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Wallace’s views on how fiction should respond to television’s permeation of culture

An extract from 'E Unibus Pluram'
a wall of TVs

Excerpts from ‘E Unibus Pluram: Television and US Fiction’ in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.

The square parentheses are questions linking the essay to ‘My Appearance.’ We will revisit these questions at the end if you want to make a note of them.

‘I’m going to argue that irony and ridicule are entertaining and effective, and that at the same time they are agents of a great despair and stasis in U.S. culture, and that for aspiring fiction writers they pose especially terrible problems.’ [How does ‘My Appearance’ represent this situation of despair and stasis?]

‘a certain subgenre of pop-conscious postmodern fiction…has lately arisen and made a real attempt to transfigure a world of and for appearance, mass appeal, and television’

‘televisual culture has somehow evolved to a point where it seems invulnerable to any such transfiguring assault. Television, in other words, has become able to capture and neutralize any attempt to change or even protest the attitudes of passive unease and cynicism that television requires of Audience in order to be commercially and psychologically viable at doses of several hours per day.’

Most ambitious realism today is about trying to ‘make the familiar strange’ in order to ‘restore what’s taken for “real” to three whole dimensions’ but it often fails in this regard and instead ‘degenerates into a kind of jeering, surfacey look “behind the scenes” of the very televisual front people already jeer at, a front they can already get behind the scenes of via Entertainment Tonight and Remote Control.’ [How does ‘My Appearance’ handle its ‘behind the scenes’ sections?]

The new fiction (Image Fiction) can’t attack TV through irony because TV ‘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 does ‘My Appearance’ use irony in response to postmodern irony?]

‘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…” Irony has only 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….But irony’s singularly unuseful when it comes to constructing anything to replace the hypocricies it debunks.’

‘…and make no mistake: irony tyrannizes us…an ironist is impossible to pin down.’

‘the ability to interdict the question without attending to its subject is, when exercised, tyranny.’ [How does ‘My Appearance’ use irony?]

‘So here’s the stumper for the U.S. writer who both breathes our cultural atmosphere and sees himself heir to whatever was neat and valuable in avant-garde literature: how to rebel against TV’s aesthetic of rebellion, how to snap readers awake to the fact that our televisual culture has become a cynical, narcissistic, essentially empty phenomenon, when television regularly celebrates just these features in itself and its viewers?’

Wallace looks at four solutions to the problem.

1) reject TV entirely, but this is ‘neanderthal’ and ‘fundamentalist’ so not a good response.

2) ‘political conservatism’ – but this tries to use technology to solve technology’s problems, and offering more choice isn’t plausible as a solution to oversaturation.

3) take Image Fiction to its logical end point, e.g., Mark Leyner, but this is really TV served up as literature, it simply reproduces the flood of images, cynicism, short attention span, etc., without transfiguring it. It is in the end no different.

4) ‘The next real literary “rebels” in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue…The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the “Oh how banal.” To risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Of overcredulity.’ [Does ‘My Appearance’ fall in this spectrum of responses or does it return to a modern form of realism?]

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David Foster Wallace: Literature and Philosophy

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