I’ve been reading David Foster Wallace lately, which is a dangerous thing, because one then wants to start writing like David Foster Wallace. This is something that should only be attempted by professionals, and as a semi-pro at best, I need to tread carefully. Wallace was a writer of effortlessly burnished prose (or seemingly effortless, anyway) laden with long, intricately structured sentences, pithy observations, entertaining asides, footnotes and footnotes within footnotes. DFW (as I shall hereafter call him) was also a big fan of acronyms and Stylish Capitalization, both of which have become rather cliche in his wake and should probably be avoided, except that I personally happen to quite enjoy them.

This month’s book club entry was A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, specifically the title essay — a long, obsessively detailed, and very funny account of DFW’s experience on a 7-day Caribbean cruise — and “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” a painfully insightful look at TV and its pernicious effects on American writing, not to mention American life.

The former is, by comparison, light reading. A self-confessed borderline agoraphobe, DFW was not the type of person who would voluntarily have signed up for such a cruise, but he was convinced by a (perhaps sadistic) magazine editor to make the trip and write about it. The tone of the resulting piece is a weird mix of condescension and self-deprecation; though clearly uncomfortable in these surroundings, he gamely attempts to do the assignment justice by participating in five-star meals, skeet shooting, an arts and crafts seminar, a Men’s Best Legs contest, and something called “Elegant Tea Time” that goes horribly wrong for a number of reasons sufficient to fill a half-page footnote.

There’s a fair amount of snarkiness on display here, though it should be noted that those on the receiving end of both DFW’s numerous jabs and his almost as plentiful sympathy seem pretty much to deserve what they get. In the end, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” is less about a cruise than a portrait of what it’s like to be stuck inside the big brain of David Foster Wallace.

“E Unibus Pluram” is a different kettle of fish; I don’t how it is that DFW was never torn limb from limb by an angry mob for the stark and horrible truths he expresses here, except that maybe angry mobs don’t read much. Ostensibly an analysis of television’s effect on modern American fiction, “E Unibus Pluram” is not intended as a polemic against TV — DFW is at pains, several times, to emphasize that this is not his intention — but nonetheless paints a pretty grim picture of a TV-soaked culture: the alienation, the cynicism, the kneejerk irony that has stopped being fun but from which there is no escape. His argument is made all the more powerful by the fact that he keeps trying to get away from it, but can’t. It’s a complex and not 100% clear argument that I won’t be able to sum up satisfyingly, so I will instead quote at length. He begins with an analysis of how TV has adapted itself in response to increasing skepticism — not exactly sophistication — on the part of its audience:

The fact is that TV’s re-use of postmodern cool has actually evolved as an inspired solution to the keep-Joe-at-once-alienated-from-and-part-of-the-million-eyed-crowd problem. The solution entailed gradual shift from oversincerity to a kind of bad-boy irreverence in the Big Face that TV shows us. This in turn reflected a wider shift in U.S. perceptions of how art was supposed to work, a transition from art’s being a creative instantiation of real values to art’s being a creative rejection of bogus values.

There’s a big point being made here about the role of irony in our culture, its uses and its limitations:

Irony in postwar art and culture started out the same way youthful rebellion did. It was difficult and painful, and productive — a grim diagnosis of a long-denied disease. The assumptions behind early post-modern irony, on the other hand, were still frankly idealistic: it was assumed that etiology and diagnosis pointed toward the cure, that a revelation of imprisonment led to freedom.

So then how have irony, irreverence, and rebellion come to be not liberating but enfeebling in the culture today’s avant-garde tries to write about? One clue’s to be found in the fact that irony is still around, bigger than ever after 30 long years as the dominant mode of hip expression. It’s not a rhetorical mode that wears well. As Hyde (whom I pretty obviously like) puts it, “Irony has emergency use. Carried over time, it is the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy their cage.” This is because irony, entertaining as it is, serves an almost exclusively negative function. It’s critical and destructive, a ground-clearing. Surely this is the way our postmodern fathers saw it. But irony’s singularly unuseful when it comes to constructing anything to replace the hypocrisies it debunks.

DFW compares postmodern irony to a military junta that served a useful purpose in overthrowing the old tyrant, but instead of turning over power to a new government, itself became the new oppressor.

Its promulgation of cynicism about authority works to the general advantage of television on a number of levels. First, to the extent that TV can ridicule old-fashioned conventions right off the map, it can create an authority vacuum. And then guess what fills it. The real authority on a world we not view as constructed and not depicted becomes the medium that constructs our world-view. Second, to the extend that TV can refer exclusively to itself and debunk conventional standards as hollow, it is invulnerable to critics’ charges that what’s on is shallow or crass or bad, since any such judgments appeal to conventional, extra-televisual standards about depth, taste, quality. Too, the ironic tone of TV’s self-reference means that no one can accuse TV of trying to put anything over on anybody. As essayist Lewis Hyde points out, self-mocking irony is always “Sincerity, with a motive.”

Ouch — that last bit hits a little close to home. And a long stretch of “E Unibus Pluram” is like that: one body-blow after another.

To the extent that it can train viewers to laugh at characters’ unending put-downs of one another, to view ridicule as both the mode of social intercourse and the ultimate art-form, television can reinforce its own queer ontology of appearance: the most frightening prospect, for the well-conditioned viewer, becomes leaving oneself open to others’ ridicule by betraying passé expressions of value, emotion, or vulnerability. Other people become judges; the crime is naiveté. The well-trained viewer becomes even more allergic to people. Lonelier. Joe B.’s exhaustive TV-training in how to worry about how he might come across, seem to watching eyes, makes genuine human encounters even scarier.

Now, I suppose it’s worth noting that this essay was written in 1993, before the Great Irony Wave crested circa 1994. You could argue that things have gotten better since then, that cynicism has lost its cachet in the time of Change and Hope and such. But I don’t know. TV-wise, I am reminded particularly of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, which has become something of a guilty pleasure because although it’s often tremendously funny, there’s something unsettling about it. Not only are the four main characters (five, including Danny DeVito) portrayed on an individual basis as pathetic, self-deluded losers, they are also willing — even eager — to screw each other over for the least bit of advantage or amusement. There is something corrosive at work here, something that extends beyond comedy to real nihilism. Even South Park‘s Eric Cartman — the patron saint of unsympathetic but somehow lovable TV characters — is a mensch compared to these people.
Anyway, back to DFW:

The numb blank demeanor — what one friend calls the “girl-who’s-dancing-with-you-but-would-obviously-rather-be-dancing-with-someone-else” expression — that has become my generation’s version of cool is all about TV. “Television,” after all, literally means “seeing far”; and our six hours daily not only helps us feel up-close and personal at the Pan-Am Games or Operation Desert Shield but also, inversely, trains us to relate to real live personal close-up stuff the way we relate to the distant and exotic, as if separated from us by physics and glass, extant only as performance, awaiting our cool review. Indifference is actually just the ’90s version of frugality for U.S. young people: wooed several gorgeous hours a day for nothing but our attention, we regard that attention as our chief commodity, our social capital, and we are loath to fritter it.

And, yes, well, um…guilty. It is not an unfamiliar sensation for me to be having a conversation with someone, often a perfectly lovely and interesting person, and still find myself constantly searching the room for something more interesting. Or having my eyes slowly, inexorably, drawn away from them by the flickering screen in the corner even though it’s not showing anything I particularly care to see. Sorry about that, everybody; please don’t take it personally.

I don’t want here to deflect responsibility for my shortcomings as a human being to TV. Nor do I want to become some kind of smash-your-set fanatic; goodness, can you imagine? But it is worth thinking about, and I also wonder what is going to happen to the kids coming up today, who are being shaped by a much different and more complex media landscape. The optimist in me wants to believe that the increased emphasis on interactivity and social connection in an Internet-based world will be helpful. Facebook friends may not be as good as real friends, but they’re better than the kinds of relationships you have with sitcom characters. And you’d have to think that the creativity of YouTube, the ability to edit your own reality, would be a positive development.

Oddly enough, “E Unibus Pluram” seems to anticipate and analyze the rise of YouTube almost 15 years in advance. DFW discusses a book by one George Gilder called Life After Television: The Coming Transformation of Media and American Life, which takes a utopian view of the changes that will be (have been/are being) wrought by putting more powerful technology in the hands of the average American (who DFW refers to as “Joe Briefcase”):

For Gilder, the new piece of furniture that will free Joe Briefcase from passive dependence on his furniture will be “the telecomputer, a personal computer adapted for video processing and connected by fiber-optic threads to other telecomputers around the world.” The fibrous TC “will forever break the broadcast bottleneck” of television’s One Over Many structure of image-dissemination. Now everybody’ll get to be his own harried guy with earphones and clipboard. In the new millennium, U.S. television will finally become ideally, GOPishly democratic: egalitarian, interactive, and “profitable” without being “exploitative.”

Give this Gilder cat some credit: he may have been wrong about exactly how it happened, but he pretty accurately predicted what was going to happen with the Internet. Whether he was right about the effect it would have on people is open for discussion. He thought that society would be improved if people were freed from “the passivity of mere reception.” Our guy is having none of it:

The appeal of watching television has always involved fantasy. And contemporary TV has gotten vastly better at enabling the viewer’s fantasy that he can transcend the limitations of individual human experience, that he can be inside the set, imago’d, “anyone, anywhere.” Since the limitations of being one human being involve certain restrictions on the number of different experiences possible to us in a given period of time, it’s arguable that the biggest TV-tech “advances” of recent years have done little but abet this fantasy of escape from the defining limits of being human. Cable expanded our choices of evening realities; handheld gizmos let us leap instantly from one reality to another; VCRs let us commit experiences to an eidetic memory that permits re-experience at any time without loss or alteration. These advances sold briskly and upped average viewing-doses, but they sure haven’t made U.S. televisual culture any less passive or cynical.

Of course, the downside of TV’s big fantasy is that it’s just a fantasy. As a Treat, my escape from the limits of genuine experience is neato. As a steady diet, though, it can’t help but render my own reality less attractive (because in it I’m just one Dave, with limits and restrictions all over the place), render me less fit to make the most of it (because I spend all of my time pretending I’m not in it), and render me ever more dependent on the device that affords escape from just what my escapism makes unpleasant.

It’s tough to see how Gilder’s soteriol vision of having more “control” over the arrangement of high-quality fantasy-bits is going to ease either the dependency that is part of my relation to TV or the impotent irony I must use to pretend I’m not dependent. Whether I’m “passive” or “active” as a viewer, I still must cynically pretend, because I’m still dependent, because my real dependency here is not on a single show or a few networks any more than the hophead’s is on the Turkish florist or the Marseilles refiner. My real dependence is on the fantasies and the images that enable them, and thus on any technology that can make images both available and fantastic. Make no mistake: we are dependent on image-technology; and the better the tech, the harder we’re hooked.

Well, I don’t know about you, but that’s about all the brutal truth I can handle right now. Time to get away from these fantasy-bits for awhile and go for a walk.