Reinstating Reality: David Foster Wallace's Short Stories

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4.5. Simulation and Hyperreality

To discuss the hyperreal condition of simulation, we need to go through two stages. First, I will make an effort to show if the notion of “simulation” is present in the collection. Next, we will review its representations and implications.

The era of hyperreality is characterized by exhaustion of models and scenarios. Not only these models render any “real” event impossible, they also put an end to its opposite, the imaginary and illusion. Real exists as long as its opposite exists. Baudrillard cautiously suggests that if one attempts to simulate a hold-up, he will necessarily get tangled up with real elements, a police officer may shoot someone on the scene, a passerby will faint and the ransom will be handed over to you[Bau83].

The narrator of “Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature” kept neurotoxic recluse spiders in glass casements in his house. A boy who was fiddling around on the thin metal roof of his garage falls down. The man keeps a “simulated” glass menagerie of spiders. However, when the “real” crashes into his simulation, it becomes a tricky question for the law. Baudrillard calls this an “offensive simulation” – constituting an offense – but how can the law deal with such an offense that is not of the order of the “real”? The man did not intend to spread poisonous recluses into the urban habitat, so there is no intent behind his “offense”. However, the order of the real has to by all means reduce his simulation to reality: “The simulation of an offense, if it is patent, will either be punished more lightly (because it had no consequences) or be punished as an offense to public office . . . but never as a simulation, since it is precisely as such that no equivalence with the real is possible”[Bau83]. The man is finally punished because of “failing to exercise due exercise of caution”[Wal04], while it was the child who broke his roof and fell into his garage; moreover, it is a fact known that recluses are a widespread specimen in his region (the text does not specify it). In fact, he is by profession an exterminator of such dangerous specimens in urban habitats.

In “Mister Squishy”, an urban daredevil climbs the façade of RSBA building and attracts a growing crowd. Baudrillard points out that in hyperreality “all hold-ups, hijacks and the like are now as it were simulation hold-ups, in the sense that they are inscribed in advance in the decoding and orchestration rituals of the media, anticipated in their mode of presentation and possible consequences”[Bau83]. The bystanders outside RSBA wonder if the climber is an urban renegade or part of a publicity stunt: “There were also no evident media vans or rigs or mobile camera at any time, which struck the savvier onlookers as further evidence that the whole things could be some sort of licensed prearranged corporate promotion or stunt or ploy”[Wal04]. However, police cars and medics arrive later. An onlooker steps back to a curb and hurts himself, and the medics treat him. Every stunt has already been exhausted and indexed and this reduces the possibility of a “real” event. Bystanders guess the possible explanations and some are not wrong “as everyone’s individual neocortices worked to process the visual information and to scan their memories for any things or combination of live or animated things the figure might resemble or suggest”[Wal04]. The threat that any stunt poses to the system of hyperreality is that it reveals the impossibility of “reality”. This stunt must not have been coordinated with the police to have the full-impact on the GRDS, and the police is already panicking as we hear them preparing for a possible shooting spree. Every attempt at an imaginary act or an illusion must be confronted to hide that there is no real, since if an illusion cannot be staged, it is opposite – reality – is impossible too.

To highlight simulation in the collection, it is necessary to see its difference with dissimulation and feigning. Baudrillard gives the example of a person who wants to feign an illness and produces the symptoms of what he does not have. He produces the outer signs of the illness and this poses a threat to “reality principle”, challenging “the difference between ‘true’ and ‘false’, between ‘real’ and ‘imaginary’. Since the simulator produces ‘true’ symptoms, is he ill or not?”[Bau83]. This is the problematic haunting the reader and explored in “Good Old Neon”, but only in the name of self-consciousness and mental illness. We learn that the psychoanalyst, Dr. Gustafson, wants to put Neal on medication, but he does not accept this. Nevertheless, the question remains unresolved for the reader. Neal’s fraudulence, which he defines as his constant need for attention and his subsequent sense of worthlessness of any of his achievements, raises the question; whether it is “real”, or a an obsession. This issue leads to the obsessive quality of the text in finding an answer to this question, but never doubting the legitimacy of the question and its ramifications. The question of “imaginary” versus “real” can only be resolved by the symbolic, and leads to a questioning what we call “reality”. It has now become hyperreal, and it is only in hyperreality where a questioning the real/imaginary dichotomy poses a danger to the system, as it shows “namely that, truth, reference and objective causes have ceased to exist”[Bau83]. The law belongs to the second order of simulacra and cannot tackle the simulation of the third order within its bounds. Therefore, the army always punishes the simulator who produces the symptoms: “[M]ilitary psychologist retreats from the Cartesian clarities and hesitates to draw distinction between true and false, between ‘produced’ symptoms and the authentic symptoms. ‘If he acts crazy so well, them he must be mad.’ . . . and this lack of distinction is the worst form of subversion”[Bau83].

I would suggest that simulation is also central to the demented teacher narrative of “The Soul is Not a Smithy”. However, the story’s continuous reference to the self-absorption of the narrator and his nightmares of adulthood boredom is hiding a more important event, that of killing the teacher. The teacher had to be killed in the name of “madness”, while no one really believed he was going to kill the students. The reason for killing the teacher was “THE JAGGED LENGTH OF CHALK, THE BROAD ARM MOTIONS, AND THE PROXIMITY OF MR. JOHNSON’S BRIEFCASE ON THE DESK”. We are not arguing about the reference of pronoun “THEM” in Johnson’s exhortations, but about the reason for killing the teacher based on models that have exhausted the real, where every action gains bearing and significance based on models. If the teacher had harmed the kids, the story would be like any other school shooting in America. The unarmed Johnson did not make any resistance to arrest: “MR. JOHNSON HAD NOT APPEARED TO CONFRONT, RESIST, OR THREATEN THE ARMED OFFICERS WHO CAME FORCIBLY”[Wal04]. What “The Soul is Not a Smithy” shows is that “[s]imulation is infinitely more dangerous . . . since it always suggests, over and above its object, that law and order themselves might really be nothing more than a simulation”[Bau83]. The incident shows the impossibility of setting the real apart from simulation today as any incident is treated “as a set of signs dedicated exclusively to their recurrence as signs , and no longer to their ‘real’ goal at all”. The police decide to kill the teacher because “order always opts for the real. In a state of uncertainty, it always prefers this assumption”[Bau83].

The possibility of staging illusions and simulated acts are exhausted. Now, let us go back to the issue of hyperreality of simulation that plays its game of signs under the pretext of “reality” when “[t]he very definition of reality becomes: that of which it is possible to give an equivalent reproduction”. This is parallel with the scientific grid, which claims that if a process is real, then it must be reproducible. Therefore, the real becomes “that which is always reproduced. The hyperreal”[Bau83]. This claims can be studied if we look at the other side of the real, that of its representation in art. If the condition of hyperreality is one of ultimate form of representation of models, then art (as a form of representation) has to saturate into this new reality, which is in its definition a simulated representation of tried models.

The ending of “Oblivion” is quite eliminating in this regard. The story portrayed the marital struggles of the couple due to Randall’s snoring. The sleep clinic result shows that although Randall had been in fact snoring, but Hope was also in a state of deep sleep and could not have possibly heard her husband in such state. By now, the reader is in a deadlock. Then, we read a scene where Randal says he “imagines” seeing the sleep clinic staff are peeling off their faces’ skin. Simultaneously and on a monitor that is showing images of the sleeping couple, Randal “actually watched or literally ‘witnessed’ one sleeping eyelid open just a crack” (Oblivion 237). I said he “imagined” all this because the text has constantly reiterated that the sleep deprivation causes Randall to have hallucination during the day and the reader still may stretch her/his imagination and accept such description as one of his bouts of delirium. Up to this point, we could say that the story surreal. “Surrealism is still solidary with the realism it contests, but augments its intensity by setting it off against the imaginary”[Bau83]. However, the story continues and creates another distancing layer. There is a hallucinatory dialogue6 where Hope wakes up and tells Randall that she was having a nightmare, doubting if she is married and who he is. Randal tries to soothe her but she says, “None of this is real”[Wal04]. Before these two final scenes (skin peeling and Hope’s awakening), the story is surreal with a psychedelic quality as if hovering between reality and dream. The reader can still associate it with Randall’s delirious feats during the day, which he has confessed to the family therapist. However, the awakening scene shakes the structure of the story. Let us look at the story as a mimetic act of representation. In Baudrillard’s idea, the new novel captures the quality of hyperreality in its being “the blind relay station of the look which sweeps over”[Bau83]. The text captures all minute details with singular acuity. However, for Baudrillard, this objective look at the world is a path which contemporary novel takes: “To exist from the crisis of representation, you have to lock the real up in pure repetition . . . The project is already there to empty out the real, extirpate all psychology, all subjectivity, to move the real back to pure objectivity. In fact this objectivity is only that of the pure look”[Bau83]. Greg Carlisle studies the story from a psychoanalytic perspective and looks for textual evidence to show that the story is in fact a dream of Hope who is being abused by her father-in-law. However, she is now dreaming of a future husband who can save him. Carlisle finally doubts this interpretation in its failure to account for this statement by the other person in bed: “When are you going to make that appointment?”[Wal04]. This does not sound like a call for help from an abusing father who had gotten his daughter to play the role of “wife” at nights, according to Carlisle. I would suggest taking the story at face value and seeing it at the two-stage construction that I mentioned before. What the reader (and Carlisle) are struggling is best put by Baudrillard: “The unreal is no longer that of dream or of fantasy, of a beyond or a within, it is that of a hallucinatory resemblance with the real with itself”. Building the argument on the premise that this collection is a mimetic representation of the spirit of its age and locale, we might claim that the ending shows the state of hyperreal where the “contradiction between real and the imaginary is effaced”[Bau83]. Therefore, art whose prerequisite was its distance from the “real” and its pleasure consisted of “discovering the ‘natural’ in what was artificial and counterfeit” crashes into the third-order simulacrum, where any sign become commutable[Bau83].

In a hyperreality based on models, art loses its classic sense. It enters the structural floatation of free signs and is being reproduced for only this reason. Allan Britton (RSBA’s president) is surprised by an unknown man in the sauna who “found all these modern youth-targeted ads utilizing jagged guitar riffs and epithets like dude and the whole ideology of rebellion-via-consumption so fascinating . . . he found himself disinterestedly analyzing the ads’ strategies and pitches and appreciating them more like pieces of art or fine pastry”[Wal04]. Neal looks at a generic copy of a Goya’s painting at Dr. Gustafson’s office and guesses it is only hung there for the patients to have an excuse to avoid direct staring at the doctor. Britton talks about advertising campaigns “Narratives” which shape stories around products : “[T]he concept of making some new product’s actual marketers’ strategies part of that product’s essential Story – as in the historic examples that Chicago’s own Keebler Inc.’s hard confections were manufactured by elves in a hollow tree, or were cultivated by an actual giant in his eponymous Valley”[Wal04]. In “The Suffering Channel”, Skip had written an article about a station called “All Ads All Times Channel”. While staying overnight at a motel, he watches the station trying to figure out “which ads in the loops were paid spots and which were aesthetic objects, and regarded them accordingly, sometimes zapping out the paid ads altogether”[Wal04]. The digitality of the simulacrum wears away the finality of art, and volatilizes it into a mere sign, “so art is everywhere, since artifice is at the very heart of reality”[Bau83].

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