Monthly Archives: January 2009

The Internet: The Catalyst to the Destruction Social Interaction

[Edited to remove a whole bunch of ugly code inserted by some Microsoft product and to make the URL an actual link. Please, please be careful when cutting and pasting into the post window, and please review and edit your posts! –KF]

In 1990 the average American household watched 6 hours of television each day. David Foster Wallace engraved this statistic into each of our minds over and over again in E Unibus Pluram. At first this statistic shocked me, as I had a hard time imagining when I could personally find time throughout my day to sit down and stare at the TV for six straight hours, or even break it up between my other daily obligations. And if I am not watching my full 6 hour share, then that means that there are others in this country standing on the opposite side of the 6 hour see-saw balancing it out with 8 or 9 hours a day! But in order to translate this statistic into its modern equivalent, we must account not only for the 2 hour and 14 minute increase in television’s average daily household viewership (nydailynews), but more importantly for the phenomenon of the internet.

One of Wallace’s principal complaints about TV is that it allows people to disconnect from real human relationships and to simply enjoy the viewing portion without being viewed; voyeurism. The internet’s effect is to multiply this tenfold. Not only are the possibilities far greater (endless, really) with the web, thus drawing an enormous amount of use that has revolutionized the way we live, but the most popular applications of the internet are aimed to do directly what Wallace asserts TV does indirectly: use technology to foster pseudo-relationships with other human beings. Examples of this are boundless and increasingly disturbing. One of the first and most consistently popular crazes was with Instant Messaging. It allowed people to interact in real time with high articulation and detail, without worrying about facial expressions, physical appearance, tones, other intricacies of conversation, or even responding immediately. This way people can think about how they are going to respond without the pressure of being seen by those they are talking to. Through chat rooms and multiple IM windows, one can interact virtually with the population of a party from their computer.

Social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace allow people to use “profiles” to manufacture the images of themselves that TV allowed them to neglect. This takes the voyeurism a step further. Instead of one way watching of fake friends that to us will never exist, the watching goes both ways, this time edited and honed even more flawlessly than with television. The owners of these profiles have all the time in the world to create their own image without any pressure, so they try to present a better, more perfect, fake version of themselves to the world. Thus any communication or human relationship through this medium is simply the equivalent of two television characters talking through two TV sets. This two-way voyeurism draws massive amounts of popularity as it gives off the impression of human interaction far better than TV and requires nearly as little responsibility of contribution. The same can be said of dating websites like E-Harmony and, which match couples based on “compatibility”, which I suppose, in the pseudo-relationship world, is synonymous with love . Now with these sites the effects of the two-way voyeurism escalate. Not only are one’s friends and social life dictated by technology, but possibly even the creation of his or her family.

The internet, with all of the glorious contributions it has made to our society, is also rapidly increasing the speed at which we are secluding ourselves. It has made possible, far beyond the level that television did, a life in which our society’s epidemic of loneliness is not cured, but merely medicated. As the condition gets worse, we simply increase the dosage of this drug that is perpetuating the illness. If we saw no solution to overcoming our addiction to the television (which I remind you still exists, stronger than before), then we have an even greater task at hand in regulating our use of the internet.

(nydailynews –

A bit about self-awareness and real meaning in The Broom of the System

Adding a substantial dose self-awareness to his characters allows DFW to muse for extended periods on the power and significance of words, and the relationship between saying something and giving meaning to that something.   He does it in both serious and comical ways, as evidenced by Gramma Lenore’s affection for Wittgenstein and the transcripts of the therapy sessions Dr. Jay holds with young Lenore and Rick Vigorous.   Pages 116-122 provide a nice example as Lenore discusses her Gramma’s idea that “there’s no such thing as extra-linguistic efficacy, extra-linguistic anything” (120-1).   The notion that just saying something provides as much meaning as living something seems crazy, but Lenore remains steadfast despite Jay’s counter-arguments.   That may be more due to the weakness of Jay’s responses, but Lenore maintains her convictions nonetheless.

The fact that someone is reading the story adds another layer to the situation, suggesting perhaps that Lenore’s feelings and conviction are perhaps as strong or meaningful as yours or mine. Really?   It’s a funny argument, but at its core it questions the influence of words, and maybe they are more powerful than we give them credit for.   Either way, Lenore understands and values the power of words and their ability to convey meaning in reality, and maybe that’s why she asks Rick on several occasions to tell her a story.

DFW also uses self-awareness as a way to contemplate one’s own existence, and he does so hilariously.   When Lenore and Rick go out to dinner, the reader is privileged to meet one Norman Bombardini (p81-93).   Bombardini serves as both a top shelf joke of the kind DFW is renowned for and a method for again exploring self-awareness.   Bombardini proposes a dichotomous theory of existence, the Self and the Other.   Norman is all too aware of himself, as he repeatedly calls his monstrous size to attention and provides several amusing anecdotes about his unfortunate physical stature, and his perverse solution to his melancholy is to envelop the Other with his own Self.   Literally.

What a way to regard existence, that happiness or satisfaction or meaning may come not from an emotional connection to the Other, but actually becoming it.   Physically connecting to the Other, rather than talking with it and mentally reaching an understanding.   DFW has said that people fear the prospect of never loving something more than themselves, but it seems that Norman would rather just love himself, as he believes “we each need a full universe.   Weight Watchers and their allies would have us systematically decrease the Self-component of the universe, so that the great Other-set will be physically attracted to the now more physically attractive self, and rush in to fill the void caused by that diminution of Self.   Certainly not incorrect, but just as certainly only half of the range of valid solutions…” (p91).   Forgiving his tendency toward long-winded speeches, Norman offers a way of thinking about self-awareness and meaning radically different from Lenore’s.   There’s no surprise that Lenore is just as repulsed by what Norman is saying as by Norman’s eating habits.  

For a novel that places such emphasis on words, the names of people and things really demand attention.   For the most part I have trouble deciding what to make of them, aside from the obvious gags, like the law firm of “Rummage and Naw.” Lawyers are rats I guess, or mice according to Rick Vigorous.   Anything else interesting in the names?  


Extra Copy of Infinite Jest

I have one. It’s new. Price is negotiable.

The Pillowman

Is a Pomona College theatre production going on this weekend:   there were lines in the play that evoked exactly what Wallace often talks about in his writing–along the lines of selfless love, sacrifice, the capability to truly love someone else other than yourself, the purpose and potential effects of writing (which reminded me of the “Post-Postmodern Discontent:   Contemporary Fiction and the Social World” essay).

On top of that, it was a marvelous play. You should all see it!

It’s located in Harwood basement, 8 PM Friday and Saturday night, and 6 PM Sunday night. It’s free, and go early, because the Harwood basement can only fit so many people in it!

Yes, I’m self-conscious… but am I self-conscious enough?!

Though we’ve already discussed it quite a bit, I thought it worthwhile to organize some thoughts on the plight of post- postmodern writers and the role of self-consciousness and irony in fiction (and in TV and film and non-fiction, for that matter).  

DFW’s perspective is often oversimplified to “anti-irony.” This tag gets right that he does not think irony the supremely useful narrative technique that many postmodernist writers seem to think it is – as a narrative device he is wholly against it – but an important  distinction to make is that he does not shy from irony in terms of imagining genuine characters. This is to say that irony and sarcasm are undeniable parts of the modern psyche, and in service of building characters honestly it is not merely OK but actually  important  to include ironic wit. This perspective is evident in all of his fiction, most notably in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. The other great contemporary writers seem to understand irony in the same way; DFW, Jonathan Franzen, Richard Russo, Cynthia Ozick, and a few others have all made it a project to juxtapose generous narrators (or narrative methods) with ironically-minded characters.  

But how do they get away with it? With a less talented author behind the wheel, such generosity would be sentimental and uninteresting and banal. The only answer I can put my finger on is the sentence-by-sentence quality of the writing. Though this feels like a real cop-out, in terms of finding big, theoretical reasons behind their ability to balance sincerity with self-awareness, I think it’s the truth. Each of these authors – DFW more than the others, more than anyone by a long shot – has in his/her writing a special density and control that makes all other writing feel almost intolerably lazy and full of air. Some of this feeling has to do with intelligence. For DFW, and for others to a generally lesser degree, the level of consideration and mastery put into each word and phrase leaves no room for readers to doubt his intellect or sincerity. We come to trust him through admiration.  

The difficulty, then, is for writers with less than superhuman talent and control to gain their readers’ trust. Those of us that are able to avoid the too-sentimental, too-cliche side of the abyss are those that then end up as ironists, stuck wondering: “… but am I self-conscious enough?”. We can, however, look to DFW, Franzen, Ozick, and Russo for guidance. Russo, in particular, writes in a pitch-perfect, restrained, unshowoffy prose: almost textbook fiction, is such a thing could exist. On a sentence-by-paragraph-by-chapter level, Russo builds his stories traditionally. The thing to admire is his voice; he consistently finds a narrative voice which, though it may not have the pyrotechnic intellect of DFW, is almost immediately trustworthy. That’s  just  one way of doing it.

W/r/t TV and Film, the best shows seem to use irony much as DFW does, as an inescapable part of life, used in service of creating genuine characterizations. I won’t list shows, but I will say that HBO has gotten really, really good at this. The same rule seems to go for great films. (One notable exception is Shakespeare in Love, which is one of my favorite movies. S in L has a great deal of narrative ironic wit but does not dwell on its own jokes and so does not come off as self-satisfied or showoffy. Another reason it gets away with irony is that the overall project of the film is so romantic and sentimental – and the characterizations so generous – that irony serves as a mitigating factor, a way to correct the balance. In my humble opinion, S in L is one of the best-written movies ever.)



DFW and TV today: thoughts on 30 Rock

After we talked in class about how technological advances might complicate or even alter DFW’s arguments in E. Unibus Pluram, I began to think about how recent television shows might do the same. For example, what would DFW have had to say about 30 Rock? Did he ever say anything about it? It would have made for an interesting essay.

It seems to me that on 30 Rock, the fictional SNL-type “show” is merely a backdrop for the humor of the characters’ “real life.” In essence, the show seems to be about exactly what DFW calls “the agenda of consciousness behind the text” (McCaffery, 22), with the Tracy Morgan Show and the rest of NBC’s line-up serving as the text we never actually get to view/read; we only see the agendas behind that fictional text. That seems especially post-post-modern, because it shows us technique, structure, and method without actually revealing any content whatsoever, though I’m not really sure what to make of that.

While Tina Fey is a master of irony and cycnicism, she is also quite interested and invested in what it means to be human in a consumer-driven, corporate world. Last week’s episode relentlessly satirizes corporate retreats, but the dark humor merely provided a premise to explore and explode certain tensions in Jack and Liz’s multi-faceted relationship. Liz has to overcome her extreme self-consciousness and make a fool of herself to save Jack’s reputation. Even though she (and the show) obviously thinks the whole corporate façade game is ridiculous, she plays along simply because “that’s what friends do.” When she tells Jack this, she clearly “talk[s] out of the part of [her] that loves” (22).

Fey is “terribly self-conscious” (E.U.P., 21), a trait DFW ascribes to fiction writers. She devotes a fair portion of each episode to “Liz Lemon’s” self-consciousness regarding her weight and appearance. In interviews, Fey has admitted to weight-issues and acute self-consciousness (see for more on this). She is a born watcher but dislikes being watched. Her doppelganer Liz Lemon longs for a child (Fey has one), but cannot sustain a relationship; she is Jane Briefcase, going home each night to TV and junk food. On the air, Fey is up-front about her self-consciousness, and she writes Liz Lemon in a way that lets the audience know Fey knows she is being watched; she lets the audience know she knows she is all too human. 30 Rock manages to point outside itself into the real world and connect to NBC’s real audience in a very real way. It offers not “the promise of a vacation from human self-consciosness” (E.U.P., 25), but actually asks the viewer to view and interact with its characters much the way a reader would interact with a character in a book.

Fey attempts, I think, to burst open the closed loop between producer (the studio) and product (the show), and allow the formerly outside consumer in on the game. Through this sort of play, and a witty yet ultimately human writing, I believe Fey offers her own “transfiguring assault” (E.U.P., 50) on television and mass-media by writing, not a Fiction of Image, but maybe an Image of Fiction. What do you think?

Adolf Hitler’s book sold a lot of copies, just like David Foster Wallace’s, I’m not implying anything, I’m just saying

Hitler’s book sold a lot of copies, just like David Foster Wallace’s, I’m not implying anything, I’m just saying.

I feel like the degradation of TV is an easy target. Yet, right-wing bestsellers are an even easier target, so that’s where I start in a critique of what Wallace calls the “anti-rebel” writers that stick to “single-entendre principles.”

I am of course speaking of Twilight, the bestseller that opens with a quote from Genesis and ends with the 18 year-old protagonist barefoot-and-pregnant. In between you get the generic story of good versus evil (guess who wins?) played out in conservative tones. It’s no surprise that the heroes are as pale as unhumanly possible (get it?, vampires aren’t human) and the dark skinned characters are cursed to a life of losing themselves over to the instinct of a wild animal – not unlike the hero-vampire’s character’s resistance to satisfying his “hunger,” which is a very thinly veiled attempt to promote abstinence.

Did I mention it’s a bestseller? Let’s not this observation escape us while we explore the post-commercialization landscape of popular media. Media that, once free of conservative censorship, became secular and sought to be a platform for pro-human agendas such as equating women and men, pointing out that the humans may be microwaving themselves into extinction, and all kinds of liberal ideas that sound like a good idea when compared to what the right-wing wants you to believe about the world.

But then there’s Twilight. A novel that is essentially a disguised version of some of the key ideas of the Mormon faith, which says (and I’m not exaggerating) humans once lived on a distant planet and were ruled over by a council of deities. On that council was a guy named Jesus and another named Satan. Satan wanted to carry out some kind of wicked plan to do something bad, and Jesus wanted to stop him so they fought a war. Those humans that sided with Jesus became his chosen people (the Latter-day Saints), those who fought with Satan became devils, and those that took neither side were cursed with black skin and nappy hair — you can’t make this stuff up.[1] Okay, maybe you can make this stuff up, but getting people to believe it takes a while (or in Scientology’s case, about 50 years).

The story above is then picked over through in four or so volumes, but by now you get the idea: pale people are saviors, good and evil exist, and thrown in is a bit about the role of women as helpless baby factories with little other use. These are all ideas one would think have disappeared in a time with a president with “Hitler-like popularity” — as the class brought up for some reason — and with women able to prove themselves to be more than baby-factories and to have some use beyond being the victim.

Stephanie Meyer is the anit-rebel and possibly Antichrist Wallace hints at that feeds a new generation right-wing fairytales. And girls, young and old, are eating this stuff up — as observed by the outcries heard in class the day before at the insistence that this book is better used to prop up a table than as something to try to digest. But what does that say for the future of fiction? Will it be plagued by revamps (get it? “revamp” ) of old conservative ideas seeking to undo the progress being made toward a more liberal, more accepting media landscape?

[1] Mormon.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 30 Jan. 2009 <>.

John Updike dead at age 76, due to lung cancer

I thought this rather relevant, especially given tonight’s reading assignment. Michiko Kakutani’s appraisal offers quite a contrast to DFW’s scathing critique.

The Literature of Exhaustion

It occurs to me that it might be useful to some of you to see the John Barth essay, “The Literature of Exhaustion,” which Robert McLaughlin refers to in “Post-postmodern Discontent,” so it’s now available on Sakai.


A quick note: my regular office hours for the next two weeks (Jan. 26 – Feb. 6) have been completely taken over by job talks being presented by candidates for the positions in English and Media Studies. Because of that, office hours will be by appointment only until Feb. 9, when the regular drop-in hours will resume.