality. Our ideas of private property and market economy are shaped by the remnant of the dynamics of gift-exchange regime. Baudrillard has demanded that this should be taken into account: “The fundamental conceptual hypothesis for a sociological analysis of ‘consumption’ is not use value, the relation to needs, but symbolic exchange value, the value of social prestation, of rivalry and, at the limit, of class discrimination” (JB, FCPES 30-1).
The symbolic is the social. Baudrillard’s critique steers away from the Marxism of his early works (which are not used in this study) by seeing “gift” rather than “commodity” as the principle of archaic societies and still highly relevant in contemporary world. He finds in “symbolic” the tool to attack the capital and to move beyond Marxism, which is still entangled in the discourse of exchange value and use-value of political economy. “The logical organization of this entire system denies, represses and reduces symbolic exchange . . .The bar that separates all these terms [use-value and exchange-value] from symbolic exchange is not a bar of structural implication, it is a line of radical exclusion (which presupposes the radical alternative of transgression)” (JB, FCPES 128). Symbolic exchange is the transgressive tool that would be quintessential for a Baudrillard-ian reading of Oblivion Stories. The closest example we have to symbolic exchange is our idea of a present or gift. The online International Journal of Baudrillard Studies reiterates that the symbolic “[g]ift exchange is typified by three obligations: the obligation to give, to receive, and to reciprocate” (Baldwin) . For Baudrillard, this “continuous unlimited reciprocity” is the key (JB, Mirror of Production [MP] 79). Here, we can again get a better understanding of Baudrillard’s idea of gift, its bellicose aspect. “The gift is our myth, the idealist myth correlative to our materialist myth, and we bury the primitives under both myths at the same time. The primitive symbolic process knows nothing of the gratuity of the gift, it knows only the challenge and the reversibility of exchanges” (JB, SED 48-9). This is the difference with our idea of gift.
In primitive societies, the essence of sacrifice was to “extinguish what threatens to fall out of the group’s symbolic control and to bury it under all the weight of the dead. The king must be killed form time to time, along the phallus which began to rule over social life” (JB, SED 138-9). Curiously, the text also puts the time of the child’s newly attained attitudes after his puberty, “the age of eleven years old, which birthday evidently represents the Paleolithic Third World’s bar mitzvah or as it were age of majority” (Oblivion 128). What the text shows is that the pioneer is murdered by the primitive tribe, but fails to account for the child’s apparent consent to death. The myth might have after all passed through generations and what we have received is the normatively cleansed version, steeped in ideology; however, only symbolic exchange can explain for this gap, which is left unexplained: “Killing and devouring for primitives in an act of respect, showing that person is worthy of symbolic exchange and entry into social relations. This is the fundamental fact that separates us from the primitives: exchange does not stop when life comes to an end. Symbolic exchange is halted neither by the living nor by the dead” (JB, SED 134). The accumulation of gifts on the side of the child must be compensated to keep the social intact. Baudrillard heavily draws on the works of French anthropologist and ethnologist Marcel Mauss. His disciple, Maurice Leenhardt, worked with the Canaque people of Oceania and observed that for them “the dead walk amongst the living” (JB, SED 188).
For primitives the division of life and death did not exist as such and these binaries are resolved for Baudrillard by the concept of the “symbolic”, the aporia proper. The symbolic exchange of everything shapes the social relations and lives of primitives. It is subversive to basic dichotomies (where the first sees its death in the second) which shape our understanding of real/imaginary of “Oblivion” and life/death in “Another Pioneer”. These dyadic constructs are fundamental to psychoanalysis, but “[t]he symbolic is what puts an end to this disjunctive code and to separated terms. It is the u-topia that puts an end to the topologies of the soul and the body, man and nature, the real and the non-real, birth and death. In the symbolic operation, the two terms lose their reality” and thus free us from “the closure of the phantasm drawn up by psychoanalysis” (JB, SED 133).
The construction of “Oblivion” is based on psychoanalysis as the question of real and non-real (imaginary) is foregrounded in its ending. The story is indeed an interesting object of psychoanalytic reading, but extraneous in the framework of the symbolic:
Psychoanalysis locks itself up by establishing, through a considerable quantity of disjunctions (primary and secondary processes, unconscious and conscious, etc.), a physical reality principle of the unconscious inseparable from psychoanalysis’s own reality principle (the unconscious as psychoanalysis’s reality principle!) and thus in which the symbolic cannot but put an end to psychoanalysis too. (JB, SED 133)
Just as the reality of life is evolved from the separation of life and death, the reality of the body is defined in the invention of the soul. In a similar scenario, nature only becomes independent when man is torn from it. “The effect of the real is only ever therefore the structural effect of the disjunction between two terms, and our famous reality principle, with its normative and repressive implications, is only a generalisation of this disjunctive code to all levels” (JB, SED 133). This is how a theory of the symbolic can erase the problem of the imaginary/real posited by “Oblivion”.
3. Representations of Death
Michel Foucault is a figure whose critical approach, called “archeological method”, helps shape Baudrillard’s reflections on death. Foucault compares his methodology to a search for the rules of grammar and logic. His archeology “emerges as a method of analysis that reveals the intellectual structures that underlie and make possible the entire range of diverse (and often conflicting) concepts, methods, and theories characterizing the thought of a given period . . . [I]t discovers rules governing our discursive and behavior of which we may not be aware” (Gutting 268). Foucault applied this methodology to his studies of madness and sexuality (genealogical studies) and affirmed that these bodies of knowledge came into existence after these forms were suppressed , marginalized and suppressed; subsequently, they became the subject of study and a body of knowledge was formed around them (Foucault). This is what Baudrillard refers to as Foucault’s “genealogy of discrimination”. He adopts the same logic in his Symbolic Exchange and Death and brings Foucault’s “archeological” toolbox to bear on the dichotomy of life/death and its ramifications. He posits that the end of symbolic exchange regime results in an exclusion of death and a discrimination against it (JB, SED 126). First, the dead are given a place in the middle of the village and later transferred to the periphery. In the modern metropolis, they no longer have a place in the physical and mental space of its inhabitants. The unnamed narrator of “The Soul is Not a Smithy” decides to visit his father’s grave but “the area had been refashioned into one of the small and largely unutilized downtown parks that were characteristic of the New Columbus renewal programs of the early ‘80’s” (Oblivion 106).
Baudrillard’s view regarding the extradition of the dead can be understood in light of other similar pronouncements, such as Foucault’s idea of prison panopticon, omnipresent but only refined to gentler forms of social control. Similar to that is Baudrillard’s view about the Disneyland, existing to fool us into believing the outside world is real and Disneyland is imaginary (JB, S 25). The dead are extradited only because death has been “naturalized” into the society: “It is correct to say that the dead, hounded and separated from the living condemn us to an equivalent death: the fundamental law of symbolic obligationis at play in any case, for better or worse” (JB, SED 127). Once death drops out of the symbolic exchange cycle and the dividing line between life and death is drawn, death would not leave the living alone as it circumvents it. These lines and demarcations would be closely inspected in “The Soul is Not a Smithy”, “Incarnations of Burned Children”, and “Good Old Neon”.
“The Soul is Not a Smithy” has a dream-sequence structure. Its main narrative thread is about four students who become unwitting hostages when a substitute Civics teacher has a mental breakdown and starts punctuating his lesson on US Constitutional Amendments with the phrase “KILL THEM ALL” on the board (Oblivion 91). Only four students do not have “the presence of mind to flee the Civics classroom along with the other children” (Oblivion 67). The now-adult narrator recounts his limited memory of the event. His absence of mind and disposition to daydreaming led to his inclusion among the so-called hostages. He used to have simultaneous story-lines during these reveries, each happening in a separate narrative “mesh” as he was looking out the window which had a “reticulate wire mesh built directly into the glass” (Oblivion 70). Due to his attention deficiency, he would have never been allowed to occupy the window seat, had their homeroom teacher been present on that day. The cartoon-strip likeness of the mesh had allowed him to “actively construct whole linear, discreetly organized narrative fantasies, many of which unfolded in considerable detail” (Oblivion 71). Despite his attention problem, the child had the unusual talent of being able to count the words on a page, even the lowest and the highest frequency of a letter; however, he could not “internalize or communicate in any very satisfactory way what the words and their various combinations were intended to mean” (Oblivion 72). His nightmarish daydreams are intricate and reflect a tragically naturalistic picture of a working class family. In one of his “illustrated tableaux” (Oblivion 78), a blind girl is the butt of horrible jokes from her siblings and classmates. In another “mesh”, her father loses his hand while fixing a snowblower’s clogged blades “with a horrifying full color spray of red snow and human matter jetting at full force straight up into the air” (Oblivion 91). On the same day and in a separate narrative tableau, the blind girl’s mother is asphyxiated in the car while putting on make-up, the exhaust pipe being clogged with snow. Even the girl’s dog has a traumatic day as its escapade to the subterranean sewages ends up being parsed as an agonizing misadventure, ending in its graphic death with roaches crawling in and out of its eye socket. The text brings up the issue of self-absorption and lack of attention to the outside world. He complain: “The most obvious flaw in my memory of the incident as a whole is that much of the trauma’s inception unfolded outside my awareness, so intently I was filling in the next row” (Oblivion 84). In hindsight, he reconstructs the inception of the incident from his classmates’ viewpoint and newspaper reports: “Mr. Richard Allen Johnson inadvertently inserted something else in the phrase, as well – the capital word, KILL” (Oblivion 86). Even Johnson is surprised for the first few times when he sees what he has written on the board and keeps erasing it. He looks possessed by “some terrible type of evil or alien force” as time passes (Oblivion 91). The teacher continues writing, “KILL THEM ALL KILL THEM DO IT NOW” on the chalkboard while making a monotonous high-pitched moaning sound that frightens the children even more. Scared students storm outside except four of them. In the end, police shot the teacher dead when he did not heed to orders to drop the chalk and surrender.
Another peripheral incident and dream sequence, before the final narrative thread, took place while the narrator was courting his wife-to-be. They had gone to the movies to watch The Exorcist. The couple had simultaneously stood up to leave the theater, when the possessed girl protagonist was going to self-mutilate her genital with a crucifix. Later, he reminded his wife that during the rendition of the exorcist priest’s nightmares while a medallion was falling in the air, there was a flash image of the priest-character. His wife cannot remember this scene, nor does he know why he remembers the scene so clearly. He believes that “it can only be the incongruous, near instantaneous quality of its appearance, the utter peripheralness of it. For it is true that the most vivid and enduring occurrences in our lives are often those that occur at the periphery of awareness” (Oblivion 97).
The last dream sequence of the story, without any contextual transition, starts abruptly: “For my own part, I had begun having nightmares about the reality of adult life as early as perhaps age seven. I knew, even then, that the dreams involved my father’s life and job and the way he looked when he returned home from work at the end of the day” (Oblivion 103). This dream sequence details his childhood nightmares about his father’s employment life, where white-collar worker are slavishly toiling in cold, fluorescently-lit offices. The descriptions convey a cog-like quality of office life, which is also portrayed in “Mister Squishy”. The narrator believes to have had these dreams as a result of his father’s moribund visage and the ambient darkness he associates with his return from work: “Nor could it always have been dusk at 5:42, though this is what I recall it being” (Oblivion 104). This lifeless quality is ascribed to his father’s inability to stand out from the crowd of other faceless employees as he remembers: “Part of the terror of the dream’s wide angle perspective was that the men in the room appeared as both individuals and a great anonymous mass” (Oblivion 108). The “individual versus herd” becomes one of the central recurring themes throughout Oblivion Stories.
The murder of the teacher, the tragic life of the blind girl and her family, the death of the priest’s mother, and the nightmares about his father’s office job support the final pronouncement of the boring “reality of adult life”. Baudrillard helps us see a recurring pattern around death that the text does not consciously consider and can completely reshape our understanding of its dynamics. To understand Baudrillard here, it is first necessary to grasp his genealogy of labor. The power of the master comes from the deferral of the slave’s death [see also p. 78, down] and capital has perfected this system in the name of security, “another form of social control, in the form of life blackmailed with the afterlife” that also produces surplus value from accidents and deaths (JB, SED 177). The narrator remembers the first time he came to know that his father’s job was actuarial: “I knew that insurance was protection that adults applied for in case of risk” (Oblivion 105). There is more to the risk management apparatus than financial gain in the system. The event of death has to be exhausted of its symbolic dimension, “It is necessary to rob every one of the last possibility of giving themselves their own deaths as the last ‘great escape’ from a life laid down by the system”. There is not an intrinsically rebellious element in death, but the passage from life to death has to be supervised under the watchful eyes of the master to avoid any exchange, “under the sign of comprehensive insurance” (JB, SED 177). His father occupies a parallel position as The Exorcist’s priest, but guarding the capital’s secularized gates of death and exerting power at the disjuncture of life and death.
Death is also the main issue in “Incarnations of Burned Children” and “Good Old Neon”. In “Incarnations of Burned Children”, the infant’s screams open the story after a pot of boiling water scalds him and his death ends the story after three pages of graphic descriptions of the trauma. The characters are not named, merely called “the Mommy”, “the Daddy” and “the child”. The horror of the accident is described by a flurry of activity and the tornado of the parent’s “conscious” reeling off while the child merely screams. After moments of holding his legs under a current of cold water and while his face is turning blue, they find out that the boiling water has gathered in the child’s diaper. The child’s death is captured by a stylistic shift; the language gains a dreamy texture: “The child’s body expanded and walked about and drew pay and lived its life untenanted, a thing among things, its self’s soul so much vapor aloft, falling as rain and then rising, the sun up and down like a yoyo” (Oblivion 116).
Once death is banned from life and gatekeepers are assigned to Eternity, this prohibition creates the angst we observe in “Good Old Neon” and “The Soul is Not a Smithy”, in contrast to the child who is free of textual and discursive intrusions and merely screams. Neal, the protagonist of the story “Good Old Neon”, is tired of his life as a fraud and wants to run his car into a bridge abutment to kill himself. His grandmother’s antique watch has a haunting presence in his final moments, carrying the Latin inscription of RESPICE FINEM that means, “Look to the end”. Death is not the end for him as “David Wallace” (extradiegetic narrator) pops up into the narration near the end and confesses to have written this story to deal with the death of this high-school friend of his. As Baudrillard points out, “Throughout the entire system of political economy, the law of symbolic exchange has not changed one iota: we continue to exchange with the dead, even those denied rest, those for whom rest is prohibited. We simply pay with our own death and our anxiety about death for the rupture of symbolic exchanges with them” (JB, SED 134).
After the demarcation of death in progressive societies, through the historical progress from “animism to polytheism and then to monotheism . . . immortal soul progressively emerges” (JB, SED 128). The most democratic distribution of the postulate of immortality is found in Christianity. The narrator of “The Soul is Not a Smithy” believes that the falling medallion (in dream rendition of The Exorcist’s priest) signifies the blow to Father Karras’ faith in himself as a son and a priest, a blow to his vocation, which must be rooted not only in faith in a god but a belief that the person with the vocation could make some kind of difference and help alleviate suffering and human loneliness . . . Not to mention the classic problem of how a supposedly loving god could permit this terrible outcome. (Oblivion 96)
We have to place “question mark besides the self-evident truths and accepted modes of understanding and modes of analysis” (Williams 81), such as the “faith in a good god” and the circular logic inherent in questioning divine justice, only happening in times of personal human suffering. Both the belief and its subsequent reaction are presented as axiomatic. What is not queried is the imaginary power residing in the rupture of life and death. Father Karras’s religious doubts are merely treated as reactionary, in response to the death of his mother. According to the repeatedly reiterated theme of Oblivion Stories, Father Karras must have been a victim of inattention to the periphery, having found her mother’s corpse after three days. The text uses the logic of postmodernism which is against “centers” and attempts to demonstrate the existence of other centers at margins of our attention, calling these the peripheries of attention, where “the most vivid and enduring occurrences in our lives” happen (Oblivion 97). Thus, it looks at the problem in terms of a dialectical struggle of center and margin and builds a new dichotomy. This creates a vicious cycle without attempting to ask the more fundamental questions. Transcendental beliefs reside at these divisions and exert their power in the name of imaginary ideals who are supposed to soothe and “alleviate pain” that are the byproducts of the very existence of such ruptures. Baudrillard asks his imaginary interlocutor if immortality matters and a credulous materialist shrugs off the idea as being all “imaginary”. However, Baudrillard is not content with this answer. For him, “this is where the basis of the real social discrimination lies, and that nowhere are power and social transcendence so clearly marked the in the imaginary. The economic power of capital is based on the imaginary just as much as is the power of the Church: capital is only its fantastic secularization” (JB, SED 129). This transition of the rule over the gates of the “imaginary” from religion to capital can be expounded in “Good Old Neon”.
“Good Old Neon” starts with the confessions of Neal, who believes he is a fraud: “Pretty much all I’ve done all the time is try to create a certain impression of me in other people” (Oblivion 141). The confessions are addressed to a psychoanalyst, Dr. Gustafson. Neal believes this attitude emerged at an early age. At school, the only reason for him to try to get good grades, make sports teams, and explore his sexuality with girls was to show off to his peers that he is the person who could have made such achievements. He addresses the reader and makes a new confession: “I tried analysis like almost everybody else . . . a lot of people I knew tried it. It didn’t really work, although it did make everyone sound more aware of their own problems and added some useful vocabulary and concepts to the way we all had to talk to each other” (Oblivion 142). Sports, drugs, career, church, oriental meditation and psychoanalysis cannot satiate his excessive self-consciousness and the need to be noticed. The labyrinth that Neal has woven around himself is unresolvable: “The fraudulence paradox was that the more time and effort you put into trying to appear impressive or attractive to other people, the less impressive or attractive you feel inside”. He had perceived this paradox at the age of nineteen, but this recognition “only brought home in spades what an empty, fraudulent person I’d basically been ever since at least the time I was four and lied to my stepdad” (Oblivion 147). He remembers how he made her sister to be blamed for his mistakes and wrongs by cunningly playing dumb; misleading his stepparents by taking responsibility while wearing an unconvincing face. He finally confides to the analyst of his efforts to show off his knowledge of the field and himself, so he could stand out from crowds of people who attend such sessions. However, such honesty is again for Neal a further sign of his advanced fraudulence, “that there was very little chance he [Dr. Gustafson] was going to see or diagnose anything about me [him] that I [he] wasn’t really aware of” (Oblivion 154). As time goes by, Neal starts to lose hope in Dr. Gustafson’s ability to cure him and “was starting to think of various ways to kill” himself (Oblivion 155). During the last sessions, he relates how the feeling of fraudulence has taken pleasure out of his life since childhood, how he could never savor every moment as he was merely considering how he would appear to other people. His two important personal efforts to overcome his fraudulence were joining the church of the “Flaming Sword of the Redeemer” (Oblivion 166) and trying oriental meditation. He had become very active in the church, but it struck him once again that he only wanted to “impress the congregation with how devoted and active I [he] was” (Oblivion 157). Neal would pretend that the Holy Spirit had entered his body like a “juggernaut” as he babbled and claimed that he was speaking in tongues. Once he had given up on church, he took up meditation and he proved capable at keeping meditation postures longer than others keep in the group, earning the title “The Statue” from Master Gurpreet. However, he comes to think that the Master is actually aware of the pain he was going through to sustain the postures and that the final certificate he received was “in reality a subtle rebuke or joke at my [his] expense” (Oblivion 160). He tells Dr. Gustafson of a nightmare where he is waiting at a statue of himself, polishing it all day while birds come and dirty it again. His ex-girlfriend sits at the shadows of the stature with her lover and seems to be oblivious of his presence. Neal describes the analyst’s postures, office environment, and his choice of metaphors to prove that he is a closet homosexual. Gustafson has recently been diagnosed with colon cancer, “a blatant symbol of . . . homosexuality” (Oblivion 163). The doctor tells him that man’s attitude to the world can take either the shape of fear or love: “One cannot serve two masters’ – Bible again – and that one of the worst things about the conception of competitive, achievement-oriented masculinity that America supposedly hardwired into its males was that it caused a more or less constant state of fear that made genuine love next to impossible” (Oblivion 164). He comes to rationalize his in ability to love by the “fraudulence paradox” and expands this newly found insight to his life. He must have been in a constant state of fear to convince others of his “masculine validity”, a game of pretension that excludes any possibility of love. If he is serving one master, fear, he cannot ever serve the other one, love. This leads to retrospective ruminations of his love for his parents, sister, and the women he had been dating.
While watching a re-run episode of Cheers (TV series), a psychoanalyst-character says that if she has “one more yuppie come in and start whining to me [her] about how he can’t love, I’m [she is] going to throw up”. Neal, who has come to believe that “being fraudulent and being unable to love was in fact the same thing”, views the laughter of the studio’s audience as proof to the trite inauthenticity of his complaints (Oblivion 168). This paradox cannot be untangled. Neal assures us that no one can claim that a line in a comedy series leads to suicide, but this epiphany further encourages him to start planning to take his life. The next day, he calls in sick and starts writing suicide letters to his sister and work. He apologizes to his sister for the mean things he had done to her and writes extensively about his fraudulence and inability to love.
Now we are getting to the time when I actually killed myself. This occurred at 9:17 PM on August 19, 1991” (Oblivion 173).
Neal runs through his last thoughts during that day and his hesitation to continue with his suicide plan. He becomes more conscious of the fact that whatever he is doing, seeing, hearing, and eating would be for the last time. After thirty-nine pages of what Barthes calls a “tissue of citations, resulting from thousand sources of culture” (Barthes 146), an extradiegetic narrator, “David Wallace”, resurfaces to reveal that he has written the story in an effort to make sense of his classmate’s suicide, to “somehow reconcile what this luminous guy had seemed like from the outside with whatever on the interior must have driven him to kill himself in such a dramatic and doubtlessly painful way” (Oblivion 181). The technique draws attention to language – a favorite metafictional technique – and the reader is shaken out the story line. However, I will avoid two pitfalls here; namely, to see the story through the prism of Wallace-Author or that of art as a vehicle for eternity.
The observational prowess presented in Oblivion Stories is phenomenally accurate and detailed. In a New York Times article, Weber praised Wallace’s as “prodigiously observant, exuberantly plotted, grammatically and etymologically challenging, philosophically probing and culturally hyper-contemporary” (Weber). This makes a rich textual tissue in “Good Old Neon”, but the tyranny of the discourse of reality cannot exert its exacting demands on the burning child of “Incarnations of Burned Children” in his concise story. In Barthes words: “Language . . . is neither reactionary nor progressive. It is quite simply fascist: for fascism is not the prohibition of saying things, it is the obligation to say them” (qtd. in JB, FCPES 26). The child does not curse “their God’s first name” (Oblivion 116), nor like Daddy holding “anger at the Mommy for allowing this thing to happen” (Oblivion 115), but merely becomes “a thing among things” (Oblivion 116). However, he is afforded a soul and the solace of timeless, albeit “textual”, existence. This is all done to “generalize the imaginary” (JB, SED 129). In stark contrast to this death, a dream-like transition, Neal even transcends his death and is eternalized. Baudrillard believes that “[a]ll the agencies of repression and control are installed in this divided space, in the suspense between a life and its proper end. . . All the future forms of alienation that Marx denounces, the separations and abstractions of political economy, take root in this separation of death” (JB, SED 130).
“Good Old Neon” and “Incarnations of Burned Children” attempt to eternalize the dead; however, the incidence of suicide takes up more length. Suicide makes “an infinitesimal but inexplicable breach, since it is total defeat for a system not to be able to attain total perfection” (JB, SED 175). The psychoanalytic sessions and Neal’s knowledge of this field allows him to go to great lengths about his fraudulence and search for a way out of his condition, but the child is empty of the discursive parole and langue, handed down by previous generations and laden with ideologies and latent power structures. Neal is immortalized and eternal because he had his life steeped in “millions and trillions” of texts. The narrator rhetorically asks Neal and the reader, “What exactly do you think you are? The millions and trillions of thoughts, memories, juxtapositions – even crazy ones like this, you’re thinking – that flash through your head and disappear?” (JB, SED 178). In his final moments, Neal’s every movement “takes on a kind of ceremonial aspect” and he sees “the very sacredness of the world as seen”. However, in a few lines, Neal sees the “ceremonial aspect” of his movements as another attempt at fraudulence but what is saved textually – and for the readership – in this equation is “the very sacredness of the world” (Oblivion 175). The same message is at the core of the axiom of the “universality” of Father Karras’s feeling towards his mother’s death, that his “vocation could make some kind of difference and help alleviate suffering and human loneliness” (Oblivion 96).
The silence of the kid shows the textuality of reality that resurrects Neal, at least by the promise of eternal life in the text and a re-creation of his imaginary afterlife, a representational act – a simulacrum of its own sort. This also raises concern about the title word of “Incarnations”. There is only one burning child in the story, but the title suggests the eternalization of all burned children, stated as the plural form. Baudrillard concludes that “the concept of immortality grew alongside the segregation of the dead, for the flip-side of death, this eminent status which the mark of the ‘soul’ and ‘superior’ spiritualities, is only a story that conceals the real extradition of the dead and the rupturing of the symbolic exchange with them” (JB, SED 127).
Baudrillard believes, “Immortality is only a kind of general equivalent bound to the abstraction of linear time” (JB, SED 129). In “Good Old Neon”, the chronological time and linearity are directly questioned and undermined in form – the nonlinearity of the narrative structure – and content. Content-wise, Neal talks about a new conception of time, which he gained upon his death. It is a non-linear time that is beyond language where “[a]ll the different words are still there . . . but it’s no longer a question of which one comes first. . . or you could say it’s no longer the series of words but now more like some limit toward which the series converges. . . Or maybe imagine everything anybody on earth ever said or even thought to themselves all getting collapsed and exploding into on large combined, instantaneous sound” (Oblivion 167). The text is conscious of the constructedness of language, calling it a “charade”, and states that English, or any other language, fails to capture Neal’s understanding of afterlife. However, it is language that makes the difference in the very short size of “Incarnations of Burned Children” – only three pages – and the very long “Good Old Neon”, which involutes into extreme details and deliberations to finally give a “sacred” quality to life. It is the very “charade” of language which succeeds in making a larger “prison house of language” (Williams 79) in “Good Old Neon”, to use Fredric Jameson’s metaphor. The story saves a “sacred” principle for life, when not exchanged symbolically, only enlarged to hold us ad infinitum, an illusion.
John Keats‘s metaphor of “Apartment of Many Mansions” is close to the narrator’s idea of life after death. Keats said that of all the “mansions” of the metaphorical “apartment” of life, he could only access two of them, “the infant or thoughtless chamber”, and the “chamber of Maiden-Thought” (Keats). However, in Neal’s newly constructed eternity, all “mansions” doors are open to access. The portrayal of death is democratic in the text, there is no more hell or paradise but an egalitarian eternity stripped of the religious elements, one which claims universal availability for all men: “Think for a second – what if all the infinitely dense and shifting worlds of stuff inside you every moment of your life tuned out now to be somehow fully open and expressible afterward, after what you think of as you has died . . . you can as they say open the door and be in anyone else’s room in all your own multiform forms and ideas and facets?” (Oblivion 178). In a long footnote, “David Wallace” directly talks to Neal (and the reader) and questions the linearity of time. The story makes an argument for the “literary immeasurable instant between impact and death” and we are invited to doubt the linear time in favor of a new understanding for “what makes room for the universe inside” (Oblivion 179). “Wallace” asks the reader if the flash second between life and death does not hold the eternity inside it, like the unending “inbent fractals” (Oblivion 179). The infinity of time is the Enlightenment’s equivalence of traditional Christian eternity. Baudrillard posits that with the advent of “bourgeois Reason” and the dissolution of Christianity, the obsession with death takes a different shape in the era of industrial production and political economy: “From this point on the obsession with death and the will to abolish death through accumulation become the fundamental motor of the rationality of political economy”. The power reigning at the gates of death transitions from religion to capital. “Value, in particular time as value, is accumulated in the phantasm of death deferred, pending the term of a linear infinity of value” (JB, SED 146). The laical eternal state, where the phantasm of Neal lives in, is also compared to the un-ending fractals, “what if afterward now each moment itself is an infinite sea or span or passage of time” (Oblivion 179).
This “guy” with a “neon aura” (Oblivion 180) who excelled in every possible undertaking of the system had no reason to commit suicide. How could he not take solace in the “infinity of capital”? Baudrillard clarifies that “[e]ven those who no longer believe in a personal eternity believe in the infinity of time as they do in a species-capital of double-compound interests. The infinity of capital passes into the infinity of time, the eternity of a productive system no longer familiar with the reversibility of gift-exchange” (JB, SED 146). The current system’s fascination with eternal life has only one point, “[i]t is simply to generalize the imaginary. The revolution can only consist in the abolition of the separation of death” (JB, SED 129).
4. Revisiting Assumptions
This chapter is largely a study of the orders of appearance and sign value and how they influence the world of Oblivion Stories. The Saussurean emphasis on the arbitrariness of meaning becomes a basis for Baudrillard to ascribe to our age the maximum exchangeability of these signs that are freed from the labor of signification. This freedom is congruent with the digital and DNA model and its abstraction. This theory gives us a new platform to study the “Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature” in terms of the ever-widening dominion of this new order of the world and go beyond the text’s attempt to capture the plight of the characters’ in terms of the binary of reality/appearance.
Following the linguistics model and incorporating the symbolic exchange theory, consumption and creation of “need” would be seen from a different angle in “Mister Squishy” and “The Suffering Channel”. In the third order of simulacrum (hyperreality), labor has become a free sign and emptied of the traditional struggles against the master, which Schmidt cannot find any more. With the disappearance of signs of domination, “change” itself becomes a sign and impossible to achieve and this becomes a source of disappointment for Schmidt’s personal and professional life. Hyperreality is made on the digital and genetic model and creates a new form of dominance that undermines our understanding of social control, as we shall see in “Mister Squishy”. Finally, the issue of “simulation” would be brought up to shed light on some events in the story and to look at the whole collection in light of Baudrillard’s conception of hyperreality and art in this age.
4.1. Critique of Sign
Baudrillard opens his Symbolic Exchange and Death (first published in French in 1976) with the Saussurean concept of exchange terms of the langue and compares it to a coin as the basic unit of monetary value. Any coin of some value has two functions. First is its functional/referential dimension that pertains to the relation of the coin against a certain good of some value with which it might exchange, like the relation between signifier and the signified. On the other hand, the structural dimension applies to the relative exchangeability of each coin with others in the monetary system, “more and more, Saussure reserves the term value for this second aspect of the system” (JB, SED 6). Based on this parable we can see how Baudrillard will shape his post-structural argument. Post-structuralists are not content by merely finding grand patterns (like structuralists), but also look for the existing systems of knowledge and thought which helped produced such structures. This is how Baudrillard sees Marxism belonging to the era of industrial production by the help of the Saussurean argument. Similar to the two functions of langue, the Industrial-era commodity also fulfills both functions. The referential dimension would be similar to use-value and the structural would be akin to exchange-value. However, “a revolution has put an end to this ‘classical ‘economics of value, a revolution of value itself, which carries value beyond its commodity form into its radical form . . . Referential value is annihilated, giving the structural dimension of value the upper hand” (JB, SED 6). Any reference has been pulverized. Signs have been liberated and they can exchange among each other, without any nostalgia for the real. They have become aleatory and indifferent to reality.
The same operation takes place at the level of labor power and the production process: the annihilation of any goal with regards to the contents of production and labor allows them to function as a code” (JB, SED 7). This turns our understanding of political economy on its head. Political economy examines “the relationships between individuals and society and between markets and the state . . . [It]thus can be understood as the study of how a country–the public’s household–is managed or governed, taking into account both political and economic factors…” (Veseth). For Baudrillard, the term has become void of its classical meaning, but the question of political economy is still relevant since the annihilation of the “motivated” sign significantly affects the social relations and changes the rules of the game. He leaves the Marxist worldview that assumes finalities behind to enter an age to where the structural order of sign operates on the condition of the exclusion and death of reference: “The system of reference for production, signification, the affect, substance and history, all this equivalence to a ‘real’ content, loading the sign with the burden of ‘utility’, with gravity – its form of representative equivalence – all this is over with” (JB, SED 6). He cautiously circumscribes his understanding of sign by introducing the concept of code as the internal logic of this new generation of signs, because “the term ‘sign’ has itself only an allusive value. The structural law of value affects signification as much as it does everything else, its form is not that of sign in general, but that of a certain organization which is that of the code” (JB, SED 7). Code is stripped of determinacy and the classic signification of the sign value that regulated the inter-relation of signifier and signified – in the referential sphere. For Baudrillard, the new sign involves “[n]o necessary relation to the subject or the world . . . There is only a systematic relation obligated to all other signs. And in this combinatory abstraction lie the elements of the code” (JB, FCPES 68). The epitome of indeterminate code can be found in the genetic code and “digitality is its metaphysical principle” (JB, Simulations [S] 103). Our reality, modes of knowledge and thought are currently built upon these two principles, and code is the blanket term that Baudrillard uses to connote the fundamental workings of the two processes. The structural aspect of sign that survives strips the political economy of sign (the analysis of elements of the sign; signifier and signified [JB, FCPES 143]) from meanings and connotations we associate it with as it all “collapses into simulation. Strictly speaking, neither the ‘classical’ economy nor the political economy of the sign ceases to exist: they lead a secondary existence, becoming a sort of phantom principle of dissuasion” (JB, SED 8). The result is the impossibility of any more fundamental change, as any attempt at change is itself reduced to a sign. The structural law of value softly oppresses and dominates. It is “operative everywhere in the code in which capital finally holds its purest discourses, beyond the dialects of industry, trade and finance, beyond the dialects of class which it held its ‘productive’ phase – a symbolic violence inscribed everywhere in signs, even is the signs of revolution” (JB, SED 10).
Schmidt, the protagonist of “Mister Squishy”, wants to make changes in his society and his company but to no avail. He fails on all accounts and is left hopeless: “Even the phrase Make a Difference had become a platitude so familiar that it was used as the mnemonic tag in low-budget Ad Council PSAs for Big Brothers/Big Sisters and the United Way, which used Make a Difference in a Child’s Life and Making a Difference in Your Community” (Oblivion 49). With the domination of the code, all classical terms become exchangeable. The opposite terms are nullified and dialectics becomes redundant or reduced to merely a sign among other signs. The achievements of humanist values, its “moral and aesthetic and practical judgments are effaced in our system of images and signs” (JB, SED 9). Consequently, revolution and rebellion are emptied out and become signs. Schmidt explains to the product test group how “Jolt [Cola] had worked to position itself as a recreational beverage for digital-era phreaks and dweebs and had managed at once to acknowledge, parody, and event the computer-dweeb as an avatar of individual rebellion” (Oblivion 46). Having become void of their meanings, these concepts are merely called out to play the structural game of value differentiation, an internality that has lost touch with the real.
With the destruction of the commodity law of value, the whole social is taken over by the structural order of value, “capital itself . . . abolishes the determination of the social according to the means of production . . . and currently controls every aspect of the system’s strategy” (JB, SED 8). The structural code generalizes in every domain and controls the subject and the object. We no longer have desire for objects but for the abstracted codes crystallized in the objects. This is seen in fashion where the ugly and the beautiful lose their sense (JB, FCPES 78). What constitutes the passion for signs of fashion is the abstraction of the code as “the subject is trapped in the factitious, differential, encoded, systematized aspects of the object” (JB, FCPES 92). The object of fetish illuminates with the abstraction of the code. Baudrillard is aware that“ [t]he term fetishism is dangerous not only because it short-circuits analysis, but because since the 18th century it has conducted the whole repertoire of occidental Christian and humanist ideology, as orchestrated by colonists, ethnologists and missionaries” (JB, FCPES 88). However, he uses the term to debunk the myth of the commodity and money fetishism of Marxism; meanwhile, establishing the logic of the sign and code which would serve as the basis for his theories on hyperreality and simulation. If fetishism ever existed, it has always been the result of a fascination with abstractions and self-containedness. With the progressive systemization and its concurrent fascination, the fetishism that was spotted in commodity and money is now gaining more territories, “a progressive (and even brutal) systematization of these sectors that is to say their reduction to commutable sign values within the framework of a system of exchange value that is now almost total” (JB, FCPES 93).
The systemization of the code can be seen in its domination and sublimation of the contemporary body. “Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature” is a short story of eight pages about the ordeals of a mother and son who have fallen victim to underserved mishaps. The narrator’s mother had “won a small product liability settlement and used the money to promptly go get a cosmetic surgery on the crow’s feet around her eyes”. This procedure left her to look “insanely frightened at all times”. She undergoes a second operation to fix the botched surgery but again it ends in failure, leaving her with “a chronic mask of insane terror” (Oblivion 183). She has filed a lawsuit against the surgeon. The son-narrator is recounting the story while on a bus ride with her, as she has become the object of uncomfortable looks from the passengers during her rides to the lawyer’s office. The son’s towering figure only draws more attention to them on these rides. He is a pest exterminator who carries his hunting kit and wears his “clear goggles and polyurethane gloves” at all times (Oblivion 187). The son acts as a kind of deterrent and protector to his mother but is ironically on probation. He is under the guardianship of his mother after an incident where a boy broke their garage roof and fell on glass casements housing his collection of neurotoxic recluses. The boy had survived the accident but the narrator was accused of “failing to exercise due exercise of caution” (Oblivion 183). He used to keep the desert-dwelling and the common urban-dwelling spiders in his lab, “they are rare and both specimens escaped in his mishaps [the boy’s fall]” (Oblivion 187). The predicament of the son would be discussed in chapter 4.5. What pertains to our discussion here is the plight of the mother.
As the title suggests and the son-narrator says, the story sets to show how one’s appearance is only a mask: “Why who knows for certain why anyone wears the face they do my good fellow let us not leap to conclusions based on incomplete data!” (Oblivion 188). Behind the effort of the text to interpret their ordeal in terms of the dialectics of appearance/reality lurks Capital which is no longer content with exploitation of the labor’s body (accumulation of dead labor has made it redundant), and mobilizes individual “needs” [see Section 4.3 on the creation of need] as productive forces. Psychoanalysis crowns the body by dividing it from the soul and makes the path for the body to become the site of representations and the polemics of needs. The mother’s cosmetic surgery shows the “perfectionist vertigo and controlled narcissism” which the capital has laid out, “a kind of anti-nature incarnate, bound up in a general stereotype of models of beauty” (JB, FCPES 94). While old age was pivotal and prestigious before, now “years ‘gained’ are only calculable accumulated years that have no capacity to be exchanged. Prolonged life expectancy has therefore simply ended up discriminating against old age, which follows logically from discriminating against death”. The text does not point to these “models of beauty” that the mother has followed nor her struggle to dislocate herself from “the Third Age”, a territory encroached upon by science’s attempt to conquer and naturalize death, which contradictorily has become “a dead weight on social self-management” (JB, SED 163), Baudrillard laments. The mother’s plight is the effect of generalization and expansion of the sign exchange to the body and its subjugation to total discipline and circulating signs. The new body plays the game of desire, which is inherent in every self-sustained and autonomous system: “What fascinates us always is that which radically excludes us in the name of its internal logic or perfection” (JB, FCPES 96). Political power becomes complete by socialization of sections of all life such as sexuality, body, and beauty and they are imposed “as new universals in the name of the rights of the new man, emancipated by abundance and the cybernetic revolution”. The body becomes the site of ideology and the eternal pseudo-dialectics of fashion: “Around this body, which is entirely postivized as the capital divine right, the subject and the private property is about to be restored (JB, FCPES 97).
The figure and psyche of Schmidt imbues the greatest length of “Mister Squishy”. He works for Team y, the research arm of Reesemeyer Shannon Belt Advertising (RSBA). A near-end peripeteia reveals office politics, cyber espionage, and a web of deceits and intrigues in the top echelon of the company. However, it is a statement by Allan Britton (president of the company) that suddenly undermines the previous storyline, which was solely dominated by professional and personal life of Schmidt. He has a vision that “the market becomes its own test. Terrain=Map. Everything encoded”. These words foreshadow the fall of Schmidt the facilitator, to be replaced by a “100% tech-driven, abstract” (Oblivion 64) system. The announcement is similar to that of Baudrillard in the opening pages of Simulations (1983), where he uses Jorge Luis Borges’s parable to elaborate what he means by the hyperreal condition “where henceforth, it is the map that precedes the territory – PRECESSION OF SIMULACRA – it is the map that engenders the territory”. The “precession” would mean that it is the map that constitutes the territory “and if we were to revive the fable today, it would be the territory whose shreds are slowly rotting across the map” (JB, S 2). Schmidt already lives among these “shreds”. This is not a vision of apocalypse nor the end of human labor and the reign of machine as Marx envisaged (JB, SED 16). Nor is the story in any degree dystopian or surreal, but rather hyperreal and Baudrillard helps comprehending this new regime of the world.
For Baudrillard the theater of history is irreducible to production. History has been a matter of the different mutations of the orders of appearance and sign, but not “commodity”: “In caste societies, feudal or archaic, the signs are limited in number, and are not widely diffused, each one functions with its full value as interdiction, each is a reciprocal obligation between castes, clans or persons” (JB, S 84). The first order of representation emerged by the end of Feudalism and advent of the Renaissance. Before, the signs were exclusive but became free to reproduce. However, they were still based on an original and were called the “counterfeit”. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, new signs were generated which did not pretend to imitate a nature or caste symbol any more. “Their origin is technique, and the only sense they possess is in the dimension of the industrial simulacrum” (JB, S 96). If we look at production from this direction, we notice that it constituted a historical shift in the order of signs; from a cruel feudal world of exclusive signs to an era when signs taunt their technique-based constructions. “As soon as dead work wins over living work” (JB, S 100), we enter the third order of simulacra, of pure mutation of values and signs. The third order of appearance is “a universe of structures and binary oppositions” (JB, S 103), of DNA and digitality. “From the smallest disjunctive unity (question/answer particle) up to the great alternating systems that control economy, politics, world co-existence, the matrix does not change: it is always 0/1, the binary scansion that is affirmed as the metastable or homeostatic form of current system”. This constitutes the dominating nucleus of simulation and introduces a system “that is no longer competitive, but compatible” (JB, S 135). For Baudrillard, the World Trade Center buildings constituted the architectural equivalence of hyperreality. All buildings in New York were facing each other in a concrete jungle, competing and flaunting their various forms; however, these towers showed the end of competition and reference to reality: “[I]t is the duplication of the sign which destroys its meaning” (JB, S 136). The prominent characteristic of the third order of simulacrum is that the signifier is freed from any relation to the signified. WTC buildings “signify only that the strategy of models and communications wins out in the very heart of the system itself – and New York is really the heart of it – over the traditional strategy of competition” (JB, S 137).
Hyperreality (neither real nor surreal) is the contemporary “reality”; one that is made up of “miniaturized units, from matrices, memory banks and command models” (JB, S 3). This does not mean that we are reduced to a virtual life, as in one simulated on a computer network. Real is no longer possible because the world is made up of representations without origin, of “reality” following combinatory models. It is merely a “simulacrum”, which “is never that which conceals the truth – it is the truth which conceals that there is none. The simulacrum is true” (JB, S 1). It is populated by images, signs, mere codes, which float and replace each other. A breeding ground of sign and code, built on the genetic model, an “equivalent of the total neutralization of the signified by the code is the instantaneousness of the verdict of fashion, or of any advertising or media message. Any place where the offer swallows up the demand, where the question assimilates the answer, or invents and anticipates it in a predictable form” (JB, S 116).
“Mister Squishy” is set in an advertising firm, a perfect model of simulation. In an early morning session, the Targeted Focus Group (TFG) had already filled a 20-page questionnaire, Individual Response Profile (IRS), in fluorescently-lit cubicles. They are meeting with Schmidt in a bright room with a lake view. This Field Researcher is facilitating the 854th session at the company, a faux Full-Access “pre-GRDS orientation phase” with Q&A format and for the first time one of the participants is named Norberto” (Oblivion 11). The spacious conference room is furnished with leather swivel chairs to create a more open mood comparing to the cubicles, where they had just completed the questionnaires. The test-marketing session is for Felonies! snack cake, which is the brainchild of a “Creative Director’s epiphanic encounter with something billed as Death by Chocolate in a Near North café” (Oblivion 6). It is a variant of other products in the market and is closely similar to four other brands. On the conference table, 27 snack cakes are “piled in a pyramidal display on a large rotating silver tray” (Oblivion 5). Almost one page is designated to an in-depth technical breakdown of various features of the cake. Every detail of the cake has been carefully chosen. For example, the frosting is modeled on a similar product named “Ho Ho” that 45% of secretly videotaped consumers had just peeled them off and eat them alone” (Oblivion 7). This is characteristic of the simulacrum where “the object no longer serves you, it tests you”. The test is neither exclusive to the TFGs in RSBA, nor the secretly videotaped consumption habit of the icing. Consumers are acting more like readers of these codes rather than users. Every choice we make in the market is a test. The cake is modeled on another cake and is made with an eye to other products in the market since, “they have broken down reality into simple elements that they have reassembled into scenarios of regulated oppositions” (JB, S 120). Once reality has been tested, we are only offered what has been answered back to the system. In the hyperreal simulacrum, value is not only a matter of financial gain any longer, but of being indexed and pigeonholed in the infinite internal referential system of signs; this is simulation. Just as Felonies! is only defined by its reference to other products, Style magazine’s content is “dictated by market research and codified down to the smallest detail: celebrity profiles, entertainment news, hot trends and human interests , with human interest representing a gamut in which the occasional freakshow item had a niche – but the rhetoric was tricky” (Oblivion 298).
Schmidt tells the test group about the behind-the-scene story of the product’s genesis, different advertising strategies, and how the product name Felonies! is manipulating the desires and insecurities of the buyers. It is an unhealthy snack with high amounts of sugar, but the advertising industry creates the necessary hype to sell even such a product by manipulating the consumer’s desire for individuality versus their herd-like attitudes to follow healthy trends. Felonies! is marketed as an Anti-trend “in a US market for which health, fitness, nutrition, and attendant indulgence-v.-discipline conflicts had achieved a metastatic status” (Oblivion 95). In the current state of simulacrum, the indeterminate structural law of value functions free from the gravitation of any real reference, linear dialectics is no longer possible, as it merely exists as a sign on the third level simulacrum. Opposite terms have become exchangeable, “everywhere we see the commutability of the beautiful and the ugly in fashion, of the left and the right in politics, of the true and the false in every media message, the useful and useless at the level of objects, nature and culture at every level of signification”  (JB, SED 8). Once the realities of “healthy versus unhealthy” have been volatilized by the medium, they lose their sense of finality and both can be utilized by capital. The other example Schmidt gives is the teenage fad of wearing clothes that are “too big for them and made them look like urchins in Victorian novels” (Oblivion 23), a phenomenon called MCP by the advertising industry. While the ad agency believes they have the knowledge and savoir-faire to promote Anti-trends, they cannot account for the more powerful trend of MCP, “Metastatic Consumption Pattern”. The Victorian urchin look can become the latest fad for teenagers only because “there is no longer any determinacy internal to the signs of fashion, hence they become free to commute and permutate without limit” (JB, SED 78). The advertising industry cannot account for such “metastatic” fads, a metaphor which shows the mutability of signs similar to the genetic code.
The TFG consists of fourteen men who have been handpicked to represent the targeted demographic of the new snack cake. There are two Unintroduced Assistant Facilitators (UAF) among the fourteen all-male group, one of whom is the narrator. The conference room of RSBA is equipped with “what appeared to be a large smoke detector . . . whose lens and parabolic mike, while mobile and state-of-the-art, invariably failed to catch certain subtle nuanced in individual affect as well as low-volume interchanges between adjoining members” (Oblivion 7). The embedded UAFs have to record such conversations after Schmidt leaves the group to come up with a GRDS, Group Response Data Summary, in camera – an adverb that is ironically repeated throughout the text. However, this is a form of control, which belonged to the era of industrial production and not the third-order simulacrum, which is represented by “[c]ybernetic control, generation from model, differential modulation, feed-back, question/answer” (JB, S 103). In hyperreality, the system is “switching over from the panoptic apparatus of surveillance (of Discipline and Punish) to a system of deterrence, where the distinction between active and passive is abolished . . . Such is the slope of a hyperrealist sociality, where the real is confused with the model” (JB, S 53). Despite the existence of such panoptic espial in the company, RSBA’s president (Britton) affirms such techniques are irrelevant today. He tells Scot Laleman how the customer’s attitudes are registered in networks, what Baudrillard refers to as “cybernetic control”. Behavioral patterns of people are tracked by “undisplayed little tracking codes [which] could be designed to tag and follow each consumer’s w3 [World Wide Web] interests and spending patterns” (Oblivion 63). However, it is not only the online market which is part of the overwhelming apparatus of control, but the very hyperreality of the market where needs are not interrogated but are offered in an incessant process of testing, or as Briton says the market is the test and this should be emphasized. Baudrillard says that the hyperreal signals “the substitution of social control by the end . . . for social control by anticipation, simulation and programming, the indeterminate mutation directed by the code” (JB, S 111). Social control is not only panoptic or cybernetic. It is only the pronouncement of the equality of the market and test where the text gives a glimmer of the hyperreal condition of simulation and exchangeability of the signs. When the real and the model are interchangeable, capital tightens its grip and control. The illusion of the big brother watching us only diverts attention to these modes while social control is the very condition of hyperreality: “It no longer has any references within a dominant class a relation of forces, it works without violence, entirely reabsorbed without any trace of bloodshed into the signs which surround us” (JB, SED 11).
After the pre-orientation session with Schmidt, the TFG will reconvene in camera to come up with a collective take on the product around sixteen “different radial Preference and Satisfaction axes” (Oblivion 8). Like all current polls, the scope of answers and choices are already made in these questionnaires. As Baudrillard puts it, “The answer is called forth by the question, it is design-ated in advance” (JB, S 117). Polls, media, and products have neither factual nor functional purposes, but exist to test us. They are disseminated and produced as a result of rigorous “selection, a montage, from a point-of-view”. Reality has been broken into variables and the information and products have passed their tests, so now they only ask “questions that ‘answered back’ to them” (JB, S 111). An analogy to this process would be the different angles that can be taken to take a photograph or cover an incident to stimulate different responses in the viewers of the news.
The TFG members are described in a morass of details under categories as various as age, ethnicity, clothes, eyewear, timepiece, facial hair, physical built, weight, personal mannerisms, tics and so forth. The narrator is conscious of the almost imperceptible sways of the high-rising building, dirt flying the air and the metabolism pattern of the participants from their consumption of sample Felonies!. The descriptions are meticulous and tend to categorize the participants around different variables: “Among the youngest men, it was obvious which were sincerely in need of a shave and which were just affecting an unshaved look. Two of the Focus Group’s members had the distinctive blink patterns of men wearing contact lenses in the conference room’s astringent air. Five of the men were more than 10% overweight, Terry Schmidt himself excluded” (Oblivion 10). It is difficult to categorize the text under the generic rubrics of real or surreal. The detailed descriptions leave a sense of the real world; however, it may be said that this is the “reality” of a hyper-acute observational wizard. Baudrillard might best describe this quality of fiction in the age of hyperreality: “[T]here is no longer apparatition, but instead subpoena of the object, severe interrogation of its scattered fragments . . . successive immanence under the policing structure of the look. This ‘objective’ minuteness arouses a vertigo of reality, vertigo of death on the limits of representation-for-the-sake-of-representation . . . it is the look become molecular code of the object” (JB, S 143). Physical postures of the participants are closely profiled and interpreted. This is no surprise since he knows that every small idiosyncrasy that Schmidt affects is acquired from a colleague or is personally cultivated for a specific reason. When Schmidt wants to put the marker back in the whiteboard’s tray, he gives it a hard flick so it stops almost at the end of the slot, a move that lends “both what he was saying and the trick an air of nonchalance that heightened the impact” (Oblivion 21-2). His outward appearance is only a façade he puts on while staying “inwardly detached and almost clinically observant, [he] possessed also a natural eye for behavioral details that could often reveal tiny gems of statistical relevance amid the rough raw surfeit of random fact” (Oblivion 9). Schmidt has been educated (Descriptive Statistics and Behavioral Psychology) to break down reality to units and the (hyper)reality of him and the ad agency is shown in the fragmented statistical descriptions, where each TFG member is decoded as a sign. Every behavior and sign is merely treated as a variable in the game and the text darkly exemplifies this attitude by using fiscal quarters as a time reference for past event. “In principle, nothing is immune to this structural logic of value. Objects, ideas, even conduct are not solely practiced as values, by virtue of their ‘objective’ meaning, in terms of their official discourse – for they can never escape the fact that they may be potentially exchanged as signs” (JB, FCPES 78).
The rapturous satisfactions of consumption surround us, clinging to objects as if to the sensory residues of the previous day in the delirious excursion of a dream. (JB, FCPES 63)
[F]aces arranged in the mildly sullen expressions of consumers who have never once questioned their entitlement to satisfaction or meaning. (Oblivion 10)
As mentioned before, the structuralist Barthes applied the linguist model to consumption patterns; however, part of his move to post-structuralism would be an adherence to the exclusive “referentiality” of signifiers; they have no inherent relation to “signified”s anymore. Baudrillard follows the same logic to contend that if “language cannot be explained by postulating an individual need to speak . . . [, then] consumption does not arise from an objective need of the consumer” (JB, FCPES 75). In this spirit, Baudrillard can fundamentally reshape the world of Oblivion Stories and in particular, the longest stories of the series, “Mister Squishy” and “The Suffering Channel”.
Baudrillard asks his reader a fundamental question: “How am I free not to choose?”. The participants in RSBA market-test and consumers are apparently granted freedom of choice, but they are not “free to live on raw roots and fresh water” (JB, FCPES 81). At first sight, the suggestion might strike the reader as a simplistic call for a return to nature. However, this is not what Baudrillard is demanding. He is aiming for a deeper understanding of contemporary world, for what he calls the “social logic” of consumption and consumption is at the kernel of “Mister Squishy” and “The Suffering Channel”. The question becomes relevant to the whole collection if we look at the ending of “Another Pioneer” where the break of dialogue between “the Western analytical mind” (Oblivion 130) and primitives took place (page 20). The tribe proves incapable to practice the progressive ideals of the child and decides to scorch the village and return to the jungle. They leave their “tilled fields”, water system and “heated shelters” as “they were all now spread out and moving, the papoose-laden women keeping sharp eyes out for edible roots . . . following the herd as they had before the dawn of time” (Oblivion 139). The text indicates its surprise as to how they could have gone back to eating roots after the new developments. Moreover, it announces that they go back to following the herd, meaning the system that the child had laid out promised more individuality.
Before the arrival of the child prodigy, the primitive society was built around the symbolic exchange of gift. “What constitutes the object [=gift] as value in symbolic exchange is that one separates himself from it in order to give it, to throw it at the feet of the other, under the gaze of the other; one divest himself as if of a part of himself” (JB, FCPES 65). Through the agency of the child, the tribe would have created a fully functioning trade that would have been the doom of the symbolic. The gift exchange reciprocity is the basis of a continuing social life, “that of giving and that of returning . . . . Thus it is necessary to imagine (as Mauss and the native apparently do) an immanent power in the object . . . whose force haunts the recipient of the object and incites him to divest himself of it” (JB, FCPES 70). In trade-based economy, the subject and the object become separate terms. This has far-reaching consequences in the contemporary world: “The psychologist, economist, etc., having provided themselves with a subject and an object, can barely rejoin them but for the grace of need” (JB.FCPES:70). Here are two of Style interns working out in the WTC gym and brainstorming to find a credible hook to cover the feces artist:
Do we all really value a painting more than a photograph anymore?
Let’s say we do.
The executive intern laughed. That’s almost a textbook petitio principi. (Oblivion 317)
We have to ask the same question from the text to see if it is committing petitio principii, the logical fallacy of assuming conclusions and circular reasoning. “The legitimacy of the production rests on a petitio principii, i.e., that people discover a posteriori and almost miraculously that they need what is produces and offered at the marketplace” (JB, FCPES 71).
At their cores, “Mister Squishy” and “The Suffering Channel” are shaped around the concept of “need”. The TFG session revolves around the question of the members’ (and the consumer in large) desires for the product and investigating how the product answers to those desires. Style‘s staff are continuously in search of what they call the Upbeat Angle of the story, or its hook. The text captures the quest to find a way to entice the reader to feel that they need to read this article despite its disgusting subject. In fact, the search for a UBA becomes a search for conceiving a “need” for consumption of the “400 word commercial sediment” (Oblivion 250), which would be finally published. The consumer should read the article precisely because the piece is about the consumers’ most basic instincts, namely the prevalent desire to be distinguished from the crowd of “the huge faceless mass of folks” (Oblivion 283). This forms the basis of a conflict “between the subjective centrality of our own lives versus our awareness of its objective insignificance . . . This was the single great informing conflict of the American psyche. The management of insignificance” (Oblivion 284), Skip Atwater asserts.
In “The Suffering Channel”, the quest for conceiving this need, UBA, clashes with the artist’s need and creates a hall of mirrors. The artist wants to show off his feces statues because of this need and Style can only attract the reader to the feces artist story if it can tell its readership that they need to hear this story; that the desire to stand out is a major conflict in their own lives. Baudrillard is struck by prevalence of such narratives: “[T]he need for security versus the need to take risks; the desire to conform versus the need to be distinctive, etc. and which are determinant? How do you structure and rank them? In an ultimate effort, our thinkers strain to make their tautology dialectical” (JB, FCPES 74). In the micro-level economy of the cake, the producers expect to “create the impression of a connection between the brand and what was important to the consumer” (Oblivion 17). Need becomes the basis for a tautology in a closed system where the object and the subject are defined in the mirror image of the each other. RSBA is worried that the TFG’s “subjective awareness of his identity as a test subject instead of as a true desire-driven consumer” may undermine the authenticity of the collected data (Oblivion 63). According to the logic at work in the text, desire is the basis of the need and it is not questioned, because it is reconciled with the idea of individuality; ergo, the accusation of “following the herd” to the primitive tribe in “Another Pioneer”. The subject has to be discovered, to become a stand-alone entity, to finally become identifiable in his relation to an object that is no longer symbolically charged with the giver nor the receiver.
Baudrillard contrasts the economic “logic of equivalence” with the ambivalence found in social sciences and psychoanalysis. They have joint forces to consecrate need today and economy merely, adds to the criteria of individual utility (‘rational’ economic variables) a pinch of ‘irrational’ individual psychology (motivational studies, depth psychology) and some interpersonal social psychology (the individual need for prestige and status) – or simply a kind of global socio-culture. In short, one looks for context . . . such are the maudlin illuminations of psycho-economics. (JB, FCPES 72,73)
The advertising industry is best manipulating psychology in service to capital in the name of need. The brand name Felonies! is seducing the consumer by setting the consumer’s individuality – the lost cause of “Another Pioneer” – in contrast to his herd instincts to avoid the health risks of the cakes, which contain high amounts of sugar: “The name’s [Felonies!] association matrix included as well the suggestion of adulthood and adult autonomy: in its real-world rejection of the highly cute, cartoonish, n- and oo-intensive names of so many other snack cakes” (Oblivion 5-6). The dichotomy of individual versus group is further displayed in the demand for a group reply besides the individual replies of the TFG. Individuality and autonomy of adulthood, which is the underlying message of Felonies!, is contrasted to the “fadlike pattern” of MCP which happens in the teenage demographics. The market in return emphasizes these inner struggles: “The stresses on individual consumers caught between their natural God-given herd instincts and their deep fear of sacrificing their natural God-given identities as individuals, and about the ways these stresses were tweaked and-slash-or soothed by skillfully engineered trends” (Oblivion 36). With the abstraction of men’s constructed inner desire into needs, they are homogenized “with means of satisfaction (products, images, sign-objects etc.) and thus to multiply consummativity” (JB, FCPES 83). Both the individuality and herd instinct are taken as universal “God-given” human traits in this context. They become representations of man, one made up of fragmented desires, which ultimately inform production: “These functions must be ‘desublimated’ – hence, the deconstruction of the ego functions, the conscious moral and individual functions, to the benefit of a kind of total consuming immorality in which the individual finally submerges himself in a pleasure principle entirely controlled by production planning” (JB, FCPES 85). The insidious thing about this logic is not the invocation of an unqualified authority, but its consequential advancement of the order of production and more importantly the reproduction of differences in the system of signs, which is the “social logic” of production for Baudrillard. To this end, all the psychological parameters hold true and they turn into an endless cycle of dialectics with no resolution. However, they promise the survival of the referential sign as the epitome of capital. The passage below shows the closed system that these needs create:
[V]arious myriad other pitches that aimed to remind the consumer that he was at root an individual, one with individual tastes and preferences and freedom of individual choice, that he was not a mere herd animal who had no choice but to go go go on US life’s digital-calorie-indulged-in pleasures out there to indulge in if the consumer’s snap out of his high-fiber hypnosis and realize that life was also to be enjoyed that the unenjoyed life was not worth living. (Oblivion 36)
It should be added that Baudrillard is not questioning the needs for prestige and hierarchy, but the point is the ramifications of the move from the symbolic to the economic. In the symbolic order, the rupture between subject and object did not exist as we conceive it today. It is worth noting this quotation again: “What constitutes the object as value in symbolic exchange is that one separates himself from it in order to give it, to throw it at the feet of the other, under the gaze of the other; one divest himself as if of a part of himself” (JB, FCPES 65). The subjects invests themselves in the object, and through this unity an endless reciprocal exchange is formed which strengthened social life and founded hierarchies.
4.4. Dead Labor
“Mister Squishy” has a non-linear narrative structure and only upon reading the final paragraph, the scattered pieces of puzzle fall into place. Britton and Scot Laleman are cruising on a yacht. Britton counts down from five and puts “one hand to his ear and came [comes] down with the other hand to point at Scot Laleman as if to signal You’re On the Air” (Oblivion 66). This is an invitation for brainstorming to come up with a scenario to test and push the facilitators and the TFG to the limit. They have planned for an urban daredevil to climb the façade of RSBA headquarter with his “real or imitation semiautomatic weapon” (Oblivion 40). When he either jumps down or reaches the conference room window on the thirteenth floor (we are not told which will happen), the UFA narrator would activate the apparatus attached to him to discharge a vomit-like liquid in response to the sight of the climber who is clad in Mister Squishy icon and holds a fake gun. The resultant collected data of this specific TFG would prove in numbers that the circumstances of the test plus the way Schmidt responds and reacts to this incident would produce drastically different results from the TFG pre-orientation that Darlene Lilley is executing simultaneously and on another floor of the building. This would be a proof – especially for the facilitators who know that “numbers do not lie” – that the human element is an obstacle to valid data collection. This scheme’s result would be the pretext to fire the facilitators and avoid Wrongful Termination charges. “All they needed were the stressors. Nested, high-impact stimuli. Shake them up. Rattle the cage, he [Allan Britton] said, watch what fell out. This was all really what was known in the game as Giving Someone Enough Rope” (Oblivion 65).
The story is giving a classically Marxist and anthropological account for firing the facilitators. The facilitators are repeatedly described by Schmidt as “useless cogs”. In the face of the accumulation of knowledge and power in machines, the weak have to go; “It was rough business; Darwin’s tagline still fit” (Oblivion 65). Such universal platitudes should be questioned. Firstly, just as “need” is conceived on images of the oral drive, here “survival” is built on the images of the animal world and is expected to be taken as a fact. We cannot accept this since “[n]ot even the insistence of self-preservation is fundamental: it is a social tolerance or a social imperative. When the system requires it, it cancels this instinct and people get excited about dying (for a sublime cause evidently)” (JB, FCPES 86).
Schmidt confesses to have come to see his insignificance “and thoroughgoing smallness within a grinding professional machine”. Despondent and frustrated, he wonders how he could have ever had the audacity to think he could “help change or make a difference or ever be more than a tiny faceless cog” (Oblivion 31-2). Even if one day he is promoted to the highest position in Team y, the only difference would be being in charge of “sixteen coglike Field Researchers just like Schmidt himself” (Oblivion 43). Plus, he would be futilely supervising data compression on software, which “entailed nothing more significant than adding four-color graphs and a great deal of acronym-heavy jargon designed to make a survey that any competent tenth-grader could have conducted appear sophisticated and meaningful” (Oblivion 43). Alluding to facilitators as “cogs”, an industrial-era metaphor affirms a fundamental misunderstanding as to the nature of the simulacrum where a job is itself a sign and is void of the finality intrinsic in its classic definition. The metaphor of “cog” harks back to assembly lines of industrial production era and bureaucracies that no longer exist and is anachronistic for a story set in 1995. It merely constructs the industrial-production discourse of labor struggle. In the third order of simulacrum, the hyperreality of the system has to be masked to keep the reality principle intact. Baudrillard states that the system always prefers to “reproduce itself as class society, as class struggle, it must ‘function’ at the Marxian-critical level in order the better to mask the system’s real law and the possibility of its symbolic destruction” (JB, SED 31). The collection of “dead labor” in the form of machines and knowledge has ushered in a new era of the simulacrum, which Schmidt inhabits. Cybernetics has amplified the speed of the metastatic evolution of the capital. “We know that now it is on the level of reproduction (fashion, media, publicity, information and communication networks) on the level of what Marx negligently called the nonessential sectors of capital . . . that is to say in the sphere of simulacra and of code, that the global process of capital is founded” (JB, S 99).
If labor is only productive when it produces capital, one can argue that with the accumulation of dead labor in capital and its replacement with living labor, the labor must have become unproductive – and it has become unproductive. Labor in its Marxian definition has disappeared and what Marx called the insignificant sector of service labor is prevailing now, “[t]oday all labor falls under a single definition, that bastard, archaic and unanalyzed category of service-labor, and not supposedly universal classical definition of ‘proletarian’ wage-labor” (JB, SED 17). Labor has become unproductive in the sense that it is itself now a product and has become a liberated sign of the capital, hence the term “job market”. In the era of industrial production, labor was a mode, but now it is a code (JB, SED 12) and like the structural aspect of Saussurean linguistics, it only exists in relation with other codes in the current close system. For Baudrillard, this move to codification of labor has significant implications as labor is “naturalized” into society: “Your quotidian roots are no longer savagely ripped up in order to hand you over to the machine – you, your childhood, your habits, your relationships, your unconscious drives, and even your refusal to work are integrated into it. You will easily find a place for yourself among all this, a personalized job, or, failing that, there is a welfare provision calculated to your personal needs (JB, SED 14). The narrator of “Mister Squishy” cannot say if Schmidt’s behavior is his personal characteristic or a requirement of the job. Doubts that are captured in the deep uncertainty of descriptions such as this: “[T]rained by what seemed to have turned out to be his profession to behave as though he were interacting in a lively and spontaneous way while actually remaining inwardly detached and almost clinically observant” (Oblivion 3). The difficulty to set his personal and professional behavior apart supports Baudrillard’s view. The only woman he ever dated told him that “it was thanks to me[Schmidt] that she’d discovered the difference between being penetrated and really known versus penetrated and just violated” (Oblivion 16), as he was showing the same acute and clinical attention without a morsel of passion. Skip Atwater’s assistant editor at Indianapolis Star, his first job after college, made him aware that “his fatal flaw was an ineluctably light, airy prose sensibility. He had not innate sense of tragedy” (Oblivion 269). The editor offers to call some of his contacts at USA Today, and he ultimately started working for WHAT IN THE WORLD section of Style, where he can write his fluffy pieces for the readership, “many of whom scanned the magazine in the bathroom anyway” (Oblivion 271). Such developments have a different meaning for Baudrillard who believes that “the utopia of a tailor-made job signifies that the die is cast, that the structure of absorption is total. Labor power is no longer brutally bought and sold, it is designed, marketed and turned into a commodity- production [,] re-enters the sign system of consumption” (JB, SED 14).
Although the classical era of production has ended, production will continue to reproduce itself and labor as mere signs. Schmidt may perhaps move to another company or pass retraining to fill another position if they fire him from RSBA. Labor and production have lost their finality, but they will not disappear: “You will no longer be abandoned, since it is essential that everyone be a terminal for the entire system, an insignificant terminal, but a term none the less – not an inarticulate cry, but a term of the langue and the terminus of the entire structural network of the language” (JB, SED 14). Labor has lost its classic sense, but will always exist; “the scenario of work is there to conceal the fact that the work-real, the production-real, has disappeared” (JB, SED 18). The reality principle of society has to be saved. No one will be left alone, but to be part of the internal structural law of value and exchange with others in the inner referential structural law of value.
A seismic shift has happened and Marx did not account for this. Baudrillard here uses Marx’s own phenomenology to undermine it, namely in his failure to see the power of the service labor. All stories in Oblivion Stories except “Incarnations of Burned Children” and “Philosophy and The Mirror of Nature” (the shortest stories incidentally belong to an already dead order!) have characters whose works are in the service industry and in the Marxist account of production, it is left out as a negligible section of capital. However, this is where contemporary business has thrived. “Today all labor falls under a single definition, that bastard, archaic and unanalyzed category of service-labor”, although Baudrillard differentiates the contemporary sense of service labor from the “feudal” service labor. Our situation is that of “reduction of every labor to a service, labor as pure and simple prestation of time . . . This is the tendency of every effort to ‘retotalize’ labor, making it into a total service where the prestator may be more or less absent, but increasingly personally involved” (JB, SED 17). Baudrillard compare the current state of capital with a satellite. Capital has, in ways not foreseeable by Marx, transpoliticized itself by “launch[ing] into an orbit beyond the relations of production and political contradictions, to make itself autonomous in a free-floating, ecstatic and haphazard form, and thus totalize the world in its own image” (JB, The Transparency of Evil 18).
Schmidt sees this in the process of production and pitching of Felonies! , where he cannot see the master anymore:
One idea, and one or two dozen pistons and gears already machined and set in place in various craggy heads at R.S.B. and North American’s Mister Squishy had needed only this one single spark of C12H22O11-inspired passion from an SCD whose whole inflated rep had been based on a concept equating toilet paper with clouds and helium-voiced teddy bears and all manner of things innocent of shit in some abstract Ur-consumer’s mind in order to set in movement a machine of which no one single person now . . . could be master. (Oblivion 45)
There is no master in hyperreal capital in the sense of the master in production era, and this is how capital has freed itself from its repressive connotations. Schmidt is looking for an original force of production, which does not exist anymore. What is left is “only a general machinery transforming the forces of production into capital; or, rather, a machinery which manufactures both the force of production and labor power” (JB, SED 15). Schmidt attempts to make sense of a system that has apparently lost any sense. He is looking for a hidden truth, but simulacrum is “the truth which conceals that there is none” (JB, S 1).
4.5. Simulation and Hyperreality
To discuss the hyperreal condition of simulation, we need to go through two stages. First, I will make an effort to show if the notion of “simulation” is present in the collection. Next, we will review its representations and implications.
The era of hyperreality is characterized by exhaustion of models and scenarios. Not only these models render any “real” event impossible, they also put an end to its opposite, the imaginary and illusion. Real exists as long as its opposite exists. Baudrillard cautiously suggests that if one attempts to simulate a hold-up, he will necessarily get tangled up with real elements, a police officer may shoot someone on the scene, a passerby will faint and the ransom will be handed over to you (JB, S 39).
The narrator of “Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature” kept neurotoxic recluse spiders in glass casements in his house. A boy who was fiddling around on the thin metal roof of his garage falls down. The man keeps a “simulated” glass menagerie of spiders. However, when the “real” crashes into his simulation, it becomes a tricky question for the law. Baudrillard calls this an “offensive simulation” – constituting an offense – but how can the law deal with such an offense that is not of the order of the “real”? The man did not intend to spread poisonous recluses into the urban habitat, so there is no intent behind his “offense”. However, the order of the real has to by all means reduce his simulation to reality: “The simulation of an offense, if it is patent, will either be punished more lightly (because it had no consequences) or be punished as an offense to public office . . . but never as a simulation, since it is precisely as such that no equivalence with the real is possible” (JB, S 40). The man is finally punished because of “failing to exercise due exercise of caution” (Oblivion 183), while it was the child who broke his roof and fell into his garage; moreover, it is a fact known that recluses are a widespread specimen in his region (the text does not specify it). In fact, he is by profession an exterminator of such dangerous specimens in urban habitats.
In “Mister Squishy”, an urban daredevil climbs the façade of RSBA building and attracts a growing crowd. Baudrillard points out that in hyperreality “all hold-ups, hijacks and the like are now as it were simulation hold-ups, in the sense that they are inscribed in advance in the decoding and orchestration rituals of the media, anticipated in their mode of presentation and possible consequences” (JB, S 41). The bystanders outside RSBA wonder if the climber is an urban renegade or part of a publicity stunt: “There were also no evident media vans or rigs or mobile camera at any time, which struck the savvier onlookers as further evidence that the whole things could be some sort of licensed prearranged corporate promotion or stunt or ploy” (Oblivion 41). However, police cars and medics arrive later. An onlooker steps back to a curb and hurts himself, and the medics treat him. Every stunt has already been exhausted and indexed and this reduces the possibility of a “real” event. Bystanders guess the possible explanations and some are not wrong “as everyone’s individual neocortices worked to process the visual information and to scan their memories for any things or combination of live or animated things the figure might resemble or suggest” (Oblivion 38). The threat that any stunt poses to the system of hyperreality is that it reveals the impossibility of “reality”. This stunt must not have been coordinated with the police to have the full-impact on the GRDS, and the police is already panicking as we hear them preparing for a possible shooting spree. Every attempt at an imaginary act or an illusion must be confronted to hide that there is no real, since if an illusion cannot be staged, it is opposite – reality – is impossible too.
To highlight simulation in the collection, it is necessary to see its difference with dissimulation and feigning. Baudrillard gives the example of a person who wants to feign an illness and produces the symptoms of what he does not have. He produces the outer signs of the illness and this poses a threat to “reality principle”, challenging “the difference between ‘true’ and ‘false’, between ‘real’ and ‘imaginary’. Since the simulator produces ‘true’ symptoms, is he ill or not?” (JB, S 5). This is the problematic haunting the reader and explored in “Good Old Neon”, but only in the name of self-consciousness and mental illness. We learn that the psychoanalyst, Dr. Gustafson, wants to put Neal on medication, but he does not accept this.
Nevertheless, the question remains unresolved for the reader. Neal’s fraudulence, which he defines as his constant need for attention and his subsequent sense of worthlessness of any of his achievements, raises the question; whether it is “real”, or a an obsession. This issue leads to the obsessive quality of the text in finding an answer to this question, but never doubting the legitimacy of the question and its ramifications. The question of “imaginary” versus “real” can only be resolved by the symbolic, and leads to a questioning what we call “reality”. It has now become hyperreal, and it is only in hyperreality where a questioning the real/imaginary dichotomy poses a danger to the system, as it shows “namely that, truth, reference and objective causes have ceased to exist” (JB, S 6). The law belongs to the second order of simulacra and cannot tackle the simulation of the third order within its bounds. Therefore, the army always punishes the simulator who produces the symptoms: “[M]ilitary psychologist retreats from the Cartesian clarities and hesitates to draw distinction between true and false, between ‘produced’ symptoms and the authentic symptoms. ‘If he acts crazy so well, them he must be mad.’ . . . and this lack of distinction is the worst form of subversion” (JB, S 7).
I would suggest that simulation is also central to the demented teacher narrative of “The Soul is Not a Smithy”. However, the story’s continuous reference to the self-absorption of the narrator and his nightmares of adulthood boredom is hiding a more important event, that of killing the teacher. The teacher had to be killed in the name of “madness”, while no one really believed he was going to kill the students. The reason for killing the teacher was “THE JAGGED LENGTH OF CHALK, THE BROAD ARM MOTIONS, AND THE PROXIMITY OF MR. JOHNSON’S BRIEFCASE ON THE DESK”. We are not arguing about the reference of pronoun “THEM” in Johnson’s exhortations, but about the reason for killing the teacher based on models that have exhausted the real, where every action gains bearing and significance based on models. If the teacher had harmed the kids, the story would be like any other school shooting in America. The unarmed Johnson did not make any resistance to arrest: “MR. JOHNSON HAD NOT APPEARED TO CONFRONT, RESIST, OR THREATEN THE ARMED OFFICERS WHO CAME FORCIBLY” (Oblivion 99). What “The Soul is Not a Smithy” shows is that “[s]imulation is infinitely more dangerous . . . since it always suggests, over and above its object, that law and order themselves might really be nothing more than a simulation” (JB, S 38). The incident shows the impossibility of setting the real apart from simulation today as any incident is treated “as a set of signs dedicated exclusively to their recurrence as signs , and no longer to their ‘real’ goal at all”. The police decide to kill the teacher because “order always opts for the real. In a state of uncertainty, it always prefers this assumption” (JB, S 41).
The possibility of staging illusions and simulated acts are exhausted. Now, let us go back to the issue of hyperreality of simulation that plays its game of signs under the pretext of “reality” when “[t]he very definition of reality becomes: that of which it is possible to give an equivalent reproduction”. This is parallel with the scientific grid, which claims that if a process is real, then it must be reproducible. Therefore, the real becomes “that which is always reproduced. The hyperreal” (JB, S 146). This claims can be studied if we look at the other side of the real, that of its representation in art. If the condition of hyperreality is one of ultimate form of representation of models, then art (as a form of representation) has to saturate into this new reality, which is in its definition a simulated representation of tried models.
The ending of “Oblivion” is quite eliminating in this regard. The story portrayed the marital struggles of the couple due to Randall’s snoring. The sleep clinic result shows that although Randall had been in fact snoring, but Hope was also in a state of deep sleep and could not have possibly heard her husband in such state. By now, the reader is in a deadlock. Then, we read a scene where Randal says he “imagines” seeing the sleep clinic staff are peeling off their faces’ skin. Simultaneously and on a monitor that is showing images of the sleeping couple, Randal “actually watched or literally ‘witnessed’ one sleeping eyelid open just a crack” (Oblivion 237). I said he “imagined” all this because the text has constantly reiterated that the sleep deprivation causes Randall to have hallucination during the day and the reader still may stretch her/his imagination and accept such description as one of his bouts of delirium. Up to this point, we could say that the story surreal. “Surrealism is still solidary with the realism it contests, but augments its intensity by setting it off against the imaginary” (JB, S 142). However, the story continues and creates another distancing layer. There is a hallucinatory dialogue (see page 15) where Hope wakes up and tells Randall that she was having a nightmare, doubting if she is married and who he is. Randal tries to soothe her but she says, “None of this is real” (Oblivion 237). Before these two final scenes (skin peeling and Hope’s awakening), the story is surreal with a psychedelic quality as if hovering between reality and dream. The reader can still associate it with Randall’s delirious feats during the day, which he has confessed to the family therapist. However, the awakening scene shakes the structure of the story. Let us look at the story as a mimetic act of representation.
In Baudrillard’s idea, the new novel captures the quality of hyperreality in its being “the blind relay station of the look which sweeps over” (JB, S 143). The text captures all minute details with singular acuity. However, for Baudrillard, this objective look at the world is a path which contemporary novel takes: “To exist from the crisis of representation, you have to lock the real up in pure repetition . . . The project is already there to empty out the real, extirpate all psychology, all subjectivity, to move the real back to pure objectivity. In fact this objectivity is only that of the pure look” (JB, S 142-3). Greg Carlisle studies the story from a psychoanalytic perspective and looks for textual evidence to show that the story is in fact a dream of Hope who is being abused by her father-in-law. However, she is now dreaming of a future husband who can save him. Carlisle finally doubts this interpretation in its failure to account for this statement by the other person in bed: “When are you going to make that appointment?” (Oblivion 237). This does not sound like a call for help from an abusing father who had gotten his daughter to play the role of “wife” at nights, according to Carlisle. I would suggest taking the story at face value and seeing it at the two-stage construction that I mentioned before. What the reader (and Carlisle) are struggling is best put by Baudrillard: “The unreal is no longer that of dream or of fantasy, of a beyond or a within, it is that of a hallucinatory resemblance with the real with itself”. Building the argument on the premise that this collection is a mimetic representation of the spirit of its age and locale, we might claim that the ending shows the state of hyperreal where the “contradiction between real and the imaginary is effaced” (JB, S 142). Therefore, art whose prerequisite was its distance from the “real” and its pleasure consisted of “discovering the ‘natural’ in what was artificial and counterfeit” crashes into the third-order simulacrum, where any sign become commutable (JB, S 150).
In a hyperreality based on models, art loses its classic sense. It enters the structural floatation of free signs and is being reproduced for only this reason. Allan Britton (RSBA’s president) is surprised by an unknown man in the sauna who “found all these modern youth-targeted ads utilizing jagged guitar riffs and epithets like dude and the whole ideology of rebellion-via-consumption so fascinating . . . he found himself disinterestedly analyzing the ads’ strategies and pitches and appreciating them more like pieces of art or fine pastry” (Oblivion 60). Neal looks at a generic copy of a Goya’s painting at Dr. Gustafson’s office and guesses it is only hung there for the patients to have an excuse to avoid direct staring at the doctor. Britton talks about advertising campaigns “Narratives” which shape stories around products : “[T]he concept of making some new product’s actual marketers’ strategies part of that product’s essential Story – as in the historic examples that Chicago’s own Keebler Inc.’s hard confections were manufactured by elves in a hollow tree, or were cultivated by an actual giant in his eponymous Valley” (Oblivion 60). In “The Suffering Channel”, Skip had written an article about a station called “All Ads All Times Channel”. While staying overnight at a motel, he watches the station trying to figure out “which ads in the loops were paid spots and which were aesthetic objects, and regarded them accordingly, sometimes zapping out the paid ads altogether” (Oblivion 289). The digitality of the simulacrum wears away the finality of art, and volatilizes it into a mere sign, “so art is everywhere, since artifice is at the very heart of reality” (JB, S 151).
5. Symbolic Exchangeability of Death
The stories in this section are the lengthiest in the Oblivion Stories. While they belong to the contemporary world, the logic of symbolic and bellicose gift exchange still haunts them and can re-fashion a hidden regime in our understanding of these stories with help from other events in the collection. The stories of terror open and close the collection. While they are left unexplained wholly (or partly), Baudrillard can help re-arrange their pieces. By now, we have covered all the necessary theoretical backgrounds on Baudrillard through various aspects of the story. Therefore, in this chapter the whole toolbox of Baudrillard is applied to the text.
5.1. “Mister Squishy”
In “Mister Squishy”, we read that Schmidt joined the advertising industry after the real events of Tylenol poisoning (1982), where painkillers were replaced with cyanide. Johnson & Johnson TM , the owner of Tylenol brand, staged a huge product recall and refund. The company even paid “an added sum for the gas and mileage or US postage involved in the return, writing off tens of millions in returns and operational costs” (Oblivion 29). This immediate response inspired Schmidt to choose a career in advertising to bring change to society, both on a personal and professional level. In his personal life, he once tried to help the kids with “no significant male mentors”, which left him in despair after the kids stood him up at a mall. He must be a lonely person as he questions the possibility of real human communication, except in marriage, “meaning not just a ceremony and financial merger but a true communion of souls” (Oblivion 32). He has an utterly insipid private life and a secret desire for a married colleague, a facilitator named Darlene Lilley. He has made a secret shrine for her at his house and keeps a picture of her on his computer desktop. He talks about his sexual fantasies with Darlene in conference rooms of RSBA but “[t]he fantasy would of course have been exponentially better if it were Darlene Lilley who gasped Thank you, thank you in rhythm to the damp lisping slapping sounds, as Schmidt was well aware of this, and of his apparent inability to enforce his preferences even in fantasy. It made him wonder if he even had what convention called a Free Will. At all, deep down” (Oblivion 55).
As discussed in the chapter on “Dead Labor” (4.4), Schmidt works in the advertising industry that does not hold up to the classical definition of labor either. However, Schmidt’s narrative of his job is a strong Marxist critique of the industry. He sees himself as a small cog who dreams to a big cog, but he does not have the character “horsepower” to join the top-management level. Therefore, the narrative of “alienated worker” is constructed. The issue here is that Schmidt’s sudden murderous plot hinges on the outdated industrial-production era metaphor. Moreover, the text constructs the commonplace narrative of the lonely sociopath and the homicidal psychopath who crosses the line to violence and aggression. It culminates in a scene where he is shaving one morning and sees Mr. Squishy icon in his face and “he stopped – Schmidt did – and would look at his face and at the faint lines and pouches that seemed to grow a little more pronounced each quarter and could call himself, directly to his mirrored face, Mister Squishy, the name would come unbidden into his mind” (Oblivion 33). The text accomplishes to show him as a mad man now whose character is split. This narrative has also its parallel in Marx’s account of the alienation of labor (character masks) from its “self”. His psychotic “character mask” grotesquely manifests itself in his self-identification with Mister Squishy icon. The capital literally alters his character. Besides, in his account of his sexual fantasies, he has already questioned Free Will too. Now, he makes his murderous scheme known; that if one cannot make some sort of real impact on an industry that you’d fantasized over and over about finally deciding that making a dark difference with a hypo and eight cc’s of castor bean distillate [a fatal poison] was better, was somehow more true to your own inner centrality and importance, than being nothing but a faceless cog and doing a job that untold thousands of other bright young men could do at least as well as you. (Oblivion 31-32)
He dreams to encourage companies to be honest with their customers in their advertisement, just as the customer care of Johnson and Johnson TM was a costly campaign, but garnering the customers’ trust and being a force for good would ultimately compensate heftily. Baudrillard states, “all that capital asks of us is to receive it as rational or to combat it in the name of morality” (JB, S 28), and Schmidt wanted to play within the rules of the game, but he could not succeed. In other words, “it is ‘enlightened’ thought which seeks to control capital by imposing rules on it” (JB, S 29). A principle of “honesty” that results in more profit is the ideal of Schmidt – who is still in the aura of capital. However, “capital in fact has never been linked by a contract to the society it dominates. It is sorcery of the social relation, it is a challenge to the society and should be responded to as such. It is not a scandal to be denounced according to moral and economic rationality, but a challenge to take up according to symbolic law” (JB, S 30). The text uses the same cold descriptive language to elaborate the process by which Schmidt is going to culture and extract Botulinus, a fatal toxin that he plans to inject randomly into Felonies! snacks. He is an educated insider of the industry and his plot will be the perfect blow to the industry. “Botulinus had also the advantage of directing attention to defects in manufacturing and/or packaging rather than product tampering, which would of course heighten the overall industry impact” (Oblivion 58). Although Johnson & Johnson TM could make its products tamper-proof, such measure is impossible due to the profit margin of snack industry and would “push the products out so far right on the demand curve that the mass-market snacks would become economically and emotionally untenable, corporate soft confections going thus they way of hitchhiking, unsupervised trick-or-treating, door-to-door sales, &c” (Oblivion 31).
The text attempts to make sense of the terror, which Schmidt is going to inflict by using psychoanalysis and his supposed loss of Free Will in the mirror scene. It attempts to fill the gap between two things: his newly acquired understanding of the futility of his job and life and the response of bringing death into play. Baudrillard would suggest that he has merely come to understand that he is completely surrounded by the hyperreal as he rebels against the domination of an invisible master, or as the text put it, “a machine of which no one single person now . . . could be master” (Oblivion 45).
Schmidt’s character is shaped by the system of education which is a corollary of the system – “the academic system whose alleged autonomy enables it to reproduce the class structure of society very efficiently” (JB, SED 31) – but he has come to see the emptiness behind the data and the reality it tries to construct. Perhaps his wish for honesty is still what he feels is needed in the system, but that cannot account for murderous conspiracy even by the standards of the system, and this is where psychoanalysis enters and helps explain his transition to psychosis in the mirror scene. His ego is brought into play by ascribing the desire to bring change to feel empowered. However, he is in fact rebelling against the domination of the invisible master by giving it back for the first time: “The power of the master is not one of bringing death, but deferring death. By exclusion of death, the master removes labor from the symbolic and it is by giving back death to the system that labor goes full circle and gains the upper hand.” (JB, SED 39). Schmidt plans to bring the industry down by giving back to the system the irreversible “gift” of death, and this constitutes a symbolic challenge – a form of potlatch.
Labor as an agent who does work for a master prefigures in the archaic prisoner of war who was put to death, but later “is spared and conserved, under the category of spoils of war and a prestige good: he becomes a slave and passes into sumptuary domesticity”. Therefore, it is in being denied of an honorable death that the labor is freed to live a slow death. “Labor is opposed as a slow death to a violent death. That is the symbolic reality. Labor is opposed as deferred death to the immediate death of sacrifice” (JB, SED 39), says Baudrillard. Necessarily, the power of master is in suspending death of the labor, of not putting them to death, but even giving them a second lease on a life. Labor does not have the power to give his life. “The holocaust created an anticipatory form of such a condition. What the inmates of the concentration camps were deprived of was the very possibility of having control of their own death, of playing, even gambling with their own deaths, making their deaths a sacrifice: they were robbed of power over their own deaths” (JB, America 43). With capital being the only giver in this relationship, the powerlessness of the labor is in his inability to give back for his new lease on life. Not only he is denied of an honorable death, he is also given a wage for it: “The slide from the symbolic into the economic allows the definitive hegemony of political force over society to be secured”. With the underlying structure always being the symbolic exchange, capital creates the most hegemonic system where the labor’s act of “taking” (wage) from the capital is actually fueling the system of capital as “it diverts the process of redemption into its own infinite reproduction” (JB, SED 42). An omnipresent capital orbiting the earth in the age of hyperreality is a perfected form of this domination. However, the challenge Schmidt poses to the capital is a symbolic one despite the narrative of his alienation (the cog metaphor) in terms of labor struggle. The system always prefers to “reproduce itself as class society, as class struggle, it must ‘function’ at the Marxian-critical level in order the better to mask the system’s real law and the possibility of its symbolic destruction” (JB, SED 31). It has always been the hyperreal capital that has bestowed him a job and a wage. He has been dominated by power, being always on the receiving end and now wants to give back a “gift” for the first time to the unseen master. This untraceable poisonous “gift” is comparable in its irreversibility to what Baldwin, in his “symbolic” interpretation of the first Gulf War, called “unilateral gift of the smart bomb” (Baldwin), a gift which could not be reciprocated by the other side. In the micro system of the snack industry, Schmidt must have come to know that the system’s “domination comes from the system’s retention of the exclusivity of the gift without counter gift” (JB, SED 36). This is the unilateral gift that the snack industry cannot return nor escape from its redemption because “everything has a compensation, not in the contractual sense, but in the sense that the process of exchange is unavoidably reversible” (JB, SED 49). Schmidt’s fatal scheme is thus to pay back with the ultimate form of redemption, to give death to the system, a gift which according to the symbolic law of exchange the system has to repay and can only pay in equal by its own death. He foresees its fall with the flawless scheme, in the sense of its untraceability and the overall impact to “push the products out so far right on the demand curve that mass-market snacks would become economically and emotionally untenable” (Oblivion 31). According to the laws of symbolic exchange, it is the giver who gains power by his gift and every gift has to be reciprocated. “Defy the system by a gift to which is cannot respond except by its own death and its own collapse” (JB, SED 37). This is what Baudrillard calls “the spirit of terrorism”, in its refusal to counter the system on the level of reality and fighting it on the level of the symbolic. This would be the basis of his interpretation of 9-11 attacks, a tragedy not directly mentioned in “The Suffering Channel”, but only lends a somber and tragic note to the text.
5.2. “The Suffering Channel”
This story narrates the efforts of a reporter for Style magazine, Skip Atwater, to write a piece on Brint Moltke who can control his bowel movements to produce statues of famous works of art. Skip is a professional journalist, but seems to have taken “the whole strange thing more to heart than was normal in such a consummate pro” (Oblivion 242). Once the magazine’s associate director accepts to run the story, the characters engage in brainstorming and conversations around the subject to find a proper angle to present the story. Style’s editor tells Atwater in the opening lines that “Skip, this is the point: people do not want to look at shit” (Oblivion 292).Ironically, this constitutes most of the length of the story plus detailed discussions about other bodily functions. For example, when Style’s young and competitive female interns – who still have the “vaguely outraged facial expressions of adolescence” (Oblivion 261) – meet to have their weekly Monday lunch, the news of the feces artist gives rise to an exchange of opinions and anecdotes ranging from belching and burping to passing gas and defecation habits while cohabiting with a man. Toilet training traumas and different positions of toilet holes around Europe take long paragraphs. An intern recites part of Jonathan Swift’s satiric “The Lady’s Dressing Room”. The poem is about a man’s experience of finding out that his lover also defecates after he sneaks to her dressing room. Another intern surprises everyone by asking if they also “have this thing where you think of your shit as sort of like your baby and sometimes want to hold it and talk to it and almost cry or feel guilty about flushing it” (Oblivion 267). However, the story is far from potty humor (and closer to black humor) as characters are struggling to find a way to present this story to the reader.
The artist keeps his creations in “glass cases in the unattached storm cellar out back” his house and snapshots of them are kept in a leather album (Oblivion 254). Skip is portrayed as an anal-retentive type. The text points to his fastidious habits and his tic of moving his fists up and down, which we finally learn he started first during potty training. Both Skip and the artist are said to have been harshly punished as children. Skip’s mother was a religiose Midwestern who “did not spareth the rod”, in fact she would make him “go and cut from the fields’ edge’s copse the very switch with which she’d whip him” (Oblivion 250). Brint’s mother punished him by electric cords and burning cigarettes. While visiting the artist and his wife, Skip gets into a liaison with the obese wife of the artist, Amber Moltke, in the car while driving out in the countryside. It leaves “the driver’s side door bowed dramatically out from inside as if from some horrific series of impacts” (Oblivion 290). He sees the figure of his own obese mother in Amber. Laurel Manderley, Skip’s intern, starts suffering from nightmares after seeing pictures of the waste statues while Skip’s nightmares remind him of the similarities of his oedipal affair with Amber.
Style magazine’s parent company is Eckleschnafft-Böd Medien that is considering a merger with AOL Time Warner, which is in turn going to acquire a start-up station called the “Suffering Channel” (Oblivion 270), a reality television broadcaster that is going to air pictures of real-life human sufferings. It belongs to a reality television entrepreneur named R. Vaughn Corliss. In an article that Skip had written about him after he had started the 24 hour All Ads All the Time Cable (AAATC) channel, Vaughn’s attitude towards life was summed up as self-envy, “which appears near the top of certain Maslovian fulfillment pyramids as a rare and culturally specific form of joy” (Oblivion 272-3). The morbid entrepreneur’s strategy to fight insomnia is to watch images of people burning to death. Vaughn’s other ideas are to one day show famous people defecating on TV, celebrities ranging from Oprah to the Pope with a wish list of thirty celebrities enumerated in the story. He is one of the pioneers of reality television and wants to “absorb celebrities into the matrix of exposure and violence that is Reality” (Oblivion 295). Incorporating the ideas of McLuhan into his theory of hyperreality, Baudrillard asserts in Simulations that not only the medium is the message but the medium has become “diffuse and diffracted in the real, so it can no longer even be said that the latter is distorted by it” (JB, S 54). This specially stands out in the case of reality television. After much consideration, Style decides to have the artist on the Suffering Channel and later run an article on him, so they create the illusion that they are covering an already developing story. The Suffering Channel launches with three “tableaux vivant” (Oblivion 327) – an oxymoronic metaphor that shows this blurring line between the real and the medium as this old form lends its name to the new hyperreality of Reality Television. “Motion picture” no longer captures the nature of the metastatically evolved television. Baudrillard maintains that the discourse around simulation and hyperreality should not be taken as if he is talking about a disease that has infected us. Rather, the media has become like a satellite “in outer orbit, a sort of genetic code which controls the mutation of the real into the hyperreal” (JB, S 55). The artist’s wife wants her husband to become famous, even if it is for his waste: “Because this is the whole hook, Skip, isn’t it. Why you’re here in the first place. That it’s his shit” (Oblivion 280). Amber wants to make a leap and give the reality of her husband’s art to the world through the medium. The matter is no longer of the traditional questions of right and wrong, but the medium volatilizes the issue to a degree that it supersedes such concerns. In this case, the hook would be a question of the sufferings of Brint and having been through hell in his life; his shyness causes the suffering and a reason for him to appear on the Suffering Channel.
The artist is going on the air “on 4 July, ten weeks ahead of schedule” (Oblivion 327). While the characters are playing their parts in Style magazine – which only covers “the very most demotic kind of human interest” (Oblivion 296) –, fighting their office politics and rushing to meet the deadline, we learn that the magazine is headquartered in the World Trade Center. The story twice hints at 9-11 and depends on dramatic irony for relaying this looming terror. First, and even before we know the date and place of the action, we read that Skip’s intern is going to survive a future tragedy which would put Style in history. The second time is at the end of two of Style interns’ conversation in a gym on the ground floor of the WTC south tower. The narrator abruptly cuts through the story with a curt aside: “She had ten weeks to live” (Oblivion 326). Almost by the end of the story, the reader would have gleaned from that the magazine’s summer issue will come out on September 10, 2001 and the story is taking place between 1-4 July. Style’s “executive offices [are] on the 82nd floor” (Oblivion 261) of the southern WTC. The text does not tell us this piece of information, but we know that the second plane hit the south tower between 78 and 84 floor and everyone on those floors was killed upon impact.
9-11 events only hover on the story’s margins. In Nature’s Nightmare (2013), Greg Carlisle does not talk about any symbolic sense of this story, never discussing whether it is a pointed social satire. I could not find any mention of this aspect in many other book reviews of the collection on the internet either. A second sign that would support the deprecatory undercurrent of the story is that the Style‘s staff are thinking of having the feces artist to produce a rendition of “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima” photograph, but later they shelve the idea. Similarly, the image also appears at the end of “The Soul is Not a Smithy”, when we get a description of the classroom objects after we learn that the teacher was shot dead. That story’s final sentence points to the “papier mâché bulwark of Iowa Jima” in the classroom (Oblivion 113). I think that its flimsiness is of importance. Hence, “The Suffering Channel” might be seen as a dark satire of society by using the metaphorical human waste to shake the readers to overcome their self-centeredness and “get real”. The same message is in Swift’s “Lady’s Dressing Room” and addressed to the lover and the society to accept women as equal human beings. One could argue that the text’s predilection to detailed description of immediate surroundings might be an effort to imitate the self-centered quality of its character and the society in general. Using the metaphor of “human waste” to criticize the society in not without precedent in recent memory. Harry Frankfurt, a former philosophy professor at Princeton University, published a famous essay titled “On Bullshit” (1986) in the prestigious Raritan Quarterly Review, where he humorously criticizes society from the same angle: “One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit”. Similar to this story, Frankfurt goes into the etymological details and everyday use of the word and sets to show how “jiving” is exponentially more dangerous by the virtue of its incognizance “to the authority of truth” (Frankfurt).
Despite these arguments, one cannot reasonably claim that Carlisle avoids the symbolic aspect of the story purposefully since the text also runs through its recurring list of themes as other stories; herd versus individual, natural self-centeredness versus need to express, boredom, (self-)consciousness. O Verliy Production’s (owner of the Suffering Channel) motto is “CONSCIOUSNESS IS NATURE’S NIGHTMARE” (Oblivion 282). Amber wants her husband to be known for his art, “[t]o somehow stand out. To distinguish themselves from the great huge faceless mass of folks” (Oblivion 283). The issue of attention to self and the world is given center stage by Skip. He calls “the conflict between the subjective centrality of our own lives versus our awareness of its objective insignificance . . . the single great informing conflict of the American psyche. The management of insignificance . . . it was everywhere, at the root of everything – of impatience in long lines, of cheating on taxes, of movements in fashion and music and are, of marketing” (Oblivion 284). Like a number of other authors, Wallace may have wished to keep the memory of 9-11 alive in this story, but using his own brand of black humor to show that the day-to-day sufferings, boredoms, and banality of life are insignificant and incomparable to the real suffering that would take place on 9-11. These hypotheses may be true or not and the task at hand is not deciphering intentions of the author.
The text tells us that the artist’s creations were first spotted at basic training “in the US Army, in which Moltke later saw action in Kuwait as part of a maintenance crew in Operation Desert Storm” (Oblivion 256). I would like to segue this to Baudrillard’s view about the Gulf War. For him, the war had all the paraphernalia of a simulated vision of hyperreality, so in fact it could not have taken place in “reality” but was like a video game. This turned into the title of his controversial essay “The Gulf War Did Not Take Place” (1991).
A juxtaposition of this story with the opening story of the collection, which also dealt with (domestic) terrorism, would reveal an important difference. While “Mister Squishy” could enter the mind of Schmidt and unravel the roots of his homicidal conspiracy (at least psychoanalytically if not “Symbolic”-ally), this story does not venture to do so. 9-11 was an incident that changed the world, but is marginal and at the same time haunting the story and reader. An effort would be made to elaborate it from Baudrillard’s worldview, instead of excluding it and let it merely hover around the story.
Baudrillard believes that no real event took place in the 1990’s. However, 9-11 was “the absolute event, the ‘mother’ of all events, the pure event uniting within itself all the events that have never taken place” (JB, Spirit of Terrorism [ST] 4). WTCs were more than mere architectural monuments for Baudrillard. In Simulations (1983), he called them the exemplary monuments of the hyperreal condition. The events of 9-11 are larger than the actual collapse of the buildings. They constituted a symbolic attack and have to be treated as such. The symbolic is left out of this text, but can account for the horror poising ominously around the events of the story. In his post 9-11 essay, collected under the title of Spirit of Terrorism, Baudrillardstirred controversy by the provocative claim that people harbor the secret wish to see the collapse of any hegemony. His views on terror are informed by his prior theories. Without an understanding of symbolic exchange and reciprocal gift-exchange, they would not make little sense to the reader. Let us explore what he means by this “secret wish” in more details.
Baudrillard believes the following:
All these institutions, all these social, economic, political and psychological mediations, are there so that no-one ever has the opportunity to issue this symbolic challenge, this challenge to the death, the irreversible gift which, like the absolute mortification of the ascetic, brings about a victory over all power, however powerful its authority may be. It is no longer necessary that the possibility of this direct symbolic confrontation ever takes place. (JB, SED 38)
In Oblivion Stories, “Another Pioneer”’s primitive tribesmen are the only characters that are not analyzed in terms of their psychology and unconscious thoughts. They are also the only ones who could, and did, issue a symbolic challenge. It is because they existed in a time when conscious/unconscious, real/imaginary, life/death had not been “invented” yet?
What is clear is that the primitive tribe of “Another Pioneer” had none of the “social, economic, political and psychological mediations” to stop the challenge of symbolic exchange. The “precocious” child pioneer was going to develop these social entities as read of his effort to establish an economy. His ascension to power entailed the emergence of a caste of councilors who phrased precise questions for the villagers so they get the best result out of the only one question they could get to ask from him monthly. This would have been the birth of service industry. Moreover, his post-catatonic attitude resulted in the emergence of a new caste who would soothe the doubts he had cast on their beliefs and this would have been their equivalent of psychoanalysis if the child had continued his reign over the social life. Baudrillard believes that these institutions prevent the symbolic challenge and result in “boredom”:
This is the source of our boredom. This is why taking hostages and other similar acts rekindle some fascination: they are at once an exorbitant mirror for the system of its own repressive violence, and the model of a symbolic violence which is always forbidden it, the only violence it cannot exert: its own death. (JB, SED 38)
The “fascination” with the symbolic challenge is apparent in other stories. In “Mister Squishy”, bystanders are watching the urban daredevil and suddenly have a “brief group-exaltation from the sidewalk’s crowd as the figure now snapped its hood head back . . . A couple young in the crowd cried up at the eight floor for the figure to jump . . . [cars] slow down or even pull over to see if there’d been a death or an arrest” (Oblivion 34, 39). In the opening pages of “The Soul is Not a Smithy”, the adult-narrator is looking back on major events in his life and alludes to his fascination with the hostage event: “Only much later would I understand that the incident at the chalkboard in Civics was likely to be the most dramatic and exciting event I would ever be involved in my life” (Oblivion 69). To recap, the wish for the end of any hegemony is the fascination with the symbolic challenge to power.
Hegemony is gained by the accumulation of wealth and power, but for Baudrillard the underlying structure is always the symbolic in which “the very possibility of isolating a segment of exchange, one side of the exchange, is unthinkable that everything has a compensation . . . in the sense that the process of exchange is unavoidably reversible” (JB, SED 49). Jon Baldwin believes, “The fact that this strategic sentiment – ‘Defy the system by a gift to which it cannot respond except by its own death and its own collapse’ – is repeated virtually word for word twenty-five years later (in relation to terrorism) reveals the prevalence and consistency of this aspect of Baudrillard”. Perhaps Baudrillard can better describe his own reading of terror: “Terrorism is immoral. The World Trade Center event, that symbolic challenge, is immoral, and it is a response to a globalization, which is itself immoral. So let us be immoral; and if we want to have some understanding of all this, let us go and take a little look beyond Good and Evil” (JB, ST 13). Every hegemony and form of power has to be reciprocated. Similar to the sacrificial child of “Another Pioneer”, no relation of power can escape the primordial laws of the symbolic. Today, power lies with globalized capital and its incessant dispersal of gifts in an extravagant potlatch (JB, ST 12). Baudrillard believes ascribing any ideology to symbolic terror is the way that power deters the deeper question of the hyperreality of the system. On the level of the “real”, discourse and dialectics of good and evil rule; plus, such discourses inject scenarios of the real and thus reify the “reality principle” of the social. Ideologies aimed to change the world, but Baudrillard believes these terrorists had no plans to change anything for the better (JB, ST 24-25), “The aim is to longer even to transform the world, but (as the heresies did in their day) to radicalize the world by sacrifice”. Those terrorists were not poor and deprived slaves of the system and this is the source of surprise because they had all the financial and technological resources at their hands (JB, ST 19-20). This brand of terrorism is a reaction to humiliation “[a]nd it is to humiliation that the terrorism of September 11 was a response: one of humiliation for another” (JB, ST 99). With the progress from the symbolic exchange to economic exchange, there is less and less chance for symbolic redemption of gift. The hyperreality of the global has finally erased the possibility of any counter-gift on the plane of the real. Terror attacks “shift the struggle to the symbolic sphere, where the rule is that of challenge, reversion and outbidding. So that death can be met only by equal or greater death” (JB, ST 17). If one accepts this perspective, then the terrorists did not constitute the Other but were in a reciprocal relation with globalization and that is why Baudrillard labeled the event as the “triumphant globalization battling against itself” (JB, ST 10). Terrorism has been present in the contemporary memory, but always a banal player who could never radicalize the globe but these ones used all the modern trappings of globalized world and struck the symbols of the hyperreal global capital. They ignited a symbolic violence and a singular event.
Baudrillard belongs to the post-structuralist movement and this thesis was written in consistency with that tradition, which finds its root in De Saussure’s emphasis on the arbitrary nature of any signifier to its signified. In turn, post-structuralism opposes the grand narratives and binaries of structuralism and acknowledges the linguistic texture of reality. Roland Barthes movement from the structuralist school to post-structuralism is manifest in his pronouncement of the “death of author” which gives the reader a new freedom. This became the foundation of this thesis in its claim of reinstating the reality of Wallace’s short s Oblivion Stories and to move beyond the conscious ideas and ideals of the text.
The ending of “Oblivion” highlights the dichotomy of imaginary/real. For Baudrillard this opposition, along with life/death, are the foundations and breeding grounds of powers, namely religion and capital. He deconstructs these binaries with the archaic order of symbolic exchange of gift, where these oppositions lose their meaning as they are all integrated into a relentless cycle of gift exchanges. The ending of “Another Pioneer” helped see this logic at work, when the child-oracle of the story consents to blazing flames and ultimate death at he stake. His accumulation of prestigious power was tipping the balance of exchange and only his death could have brought back the equilibrium. No one is exempt from the cycle of symbolic exchange, which creates hierarchies and ensures a continuous social life. An effort was made to reveal the application of contemporary modes of thought and capitalist grid to reconstruct the story of the primitive tribe.
With the passage from a social life built around excessive gift exchanges and the removal of death from this cycle, the concept of eternity is borne. In parts of “The Soul is Not a Smithy”, religion was shown to be keeping a watchful eye on the passage from life and death. “Good Old Neon” helped seeing that with the rising power of capital, its infinity of surplus passes to the infinity of every second of life. However, the textuality of these realities was emphasized when we looked at “Incarnations of Burned Children” and its short length. The child could not shout the “first name of his god” nor could he be accused of oblivion to his Free Will, as Neal was.
Baudrillard describes the contemporary reality as a simulacrum of the third order, where signs exchange among each other and with no reference to the real. The signs of fashion, media, and advertising are the lightest sings with maximum exchangeability. With the encroachment of the free sign, the body becomes a site of sign exchange and the mother-character of “Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature” has become a prey to these signs. The plight of her son became a question of simulation and the question of “reality vs. appearance” that the text foregrounded was undermined. In the current state of simulacrum, models supersede reality. The question of simulation also manifested itself in the hunting problematic of Neal’s fraudulence paradox and the murder of the teacher in “The Soul is Not a Smithy”. Therefore, while the conscious text directs our attention to the issue of Free Will (of Neal) and the psychosis of the teacher, we came to observe the deeper question of simulation based on exhausted models.
Digitality allows us to break down reality to models and scenarios. This new reality was prominent in “Mister Squishy”, where we saw how the snack cake is no longer only a food, but an object of consumption that has to be decoded by its buyer as it is answering back to her/his desires. The return of the primitive tribe of “Another Pioneer” to nature allowed us to examine the conceptions of needs and see how psychoanalysis and economy have come together to define the subject in the object and vice versa. Thus, “The Suffering Channel” revealed its basic grappling with the question of desire and need.
In the third order simulacrum, labor is stripped of its classic meaning as Schmidt fails to see any master at work in the advertising industry. In fact, labor becomes a sign in a system where everyone must be a terminal. This heralds the era of “tailor-made job” that Schmidt and Skip Atwater occupied. The metaphor of “cog” was shown to be anachronistic to the present condition, but integral to systems of power that always prefer the dialectics of class struggle to hide that “dead labor” has won over and jobs are reproduced to save the reality principle of society.
The last chapter was largely dedicated to the opening and closing stories of the collection. They both share the element of mass murder. Schmidt’s plan to kill random consumer constitutes “domestic terrorism” and “The Suffering Channel” is circumvented by the terror of 9-11. Baudrillard’s genealogy of labor helped seeing Schmidt’s poisoning plot in terms of reciprocation of the symbolic order. This allowed us to see beyond the narrative of sociopath and the alienated labor, to look at his plot in the larger scheme of a symbolic challenge of death, which the industry had to redeem by its own collapse. In “The Suffering Channel”, reality television was shown to volatize reality into hyperreality, where the classical values lose their meaning and even human waste becomes a sign among signs. The story uses the image of human waste to satirize society’s self-consciousness and lack of attention to the periphery. A periphery that is the looming terror of the 9-11 and only the reader is privy to. Following Baudrillard’s social logic of the symbolic exchange, this peripheral incident of the story was given center stage. Ultimately, 9-11 terror attacks were discussed in terms of a symbolic challenge in the grand potlatch of globalization.
About the Author
Syedhamed Tayebi is a student at Karl-Franzens-Universität Graz.
The author thanks his thesis adviser Professor Roberta Maierhofer for her invaluable input, guidance, and patience. Her course on postmodern American fiction sparked a lasting interest and passion. Thanks to Dr. Nancy Campbell for her continuous support. Sincere appreciation for the learning opportunities provided by the Joint Degree Program in University of Graz and Université Paris VII.Finally, I thank my loving family for their support.
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It should be noted that Baudrillard does not ascribe the same velocity and scope of exchange that signs of fashion and advertising enjoy to politics. For him, media and fashion constitute the “light” signs but “in the sphere of ‘heavy’ signs – politics, morals, economics, science, culture, sexuality the principle of commutation nowhere plays with the same abandon” (JB, SED 87).