A few years ago, my friend Alex recommended I read Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. I filed away the suggestion but never acted on it, for any one of a dozen stupid reasons. I wouldn’t have the attention span to read a 1000-page book I liked, much less one without spaceships. I wasn’t that interested in tennis or drug addicts. And most of all, I immediately dismissed it as yet another of the pop culture-influenced “great novels” of the 90s (most of which I haven’t read either, but still feel entitled to judge): an over-educated and under-experienced man vacillating between too earnest and too self-consciously ironic in pre-emptive defense against seeming too earnest.
Wallace’s death shocked me into reading some of his stuff, especially after seeing one reviewer after another mention exactly that play between media influence, irony, self-awareness, sincerity, and cynicism as a recurring theme in his work. I’ve started with A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, and I had to stop after 80 pages to process it. One of the essays in that book, “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” is one of the most insightful things I’ve ever read.
In that one essay, Wallace manages to touch on everything I’ve been trying to figure out for decades about the media, pop culture, and How We Got To This Point. I don’t even like to suggest that they’re ideas that I’ve had; they’re ideas that I’ve been trying to have, but my brain just couldn’t form them. My own attempts at it seem banging-the-rocks-together facile: “Why no people say what them mean? How come reading The Onion A.V. Club make Chuck so sad inside?” And it’s jarring to be reading a series of observations so relevant, and come across a mention of “St. Elsewhere” or “Moonlighting” or “Growing Pains,” reminders that this was written 18 years ago.
To me, the most interesting points of the essay are:
- Watching television isn’t voyeurism. “Voyeurism” connotes some degree of intrusion, or at least the idea that the subject is unaware he’s being viewed. Television exists to be viewed, and the performers have become super-skilled at being watched without seeming like they’re being watched. If there ever were any sense that the television is a window onto reality, it’s been lost by now.
- Television isn’t as malevolent as some analysts like to claim. Claims that television “does” this or that are specious, because they assume a motivation that doesn’t exist. Again, television exists simply to be watched; even the goal of making money is secondary to that, because the only way to make money from television is to have people watching it. Wallace claims that at one point, TV was able to focus people’s attention on things in the real world, but the audience has been too well-trained for that to happen anymore. He makes the brilliant analogy: “A dog, if you point at something, will only look at your finger.”
- Television isn’t as harmless as analysts claim, either. You’ll often hear people claim that TV (or the internet, or videogames) doesn’t shape society, it’s simply a mirror of society. Wallace reminds us that looking at a mirror for six hours a day on average isn’t healthy behavior. And television isn’t an accurate mirror; it unnaturally selects for certain qualities in the audience that aren’t based on survival, but “watchability.”
- Television isn’t just impervious to criticism; it absorbs criticism. This is the key point, I believe, and the most relevant one to any of us who “came of pop-cultural age” in the late 80s through the 90s. Attempts to peek behind the curtain are turned into “entertainment news.” Attempts to criticize television for being vapid or commercial are absorbed and turned into parody and self-mockery. And it’s simply self-reference, and not genuine satire: it’s not deconstruction or rebellion or condemnation, but reassurance. It’s designed to remind the audience that they’re all in on the joke; they can see just how artificial all of this is, even if those other guys can’t.
- Irony is destructive.
As a side note: the overwhelming popularity of reality television is something that’s completely mystified me. It was initially described (by the self-referential media) as a reaction to the writer’s strike, but that never explained why or how it survived and thrived for so long afterwards. Wallace’s article never mentions reality TV, but indirectly explains not just why it became so popular, but also makes it seem inevitable in retrospect. It’s a natural progression from the state of television in the late 80s and early 90s. It re-introduces a sense of voyeurism, one that’d been lost by decades of actors who’d become so skilled at “seeming unwatched.” It’s frequently about celebrities or rich people, so we can enjoy the vicarious wealth of “Dynasty” or “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” while reassuring us that we’re better than those people. It provides the most basic requisites of drama — we don’t want “grey areas,” we want clear villains and clear heroes — while simultaneously reassuring us that we know better than to believe everything we see on TV. We know that there’s always a camera there, so we want to be reminded that we know; handheld cameras and “spy cams” give us that.
You’ll frequently see the observation: “They call it ‘reality TV,’ but I know it’s not real.” That’s the whole appeal of it: it’s designed to reward the audience for making that observation. It lets us see behind the process of making television, enjoy the results of that process, and be satisfied that we’ve seen behind the process. Audiences spent decades saying “look how fake television is,” and television responded by becoming increasingly self-referential and breaking through the fourth wall. And once you’ve broken through the fourth wall, there’s nowhere else to go but back inside. The message isn’t “look how fake this is!” but “look how fake this is; isn’t it great?” It’s not a mirror to society; it’s two mirrors set up facing each other. Images bounce back and forth indefinitely, adding another layer of artifice with each reflection, until there’s no meaning left.
Enter irony. It’s the perfect tool for my generation, because it’s the perfect expression of lazy rebellion. Our greatest currency is being “aware,” and the worst sin we can commit is being out of the loop, out-dated, and overly earnest or sincere. Recently, when George Carlin died, most of the obituaries mentioned “counter-culture” and debated whether or not Carlin was a part of that. What struck me was how the whole idea of a “counter-culture” just seems quaint now. It doesn’t seem anarchistic as much as optimistic. There was a sense that things could be better than they were, and the reaction was to try and tear it all down.
But then, there was nothing offered to take its place. And that’s the overriding attitude that we inherited. Wallace makes an analogy to revolutionary forces tearing down a corrupt regime and creating a power vacuum. And I believe we’ve taken that to such an extreme that we value the process of analyzing and tearing down more than we value the process of creation.
As far as social studies go, this post is still in ten-years-old, Generation X territory. And even mentioning that, I’m reminded of the job interview where I said, completely in earnest, that Microserfs was one of my favorite books. And the very thought of that horrifies me now; now I can only see that book as alternating passages of overwhelmingly maudlin melodrama and desperate attempts to seem hip. We’ve even got an icon representing desperate attempts to seem hip, which I’m increasingly distressed to learn is no longer as universally-recognized as it once was.
But what about now? Wallace’s essay doesn’t mention the internet, or even the DVR. Television definitely hasn’t become irrelevant, but it has stopped demanding so much of our attention. (I’d be extremely surprised if the statistic that Wallace keeps mentioning were still accurate, that the average American spends six hours a day watching TV). For a lot of people, the internet’s taken its place, and I know that in my case, it demands even more of my time. (Which I’m all too happy to give).
And I believe that you can see the legacy of 90s television mentality all throughout the internet: the culture of the internet places so much value simply on having seen something. I was the first person to read this post and comment on it! I saw that video weeks ago. I’d heard of this already and wrote about it here. For the most part, we’ve even abandoned real analysis of what we’re seeing, at least any analysis deeper than “AWESOME!!!” or “gay,” plus a rating from 1 to 5 stars. And we’ve labeled this “interactivity” and elevated it to the same importance as actual creation.
I don’t mean for this to sound as dismissive as it does; I do believe that there’s an important social aspect to all of this, and that’s important to overcome the kind of culture-wide loneliness that builds up after millions of man-hours of obsessive, solitary TV-watching. And there is a lot of genuinely great stuff being generated from the most unlikely of places. For all the opportunistic grabs at attention, or lazy lowest-common-denominator humor, you’re frequently reminded that people can be really neat when they try.
But we’ve seen what a blight the unchecked abuse of irony can have on the cultural ecosystem, and we’re just starting to break free of that and allow ourselves to be sincere again. (On occasion). Irony is basically just a defense mechanism against having your most sincere thoughts dismissed as trite or ignorant or outdated. So what happens in an environment where the audience is not only allowed but encouraged to tell you immediately and in great numbers that your most sincere thoughts are trite or ignorant or outdated? Are people gradually getting better able to handle criticism, or are they just suppressing anything that runs the risk of not being accepted?
And I have to wonder what it is exactly that we’re building, and not just reacting to or rebelling against. It seems like we’re still experiencing a glut of spoof and parody and “irreverent deconstruction” and, at best, “reinvention,” long after we should’ve outgrown the need to say that stuff sucks and started making stuff that doesn’t suck. I can begrudgingly accept that my generation is doomed to that fate — we’ll go down in history as the inventors of the mash-up, the re-imagining, and “I Love the 80s” — but how deep a hole have we dug ourselves into, exactly?
The future of pop culture, and probably real culture too, is going to be driven by the internet. The internet is extremely proud of itself for facilitating an environment that lets the audience answer the question “What do you think about this?” When do we stop mistaking “reaction” for “interaction,” and start asking the simpler question: “What do you think?“