E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction

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Summary

Originally published in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, this lengthy essay (62 pages in its full form) sketches a loose history of advertising, the television industry, and U.S. fiction. Wallace begins by describing fiction writers who “as a species tend to be oglers”—“born watchers” and who simultaneously “dislike being watched” (21). He continues to say that television helps writers by providing a way to watch without being watched; TV offers “the promise of a vacation from human self-consciousness” (25).

The title "E Unibus Pluram" means "from one, many" and is a solipsistic play on the American motto, "E Pluribus Unum," which means "out of many, one."

While Wallace acknowledges that TV is fun, he also claims that fiction writers do not take TV “seriously enough as both a disseminator and a definer of the cultural atmosphere we breathe and process” (27). He adds that even TV scholars and critics do not take it seriously. They disdain TV’s “vapidity” (27), but they also watch with “beady-eyed fascination” (28); “they simultaneously hate, fear, and need television” (29), which seems to be quite powerful indeed. Wallace goes on to argue that television has co-opted irony. Ironic ads offer us a way to feel like we’re in on a joke. He writes about a Pepsi commercial that invites “Joe Briefcase,” Wallace’s personification of the individuals sitting alone at home, all together watching TV (E Unibus Pluram), to feel like he has transcended the masses that Pepsi is advertising too. The ironic part is that Joe Briefcase then goes out and buys more Pepsi; he has transcended nothing, and is certainly not above mass-consumption.

Wallace continues, noting that “American fiction remains deeply informed by television” (34) and that they interact in a realm of self-conscious irony. He writes about a Fiction of Image as a response to television culture. He describes Mark Leyner’s My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist as a “dazzling televisual parody” (76) and argues that its “sole aim is, finally, to wow, to ensure that the reader is pleased and continues to read” (79)—in short, that the novel’s objective is exactly the same as television’s objective, and it does so by flattering the reader for getting the joke, just as ironic TV ads do.

Wallace posits that “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” (81). They “would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Dead on the page. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naïve, anachronistic… willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the 'Oh how banal '" (81). Throughout Wallace’s work, there is an almost excrutiating tension between his desire to be that anti-rebel and his “residency inside that aura” (81) of post-modern irony and cynicism. For example, in an interview with Larry McCaffery, Wallace talks about this same anti-hero, but cannot help adding ironic comments about how sappy it all seems. Furthermore, Wallace ends "E Unibus Pluram" by stating (not asking): “Are you immensely pleased” (82). This could just be a direct echo of an ironic statement from DeLillo’s White Noise that Wallace quotes early on in the essay: “he [Gladney? I don’t have White Noise on hand…] seemed immensely pleased by this” (69), with “this” referring to the impossibility of getting outside the aura. However, Wallace could also be poking fun at his own attempt to get outside the aura and reveal his self-conscious anxiety with regard to his own artistic aim, which he fears may only be to get the reader to like him. Furthermore, that desire for the reader’s approval can easily be read as Wallace’s desire for his grammarian mother’s approval—hence his constant grandiloquence.

Recent technological advances stretch some of Wallace’s key arguments. For example, while Wallace notes that the VCR “threatens the very viability of commercials” (57), today we can view nearly all television completely commerical free by using TIVO or the Internet. Because of this, the television industry focuses more on in-program advertising (e.g. Jenny’s use of blufly.com on Gossip Girl; Budweiser Select in Entourage, Vitamin Water in too many shows to name), which we can never really escape. It’s not merely that “programs start to resemble commercial” (58), but that commercials are fundamentally embedded in, and sometime vital to the plot-lines of, programs. With On Demand, iTunes, torrents and YouTube, we can now truly, as Wallace predicted, “engineer our own dreams” (73).

Criticism

In “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” Wallace makes a call for a new breed of writers, “new literary rebels"(81). These writers, he explains, would be willing to risk “sentimentality, melodrama,” disapproval, and general untrendiness in attempts to run away from irony. He writes that irony has become a cultural norm that oppresses us. The ideal answer, for a writer, is to somehow disregard our culturally institutionalized irony in order to “treat old untrendy human troubles […] with reverence and conviction.” This is the type of author Wallace sees as the cure to irony’s pervasion of fiction thanks to television, but does he seek this cure himself through his own writing? Critics disagree on Wallace’s intended approach to this description of the “literary rebels.”

Marshall Boswell

Boswell deems the essay "one of the most important pieces in Wallace's growing corpus of nonfiction," as it "functions as one of the most direct articulations of Wallace's particular take on post-modernism and the unique challenges facing writers of his generation." Boswell argues that "a core idea-perhaps the core idea" of the essay is that cynicism and naïveté need not be mutually exclusive, pointing out that Wallace reiterates this idea in "Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way" when Mark notes that D.L. "'suffers from the delusion' that cynicism and naïveté are mutually exclusive" and in Infinite Jest when "the narrator speaks about 'that queerly persistent U.S. myth that cynicism and naïveté are mutually exclusive.'" Wallace's overt repetition reinforces the idea that it is his key argument, not only for "E Unibus Pluram," but for his entire ouevre.

Boswell argues that Wallace uses irony as a means of "exploiting gaps between what's said and what's meant, between how things try to appear and how they really are" (65) in order to "recover a learned form of heartfelt naïveté, his work's ultimate mode and what the work 'really means,' a mode that Wallace equates with the 'really human.'" Boswell deems this an "ingenious narrative strategy" that allows Wallace to follow post-modernism without rejecting it outright.

A.O. Scott

In "The Panic of Influence," which Boswell lauds as "a probing analysis of... E Unibus PLuram," New York Times critic A.O. Scott argues that the essay is Wallace's most rigorous attempt to cure his aesthetic headache and wriggle free of the metafictional trap." However, he also notes the essays weaknesses:"For one thing, Wallace's discussion of television is, as discussions of television often are, maddening in its blithe, judgmental generality." In other words, Wallace cannot really escape the mode of TV criticism he himself criticizes. Furthermore, he writes that Wallace had foresight, noting that "while the designation 'New Realism' may already be dated, the steady outpouring in recent years of earnest, heartbreaking memoirs and short, sensitive story collections by ever younger writers might be taken to bear out Wallace's intuitions."

On whether or not Wallace himself is actually an anti-rebel, Scott concludes that he "is less anti-ironic than (forgive me) meta-ironic. That is, his gambit is to turn irony back on itself, to make his fiction relentlessly conscious of its own self-consciousness, and thus to produce work that will be at once unassailably sophisticated and doggedly down to earth. Janus-faced, he demands to be taken at face value. 'Single-entendre principles' is a cleverly tossed off phrase, but Wallace is temperamentally committed to multiplicity—to a quality he has called, with reference to the filmmaker David Lynch, 'bothness.'"

Scott concludes that "we still inhabit a culture of narcissism. Does Wallace's work represent an unusually trenchant critique of that culture or one of its most florid and exotic symptoms? Of course, there can only be one answer: it's both."

Mary K. Holland

In "'The Art's Heart's Purpose': Braving the Narcissistic Loop of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest," Holland argues that the ironic uncertainty of the final line's ("Are you immensely pleased.") "content and grammatical evasiveness-with the missing final question mark-undercuts all the heartfelt assertions about selflessness and love that have come before. How can a writer, however well intentioned, survive his own unconscious addiction to irony? How can a society? Wallace asks these questions through Infinite Jest, with a predictably bleak answer. His greatest accomplishment in the novel will be to construct not a character strong enough to escape the ironic trap that the novel has set, but rather one earnest enough to suffer the irony and brave enough to struggle heroically to escape it, but still doomed, almost sadistically so, by an author who cannot overcome his own ironic ambivalence."