Sunday, November 4, 2007

From "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction," by David Foster Wallace

In A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again (which seems like a pretty good description of life itself):
The reason why today's [that would be 1993] Image-Fiction isn't the rescue from a passive, addictive TV-psychology that it tries so hard to be is that most Image-Fiction writers render their material with the same tone of irony and self-consciousness that their ancestors, the literary insurgents of Beat and postmodernism, used so effectively to rebel against their own world and context. And the reason why this irreverent postmodern approach fails to help the new Imagists transfigure TV is simply that TV has beaten the new Imagists to the punch. The fact is that for at least ten years now, television has been ingeniously absorbing, homogenizing, and re-presenting the very same cynical postmodern aesthetic that was once the best alternative to the appeal of Low, over-easy, mass-marketed narrative. How TV's done this is blackly fascinating to see.
This part of DFW's critique has become (or was already) pretty standard fare, but the way in which he connects the dots between advertising and the use of irony—as a way of soothing the increasingly obvious contradictions between the recalcitrant ideals of individualism and the mass-ness of mass media and, secondarily, as a way of counteracting the technological advances of cable and VCRs (which threatened to make commercials irrelevant, much like DVR today) by softening differences between programming and advertising—that part of the critique is pretty extraordinary.
if television can invite Joe Briefcase into itself via in-gags and irony, it can ease that painful tension between Joe's need to transcend the crowd and his inescapable status as Audience-member. For to the extent that TV can flatter Joe about "seeing through" the pretentiousness and hypocrisy of outdated values, it can induce in him precisely the feeling of canny superiority it's taught him to crave, and can keep him dependent on the cynical TV-watching that alone affords this feeling.
Coming to this passage, however, I wondered if, for a certain segment of the population not necessarily distinct from Joe Briefcase but in most cases divergent, "radical critique" could not be substituted almost cleanly for "TV." DFW's point in this essay is that contemporary fiction runs the risk of acquiescing to this possibility of simple supplementarity (a point which Franzen echoes in his Harpers essay a few years later and which Wood will consider in a number of places), but the key feature of Theory's dominion starting in the late 80s is, I think, quite analogous to this televisual strategy.

Radical critiques are not depictions of the world as it is, or at least that's how I've come to understand them. The notion that the author is dead, and that all that persists is an author-function, is of course not literally true. Lots of authors, including Mssrs. Foucault and Barthes, were alive at the time of these pronouncements.

On a separate but perhaps related topic, The History of Sexuality is patently nothing of the sort, at least not in the coffee-table-book manner we might expect from the title. Post-structural critiques likewise are not intended as pure empiricism. Orthodox and many (most?) heterodox Marxist or Marxist-inflected critiques (Frankfurt, postcolonialism, some forms of feminism) may be intended as in some sense empirical, but that intention is highly suspect, to put the matter kindly. The best way to read radical critiques (and things that should be radical critiques) is something along the lines of Marianne Moore's "imaginary gardens with real toads in them." (A great example of this in practice is Richard Dawkins's The Selfish Gene—that book was a radical critique of evolutionary biology as it stood when he wrote it, and it seems like most scientists took it as such—not as a claim that genes acted selfishly, or acted at all in an anthropomorphic sense.)*

However, the rapid ascendancy of Theory in a culture heavily charged with irony made this rather simple truth—that radical critique is something distinct from empirical observation—almost impossible for college students (and clearly some professors, not to mention critics of the academy) to pick up on. Count in the fact that both Theory's greatest proponents and professional resenters were approaching structuralism and post-structuralism from the point of view of former or vestigial Marxists, meaning that both sides continued to assume a certain amount of dialectical materialism as the foundation of these critiques, and one can see why we plummeted into a culture war.

The seduction of Theory, however, was precisely the addictiveness of this "feeling of canny superiority" which TV offers Joe Briefcase (DFW's term for the average television-viewer), and just as with television, this feeling is more emollient than irritant, and its soothing qualities are self-reinforcing principally because they further alienate their target from the world which they are in the business of supplanting or critiquing. One reads Foucault and starts seeing the world as a panopticon (if one takes him as a purely descriptive historian). This makes showering uncomfortable.

Please note, however, that, like DFW's essay's relationship to television, this post is a criticism of the social uses of Theory, not a condemnation of the works which it comprises.

Back to DFW's essay for one final (long) quote:
The emergence of something called Metafiction in the American '60s was hailed by academic critics as a radical aesthetic, a whole new literary form, literature unshackled from the cultural cinctures of mimetic narrative and free to plunge into reflexivity and self-conscious meditation on aboutness. Radical it may have been, but thinking that postmodern Metafiction evolved unconscious of prior changes in readerly taste is about as innocent as thinking that all those college students we saw on television protesting the Vietnam war were protesting only because they hated the Vietnam war. (They may have hated the war, but they also wanted to be seen protesting on television. TV was where they'd seen this war, after all. Why wouldn't they go about hating it on the very medium that made their hate possible?) Metafictionists may have had aesthetic theories out the bazoo, but they were also sentient citizens of a community that was exchanging an old idea of itself as a nation of doers and b-ers for a new vision of the U.S.A. as an atomized mass of self-conscious watchers and appearers. For Metafiction, in its ascendant and most important phases, was really nothing more than a single-order expansion of its own great theoretical nemesis, Realism: if Realism called it like it saw it, Metafiction simply called it as it saw itself seeing itself see it. This high-cultural postmodern genre, in other words, was deeply informed by the emergence of television and the metastasis of self-conscious watching. And (I claim) American fiction remains deeply informed by television ... especially those strains of fiction with roots in postmodernism, which even at its rebellious Metafictional zenith was less a "response to" televisual culture than a kind of abiding-in-TV. Even back then, the borders were starting to come down.
*Note: The thoughts here expressed owe a great deal to comments made by Keith Gessen in the n+1 pamphlet I mentioned earlier.

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