Reinstating Reality: David Foster Wallace's Short Stories



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4.4. Dead Labor


“Mister Squishy” has a non-linear narrative structure and only upon reading the final paragraph, the scattered pieces of puzzle fall into place. Britton and Scot Laleman are cruising on a yacht. Britton counts down from five and puts “one hand to his ear and came [comes] down with the other hand to point at Scot Laleman as if to signal You’re On the Air”[Wal04]. This is an invitation for brainstorming to come up with a scenario to test and push the facilitators and the TFG to the limit. They have planned for an urban daredevil to climb the façade of RSBA headquarter with his “real or imitation semiautomatic weapon”[Wal04]. When he either jumps down or reaches the conference room window on the thirteenth floor (we are not told which will happen), the UFA narrator would activate the apparatus attached to him to discharge a vomit-like liquid in response to the sight of the climber who is clad in Mister Squishy icon and holds a fake gun. The resultant collected data of this specific TFG would prove in numbers that the circumstances of the test plus the way Schmidt responds and reacts to this incident would produce drastically different results from the TFG pre-orientation that Darlene Lilley is executing simultaneously and on another floor of the building. This would be a proof – especially for the facilitators who know that “numbers do not lie” – that the human element is an obstacle to valid data collection. This scheme’s result would be the pretext to fire the facilitators and avoid Wrongful Termination charges. “All they needed were the stressors. Nested, high-impact stimuli. Shake them up. Rattle the cage, he [Allan Britton] said, watch what fell out. This was all really what was known in the game as Giving Someone Enough Rope”[Wal04].

The story is giving a classically Marxist and anthropological account for firing the facilitators. The facilitators are repeatedly described by Schmidt as “useless cogs”. In the face of the accumulation of knowledge and power in machines, the weak have to go; “It was rough business; Darwin’s tagline still fit”[Wal04]. Such universal platitudes should be questioned. Firstly, just as “need” is conceived on images of the oral drive, here “survival” is built on the images of the animal world and is expected to be taken as a fact. We cannot accept this since “[n]ot even the insistence of self-preservation is fundamental: it is a social tolerance or a social imperative. When the system requires it, it cancels this instinct and people get excited about dying (for a sublime cause evidently)”[Bau81].



Schmidt confesses to have come to see his insignificance “and thoroughgoing smallness within a grinding professional machine”. Despondent and frustrated, he wonders how he could have ever had the audacity to think he could “help change or make a difference or ever be more than a tiny faceless cog” (Oblivion 31-2). Even if one day he is promoted to the highest position in Team y, the only difference would be being in charge of “sixteen coglike Field Researchers just like Schmidt himself” (Oblivion 43). Plus, he would be futilely supervising data compression on software, which “entailed nothing more significant than adding four-color graphs and a great deal of acronym-heavy jargon designed to make a survey that any competent tenth-grader could have conducted appear sophisticated and meaningful” (Oblivion 43). Alluding to facilitators as “cogs”, an industrial-era metaphor affirms a fundamental misunderstanding as to the nature of the simulacrum where a job is itself a sign and is void of the finality intrinsic in its classic definition. The metaphor of “cog” harks back to assembly lines of industrial production era and bureaucracies that no longer exist and is anachronistic for a story set in 1995. It merely constructs the industrial-production discourse of labor struggle. In the third order of simulacrum, the hyperreality of the system has to be masked to keep the reality principle intact. Baudrillard states that 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”[Bau95]. The collection of “dead labor” in the form of machines and knowledge has ushered in a new era of the simulacrum, which Schmidt inhabits. Cybernetics has amplified the speed of the metastatic evolution of the capital. “We know that now it is on the level of reproduction (fashion, media, publicity, information and communication networks) on the level of what Marx negligently called the nonessential sectors of capital . . . that is to say in the sphere of simulacra and of code, that the global process of capital is founded”[Bau83].

If labor is only productive when it produces capital, one can argue that with the accumulation of dead labor in capital and its replacement with living labor, the labor must have become unproductive – and it has become unproductive. Labor in its Marxian definition has disappeared and what Marx called the insignificant sector of service labor is prevailing now, “[t]oday all labor falls under a single definition, that bastard, archaic and unanalyzed category of service-labor, and not supposedly universal classical definition of ‘proletarian’ wage-labor”[Bau95]. Labor has become unproductive in the sense that it is itself now a product and has become a liberated sign of the capital, hence the term “job market”. In the era of industrial production, labor was a mode, but now it is a code [Bau95] and like the structural aspect of Saussurean linguistics, it only exists in relation with other codes in the current close system. For Baudrillard, this move to codification of labor has significant implications as labor is “naturalized” into society: “Your quotidian roots are no longer savagely ripped up in order to hand you over to the machine – you, your childhood, your habits, your relationships, your unconscious drives, and even your refusal to work are integrated into it. You will easily find a place for yourself among all this, a personalized job, or, failing that, there is a welfare provision calculated to your personal needs[Bau95]. The narrator of “Mister Squishy” cannot say if Schmidt’s behavior is his personal characteristic or a requirement of the job. Doubts that are captured in the deep uncertainty of descriptions such as this: “[T]rained by what seemed to have turned out to be his profession to behave as though he were interacting in a lively and spontaneous way while actually remaining inwardly detached and almost clinically observant”[Wal04]. The difficulty to set his personal and professional behavior apart supports Baudrillard’s view. The only woman he ever dated told him that “it was thanks to me[Schmidt] that she’d discovered the difference between being penetrated and really known versus penetrated and just violated”[Wal04], as he was showing the same acute and clinical attention without a morsel of passion. Skip Atwater’s assistant editor at Indianapolis Star, his first job after college, made him aware that “his fatal flaw was an ineluctably light, airy prose sensibility. He had not innate sense of tragedy”[Wal04]. The editor offers to call some of his contacts at USA Today, and he ultimately started working for WHAT IN THE WORLD section of Style, where he can write his fluffy pieces for the readership, “many of whom scanned the magazine in the bathroom anyway”[Wal04]. Such developments have a different meaning for Baudrillard who believes that “the utopia of a tailor-made job signifies that the die is cast, that the structure of absorption is total. Labor power is no longer brutally bought and sold, it is designed, marketed and turned into a commodity- production [,] re-enters the sign system of consumption”[Bau95].

Although the classical era of production has ended, production will continue to reproduce itself and labor as mere signs. Schmidt may perhaps move to another company or pass retraining to fill another position if they fire him from RSBA. Labor and production have lost their finality, but they will not disappear: “You will no longer be abandoned, since it is essential that everyone be a terminal for the entire system, an insignificant terminal, but a term none the less – not an inarticulate cry, but a term of the langue and the terminus of the entire structural network of the language”[Bau95]. Labor has lost its classic sense, but will always exist; “the scenario of work is there to conceal the fact that the work-real, the production-real, has disappeared”[Bau95]. The reality principle of society has to be saved. No one will be left alone, but to be part of the internal structural law of value and exchange with others in the inner referential structural law of value.

A seismic shift has happened and Marx did not account for this. Baudrillard here uses Marx’s own phenomenology to undermine it, namely in his failure to see the power of the service labor. All stories in Oblivion Stories except “Incarnations of Burned Children” and “Philosophy and The Mirror of Nature” (the shortest stories incidentally belong to an already dead order!) have characters whose works are in the service industry and in the Marxist account of production, it is left out as a negligible section of capital. However, this is where contemporary business has thrived. “Today all labor falls under a single definition, that bastard, archaic and unanalyzed category of service-labor”, although Baudrillard differentiates the contemporary sense of service labor from the “feudal” service labor. Our situation is that of “reduction of every labor to a service, labor as pure and simple prestation of time . . . This is the tendency of every effort to ‘retotalize’ labor, making it into a total service where the prestator may be more or less absent, but increasingly personally involved”[Bau95]. Baudrillard compare the current state of capital with a satellite. Capital has, in ways not foreseeable by Marx, transpoliticized itself by “launch[ing] into an orbit beyond the relations of production and political contradictions, to make itself autonomous in a free-floating, ecstatic and haphazard form, and thus totalize the world in its own image”[Bau96].

Schmidt sees this in the process of production and pitching of Felonies! , where he cannot see the master anymore:

One idea, and one or two dozen pistons and gears already machined and set in place in various craggy heads at R.S.B. and North American’s Mister Squishy had needed only this one single spark of C12H22O11-inspired passion from an SCD whose whole inflated rep had been based on a concept equating toilet paper with clouds and helium-voiced teddy bears and all manner of things innocent of shit in some abstract Ur-consumer’s mind in order to set in movement a machine of which no one single person now . . . could be master.[Wal04]

There is no master in hyperreal capital in the sense of the master in production era, and this is how capital has freed itself from its repressive connotations. Schmidt is looking for an original force of production, which does not exist anymore. What is left is “only a general machinery transforming the forces of production into capital; or, rather, a machinery which manufactures both the force of production and labor power”[Bau95]. Schmidt attempts to make sense of a system that has apparently lost any sense. He is looking for a hidden truth, but simulacrum is “the truth which conceals that there is none”[Bau83].


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