“His inventions and valuations maybe utterly foolish and overenthusiastic; he may badly misjudge the course of nature and deny its conditions- and all ethical systems hitherto have been so foolish and anti-natural that humanity would have perished of every one of them if it had gained power over humanity- and yet, whenever “the hero” appeared onstage, something new was attained; the gruesome counterpart of laughter, that profound emotional shock felt by many individuals at the thought: “Yes! I am worthy of living!” Life and I and you became interesting to ourselves once again, for a little while” – Nietzsche “The Teachers of the Purpose of Existence
Generally speaking young adult novels are not compared to high modern philosophy. However, in Feed M.T. Anderson offers up a dystopia that shows what happens when the herd mentality over takes civilization in a technologically advanced world. In the world of Feed, Nietzsche’s “teachers of the purpose of existence” are the feed: Anderson’s machine offers his characters an incessant stream of information dictating to them how to live their lives. The mechanical impulses of this technology function the same way that Nietzsche’s ridiculed teachers of the purpose of existence do. The feed provides the impulse, for those who have it, “the profound emotional shock” which spurs the thought “Yes! I am worthy of living!”. As Titus sits in a hospital bed, having been temporarily disconnected from .feednet, the internet-like service which broadcasts the information, he thinks about the corporations controlling the feed:
they’re the only way to get all this stuff, and it’s no good getting pissy about it, because they’re still going to control everything whether you like it or not… In fact, the thing that made me pissy was when they couldn’t help me at all, so I was just lying there, and couldn’t play any of the games on the feed, and couldn’t chat anyone, and I couldn’t do a fuckin’ thing except look at that stupid boat painting, which was even worse, because now I saw that there was no one on the boat, which was even more stupid, and was kind of how I felt, that the sails were up, and the rudder was, well, whatever rudders are, but there was no one on board to look at the horizon (49)
Without the influence of the corporations controlling the feed Titus feels empty. The vehicle for Titus’s clumsy metaphor is not the boat, which he scrambles to accurately articulate in his mind, but rather the person who is missing from the boat. His tenor is absence and nothingness. Without a functional feed Titus’s life lacks direction. He is the “no one” who is not on board to look at the horizon. Titus is unable to process the loneliness of silence. The days spent in the hospital are the only time in the novel when the characters are given the opportunity to think independently of the feed. Rather than develop a sense of individual purpose, Titus spends the first couple of days in the hospital clumsily expressing a sense of ennui that in a more verbose character might read as an existential crisis of faith. The novel makes it explicitly clear that the feed is not necessary for the survival or well-being of the characters; a day after Titus has his heady rant he declares the days without the feed to be “one of the greatest days of [his] life” (57). And yet, when the time comes to reconnect to .feednet Titus does not even think twice about re-engaging with the technology. The feed is switched back on and Titus is inundated with corporate information.
More concerning than the character’s perceived dependence on the feed, is the way in which the commercial culture perpetuated by the feed interferes with that character’s rational decision making: Anderson illustrates the degeneration of healthy decision making through the development of lesions. On a large scale, the lesions are a consequence of poor air quality and a decimated environment. The body rejects the new technologically dependent way of living but instead rectifying the underlying environmental issues, the human race treats the symptoms exacerbating the environmental issues.
On the individual scale, the feed takes the lesions, the product of an unhealthy environment, and twists them into a fashion statement. At the beginning of the novel, the lesions are unsightly. Quendy, the resident fashion plate of the group, asks “how far is the air lock” upon discovering that her lesion has grown in size, implying that she would rather die than have the open wound on her face (22). By the end of the novel, after the characters on the popular feed show Oh? Wow! Thing! Make lesions fashionable, Quendy shows up to a party covered in artificial lesions. Quendy’s surgical incisions are a reaction to Calista’s artificial lesion which she got because, according to Quendy, it was “brag” (183). The two girls are posturing for higher social standing in a society where cultural values are dictated by the feed. In this case, the ways in which they achieve higher social standing is not only disgusting but it is unhealthy and expensive. Both girls have undergone major surgery to mutilate their bodies because the feed told them it was cool.
The technological advances in M.T. Anderson’s world reveal a deficiency in human intelligence. With the devaluation of individual thought comes an increase in the herd mentality. Anderson’s world is not entirely without hope; characters do attempt to resist the feed. However, the character that resists the feed the most, Violet, ends up dying due to a malfunction in the technology. The novel is critical and pessimistic about the future of humanity. The last words, on the last page, are from the feed. The characters are unable to escape the influence of the feed even as their lives fall apart because of the feed. The characters are the herd and they have succumbed to the failings of blindly following the teachers of the purpose of existence.