Reinstating Reality: David Foster Wallace's Short Stories



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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.[Wal04]. Dr. Sipe had worked in “‘Demographic Medicine’, which involved his evidently not ever once, during his entire career, physically touching a patient”[Wal04]. 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”[Wal04]. 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”[Wal04]. 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”[Wal04]. 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”[Wal04]. 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”[Wal04], 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.[Wal04]

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”[Wal04]. 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”[Wal04]. 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” [Wal04]. 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]“[Wal04].

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”[Wal04]. 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”[Wal04]. 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”[Wal04]. 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”[Wal04].

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”[Wal04] 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”[Wal04]. 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”[Wal04]. 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”[Wal04].

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.[Wal04]

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” [Mas04].

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”[Bau95], 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 [Wal04]. 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”[Wal04]. 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”[Wal04]. 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”[Wal04]. 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[Wal04]. 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”[Wal04]. 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”[Wal04]. 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”[Wal04].

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”[Wal04].

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 [Wal04]. Upon waking from this state, it soon becomes apparent that the child has gone through a “ghastly transformation”[Wal04]. 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”[Wal04], 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?’”[Wal04]. The child asks the tribesmen if “in the absence of any normative cultural requirement”[Wal04], 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”[Wal04]. 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”[Wal04]. 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”[Wal04]. The allegorical dialogue between the “Western analytical mind” – who had divided the story into a “One-into-Three-into-One dramatic structure”[Wal04] – 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”[Wal04]. 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”[Bau95]. 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” [Bau95]. 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”[Bau95]. 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”[Wal04]. 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”[Wal04] , 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”[Bau95].

In the symbolic order, “obligation and reciprocity are insurmountable. None can withdraw from it”, or they lose face[Bau95]. 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”[Bau95]. 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”[Wal04]. 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’”[Mau]. 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”[Bau81]. 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.[Bau81]. 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”[Bau81]. 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”[Bau81]. 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[Mau]. Potlatch is antagonist to our idea of exchange and economy1 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”[Wal04].

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”[Bau81]. 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”[Mau]. 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”[Bau81].

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)”[Bau81]. 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”[Bal12] . 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”[Bau95]. 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”[Bau95]. 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”[Wal04]. 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”[Bau95]. 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”[Bau95]. 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”[Bau95].

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. [Bau95]

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” [Bau95]. This is how a theory of the symbolic can erase the problem of the imaginary/real posited by “Oblivion”.


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