Reinstating Reality: David Foster Wallace's Short Stories

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4.3. Need

The rapturous satisfactions of consumption surround us, clinging to objects as if to the sensory residues of the previous day in the delirious excursion of a dream.[Bau81]

[F]aces arranged in the mildly sullen expressions of consumers who have never once questioned their entitlement to satisfaction or meaning.[Wal04]

As mentioned before, the structuralist Barthes applied the linguist model to consumption patterns; however, part of his move to post-structuralism would be an adherence to the exclusive “referentiality” of signifiers; they have no inherent relation to “signified”s anymore. Baudrillard follows the same logic to contend that if “language cannot be explained by postulating an individual need to speak . . . [, then] consumption does not arise from an objective need of the consumer”[Bau81]. In this spirit, Baudrillard can fundamentally reshape the world of Oblivion Stories and in particular, the longest stories of the series, “Mister Squishy” and “The Suffering Channel”.

Baudrillard asks his reader a fundamental question: “How am I free not to choose?”. The participants in RSBA market-test and consumers are apparently granted freedom of choice, but they are not “free to live on raw roots and fresh water”[Bau81]. At first sight, the suggestion might strike the reader as a simplistic call for a return to nature. However, this is not what Baudrillard is demanding. He is aiming for a deeper understanding of contemporary world, for what he calls the “social logic” of consumption and consumption is at the kernel of “Mister Squishy” and “The Suffering Channel”. The question becomes relevant to the whole collection if we look at the ending of “Another Pioneer” where the break of dialogue between “the Western analytical mind”[Wal04] and primitives took place5. The tribe proves incapable to practice the progressive ideals of the child and decides to scorch the village and return to the jungle. They leave their “tilled fields”, water system and “heated shelters” as “they were all now spread out and moving, the papoose-laden women keeping sharp eyes out for edible roots . . . following the herd as they had before the dawn of time”[Wal04]. The text indicates its surprise as to how they could have gone back to eating roots after the new developments. Moreover, it announces that they go back to following the herd, meaning the system that the child had laid out promised more individuality.

Before the arrival of the child prodigy, the primitive society was built around the symbolic exchange of gift. “What constitutes the object [=gift] as value in symbolic exchange is that one separates himself from it in order to give it, to throw it at the feet of the other, under the gaze of the other; one divest himself as if of a part of himself”[Bau81]. Through the agency of the child, the tribe would have created a fully functioning trade that would have been the doom of the symbolic. The gift exchange reciprocity is the basis of a continuing social life, “that of giving and that of returning . . . . Thus it is necessary to imagine (as Mauss and the native apparently do) an immanent power in the object . . . whose force haunts the recipient of the object and incites him to divest himself of it”[Bau81]. In trade-based economy, the subject and the object become separate terms. This has far-reaching consequences in the contemporary world: “The psychologist, economist, etc., having provided themselves with a subject and an object, can barely rejoin them but for the grace of need” (JB.FCPES:70). Here are two of Style interns working out in the WTC gym and brainstorming to find a credible hook to cover the feces artist:

Do we all really value a painting more than a photograph anymore?

Let’s say we do.

The executive intern laughed. That’s almost a textbook petitio principi.[Wal04]

We have to ask the same question from the text to see if it is committing petitio principii, the logical fallacy of assuming conclusions and circular reasoning. “The legitimacy of the production rests on a petitio principii, i.e., that people discover a posteriori and almost miraculously that they need what is produces and offered at the marketplace”[Bau81].

At their cores, “Mister Squishy” and “The Suffering Channel” are shaped around the concept of “need”. The TFG session revolves around the question of the members’ (and the consumer in large) desires for the product and investigating how the product answers to those desires. Style‘s staff are continuously in search of what they call the Upbeat Angle of the story, or its hook. The text captures the quest to find a way to entice the reader to feel that they need to read this article despite its disgusting subject. In fact, the search for a UBA becomes a search for conceiving a “need” for consumption of the “400 word commercial sediment”[Wal04], which would be finally published. The consumer should read the article precisely because the piece is about the consumers’ most basic instincts, namely the prevalent desire to be distinguished from the crowd of “the huge faceless mass of folks”[Wal04]. This forms the basis of a conflict “between the subjective centrality of our own lives versus our awareness of its objective insignificance . . . This was the single great informing conflict of the American psyche. The management of insignificance” [Wal04], Skip Atwater asserts.

In “The Suffering Channel”, the quest for conceiving this need, UBA, clashes with the artist’s need and creates a hall of mirrors. The artist wants to show off his feces statues because of this need and Style can only attract the reader to the feces artist story if it can tell its readership that they need to hear this story; that the desire to stand out is a major conflict in their own lives. Baudrillard is struck by prevalence of such narratives: “[T]he need for security versus the need to take risks; the desire to conform versus the need to be distinctive, etc. and which are determinant? How do you structure and rank them? In an ultimate effort, our thinkers strain to make their tautology dialectical”[Bau81]. In the micro-level economy of the cake, the producers expect to “create the impression of a connection between the brand and what was important to the consumer”[Wal04]. Need becomes the basis for a tautology in a closed system where the object and the subject are defined in the mirror image of the each other. RSBA is worried that the TFG’s “subjective awareness of his identity as a test subject instead of as a true desire-driven consumer” may undermine the authenticity of the collected data[Wal04]. According to the logic at work in the text, desire is the basis of the need and it is not questioned, because it is reconciled with the idea of individuality; ergo, the accusation of “following the herd” to the primitive tribe in “Another Pioneer”. The subject has to be discovered, to become a stand-alone entity, to finally become identifiable in his relation to an object that is no longer symbolically charged with the giver nor the receiver.

Baudrillard contrasts the economic “logic of equivalence” with the ambivalence found in social sciences and psychoanalysis. They have joint forces to consecrate need today and economy merely,

adds to the criteria of individual utility (‘rational’ economic variables) a pinch of ‘irrational’ individual psychology (motivational studies, depth psychology) and some interpersonal social psychology (the individual need for prestige and status) – or simply a kind of global socio-culture. In short, one looks for context . . . such are the maudlin illuminations of psycho-economics.[Bau81]

The advertising industry is best manipulating psychology in service to capital in the name of need. The brand name Felonies! is seducing the consumer by setting the consumer’s individuality – the lost cause of “Another Pioneer” – in contrast to his herd instincts to avoid the health risks of the cakes, which contain high amounts of sugar: “The name’s [Felonies!] association matrix included as well the suggestion of adulthood and adult autonomy: in its real-world rejection of the highly cute, cartoonish, n- and oo-intensive names of so many other snack cakes”[Wal04]. The dichotomy of individual versus group is further displayed in the demand for a group reply besides the individual replies of the TFG. Individuality and autonomy of adulthood, which is the underlying message of Felonies!, is contrasted to the “fadlike pattern” of MCP which happens in the teenage demographics. The market in return emphasizes these inner struggles: “The stresses on individual consumers caught between their natural God-given herd instincts and their deep fear of sacrificing their natural God-given identities as individuals, and about the ways these stresses were tweaked and-slash-or soothed by skillfully engineered trends”[Wal04]. With the abstraction of men’s constructed inner desire into needs, they are homogenized “with means of satisfaction (products, images, sign-objects etc.) and thus to multiply consummativity”[Bau81]. Both the individuality and herd instinct are taken as universal “God-given” human traits in this context. They become representations of man, one made up of fragmented desires, which ultimately inform production: “These functions must be ‘desublimated’ – hence, the deconstruction of the ego functions, the conscious moral and individual functions, to the benefit of a kind of total consuming immorality in which the individual finally submerges himself in a pleasure principle entirely controlled by production planning”[Bau81]. The insidious thing about this logic is not the invocation of an unqualified authority, but its consequential advancement of the order of production and more importantly the reproduction of differences in the system of signs, which is the “social logic” of production for Baudrillard. To this end, all the psychological parameters hold true and they turn into an endless cycle of dialectics with no resolution. However, they promise the survival of the referential sign as the epitome of capital. The passage below shows the closed system that these needs create:

[V]arious myriad other pitches that aimed to remind the consumer that he was at root an individual, one with individual tastes and preferences and freedom of individual choice, that he was not a mere herd animal who had no choice but to go go go on US life’s digital-calorie-indulged-in pleasures out there to indulge in if the consumer’s snap out of his high-fiber hypnosis and realize that life was also to be enjoyed that the unenjoyed life was not worth living.[Wal04]

It should be added that Baudrillard is not questioning the needs for prestige and hierarchy, but the point is the ramifications of the move from the symbolic to the economic. In the symbolic order, the rupture between subject and object did not exist as we conceive it today. It is worth noting this quotation again: “What constitutes the object as value in symbolic exchange is that one separates himself from it in order to give it, to throw it at the feet of the other, under the gaze of the other; one divest himself as if of a part of himself”[Bau81]. The subjects invests themselves in the object, and through this unity an endless reciprocal exchange is formed which strengthened social life and founded hierarchies.

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