David Foster Wallace, “E Unibus Pluram”

1995

Fiction writers like to watch, not be watched. TV is an expedient way of doing this. TV is the medicine-poison by which we watch people trained to take the pressure of millions of gazers. Even those of us who hate it – “graduate school poets” – seem to need to watch it with “weary irony” rather than “rapt credulity.”  TV has stopped pointing outside itself and become “otiose”: “A dog, if you point at something, will only look at your finger.” The metafiction of the sixties came out of readerly taste, and TV just caught on later.

Self-conscious irony is where TV and fiction meet. TV undercuts sight with what’s being said, rather than presenting 2 conflicting images or sayings. Television is low because people have more in common in their low taste than their refined taste. TV can be addictive though, since it can cause problems but “offers itself as relief” for those problems. We are so trained to enjoy trite TV that we discourage variation.

Postmodernism deployed materiality and brand names differently than modernism’s “dirty realism” (Joyce). Mimesis is achieved through these objects, though older writers don’t agree or see it this way. He names Nabokov as the key shift in metafiction, Pynchon as its best example, and DeLillo as its prophet (Murray and the photographed barn he can’t get outside the problem of).

Postmodern fiction is now trying to transfigure a televisual world just as that world is invulnerable to assault. In a genre he names “hyperreal” or “image-fiction,” Wallace argues authors attempt to play out a response to TV culture in their work, rather than just its representation. If realism made the strange familiar, we now need the familiar to be made strange [hysterical realism].

Wallace says, however, that image-fiction is almost always too “surfacey” a jeer at the very surfaces it critiques. TV has robbed ironists of the ability to use irony against it. US pop culture and US serious culture have always engaged the tension of the strong individual and the warm community. Earlier TV was about community, but the individual began to win out in the 80s. TV has become a medium that not only sells us separate commodities but teaches us how to look [Raymond Williams]. Commercials and shows are made to look more alike so the former are seen less as interruption [Mad Men].

TV no longer seeks our rapt attention, but flatters us for being bored by it. TV and postmodern fiction “share roots” that go both ways, Wallace insists. TV was “a hypocritical apologist” for a lost set of values in the 60s – it invited ironic readings. But irony is impossible to pin down, so how do we rebel against “TV’s aesthetic of rebellion?” We could become reactionaries against TV, or we could separate networks and viewers from the problems of the medium. He problematizes this by describing the utopian possibilities of the internet, which are imminent. If in Pynchon and DeLillo the gloom is that the pattern does not inhere, will it be one of terrible efficiency now?

He points to Leyner’s My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist as the edge of fiction – it has swallowed not TV, but TV’s whole objective into itself. It challenges the reader to “prove you’re consumer enough” to “absorb me.” But its “ironic genuflection” to TV is just reabsorbed into TV itself. Maybe the new rebels will rebel against “ironic watching,” Wallace suggests [the New Sincerity]. Would this be “too sincere?”

 

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