Reinstating Reality: David Foster Wallace's Short Stories

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5.2. “The Suffering Channel”

This story narrates the efforts of a reporter for Style magazine, Skip Atwater, to write a piece on Brint Moltke who can control his bowel movements to produce statues of famous works of art. Skip is a professional journalist, but seems to have taken “the whole strange thing more to heart than was normal in such a consummate pro”[Wal04]. Once the magazine’s associate director accepts to run the story, the characters engage in brainstorming and conversations around the subject to find a proper angle to present the story. Style’s editor tells Atwater in the opening lines that “Skip, this is the point: people do not want to look at shit”[Wal04].Ironically, this constitutes most of the length of the story plus detailed discussions about other bodily functions. For example, when Style’s young and competitive female interns – who still have the “vaguely outraged facial expressions of adolescence”[Wal04] – meet to have their weekly Monday lunch, the news of the feces artist gives rise to an exchange of opinions and anecdotes ranging from belching and burping to passing gas and defecation habits while cohabiting with a man. Toilet training traumas and different positions of toilet holes around Europe take long paragraphs. An intern recites part of Jonathan Swift’s satiric “The Lady's Dressing Room”. The poem is about a man’s experience of finding out that his lover also defecates after he sneaks to her dressing room. Another intern surprises everyone by asking if they also “have this thing where you think of your shit as sort of like your baby and sometimes want to hold it and talk to it and almost cry or feel guilty about flushing it”[Wal04]. However, the story is far from potty humor (and closer to black humor) as characters are struggling to find a way to present this story to the reader.

The artist keeps his creations in “glass cases in the unattached storm cellar out back” his house and snapshots of them are kept in a leather album [Wal04]. Skip is portrayed as an anal-retentive type. The text points to his fastidious habits and his tic of moving his fists up and down, which we finally learn he started first during potty training. Both Skip and the artist are said to have been harshly punished as children. Skip’s mother was a religiose Midwestern who “did not spareth the rod”, in fact she would make him “go and cut from the fields’ edge’s copse the very switch with which she’d whip him”[Wal04]. Brint’s mother punished him by electric cords and burning cigarettes. While visiting the artist and his wife, Skip gets into a liaison with the obese wife of the artist, Amber Moltke, in the car while driving out in the countryside. It leaves “the driver’s side door bowed dramatically out from inside as if from some horrific series of impacts”[Wal04]. He sees the figure of his own obese mother in Amber. Laurel Manderley, Skip’s intern, starts suffering from nightmares after seeing pictures of the waste statues while Skip’s nightmares remind him of the similarities of his oedipal affair with Amber.

Style magazine’s parent company is Eckleschnafft-Böd Medien that is considering a merger with AOL Time Warner, which is in turn going to acquire a start-up station called the “Suffering Channel”[Wal04], a reality television broadcaster that is going to air pictures of real-life human sufferings. It belongs to a reality television entrepreneur named R. Vaughn Corliss. In an article that Skip had written about him after he had started the 24 hour All Ads All the Time Cable (AAATC) channel, Vaughn’s attitude towards life was summed up as self-envy, “which appears near the top of certain Maslovian fulfillment pyramids as a rare and culturally specific form of joy”[Wal04]. The morbid entrepreneur’s strategy to fight insomnia is to watch images of people burning to death. Vaughn’s other ideas are to one day show famous people defecating on TV, celebrities ranging from Oprah to the Pope with a wish list of thirty celebrities enumerated in the story. He is one of the pioneers of reality television and wants to “absorb celebrities into the matrix of exposure and violence that is Reality”[Wal04]. Incorporating the ideas of McLuhan into his theory of hyperreality, Baudrillard asserts in Simulations that not only the medium is the message but the medium has become “diffuse and diffracted in the real, so it can no longer even be said that the latter is distorted by it”[Bau83]. This specially stands out in the case of reality television. After much consideration, Style decides to have the artist on the Suffering Channel and later run an article on him, so they create the illusion that they are covering an already developing story. The Suffering Channel launches with three “tableaux vivant”[Wal04] – an oxymoronic metaphor that shows this blurring line between the real and the medium as this old form lends its name to the new hyperreality of Reality Television. “Motion picture” no longer captures the nature of the metastatically evolved television. Baudrillard maintains that the discourse around simulation and hyperreality should not be taken as if he is talking about a disease that has infected us. Rather, the media has become like a satellite “in outer orbit, a sort of genetic code which controls the mutation of the real into the hyperreal”[Bau83]. The artist’s wife wants her husband to become famous, even if it is for his waste: “Because this is the whole hook, Skip, isn’t it. Why you’re here in the first place. That it’s his shit”[Wal04]. Amber wants to make a leap and give the reality of her husband’s art to the world through the medium. The matter is no longer of the traditional questions of right and wrong, but the medium volatilizes the issue to a degree that it supersedes such concerns. In this case, the hook would be a question of the sufferings of Brint and having been through hell in his life; his shyness causes the suffering and a reason for him to appear on the Suffering Channel.

The artist is going on the air “on 4 July, ten weeks ahead of schedule”[Wal04]. While the characters are playing their parts in Style magazine – which only covers “the very most demotic kind of human interest”[Wal04] –, fighting their office politics and rushing to meet the deadline, we learn that the magazine is headquartered in the World Trade Center. The story twice hints at 9-11 and depends on dramatic irony for relaying this looming terror. First, and even before we know the date and place of the action, we read that Skip’s intern is going to survive a future tragedy which would put Style in history. The second time is at the end of two of Style interns’ conversation in a gym on the ground floor of the WTC south tower. The narrator abruptly cuts through the story with a curt aside: “She had ten weeks to live”[Wal04]. Almost by the end of the story, the reader would have gleaned from that the magazine’s summer issue will come out on September 10, 2001 and the story is taking place between 1-4 July. Style’s “executive offices [are] on the 82nd floor”[Wal04] of the southern WTC. The text does not tell us this piece of information, but we know that the second plane hit the south tower between 78 and 84 floor and everyone on those floors was killed upon impact.

9-11 events only hover on the story’s margins. In Nature’s Nightmare (2013), Greg Carlisle does not talk about any symbolic sense of this story, never discussing whether it is a pointed social satire. I could not find any mention of this aspect in many other book reviews of the collection on the internet either. A second sign that would support the deprecatory undercurrent of the story is that the Style‘s staff are thinking of having the feces artist to produce a rendition of “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima” photograph, but later they shelve the idea. Similarly, the image also appears at the end of “The Soul is Not a Smithy”, when we get a description of the classroom objects after we learn that the teacher was shot dead. That story’s final sentence points to the “papier mâché bulwark of Iowa Jima” in the classroom [Wal04]. I think that its flimsiness is of importance. Hence, “The Suffering Channel” might be seen as a dark satire of society by using the metaphorical human waste to shake the readers to overcome their self-centeredness and “get real”. The same message is in Swift’s “Lady’s Dressing Room” and addressed to the lover and the society to accept women as equal human beings. One could argue that the text’s predilection to detailed description of immediate surroundings might be an effort to imitate the self-centered quality of its character and the society in general. Using the metaphor of “human waste” to criticize the society in not without precedent in recent memory. Harry Frankfurt, a former philosophy professor at Princeton University, published a famous essay titled “On Bullshit” (1986) in the prestigious Raritan Quarterly Review, where he humorously criticizes society from the same angle: “One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit”. Similar to this story, Frankfurt goes into the etymological details and everyday use of the word and sets to show how “jiving” is exponentially more dangerous by the virtue of its incognizance “to the authority of truth” [Fra86].

Despite these arguments, one cannot reasonably claim that Carlisle avoids the symbolic aspect of the story purposefully since the text also runs through its recurring list of themes as other stories; herd versus individual, natural self-centeredness versus need to express, boredom, (self-)consciousness. O Verliy Production’s (owner of the Suffering Channel) motto is “CONSCIOUSNESS IS NATURE’S NIGHTMARE”[Wal04]. Amber wants her husband to be known for his art, “[t]o somehow stand out. To distinguish themselves from the great huge faceless mass of folks”[Wal04]. The issue of attention to self and the world is given center stage by Skip. He calls “the conflict between the subjective centrality of our own lives versus our awareness of its objective insignificance . . . the single great informing conflict of the American psyche. The management of insignificance . . . it was everywhere, at the root of everything – of impatience in long lines, of cheating on taxes, of movements in fashion and music and are, of marketing”[Wal04]. Like a number of other authors, Wallace may have wished to keep the memory of 9-11 alive in this story, but using his own brand of black humor to show that the day-to-day sufferings, boredoms, and banality of life are insignificant and incomparable to the real suffering that would take place on 9-11. These hypotheses may be true or not and the task at hand is not deciphering intentions of the author.

The text tells us that the artist’s creations were first spotted at basic training “in the US Army, in which Moltke later saw action in Kuwait as part of a maintenance crew in Operation Desert Storm”[Wal04]. I would like to segue this to Baudrillard’s view about the Gulf War. For him, the war had all the paraphernalia of a simulated vision of hyperreality, so in fact it could not have taken place in “reality” but was like a video game. This turned into the title of his controversial essay “The Gulf War Did Not Take Place” (1991).

A juxtaposition of this story with the opening story of the collection, which also dealt with (domestic) terrorism, would reveal an important difference. While “Mister Squishy” could enter the mind of Schmidt and unravel the roots of his homicidal conspiracy (at least psychoanalytically if not “Symbolic”-ally), this story does not venture to do so. 9-11 was an incident that changed the world, but is marginal and at the same time haunting the story and reader. An effort would be made to elaborate it from Baudrillard’s worldview, instead of excluding it and let it merely hover around the story.

Baudrillard believes that no real event took place in the 1990’s. However, 9-11 was “the absolute event, the ‘mother’ of all events, the pure event uniting within itself all the events that have never taken place” (JB, Spirit of Terrorism [ST] 4). WTCs were more than mere architectural monuments for Baudrillard. In Simulations (1983), he called them the exemplary monuments of the hyperreal condition. The events of 9-11 are larger than the actual collapse of the buildings. They constituted a symbolic attack and have to be treated as such. The symbolic is left out of this text, but can account for the horror poising ominously around the events of the story. In his post 9-11 essay, collected under the title of Spirit of Terrorism, Baudrillard stirred controversy by the provocative claim that people harbor the secret wish to see the collapse of any hegemony. His views on terror are informed by his prior theories. Without an understanding of symbolic exchange and reciprocal gift-exchange, they would not make little sense to the reader. Let us explore what he means by this “secret wish” in more details.

Baudrillard believes the following:

All these institutions, all these social, economic, political and psychological mediations, are there so that no-one ever has the opportunity to issue this symbolic challenge, this challenge to the death, the irreversible gift which, like the absolute mortification of the ascetic, brings about a victory over all power, however powerful its authority may be. It is no longer necessary that the possibility of this direct symbolic confrontation ever takes place. (JB, SED 38)

In Oblivion Stories, “Another Pioneer”’s primitive tribesmen are the only characters that are not analyzed in terms of their psychology and unconscious thoughts. They are also the only ones who could, and did, issue a symbolic challenge. It is because they existed in a time when conscious/unconscious, real/imaginary, life/death had not been “invented” yet?

What is clear is that the primitive tribe of “Another Pioneer” had none of the “social, economic, political and psychological mediations” to stop the challenge of symbolic exchange. The “precocious” child pioneer was going to develop these social entities as read of his effort to establish an economy. His ascension to power entailed the emergence of a caste of councilors who phrased precise questions for the villagers so they get the best result out of the only one question they could get to ask from him monthly. This would have been the birth of service industry. Moreover, his post-catatonic attitude resulted in the emergence of a new caste who would soothe the doubts he had cast on their beliefs and this would have been their equivalent of psychoanalysis if the child had continued his reign over the social life. Baudrillard believes that these institutions prevent the symbolic challenge and result in “boredom”:

This is the source of our boredom. This is why taking hostages and other similar acts rekindle some fascination: they are at once an exorbitant mirror for the system of its own repressive violence, and the model of a symbolic violence which is always forbidden it, the only violence it cannot exert: its own death. (JB, SED 38)

The “fascination” with the symbolic challenge is apparent in other stories. In “Mister Squishy”, bystanders are watching the urban daredevil and suddenly have a “brief group-exaltation from the sidewalk’s crowd as the figure now snapped its hood head back . . . A couple young in the crowd cried up at the eight floor for the figure to jump . . . [cars] slow down or even pull over to see if there’d been a death or an arrest” (Oblivion 34, 39). In the opening pages of “The Soul is Not a Smithy”, the adult-narrator is looking back on major events in his life and alludes to his fascination with the hostage event: “Only much later would I understand that the incident at the chalkboard in Civics was likely to be the most dramatic and exciting event I would ever be involved in my life” (Oblivion 69). To recap, the wish for the end of any hegemony is the fascination with the symbolic challenge to power.

Hegemony is gained by the accumulation of wealth and power, but for Baudrillard the underlying structure is always the symbolic in which “the very possibility of isolating a segment of exchange, one side of the exchange, is unthinkable that everything has a compensation . . . in the sense that the process of exchange is unavoidably reversible”[Bau95]. Jon Baldwin believes, “The fact that this strategic sentiment – ‘Defy the system by a gift to which it cannot respond except by its own death and its own collapse’ – is repeated virtually word for word twenty-five years later (in relation to terrorism) reveals the prevalence and consistency of this aspect of Baudrillard”. Perhaps Baudrillard can better describe his own reading of terror: “Terrorism is immoral. The World Trade Center event, that symbolic challenge, is immoral, and it is a response to a globalization, which is itself immoral. So let us be immoral; and if we want to have some understanding of all this, let us go and take a little look beyond Good and Evil”[Bau03]. Every hegemony and form of power has to be reciprocated. Similar to the sacrificial child of “Another Pioneer”, no relation of power can escape the primordial laws of the symbolic. Today, power lies with globalized capital and its incessant dispersal of gifts in an extravagant potlatch[Bau03]. Baudrillard believes ascribing any ideology to symbolic terror is the way that power deters the deeper question of the hyperreality of the system. On the level of the “real”, discourse and dialectics of good and evil rule; plus, such discourses inject scenarios of the real and thus reify the “reality principle” of the social. Ideologies aimed to change the world, but Baudrillard believes these terrorists had no plans to change anything for the better[Bau03], “The aim is to longer even to transform the world, but (as the heresies did in their day) to radicalize the world by sacrifice”. Those terrorists were not poor and deprived slaves of the system and this is the source of surprise because they had all the financial and technological resources at their hands[Bau03]. This brand of terrorism is a reaction to humiliation “[a]nd it is to humiliation that the terrorism of September 11 was a response: one of humiliation for another”[Bau03]. With the progress from the symbolic exchange to economic exchange, there is less and less chance for symbolic redemption of gift. The hyperreality of the global has finally erased the possibility of any counter-gift on the plane of the real. Terror attacks “shift the struggle to the symbolic sphere, where the rule is that of challenge, reversion and outbidding. So that death can be met only by equal or greater death”[Bau03]. If one accepts this perspective, then the terrorists did not constitute the Other but were in a reciprocal relation with globalization and that is why Baudrillard labeled the event as the “triumphant globalization battling against itself”[Bau03]. Terrorism has been present in the contemporary memory, but always a banal player who could never radicalize the globe but these ones used all the modern trappings of globalized world and struck the symbols of the hyperreal global capital. They ignited a symbolic violence and a singular event.

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