Reinstating Reality: David Foster Wallace's Short Stories

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4.2. Simulacrum

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”[Wal04] 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”[Bau83]. 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[Bau95]. 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”[Bau83]. 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”[Bau83]. 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”[Bau83], 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”[Bau83], 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”[Bau83]. 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”[Bau83]. 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”[Bau83].

Hyperreality (neither real nor surreal) is the contemporary “reality”; one that is made up of “miniaturized units, from matrices, memory banks and command models”[Bau83]. 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”[Bau83]. 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”[Bau83].

“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”[Wal04]. 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”[Wal04]. 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”[Wal04]. 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”[Wal04]. 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”[Bau83]. 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”[Wal04].

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”[Wal04]. 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”4[Bau95]. 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”[Wal04], 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”[Bau95]. 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”[Wal04]. 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”[Bau83]. 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”[Bau83]. 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”[Wal04]. 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”[Bau83]. 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”[Bau95].

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”[Wal04]. 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”[Bau83]. 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”[Bau83]. 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”[Wal04]. 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”[Bau83]. 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”[Wal04]. 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”[Wal04]. 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”[Bau81].
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