M. T. Anderson’s Feed (2002) depicts a future society that is spiraling out of control on a path toward hedonistic, consumerist self-destruction, as the powers that be in this world metaphorically fiddle away while the world around it decays into economic and environmental ruin. Anderson’s future society is hurtling toward apocalypse, though the society continues to march forward on the path of capitalist self-indulgence, while doing little or nothing to combat the collapse of the natural world, a collapse that is, in fact, largely the result of that same capitalist self-indulgence. In an important wrinkle, though, the environmental collapse that seems to be threatening this society has actually already occurred. The natural environment has been essentially destroyed, yet the people of this future United States, egged on by their political leaders, continue to ignore and deny the reality of climate change and its destructive effects, preferring to focus on technological progress in the hope that technology can somehow keep people alive (and keep capitalism profitable) as the world collapses around them.
As I have discussed in two separate earlier essays, many aspects of the society described in Feed make Anderson’s novel a classic work of dystopian fiction, greatly resembling earlier classics of the genre such as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953). Feed was also on the forefront of an early-twenty-first-century explosion in the production of dystopian texts for young adult readers, a phenomenon of which Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games novels probably represent the best-known example. Where Feed differs from all of these other dystopian texts is in exploration of climate change and environmental collapse, phenomena that are, in Anderson’s novel, directly related to the effects of consumer capitalism. In this sense, Pohl and Kornbluth’s The Space Merchants, published exactly half a century earlier, might be Feed’s most direct predecessor, though it lacks Anderson’s focus on youthful characters and of the impact of consumer capitalism and the popular culture it produces on those characters.
In some ways, the world described in Feed is a direct extension of the postmodern world described by Fredric Jameson agt the beginning of the 1990s. Jameson does not emphasize climate change or the environment in his description of postmodernism, but he does describe postmodernism as the cultural manifestation of a world in which global capitalist modernization is complete, in which all earlier forms of cultural organization have been swept aside and nature itself has been replaced by a thoroughly commodified version of culture. For Jameson, “Postmodernism is what you have when the modernization process is complete and nature is gone for good” (ix).
Jameson is talking here largely about cultural phenomena, but nature, in the world of Feed, seems to be gone for good in a literal sense. In what amounts to essentially a parody of Golden Age projections of scientific progress, this is a world in which travel to the moon and Mars and even the moons of Jupiter is relatively routine (though still expensive) and in which the iconic flying cars of early science fiction fill the skies. These skies, though, are themselves artificial. The atmosphere has been rendered so toxic that individuals live in tightly controlled environments with fake skies, fake weather, and fake farmland, all operated at a profit by private capitalist companies. In one horrifying outing, the book’s protagonist and main narrator, Titus, flies in his “upcar” with his girlfriend Violet to visit a farm—a filet mignon farm, to be specific, that grows what we now refer to as “cultured” or “cellular” meat, but that also directly recalls the Chicken Little meat factory in The Space Merchants. As Titus and Violet walk through the “farm,” he notes that “it was like these huge hedges of red all around us, with these beautiful marble patterns running through them. They had these tubes, they were bringing the tissue blood, and we could see the blood running around, up and down. It was really interesting. … They had made part of it into a steak maze, for tourists, and we split up in the steak maze and tried to see who could get to the center first” (142). Then, Titus and Violet climb to the top of an observation tower, where they can sit together and view the farm from above. “We were sitting side by side, with our legs swinging on the wall of the tower, and the Clouds™ were all turning pink in front of us. We could see all these miles of filet mignon from where we were sitting, and some places where the genetic coding had gone wrong and there, in the middle of the beef, the tissue had formed a horn or an eye or a heart blinking up at the sunset, which was this brag red, and which hit on all those miles of muscle and made it flex and quiver, with all these shudders running across the top of it, and birds were flying over, crying kind of sad, maybe seagulls looking for garbage, and the whole thing, with the beef, and the birds, and the sky, it all glowed like there was a light inside it” (144).
What is striking, of course, is the extent to which Titus has been conditioned (thanks to corporate domination of the educational system) to regard all of this as natural and normal. In a telling commentary on the willful disregard of ongoing climate change in our own world, Titus (and, presumably, everyone else in this world) is perfectly well aware that an environmental collapse has occurred but simply chooses to ignore it or even to regard it as a perfectly natural and ordinary thing. In addition, even though excessive exploitation of the natural environment has essentially destroyed that environment, forcing the characters to live inside protected environments, the society reacts with still more exploitation of nature, as even environmental destruction is turned into a corporate resource. Whales, for example, are nearly extinct, but that just makes them more valuable: a few of them are kept alive in the heavily polluted oceans by supplying them with a “non-organic covering,” just so they can be hunted down and killed as an activity designed to promote bonding among members of corporate management teams, as when Titus’s father goes on one such “corporate adventure” late in the text, much in the way that the Savage Reservations of Brave New World are regarded as an exotic vacation destination available only to the most privileged citizens of the World State (280–83).
The father, of course, like other members of the management team, remains blissfully aloof to the obvious allegorical implications of this whale-hunt, in which the wanton destruction of a beautiful and valuable natural resource (not to mention an intelligent living creature) is carried out purely in the interest of the goals of the corporation, with no attention paid to the larger costs of the enterprise. Nature is there to be used and manipulated for profit, just as the feed-driven education system teaches children that information is there to be used in an instrumental way, without any need for true understanding or appreciation.
The most powerful force that conditions citizens in Feed to accept the world around them is also the element of that world that separates them most from genuine nature. In a very real sense, the citizens of this future America (especially the younger ones, such as Titus and his friends) live their lives more within the virtual environment of the feed than within the actual material world. The feed functions very much like the internet, except that it works on a device implanted in the brain (usually during infancy) and that its thoroughly integrated with the functions of the brain, making the information from the feed available in an especially direct way. Unfortunately, access to all of this information seems to be making people dumber, rather than smarter, as they passively depend on the feed to send information to them rather than thinking for themselves. In addition, while the feed allows Titus and his friends to stay in constant touch with one another in the mode of today’s social media, this constant communication seems to contribute more to alienation than to genuine connection by becoming mechanical and superficial.
Given all of these motifs, it would be easy to see Feed as rejecting technology altogether. Indeed, Jennifer Miskec sees a thoroughgoing rejection of technological modernity in Anderson’s text; comparing Feed with Cory Doctorow’s 2007 novel Little Brother, Miskec concludes that “while Anderson longs for a time without technology, Doctorow endeavors to promote a critical eye toward our technology-centered society” (73). In particular, Miskec notes that, in Little Brother, technology can serve as a tool of either oppression or resistance, while in Feed, technology seems to serve only the powers that be. I would argue, though, that Anderson is quite similar to Doctorow in this respect: Anderson does not reject technology altogether but simply the irresponsible and self-serving use of technology by the corporate powers that thoroughly control the technology (and the society) of Feed.
Violet and her family, of course, serve as emblems of resistance to technology in Anderson’s novel—but they really resist a specific kind of corporate-dominated technology more than technology in general. The daughter of parents who do not have feed implants, Violet did not have hers installed until she was six years old. As a result, her feed did not fully integrate with her brain, ultimately leading to her death—though one could argue that she was killed by resistance to technology as much as by technology. In the meantime, though, by being the major character in the novel who is the least thoroughly integrated into the feed, she is also the most self-aware, the one who is most able to realize things to which the other characters, numbed by information (and by drugs) seem oblivious. For example, she is the character who is most aware of her alienation from others. Late in the novel, she explains why she had wanted to have a relationship with Titus, emphasizing that she had felt alone since she was born (like all of the film;s teenage characters) in an artificial facility: “I wanted someone to know me. I thought it would be like when you’re finally tied to the dock.” She thought about it more. She said, “I was brought into the world in a room with no one there but seven machines. We all are. My parents watched through the glass when I was taken out of the amniotic fluid. I came into the world alone” (270).
And individuals in this society remain alone, despite constant connection to the feed, meanwhile, this constant connection leads to a loss of genuine individualism, as individual subjects become merely interchangeable elements of the capitalist economic system, functioning more as consumers in a sea of consumerism than as thinking citizens, hardly able even to experience genuine feelings in the traditional sense. Unable to experience any genuine sense of historical continuity, these fragmented postmodern subjects are most of all unable to imagine any genuine historical change brought about by concerted political action. Instead, they merely go with the flow and accept what they learn from the feed.
While Feed includes classic science fiction motifs such as domed cities, flying cars, and recreational trips to the moon, its principal “novum,” or technological innovation that sets the world of the text apart from our own real world, is the “feed” of the title, which is essentially little more than a version of our internet, except that it operates via implants in the brains of individual citizens, allowing them to be directly on-line at all times. The feed is particularly popular with the young, like the teenage narrator/protagonist Titus, who have grown up with it, having known no world in which they were not continually in the feed. In short, the young characters of Feed have virtually no experience of reality that is not mediated through the feed, living in the state that Jean Baudrillard described as hyperreality, a key aspect of the postmodern condition, in which “reality” has dissolved altogether, replaced by simulations that are representations for which there is no original in reality. Thus, ensconced in their domed neighborhoods, the book’s young characters observe fabricated elements of nature such as simulated clouds and simulated sunsets.
For Jameson, postmodern art represents the complete triumph of commodification in the aesthetic realm, reducing works of art to the status of pure commodity. Meanwhile, the emphasis on suppression of feeling that informs not only the productions of the feed, but also social attitudes toward sex and drugs in the society of Anderson’s novel, corresponds quite closely to the notion of the “waning of affect” that Jameson sees as a central consequence of life in the postmodern world, where a general flattening of experience and a fragmentation of the subject make deep feelings of any kind more and more difficult (10). It is easy to find Titus unlikeable for his lack of support for Violet as her condition reaches a crisis level, but the novel suggests that he has simply been conditioned not to provide such support.
The feed, like our own internet, seems to have four basic functions. First (and the sense it which it most resembles the popular culture of Huxley’s World Society), it pumps a never-ending stream of entertainment alternatives into the brains of consumers, helping to distract them from the overwhelming economic and environmental crisis that surrounds them. This mindless entertainment works, like the products of Horkheimer and Adorno’s Culture Industry, essentially to pacify and stupefy individual consumers—though it should also be noted that it is extended into a druglike experience analogous to Huxley’s soma, in which specialized sites are designed to disrupt normal brain functioning, sending the user into a state of “mal,” (though this state can be reached by literal drugs, as well). Second, the feed provides an unprecedented consumer experience, providing consumers with an endless array of advertisements customized just for them that helps direct them to various shopping sites where they can make purchases with the flick of a brainwave, as it were. Third, the feed does have educational applications and is heavily used in the privatized schools that pass for an educational system in this future world, though these applications operate more in a mode of indoctrination than true education, much like the hypnopaedic instruction in Brave New World. Finally, perhaps the most forward-looking aspect of the feed in Anderson’s text is its advanced use of social networking (in a book published two years before the founding of Facebook). Indeed, Titus is constantly on-line with his friends, “chatting each other” and sharing virtually all of their experiences in real time. Unfortunately, this experience seems, rather than furthering a genuine sense of community, to act more as a suppression of individualism, making all of the book’s teenage characters tend to look and act alike, which, of course, furthers the purposes of consumer capitalism, for which marketing is greatly simplified if individual tastes are highly standardized.
Thanks to the technological resources of the feed, the society of Anderson’s book has taken this sort of stimulation to consume to a whole new level, as Titus and his friends experience a world in which their very brains are filled with advertisements at all times. Thus, in one telling scene, Titus, in a bout of teenage angst, rebels against the world around him in the only way he can imagine—not by refusing the imperative to consumer, but by consuming even more. Distraught over the impending death of Violet (essentially at the hands of the feed) he undergoes a seeming moment of rebellion when he frantically strips off all his clothes, as if to rid himself of the trappings of consumerism. But, with nothing else left to do, he then engages in an on-line shopping binge by excessive shopping for more clothes. When the feed points him toward a sale at an on-line site called “Multitude,” he orders a pair of “draft pants.” Finding little satisfaction in the purchase, he orders another pair, then another, all in the same nondescript “slate” color. Then he tracks them through the system via the feed, feeling them moving toward him, as if this is the only way he can gain a sense of agency and control, a sense that, for once the feed is doing his bidding, rather than the reverse (292–93).
As Clare Bradford has noted, in this society “the young are offered consumerism as a substitute for participation in citizenship” (129), so Titus here, frustrated with the status quo, can think of no action to take but to buy things. Titus knows only what the feed tells him to know, so it is no surprise that, in his moment of impotent rage against the feed, he turns simply into more use of the feed, buying pants he doesn’t need until his on-line bank account is entirely depleted.
This mode of excess is typical of his generation. The closest they can come to conceiving a teenage prank against the system, for example, occurs when the Coca-Cola company (still thriving in this future world) offers a promotion in which free Cokes are awarded to consumers who mention the product in their everyday conversations, thus making the consumers themselves part of Coke’s far-reaching web of advertising. In response, Titus and his friends decide to mention Coke constantly, even if it makes no real sense in their conversations, so they “decided to take them for some meg ride by all getting together and being, like, Coke, Coke, Coke, Coke for about three hours so we’d get a year’s supply. It was a chance to rip off the corporations, which we all thought was a funny idea” (158). In short, Titus and his friends maintain enough teenage rebelliousness to want to undermine the corporations that they know dominate their world, but they have insufficient imagination to be able to conceive of any rebellion beyond doing in excess what the corporations actually want them to do.
Of course, points in this Coke-mentioning program are also deducted if the product is mentioned in a negative way or if the consumer says anything positive about Pepsi, apparently still the main rival to Coke, making it clear that the feed works both ways: not only does it virtually direct every thought of its individual participants, but it detects their thoughts and behavior as well, knowing their every move and their every utterance, keeping them under total surveillance at all times. Implanted in the very brains of individual subjects, it is the ultimate in panoptic observation and subtle psychological control.
From this point of view it is significant that Violet, the one member of Titus’s circle who actually has some experience of reality that is unmediated by the feed, is the only one who is able to mount even the semblance of a resistance to the feed. After all, she continues to have access to information from sources other than the feed because she is home schooled by her professor father, who prefers books to the feed and who attempts to instill in Violet some genuine critical thinking abilities, while maintaining in their home a connection to the past via his collection of physical books and other now-obsolete artifacts of a world gone by. Violet, for example, has even been taught to write with a physical paper and pen, an ability that Titus finds both quaint and amazing.
Neither Violet nor her father, though, is unable to conceive of any genuinely subversive mode of resistance to the feed. Violet’s reluctant parents, for example, realized how disadvantaged she would be by not having a feed implant, and so had one belatedly installed. Subsequently, she does seem more resistant to the feed than her friends, but the best she can come up with as a mode of subversion is to try to confuse the feed’s ad-targeting software by visiting sites in which she actually has no interest, so that it cannot accurately calculate what her true interests are. Meanwhile, her parents’ delay in having her fitted with a feed implant proves her undoing; after an anti-feed activist hacks the feeds of the teenagers while they are vacationing on the moon, the others eventually recover, but she contracts a fatal disease, apparently because her implant is less integrated with her brain due to the late installation.
The society of Feed does not directly use its implants to program individuals in the mode of robots, but then it doesn’t need such technology because it is so good at manipulating individuals’ attitudes and actions through the feed. On the other hand, it does seem headed in the direction of Brave New World–like genetic manipulation. There is, for example, a considerable amount of research into genetic engineering going on in this society, and individuals can even be produced as clones of famous historical personages, as when one of Titus’s friends, Link, apparently turns out to be a clone of Abraham Lincoln, cloned, Titus tells Violet via chat, “from the bloodstains found on Lucy Todd Lincoln’s opera cloak” as part of a government experiment, to which his family had access because they are “really old and mega rich” (186). Titus himself has been engineered from a variety of genetic sources. He has, for example, the chin of an actor his parents thought was going to be a big star (though he never quite made it).
Violet quickly corrects Titus’s identification of “Mary Todd Lincoln,” but he has little interest in the detail, his education having taught him that such things are not important for individuals to know or remember, because it can always be looked up on the feed. Titus recalls a time when his grandparents were kids when the schools were still run largely by the government (something Titus has been conditioned to regard as fascistic), but by the time of his generation these public schools are a thing of the past, replaced by a vast for-profit corporate enterprise that runs the entire educational system as one large School™. Moreover, whereas the earlier public schools were concerned with imparting what Titus regards as useless facts, like “this happened in fourteen ninety-two, da da da da” (109, Anderson’s italics), this new corporate school system “teaches us how the world can be used, like mainly how to use our feeds” (109-10).
This emphasis makes clear both the tendency of this society to see the world as an object to be used (especially by Americans, despite the fact that the inhabitants of the rest of the world seem to be getting increasingly fed up with being used by Americans) and the belief that the main thing that needs to be learned in schools is how to use the feed, because the feed itself will take care of everything else, ensuring that the knowledge individuals have of the world will all be mediated through the feed, giving them virtually no direct unmediated access to reality.
The lack of interest in historical facts expressed here by Titus may seem little different from the attitudes of many people in our own contemporary world—just as the impact of the feed seems to grow out of the projected fears of many parents in our own world that the internet will make their children lazy and stupid, more adept at Googling than at genuine understanding or critical thought. Thus, Titus tells us that parents were initially excited by the prospect that the feed would place a virtually unlimited fund of information literally within the brains of their children. As he notes, “Everyone is supersmart now. You can look things up automatic, like science and history, like if you want to know which battles of the Civil War George Washington fought in and shit” (47).
It is clear from this passage, of course, that, even with easy and constant access to the feed, Titus knows virtually nothing about history—nor does he want to know anything, because he prefers to rely on information from the feed, while he, meanwhile, concentrates on its more entertaining aspects. This lack of any real interest in history clearly relates to the loss of historical sense that Jameson sees as a key symptom of the postmodern condition.
Titus and his friends know that the world is collapsing around them, and they themselves even experience lesions and a variety of physical ailments that indicate their reaction to the toxic environment in which they live. But their only way of dealing with this fact is to distract themselves via the feed, keeping themselves entertained, or even drugged, so that they do not have to deal with, or even think about the reality that faces them. The lesions themselves even become fashion statements: this society can turn anything and everything into a marketing opportunity. The one thing Titus and his friends are utterly incapable of doing is conceiving of a project of political action that might lead to genuine historical change. They have, in short, no ability to view their present situation as something that will one day be the historical past of a new and different world, displaying precisely the lack of a “perception of the present as history” that Jameson sees as crucial to the postmodern inability to think historically (284). In this sense, they again directly resemble the citizens of Huxley’s future world, who have been taught in an even more calculated way that the lessons of the past are useless, that “history is bunk,” as Henry Ford, worshipped in this hyper-capitalist society almost as a deity himself, notoriously claimed. Yet Ford epitomized the very attitudes that led the world of Brave New World to ruin in the first place, so it is little wonder that relying on his wisdom has produced a postapocalyptic world that is dystopian, rather than utopian.
By the end of Feed, conditions appear grim indeed. Still refusing to acknowledge that they have an environmental crisis, Americans are literally falling apart, losing their hair and even their skin, as conditions become more and more toxic. Yet Americans remain blissfully oblivious to the fact that the earth is “dead” and “almost nothing lives here anymore, except where we plant it” (273).
Meanwhile, the rest of the world is beginning to rebel against American domination (and American pollution of the environment), banding together in a “Global Alliance” to try to prevent themselves from being dominated by the U.S. but also to try to prevent the U.S. from destroying the natural environment. Thus, late in the film, the Prime Minister of the Global Alliance announces, in the most radical proposed solution to climate change since John Brunner’s The Sheep Look Up in 1972, that “the physical and biological integrity of the earth relies at this point upon the dismantling of American-based corporate entities, whatever the cost” (242–43). A major global crisis is thus brewing, yet the characters in the book, benumbed by the feed, continue their lives as if nothing is happening. Indeed, an apocalypse has really already occurred but no one has noticed, thanks to their distraction by the feed
Feed thus ends on a somber note, with an apocalypse seemingly on the way. At a personal level, Titus similarly sinks into despair at the side of Violet’s deathbed, trying to conceive of a vision of resistance to the feed “set against the backdrop of America in its final days” (297). But then the feed itself kicks in and has the last, apocalyptic word, repeating one of advertising’s best-known mantras in a context that makes its message particularly chilling, suggesting little hope for this society: “Everything must go! Everything must go. Everything must go.” Given the state of the natural environment in the world of this novel—and given that no one is still doing anything to try to correct this situation—it seems inevitable that everything must go.
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