Robot Chicken and Honest Trailers remain two of my unashamed pleasures, and within that pleasure lies a connection to the rest of humanity, at least according to David Foster Wallace. I like many people grew up watching cartoons and television almost to the point of obsession, and in hindsight it’s a wonder at all that I became the reader I am today. As I’ve written before in several instances I actually wasn’t much of a reader as a child, and in fact the only thing my parents could get me to read on my own was either Captain Underpants or Calvin and Hobbes. When I wasn’t watching Loony Tunes, Swat Kats, Huckleberry Hound, Arnold, Doug, Rugrats, Cow & Chicken, and Rocko’s Modern Life I was usually playing Super Nintendo. For the record I’ve never finished Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, and as such I’ve had to achieve closure like every nerd who can’t finish a video game, I watched someone else beat it on YouTube.
For some reason I’ve lately found myself being attracted to David Foster Wallace. That’s not a homoerotic remark by the way, I just go through these intellectual storms or moods that tend to center around a person, idea, or word. I’d actually been exposed to the man two years ago when I was studying creative writing with Luke Goebel. There wasn’t any required reading in the course, Luke was cool in so many ways and that was just one of them, but there was suggested readings. Alongside Susan Steinberg’s short story collection Spectacle, there was also an anthology titled The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories. I was one of the few people in class who actually bought the book, and almost every one of the other books Luke would “suggest” we read (Luke tends to bark out his suggestions so that they’re almost call-to-arms) but I found a lot of inspiration in this collection, trying to read as many as I could.
I had no idea who David Foster Wallace was, and at the time I didn’t care. Joe Wenderoth, Padget Powell, and Aimee Bender were far more interesting to me or at least more relevant to the type of writing I was trying to accomplish. I read the passage “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men” not knowing that this was a passage from a novel Wallace had written, and I remarked to myself that he was the only person, apart from Ed Park, who made the “interview” format of writing interesting to read. It’s funny in hindsight as I approach this essay because this line of the passage including in the Anchor collection begins:
As a child I watched a great deal of American television. No matter of where my father was being posted, it seemed always that American television was available, with its glorious and powerful women performers. Perhaps this was one more advantage of the importance of my father’s work to the defense of the state, for we had privileges and lived comfortably. The television program I most preferred then was to watch Betwitched, featuring American performer Elizabeth Montgomery. (349).
The reader may not understand at first why this amusing, but that’s only because I haven’t gotten around to stating the focus of this essay. As I said at the start of this work I adore watching Robot Chicken and Honest Trailers for both of these shows invite viewers into a kind of complicity. Watching Robot Chicken the viewer is aware that they’re re-watching most of the television programs they enjoyed as children, just reimagined to fit an adapted adult-childhood. Skeletor is no longer the bumbling and inept supervillain who always loses, he’s now a man who can call people douchebags and give a banker a blowjob to pay for his mortgage. Likewise with Honest Trailers, while there is definitely a nostalgia factor in place, the joy of the program is recognizing similar thoughts as the deep throated god who narrates the videos brings to life every criticism, concern, and reflection the viewer had while watching the movie.
What these programs have in common, beyond the surface comedy factor, is the fact that both rely on television and watching in order to be understood.
The generations being entertained grew up watching most of the shows and movies being parodied and critiqued, and rather than shaming the viewer by suggesting they have wasted their life watching these programs invite the viewer: do you remember show/movie “X”? If you do check this out.
This is an important distinction from most conversations about television because it’s not condemnatory and this leads me to David Foster Wallace’s Essay E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction.
E Unibus Pluram is the second essay in the collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again which I bought after a friend of mine who teaches college composition recommended it. I had started Infinite Jest on a whim already, and after steadily becoming more and more cognizant of who Wallace actually was I decided to give him a chance. The essay in question deals with the topic of contemporary fiction, specifically how television has altered the creative landscape for writers as well as readers.
One passage in particular outlines this conflict:
The plain fact is that certain things having to do with fiction production are different for young U.S. writers now. And television is at the vortex of most of the flux. Because younger writers are not only Artists probing for the nobler interstices in what Stanley Cavell calls the reader’s “willingness to be pleased”; we are also, now, self-defined parts of the great U.S. Audience, and have our own aesthetic pleasure-centers; and television has formed and trained us. It won’t do, then, for the literary establishment simply to complain that, for instance, young-written characters don’t have very interesting dialogues with each other, that young writer’s ears seem “tinny.” Tinny they may be, but the truth is that, in young Americans’ experience, people in the same room don’t do all that much direct conversing with each other. What most people I know do is they all sit and face the same direction and stare at the same thing and then structure commercial-length conversations around the sorts of questions that myopic car-crash witnesses might ask each other— “Did you just see what I just saw?” (44).
This long quote precedes the chapter “i do have a thesis,” where he actually lays out his thesis, but looking at this passage I’m reminded that I’m an avid fan of the show Family Guy and that lately I’ve gone back and watched the first three seasons. The reader may wonder what that has to do with anything? You see I was one of many high school losers who could never get a date, didn’t understand that not washing my hair repelled women, and often found solace listening to Slipknot’s “Wait and Bleed” on repeat, or else memorizing virtually every episode of Family Guy. To this day I can quote lengthy passages from the earlier shows at will, sometimes to the annoyance, dismay, or pity of my wife and friends, but it’s impossible to deconstruct this muscle memory and allow room for more important facts and information. Family Guy was a television program I adored, my friends adored, and some girls actually at least pretended to like because they were bored and our interactions would usually revolve around starting each other up to do moments from the episodes. These repeated actions assume great weight as I look back on my development and realize that it wasn’t the nurturing sublime language of Shakespeare or the Transcendental beauty of Emily Dickinson, it was sitting with my friends, or often alone, watching Peter Griffin try to come up with a fake name before looking at a pea, a tear, and a griffin before saying “Peter Griffin. Aw, crap.”
Television has been a formative influence upon my consciousness, and as a writer it directly affects the kind of prose I produce. Likewise for many writers of my generation, the consistent watching of television has played its own role on them.
Wallace’s essay is not designed to shame the reader, in fact consistently he makes sure his reader recognizes that he objects to the old ideas of television as a corrupting influence.
He notes early on in the essay:
I am concerned to avoid anti-TV paranoia here. Though I’m convinced that telelvsion today lies, with a potency somewhere between symptom and synechdoche, behind a genuine crisis for U.S. Culture and literature, I do not agree with reactionaries who regard TV as some malignancy visited upon an innocent populace, sapping IQs and compromising SAT scores while we all sit there on ever fatter bottoms with little mesmerized spirals revolving in our eyes. (36).
Likewise he notes earlier that another consistent criticism of television is that it encourages perverse voyeurism. Rather than suggesting viewers are corrupted “Peeping-Toms” voyeuristically watching people who are unsuspecting he provides a different assessment:
But TV-watching is different from genuine Peeping-Tomism. Because the people we’re watching through TV’s framed-glass screen are not really ignorant of the fact that somebody is watching them. In fact a whole lot of somebodies. […] Television does not afford true espial because television is performance, spectacle, which by definition requires watchers. We’re not voyeurs here at all. We’re just viewers. We are the Audience, megametircally many, though most often we watch alone: E Unibus Pluram. (23).
The consistent argument against regular consumption of television has been that it rots the mind and inhibits the ability to connect with other people, but as Wallace just demonstrated that is an outdated fallacy upon closer inspection. Television relies on the idea that somebody is watching the characters on the screen, and so rather than present human beings in situations that would reveal the true nature of their being or self, television is often presented through what Wallace refers to as irony. The form of irony in question is not so much a clever high art variety one might encounter in Shakespeare or Beckett, but rather an irony rooted in the conditioning of advertising. This form of irony is understood by the way it presents itself, which Wallace explains:
Products are now most often pitched as helping the viewer “express himself,” assert his individuality, “stand out from the crowd.” (55).
While I write I typically have Pandora on, either my Disturbed Channel or else the Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart channel, and while the music sometimes distracts me, it’s nice to be able to put music on and focus on the writing, however because I work with the free model of the site I’m regularly interrupted by commercials.
The most glaring of them has lately been a Dr. Pepper commercial: two friends enter a retail outlet and they’re in a hurry, one man pleads for his friend to hurry up but the other explains it isn’t that simple, he tells “Gary” (which for the record is a glaring demonstration of the lack of originality or else outright brilliance in the writing that went into the add) that he’s conflicted because each Dr. Pepper bottle has different labels, the manager of the shop tells them to hurry up, to which Gary responds that his friend is simply trying to “express himself” with “the rich taste of Dr. Pepper” spoken in the most hammed up delivery, the ad ends with the discovery of a “pirate” wrapper before a voice comes over suggesting that one is able to express ones entire individuality through purchasing different labels. My music sometimes starts up after that, though often I have to listen to Jack King (a local used car salesman in my area) and afterwards I’m struck by the sheer absurdity of the actual ad. Wallace, would argue that it’s actually a kind of irony. He provides his own example, a Pepsi ad in which an entire beach full of people scramble to a food truck to purchase the soft drink after the van projects the sound of a carbonated drink opening up:
There’s about as much “choice” at work in this commercial as there was in Pavlov’s bell-kennel. The use of the word “choice” here is a dark joke. In fact the whole 30-second spot is tongue-in-cheek, ironic, self-mocking. As Miller argues, it’s not really choice that the commercial is selling Joe Briefcase on, “but the total negation of choices. Indeed, the product itself is finally incidental to the pitch. The ad does not extol Pepsi per se as recommend it by implying that a lot of people have been fooled into buying it. (60).
Looking back at “Gary,” and my quenchless desire to punch him as well as his friend in the face for interrupting my Slipknot and Evanescence lineup, I’m struck by the fact that these people who regularly intrude my metal fest are now figures that I pity rather than despise. Their conversation in the gas station over the labels of Dr. Pepper become a kind of sick tragedy that I have to watch over and over again, aware of the irony that is taking place as well as the invitation to participate in this farce. Advertising is not malevolent by nature, it simply serves the purpose of allowing companies to make their product known the consumer. Wallace achieves a brilliance in recognizing and thus writing out the fact that the viewer of such adds is not helpless in this matter, that in fact they fully recognize on some level that the ad is being purposefully hyperbolic to appear absurd. What’s complicated is the nature of choice that follows that recognition for absurdity is not necessarily a protection from it.
At this point though my contester interrupts. This is all terribly interesting, but how exactly does this possess much, if any, relevance to average people who derive great enjoyment from television? The essay just sounds like a long esoteric criticism of television without offering any significant statement about television as a viable media, or the way it has affected culture.
My contester is right, as usual, but also wrong, also usual. Looking over the passages cited already is enough evidence to demonstrate the relevance of the article to fans of television because it’s clear that Wallace is not condemning television as a form of media, he’s simply trying to understand it and offer up fresh arguments about what role it plays in society. Perhaps the best example of this comes from a quote following a passage from Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise where two characters have stopped to see “THE MOST PHOTOGRAPHED BARN IN AMERICA.” The characters get out and watched the crowd and Wallace writes a beautiful and, as usual, insightful analysis:
I quote this at length not only because it’s too good to edit but also to draw your attention to two relevant features. One is the Dobynsesque message about the metastasis of watching. For not only are people watching a barn whose only claim to fame is being an object of watching, but the pop-culture scholar Murray is watching people watch a barn, and his friend Jack is watching Murray watch the watching, and we readers are pretty obviously watching Jack the narrator watch Murray watching, etc. If you leave out the reader, there’s similar regress of recording of barn and barn-watching. (48).
It’s in this passage that Wallace E Unibus Pluram comes full circle and I apologize but I most quote one last passage, for it is, after all, wallace’s thesis:
My two big premises are that, one the one hand, a certain subgenre of pop-conscious postmodern fiction, written mostly by young Americans, has lately arisen and made a real attempt to transfigure a world of and for appearance, mass appeal, and television; and that, on the other hand, 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 or psychologically viable at doses of several hours a day. (49-50).
At the start of every episode of Family Guy there is a shot of someone watching television. At the end of The Simpsons intro the family all sits down to watch television before something quirky happens. Every season of Rick and Morty has at least one episode dedicated to the family sitting and flipping through infinite numbers of channels from infinite numbers of realities that have television. Robot Chicken’s central narrative is of a chicken strapped to a chair being forced to watch television. These are just some examples but they demonstrate the relevance of Wallace’s essay and why the reader should care.
It would simple to suggest that watching television for extended periods of time is laziness, and while some part of me agrees with that statement reading E Unibus Pluram makes it difficult to completely condemn television as I have done in the past. Even after reading the essay I still hold to the fact that I don’t enjoy watching television much, but that has more to do with personal idiosyncrasy than contempt. I’d rather be writing, reading, or making video lectures most of the time, but I even I will drop what I’m doing to watch Ricky and Morty because there’s a simple joy in being passive and receiving data. Television as a medium has become so much a part of the cultural and psychological landscape that simply writing it off as corrupting is becoming immaterial. More to the point when a person condemns television and then themselves enjoy watching it they’re simply engaging in hypocrisy.
Television has affected literacy and writing tremendously because writers who decide to attempt to speak and discuss human beings in contemporary times have to deal with the reality of television. It influences dialogue, motivations, time people spend, and the atmosphere of the creations. Ignoring television and condemning it, rather than accepting it and trying to understand it, isn’t helping the situation. It’s only making it more difficult for readers to separate themselves from the tube in the first place.
Authors who wish to write about the human condition have to recognize the creative landscape now includes the, to quote Stewie Griffin, “flickering box.” Wallace ends E Unibus Pluram wondering about the fate of future authors, wondering if they will in their own movements, actually submit to television and dare to produce art that encourages further passivity. For myself I can offer the sentiment that I will spend my life actively avoiding such garbage, but then I remember that Robot Chicken comes at 11 and I have only a few minutes to wrap this essay up.
If the reader is at all interested I’ve actually found a pdf of Wallace’s essay. While all quotes in this essay came from the collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, they can also the entire work by following the link below:
In case the reader is like me and never finished the game Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past I’ve included a link to a video which shows the final boss battle against Ganon and the conclusion of the game. I don’t know how this person did it, but damn if it wasn’t nice finally watching that fat pig wizard SOB get destroyed:
I’ve included a few Calvin and Hobbes Strips in this article because often, growing up, they were some of my favorite. It’s entirely by accident that most of them are relentless criticism of television, or, I suppose, it’s ironic.