Okay, what ELSE you got?

brandowildone.jpgA 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?

3 thoughts on “Okay, what ELSE you got?”

  1. Nice essay, and nice work expanding Wallace’s focus to include reality TV. In some ways, I think television is in a much better place now than it was when Wallace wrote this essay, however; look at “Mad Men,” or “The Wire,” or “Freaks and Geeks,” or “Extras,” or either version of “The Office”; it’s possible to make television that’s not about television. It didn’t seem that way back then, at least to me.

    But where do you think Telltale Games, or video games generally fit into this? Your games are more concerned with narrative than most, maybe even more than any others, and get a more genuine response from people as a result, but they’re definitely more ironic than not (and I say that as a fan). A lot of the most famous jokes in computer games are either fourth-wall or rely on being aware of other touchstones of video game culture and the culture at large (e.g., the Ken Burns joke in Strongbadia the Free or the brief text adventure section in Reality 2.0) I guess the original stump joke in Monkey Island qualifies as genuine deconstruction, but a lot of jokes about games in games I think are more self-referential-without-being-satire. Do you think games absorb criticism the way television does? And if they do, how do we get past that?

    You’re in for a really wonderful experience when you get to Infinite Jest. I’m rereading it now; some of the technology Wallace describes is a little jarring; it was written before DVDs or the internet were part of the landscape. But the emotional core of that book is solid. Or rather, AWESOME. Five stars.

  2. Windbag response follows: I’d say that television on the whole has been better in the past 5-10 years than it’s ever been, without doubt. (Which is kind of a downer, seeing as how the internet is making it increasingly irrelevant). But I’m trying to figure out how and why it’s getting better, since what I personally like about many series turns out to be the same type of thing I hate in late 80s/early 90s TV.

    Wallace’s essay describes a particularly self-referential episode of “St. Elsewhere,” and two things surprised me about that: one is that the series has become so irrelevant. At the time, it seemed incredibly innovative, but now it seems hopelessly dated; it collapsed under the weight of its own irony. It’s now best known for its final episode, which took the self reference to an extreme: the entire series was just taking place in one kid’s mind. So what did the whole thing mean, exactly? What was the point? (Wallace also mentions “Moonlighting,” which I loved at the time but is practically unwatchable now. All the self-reference and 4th-wall breaking makes it seem even more twee than “Pushing Daisies,” and at least that series doesn’t have any illusions that it’s “edgy.”)

    The other thing that surprised me was that as soon as Wallace mentioned “St. Elsewhere,” I felt a sudden connection. “Hey, he watched that same show I used to watch!” It was disturbingly Pavlovian. I’m a little worried that my brain has been irreparably hard-wired to appreciate references more than content.

    My favorite TV series is “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” There’s a ton of imagination and creativity in that series; describing it as just a bunch of guys making fun of bad movies is missing so much of what makes it great. But there’s no denying that the bulk of the content on that show is just rewarding the audience for having seen something. “I get that reference!” which gets a laugh. “X-Files”, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” and “Lost” all worked best for me when they were self-aware genre mash-ups. So how do you build on what’s come before while making sure you really are building something new?

    As far as videogames are concerned, I’m pretty optimistic. In the world of the big-budget titles, we’re not seeing the pointless irony of 90s TV but the Dantes Peak/Volcano syndrome of movies: when something is successful, it’s not deconstructed, but copied. So they may be insipid, but at least you can fix insipid. When your reaction to something that sucks is just to say “this sucks,” say that’s “post-modern” or “deconstructionist,” and then call it a day; that generates a spiral of apathy that’s much harder to escape.

    But the past year has been particularly heavy with the self-reference. MegaMan 9 is the biggest seller on WiiWare, and it’s 100% retro-gaming nostalgia. Two of the best games last year were Portal and BioShock, which were to some degree about games (being stuck in a linear FPS, or being stuck in a puzzle game), but the key is that they invented as much as they borrowed.

    Now that you mention it, I wonder if the division between gameplay and storytelling that I’m frequently railing against is actually the thing that could be saving the games industry from Generation X Syndrome. The videogame audience is reactionary, insular, overwhelmingly nostalgic, extremely vocal, and burdened with a feeling of entitlement (I can say this because I’m in the audience), all of which make it seem like it’d be ripe for a TV-Like Irony Collapse. But because game mechanics are always given more emphasis and attention than the context or meaning of those mechanics, it’s harder to twist into self-mockery. Plus, it’s just a different kind of self-mockery: in TV, you make fun of the programming itself; in games, you make fun of the players.

    And as for Telltale in particular, obviously all this speculation is partly due to spending so much time working on other people’s stuff. But I think it’d be a bad idea to over-analyze something like Sam & Max or the Homestar Runner characters, because they are meant to be silly. And both are built on making fun of other things. And both series defy “canon” and continuity and any attempt to explain what they are “about,” exactly. But what resonates with people, what’s made Sam & Max last so long and generated such loyal fans from both that and HSR, are that they almost never resort to pure parody or just a reference for its own sake; there’s a real sense of imagination and creation in each.

    References and parodies and in-jokes are easy, both because they’re pure reaction instead of creation, and because it’s hard-wired into the brain of anyone around my age. I’ve put in more than my quota of references just for their own sake, and it’s a hard habit to break. The trick is how do you take something that someone else has created and attempt to build on that, without being presumptuous enough to try to change what they’ve made, without just mimicking what they’ve done or what someone else has done, and without turning it into something that it’s not supposed to be? It’s really hard, especially with characters as personal to their creators as these are. (And whose creators would probably roll their eyes at attempts at over-thinking them and taking them too seriously). On top of all that, there’s a level of self-reference just baked into comedy adventure games, because what you’re expected to do is often so absurd that there’s nowhere to go except point out exactly how ridiculous it is.

    I guess that it’s like anything else, you have to peel away all the layers of artifice and just get down to the basics of trying to tell a good story. If your story is solid enough, then it can support frivolous, meaningless references. It’s only when you don’t have anything except references and in-jokes that the whole thing collapses. So just do that, and make it funny, and don’t take it too seriously, and don’t screw up these characters the creators have trusted you with, and make it “timeless” but not dated, and then of course there’s the whole puzzle design part where it’s got to be something people haven’t seen before but also something that they can figure out without having to “read the designer’s mind,” and get it all done on time and under budget. Easy.

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