Steven Shaviro

M.T. Anderson's young-adult science-fiction novel Feed is almost suffocating to read, because of how it places us within the flow of the market, of information and of commodities. In the novel's future world there is no transcendence, no escape, no outside – not even an outer space. The feed to which the book title refers is the voice of Capital inside your heads. Everything that we know today in the form of television, computer, mobile phone and internet is available, interface-free, through a chip implanted inside your brain at birth. (At least, if you belong to those 73 % of the population who can afford it.) It is all one continuous, immanent flow: instant-messaging with your friends, hearing the latest music, watching comedies and dramas, getting the news (though most people aren't interested), looking up words you don't know and facts about any subject – above all, getting constant exhortations to buy, with ads that are context-sensitive and tailored for your own particular bundle of preferences, as revealed in your purchasing history. »But the biggest thing about the feed … is that it knows everything you want and hope for, sometimes before you even know what those things are.« The feed is great, especially if you're an affluent, postliterate teen with lots of time on your hands (which is likely, since there's so little you actually have to do: the main topics of study in a completely privatized school are things like how to work technology and how to find bargains and what's the best way to get a job and how to decorate our bedroom).
Feed parodies both suburban teen-speak and the relentlessly upbeat language of advertising and media. The teenage narrator, Tinus, speaks in a breathless monologue: »We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to be completely suck. It was the beginning of spring break. Everything at home was boring. Link Arwaker was like I'm so null and Marty was all I'm null too, unit. But I mean we were all pretty null, because for the last like hour we'd been playing with three uninsulated wires that were coming out of the wall. We were trying to ride shocks off them. So Marty told us there was this fun place for low-grav on the moon. Low-grav can be kind of stupid, but this was supposed to be good.« The stream of consciousness is scarcely even interrupted by the advertising messages that continually break through: »We've streamlined the Testa Coil for personal use – you can even wear it in your hair! … Relax, yawn, and slump! While our greased cyber-massage beads travel up and down your back!« Or, again: »I think I can help you come up with products that really say You. They'll shout You! You! You!, as if it was always Saturday!«
Anderson's novel is a bravura act of linguistic impersonation, more precisely, of vampiric possession. No actual living teenager is as vapid and unreflective as Tinus seems to be. In fact, even the most conformist, consumerist, trendy and outwardly unreflective teens are consumed inside with anxiety, loneliness, uncertainty and a paralyzingly exacerbated self-consciousness. But the point is that there is no language to express these feelings, aside from commodity language – and no way to enact them, except by buying more products. So commodity language colonizes Tinus' mind and the mind of all the other characters, and indeed Anderson's text itself. People will even pay for their own colonization, if it's cool enough. One of Tinus' friends gets a Nike speech tattoo … »It meant that every sentence he automatically said Nike. He paid a lot for it. It was hilarious, because you could hardly understand what he said anymore. It was just This fuckin' shit Nike, fuckin', you know, Nike etc.«
Even the most sensitive character, Tinus' girlfriend Violet, remarks at one point that »everything I think of when I think of really living, living to the full – all my ideas are just the opening credits of sitcoms«. To be is no longer to be perceived, as it might have been in the age of Foucault's Panopticon or Debord's Spectacle. Today, such models of social control are obsolete. Instead, to be is to be wired into the feed, so that its voice cannot be disentangled from your own. McLuhan meant it literally when he said that electronic media were an extension of the human nervous system. The only extrapolation in Anderson's novel is that this is now accomplished on a physiological level: »The feed is tied in to everything. Your body control, your emotions, your memory … the whole brain is tied in to the feed.«
The feed is a kind of Eternal Now, a full-mind and full-body immersion in streaming multimedia. Technical glitches aside, satisfaction is instantaneous: whatever you want, can be purchased and uploaded, right away. There's no need for deferred gratification or for some Freudian reality principle. What Freud called »hallucinatory satisfaction« – the infant's immediate projection of wishes into reality – becomes actual in the feed. As long as the flow of credit is maintained, the flow of sensations is uninterrupted and full. And just as the age of print culture gave way to that of electronic culture, so now we have moved into »oneiric culture, the culture of dreams … we have only to stretch out our hand and desire … what we wish for is ours«. This, once again, is capitalism as utopia, and part 3 of the novel, even entitled »Utopia«, explores the workings of the feed in the greatest detail.
The feed is a flow in which everything is always changing. Fashion is extremely volatile, so there's always something new you have to buy – only to throw it away soon afterwards, when it has become passé. As Tinus complains, »it was like I kept buying these things to be cool, but cool was always flying just ahead of me, and I could never exactly catch up to it«. And throughout the novel teen girls are rushing to the bathroom to redo their hair – as much as two or three times in a single evening – because they've learned from their feed that the styles have changed. In the feed you can't step into the same river twice; but precisely because it is pure immanence, pure change and pure difference, it is absolutely monotonous: for the mere fact of continual, meaningless and directionless change is the only positive feature it possesses. Ernst Bloch could be defining the feed (though he is actually referring to Bergson), when he characterizes capitalism's drive for novelty as »sheer aimless infinity and incessant changeability; when everything ought to be constantly new, everything remains just as it was … a merely endless, contentless zig-zag«.
Anderson's book is dedicated »to all those who resist the feed«. But the novel is mostly about the difficulty of such resistance. »Everyone feels bad about the fact that corporations rule the world«, Tinus says, »but it's no good getting pissy about it, because they're still going to control everything whether you like it or not«. For her part, Violet resists by »trying to create a customer profile [for herself] that's so screwed no one can market to it. I'm not going to let them catalog me. I'm going to become invisible«. In order to confuse the marketers, she shops for – but never actually buys – the oddest assortment of products: »… home endoscopy kits … barrels of institutional lard … industrial lawn mowers …« and so on. As rebellions go, this one is pretty mild. But it's enough to provoke the feed to literally – physiologically – destroy her. Her chip starts to malfunction, and she can't afford the repairs. She tries to get corporate sponsorship to pay the bills for her rehabilitation, but she's turned down because »we don't feel that you would be a reliable investment at this time. No one could get what we call a handle on your shopping habits«. And so, as the software/wetware interface deteriorates, she suffers physical consequences. Since the chip is hardwired into her brain, »they can't just turn it off«. As the chip fails she isn't just disconnected from the feed, she also experiences seizures, memory loss and partial paralysis. She finally falls into a permanent coma: an exemplary fate for anyone who is unwilling to remain just a consumer.
Once I have been fitted with the feed, I can no longer imagine life without it. It is my rationale and my cogito, the very ground of my being. Life apart from it is simply inconceivable. As Kant says, »intuitions without concepts are blind«; and commodity concepts are the only ones we have. Tinus is therefore unable to understand, or empathize with, what Violet is going through. He withdraws from her, deletes her messages unopened, breaks up with her in irritation. And Violet, lacking any concepts to articulate her own disintegration, keeps on apologizing to Tinus for the wrongs he does her, until her own consciousness slips away. Tinus himself is not an unreliable narrator, but something far more troubling: a narrator who is reliable as to the facts, but utterly uncomprehending as to their import.
Feed has a poignancy that makes it more than just a clever satire of the media and of marketing, which any snob who refuses to watch TV could approve of. (Such a snob is represented within the novel itself by Violet's ineffectual father, who's sort of the future version of someone who hates pop culture and only listens to NPR.) The novel extends to itself, and to us its readers, this sense of the impossibility of thinking and feeling outside of the categories upon which its world is grounded. The book ends with the exhortation that »everything must go« – which should be a radical call to arms against the feed, but is in fact the advertising slogan of a going-out-of-business sale.