Volume 5, Number 2 (July, 2008).
Obscene Ethics: A Baudrillardian View of Spurlock’s Super Size Me
Marc J. LaFountain
(Department of Sociology, University of West Georgia, Carrollton, GA 30118, USA)
The world is not dialectical - it is sworn to extremes…not to reconciliation or synthesis…we will fight obscenity with its own weapons… we will not oppose the beautiful to the ugly, but will look for the uglier than ugly.1
Morgan Spurlock’s 2004, Oscar nominated documentary film, Super Size Me, instigated a new level of attention to cultural debates about health, obesity, and the quality of “fast food” in the American and global diets. Spurlock followed the film with Don’t Eat this Book,2 a diatribe against the fast food industry that more deeply and broadly explored issues raised in the film. Along with Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation,3 which inspired Spurlock, Super Size Me delivered a powerful blow to the representations and claims made by McDonald’s and other corporate fast food purveyors.
At stake in Super Size Me were the validity claims made by McDonald’s about the “reality” of its food products and their relation to peoples’ well-being. For Spurlock, well-being referred to more than the generation of corporate and stockholder profits. His focus was the effects of consistent consumption of McDonald’s food (and that of other fast food chains) on peoples’ physical, mental and emotional well-being. The intent of his critique was to expose the inconsistencies and incoherencies in the “spectacle” of McDonald’s.4
The focus of this essay is an examination of Spurlock’s critique of the McDonaldization5 of the embodied person as an example of the ethics that can be found in the work of Jean Baudrillard. McDonaldization certainly constitutes an instance of simulated reality that operates on a globalizing scale. The analysis unfolds by examining Morgan Spurlock’s acclaimed documentary, Super Size Me, as a form of culture critique that employs an ethics of the body. This particular ethics of the body, I argue, is an ethics of excess. In addition, I claim that the ethics of excess are at the very heart of Baudrillard’s “fatal strategy”. The intent then is to analyze Super Size Me as a fatal strategy. In the wake of Baudrillard’s thought, it is often difficult to find concrete instances of fatal strategies in everyday life. I suggest Spurlock’s actions can be considered as giving us a glimpse of such an event.
At the center of the film’s ethics of excess lies Baudrillard’s notion of the fatal strategy, whose tactics involve indifference and acquiescence to the power of the object in hopes of pushing its system of meanings to their limits so that they collapse or are reversed. The “reversibility” Baudrillard advocates is, in his estimation, the only defense against the obscenity and obesity of hyperreality. The Baudrillardian notion of reversibility is what makes Super Size Me so compelling as a critique of McDonald’s. Prior to a discussion of the latter, I will first examine several of Baudrillard’s views of contemporary simulacral society and then examine McDonaldization within this setting. The latter provides a context within which to understand the fatal strategy of Super Size Me. It also necessitates that fatal strategy be considered as an alternative to the kinds of critique typically offered by critical theorists. The essay thus concludes with a consideration of the place of the ethics of excess in dialectical and transgressive strategies of resistance and social change.
II. Hyperreality and Intervention: From Banal Theory to Fatal Strategy
Baudrillard is acknowledged as a provocateur and critic of hyperreal, consumption-oriented postmodern culture. He is also frequently attacked as one who offers little or no moral or ethical guidance on how to resist or rehabilitate contemporary culture. The intent here is not to defend Baudrillard against a variety of critics, but to show how Spurlock’s critique of McDonald’s operates as a lived, embodied example of the kind of ethics that can be found in Baudrillard’s works. While I will not advocate that Spurlock and Baudrillard’s tactics are the only or best approach to adopt, there is little doubt that the moral and ethical implications of Spurlock’s work were abundantly evident as a subversive call for change.
The form of critique with which many critical analysts are familiar and comfortable generally arises from a Hegelian-inspired, critical, humanist perspective. At the heart of this perspective, as it makes its way into various views on race, gender, class, disability, aging, and the like, are the twin figures of the historically situated subject and a dialectical process. Such critical analysis holds that the objects people socially construct take on their own lives and confront them in ways that both enable and constrain them. Of particular interest to critical analysts are the ways that objects become hegemonic and reified and produce suffering, loss, and oppression. Via a dialectical understanding of contradictions or negations within given historical periods, alienated subjects are able to assert normative alternatives to what they have produced that have come to dominate them. The subject reflects on its situation and initiates emancipatory praxis that alters micro and macro social environments to effect a better, more just, fair, right, and sane life.
Such critical approaches are firmly grounded in the modernist Western philosophical tradition associated with Enlightenment humanism. Their guiding ideals are progress, the dispelling of illusion by knowledge, emancipation from unnecessary domination, and the well-being of the creative, autonomous individual. Baudrillard characterizes these strategies of critique and resistance as situations where the subject considers itself to be more sovereign than the object it critiques.6 He refers to such forms of thought as “banal theory”. Baudrillard rejects all forms of banal theory in favor of “fatal theory”. In fatal theory, according to Baudrillard, a “reversal” has taken place where the object has assumed sovereignty over the subject. Here the subject surrenders to the strategies of the object. This reversal of the subject’s knowledge of and domination over the domain of objects, for Baudrillard, is the demise of traditional forms of revolution and resistance that call for an autonomous, historically situated, heroic, self-directing subject.
The source of the reversal and the ascendancy of the object over the subject is a central focus of Baudrillard’s work. Beginning with his earlier Marxist works, the concern was the political economy of the sign. That is, he was concerned not so much with work and political economy but with the increasing structuring of society by and as a system of signs. At one point in modern history, Baudrillard argued, there was a relatively fixed relationship between the object world and those signs and meanings used to understand them. Individuals were assumed to be the authors of these meanings and were considered capable of using them to represent the world and their own interior realities. In the mid-twentieth century, however, the relationship between the sign and the world was profoundly altered by developments in information technology, media, and advertising. No longer did signs represent the world. Instead, the referents of signs became other signs. As Boorstin noted earlier, images replace or are substituted for, rather than represent, the outside world of reality.7 Thus, “reality” is what emerges as signs refer to signs, and signs themselves become more real than “the real”. This self-referential order is what Baudrillard described in the 1980s in Simulations, In the Shadow of the Silent Majority, Fatal Strategies, and the Ecstasy of Communication. The self-referential relationship between signs produces “simulations”, which are the basis of “hyperreality”. In hyperreality, signs do not exchange with nonlinguistic reality, or with the objective world. They exchange only with each other in an “ecstasy of communication” that does not produce meaning or value. What it produces is the frenzy of signs pointing to their equivalents. Because the relationship between the sign and the objective world has been effaced and replaced by simulations, there are no referent points between signs and “the real” by which to establish value or difference.
When meaning and value can be established no longer, and when they themselves are simulated by a profusion of simulations, the social world “implodes” and a silent majority arises. The silence of the majority is marked by a restless consumption of signs and by an inability to determine what values, if any, are at stake in the treadmill of consumption. What then are the possibilities for critical thought, for assertive individualism, or for emancipatory practice? For Baudrillard, there are none.
Baudrillard’s response is fatal strategy. Here the subject gives in to the object and follows its rules, strategies and ploys. Doing this, however, is risky because it can lead to further immersion in the matrix of signs. It can also, however, push the sign system to excess and extremes, to a point where it turns back on itself and collapses or reverses itself. There are no guarantees in the “fatal” gambit. Yet neither are there guarantees with traditional banal theory. Baudrillard’s fatal theory is predicated on Bataille’s Nietzschean notion that the most distinctive feature of humans is not their desire to produce things, but their desire to produce nothing, to expend, to be excessive, to signify nothing in an effort to communicate with others and reach a lost totality that has been sundered by the demands of pragmatic, project driven modern culture.8 Thus, if the system of signs produces nothing but itself and its project of consumption – it can be countered by going along with it and seducing its ruin, according to Baudrillard. To produce nothing is not absolute nihilism, it is rather to produce nothing vis-à-vis the code that demands production. Fatal strategies are thus “catastrophic” because “the system’s own logic turns into the best weapon against…its own logic of perfection”.9 Here “things have to be pushed to the limit…death must be played against death, [for] at the height of their coherence, the redoubled signs of the code are haunted by the abyss of reversal”.10
To signify or produce nothing is to participate in “symbolic exchange” and a “general economy”. Influenced by Bataille, Baudrillard held that a general economy is one whose activities include sacrifice, expenditure, waste, and destruction.11 A general economy stands outside of and counteracts a productive economy in which individuals find meaning by producing something, e.g., capitalism, industrialism, consumerism. A general economy also involves practices where symbols or signs refer to something “real”, e.g., death, desire, excess. Even though the sign or symbol never truly represents or captures the real, it points to the experience of it, rather than to some other sign which is only exchanged for another sign. Importantly, following Bataille, Baudrillard maintains that signifying nothing is associated with sovereignty. Thus, a fatal strategy is an intervention that does not necessitate “praxis”. In fact, Baudrillard’s fatal theory is precisely a kind of “theorizing” aimed at imploding theory in order to get out of its loops of signs so that the “reality” about which theory theorizes can be encountered. It is this strategy the Spurlock practices in his documentary on McDonald’s.
III. Baudrillard, McDonaldization, and Spurlock’s Fatal Strategy
A Baudrillardian view of McDonaldization does not focus on those Weberian issues highlighted in Ritzer’s discussion of McDonaldization, but Baudrillard’s ideas can be seen as radicalizing Ritzer’s concerns about standardization and the future of McDonaldization.12 Instead the focus is on the metastasizing simulation that neuters values by the successive substitution of signs for reality. Where this simulation occurs individuals’ exchanges with their social environments no longer include references to the reality of objects themselves in those environments. Virtual, simulated reality becomes the basis for exchanges. In post-industrial, info-commercial society, it is not just objects that are consumed. More insidiously, signs, confused with objects, drive consumption. What is important to note, however, is that even though the consumption of signs simulates the consumption of objects, objects are in fact consumed. Because the value of these objects is effaced by simulation, an understanding of the value of the objects themselves is minimized or obscured in favor of the value of the signs themselves. In the ecstasy of communication, the meanings produced are grounded in the relations of signs to signs. In Baudrillard’s semiurgic view of the orders of simulation, simulation occurs at the structural level and produces a code in which signs circulate. In this context, McDonald’s is a code in which individuals and their bodies become relays.
According to Spurlock, McDonald’s has succeeded in the game of simulation. He argues first of all that the problem with “fast food” is not that it is fast, but rather that it is not “food”. Instead he calls fast food is “a highly efficient delivery system for fats, carbohydrates, sugars, and other bad things”.13 His analysis of such food is that it is a processed amalgam of fat, sodium, sugar, etc. that is presented as the real thing. For instance, McDonald’s presents the “chicken McNugget” as “chicken”. Chicken typically is taken to be an animal whose flesh can be consumed. Consider the following list of ingredients in McNugget “chicken”, which in addition to some unidentified chicken parts, contains:
Water, modified cornstarch, salt, chicken flavor (yeast extract, salt, wheat starch, natural flavoring (animal source), safflower oil, dextrose, citric acid, rosemary), sodium phosphates, seasoning (natural extractives of rosemary, canola and/or soybean oil, mono- and diglycerides, and lecithin). Battered and breaded with: water, enriched bleached wheat flour (flour, niacin, reduced iron, thamine mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), yellow corn flour, bleached wheat flour, modified corn starch, salt, leavening (baking soda, sodium acid pyrophosphate, sodium aluminum phosphate, monocalcium phosphate, calcium lactate), spices, wheat starch, whey, corn starch. Breading set in vegetable oil. Cooked in partially hydrogenated vegetable oils (may contain partially hydrogenated soybean oil and/or partially hydrogenated corn oil and/or partially hydrogenated canola oil and/or partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil and/or sunflower oil and/or corn oil).14
What is chicken? Or more importantly, does that question, or any other values associated with it, even matter? If the McNugget is a sign of chicken, is consumed as chicken, then for all intents and purposes, it “is” chicken. The real of the sign supercedes the real of the object it simulates.
The matter of the distinction between real chicken and processed, simulated chicken is preempted by advertising claims that the food is associated with the good life. Analyses of the consumption of “fast foods”, however, consistently reveal that excessive amounts of saturated and trans fats, sodium, sugar, and salt are far beyond healthy limits. Advertising claims about caring for customers who are provided with good, wholesome food are taken at their face value. They are taken as presented because simulated goodness is substituted for the literal healthiness of the body. The value of the latter disappears into the hyperreal claims made about goodness. How does this happen?
It happens because fun, and other values associated with leisure, simulate health, well-being, and the good life. McDonald’s has been masterful at associating food with games, toys, and play. Since the early 1970s, Ronald McDonald, a clown, has been the messenger of fun, and “happy meals” are the “goods” he brings. The food itself has been inconsequential. Even more than the consumption of fun and happiness, it is images of fun and happiness that are consumed. It is not just the simulations associated with the consumption of images of health, fun and happiness that are important. For simulation, as Baudrillard reminds, is an ecstatic process. Here its ecstatic nature operates to make equivalents of consumption, on the one hand, and inter-subjectivity and communication, on the other. To consume then is not only to consume things, it is also to commune with others about what is presumably meaningful and valuable. To eat at McDonald’s is not only to be “healthy” and to have “fun”, it is also a sign of affluence, social mobility, fulfillment, leisure, style, and togetherness.
A glance at the code McDonald’s has constructed since the 1960s reveals the simulacra it has instituted.15 In the 1960s slogans focused on the relation of McDonald’s to goodness (1962), quality and freshness (1965), nationalism (1960) and home (1966), and “your kind of place” (1967). In the 1970s the campaign shifted to identity and what is being done for “you”, for you are “the one” (1976) who “deserves a break today” (1971), and, of course, “nobody makes your day like McDonald’s can” (1980). The relationship between McDonald’s and the consumer became more specific in the 1980s when “McDonald’s and You” were coupled (1983). The chain of equivalences became more intimate, as McDonald’s is the place where one has a “good time” (1988). In the 1990s, the code added others, especially family and loved ones, e.g., “food, folks, and fun” (1991). Through the 1990s and into 2000, “what you want is what you get” (1992) because “my McDonald’s” (1997) makes me “smile” (2000), whence I proclaim, “i’m lovin’ it” (2003). The Golden Arches then are more than food, they are the portal to sites where home, family, warmth, care, love, fun, identity, goodness, and even being an American, refer to each other. That a particular kind of food is consumed there is relatively insignificant in the glow of the other signs and their meanings.
Baudrillard notes the proliferating simulation of the simulated collapses the differences between various signs such that one is virtually substitutable for the other. Hence, the “reality” of hyperreality. Spurlock clearly notes how advertising promotes this proliferation, however, the more pressing matter for him is that the food consumed as part of the consumption of various signs is real. And the reality of the food is that it is not healthy for a real body. For instance, McDonald’s website (2007) lists the following nutritional facts: a Double Quarter Pounder with cheese sandwich, a medium French fries, and a small (16 ounce) Coca Cola together contain 1240 calories, 58 g fat, 22 g saturated fat, 6.5 g trans fat, 155 mg cholesterol, 1610 mg sodium, and 40 g sugar. A “Big Breakfast” contains 730 calories, 46 g fat, 14 g saturated fat, 7 g trans fat, 1460 mg sodium, and 2 g sugar. As Spurlock notes in his book, “fast food is fat food”.16 Groups as diverse as the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the American Heart Association, the US Department of Agriculture, the American Cancer Society, American Obesity Association, the Centers for Disease Control, the World Health Organization, the Obesity Society, and the International Obesity Task Force, all without naming McDonald’s in particular, have noted how various nutritional components in the foods of major fast food chains far, far exceed what can be considered healthy. An examination of the nutritional information provided by other corporate chains (e.g., Burger King, Hardees, Wendy’s, Arby’s, Dairy Queen), themselves structural components of the larger fast food matrix, yields similar nutritional values. For instance, Hardee’s “Monster Thickburger” alone offers 1410 calories, 107 g fat, 45 g saturated fat, 229 mg cholesterol, and 2740 mg sodium!
What is at stake for Spurlock is health and well-being. Super Size Me poignantly reveals that the flow of signs, in which there are signs referring to health and goodness, has erased values associated with health, goodness and well-being. There is no reality outside the flow of signs that can serve as a point of comparison or difference. The ecstasy of communication thus leads to silence and acquiescence. The silence, however, is only a silence with regard to any concern for anything outside the code of the signs. Otherwise, the ecstasy of communication is deafening in its absorbing, imploding noise as McDonald’s and other fast food chains’ locations and profits proliferate.
How does one break the silence? How can the code be resisted or altered if there is nothing but its self-referentiality? Baudrillard rejects all banal theories because “the subject still believes himself to be more cunning that the object…[where] the power of the subject lies in its promise of fulfillment”.17 Modern ideology critique, grounded in a dialectical discourse of emancipation, is no longer possible, according to Baudrillard. As Goshorn notes:
…the challenge is how we (artists, theorists, anyone) can begin to formulate a strategy that could outwit the deterrence posed by the code…[that] serves as an omnipresent, invisible power dissuading people from behavior that is not commensurate with prevailing commercial and state versions of reality.18
Where the hyperreal is more real than the real and resembles only itself, establishing strategies of opposition are problematic. Lane notes that “the disturbing point to all this is that the hyperreal doesn’t exist in the realm of good and evil, because it is measured as such in terms of its performativity – how well does it work or operate?”19 How well it operates can only be answered in terms of its functions within the model that generated it.
In fatal strategies one gives in to the object and follows its rules and moves. Defeated by the object, the subject disappears. This disappearance, however, holds out the possibility of reversing the process by which the subject disappeared. This does not mean though that the subject itself will reappear once and for all to assert its autonomy and control over objects. Giving in to objects means instead following them according to their demands, following them in a way that actually takes those demands to their limits where excessive following becomes transgressive to the demands themselves. Here rebellion and revolution are replaced by active indifference and compliance with the object’s seduction. When the object is pursued according to its provocation, it becomes “obese”, overripe, and can collapse under the weight of its own desire and machinations.
Baudrillard argued that there is only one fatal strategy that can be pursued: theory. Much of his late work (e.g., Seduction, The Perfect Crime, Impossible Exchange) is dedicated to the sacrifice of theory and its incommensurability with reality and its complicity with simulation. “To be the reflection of the real, to enter into a relation of critical negativity with the real, cannot be theory’s end. This was the pious vow of a perpetuated era of Enlightenment…”20 Baudrillard’s intent is not to produce theory because theory produced by and for the subject is a banal strategy. Theory only produces a “surplus of meaning” that hastens “the immense process of the freezing over of meaning” that “assists in the precession of simulacra and of indifferent forms”.21 Instead the desire is to push theory to the limit where it mutilates itself in its efforts to portray what it cannot ever present. At this excessive limit theory signifies nothing and disappears, countering the ideologies of production and performance so central to the operation of simulacral consumer society. It is advanced here that Spurlock embodies a fatal strategy that is related to the auto-destruction of theory. Implicitly, the theories Spurlock subverted are those related to the subject’s possibly emancipation from alienation and McDonald’s “theory” of the good life.
Spurlock’s sacrifice of his body was his own kind of fatal strategy. He did not just analyze and theorize McDonaldization, he went beyond and became “an event”22 in the universe he described and embodied in Super Size Me. Spurlock became an event by passing over from the domain of a sovereign subject to the sovereignty of the object. His fatal strategy was to be what McDonald’s wanted him to be. He became an extension of “a screen and a network…[where] the surrounding universe and our bodies become monitoring screens” that mirror the screen itself.23 He consumed McDonald’s food morning, noon, and night, taking advertising claims as presented. He fulfilled the destiny of the object by being its simulation, by becoming little more than “the immanent surface of the development of operations, smooth surface, operational, of communication”. In this space, there is “no longer transcendence…[for] this body, our body, appears basically superfluous, useless in the extension, multiplicity and complexity of its organs, tissues, functions, since everything today is concentrated on…an operational definition of being”.24
Spurlock’s strategy was to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner at McDonald’s for 30 days. Prior to partaking of this diet, Spurlock received a battery of tests from three physicians specializing in gastroenterology and hematology, cardiology, and internal medicine. He also retained the services of a nutritionist. Proclaimed to be very healthy prior to beginning his diet, Spurlock’s health rapidly declined once he began the fast food diet. So serious was the degradation of his body that his doctors and nutritionist literally feared for his life. Manifesting numerous ailments, including acne, headaches, bloating and weight gain, excessively high cholesterol levels, high blood pressure, liver damage, lethargy and depression, and disinterest in sex, he nonetheless completed the 30 day regime. Viewers of the documentary can see that his appearance was decreasingly that of someone neither healthy nor vital.
Spurlock’s documentary operates as an instance of what Williams25 refers to as “body genre” films that jolt the viewer’s body as a means of communication. Though Baudrillard considers the body to be more or less superfluous, except as a node in the ecstasy of communication, it simultaneously operates as an “obese” and “obscene” reversal of its superfluousness. Herein lies the way a fatal strategy works. By acceding to the object and pursuing its ends to become like it, Spurlock was able to counter the invisibility of the body, which has disappeared in the flux of signs. The very obesity and obscenity of Spurlock’s own body made it appear as a reversal of or modality of its disappearance. The effect was to recreate “the scene” of the body that had disappeared in simulation.26 The scene of the body is the “real” that defies the hyperreal. Baudrillard refers to obesity not as a physical condition, though it is that, but as a “mode of disappearance of the body”.27 The obese are those who exhibit a “monstrous conformity…a deformity by excess of conformity…[a] saturated and empty collusion with a system of signs”. Obesity infects individuals as well as entire cultures. Bodies that are obese have ecstatically consumed the reality produced by the sign system with no reflection on what it means for the well-being of their bodies. For Baudrillard, reflection has been displaced by a vacuous mirroring. Because there is only mirroring, there are no longer any rules or scenes by which the body can apprehend or discern itself. It becomes lost in the circulation of simulacra and becomes the very visibly of those signs. Obese bodies “claim a sort of truth, and in fact they do display something of the system…they are its nihilist expression”.28 They are the ironic perfection of the system.
The visibility of obesity is glaringly documented in studies done by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO). For instance, in the U.S., the CDC (2007) indicates that between 1976-1980 and 2003-2004, the prevalence of obesity among adults aged 20-74 increased from 15% to 32.9%. For young people during those times, rates increased from 5% to 13.9% for those aged 2-5, 6.5% to 18.8% for those aged 6-11, and 5.0% to 17.4% for those aged 12-19. The CDC also reports that the results of The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey revealed that 30% of American adults aged 20 and older are obese. Globally, the WHO has reports equally startling figures. The WHO (2007) estimates that as of 2000 there were over 300 million obese adults and another 18 million children under age 5 classified as overweight.
When bodies and culture are gorged with signs and are the visibility of those signs, they become “obscene”. Obscenity occurs when there is a “perpetual engendering of the same by the same”.29 That is, when the simulation produced by signs refers only to itself, the signs become more real than the real. As this occurs, it is no longer possible to differentiate the body from the signs that simulate it. Obscenity resides in a condition of transparency where the lived body is no longer visible in the play of simulation, and the simulation itself becomes excessively visible.
The obesity and obscenity of Spurlock’s body, like those of others in contemporary culture, were made possible by his indifference as he followed McDonald’s claims about what is real. In the ecstasy of communication, Baudrillard notes that the obscene “is that which eliminates the gaze, the image, and every representation”, for obscenity is no longer about “the hidden, the repressed, the obscure” but rather “the visible, the all-too-visible, the more-visible-than-visible”.30 In such a condition one forgets the real, natural body because it has disappeared into the total visibility of a regime of signs. Nonetheless, the consumption of McDonald’s signs produces not just the obesity and obscenity Baudrillard describes, but also the obesity of Spurlock’s body. The “perfect crime” here is that the real body has disappeared. It has disappeared because the symbolic has disappeared.31 When the symbolic occurs, there is an exchange between a sign or representation and a real world thing, e.g., the natural body. Where there is this exchange, there is a “secret” (Baurdillard, i.e., something outside of, exotic to, the sign that destabilizes the sign’s spell and power.32
Embodying acquiescence and indifference to the sign and becoming obese and obscene, Spurlock’s fatal strategy had the effect of recalling the symbolic. Here obscenity is reversed because Spurlock “rediscovered illusion”.33 To counter the obscene, one must become more obscene than the obscene, more obese than obese, more indifferent than indifferent, more fatal than fatal.34 That Spurlock subjected himself to such a dangerous and ignominious strategy can be seen as “immoral and maleficent”.35 Yet, Baudrillard argues, fatal strategies and seduction are what is left if there is to be any challenging of simulation and disappearance. To be a nihilist in Baudrillard’s terms is to be one who is “forced to ‘pro-duce’ things, in the literal sense of the word, because things have fallen under the yoke of meaning, into the deep wherefrom they must be extracted, and made to reappear in the order of the visible”.36
The perilousness and maleficence of Spurlock’s fatal strategy is that it embodies symbolic exchange. Symbolic exchange, as noted, refers to an exchange between signs and something real in the world. The “secret” in such exchange is that the sign refers to the real, but it operates by the agreed upon illusion that it actually refers to something else. Thus, in ritual sacrifices or potlatch, for instance, it is assumed that sacrifice and destruction refer to something other than just death and destruction. The secret is that it does refer also to death and destruction, but that sting is absorbed in the symbolic. In simulation, where the sign is more real than the real, the secret and the illusion are lost. When symbolic exchange is reintroduced, it disrupts or reverses the sign’s self-referentially by being indifferent to the sign’s indifference to the real, thereby pointing to something other than its circuitry.
Spurlock’s fatal strategy was thus to seduce simulated reality to effect a reversal of its obscuring of the real consequences of McDonald’s hyperreality for real bodies. Spurlock created a scene where reversibility could play out. “The entire strategy of seduction is to bring things to state of pure appearance, to make them radiate and wear themselves out in the game of appearances”.37 He sacrificed his well-being, indeed, risking his very life. The spectacle of his body genre documentary of the demise of his body and health effected a powerful irruption of difference in (and as form of resistance to) the spectacle of hyperreality. Nonetheless, for several reasons, the reversibility Spurlock stimulated does not return sovereignty to the subject once and for all. One reason is that now is the time of the domination of objects and simulation, and as quickly as they are seduced and reversed, they will mutate, metastasize and return once again. Another reason is that in symbolic exchange, seduction, and fatal strategies, subjectivity is impossible in that to produce such subjectivity, one must continually expend, sacrifice, and destroy one’s very self and identity. This was perhaps Spurlock’s most poignant point.
Drawing upon Leder’s discussion of the “dys-appearing body” (the taken-for-granted body that appears only when it is dysfunctioning, e.g., in illness or pain), it could be said that Spurlock intentionally induced the dys-appearing body as a medium for communication.38 Within the context of modernist critical approaches, such jolts are a means, as noted also by Williams above about “body genre” films, by which to move individuals along a path toward a cognitive understanding of the differences between truth and deception. Here, however, in the context of a Baudrillardian ethics of excess, these tremors reestablish symbolic exchange as a reversal of the functioning of signs in simulacral culture. In simulacral culture signs refer only to themselves and there is no reality outside their domain. Symbolic exchange, however, transgressively draws upon the excess and alterity of the “real” that is outside of sign systems. The problem with symbolic exchange, however, is not just the immanence of excess, but also that it requires sacrifice, expenditure, destruction, and disappearance. Further, for the “real” of symbolic exchange to be coherent, it must be embedded within a context or scene of meaning and value. Spurlock’s fatal strategy was to sacrifice his body in order to produce a spark that would highlight the asymmetry between signs and the reality of the lived body when that body is reinserted into McDonald’s hyperreality. The ensuing rupture and disjuncture permits the viewer to experience the singularity of the other as a living being. This arguably is a basis for the emergence of ethical concern. Super Size Me’s fatal strategy makes a first move in this direction by sacrificing a body to reveal the emptiness and incoherence of the self-referential sign system it transgresses.
What a move this is. The question now arises, what do we do next? The ethics of excess cannot answer this question. Its disclosure of a living body suffering at the expense of a system of signs and objects, however, opens a space in which answers can and should be given. In the midst then of the “nihilism” and “terror” advocated by Baudrillard is a chance for surprise and hope even though hope is not the primary face of a fatal strategy. Of course, reversibility never ends, so such a strategy would condemn us to having to constantly sacrifice identity and body in favor of change. It is necessary then to consider the place of a fatal strategy within the complex that includes critical analysis, resistance and intervention, and ethics. The following brief discussion highlights three possible, but not exhaustive, scenarios within which to situate a fatal strategy.
IV. Singularity, Transcendence, Advanced Dialectic?
One context within which to understand a fatal strategy is that in which it is a moment of excess – a gaping, irreconcilable opening. Such a rupture could be considered a singular act that is nihilistic or anarchic in nature. Here nihilism might reside in either the lack of meaning or value or even in the abandonment of any concept of subjectivity or historicity. It might be seen as risky and dangerous because of its lack of foresight or plan. It might also seem perilous because it assumes no normative underpinnings. Viable questions here are: how much sacrifice, suffering and/or death is enough before meaningful, right change is produced? Will such change even occur? Does this tactic produce hope or hopelessness? Who should make such a sacrifice, and under what circumstances?
Another context is to take a fatal strategy as an opening moment in what is otherwise the movement of transcendence. Here sacrifice, expenditure, and death are regrettable but necessary gambits in the service of a higher objective of reconciliation and overcoming. In this light the fatal strategy is the work of a heroic subject who restores the sovereign agency of the subject. That such a subject might be damaged or perish at a point early in this movement of transcendence only brings glory to the individual while sanctifying and solidifying the larger movement itself. The notion of a dialectical process gathers together various activities under a banner that guards against the possibility that particular sacrifices will disappear as only singular events.
Perhaps a more perplexing context is that of the notion of an “advanced dialectic” where transgression and transcendence appear to form a dialectic but in fact remain incommensurable, irreconcilable aspects of what it means to be human, to live, and to suffer.39 An advanced dialectic is one where the negativity of expenditure, death, and destruction is impossible to integrate into a coherent whole and where it is also impossible to do away with the necessity of negativity. Here the recuperative power of dialectical movement and transcendence exist side by side with the negativity and seeming nihilism and terrorism of singular acts of sacrifice. Stoekl noted that an advanced dialectic has a utopian quality, yet its movement in this direction betrays and subverts it. The relationship between transcendence and the fatality of fatal strategies is thus undecidable, as is the possibility of considering any other scenario that would not include both. Baudrillard implies as much when he states that thought must play a role that is both “catastrophic” and “humanist”.40 Spurlock’s embodied thought was such an event. Spurlock is not a Baudrillardian. Nor would Baudrillard likely have agreed with Spurlock’s project given that it veers too close to leftist moralism and its banal theory. On surface, Spurlock is a leftist, but as suggest here, such a reading obscures the excessive dynamics of his sacrifice of his body.
The intent of the preceding discussion was not to provide a comprehensive treatment of these scenarios, but to sketch out a call for meaningful consideration of both Baudrillard’s “nihilism” and “terrorism” and Spurlock’s body-grounded ethics of excess. The power of Spurlock’s documentary is that it is evocative as much as provocative. What it is that is called out, and calls out, must be taken seriously. Spurlock’s ethics of excess necessitated that he sacrifice himself not for a particular predefined normative end, but for the sake of transgressing a limit in order to reveal the incoherence of the limit. In hyperreal culture where the sign is more real than the real, instigating or participating in the revenge and reassertion of the real that has been displaced is a complicated activity. Spurlock’s fatal strategy makes sense when forced into being a moment of a dialectic. When such a dialectic is difficult to discern, or even impossible, the ethics of excess arises both as a dreaded necessity and an improbable, subversive source of value.41
Marc J. LaFountain is Professor of Sociology at the University of West Georgia where he teaches courses on phenomenological sociology, visual sociology, sociology of emotions, the body, and critical theory. He also serves as Program Coordinator for the interdisciplinary Environmental Studies program. His book, This is Not an Essence: Dali and Postmodernism, was published by SUNY Press (1997). The focus of his research has been phenomenological sociology, critical and postmodern theory, cultural politics, ethics, art, and the body. Current research investigates phenomenology and tai chi, and Blanchot and Dali.
1 Jean Baudrillard. Fatal Strategies. New York: Semiotext(e), 1990:7.
2 Morgan Spurlock. Don’t Eat this Book: Fast Food and the Supersizing of America. New York: Putnam, 2005.
3 Eric Schlosser. Fast Food Nation: the Dark Side of the All-American Meal. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001.
4 Guy Debord. The Society of the Spectacle. Detroit: Black and Red, 1976.
5 George Ritzer. McDonaldization: The Reader. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press, 2002.
6 Jean Baudrillard. Fatal Strategies. New York: Semiotext(e), 1990:181.
7 Daniel Boorstin. The Image (1961). New York: Vintage, 1992.
8 Marc La Fountain. “Bataille’s Eroticism, Now: From Transgression to Insidious Sorcery”. In Hugh J. Silverman (Editor), Philosophy & Desire. New York: Routledge, 2000:26-41.
9 Jean Baudrillard. “Symbolic Exchange and Death”. In Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings. (Edited by Mark Poster). Stanford University Press, 1988:123.
11 Georges Bataille. The Accursed Share (Volume 1). New York: Zone, 1991:19-41.
12 George Ritzer. McDonaldization: The Reader. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press, 2002:255-266.
13 Morgan Spurlock. Don’t Eat this Book: Fast Food and the Supersizing of America. New York: Putnam, 2005:24.
16 Morgan Spurlock. Don’t Eat this Book: Fast Food and the Supersizing of America. New York: Putnam, 2005:84.
17 Jean Baudrillard. Fatal Strategies. New York: Semiotext(e), 1990:181-182.
18 Keith A. Goshorn. “Jean Baudrillard’s Radical Enigma: ‘The Object’s
Fulfillment Without Regard for the Subject’”. In Jean Baudrillard: The Disappearance of Art and Politics. Edited by William Stearns and William Chaloupka. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992:213.
19 Richard J. Lane. Jean Baudrillard. London: Routledge, 2000:86.
20 Jean Baudrillard. The Ecstasy of Communication. New York: Semiotext(e), 1988:97.
21 Jean Baudrillard. Simulacra and Simulation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994:161.
22 Jean Baudrillard. The Ecstasy of Communication. New York: Semiotext(e), 1988:99.
24 Jean Baudrillard. Fatal Strategies. New York: Semiotext(e), 1990:66.
25 Linda Williams. “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess”. In Film Genre Reader II. Edited by Barry Keith Grant. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995:140-158.
26 Jean Baudrillard. Fatal Strategies. New York: Semiotext(e), 1990:27-28.
30 Jean Baudrillard. Fatal Strategies. New York: Semiotext(e), 1990:22.
31 Jean Baudrillard. The Perfect Crime. London: Verso, 1996.
32 Jean Baudrillard. The Ecstasy of Communication. New York: Semiotext(e), 1988:50-51.
33 Jean Baudrillard. Fatal Strategies. New York: Semiotext(e), 1990:51.
34 Jean Baudrillard. “Symbolic Exchange and Death”. In Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings. (Edited by Mark Poster). Stanford University Press, 1988:101.
35 Jean Baudrillard. Fatal Strategies. New York: Semiotext(e), 1990:51.
36 Jean Baudrillard. The Ecstasy of Communication. New York: Semiotext(e), 1988:62-63.
38 Drew Leder. The Absent Body. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.
39 Allan Stoekl. Politics, Writing, Mutilation: The Cases of Bataille, Blanchot, Roussel, Leiris, and Ponge. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985:131.
40 Jean Baudrillard. Passwords. London: Verso, 2003:92.
41 Editor’s note: Indeed, the problem begins with a consideration that the illusion of appearances is the vital illusion. We do not know the real merely the appearances behind which it hides. See Jean Baudrillard. Illusion of the End. Stanford University Press, 1994:94. The problem of deploying Baudrillard for “practical” theoretical purposes accelerates, in relation to a dialectic when we consider his writing about dialectics: “Dialectics are finished, another regime has taken over…” (Jean Baudrillard in Baudrillard Live: Selected Interviews. London: Routledge, 1993:91); “My way of reflecting on things is not dialectic, rather its provocative, reversible, a way or raising things to their Nth power” (Ibid.:82); “Dialectics have ended, life is now ruled by indeterminacy”, (Jean Baudrillard. Symbolic Exchange and Death. London: SAGE, 1993:59); and “We have to stave off this dialecticizing temptation” (Jean Baudrillard. Fragments: Conversations with Francois L’Yvonnet. New York: Routledge, 2003:69). Baudrillard appears to have been as interested in dialectics as he probably was a 30 day diet of McDonalds, the ensuing book, a feature length documentary or the Morgan Spurlock action figure (stuffing its acne coated face with a Big Mac), which, not surprisingly, McDonalds is yet to develop and include with its “Happy Meal”.