¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Some years ago, in the conclusion to The Anxiety of Obsolescence, I wrote about David Foster Wallace’s representations of television in Infinite Jest. Throughout the book, I’d focused on the ways that earlier postmodern novelists such as Pynchon and DeLillo had conveyed a sense of anxiety about the novel’s future through their representations of the damage television was producing in contemporary culture, transforming a once-active reading public into a passive, de-individualized, manipulable mass neither capable nor desirous of democratic action. Infinite Jest certainly seems to bear a similar kind of anxiety about television, focused as it is on a nation that has come to mistake the freedom to choose what they watch for more robust forms of freedom, and on the ability of a terrorist group to make use of that relationship to the tube in spreading a perfect, and perfectly debilitating, Entertainment.
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 4 However, reading Infinite Jest against the work of writers such as Pynchon and DeLillo reveals key differences. While those earlier novelists see in television a direct threat to the culture that created and sustained the novel’s hegemony, Wallace understands television not to be responsible for the decline of western culture but instead as a symptom of the damage wrought by that culture. The dominance of television, in Infinite Jest, is not the force producing the early twenty-first century sense of anomie but is rather produced by it.1 Television, in this later novel, derives its power from a particularly American sense of loneliness, a condition that it winds up exacerbating precisely as it promises a cure. We seek in television the kind of relationship that the twentieth century’s alienation has made all but impossible, a human connection that we have lost the knowledge of how to satisfy. And as the television gives way to the teleputer in Infinite Jest, and as the public’s access to entertainment on demand becomes ever more individually tailored, viewers find themselves increasingly alone with the screen, unable to pull themselves away in order to find the contact they’re seeking.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Enabling a more authentic human connection, or at least creating its imaginative possibility, was a significant component of David Foster Wallace’s sense of the role of the novel in contemporary culture. If the novel were able “to give the reader, who like all of us is sort of marooned in her own skull, to give her imaginative access to other selves,” it opens the potential that she might, as a result, feel “less alone inside” (McCaffery 127), and therefore more open to the possibility of real human interactions and relationships.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 1 Wallace did express a great deal of caution about television, a caution he explored at length in “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction.” However, the risk that television posed for contemporary fiction, in his reading, was not that its audience would become so narcotized that it would lose its attention span or its ability to consume the long text-based narrative. Instead, the danger lay in the facile sneer that television’s uncritical deployment of irony would produce in the novelist, redirecting his attention from the others around him to himself, and distancing him from the real human problems that others face. The failure to engage with the real muck of being human, and thus the failure to connect with the reader at a deeply personal level, posed the real threat to the novel’s future.
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- I make this argument in opposition to McLaughlin, who understands Wallace to be suggesting that television is “both the biggest challenge to serious fiction’s relevance in today’s society and the cause of contemporary Americans’ isolation and loneliness” (63). ↩