cultural examination

Wallace | TV and “Fun” | Reflection

51P8MZzESJL._SX316_BO1,204,203,200_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.

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Yes, I know this post was long. That’s why it’s called Infinite Text folks.

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The Financial Diet | Book Review

32927009I’ve been a devoted subscriber to The Financial Diet (TFD) on YouTube for some time, so I thought I would give the book a try. I’ve been listening to it on audiobook on my commute to and from work. The book is relatively short and incorporates many of the messages and topics covered by the videos, many of them in interview format featuring guest ‘speakers’ who are experts in their field and contribute advice per topic. I admit that as much as I enjoy listening to Chelsea Fagan, I should have gotten the print copy because often she often refers to charts, diagrams, or “the PDF” which comes with the audiobook and the PDF is 84 pages long, and I unfortunately did not have it on hand most of the time.  So if you are thinking of picking this up, I would recommend the eBook, or physical copy.

The two authors and co-founders of “The Financial Diet” brand, Chelsea Fagan and Lauren Ver Hage, are two young, self-made, organized, and intelligent, business-women. Chelsea went to community college, got her funds in a mess, slowly recovered and gained economic literacy and decided to share her experiences with others who might find themselves in similar situations, particularly young adults in, or freshly out of University, (perhaps even slightly before entering University/College/Certificate Programs). My understanding of “The Financial Diet” as an outside observer is that it is geared at young people (and by young I mean 16-24ish) who have zero understanding of financial matters, and who have been crippled with anxieties and pressures from all angles of social media, and live in the West, particularly USA, Canada, UK. They also address repeatedly that the idea that old white men often appear in mainstream media as being the only secret-holders to the world of “finance.” Both Fagan and Ver Hage relate experiences in this book, as do all the other professional women invited to speak/write. This book, to me, is meant to let you know that you are not alone, that everyone makes mistakes, and to relate experiences and stories that may put things into focus. I also appreciated that most people involved at TFD and the interviewees are women, and the way they approach financial information is in an accessible, non-exclusive, non-intimidating way for young adults who have a hard time even approaching the topic of finance, budgeting, and saving.

After finishing the book and wondering how I feel about it, I came across two Goodreads reviews (on the negative side) stating the following:

“This is not a book that would help a 20- or 30-something gain financial literacy. It’s a lifestyle book, focused on how to get the lifestyle you aspire to on a budget, how to cope with the fact that some aspirational lifestyles will remain out of reach, and how to feel as though you’re doing a good job with your finances…this book is written specifically for Millennials…At its best, the book offers a critique of Instagram and Pinterest-lifestyle aspirations, or why we shouldn’t all be working 80-hours a week…this book that lives in the layer of fixing up thrift store furniture so that it’s Pinterest-worthy, rather than really digging into the nuts and bolts of how to negotiate the confusing experience of being a first-time homebuyer, or by explaining the mechanics of compound interest rather than just mentioning it in passing.”

Another reviewer states:

“how difficult it is to find content that’s geared towards women without being infantilizing…often provides financial advice that probably works for the Carrie Bradshaws of the world (like buying expensive designer bags for your first job) but not for the average millennial on a budget…this book is less about personal finance for young women and more about how to become the sort of young woman I imagine Chelsea and her social circle generally are– largely white, largely affluent, largely living in expensive cities, and taking pride in the fact that they have a “budget” but with no desire to actually take charge of their finances”

I took a step back and thought about a few things: how this book was marketed, what its title is, who is the target audience, and what I have personally gotten from this experience. After synthesizing it all, I am behind TFD.

From the whole TFD experience mixing together all the different media I have consumed their information, I have found both Chelsea and Lauren to be very useful. I also remembered that Chelsea lived in complete poverty for the early stages of her life, and went to community college. She mentions some of this in her video emphasizing the difference between being Broke and being Poor, and how linguistically one ought not to use the two interchangeably. I don’t know if her background is a ‘privileged’ one, though she currently lives in New York after starting and thriving on the TFD business that she has been working on for years. She is, as I mentioned before: self-made. I appreciated anecdotes of failure, and trial/error. I appreciated advice on minimal things like: budgeting apps, and even money-saving cooking tips, or DIY pet food. I don’t know how we’ve become convinced over time that absolutely everything can and must be bought. I also feel inspired seeing so many women together working and collaborating on a project that is really quite successful and has picked up a significant following on online forums. It makes me happy to see them succeed. I don’t know if that is a weird thing to say, but it does! I learned a lot over the last two years from them, and I know I am approaching this book from a privileged position, but I needed someone to tell me that it’s okay not to aim for the ‘Instagrammable’ wedding, lifestyle, house, daily meal etc. It is no more exclusive, elitist, or upper-middle class than the same target audience towards whom other writers like Zadie Smith and Jonathan Franzen direct their essays–which you may recall from my long post regarding the anxieties raised by Facebook. I know this ties in to what ‘negative reviewer #2’ has stated, and granted, this book is very much speaking to people in a privileged position, but this is the TFD audience. If you have the time and technology to consume videos on YouTube from TFD then you are in the demographic of their target audience. Social media pressures and insecurities created by social media are actually very costly (both mentally and financially). Monthly we make so many purchases (impulsive ones) that stem simply out of our insecurities created by the immediate technological environment around us. The fact that one reviewer mentioned the ‘Carrie Bradshaws’ is just an example, but we often see characters, or people in CEO positions and in various lifestyles and associate the Starbucks Latte, or the designer handbag with the kind of person we’d like to be, and in moments of weakness splurge as an excuse to ‘treat ourselves’ while feeding our insecurities trying to create a bridge between who we are, and who we would like to be. Buying a gym membership doesn’t automatically transform you into a person who goes to the gym. See Chelsea’s video on How Much Your Insecurity Actually Cost You.

The reason TFD mentions how to cook, what utensils you need, etc. is because good budgeting, minimalism, minimal-waste lifestyle, and living ethically are very interconnected. I approached these topics individually and most of the time they bounce off each other. The bottom line is that one should invest in good quality, ethical things, that are good long term for us, and the environment and to stop treating everything in our life as disposable. The Financial Diet approaches this topic from the financial angle, and it is not simply a finance book (nor pretending to be one), but it is a cultural examination, a social critique of the middle class Western lifestyle, and a starting point for the TOTAL beginner.

This book is also available through your public library (Toronto here), and Overdrive for an electronic copy.