An Analysis of Capitalist Realism in “Mister Squishy”

The origin of realism can be traced to the 19th century as a literary movement committed to the portrayal of life with fidelity. It rejected the classicism and romanticism. However, realism has been criticized as an exceptionally elastic term, often ambivalent and equivocal … a term which many feel we could do without. However, every generation’s mode of realism is a mirror to their conceptualization of the realities of that age. Therefore, while the 19th century realist authors were more closely attuned to the term literary realism, in which authors made a deliberate attempt to deviate from earlier forms of literary modes, the aftermath of the industrial revolution and concerns for the sprawling urban poor planted the seeds of social realism. Additionally, naturalism arose from the dominant scientific thoughts on biological and environmental determinism (Taghizadeh, 2014). In the 20th century, psychological realism, reminiscent in the works of Joyce Carol Oates and Henry James, took center stage as well as the dirty realism of Hemingway. The garden of realism has since birthed the sensational realism of James Eyre, irrealism of Frantz Kafka, magic realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, hyperrealism (consumerist/capitalist realism) of Don de Lillo and David Foster Wallace, and transrealism of Philip K. Dick, among others, in the last half of the 20th century into the 21st century. This essay argues that the dominant ideas of an age greatly influence the conventions of realism of that age, with special focus on hyperrealism (consumerist/capitalist realism) in the 21st century, using “Mister Squishy” (2000) by David Foster Wallace as the focal creative text.

The perception of reality is largely a matter of habit. A physicist, in building models that seek to explain physical phenomena, perceives the world he creates as the real one. A phenomenologist, in search of deep meanings, holds the perceptual world they create as the real one. Artists engaged in world-building through various forms present their results as the real world. However, for a man walking on the streets, a man who is neither a scientist, psychologist, a visual artist nor a novelist, their idea of a real world departs from the scientific, psychological, or artistic conceptualization, and their understanding of the real world is intimately tied to their struggles for survival (Goodman, 2005). It can therefore be said that the ‘real world’ is “unconsciously built upon the language habits of the group” (Sapir, 1921) or as Eagleton put it, “we only have a ‘world’ at all because we have the language to signify it” (Eagleton, 2008). The idea of a group world-building using a specific language to signify the world being created links back to the introductory elements of creative writing, theory and practice; that creative writing uses imagination to create a society, and that a creative writer should have an engaged, vital, and deep relationship with language.

Capitalist Realism in in “Mister Squishy” by David Foster Wallace
Capitalist realism is the product of the economic system. The notion ‘be realistic’ is the normative nature of economic rationalism which is a form of the contemporary market-dominant realism. Fisher (2009) notes that capitalist realism is the slogan presented by Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Žižek that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism. This slogan captures the widespread belief that capitalism is the only viable political and economic system, and that it is impossible to imagine any coherent alternative to the capitalist system. Capitalist realism is that form which delivers man from fatal abstractions that were the foundational tenets of ideologies of the past. Capitalist realism is the shield protecting man from the perils associated with belief, and immunizes man from the allure of fanaticism. As such, in capitalist realism, expectations are lowered, and this lowering is justified as a small price man has to pay to be protected from the ills of totalitarianism. It depresses the desires and expectations of man, holds him in a deflated and depressive state, and by preaching the gospel of “be realistic”, it presents hope as a dangerous illusion (Fisher, 2009).

The themes of lowered expectations and the establishment of social control, as core aspects of capitalist realism, are captured in “Mister Squishy” (2000) by David Foster Wallace. The short story is contained in Oblivion Stories, a collection of eight stories that had originally been published in different anthologies and magazines (2004). These stories vary greatly in style and length, and cover vast chronologies, spanning from the Paleolithic age to the beginning of the millennium, in 2001. The first story in the collection, which is the focus text for this essay, is “Mr Squishy.”

The setting of the story is an advertising company called the Reesenmeyer Shannon Belt Advertising. The conference rooms are in the 19th floor. It is an expansive room with long conference tables and leather executive swivel chairs. On the table are bottled spring water and caffeinated beverages. The conference room has a thick tinted window. It is early in the morning and the Targeted Focus Group has just completed the Individual Response File which is a 20-page questionnaire. These questionnaires were filled in fluorescently lit cubicles quite different from this room that is spacious, attractive, naturally lit and has a panoramic view. As they settle into the comfortable chairs, one or two members of the Targeted Focus Group loosens their ties and focus on the product samples on a tray at the center of the conference table (Wallace, 2004).

It is a test-marketing session and the product is called Felonies! which is a snack cake developed by the Creative Director. It is a variant of similar products in the market and will compete with substitute brands in the market. On the table are 27 snake cakes. They are arranged as a pyramid on the rotating silver tray. There is a document that contains a comprehensive technical description of the features of Felonies! Most of these features have been stolen from other products in the market. For example, the frosting of the cake borrows from another product called “Ho Ho”. In a market survey, in which consumers of Ho Ho were secretly videotaped, the company realized that 45% of the consumers peeled off the frosting on the Ho Ho and ate them alone (Wallace, 2004). This is reminiscent of capitalist/consumerist realism, where the product is no longer made to serve the customer, but to test them. Consumers are used as experiments as opposed to being the users in the market. Every product is tested and every choice analyzed. The cake is therefore not just a food item to be consumed, but an object assembled to cater for specific desires observed in consumers. In consumerist realism, value is not just something a company creates to gain profit by selling a product, rather, it is a referential system. Felonies! is manufactured not to satisfy consumers, but to manipulate and exploit consumers through the referencing of other products in the market (Tayebi, 2015).

Schmidt, who is the Creative Director, communicates this reasoning to the Targeted Focus Group. He reiterates that Felonies! will manipulate the desires and insecurities of consumers. Even though it is an unhealthy product, with sugar content, through advertising, it will exploit individual desires of consumers while at the same time targeting healthy food trends (Wallace, 2004). This means that it will be marketed as a product that exploits indulgence on one side, and health, fitness, and nutrition attitudes on the other. Felonies! exemplifies how language can be used to signify things, values, expectations.

The Targeted Focus Group is subset of the population that the company targets. They are fourteen mean in total. They have been handpicked because they are representative of the market being targeted. In the conference room, there is an instrument that looks like a large smoke detector. It has lens and a parabolic mile. It is mobile and looks like a state-of-the-art technology. Its job is to record and catch nuances in conversations and exchanges between the members of the Targeted Focus Group. There are two Unintroduced Assistant Facilitators (UAF) whose responsibility is also to record these conversations after the Creative Director leaves the group. These UAF produce a Group Response Data Summary (GRDS) (Wallace, 2004).

According to Baudrillard (1983) consumerist realism establishes social control through anticipation, simulation, programming, and indeterminate mutation. In addition to the cybernetic control where behavioral patterns of users are tracked on the internet, the incessant process of testing is also a form of control that works without violence but achieves the tightening grip of capital on human life. Schmidt takes the Targeted Focus Group through the pre-orientation session; however, the questionnaires have already established the scope of answers and choices that the Targeted Focus Group can come up with. The questions in the questionnaires influence the answer, which means that the answer is designated in advance even before the questionnaire is administered and responses collected from the representative population representing the target market. This explains Baudrillard’s contention that market polls do not serve any functional or factual purpose, rather than simply existing to test consumers (Baudrillard, 1983). These tests create the reality from the viewpoint of the marketer, via the design of the questions, so that when consumers ask questions, their answers are subconsciously obtained from the test themselves. In essence, the test stimulates the desires responses. The net result is a constant profiling of the characteristics of the people who take the test into various categories through descriptive statistics and behavioral psychology to generate consumer profiles who can them be sold the product that is specifically designed to align with their characteristics (Tayebi, 2015).

The writer does not live in a vacuum. They are influenced by the environments they navigate on a daily basis. This kind of hyperreality that is described in detail on “Mr Squishy” is a digital and genetic model that represents the society today where hyperconnectivity through mobile and internet technologies allow for a constant monitoring, manipulation, and control of consumer attitudes, behaviors, tastes, and preferences for capitalist gain (Cheok, 2017).
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Cheok, A. D., 2017. Hyperconnectivity. New York: Springer.
Eagleton, T., 2008. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.
Fisher, M., 2009. Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative. London: O Books.
Goodman, N., 2005. Pragmatism: Critical Concepts in Philosophy, Volume 1. London: Taylor & Francis.
Sapir, E., 1921. Language: An Introductions to Study of Speech. Harcourt, Brace & Howe: New York.
Taghizadeh, A., 2014. A Theory of Literary Realism. Theory and the Practice in Language Studies, 14(8), pp. 1628-1635.
Tayebi, S., 2015. Reinstating Reality: David Foster Wallace’s Short Stories: A Reading According to Jean Baudrillard. International Journal of Baudrillard Studies, 12(2).
Wallace, D. F., 2004. Oblivion: Stories. New York: Little, Brown and Brown Company.