In this extended Talking Point, Kelsie Donnelly reads George Saunders’ short story ‘Jon’ (In Persuasion Nation, 2006) through the lens of Jean Baudrillard’s celebrated theory of hyperreality (Simulacra and Simulation, 1981).
According to Baudrillard, hyperreality is a ‘model of the real without origin or reality’ (Selected Writings 166). It is constructed from ‘simulacra’, which challenge truth, objectivity, and ‘reality’ by feigning the existence of reality. The ‘reality’ which is constructed within the hyperreal, thus, appears to be more real than reality. Consequently, the boundaries which demarcate illusion and real collapse. The Facility, which Saunders constructs, embodies Baudrillard’s definition of hyperreality. Baudrillard argues that the sign, be it words, images, symbols, or objects, originally reflected a ‘profound reality’; later, it evolved to distort or ‘denature’ reality; then, it pertained to ‘the absence of a profound reality (6). Finally, the sign’s relationship with reality has dissolved to the extent that it exists as a ‘simulacrum’ or a copy of the real. I propose that Saunders’s Jon displays the unravelling stages of Baudrillard’s ‘sign’ which impels his readers to reconsider what constitues the truth and reality in today’s society.
Baudrillard’s second phase in the evolution of the sign signifies a distorted reality. The managers of the facility employ hyperbolic rhetoric which dilutes and disguises the truth. One such instance is Mr Dove’s attempt to persuade Jon to stay within the Facility. He says:
why would a talented young person like yourself wish to surrender his influence in the world and become just another lowing cattle in the crowd, don’t you know how much people out there look up to you and depend on you? (47).
Appealing to Jon’s ego, and painting a grossly exggerated misrepresentation of Jon’s status, Mr Dove conceals the most pertinent reason for retaining Jon: that he has been well conditioned to life within the Facility. Thus, Jon does not think autonomously, and he is productive having won awards for his assessing prowess. At the time of Dove’s plea, Jon is not disillusioned with the quasi-totalitarian state of the Facility. Dove and his fellow authoritarians nourish the development of self-satisfied assessors who do not desire anything other than what is imposed on them, and who do not seek the truth. Dove twists the true state of the situation to conjure up a polished view where Jon is showered with compliments, celebrated to the extent where he assumes a God-like status. Undeniably, in a consumerist society, where the importance placed on products is paramount, an assessor of goods and services is indeed valuable. Jon, however, exists in the Facility as a product himself. Jon’s passive confirmation of Dove’s allusion, ‘And that was true’ (47), contradicts precisely the distorted image of the all powerful Jon which Dove has sewn. Dove’s subversion infiltrates the true state of reality, which illustrates the ease with which meaning and truth, the unreal and real, can blur into one.
In The Vital Illusion (2000), Baudrillard writes, ‘virtual history is here in place of real history; the information the replica stands for, stands in for, the definite absence of that real history (50-51). He adds that society salvages fragments of history for infotainment value; Western culture selectively chooses and erases historical documents and events in accordance with the historical narrative they wish to construct, namely a more perfect, mythic past. In a world where truth is relative, historical events are refashioned and recuperated to fulfil our ‘retro fascination’ (Simulacra 44). In his depiction of the Facility, Saunders illuminates the selective erasure of historical facts to demonstrate the unreality which plagues contemporary society. The figure of Jon’s ‘mom’ on the Memory Loop epitomises Baudrillard’s third stage of the unravelling of the sign, for it masks the absence of a basic reality. The figure of Jon’s fictitious mother is that of the archetypical family matriarch ‘baking a pie’, who is a mouthpiece for the Facility operators. ‘Her’ reason for parting with Jon is dripping in sentimental language, ‘I love you so much, which is why I did the most difficult thing of all, […] so that you could use your exceptional intelligence to do that most holy of things, help other people’ (39). The mother is an illusion; an image constructed by the Facility, to mask the absence of Jon’s familial history: the reality he was born into prior to becoming a product of the Facility. She features on Jon’s ‘memory loop’ (39), which ‘stands in for’ the absence of Jon’s real history, until he is shown footage of, what is supposedly, his ‘real’ mother. Jon responds to ‘his mom’s’ explanation by saying, ‘Thanks, Mom, you have always been there for me…’(39). The hyperreal appears to be more ‘real’ than reality. Consequently, his ‘mom’ appears real and is not deemed fictional, although she is a simulacrum. Baudrillard writes:
When the real is no longer what it used to be, nostalgia assumes its full meaning. There is a proliferation of myths and origins and signs of reality; a second hand truth, objectivity and authenticity […] the production of the real and the referential (1989:171)
The managers of the Facility have erased Jon’s history and replaced it with a whitewashed version in order for Jon and his fellow assessors’, ‘own good, not wanting you to feel bad about who your real mothers were’ (52). The stylized mother’s explanation for leaving her ‘son’ is a refracted from Jon’s ‘real’ mother’s. His original mother’s own reason is, ‘due to my relation with the dad’ (51), with the extension of giving her child a better life, the latter vocalised by the ‘unseen guy’ (51) who primes her. In this way, historical truth is volatile for it is dependent on those who seek to refashion it. In addition, the renaming of Jon ruptures the relationship between sign and signifier, that is the name of Jon no longer signals Jon embodied. ‘Jon’ is thus rendered a simulacrum by the managers, a representation or a copy of the real Jon. The fabric of the representation of ‘Randy’ is woven from ideological, predominantly capitalist, threads and stitched together through illusory stories and images, ‘Aurabon’, and the psychobabble of the management.
Baudrillard offers a framework in which to understand Saunders interest in advertisement discourse and its misrepresentations of reality. Baudrillard argues that advertising fragments the relationship between a sign and its reference in reality. It is the constructed representation of the product, its sign-value, rather than its component qualities, its use-value, which matter. Advertisements operate as an ‘automised medium i.e. as an object referring not to real objects, not to a real world or a referential dimension, but from one sign to the other, from one object to the other, from one consumer to the other’ (Simulacra 125). Accordingly, the value attributed to the advertised product is allocated according to its portrayal, that is, a representation of a representation or a simulation of a simulacrum. In the advertisement for ‘Lysol’, a cleansing product, the creation of meaning and subsequent prominence placed on its sign-value, bears testimony to Baudrillard’s theory. Firstly, the bottle assumes vocal capacities, as it delivers the ultimatum, ‘you are either with me or agin me’ (31). The depiction of the bottle declaring an iconic ultimatum is not grounded in historical meaning or in actuality. Rather, it is meaningful with respect to the world of the theatrical fight of good versus evil or hero against the enemy. In this context, ‘Lysol’ becomes the ‘sign’ of this web of associations and assumes a new meaning. The advertisement does not convey information about the functioning quality of ‘Lysol’, but situates it in a sphere along with other un-related signs, such as the grease stain embodying ‘evil’, characterised by the Mexican bandolera and ‘threatening fist’ (31). Effectively, the Lysol’s cultural significance is enhanced and it is valuable according to its embodiment of ‘goodness’. Subsequently, the Lysol product is moralised which catapults it toward the realm of unreality even more so. The fact that upon perceiving Carolyn’s statement, ‘you are either with me or agin me’ (31) Jon immediately recalls its reference in the advertisement demonstrates the extent to which reality, for him, is entrenched in unreality. It is the simulation of a simulacrum which facilitates his understanding. Incidentally, it cannot escape one’s notice that the ultimatum Lysol delivers is a variant of that uttered by Bush, ‘Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists’. Nor is it accidental that the grease stain is portrayed as a cultural other. Bush uttered the words in the ‘real’ world, but now they are being articulated by a talking bottle. Bush plucked the ultimatum from a world distinct from the ‘real’ world where morality is not such a dichotomous issue. In doing so, Saunders conflates the real and the hyperreal which propels the reader to question their assumptions of the constitution of reality and who constructs it.
Jon’s linguistic incapability also illuminates how advertisement discourse promulgates hyperreality. The advertisement discourse becomes the lingua franca. Jon’s self-deception is apparent for he believes that he is adequately expressing his own feelings. He declares:
‘I do not want to only speak of my love in grunts! If I wish to compare my love to a love I have previous knowledge of, I do not want to stand there in the wind casting about for my metaphor![…] if I want to say Carolyn, Carolyn, LI34451, check it out, that is how I feel about you – well, then, I want to say it! (30-31).
Jon’s articulations are dependent on the retention of the simulations which the media generates, the only means through which Jon can draw insight and meaning.
Baurdillard writes, ‘by shifting to a virtual world, we go beyond […] negativity […] ‘we are dealing with an attempt to construct an entirely positive world, a perfect world, expurgated of every illusion, of every act of evil and negativity…’(The Vital Illusion 66). The Facility attempts to construct this utopian state but it does so on the basis of eradicating disorder and human desire. This is evident from the beginning of the story when Jon recounts the instructional video, ‘It’s Yours to Do With What You Like!’ in which, ‘teens like ourselfs speak on the healthy benefits of getting off by oneself and doing what one feels like in terms of self-touching’ (23). Love is described as a ‘mystery’, but the ‘mechanics of love’ need not be (23). The mystery of love is unknown to them, and the managers of the Facility do not appear to have facilitated their understanding of it for they have no advertisement to draw insight from. Self-love through masturbation, however, can be operationalised and contained. Mutual love and eroticism epitomise Baudrillardian ‘evil’ in the facility. Josh’s sexual escapade with Ruth disrupts the perfectly functioning order. Josh moves ‘snakelike’ into the girls’ quarters (24), which conjures up associations with the serpent tempter who instigated man’s fall in the paradisiacal Garden of Eden. Josh’s act leaves ‘evil’ in its wake; the outpouring of collective grief, a human emotion but unproductive, when Amber dies. To exorcise the ‘evil’, Jon and his fellow assessors are plied with Aurabon to readmit them to the realm of delusion.
The authenticity of human emotion remains with Carolyn as she cannot take Aurabon to quell the grief. Consequently, she appears more in tune with nature, devoid of the artificiality which envelopes her fellow assessors. This is reflected not only in her desire to leave the Facility but also in her language. She states, ‘wake up and smell the coffee, you feel bad because a baby died, how about honouring that by continuing to feel bad, which is only natural…’(29) and on hearing Slippen’s ironic statement that, ‘Nobody can know someone else’s experiences’ (33), Carolyn responds, ‘Larry, no offense but you are talking shit’ (33). In a world where language is removed from human emotion and meaningless, Carolyn’s words resound for they are the only source of truth and individuality in the Facility. Saunders creates a relationship of equivalence between Carolyn’s name and embodiment, sign and signified: Carolyn is the ‘real deal’, as they say, and the simple articulations of her emotions reverberate in the text as they are meaningful and do not mask her true intentions. As Eve ate from the tree of knowledge then encouraged Adam to do so, Carolyn’s desire to exit prompts Jon’s ‘fall’ from the Eden-like Facility. When Jon peers out of the door at the outside world he describes it so:
Looking out, I saw no walls and no rug and no ceiling, only lawn and flowers, and above that a wide black sky with stars, which all of that made me a bit dizzy, there being no glass between me and it (55).
Jon merely catches a glimpse, and it is framed within the confines of hyperreality, but the disorientating effect it has demonstrates the profundity of nature which the Facility has forsaken. Saunders reveals that life on the outside is not necessarily more ‘real’. Images and models of reality dominate daily living in hyperreality and the children living on the outside seek a glimpse of Jon. They:
come over and stand in our lava rocks with our Trendsetters & TasteMakers gum cards upheld […] when we would wave to them or strike he pose we were posing on our gum cards, they would race back all happy to their crappy apartments (47-48).
Jon and his fellow assessors signify status and fame, they are worshipped, and the supposedly ‘real’ children uphold this. Jon is portrayed as ‘trendsetters’ and ‘taste makers’ on the gum cards rather than assessors. It is, again, their sign value not rooted in reality, which will encourage consumers to purchase the gum cards. Moreover, the consumer society on the outside is, to some extent, organised around the knowledge gained from the facility as they rank products sold to the outside. When Jon has left the Facility his thoughts are still permeated by the hyperreal, ‘Maybe we can come to be normal, and sit on our porch at night, the porch of our own house, like at LI 87326, where the mom knits and the dad plays guitar…’ (60). What constitutes ‘normal’ is defined according to the image depicted in the advertisement. The nation, thus, is constituted from thousands of ‘images and stories’ (32) or simulacra. Media generated simulations dominate the ‘outside world’ as well as the hyperreal, thus the two become interchangeable. Jon’s epiphany is centred on his change of perception and how he perceives his social environment. He treasured his existence in the Facility and wished Carolyn realised how ‘lucky we were’ (39), however, this former paradise is exposed as unrewarding. His dalliance outside alerts his consciousness to a world departed from superficiality which cannot compare to the splendour of natural beauty. Natural flowers are ‘even better’ than ‘the silk on that Hermes jacket’ he craved (55). So too, does he recognise Carolyn’s natural beauty, ‘tell you the truth, even with a DermaFilled neck-hole and nada makeup and huge baby belly, still she looked so pretty…’ (57). Moreover, Jon wishes to think autonomously and find meaning distinct from the images which swarm his mind. He ponders, ‘when we look at the stars […] if choosing to do that, we will not think of LI 44387…’(60). Saunders’s story encourages the reader to open their eyes to the beauty of nature, an Emersonian notion, for nature and natural beauty may be the only authentic real in a world where artificiality reigns supreme.
In today’s world Colbert’s concept of ‘truthiness’, that is, the relativity of truth, predominates (cited in Hayes-Roth 5). Saunders’ exploration of the untruths and artificiality of simulated realities is necessary. By illuminating the connections between Saunder’s Jon and Baudrillard’s insightful commentary on the simulacra rampant in society, I have aimed to reveal how simulated realities have transformed America into a hyperreality. Consequently, in Jon, Saunders invites us to read our own lives as well as those depicted in the Facility. In assessing the assessors’ lives, we are called to reassess our own, which resemble the assessors more than perhaps we would like to admit. The world which we inhabit today is a version of the Facility; the antics of trending celebrities garner more attention, to an extent, than the unfolding of ‘real’ events which impact our lives. In an age of text messaging and social media, to what extent do our ‘communication skills’ contrast Jon’s? In a world where human emotions can be medicalised, we have our own versions of Aurabon, which control our psychic well-being. In the midst of this, Saunders still retains hope for the world and humanity. He demonstrates that true love, in the case of Carolyn and Jon, cannot be suppressed. Carolyn demonstrates that language can be redeemed; it can be used to testify to the truth. Even when entrenched in a world where real and unreal are intertwined, she can still differentiate between language which expresses truth and language employed to subvert and distort it. This can only be achieved, however, Saunders reveals, if we too, like Saunder’s name-sake Jon, ‘wake up and smell the coffee’ (29).
– Photo montage by Ralf Roletschek via wikicommons
Baudrillard, Jean. Selected Writings. Ed. Mark Poster. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1989.
– – – . Simulacra and Simulation. 1981. Trans. Sheila Faria Glaser and Ann Arbor. Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1994.
– – – .The Vital Illusion. Ed. Julia Witwer. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.
Hayes-Roth, Rick. Truthiness fever: how lies and propaganda are poisoning us and a ten-step program for recovery. USA: Naval Postgraduate School Information Sciences Department, 2011
Saunders, George. ”Jon” In Persuasion Nation. New York: Riverhead Books, 2006. 23-61.