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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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Facebook | Smith/Franzen | Kid 2.0

YES-ThumbFinal_4.9.15-2I recently read Zadie Smith’s Feel Free essay collection, and re-read several times the essay and film review of The Social Network: “Generation Why,” which was published in the New York Review of Books back in 2010. I found similarities between her essay and Jonathan Franzen’s essay/speech “Liking is for Cowards. Go for What Hurts,” which was published in the New York Times a year later (2011), though they both reach for different points. Franzen’s essay is now in the collection Farther Away. They are both linked if you are interested in reading them, though I will be summarizing them, and quoting what I considered valuable in them before I share my experience.

Zadie Smith

imagesSmith looks at the ways in which 2.0 kids (Millennials, and Gen Y) have been making a new world by having alternate personalities, and alternate versions of themselves in social networks. Her concerns are directed at the strength of our connections, and the fullness of the person we choose to share with others. She writes:

“Connection is the goal. The quality of that connection, the quality of the information that passes through it, the quality of the relationship that connection permits—none of this is important. That a lot of social networking software explicitly encourages people to make weak, superficial connections with each other… ‘You have to be somebody,’ Lanier writes, ‘before you can share yourself.’ But to Zuckerberg sharing your choices with everybody (and doing what they do) is being somebody.”

To Smith there is a sort of façade that one should feel and behave like a mini-celebrity with ‘fans’ when one hasn’t quite become a full person, nor is one sharing their full and real, three-dimensional selves, or circulating concrete ideas. She writes:

 “..here in the Anglo-American world we race ahead with technology and hope the ideas will look after themselves…If you love a medium made of software, there’s a danger that you will become entrapped in someone else’s recent careless thoughts. Struggle against that!”

In a NYPL interview following this piece she says that what is lost with the use of this interface is that we become performative in our interactions with others rather than relational.

“The relationship is one way, and you are voyeuristic about other people’s lives… real life is relational, you have to deal with real people. You have to look at people in the eye.”

Smith is both hopeful and self-aware. She agrees that “no generation is more stupid than the one before” and that it will be interesting to watch young people work their way out of this situation.

What got my attention in her analysis of our generation was an observation of people interacting with someone’s Facebook wall after that person had recently passed away, in somewhat simplistic, street-talk. Smith reminds herself that perhaps this person feels the same way as she would, but simply doesn’t have the education or language to express it.

“But another part of me has a darker, more frightening thought. Do they genuinely believe, because the girl’s wall is still up, that she is still, in some sense, alive? What’s the difference, after all, if all your contact was virtual?”

I’ve seen this happen myself and I’ve been an active participant in it. Immediately after the death of someone you’re looking for people to relate to, a form of mouring community, and seeing people post on someone’s wall immediately after it happens is somewhat reassuring, especially when both friends and family don’t always live in the vicinity. However, after several months or years, seeing people continue to post seems somewhat performative like you’re showing others how you continue to grieve. To me, sharing these inner feelings is reasonable, and a part of being human. But I can see that it’s complicated. Smith writes: what’s inside of me is none of your business; and I think this attitude is something we all admire: people who can think and act this way, but find it equally difficult to follow up on it ourselves, and actually stop our hands from typing every little thought, feeling, or frustration. But Smith too shares inner feelings in her long novels. I do it on this platform. Just because hers are disguised as fiction doesn’t make them particularly private. What Facebook does, and what I think Smith is actually disagreeing with is making the trivial important. “Jamie got a haircut today….250 likes.” Not only is the trivial important, it is more valued than a work-hard achievement at times. On my feed I’ve seen a haircut, or a hamburger picture receiving more attention and likes than someone getting their Ph.D diploma, at which point it makes you feel compared. Everything is always one up against the other. He/she/they have more fans, more friends, more support. These ‘likes’ in numbers give a numerical value making it look objectively (and feel subjectively) the haircut was clearly more important today—which can make the-person-working-somewhat-harder-for-longer-periods-on-something’s achievement seem illaudable or unworthy of the respect of one’s peers. These become moments of comparison as the timeline quite literally puts one above the other, and next to each other.

Jonathan Franzen

downloadJonathan Franzen looks at Facebook as an anesthetic. Temporarily feeling numbed into not feeling, or tricking oneself into feeling happy from people’s immediate reactions. He writes:

“The prospect of pain generally, the pain of loss, of breakup, of death, is what makes it so tempting to avoid love and stay safely in the world of liking…And yet pain hurts but it doesn’t kill. When you consider the alternative — an anesthetized dream of self-sufficiency, abetted by technology — pain emerges as the natural product and natural indicator of being alive in a resistant world. To go through a life painlessly is to have not lived. Even just to say to yourself, “Oh, I’ll get to that love and pain stuff later, maybe in my 30s” is to consign yourself to 10 years of merely taking up space on the planet and burning up its resources. Of being (and I mean this in the most damning sense of the word) a consumer.”

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Rayadito —Farther Away

Franzen’s solution to handling this fear, instead of anesthetizing it like ‘a patient etherized upon a table,’ is to surrender yourself to something real. He writes:

“my love of birds became a portal to an important, less self-centered part of myself that I’d never even known existed. Instead of continuing to drift forward through my life as a global citizen, liking and disliking and withholding my commitment for some later date, I was forced to confront a self that I had to either straight-up accept or flat-out reject.”

Being Liked

Both writers seem to narrow in on the fear of  “not being liked.” Above I mentioned how a lack of ‘likes’ can make one feel somewhat inadequate or lacking approval—or on the reverse, quite happy/popular on days the reactions and feedback is favourable. Yes, at its bottom line it is a fear of not being liked, but outside of social media, isn’t everything we do in the real world, day to day, for one form of social approval? How many people don’t become doctors, lawyers, and professors for the social respect attributed to those jobs?

Smith writes:

“For our self-conscious generation (and in this, I and Zuckerberg, and everyone raised on TV in the Eighties and Nineties, share a single soul), not being liked is as bad as it gets. Intolerable to be thought of badly for a minute, even for a moment.”

Franzen writes:

“But if you consider this in human terms, and you imagine a person defined by a desperation to be liked, what do you see? You see a person without integrity, without a center. In more pathological cases, you see a narcissist — a person who can’t tolerate the tarnishing of his or her self-image that not being liked represents, and who therefore either withdraws from human contact or goes to extreme, integrity-sacrificing lengths to be likable…to love a specific person, and to identify with his or her struggles and joys as if they were your own, you have to surrender some of your self.”

Real life is messy. This two-dimensional world is too cleaned up. Moments of eye contact are irrelevant, your full, whole-rounded person doesn’t come through, you’re afraid of being disliked on a constant basis, thus giving you anxiety, and you constantly compare someone’s highlight reel to your ‘behind-the-scenes’ moments.

My Opinion/Experience

I’ve been on Facebook since 2006 (has it been 12 years?) I remember when it first came out and we were just adjusting to the shift from MSN messenger not quite getting the difference between the MSN status (the immediate feeling), and the FB status: an opinion. I remember being terrified when the switch to the “timeline” happened back in 2011 because I had my life laid out in such a way that my past self, my teenage self, was archived in an easily accessible way for the new people to see the old me—a person I no longer liked, a person I no longer wanted to be, and a person I didn’t want others (new people in my life) to have a chance to see. I can hear people say the same responses they give to NSA intrusions: what do you have to hide? Nothing. I’m just not that person anymore, and I don’t want her here. Moments of “this was you five years ago” as I stare at my screen horrified. Moments I’d rather not remember. Facebook picks the numerically important (by likes), or random picture to remind you of a time, when realistically, that wasn’t an important moment to you, nor something you want to recall right now. While I encountered the feelings both Smith and Franzen discuss, there were so many other layers to them.

My first frustration is from the people involved. Facebook to me isn’t made of people with whom I have things in common or share similar interests. Rather it’s made up of the people I happened to live near in high school, accidentally got paired to be near in university, and extended family I happen to have. On that forum, I feel like I am constantly at a high school reunion or at the family gathering. People fighting, disagreeing, bragging, and everything in between. There are moments of mourning, and moments of celebration, and moments of tagging each other in memes and gifs that show ‘dogs who know exactly how you feel about pizza.’ I watched SO MANY movies where Gen X and Y’s ‘biggest obstacle’ was to go to their high school reunion or a family gathering with extended family. On Facebook we live that every single moment. Every day is a high school reunion. I’ve read psych articles highlighting the stress most people have before a high school reunion because it brings back all of your high school self’s insecurities. My bottom line here is that Facebook is filled with people I don’t hang out with, people who don’t share my interests, and people who I don’t necessarily talk to through this forum. It feels like gossip. Did you hear, did you see? Detective work beings. John and Jane had pictures together, now they’re all gone. John deleted them. What happened? Are you going on a date with so-and-so? Let’s ‘creep’ his Facebook and see what we can dig. A reductionist understanding of his top likes, top pictures, etc. It all seemed “fine” until I tried looking at my Facebook the same way. I hardly have any pictures on Facebook with my best friends, my close family, or my real interests. I was mortified by the idea that someone might judge me by the information they find, and the pictures they see.

Thinking this through a few years ago, I decided to be that person who shares little happiness-es often, rather than only the big accomplishments, to remind people there are little reasons to smile. Such as: I found a penny. There’s an apple shape on my apple. I met a squirrel outside, gave it seeds, and now we’re friends. They shouldn’t name condoms Trojan since they lost because the enemy intruded through the wall—literally the opposite of what you want.

After a while I began to feel annoying and above all: I started to make the trivial things more important and I started to feel performative. Like I’m some sort of clown who owes people a smile, entertainment, or humour. You don’t want to make anyone feel sad because you achieved something big, so you focus on the small. Then you complain for making the trivial take priority and become more important. There’s just no winning.

I also (and this is funny) found myself at work (in “the real world”) needing instant feedback from my boss and co-workers. Did you like my assignment? How would you say you reacted to it? What would your immediate commentary be? What GIF would you assign it? Not to mention that mindless clicking of the ‘f’ button has led me to waste countless hours liking pictures of books, and taking time from actual reading.

Then there are the failures in life where you feel like you owe people (a large amount of people) an explanation. I’ve seen countless people explain their choices as if they owed it to us (as Smith puts it: their fans). It only takes one ugly breakup to want all digital traces erased.

And the last thing is this: have you ever met a completely new person with no digital trace? Or no social media? Because I did, and they are fascinating! The Ron Swanson type. I feel like Jane Goodall.  It’s so intriguing getting to know someone based on what you see, actually see—and actually communicate. I want to become that person.

I don’t hate Facebook, but I hate my relationship to it. If I can adjust that, then maybe I can go back. But for now, I’m going to pretend that Instagram and probably everything else is not owned by Facebook. I’m okay with it existing, I’m okay with what it has become and could be, but for now, I don’t like how it makes me feel, and my personal relationship to it. It’s something I have to work on. Maybe for a while I’ll try the Franzen method and say it out loud: I don’t care about being liked! I’ll try to find something real and alive to give part of my self to.