One of the things that confronts Americans daily is the way in which Irony has come to rule. There is not much way to escape it. The young delight in comedy, but it is comedy that is satirical and self-referential. There is a constant dwelling on the falseness of appearance, the lie behind every apparent truth. Occasionally up pops a inclination to go back to an age when Irony did not prevail, but this urge immediately is cut off at the knees. Want to go back to the 50’s? Ah, our dominant narrative tells us, that was a black-and-white era of suburban repression, that yielded to the full-color tie-dye of 60’s authenticity.
I have no inclination to go back to the 1950’s (full disclosure: I do occasionally pine for the 1250’s). Yet if one cares about anything seriously these days, it is hard not to be daunted by pervasive apathy in the face of any need to change. David Brooks says we have lost our hope, our optimism. There are cries of alarm at (15 years ago) couch potatoes, and (today) internet junkies. As I said about texting a couple of weeks ago, so too I think the recurring alarm about TV and internet sapping our national energy is important, but often I think the alarm is misdirected.
What most passionately convinced me of this is David Foster Wallace’s essay entitled, “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction.” As he notes, one of the major arguments against these media is that their content is so vapid. But those who deride TV for being “low” or “commercial” are missing the point. As Wallace says:
Television is the way it is because people tend to be extremely similar in their vulgar and prurient and dumb interests and wildly different in their refined and aesthetic and noble interests.
Mass entertainment, in other words, will always end up settling at some lowest common denominator. This really doesn’t change when you diversify your sources of information on the internet. Anecdotal digression: videos shared on Facebook are rarely specific, particular – they are almost always the video that everyone else has already shared.
What is interesting, however, is that even when we turn to supposedly higher or loftier topics through the media, the topic has great difficulty changing the tone. And the tone, like it or not, is almost always irony.
The reason for this, according to Wallace, is that our dominant media demand of the viewer a constant complicity in multiple levels of illusion. The suspension of disbelief is massive and constant. Wallace does a great analysis of this that I want to paraphrase. Say a friend, perhaps call her Kate, sits down to watch the latest episode of LOST. Think about how many illusions she is accepting.
1. Kate first goes along with the illusion that the people she sees don’t know she is out there watching their travails on the island. She takes a stance with the camera that the people on screen ignore. But of course, at heart, she knows that they know that people are out there watching.
2. And of course Kate also chooses to ignore the fact that the people bringing these images to her are also constantly conscious of our presence. J. J. Abrams does not know our friend Kate’s name, but she has a place on his demographic chart; she factors into his percentages.
3. Kate also has subconsciously accepted the illusion that these situations are in some way real, that these people are operating out of motives that are not influenced by the fact that she and millions of other Americans are watching.
4. And of course, she accepts the fiction that these “characters” are not actually someone else – she ignores for an hour that —- is actually —— with a mom and a family and a history complete separate from the story portrayed.
5. What is more, Kate accepts that she is watching people, when she is actually watching a bunch of electrical blips that were recorded months before and are being transmitted to her eyes only now.
6. And there is the fact that Kate is staring at, bedazzled by this charming electromagnetic radiation pouring out of her furniture, her décor. As we used to huddle around the fire, so now we huddle around the illusion box.
Foster notes that once you start noticing how many layers of illusion are foisted on Kate and all of the viewers, and you notice how she (and she stands for all of us) accepts those layers for not just a few minutes, but the six or seven hours a day that the TV is on, it does not take you long to notice that there might be a reason that American life is dominated by Irony. When the thing you spend the most conscious time per day doing is built around getting you to dissociate from reality, it is not surprising that you might think there is nothing in life worth taking seriously.