May 25, 2004

Why television is like politics -- bad adaptations of cultural theories

Posted by shonk at 06:19 AM in Politics, Words of Wisdom | TrackBack

TV is the epitome of Low Art in its desire to appeal to and enjoy the attention of unprecedented numbers of people. But it is not Low because it is vulgar or prurient or dumb. Television is often all of these things, but this is a logical function of its need to attract and please Audience. And I’m not saying that television is vulgar and dumb because the people who compose Audience are vulgar and dumb. Television is the way it is simply 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. It’s all about syncretic diversity: neither medium nor Audience is faultable for quality.

(Excerpted from David Foster Wallace’s essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. fiction”, from the collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments and first published in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, 1993)

Though I wouldn’t claim to know how original the above argument is, I would venture to say that it’s probably the most coherent and reasoned explanation I’ve read of why television has never, shall we say, lived up to its cultural and educational promise. The standard critique of television is simply that it’s vacuous, vulgar, etc. or, perhaps, downright evil, but little thought is usually given to exactly why this is the case. Or, if an explanation is given, it usually falls exactly along the lines that Wallace rejects, namely that the audience is vacuous, vulgar, etc. as well. But that does little to explain why many intelligent, cultured people are almost inexplicably drawn to even the most blatantly hackneyed crap available on the idiot box. Wallace’s explanation, on the other hand, explains much of this in a single deft maneuver.

And, more importantly, his explanation rings true. Which of even the most jaded aesthetes among us can help bobbing their heads and singing along to 50 Cent’s “In the Club” or Nelly’s “Hot in Herre”, even after the twentieth repetition in the last week? (Okay, that’s something of a dated example, but my spring-break memories from a year ago are still quite vivid; two years before that it was the supremely obnoxious “Who Let the Dogs Out?”) Who hasn’t been drawn in at least once by one of those godawful professional wrestling shows, which are simultaneously fascinating and unbelievably dreadful? Finally, how many people haven’t, at some time in their lives, stayed up much too late reading a formulaic thriller in the Grisham/Crichton/Clancy/Brown mold? Extrapolating from my own experience, I would speculate that most of us who know better are, at least occasionally, drawn to these forms of entertainment because they rather directly appeal to our “Low” tastes.

And let’s be honest, there isn’t a particularly large variety of “Low” themes out there. Sex, violence and melodrama pretty much cover that particular genre and there are only so many ways that sex, violence and melodrama can be combined without ascending to a realm where they require at least a moderate investment of intellectual effort.

Okay, so far I haven’t exactly added anything to DFW’s initial point, so let me perhaps apply the same theory to other sorts of socio-entertainment outlets. As alluded to above, the same explanation serves for the cases of, for example, pop music, summer blockbusters, thriller novels, etc., all of which are considerably more popular and revenue-producing than their higher-concept cousins (a fact which should have been the first clue that the vacuity/vulgarity of television isn’t exactly unique to the medium and, therefore, that explanations on the basis that television is just evil or whatever are overly reductionist). The same holds for most other varieties of art I can think of off the top of my head (suburban cookie-cutter architecture vs. Frank Lloyd Wright (or even the detestable Frank Gehry), Penthouse photography vs. Jan Saudek, etc.)

Another area where I think this sort of framework is applicable is in the sordid realm of politics (you just knew I had to tie it into politics somehow, didn’t you?). There’s a myth these days that politics is more superficial than it ever has been, but I’m pretty sure it’s nothing but a myth, in the same psychic space as various other nostalgic myths. Until very recently, historically speaking, the majority of politics (at least in the choosing-a-leader sense which today draws the majority of our cynical scorn) was almost unimaginably superficial, being based solely on who fucked (and, thereby, presumably impregnated) who. The baroque machinations of the Founding Fathers in doing everything in their power to prevent the common man from actually having any influence on important elections demonstrates pretty clearly that they knew damn well that representative democracy would be no less superficial; the fact that “mudslinging” is a 19th century term bears out the hypothesis that the devolution isn’t entirely a late 20th century phenomenon.

In politics as in television, there are wildly divergent disagreements on the “important” issues, whereas there is much more homogeneity in the realm of superficial concerns like what the candidate looks like and how empathetic he seems. The big one, of course, is “consensus-building”, which seems more important than actually having any beliefs or goals to build a consensus around.

So but like (dear God, I’m picking up DFW mannerisms now) the point is this: as in the case of television, the blame for politics’ superficiality cannot rightly be laid either on the populace or on the candidates themselves per se, but rather must be viewed as a sort of necessary consequence of the very process itself. Just as television necessarily tries to engender as much watching and to gather as many viewers as possible, politics is all about gathering maximum votes. In both cases, the most efficient tactic is to appeal to the areas with the broadest appeal, which almost of necessity are in the most superficial areas. Again, this isn’t necessarily because the populace is itself superficial, but rather because “higher” interests and tastes are so much more varied than the “lower” or superficial ones. And GW doesn’t get extra points for votes based “important” issues.

Okay, some more quotes from the book for you to think about (or just laugh at):

Despite the unquestioned assumption on the part of pop-culture critics that television’s poor old Audience, deep down, “craves novelty,” all available evidence suggests, rather, that the Audience really craves sameness but thinks, deep down, that it ought to crave novelty.

— “E Unibus Pluram”

The fact is that TV’s re-use of postmodern cool has actually evolved as an inspired solution to the keep-Joe-at-once-alienated-from-and-part-of-the-million-eyed-problem. The solution entailed a gradual shift from oversincerity to a kind of bad-boy irreverence for the Big Face that TV shows us. This is turn reflected a wider shift in U.S. perceptions of how art was supposed to work, a transition from art’s being a creative instantiation of real values to art’s being a creative rejection of bogus values.

— “E Unibus Pluram”

“This is potentially key,” I’m saying. “This may be just the sort of regional politico-sexual contrast the swanky East-Coast magazine is keen for. The core value informing a kind of willed politico-sexual stoicism on your part is your prototypically Midwestern appreciation of fun —”

“Buy me some pork skins, you dipshit.”

“— whereas on the East Coast, politico-sexual indignation is the fun. In New York, a woman who’d been hung upside down and ogled would go get a whole lot of other women together and there’d be this frenzy of politico-sexual indignation. They’d confront the ogler. File an injunction. Management’d find itself litigating expensively — violation of a woman’s right to nonharassed fun. I’m telling you. Personal and political fun merge somewhere just east of Cleveland, for women.”

— “Getting away from already pretty much being away from it all”

[David] Lynch’s movies, for all their unsubtle archetypes and symbols and intertextual references and c., have about them the remarkable unself-consciousness that’s kind of the hallmark of Expressionist art — nobody in Lynch’s movies analyzes or metacriticizes or hermeneuticizes or anything, including Lynch himself. This set of restrictions makes Lynch’s movies fundamentally unironic, and I submit that Lynch’s lack of irony is the real reason some cinéastes — in this age when ironic self-consciousness is the one and only universally recognized badge of sophistication — see him as a naïf or a buffoon.

— “David Lynch keeps his head”

[Tennis Canada] is Canada’s version of the U.S.T.A., and its logo — which obtrudes into your visual field as often as is possible here at the du Maurier Omnium — consists of the good old Canadian maple leaf with a tennis racket for a stem. It’s stuff like Tennis Canada’s logo you want to point to when Canadians protest that they don’t understand why Americans make fun of them.

— “Tennis player Michael Joyce’s professional artistry as a paradigm of certain stuff about choice, freedom, limitation, joy, grotesquerie, and human completeness”