Reinstating Reality: David Foster Wallace's Short Stories



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6. Conclusion


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 the 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.

7. Bibliography


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Berry, Peter. Beginning Theory. 2nd ed. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2002. Print.

Carlisle, Greg. Nature's Nightmare: Analyzing David Foster Wallace’s Oblivion. Los Angeles: SSMS Press, 2013. Kindle.

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De Saussure, Ferdinand. Course in General Linguistics. Ed. Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye. New York: Philosophical Library, 1959. Print.

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Mason, Wyatt. Don’t like it? You Don’t Have to Play. Vols. 26, No.22. London Review of Books, 18 Nov. 2004. Web. 5 Aug. 2014.

Mauss, Marcel. The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies. Trans. Ian Cunnison. London: Cohen & West Ltd., 1966. Web. 6 Aug. 2014.

Veseth, Michael A. Political Economy—Encyclopedia Britannica. 3 Mar. 2014. Web. 4 Aug. 2014.

Wallace, David Foster. An Interview with David Foster Wallace. By Larry McCaffery. The Review of Contemporary Fiction, 22 June 1993. 127-150.

—. "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction." The Review of Contemporary Fiction. 22 June 1993: 151-194. Print.

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Wordsworth, William. "Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey." The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. M. H. Abrams and Stephen Greenbalt. 7th ed. NY: Norton, 2001. Print.

1 More in online Canadian Encyclopedia on Potlatch bans.

2 More on page 78.

3 See 4.3 on the creation of “need”.

4 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.”[Bau95]

5 See page 20.

6 See page 15.

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