Stomaching the Consequences of Posthumanism: Capitalism and Interdependent Consumption in M.T. Anderson’s Feed
Academic Essay by Julia Tikhonova
M.T. Anderson’s Feed portrays a dystopian world in which the seemingly fixed epistemological framework of what it means to be human is provokingly destabilized. Renegotiating the boundary between humans and machines, citizens in Feed live with neural implants; these installations in their brains redefine every aspect of their existence. Aligning with Anderson’s vision of a “new” humanity, Katherine Hayles, in How We Became Posthuman, posits, “technology has become so entwined with the production of identity that it can no longer meaningfully be separated from the human subject” (xii). By using Hayles’s theory as a critical template for reading Feed, the reader uncovers how the permeability of the human/machine boundary results in an irreversibly new human subjectivity and social reality. Evidently, the consumption of the old organic human form is not a one-way, parasitic endeavor of corporate technology, but equally contributed to by humans: the novel depicts a vicious “feeding” cycle in which humans are fed on by the corporate system, yet also feed on its commodities in return. In this paper, I argue that upholding the posthuman subjectivity demands human interdependence with technology for survival; humans in Feed reciprocate both the literal consumption of their physical bodies and the metaphorical consumption of their mental thoughts and desires. As a consequence of being so inextricably linked to technology, humans’ resistance to its bodily and mental consumption is futile because in their attempt to destroy it, humans inevitably destroy themselves.
An arresting polysemic induction into the novel, Feed’s title may be read as a noun or a verb, cleverly collapsing the corporations’ feeding on consumers with the Feed of corporate commodities inside consumers’ brains. Typically defined as providing nourishment or fuel to someone who is unable to provide for him or herself, feeding is intended to initiate growth and progress. Fundamental to this definition, then, is the assumption of dependency; whoever is fed becomes inherently dependent on their provider—not only for progress but also for mere physical and mental survival. When FeedTech initially introduced their Feed microchip, it was intended to advance citizens’ access to information. At first glance, the relationship between the Feed and humans acquires a predatory nature: the corporate technology spirals completely out of control, parasitically consuming bodies, minds, histories, languages, cultures, and the silence of critical reflection, providing in their place an overdose of commodities. The Feed may be read a simultaneous moneymaking machine and a cannibal-like spirit, eating the citizens alive. The growth-enabling definition of “feed” becomes a virulent paradox; characters in the novel are both physically and mentally infantilized as a result of their never-ending purchases from the neural implant. Through the Feed, people are permanently maintained as dependent on corporate feeding in order to operate. However, upon nuanced inspection, Feed’s title also reveals the interdependency of humans and machines: since the technology is infused into every aspect of individuals’ existences, both require each other to survive. As much as the neural implants feed on human bodies, citizens similarly feed the machine of capitalism and its treadmill of production through their purchases; thus, the human and machine are no longer two mutually exclusive entities. Violet reveals this through her cyclical accusation—she says to Titus’ friends, “You’re feed! You’re being eaten!” (Anderson 202); she later continues, “Look what you’ve made yourselves! […] A monster!” (202). Humans are not only being eaten, but have also become cannibal monsters themselves. Depicting an amalgam of the consumer and consumed, Feed details humans’ apocalyptic transcendence from subject to subjected, from human to posthuman. Yet, who can resist against this reality and, in doing so, survive? Academics Elizabeth Bullen and Elizabeth Parsons, upon investigating this crucial question, conclude that Feed offers an answer: “no-one” (135).
Quite literally feeding on the body, the technological chip embedded in peoples’ brains severely manipulates their physical appearances, constructing a new subjectivity in which the organic body is inseparable from the technology it beholds. As “a sophisticated satire aimed directly at the shortsightedness of monolithic late capitalism” (Morrissey 192), Feed portrays the capitalist system at its most grotesque, as a gluttonous cannibal force that blurs the boundary between what—or whom—is being consumed. Physical bodies are treated both by corporations and by humans as malleable and disposable, portraying Hayles’ nightmarish vision of “a culture inhabited by posthumans who regard their bodies as fashion accessories rather than the ground of being” (5). Accordingly, not only do Titus and his friends compulsively purchase the latest fashions, but they are also desensitized to the absurd availability of “places where you could buy extra arms” (Anderson 8) and “tooth extensions” (Anderson 96). The body is treated as a commodified object that can be easily modified, manipulated, and limitlessly reconstructed to any extreme; through this consumption, Titus himself fuels the engine of capitalism, truly embodying the expression “you are what you eat.”
One of the epitomic examples of human bodies’ interdependence with corporate technology is the evolution of teens’ perceptions of their lesions. Initially, lesions are an omnipotent, apprehensive reminder of the consequences of the society’s environmental degradation—a physical manifestation of the citizens’ unsafe living conditions. Due to the complete negligence of safety regulations, bodies are literally eaten alive, peoples’ lesions depicting an emblem of corporate devouring. This shows Feed-tech’s cannibal-like desire to discard humans of their organic bodies, an imperative aspect of the individual subjectivity, in order to transform them from subjects to objects. As the narrative progresses, however, lesions are made into a fashion trend, first shown off by movie stars, then further emulated by teens. In fact, multiple lesions are privileged over few, to the extent that teens voluntarily pay for more of them; when Quendy shows up to a party, her entire body is intentionally ornamented with artificial lesions: “her muscles and tendons and ligaments and stuff” (Anderson 199) are seen through them. Instead of realizing the monstrosity behind this self-mutilation, Titus’s friends comment that the lesions are “a good look”—even “sexy” (199). Along with an astute portrayal of corporations’ ability to turn anything—and anyone—into a commodity, the popularization of lesions reveals the reciprocal ignorant compliance of adolescents in the scheme, metaphorically depicting teens’ inability to think critically about the context in which the products they consume are produced. Their shallowness is portrayed quite literally, as their bodies slowly become transparent and physically emptied. Reciprocally feeding the forces of capitalism, the teens play a major role in consuming their bodies and literally commercializing their own deaths.
Being the only teenager irrefutably unwilling to use her body as an accessory, Violet’s character seemingly represents a sliver of hope; however, the trajectory of her activism and eventual physical collapse serve as a cautionary tale, proving the impossibility of resisting the Feed. In many ways contradicting other teenagers, her body is “placed in opposition to the artificial throughout the entirety of the text” (Hutton, Miller, and Braithwaite 4). When the reader is first introduced to Violet, she is “wearing a dress of grey wool. It wasn’t plastic, and the light didn’t reflect off it. Wool. Grey Wool” (Anderson 17). The emphatic, self-persuading repetition of ‘wool’ depicts the immense rarity of natural materials in the novel’s society, as well as the narrator’s wonder and perplexed disbelief at being confronted with an organic fabric. Similarly, Violet’s name saliently opposes those of the other characters; rather than sounding modern and artificial, her name embodies nature, symbolizing a committed subscription to the wild over the technological. Through her name and natural appearance, Violet initially seems innately unable to seamlessly integrate with machines. Nonetheless, it is notable that the manifestation of the failure of her resistance begins with the erosion of her organic body. Because the Feed has been programmed within her, its technology has already unalterably fused with her body; consequently, both must feed each other. Thus, by resisting the Feed, Violet invariably contributes to her own deterioration as she destroys an integral part of herself. Disconnecting her body from the technology within it causes numbness and physical decay: “her degenerative illness presents as cascading, technologically-induced physical symptoms, memory lapses, and mood disorders” (Gooding 122), since the technology infested within her body is involved with all her physiological processes. Violet’s death tragically symbolizes the futility of escaping the posthuman form: without the reciprocal interdependent consumption of both capitalist technology and the human subject, the posthuman cannot survive.
Although the Feed is intertwined within the anatomy and physiology of posthuman bodies, it is also involved in much more: it “configures human being so it can be seamlessly articulated with intelligent machines” (Hayles 3, emphasis mine). Of course, human “being” embraces not only the body, but also cognition and mental processes—the complete assemblage of an entirely new subjectivity. Feed’s teens are subject to an intoxicating, dangerously inseparable flow of both human thoughts and corporate-infused information at all times. Language, the basis of thought and one of the most powerful tools of human agency, is corrupted, being emptied of its richness and diluted into a corporate rhetoric of meaningless, monosyllabic statements. The title of the teenagers’ favourite television show, “Oh? Wow! Thing!” clarifies that the complexity and connective power of language is lost; it is replaced only with mindless entertainment which is reversely enthusiastically consumed by the teenagers. By exhausting language of its dynamic meaning-making potential, corporations dislocate humans’ ability to produce complex thoughts and interpretations, enforcing the erasure of reflection and individuality. The reciprocity of such drainage in expression is further shown in Titus’s failed attempt to express his fascination with Violet: “Her face, it was like, I don’t know […] Her spine was, I didn’t know the word. Her spine was like…?” (Anderson 13-14). He demonstrates a reduced world, void of the space in which passionate, meaningful expression once was. Because language has been commodified by the inescapable corporate technology, citizens become restricted within its confines, unable—and unwilling—to articulate their thoughts without its help. Titus does not bother to think of a word to describe Violet, instead ignorantly consuming the Feed’s offering of “supple” (14). Through “dramatizing of the discursive effects of the feed to reveal the imbrication of subjectivity” (Gooding 117), the text shows the consequences of dead objects governing the voices of living subjects. Infantilized through their dependency on the vocabulary provided by the Feed, the teens consequently emulate corporate language, depicting the lethargic apathy of the posthuman mind. This “apocalyptic fate of a postliterate capitalist culture” (Morrissey 199) is the result of the mutual consuming efforts of corporations and posthumans.
As an extension of its control of mental thought and discursive habits, the technology in Feed also prescribes people with cultural scripts, stripping away their psychosocial agency. Using individuals’ consumer profiles, the implanted technology “engineers desires” through an advertised network of text and media (Bradford 128). Because the youth feed on such products, it is questionable whether their most intimate emotions and desires are truly their own, or only a result of the inculcation of scripts from mass-marketed television shows and pop lyrics. If the ability to feel and express emotions is a quality of being human, then “losing control over one’s emotions, or having them controlled for you, puts one’s humanity in question” (Ostry 236-237). Accordingly, throughout the novel, Titus’s feed is bombarded with a plethora of music lyrics, all of which perpetuate dominant discourses of heteronormative cultural scripts of love. Interspersed with advertisements for various products, painfully cliché hit songs such as “I’ll Sex You In” (Anderson 37), “Bad Baby” (15-16), and “Hold Me Tight” (132-33) portray love and longing as desirable objects of consumption through their banal lyrics.
After constantly being fed with such media, Titus invariably emulates these exposures of romance, simultaneously consuming and feeding the capitalist system. Throughout his relationship with Violet, Titus is unwilling to prioritize her interests over his own; evidently, he does not love Violet for who she is, but reduces her to what consumer culture depicts her as—he is only enthused by the culturally appropriated opportunities of holding hands, kissing, and driving her around in his new car. When his friends and family confront Violet for being pretentious, Titus repeatedly fails to defend her, instead prioritizing his own humiliation. In fact, after Violet exposes his friends’ lack of knowledge about politics, Titus tells her, “Maybe you shouldn’t, you know, show off like that […] using weird words. […] Saying weird shit” (Anderson 167). Here, he confrontationally attempts to pathologize her heightened intelligence, immediately finding fault in her rather than exerting an effort to acknowledge her point of view. Even as Violet dies, Titus re-creates their romance in the form of an impersonal, highly predictable, and idealized Hollywood movie trailer. He frames a PG-13 rated movie in which “this meg normal guy […] meets a dissident with a heart of gold […] it’s the high-spirited story of their love together, it’s laugh-out-loud funny” (Anderson 297). Titus’s hopeless corporate-inspired script, having “no explanatory status beyond his futile desire for a happy ending” (Bradford 136), demonstrates his lack of character development or empathy through his relationship with Violet. Instead, Titus commercializes his relationship, only re-fueling the capitalist machine by replaying the cultural scripts that feed him.
Perhaps because her dysfunctional, belatedly-installed Feed leaves space for critical thinking, Violet is not seduced by commodities in the same way that the others are; however, her psychological resistance leads to the destruction of her own mind, portraying the fatal danger of defiance. Initially, she attempts to intentionally resist technology through her shopping mall experiment. Embarking on a mission of “complicating [and] resisting” (Anderson 99), Violet creates an unreliable consumer profile for herself by falsely showing interest in a plethora of random products that she does not end up purchasing. By outwitting the Feed, she hopes to reclaim her psychological agency and prove the inability of machines to predict, calculate, and control humans. However, this very resistance is precisely what causes her mental collapse, reifying the societal necessity of human and technological interdependence. When Violet becomes unprofitable as a consumer, she is spat out by the corporate system, ineligible to receive healthcare or monetary assistance for her mental breakdown. As well as diminishing her basic cognitive abilities, the Feed distorts her individual desires by implanting them with commercialized social scripts: after telling Titus what she wishes to do before she dies, Violet admits, “all my ideas are just the opening credits of sitcoms […] My god. What am I, without the Feed?” (Anderson 217).
In this disturbing, yet vital, epiphany, Violet despairingly realizes that she and her Feed are unable to exist as two mutually exclusive entities—this is her ultimate articulation of futility. Essentially, the posthuman’s cognitive wiring provides two options: either survival through the mutual co-operation of human and corporate technological feeding, or death. Feed’s society has long passed the point of transforming back to the organic human form—technology and humans are unalterably fused together; thus, Violet contributes to her own annihilation by attempting to dismantle the influence the Feed.
Evidently, Feed does not promise hope for any youth in the (post)human future; all that is assured is a shockingly reduced, dumbed-down world through a portrayal of consumed agency at the point of no return. Using Katherine Hayles’ theory as a theoretical lens, this paper has endeavored to show that Feed’s reality is achieved not solely through the parasitically coercive efforts of technology, but rather through the reciprocal, interdependent undertaking of humans and corporate technology in the consumption of organic bodies and minds. In other words, the emergence of the posthuman is not to be blamed on corporations alone, but on their co-operation with humans. In fact, this co-operation is so intricately entangled that resistance is futile: because humans and technology have become inseparable, killing the technology inevitably kills the human. While it does not offer a solution, Feed certainly provides food for thought. Masterfully orchestrating an anxiety-inducing, inexpressibly discomforting space for its readers, the text forces us to reflect on our own consumer based societies. Through the method of frightening readers into awareness, the text illuminates an urgent call to action. Opening the door to critical thoughts and conversations, the novel urges youth to ensure that the malevolent system in Feed does not become a reality.
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