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Sincerity with a Motive

What David Foster Wallace taught us about television and fiction.

11:00 PM, Nov 19, 2008 • By MICHAEL WEISS
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By the 80s, we were assimilating those references at an alarming pace of six hours a day. "Six hours a day is more time than most people (consciously) do any one thing," noted Wallace. "How people who absorb such doses understand themselves changes, becomes spectatorial, self-conscious. Because the practice of watching is expansive. Exponential. We spend enough time watching, pretty soon we start watching ourselves watching." The epoch-defining question, "Where were you when J.F.K. was shot?" carried with it the assumption that one had heard about the president's death almost simultaneous with its occurrence--because it was announced on television. (And that the president's assassin was then killed live on television surely augured profound changes in how we interpreted news and events.) The act of watching became a transfixing experience, no matter what originally impelled the viewer to watch in the first place. Wallace mentions protesters of the Vietnam War who "may have hated the war, but . . . also wanted to be seen protesting on television. TV was where they'd seen this war, after all. Why wouldn't they go about hating it on the very medium that made their hate possible?"

In literature, the unraveling of these tangles of perception became known as metafiction, a signature example of which is Don DeLillo's hilariously caved-in-on-itself discussion of the "Most Photographed Barn in America" in White Noise. Wallace quotes from this set piece at length, but he might as well have delved into his own bibliography, which he no doubt had in mind. His Vietnam example had a metafictional precedent: an early short story, "Lyndon," collected in Girl with Curious Hair, features the character L.B.J. staring out of a window in the Oval Office, contemplating an antiwar rally on the Washington Mall. He turns to his aide-de-camp, the story's protagonist, and says, "Boy, I get a smell of happiness off their upset. . . . I think they enjoy getting outraged and vilified and unjustly ignored. That's what your leader of this here free world thinks, boy." This here leader of the free world, who will not seek re-election because of the war, is watching protestors that he describes as indignant because they feel unjustly ignored . . .

Metafiction was quite the rabbit hole for a literary avant-garde to throw itself down, and it should come as no surprise that its advent in the 60's coincided with that of pop art. Andy Warhol's obsession with celebrities and historical figures was rooted not just in the shock of recognition; it was rooted in the shared appreciation of that recognition. When he "directed" an eight-hour film consisting entirely of a mise-en-scène of the Empire State Building, his audience--drug-addled as it may have been--was being coaxed to observe itself more than it was the stultifying content onscreen: "Can you believe we're sitting here watching this?"

Wallace is especially good on this point:

Americans seemed no longer united so much by common feelings as by common images: what binds us became what we stood witness to. No one did or does see this as a good change. In fact, pop-cultural references have become such potent metaphors in U.S. fiction not only because of how united Americans are in our exposure to mass images but also because of our guilty indulgent psychology with respect to that exposure. Put simply, the pop reference works so well in contemporary fiction because (1) we all recognize such a reference, and (2) we're all a little uneasy about how we all recognize such a reference.

Pop references weren't simply allusions in literature, they were subjects of it. A new genre had hardened: "hyperrealism" or "image fiction." A.M. Holmes writes a short story in which a character falls in love with a Barbie doll. DeLillo dedicates an entire novel to the paranoid existence of Lee Harvey Oswald with Libra, a warm-up for the star-studded revue of the mid-20th century that was Underworld. Mickey Rooney makes an appearance in Gravity's Rainbow. Even inanimate objects are fair game. William Vollmann's The Rainbow Stories used Sony electronics as characters in "Heideggerian parables" (whatever those are). Wallace sounds a wary note about the purpose of this new genre because of its "socio-artistic agenda," which sought to parody the supposed inanity and low-culture nonsense of TV:

The fiction of image is not just a use or mention of televisual culture but a response to it, an effort to impose some sort of accountability on a state of affairs in which more Americans get their news from television than from newspapers and in which more Americans every evening watch 'Wheel of Fortune' than all three network news programs combined.