Reinstating Reality: David Foster Wallace's Short Stories

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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”[Bau95]. 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”[Bau95]. 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” [Bau95]. 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...”[Ves14]. 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”[Bau95]. 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” [Bau95]. 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”[Bau81]. 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”[Bau95]. 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”[Bau95].

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”[Wal04]. 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”[Bau95]. 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”[Wal04]. 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” [Bau95]. 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[Bau81]. 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”[Bau81]. 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” [Bau81]. 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” [Bau81].

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”[Wal04]. 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 [Wal04]. 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” [Wal04]. 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]”[Wal04]. 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!”[Wal04]. 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”3 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”[Bau81]. 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”[Bau95], 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”[Bau81]. 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[Bau81].
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