by Charles Schmitt
I want to examine the way David Foster Wallace asked this question in his essay called, “E Unibus Pluram.” He imagined that the next generation of writers would need to be “anti-rebels,” willing to resist the status quo. And for Wallace (writing in the 90’s), the status quo was defined in large part by television. He writes:
We don’t take [television] seriously enough as both a disseminator and a definer of the cultural atmosphere we breathe and process, and many of us are so blinded by constant exposure that we regard TV … as “just another appliance, a toaster with pictures.
This is the enchanting allure of technology; we see ourselves and our powers reflected in it, perhaps even amplified in it, and this is understandably fascinating. McLuhan did not think it accidental that the word “narcissism” is based on the Greek word for “numbness,” and it is this numbness, this lack of awareness, that he found most troubling in our technological culture. It’s not that McLuhan was anti-technology, but he thought numbness to be very risky. For example, if your physical environment is ten below zero (as it sometimes is in Wisconsin), then a person incapable of feeling the cold would be in grave danger of freezing to death. You can survive in the cold, but you need to be aware and prudent and you need to take precautions.
Just as Narcissus was addicted to his own reflection, Wallace discusses television’s addictive nature. He distinguishes between a “benign” addiction and a “malignant” addiction. He explains that a benign addiction is one that has no ill effects--such as an addiction to letter writing. But he says that an addiction becomes malignant if it (a) causes real problems in the life of the addict, and (b) presents itself as the solution to these problems, thus perpetuating a vicious cycle. He describes how long hours of solitary television-watching might make you feel lonely, and how that loneliness might lead you to withdraw further and watch even more television.
But what I find interesting is Wallace’s implication that our society has a malignant addiction, not only to this or that particular type of technology, but to technology in general. Consider this part of the essay, where he discusses:
… The U.S.A.’s familiar relation to all the technology we equate at once with freedom and power and slavery and chaos. For, as with television, whether we happen personally to love technology, hate it, fear it, or all three, we still look relentlessly to technology for solutions to the very problems technology seems to cause--see e.g. catalysis for smog, S.D.I. for nuclear missiles, transplants for assorted rot.
...Ultimately it’s TV, and not any specific product or service, that will be regarded... as the ultimate arbiter of human worth. An oracle, to be consulted a lot.
I don’t think that television is nearly as important now as it was in the 90’s. I would argue that that role of primary technological culture-shaper has been assumed by the internet, and in particular, social media. So what happens if we re-read Wallace’s essay, but remove all references to “television” and replace them with “the internet,” or even “social media?”
For example, does it seem true that social media is “the ultimate arbiter of human worth?” Do people seek out sites like Facebook to be reassured of their own ontology? I think there’s truth in this, and I think that social media is an “arbiter of human worth” in a truer way than television ever was. If we recall that numbness is narcosis is narcissism, we might feel uneasy about the fact that self-centeredness is not merely an accidental aspect of social media, but is actually a large part of its raison d'être. We might feel a little uneasy once we realize that unlike TV, the content of social media is, literally, ourselves. What is a computer screen, if not a smooth surface in which we can gaze upon ourselves endlessly? Has planet earth, in all the millennia of its existence, ever witnessed a human society that is so creepily similar to that handsome Greek fool?
I said that I think that social media has replaced television as our dominant culture-shaping technology. And I say this because I see one very key difference between Wallace’s television in the 90’s and our television in the 10’s. We might call this the tension between irony and sincerity.
Sincerity is saying what you mean, and irony is saying one thing but meaning another. “Newman’s coming to the party? Oh, great!” This statement can be taken sincerely or ironically, depending of what people actually think of Newman. Sincerity also means you believe in something, you have ideals that you earnestly try to live up to--even if your real life is a little messy, you just keep trying. Irony means that you like pointing out the inconsistencies in other people; that their lofty ideals are fake and shallow and contradicted by how much of a mess their real life actually is. Irony might even mean that you try not to have too many ideals of your own.
Wallace sees television as incredibly ironic in the 90’s. Seinfeld is a perfect example; the main characters get into tricky situations and usually they just lie their way out. They lie to each other constantly. They lie to cover their lies. They just plain lie for no reason. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that). I mean, why not? It’s not as though they actually believe in something. They are, objectively speaking, pretty terrible people with no redeeming qualities whatsoever. They are funny to watch, but you probably wouldn’t want them coming over for dinner.
Wallace contrasts this 90’s hyper-irony with television in the 50’s, which was hyper-sincere. How is family life portrayed in Leave it to Beaver versus Married… with Children? One show believes in the wholesomeness of the family, and the other show enjoys pointing out the messy contradictions in family life. One gives an example of the nobility of parenthood, while the other seems to say, “You people think parenthood is so noble? Yeah, well, what about Al Bundy?”
I’m not just making loads of pop-culture references because it’s an easy way to sound like a bloviating pseudo-intellectual--there’s actually an important point in all this. Wallace writes that this pendulum swing from 50’s sincerity towards 90’s irony was inevitable, not because of the content of television, but because of the medium of television itself. Once again, I can’t help but think of McLuhan’s aphorism; “The medium is the message.” Wallace explains:
Irony is important for understanding TV because “TV,” now that it’s gotten powerful enough to move from acronym to way of life, revolves off just the sorts of absurd contradictions that irony’s all about exposing. It is ironic that television is a syncretic, homogenizing force that derives much of its power from diversity and various affirmations thereof. It is ironic that an extremely canny and unnattractive self-consciousness is necessary to create TV performer’s illusion of unconscious appeal. That products presented as helping you express individuality can afford to advertised on television only because they sell to enormous numbers of people. And so on.
As you can see, this hyper-sincerity provokes me to irony. I enjoy pointing out how contradictory it is to stop enjoying a party in order to verify that you were enjoying it two minutes ago. I should also quickly mention that I don’t mean “sincerity” or “irony” to be moral categories, as if one or the other is always a virtue or a vice.
If Wallace is right that television is fundamentally an ironic medium, and if I’m right that the internet is fundamentally a sincere medium, then what happens when television and the internet get married and have a baby? Netflix is the new-new, and this TV-internet hybrid is quickly making Network TV irrelevant. Very little of what Wallace says about Network TV applies to Netflix, because Netflix is the internet-ization of TV. The next question: If this is a newer, sincerer medium, can we expect to see newer, sincerer content?
I think so.
The irony-sincerity pendulum has already reached its most ironic, and has reversed direction. Now we’re seeing a mix between the two; our popular culture is sincere in parts and ironic in parts. But gradually the sincerity is growing and the irony is diminishing. There are plenty of current/recent sitcoms to point to; The Office, Parks and Recreation, New Girl, Modern Family, Community, and Master of None all come to mind as being basically “sincere” shows. Each of these feature frequent heart-to-heart conversations, and characters are having epiphanies and insights all over the place, and everybody is generally trying really hard to be super good, and generally, they are successful at being good. The sincerity can be heavy-handed. Even sappy. We see a lot of frank confrontations, wherein characters meet and hash out their differences openly, and resolve to some kind of tolerance or acceptance of each other’s foibles. Forgiveness and understanding abound. And when characters persist in disliking each other, they tend to admit as much openly, without guile. Dwight from The Office is a perfect example of a thoroughly sincere (and ridiculous) character when he says: “Jim is my enemy, but it turns out that Jim is also his own worst enemy. And the enemy of my enemy is my friend, so Jim is actually my friend.”
In the 90’s world of Seinfeld, the closest thing to sincerity we ever got was Jerry’s naked disdain for Newman. Redemption of any kind simply was not possible for those characters. But in these new sincere shows, redemption--or at least a hackneyed, vapid substitute--is almost inevitable.
This is to say that Wallace’s essay, only twenty years old, is already outdated. History, not current events. We’ve moved on. But it is reassuring that he anticipated something like this return to sincerity. For Wallace closes the essay by imagining three possible responses to the problem posed by television. Again, his basic question is about contemporary fiction writers who have been weaned on television.
Wallace’s three possible responses: First, we can become Luddites; that is, we can outright reject technology’s influence. Sell your TV, close your Facebook account; that kind of thing. He doesn’t like that choice, and neither do I. That’s the kind of thinking that led to prohibition. Secondly, he says we might look to technology to solve the problems of technology. He doesn’t like that solution either--to me this seems too similar to the malignant addictions he mentioned earlier. But, he offers a third way, and it is the way of mature sincerity:
The next real literary "rebels" in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of "anti-rebels," born oglers who dare to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse single-entendre values. Who treat old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction... These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started… Maybe that'll be the point, why they'll be the next real rebels. Real rebels, as far as I can see, risk things. Risk disapproval. The old postmodern insurgents risked the gasp and squeal: shock, disgust, outrage, censorship... The new rebels might be the ones willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the "How banal." Accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Credulity. Willingness to be suckered by a world of lurkers and starers who fear gaze and ridicule above imprisonment without law. Who knows. Today's most engaged young fiction does seem like some kind of line's end's end.