Reinstating Reality: David Foster Wallace's Short Stories

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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”[Wal04]. 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”[Wal04]. 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”[Wal04].

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”[Wal04]. 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.[Wal04]

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”[Bau83], 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”[Bau83]. 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”[Bau83]. 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”[Wal04]. 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”[Wal04].

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”[Wal04].

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”[Bau95] – 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.”[Bau95]. 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”[Bau95], 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”[Bau88]. 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”[Bau95]. 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”[Bal12], 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”[Bau95]. 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”[Bau95]. 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”[Wal04]. 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”[Bau95]. 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.
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