Signals of fullness

[10 August 2005]

By Rob Horning

The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday on a device that is just rich with metaphoric potential, the Transcend II gastric stimulator, a device surgically impanted in an obese person’s stomach that zaps a person’s stomach nerves with electrical currents to make a person feel as though he is full. This device points the way toward the ultimate consumer good, the one which you consume to not consume. This would leave no way out of the consumer system; you have to consume to maintain the illusion that you’re not, even to yourself.

What the Transcend II epitomizes is the way overconsumption has become medicalized—it is viewed as a kind of disease that a person can’t help, similar to when compulsive shopping is viewed as an addiction akin to alcoholism. Consumption is moved out of the realm of rational decision-making and is seen as a pathology. Presumably you “Transcend” the rational mind by putting this thing into your stomach. Be that as it may, there’s an irony in regarding consumption as irrational, as uncontrollable, since economists have tended to view it as the necessary arena for exhibiting perfect rationality, the means by which one demonstrates the inherent ability to maximize utility.

One of the problems with the Transcend II is truly ominous: It may not work in some because, as a surgeon notes, “We have many people who don’t listen to the signals of fullness.” What that suggests is that the combined pressures of the ad industry and the social conpulsion to consume drive people to ignore the biological triggers of their own body—ads can make you reject your own nervous system in favor of their blandishments. Madison Avenue must be so proud, but really this is nothing new; they have been getting us to reject the signals from our brains for a long time.

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