Watching ourselves watch each other

A couple of weeks ago I read David Foster Wallace’s essay on television and American fiction, “E Unibus Pluram,”* and I have been turning it over in my mind ever since.

One of the commonplaces of “communication professionals” in the age of social media is that the advent of the internet, and especially social media, represents a qualitative, epoch-defining shift in how humans communicate with each other. The old era of one-to-many mass communication, stretching from Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press to cable television, has now given way to a new era of many-to-many communication, in which anyone with a smartphone and a YouTube account can “go viral.”

I am old enough to remember the pre-internet era, and when Foster Wallace refers to television as “having its pretty hand around my generation’s throat,” I relate, even though I never watched much television. My parents (East Coasters who relocated to the Midwest for an academic job, much like Foster Wallace’s parents) strictly supervised my TV-watching habits as a kid: limited screen time, mostly PBS. They refused to get cable until well after I left for college. They blamed the rightward drift of the country under Reagan in part on television.

The fact that I had not been allowed to watch Saturday morning cartoons as a kid, that I had no access to MTV, and that (not unrelatedly) I spent most of my free time reading books and dreamed of becoming a writer, not a TV star, all marked me as a bit of a social outcast in high school. I could opt out of watching TV, but I couldn’t opt out of being defined by TV.

My first semester in college I saw the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy (Michael Franti’s pre-Spearhead band) opening for Billy Bragg and immediately fell in love with the song “Television, Drug of the Nation.” Television as both a vehicle for the cultural tyranny of the Reagan/Bush years, and a constituent part of it.

Needless to say, I loved the internet. It was in the beginning a written medium, and despite YouTube and Instagram, despite all the graphic design and javascript animation and the so-called “beautification of the Internet,” I would argue that it still is. This was perfect for a bookworm. I started a blog in 2004, joined Twitter in 2008. Of the communities that I feel most a part of and connected to, a number of them are Facebook groups, with members scattered across the country and the world. I just helped start a podcast.

The modern internet also undermined the tyranny of one-to-many mass communications, which had reached its high point in television. It made virtual printing presses — and eventually virtual radio and TV studios — far more widely available. The sometimes overstated but real role of social media and the web in the uprisings of the Arab Spring, in the spread of Occupy and #BlackLivesMatter, and in the success of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, makes it seem fundamentally different from the conformity-enforcing television of my childhood.

Reading “E Unibus Pluram” made me rethink all that.

It was written in 1990, before the web or widespread use of email, when the average American watched six hours of television daily. Foster Wallace notes that “such high doses” of time spent watching changes human beings, and is potentially addictive:

Because the practice of “watching” is expansive. Exponential. We spend enough time watching, pretty soon we start to “feel” ourselves feeling, yearn to experience “experiences.” (p. 34)

Television’s greatest minute-by-minute appeal is that it engages without demanding. One can rest while undergoing stimulation. Receive without giving. In this respect, television resembles certain other things one might call Special Treats (e.g. candy, liquor), i.e. treats that are basically fine and fun in small amounts but bad for us in large amounts and really bad for us if consumed in the massive regular amounts reserved for nutritive staples. (p. 37)

This all felt eerily familiar. Not, of course, from watching television. But from watching the internet, and especially social media, and especially watching myself on social media.

The internet has on the surface resolved the contradiction that Foster Wallace identifies as the heart of the television watcher’s dilemma, that the television watcher watches TV to vicariously experience “a world where life is lively, where nobody spends six hours a day unwinding before a piece of furniture” (p. 39) — i.e., not watching TV. We are no longer sitting and watching a piece of furniture. We are “joining the conversation” by commenting and tweeting and blogging and posting photos and making videos and podcasts. Passive consumption of images of a more lively life has been replaced by using images to reframe our own lives as more lively than they in fact are, for consumption by others, as we also consume others’ lives.

But of course, this isn’t actually a resolution of the contradiction, because the humblebrags on Facebook, the instagram photos of our travels, the tweets of our snarky thoughts, don’t actually make our accomplishments more worthy, our travels more broadening or thrilling, or our conversation more witty.

Foster’s concern is primarily with the effect of television on U.S. fiction, and particularly the way that TV and the rise of meta-fiction had made irony and ridicule the dominant mode of fiction-writing by the late 80s:

I’m going to argue that irony and ridicule are entertaining and effective, and that at the same time they are agents of a great despair and statis in U.S. culture, and that for aspiring fiction writers they pose especially terrible problems. (p.49)

Anyone who has spent more than about three seconds on Twitter, especially since the 2016 election, will immediately recognize that the internet has only made this problem worse. Irony and ridicule has become the dominant rhetorical mode of not only fiction-writing but also political discourse. This is especially disastrous for the Left in an age of widespread cynicism and anger, when we desperately need to be putting forward a positive vision that can attract millions. As Foster Wallace notes:

Irony, entertaining as it is, serves an almost exclusively negative function. It’s critical and destructive, a ground-clearing … [b]ut irony’s singularly unuseful when it comes to constructing anything to replace the hypocrisies it debunks. (p. 67)

All this ironic participatory vicariousness is the ideal telescreen for the neoliberal regime whose pretty hand is still around all of our throats, even as it has lost most of its popular legitimacy. It is, I suspect, a huge component of what Freddie deBoer refers to as the “infectious sense of inadequacy with what you’re doing now, compared to the cool shit other people are doing” in his recent post “you can’t fake it.” It contributes to the kind of insecurities and performative politics that leads us to self-police activist and Left spaces.

Ultimately, all this watching of ourselves and each other is a barrier to the personal risk-taking that allows us to be vulnerable with each other and build trust, especially across social differences. And that trust is absolutely a prerequisite for the kind of organization-building and serious intellectual engagement that the Left so desperately needs.

It’s not that online spaces can’t be spaces for vulnerability, trust-building, organizing and serious intellectual engagement. It’s just that the way that most of us default to interacting with each other online is superficial. We consume other’s content in glances, respond in hot takes.

Some of this is inherent in the medium (e.g., Twitter’s limit of 140 characters) and some of it is because we have been conditioned. But none of it is unavoidable. Even on Twitter, if we are conscious and critical about our practice, we can listen with compassion and respond with respect and understanding.

We (the Left) are up against incredibly powerful systems and institutions. We have some powerful new communications tools at our disposal, but let’s use them wisely. Watch less, listen more.

*Page references are to the version in the 1998 Back Bay Books paperback edition of A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. While it didn’t make sense to work it into this post, one of the most fascinating passages in the Foster Wallace essay is his discussion of conservative theorist George Gilder, who in the 80s more or less predicted the rise of a YouTube-like interactive televisual medium (pp. 70-76)

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