A long time ago, says David Foster Wallace, we watched TV in order to hear the news, learn about the world, and create a sense of American community. We looked through the TV, and we believed what we saw on the other side. [Cue the stock footage of a blissful suburban family fawning over The Ed Sullivan Show or The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite.] But somewhere along the way, we started looking at the TV instead. Our sincerity turned into irony. Now we watch TV with a wink and a nudge, carping about how lowbrow it is, while we’re privately addicted to its ready gratification.
DFW said this way back in 1990, in an essay called “E Unibus Pluram.” You can read it online. He was talking about the similarities between TV and fiction—specifically fiction of the ironic, self-conscious, postmodern variety that seeks to reflect the shallow, frenetic culture it describes. As he makes his case, DFW also sheds light on the whole conundrum of an emerging American culture that’s increasingly fixated on image and irony. His remarks seem quite prescient now, in the age of reality TV and iPhones and… wait, I have to click on this video of a kitten gnawing on a Barbie doll.
Have you played Tetris on your cell phone recently? Seen the movie Avatar? Streamed a TV show on your Xbox? DFW would not be impressed. He remains unmoved by advances in entertainment technology. Essentially, he says, they make it more difficult to navigate our real lives.
The more enhancing the mediation—see for instance binoculars, amplifiers, graphic equalizers, or “high-resolution pictures hardly distinguishable from real-life images”—the more direct, vivid, and real the experience seems, which is to say the more direct, vivid, and real the fantasy and dependence are.
An exponential surge in the mass of televisual images, and a commensurate increase in my ability to cut, paste, magnify, and combine them to suit my own fancy, can do nothing but render my interactive TC a more powerful enhancer and enabler of fantasy, my attraction to that fantasy stronger, the real experiences of which my TC offers more engaging and controllable simulacra paler and more frustrating to deal with, and me just a whole lot more dependent on my furniture.
By “TC” he means a telecomputer, “a personal computer adapted for video processing and connected by fiber-optic threads to other telecomputers around the world.” And by “furniture” he means the TV. Which is a funny way of putting it, if you think about millions of people rushing home to stare at their furniture.
With a few choice examples (like Betty White guest-starring on St. Elsewhere as a NASA surgeon who gets mistaken, by a delusional patient, for Sue Ann Nivens, the character played by Betty White on The Mary Tyler Moore Show) DFW shows that TV doesn’t offer us stories that we can believe in. Rather, it encourages us to laugh at the layers of ironic jokes that are being made at the characters’ expense. We feel good (and smug) about our ability to understand the show and “get the joke.” TV places us in the role of the detached outsider, where we can safely rebel against the notion that our lives are similar to what’s happening on screen—even though we do, in fact, wish our lives were more like the friendly, exciting, clean-cut simulacrum that we’re viewing. DFW frets, with good reason, about the role of this ironic detachment and rebellion in a society where TV and corporate advertisers have already co-opted those ideals.
How can even the idea of rebellion against corporate culture stay meaningful when Chrysler Inc. advertises trucks by invoking “The Dodge Rebellion”?
The solution, DFW believes, is to write more conservative, ambivalent, thought-provoking fiction — the kind that requires a significant investment of time and mental energy, and doesn’t offer any reductive answers or cheap gratification. Because that’s the only way to be radical now: by slowing down and getting serious. Naturally he finds inspiration for this cause in some of his favorite books, like Gravity’s Rainbow and White Noise.
The seminal novels of Pynchon and DeLillo revolve metaphorically off the concept of interference: the more connections, the more chaos, and the harder it is to cull any meaning from the seas of signal.
And at last he comes to the humble point of all this grand theorizing, which is to bash the kind of fiction that imitates TV by relying on pop culture references and self-conscious irony, becoming “less a novel than a piece of witty, erudite, extremely high-quality prose television.”
[Its] sole aim is, finally, to wow, to ensure that the reader is pleased and continues to read. The book does this by (1) flattering the reader with appeals to his erudite postmodern weltschmerz, and (2) relentlessly reminding the reader that the author is smart and funny.
(Weltschmerz = world-weariness.)
All I’m trying to do is summarize DFW’s argument, because I think it’s great and I have nothing to add. If he were still alive, I would love to hear him pick apart the layers of irony in a show like 30 Rock, or a writer like Tao Lin. We’ve been enemies in the past, but I’m starting to think DFW was a damn fine literary critic.
Anyway, go read the essay.
One quarrel, though: DFW repeatedly cites a particular study and botches the math. He says, “Statisticians report that television is watched over six hours a day in the average American household.” Over the course of the article, DFW returns to cite this fact at least a dozen times. But he always gets it wrong. First he invents an “average American” named Joe Briefcase to embody the typical American TV viewer. So far, so good. But he quickly describes Joe Briefcase as a person who watches 6 hours of TV per day. Not so fast, Dave. You said 6 hours per household per day. The typical American household has 2.5 persons. By that math, an average American like Joe Briefcase watches 2.4 hours of TV per day, not 6. Later DFW describes Joe Briefcase as a family man, with a wife and kids in the other room, but he persists in saying that Joe Briefcase comes home from an 8-hour workday and watches 6 hours of TV — the full average allotment for his entire family. Get the math right, Dave. (Note to DFW: I don’t really expect you to correct this. Now that you’re in heaven, I’m sure you have better things going on.)