Perhaps it’s tough to step back in time just a little and see that David Foster Wallace saw the dangers of what is now on demand 24/7 media consumption in the form of Netflix and other film networks, YouTube, etc. While Infinite Jest is an attempt to present some of the dangers thinly veiled in fiction, it is a bit exclusionary by being over 1000 pages, serving a very narrow, elitist, academic crowd, taking Shakespearean strides and inventing too many new words hoping the reader understands, and has a fragmented structure with layers of references, meta-references, and irony. It’s certainly readable but it is intimidating. If I had to discuss David Foster Wallace, or give an introduction to him, I would start off with the first essay in this collection: “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction.” It’s one of my favourite essays of all time, and one I re-read often. While this collection contains seven separate pieces (one including an academic discourse, an analysis of David Lynch’s films, a tennis essay, and a retreat), I will discuss in this post two of my favourite David Foster Wallace essays: “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” and “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” (henceforth I’ll refer to them as “E Unibus Pluram” and “Supposedly Fun”). I will highlight some of my favourite passages and add to it some of my experiences. This is not a review, or an analysis. This is me jotting down my favourite parts of these essays with a few notes from my annotations and what it reminds me of, as well as the feelings it stirs. Let’s call it a ‘reader’s diary?’
What has drawn me to DFW is my highly addictive behavior—something DFW himself struggled with, and a theme he incorporates in his fiction and non-fiction. Television, porn, and weed more than anything else (in Wallace’s work). We see traces of all these things in Hal Incandenza in Infinite Jest, the whole of “Big Red Son” focusing on pornography alone in Consider the Lobster, and television in this collection. I’ve always watched a lot of television as a kid, a teen, and in undergrad. Not only did I stream things continuously, I would watch several of them again and again. I would have it on in the background to avoid silence when cooking, cleaning, painting etc. By third year of undergrad I was on Netflix and YouTube non-stop but this time actively watching. I calculated that I had spent a total of 56 days of the year watching (24 hour days) when I put all the calculated time of all the seasons of all the shows I had watched in second year. Netflix made things even worse by automatically going to the next episode, something YouTube now does too—like an all-you-can-eat buffet of media. The strangest thing was, that I felt like I was doing some sort of artistic research, or like I was doing this for the purpose of learning something. Lost kind of put an end to my TV watching days because nothing ever compared, but the YouTube watching persists. You will immediately be able to see why this essay struck a chord with me. Wallace begins with:
“Fiction writers as a species tend to be oglers. They tend to lurk and to stare. They are born watchers. They are viewers. They are the ones on the subway about whose nonchalant stare there is something creepy somehow. Almost predatory…but fiction writers tend at the same time to be terribly self-conscious.”
This of course results in watching television as a voyeur, or ‘peeping-Tom’-ism hoping to see some human behavior and in on the secret lives of others:
“We can see Them; They can’t see Us. We can relax, unobserved, as we ogle. I happen to believe this is why television also appeals so much to lonely people. To voluntary shut-ins…lonely people tend, rather, to be lonely because they decline to bear the psychic costs of being of other humans. They are allergic to people. People affect them too strongly.”
The problem however, is that all of these lives that we are watching are not real. The actors know that they are filmed, it’s all a fakery. These behaviours transcribe later on into social media where everyone on you know presents only the best versions of themselves, and everything is filtered and edited on YouTube, and even to the extreme in Hollywood films and shows.
“The people we’re watching through TV’s framed-glass screen not really ignorant of the fact that somebody is watching them. In fact a whole lot of somebodies…they are on the screen engaging in broad non-mundane gestures at all…we’re not voyeurs here at all. We’re just viewers…television is pretending ignorance. They know we’re out there. It’s proffered—illusion…not real people in real situation. We’re not really even seeing ‘characters.’”
This seeps into the lives of celebrities as well. Wallace writes of our relationships with these celebrities:
“…we worship them. These characters may be our ‘close friends’ but the performers are beyond strangers: they’re imagos, demigods, and they move in a different sphere, hangout with and marry only each other, inaccessible “
In assessing these relationships Wallace states:
“This illusion is toxic. It’s toxic for lonely people because it sets up an alienating cycle (vis. ‘Why can’t I be like that?’ etc), and it’s toxic for writers because it leads us to confuse actual fiction-research with a weird kind of fiction-consumption.
We spend enough time watching, pretty soon we start watching ourselves watching. Pretty soon we start to ‘feel’ ourselves feeling, yearn to experience ‘experiences.’”
I think here is where this sort of disjunction occurs because since Wallace wrote this essay and killed himself in 2008, social media has sort of become the everyday person’s form and response to these celebrity lifestyles. Zadie Smith related that in her criticism of Facebook when she says that you behave like a mini-celebrity with ‘fans’ before becoming a full person, or becoming someone at all. The voyeuristic nature of our relationships to our immediate social network is just as detrimental as the pretend-voyeuristic nature of our relationship to television, because like these actors, people filter, and edit and choose which version of themselves they present to the world. The gap between the Wallace essay and “the now” comes in the form of Franzen-Smith in the conversations on Facebook (see my full essay on that here). The part that Wallace concerned himself with is the way this longing for experiences and a way into another human’s life becomes as addictive as a substance. He writes:
“An activity is addictive if one’s relationship to it lies on that downward-sloping continuum between liking it a little too much and really needing it. It both cases problems for the addict and offers itself as a relief from the very problems it causes…[television] is a ‘distraction’ –diverts the mind from quotidian troubles…television also purveys and enables dreams, and most of these dreams involve some sort of transcendence of average daily life…offering a dreamy promise of escape.”
The reality is you’re sitting on a piece of furniture inside a box staring at another piece of furniture in a box. In this essay though, Wallace isn’t only observing an entire culture’s relationship to television, rather he’s looking at how this lifestyle then becomes the contemporary American life, and then it ultimately gets placed into fiction and art. He writes:
“This culture-of-watching’s relation to the cycle of indulgence, guilt, and reassurance has important consequences for U.S. art…giving in to collective visions of mass images that have themselves become mass images only because they’ve been made the objects of collective vision…I want to persuade you that irony, poker-faced silence, and fear of ridicule are distinctive of those features of contemporary U.S. culture that enjoys a significant relation to the television that has my generation by the throat.”
Wallace then says that when media makes ‘loathing oneself’ references and is meta-referential, then it’s a sort of permission slip for the viewer to continue to indulge. Now that you notice the hypocrisy and irony of it all you are somehow better than the masses, because you’ve noticed it, and we are giving you permission to keep going because look, you’re better than everyone else. The beginning scenes of Norton’s character in Fight Club come to mind–IKEA nesting and daily numbness. Anyone?
Wallace’s bottom line is that what this cycle does is create a society of lonely people. He writes:
“The well-trained viewer becomes even more allergic to people. Lonelier…. the viewer’s exhaustive TV-training in how to worry about how he might come across, seem to watching eyes, makes genuine human encounters even scarier.”
The second essay in this collection “A supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never do Again” is Wallace’s account of taking a cruise and ‘enjoying’ himself—but mostly capturing the pressures that exist on a vacation (as they do on birthdays, Christmas, summer and other such designed places, times, and spaces) to enjoy oneself. He writes:
“It’s more like a feeling. But it’s also still a bona fide product—it’s supposed to be produced in you, this feeling: a blend of relaxation and stimulation, stresses indulgence and frantic tourism, that special mix of servility and condescension that’s marketed under configurations of the verb ‘to pamper.’… You are excused from doing the work of constructing the fantasy. The ads do it for you…a seductive promise. The ads promise…. you will have NO CHOICE but to have a good time.”
But Wallace captures something in this essay that I’ve personally felt on every resort and every ‘pamper’-oriented trip or event. An overwhelming sadness, despair, and loneliness. Wallace writes it beautifully:
“There’s something about a mass-market Luxury Cruise that’s unbearably sad…especially at night, when all the ship’s structured fun and reassurances and gaiety-noise ceased—I felt despair. The word’s overused and banalified now, despair, but it’s a serious word, and I’m using it seriously. For me it denotes a simple admixture—a weird yearning for death combined with a crushing sense of my own smallness and futility that presents as a fear of death. It’s maybe close to what people call dread or angst. But it’s not these things, quite. It’s more like wanting to die in order to escape the unbearable feeling of becoming aware that I’m small and weak and selfish and going without any doubt at all to die.”
By taking choice away from you the cruise-line has made decisions for you, and now you must be forced to enjoy them. The alarm comes from realizing that being on this vacation in itself was your choice and it’s a choice you are now stuck in and a choice you must live with, which becomes a metaphor for life at large. Wallace writes:
“It feels like much time has passed and it’s passing faster and faster every day. Day to day I have to make all sorts of choices about what is good and important and fun and then I have live with the forfeiture of all the other options those choices foreclose. And I’m starting to see how as time gains momentum my choices will narrow and their foreclosures multiply exponentially until I arrive at some point on some branch of all life’s sumptuous branching complexity at which I am finally locked in and stuck on one path and time speeds me through stages of stasis and atrophy and decay until I go down for the third time, all struggle for naught, drowned by time.”
Which reminds me of the ever-famous Fig Tree passage from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, which is now framed on my wall.
Yes, I know this post was long. That’s why it’s called Infinite Text folks.