Saturday, September 10, 2011

In Persuasion Nation - George Saunders

This is truly the age of persuasion. Though people have been influenced by external factors from time immemorial, given the proliferation of print/visual media in the last decade or so the persuasion factor has multiplied greatly. One is assaulted from all ends with innumerable choices that one does not actually know what he wants, but ends up doing something just for the heck of it. In this scenario, George Saunders creates a dystopian world in his collection 'In Persuasion Nation', where the general theme is the persuasion of people in the consumer era. What's more this is a world where most people are not even aware that they are being persuaded, but are happily integrated into the dystopian environment. The landscape though set in America, could as easily be applicable to any developing/developed country.

The collection kicks of with the story 'I can speak' which perfectly illustrates this point. Presented a letter written by a salesperson to a customer who has returned a product produced by his company, it shows how banal one can get while producing/selling consumer goods. What's the product being returned? It's a face mask for small kids who can't yet talk. The mask takes care of the kids not talking but giving intelligent replies when their parents are talking, replies that are beyond the comprehension/intellect of the kid on whom the mask is placed. Why is this needed, what's the purpose in getting an illusion that a kid is talking much before the natural time, the salesperson gives an eloquent justification for this as he tries to persuade the customer to try the product once again. Does he succeed, we don't know as the story ends with the letter being completed, but considering the gullibility of customers these day, he may actually do.

When we talk about consumerism and people being persuaded to buy goods they don't need, another related thing to be noted is that how do corporates get in touch with the customers, how are they able to market their products. In some way, the proliferation of consumerism could also been linked to the gradual declining of a consumer's privacy. Whether it is a form you sign up when you go to a store, or an online form that you fill up when you visit a site, all these things are used to track your preferences and market goods based on that. The story 'my flamboyant grandson' illustrates this a bizzare way. This is world where all consumers are given some sort of electronic shoes based on which the consumer's preferences are tracked as he walks through the stores. What happens then? Holograms of various products are visible to the customer based on his buying pattern/preferences. Each consumer gets to see his own customized holographic advertising. (If you have not bought a burger for the past 2-3 weeks, a hologram reminds you about the taste of burger and urges you to buy it). You can't escape it, if you remove the special shoes you are fined by some entity which operates the whole things. Sounds too unrealistic. Maybe for now, but this is something that could happen in the future. And consider the fact it's not even necessary that you explicitly specify your preferences, just think of the digital fingerprints you leave whenever you come online, even based on that your preferences are gathered. I imagined a scenario reading this where my preferences are gathered based on this blog/post and am assaulted by the images of publishing houses pitching their books to me. How crazy would that be to see. 

When we talk of persuasion, we cannot limit it to consumerism only. It happens at a policy level too, where the opinions of people are manipulated to achieve a certain end. George talks about that in the allegorical story 'the red bow'. It starts with a tragedy where the narrator's little daugther is killed by a rabies infected dog. The narrator and his friends then kill the dog and a couple of other dogs which were in cotact with the infected dog and are themselves infected by rabies. So far so good. Then they go a step further, they start killing dogs based on the suspicion that they may be affected, even on the hypothesis that they may get affected in the future. A meeting of the town people is held where it is decided to put down all dogs that are under the suspicion that they could affected. It evens goes to the extent to planning to kills birds, fish and most other creatures in the town. Most people in the town agree to it, the dissenting voices are suppressed. Link this story with the fact that it was written after the Iraq invasion and that the author himself says that 'this is a reaction of the cultural climate at that time, where people were becoming more aggressive' and you interpret what the author is trying to convey. There is no moralizing here, neither is the tragedy at the beginning trivialized or justified. But it raises questions on the way in which people are manipulated into forming a certain option, from where it's just a short step to hatred.

The title story 'In Persuasion Nation' is more bizzare than the other stories. We sometimes get tired of the same advertisements hammered day in day out into us. In some cases, we start identifying and relishing some ads. What about the characters in the ads. What happens to them. Initially we are shown vignettes of several advertisements where people to any extent to get their hands on a particular product. (One man watches his grandmother die while he eats a pizza, another betrays his friend to get his hands on a car). Now what happens is that the characters form two coalitions and start fighting each other. (The grandson and the betrayer form one group and the grandmother and the betrayed friend another group). This crazy scenario is made even weird when two characters of an advertisement get sick of doing the same thing day in and day out, they join forces and exit the ad. The trope in the story is somewhat similar to the one in which characters of a story get their own lives, but george gives it a twist by setting it in the world of advertisements.

It's an easy way out to blame corporations alone for the current state of affairs. We as consumers are culpable in some way when we give in to the temptations offered. 'Jon' is one such story, where the protoganist is nicely settled in a plastic, almost antiseptic environment (some kind of community centre) where everything is controlled, fixed in advance with no free will at all. (There can be no sexual intercourse, people are given a specific time where they have simulate the act themselve). But it is drilled into them that they are leading a fine life. Jon's dilemma in wanting to live in such a place and his inner wish to live outside the community where there are not so many facilities, but where one can make his own choices reflects the consumers dilemna in buying/doing something because it is said to be good and doing something that he actually wants.

'The Amendment' talks about alternate sexuality and the persuasion that is done on them. Sexual minorities have been persuaded for a long time that their orientation is a disease, it is curable and they can change it. This is the crux of the letter that is written by the character in this story. Not just alternate sexuality, he goes even beyond that in profiling people based on his conclusions. As per his conclusions even a hetrosexual marriage could be construed as manifestations of a latent gay orientation. He gives the idiotic example of marriage of a man with a normal voice with a woman who has a deeper voice, which implies that the man wants to live with another male while the woman wants to share her life with another female and so they are implicity living their subconsious fantasies. To avoid such marriages some rules have to be put into place. Seriously, how much more idiotic one could get. This seems funny at the surface, but shows the perception that most (so called) normal people have of people with a different orientation from theirs. It also indicates the homophobia that is present in most of us.

These stories may look far fetched, but are actually not so. Some time in the future we may be living in a similar consumer/political/social hell and what's worse even enjoying it. So as a paradox to this collection, I highly recommend this collection and author, at least this is a persuasion of a good nature.

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