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What sort of homeland is so consistently oblivious to the tranquil violence of oh-so-similar orders following one another into merely wanting words? (July 14, 1996)
–Joe Wenderoth, Letters to Wendy’s

In his first work of fiction, Letters to Wendy's (2000), Joe Wenderoth takes a comical look at American consumer culture. With aphoristic prose poems the narrator has written on comment cards while eating, gazing, and defecating at a Wendy's restaurant, Wenderoth scrutinizes a world of Frosties, burgers, french fries, and soft drinks, the staples of the American fast food diet. Irreverent, scatological, and philosophic, these reflections critique our corporate-controlling, marketing-driven society. Though promoted as a novel (Wenderoth admits they “sell better”), no cohesive story drives Letters. The book’s strength, aside from the ribald hilarity that offsets the absence of plot, lies in the intricacy of its tropes, its critical acumen, and its sustained examination of contemporary America consumption. Exploring the desire to consume commodities we typically consider unrelated, Wenderoth contemplates how we consume food and durable goods, how we consume the other, and above all, how we appropriate meaning-systems.

In Letters, Wenderoth pokes fun at the way we often use critical theory as academic currency. This is not a new obsession, however. For example, in “Zookeeper Lacan,” a work from his first poetry collection, Disfortune, Wenderoth pays homage to the great French psychoanalyst while simultaneously using him as a stand-in for any academic who writes with an abstruse style: “what you said / stops the animals / too often / for the real issue / to be fit / to be tied.” In Letters, the narrator often becomes one of these “animals,” a follower of the poststructuralist ideas that have fascinated humanities departments for the last thirty years. Responding to the comment card command “TELL US ABOUT YOUR VISIT,” the narrator employs critical theory, its conceits, its recondite ideas, its idiosyncratic syntax and vocabulary, demonstrating how the discursive language on which the academy relies inhibits rather than facilitates understanding:

Today there was no blood in my stool. The sun was shining as I sat with my burger and Coke and gazed out across the parking lot. Gazed – there is the place where what is feels itself slipping – with difficulty – into the fitful sleep of replica. I did not gaze. I was the sleep what is gazed through. One is confused, though, having truly shit. (July 5, 1996, italics in original)

Framed by two scatological, seemingly unrelated thoughts, the core of the aphorism targets the overanalyzed concept of “the gaze.” On one level, the passage highlights how a critical theorist might attach an overabundance of meaning to actions of seemingly little importance. After all, one need not be gazed upon in order for one’s alimentary system to function, indeed for it to mean something. Needing the presence of another, one who can gaze on you while you sit on the toilet, only adds a confusing element to an otherwise necessary, though banal, daily procedure. The passage is fairly easy to traverse until the third sentence, which syntactically and conceptually breaks the reader’s stride: “Gazed – there is the place where what is feels itself slipping – with difficulty – into the fitful sleep of replica.” Using language as slippery as Lacan’s own, the narrator leaves us to wonder what the second word “there” signifies. If it refers to the parking lot, the narrator suggests that American consumerism, signified here by an endless supply of look-alike cars, emasculates being.

True to the American culture the narrator inhabits, he doesn’t allow us to ponder for too long what “being” is. Couched in the middle of the sentence, the “what is” slips from the reader just as it slips from the writer “into the fitful sleep of replica.” Such is all we can expect from consumerism: The prospect of gazing on an infinite supply of replicated products, where replicated signifies both simulated and fake. That is, not real. In the context of American consumer culture, replicas are responsible for a collective “fitful sleep” because they provide an infinite regress of desire for the next replica, moving us ever further away from the real. But given the construction of the sentence under inspection, that its first word, “Gazed,” is followed by a dash and then a clause, “there” might signify the act of gazing. Understood this way, the narrator manipulates the gaze as a theoretical concept by linking it with the dissolution of “what is.” From a Lacanian theoretical perspective, we seek another’s gaze to confirm our sense of presence. Collapsing self and language, Lacan describes making sense of a text as a comparable process. We read seeking confirmation from the text’s gaze and from others’ eyes. In that confirmation, we experience a subject position, a sense of narrative wholeness. But Wenderoth’s text offers one elusive image after another. With its shifting subject, tone, and rhetorical style, Letters to Wendy’s destabilizes our ability to locate ourselves within it.

When he tells the reader, “I was the sleep what is gazed through,” the narrator aligns himself with Baudrillardian replicas produced by American consumer culture. As defined by the sentence immediately preceding, in which “fitful sleep” is “replica,” the narrator situates himself with all the other mass-produced products fashioned by contemporary society. He is at once a replica of every other person who ingests fast food and a replica of every other theorist transfixed by the concept of the gaze. Fast food and the gaze are consumed to the point of having lost their appeal, whether gustatory or intellectual. In this way, Letters to Wendy’s blends content with form, both of which draw the reader’s gaze toward the artificiality of what the narrator discusses and how he discusses it. The “how” underscores the “what”:

Today I was thinking that it might be nice to be able, in one’s last days to move into a Wendy’s. Perhaps a Wendy’s life-support system could even be created and given a Wendy’s slant; liquid fries, for instance, and burgers and Frosties continually dripped into one’s vegetable dream locus. It would intensify the visits of the well, too, to see that such care is being taken for their destiny. (August 19, 1996)

Read as a metaphor for the direction of postmodernity and/or American society, Wendy’s has become a kind of transcendental signified of Baudrillardian consumerism. No longer do customers desire the goods produced by the restaurant. Instead, they desire to become one with the restaurant, which is, of course one more floating signifier in the hyper-real. The narrator suggests that the next and final step in our quest to eliminate any connection with “the real” or with a life outside simulation, outside a media-centered existence, is to commodify death.

In another passage, the narrator focuses on the subjectivity of Wendy’s employees:

Today I bought a small Frosty. This may not seem significant, but the fact is: I’m lactose intolerant. Purchasing a small Frosty, then, is no different than hiring someone to beat me. No different in essence. The only difference, which may or may not be essential, is that, during my torture, I am gazing upon your beautiful employees. (July 3, 1996)

Here subjectivity and consumption are intertwined. Because the narrator drinks a Frosty in spite of the pain it causes him, we can assume that the beverage signifies some positive element that overrides his belly ache. He is not, as far as we can tell, a masochist. He buys and consumes Frosties because Wendy’s has effectively branded its products. They signify the chance to look upon Wendy’s laborers, who have been integrated into Wendy’s marketing strategy. Frosties signify a lifestyle into which the narrator wants to assimilate, a subject-position determined by Wendy’s advertising. By appealing to the narrator’s psyche, Wendy’s sells its food items not because they hold economic use-value, but because they signify something else: a way for the narrator to relate to the American social order.

The narrator often links a lived dining experience and an imagined sexual one. In one entry, he ruminates that Wendy’s could only be improved by adding television sets that play “non-stop hardcore pornography without sound” (September 24, 1996). In another, he reasons, “Only in porn, it seems, does a face acquire the peculiar glow of its own most rhythmic ambiguity. It’s sad to everyday come to Wendy’s and see faces that will never be given to me in their full porn depth” (July 29, 1996). On one level, this sexual obsession ironizes Western Civilization’s history of attaching moral significance to sexuality. Speaking blithely of sex and admitting how much he enjoys it, the narrator argues that it “seems to threaten the very core of so-called humanity…[and] undermines the abstraction – the bodiless image – with which ‘human’ identity proposes it is moving forward toward…toward…toward what?” (October 2, 1996). Naturally, given the satirical character of these “comments,” we might wonder whether the narrator’s tone is ironic or not, whether we should read Letters as an attempt to desensitize our reaction to and suspend our judgment of sexually explicit material, indeed to sex in general, or as an attempt to ridicule the omnipresence of sex in the contemporary world.

Yet, Wenderoth’s commentary on sex does not merely undermine the absurdity of rendering a natural act taboo. It also foregrounds the role sex plays in the semiotic systems facilitating the exchange of goods. The narrator links sex with products, in his case the fast food he consumes. Recognizing this connection, he delineates himself from the majority of Wendy’s diners:

Wendy is not a girl – she is a sign. This means she does not have appendages or orifices – she is herself, at once, an appendage and an orifice. As a sign, she holds within herself – radiantly implicit – that orifice which language must have always already have penetrated, just as she holds into view the penetrating appendage. She is a girl only in the mind of the customer, the lonely hermaphroditic homestead of significance. (October 17, 1996)

This aphorism operates on two levels. First, it distinguishes how commodities are not durable goods but signs that signify a way of living and “assist” individuals in forming their subjectivities. For the narrator, sex never exists too far along the chain of signification: Every sign signifies sex, even if only indirectly. And the indirect path is never very long. Having recognized that “Wendy is not a girl – she is a sign,” the narrator fantasizes about having sex with “her.” Linked with his comments concerning Wendy’s “beautiful employees,” sex, like everything else, is a floating signifier in the hyper-real space of contemporary America. Second, this is one of several aphorisms in which the narrator culls the technical language and ideas of theorists to produce a preposterous effect. The use of the phrase “always already” taken together with the passage’s focus on the appendage/orifice binary indicates its thinly veiled fascination with Derrida. Simultaneously, the reduction of Wendy’s-as-concept to a phallus and lack of one, combined with the heavily Saussurean language, alludes to Lacan. With hyperbolically absurd language that borders on satire, the text mocks poststructuralist theoretical inquiry.

In another highly metaphorical passage, the narrator lambastes academe:

I drink tea at home but would never at Wendy's. Tea lacks the necessary brutality. Tea pretends knowledge is a cumulative, a saturation. Coffee knows knowledge is an endless betrayal-process, endlessly knocking the wind out of what I thought. Coffee confuses and intertwines, for a long moment, the immense strength of my betrayer with my own small strength: steady impatience. (December 22, 1996)

Here Wendy’s symbolizes the method of knowledge-acquisition on which literary study depends. Employing Foucaultian rhetoric, the narrator deconstructs knowledge, the brutal, swift fist that “knocks the wind out of” the individual who attempts to lay claim to this tool of power. Using a cultural studies approach, the narrator speaks of coffee and tea as “texts,” suggesting that epistemic inquiry operates differently depending on what motivates it. Outside of academe, where knowledge-as-such grounds our motivation to read, think, and write, we are less likely to become enamored with the latest academic and theoretical trends. Inside the academy, however, epistemology itself becomes a commodity subject to basic supply/demand economics. And like every other commodity, the moniker “new” sells better than any other; novelty, not truth, creates demand. Hence the narrator’s wry suggestion that “knowledge is an endless betrayal-process, endlessly knocking the wind out of what I thought.”

Knowledge-as-such is impossible because the academic machine that wields autocratic power over epistemic inquiry betrays a “steady impatience” that disallows it. Instead, the academy moves from trend to trend, all the while waiting for the next Jacques Derrida or Michel Foucault or Luce Irigaray or Hélène Cixous or Jean Baudrillard or Judith Butler. The machine depends for its existence on motion. Extending this thought, the narrator comments:

I was lured out slowly, by a series of toys. Each new toy appeared to be a new step toward establishing me in an eternal state of play. The insufficiency of each discarded toy was always hidden by this coming play. A pile developed, though, and couldn’t, in time, be hidden. After awhile I stopped getting new toys. I was interested only in the pile, the insufficiency. I sit with it even now; I’m learning not to play. (March 7, 1997)

Like so many of the narrator’s aphorisms, this one ties together several Letters themes. If “toy” operates as a metaphor for a theoretical fad, the passage confirms the narrator’s indictment of the academic’s search for knowledge. By following the latest craze, he can only hope to establish himself in “an eternal state of play,” where truth, like Derrida’s transcendental signified, defers endlessly. But “toy” also resonates with the unmistakable ring of consumerism, the way that brands define who we are as subjects. Both the average American and Academic consume to fill subjective lacks. The difference lies in what we consume: the average American consumes Frosties and SUVs while the average academic consumes theory. Either way, the insufficiency remains; both continue to desire wholeness. In case the reader fails to catch the connection between the two types of consumption, the narrator makes it explicit when he indicts the latest movement in literary studies:

Sometimes I think of Wendy’s as a library without books. Without magazines, maps, or videos. Without a rare books room, and without an Information desk. As such, it is the most pleasant library I’ve ever visited. It offers one text – on reserve and on view. This text explicitly organizes the way we feed ourselves. And it allows us to act as though a greater significance has never been attempted. (April 8, 1997)

Whether it’s the fryer sharing living space with the high-speed toaster, the menu posted above the cash register, or the cash register itself, the cultural studies school deems the tools of the fast food restaurant worthy of study. As the narrator characterizes it, these texts form chapters of a larger, more inclusive text that “organizes the way we feed ourselves,” and reveals our penchant for and motivation to consume indiscriminately.
Once everything becomes a text, it becomes much easier for scholars to yield their imaginations to the process of academic consumption. As Terry Eagleton writes in After Theory:

To work on the literature of latex or the political implications of navel-piercing is to take literally the wise old adage that study should be fun. It is rather like writing your Master’s thesis on the comparative flavour of malt whiskies, or on the phenomenology of lying in bed all day. It creates a seamless continuity between the intellect and everyday life. There are advantages in being able to write your Ph.D. thesis without stirring from in front of the T.V.

Eagleton offers a Marxist critique of cultural studies, lamenting, for instance, that the fascination with the body has enabled an explosion of discourse on the erotic body while virtually ignoring the famished one. There is, he argues, “a keen interest in coupling bodies, but not in labouring ones.” Wenderoth disconnects the reader from the assurances in the critical position that Eagleton delineates. At the very least, Letters causes us to assess whether the motives, interests, and behavior of the academic bear any substantial difference from those of the average citizen. Because Letters to Wendy’s expresses itself in ironic prose poems rather than a tightly controlled rhetorical argument, it remains difficult to discern its critical posture. As he does throughout the text, Wenderoth lets the reader decide whether the library-without-books aphorism is playfully ironic or scathingly derisive. Whichever the case, the passage unmasks as hedonistic the collective impetus of cultural studies. Wendy’s, as the narrator notes, “is the most pleasant library [he’s] ever visited” (italics ours). Much more than the will to truth, the will to pleasure motivates the cultural critic.

Because sex captivates academics and non-academics alike, it is Wenderoth’s most efficient vehicle for exposing their shared concerns. Usually, when the narrator evokes sexual imagery, he either refers directly to the pornography industry or integrates pornographic allusions into his remarks. On several occasions, the narrator imagines sexually explicit scenes involving other customers, the employees, a Frosty, or even Wendy herself. Obsessed with pornography, his sexual imagination is limited to the pornographic films he has already consumed. As sexually charged as he is, he never manages to relate to another human. He concedes that he feels “jealous when the employees speak to one another in that knowing way” (January 31, 1997). In fact, Wenderoth constructs the entire text around the narrator’s desire to belong, to communicate, to be understood:

Standing in Wendy’s is like standing naked in your own glass compartment in a room full of people similarly compartmentalized. One is free to take in the nakedness of others, if only from behind sturdy glass. It is possible to communicate, but only within a crude signaling system that makes conversation very limited. One must be satisfied with this limitation, though: one must not stare. (January 16, 1997)

By not staring, we accept the restrictions contemporary American culture places on proper speech, which regulates accepted communal behavior, and indeed, even prevents community. The American ideal tempts us to construct our identities out of the goods and services we consume, not out of genuine interaction. Consigned to two marginalized industries, conversations about sex tend to adopt one of two vocabularies: the vulgarities of the pornography trade, or the highbrow talk of the academy. With only these two vocabularies at his disposal, the narrator cannot interact meaningfully with another human being.

Instead, he often passes lunchtime in a daydreaming haze, cut off psychologically from everyone around him. In one fantasy, he imagines sitting in his car alongside Wendy, who commands him to perform oral sex and then punch her in the face. After emerging from the reverie, he comments, “Thus it ran, the empty dining room filling” (July 17, 1996). Filling, not feeling. The play on words betrays a modern tendency to respond to emotion, especially dejection, with consumption: an attempt to “fill” oneself up. For Wenderoth, the verb “to fill” stands for a basic human need – the desire to fill our lives with meaning:

Wendy’s sits next to the fullest possible manifestation of our casual rushing vacancy. This is well and good; I like to think of this vacancy, this busy thoroughfare, as my mother. It has certainly birthed me. Wendy’s is that space wherein I have attempted to leave my mother, and to come to some kind of independent fullness. That fullness looms like a room full of obsolete tools” (April 26, 1997, italics ours).

At this point in the text, near the end of the book, we see that Wendy’s is a metaphor for America, which has birthed our collective conscious, our penchant for responding to emptiness with what we know is available, or rather what seems available for consumption. Fullness – that is, fullness of meaning – eludes. Animated in a permanent state of play, signifiers defer endlessly into the future forcing ultimate meaning, whether we call it the “transcendental signified,” the “right word,” or the “real,” to hang suspended, just out of reach. Yet, impelled by the “publish or perish” edict, the academy violates this conclusion while simultaneously professing to apply it, because it applies it.

Whether it’s a slightly altered menu that offers the same endless supply of burgers, fries, and soda, or the latest theoretical fad that promises to fill our minds with meaning, twenty-first century Americans cannot help themselves in desiring the new, the novel. Wenderoth uses blatantly postmodern techniques while simultaneously launching a critique on the postmodern insistence that meaning must be permanently deferred. Just as much as Frederick Jameson’s own writing about the effects of later consumer capitalism becomes itself an academic commodity, so also does Letters to Wendy’s become what it satirizes. In rejecting postmodern theoretical positions it functions as a postmodern text.

Co-opted and put into the service of an economic trade, theoretical writings are inverted, turned into the very thing they were designed to critique. Rather than protesting the creation of hegemonic meaning systems, they become one. As much as anything, Letters reels against the formation of such exclusionary schools of thought:

One watches the others order. An aesthetics develops. It’s not the worst thing that could happen. Yes, a weariness lurks, often, in the obvious next step – the dream of a school. The only thing worse than endeavoring to create a school is endeavoring to maintain a school. Which is why I like, above all, those customers who, in the middle of their order and quite without warning, change their minds. (February 10, 1997)

This passage burlesques a herd mentality fashioned out of a theoretical enterprise that, in searching after the new for its own sake, keeps pace with fast food consumerism. Theoretical evolution occurs out of inertia rather than out of any genuine desire to reach a static truth: As academics, our collective refuge “is like an argument that only ever begins because it can’t believe what it knows. After awhile, it only goes on for the sound of its voice – that sound which, miraculously, briefly, resists curiosity” (November 21, 1996).

But while Letters depicts theoretical discourses as narcissistic enterprises, Letters also portrays them as tasty treats. Consider the following passage in which the cultural studies trend is a desert tempting the ever-hungry academician:

The thought-cake stream is only visible at night. Big white cakes moving slow, one after the other, into oblivion. These cakes aren’t to be eaten. They’re just for show, as though the night needed their senseless procession to remain its own dark self. One night you will wade out, when hunger becomes too much, and you will taste this cake, and you will know, then, for certain, that it was only for show. (November 10, 1996)

An elaborate application and expansion on the adage “you can’t have your cake and eat it too,” this passage suggests that critical theory – the “thought-cake” we want to both own and consume – cannot be applied without turning into the thing it seeks to critique. Once applied, these theories become the very thing they seek to subvert. Therefore, they are “only for show,” cannot be used, and are functionally “senseless.”

One of the central challenges the reader faces when approaching Letters to Wendy’s emanates from the text’s penchant for weaving together a high-minded social commentary with a profane, even licentious, focus on sex. On one level, this makes perfect sense, especially given how the text operates as a parody of current academic inquiry and seems to anticipate Eagleton’s pronouncement that within the ivory tower, “What is sexy…is sex. On the wilder shores of academia, an interest in French philosophy has given way to a fascination with French kissing.” If the academy and the wider consumer culture share more and more in common with each passing year, it makes sense that a text satirizing both would satirize what both consume: sex.

Like the most technically demanding academic writing published in the most esoteric journals, the Wendy’s letters are directed to an ever-present yet nonexistent audience. Writing cryptic and obscene prose poems to an unnamed Other who mans a desk in a dubious and shadowy PR department, the narrator wonders whether his letters will not be read:

There may be no you – no other to receive and understand these revelations of myself. The Post Office may burn them for all I know. It’s not important. I only need you as a good idea – to make me apparent. I love you, even if you don’t understand me, even if you burn my attempts to reach you, even if you are no one, nowhere. After all, I warm my hands by the same fires. (September 3, 1996)

Attempting to communicate with an unresponsive interlocutor, his attempts hardly classify as communication. Without someone to communicate with or to, the comment cards fail to transport meaning. But this is not the whole story. Like an academic seeking recognition, Joe Wenderoth composes these aphorisms for bound publication as if they are comment cards written by an unnamed narrator. The cards are not, then, meant for the PR rep’s gaze, but for our gaze, which discerns the text through and in spite of this conceit. The text draws the reader’s gaze to its artificiality. It underscores that critical theory asks us to construct realities from an incomprehensible world, one both devoid of meaning and filled with delirious possibilities.

In an interview, Wenderoth admits that, in part, Letters grew out of his “fondness for the grandiosity of certain nineteenth century poets and philosophers,” a grandiosity that has since gone missing, as if “some great wave of triviality has made it painfully apparent that all such grandiose efforts at truth are ridiculous in the extreme.” Part of the project of Letters resides in an honest, though comical, attempt to reinvigorate “reality” by uncovering the Truth, which Wenderoth hints only exists contingently. The text verges on the grandiose, even the ridiculous, but avoids the mistake of triviality, which Wenderoth views as a function of pursuing an aesthetics without resonating with the world of which one speaks. This world, what he calls the “postimaginary world, the REAL world…humbles every imagination by subjecting the imaginer to its nearly unspeakable simplicities…[Letters] tries to recognize a pretty new insight that is available to beings, which is that our imaginations are woefully inept and sort of limp behind rather crude (though wholly definitive) processes.”

Letters to Wendy’s walks a tightrope strung between ridicule and reverence. Wenderoth understands the insights theory provides while also recognizing its limitations and absurdities. The text not only references many theoretical ideas of the last forty years, but it also pays homage to many of the major canonical philosophical thinkers from Plato and Aristotle to Nietzsche and Marx. Yet Wenderoth employs parody to point out the inherent discontinuities. Like a literary theorist obsessed with poststructural/postmodern thought, Wenderoth presents an unstable subject gazing at fast-food employees, a reflective narrator whose quest for a moment of fulfillment leads to blind alleyways and endlessly deferred associations. Here critical theory and Wenderoth’s poetic utterances intersect, each attempting to come to terms with experiences that lie beyond reason’s reach. While Wenderoth achieves a masterful satire, the text ultimately exposes how subversive discourses, both in attempting to overcome the ways language articulates social and cultural practice and in seeking to circumvent the ways in which institutions wield power, engage, through a process of definition and exclusion, the very thing they seek to avoid: The construction of a discursive language that in its unspoken rules and assumptions ends up regulating what we deem legitimate thought. In the end, Letters renders the way in which we gaze — whether through the window of our SUV’s while waiting for a burger and fries or through the lens of a poststructuralist theorist waiting for tenure — as comic. Poetic, pensive, poignant, pugnacious, and pornographic, it is worth every laugh.

January 2006

From guest contributors Blake Hobby and Earen Rast

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